Chapter Four

Chapter Four

Luckily for Parvo, the city lacked building codes, allowing structures to be built very close together and making it easy for him to leap across rooftops. The sound of shouts followed by the now recognizable sound of a door being battered down, caused him to crouch and crouch behind a chimney and gather his bearings. Patrols of police going door to door had forced a zig zag pattern towards the brimstone tower, or at least towards where Mokrado had assured him where it was located. He turned to look at her, and found her standing two roofs back, looking confused.

Mokrado’s belly felt sick and icy. She had left her axe back in the room. She had lusted after that axe since she was little more than a hatchling. Fifteen years she dreamt and plotted how to kill its owner and take it for herself.

She wanted to go back for it.  She couldn’t go back for it. She had to go back for it.

“What’s wrong?” whispered Parvo as he came trotting back up to her.

“My axe.” She hosted the unconscious witch off her shoulder and held her out towards the ‘fling. “Here, you go on ahead.” He pushed back on the girl.

“You can’t go back! They’ll kill you, and I can’t carry her –” he stopped himself, grimaced, and then let out the strongest expletive he knew1. “I left me quarterstaff back there.”

“I hardly think a stick is comparable to my axe. ” She tried to push the girl into his arms again. He pushed back.

“My name,” he started loudly before catching himself and adding lower, “is on the staff!” Her eyes grew wide. If they lifted off the leather wrapped grip, they’d find her name notched  on the haft.

“Oh, we gotta go back.” She said. Parvo nodded and then they both looked at the witch.

“What do we do with her?” Mokrado looked about and bit her lip.

“I wonder how far I could throw her?”

“But her, I don’t know what you’d call it, magical stink is going to be on us.” Without thinking, he pulled a long strand of his hair into his mouth and began to chew, nervously.

“Gak2.” They stood there, together in the totality of their screwedness.

“We could get to the silo, wipe the tracks and head back?” Parvo ventured.

“Or get to the silo and disappear.”

Parvo wiggled his fingers and waved his hands. “Disappear?”

“No. I mean, get out of the city, change our names.”

“And hope Phobos doesn’t come after us?” Parvo reached into his jerkin and pulled out a small vial filled with a black liquid.

“What’s that?” Mokrado asked.

“Maybe,” Parvo said, shaking the vial, “if we kill ourselves, we won’t get tortured?” She half shrugged, because the witch was on one shoulder. She twisted around, angling her butt towards him. It did not go unappreciated.

“In my belt, grab the book. I don’t want it on me when I die.” Parvo slipped it out of her waistband and flipped through it, hoping to find naughty pictures. Not only were there no pictures but it was full of footnotes3. “Throw it as far as you can.” He did, which wasn’t very. He unstoppered the vial. The little vial. He looked from it to the Orc. “What?” she asked, suspiciously.

“I’m not sure there’s enough. I mean, it’d kill me for sure, but you’re kinda big, and half a dose…” He trailed off, trying to calculate the potency of one drachm of an 8% solution of deathweed, and not remembering whether it was by weight or by volume, not to mention that the apothecary system divided the pound into 12 ounces rather than 164.

” I don’t even get to die right. Fine, you go ahead.”

“I’m not doing it without you!”

“The isn’t the time for…,” her world had no word for chilvarly, “stupid-dumb, man-elf, stupid-dumbness,” she substituted. He understood her.

“How do I know you’re not going to pin the blame on me after I’m dead?”

“I wouldn’t!” She totally would.

And then the witch woke up.

With a sound that could be described as variously as  “hrmphh,” “unghh,” “mmphl” and be equally as accurate, she began to come around. Parvo flinched, lost his footing, threw his arms out to catch his balance, dropped the vial, stepson the vial, and pitched backwards.  Mokrado grabbed him by the jerkin with her free hand as the Witch on her shoulder began to wriggle.

Falke, groggily raised her head, opened her eyes just as Mokrado turned to her, the one getting a face full of witch and the other a face full of Orc. Mokrado let go of Parvo, who fell backwards and slid headfirst off the roof just as she flung the witch off her shoulder in the opposite direction.

With considerable poise for someone who had only just regained consciousness and found herself being flung off a roof, Falke cast a levitation spell. Unfortunately for her, the Infernal Police’s cordon had negated5 all witchcraft in the area6. She fell 6 to 8 stories7. Luckily, her fall was cushioned by a policeman who was holding a book and rubbing a knot on his head where it had hit him.

Mokrado, unburdened, ran. She ran as hard as she could, leaped across to the next roof with all her power. And while the builder had admirably built the floors to standard height, his care did not extend to the construction materials, especially those of theroof. Mokrado crashed right through the tiles, and wedged there, undone by the size of her bust.

***

He had to of killed at least two hundred men, Jacek thought. He had tried to keep count. He knew he killed nineteen people upstairs, thirteen as he worked his way down the stairs, and had then started clearing out the ground floor. Two hundred easy, he thought.

This wasn’t close to accurate. At some point, just after he’d received his third cut, he had begun to count every blade strike that hit flesh, rather than just kills. A little while later, after taking a thrust (midsection, piercing the kidney), he had begun counting every hit, whether it hit home or was blocked. So all in all, he’d killed forty seven men. Definitely impressive, but not two hundred impressive.

More importantly, he had taken over thirty minutes8 to do so. His plan had been simple. Keep the police occupied and give the others enough time to get away. He’d be killed, eventually, interrogated, definitely, but he had been trained for that. He’d protect his clients, the girl would be someone else’s problem. Sure, it wasn’t ideal to die on a job, but it was inevitable and better to get it out of the way early. His resurrection insurance rates would go through the roof, though, but that was a small price to pay as long as the job was done. Messy, but done. It wasn’t about the money, it was about the gig. Assassination wasn’t his job, it was his vocation, his calling.

Despite his dizziness, his paid skin, glistening with sweat, he had driven the police out of the brothel and back out into the street. A thought began to itch in the back of his skull. What if he killed them all? He could get away. That’d be ideal. He wouldn’t have to die, which was good, and he wouldn’t have to spend money, which was better. If he killed them all, he wouldn’t have to change his appearance, either. Killing two hundred Heolseward was bound to make one famous, which wasn’t necessary the best thing for an assassin.

So he stepped out the door, the idea of killing everyone and escaping seeming a distinct possibility. Outside, however, Jacek got to see what killing two hundred men would actually entail, for that was how many were out on the street. He did manage to kill three before falling, bringing his total to an even fifty but there was no one to tally the number.

And most unfortunately for Jacek, he didn’t die. He slipped in some entrails (not his) fell towards a wall of shield, holding out a hand that he no longer had to stop himself. His stump slammed into the shield, and a searing pain came slamming back. It was so intense, it was as if the pain signals racing through his nerves blew a circuit breaker. A a bang and a flash inside his head, he passed out.

***

Stormpike walked over to his Shelf of Planning. Tales of Mythical and legendary heroes sat on one shelf while  quests of his own making filled the rest. Ten thousand years of meticulously planning the rise and eventual fall of heroes, anointed saviors, and “chosen ones”. He grabbed one, leafed through it. How many signs and portents, prophecies and foretellings had he been the secret author of? How many heroes had he sent to their doom9? He didn’t need a hero, he didn’t need one man10. In his experience, a man alone had the annoying habit of attracting large groups of comrades. It never failed, a single man, with allegiance to no one, save honor and truth, manages to bridge the animosity between implacable enemies, uniting them. It made him shudder (or perhaps it was the open window).

What he needed was a band, a small group. A group stays the group, and rarely grows larger. In fact, on those occasions when they do expand to take on a new member, it usually results in the death of one the previous ones11.  Groups tended towards self containment, and the fewer involved the better.  So a band of… of what? Not heroes. If fate decreed his downfall, it would be as he lived. As a villain. A band of villains–

–But which villains?

— A knock sounded at his door. “What?” He growled.

“A matter of grave import requiring your attention, m’lord,” came the nervous reply, the words muffled by the door, but not the anxiety.

“Not now!” he barked,  annoyed because he knew it was “a matter of grave import requiring your attention” because only matters of grave import requiring his attention could induce someone to take their life into their own hands and knock on his door. Of course, in any bureaucratic system, everything tended to become matters of grave import12. He took a breath, bowed his head. The messenger rapped on the door again.

–KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK–

“But it’s urgent–“

“Interrupt me again and and I’ll flay you alive, travel back in time and flay you yesterday, and so on, every day of your existence back to your birth. “

He was in high dudgeon, and looked at the small lever next to his desk that would open the trap door just outside his threshold, sending the annoyance plummeting into a pit of spider-diles13. But it struck14 him then. Wasn’t his anger at the interruption counter to his vow to Dame Fortune? What if fate had sent the person on the other side of the door? His dudgeon was uncalled for. He had to control it, to master it. He had to be the dudgeon master.

“Enter!” he bellowed, in that way only someone used to commanding armies can bellow. The door opened on its own15, revealing the young man who had already turned to leave. He stopped, spun around, and straightened his uniform, the red and black16 of the Corp of Gaolers, Turnkeys, and Middle School Teachers17. Stormpike stared at him, intently. This is whom18 Fate had sent?

“Sir!” The messenger snapped his heels19 together, put his right hand to his throat20. “My Lord–“

“What’s your name, officer?” He interrupted, the question mark at the end being merely traditional and in no way evident in his tone.

“Corporal Swerk, your Pestilentialness,” he said, stiffly (which was understandable, “pestilentialness” being hard to say any other way).”We’ve taken a band of malcontents into custody.” Stormpike gave him the “And?” shrug21 as he slipped one of his many hidden knives22 into his hand. Fate may have sent him this fool, but that didn’t mean he had be left unscratched, right?

“They killed over a hundred23 Heolseward,” with the slightest of changes, Stormpike turned his “And” shrug into a”So?”

“There were only four of them, but I think one of them,” He paused, dramatically24, “is a witch.25” Stormpike loathed dramatic pauses26. Normally, he would have killed the young corporal before he’d finished his pause. Then he had a moment. One of those moments when realization dawns on you, but you don’t want to show it, like when the eight of spades hits on the river or you’re in the middle of a meeting and you suddenly realize Jim from marketing is sleeping with Hazel from HR.

He had just sworn to accept his fate and here he was turning around and trying to second guess and anticipate her. This had been a lesson, and one he was glad to have learned early. Keep the course. Stay true.  Execute the plan. What plan? Exactly. That was the problem. Perhaps slitting this fool’s throat would clear his head. Then he could go back to figuring out the plan for a band of villains. Find a group of… Stormpike snapped the dagger in his hand in half with his considerable (yet somehow perviously unmentioned27) strength.

“How many, did you say?” Stormpike asked, excitedly.

“Witches? Uh, just the one, sir,” the messenger added, confusedly.

“Not witches, fool,  how many in total?”

“Including the witch, sir?” With an effort, Stormpike refrained from strangling the corporal. It was no easy task, millennia of torturing people for information had made him quite impatient with normal conversations. Swerk, being somewhat perceptive, and the signs hard to miss (Stormpike grabbed a glove and bit down on it), realized his mistake, “Four sir. Four,” he said, with what he hoped was confidence.

“Four,” Stormpike said, wonderingly. Could it be? Had he been handed his band of villains? No, it couldn’t be. Four people kill an entire regiment, the entire city would be talking about it, let alone one of them a witch, Phobos for certain would–

“Aye,” like a character in a Loony Toons cartoon blowing on his thumb, Swerk visibly puffed up. “No one else even suspected, but I knew there was something off about her,” that last he added smugly, like Joseph Gordon-Levitt in any movie. “And I figured the fewer people who knew about it the better, so I came straight here to you, my Lord”.

Something frightening happened to Lord Stormpike’s face, as if his cheeks were melting, but up and at an angle rather than down. The messenger stepped back and shuddered. Then from deep within, came a sound, a raspy, cracking sound. For Stormpike, this was what approximated laughter.

***

The Imperial Guard28 prided themselves on their ability to remain motionless while on duty. For the most part, it was easy, the abode of a despotic God-King not being known as a tourist attraction (except when there was a public execution). But one of the true tests of the Guard’s resolve came when a living person29 was tossed out of a window and came hurtling down, which was not an infrequent occurrence.

Stormpike, for his part, was somewhat disappointed with Corporal Swerk’s demise. As he walked with the young sycophant down the corridor, he slowly drifted closer. The young man naturally tried to maintain the proper space between himself and Lord Stormpike and thus drifted closer and closer to the wall. Dotted with full length windows, and like evil lairs everywhere30, not a railing or bannister to be found, Stormpike gave him a good shove.  If he did it right, the victim would pass right through, like a swish in basketball. He found this deeply satisfying. Add in a good “gasp” at the shove, a good scream on the way down, and a clear “splat”, and he’d be filled with that mixture of pride and contentment one gets when you trigger the left turn signal in what you know is the last possible moment before you’d have to wait for the entire cycle.

However, the Corporal’s shoulder grazed the edge spinning him around so he fell backwards. True, it was nice to see the shocked look on his face31, but Stormpike had found it almost always necessary that the person see the ground rushing up to meet them to get a good scream from them. Also, he was far too thin to make a good splat.

Luckily for Stormpike, he had four prisoners on which to improve his mood.

***

Parvo had been disgusted by the filthy conditions of the Capitol upon his arrival. Now he was thankful, for his fall had been broken by a mass of garbage piled in the street. Luckily for him, the garbage consisted of various body parts hacked up and placed into bags full of harpy feathers (to combat the smell) which cushioned his fall and saved him. Amazingly, the feathers also made the landing near silent. On the downside, however, was the giant cloud of feathers puffed into the air, alerting the police at the end of the street.

His affected elvish calm, however, did not survive the fall. He was mad at the gods, the police, the orc, the witch, the jerk with the one hand, but mostly himself. The shouldn’t have been there, the weakness of his flesh had betrayed him. He deserved this. The police ran towards him, those who hadn’t yet drawn their swords did so, while those that had sheathed their swords and redrew, because it made a really cool noise. Parvo stood and held up his hands.

A crossbow bolt was fired after which the shooter yelled “Halt!” As the bolt missed by inches, Parvo concluded, not unreasonably, surrender was not an option. From his jerkin he pulled what looked like a pan flute, lifted it to his mouth, and deftly fired blow darts, one after the other, each hitting its target in the neck. As they keeled over32, the survivors fell back. Parvo reloaded, angled his weapon high and let fly with arching shots. Parvo took off running, but not away from them, instead running right towards them33.

As the police strained to follow the darts trajectories and tried to dodge them as they fell, Parvo sprinted past them and out onto the main road, only to find reinforcements, preparing to do what reinforcements do, namely, to reinforce. He slid to a stop, and took off in the opposite direction.

He pulled out an elixir rom his jerkin and tossed it back, feeling it enter his bloodstream and boosting his speed (but this was just a placebo, the vile had sat in his jerkin too long and had expired). His natural speed may have been enough to lose his pursuers and escape but for one problem; Police Bats34.

The handler raised his arms and  lifted his cloak35, revealing six bats, three hanging under each arm. He gave the word to attack and his animal fell to the ground (bats needed some height to drop into flying, and as crying them around on a big pole mounted armature just wasn’t practical so they had to make due with a decided lack of coolness.

The bats quickly rolled over and launched themselves into the air and quickly overtook Parvo, swarmed and wrapped their wings around him and brought him to the ground. The worst part?

One licked him in the ear.

***

She begged for death. policemen and women36 mocked her as they stood on the roof looked down at her half stuck in the roof, while others poked and slapped her bottom half below. They seemed in no hurry to pull her out and take her into custody. She soon learned that union rules prevented the Heolseward from engaging in manual labor. Normally, if a perp got stuck in a well or drainpipe, or got caught up on a fence or some such, the Schleppenehmer Gilde would be called, but with Mokrado being an orc, there was some confusion as to wether they should bring in the Arbeitnehmer Verein who handled (large37) animals.

She knew what was coming, and she didn’t have long to wait. First, someone began caressing up her thigh. She bicycled her legs, getting in a decent number of hits while above, it started with one of the guardsmen mimed relieving himself on her38. Inevitably, someone put two and two together and realized that what one used for urination could be used for something else. Like the monkeys in 2001, they started to hop up and down, hooting and hollering.

Unfortunately for them, the roof had not suddenly become more stable since Mokrado dropped through it. In fact, it had become so unstable that it was at that moment it decided its existence as a roof was unfulfilling and empty.  It completely collapsed, Mokrado and the roof crushing those below, the police above falling on top of her, and then, finding existence so meaningless that its own destruction was not enough, the roof took out the floors below in a murder-suicide,  every floor collapsing down until the walls, suffering survivors remorse and unable to bear the loss, decided to follow the rest and threw themselves on the grave.

Orcs, although far more durable than humans, by the time Mokrado managed to crawl out from under the debris she was in no shape to resist arrest. This did not prevent her captors from beating her as if she were,  hitting her with their clubs as they stuffed her in a paddy wagon39.

***

Jacek had to hand it to them, they went all out. Skeleton chained to a rack in the corner? Check. Blood staines on the wall that looked like someone had attempted to clean of but failed? Check. The distant sound of whips and screams? Check. Rats? The only rat in the room was being eaten by the gnome in the corner. Or at least he was trying to eat it, but he was having a hard time fending off the roaches.

None of this frightened Jacek. He wasn’t thrilled with the roaches, but they didn’t frighten him. Neither did the bloodstained wooden table with the crisscrossed pattern of knife cuts, nor being bound with arms behind behind the back of a chair. No, what filled him with fear was the fact they had healed his wounds. 

They must know about the witch, he thought, but they can’t find her so they need me to… No, that couldn’t be it. Interrogate him? yes. Torture? Ditto. But why tend to his injuries? In dungeons, wounds aren’t dressed, they fester. Even the stump where his hand had been cut off was painless. Actually, it felt more than painless. They must have slathered on some powerful ointment because apart from a slight itch just below the elbow, his arm felt dead the rest of the way down. Ointment? In the dungeons? His mind raced, mostly on trying to figure out what he was in the middle but also whether the torturers had a secret supply of ointment or had to send someone out to get it when the sound of the door’s bolt being thrown made him stop.

As the door slowly opened, its rusty hinges creaked stereotypically40. An Apprentice Torturer shambled in and set an oilcloth covered tray and some scrolls on the table. He leered at Jacek, one eye rolling as an impressively long slobber of drool hung from his mouth, and as whipped the dirty cloth off the tray, revealing rusty torture implements. He was gratified by his prisoner turning his head in disgust, not realizing that it was because he’d placed the tray at an angle and triggered Jacek’s OCD41. The apprentice shambled back, adding the requisite menacing cackle before exiting and closing the door behind him.

But the latch didn’t catch, so he opened the door a little way, and tried closing it again, but it didn’t work. He tried a third time, before opening it completely and stepping in the room. He looked at Jacek, shook his head and shrugged. He tried closing it from the inside, but it still didn’t latch.

“Try lifting up one the door when you close it,” said Jacek. The apprentice looked over at Jacek, confused. “When you close it, sort of… lift. I think the door is, like, not square in the frame, s you lift up and straighten –” The apprentice’s eyebrows shot up and nodded with understanding. He pulled up on the door handle as he closed it, it giving off a satisfying click has the latch caught. He turned with a smile and a thumbs up for Jacek, before exiting the room and repeating the new door closing technique behind him.

Jacek sighed, rolled his neck and swept the room with his eyes. He startled in his bonds as he saw the gnome, roaches free and gnawing on the rat in peace. Jacek’s head darted around, looking for were the roaches had gone. Checking himself and the immediate vicinity most thoroughly. “Where’d they go?” he asked, mostly to himself, but the gnome answered him by pointing at a hole in the ceiling. “Why’d they –” before he could finish, the gnome suddenly dropped the rat and squeezed himself through a hole in the stone wall. The half eaten rat rolled onto its belly, looked left and right and made for the same hole just as the wooden door flew open, its rusty hinges giving a loud screech. Jacek tried to remain still and not swing his head at the sound, but his eyes darted involuntarily.

There was nothing in the doorway. Jacek slowly turned his head. Nothing. Then he tilted it, still nothing. He took a breath and was just about to start reciting the Poisoners Litany42 when Stormpike swept into the room, his cape whooshing as it trailed behind him through the door without touching the frame before billowing out with a snap and draping itself over his shoulders as he stopped on the other side of the table43. Jacek was unimpressed. Not with the cape, that he found quite impressive, but with the man looming before him, with his obviously affected air of fearlessness. Everyone in the world was afraid, and for good reason. Some just hid it better than others, and this guy wasn’t a good enough actor to pull it off44. And the patch? Come on, like he’d fall for that old gag? Lord Stormpike leading interrogations? Right.

“Well, you finally caught me,” said Jacek, with a weary smile. Stormpike raised one eyebrow (which was hard to tell with the patch) as he took the seat opposite and snapped his finger causing the door to shut (and latching securely) on its own. It had become cliche for anyone captured by the authorities to claim that they had been possessed and were therefore innocent of whatever crime they were accused of. How this had developed is a mystery, because in the case of genuine possession, the victim was executed as a matter of routine45. Instead, Jacek had decided on a different tactic. “To be honest,” Jacek continued, “I’m glad is was you who caught me. If anyone deserves to catch the ‘Coffee Breath Killer’46, it’s you.”

Amused, Stormpike said, “You’re the Coffee47 Breath Killer?” before sitting down. Jacek sighed and tried to look disappointed.

“Come now, inspector, I thought we moved past these games. I’ve nothing but the upmost respect for your abilities, but these schoolboy tactics are beneath you.”

“So if you’re the Coffee Breath Killer,” began Stormpike, deciding to play along, “Why are there a hundred men lying dead in a brothel.

“Hundred?” he asked, somewhat disappointed.

“Well, you know how people exaggerate. That’s not to take away anything from you or your friends.”

“Oh, I see, you assume I had help to kill so many! No, it was all me, so you can add whatever you assumed their totals were to me –“

“So your name isn’t …” He trailed off, pulled some papers from his pocket, and quickly paged through them before finding the right one, “Jacek Larkspur” (He didn’t need the paper, it was just a prop and a part of his patter)48. “You’re in a lot of trouble, killwright,” he said as he looked up from the paper49.

Jacek’s face tightened and clenched his jaw as he suppressed a shudder. He had always prided himself in his ability to remain cool and collected it stressful situations. In times of crisis, Jacek Larkspur not only kept his head, but he became more calm. All his senses would seem to enhance, time would slow and a serenity would come over him. But as it turned out, he’d never been in  stressful situation before. His whole life with the Guild had been regimented and meticulously planned, every contingency accounted for, as well as analyzed and categorized based on statistical probability (not to mention the level of “coolness”). There had never been a situation where there wasn’t a path that lead out of it. It may have been difficult or dangerous but he knew the playing field, he knew the rules, and he knew the score (and still had a challenge flag in his back pocket). Now he knew none of those things.  He found himself in his first stressful situation.

They should not know my name. Had Phobos read his mind? Had they found the witch and tracked down his clients? How long had he been out? And why was he still alive? Whatever the case, social conventions dictated that it was his turn to speak.

“All my actions hitherto have conformed to the precepts and teachings of the Guild of Death and Destruction both in letter and in spirit and as a member of said order, I intend to continue to fulfill my oath to them and to my client, even beyond death itself.” Jacek recited from memory (and sounding like it50).

“Ah,” Stormpike said as he closed his eyes and nodded, sagely (as well as thymely51). “You know, I for one, find your orders dedication to contractual obligations truly admirable. I know some may find notions like “vows” and “oaths” quaint. Some may even find them blasphemous, with their inherent appeal to honor and duty.”

“I didn’t know the Heolseward was known for their theologians. That’s the correct term, right? Theologian: someone who puts words in the mouths of Gods?” shot back Jacek,  defiantly. Defiant was good, thought Stormpike. It made the cold water he was about to pour the sweeter52.

Heolseward?” Stormpike asked, looking down at his doublet. “Heolseward? Do I look like a policeman?”

“Fine Tortur –” his words caught in his throat as his eyes followed Stormpike’s hand smoothing down his clothing. There were no badge of office, no brooch, no crest, no livery. Just an all black outfit, black cape, black eyepatch, black gloves, and a silver ring with a mummified faerie head–

–And the cold water came pouring down the back of his shirt–

It couldn’t be. Plenty of people wore an eyepatch, his beloved Nana for instance. This guy was a fanboy, a Stormpike cosplayer. Yeah, that was it.

“My apologies, Sir…?” He prompted, adding the “Sir” as the lowest style of address that wasn’t technically an insult53, figuring in for a sceat,54 in for a solidus55. Everyone knew Stormpike wore that ring, you could get cheap knock offs all over the city. Fingers crossed56.

“Stormpike,” he answered pleasantly57, not bothering to correct his honorific58, nor adding his various titles or epithets59. He didn’t need to, Jacek deflated at the first syllable. And not like a soufflé deflating, for that would imply that he had been full before. It was more like he was a helium filled balloon, not a cool mylar one60, but a regular rubber balloon that’s made it to the next day but has contracted, its skin shriveled, and floating just a couple of feet off the ground before finally popping. He deflated, he wilted, his heart sank, and the wind went out of his sails. These were not synonyms employed as some amateurish, stylistic device61, no, he did all of them at the same time.

What. The. Deuce62. Was Lord Stormpike doing here!?

“You’re probably wondering what I’m doing here,” Stormpike said as he lifted the tray of implements, propped one boot on the table, and began push the tools around with his finger as the sound of metal on metal echoed off the walls.

“I don’t know what happened, your unholiness, I think I was possessed by a demon.” Out of ideas, Jacek figured it was worth a shot.

“That would be too bad, Mister Larkspur, because then my offer would be for him and not you.”

“Offer?” was the best reply he could come up in his confusion, and his confusion was profound. Just watched 2001: A Space Odyssey confused63.

“Mm-hmm. An offer mutually beneficial to both parties, you pick the leeches off my back, I pick ’em off yours. For instance,

“What do you want?” asked a defeated Jacek.

“I want you to kill a god.”


  1. In his village, with their backward, country ways, it was still a vulgar way of saying “excrement” but in the sophisticated urban ways of Mokrado, it sounded like “dagnabit”

  2. Country or City, this Orcish word always meant “shit”

  3. Invented by London printer Richard Jugge (d. 1577), a footnote is an ancillary piece of information printed at the bottom of a page. (e.g. what you’re reading now)

  4. And don’t ask why an Ounce was made up of 8 Drachms, a Drachm was 3 Scruples and a Scruple was 20 Grains (or why Drachm is pronounced “dram”)

  5. This was performed by Scinnhæleð. While the Heolseward were tasked with combating mystical crimes, not that they solved mystical crimes, that was the purview of Verdoemeniswag, their sworn rivals. Neither of which used magic in carrying out their duty, that fell to the Scinnhæleð.

  6. The Scinnhæleð accomplished this by summoning a particular demon called an, Ungeist, which sort of  “sucked up” the available magic in the area for a short time, sort of how downloading a video sucks up your bandwidth. This meant that anyone in the area who relied on magic during this time was out of luck, resulting in many people who were using magic to keep themselves alive dropping dead. Also, in order to appease the demon and send him back, a human sacrifice would have to be offered. This was determined by a system in which each day was divided up into increments and with each increment being assigned to a particular member of a unit so that if a demon was called and it occurred at a such and such a time, such and such a person would be sacrificed. The members of the Scinnhæleð had a pool where much effort was expended in calculating most likely day and times that such an occurrence would fall on.  And, like all office pools, was usually won by the person who put no thought into it.

  7. Depending on whether you calculated the number of stories in the building (8) or how many there should be had they built them to a standard height (6) instead of squeezing in two extra by shortening them

  8. Our minutes.

  9. 32,372 to be exact (not including villagers, serfs, slaves, non-humans, talking animals or trees)

  10. It was not strictly misogyny that prevented him from thinking of women as heroes. As he saw it, men were either villains or heroes, and women were either damsels or sirens, and he despised heroes and damsels.

  11. The one with either a similar set of skills, abilities, personality, gender, or ethnicity as the now deceased member, who thankful, had just then completed their personal journey.

  12. Take a look at your inbox and note how many urgents, importants, and musts you see.

  13. Hairy crocodiles with eight arms, obviously. Spiders with crocodile skin and teeth are Aracodiles.

  14. He’s getting struck left and right here!

  15. It was enchanted, but the voice recognition was spotty at best, especially because Stormpike hadn’t done the manufacturer recommended recognition tutorial.

  16. Technically, per Phobos’s design decrees, it was “Torment Red” (Pantone Solid Coated 7622 C) and “Ash Heap Black (Pantone Solid Coated 7540 C).

  17. Let’s face it, they’re essentially the same jobs.

  18. Grammar Tip! If a question can be answered with a “he” or “she”, use “who” (who gave you that? He did.) If it can be answered be a “him” or “her”, use “whom” (to whom did you give it? I gave it to him)

  19. The second most evil salute

  20. The imperial salute, signifying that all life and loyalty belonged to the Drodkip, even to the point of choking oneself to death.

  21. Although annoying to be on the receiving end, society would be the better if it were the default response to things, e.g. twitter.

  22. 3 under the desk, 7 IN the desk it spring loaded hidden compartments (only 3 of which were accessible from his  current position) 8 in the drawers (2 unsharpened) and the 17 on his person

  23. The numbers had been quickly exaggerated, despite the underreporting by the detachment that had suffered the losses.

  24. He had taken rhetoric in school.

  25.   A “Dun dun-dun!” sting was implied by his tone.

  26. And not just dramatic, but every form; pregnant, for effect, comedic, expectant, not to mention waiting a beat, eclipses, and the pause de resistance: people saying, “Wait for it”

  27. As if the author lacked an outline and was making this up as he went along

  28. known as the BlæcWache or BlackGuard (Phobos loved sticking words together with capitalization). Ironically, their uniforms were a gray/brown color because the MetodscæftWeard, the DeathGuard already wore black so they had to settle for a black Karakul style hat (the Karakul, is the hat made famous by Hamid Karzai, Former President of Afghanistan*. In our world, it is made from the  wool Qaraqul breed of sheep, often from aborted lamb foetuses. Seriously).

    *Not to mention by the First Doctor when Barbara and Ian first enter the TARDIS.

  29.   While a dead body could be just as dangerous to those below, the fact that they were deceased preventing them from making much of a noise (apart from a kind of soft “whoosh”). And by “dead” I mean dead-dead (as opposed to undead).

  30. And Eric Clapton’s apartment. (too much?)

  31. See Alan Rickman in “Die Hard”

  32. The darts were tipped with Goblin Puss, just the smell of which was enough to incapacitate some men (much like brussel sprouts)

  33. He reasoned that it best to run away from the brothel, and therefore, it must be behind him. However, as he had fallen backwards off the roof, he was now heading towards it.

  34. The Chiropteran Corps

  35. Velvet (naturally)

  36. There were no rules preventing women  bearing arms in service, but there was nothing specifically allowing it, either.

    There were statues that could be (and had been in the past) interpreted in such a way that could get any women who tried, killed.

    The important thing was that the system engendered doubt, anxiety, confusion, and most importantly, areas rife for corruption and backstabbing.

  37. Small animals were a different guild, both of which only operated within the Capitol. Other cities had two different guilds, and outside of cities was an entirely different system.

  38. Without the invention of the zipper, it was fairly elaborate, involving the unbelting of his sword, unfastening his hauberk, lifting his tunic and holding up the bottom in his mouth while he untied his trousers and wriggling out of them.

  39. A term some may object to as a slur against the Irish, and furthermore, as there are no Irish in this world, it’s anachronistic, therefore “Black Mariah” should be used instead. To this I say; If I were to use “Black Mariah” some may not know the term, and would therefore have to add a footnote, and those just interrupt the flow of the narrative

  40. Which required constant monitoring to maintain just the right ratio of rust, dust, and grease to achieve the sound and even then, the formula had to be tweaked for each individual door.

  41. Worse, while the implements were evenly spaced, there was no organizing principal that he could discern, whether shortest to longest, diameter, grouped by type (impact, extraction, bladed, seated, etc.). It was possible that they were arranged in order of usage, but he somehow doubted it.

  42. A poem consisting of the lethal dosage for every known poison and its time of effect, the Guild taught the Litany to every assassin (along with the ballad of the Throat Slitters which taught how to kill without sound) who found recited it to calm their minds and steady their hearts. Unfortunately the author (unknown) had played a little loose with the dosages and time of effect to maintain his rhyme scheme, so it wasn’t entirely accurate (not to mention attempting to rhyme “immolate” with “entreat” which can’t be done, in any accent)

  43. Semi-sentient, the cape was made from Demonsmoke, the vaporous remains of a demon killed by a silver blade during a blood moon by a virgin whose feet weren’t touching the ground. The vapors then had be be collected before they dissipated, but not by the virgin, whose purity repelled the vapors  like two magnets with the same polarity, but by an undead ghoul. Needless to say, it was incredibly expensive (It was also unbelievably hot and would start to stink after just a few wearings but it looked amazingly cool. We’re talking Batman in the Arkham video games cool here).

  44. It should be noted that Jacek had never witnessed real fearlessness.

  45. Partly because they had shown a weakness for possession and killing them prevented any similar occurrences, but mostly, cells were located in the bowels of the keep next to the abattoir and freeing them would require escorting them up miles of stairs.

  46. Serial Killers were relatively rare in Eorðe. When murder wasn’t a crime and psychopathic tendencies were prized by employers, government officials, and clergy alike (not to mention the opposite sex), serial killing couldn’t compete. But the ‘Crab Breath Slayer’ had achieved something of a following recently mostly because he targeted those coffee drinkers who don’t eat breakfast and have horrendous coffee breath. You know what I’m talking about, it’s kind of like salami steeped in burnt coffee and then poured over some potting soil.

  47. The substance translated as coffee was called slijm (or briodarnach if you wanted to sound fancy) was made from Bloodgrain Smut, a fungus that grew on the normally poisonous Bloodgrain (obviously). Highly caffeinated as well as slightly alcoholic, it tasted a bit like an espresso made with burnt beans with a shot of scotch and artificial cinnamon (like someone dropped a Hot Tamale in that dissolved in the cup)

  48. In fact, it didn’t even contain relevant information, Stormpike feeling it unwise to have any traceable evidence.

  49. The scroll contained an iteration of a bouillabaisse recipe he’d been trying much of his life to recreate. As a young man, Stormpike had killed a particularly annoying chef who nevertheless, had made the finest fish stew he’d ever eaten. Stormpike had obliterated his soul before he realized that the recipe only existed in his head. This current version was number 832. This version contained carrots and clam juice, so you know he was just grasping at straws at this point.

  50. The line was actually “beyond even death’s embrace“.

  51.   And with just a hint of cumin.

  52. The water being both cold and sweet while not technically a mixed metaphor, it’s hardly elegant, but it is what Stormpike thought, and were all about truthful characters here.

  53. But almost always was.

  54. A sceat (1φ) was worth 1/12th of a solidus (φ1). You’ll notice the only difference is one placed the “phi” in front and the other in back (The symbol for their money was the first character in Phobos’s name, which looked like the wink emoji ;), therefore “φ” has been substituted).

  55. Their coinage at this time was:

    Quarter Bodle (1⁄16φ)

    Third Bodle (1⁄12φ)

    Half Bawbee (1⁄8φ) Bawbee (¼φ)

    Halfsceat (½φ)

    sceat (1φ or φ12 )

    Threehalfsceat (1½φ)

    Twosceat (2φ)

    Threesceat or Tremissis (3φ)

    Doublesceat or Tremis’n Sceat (4φ)

    Scixceat (6φ)

    Solidus (φ1)

    Solidusisis (φ2)

    Half Aureus (φ2-1/6)

    Double Solidus or Plang (φ4)

    Aureus (φ5)

    Half Phob (φ6-2/3)

    Phob (φ23)

  56. Which in this world involved crossing the pinkie and ring finger. It helped that everyone was double jointed.

  57. Or at least his version of pleasant, which qualified as such only in the contrast from his normally unpleasant manner.

  58. Besides, he never really liked them. Phobos had kept a little notebook since he was a boy where he collected interesting words and cobbled Lord Stompike’s titles from various languages, living and dead (I’ve painstakingly translated them into their nearest “Earth-1” equivalent). His titles were; Lord Stormpike (duh), Voivode Vražda (both words meaning “Duke”), Kŭnędzĭ Druhtinaz (the one word evolving from the other, meaning “War-Chief”), Fraujaz de ne Gruwel Bloedhoek (three different languages smooshed together intended to mean “Lord of the Horrible Blood Corner” to commemorate the “Battle of the Blood Pits” but he thought “hoek” sounded cooler. Also, he didn’t know  the word for horrible “aaklige”, so he went with “horror” figuring it was close enough), Margrave van die Voosveldt (another three languages, meaning “March-Lord of the Putrid Lands”, but “Veldt” means field but “land” was the same in both languages and he thought “veldt” was the coolest and used it a lot. Note: By “Putrid Lands”, he meant everything outside city walls, meaning “nature”, Dúnmharú Tighearnais (Murder Lord), and Ceannasaí Cogadh (intended to mean “Lord of War”, but meant “Chief War”).

  59. These he like much better (except for the last one) Phobos had named him; The Blade Lord, the Devil’s Dragon, The Right Hand of Fear, Heaven’s Doom, The Night Herald, The Terror in the Dark, The Black Angel, and finally, Phobos’s Butt Boy (he didn’t want the accoladed to go to Stormpike’s head, so he threw that one in).

  60. Like my parents would never buy me at disneyland, but instead I’d only get the regular (and cheaper) rubber Mickey one with the ears (but only after we were finished because you can’t take it on the rides. Even though the only fun of a balloon is walking around with it, not riding in car with one. Also, I only got my initials on the Mickey hat, because it was cheaper. Not that an extra letter would have broken the bank, but it would have meant four extra letters for my sister.

    And yeah, I know, I got to go to Disneyland and get balloons and a hat, and some kids don’t even get that. And you know what I say to that? First of all I try to look at all people as equal, and I don’t feel it’s my place to make such distinctions and judgements, but if you go right ahead. Secondly, I can’t bring myself to use the less fortunate to make myself feel better. But the larger problem is that realize that such a suggestion inevitably leads to envy. Meaning rather than experience anything as the thing qua thing, the thing should be experienced based on the differences and distinctions between myself and other people? And if one looks at the less fortunate in order to appreciate a thing, doesn’t it follow that one will inevitably look at the more fortunate? What happens then? I’ll tell you; look at the world. Envy. Resentment. Entitlement. Stop comparing. Stop with the “think of the kids starving in Africa”, or “Do you know how well off you are”, or any of that stuff. Stop comparing, try taking things as they are and you may find you start taking people the same way).

  61. ex. The rest of this novel.

  62. The curse word he used would be a directly analogous to our “F-Word”, but I’m trying to bring back “What the deuce?”.

  63. Or trying to figure out the purpose of Ellen Page’s character in “Inception”.

The Dismal Dark

The Dismal Dark

Prologue

Against a blood red sky stood the Black Tower of Ultimate Blackness.1 Death surrounded it, literally, for a great battle waged under its shadow (and the other 359° degrees, too).2 In the sky above, opposing knights rode dragons (actually friggin’ dragons!) diving & rolling, jinking & juking, twisting & turning, blasting each other with fire.

It was 70’s album cover, basically.

Like all impregnable evil fortresses, The Tower had one flaw in its design. A flaw that would let a small band of heroes with calculating recklessness and disciplined daring to enter, odds stacked against them, outmatched, running out of time, with even their allies skeptical of success.

That band of heroes had just seen a change in leadership. Axos Pureheart, a plucky, young, orphaned farm boy, with the handsome (on the verge of pretty) good looks of a member of a British Boy Band. Yet a boy no longer, for he had finally slayed his mortal enemy, Self-Doubt, and become the leader he was born to be3.

Following him up a winding set of stairs with no handrails,4 was the sorcerer Kaylec, his mastery of the arcane arts evident by his long white beard, crystal-topped staff, and ability to run up stairs without tripping on his robe. He had seen the scared young man embrace his destiny and become the hero he was born to be. Long had the old wizard waited for He Who Was Promised, they prophesied Chosen One.

The final member of this trio was Shann, whose beauty was surpassed only by her prowess in battle, the latter being rapidly deployed if the former5 was mentioned within earshot. She carried a bow with which she never missed, even in rain and wind, and a magic quiver that never ran out of arrows.6

Her hair was that magical color that depends on the reader’s personal preference. It was THAT color. She possessed the low body fat percentage without the harshness that seems only available to someone in their late teens or in works of fiction.

Even a PeTA member would slay a unicorn for her.

She wore enough leather to cover the important bits but not so little to seem implausible but just enough metallic frippery to suggest armor but if one were being honest, it must be admitted that it didn’t provide much in the way of protection.

As the faceless7 hordes8 fell before their advance (their superior numbers ineffective due to their insistence on engaging the heroes in single combat rather than en masse) a bellow reverberated off the (evil) stone walls. A dread-filled bellow, full of hate and bile, pain and suffering, the emptiness and confusion of not knowing your purpose in life, the bitter regret of hurting the one you love and knowing that something is irrevocably broken between you, something ultimately unrecoverable, revealing the notion of your own intrinsic decency to be false and utterly shattering your self-image.

It was a hell of a bellow.

All who heard it froze and waited, like that moment right after you stub your toe but the pain hasn’t hit yet but you know it’s just about to–

–Suddenly, from some hidden alcove, recess, or antechamber, (naturally, the Black Tower of Ultimate Blackness was not well lit, making it hard to tell which) lumbered out a troll, seven foot tall (if he stood up straight),9 with splotchy skin like a ciabatta loaf, and sporting yellowed tusks due to poor dental hygiene. Like your uncle at Thanksgiving, he was incapable of being reasoned with and possessing all the rage of a toddler denied access to the toy aisle at Target©.

He carried a war hammer so large that it must have been more for effect than for practicality. “Go,” Shann said to Axos, ticking her head towards the stairs. “We’ve got this.” He nodded and raced towards the stairs as Kaylec let looses a blast of energy from his staff (wands being déclassé) before glancing back over his shoulder (the right shoulder, giving his good side) and caught Shann’s eye. “Shann, I…”

“I know,” she answered, for his eyes told her what words were inadequate to convey, (besides, he had a world to save and she a troll to deal with). With a determined nod the young hero headed up the stairs as Shann leapt into battle, eyes ablaze and heart afire.

***

On the top of the Tower stood a room. A dark room, a black room. In point of fact, said room was the tower’s raison d’être, for that exact spot, not just longitudinally and latitudinally, but altitudinally as well, was vital to the dark magicks10 to be performed.

Phobos, the twisted and deformed11 dark magus, stood dead center in the Chamber of Blackest Blackness, where the lay lines of power converge, where the luminiferous æther merges with existence, thought and dream are indistinguishable, where the equiprobability of ergodic phase-space reaches a convective time derivative of zero as the spontaneous symmetry breaks the orthorhombic lattices of the granulated quantization of space+time.12

Phobos, amidst arcane symbols, glyphs, runes, uncials, minuscules (and the occasional majuscule) from languages both dead and not yet invented, some of which, were they uttered aloud, would melt drive both speaker and listener insane. These were written in exotic powders from exotic lands obtained through means too terrible to contemplate, but surely there was something exotic about them. The room was lit by a plethora of candles,13 for although it was called the Chamber of Blackest Blackness, this was just metaphor, and some of the symbols were hard to draw, and given the sensitivity of the magicks to spacial relationships, precision was preferred over dramatic purity.

He held aloft his silver dagger, the very dagger that he had killed his old master with at the completion of his apprenticeship.14 Now was the culmination of his journey, the fulfillment of his dark desires, desires that had thrown the world into chaos, unleashing bloodshed, pestilence, and starvation in its wake. But is was worth it, no matter the cost, it was worth it.

Finally, his mother would see he was a better son than his brother.

The light of a demon moon shone through a specially fitted crystal in the roof, a light that would not shine on that exact spot for another thousand years. He was about to slice his palm15 (for all dark magics required blood) when the door burst open!16 Axos entered, the sight of which struck Phobos like a brain freeze. “Axos? But you died!” exclaimed the old mage, making a valid point.

“Died, yes, but reborn anew!”17 I survived the Threefold Death, traveled the Shadowlands,18 and proved worthy to wield Stormblade!” He held aloft the mighty weapon, its mirror-like surface reflecting Phobos’s own inadequacy back at him.

“But that means..” The sudden dryness of his mouth made further words impossible, also he wasn’t entirely sure what it meant.

“–That I, Axos Pureheart,” the young man finished for him, “an orphan goatherd, am the CHOSEN ONE! Destined to defeat you and reclaim the ancient throne of my fathers!” His sword burst into green flame, as he began to flourish it. He was about to spin it around his back, when he thought better of it, a bit showy for a hero after all. “That’s right, I am heir to the throne, never knowing that the kindly couple who raised me were not my true parents, but that I was hidden from you as a child so that one day I might–“

What he was about to say we will never know, for at that exact moment, his head ceased its long association with his neck. Of course, such events rarely happen of their own accord, and this was not one of those moments. No, his beheading was the result of a sword. Not a magic sword, just a sword. Obviously a sharp one, but one lacking a famous pedigree, sporting no ornamentation, baring no trademarkable name, and not particularly well balanced. No, the key was the wielder of the blade, Lord Stormpike, and if the name wasn’t enough of a giveaway as to his wickedness, then the fact that he lopped off a dude’s head from behind should be ample. Stormpike was Phobos’s Lord of War, his consigliere, his tip of the spear, his straw that stirs the drink, his henchiest of henchmen.

The vile necromancer cackled, he cackled the pent up cackle of villains immemorial denied their triumph. He slit his palm, his blood spilling in the center of the pentagram19 drawn on the floor.

Creation groaned, Eorðe shook, even the sky itself seemed to tremble, as if someone smacked a movie screen. It was if a certain portion of all the good in the world just drained away, pixies dropped from from the sky, dead, and ugly ducklings no longer turn into beautiful swans, they just stayed ugly, and no soufflé would ever again rise. Darkness spread across the land.20

Goodness failed and villainy was triumphant.

Chapter One

In retrospect it seemed obvious that evil would require considerable amounts of paperwork. Even many sympathetic to Phobos’s demonic aims feared that his plan to rip open the veil of the Great Void and free the Old Gods would end the world, but that would have been a blessing for the living. No, the tombs emptied of their dead, untold horrors plagued man, and roses now smelt of urine,  and from the Fiery Pits of <em>Avernus</em>21 issued force reams and reams of paperwork22, but the world continued to spin ’round the sun.

It was the Thirteenth Age23, ten thousand years since Phobos’s victory, and once again humans were in ascendance. The Dread  God-King24 Phobos liked to pit the various races against each other, sometimes with humans on top, sometimes Demonkind, Elves, occasionally Orcs, and once or twice Goblins, but never dwarfs25, and paperwork, not swords, is needed for such machinations.

But for the man called Lord Stormpike26, the assumption had been that the responsibility for all the paperwork would fall on other people. Oh, sure, need to torture a beloved elder to bring a recalcitrant village to heel? No end to the hands that shoot up. Flay the skin off a freckle-faced scamp with a penchant for malapropisms and cute lisp? You can always count on someone to step forward and not only get the job done but to really dedicate himself to the task at hand.

Yet when it came to correspondence, charters, requisitions, orders (both issued and rescinded), directives, approvals, authorizations, and the innumerable paper trails necessary when one couldn’t rely on the rule of law in a world turned upside down and shaken until the foundations of the world had finally broken free of the shackles of “goodness”, there were no takers. After all, since evil was triumphant, wasn’t it incumbent upon everyone to lie and cheat about their taxes? Well, yes, but Stormpike still had to see to it that there was food on the dining table and that the bedding was as free from parasites as a pre-industrial society could manage. (Also, being left-handed, Stormpike hated that he always wound up smearing the ink).

And he couldn’t count on The Dread God-King* Phobos to lend a hand. He had no need for food now that he no longer possessed human blood, but instead Black Ichor, liquid hate, flowed through his veins. (Also, he spent most of his time torturing the living, commanding the dead, consuming the souls of the innocent, and bedding women)27.

Stormpike sighed, rubbed his temples and leaned back in his chair. “Rough day?”, said a familiar voice28, “You need not suffer any longer.  I hear slitting your wrists in the bath is quite painless. Relatively speaking.” He looked over at the severed head of Kaylec the wizard, hanging upside-down, tied to a chain by his beard. “Then again, you would have to start taking baths29.”

Stormpike gave the head half a withering glance,30 but it didn’t work.31 The head had been a “gift” from <del datetime=”2015-10-22T15:54:42+00:00″>Phobos</del> The Dread God-King* Phobos.32 Obviously Drodkip,33 being pure evil, wasn’t a big gift giver, and if there was any severed head Stormpike deserved it was the one belonging to the “Chosen One”, so he assumed that it was to remind him of his place. No one knew what Drodkip had done with the head of Axos34.

“You’re about due again, aren’t you?” Asked the head, eyebrows raised in question, but because it was hanging upside down,35 were in fact, lowered. It would be wrong to say that Stormpike had been granted immortality, rather Drodkip kept Stormpike alive. And while grateful that Drodkip had not consumed his soul, ten thousand is a long time, and even oblivion seemed a better alternative than yet another, unchanging , day. So Stormpike would slit a wrist, drink poison, or if he was feeling particularly melancholy, leap from the parapet.36
Of course, as Ruler of Death, Drodkip would raise him back to life again, and Stormpike would be angry and resentful, the fire in his belly would make him feel alive, and that was better than the emptiness that he felt before.

He took in a breath, let it out through his nose, felt a booger vibrate, went to pick it when–
–He materialized in the throne room. As he had been sitting in a chair a moment before, and now without under his butt, he hit the floor, jamming a finger in his nose. Drodkip laughed, evilly.37

Stormpike looked up at his lord and master, being one of the few men who could do so without becoming ill. Phobos the man had ceased to be that day, now many years in the past. The face of Drodkip looked  very much the same as he had as Phobos, but now it sat dead center in a mass of corpulent, oozing, veiny, flesh extending into a twisted tangle of tentacles, each seeming to branch off into smaller and smaller appendages, many of which wrapped around the rafters an held suspended, struggling, naked men and women.

“I’ve heard disturbing reports,” said Drodkip before wincing slightly as a deep rumble sounded as his flesh rippled. “Excuse me,” he said, holding up one tentacle while another holding a young woman, lowered down towards his head. The bulk of his “body” swelled as he opened his mouth. His pupils dilated followed by his irises, until there was only white. The woman screamed as she began to emit a glow, a glow that Drodkip’s eyes match. Something like dust in a shaft of light filled the glow and the woman seemed to deflate, her skin paled, her hair became white and Drodkip sucked in the particles. As his mouth snapped shut, the woman’s head dropped. He shuddered smiled blissfully,38 and dropped the body. Red circles formed on the floor and three horned demons lept out, scampered to the corpse and carried her off. Drodpkip looked at Stormpike with satiated, drooping lips.

“Where was I?”

“Disturbing reports,” Stormpike replied, having stood up, dusted himself off, pushed closed a nostril, and shot out the booger.

“Ah, yes,” Drodkip’s mass undulated, which Stormpike knew was his form of nodding. “Disturbing reports. I hear that a young, charismatic Priest of the Beneficent Torturer has had great success among Elvish.”
“Indeed, my Dread Sovereign,” Stormpike added, flatly. The Drodkip SLAMMED two tentacles on the floor.39 The ground rumbled and a volcano erupted across the sea.
“The Elvish were supposed to be the source of the next rebellion! Where am I supposed to get ripe souls, now?” He shook his victims in illustration.

“Oh, great and terrible, King of Blight, this Dark Priest will prove a worthy foe for the “Chosen One”,” here he used air-quotes,40 “Which will prove his bone fides and I confidently predict a band hope filled souls a thousand strong.”

“A thousand, you say?” Drodkip’s voice went up a couple of octaves.

“A thousand.” He waited a beat and added, “This year.” The Drodkip’s eyes glazed over, all the worry burned away and replaced with relief and anticipation, like getting the email notification the latest iPhone model has been delivered and is waiting for you at your home. And then it was gone, the pleasure was gone, replaced by insatiable need. Evil, at its core, takes a longing, twists it into a need, and then fills it with a simulacrum, spiritual <em>Sweet ‘N Lo</em> that tricks the senses, leaves the soul unfulfilled, and then requires greater and greater quantities of the pink packs to have the same effect as the first.

The part of Drodkip that was still Phobos, had a hole in his core, infinite in its need to be filled. So he had loosed the Eldar Ones, consumed them, enslaved the Gods of Light and Darkness,  and became ruler of the universe, but still the emptiness remained. Because he was evil, which is negation and corruption he could not create, only destroy and pollute that which already was. So he sat and consumed, fed on life. All life. He had shut the gates of the hereafter, all death lead to his maw. And all because he thought the emptiness at his core was special and different from everyone else. Because what he was really trying to do was to fill the hole with his own desire, trying to possess things he could never grasp, that act of trying changing them, transforming them so that he was left holding his own need and trying to fulfill need with need, stuffing it back into the whole again and again.

And to think, none of it would have come to pass had he just gotten a puppy.

Drodkip’s eyes narrowed and bore into Stormpike, who could feel the alien mind enter his. It was like deja vu mixed with the swirlyness of being drunk and the helpless, wrongness you feel when the car at the stoplight next to you rolls backward and you think you’re moving forward and your breaks don’t work.

“You seem sulky,” stated the wretched blob, not inaccurately, “you always get this way before you off yourself”.

“I was just catching up on paperwork–”

“I don’t want to hear it,” cutting him off, holding up a tentacle. Drodkip left his mind like the sweet relief you floss out that piece of BBQ rib from between your teeth.
<p style=”text-align: center;”>***</p>
Stormpike’s heels hit the floor, not realizing he had been standing on his tiptoes, stretching his neck and body, like a kid getting his height measured on the pantry door frame.
“You may go,” the Emperor of Evil41 either waved a tentacle, dismissively, or their was a fly in throne room.
#
“Typical,” fumed Stormpike as he exited the throne room, the door slamming and the two werewolves standing on either side slamming the butts of their pikes on the marble42 floors. “Bloody43 typical.” He stalked down the hall, his cape billowing dramatically.44 “He magicks me all the way over here, and then makes me walk back. You can be evil without being rude.”

He kept his anger on a low simmer the entire walk back, deliberately passing the Hellspawn Petting Zoo where you could feed them gnomes, which always cheered him up. No, he was using his anger, building into something, a weapon. <em>Disturbing reports! Fine, maybe can see how he wouldn’t realize the dark priest was part of my plan, his knowledge of arcana is vast but he’s shit at strategy, but to really think there was any outcome I hadn’t planned for? Me? Stormpike, unmatched in battle, unparalleled in tactics, unequalled in strategy. He doubted me. Me! His pace slowed, Has someone been poisoning his ear?</em> He had to will himself not to dart his eyes side to side to look for conspirators. <em>If only I had killed him after I finished Axos. Or even after he had completed the ritual. Or anytime before.</em>

Before.

Before he had removed his heart and hidden it because unless his heart was destroyed, he could not be killed. Phobos had secreted it somewhere safe, confident that it would never be found. Too, confident, thought Stormpike, but that was ten thousand years ago and none of his agents, spies, or lackeys had caught so much of a hint of it. He’d even hired an assassin to kill the Drodkip, on the off chance that he was lying about removing his heart. No dice. The assassin had done an admirable job, Drodkip, sword in his chest,45 shriveled, and crinkled, like one of those expanding hoses when you turn off the water. The dark clouds parted, the shone shone bright, church bells, long hidden, rang out.

And then the tentacles oozed up out of the sewers.

Stormpike, whose pride in his strategic brilliance was well founded, had planned for such an eventuality, having made sure the assassination occurred during his annual summer holiday decimating Elvin tribes. He waited until notified, and raced back with just the right amount of haste. And while disappointing, he looked back fondly on the purging of the rebels as well as those who had proved insufficiently loyal.

He went up to the parapet. It was time. He looked out on the city, sprawled in all directions, taking on the character of its ruler, not by order or dictate, but organically, life finding its way, even under the thrall of death. They did Drodkip’s will, true, but his will was not theirs, they still possessed their own. He could deal out death to all, but he could not make life. Out there there were still farmers, still mothers. And there was still hope out there. Drodkip had convinced himself it existed by his leave, that the only thing more satisfying than devouring a hope-filled soul was one whose hopes had been dashed.

But Stormpike knew that hope is what makes us what we are. He’d seen it on the battlefield, that a hopeless man had already lost his soul. Stormpike still held out hope. Hope that he could slay the beast and he would be hailed as a liberator, his enlightened rule forever remembered. And then he would die. Stormpike had no desire to live forever, it was a foolish dream for children and cowards. No, he would die, either without issue, or some inadequate heir, unable to live up to his legacy, and thus would begin a general decline.

All that Stormpike had built would collapse, for there would never be anyone like King Stormpike again. All rulers, nay, all men would be compared to Stormpike the Great and found wanting. He thought of it as his simple, little, dream. But he’d waited too long. He knew that something he didn’t kill would eventually cause him trouble.

He sighed, stepped up onto the crenelations46 and looked down. Things were running smoothly, Drodkip need not resurrect him for decades. There he would be, in Hameshta-gehan, the Shadowlands, the Fields of Judgement, where the dead await their fate.  He would wander the fields with the souls of the ones he put there. They seek him out, for the dead can still feel pain, and he would welcome it. Battle was his idea of heaven.

He lifted a foot, getting ready to jump when he thought he might as well as remove his sword belt, perhaps his cape. It wouldn’t look good, flapping up over his head as he fell. No one regrets looking their best in front of the Gods of Judgement,47 they say. But there would be no Gods to judge him. With the Gods of Light and Darkness locked in their respective realms the paths to the afterlife were closed. No heaven, no hell, only the ghostly half-life of the Shadowlands, or consumption by Drodkip.

Suddenly, realization dawned, the scales fell from his eyes, a light48 went off over his head. The afterlife, the one place no man49 can enter. That’s where it was, Phobos had hidden it there. He’d placed his black heart in hell.

Someone would have to get it.

Chapter Two

blah blah blah

Jacek Larkspur

Although humans had taken to evil with remarkable alacrity, love could not be completely eliminated, or at least the idea of love. He was from a family of myomancers, divining the future from the behavior of rats, While she was from a family of myrmomancers, divining the future from the tracks of ants. They were from two different worlds,50 and a love like theirs was impossible. Their parent’s disapproval entirely justified. hers did what any worthy myrmomancer parents with a modicum of good sense and decent breeding51 in their place would do; they hired an assassin.Oh, not to permanently consign him to oblivion52, just mild torment until his family or friends could raise him up again, either alive or undead53. To that end they turned to the Guild of Death & Destruction (Local 329)54, seeking an assassin of exceptional skill, dedication, and cunning. Unfortunately, he proved too expensive and they settled on Jacek Larkspur.

Jacek strolled down the Avenue of Impalement just beyond where it crossed Impalement Avenue North (which ran East-West) and one block over from the Avenue of Impalements (plural), and near the “Avenue of Implements”, a used torture device consignment store. He attempted to casually slip down an alley, but as one could at any moment be set upon by bandits, attacked by a vampire, or possessed by some dark spirit, strolling was not something one saw much of in the city of Phobopolis55 Primus56. It was generally accepted that it was best to keep your head down, accept your lot, and hope to die early, and maybe the Drodkip won’t notice and let your soul wander aimlessly in the unlife of the Shadowlands, forever betwixt the locked gates of the Halls of the Sun and the Pits of Screams.57

But Jacek was recently out of his indentures and newly licensed and accredited as a Journeyman Killwright58, his confidence in his own abilities, while not misplaced, did make him stand out amongst the general population’s furtive movements and shifty glances59, but such things came with experience. He made his way down the alley, its walls greasy and black like the pan of drippings under a BBQ60, a young man with a limitless future of discord and mayhem. Unlike most of the other young Killwrights in the guild, he was not going to content himself with one or two contracts a month with the time in-between spent in scarlet rooms filled with sin and iniquity, piss drunk and suffering from something that no physician’s leach or witches brew could cure.61 No, he had big plans.

He was going to make death his bitch.

His mood was so good in fact, that as he passed a man nursing a bottle of spirits62 in the alley, Jacek drew his rapier63, ran him through, and replaced the blade in its scabbard without breaking his stride, a bounce in his step that only comes with giving away one’s services for free64.

Jacek stopped where the alley dead ended, patted all his pockets and pouches, making sure he had all the things he needed, the things he might need, and the things he hoped he wouldn’t need. He then thumbed the hilt of his sword three times, making sure it could be drawn. It was time.

He made a sign with his fingers65[/ref], and a swirl of glowing green vapour66 coalesced into a Demkling, the lowest67 order of demon. Having already scouted and rehearsed the job, he had no need to break silence, his demon knew what to do and with two tentacles created a sling for Jacek to step into, while with two other segmented limbs it grabbed one wall of the alley’s corner and with two clawed limbs, it grabbed the other wall and proceeded to climb up68.

Once at the top, Jacek dismissed his monstrosity with a perfunctory wave of his hand, and looked about, looking for anything amiss. Nothing was, it was as it had been the three previous nights. He removed the bottled spell from his belt and set it on the roof along with his pack. Killing was easy, but doing so without getting killed yourself was an art. He fully expected the victim’s family to seek revenge, so he would cover his tracks, otherwise he could have just walked in the front door. When he made his escape, he’d break the spell bottle, blotting out anyone’s ability to track him by magic. It was not a cheep spell, in fact, it would eat nearly fifty percent of his profit on the job, but he was very careful.

He’d even bothered to follow the girl for a few days, just to make sure there were no unforeseen consequences. Pretty boring girl, really. She had a conventionally beautiful face, but not exactly memorable, sort of like a small market newscaster. Worse, she wore long dresses, so he couldn’t get a look at her legs. Not worth dying over.

He checked all his equipment, again, in the exact same pattern as he had below, and made sure his blade slid in scabbard, in and out, three times. You see, Jacek had OCD.69 Not severe, and beneficial to his profession in many ways, but in an ironic twist, for someone who needed order and control, his condition was something he couldn’t. Of course, he didn’t realize his condition, he just assumed that stepping across seems in the road with alternate feet was the right way to to do it, and figured other people’s failure to do so was their lack of perception at the intrinsic wrongness of not doing it. Satisfied all was in order, or was not in disorder, Jacek leapt from rooftop to rooftop, with nary70 a sound.

Stopping and stooping at a particular peaked red roof, Jacek jimmied the whorled window of an appropriate attic.

\*\*\*
With disapproving families with the ability to foretell their plans, the young lovers found it difficult71 to arrange their assignations. But nowhere else is humanity as willing to persevere, endure hardships, remain resolute, determined, and steadfast, than two teenagers determined to rut. Like Leonidas at Thermopylae or Horatius on the Bridge, they refused to surrender.

Their current rendezvous was in many ways a stroke of brilliance. Each could tell their parents exactly where they were going, no need to lie and sneak as long as they arrived at separate times. And their parents were thrilled, what possible trouble could one get up to there? Was it not their duty as parents to encourage their visits? Was there anyplace better to get their infatuation out of their system?

So they met at a brothel. While the rhythmic sound men succumbing to their animalistic nature and women mimicking theirs reverberated through the walls, the young lovers embraced, exchanged vows of undying love, while the occupants of adjacent rooms exchanged money, their room a bastion of rightness in a universe gone to rot.

They fell to the bed, fumbling with their clothes, not noticing the attic hatch swing down nor the silent figure dropping from the scuttle hole. As he landed, silently, Jacek drew his blade, his mind and body as one. Like a cat stalking its prey, there was only the kill. His heart beat slow and steady, all emotion, all desire, drained and set aside.

The girl giggled, crawled under the covers, they boy went to follow suit as Jacek slipped behind him, grabbed him by the collar and slit his throat, let go of the collar with a twist, imparting just the right amount of spin to the boy’s body such that he spurted an arc of blood across the room72 as he fell. He then cast demon-sign, and was lifted back into the attic, the door closing silently behind him, before the girl even knew what was happening.

That was the plan.

As he finished his cut, and spun him, there was no spray of blood, it just blurpt out, like a chocolate fountain at a buffet. While disappointing, it was just a failure of aesthetics, not of skill. No, the real problem was as the body dropped, Jacek glanced up and saw the girl’s head already peaking out of the sheets. Thoughts flooded into his brain, had he miscalculated? Had he made a noise? Did he step in something and she smelled it? If so, does that mean he has poopy boots? Why aren’t her eyes bulging in shock and surprise, and instead, why are they narrowing?

And the girl launched herself out of the bed and at Jacek. He slid back, wondering how to extricate himself. What he wanted to do was just run the girl through, but her parents were his clients, and although not stated explicitly, he took it that they didn’t want her killed. Or harmed (another set of options off the table). He ducked under an attack of fingernails. Now teeth, barely avoided, followed by a foot, which wasn’t. She was giving him no quarter, her eyes wild, bubbly spittle on her lips as she growled. She lunged, but he anticipated it and used her momentum to . She bounced off the bed and into the wall.

“Oops,” he grimaced.

And that was when he realized she was naked. The boy had been the focus of the job, but he had put some time observing her habits. He’d thought her a bit skinny for his tastes, but some people are meant to be naked, and she was one of them. But now was not the time, nor the place… well, it was the place, but nevermind…

His hand shot out, and he began to cast his demon, the girl glowering at him across the room, too far away to stop him—

—Her skin began to turn green. Oh, shit, he thought, she’s a witch.

She threw a green ball of flame, missing low and to the left. He was about to smirk in a way that he thought was roguishly charming, but reminded others of a stroke victim, when he felt an intense, searing pain at his wrist. He looked down. There was his wrist, his smoldering wrist. Just his wrist.

His hand was gone.

\*\*\*

Multum Parvo

He passed the door four time; twice, before realizing it was a door, once, wondering if it was the right door, and finally, whether he should go through with it. Multum Parvo didn’t think his first time would be like this, then again he thought it would have happened at some point in the last twenty-three years, although to be fair, he’d only been been interested in it for the past eight. He took a breath73, a nervous, stuttering breath. What if the password74 he’d been given was wrong? Outdated? Maybe someone was playing a trick on him, and were waiting to laugh at him? He knocked. It was the bravest thing he’d ever done.

The peephole slid open, filled by an eyeball, cyclops being the preferred go-to for peephole manning. The cyclops grunted, the rumble raising in intonation at the end, indicating a question. Multum stammered the password, barely loud enough for himself to hear, let alone the doorkeep. The cyclops grunted, leaned forward to hear better, bumped into the door, and turned his head, giving his ear that critical change in distance and angle so as to better hear75. Multum, gulped, a cartoon character gulp, loud and his adams apple bobbing. He spit out the password76, but before he had even finished, the door swung wide as the cyclops grunted with all the warmth and welcome a grunt can convey77 and suddenly, he was inside, pulled or pushed he knew not, only he knew it wasn’t under his own volition. A drink appeared in his hand, only slightly watered down, his quarterstaff replaced by cloakroom ticket, and before he could stand there awkwardly wondering what to do, the madam glided78 over to warmly79 greet him.

Two women slinked over, wearing only the suggestion of clothing, and helped him off with his cloak. He clenched. His mind, his heart, every muscle,80 every fiber81 of his being. He forced himself not to wince, as if he were anticipating a physical blow, but they just smiled at him. And not condescending smiles nor mocking, but warm, inviting smiles. Multum stood there in Lincoln green and brown deerskin, his hair in a mullet.

He was a ’fling,82 a human who wanted to be an Elf.83 Now if you were to say to Multum, or any ’Fling, “You just want to be an Elf,” They would bristle and say that they merely identified with the way of the Elder Folk, admired their bravery and honor, their affinity with nature, their struggle to maintain their culture, and their plight against the forces of modernity.

But it was poppycock84. They wanted to be Elves. They wanted to live in trees, shoot bows while leaping from branch to branch, to dance in the woods for days on end, recite poetry with the creatures of the forest, living in harmony with and never get fat.

Sure, real elves suffered from scurvy, endemic goiter, abscesses, ocular degeneration, and iron deficiencies due to their refusal to domesticate livestock or engage in agriculture85. Reading was considered a weakness, a feeble crutch for man’s inability to commit knowledge to memory. Even metalworking was frowned upon, the dwarf blacksmith86 had to be situated as far away from the tribe’s sacred tree as possible, for digging up metals was “rape of Mother Eorðe”. Weak or scrawny babies were left in the branches of the Soul Tree as a sacrifice to the Goddess Kar Danu and her retainers87. Then again, Multum could be forgiven for not knowing these things, he’d never met an Elf.

Until now.

With a nearly imperceptible gesture from the madam, an elvish female, tall and lithe, glode88 over. Elves, by nature, are regal, aloof, elegant, and inscrutable89. Multum, smart enough to realize he couldn’t pull any of those off at the moment, decided to freeze90. Without so much as a glance at him, the Elven courtesan took his hand as she glid past91 and led him upstairs.

\*\*\*
A shoulder, an ear, and a cascade of golden hair. That was his whole world as he followed her up the stairs, and it was enough. He didn’t “bro-out” and slow down to let her get ahead so he could check out her butt, he didn’t do the pathetic hair-sniff. He was, for the first time in his life, completely in the moment. All of his fears and anxieties,92 and there were a considerable number, forgotten. Is this what normal people feel like all the time? He thought. Of course, thinking about it pulled him out of the moment and all his anxieties came flooding back, and for once, some were legitimate.

Multum was an herbalist from hinterlands, his village known for brewing beer, especially its I.P.A.93 But there was a dispute over water rights with the neighboring village94. Multum had been tasked as his village’s champion petition Drodkip himself for redress. The village elders were fairly certain of success, but Drodkip had a habit of consuming the petitioner no matter his decision, so they bandied about terms like “Noble Quest”, “Hero”, “Noble Hero”, “Hero’s Quest”, “Hero’s Nobility”, etc. Multum, they said, would be their savior, his name invoked down through the ages, echoing through the halls of time.

Multum had no illusions, he knew the village despised him and as one of two herbalists in the village and could be spared. Or perhaps despised is too strong a word, he had never been bullied, never outright mocked, or ostracized, but he could see in the people an exasperation, as if they had long ago lost all patience with him. His every interaction seemed to grate on them, as if it were dinnertime and he was a telemarketer for the same company that had been told “not interested” and “please don’t call again” multiple times.

But the thing had be done, the danger faced. Although a man, inside flowed the blood of an elf.95 Sure, it wasn’t technically him doing anything, the village elders didn’t trust him enough, so they had written the petition down and he wasn’t even supposed to read it out loud but hand it to the Drodkip directly96. It mattered not. He would go before his dread lord and face death like a man elf.

But before he went to his fate, there was her.

She guided him into the room, spun him around and started to undo his jerkin as she backed him into the bed. He noticed that she was slightly annoyed at the rather exuberant sounds issuing through the thin walls. He noticed! He could read an Elf’s emotions! Most humans couldn’t, but he could. Had he developed the skill? Was it inborn in him? Was there some bond between the elven woman and he united them in understanding?

His train of thought jumping tracks her hands went up his tunic and somehow managed to undo the lacing from the inside. She smiled, proud of her trick, and pushed him down on the bed, spread his knees apart, and crawled over him. A loud THUMP caused him to jerk his head in the direction of wall, she turned it back with her forefinger. She straddled him, taking his hands in hers, guiding them towards her chest, his eyes growing larger as the distance grew shorter, inversely proportional as his fingers floated closer, until the tips felt the body heat radiating from her.

That was when Jacek came CRASHING through the wall.

\*\*\*
Mokrado Moorditch

From behind the bar, she took note of the new client, gave the “Have a good time but watch your step” look that marks the distinction between a Bartender who can keep the patrons in line and a mere Goon who knows which end of a mug faces up.97 The ‘fling wasn’t paying attention, but it wasn’t intended for him anyway, but to demonstrate her dedication to the madam who paid her salary. She watched as he was led up the stairs, thinking he was rather cute, for a human. She smiled to herself, quickly forced herself to stop, aware that humans couldn’t distinguish between an Orc’s threatening displays of fang and happy ones.

And Mokrado Moorditch was certainly an Orc. Nearly six foot six, with skin the color of the flesh of an avocado. Not guacamole and not turning brown, but that green to yellow mix of a good Haas or maybe a Fuerte.98 She kept her silvery-white hair short but well styled and favored clothes that displayed her impressive musculature. It’s true one tusk was shorter than the other, but that just gave her an approachability, like a hot chick with glasses.

She had come to the capitol to study Thrall & Subjugation at University, but the city had proved much more expensive than her parents had budgeted for and she was forced to take up goonery to pay for mac ‘n cheese & ramen99. And she did enjoy the work. While not a devout Orc, she was proud of her heritage and thuggery kept her in touch with her people’s proud heritage of wanton violence and destruction.

She waited until the coast was clear, continued to clean the same mug with the same rag as she had been all night, and looked down at the book she had behind the bar. Her hand was big enough to cover the opened book completely, so she wasn’t worried about being found out (reading being being generally frowned upon), and few of the other employees would give her a hard time, for most of them had grown up in the capitol and had never had much interaction with Orcs so all she had to do was keep eye contact just a bit too long and they would begin to fret that she was thinking of eating them. Besides, she had to finish before her bookclub (The Weltanschauungen Orotund Quodlibet Society for the Ratiocination of the Welträthsel without Obloquy)100 later that night101.

Cracking skulls by day, and books by night. Sure, she wished she could integrate the aspects of herself better, perhaps after college when she began to enslave town and villages,102 brawn and brain united.

Yet, there was a third aspect to her, a dangerous, forbidden aspect. Few suspected, and fewer knew. They met in shadows and in a world riven with evil, there are some really dark shadows but with a secret so terrible, they met in the shadow of shadows. Only there, could it be admitted.

Mokrado was an atheist.

Oh sure, she knew that Drodkip existed, she wasn’t a full blown Denialist103, but she knew that the Gods were fairy tales. Cythraul & Hundun, had not wrestled until they ripped each other apart, the pieces becoming the Old Ones, the Gods of Chaos & Entropy. Their children, the Gods of Light & Dark had not waged war, creating stars as weapons. She knew that the New Gods had not unleashed the Divine Mathamatics, adding their power, subtracting the Old One’s. Dividing their enemies, multiplying their forces. The square and the root did not lay siege, and they had not loosed IT, the null set, the empty pit of nothingness, the great void, the Nothing That Is a Number, the chasm of non-existence, the Great and Terrible ZERO by which the Old Ones were thus divided.

All utter shite made up by primitives to make sense of a world ruled by an undeniably powerful being, but one’s whose powers derived from natural, not supernatural means. After all, if Phobos were a God, why would he need to persecute certain avenues of inquiry and various schools of thought? She believed in reason. In facts. In her axe. Her two handed, two headed battle axe that she kept behind the bar.

As soon as she heard the CRASH from upstairs, she palmed her book and slipped it in her waistband, at the small of her back. As soon a she heard the scream, her hand went to her axe.

Now there are two type of screams possible in a den of sin and iniquity; the first is one that elicits eye rolls from the employees104. It was not that kind of scream. The other category, of which said scream fell, is to Goons as the sound of the can opener brings out the cat.

***
Falke Ostringer

She could kick herself.105 Everything was ruined, her secret exposed. Not to mention, she was physically exposed, completly naked.106 Rather than go for a killing blast, she widened the effect, ensuring that it struck its mark and sent the one handed man crashing through the wall. It was probably too much to hope that he’d broken his neck.

He skin changed to a pink hue as she struck out her arms, her dress lifting into the air behind her, every seam unraveled, the material wrapped around her, and the thread spiraled back into the cloth, re-stitching itself and clothing her as she stepped through the hole in the wall.

“Stop!” yelled the murderer, attempting to hold up his hand which wasn’t there, and then switched to the off hand. “The police will be here any moment and you know what happens to witches!” He was right. She didn’t care. Her skin changed to a reddish orange as she began to cock back her throwing arm to launch the ball of fire forming in her hand, when she realized something wasn’t quite right.

She’d enchanted her dress on backwards.

The fact that she’d managed even that is impressive. The witch with the backwards dress, Falke Ostringer, had never used magic before. All her knowledge of spells, hexes, curses, charms, enchantments, incantations, and invocations was theoretical, which was understandable, witchcraft being the quickest route to ones soul being forcibly separated from the body and ingested by the Drodkip and its former home possessed by a “what” rather than a “whom”107.

Phobos detested witches, they made the gelatinous membrane that functioned as his skin crawl. Some say108 it was because long before he ascended to higher109 level of evil, back when he was still man and male pattern baldness had not yet gripped his noggin, that a group of witches had forced his Warlock’s Conclave110 to open up admission to them, protesting their exclusion as sexist. Of course, no Warlock could join a Coven111 of Witches, they didn’t meet the requirement.

And here lay Phobos’s real hatred, said112 others. Warlocks, being male, could not create life, whereas Witches, with their lady bits113, could. Witches possessed power over fertility, growth, even creating life itself. Warlocks could kill, destroy, corrupt, build, fortify, or enhance, but they couldn’t make so much as a flower grow, let alone create ex nihilo114. There was no way to get around it, Warlocks were just half-witches, and for that inescapable fact, all witches must die.

And to die like this, all the years of training and hiding, wasted! If she was going to expose her power, she should have just used it to restore the life of the one she loved, rather than seeking revenge.

Stupid. She dropped her arms.

Jacek, Multum, and the whore115 let out a collected held breath. Multum looked at the strumpet, his eyes bulging. The bawd’s ear was round. The fallen woman realized the direction of his stare, felt her ear and smirked. “They’re fake, honey. You didn’t think”—

They were interrupted by the sound of stupidity.

“I knew you’d see reason,” smirked Jacek as he started to stand. Multum and the painted lady’s head both swiveled in unison to the witch, who was turning the color of a raspberry icee.116 He grabbed his courtesan pulling her to her feet and dragging her towards the door at the same time. “Now we have to figure out how to get you—” Jacek looked, saw the murder in her eyes and the ice in her veins. Literally, because she drew back her arm, ripping her sleeve at the shoulder, as ice and snow swirled around her hand.

Jacek tucked and rolled, Falke held her shot, noticed the couple at the door. If the police show up…

She iced the door just as the floozy’s hand gripped the doorknob. The harlot let out a scream117 as she was stuck to the door, Multum jumped back, so as not to come in contact with her.

Falke scanned the room for assassin, her skin turning a deep orange118. Probably crouching on the other side of the bed. She had to kill him. She would avenge the death of her love, sacrificing her soul for him. His family would raise him from the dead, surely. Probably fully restored, or as much as was possible, or at least not a zombie, at least enough to know what she had done for him.

She hoped. Maybe she should tell someone before. Maybe the ’fling—

—Her eyes remained fixed on the bed as her head twitched ever so slightly in the direction of the ’fling, standing frozen119. Whether she saw the movement or felt it through the æther made little difference to the bed. Her reaction bordered on precognition, firing a white hot blast of plasma at the exact spot where Jacek would appear from behind the bed. She wasn’t wrong. Her aim was true, her instincts correct, it was just that Jacek was very, very fast.

He sprung over the bed, planting his severed stump and ignoring the pain while grabbing a pillow with his good hand, he was clear of the blast before it struck120. He threw the pillow into her face, pinned it there with the stump and punched as hard as he could.

She dropped, out cold. Breathing hard, he looked at Multum and the wench, or at least her heaving bosom121. They both stared back.122[/ref] He nodded towards the unconscious witch. “Not a mark,” he said, proudly.

At that moment the door was struck by a blow of such force, it split it in two and the pieces flying into the room, the one taking the attached woman123 with it. It had been so fast that it was only after she landed that Multum finally ducked.

And then the axe-wielding female Orc shouldered herself through the splintered door frame.

Chapter Three

Fate is a bitch124. Uncontrollable, unpredictable, capricious, jealous, vengeful, and disloyal. Fate is like an abusive spouse, where the abused must be constantly on guard for the slightest mood change, fooling themselves into thinking that any affection shown means that things have really changed.

Long before the rise of men, the Elder Ones, Gods of Chaos, ruled. But their progeny, the New Gods, rose up against them and shackled them, bringing order to the Cosmos.

But one of the Elder escaped.

She has worn many guises, just look up fate in the thesaurus; Destiny, Fortune, Kismet, Karma, Luck, Serendipity, Providence, etc125., but she preferred Fate126. Despite their best efforts, she eluded the New Gods and continued to mete out her favor and malice according to her own inscrutable inclinations127. And what Gods fail at, what hope is there for man? Even Phobos didn’t even try to enslave her her as he had all the other Gods. Besides, she had always been good to him. Wisely, he continued to worship her, built her monuments, and offer her sacrifices128.

Stormpike, deep in thought129, pondered Fate. Words like control, placate, harness, and manipulate roiled about in his mind, each sounding laughable in relation to her. Finding the Darkheart of Phobos130 had Fate written all over it. Quests, with a capital Q, were her purview.

“What are you thinking about so hard?” Asked the upside-down severed head of Kaylec, knowing full well that it was one of the most annoying questions in canon of annoying questions131.

“Fate,” Stormpike absently replied.

“Her132,” snorted Kaylec before launching into a litany of all of Destiny’s lies, broken promises, and cruel tricks. He had a point. Axos had been the promised one, destined by Fate herself to destroy Phobos. But Axos was dead, Phobos was a God, and Kaylec was an upside-down undead head with a nose full of boogers and no finger to pick them with. Stormpike had heard them all before, and it even seemed that Kaylec had grown bored of the performance, skipping a large portion of the usual middle section133, and going right to the wrap up.

“And that’s what galls me! She switched her affections to Phobos just because he promised to build her larger temples? For that the universe must be plunged into darkness?” He tried to shake is head, but it just sent him into a slow wobble.

“You promised to build it after you won, Phh…,” he stopped himself from dropping the title with a long voiceless labiodental fricative. “Furthermore, the Dread God-King Phobos began building a temple to her before, he offered tribute, not payment for services rendered.”

“Bah,” Kaylec bah’d, as only an old man can bah.

“Don’t bah at me, you know I’m right. You treat her like a whore, and then get offended when she cuckolds you.”

“You really think that Phobos’s motives weren’t selfish?” Kaylec’s voice was rising in pitch, as it tended to do when he argued, which meant he usually lost arguments134. “You really think—”

“—Shut up,” Stormpike cut in. Kaylec sucked in a breath135 to launch into a rebuttal, but Stormpike had already launched himself out of his chair and was striding towards the head. “I said shut up.” He stuffed balled up rag into Kaylec’s mouth, kept especially for the purpose. “I need to think.” He began to pace. Something had sparked.

Again.

Two sparks in as many days. Maybe it was a sign? Maybe he’d been touched? Maybe it was something he ate? Maybe….

He shook his head, he had to focus and not get distracted. What was it? Something had triggered. Something the old wizard said… no! Something *he* himself had said! He paced, stopped… maybe pacing was bad for this, maybe he should go back to where he was sitting, retrace the conversation…

Focus! Maybe killing someone would help. What was it he said? Whore. Cuckold. What was it!?

And then it struck him, or re-struck him, or it had started to strike, hit pause on the DVR Cosmic so it could go to the bathroom, came back, hit play, and finished striking him.

“Fate,” he invoked, and that’s the only way to describe it, it wasn’t a call, not an address, but an invocation. “Fate, Mistress of Destiny136,” he thought it a good idea to use her title with the most youthful connotation. “Knowest thou mine heart and my head,” he prayed137. “You know what I want ( ropping the anachronistic pronouns and verb endings because he wasn’t sure if “want” becomes “wantest”138, so he thought it better to be safe than consistent. “I ask not for thy139 favor. I ask for no path forward, no divine aid, I offer no sacrifice, no tribute but this.” He dropped to one knee140 and squeezed his one eye shut141. “Whatever your will, success or failure, good or ill, I take whatever thou givest.” He spread his arms wide. “Do what thou willest,” he drew his sword and planted the tip down. “I accept it all.” Then, he ran his bare palm up the edge and gripped the riccaso142. Blood poured down, his blood, on his blade. Despite the reverent (albeit inconsistent) grammar and dramatic flourish, the most important thing is he meant ever word, and every word had an exact meaning. There was no wiggle room, no parsing the meaning of a word or phrase. He would accept Fate’s decree. But acceptance is not resignation. If he was going to fail, it would be trying to achieve victory, not in a que waiting for his number to be called. He would move forward and take what fate dished out. He’d take it as it is, as it was, and what it would be and he would do it his own way, and then what ever fate befell him would be truly his.

He rose, pulled the rag out of Kaylec’s mouth, and wrapped his hand with it143. “Interesting,” the head observed. “But you forgot the candles and incense, ” he added as sarcastically as an upside-down severed head can. Stormpike grabbed a dusty oilcloth from a table, which immediately altered the wizard’s tone. “Oh, come one, I was just joking, I—” he was cut off mid sentence as the oilcloth fell over him, and immediately started to snore. Stormpike relished the relative silence. True, the wizard’s snoring would eventually grate (he had the annoying habit of holding his breath after a snore and before exhaling. Stormpike would wait there, waiting for the loud exhalation to come, and it would never be a consistent length. Sometimes his snore would flow right into the exhale, others it would drag on before he exploded out, always with a “P” sound. It drove Stormpike mad144).

He returned to his desk, grabbed pen and paper145, dipped the quill146, tapped the excess ink on the rim of the bottle, jerked his elbows out, and limbered up the ol’ writing wrist, ready to plan in meticulous detail, dot every “I”, cross every “T”147. He made squiggles in the air above the paper148, like a sprinter runs in little circles before a race149. He rolled his shoulders, his tongue poking out of the corner of his mouth in concentration.

Seconds stretched. Not into minutes150, but that time just before that, when the imperceptible moment becomes perceptible, that moment in line at the checkout counter when you decide to look at your watch151 or when you’re at the doctor’s office and finally pick up Highlights152. For Stormpike, that moment was when he realized he wasn’t writing a thing. Nothing was coming. He was drawing a blank. Literally, he drew a number one, period, and then a blank line ( like, 1. ) hoping it would spur something. Anything. He then added a roman numeral “I153” up and to the left. He pondered a bit before adding a period after the “I”. He mulled this over before adding an indented “A.” Under the “1”. Frustrated, he scribbled out what he’d written and crumpled the paper154. He smacked his forehead, hoping that some idea might dislodge from some corner where it was stuck and grabbed another sheet of paper155.

The ink on his pen had dried, so he dipped the quill, tap tapped the excess ink on the rim of the bottle, jerked his elbows out and started all over again.

***

Mokrado regretted not taking a bigger step into the room. She would have liked to take a big, Reggie Jackson style swing withe her ax, but she’d stopped just past the door frame (or where it would have been had she not smashed it), she didn’t have the room behind her. Quickly taking in the surroundings, her first thought is that her smashing down of the door had somehow caused a huge hole in the wall leading to the next room where a body lay in a pool of blood. She recognized the courtesan and the ‘fling kneeling next to her, but not the unconscious female nor the dark man holding her up. Then she noticed that it looked as if the woman head had been twisted around156. Obviously he had to die.

I assure you, there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for this,” Jacek explained, reasonably. Mokrado stepped forward, menacingly, before menacingly swinging her axe in a menacing arc with one hand and slapping the haft into the other with a menacing smack.

“Hold on,” exclaimed Jacek as he tried to hold out his hand, but as there was no longer one at the end of his arm, his stump would have to suffice. Which it wouldn’t. The Orcish reputation as ruthless, implacable warriors157 rested in no small part in that holding up one’s hand was one of the many things that failed to deter them. She twisted at the hips, the energy in her backswing coiling like (a pre affair) Tiger Woods.

Jacek flung the witch out of his arms, catching her wrist with his, and spun, like a pair of ballroom dancers158, twirling out and under the axe blade slicing through the air just above his head.

“I don’t want to hurt you, Orc159,” He let the witch go and her momentum carried her towards the bed, while Jacek’s sent him in the opposite direction.

You’re existence hurts me,” she snarled.

“It’s all a misunderstanding, she’s a client,” he said, leaping over Mokrado’s low, second attack, before landing and sliding on a bunched up rug across the wooden floor. It all became clear to her. Some kinky sex game got out of hand.

“I’ll bet,” she said as she twisted and stuck out her back leg, stomping on the rug and flinging Jacek forward who immediately tucked into a roll.

“No, I mean her parents are my clients —” he added before Mokrado’s derisive160 snort cut him off. “Not like that!”

“We don’t have time for this!” he said (not knowing the daunting page count that lay ahead). Mokrado swung overhand, let go of her axe with one hand while loosening the grip with the other, the centrifugal force sliding the haft through her grip before clamping her hand down on the end just before there was no handle left and giving her attack extra reach.

It wasn’t enough.

Her axe sliced off 1/16th of his boot heels as he rolled passed before burying itself in the wood floor.

Parvo, meanwhile, was smearing an ointment161 the courtesan’s still frozen to the doorknob hand162. He knew that there are only two types of people, those who cower and those who act. He wanted to act, but he didn’t know what action he should take. He knew he couldn’t flee. Elves don’t flee, elves don’t surrender163, and they never, ever panic. Multum Parvo, human, was panicking, however. He wanted desperately to run out the door and down the stairs to safety (or as much safety could be afforded in a world ruled by an evil demigod). Since fleeing was out of the question, he thought he’d do the opposite, wade into the fray. But one whose side?

Jacek spun, and rocked back slightly as he stopped his momentum, ready to lunge and run the orc through, when three black darts came whistling at him. It was no chivalric impulse that had spurred Parvo into attacking Jacek, he just hoped that a word from Mokrado might get him a refund. Deftly, he slapped two away with his sword, the third he merely had to twitch his head a bit letting it miss by less than an inch. This was getting out of hand, he thought.

Suddenly, getting conjugated into got.

The air itself seemed to shudder. To Jacek and Parvo, it felt like a toothache, ear ache, paper cut, stubbed toes (big and pinkie) stepping on a lego in bare feet, burning the roof of your mouth with pizza and the cheese sticking up there, a leg cramp, and a kick to the groin all at the same time. For Mokrado and the courtesan, it was the same, except for the nutshot, but substituted by whatever the female equivalent164 is, cramps? The office thermostat is too low? No idea. Plainly, I don’t understand women, (For instance, why don’t they realize “Titanic”is a bad movie?165) but in any case, it was decidedly un-good.

“What was that?” asked Parvo. The courtesan’s response was enigmatic at best: she vomiting on him. Jacek’s while more coherent, was far more troubling.

“That was the Infernal Police166,” His words froze everyone (not that anyone was moving, but had they been it would have ceased, up to, and including, sneezing). “They just cordoned off the area and they’ll be here any minute167.”

Tales of the Infernal Police were legendary. They were the uniformed bogeyman, the sanctioned monster under the bed. Used by parents to threaten their children, used by children to threaten their parents168 . They tending to kill and ask questions later (which, they could actually do, death being no escape169). They were the Drodkip’s blunt instrument, the carpet bomb to Stormpike’s precision drone strike, the Thomas Kincade to his Monet170, the Guy Fieri to his Auguste Escoffier. The Infernal Police were sent in when subtlety was not desired171, but where if the mere display of overwhelming force wasn’t enough, overwhelming death would do.

Mokrado immediately thought of the banned book in her vest. Even if she managed to not get executed, there was no way she was going to make her book club’s meeting tonight (and she was in charge of the snacks this week). Parvo had reasons of his own for not wanting to meet the Infernal Police. It wasn’t thoughts of death that haunted him, but something much, much worse; Shame172. Even if he made it through the questioning alive173, there was little chance he’d get to present his petition, let alone save his village. He thought of returning ito his village in failure, to live out the rest of his days confirmed as the pathetic joke they already thought him.

“I see neither of you have any desire to meet them,” Jacek said as he pulled the witch off the bed.

“What do we do?” asked Parvo as he stood, and helped the courtesan to her feet.

“Other room,” Jacek quickly seized control of the situation. He had to get his client’s daughter out of there, even if she was a witch, and there was no way he was getting her out of there on his own. Almost as fast as it takes your dog to notice you’ve got KFC (but just “almost”), he formulated a plan. It helped that it was combination of two of his contingencies (First half of #1B with #4C, to be exact) with a couple of slight modification. He stepped up to one such modification and handed off the unconscious girl to the Orc. “You,” he barked at the ‘fling.

“Multum Parvo,” he answered, putting a hand on his chest and bowing slightly.

“No names,” pronounced Jacek, causing Parvo to blush174. “Trapdoor, ceiling,” he jerked his head towards it, time being of the essence, while subject and verb were not. Parvo nodded and headed for the hole as Jacek turned to Mokrado. “Hand her up to him.” She hesitated, this was all happening too fast for her. Was it better to maybe be tortured and killed or definitely killed helping a witch? If she only had time to ponder, mull things over, to journal her thoughts. Jacek interrupted her thoughts about thinking with a shove. “Go!”

“Who is that?” she asked, referring to Jacek’s victim in a pool of blood. “Who is she? Who are you? What is going on?”

“She’s a witch,” said Parvo, poking his head down from the trapdoor. Mokrado , causing her to want to take a stutter step/jump backwards175 but she controlled herself176. She did, however, drop the witch.

“She’s not a witch —” Jacek replied, completely believable in that disturbing way that some people have (like friends who tell you, “You should write a book,” and you think that means they actually want to read what you write177).

“But —” It was as much Jacek’s stare as his hand drifting towards his sword that shut him up. Mokrado looked at the unconscious figure on the floor, still dubious.

“She’s a client,” he softened his tone as he bent down, beckoning the orc to follow his lead. She looked at the disheveled bed, and eyed Jacek, suspiciously.

“Is this a kinky sex thing?” She asked.

“No, I mean her parents are my clients —”

“A really kinky sex thing,” interjected Parvo. Before the banter could continue178, the sound of a commotion below got the last word in179.

“You know where the brimstone silo is?”

“No!” came the voice of Parvo from the dark of the attic. Jacek pinpointed the place where the sound of his voice had issued from and wondered if stabbed at the ceiling hard enough, he could thrust through and kill the ‘fling. Mokrado meanwhile, nodded in the affirmative.

“But the Infernal Police —”

“Can track you, but I’ve got decoy tracks set up that will send them on a wild bat180 chase,” The sound of the main door breaking and the blowing of Police Whistles quickened his speech. “Go west, across roofs, not on the ground, stay on roofs.” She easily lifted the girl over her head.

“Are you people insane!?” screamed the courtesan. Parvo’s head poked down from the ceiling, Mokrado stopped, the girl held over her head. “She’s a witch!” she said as she wiggled her hand, still frozen to the doorknob. “Why are you helping her? Why are you listening to him? She’s a witch, that’s why the police are here! You think what they’re going to do is worse than what they’ll do if they catch you? Or if she wakes up?” Jacek was worried, her words were having an effect. The ‘fling and the orc were thinking and that’s the last thing he wanted. He thought about killing the harlot, but that might be seen as an admission she was right.

“You stay here, you die, simple as that,” Jacek said.

“So? It is our duty to our lord and sovereign, the Dread —,” the courtesan’s words were out short by the small dart that struck her in the neck and sending her slumping to the ground. Jacek looked up at Parvo.

“Nice.” Parvo smiled as he grabbed the girl and hauled her up. “Where was I? Oh! Roofs until you reach Damnation Park. Then anyway you can get to the Silo, do it. Inside is a pentagram, step over it with the girl, and they won’t be able to track you”. He had fully assumed that the victim’s family would hunt down the perpetrator, so he had spent almost 20%181 of his fee on covering his escape, with both a false trail and a way to obscure182 the true one. Mokrado easily leapt up and grabbed the edges of the trapdoor before hauling herself up. “You must have her with you, it’s tied to her, so if you ditch her, the ward won’t hide you.” This was a bald faced lie, but he couldn’t have them ditching her before hand.

“You’re not coming?” Mokrado asked.

“Someone has to hold them off,” he said as he turned and strode toward the door in a way that if this were a movie, it would make the trailer, the effect of which was slightly ruined when his boot slid in the pool of blood and then gingerly stepping until he was through.

Chapter Four

yadda

Luckily for Parvo, the city lacked building codes, allowing structures to be built very close together and making it easy for him to leap across rooftops. The sound of shouts followed by the now recognizable sound of a door being battered down, caused him to crouch and crouch behind a chimney and gather his bearings. Patrols of police going door to door had forced a zig zag pattern towards the brimstone tower, or at least towards where Mokrado had assured him where it was located. He turned to look at her, and found her standing two roofs back, looking confused.

Mokrado’s belly felt sick and icy. She had left her axe back in the room. She had lusted after that axe since she was little more than a hatchling. Fifteen years she dreamt and plotted how to kill its owner and take it for herself.

She wanted to go back for it.  She couldn’t go back for it. She had to go back for it.

“What’s wrong?” whispered Parvo as he came trotting back up to her.

“My axe.” She hosted the unconscious witch off her shoulder and held her out towards the ‘fling. “Here, you go on ahead.” He pushed back on the girl.

“You can’t go back! They’ll kill you, and I can’t carry her –” he stopped himself, grimaced, and then let out the strongest expletive he knew183. “I left me quarterstaff back there.”

“I hardly think a stick is comparable to my axe. ” She tried to push the girl into his arms again. He pushed back.

“My name,” he started loudly before catching himself and adding lower, “is on the staff!” Her eyes grew wide. If they lifted off the leather wrapped grip, they’d find her name notched  on the haft.

“Oh, we gotta go back.” She said. Parvo nodded and then they both looked at the witch.

“What do we do with her?” Mokrado looked about and bit her lip.

“I wonder how far I could throw her?”

“But her, I don’t know what you’d call it, magical stink is going to be on us.” Without thinking, he pulled a long strand of his hair into his mouth and began to chew, nervously.

“Gak184.” They stood there, together in the totality of their screwedness.

“We could get to the silo, wipe the tracks and head back?” Parvo ventured.

“Or get to the silo and disappear.”

Parvo wiggled his fingers and waved his hands. “Disappear?”

“No. I mean, get out of the city, change our names.”

“And hope Phobos doesn’t come after us?” Parvo reached into his jerkin and pulled out a small vial filled with a black liquid.

“What’s that?” Mokrado asked.

“Maybe,” Parvo said, shaking the vial, “if we kill ourselves, we won’t get tortured?” She half shrugged, because the witch was on one shoulder. She twisted around, angling her butt towards him. It did not go unappreciated.

“In my belt, grab the book. I don’t want it on me when I die.” Parvo slipped it out of her waistband and flipped through it, hoping to find naughty pictures. Not only were there no pictures but it was full of footnotes185. “Throw it as far as you can.” He did, which wasn’t very. He unstoppered the vial. The little vial. He looked from it to the Orc. “What?” she asked, suspiciously.

“I’m not sure there’s enough. I mean, it’d kill me for sure, but you’re kinda big, and half a dose…” He trailed off, trying to calculate the potency of one drachm of an 8% solution of deathweed, and not remembering whether it was by weight or by volume, not to mention that the apothecary system divided the pound into 12 ounces rather than 16186.

” I don’t even get to die right. Fine, you go ahead.”

“I’m not doing it without you!”

“The isn’t the time for…,” her world had no word for chilvarly, “stupid-dumb, man-elf, stupid-dumbness,” she substituted. He understood her.

“How do I know you’re not going to pin the blame on me after I’m dead?”

“I wouldn’t!” She totally would.

And then the witch woke up.

With a sound that could be described as variously as  “hrmphh,” “unghh,” “mmphl” and be equally as accurate, she began to come around. Parvo flinched, lost his footing, threw his arms out to catch his balance, dropped the vial, stepson the vial, and pitched backwards.  Mokrado grabbed him by the jerkin with her free hand as the Witch on her shoulder began to wriggle.

Falke, groggily raised her head, opened her eyes just as Mokrado turned to her, the one getting a face full of witch and the other a face full of Orc. Mokrado let go of Parvo, who fell backwards and slid headfirst off the roof just as she flung the witch off her shoulder in the opposite direction.

With considerable poise for someone who had only just regained consciousness and found herself being flung off a roof, Falke cast a levitation spell. Unfortunately for her, the Infernal Police’s cordon had negated187 all witchcraft in the area188. She fell 6 to 8 stories189. Luckily, her fall was cushioned by a policeman who was holding a book and rubbing a knot on his head where it had hit him.

Mokrado, unburdened, ran. She ran as hard as she could, leaped across to the next roof with all her power. And while the builder had admirably built the floors to standard height, his care did not extend to the construction materials, especially those of theroof. Mokrado crashed right through the tiles, and wedged there, undone by the size of her bust.

***

He had to of killed at least two hundred men, Jacek thought. He had tried to keep count. He knew he killed nineteen people upstairs, thirteen as he worked his way down the stairs, and had then started clearing out the ground floor. Two hundred easy, he thought.

This wasn’t close to accurate. At some point, just after he’d received his third cut, he had begun to count every blade strike that hit flesh, rather than just kills. A little while later, after taking a thrust (midsection, piercing the kidney), he had begun counting every hit, whether it hit home or was blocked. So all in all, he’d killed forty seven men. Definitely impressive, but not two hundred impressive.

More importantly, he had taken over thirty minutes190 to do so. His plan had been simple. Keep the police occupied and give the others enough time to get away. He’d be killed, eventually, interrogated, definitely, but he had been trained for that. He’d protect his clients, the girl would be someone else’s problem. Sure, it wasn’t ideal to die on a job, but it was inevitable and better to get it out of the way early. His resurrection insurance rates would go through the roof, though, but that was a small price to pay as long as the job was done. Messy, but done. It wasn’t about the money, it was about the gig. Assassination wasn’t his job, it was his vocation, his calling.

Despite his dizziness, his paid skin, glistening with sweat, he had driven the police out of the brothel and back out into the street. A thought began to itch in the back of his skull. What if he killed them all? He could get away. That’d be ideal. He wouldn’t have to die, which was good, and he wouldn’t have to spend money, which was better. If he killed them all, he wouldn’t have to change his appearance, either. Killing two hundred Heolseward was bound to make one famous, which wasn’t necessary the best thing for an assassin.

So he stepped out the door, the idea of killing everyone and escaping seeming a distinct possibility. Outside, however, Jacek got to see what killing two hundred men would actually entail, for that was how many were out on the street. He did manage to kill three before falling, bringing his total to an even fifty but there was no one to tally the number.

And most unfortunately for Jacek, he didn’t die. He slipped in some entrails (not his) fell towards a wall of shield, holding out a hand that he no longer had to stop himself. His stump slammed into the shield, and a searing pain came slamming back. It was so intense, it was as if the pain signals racing through his nerves blew a circuit breaker. A a bang and a flash inside his head, he passed out.

***

Stormpike walked over to his Shelf of Planning. Tales of Mythical and legendary heroes sat on one shelf while  quests of his own making filled the rest. Ten thousand years of meticulously planning the rise and eventual fall of heroes, anointed saviors, and “chosen ones”. He grabbed one, leafed through it. How many signs and portents, prophecies and foretellings had he been the secret author of? How many heroes had he sent to their doom191? He didn’t need a hero, he didn’t need one man192. In his experience, a man alone had the annoying habit of attracting large groups of comrades. It never failed, a single man, with allegiance to no one, save honor and truth, manages to bridge the animosity between implacable enemies, uniting them. It made him shudder (or perhaps it was the open window).

What he needed was a band, a small group. A group stays the group, and rarely grows larger. In fact, on those occasions when they do expand to take on a new member, it usually results in the death of one the previous ones193.  Groups tended towards self containment, and the fewer involved the better.  So a band of… of what? Not heroes. If fate decreed his downfall, it would be as he lived. As a villain. A band of villains–

–But which villains?

— A knock sounded at his door. “What?” He growled.

“A matter of grave import requiring your attention, m’lord,” came the nervous reply, the words muffled by the door, but not the anxiety.

“Not now!” he barked,  annoyed because he knew it was “a matter of grave import requiring your attention” because only matters of grave import requiring his attention could induce someone to take their life into their own hands and knock on his door. Of course, in any bureaucratic system, everything tended to become matters of grave import194. He took a breath, bowed his head. The messenger rapped on the door again.

–KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK–

“But it’s urgent–“

“Interrupt me again and and I’ll flay you alive, travel back in time and flay you yesterday, and so on, every day of your existence back to your birth. “

He was in high dudgeon, and looked at the small lever next to his desk that would open the trap door just outside his threshold, sending the annoyance plummeting into a pit of spider-diles195. But it struck196 him then. Wasn’t his anger at the interruption counter to his vow to Dame Fortune? What if fate had sent the person on the other side of the door? His dudgeon was uncalled for. He had to control it, to master it. He had to be the dudgeon master.

“Enter!” he bellowed, in that way only someone used to commanding armies can bellow. The door opened on its own197, revealing the young man who had already turned to leave. He stopped, spun around, and straightened his uniform, the red and black198 of the Corp of Gaolers, Turnkeys, and Middle School Teachers199. Stormpike stared at him, intently. This is whom200 Fate had sent?

“Sir!” The messenger snapped his heels201 together, put his right hand to his throat202. “My Lord–“

“What’s your name, officer?” He interrupted, the question mark at the end being merely traditional and in no way evident in his tone.

“Corporal Swerk, your Pestilentialness,” he said, stiffly (which was understandable, “pestilentialness” being hard to say any other way).”We’ve taken a band of malcontents into custody.” Stormpike gave him the “And?” shrug203 as he slipped one of his many hidden knives204 into his hand. Fate may have sent him this fool, but that didn’t mean he had be left unscratched, right?

“They killed over a hundred205 Heolseward,” with the slightest of changes, Stormpike turned his “And” shrug into a”So?”

“There were only four of them, but I think one of them,” He paused, dramatically206, “is a witch.207” Stormpike loathed dramatic pauses208. Normally, he would have killed the young corporal before he’d finished his pause. Then he had a moment. One of those moments when realization dawns on you, but you don’t want to show it, like when the eight of spades hits on the river or you’re in the middle of a meeting and you suddenly realize Jim from marketing is sleeping with Hazel from HR.

He had just sworn to accept his fate and here he was turning around and trying to second guess and anticipate her. This had been a lesson, and one he was glad to have learned early. Keep the course. Stay true.  Execute the plan. What plan? Exactly. That was the problem. Perhaps slitting this fool’s throat would clear his head. Then he could go back to figuring out the plan for a band of villains. Find a group of… Stormpike snapped the dagger in his hand in half with his considerable (yet somehow perviously unmentioned209) strength.

“How many, did you say?” Stormpike asked, excitedly.

“Witches? Uh, just the one, sir,” the messenger added, confusedly.

“Not witches, fool,  how many in total?”

“Including the witch, sir?” With an effort, Stormpike refrained from strangling the corporal. It was no easy task, millennia of torturing people for information had made him quite impatient with normal conversations. Swerk, being somewhat perceptive, and the signs hard to miss (Stormpike grabbed a glove and bit down on it), realized his mistake, “Four sir. Four,” he said, with what he hoped was confidence.

“Four,” Stormpike said, wonderingly. Could it be? Had he been handed his band of villains? No, it couldn’t be. Four people kill an entire regiment, the entire city would be talking about it, let alone one of them a witch, Phobos for certain would–

“Aye,” like a character in a Loony Toons cartoon blowing on his thumb, Swerk visibly puffed up. “No one else even suspected, but I knew there was something off about her,” that last he added smugly, like Joseph Gordon-Levitt in any movie. “And I figured the fewer people who knew about it the better, so I came straight here to you, my Lord”.

Something frightening happened to Lord Stormpike’s face, as if his cheeks were melting, but up and at an angle rather than down. The messenger stepped back and shuddered. Then from deep within, came a sound, a raspy, cracking sound. For Stormpike, this was what approximated laughter.

***

The Imperial Guard210 prided themselves on their ability to remain motionless while on duty. For the most part, it was easy, the abode of a despotic God-King not being known as a tourist attraction (except when there was a public execution). But one of the true tests of the Guard’s resolve came when a living person211 was tossed out of a window and came hurtling down, which was not an infrequent occurrence.

Stormpike, for his part, was somewhat disappointed with Corporal Swerk’s demise. As he walked with the young sycophant down the corridor, he slowly drifted closer. The young man naturally tried to maintain the proper space between himself and Lord Stormpike and thus drifted closer and closer to the wall. Dotted with full length windows, and like evil lairs everywhere212, not a railing or bannister to be found, Stormpike gave him a good shove.  If he did it right, the victim would pass right through, like a swish in basketball. He found this deeply satisfying. Add in a good “gasp” at the shove, a good scream on the way down, and a clear “splat”, and he’d be filled with that mixture of pride and contentment one gets when you trigger the left turn signal in what you know is the last possible moment before you’d have to wait for the entire cycle.

However, the Corporal’s shoulder grazed the edge spinning him around so he fell backwards. True, it was nice to see the shocked look on his face213, but Stormpike had found it almost always necessary that the person see the ground rushing up to meet them to get a good scream from them. Also, he was far too thin to make a good splat.

Luckily for Stormpike, he had four prisoners on which to improve his mood.

***

Parvo had been disgusted by the filthy conditions of the Capitol upon his arrival. Now he was thankful, for his fall had been broken by a mass of garbage piled in the street. Luckily for him, the garbage consisted of various body parts hacked up and placed into bags full of harpy feathers (to combat the smell) which cushioned his fall and saved him. Amazingly, the feathers also made the landing near silent. On the downside, however, was the giant cloud of feathers puffed into the air, alerting the police at the end of the street.

His affected elvish calm, however, did not survive the fall. He was mad at the gods, the police, the orc, the witch, the jerk with the one hand, but mostly himself. The shouldn’t have been there, the weakness of his flesh had betrayed him. He deserved this. The police ran towards him, those who hadn’t yet drawn their swords did so, while those that had sheathed their swords and redrew, because it made a really cool noise. Parvo stood and held up his hands.

A crossbow bolt was fired after which the shooter yelled “Halt!” As the bolt missed by inches, Parvo concluded, not unreasonably, surrender was not an option. From his jerkin he pulled what looked like a pan flute, lifted it to his mouth, and deftly fired blow darts, one after the other, each hitting its target in the neck. As they keeled over214, the survivors fell back. Parvo reloaded, angled his weapon high and let fly with arching shots. Parvo took off running, but not away from them, instead running right towards them215.

As the police strained to follow the darts trajectories and tried to dodge them as they fell, Parvo sprinted past them and out onto the main road, only to find reinforcements, preparing to do what reinforcements do, namely, to reinforce. He slid to a stop, and took off in the opposite direction.

He pulled out an elixir rom his jerkin and tossed it back, feeling it enter his bloodstream and boosting his speed (but this was just a placebo, the vile had sat in his jerkin too long and had expired). His natural speed may have been enough to lose his pursuers and escape but for one problem; Police Bats216.

The handler raised his arms and  lifted his cloak217, revealing six bats, three hanging under each arm. He gave the word to attack and his animal fell to the ground (bats needed some height to drop into flying, and as crying them around on a big pole mounted armature just wasn’t practical so they had to make due with a decided lack of coolness.

The bats quickly rolled over and launched themselves into the air and quickly overtook Parvo, swarmed and wrapped their wings around him and brought him to the ground. The worst part?

One licked him in the ear.

***

She begged for death. policemen and women218 mocked her as they stood on the roof looked down at her half stuck in the roof, while others poked and slapped her bottom half below. They seemed in no hurry to pull her out and take her into custody. She soon learned that union rules prevented the Heolseward from engaging in manual labor. Normally, if a perp got stuck in a well or drainpipe, or got caught up on a fence or some such, the Schleppenehmer Gilde would be called, but with Mokrado being an orc, there was some confusion as to wether they should bring in the Arbeitnehmer Verein who handled (large219) animals.

She knew what was coming, and she didn’t have long to wait. First, someone began caressing up her thigh. She bicycled her legs, getting in a decent number of hits while above, it started with one of the guardsmen mimed relieving himself on her220. Inevitably, someone put two and two together and realized that what one used for urination could be used for something else. Like the monkeys in 2001, they started to hop up and down, hooting and hollering.

Unfortunately for them, the roof had not suddenly become more stable since Mokrado dropped through it. In fact, it had become so unstable that it was at that moment it decided its existence as a roof was unfulfilling and empty.  It completely collapsed, Mokrado and the roof crushing those below, the police above falling on top of her, and then, finding existence so meaningless that its own destruction was not enough, the roof took out the floors below in a murder-suicide,  every floor collapsing down until the walls, suffering survivors remorse and unable to bear the loss, decided to follow the rest and threw themselves on the grave.

Orcs, although far more durable than humans, by the time Mokrado managed to crawl out from under the debris she was in no shape to resist arrest. This did not prevent her captors from beating her as if she were,  hitting her with their clubs as they stuffed her in a paddy wagon221.

***

Jacek had to hand it to them, they went all out. Skeleton chained to a rack in the corner? Check. Blood staines on the wall that looked like someone had attempted to clean of but failed? Check. The distant sound of whips and screams? Check. Rats? The only rat in the room was being eaten by the gnome in the corner. Or at least he was trying to eat it, but he was having a hard time fending off the roaches.

None of this frightened Jacek. He wasn’t thrilled with the roaches, but they didn’t frighten him. Neither did the bloodstained wooden table with the crisscrossed pattern of knife cuts, nor being bound with arms behind behind the back of a chair. No, what filled him with fear was the fact they had healed his wounds. 

They must know about the witch, he thought, but they can’t find her so they need me to… No, that couldn’t be it. Interrogate him? yes. Torture? Ditto. But why tend to his injuries? In dungeons, wounds aren’t dressed, they fester. Even the stump where his hand had been cut off was painless. Actually, it felt more than painless. They must have slathered on some powerful ointment because apart from a slight itch just below the elbow, his arm felt dead the rest of the way down. Ointment? In the dungeons? His mind raced, mostly on trying to figure out what he was in the middle but also whether the torturers had a secret supply of ointment or had to send someone out to get it when the sound of the door’s bolt being thrown made him stop.

As the door slowly opened, its rusty hinges creaked stereotypically222. An Apprentice Torturer shambled in and set an oilcloth covered tray and some scrolls on the table. He leered at Jacek, one eye rolling as an impressively long slobber of drool hung from his mouth, and as whipped the dirty cloth off the tray, revealing rusty torture implements. He was gratified by his prisoner turning his head in disgust, not realizing that it was because he’d placed the tray at an angle and triggered Jacek’s OCD223. The apprentice shambled back, adding the requisite menacing cackle before exiting and closing the door behind him.

But the latch didn’t catch, so he opened the door a little way, and tried closing it again, but it didn’t work. He tried a third time, before opening it completely and stepping in the room. He looked at Jacek, shook his head and shrugged. He tried closing it from the inside, but it still didn’t latch.

“Try lifting up one the door when you close it,” said Jacek. The apprentice looked over at Jacek, confused. “When you close it, sort of… lift. I think the door is, like, not square in the frame, s you lift up and straighten –” The apprentice’s eyebrows shot up and nodded with understanding. He pulled up on the door handle as he closed it, it giving off a satisfying click has the latch caught. He turned with a smile and a thumbs up for Jacek, before exiting the room and repeating the new door closing technique behind him.

Jacek sighed, rolled his neck and swept the room with his eyes. He startled in his bonds as he saw the gnome, roaches free and gnawing on the rat in peace. Jacek’s head darted around, looking for were the roaches had gone. Checking himself and the immediate vicinity most thoroughly. “Where’d they go?” he asked, mostly to himself, but the gnome answered him by pointing at a hole in the ceiling. “Why’d they –” before he could finish, the gnome suddenly dropped the rat and squeezed himself through a hole in the stone wall. The half eaten rat rolled onto its belly, looked left and right and made for the same hole just as the wooden door flew open, its rusty hinges giving a loud screech. Jacek tried to remain still and not swing his head at the sound, but his eyes darted involuntarily.

There was nothing in the doorway. Jacek slowly turned his head. Nothing. Then he tilted it, still nothing. He took a breath and was just about to start reciting the Poisoners Litany224 when Stormpike swept into the room, his cape whooshing as it trailed behind him through the door without touching the frame before billowing out with a snap and draping itself over his shoulders as he stopped on the other side of the table225. Jacek was unimpressed. Not with the cape, that he found quite impressive, but with the man looming before him, with his obviously affected air of fearlessness. Everyone in the world was afraid, and for good reason. Some just hid it better than others, and this guy wasn’t a good enough actor to pull it off226. And the patch? Come on, like he’d fall for that old gag? Lord Stormpike leading interrogations? Right.

“Well, you finally caught me,” said Jacek, with a weary smile. Stormpike raised one eyebrow (which was hard to tell with the patch) as he took the seat opposite and snapped his finger causing the door to shut (and latching securely) on its own. It had become cliche for anyone captured by the authorities to claim that they had been possessed and were therefore innocent of whatever crime they were accused of. How this had developed is a mystery, because in the case of genuine possession, the victim was executed as a matter of routine227. Instead, Jacek had decided on a different tactic. “To be honest,” Jacek continued, “I’m glad is was you who caught me. If anyone deserves to catch the ‘Coffee Breath Killer’228, it’s you.”

Amused, Stormpike said, “You’re the Coffee229 Breath Killer?” before sitting down. Jacek sighed and tried to look disappointed.

“Come now, inspector, I thought we moved past these games. I’ve nothing but the upmost respect for your abilities, but these schoolboy tactics are beneath you.”

“So if you’re the Coffee Breath Killer,” began Stormpike, deciding to play along, “Why are there a hundred men lying dead in a brothel.

“Hundred?” he asked, somewhat disappointed.

“Well, you know how people exaggerate. That’s not to take away anything from you or your friends.”

“Oh, I see, you assume I had help to kill so many! No, it was all me, so you can add whatever you assumed their totals were to me –“

“So your name isn’t …” He trailed off, pulled some papers from his pocket, and quickly paged through them before finding the right one, “Jacek Larkspur” (He didn’t need the paper, it was just a prop and a part of his patter)230. “You’re in a lot of trouble, killwright,” he said as he looked up from the paper231.

Jacek’s face tightened and clenched his jaw as he suppressed a shudder. He had always prided himself in his ability to remain cool and collected it stressful situations. In times of crisis, Jacek Larkspur not only kept his head, but he became more calm. All his senses would seem to enhance, time would slow and a serenity would come over him. But as it turned out, he’d never been in  stressful situation before. His whole life with the Guild had been regimented and meticulously planned, every contingency accounted for, as well as analyzed and categorized based on statistical probability (not to mention the level of “coolness”). There had never been a situation where there wasn’t a path that lead out of it. It may have been difficult or dangerous but he knew the playing field, he knew the rules, and he knew the score (and still had a challenge flag in his back pocket). Now he knew none of those things.  He found himself in his first stressful situation.

They should not know my name. Had Phobos read his mind? Had they found the witch and tracked down his clients? How long had he been out? And why was he still alive? Whatever the case, social conventions dictated that it was his turn to speak.

“All my actions hitherto have conformed to the precepts and teachings of the Guild of Death and Destruction both in letter and in spirit and as a member of said order, I intend to continue to fulfill my oath to them and to my client, even beyond death itself.” Jacek recited from memory (and sounding like it232).

“Ah,” Stormpike said as he closed his eyes and nodded, sagely (as well as thymely233). “You know, I for one, find your orders dedication to contractual obligations truly admirable. I know some may find notions like “vows” and “oaths” quaint. Some may even find them blasphemous, with their inherent appeal to honor and duty.”

“I didn’t know the Heolseward was known for their theologians. That’s the correct term, right? Theologian: someone who puts words in the mouths of Gods?” shot back Jacek,  defiantly. Defiant was good, thought Stormpike. It made the cold water he was about to pour the sweeter234.

Heolseward?” Stormpike asked, looking down at his doublet. “Heolseward? Do I look like a policeman?”

“Fine Tortur –” his words caught in his throat as his eyes followed Stormpike’s hand smoothing down his clothing. There were no badge of office, no brooch, no crest, no livery. Just an all black outfit, black cape, black eyepatch, black gloves, and a silver ring with a mummified faerie head–

–And the cold water came pouring down the back of his shirt–

It couldn’t be. Plenty of people wore an eyepatch, his beloved Nana for instance. This guy was a fanboy, a Stormpike cosplayer. Yeah, that was it.

“My apologies, Sir…?” He prompted, adding the “Sir” as the lowest style of address that wasn’t technically an insult235, figuring in for a sceat,236 in for a solidus237.Everyone knew Stormpike wore that ring, you could get cheap knock offs all over the city. Fingers crossed238.

“Stormpike,” he answered pleasantly239, not bothering to correct his honorific240, nor adding his various titles or epithets241. He didn’t need to, Jacek deflated at the first syllable. And not like a soufflé deflating, for that would imply that he had been full before. It was more like he was a helium filled balloon, not a cool mylar one242, but a regular rubber balloon that’s made it to the next day but has contracted, its skin shriveled, and floating just a couple of feet off the ground before finally popping. He deflated, he wilted, his heart sank, and the wind went out of his sails. These were not synonyms employed as some amateurish, stylistic device243, no, he did all of them at the same time.

What. The. Deuce244. Was Lord Stormpike doing here!?

“You’re probably wondering what I’m doing here,” Stormpike said as he lifted the tray of implements, propped one boot on the table, and began push the tools around with his finger as the sound of metal on metal echoed off the walls.

“I don’t know what happened, your unholiness, I think I was possessed by a demon.” Out of ideas, Jacek figured it was worth a shot.

“That would be too bad, Mister Larkspur, because then my offer would be for him and not you.”

“Offer?” was the best reply he could come up in his confusion, and his confusion was profound. Just watched 2001: A Space Odyssey confused245.

“Mm-hmm. An offer mutually beneficial to both parties, you pick the leeches off my back, I pick ’em off yours. For instance,

“What do you want?” asked a defeated Jacek.

“I want you to kill a god.”

Chapter Five

“A god or a God-King?” asked Falke. Her cell was a perfect square carved out of obsidian. She had awoken on the floor there, dressed in a plain but clean dragongrass246 dress and there was nothing else in the room, not even a door. A harsh light poured in from above, too bright to look into, but seemed far above her like she was in a deep pit, but she could touch the ceiling with her hands, even where the light shone down.

After looking and touching with her senses, she felt with her mind247

248. She didn’t reach out, instead she let herself sense whatever was surrounding her at that moment in that place. She could feel the walls. They hated her. She felt the light. It was alive, and looked at her but with someone else’s eyes. No, not eyes, eye. That intrigued her. She was about to reach out when she sensed something pungent… and viscous, like an oily smoke. And, she thought, closing her eyes and swirling the taste in her mind, asleep.

She recoiled. Phobos. She wanted to back away from him, but he surrounded her. He was in this room. Asleep, but here.

“As you can surly guess, any use of witchcraft would be ill advised,” came the harsh voice from above. Before she could respond, Stormpike appeared in a flash if blinding light.

As he explained her situation she began to admire his audacity. Not only to bring a witch within the Drodkip’s palace, but to discuss assassinating him, and with him only needing to glance in their direction (magically speaking) to catch them.

“A god or a God-King? A good question. While the God-King is the ultimate goal, it may become necessary to eliminate multiple deities before the end,” he answered, nonchalantly249.

“Or, if you prefer, those powerful beings which the unenlightened rabble have worshiped as gods,” Stormpike said, giving Mokrado a slight bow. Or at least she thought it was a bow. It was hard to tell from where she was, shackled inside a cage hanging eight feet above him. It also didn’t help that he was standing in a boat, rocking on a lake of fire250.

Stormpike held aloft the book in his hand and waggled it. “Where ever did you get the Haubracht translation? All I ever seem to come across is Vydimeer.251” Before she could respond (or even decide that it was wiser not to) he tossed it into the lake252 where it burst into flames253. It sickened her a bit, to see a book destroyed, even if its continued existence incriminated her. Not that Stormpike needed physical evidence held over her head (which would have been tough anyway with her eight feet above him), he had her over a barrel (even though she was hanging in a cage). If he had asked her to kill her own mother, she wouldn’t have hesitated. Death was either oblivion or torment. She’d turn the world to ash if it meant staying alive.

She’d even kill a puppy.

She sighed and relaxed like a bronco finally giving up and accepting the cowboy on its back. “So, how do we do it?”

“You have to go to Hell.”

“Or more accurately, break into Hell,” said Stormpike. Multum Parvo, nodded. He was good at nodding, and if not the best, he was part of the conversation. When someone was speaking to him, he’d nod whenever there was a slight pause or rise in intonation254. As a result, most people assumed that he was really paying attention and understanding what they were saying255.

Multum nodded and pondered other things. He pondered the circular cell hewed out of rock in which he found himself. He pondered the the torch lined stone stairs jutting from the wall. He pondered his predicament, chained to a petrified wooden post in the middle of a moist, dirt floor littered with the shattered remains of skeletons256. But mostly he pondered the way the the dirt rose and lowered with the sound of whatever was under it breathing.

Stormpike stood on the stairs, a few flights up from the bottom and knew the thing under the dirt was a light sleeper. He stood on the stairs not out of fear of the thing underground, (whose name was Bert) but because it always got excited when he saw Stormpike and would run around in circles and pee himself before gulping down the victim without chewing, only to hack him or her back up later. Bert’s light sleep was actually the reason he had chosen this cell for the ‘fling. He could see how the other three fit in. The Assassin’s role was obvious, and a Witch who had rediscovered lost arts through intuition and contemplation was beyond his wildest hope, but even the Orc, as a scholar and a skeptic, would prove useful as they sought out to untangle Phobos’s great triumph.

But the ‘fling. What the deuce257 was his purpose? Stormpike had racked his brain, but apart from the possibility that one or more of the company may pick up a social disease requiring his medicaments, the best he could come up with is that long stretches on horseback may cause chafing and his ointments would prove handy. And so, Stormpike had put him hear, where if Fate should so decide, she could tickle a nose and cause a sneeze, or send tumbling one of the skulls precariously piled in the corner, but so far it seemed as if he were stuck with the herbalist.

“Hell,” he repeated, a bit loudly, but the breathing under the dirt remained disappointingly steady. “Then, find the darkheart and return it,” Stormpike continued. Multum nodded. Stormpike didn’t say anything, turning his continued into a concluded.

“Uh huh,” Multum added to his nod. Stormpike narrowed his gaze at Parvo. Had he underestimated the ‘fling? He’s certainly a cool customer, he thought. Perhaps there are unplumbed depths there. But there weren’t. Parvo was afraid. He was always afraid. He was afraid of being afraid. He was afraid of not being afraid because then he might not notice something he should be afraid of. He was afraid that other people would notice he was afraid, so he would freeze and that’s what Stormpike took as cool indifference258.

“That’s it? Uh huh? Nothing to add?” Stormpike asked, suddenly wondering if maybe what he had taken for cool indifference was in fact mental deficience259.

“What do you want me to say?” Parvo asked, genuinely wanting to know. Uncertainty underpins all fear. Anxiety comes from being overwhelmed with possible outcomes, and fear comes from imagining those outcome and Parvo had a vivid imagination. He’d say or do whatever Stormpike wanted. What Stormpike wanted, of course, was to join the quest but he didn’t how to get him to do it. Sure, he could force him at sword point and chain him to the others but he felt certain that if Fate was guiding the quest, it had to be a quest. Not a mission, caper, or heist, but a Quest with a capital “Q260”. But how to convince someone to answer the call when he didn’t know what the call was? And then he smiled to himself. Of course, the answer was obvious.

“Do you not see it? Feel it?” Stormpike asked, excitedly. Parvo, being extremely literal, looked around.

“What?”

“Your connection!” he nearly shouted, then remembering Bert, repeated softly, “Your connection. To the Darkheart.”

“My connection?” Parvo asked, suddenly regretting nodding when Stormpike had asked if he was familiar with the Darkheart early in his oration261.

“Yes, you must have sensed it, surely?” He asked, moving down to the last step. “You are the Chosen One.” If this were a movie (and Stormpike wasn’t lying out of his butt) this would have made the trailer. The music would swell, and the camera would push in, with maybe a sense flare from a torch on the wall to blow out the shot for a second, before the a cut to black262.

Instead, Parvo just stared back, blankly before replying, “Chosen one what?”

“You! Chosen by Fate to Quest for the Darkheart. To restore leaf and limb,” he added, hoping the greenery would appeal to the ‘fling. Although a participant had to choose the quest, Stormpike saw no reason why it had to be obtained honestly, free of coercion, or blackmail. Stormpike watched Parvo, reading his mind as his thoughts played across his face.

Chosen, Parvo thought. Me. Me? It can’t be… why not? It explains everything. I was meant for something. Not just some thing, but the thing. Save the world, yeah, that’s my destiny. After all, as an herbalist, don’t I save people now263? That’s what I was trying to do for my village264, right? Multum Parvo, savior of the world. No, not just the world, the Universe! Me. And I’d definitely get a hot, elvish wife. His face turned half dreamy, half predatory, causing Stormpike to smile to himself. No matter how vigorously one stirred up noble sentiments, they always settled in the crotch.

“So…” Stormpike began before glancing at a slip of paper, “Multum Parvo, wilt thou quest for the Darkheart of Phobos?265

“Yes,” he answered in what he hoped sounded gravely and nobly, but ruined the effect by the giant grin spreading across his face.

Fate had undoubtedly smiled upon Stormpike. He needed a company to quest for the Darkheart and she had handed him one ready made with members possessing the exact skill required for the mission. Except the ‘fling. He was next to useless. Nevertheless, Fate had decreed his inclusion.

The Darkheart, whatever it is; whether some part of Phobos’s soul or a physical piece of his being, had to be united with Phobos’s physical body in order to kill him.

Phobos hid it somewhere.

“So let me get this straight,” said Jacek, preparing to launch into a convenient summation of information266. “You want me to quest for the Darkheart? Fools have been questing for that since forever, and you say you figured out where it is. Great! Wonderful! Where is it? Says I. Hell, says you,” Jacek said, adding the harrumph mixed with a snort, meaning “yeah right”267. Stormpike listened bemusedly. He well knew that the refusal of the call was an essential element of all quests, but this was the first time he was witnessing it in person. While he had sent scores of heroes on foolish quests for the Darkheart, it had always been through intermediaries. Also, this was the first time where the entire quest wasn’t a ruse to crush hopes, draw out subversives, and entertain Phobos.

“Oh, is that all,” continued Jacek. “You mean the place that Phobos sealed off? The place where he imprisoned the Dark Ones? And how do I break into Hell?”

“No,” stated Jacek.

“I haven’t even —” Stormpike added, good-naturedly268.

“Still no,” he said, wishing he wasn’t bound so he could cross his arms, smugly.

But —” his smile fading.

“Still no,” interrupted Jacek.

“Why don’t —”

“— No.”

“You —”

“— No.”

“Let me —”

“— No.”

“Finish —”

“— No.”

“Careful, boy, death draws ever closer,” rasped Stormpike, demonstrating that while “pleasant” and “good-natured” ill-suited him, “hate” and “bile” fit him like a pair of Spanks269. Jacek tried to shrug, but just managed to get a squeak out of his leather straps.

“No,” he answered, looking back and fixing his gaze on Stormpike’s one eye, which was tough to do with it’s sharklike270 nature (also, the “shfff”, “shfff” of the rats trying to drag away the corpse with coordinated jerks was distracting). “I’m sure you’ve given this a lot of thought, have a well shout out and reasoned plan, and have many enducements designed to flatter and impress me, but it would all save us a lot of time because no matter what, my answer is no.”

“Then you’re of no use to me. Would you like to see what I do to useless things?”

“N —” Jacek started to say, just to be an ass, but Stormpike held up a finger and slowly reached into his jerkin and drew a dagger, twirled it, and tested its weight. Satisfied, he flung it full force at Jacek where it buried itself between chest and shoulder.

“Gah!” Jacek screamed.

“I didn’t feel like yelling for him to open the door,” explaining Stormpike, but Jacek didn’t hear him as he writhed with pain (or writhed as much as possible, bound to the chair, leaving only his head to weave about like one of those bobble-headed dogs on a dashboard). “I thought Assassins were trained to withstand torture.”

Curious, Stormpike leaned across the desk and yanked the knife out of Jacek, whose head dropped forward in relief. Stormpike examined the blade. “Poisoned,” he said to Jacek, sheepishly, who stated back, wild eyed,. “Oh, it won’t kill you, don’t be so dramatic”.

A knock sounded at the door followed by the apprentice torturer entering the room.

“Ah!” said Stormpike delightedly, getting out of his chair, walking over while drawing his dagger and grabbing the apprentice’s shoulder with his free hand and plunging the dagger into his gut with the other. The unsuspecting young man let out a gasp that turned into a gurgle as Stormpike withdrew the blade. Then he plunged it in again. And again… And again.

Over and over, again and again.

And a few more.

And then it just got gratuitous.

Finally, Stormpike ceased his desecrations, took a deep, calming breath and withdrew the dagger, wiping in on the victim’s robes while still holding him upright with the other. Staring wide-eyed, Jacek recognized that Stormpike was about to turn and look at him, so he dropped his eyelids and threw in a yawn. It affected its target like nails on a chalkboard271. So he stabbed the body a few more times, paused, and finally poked him in the Eorðe version of “Shave and a Haircut”, which in turn hit Jacek like a skreek272, because he let the “two bits” coda hang unfinished.

Stormpike tossed the body away, where it landed with the sound of a wet t-shirt splatting on the floor when you pull wet clothes from the washer, trying to pull out the whole mass and toss them into the drier273

274 in one go275.

“That’s what I do with useless things,” Stormpike said, retaking his seat. Jacek’s looked over at the bloody corpse where the rats had already begun to reconnoiter and back.

“Thbbbbbbbt,” Jacek said, blowing raspberries276. A look of disgust crossed Stormpike’s face, like he had just entered a bathroom after someone who’d eaten asparagus.

“You think the information you now possess protects you,” he paused and leaned in, “but what makes you think I won’t have your soul destroyed?”

“How?” Jacek asked, smiling smugly. “If Phobos consumes my soul, he’ll know everything, then you’d be joining me. Mutually assured digestion.”

“I could still torture you,” Stormpike said, longingly.

“True, you could, but can you take that risk? Here we are in his very dungeon, under his tentacles, if you will. And wherever pain is, he is. What if he’s drawn to my anguish and is drawn to it, decides to peek in? I imagine you’ve taken some precautions against discovery, right? But you can’t completely hide this place or he’d get suspicious. I’ll be you’re running some distraction, so you could start in on me and hope I’ll break before, but remember, as an Assassin trained to honor a contract even under torture, I can hold out quite awhile, giving him a good, long chance to notice.”

“Death it is, then.”

“Looks like,” Jacek replied, trying to shrug but only managing to shift just enough for his bonds to irritate fresh skin.

“Ah,” replied Stormpike, finally figuring it out. “I figured it out,” he said, making the previous dialogue tag unnecessary. “You have death insurance! I must say, I’ve been despairing of our youth of late, so many of whom wouldn’t bother with the expense at their age. But I have to ask, what if there were no body to return to?” Pathetic, thought Jacek. Such an obvious ploy. This is the terrible and frightening Stormpike? Did he think I hadn’t thought everything through?

“You’re right, my Lord. You could burn my body. Sure, it wouldn’t be ideal to possess body after body, never looking the same for more than a few months at a time while they literally decompose around you and then starting the whole process over again. But to be honest, in my line of work, it’s a plus. A body hopping assassin makes more than enough to cover the expense,” he said, about to launch into an anecdote about Kraandau, the body hopping assassin known as the Poisoned Shadow277, but decided that he was probably familiar with the story278.

Stormpike smiled a dog-getting-the-inside-of-his-ears-rubbed smile. He steepled his fingers, crosses his legs, and tilted his head forward, Bond villain style. “Level headed and clever,’ he said in an attempt at mock sincerity but came across as sincere mockery.“But I do have to ask, death insurance is so expensive for the average person, how can you afford it?”

Huh, thought Jacek. “Huh?” he said, putting thought into words.

“How can you afford it?

“Well, I get the guild discount,” Jacek answered, confusedly.

“However did you do manage that?” Stormpike asked in exaggerated incredulity, which frightened Jacek more than spiders (and he was deathly afraid of spiders). He was in it. He didn’t know what “it” was but he knew that “it” belonged to Stormpike.

“I, uh…” Jacek managed as Stormpike pulled out a sheet paper, this one with actual writing on it.

“It seems as if the Guild has no record of your membership, Mister Larkspur.” He held the letter out for Jacek to read, but the words blurred before his eyes. “Not that I can blame your desire to be thought of as a member of such an august institution. I mean, it was just a trivial matter of membership verification, and here the Guildmaster himself gets out of bed and the middle of the night and pens me this note! He says they have no record of a member named Jacek Larkspur. There’s not even any indication of you having applied for an apprenticeship, which one would think you’d do if you wanted to be an assassin, but it seems you didn’t even bother with the attempt. It’s as if Jacek Larkspur never even existed. Of course, learning of your fraud, your insurance has been cancelled.” Jacek’s stomach churned, like he’d eaten Taco Bell an hour ago and the biomatter marketed as “Mexican” as well as “Food” found the accommodations not to its liking and decided to trash the hotel room before checking out.

“Which would mean,” Stormpike continued as he replaced the note. “Wandering the Shadowlands… unless a sorcerer were to grab your summon your soul for any number of various vile and nefarious purposes. Highly unlikely, I know, but the possibility does exist.”

Still better than getting chewed up by Phobos, Jacek thought, trying to convince himself. At least if he said yes, he’d have some control over his destiny. He sighed, and looked at his captor. “Can I at least get a new hand?”

“Already taken care of,” Stormpike said, with a dismissive gesture, causing the straps binding the assassin to loosen, droop, and shrivel like an expandable garden hose with the water shut off before winking out of existence. Jacek swung both arms around and looked down and shuddered.

Where his had blasted off sat a throbbing and pulsing hand of glossy, semi-translucent white flesh with visible vasculature. The fingers lacked definition, resembling a child tracing his hand on a piece of paper. On the other end, it split into four tentacles that wrapped around his forearm. He opened his palms and wiggled his fingers, both hands in unison. He held it up for Stormpike.

“Seriously?”


  1. Or at least that was the rough translation. For in the world of Eorðe, the word for “tower” literally translates as “Dwelling constructed or found and altered such that it affords view(s) of surrounding environs on account of an elevated position and resistant, though not necessarily impervious, to siege(s), either martial or magical, and, or both”.

  2. Although to be accurate, the shadow would take up more than one degree, probably around 8° or 9° maybe? Say, round it up to 10° to make the math easier, so that would leave like 350°, give or take.

  3. Insert trumpets here

  4. OSHA being non-existent

  5. Get Former & Latter confused? Former begins with F for First, Latter begins with L for Last. You’re welcome

  6. Some have theorized that the use of the Magic Quiver posed too great a risk, for if the quiver were ever to be upturned, an infinite amount of arrows would then begin to through, threatening to engulf the entirety of creation before one had a chance to flip it right up. Others contend that given the finite size of the opening, it would merely clog the hole, rendering the quiver eternally unusable.

  7. Meaning their faces were covered by their helmets, not that they literally faceless, though given the nature of this world, actual facelessness was a distinct possibility. No, they were faceless, in that they lacked personhood, not only to those whose orders they followed, indifferent to their lives, hopes, and dreams, but to us. What were their dreams? Did they love their mothers? Did they have mothers? We shall never know.

  8. Although “horde” itself denotes a group, “hordes” with an “s” denotes a group of groups, of which there were.

  9. Trolls being notorious slouchers

  10. Adding the “k” makes it extra evil (he “s” is just because magic users are generally douches).

  11. Both morally as well as physically, but one should in no way assume a correlation between the two.

  12. Come on, that deserves a high five

  13. The candles themselves held no occult function, they were only present for their illuminative properties and were plain, white, tallow candles, bought in bulk to save money.

  14. Which explains evil wizard’s reticence to take on proteges.

  15. Admittedly, he wasn’t looking forward to this part

  16. Phobos had assumed locking it would be unnecessary.

  17. Obviously, any rebirth is “new”, but it just felt right for Axos to end the sentence on “anew”.

  18. The Threefold Death and Shadowlands both being good titles for sequels

  19. Naturally

  20. not metaphorically, the world literally got darker.

  21. Hell (which should have been evident via the context, but I understand the impulse to look up every word you’re unfamiliar with. The Romans believed Lake Avernus, inside a volcanic crater, led to Hades).

  22. And nary a date or revision level on any of them!

  23. There hadn’t been thirteen ages since Phobos’s victory, but he felt 13 was the most evil number with the former being the loneliest and the latter* being a crowd
    See footnote 1.4

  24. Phobos had formed the Consilium Nomenclatura to come up with a fitting name for his new status, but the committee soon dissolved into acrimony and backstabbing (actual backstabbing), and so God-King*, with the provisional asterix, was used.

  25. Because, lets face it, they’re frickin’ useless.

  26. Come on, no one is born with a name that cool.

  27. Mostly bedding women.

  28. Or it would be if you bought the audiobook and didn’t skip the prologue.

  29. His diction was perfectly clear, which is impressive, considering he was hanging upside-down from his beard. Have you ever tried to hold your chin steady and tried to talk by moving the the rest of your head? go ahead, try. I’m waiting. Isn’t easy, is it?

  30. He has a patch over one eye, remember?

  31. Being beheaded and reanimated by the power of darkness, a power that you yourself spent a lifetime fighting, leaves one pretty much unwitherable.

  32. He HAD to get himself to only refer to him by his full name. He’d seen one loyal servant make that mistake and now he was a loyally being digested for the next thousand years in the stomach of some nameless monstrosity that now lived under the castle.

  33. <strong>DR</strong>ead g<strong>OD</strong> <strong>KI</strong>ng Phobos

  34. That’s what we call foreshadowing, folks.

  35. Because he was hanging by his beard, which we established just <strong>two</strong> paragraphs ago!

  36. It was a really leapable parapet, too, decent view, no outcroppings to catch on or bounce off of., no wind to slam you back into the parapet, just a long, straight drop, to pavement below, no rocks, no crowds, a nice splat.

  37. It’s safe to assume that all his laughs will be evil from here on out

  38. But still evilly

  39. One of which held a victim, killing them, kerpslat.

  40. Does his villainy know no bounds!?

  41. Ooh, that’s good. I’m copyrighting that.

  42. Evil loves marble. Hitler, Saddam, Tony Montana.

  43. Obviously, being evil, he spoke with an English accent.

  44. he’d had it specially enchanted.

  45. Or what one took to be a chest-like region of his bulk

  46. That’s what you call those notches on the top of a castle wall. From crena, Latin for “notch”. It’s also where we get the word “cranny”.

  47. Which was a well known saying in Eorðe. Coined by the first embalmer some millennia before, but no one now knew that

  48. There being no lightbulbs, it looked like a candle.

  49. While the term “man” can encompass both sexes, Stormpike was a misogynist, and had doubts whether woman actually possessed souls.

  50. Also, “too” different. Her parents made no note of the pun because 1, In their language, it wasn’t a pun and 2, Phobos had banned puns.

  51. Unlike those degenerate myomancers.

  52. Which also happened to be much more expensive as well as denying Drodkip his right to feast on it which typically drew his ire (and the ire of a nigh-omnipotent despot is an ire you don’t want drawn).

  53. Again, depending on how much they were willing to spend.

  54. The Guild had formed from the merger of the Poisoner’s Union, Assassin’s Guild, Sapper’s Co-Op, and Berserker’s Collective, and controlled most of the non-magical means of death available to the general public.

  55. All cities were named after The Dread God-King* Phobos, each distinguished by a completely arbitrary mix of numbers, letters, pre-fixes, and suffixes, (for example, Phobopolis 3, was nowhere near, Phobopolis 3rd, but was near Phobopolis III).

  56. Primus was the capital city, and seat of The Dread God-King* Phobos’s throne.

  57. Known as *Hameshta-Gehan*, *Aaru* & *Avernus*, in Elder Speak (also, “*betwixt*” is an affectation in either language).

  58. His was still using his temporary membership card.

  59. Not to mention their shifty movements and furtive glances (nor their glancy shifts or movey furts)

  60. Or one of those filthy kitchens you see on a restaurant rescue shows where the owner can’t figure out why their business is failing.Then host teaches them its wrong to yell at your employees by yelling at them and they should listen to their employees by then proceeding to chang the resteraunt and menu without their imput.

  61. Penicillin having yet to be discovered.

  62. Not alcoholic spirits, actual spirits, the spiritual essence of living things, bottled and ingested, and highly addictive.

  63. Thinner blades being more evil.

  64. Like Doctors Without Borders.

  65. West Coast, yo!

  66. Things mystical get British spellings

  67. Therefore, the cheapest.

  68. My description of the demkling’s physiognomy is deliberately vague on the off chance the reader is eating while reading.

  69. Obviously undiagnosed. The study of the mind was not unknown in Eorðe but its practical applications were relegated to weaponization.

  70. Yeah, I said “nary”

  71. Which, let’s face it, was half the appeal of their relationship.

  72. He imagined it would become his trademark, like a sickle, and he’d be dubbed “The Scythe” or “The Reaper”, or if people saw it as a happy-face, “The Deadly Smile”

  73. Through the mouth, so he wouldn’t have to smell the stench.

  74. For the record, it was “recherché

  75. He did not cup his ear because one hand held a club and the other was relieving an itch in a part of the anatomy most effected by the fact that commercially available toilet paper had yet to be introduced.

  76. Which he mispronounced.

  77. Which isn’t much.

  78. As a vampire, gliding came naturally

  79. Or as warmly as someone room temperature can manage.

  80. Which isn’t technically possible considering flexion and extension anatomical movement requires one set of the antagonistic muscle pairs to be relaxed while the other is contracted.

  81. And that’s a lot of fibers.

  82. Short for “Elfling”.

  83. Most Flings preferred “Sylvans”, but that just got them mocked even more. Also, spelling it with a “y” is just some bush league, D&D Dungeonmaster stuff.

  84. Do men wear capes? If yes: Poppycock, if no: Bullshit. Also, poppycock is literally, “soft shit”! mid 19th century: from Dutch dialect pappekak, from pap ‘soft’ + kak ’dung-

  85. If asked, they would reply, “Mother Eorðe is not a broodmare.”

  86. No Elf would soil his hands thus

  87. Many of the Elves theological battles centered on whether crows or ravens attended Kar Danu, (and Elven theological battles involve real arrows). There were some who held that crows AND ravens attended the Goddess. These were considered “squishes” and hated by both sides.

  88. If you ever saw an elf, you’d know that “glode” is the only word for it, grammatical or not.

  89. Like Hitchcock’s Blondes.

  90. Not literally, although such things did happen from time to time, it being a fetish for some.

  91. “Glid” is also grammatically acceptable when discussing Elves. Also, it’s “past” not “passed” because it’s acting as an adverb to the verb “to glide” (yes, I had to look this up).

  92. He was on prescription strength leeches.

  93. Incubus Pale Ale

  94. They manufactured poison powders, pastes, and pills

  95. Metaphorically, because if elf blood flowed in his veins, he’d be an elf (Unless he was a vampire, and that’d be only temporary, and not technically HIS blood).

  96. In essence, he was like C3-PO & R2-D2 being handed over to Jabba in “Return of the Jedi” without the rescue plan.

  97. You’d be surprised

  98. But not a Mexicola.

  99. Well, the *Eorðe*, equivalent, probably some sort of protein baked in a dough or some kind of salt preserved meat.

  100. Eliciting a slight chuckle mostly to demonstrate that they understood the words, proving once again that a group’s “funny” name is funny only to them, and even then only on a conceptual level (like a “New Yorker” cartoon).

  101. She had to remember to bring the hors d’oeuvres which they referred to as amuse-bouche because somehow hors d’oeuvres wasn’t pretentious enough for them.

  102. After an unpaid internship with a prestigious band of cutthroats, of course

  103. Denialism ranged from those who denied the existence of magic, to the existence of the Drodkip, all the way to those who denied the existence of existence, claiming instead that they were nothing but the poorly drawn dramatis personæ inhabiting a mythopoeic pastiche drawn from better works, relying on the inversion of certain tropes and conventions while engaging in meta humor to protect the author in a kind of “irony armor”.

  104. For there is nothing a scarlet woman despises more than overacting

  105. Literally, she was very limber.

  106. But mostly in quick flashes or in profile, so that the only way you could see anything is to wait for the home video and pause the blu-ray or sign up for Mr. Skin

  107. Which would require another body to inhabit as the body would start to reject the grafted consciousness, form and matter being incongruous, proving Aristotle’s Hylomorphic Dualism is correct (Suck it, Descarte!)

  108. They did so quietly, for officially, there was no time before the Drodkip.

  109. Or lower, depending on your view on your view evil.

  110. The Warlock word for Coven

  111. The Witch word for Conclave

  112. Past Tense. Phobos killed anyone who said this.

  113. technical term

  114. There is no defensible reason for me to use this as opposed to “from nothing” besides it sounding cooler.

  115. Which would be the title if this were an indie film.

  116. Which is blue, for some reason.

  117. It was a good one, full throated, piercing yet smooth, with just a hint of vibrato.

  118. Like a pumpkin pie, not oompa loompa.

  119. In indecision, not in ice.

  120. Luckily, synthetics had yet to be invented, so there were no toxic fumes from the melting of the bedding material. On the other hand, there was asbestos in the ceilings and lead in the wall paint, so pick your poison.

  121. He was still a man, damnit.

  122. Both people, not her breasts, get your mind out of the gutter!

  123. And her breasts.

  124. As in female dog. No matter how you treat her, she’s always with you, ever vigilant, even if you abuse her. Loyal to those she loves, vicious to her enemies (but a few treats can make them into loved ones) and will occasionally poop in the house.

  125. But “etcetera” is not one of them.

  126. She used to like “Destiny” until strippers started using it.

  127. Including the use of unnecessarily big words.

  128. Which really didn’t float her boat, but she appreciated the gesture.

  129. Which you could tell because he sucked his teeth and tore paper in long, thin strips, and then tore those into little bits of confetti

  130. I plan to offer 1:6 scale versions as paperweights. I remain undecided as to whether Christmas Tree ornaments are in bad taste, but if someone wants to sell unlicensed ones on Etsy, go for it.

  131. Along with, “Do you know how fast you were going?”, “You actually like him/her/it?” and “what were you thinking?”

  132. Fate is a woman, and that is not a slight on females, only that a male eventually grow bored and will eventually stop. A woman will never, ever stop trying to screw you over if you’ve got on her bad side. Ever. Trust me (and a word of advice, the more legitimate you think the explanation, “but that was a long time ago” the less she’ll find it.

  133. Which, admittedly, dragged, but Kaylec felt what it lacked in narrative drive, it made up for in stylistic beauty, and was loath to drop it permanently.

  134. Because most arguments are won on stylistic grounds, not on their merits.

  135. Which wasn’t strictly necessary given the fact he lacked a body, and therefore lungs, but teaching oneself to not breath ain’t easy

  136. She had various titles in addition to her many names, but this was the only one he knew.

  137. laying it on a bit thick, but it felt right

  138. It doesn’t.

  139. And the anachronisms make a comeback

  140. Called a genuflection, you cultureless swine.

  141. Technically, he squeezed both eyes shut, but one was behind the patch.

  142. The unsharpened part of the blade just above the quillons (which I could call the crossguard, but riccaso just goes with quillions.

  143. Which was highly unsanitary. Kaylec had hung there 10,000 years without the ability to brush his teeth, so we’re talking monitor lizard levels of teaming swarms of bacteria.

  144. And by far the worse part, is that there was no reason for it, Kaylec had no lungs, no need to breath even. At one point, Stormpike dropped the head in a glass jar full of water and marveled as bubbles, burst from Kaylec’s mouth. Where did the air come from? Were they magic, or was there some invisible portal bringing air in? Or a partial leading to some place where his lungs sat? Stormpike drank long and heavily that night.

  145. Technically it was parchment, but “pen and parchment”? Sounds off, right? A little douche, too.

  146. Raven feather, naturally.

  147. Neither of which existed in their alphabet, but its a good translation of “Slash every [thing that looks like a pasta spoon wearing a tu tu], and pierce every [squiggly sideways cat-eye]”

  148. Parchment (which is made from animal skin… and I’ll leave exact animal to your imagination, because, frankly, I’m getting tired of doing all the work here. You gotta hold up your end of the relationship! This ain’t slumping on the couch and watching TV with a laugh track telling you something’s funny. This is a participatory art, so participate!)

  149. Or like that Australian Hurdler girl in that video on the internet. You see that? That’s some good stuff, man. Yowza.

  150. Because if it had been that long, it would be boring and I would have cut it out with a “later…”

  151. Or cellphone, if you’re one of those (and why do so many of them say “I don’t wear a watch”, in the same tone as “I went to Harvard”? You don’t wear a watch, I do. So? They’re preferences with no relative valuation. That being said, get a watch, vulgarian).

  152. Only to discover some kid has CIRCLED THE HIDDEN OBJECTS! They say that torturing animals is an early indicator of a psychopath, but I say it’s ruining “find the object” (and don’t get me started on using a pen to do it, either). Seriously, though, you’re horrible parents if your kids do this (or if you’re the one doing it, your parents were horrible, and while I’m glad you managed, against overwhelming odds, to learn to read, I assume you stole this book).

  153. Well, the Eorðe equivalent, which in our world many would find offensive.

  154. Still parchment. Also, that animal I told you to come up with? A bit cliché. Come on, you can do better.

  155. This time, it really was paper. From a tree. A talking, sentient tree. Named Gysseuin. R.I.P. Gysseuin, we hardly knew ye.

  156. Backwards dress, remember?

  157. Considered so implacable, that the term “unrelenting implacability” was often used to describe the Orcish variety(and when a synonym is used as as its adverb, you’ve hit the big times)

  158. Where one is unconscious, the other only has one hand, and neither of them wears glitter, sequins, or spray tan.

  159. “Orc” was the gender neutral term for either a male or female Orc, not that equality was the reason, it was also their word for “he”, “she”, “great” (as in, “That steak was Orc!”), “right” (“You’re totally Orc”), and most importantly, their equivalent to “dude”.

  160. While it could be argued that adding “Derisive” is unnecessary, it should be noted that unlike humans, Orcs possessed a rich and varied repertory of snorts, nuanced with subtle shadings of meaning.

  161. Which Parvo himself actually bottled and sold under the pirated name “Prof. Piddlemulch’s Patented Magical Medicament & Linement (extra strength, daytime formula, morning breeze scent)”, there being no actual patent, copyright, or trademark laws any longer.

  162. Hidden pocket of his “survival” Jerkin, that he’d had for 3 years and this being the first time it’d come in handy (except for that time during the midsummer’s mummers farce when his allergies had flared and he’d dipped into his stash of giibberwort but that was just convenient and saved him from loosing his seat).

  163. As a result, Elvish lost entire armies rather than fall back and regroup, leading to catastrophic losses.

  164. It can’t be childbirth. While tied intrinsically to their sex it isn’t the same because 1) not every woman has experienced, whereas every male, to varying degrees, has and 2) the pain is linked with something else, that for many is worth going through again. If a man had to suffer a nutshot before procreating, the species would die out.

  165. Let’s face it, had Jack survived, they would have stayed in New York so he could pursue his “art” and would have started cheating on Rose with his “french girls” within six months. She would have had to get work in a sweat shop to provide for themselves and the child on its way. His resentment grew, as well as his drinking, until one night when it became physical. Ashamed, he rushed out of the tenement, before finding the opium dens in Chinatown. He’s called up for World War I, and she takes him back and helps him clean up, but his past comes back to haunt them both when he passes along his syphillus to her, before being confined to an iron lung due to a mustard gas attack. Also, their kids die of influenza.

  166. The Heolseward. Clad all in black save for a red sash and khamsa (upside-down hand with an eye in the palm) pinned on their chest. The sash wasn’t pinned to their chest, that was wrapped around their waist, oh, you know what I mean.

  167. In Eorðe, a minute was 120 seconds long, but an hour was the same length as ours which meant it there were 30 Eorðeian minutes per day (although their time system was trigesimal, their counting system was bijective-hexavigesimal).

  168. So feared, in fact that when they stormed a house, neighbors would not poke their heads out, or mingle about trying to catch a glimpse of the goings on, but would head to the cellars or attics or hide in cupboards. Imagine in our own world a crime scene where there was no one gathered around the police tape. No one. Crazy, right? That’s what the Infernal Police were like.

  169. In fact, much like sheriffs deputies must often times serve in county jails before graduating to patrol, The Heolseward was first killed and then spent time in the Shadowlands questioning the dead (it being easier than resurrecting each person they needed info from) before being returned to the land of the living.

  170. Or is it Manet? It’s not, Mamet, he wrote “Glen Gary Glen Ross”. The one with the lilies, but I’m thinking of his Notre Dame works as opposed to the “Painter of Light”.

  171. Like Stormtroopers at the beginning of Star Wars, with better aim… but with swords. And they wore black, and you could see their faces, so if you think about it, they weren’t like Stormtroopers at all except they always rushed through the breach, full speed ahead.

  172. Shame, that living death so terrible that, of course, no one can resist doing it to someone else.

  173. All “interviews” by the Infernal Police involved torture.

  174. To blush that way that only happens in novels. How many people in real life have you seen blush? Really, really blush? Sure, you’ve felt your cheeks get hot, but then you realize a) It wasn’t noticeable to anyone else, and b) everyone else is worried about themselves and wouldn’t have even noticed had your cheeks actually become red. But in novels, people always blush, even though it’s not a visual medium. Ever seen someone blush in a movie? I thought not. Novels can enter into someone’s mind, you could write, “he felt embarrassed,” if you’re being utilitarian, or “His face felt flush,” which gives us the sense of blushing, or you could even go so far as to write “He felt like a kindergartner who peed his corduroys during recess, hid behind a tree until the bell and ran home.” which would have the benefit of reflecting real life (but not my life. A friend’s life. Not me. Nope).

  175. like getting up in the morning, walking into the bathroom and seeing a spider when you flip the lightswitch

  176. like you have to do when you see the girl you’re dating without makeup for the first time, not that she looks bad, just different.

  177. Only to discover what they actually meant was, “I’m sick of hearing your nonsense, go write it down so you can try it get it published, fail, and give up on this pipe dream. (Unless it works out, then I’ll take credit. But I’m still not gonna read it).”

  178. Don’t worry, there will be plenty more banter to come. So much in fact, that much will be pared down or edited out completely only to surface again in various revised, expanded, definitive, anniversary, annotated, and omnibus editions that are sure to follow after its success. A success none of the successive works achieved, leaving the author bitter, until some young person, probably unfamiliar with his works, arrives and teaches the old man to live again, reconcile with his family and his legacy before succumbing to death which galvanizes the young person to pursue his/her/its (it being the future, the young person could be a robot, alien, or even a genetically recreated dinosaur) destiny.

  179. The most important part of banter

  180. Bats served much the same function in their world as ours, even down to similar expressions. For example, their domesticated bats ran about thirty pounds (any bigger, and the meat got too tough) and were often eaten at holidays. Ironically, their geese were known to suck people’s blood.

  181. As a new killwright, he wasn’t eligible for a discount

  182. Much like stealth technology only reduces a radar profile and doesn’t eliminate it, it wasn’t possible to completely eliminate one’s tracks, but for all practical purposes they would be safe, unless Phobos decided to personally investigate by reversing time to replay the incident, or invading the mind of every lenient being to discover the truth, but such for all practical purposes, they would be safe.

  183. In his village, with their backward, country ways, it was still a vulgar way of saying “excrement” but in the sophisticated urban ways of Mokrado, it sounded like “dagnabit”

  184. Country or City, this Orcish word always meant “shit”

  185. Invented by London printer Richard Jugge (d. 1577), a footnote is an ancillary piece of information printed at the bottom of a page. (e.g. what you’re reading now)

  186. And don’t ask why an Ounce was made up of 8 Drachms, a Drachm was 3 Scruples and a Scruple was 20 Grains (or why Drachm is pronounced “dram”)

  187. This was performed by Scinnhæleð. While the Heolseward were tasked with combating mystical crimes, not that they solved mystical crimes, that was the purview of Verdoemeniswag, their sworn rivals. Neither of which used magic in carrying out their duty, that fell to the Scinnhæleð.

  188. The Scinnhæleð accomplished this by summoning a particular demon called an, Ungeist, which sort of  “sucked up” the available magic in the area for a short time, sort of how downloading a video sucks up your bandwidth. This meant that anyone in the area who relied on magic during this time was out of luck, resulting in many people who were using magic to keep themselves alive dropping dead. Also, in order to appease the demon and send him back, a human sacrifice would have to be offered. This was determined by a system in which each day was divided up into increments and with each increment being assigned to a particular member of a unit so that if a demon was called and it occurred at a such and such a time, such and such a person would be sacrificed. The members of the Scinnhæleð had a pool where much effort was expended in calculating most likely day and times that such an occurrence would fall on.  And, like all office pools, was usually won by the person who put no thought into it.

  189. Depending on whether you calculated the number of stories in the building (8) or how many there should be had they built them to a standard height (6) instead of squeezing in two extra by shortening them

  190. Our minutes.

  191. 32,372 to be exact (not including villagers, serfs, slaves, non-humans, talking animals or trees)

  192. It was not strictly misogyny that prevented him from thinking of women as heroes. As he saw it, men were either villains or heroes, and women were either damsels or sirens, and he despised heroes and damsels.

  193. The one with either a similar set of skills, abilities, personality, gender, or ethnicity as the now deceased member, who thankful, had just then completed their personal journey.

  194. Take a look at your inbox and note how many urgents, importants, and musts you see.

  195. Hairy crocodiles with eight arms, obviously. Spiders with crocodile skin and teeth are Aracodiles.

  196. He’s getting struck left and right here!

  197. It was enchanted, but the voice recognition was spotty at best, especially because Stormpike hadn’t done the manufacturer recommended recognition tutorial.

  198. Technically, per Phobos’s design decrees, it was “Torment Red” (Pantone Solid Coated 7622 C) and “Ash Heap Black (Pantone Solid Coated 7540 C).

  199. Let’s face it, they’re essentially the same jobs.

  200. Grammar Tip! If a question can be answered with a “he” or “she”, use “who” (who gave you that? He did.) If it can be answered be a “him” or “her”, use “whom” (to whom did you give it? I gave it to him)

  201. The second most evil salute

  202. The imperial salute, signifying that all life and loyalty belonged to the Drodkip, even to the point of choking oneself to death.

  203. Although annoying to be on the receiving end, society would be the better if it were the default response to things, e.g. twitter.

  204. 3 under the desk, 7 IN the desk it spring loaded hidden compartments (only 3 of which were accessible from his  current position) 8 in the drawers (2 unsharpened) and the 17 on his person

  205. The numbers had been quickly exaggerated, despite the underreporting by the detachment that had suffered the losses.

  206. He had taken rhetoric in school.

  207.   A “Dun dun-dun!” sting was implied by his tone.

  208. And not just dramatic, but every form; pregnant, for effect, comedic, expectant, not to mention waiting a beat, eclipses, and the pause de resistance: people saying, “Wait for it”

  209. As if the author lacked an outline and was making this up as he went along

  210. known as the BlæcWache or BlackGuard (Phobos loved sticking words together with capitalization). Ironically, their uniforms were a gray/brown color because the MetodscæftWeard, the DeathGuard already wore black so they had to settle for a black Karakul style hat (the Karakul, is the hat made famous by Hamid Karzai, Former President of Afghanistan*. In our world, it is made from the  wool Qaraqul breed of sheep, often from aborted lamb foetuses. Seriously).

    *Not to mention by the First Doctor when Barbara and Ian first enter the TARDIS.

  211.   While a dead body could be just as dangerous to those below, the fact that they were deceased preventing them from making much of a noise (apart from a kind of soft “whoosh”). And by “dead” I mean dead-dead (as opposed to undead).

  212. And Eric Clapton’s apartment. (too much?)

  213. See Alan Rickman in “Die Hard”

  214. The darts were tipped with Goblin Puss, just the smell of which was enough to incapacitate some men (much like brussel sprouts)

  215. He reasoned that it best to run away from the brothel, and therefore, it must be behind him. However, as he had fallen backwards off the roof, he was now heading towards it.

  216. The Chiropteran Corps

  217. Velvet (naturally)

  218. There were no rules preventing women  bearing arms in service, but there was nothing specifically allowing it, either.

    There were statues that could be (and had been in the past) interpreted in such a way that could get any women who tried, killed.

    The important thing was that the system engendered doubt, anxiety, confusion, and most importantly, areas rife for corruption and backstabbing.

  219. Small animals were a different guild, both of which only operated within the Capitol. Other cities had two different guilds, and outside of cities was an entirely different system.

  220. Without the invention of the zipper, it was fairly elaborate, involving the unbelting of his sword, unfastening his hauberk, lifting his tunic and holding up the bottom in his mouth while he untied his trousers and wriggling out of them.

  221. A term some may object to as a slur against the Irish, and furthermore, as there are no Irish in this world, it’s anachronistic, therefore “Black Mariah” should be used instead. To this I say; If I were to use “Black Mariah” some may not know the term, and would therefore have to add a footnote, and those just interrupt the flow of the narrative

  222. Which required constant monitoring to maintain just the right ratio of rust, dust, and grease to achieve the sound and even then, the formula had to be tweaked for each individual door.

  223. Worse, while the implements were evenly spaced, there was no organizing principal that he could discern, whether shortest to longest, diameter, grouped by type (impact, extraction, bladed, seated, etc.). It was possible that they were arranged in order of usage, but he somehow doubted it.

  224. A poem consisting of the lethal dosage for every known poison and its time of effect, the Guild taught the Litany to every assassin (along with the ballad of the Throat Slitters which taught how to kill without sound) who found recited it to calm their minds and steady their hearts. Unfortunately the author (unknown) had played a little loose with the dosages and time of effect to maintain his rhyme scheme, so it wasn’t entirely accurate (not to mention attempting to rhyme “immolate” with “entreat” which can’t be done, in any accent)

  225. Semi-sentient, the cape was made from Demonsmoke, the vaporous remains of a demon killed by a silver blade during a blood moon by a virgin whose feet weren’t touching the ground. The vapors then had be be collected before they dissipated, but not by the virgin, whose purity repelled the vapors  like two magnets with the same polarity, but by an undead ghoul. Needless to say, it was incredibly expensive (It was also unbelievably hot and would start to stink after just a few wearings but it looked amazingly cool. We’re talking Batman in the Arkham video games cool here).

  226. It should be noted that Jacek had never witnessed real fearlessness.

  227. Partly because they had shown a weakness for possession and killing them prevented any similar occurrences, but mostly, cells were located in the bowels of the keep next to the abattoir and freeing them would require escorting them up miles of stairs.

  228. Serial Killers were relatively rare in Eorðe. When murder wasn’t a crime and psychopathic tendencies were prized by employers, government officials, and clergy alike (not to mention the opposite sex), serial killing couldn’t compete. But the ‘Crab Breath Slayer’ had achieved something of a following recently mostly because he targeted those coffee drinkers who don’t eat breakfast and have horrendous coffee breath. You know what I’m talking about, it’s kind of like salami steeped in burnt coffee and then poured over some potting soil.

  229. The substance translated as coffee was called slijm (or briodarnach if you wanted to sound fancy) was made from Bloodgrain Smut, a fungus that grew on the normally poisonous Bloodgrain (obviously). Highly caffeinated as well as slightly alcoholic, it tasted a bit like an espresso made with burnt beans with a shot of scotch and artificial cinnamon (like someone dropped a Hot Tamale in that dissolved in the cup)

  230. In fact, it didn’t even contain relevant information, Stormpike feeling it unwise to have any traceable evidence.

  231. The scroll contained an iteration of a bouillabaisse recipe he’d been trying much of his life to recreate. As a young man, Stormpike had killed a particularly annoying chef who nevertheless, had made the finest fish stew he’d ever eaten. Stormpike had obliterated his soul before he realized that the recipe only existed in his head. This current version was number 832. This version contained carrots and clam juice, so you know he was just grasping at straws at this point.

  232. The line was actually “beyond even death’s embrace“.

  233.   And with just a hint of cumin.

  234. The water being both cold and sweet while not technically a mixed metaphor, it’s hardly elegant, but it is what Stormpike thought, and were all about truthful characters here.

  235. But almost always was.

  236. A sceat (1φ) was worth 1/12th of a solidus (φ1). You’ll notice the only difference is one placed the “phi” in front and the other in back (The symbol for their money was the first character in Phobos’s name, which looked like the wink emoji ;), therefore “φ” has been substituted).

  237. Their coinage at this time was:

    Quarter Bodle (1⁄16φ)

    Third Bodle (1⁄12φ)

    Half Bawbee (1⁄8φ) Bawbee (¼φ)

    Halfsceat (½φ)

    sceat (1φ or φ12 )

    Threehalfsceat (1½φ)

    Twosceat (2φ)

    Threesceat or Tremissis (3φ)

    Doublesceat or Tremis’n Sceat (4φ)

    Scixceat (6φ)

    Solidus (φ1)

    Solidusisis (φ2)

    Half Aureus (φ2-1/6)

    Double Solidus or Plang (φ4)

    Aureus (φ5)

    Half Phob (φ6-2/3)

    Phob (φ23)

  238. Which in this world involved crossing the pinkie and ring finger. It helped that everyone was double jointed.

  239. Or at least his version of pleasant, which qualified as such only in the contrast from his normally unpleasant manner.

  240. Besides, he never really liked them. Phobos had kept a little notebook since he was a boy where he collected interesting words and cobbled Lord Stompike’s titles from various languages, living and dead (I’ve painstakingly translated them into their nearest “Earth-1” equivalent). His titles were; Lord Stormpike (duh), Voivode Vražda (both words meaning “Duke”), Kŭnędzĭ Druhtinaz (the one word evolving from the other, meaning “War-Chief”), Fraujaz de ne Gruwel Bloedhoek (three different languages smooshed together intended to mean “Lord of the Horrible Blood Corner” to commemorate the “Battle of the Blood Pits” but he thought “hoek” sounded cooler. Also, he didn’t know  the word for horrible “aaklige”, so he went with “horror” figuring it was close enough), Margrave van die Voosveldt (another three languages, meaning “March-Lord of the Putrid Lands”, but “Veldt” means field but “land” was the same in both languages and he thought “veldt” was the coolest and used it a lot. Note: By “Putrid Lands”, he meant everything outside city walls, meaning “nature”, Dúnmharú Tighearnais (Murder Lord), and Ceannasaí Cogadh (intended to mean “Lord of War”, but meant “Chief War”).

  241. These he like much better (except for the last one) Phobos had named him; The Blade Lord, the Devil’s Dragon, The Right Hand of Fear, Heaven’s Doom, The Night Herald, The Terror in the Dark, The Black Angel, and finally, Phobos’s Butt Boy (he didn’t want the accoladed to go to Stormpike’s head, so he threw that one in).

  242. Like my parents would never buy me at disneyland, but instead I’d only get the regular (and cheaper) rubber Mickey one with the ears (but only after we were finished because you can’t take it on the rides. Even though the only fun of a balloon is walking around with it, not riding in car with one. Also, I only got my initials on the Mickey hat, because it was cheaper. Not that an extra letter would have broken the bank, but it would have meant four extra letters for my sister.

    And yeah, I know, I got to go to Disneyland and get balloons and a hat, and some kids don’t even get that. And you know what I say to that? First of all I try to look at all people as equal, and I don’t feel it’s my place to make such distinctions and judgements, but if you go right ahead. Secondly, I can’t bring myself to use the less fortunate to make myself feel better. But the larger problem is that realize that such a suggestion inevitably leads to envy. Meaning rather than experience anything as the thing qua thing, the thing should be experienced based on the differences and distinctions between myself and other people? And if one looks at the less fortunate in order to appreciate a thing, doesn’t it follow that one will inevitably look at the more fortunate? What happens then? I’ll tell you; look at the world. Envy. Resentment. Entitlement. Stop comparing. Stop with the “think of the kids starving in Africa”, or “Do you know how well off you are”, or any of that stuff. Stop comparing, try taking things as they are and you may find you start taking people the same way).

  243. ex. The rest of this novel.

  244. The curse word he used would be a directly analogous to our “F-Word”, but I’m trying to bring back “What the deuce?”.

  245. Or trying to figure out the purpose of Ellen Page’s character in “Inception”.

  246. Sort of a coppery linen. Not like a linen dyed a color color, but as if copper strands were light and flexible as linen but itched like burlap, and tended to turn the skin green.

  247. Before Phobos, when such topics could be broached, there had been much discussion as to what part of a person was connected to magic. Was it the mind that could reach out, the soul? Why did they feel they were “drawing” it into themselves and could “fill them up” but it seemed not to matter the size of the user but if someone lost a limb, their ability seemed to be lessened.

  248. Some even went so far as to theorize “midichlorians”, microscopic lifeforms that reside in all living cells that allow someone access to magic and could even create life on its own, but that was just dumb.

  249. Or as nonchalantly as one can discussing deicide, especially when one doesn’t just have faith in their divinity but has witnessed it first hand.

  250. Also, the cage was suspended by a single chain and any movement would cause it to tilt and start to rotate until the chain could twist no more in that direction and start the other way.

  251. He’d never read either, but he had interrogated both before Phobos had devoured them.

  252. Which was fire, just in case you have a severe form of short term memory loss and forgot what you read three sentences ago (four, if you count this one).

  253. Because of the fire. Come on, man, I don’t want to have to keep going over this for you.

  254. I highly recommend this in the classroom, lecture hall, and conference room. As you advance, you can add in a furrowed brow, downturned lips, or the head turn with middle distance stare.

  255. Typically, it not only convinces the speaker of his listener’s intelligence, it also confirms their own as well as their own charisma.

  256. Human

  257. Admit it, it’s growing on you.

  258. Parvo would also worry that because he tried to not show his fear when he was afraid (which was most of the time) that people would mistake his not-afraid look for his afraid look and think he was afraid when he wasn’t.

  259. Obsolete but “deficiency” didn’t sound as good with “indifference”.

  260. Or the Eorðeian equivalent.

  261. In the exordium, to use the terms of classic rhetoric.

  262. Or maybe the push in would have happened with the previous line, THEN cut to black, with “You are the Chosen One” voiced over the black screen. Then maybe a a deep BONG and then a bunch of quick cuts of lots of CGI things breaking CGI stuff from a vantage point impossible to achieve in real life with a depth of field unavailable in real lenses and and a dynamic range unobtainable by either film or digital.

  263. He mostly sold aphrodisiacs to husbands to use on their wives and anaphrodisiacs to wives to use on their husbands.

  264. Having read the petition found in Parvo’s affects, Stormpike had the village destroyed and the river diverted to cover the remains underwater because, why not?

  265. Stormpike suddenly regretted his decision to chain him on top of Bert because he wasn’t able to go issue the call in his dramatic, booming voice and had to settle for his husky, urgent one. He did get to throw in some thee’s and thou’s, though.

  266. But one that anyone within earshot would find unnecessary due to the fact that they were involved in the conversation, but is a staple of fiction.

  267. Optional eye roll not included.

  268. Or at least his version of it, which boiled down to not picturing taking Jacek’s head in both hands and sticking Stormpike’s thumbs into his eyes as he was speaking to him.

  269. Also, “Hate” and “Bile” were also the names of his pet miniature basilisks (which, technically, weren’t basilisks but were instead domesticated cockatrices bred to look like basilisks but lacking their ability to kill with a glance).

  270. Well known to shark hunters to be not only lifeless and black, but also doll like.

  271. They didn’t use that expression as such because; 1) They had a word for it (“screek”) and, 2)d ue to the number of people who’d had their nails removed as punishment, few had heard the noise.

  272. See previous footnote

  273. Some may not that modern (so called) grammarians claim that “drier” is an adjective while “dyer” with a “y” is a noun. This why “grammarian” is rarely stated with any affection. The were (and are, I argue) interchangeable. For instance, In 1947, my grandfather, John F. Crews started Crews Evaporator & Drier, Co. You’ll observe that he spelled “Drier” with an “I”. He did not mean “more dry”, he meant “A thing that dries”. In fact, if grammarians wish to make up arbitrary rules, wouldn’t it make more sense that dryer=more dry and drier=a thing that dries?

  274. In fact, most Drier Manufacturers back in the day spelled it that way. Maybe it was an Engineer thing, who knows. What I do know is that the implication is that my grandfather was wrong, and he was never, ever wrong.

  275. And then you have to wash it again, and there’s not really enough for another load, but maybe it won’t send the machine out of balance, or maybe, just maybe, your reds have been washed enough that they can’t possibly have dye to bleed (but they always, always do) and then you think to yourself, forget expensive cars and big houses, if I ever strike it big, I’m going to wear only brand new socks, undies, and undershirts. One time, then to Goodwill, that’s it.

  276. I realize “blowing raspberries” was enough, but having grown up on comic books, I’ve always preferred the onomatopoeic “thbbt”.

  277. Who worked with a knife during daylight hours.

  278. He was.

Chapter 3

Chapter 3

Fate is a bitch1. Uncontrollable, unpredictable, capricious, jealous, vengeful, and disloyal. Fate is like an abusive spouse, where the abused must be constantly on guard for the slightest mood change, fooling themselves into thinking that any affection shown means that things have really changed.

Long before the rise of men, the Elder Ones, Gods of Chaos, ruled. But their progeny, the New Gods, rose up against them and shackled them, bringing order to the Cosmos.

But one of the Elder escaped.

She has worn many guises, just look up fate in the thesaurus; Destiny, Fortune, Kismet, Karma, Luck, Serendipity, Providence, etc2., but she preferred Fate3. Despite their best efforts, she eluded the New Gods and continued to mete out her favor and malice according to her own inscrutable inclinations4. And what Gods fail at, what hope is there for man? Even Phobos didn’t even try to enslave her her as he had all the other Gods. Besides, she had always been good to him. Wisely, he continued to worship her, built her monuments, and offer her sacrifices5.

Stormpike, deep in thought6, pondered Fate. Words like control, placate, harness, and manipulate roiled about in his mind, each sounding laughable in relation to her. Finding the Darkheart of Phobos7 had Fate written all over it. Quests, with a capital Q, were her purview.

“What are you thinking about so hard?” Asked the upside-down severed head of Kaylec, knowing full well that it was one of the most annoying questions in canon of annoying questions8.

“Fate,” Stormpike absently replied.

“Her9,” snorted Kaylec before launching into a litany of all of Destiny’s lies, broken promises, and cruel tricks. He had a point. Axos had been the promised one, destined by Fate herself to destroy Phobos. But Axos was dead, Phobos was a God, and Kaylec was an upside-down undead head with a nose full of boogers and no finger to pick them with. Stormpike had heard them all before, and it even seemed that Kaylec had grown bored of the performance, skipping a large portion of the usual middle section10, and going right to the wrap up.

“And that’s what galls me! She switched her affections to Phobos just because he promised to build her larger temples? For that the universe must be plunged into darkness?” He tried to shake is head, but it just sent him into a slow wobble.

“You promised to build it after you won, Phh…,” he stopped himself from dropping the title with a long voiceless labiodental fricative. “Furthermore, the Dread God-King Phobos began building a temple to her before, he offered tribute, not payment for services rendered.”

“Bah,” Kaylec bah’d, as only an old man can bah.

“Don’t bah at me, you know I’m right. You treat her like a whore, and then get offended when she cuckolds you.”

“You really think that Phobos’s motives weren’t selfish?” Kaylec’s voice was rising in pitch, as it tended to do when he argued, which meant he usually lost arguments11. “You really think—”

“—Shut up,” Stormpike cut in. Kaylec sucked in a breath12 to launch into a rebuttal, but Stormpike had already launched himself out of his chair and was striding towards the head. “I said shut up.” He stuffed balled up rag into Kaylec’s mouth, kept especially for the purpose. “I need to think.” He began to pace. Something had sparked.

Again.

Two sparks in as many days. Maybe it was a sign? Maybe he’d been touched? Maybe it was something he ate? Maybe….

He shook his head, he had to focus and not get distracted. What was it? Something had triggered. Something the old wizard said… no! Something *he* himself had said! He paced, stopped… maybe pacing was bad for this, maybe he should go back to where he was sitting, retrace the conversation…

Focus! Maybe killing someone would help. What was it he said? Whore. Cuckold. What was it!?

And then it struck him, or re-struck him, or it had started to strike, hit pause on the DVR Cosmic so it could go to the bathroom, came back, hit play, and finished striking him.

“Fate,” he invoked, and that’s the only way to describe it, it wasn’t a call, not an address, but an invocation. “Fate, Mistress of Destiny13,” he thought it a good idea to use her title with the most youthful connotation. “Knowest thou mine heart and my head,” he prayed14. “You know what I want ( ropping the anachronistic pronouns and verb endings because he wasn’t sure if “want” becomes “wantest”15, so he thought it better to be safe than consistent. “I ask not for thy16 favor. I ask for no path forward, no divine aid, I offer no sacrifice, no tribute but this.” He dropped to one knee17 and squeezed his one eye shut18. “Whatever your will, success or failure, good or ill, I take whatever thou givest.” He spread his arms wide. “Do what thou willest,” he drew his sword and planted the tip down. “I accept it all.” Then, he ran his bare palm up the edge and gripped the riccaso19. Blood poured down, his blood, on his blade. Despite the reverent (albeit inconsistent) grammar and dramatic flourish, the most important thing is he meant ever word, and every word had an exact meaning. There was no wiggle room, no parsing the meaning of a word or phrase. He would accept Fate’s decree. But acceptance is not resignation. If he was going to fail, it would be trying to achieve victory, not in a que waiting for his number to be called. He would move forward and take what fate dished out. He’d take it as it is, as it was, and what it would be and he would do it his own way, and then what ever fate befell him would be truly his.

He rose, pulled the rag out of Kaylec’s mouth, and wrapped his hand with it20. “Interesting,” the head observed. “But you forgot the candles and incense, ” he added as sarcastically as an upside-down severed head can. Stormpike grabbed a dusty oilcloth from a table, which immediately altered the wizard’s tone. “Oh, come one, I was just joking, I—” he was cut off mid sentence as the oilcloth fell over him, and immediately started to snore. Stormpike relished the relative silence. True, the wizard’s snoring would eventually grate (he had the annoying habit of holding his breath after a snore and before exhaling. Stormpike would wait there, waiting for the loud exhalation to come, and it would never be a consistent length. Sometimes his snore would flow right into the exhale, others it would drag on before he exploded out, always with a “P” sound. It drove Stormpike mad21).

He returned to his desk, grabbed pen and paper22, dipped the quill23, tapped the excess ink on the rim of the bottle, jerked his elbows out, and limbered up the ol’ writing wrist, ready to plan in meticulous detail, dot every “I”, cross every “T”24. He made squiggles in the air above the paper25, like a sprinter runs in little circles before a race26. He rolled his shoulders, his tongue poking out of the corner of his mouth in concentration.

Seconds stretched. Not into minutes27, but that time just before that, when the imperceptible moment becomes perceptible, that moment in line at the checkout counter when you decide to look at your watch28 or when you’re at the doctor’s office and finally pick up Highlights29. For Stormpike, that moment was when he realized he wasn’t writing a thing. Nothing was coming. He was drawing a blank. Literally, he drew a number one, period, and then a blank line ( like, 1. ) hoping it would spur something. Anything. He then added a roman numeral “I30” up and to the left. He pondered a bit before adding a period after the “I”. He mulled this over before adding an indented “A.” Under the “1”. Frustrated, he scribbled out what he’d written and crumpled the paper31. He smacked his forehead, hoping that some idea might dislodge from some corner where it was stuck and grabbed another sheet of paper32.

The ink on his pen had dried, so he dipped the quill, tap tapped the excess ink on the rim of the bottle, jerked his elbows out and started all over again.

***

Mokrado regretted not taking a bigger step into the room. She would have liked to take a big, Reggie Jackson style swing withe her ax, but she’d stopped just past the door frame (or where it would have been had she not smashed it), she didn’t have the room behind her. Quickly taking in the surroundings, her first thought is that her smashing down of the door had somehow caused a huge hole in the wall leading to the next room where a body lay in a pool of blood. She recognized the courtesan and the ‘fling kneeling next to her, but not the unconscious female nor the dark man holding her up. Then she noticed that it looked as if the woman head had been twisted around33. Obviously he had to die.

I assure you, there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for this,” Jacek explained, reasonably. Mokrado stepped forward, menacingly, before menacingly swinging her axe in a menacing arc with one hand and slapping the haft into the other with a menacing smack.

“Hold on,” exclaimed Jacek as he tried to hold out his hand, but as there was no longer one at the end of his arm, his stump would have to suffice. Which it wouldn’t. The Orcish reputation as ruthless, implacable warriors34 rested in no small part in that holding up one’s hand was one of the many things that failed to deter them. She twisted at the hips, the energy in her backswing coiling like (a pre affair) Tiger Woods.

Jacek flung the witch out of his arms, catching her wrist with his, and spun, like a pair of ballroom dancers35, twirling out and under the axe blade slicing through the air just above his head.

“I don’t want to hurt you, Orc36,” He let the witch go and her momentum carried her towards the bed, while Jacek’s sent him in the opposite direction.

You’re existence hurts me,” she snarled.

“It’s all a misunderstanding, she’s a client,” he said, leaping over Mokrado’s low, second attack, before landing and sliding on a bunched up rug across the wooden floor. It all became clear to her. Some kinky sex game got out of hand.

“I’ll bet,” she said as she twisted and stuck out her back leg, stomping on the rug and flinging Jacek forward who immediately tucked into a roll.

“No, I mean her parents are my clients —” he added before Mokrado’s derisive37 snort cut him off. “Not like that!”

“We don’t have time for this!” he said (not knowing the daunting page count that lay ahead). Mokrado swung overhand, let go of her axe with one hand while loosening the grip with the other, the centrifugal force sliding the haft through her grip before clamping her hand down on the end just before there was no handle left and giving her attack extra reach.

It wasn’t enough.

Her axe sliced off 1/16th of his boot heels as he rolled passed before burying itself in the wood floor.

Parvo, meanwhile, was smearing an ointment38 the courtesan’s still frozen to the doorknob hand39. He knew that there are only two types of people, those who cower and those who act. He wanted to act, but he didn’t know what action he should take. He knew he couldn’t flee. Elves don’t flee, elves don’t surrender40, and they never, ever panic. Multum Parvo, human, was panicking, however. He wanted desperately to run out the door and down the stairs to safety (or as much safety could be afforded in a world ruled by an evil demigod). Since fleeing was out of the question, he thought he’d do the opposite, wade into the fray. But one whose side?

Jacek spun, and rocked back slightly as he stopped his momentum, ready to lunge and run the orc through, when three black darts came whistling at him. It was no chivalric impulse that had spurred Parvo into attacking Jacek, he just hoped that a word from Mokrado might get him a refund. Deftly, he slapped two away with his sword, the third he merely had to twitch his head a bit letting it miss by less than an inch. This was getting out of hand, he thought.

Suddenly, getting conjugated into got.

The air itself seemed to shudder. To Jacek and Parvo, it felt like a toothache, ear ache, paper cut, stubbed toes (big and pinkie) stepping on a lego in bare feet, burning the roof of your mouth with pizza and the cheese sticking up there, a leg cramp, and a kick to the groin all at the same time. For Mokrado and the courtesan, it was the same, except for the nutshot, but substituted by whatever the female equivalent41 is, cramps? The office thermostat is too low? No idea. Plainly, I don’t understand women, (For instance, why don’t they realize “Titanic”is a bad movie?42) but in any case, it was decidedly un-good.

“What was that?” asked Parvo. The courtesan’s response was enigmatic at best: she vomiting on him. Jacek’s while more coherent, was far more troubling.

“That was the Infernal Police43,” His words froze everyone (not that anyone was moving, but had they been it would have ceased, up to, and including, sneezing). “They just cordoned off the area and they’ll be here any minute44.”

Tales of the Infernal Police were legendary. They were the uniformed bogeyman, the sanctioned monster under the bed. Used by parents to threaten their children, used by children to threaten their parents45 . They tending to kill and ask questions later (which, they could actually do, death being no escape46). They were the Drodkip’s blunt instrument, the carpet bomb to Stormpike’s precision drone strike, the Thomas Kincade to his Monet47, the Guy Fieri to his Auguste Escoffier. The Infernal Police were sent in when subtlety was not desired48, but where if the mere display of overwhelming force wasn’t enough, overwhelming death would do.

Mokrado immediately thought of the banned book in her vest. Even if she managed to not get executed, there was no way she was going to make her book club’s meeting tonight (and she was in charge of the snacks this week). Parvo had reasons of his own for not wanting to meet the Infernal Police. It wasn’t thoughts of death that haunted him, but something much, much worse; Shame49. Even if he made it through the questioning alive50, there was little chance he’d get to present his petition, let alone save his village. He thought of returning ito his village in failure, to live out the rest of his days confirmed as the pathetic joke they already thought him.

“I see neither of you have any desire to meet them,” Jacek said as he pulled the witch off the bed.

“What do we do?” asked Parvo as he stood, and helped the courtesan to her feet.

“Other room,” Jacek quickly seized control of the situation. He had to get his client’s daughter out of there, even if she was a witch, and there was no way he was getting her out of there on his own. Almost as fast as it takes your dog to notice you’ve got KFC (but just “almost”), he formulated a plan. It helped that it was combination of two of his contingencies (First half of #1B with #4C, to be exact) with a couple of slight modification. He stepped up to one such modification and handed off the unconscious girl to the Orc. “You,” he barked at the ‘fling.

“Multum Parvo,” he answered, putting a hand on his chest and bowing slightly.

“No names,” pronounced Jacek, causing Parvo to blush51. “Trapdoor, ceiling,” he jerked his head towards it, time being of the essence, while subject and verb were not. Parvo nodded and headed for the hole as Jacek turned to Mokrado. “Hand her up to him.” She hesitated, this was all happening too fast for her. Was it better to maybe be tortured and killed or definitely killed helping a witch? If she only had time to ponder, mull things over, to journal her thoughts. Jacek interrupted her thoughts about thinking with a shove. “Go!”

“Who is that?” she asked, referring to Jacek’s victim in a pool of blood. “Who is she? Who are you? What is going on?”

“She’s a witch,” said Parvo, poking his head down from the trapdoor. Mokrado , causing her to want to take a stutter step/jump backwards52 but she controlled herself53. She did, however, drop the witch.

“She’s not a witch —” Jacek replied, completely believable in that disturbing way that some people have (like friends who tell you, “You should write a book,” and you think that means they actually want to read what you write54).

“But —” It was as much Jacek’s stare as his hand drifting towards his sword that shut him up. Mokrado looked at the unconscious figure on the floor, still dubious.

“She’s a client,” he softened his tone as he bent down, beckoning the orc to follow his lead. She looked at the disheveled bed, and eyed Jacek, suspiciously.

“Is this a kinky sex thing?” She asked.

“No, I mean her parents are my clients —”

“A really kinky sex thing,” interjected Parvo. Before the banter could continue55, the sound of a commotion below got the last word in56.

“You know where the brimstone silo is?”

“No!” came the voice of Parvo from the dark of the attic. Jacek pinpointed the place where the sound of his voice had issued from and wondered if stabbed at the ceiling hard enough, he could thrust through and kill the ‘fling. Mokrado meanwhile, nodded in the affirmative.

“But the Infernal Police —”

“Can track you, but I’ve got decoy tracks set up that will send them on a wild bat57 chase,” The sound of the main door breaking and the blowing of Police Whistles quickened his speech. “Go west, across roofs, not on the ground, stay on roofs.” She easily lifted the girl over her head.

“Are you people insane!?” screamed the courtesan. Parvo’s head poked down from the ceiling, Mokrado stopped, the girl held over her head. “She’s a witch!” she said as she wiggled her hand, still frozen to the doorknob. “Why are you helping her? Why are you listening to him? She’s a witch, that’s why the police are here! You think what they’re going to do is worse than what they’ll do if they catch you? Or if she wakes up?” Jacek was worried, her words were having an effect. The ‘fling and the orc were thinking and that’s the last thing he wanted. He thought about killing the harlot, but that might be seen as an admission she was right.

“You stay here, you die, simple as that,” Jacek said.

“So? It is our duty to our lord and sovereign, the Dread —,” the courtesan’s words were out short by the small dart that struck her in the neck and sending her slumping to the ground. Jacek looked up at Parvo.

“Nice.” Parvo smiled as he grabbed the girl and hauled her up. “Where was I? Oh! Roofs until you reach Damnation Park. Then anyway you can get to the Silo, do it. Inside is a pentagram, step over it with the girl, and they won’t be able to track you”. He had fully assumed that the victim’s family would hunt down the perpetrator, so he had spent almost 20%58 of his fee on covering his escape, with both a false trail and a way to obscure59 the true one. Mokrado easily leapt up and grabbed the edges of the trapdoor before hauling herself up. “You must have her with you, it’s tied to her, so if you ditch her, the ward won’t hide you.” This was a bald faced lie, but he couldn’t have them ditching her before hand.

“You’re not coming?” Mokrado asked.

“Someone has to hold them off,” he said as he turned and strode toward the door in a way that if this were a movie, it would make the trailer, the effect of which was slightly ruined when his boot slid in the pool of blood and then gingerly stepping until he was through.


  1. As in female dog. No matter how you treat her, she’s always with you, ever vigilant, even if you abuse her. Loyal to those she loves, vicious to her enemies (but a few treats can make them into loved ones) and will occasionally poop in the house.

  2. But “etcetera” is not one of them.

  3. She used to like “Destiny” until strippers started using it.

  4. Including the use of unnecessarily big words.

  5. Which really didn’t float her boat, but she appreciated the gesture.

  6. Which you could tell because he sucked his teeth and tore paper in long, thin strips, and then tore those into little bits of confetti

  7. I plan to offer 1:6 scale versions as paperweights. I remain undecided as to whether Christmas Tree ornaments are in bad taste, but if someone wants to sell unlicensed ones on Etsy, go for it.

  8. Along with, “Do you know how fast you were going?”, “You actually like him/her/it?” and “what were you thinking?”

  9. Fate is a woman, and that is not a slight on females, only that a male eventually grow bored and will eventually stop. A woman will never, ever stop trying to screw you over if you’ve got on her bad side. Ever. Trust me (and a word of advice, the more legitimate you think the explanation, “but that was a long time ago” the less she’ll find it.

  10. Which, admittedly, dragged, but Kaylec felt what it lacked in narrative drive, it made up for in stylistic beauty, and was loath to drop it permanently.

  11. Because most arguments are won on stylistic grounds, not on their merits.

  12. Which wasn’t strictly necessary given the fact he lacked a body, and therefore lungs, but teaching oneself to not breath ain’t easy

  13. She had various titles in addition to her many names, but this was the only one he knew.

  14. laying it on a bit thick, but it felt right

  15. It doesn’t.

  16. And the anachronisms make a comeback

  17. Called a genuflection, you cultureless swine.

  18. Technically, he squeezed both eyes shut, but one was behind the patch.

  19. The unsharpened part of the blade just above the quillons (which I could call the crossguard, but riccaso just goes with quillions.

  20. Which was highly unsanitary. Kaylec had hung there 10,000 years without the ability to brush his teeth, so we’re talking monitor lizard levels of teaming swarms of bacteria.

  21. And by far the worse part, is that there was no reason for it, Kaylec had no lungs, no need to breath even. At one point, Stormpike dropped the head in a glass jar full of water and marveled as bubbles, burst from Kaylec’s mouth. Where did the air come from? Were they magic, or was there some invisible portal bringing air in? Or a partial leading to some place where his lungs sat? Stormpike drank long and heavily that night.

  22. Technically it was parchment, but “pen and parchment”? Sounds off, right? A little douche, too.

  23. Raven feather, naturally.

  24. Neither of which existed in their alphabet, but its a good translation of “Slash every [thing that looks like a pasta spoon wearing a tu tu], and pierce every [squiggly sideways cat-eye]”

  25. Parchment (which is made from animal skin… and I’ll leave exact animal to your imagination, because, frankly, I’m getting tired of doing all the work here. You gotta hold up your end of the relationship! This ain’t slumping on the couch and watching TV with a laugh track telling you something’s funny. This is a participatory art, so participate!)

  26. Or like that Australian Hurdler girl in that video on the internet. You see that? That’s some good stuff, man. Yowza.

  27. Because if it had been that long, it would be boring and I would have cut it out with a “later…”

  28. Or cellphone, if you’re one of those (and why do so many of them say “I don’t wear a watch”, in the same tone as “I went to Harvard”? You don’t wear a watch, I do. So? They’re preferences with no relative valuation. That being said, get a watch, vulgarian).

  29. Only to discover some kid has CIRCLED THE HIDDEN OBJECTS! They say that torturing animals is an early indicator of a psychopath, but I say it’s ruining “find the object” (and don’t get me started on using a pen to do it, either). Seriously, though, you’re horrible parents if your kids do this (or if you’re the one doing it, your parents were horrible, and while I’m glad you managed, against overwhelming odds, to learn to read, I assume you stole this book).

  30. Well, the Eorðe equivalent, which in our world many would find offensive.

  31. Still parchment. Also, that animal I told you to come up with? A bit cliché. Come on, you can do better.

  32. This time, it really was paper. From a tree. A talking, sentient tree. Named Gysseuin. R.I.P. Gysseuin, we hardly knew ye.

  33. Backwards dress, remember?

  34. Considered so implacable, that the term “unrelenting implacability” was often used to describe the Orcish variety(and when a synonym is used as as its adverb, you’ve hit the big times)

  35. Where one is unconscious, the other only has one hand, and neither of them wears glitter, sequins, or spray tan.

  36. “Orc” was the gender neutral term for either a male or female Orc, not that equality was the reason, it was also their word for “he”, “she”, “great” (as in, “That steak was Orc!”), “right” (“You’re totally Orc”), and most importantly, their equivalent to “dude”.

  37. While it could be argued that adding “Derisive” is unnecessary, it should be noted that unlike humans, Orcs possessed a rich and varied repertory of snorts, nuanced with subtle shadings of meaning.

  38. Which Parvo himself actually bottled and sold under the pirated name “Prof. Piddlemulch’s Patented Magical Medicament & Linement (extra strength, daytime formula, morning breeze scent)”, there being no actual patent, copyright, or trademark laws any longer.

  39. Hidden pocket of his “survival” Jerkin, that he’d had for 3 years and this being the first time it’d come in handy (except for that time during the midsummer’s mummers farce when his allergies had flared and he’d dipped into his stash of giibberwort but that was just convenient and saved him from loosing his seat).

  40. As a result, Elvish lost entire armies rather than fall back and regroup, leading to catastrophic losses.

  41. It can’t be childbirth. While tied intrinsically to their sex it isn’t the same because 1) not every woman has experienced, whereas every male, to varying degrees, has and 2) the pain is linked with something else, that for many is worth going through again. If a man had to suffer a nutshot before procreating, the species would die out.

  42. Let’s face it, had Jack survived, they would have stayed in New York so he could pursue his “art” and would have started cheating on Rose with his “french girls” within six months. She would have had to get work in a sweat shop to provide for themselves and the child on its way. His resentment grew, as well as his drinking, until one night when it became physical. Ashamed, he rushed out of the tenement, before finding the opium dens in Chinatown. He’s called up for World War I, and she takes him back and helps him clean up, but his past comes back to haunt them both when he passes along his syphillus to her, before being confined to an iron lung due to a mustard gas attack. Also, their kids die of influenza.

  43. The Heolseward. Clad all in black save for a red sash and khamsa (upside-down hand with an eye in the palm) pinned on their chest. The sash wasn’t pinned to their chest, that was wrapped around their waist, oh, you know what I mean.

  44. In Eorðe, a minute was 120 seconds long, but an hour was the same length as ours which meant it there were 30 Eorðeian minutes per day (although their time system was trigesimal, their counting system was bijective-hexavigesimal).

  45. So feared, in fact that when they stormed a house, neighbors would not poke their heads out, or mingle about trying to catch a glimpse of the goings on, but would head to the cellars or attics or hide in cupboards. Imagine in our own world a crime scene where there was no one gathered around the police tape. No one. Crazy, right? That’s what the Infernal Police were like.

  46. In fact, much like sheriffs deputies must often times serve in county jails before graduating to patrol, The Heolseward was first killed and then spent time in the Shadowlands questioning the dead (it being easier than resurrecting each person they needed info from) before being returned to the land of the living.

  47. Or is it Manet? It’s not, Mamet, he wrote “Glen Gary Glen Ross”. The one with the lilies, but I’m thinking of his Notre Dame works as opposed to the “Painter of Light”.

  48. Like Stormtroopers at the beginning of Star Wars, with better aim… but with swords. And they wore black, and you could see their faces, so if you think about it, they weren’t like Stormtroopers at all except they always rushed through the breach, full speed ahead.

  49. Shame, that living death so terrible that, of course, no one can resist doing it to someone else.

  50. All “interviews” by the Infernal Police involved torture.

  51. To blush that way that only happens in novels. How many people in real life have you seen blush? Really, really blush? Sure, you’ve felt your cheeks get hot, but then you realize a) It wasn’t noticeable to anyone else, and b) everyone else is worried about themselves and wouldn’t have even noticed had your cheeks actually become red. But in novels, people always blush, even though it’s not a visual medium. Ever seen someone blush in a movie? I thought not. Novels can enter into someone’s mind, you could write, “he felt embarrassed,” if you’re being utilitarian, or “His face felt flush,” which gives us the sense of blushing, or you could even go so far as to write “He felt like a kindergartner who peed his corduroys during recess, hid behind a tree until the bell and ran home.” which would have the benefit of reflecting real life (but not my life. A friend’s life. Not me. Nope).

  52. like getting up in the morning, walking into the bathroom and seeing a spider when you flip the lightswitch

  53. like you have to do when you see the girl you’re dating without makeup for the first time, not that she looks bad, just different.

  54. Only to discover what they actually meant was, “I’m sick of hearing your nonsense, go write it down so you can try it get it published, fail, and give up on this pipe dream. (Unless it works out, then I’ll take credit. But I’m still not gonna read it).”

  55. Don’t worry, there will be plenty more banter to come. So much in fact, that much will be pared down or edited out completely only to surface again in various revised, expanded, definitive, anniversary, annotated, and omnibus editions that are sure to follow after its success. A success none of the successive works achieved, leaving the author bitter, until some young person, probably unfamiliar with his works, arrives and teaches the old man to live again, reconcile with his family and his legacy before succumbing to death which galvanizes the young person to pursue his/her/its (it being the future, the young person could be a robot, alien, or even a genetically recreated dinosaur) destiny.

  56. The most important part of banter

  57. Bats served much the same function in their world as ours, even down to similar expressions. For example, their domesticated bats ran about thirty pounds (any bigger, and the meat got too tough) and were often eaten at holidays. Ironically, their geese were known to suck people’s blood.

  58. As a new killwright, he wasn’t eligible for a discount

  59. Much like stealth technology only reduces a radar profile and doesn’t eliminate it, it wasn’t possible to completely eliminate one’s tracks, but for all practical purposes they would be safe, unless Phobos decided to personally investigate by reversing time to replay the incident, or invading the mind of every lenient being to discover the truth, but such for all practical purposes, they would be safe.

Chapter Two

Chapter Two








Jacek Larkspur

Although humans had taken to evil with remarkable alacrity, love could not be completely eliminated, or at least the idea of love. He was from a family of myomancers, divining the future from the behavior of rats, While she was from a family of myrmomancers, divining the future from the tracks of ants. They were from two different worlds,1 and a love like theirs was impossible. Their parent’s disapproval entirely justified. hers did what any worthy myrmomancer parents with a modicum of good sense and decent breeding2 in their place would do; they hired an assassin.

Oh, not to permanently consign him to oblivion3, just mild torment until his family or friends could raise him up again, either alive or undead4. To that end they turned to the Guild of Death & Destruction (Local 329)5, seeking an assassin of exceptional skill, dedication, and cunning. Unfortunately, he proved too expensive and they settled on Jacek Larkspur.

Jacek strolled down the Avenue of Impalement just beyond where it crossed Impalement Avenue North (which ran East-West) and one block over from the Avenue of Impalements (plural), and near the "Avenue of Implements", a used torture device consignment store. He attempted to casually slip down an alley, but as one could at any moment be set upon by bandits, attacked by a vampire, or possessed by some dark spirit, strolling was not something one saw much of in the city of Phobopolis6 Primus7. It was generally accepted that it was best to keep your head down, accept your lot, and hope to die early, and maybe the Drodkip won’t notice and let your soul wander aimlessly in the unlife of the Shadowlands, forever betwixt the locked gates of the Halls of the Sun and the Pits of Screams.8

But Jacek was recently out of his indentures and newly licensed and accredited as a Journeyman Killwright9, his confidence in his own abilities, while not misplaced, did make him stand out amongst the general population’s furtive movements and shifty glances10, but such things came with experience. He made his way down the alley, its walls greasy and black like the pan of drippings under a BBQ11, a young man with a limitless future of discord and mayhem. Unlike most of the other young Killwrights in the guild, he was not going to content himself with one or two contracts a month with the time in-between spent in scarlet rooms filled with sin and iniquity, piss drunk and suffering from something that no physician’s leach or witches brew could cure.12 No, he had big plans.

He was going to make death his bitch.

His mood was so good in fact, that as he passed a man nursing a bottle of spirits13 in the alley, Jacek drew his rapier14, ran him through, and replaced the blade in its scabbard without breaking his stride, a bounce in his step that only comes with giving away one’s services for free15.

Jacek stopped where the alley dead ended, patted all his pockets and pouches, making sure he had all the things he needed, the things he might need, and the things he hoped he wouldn’t need. He then thumbed the hilt of his sword three times, making sure it could be drawn. It was time.

He made a sign with his fingers16[/ref], and a swirl of glowing green vapour17 coalesced into a Demkling, the lowest18 order of demon. Having already scouted and rehearsed the job, he had no need to break silence, his demon knew what to do and with two tentacles created a sling for Jacek to step into, while with two other segmented limbs it grabbed one wall of the alley’s corner and with two clawed limbs, it grabbed the other wall and proceeded to climb up19.

Once at the top, Jacek dismissed his monstrosity with a perfunctory wave of his hand, and looked about, looking for anything amiss. Nothing was, it was as it had been the three previous nights. He removed the bottled spell from his belt and set it on the roof along with his pack. Killing was easy, but doing so without getting killed yourself was an art. He fully expected the victim’s family to seek revenge, so he would cover his tracks, otherwise he could have just walked in the front door. When he made his escape, he’d break the spell bottle, blotting out anyone’s ability to track him by magic. It was not a cheep spell, in fact, it would eat nearly fifty percent of his profit on the job, but he was very careful.

He’d even bothered to follow the girl for a few days, just to make sure there were no unforeseen consequences. Pretty boring girl, really. She had a conventionally beautiful face, but not exactly memorable, sort of like a small market newscaster. Worse, she wore long dresses, so he couldn’t get a look at her legs. Not worth dying over.

He checked all his equipment, again, in the exact same pattern as he had below, and made sure his blade slid in scabbard, in and out, three times. You see, Jacek had OCD.20 Not severe, and beneficial to his profession in many ways, but in an ironic twist, for someone who needed order and control, his condition was something he couldn’t. Of course, he didn’t realize his condition, he just assumed that stepping across seems in the road with alternate feet was the right way to to do it, and figured other people’s failure to do so was their lack of perception at the intrinsic wrongness of not doing it. Satisfied all was in order, or was not in disorder, Jacek leapt from rooftop to rooftop, with nary21 a sound.

Stopping and stooping at a particular peaked red roof, Jacek jimmied the whorled window of an appropriate attic.

\*\*\*

With disapproving families with the ability to foretell their plans, the young lovers found it difficult22 to arrange their assignations. But nowhere else is humanity as willing to persevere, endure hardships, remain resolute, determined, and steadfast, than two teenagers determined to rut. Like Leonidas at Thermopylae or Horatius on the Bridge, they refused to surrender.

Their current rendezvous was in many ways a stroke of brilliance. Each could tell their parents exactly where they were going, no need to lie and sneak as long as they arrived at separate times. And their parents were thrilled, what possible trouble could one get up to there? Was it not their duty as parents to encourage their visits? Was there anyplace better to get their infatuation out of their system?

So they met at a brothel. While the rhythmic sound men succumbing to their animalistic nature and women mimicking theirs reverberated through the walls, the young lovers embraced, exchanged vows of undying love, while the occupants of adjacent rooms exchanged money, their room a bastion of rightness in a universe gone to rot.

They fell to the bed, fumbling with their clothes, not noticing the attic hatch swing down nor the silent figure dropping from the scuttle hole. As he landed, silently, Jacek drew his blade, his mind and body as one. Like a cat stalking its prey, there was only the kill. His heart beat slow and steady, all emotion, all desire, drained and set aside.

The girl giggled, crawled under the covers, they boy went to follow suit as Jacek slipped behind him, grabbed him by the collar and slit his throat, let go of the collar with a twist, imparting just the right amount of spin to the boy’s body such that he spurted an arc of blood across the room23 as he fell. He then cast demon-sign, and was lifted back into the attic, the door closing silently behind him, before the girl even knew what was happening.

That was the plan.

As he finished his cut, and spun him, there was no spray of blood, it just blurpt out, like a chocolate fountain at a buffet. While disappointing, it was just a failure of aesthetics, not of skill. No, the real problem was as the body dropped, Jacek glanced up and saw the girl’s head already peaking out of the sheets. Thoughts flooded into his brain, had he miscalculated? Had he made a noise? Did he step in something and she smelled it? If so, does that mean he has poopy boots? Why aren’t her eyes bulging in shock and surprise, and instead, why are they narrowing?

And the girl launched herself out of the bed and at Jacek. He slid back, wondering how to extricate himself. What he wanted to do was just run the girl through, but her parents were his clients, and although not stated explicitly, he took it that they didn’t want her killed. Or harmed (another set of options off the table). He ducked under an attack of fingernails. Now teeth, barely avoided, followed by a foot, which wasn’t. She was giving him no quarter, her eyes wild, bubbly spittle on her lips as she growled. She lunged, but he anticipated it and used her momentum to . She bounced off the bed and into the wall.

“Oops,” he grimaced.

And that was when he realized she was naked. The boy had been the focus of the job, but he had put some time observing her habits. He’d thought her a bit skinny for his tastes, but some people are meant to be naked, and she was one of them. But now was not the time, nor the place… well, it was the place, but nevermind…

His hand shot out, and he began to cast his demon, the girl glowering at him across the room, too far away to stop him—

—Her skin began to turn green. Oh, shit, he thought, she’s a witch.

She threw a green ball of flame, missing low and to the left. He was about to smirk in a way that he thought was roguishly charming, but reminded others of a stroke victim, when he felt an intense, searing pain at his wrist. He looked down. There was his wrist, his smoldering wrist. Just his wrist.

His hand was gone.

\*\*\*

Multum Parvo

He passed the door four time; twice, before realizing it was a door, once, wondering if it was the right door, and finally, whether he should go through with it. Multum Parvo didn’t think his first time would be like this, then again he thought it would have happened at some point in the last twenty-three years, although to be fair, he’d only been been interested in it for the past eight. He took a breath24, a nervous, stuttering breath. What if the password25 he’d been given was wrong? Outdated? Maybe someone was playing a trick on him, and were waiting to laugh at him? He knocked. It was the bravest thing he’d ever done.

The peephole slid open, filled by an eyeball, cyclops being the preferred go-to for peephole manning. The cyclops grunted, the rumble raising in intonation at the end, indicating a question. Multum stammered the password, barely loud enough for himself to hear, let alone the doorkeep. The cyclops grunted, leaned forward to hear better, bumped into the door, and turned his head, giving his ear that critical change in distance and angle so as to better hear26. Multum, gulped, a cartoon character gulp, loud and his adams apple bobbing. He spit out the password27, but before he had even finished, the door swung wide as the cyclops grunted with all the warmth and welcome a grunt can convey28 and suddenly, he was inside, pulled or pushed he knew not, only he knew it wasn’t under his own volition. A drink appeared in his hand, only slightly watered down, his quarterstaff replaced by cloakroom ticket, and before he could stand there awkwardly wondering what to do, the madam glided29 over to warmly30 greet him.

Two women slinked over, wearing only the suggestion of clothing, and helped him off with his cloak. He clenched. His mind, his heart, every muscle,31 every fiber32 of his being. He forced himself not to wince, as if he were anticipating a physical blow, but they just smiled at him. And not condescending smiles nor mocking, but warm, inviting smiles. Multum stood there in Lincoln green and brown deerskin, his hair in a mullet.

He was a ’fling,33 a human who wanted to be an Elf.34 Now if you were to say to Multum, or any ’Fling, “You just want to be an Elf,” They would bristle and say that they merely identified with the way of the Elder Folk, admired their bravery and honor, their affinity with nature, their struggle to maintain their culture, and their plight against the forces of modernity.

But it was poppycock35. They wanted to be Elves. They wanted to live in trees, shoot bows while leaping from branch to branch, to dance in the woods for days on end, recite poetry with the creatures of the forest, living in harmony with and never get fat.

Sure, real elves suffered from scurvy, endemic goiter, abscesses, ocular degeneration, and iron deficiencies due to their refusal to domesticate livestock or engage in agriculture36. Reading was considered a weakness, a feeble crutch for man’s inability to commit knowledge to memory. Even metalworking was frowned upon, the dwarf blacksmith37 had to be situated as far away from the tribe’s sacred tree as possible, for digging up metals was “rape of Mother Eorðe”. Weak or scrawny babies were left in the branches of the Soul Tree as a sacrifice to the Goddess Kar Danu and her retainers38. Then again, Multum could be forgiven for not knowing these things, he’d never met an Elf.

Until now.

With a nearly imperceptible gesture from the madam, an elvish female, tall and lithe, glode39 over. Elves, by nature, are regal, aloof, elegant, and inscrutable40. Multum, smart enough to realize he couldn’t pull any of those off at the moment, decided to freeze41. Without so much as a glance at him, the Elven courtesan took his hand as she glid past42 and led him upstairs.

\*\*\*

A shoulder, an ear, and a cascade of golden hair. That was his whole world as he followed her up the stairs, and it was enough. He didn’t “bro-out” and slow down to let her get ahead so he could check out her butt, he didn’t do the pathetic hair-sniff. He was, for the first time in his life, completely in the moment. All of his fears and anxieties,43 and there were a considerable number, forgotten. Is this what normal people feel like all the time? He thought. Of course, thinking about it pulled him out of the moment and all his anxieties came flooding back, and for once, some were legitimate.

Multum was an herbalist from hinterlands, his village known for brewing beer, especially its I.P.A.44 But there was a dispute over water rights with the neighboring village45. Multum had been tasked as his village’s champion petition Drodkip himself for redress. The village elders were fairly certain of success, but Drodkip had a habit of consuming the petitioner no matter his decision, so they bandied about terms like “Noble Quest”, “Hero”, “Noble Hero”, “Hero’s Quest”, “Hero’s Nobility”, etc. Multum, they said, would be their savior, his name invoked down through the ages, echoing through the halls of time.

Multum had no illusions, he knew the village despised him and as one of two herbalists in the village and could be spared. Or perhaps despised is too strong a word, he had never been bullied, never outright mocked, or ostracized, but he could see in the people an exasperation, as if they had long ago lost all patience with him. His every interaction seemed to grate on them, as if it were dinnertime and he was a telemarketer for the same company that had been told “not interested” and “please don’t call again” multiple times.

But the thing had be done, the danger faced. Although a man, inside flowed the blood of an elf.46 Sure, it wasn’t technically him doing anything, the village elders didn’t trust him enough, so they had written the petition down and he wasn’t even supposed to read it out loud but hand it to the Drodkip directly47. It mattered not. He would go before his dread lord and face death like a man elf.

But before he went to his fate, there was her.

She guided him into the room, spun him around and started to undo his jerkin as she backed him into the bed. He noticed that she was slightly annoyed at the rather exuberant sounds issuing through the thin walls. He noticed! He could read an Elf’s emotions! Most humans couldn’t, but he could. Had he developed the skill? Was it inborn in him? Was there some bond between the elven woman and he united them in understanding?

His train of thought jumping tracks her hands went up his tunic and somehow managed to undo the lacing from the inside. She smiled, proud of her trick, and pushed him down on the bed, spread his knees apart, and crawled over him. A loud THUMP caused him to jerk his head in the direction of wall, she turned it back with her forefinger. She straddled him, taking his hands in hers, guiding them towards her chest, his eyes growing larger as the distance grew shorter, inversely proportional as his fingers floated closer, until the tips felt the body heat radiating from her.

That was when Jacek came CRASHING through the wall.

\*\*\*

Mokrado Moorditch

From behind the bar, she took note of the new client, gave the "Have a good time but watch your step" look that marks the distinction between a Bartender who can keep the patrons in line and a mere Goon who knows which end of a mug faces up.48 The ‘fling wasn’t paying attention, but it wasn’t intended for him anyway, but to demonstrate her dedication to the madam who paid her salary. She watched as he was led up the stairs, thinking he was rather cute, for a human. She smiled to herself, quickly forced herself to stop, aware that humans couldn’t distinguish between an Orc’s threatening displays of fang and happy ones.

And Mokrado Moorditch was certainly an Orc. Nearly six foot six, with skin the color of the flesh of an avocado. Not guacamole and not turning brown, but that green to yellow mix of a good Haas or maybe a Fuerte.49 She kept her silvery-white hair short but well styled and favored clothes that displayed her impressive musculature. It’s true one tusk was shorter than the other, but that just gave her an approachability, like a hot chick with glasses.

She had come to the capitol to study Thrall & Subjugation at University, but the city had proved much more expensive than her parents had budgeted for and she was forced to take up goonery to pay for mac ‘n cheese & ramen50. And she did enjoy the work. While not a devout Orc, she was proud of her heritage and thuggery kept her in touch with her people’s proud heritage of wanton violence and destruction.

She waited until the coast was clear, continued to clean the same mug with the same rag as she had been all night, and looked down at the book she had behind the bar. Her hand was big enough to cover the opened book completely, so she wasn’t worried about being found out (reading being being generally frowned upon), and few of the other employees would give her a hard time, for most of them had grown up in the capitol and had never had much interaction with Orcs so all she had to do was keep eye contact just a bit too long and they would begin to fret that she was thinking of eating them. Besides, she had to finish before her bookclub (The Weltanschauungen Orotund Quodlibet Society for the Ratiocination of the Welträthsel without Obloquy)51 later that night52.

Cracking skulls by day, and books by night. Sure, she wished she could integrate the aspects of herself better, perhaps after college when she began to enslave town and villages,53 brawn and brain united.

Yet, there was a third aspect to her, a dangerous, forbidden aspect. Few suspected, and fewer knew. They met in shadows and in a world riven with evil, there are some really dark shadows but with a secret so terrible, they met in the shadow of shadows. Only there, could it be admitted.

Mokrado was an atheist.

Oh sure, she knew that Drodkip existed, she wasn’t a full blown Denialist54, but she knew that the Gods were fairy tales. Cythraul & Hundun, had not wrestled until they ripped each other apart, the pieces becoming the Old Ones, the Gods of Chaos & Entropy. Their children, the Gods of Light & Dark had not waged war, creating stars as weapons. She knew that the New Gods had not unleashed the Divine Mathamatics, adding their power, subtracting the Old One’s. Dividing their enemies, multiplying their forces. The square and the root did not lay siege, and they had not loosed IT, the null set, the empty pit of nothingness, the great void, the Nothing That Is a Number, the chasm of non-existence, the Great and Terrible ZERO by which the Old Ones were thus divided.

All utter shite made up by primitives to make sense of a world ruled by an undeniably powerful being, but one’s whose powers derived from natural, not supernatural means. After all, if Phobos were a God, why would he need to persecute certain avenues of inquiry and various schools of thought? She believed in reason. In facts. In her axe. Her two handed, two headed battle axe that she kept behind the bar.

As soon as she heard the CRASH from upstairs, she palmed her book and slipped it in her waistband, at the small of her back. As soon a she heard the scream, her hand went to her axe.

Now there are two type of screams possible in a den of sin and iniquity; the first is one that elicits eye rolls from the employees55. It was not that kind of scream. The other category, of which said scream fell, is to Goons as the sound of the can opener brings out the cat.

***

Falke Ostringer

She could kick herself.56 Everything was ruined, her secret exposed. Not to mention, she was physically exposed, completly naked.57 Rather than go for a killing blast, she widened the effect, ensuring that it struck its mark and sent the one handed man crashing through the wall. It was probably too much to hope that he’d broken his neck.

He skin changed to a pink hue as she struck out her arms, her dress lifting into the air behind her, every seam unraveled, the material wrapped around her, and the thread spiraled back into the cloth, re-stitching itself and clothing her as she stepped through the hole in the wall.

“Stop!” yelled the murderer, attempting to hold up his hand which wasn’t there, and then switched to the off hand. “The police will be here any moment and you know what happens to witches!” He was right. She didn’t care. Her skin changed to a reddish orange as she began to cock back her throwing arm to launch the ball of fire forming in her hand, when she realized something wasn’t quite right.

She’d enchanted her dress on backwards.

The fact that she’d managed even that is impressive. The witch with the backwards dress, Falke Ostringer, had never used magic before. All her knowledge of spells, hexes, curses, charms, enchantments, incantations, and invocations was theoretical, which was understandable, witchcraft being the quickest route to ones soul being forcibly separated from the body and ingested by the Drodkip and its former home possessed by a “what” rather than a “whom”58.

Phobos detested witches, they made the gelatinous membrane that functioned as his skin crawl. Some say59 it was because long before he ascended to higher60 level of evil, back when he was still man and male pattern baldness had not yet gripped his noggin, that a group of witches had forced his Warlock’s Conclave61 to open up admission to them, protesting their exclusion as sexist. Of course, no Warlock could join a Coven62 of Witches, they didn’t meet the requirement.

And here lay Phobos’s real hatred, said63 others. Warlocks, being male, could not create life, whereas Witches, with their lady bits64, could. Witches possessed power over fertility, growth, even creating life itself. Warlocks could kill, destroy, corrupt, build, fortify, or enhance, but they couldn’t make so much as a flower grow, let alone create ex nihilo65. There was no way to get around it, Warlocks were just half-witches, and for that inescapable fact, all witches must die.

And to die like this, all the years of training and hiding, wasted! If she was going to expose her power, she should have just used it to restore the life of the one she loved, rather than seeking revenge.

Stupid. She dropped her arms.

Jacek, Multum, and the whore66 let out a collected held breath. Multum looked at the strumpet, his eyes bulging. The bawd’s ear was round. The fallen woman realized the direction of his stare, felt her ear and smirked. “They’re fake, honey. You didn’t think”—

They were interrupted by the sound of stupidity.

“I knew you’d see reason,” smirked Jacek as he started to stand. Multum and the painted lady’s head both swiveled in unison to the witch, who was turning the color of a raspberry icee.67 He grabbed his courtesan pulling her to her feet and dragging her towards the door at the same time. “Now we have to figure out how to get you—” Jacek looked, saw the murder in her eyes and the ice in her veins. Literally, because she drew back her arm, ripping her sleeve at the shoulder, as ice and snow swirled around her hand.

Jacek tucked and rolled, Falke held her shot, noticed the couple at the door. If the police show up…

She iced the door just as the floozy’s hand gripped the doorknob. The harlot let out a scream68 as she was stuck to the door, Multum jumped back, so as not to come in contact with her.

Falke scanned the room for assassin, her skin turning a deep orange69. Probably crouching on the other side of the bed. She had to kill him. She would avenge the death of her love, sacrificing her soul for him. His family would raise him from the dead, surely. Probably fully restored, or as much as was possible, or at least not a zombie, at least enough to know what she had done for him.

She hoped. Maybe she should tell someone before. Maybe the ’fling—

—Her eyes remained fixed on the bed as her head twitched ever so slightly in the direction of the ’fling, standing frozen70. Whether she saw the movement or felt it through the æther made little difference to the bed. Her reaction bordered on precognition, firing a white hot blast of plasma at the exact spot where Jacek would appear from behind the bed. She wasn’t wrong. Her aim was true, her instincts correct, it was just that Jacek was very, very fast.

He sprung over the bed, planting his severed stump and ignoring the pain while grabbing a pillow with his good hand, he was clear of the blast before it struck71. He threw the pillow into her face, pinned it there with the stump and punched as hard as he could.

She dropped, out cold. Breathing hard, he looked at Multum and the wench, or at least her heaving bosom72. They both stared back.73[/ref] He nodded towards the unconscious witch. “Not a mark,” he said, proudly.

At that moment the door was struck by a blow of such force, it split it in two and the pieces flying into the room, the one taking the attached woman74 with it. It had been so fast that it was only after she landed that Multum finally ducked.

And then the axe-wielding female Orc shouldered herself through the splintered door frame.



  1. Also, “too” different. Her parents made no note of the pun because 1, In their language, it wasn’t a pun and 2, Phobos had banned puns.

  2. Unlike those degenerate myomancers.

  3. Which also happened to be much more expensive as well as denying Drodkip his right to feast on it which typically drew his ire (and the ire of a nigh-omnipotent despot is an ire you don’t want drawn).

  4. Again, depending on how much they were willing to spend.

  5. The Guild had formed from the merger of the Poisoner’s Union, Assassin’s Guild, Sapper’s Co-Op, and Berserker’s Collective, and controlled most of the non-magical means of death available to the general public.

  6. All cities were named after The Dread God-King* Phobos, each distinguished by a completely arbitrary mix of numbers, letters, pre-fixes, and suffixes, (for example, Phobopolis 3, was nowhere near, Phobopolis 3rd, but was near Phobopolis III).

  7. Primus was the capital city, and seat of The Dread God-King* Phobos’s throne.

  8. Known as *Hameshta-Gehan*, *Aaru* & *Avernus*, in Elder Speak (also, "*betwixt*" is an affectation in either language).

  9. His was still using his temporary membership card.

  10. Not to mention their shifty movements and furtive glances (nor their glancy shifts or movey furts)

  11. Or one of those filthy kitchens you see on a restaurant rescue shows where the owner can’t figure out why their business is failing.Then host teaches them its wrong to yell at your employees by yelling at them and they should listen to their employees by then proceeding to chang the resteraunt and menu without their imput.

  12. Penicillin having yet to be discovered.

  13. Not alcoholic spirits, actual spirits, the spiritual essence of living things, bottled and ingested, and highly addictive.

  14. Thinner blades being more evil.

  15. Like Doctors Without Borders.

  16. West Coast, yo!

  17. Things mystical get British spellings

  18. Therefore, the cheapest.

  19. My description of the demkling’s physiognomy is deliberately vague on the off chance the reader is eating while reading.

  20. Obviously undiagnosed. The study of the mind was not unknown in Eorðe but its practical applications were relegated to weaponization.

  21. Yeah, I said “nary”

  22. Which, let’s face it, was half the appeal of their relationship.

  23. He imagined it would become his trademark, like a sickle, and he’d be dubbed “The Scythe” or “The Reaper”, or if people saw it as a happy-face, “The Deadly Smile”

  24. Through the mouth, so he wouldn’t have to smell the stench.

  25. For the record, it was “recherché

  26. He did not cup his ear because one hand held a club and the other was relieving an itch in a part of the anatomy most effected by the fact that commercially available toilet paper had yet to be introduced.

  27. Which he mispronounced.

  28. Which isn’t much.

  29. As a vampire, gliding came naturally

  30. Or as warmly as someone room temperature can manage.

  31. Which isn’t technically possible considering flexion and extension anatomical movement requires one set of the antagonistic muscle pairs to be relaxed while the other is contracted.

  32. And that’s a lot of fibers.

  33. Short for “Elfling”.

  34. Most Flings preferred “Sylvans”, but that just got them mocked even more. Also, spelling it with a “y” is just some bush league, D&D Dungeonmaster stuff.

  35. Do men wear capes? If yes: Poppycock, if no: Bullshit. Also, poppycock is literally, “soft shit”! mid 19th century: from Dutch dialect pappekak, from pap ‘soft’ + kak ’dung-

  36. If asked, they would reply, “Mother Eorðe is not a broodmare.”

  37. No Elf would soil his hands thus

  38. Many of the Elves theological battles centered on whether crows or ravens attended Kar Danu, (and Elven theological battles involve real arrows). There were some who held that crows AND ravens attended the Goddess. These were considered “squishes” and hated by both sides.

  39. If you ever saw an elf, you’d know that “glode” is the only word for it, grammatical or not.

  40. Like Hitchcock’s Blondes.

  41. Not literally, although such things did happen from time to time, it being a fetish for some.

  42. “Glid” is also grammatically acceptable when discussing Elves. Also, it’s “past” not “passed” because it’s acting as an adverb to the verb “to glide” (yes, I had to look this up).

  43. He was on prescription strength leeches.

  44. Incubus Pale Ale

  45. They manufactured poison powders, pastes, and pills

  46. Metaphorically, because if elf blood flowed in his veins, he’d be an elf (Unless he was a vampire, and that’d be only temporary, and not technically HIS blood).

  47. In essence, he was like C3-PO & R2-D2 being handed over to Jabba in “Return of the Jedi” without the rescue plan.

  48. You’d be surprised

  49. But not a Mexicola.

  50. Well, the *Eorðe*, equivalent, probably some sort of protein baked in a dough or some kind of salt preserved meat.

  51. Eliciting a slight chuckle mostly to demonstrate that they understood the words, proving once again that a group’s "funny" name is funny only to them, and even then only on a conceptual level (like a "New Yorker" cartoon).

  52. She had to remember to bring the hors d’oeuvres which they referred to as amuse-bouche because somehow hors d’oeuvres wasn’t pretentious enough for them.

  53. After an unpaid internship with a prestigious band of cutthroats, of course

  54. Denialism ranged from those who denied the existence of magic, to the existence of the Drodkip, all the way to those who denied the existence of existence, claiming instead that they were nothing but the poorly drawn dramatis personæ inhabiting a mythopoeic pastiche drawn from better works, relying on the inversion of certain tropes and conventions while engaging in meta humor to protect the author in a kind of "irony armor".

  55. For there is nothing a scarlet woman despises more than overacting

  56. Literally, she was very limber.

  57. But mostly in quick flashes or in profile, so that the only way you could see anything is to wait for the home video and pause the blu-ray or sign up for Mr. Skin

  58. Which would require another body to inhabit as the body would start to reject the grafted consciousness, form and matter being incongruous, proving Aristotle’s Hylomorphic Dualism is correct (Suck it, Descarte!)

  59. They did so quietly, for officially, there was no time before the Drodkip.

  60. Or lower, depending on your view on your view evil.

  61. The Warlock word for Coven

  62. The Witch word for Conclave

  63. Past Tense. Phobos killed anyone who said this.

  64. technical term

  65. There is no defensible reason for me to use this as opposed to “from nothing” besides it sounding cooler.

  66. Which would be the title if this were an indie film.

  67. Which is blue, for some reason.

  68. It was a good one, full throated, piercing yet smooth, with just a hint of vibrato.

  69. Like a pumpkin pie, not oompa loompa.

  70. In indecision, not in ice.

  71. Luckily, synthetics had yet to be invented, so there were no toxic fumes from the melting of the bedding material. On the other hand, there was asbestos in the ceilings and lead in the wall paint, so pick your poison.

  72. He was still a man, damnit.

  73. Both people, not her breasts, get your mind out of the gutter!

  74. And her breasts.

Chapter the First, Stuff Happens

Chapter the First, Stuff Happens

Note: This is a rough draft, be kind.

In retrospect it seemed obvious that evil would require considerable amounts of paperwork. Even many sympathetic to Phobos’s demonic aims feared that his plan to rip open the veil of the Great Void and free the Old Gods would end the world, but that would have been a blessing for the living. No, the tombs emptied of their dead, untold horrors plagued man, and roses now smelt of urine,  and from the Fiery Pits of Avernus1 issued force reams and reams of paperwork2, but the world continued to spin ’round the sun.

It was the Thirteenth Age3, ten thousand years since Phobos’s victory, and once again humans were in ascendance. The Dread  God-King4 Phobos liked to pit the various races against each other, sometimes with humans on top, sometimes Demonkind, Elves, occasionally Orcs, and once or twice Goblins, but never dwarfs5, and paperwork, not swords, is needed for such machinations.

But for the man called Lord Stormpike6, the assumption had been that the responsibility for all the paperwork would fall on other people. Oh, sure, need to torture a beloved elder to bring a recalcitrant village to heel? No end to the hands that shoot up. Flay the skin off a freckle-faced scamp with a penchant for malapropisms and cute lisp? You can always count on someone to step forward and not only get the job done but to really dedicate himself to the task at hand.

Yet when it came to correspondence, charters, requisitions, orders (both issued and rescinded), directives, approvals, authorizations, and the innumerable paper trails necessary when one couldn’t rely on the rule of law in a world turned upside down and shaken until the foundations of the world had finally broken free of the shackles of “goodness”, there were no takers. After all, since evil was triumphant, wasn’t it incumbent upon everyone to lie and cheat about their taxes? Well, yes, but Stormpike still had to see to it that there was food on the dining table and that the bedding was as free from parasites as a pre-industrial society could manage. (Also, being left-handed, Stormpike hated that he always wound up smearing the ink).

And he couldn’t count on The Dread God-King* Phobos to lend a hand. He had no need for food now that he no longer possessed human blood, but instead Black Ichor, liquid hate, flowed through his veins. (Also, he spent most of his time torturing the living, commanding the dead, consuming the souls of the innocent, and bedding women)7.

Stormpike sighed, rubbed his temples and leaned back in his chair. “Rough day?”, said a familiar voice8, “You need not suffer any longer.  I hear slitting your wrists in the bath is quite painless. Relatively speaking.” He looked over at the severed head of Kaylec the wizard, hanging upside-down, tied to a chain by his beard. “Then again, you would have to start taking baths9.”

Stormpike gave the head half a withering glance,10 but it didn’t work.11 The head had been a “gift” from Phobos The Dread God-King* Phobos.12 Obviously Drodkip,13 being pure evil, wasn’t a big gift giver, and if there was any severed head Stormpike deserved it was the one belonging to the “Chosen One”, so he assumed that it was to remind him of his place. No one knew what Drodkip had done with the head of Axos14.

“You’re about due again, aren’t you?” Asked the head, eyebrows raised in question, but because it was hanging upside down,15 were in fact, lowered. It would be wrong to say that Stormpike had been granted immortality, rather Drodkip kept Stormpike alive. And while grateful that Drodkip had not consumed his soul, ten thousand is a long time, and even oblivion seemed a better alternative than yet another, unchanging , day. So Stormpike would slit a wrist, drink poison, or if he was feeling particularly melancholy, leap from the parapet.16
Of course, as Ruler of Death, Drodkip would raise him back to life again, and Stormpike would be angry and resentful, the fire in his belly would make him feel alive, and that was better than the emptiness that he felt before.

He took in a breath, let it out through his nose, felt a booger vibrate, went to pick it when–
–He materialized in the throne room. As he had been sitting in a chair a moment before, and now without under his butt, he hit the floor, jamming a finger in his nose. Drodkip laughed, evilly.17

Stormpike looked up at his lord and master, being one of the few men who could do so without becoming ill. Phobos the man had ceased to be that day, now many years in the past. The face of Drodkip looked  very much the same as he had as Phobos, but now it sat dead center in a mass of corpulent, oozing, veiny, flesh extending into a twisted tangle of tentacles, each seeming to branch off into smaller and smaller appendages, many of which wrapped around the rafters an held suspended, struggling, naked men and women.

“I’ve heard disturbing reports,” said Drodkip before wincing slightly as a deep rumble sounded as his flesh rippled. “Excuse me,” he said, holding up one tentacle while another holding a young woman, lowered down towards his head. The bulk of his “body” swelled as he opened his mouth. His pupils dilated followed by his irises, until there was only white. The woman screamed as she began to emit a glow, a glow that Drodkip’s eyes match. Something like dust in a shaft of light filled the glow and the woman seemed to deflate, her skin paled, her hair became white and Drodkip sucked in the particles. As his mouth snapped shut, the woman’s head dropped. He shuddered smiled blissfully,18 and dropped the body. Red circles formed on the floor and three horned demons lept out, scampered to the corpse and carried her off. Drodpkip looked at Stormpike with satiated, drooping lips.

“Where was I?”

“Disturbing reports,” Stormpike replied, having stood up, dusted himself off, pushed closed a nostril, and shot out the booger.

“Ah, yes,” Drodkip’s mass undulated, which Stormpike knew was his form of nodding. “Disturbing reports. I hear that a young, charismatic Priest of the Beneficent Torturer has had great success among Elvish.”
“Indeed, my Dread Sovereign,” Stormpike added, flatly. The Drodkip SLAMMED two tentacles on the floor.19 The ground rumbled and a volcano erupted across the sea.
“The Elvish were supposed to be the source of the next rebellion! Where am I supposed to get ripe souls, now?” He shook his victims in illustration.

“Oh, great and terrible, King of Blight, this Dark Priest will prove a worthy foe for the “Chosen One”,” here he used air-quotes,20 “Which will prove his bone fides and I confidently predict a band hope filled souls a thousand strong.”

“A thousand, you say?” Drodkip’s voice went up a couple of octaves.

“A thousand.” He waited a beat and added, “This year.” The Drodkip’s eyes glazed over, all the worry burned away and replaced with relief and anticipation, like getting the email notification the latest iPhone model has been delivered and is waiting for you at your home. And then it was gone, the pleasure was gone, replaced by insatiable need. Evil, at its core, takes a longing, twists it into a need, and then fills it with a simulacrum, spiritual Sweet ‘N Lo that tricks the senses, leaves the soul unfulfilled, and then requires greater and greater quantities of the pink packs to have the same effect as the first.

The part of Drodkip that was still Phobos, had a hole in his core, infinite in its need to be filled. So he had loosed the Eldar Ones, consumed them, enslaved the Gods of Light and Darkness,  and became ruler of the universe, but still the emptiness remained. Because he was evil, which is negation and corruption he could not create, only destroy and pollute that which already was. So he sat and consumed, fed on life. All life. He had shut the gates of the hereafter, all death lead to his maw. And all because he thought the emptiness at his core was special and different from everyone else. Because what he was really trying to do was to fill the hole with his own desire, trying to possess things he could never grasp, that act of trying changing them, transforming them so that he was left holding his own need and trying to fulfill need with need, stuffing it back into the whole again and again.

And to think, none of it would have come to pass had he just gotten a puppy.

Drodkip’s eyes narrowed and bore into Stormpike, who could feel the alien mind enter his. It was like deja vu mixed with the swirlyness of being drunk and the helpless, wrongness you feel when the car at the stoplight next to you rolls backward and you think you’re moving forward and your breaks don’t work.

“You seem sulky,” stated the wretched blob, not inaccurately, “you always get this way before you off yourself”.

“I was just catching up on paperwork–”

“I don’t want to hear it,” cutting him off, holding up a tentacle. Drodkip left his mind like the sweet relief you floss out that piece of BBQ rib from between your teeth.

***

Stormpike’s heels hit the floor, not realizing he had been standing on his tiptoes, stretching his neck and body, like a kid getting his height measured on the pantry door frame.
“You may go,” the Emperor of Evil21 either waved a tentacle, dismissively, or their was a fly in throne room.
#
“Typical,” fumed Stormpike as he exited the throne room, the door slamming and the two werewolves standing on either side slamming the butts of their pikes on the marble22 floors. “Bloody23 typical.” He stalked down the hall, his cape billowing dramatically.24 “He magicks me all the way over here, and then makes me walk back. You can be evil without being rude.”

He kept his anger on a low simmer the entire walk back, deliberately passing the Hellspawn Petting Zoo where you could feed them gnomes, which always cheered him up. No, he was using his anger, building into something, a weapon. Disturbing reports! Fine, maybe can see how he wouldn’t realize the dark priest was part of my plan, his knowledge of arcana is vast but he’s shit at strategy, but to really think there was any outcome I hadn’t planned for? Me? Stormpike, unmatched in battle, unparalleled in tactics, unequalled in strategy. He doubted me. Me! His pace slowed, Has someone been poisoning his ear? He had to will himself not to dart his eyes side to side to look for conspirators. If only I had killed him after I finished Axos. Or even after he had completed the ritual. Or anytime before.

Before.

Before he had removed his heart and hidden it because unless his heart was destroyed, he could not be killed. Phobos had secreted it somewhere safe, confident that it would never be found. Too, confident, thought Stormpike, but that was ten thousand years ago and none of his agents, spies, or lackeys had caught so much of a hint of it. He’d even hired an assassin to kill the Drodkip, on the off chance that he was lying about removing his heart. No dice. The assassin had done an admirable job, Drodkip, sword in his chest,25 shriveled, and crinkled, like one of those expanding hoses when you turn off the water. The dark clouds parted, the shone shone bright, church bells, long hidden, rang out.

And then the tentacles oozed up out of the sewers.

Stormpike, whose pride in his strategic brilliance was well founded, had planned for such an eventuality, having made sure the assassination occurred during his annual summer holiday decimating Elvin tribes. He waited until notified, and raced back with just the right amount of haste. And while disappointing, he looked back fondly on the purging of the rebels as well as those who had proved insufficiently loyal.

He went up to the parapet. It was time. He looked out on the city, sprawled in all directions, taking on the character of its ruler, not by order or dictate, but organically, life finding its way, even under the thrall of death. They did Drodkip’s will, true, but his will was not theirs, they still possessed their own. He could deal out death to all, but he could not make life. Out there there were still farmers, still mothers. And there was still hope out there. Drodkip had convinced himself it existed by his leave, that the only thing more satisfying than devouring a hope-filled soul was one whose hopes had been dashed.

But Stormpike knew that hope is what makes us what we are. He’d seen it on the battlefield, that a hopeless man had already lost his soul. Stormpike still held out hope. Hope that he could slay the beast and he would be hailed as a liberator, his enlightened rule forever remembered. And then he would die. Stormpike had no desire to live forever, it was a foolish dream for children and cowards. No, he would die, either without issue, or some inadequate heir, unable to live up to his legacy, and thus would begin a general decline.

All that Stormpike had built would collapse, for there would never be anyone like King Stormpike again. All rulers, nay, all men would be compared to Stormpike the Great and found wanting. He thought of it as his simple, little, dream. But he’d waited too long. He knew that something he didn’t kill would eventually cause him trouble.

He sighed, stepped up onto the crenelations26 and looked down. Things were running smoothly, Drodkip need not resurrect him for decades. There he would be, in Hameshta-gehan, the Shadowlands, the Fields of Judgement, where the dead await their fate.  He would wander the fields with the souls of the ones he put there. They seek him out, for the dead can still feel pain, and he would welcome it. Battle was his idea of heaven.

He lifted a foot, getting ready to jump when he thought he might as well as remove his sword belt, perhaps his cape. It wouldn’t look good, flapping up over his head as he fell. No one regrets looking their best in front of the Gods of Judgement,27 they say. But there would be no Gods to judge him. With the Gods of Light and Darkness locked in their respective realms the paths to the afterlife were closed. No heaven, no hell, only the ghostly half-life of the Shadowlands, or consumption by Drodkip.

Suddenly, realization dawned, the scales fell from his eyes, a light28 went off over his head. The afterlife, the one place no man29 can enter. That’s where it was, Phobos had hidden it there. He’d placed his black heart in hell.

Someone would have to get it.

<<<<>>>>


  1. Hell (which should have been evident via the context, but I understand the impulse to look up every word you’re unfamiliar with. The Romans believed Lake Avernus, inside a volcanic crater, led to Hades).

  2. And nary a date or revision level on any of them!

  3. There hadn’t been thirteen ages since Phobos’s victory, but he felt 13 was the most evil number with the former being the loneliest and the latter* being a crowd
    See footnote 1.4

  4. Phobos had formed the Consilium Nomenclatura to come up with a fitting name for his new status, but the committee soon dissolved into acrimony and backstabbing (actual backstabbing), and so God-King*, with the provisional asterix, was used.

  5. Because, lets face it, they’re frickin’ useless.

  6. Come on, no one is born with a name that cool.

  7. Mostly bedding women.

  8. Or it would be if you bought the audiobook and didn’t skip the prologue.

  9. His diction was perfectly clear, which is impressive, considering he was hanging upside-down from his beard. Have you ever tried to hold your chin steady and tried to talk by moving the the rest of your head? go ahead, try. I’m waiting. Isn’t easy, is it?

  10. He has a patch over one eye, remember?

  11. Being beheaded and reanimated by the power of darkness, a power that you yourself spent a lifetime fighting, leaves one pretty much unwitherable.

  12. He HAD to get himself to only refer to him by his full name. He’d seen one loyal servant make that mistake and now he was a loyally being digested for the next thousand years in the stomach of some nameless monstrosity that now lived under the castle.

  13. DRead gOD KIng Phobos

  14. That’s what we call foreshadowing, folks.

  15. Because he was hanging by his beard, which we established just two paragraphs ago!

  16. It was a really leapable parapet, too, decent view, no outcroppings to catch on or bounce off of., no wind to slam you back into the parapet, just a long, straight drop, to pavement below, no rocks, no crowds, a nice splat.

  17. It’s safe to assume that all his laughs will be evil from here on out

  18. But still evilly

  19. One of which held a victim, killing them, kerpslat.

  20. Does his villainy know no bounds!?

  21. Ooh, that’s good. I’m copyrighting that.

  22. Evil loves marble. Hitler, Saddam, Tony Montana.

  23. Obviously, being evil, he spoke with an English accent.

  24. he’d had it specially enchanted.

  25. Or what one took to be a chest-like region of his bulk

  26. That’s what you call those notches on the top of a castle wall. From crena, Latin for “notch”. It’s also where we get the word “cranny”.

  27. Which was a well known saying in Eorðe. Coined by the first embalmer some millennia before, but no one now knew that

  28. There being no lightbulbs, it looked like a candle.

  29. While the term “man” can encompass both sexes, Stormpike was a misogynist, and had doubts whether woman actually possessed souls.

Prologue

Prologue

Against a blood red sky stood the Black Tower of Ultimate Blackness.1 Death surrounded it, literally, for a great battle waged under its shadow (and the other 359° degrees, too).2 In the sky above, opposing knights rode dragons (actually friggin’ dragons!) diving & rolling, jinking & juking, twisting & turning, blasting each other with fire.

It was 70’s album cover, basically.

Like all impregnable evil fortresses, The Tower had one flaw in its design. A flaw that would let a small band of heroes with calculating recklessness and disciplined daring to enter, odds stacked against them, outmatched, running out of time, with even their allies skeptical of success.

That band of heroes had just seen a change in leadership. Axos Pureheart, a plucky, young, orphaned farm boy, with the handsome (on the verge of pretty) good looks of a member of a British Boy Band. Yet a boy no longer, for he had finally slayed his mortal enemy, Self-Doubt, and become the leader he was born to be3.

Following him up a winding set of stairs with no handrails,4 was the sorcerer Kaylec, his mastery of the arcane arts evident by his long white beard, crystal-topped staff, and ability to run up stairs without tripping on his robe. He had seen the scared young man embrace his destiny and become the hero he was born to be. Long had the old wizard waited for He Who Was Promised, they prophesied Chosen One.

The final member of this trio was Shann, whose beauty was surpassed only by her prowess in battle, the latter being rapidly deployed if the former5 was mentioned within earshot. She carried a bow with which she never missed, even in rain and wind, and a magic quiver that never ran out of arrows.6

Her hair was that magical color that depends on the reader’s personal preference. It was THAT color. She possessed the low body fat percentage without the harshness that seems only available to someone in their late teens or in works of fiction.

Even a PeTA member would slay a unicorn for her.

She wore enough leather to cover the important bits but not so little to seem implausible but just enough metallic frippery to suggest armor but if one were being honest, it must be admitted that it didn’t provide much in the way of protection.

As the faceless7 hordes8 fell before their advance (their superior numbers ineffective due to their insistence on engaging the heroes in single combat rather than en masse) a bellow reverberated off the (evil) stone walls. A dread-filled bellow, full of hate and bile, pain and suffering, the emptiness and confusion of not knowing your purpose in life, the bitter regret of hurting the one you love and knowing that something is irrevocably broken between you, something ultimately unrecoverable, revealing the notion of your own intrinsic decency to be false and utterly shattering your self-image.

It was a hell of a bellow.

All who heard it froze and waited, like that moment right after you stub your toe but the pain hasn’t hit yet but you know it’s just about to–

–Suddenly, from some hidden alcove, recess, or antechamber, (naturally, the Black Tower of Ultimate Blackness was not well lit, making it hard to tell which) lumbered out a troll, seven foot tall (if he stood up straight),9 with splotchy skin like a ciabatta loaf, and sporting yellowed tusks due to poor dental hygiene. Like your uncle at Thanksgiving, he was incapable of being reasoned with and possessing all the rage of a toddler denied access to the toy aisle at Target©.

He carried a war hammer so large that it must have been more for effect than for practicality. “Go,” Shann said to Axos, ticking her head towards the stairs. “We’ve got this.” He nodded and raced towards the stairs as Kaylec let looses a blast of energy from his staff (wands being déclassé) before glancing back over his shoulder (the right shoulder, giving his good side) and caught Shann’s eye. “Shann, I…”

“I know,” she answered, for his eyes told her what words were inadequate to convey, (besides, he had a world to save and she a troll to deal with). With a determined nod the young hero headed up the stairs as Shann leapt into battle, eyes ablaze and heart afire.

***

On the top of the Tower stood a room. A dark room, a black room. In point of fact, said room was the tower’s raison d’être, for that exact spot, not just longitudinally and latitudinally, but altitudinally as well, was vital to the dark magicks10 to be performed.

Phobos, the twisted and deformed11 dark magus, stood dead center in the Chamber of Blackest Blackness, where the lay lines of power converge, where the luminiferous æther merges with existence, thought and dream are indistinguishable, where the equiprobability of ergodic phase-space reaches a convective time derivative of zero as the spontaneous symmetry breaks the orthorhombic lattices of the granulated quantization of space+time.12

Phobos, amidst arcane symbols, glyphs, runes, uncials, minuscules (and the occasional majuscule) from languages both dead and not yet invented, some of which, were they uttered aloud, would melt drive both speaker and listener insane. These were written in exotic powders from exotic lands obtained through means too terrible to contemplate, but surely there was something exotic about them. The room was lit by a plethora of candles,13 for although it was called the Chamber of Blackest Blackness, this was just metaphor, and some of the symbols were hard to draw, and given the sensitivity of the magicks to spacial relationships, precision was preferred over dramatic purity.

He held aloft his silver dagger, the very dagger that he had killed his old master with at the completion of his apprenticeship.14 Now was the culmination of his journey, the fulfillment of his dark desires, desires that had thrown the world into chaos, unleashing bloodshed, pestilence, and starvation in its wake. But is was worth it, no matter the cost, it was worth it.

Finally, his mother would see he was a better son than his brother.

The light of a demon moon shone through a specially fitted crystal in the roof, a light that would not shine on that exact spot for another thousand years. He was about to slice his palm15 (for all dark magics required blood) when the door burst open!16 Axos entered, the sight of which struck Phobos like a brain freeze. “Axos? But you died!” exclaimed the old mage, making a valid point.

“Died, yes, but reborn anew!”17 I survived the Threefold Death, traveled the Shadowlands,18 and proved worthy to wield Stormblade!” He held aloft the mighty weapon, its mirror-like surface reflecting Phobos’s own inadequacy back at him.

“But that means..” The sudden dryness of his mouth made further words impossible, also he wasn’t entirely sure what it meant.

“–That I, Axos Pureheart,” the young man finished for him, “an orphan goatherd, am the CHOSEN ONE! Destined to defeat you and reclaim the ancient throne of my fathers!” His sword burst into green flame, as he began to flourish it. He was about to spin it around his back, when he thought better of it, a bit showy for a hero after all. “That’s right, I am heir to the throne, never knowing that the kindly couple who raised me were not my true parents, but that I was hidden from you as a child so that one day I might–“

What he was about to say we will never know, for at that exact moment, his head ceased its long association with his neck. Of course, such events rarely happen of their own accord, and this was not one of those moments. No, his beheading was the result of a sword. Not a magic sword, just a sword. Obviously a sharp one, but one lacking a famous pedigree, sporting no ornamentation, baring no trademarkable name, and not particularly well balanced. No, the key was the wielder of the blade, Lord Stormpike, and if the name wasn’t enough of a giveaway as to his wickedness, then the fact that he lopped off a dude’s head from behind should be ample. Stormpike was Phobos’s Lord of War, his consigliere, his tip of the spear, his straw that stirs the drink, his henchiest of henchmen.

The vile necromancer cackled, he cackled the pent up cackle of villains immemorial denied their triumph. He slit his palm, his blood spilling in the center of the pentagram19 drawn on the floor.

Creation groaned, Eorðe shook, even the sky itself seemed to tremble, as if someone smacked a movie screen. It was if a certain portion of all the good in the world just drained away, pixies dropped from from the sky, dead, and ugly ducklings no longer turn into beautiful swans, they just stayed ugly, and no soufflé would ever again rise. Darkness spread across the land.20

Goodness failed and villainy was triumphant.


  1. Or at least that was the rough translation. For in the world of Eorðe, the word for “tower” literally translates as “Dwelling constructed or found and altered such that it affords view(s) of surrounding environs on account of an elevated position and resistant, though not necessarily impervious, to siege(s), either martial or magical, and, or both”.

  2. Although to be accurate, the shadow would take up more than one degree, probably around 8° or 9° maybe? Say, round it up to 10° to make the math easier, so that would leave like 350°, give or take.

  3. Insert trumpets here

  4. OSHA being non-existent

  5. Get Former & Latter confused? Former begins with F for First, Latter begins with L for Last. You’re welcome

  6. Some have theorized that the use of the Magic Quiver posed too great a risk, for if the quiver were ever to be upturned, an infinite amount of arrows would then begin to through, threatening to engulf the entirety of creation before one had a chance to flip it right up. Others contend that given the finite size of the opening, it would merely clog the hole, rendering the quiver eternally unusable.

  7. Meaning their faces were covered by their helmets, not that they literally faceless, though given the nature of this world, actual facelessness was a distinct possibility. No, they were faceless, in that they lacked personhood, not only to those whose orders they followed, indifferent to their lives, hopes, and dreams, but to us. What were their dreams? Did they love their mothers? Did they have mothers? We shall never know.

  8. Although “horde” itself denotes a group, “hordes” with an “s” denotes a group of groups, of which there were.

  9. Trolls being notorious slouchers

  10. Adding the “k” makes it extra evil (he “s” is just because magic users are generally douches).

  11. Both morally as well as physically, but one should in no way assume a correlation between the two.

  12. Come on, that deserves a high five

  13. The candles themselves held no occult function, they were only present for their illuminative properties and were plain, white, tallow candles, bought in bulk to save money.

  14. Which explains evil wizard’s reticence to take on proteges.

  15. Admittedly, he wasn’t looking forward to this part

  16. Phobos had assumed locking it would be unnecessary.

  17. Obviously, any rebirth is “new”, but it just felt right for Axos to end the sentence on “anew”.

  18. The Threefold Death and Shadowlands both being good titles for sequels

  19. Naturally

  20. not metaphorically, the world literally got darker.