Sunday, April 10, 2016

Literally a bunch of Snapchats of me eating fries


My apologies to my Snapchat followers. Sometimes I just don't know what else to say...


Monday, February 15, 2016

Valentine snapchats

My brothers talked me into trying Snapchat a while back. I can't say exactly what it was that won me over.

"See, we can send quick pics and videos to each other."

Of course we can. We all own smartphones.

"But these delete after twenty-four hours."

I can just delete the stuff you send me that isn't worth keeping. Also, if I find something interesting I can already tweet it, Vine it, Facebook it, pinterest it, blog it, YouTube it, or just text message it to you.

"Trust us. It's great. I mean, except for some reason somebody sends an occasional dump snap. But apart from that it's great."

What's a dump snap?

"...Anyway, you should totally get Snapchat!"

So despite already being super saturated in social media, I downloaded Snapchat. I was right to think there's no real point to it. In fact I'd say having a point defeats it's purpose. It's just one more dumb thing to dick around with. For example, here's my yesterday:


At least I finally figured out a use for emoji.



Saturday, February 13, 2016

It's sterile. You can drink it.

I kind of hate to say Panera has become a regular part of my lunch break rotation. Not that the food isn't good. And if you study the menu online some of it's even pretty good for you. But they are a touch more expensive than they should be.

"Yes, that is a pretty good sized bowl of mac n' cheese. But it's still an eight dollars for mac n' cheese."

Vincent Vega would not eat here.


As much as I wish I could live off Panera's Chicken Tortelini Alfredo, my current favorites are the black bean soup and Asian sesame chicken salad. Both are low calorie, low fat, little to no cholesterol, and damn tasty.

An occasional chocolate chip cookie for dessert of course, which completely negates everything I just said in the last paragraph, but is still pretty good.

Panera, feel free to stop reading and send me a check now. Or some coupons or whatever.

Of course I'm sure many of you are asking one of of two things at this point. 

"Since when did Keith start writing a food blog?"

Or

"That's good and fine, but dammit man, but quit holding us in suspense! What do you get to drink?"

Beverages are that important.

Stealing clear from pop, I'm having a small love affair with their green tea.

Truthfully I don't even like green tea, but I do drink a ton of it. Usually with honey. Lots and lots of honey. 

Thankfully at Panera, no honey is needed. It tastes great. But there's still one minor problem. Not with the tea itself, but recall I'm going to Panera on my lunchbreaks. I usually get a refill on my way out and continue to sip at it over the next five hours or so.

Damn good stuff!

But every day, without fail, one coworker or another spots the cup of green tea and sizes it up like it might bite them. The typical question is this: "What is that? Piss?"

Seriously. Yesterday four separate people asked the same question. Not sarcastically. Not to be funny or clever. They're straight faced. Borderline concerned. Clear objection to the possibly threatening drink before them. So much so that they have to belittle it.

"What are you drinking? That's not... Is that piss?"


Now, let's just take a step back and consider the fact that I work with people so unfamiliar with the sight of iced tea that it puzzles them. 


Tea is totally and completely alien to a surprising amount of people that I know. Bare minimum, fifteen. That's how many were puzzled at the sight of my drink in the past two weeks.

Which means there's probably way, way more people than just them who are unfamiliar with tea.

And a curious fact about this is that there's a solid chance some of them may very well pee green.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

"I HAVE THE POWER!"

I was at my weekend job yesterday, loading a 65" ultra high def TV into a customer's SUV. I had it pretty much all the way in when my general pelvic region pressed into the back bumper of the vehicle, setting off the car alarm. The customer jumped. Several passersby all jolted. And I thought, "Yep! Still got it."


And that's the most interesting thing that's happened to my crotch in years...

Monday, January 25, 2016

Not so radical dream

I had a dream last night that ISIS was trying to radicalize me.

Let me back this up a moment and point out that I'm not Muslim. I wouldn't even say I'm particularly religious. Spiritual, sure, but I can closer acquaint my beliefs to the concept of The Force than I can any established religion.

That said, I did study some Islam in college, lived with a few Muslims at one point, and do find the faith rather beautiful. At least what I know about it. I feel like even with my experiences I only ever scratched the surface. I know enough to think that all people everywhere should celebrate Ramadan. But for what it's worth I say the same thing about Christmas. And National Ferret Day.

Anyway, last night I had a dream that I was in this dingy condo, surrounded by the sort of terrorists you expect to see on TV. Either older men with unkempt beards or younger guys in worn t-shirts and masks. And they kept trying to feed me cheeseburgers. Because that's what Americans eat.

"Come on. Have a cheeseburger. Renounce your allegiance to west and have some cheeseburgers."

No. Really. I couldn't. I seldom eat red meat. And I don't think those buns are gluten free.

"Just one cheeseburger. You've got to try at least one."

I'm sorry. I'm just not hungry. And my cholesterol is horrid.

"They're great burgers. We'll put wrestling on TV and you have some cheeseburgers."

Oh I don't watch wrestling.

And this seemed to stump them.

But that was it. My entire dream in a nutshell. I woke up kind of good about myself. Not over my withstanding the power of cheeseburgers, even in a dream state (although I do feel deserving of a trophy for it). But because, even though my imagination portrayed terrorists as the exact stereotypes pictured on TV (but isn't that more the media's fault?), they were still good hosts and although a bit pushy, still very polite and generous hosts. And pretty much every Muslim I've ever personally known has had that similar quality to them. They're always so polite and generous. So I was glad to see that translated into my subconscious. Good job, me. Good job. 

Sunday, January 3, 2016

"What's your book like?"

I see this often.

Writers, to entice readers, compare their new books to other stuff. Not that it's always a bad thing. A quick example would be along the lines of, "It's a spy story. Do you like Jason Bourne or James Bond? Well my book is in that genre. It's about the top spy in India's government. It has international espionage. Intense action sequences. Exotic locations. If you like James Bond, this is similar in genre, but goes in a different direction and offers something totally new and different."

The comparison is there, but we're also given a promise of something unique and original. Unfortunately online I see a lot of writers go in another direction. The example being, "It's like if that Indian dude from Heroes was James Bond." Or, "It's like Life of Pi grows up and becomes James Bond."

 As much as we'd all love to see Pi Patel thwart Spectre, there's a lot lost in this description. Mostly creativity. My immediate reaction to this sort of advertising is that the author has very few original ideas and probably watches way too much TV.

It's just poor practice. At least for the author or publisher. You should be able to sell your story on its own merit without pilfering the credibility of more successful works.

And just to make the distinction, there's no problem here if somebody's who's read the book is trying to recommend it to friends. There's a thick line between an author trying to pitch knock off James Bond and some coworker on a James Bond kick.

My reason for pointing this out is that I recently saw an author do this in her own book title. The novel was called Blind Influence: It's Like Jason Bourne Meets The Good Wife In The West Wing.



Since I first saw this, the title has been reduced to Blind Influence. So the author learned her lesson. There's a hyperlink for anybody interested in reading her stuff. It very well could be a good book. And I can't completely fault her for attempting this tactic. The argument being that it's tough to get noticed. For indie writers like myself, it takes a lot of constant hammering for people to gain interest in our works. Every day I'm tweeting. I'm pushing my novel to friends and family on Facebook. I go to local bookstores asking if they'd like a few copies on their shelves. I post in several author and Kindle forums. I create new content for my blog. I send out promotional copies. I've purchased several online ads. I've sunk way more  time and money into my book than I've seen returned. Marketing is a full time job, and like many authors, my degree is in creative writing. Not any form of business. Actually, that's about as far from a degree as I could get. In fact, having no degree at all would be closer than mine to a degree in business. So a lot of what I do trial and error. More often than not, the day ends with no new book sales and an ever growing feeling of failure. I certainly understand Linda Riesenberg Fisler's tactic of comparing her book to three popular things in one title. It makes perfect sense why so many authors attempt pushing their work this way. But the fault is still there. While it seems enticing to draw people in by using films and shows they might enjoy, doing so runs the massive risk of showing a lack of originality.

For a bit of comparison, this is the same technique grocery stores use to push their own versions of products that are never quite the original.

"Why drink Coca-Cola when you could have Walmart Brand Soda for a dollar less? It's practically the same thing."

Simply put, it feels cheap. It feels like a knock off. It doesn't even matter how it tastes. The last thing you want to say about your new novel is, "It's practically the same thing as something else."

You don't want to sell It's practically James Bond

You want to sell This is bigger and better than James Bond

You want to sell This kicks James Bond's ass! 

You want to sell This book drags James Bond out in the middle of the woods, ties him to a tree, bludgeons him repeatedly with a baseball bat covered in razor blades, and then leaves him for dead before an inevitable bear attack.

...Okay. Well, maybe not THAT enthusiastic. But you get the idea. Don't settle for comparing your original work to something else. Elevate it above all that old news that's already out there.

So lesson over. But let's keep talking and build on it a bit. Like I said, I've been trying to push my latest novel, attempting all sorts of online and offline advertising. Typically with mixed levels of success. Building a brand takes time. You're going to have a lot of defeating days of hard work before your audience even starts to notice this awesome thing you've created. And I'm right there with you. Which of course means I have to take you down. You know, being the competition and all.

No really, I'm going to use my novel as an example for the rest of this blog to further illustrate the point. You're all safe. Or at least I want you to feel that way. But, seriously, sleep with one eye open.

Anyway, my novel is a fantasy story called Necromantica. Here's an ad I've been using online:


Feels original, doesn't it? Of course there is the worry is that some people will react negatively, thinking the ad makes the book feel like a garbled mess of far too many ideas. Or that it's too broad. And that's okay. Other ads on Facebook and Google are more image based, showing just the cover and one or lines of text. With this ad, the book looks like so many things, but what is it? Who is it appealing to? The most basic description of the plot is that Necromantica is about a thief and necromancer sneaking their way through a battle field during an orc invasion in attempt to steal a magic relic from an evil king, and everything goes horribly wrong. The advertisement says none of this. Its only goal is to create enough intrigue to get readers to click on the link and read a bit more. Whether that link is to this blog or the book description on Amazon. I'm not spoiling anything. I'm not inviting direct comparisons. I'm showing my hand while leaving as much mystique as possible. So And here's the book description and cover.


Before I go on, I should point out that all of the art in my ads were created by Christina Irwin. The link is to her email, and I can't recommend her enough. Her art is fantastic. Her rates are awesome. She's worked with multiple indie writers and definitely gets how to sell a book. Currently she's working on a book trailer for me and I'm pretty much counting the minutes until it's finished.

That said, now that you have a sense of the story, let's get back to our earlier topic of comparing stories to other things. It's an action packed fantasy novel featuring orcs, necromancy, thieves, an epic battle, and an evil king. So right away, I can draw comparisons to Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. Dungeons & Dragons fans would love it. But let's examine how that statement plays online:

Necromantica. It's like Lord of the Rings meets Game of Thrones! The perfect book for D&D fans.

This loses all intrigue. Originality is out the window. Any respectful fan of fantasy will roll their eyes at comparing LOTR and GOT. And not every lover of the genre is into D&D. Connoisseurs of fantasy, the audience I'm trying to cultivate, are going to be put off by that advertisement. Also, I've left absolutely no room for people not interested in any of those things. I'm never going to win over people not interested in fantasy, but I want to be appealing to people who enjoy fantasy without necessarily liking those three specific things. So instead, let's try working on statement that discusses the story, but keeping those comparisons in mind. Let's start as broad as possible. This won't be the final advertisement, but we still need an original foundation to work with.

Necromantica. An action packed fantasy adventure.

WAAAAAAAY too broad. We've got the feel of the story. We want an ad that appeals to lovers of fantasy who enjoy action and adventure. But when we say it directly, it comes off as plain vanilla. So let's build a little bit. Let's work some plot into that.

Necromantica, Two thieves battle through an orc invasion to face an evil king.

Note the underlining and italicizing. For our purposes, I'm trying to show how the sentence breaks down. A few notes here. First, we have our main characters; two thieves. I haven't mentioned that one of them is a necromancer, and given that the book is titled Necromantica, it's probably a detail that demands a lot more attention. But we're still improving from comparing to other works and flat statements of being action and adventure. We have protagonists, our party of heroes often seen in fantasy stories. We have multiple antagonists, being the orcs and evil king. Describing the protagonists and thieves helps set a tone for the story. Also note we have thieves, orcs, and an evil king. There are no good guys here. Just different degrees of bad guys. We have the implication that because these characters are thieves, this story is some sort of caper. They are after something to get at this evil king. And we have a massive obstacle for them to overcome in the orc invasion.

Another thing done here is that we're allowing the person to read this statement to make their own attachments. "There's an evil king in this. Game of Thrones has that evil king, Joffrey. Man, I want that little shit to die. I hope these two thieves really stick it to him."

Okay, maybe not that enthusiastic, but you get the point. 

"An orc invasion, huh? Lord of the Rings had an orc invasion. Bilbo was a burglar in The Hobbit, so are these thieves like him?"

But we're also not limiting ourselves to those specific franchises. We're allowing readers to make their own meaningful connections.

"Thieves, eh? I really like that movie where Sean Connery played a thief. And Sean Connery also played James Bond. Oh my god! I bet this book is exactly like James Bond. And maybe with some Good Wife stuff thrown in."

Well, probably not that comparison.

Also of note is that not once in that statement did we use the words action, adventure, or fantasy. But every single one of them was implied. We have orcs and an evil king, so this is definitely a fantasy novel. We have an invasion and thievery, so action and adventure are most definitely present. At a minimum, it's a safe bet that the two thieves aren't just sitting a room discussing the politics of the king as orcs wage war off in some countryside. So all of those adjectives are in the subtext, but we're using our limited advertising space to discuss the story itself. Is it successful? Well, we'll see how many people click on the links. Personally, I think there's still some stuff missing. Again, one of the thieves is a necromancer. She uses magic to command dead bodies to arise and become her zombie warriors. This is a major hook for the story, and a new twist on a familiar concept. Necromancers, particularly in LOTR, are consistently villains. We have one in the hero role. The fact that she's a strong woman being significantly more than a romantic interest  in a fantasy adventure appeals to an entire audience I haven't even tapped into. So let's try something about her.

Necromantica. A thief commands a zombie horde in her battle against an evil king during an orc invasion.
The operative word being her. We've got one of our main characters, but a few things are off here. It feels cluttered. We're missing the other thief. And while it's fine to drop some details to highlight other features of the story, we want to convey as much as possible. But let's back up and simplify a little.

Necromantica. A thief commands a zombie horde in her battle against an evil king.
I dropped the orcs in favor of focusing on the central conflict with the character. She's trying to get at the evil king. But in losing the orcs, I've also lost a major indication of the fantasy genre. For all we know in this sentence, the story is modern day and takes place in some Eastern European country. Since I'm trying to appeal to fantasy readers, I definitely want to make sure there's some indicator of it in my advertising. Now, those of you who really looked at the book cover and advertisement earlier may have noted that the woman has pointed ears. She's an elf. So let's substitute a detail and see how that looks.

Necromantica. An elf commands a zombie horde in her battle against an evil king.
Did we lose the thief and caper aspects? Yes. But at the price of making our lead character perhaps a bit more intriguing. We have her central conflict and her motivation. We have fantasy. We have action and adventure. We have plenty of comparisons to LOTR and GOT for people to connect with.

The question may arise, "Should I use one ad over another?"

No. Absolutely not. I encourage people to use multiple ads, blurbs, and taglines. You want to appeal to a specific audience, but not every ad is going to appeal to everyone in that audience. Every time you say something different, you're giving your potential readers a little taste of something new. Variety is your friend. Especially on social media websites like Twitter and Facebook, where redundancy gets really old, really fast. In one tweet discuss the overall plot. In another, say something about a character. In another, give a tagline. For the people who read multiple ads, the story becomes more familiar without getting old. Have you ever seen the same commercial on TV over and over again? And by the fourth time you're ready to burn down whatever advertising agency? The same rule applies. Always try to say something new, fresh, original. You're writing creatively, so be creative. And always be way more creative than comparing your book to other things.But if you have to do it, at least be more original than everyone else.

Necromantica. It's like Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones were making love all over The Walking Dead when Rambo III showed up and started blasting Romeo & Juliet all over everybody's faces while belting out moments from Inglourious Basterds and stabbing The Raid: Redemption into their hearts. Then The Great Escape and The Crow showed up and were like, "This blood orgy is straight out of Kill Bill meets Cabin In The Woods but with an Assassin's Creed twist!" Suddenly, Sin City and Mad Max: Fury Road joined in while asking, "Wait? What's Star Wars doing here?" Then Edge of Tomorrow birthed Evil Dead 2 and said, "I don't know, man. But it's fucking hot."

Yeah. My book is kinda like that. There's no sex in the story. But it's kind of like that.


Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Hateful Eight Roadshow


One of the last movies I saw in the theater with a film projector was Spider-Man 2.

It was opening day. I'd bought tickets in advance (which there weren't even websites for yet. You had to go to the theater). Could not wait! Doc Ock was my favorite villain from my childhood. I loved Sam Raimi. I'd grown to accept Toby McGuire as Peter Parker.

Sorry. I'm babbling.

So I go opening day. It's perfect. It's brilliant. It's leagues over the original. I'm in awe. Then the film gets to the final reel and breaks. Right in the middle of the last battle, just as Toby McGuire and Alfred Molina are fighting in the water beneath Doc Ock's sun devise. The movie just stops.

I was furious. The whole audience was. Months of waiting. The anticipation. We were supposed to be among the first to see the movie of the summer and because of some technical failure it'd been robbed from us at the apex of what very well could've been the absolute greatest moment in all of cinema history.

Mother. Fucker.

We were given free passes for another show, but the only fifteen minutes of film anybody wanted to see was sold out for days. It was like being given a really good handjob, and just-just-just before the big moment, somebody bursts into the room, shoves your lover into a crate, and hands you a voucher to release her in a week.

...I'm kind of hoping somebody says something in the comments section below along the lines of, "That did happen to me once and those two experiences aren't at all relatable."

If I have a point so far, it's simply that I'm a fan of digital projectors.

So when Tarantino announced his eighth film would have a limited 70mm release, using actual film, I had to laugh. Romanticizing aside, with a two week run in a limited number of theaters, somewhere in the country, something bad was going to happen.

Obviously not to me. But surely, for some audience, somewhere, the projector will break down. The film will break. Something. 

Don't get me wrong. Tarantino releases a new film and without question, I drink the Kool-Aid. He says in an interview that the picture is infinitely bigger, more beautiful, and pristine, and I'm game. He calls this limited release a homage to the way films used to be shown, and I'm sold.

So I went. I saw it. 

I'll keep my review of the movie itself brief. It was classic Tarantino, a dark and brooding western, and all around a pretty good film. As with most of his films, it treaded a few lines in terms of race and misogyny. If you're a fan of his other films, it's got everything you love. If you've never watched a Tarantino flick before, shame on you.

But how was it watching a move on film again? Especially after over a decade of digital projection.

There was a certain nostalgia to it. The wear and tear of the picture. Random little dots and scratches appearing throughout the print. The flickering of the projector, noticeable in all the quiet moments. I haven't seen a movie with an intermission since King Ralph was in theaters in the 80s.

The best part was the overture though. Here. Just listen to this. Let it fill your entire world for three minutes.


Awesome. Haunting. Beautiful. It captures the essence of the film perfectly. I don't know if the blu ray release will feature this in the opening minutes (the opening credits are equally slow and quiet), but I kind of hope so. It definitely set the mood.

Sadly the experience wasn't all it was supposed to be. The projector kept losing focus throughout the feature. Not a lot. The image just kept looking soft. And it was happening so frequently that I questioned whether it was the projector or the film itself intentionally going out of focus.

"I guess I can see the artistic merit in  making Samuel L. Jackson blurry here. Why wouldn't he be?"

It wasn't until after the movie, when I was handed a free pass for another show, that I knew for sure it was a problem. More so after I witnessed an older guy yelling at the theater manager, waving his free pass in the poor guy's face.

I stood there watching the two of them for a few minutes.

"I paid for a high quality 70mm print and you showed me this shit."
"Sir, I do apologize for the problems with the projector-"
"Do you even know how the size screen you showed it on? What an insult that was?"
"Again, sir, I'm very sorry you had a bad experience-"
"Seventy! Seventy millimeter. Not seven. Not seventeen. SEVENTY!"

All while I stood there, watching them. Sucking pop through a straw. They kept glancing at me, but their conversation was so heated that I don't think either of them had it in themselves to engage me. Even if they had...

"Can I help you, sir?" or "You got a problem?" Depending on which was talking.
"Nah. Just watching." And continue sucking pop. "Continue."

Anyway, I was standing there watching this guy blow off steam at the helpless manager and the entire moment sank in. I had watched a scratchy film on a bad projector and was watching some guy scream at someone who works at the theater but really couldn't help that the technology wasn't quite working for him that day...

...The 70mm Hateful Eight Roadshow experience replicated watching movies in old theaters perfectly!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Necromantica: The first three chapters

For everybody who missed it, here's a link to my post of Necromantica's introduction, in which our narrator walks through a haunted forest while on the run from authorities. The rest of the story picks up ten years later.


Part I


This humiliates me. Of course I understand the need for theatrics. The entire kingdom wishes to adorn pikes with our heads. Disguises are a necessity and your portion of the plan has carried us this far. Just as always. For your part you’ve never once lead me astray. You’ve never given me reason to pause or reconsider. But this disguise? With an inch short of a year to prepare this outfit is all you conceived of? Not that the breeze doesn’t sooth, but Milady? This disguise? This?
Walking our horse along the open road, I can feel the passing eyes linger over me. Every elderly stranger. All the small children and crippled fools who stumble along opposite us meet me with wide-eyed glares and questioning glances. And all I can do to maintain dignity is keep my head forward, my back straight, and a hand rested warningly on the hilt of my sword. As you sit comfortably within the carriage, I muster all the energy of the great gods who carry our moons and bless our lives just to maintain the illusion that this attire is my normal.
            It is quite the carriage by the by. The horse too is a magnificent specimen with its braided mane and chocolate coat. Sturdy and proud, whoever you stole the beast from must’ve truly loved it. Walking alongside this animal I can’t help but feel feeble. While the horse and carriage gleam in the dewy morning sun, I sweat and stink. And all the world sees it. If any one prop will give away our nature I’m afraid it is myself. The horse and ride are infallible. Even in –especially in- this disguise I’m a platter of sin.
I should’ve been more open to my objections in prior days. But having never been one to question your mind, I uncomfortably obeyed. You had said, “I’ll be a gypsy priestess from the southern mountains.”
            Standing in what I’d assumed to be undergarments, I had been foolish as always and quick to assumptions. “So I’ll be a monk then? Or perhaps I can disguise myself as a Fortan soldier to be your escort?”
            “Close,” you had said with that cunning little smirk of yours. “Do keep thinking along the lines of an escort.”
            I hadn’t understood.
            You explained. Slowly, thoughtfully, you brought me to realize my new character. “Priests and shaman elves from the Folding Rock Mountains often indulge in rituals similar to those performed on the king before meeting council. They are serviced in such ways that pacify and bring clarity.  You, to a priestess of the pure kingdom, would be regarded as property. No different than a utensil of sorts. Needless to say your presence in my life would be that of a servant.”
            “That shouldn’t prove difficult,” I’d said, somewhat perplexed. “I am and always will be your loyal servant.” For the past eight years I’ve pledged to you my life. Although this had never been an official title, I’ve always felt clear in my status. You carried me through our escape. You gave me a second chance after the life I’d condemned myself to. I have always made clear that I am yours to do with as you wish. In my heart I can never see myself beside anyone else.
            But even with that obvious truth half spoken you had made no sound. You simply grinned and brushed a lock of your raven hair to the side of your face. I didn’t understand but felt there was no doubt some amount of mischief afoot.  A bitter lump of hesitation grew in my throat. But I brought myself to swallow it down and asked, “What sort of servitude?”
            And then you instructed me that undergarment I wore was the extent of my character. In private perhaps we would’ve both enjoyed its simplicity. At least I secretly hoped as much. But to wear it on the open road? As we pass caravan after caravan of weak and weathered travelers, I do my utmost to keep from feeling them paint their judgments over my bare body. I do hope you’re amused. Hobbled men and beardless dwarves find themselves in chuckles. A small business of ferrelfs point and nudge each other to look. Oh and how I hear the whispered snickers of women. Never mind the robust laughter of children as they pass. “I can see his butt!” they say. They all say. Every last one of them. And oh yes. Yes, they most certainly can see my butt.
            “Ho there!” calls a decrepit old hag on horseback. She trots from her caravan to meet us, toting a rusted lance in one hand and the reigns of a ragged mare in her other. She carries the weapon loose. I watch how sweat traces her wrinkles and sagging jowl. She is no threat and I have no need to treat her as such. She says, “You! Hooded man in the loincloth! Ho there!” and suddenly I’d very much like to treat her as an enemy. I don’t though. I keep to our charade.
            As the customs require I lower myself to one knee and bow my head, just as any seasoned servant would. From how you’ve instructed my actions, I act accordingly. “Good lady,” I say, keeping my head low and not looking any higher than her dirt encrusted feet. The hood helps. Unfortunately for me it only covers my head and shoulders from the sun. You had told me something of its religious purpose. The human wearing it was no longer regarded a free man to the outside world. The hood may only be removed when the servant and priestess are alone. The rest of me remains exposed, except for those bits covered by the strategically placed flap of wolf skin. It seems I’m more trophy now than man. I would feel entirely naked if you hadn’t permitted me to wear my belt and short swords.
            “Whom do I address?” the hag asks, reining her horse.
            I lie. In the kingdom of Fortia, admitting to the name Lama Percuor is a death sentence. Telling them the lady I travel with is none other than the infamous necromancer, Mornia D’Onnyxa, would cause her to run screaming for protection. Amusing as that could be we must save ourselves for the real fight. I defer to our story. “My name is of no consequence,” I tell the hag. “I am merely the loyal guardian and cabana boy of High Priestess Limilia Fortuna, speaker for the great sixth moon god, Shersher, and humble hand of Xevious, our great savior. May his veil be lifted and his strength guide us once again.”
            “May his veil be lifted,” the hag repeats my prayer as we both bow our heads and pass an open palm over our own faces.
The ritual over, I stand on both feet again. I lift my head enough for the woman to see my face, but I keep my eyes low. “Milady is on the road to Dromn to seek the wisdom of-”
            “Zerisk?” you yell from within the carriage. “Zerisk? Why have we stopped?”
            “Forgive me, milady,” I say, dropping to both knees and bowing my head toward the carriage. From the morning air I can feel my backside exposed directly at the hag. Never in my life have I truly appreciated the fine comforts of trousers until this day.
            “Twas my fault, High Priestess,” the old hag says, no doubt bowing her head in your direction. “I meant no harm but the road ahead is treacherous. I was uncertain if you are aware.”
            “Treacherous?” you yell. “Zerisk! Where hath you led us this time? Come thither and open my door!”
            I dash to the side of the carriage and open its door, kneeling. From within you make no movement, except to gesture with your eyes that I should lower myself to the ground. It is all part of our ruse, but I’m certain you’re most entertained. I do as you silently command, aligning myself with the doorway and dropping to all fours. I then feel your elfin feet step lightly onto my back. Although it is common for a priestess to use her servants as steps when entering and exiting transport, to stand on one is perhaps too commanding of a display. You certainly make the most of it. Resting the butt of your staff at the peak of my crevice is unexpected to say the least. I do my best to maintain composure.
            “Forgive me, my child,” you say to the hag in a far more patient tone than the one you use against me. “You say there is danger ahead?”
            “Not so much ahead, good lady,” the hag says and then points her lance to the West. “Danger is on route to intersect you. We only head toward it now because our road soon turns North to the Crystal Bay. We’re fleeing to the Northern continent. Have you heard nothing of the fall of Bersmick, Calantra, and Brindenmire?”
            You shake your head, which is a lie. The collapse of those towns is the reason we were heading for the capital city, Dromn, in the first place. But the old hag proceeds to inform us of the things we already know. She speaks of how the mining town of Bermisck stands, or rather stood, at the far edge of the Fortan kingdom. A place of untold wealth and riches, oft compared by humans to the bejeweled dwarf city Ara, it also had the unfortunate business of being located along the edge of orc territory. As a result, the town served as a key military outpost for the Fortan Kingdom. This of course led to some mild strife between the soldiers and civilian miners. Nothing that couldn’t be settled without high taxes on the civilians striking it rich, which in turn allowed for generous pay to the soldiers who served the region. Although there had been some small squabbles and segregation between the two groups for years they were never of much importance. It wasn’t until the past year that the miners finally grew fed up with the soldiers and began to take greater offense. In turn the soldiers became restless. Although no citizen of the kingdom knew how the riot began or who threw the first blow, the entire squabbling town had become a battlefield overnight.
            Of course a number of orc scouts saw this as a compelling opportunity to expand their lands and devour some human flesh along the way. Who can blame them? So what began as a small riot escalated into a full-scale orc invasion. Several other towns and settlements fell before the kingdom had even known it was under attack. Instead of facing the orc army on open ground the king, former arch bishop Torquemada Stolzel, decided it was more strategically sound to use the mighty walls of Dromn to make their stand. All able bodied men were asked to stay and fight. Soldiers from every corner of the kingdom were called in as well. Of course when all the soldiers arrived the city became far too bloated for anything to be shared. The king decreed that all those who couldn’t fight should flee for their own safety. “Can you imagine that?” the old hag says at the conclusion of her history lesson. “The largest, most fortified city in all the world, and the king orders his subjects to evacuate? I was uprooted from my home by a gang of thugs calling themselves loyal soldiers to the holy king. Uprooted by the very people sworn to protect me. ‘Tis for the greater good,’ they said as the largest of them rummaged through my cupboards, deciding which of my stores they’d keep and what food I was welcome to leave with. I had baked three fresh cakes the prior evening to lift the spirits of my grandchildren. Those were confiscated for morale.”
            “Good woman,” you say with a shake of your head. “Xavious and the moons weep for your suffering. Although our great king no doubt acts with the intentions of the greater good, I can see how those beneath his grace acted as such. It is shameful indeed. Tell me more of your woes and I shall hold your restitution in my prayers.”
            “I am honored,” the hag says. She becomes silent a moment, and as I peek up from my hood, I watch her gaze off into nothing in particular. “I have lived through the rule of four kings. Riminiuth and Bont Vichier were both good men. Riminiuth saw us through great plague and the years where mokata birds and dragons waged their wars in our skies. Vichier was stubborn and perhaps failed to hear his people during the long drought. But there was peace. Mine and my husband’s woes were few. Then came the war monger, Yoffison. I do not mean to speak ill of any man before a priestess, good lady.”
            “Please,” you say. “I will hear you through.”
            The hag looks to you with uncertainty in her eyes before she says, “He matters not. His chef saw to that. The butcher met the blade, as they say. We seldom think of how easily the few may change the fate of the world.”
            I lower my head. Light as you are, milady, the weight of you on my back begins to take its toll. I begin to think of stiffening my arms or at least giving my neck a good crack. But apart from the slightest droop of my head, I make no movement. I patiently remain on all fours with you on me and the woman leading herself into stories she’s likely stored up in her mind for years.
            “Kind King Stolzel was never fit to rule. He wields Yoffison’s army like any other tune on that cursed violin he carries. I thought once of the peace to follow from appointing a holy man king. A man of Xavious should be just and yet, the witch hunts? The cleansing of the frontiers? Holy rule and dogmatic law. Most of my husband’s earnings are taxed away under the guise that humbleness is the way of righteousness.  Easy for the king to say from his new brass palace. Now the curfews and marital laws? Never mind those blasted citywide hymns every day. And it’s only worse for the young. My grandchildren don’t fear death like I had at their age. They fear life. They fear their own thoughts. The lessons they’re given surely are not the will of Xavious. This cannot be the order of the world. For the greater good they claim. And my cost for that is only my home and risking my family on the open road during an orc invasion whilst the infantry sleep cozy in my bed. I suppose if the city stands after the war I will not be so troubled. Good king or no, Dromn has always been my home.”
            You finally step off my back and walk toward the hag. “You say every soldier in the kingdom stands in the walls of Dromn?”
            The hag nods. “All those that still stand.”
            “Tis better news than I’d expected.” You smile, more to yourself than the woman. You pet her horse on its side. Strands of its fur shed through your fingers. “Fear not, good woman. Think only of protecting your grandchildren. With every soldier there to save your city I have no doubt your home will be vacant soon. I will speak to my God and his brethren this night. I will pray the king be given a greater wisdom to guide this battle. I will pray the orc armies be defeated. And I will pray Fortia be given the rest it deserves.”
            Beneath my hood, I’m unable to stop myself from smirking over your words. The orc brood outnumber the Fortan army eleven to one. Although orcs have never been especially good fighters, they make up for their unseasoned flailing in pure numbers. With the battle about to ensue it seems unlikely the old woman will have a home left to return to.
            “My thanks, your grace,” the hag says. “Will you still travel to the city despite this news? If you like you’re most welcome to join my caravan.”
            “I think not,” you say. “Your offer is generous, but Zerisk is an able fighter and I require the knowledge of higher powers.” In a manner of speaking, every word of that sentence is true, except my name of course. I am most certainly an able fighter. You are definitely seeking a higher power. You left out the details of breaking into the palace while the city is distracted by war in an effort to steal this higher power in the form of a trinket. But for the most part everything you say to the woman is honest.
            “But High Priestess, the road to Dromn is almost certainly one of death,” the old hag pleads.
            And to this, you nod. You turn from the woman and climb back over me into the carriage. “I have little doubt of that, good woman,” you say. “Little doubt of that indeed. Now, come Zerisk. We must make haste. I want to arrive in Dromn well before its expected guests.”
            “Yes, milady,” I say. “With haste.” Once you’ve seated I stand, wink to you, and shut the carriage door. The hag begins to turn her horse but I ask she delays for just another moment. I then go to the back of the carriage and open its rear compartment.
            “Zerisk,” you call from within. “Why have we not yet moved?”
            “Just checking the gear, milady,” I call back. I find a mokata feathered pack among our things, gaze fondly at it for a lingering moment, and then allow myself the nerve to part with it. “For you,” I say to the hag, raising it to her in both hands. “Four short swords. I carry no more than two. They are light weapons. And fast. Should they be required your grandchildren will have little trouble wielding these blades.”
            The old hag stares at the pack before accepting it and resting it over her saddle. She nods and thanks me.
            “If you make it to the port in Crystal Bay give them to an elf by the name of Ylrang Wind Catcher. He’ll recognize the steel but if he doesn’t tell them they’re a gift from one dog to another. He’ll understand. He will help you find passage across the ocean.”
            The old hag thanks me and asks, “Shall he hold the blades for you?”
            “That won’t be necessary,” I sigh, staring at the pack and recalling the weight of the swords and how they’d whistle through every slice of the air. “They’re payment for your voyage North. If milady’s errand ends as we all predict I’ll never have need of them again.”


Part II

Through the church’s stain glass windows I hear the battle for Dromn underway. The orcs have breached the outer wall and are roaring through the streets, straight into the heart of the Fortan Kindgom. This is the world’s most expansive city, often regarded as the glory of all civilization. Through colored glass and curved bars I watch as it begins to burn.
            The calamity of battle echoes off the rafters. An ever constant clashing of weapons rattles the panes. Stomps from thousands of feet tremor the wooden floor. Screams are made by men and orcs alike. They bark out battle cries. They shriek over their deaths. Some sound oddly like seagulls and it gives me pause. I contemplate what other animals the ominous death rattles sound like. Goats. Monkeys. One bellow is vaguely camel-like. I assume it comes from an orc but can’t say with any real certainty.
A human soldier yells a warning of approaching ogres with catapults. It’s answered by the thunderous boom of a boulder blasting through the nearest building. Through the windows, I see red, gold, purple, and green refractions of a crumbling roof.
            The church itself is silent. I sit in a pew with my arms outstretched along the crest rail, gazing at the magnificent flicker of lights, color, and shadow. There is something to the chaos outside I can’t quite put a finger on. I’m mesmerized. Even a little humbled. For many of the soldiers in Dromn their world is a blink from its end. Tomorrow those who survive will ask each other where they were when Dromn either fell or was saved. Memorials will be erected. Songs will be written. Legends will be forged. But for tonight there is only chaos and death. Only the visceral things history will forget in its romanticisms. Tomorrow the world will begin moving on when the survivors drink to their fallen brothers. Tonight is the massacre that’ll inspire the toasts.
The thought doesn’t please me but I admire it just the same.
It’s getting late and soon I’ll have to prepare. Not quite yet. The battle hasn’t gone long enough for us to make our way deeper into the city. The sun hasn’t set. I still have some time to enjoy the calamity and solitude.
            From outside I hear a man’s gruff voice. “Hold the line! They will not cross this line!” I ponder his rank and assume lieutenant. Higher command officers are always furthest back in Fortan formations. If he’s defining territory he’s most definitely at the front.
            I see shadows sweep across the windows and smalls lights zipping above. I assume the flaming arrows are those volleyed from the orc army. It would seem foolish for Fortans to burn their own city to the ground. At least I wouldn’t think they’re quite so desperate yet. Regardless, the lightshow is quite dazzling through the colored glass. Quick comets of light blaze by. They flicker red, green, orange, white, and blue in the breadth of a heartbeat. Just as thunder follows lightning, the fiery arrows are accompanied by a rolling symphony of screams.
The windows themselves depict the life of the wizard messiah Xavious in every bold color of the rainbow. Among them, he’s shown riding his dragon, leading the ascendants of man, and –the windows I’m most fixated upon- chanting over that ancient purple orb, The Vecris. The holy image on pristine glass streaks vibrantly at every passing flame. The shadows of warriors charge and slash their weapons beyond the still picture of outstretched hands open in worship. On the magical, mythical relic The Vecris blood spatters and then leisurely oozes down. The shadow of a man pierced in the throat by a fiery arrow thrashes around in a circle before tumbling over.
There are twelve windows in all, six on either side of the church. All of them extend from floor to ceiling. Between each stands an ornate statue of one moon god or another, and all of them are holding rounded amethysts. The altar is centered between two podiums. At its rear are two gilded statues of Xavious bowed in prayer. Between them an enormous portrait carving of the king, Torquemada Stolzel, dominates the wall more so than any of the windows. He doesn’t look as I’ve always imagined. I thought the king would be portly, balding, and perhaps with a slight hunch. In this image he’s depicted as slender and clean-shaven with a thick frock of golden hair. He stands with his chest puffed proud and his hands occupied by a violin and its bow. The black crown he wears is adorned in a series of falcon claws gripping at his scalp. The talons of a single downward foot shields the bridge of his nose, and the dark lines of the ornament frame his face in a brutish sort of way. His hazel eyes have no atmosphere to them. They make his expression seem vacant in spite of a soft smile. When I ignore the darkness of the claws he looks docile, almost childlike. When I adjust to focus on the crown his smirk becomes twisted and sinister. Of course he’s shown with bright rays emitting from nothing in particular behind him. And this makes sense to me. Royalty are always depicted as though they shit bursts of light.
            Outside the church I hear that gruff lieutenant again. He belts, “For the king!” and is parroted by the voices of countless soldiers. “For the king!” they all squawk. The clashing of weapons intensifies. They’re right outside. Between the statues of gods and their glass messiah I watch fragmented shadows fight, bleed, and one after another, fall. They all scream. Every last one of them screams until they can’t.
            “Do you hear that?” I say to King Stolzel’s magnificent portrait. “Those men out there? They truly do love you. They fight in your name right up until their deaths. Not for the gods. Not the moons. For the king. You must be quite proud.”
            The portrait offers no response. It is a portrait.
            It’s drawing near time. I best prepare. I give my neck a couple cricks and stand. To the king’s likeness I give my own sinister smirk and rid myself of that ridiculous loincloth. As I scratch and dress, I can’t help but take delight in the solitude. All the horrors of war are festering outside these walls while the church itself remains vacated. The Fortan soldiers won’t dare station themselves within the church, nor even allow for the fight to seep through its walls. Sacred ground is sacred ground. To spoil this holy flooring with orc blood is undoubtedly one type of sin or another. As for the orcs, I’m uncertain as to whether or not they’re the sort to be burdened by religion. I know they too won’t dare bring the fight into the church out of fear of provoking the gods of man. This in itself is mildly amusing. Stolzel, the good king himself, is also a man of the cloth. Prior to his reign he’d been an archbishop. The orcs won’t dare deface holy ground and yet they’re zealous in their effort to claim holy man’s head.
            Funny too, I think, refocusing on the image of the king, how those devoted to their gods always feel they can do more good once they’re empowered. “I’d wager that’s what you sell yourself,” I say to the portrait. “Justification to every sin and the perfect explanation to your horrendous nature. Think of the greatness I can accomplish for the gods while I am the most powerful man alive.”
            The portrait continues in its silence but I like to think the man represented would take my meaning. He might even attempt to refute it. Not that he’d make any new ground in his arguments. No man certain of his own purity and providence is worth listening to. This is unfortunate because often those are the very men most widely heard.
I tie on my bracers. They’re made of hydra skin, which offers only light protection. But as I’ve lined them with throwing knives they make for a decent armor. The trick in battle is remembering which areas can be used as shields and which have been spent as swords. To the portrait I continue to ramble, “I’ve often wondered if you tell yourself it was the gods who encouraged you to murder the former king. Did you hear them, sire, somewhere in the back of your holy skull? Yossifin’s death, as well as those of his kin began with that mysterious illness. But as his children and half the castle fell he somehow recovered. It was too well timed to coincide with your ambitions. Among reports of the king’s health, I remember tales of you sitting at his bedside, playing an assortment of prayers on a lute. That is until you and the guards found him with a cleaver buried in his face. Milady and I used to argue whether you had bribed the royal guard and axed him yourself. I certainly thought so. But I suppose Mornia is right. Not a man of the moons. You couldn’t risk anyone knowing the truth of your corruption. Especially not those you’d in time require for protection. More likely you hired someone such as I to do your dirty work. Yes, I see her point. It was a hired assassin. Maybe the chef who hanged for the crime but more likely someone else. That’s a sin you could wash your hands of. All you did was tell some wretched fool the way to Yossifin’s bedchamber. Perhaps where the guards would be and how you’d distract them with your holy presence. There’s little wrong in some shared words, right?” I have to laugh over my little conspiracy theory. It’s such an elaborate crime I’ve concocted for Stolzel and yet I can’t see how anyone would think otherwise.
I adjust the belt on my trousers and tug at my short swords’ sheaths. In part I suppose I regret giving that old woman my spare blades but I did keep the finest for myself. I’ll need no others. These weapons were fashioned from spider silk, a gift from an eight-legged goliath whom we’d assisted some years ago. They’re the lightest of my swords. A little too light. I hadn’t used them for months upon receiving them, unwilling to trust their ability to stand against hard steel. To wield them feels like flailing paper. And yet once battle tested I discovered they’ll slice straight through weaker metals. Orc weapons in particular. If there are any swords I trust to last the night it’s these. If there are any I can expect to over exert my lunges with in the rapture of battle, it’s these as well.
A few more knives fit into the slats of my boots. To the portrait I continue to ramble. “What of the wilds you sent your armies into? You deemed their quest a cleansing, did you not? I think it more a slaughter myself. The Torveskian dwarves. The wood elves of Hylorn. The Lomin tribes and most recently the dryads surrounding Jerbaisy. Villages of heretics throughout the kingdom, all of whom lived to their own traditions. And for it you massacred them all. I argue your gods are wretched indeed if their will is to do away with so many. I argue further, Sire, these conquests were not the will of any one deity. Let alone the lot of them. They were simply a demonstration of power. The unity of your kingdom, this grand empire you’ve constructed, is built on blood, fear, and man’s willingness to embellish his own importance.”  Looking over my gear, I decide on my kit of lock picks, a length of rope, and then after a moment’s thought, a couple more throwing knives. There is a war about and our own mission stands at the heart of it. The king’s palace is at the far end of Dromn. As I wrap a black cloak of dragon wing over myself, I ponder the plan yet another time. Truthfully, it’s not my best. But in my own defense who ever thought storming the castle was a good idea?
            Well, orcs.
            But we may very well succeed.
            It starts with the king. Stolzel is a man of vanity. To illuminate this he keeps the kingdom’s rarest and most valued treasures on display at the peak of the highest tower in his palace. The tower is so engorged with wealth that both sun and moonlight pouring through the windows cause the room to glow. At night it’s said to be a warm beacon lighting all of Dromn. Most kings would perhaps favor a hidden vault or underground layer for such riches. But clearly Stolzel knows the power of flaunting his grandeur. Who among the peasants wouldn’t look upon their king’s palace and dream? What nation in the world wouldn’t marvel at the tale of King Stolzel’s treasure room? Regardless, with the orcs invading Dromn the entire army is focused on defending the city. Our mission is to reach the palace, gain entry, and make our way to the tower while the army within stares out the windows. Once there it’s a single treasure we’re after. An amulet by some ancient name you’ve mentioned to me a number of times. Its exact pronunciation I’m uncertain of and would only muddle in my meager human tongue. All I know is that it’s shaped like Fortia’s falcon claw insignia, and it somehow intensifies the powers of the wizard or enchanter who wields it. In the hands of a healer it could cure illness or mend even the most severe injuries in seconds. In the hands of a necromancer such as yourself… who knows?
            Our path is simple enough. We’ll sneak across rooftops as the battle rages through the streets. Once close enough to the palace we’ll stow our gear and pretend to be innocent beggars too frightened to flee Dromn. They’ll lower the gate or at least cast a rope for us to climb. Once inside we’ll sneak behind the crowds and con our way to the tower.
            My plan could afford a few passes on a whetstone. On the other hand, this sort of heist requires improvisation. An exact step by step is for the stubborn men who break when circumstances force them to bend. Simplicity keeps us in the wealth of options. Or at least that’s what I sell myself as I check over my gear a final time. Truthfully our trajectory most likely ends in death.
            “Well,” I say to the portrait. “It appears I’m ready.” I begin to turn, to leave. And yet the portrait compels me to stay. I’ve never been the sort for the lies of gods and man alike, but standing alone in their home, it occurs that perhaps a confession is appropriate. I’m uncertain as to what moon I was born under, and know few of the legends of Xavious. So I decide it’s reasonable to explain myself to the portrait of the king. “I doubt the two of us will meet in person,” I say. “But there is something you should know. I just- I wish you could understand that for the harm you caused me, I begrudge you nothing. You likely wouldn’t recall, but once upon a time you signed and sealed my death sentence with your royal stamp. I resented this for some years but in retrospect I am a killer. For the safety of your subjects the order was a wise decision. Given the circumstances it may have even been your one good act as king. But I’ve not thought on it for quite some time. It’s just- The thing that weighs on me,” I trail off. Before I can continue I look at the doors and pews and make certain of my solitude. Reassured I turn back to the portrait and say in a more hushed tone, “Between the two of us -speaking one vile, unforgivable man to another- this caper is simply an expression of the heart. It may even be my one good act as a deviant. Although my companion has some different feelings on the matter I regard you with no more than a shrug of indifference. For all of your sins, you commited them because you believed in something greater than yourself. I am doing the same. You’re a man who brought death to the outskirts of the kingdom. I’m simply returning it to your door. Your men are out there fighting, killing, and dying because they love you. I too am acting upon violence entirely for- For her. You found it best to take my life. She gave me a reason to live. For this- For my part in this caper, I want you to understand it has nothing to do with you and everything to do with her.” The thought echoes and dwindles off into the same nothingness of its creation. I stare at the ever-silent portrait. For just this moment I feel honest. Even complete.
I then spoil the harmony for myself, throwing a knife from the folds of my cloak. The blade spins once and stabs the portrait square in the king’s chest. “Of course if you shouldn’t happen to survive the night I’ll consider us even over my death sentence. I’ll remember it as justice for your crimes against the world.”
            I run a couple steps up the wall to pluck my knife from the portrait. I then turn and move down the altar, heading for the bell tower where you’re already waiting. I graze my fingers along the equipment I’m leaving behind. Some of it had been so useful over the years. My collapsible dwarven crossbow. My assortment of exploding dragon lungs. Oh, and the Werepenguin Beak of Ruin. What a fantastic and powerful devise that proved to be. And with so many uses. Far more than some of the other items I’ve lugged around. One would think an invisibility handkerchief would’ve come in handy more often. Only once, and to hide a cantaloupe from you.
Moving on, I pass my hand over a vial of mokata blood. The goo is thought to ward off all living creatures yet never once worked as well as those gypsy grifters claimed. And then there’s my travel stone. A little emerald capable of transporting its user to anywhere he wishes. Although thought to be immensely valuable it can unfortunately only be used once. This of course gives one the desire to save it for only the absolute most dire of situations. Even then there’s no guarantee the thing will work. So if a scenario arises where I need the travel stone and it proves to be nothing more than an emerald not only will I die but I’ll die a fool. I can’t discard the thing because what if it does work and the day comes where I might require it? But what if I require it and it proves itself as nothing more than a pretty rock?
The debate over travel stones is the stuff of migraines. The result is that it remained in a pocket with an assortment of throwing knives for the past several years. However, seeing as we likely won’t be surviving the night anyhow, I can’t help but gaze at the little gem for a moment. I lift it from its mesh pocket and let it dangle on its necklace. I know I should part with the stone. I look over everything else and know it’s best to leave it all behind. It’s far too much to take along and I’ll be an easier target it I try. If I die I’ll never have need of it again. If I live I hope to never have want of it again. I gaze at the little gem and question if I have the stomach for the tales and toasts of tomorrow. There is only absolute doom outside these walls and even if we survive I don’t know the sort of life that remains for me.  I question if I’m a greater coward for accepting death or facing life.
It takes a moment to find my answer. I look to the portrait of the king, the statues of the gods, and the windows of their messiah. Before them all I put on the necklace. I tuck the travel stone beneath my cloak and armor and with a heavy heart leave everything else behind. With my newfound clarity I resume my walk to the bell tower, sigh, and then turn back to my gear to collect several more knives.

            The night air is cool and crisp against my nose. It has a chilled scent. Well, chilled with an added hint of things on fire. Wood, flesh, and molten metals. It’s dark outside. I pass some open windows and see only two of the moons rising over the mountains that guard Dromn. The stars are present and the taste of the air reminds me of the coming winter. Thankfully tonight is comfortably cool. This and the darkness of so few moons is appreciated, as both will be to our advantage. Cool air is good for running. Darkness is perfect for thievery. If not for the screaming and bloodshed below, I’d think it rather ideal.
I find you at the peak of the bell tower sitting on the ledge, staring at the violence in the streets. You’re still dressed in your priestess robes, silently watching the battle as the breeze sifts through your endless black hair. Several neighborhood fires emit a red glow around you. It’s been ages since I’ve stepped in this city, not since Yossifin’s rule. I believe this is your first visit. Our clashes with Fortia since our escape from Jerbaisy have always been in the outer regions of the empire. Never the kingdom proper. They were small battles besides. Assassinations and robberies for enemies of the kingdom. Or simply for men with pockets deeper than ours. For all the notoriety we’d obtained in this city, it’s an odd feeling to actually see it again. Especially with you sitting over it, good lady death quietly watching as the homes and soldiers of our greatest enemy are ravaged apart. One could think us revolutionaries for this night if we weren’t only here for an amulet. Approaching behind you, I hold up my loincloth, let it get caught in the wind, and let it go. Your head turns slightly, regarding my presence with only your pointed ear. The loincloth drifts past you and you either watch it float away or continue enjoying the carnage below.
            As an elf of Hylorn you know King Stolzel’s ruthlessness better than most. Sure he’s killed and fought plenty of our employers in the time we’ve been together. I know that anger. But it was during his conquesting years, the purification of Fortia, that his armies tore through your lands. From me he took friends. From you your family, friends, your homeland, and your entire way of life. A part of me longs to ask how those memories are affecting you. Looking out at the nearly endless landscape of brass lined, gilded buildings of man, it’s a much further road into the city than out. If you’re in any way hesitant over stealing this amulet, backing away now wouldn’t be an error. At this distance, the highest tower of the palace stands as tall as the longest digit of my middle finger. Three story buildings near it are the same height as the notch between two digits. All along the way, pipes gleam the reflection of the treasure room’s glow, which then glosses over every city street. For a moment I’m dazzled at how even the roads have a wealthy glaze to them. But soon I realize the glimmers of light are reflecting from the soldiers’ armor. My heart sinks at the endless landscape of them, packed tight as bricks and leading all the way to the palace. Looking outside the city towards a star field of torchlight from the hordes of invading orc forces doesn’t provide much comfort. But I don’t have it in myself to ask if you’re hesitating. If I do, you may read into my own anxieties. You may decide to back out or proceed without me. In my heart, I cannot have either.
            As I ponder this a boulder flung from a catapult tears through the roof of the church just behind where we’re sitting. The flooring shakes and for a second I fear the entire tower may collapse with us in it. It’s enough to make me speak my thoughts aloud. “We could just return after the city’s torn itself asunder. How badly do you want the umm- the thing?”
            You continue watching the streets below. After a considerable breadth of silence and a small shrug you say, “Enough.”
            I can’t help but smirk. That’s all I have to know. So I stretch. I ready myself for our journey into the heart of the city. I unsheathe my short swords and give them a few quick spins to loosen my arms and get used to the weightlessness of spider silk. Ready and relaxed for a path of almost certain doom, I put up the hood of my cloak and offer my hand with the question, “Milady?”
            As I help you stand, you tell me, “You don’t have to come along for this. The amulet will provide you nothing.”
            And now it’s my turn to shrug. “It’s never the prize,” I say. “It’s all in the heist. The adventure ahead. And besides, if I didn’t have you to get me into trouble, I’d get fat.”
            You smirk. Beneath the shadow of my hood, I grin like a boyish fool. Your smile always has such an effect on me. But it dies quick. Now’s not the time.
You take another step toward the ledge and look out again over all the battle. “I suppose I should ready,” you say. And then you pull the bow at the collar of your priestess robes. It unknots with ease, and you let the cloth slip free of your shoulders. The robe catches the night air and floats away, I imagine off to meet my loincloth at some nowhere in particular. You yourself remain, but not in your usual thieving attire. Still unfit for burglary, you’re in a taut, sleeveless dress, as black as your hair and even similar in sheen. Slits on either side reveal nearly the entirety of your legs, adorned by bladed heel boots that extend well above your knees. Your ebony gloves mirror this design, extending from your fingers to beyond your elbows. When you glance over your shoulder, I can tell from the look in your emerald eyes that you’re already expecting some comment.
            The word that overwhelms my mind is gorgeous, but I gather my jaw and bury my first thought beneath another remark. “I feel underdressed,” I say with a small flap of my cloak. “Are you expecting a dance as we storm the castle?”
            “It’s my big night,” you say. “I’ll finally have the amulet or I’ll be dead come morning. Either way it felt like an occasion. I wanted to dress the part.” You step down from the ledge and rummage through a nearby bag. First you remove a sheathed rapier and fasten it to the top of your boot. Without a belt in sight, I can only imagine the mythril strength of the garter that supports a sword in such a place. You pull from your bag two masks. You toss one to me and I watch as you put on yours. Like the rest of your outfit, it’s black, covering only around your eyes with sleeves that fit over your elfin ears.
            “A masquerade?” I ask. “I doubt disguises are necessary.”
            “I found these some months ago,” You say, tying off the mask and draping your hair over the knot. “A lomin sold them to me. They’re enchanted to reveal areas hidden in shadow. Mine also enhances hearing.” You then kick your staff up into your hand and spin it around your back. How you’re able to wield such a heavy weapon is beyond me. One end is adorned with a hefty, steel counterweight, functioning to balance out the enormous arbacapuch skull on the other. I think that’s what the creature was called. Some dragon-like critter we bested outside the vault of a lord several years back. You say the skull provides its owner with protection. Looking at the horns and pointed teeth on the thing I’d say its power comes through pure intimidation. Even without the skull it’s a massive weapon and even with your elfin grace you’re but a twig of a woman. I’d even wager the staff has more girth than your ankles. Most definitely your wrists. And yet I’ve seen you wield the thing in battle and watched how it almost seems to dance in accordance to your will.
“Aren’t you going to put on yours?” you ask, pointing at the mask still in my hands.
            I look down at the slip of fabric with some skepticism. I’ve heard of many magics and through you have witnessed even the blackest of arts. But a mask that penetrates shadows? The idea sounds like the sort of tune any lomin gypsy would compose in an effort to make a sale. But to appease you I find the eyeholes and press the mask over my face. Sure enough, all of the night’s shadows are softened. In the darkness of the streets below I see wounded soldiers doing their best to hide, rodents scampering along gutters, and other assorted disarray. The fires in the city seem to glow with additional vibrancy. And yet their light is less blinding. Looking at the thickest part of the battle around the church, I can the see finest scratches in soldiers’ armor and scabs on the orcs’ pocked skins. “What about my hearing?” I ask, realizing the mask doesn’t have similar sleeves for my ears.
            You step back to the ledge and say, “Quit talking so much. That’ll help.”

            We make our way along rooftops. Quick leaps and light feet take us deeper into Dromn. You spot a pair of orc archers firing on approaching soldiers and slink your way toward them. I start to retrieve a knife from under my cloak but you hold out a hand, gesturing claim over the first kills of the night. Although I’m competitive and jealous, I enjoy watching you slip through the darkness toward them. Silent and graceful, you hop from one roof and catch the ledge of the next. You shimmy your way over, peeking occasionally to make sure of their position.
            It’s only the two and they’re far too busy volleying arrows toward the Fortan army to take notice. I make note of how the soldiers marching in the street directly beneath them would make for easier targets. But if they fire on the nearby crowd, they’ll be spotted and endangered. I’ve always thought the trouble with orcs came in quantity but perhaps they’re not as foolish as I believed.
            You make a humiliating display of the pair. As one readies his arrow you hook your staff around his elbow and against his back. You turn him like a lever, causing him to not only misfire but stumble toward his partner. The other archer spots you and in the surprise turns to fire his bow. What he doesn’t notice is how you’ve caused his friend to stumble into his path. When he looses the arrow, it only goes a couple of inches before piercing through the eye of the first orc. It falls dead and a quick spin of your staff lands a flat blow against the other’s throat. It gasps for breath as it collapses to its knees, and you’re quick to take the bow straight from its hand, and then slower the quiver of arrows off its back. No mercy, I think. You want the orc to know it’s defeated. You want it to die seeing its weapons claimed, its mind spinning with the death of his comrade. Still, it is a warrior and even unable to breathe, the creature gives an effort to stand and attack. Not that it gets far. Not that it ever stood a chance. You entertain yourself a little, spinning your staff into the air as you unsheathe your rapier, slice the orc’s throat through a growing lump created from your previous hit, and then sheathe the weapon in time to catch your staff and knock the creature hard across its face. With its neck already cut, the impact of your staff rips open its throat. Rusty orc blood sprays everywhere. You somehow manage to sidestep the geyser and perform a small curtsy in my direction.
            “Show off,” I whisper, assuming you can hear me through the magic of your mask. I start to enquire over stealing its bow, or at least how you plan to carry yet another weapon, but a whistling sound cuts me short. I don’t even see it, but reach out and grab the arrow before it can finish its flight for your head. I scan the direction it flew from and see the missile was fired from human hands. “My turn,” I say, charging forward.
            The look on the archer’s face is one of bewilderment. His eyes widen. His lips part. He mustn’t have noticed me when he fired because I can see his puzzlement as he shifts his gaze from you. As I leap off one building, I remind myself to thank you for the mask. But the thought is pushed aside as I roll onto the next roof. The archer readies another arrow, regaining his composure from the first shot. He’s fast. I’ve only moved a couple of steps before he’s pulled on the bow, staring me down, sighting me with the tip of an arrow. The tiniest glint of certainty comes to his expression as he fires his shot, sending his volley straight for my face.
            I play with him. I can’t help myself. As the arrow soars toward me, I angle my head away from it. Just enough. I feel the arrow pass between myself and the inner ridge of my cloak. It pierces straight through the back, whipping the hood off my head.
            The archer’s reaction goes from initial pride over the successful hit to immediate dread when he realizes I’m still coming. He scrambles for his quiver, notches an arrow and pulls on the bow. I keep my eyes trained on his as I make for another ledge. He fires again as I leap, and I appreciate the strategy. In the air, already set on a path, I can’t duck out of the way or roll under his shot. He has me and we both know it. Except that as soon as he looses his arrow I throw a knife from my sleeve to intercept it. The two missiles spark against each other before spiraling harmlessly aside.
            I land and continue my charge. I can see the archer’s disbelief. He’s wide eyed. Slack jawed. His face turns pale as he reaches back for his quiver, but I’m already too close. I unsheathe one of my swords and jump off a ledge, straight for his post. He brings the arrow over his shoulder, sliding the shaft along his bow. His eyes stay focused on me, and I can see the fear growing behind him. I can tell he’s in wonder. Am I some monster? What magic must I possess to topple over him?
            It’s nothing really. I bring my sword up over my head as I soar towards him. I have no magic and use no trickery. I’m not the demon he sees in his final moment. Just a man. Just as him. A mere mortal fighting for the thing I believe in. But between us I’m faster. I’ve fought through more battles and dodged more arrows than he could possibly know. I run my blade straight through his heart with the same ease I have a hundred men before him. He collapses and I roll forward, leaving my blade standing like a blooming flower stemmed from his chest.
            Looking back, I see you mouth two words. “Show off.”
             
            We progress along the building tops for as far as they’ll take us. Occasional archers and scouts get in our way but are taken down with ease. A beating here. A strangling there. One orc hisses at me like an asp. One human snarls like an orc. I make a small game of stealing the arrows from archers’ own quivers and using them to rip holes in their sides. You’re less subtle, twirling your staff like an angry wind as you concave skulls and knock men clear from their posts. We make morbid work of both armies, taking away all eyes above the fight and adding to the chaos below.
We reach a main street, one too large to leap our way across. Ducking behind a chimney, we watch a battalion of Fortan soldiers fortify one end of the block, form ranks and build a defensive formation. On the other end of the block a sizable force of orcs, goblins, and ogres are gathering. Both groups have lined soldiers to define their territory with a small skirmish of only a few between them. Both groups are cursing one another, calling threats, and screaming battle cries to antagonize their enemy’s forward. And yet neither side is advancing. I don’t know the city well enough to make any grand assumptions but I presume this point is one of strategic significance.
We survey the block, looking back and forth for a narrow point to cross, or perhaps a break we can creep through at street level. I consider a few ideas. We could join the fight here, posing to serve the king and attacking the orc army until we find a way back into the shadows. Of course that takes us in the wrong direction. And if either of us are recognized or enough people question why we’re wearing masks, we’ll likely be attacked by both forces. The thought is less than ideal. We could continue traveling along the rooftops until we find a narrow crossing but looking around it seems this street goes quite a distance without any definitive end. Directly across from us however, the nearest roof has some brass piping extending out of it. The thing ends in a trumpet bell, and I have to take a moment to ponder its use. Gazing over the cityscape, I spot others like it. Some curve. Some protrude from the walls. Others end in several bells, all of which point down to the sidewalks. They’re not chimneys, as those are consistently bulky stone not unlike the one we’re crouched behind. They’re certainly not plumbing but the thought of them being used as such gives me a small chuckle.
You whisper, “What is it?” and I shake my head. I’d be embarrassed to explain the image of these pipes ejecting feces onto the people and now’s not the time. You seem to shrug off my most certainly odd expression and tell me to keep quiet. I nod. I try to make up for the laughter by producing my rope and pointing to the pipe across the way. I’m not certain you understand, so I gesture a walking motion with my fingers.
You scowl as I loosen the rope from its coil and whisper, “My boots have bladed heels. I’m stepping on knives and you want me to walk a tightrope?”
“Go overhand,” I say. “Or wrap your knees.” I pick a small selection of heavier knives from under my cloak and tie them around the handles, forming a crude grapple.
“And risk two armies staring up my dress?”
The thought of your garter forces me to swallow some daydreams. “You’re the one who decided to wear that getup in the middle of a siege. Lovely as you are, this is the sort of risk involved. If both armies glimpse up your gown, well, you’ll stop the whole war and I’ll just go steal the amulet while they’re stunned.”
I hope for a blush but am given a roll of your eyes instead.
I tighten the grapple as best I can and throw it before you can give me reason not to. I can’t help but take pride in how the rope catches the pipe and loops once around itself. Years and years of practice and my little trick never grows dull. I give the rope a tug to tighten the knot. Then another pull to test the strength of the pipe. It doesn’t seem to wobble or break, so I tie the other end around the chimney. I step onto the rope and give it a small hop. It still feels secure enough so I whisper, “Just walk on your toes. You’re an elf. When was the last time one of your kind ever tripped?”
            I take a few steps out and then another hop to show you the stability of my makeshift bridge. Another couple of steps and I start to turn, gesturing for you to join me. But it’s right then that the mortar of the chimney gives away. First the rope dips, and then I drop along with it. Unable to regain my footing, I continue to fall, catching the rope with one hand. In doing so, the rest of the chimney crumbles from my weight. All I can do is hang on and hope to swing safely into one of the windows across the way.
            No such luck. I feel the rope tighten just above the street. It breaks my fall somewhat but not enough to prevent me from hitting the ground and skidding against it until the curb bounces me. I don’t feel anything broken but as I stand I find it impossible to draw breath. I stumble and collapse onto my back, fighting for air. I writhe a moment, battling my winded lungs back to life. As I roll, I see you standing on the edge, readying an arrow. You angle your shot to my left, and I look in time to see an orc charging my way, raising his sword above his head. Your shot pierces through his arm and continues deep into his skull. He swivels in his step. His whole body goes limp and as he falls forward the sword escapes his grip and spins in an arc over my head. Finally I clamber a breath and regain composure.
I stand with weapons drawn. I’m ready for the next attacker. But it seems the skirmish has been delayed. Both armies are paused, weapons drawn, and eyes transfixed on their fallen guest. Me.
            It’s a funny thing I notice in myself. Even as a professional thief and part time assassin, I’ve never cared for silence. To be surrounded in it as battle rages ominously on in the city is perhaps the pinnacle of all discomforts. At least I’m no longer attired in a loincloth.
            “Percour!” a man’s gravel voice calls out from the Fortan’s blockade. “I know this man! I know him!”
            When I look to the human army I see the head of a man, three rows back in the crowd. “Luthro?” I sigh. He’d been a prison guard who had a habit of taunting me about a decade ago. His voice had been fuller then. I thought one of us had killed him. But then again it seems to be a night for being mistaken. I until just now also believed masks were able to conceal one’s identity.
            He sings out my name with an expected manner of disgust. “That man is Lama Percour, the murderer escapee revealed! He is the Fish Thief of Luna Falls! Our great king issued this man’s death himself. Kill him! Strike him down with the orcs!”
            Opposite this inconvenience, another voice booms out from the orc’s blockade. The lower, louder voice. One that thunders like catapults. One that putrefies the taste of air and rattles all the windows. And of course it screams out my name. “Lama? Lama! Lama!”  Why would it not?
I turn to this threat, first noticing an arm the size of me knocking seven orcs to the ground. An ogre, the most massive I’ve ever seen, breaks through the horde and stampedes toward me. How and why it knows my name is a mystery, although I have killed a small handful of its kind in my day. I don’t doubt this matter is somehow related.
            “Ha-ha! Get him ogre!” I hear Luthro call from the opposing crowd. “Shatter his bones!”
            I spin my short swords to loosen my arms. I hope the flash of spider silk will slow the beast to some degree of hesitation but it’s uninhibited. I yell out a cry of battle, but it falls short with a cough left over from my winded lungs. Still, I charge. Still I face the monster. I take several steps forward, raising my blades. As I near it, the creature swings its fist in a wide haymaker.
An arrow plunges into its arm. Then another through his eye. Another step and you land, driving your heels into its shoulders and the counterweight of your staff deep into its head. Like the orc before it, the ogre stumbles forward. I attempt a roll to the side and dodge its punch, but the beast’s knuckle drops as it falls and smacks me across my face.
I see stars as I spin into the nearest wall.
            You don’t waste any time creating our defenses. Riding the ogre to the ground you empty your quiver into both the humans and orcs alike. Those who had been skirmishing between the blockades fall, most of them dead.
            I lift myself onto all fours but the effort is more than it should be. I think to myself that I’m failing you. We’ve only made it halfway to the palace and already I’ve thrown us into the fight. A year of planning and all that work to get us this far and I’ve nearly killed myself twice in only the past minute. I’m done for. I know it. I gather my swords and drag them closer, ready for a final stand. Orcs and men from both blockades are charging for us and in my heart I swear I’ll take them all before I let them close in on you.
            I lift my head and try to ready myself for the fight. Dizzy over how much the fall and ogre took out of me all I can manage at the oncoming orcs is a threatening glare.
            And it works?
            All the orcs slow. Some of them collide into one another. All of them together freeze. For a second, I have to wonder just how horrible the bruise on my face must look. But then I feel a small spatter on my shoulder. I look up. The ogre you’d just slain is rising to its feet with you still on its shoulders. You spin your staff and the beast flexes its chest. You stretch your fingers and the ogre balls its fists, cracking its knuckles. Its tongue hangs out to the side. Its one eye glows faintly in its pupil while the other is a smear draining down its cheek. In the eyeball’s place, the empty socket emits a glow instead. The ogre lumbers forward and a guttural groan escapes its throat. Its death rattle, used as a convenient enough warning for all who approach.
            But the ogre isn’t alone. Several other groans expel from a number of the dead around us in the street. Always from the ones who had been face down. You raise your arms, and dead humans and orcs alike pull themselves to their feet. Those nearest to the living waste no time in making an attack. Two soldiers are pierced by their fallen brethren. Several orcs are ripped apart by their own dead brood.
            Luthro, still somewhere in the crowd, uses his opportunity to inform on the obvious. “Necromancer!” he screams. “Necromancer!”
            It all happens in an instant but our battle is underway. Both armies break formation, clearly riled over their mysterious new enemy. For many there’s nowhere to go but forward.
            You spin your staff. You wave your arms. The dead respond to your magic. They do your killing for you. “Yes, that’s right!” you yell, belittling both forces. “Face me! Fight me! Get yourselves killed! Become my soldiers! Grow my army!”
            I try again to lift myself into the battle but am thwarted by the dead ogre’s hand wrapping around me. “What are you doing?” I say. I cough.
            “No, Lama,” you say as the ogre lifts me, cradling me in its arm. “You’re hurt. Regain yourself. This fight is mine.” 

Part III


I never told you this, but my life was yours from the first moment I saw you.

            How long ago was that? Eight years? Maybe nine?

            I’d been in that dungeon for the better part of two years. Days and nights were rolling into an infinite stretch of nothing remarkable. I’d spent several days discussing my exploits as a thief to my cellmate, a rotten dwarf named Brugar. “I miss how the cherry blossoms would bloom above all else. Coupled with the smell of the ocean. Oh, and the green mountains! They’re unlike anything I’ve ever known on the Southern continent. Can you even recall the last time we saw anything as beautiful as green? Even as a warrior nation, the Hyokians understand the delicacies of peace. Simplicity, intricacy, and beauty. They truly are a remarkable people. I do regret stealing that silverware and the ship, but after embarrassing the shogun and his daughter my options were limited. I’m sure you understand.” I rambled on to Brugar over the lore of my life while lying on a decrepit straw mat, gazing into the darkness of our ceiling. “It’s funny how little we’ve spoken all this time,” I told him. “A word here. A threat there. But I never felt as though we had much to truly say to one another. Not until I killed you. Isn’t that strange?”
            I rolled to my side and looked at Brugar. He was still just as I’d left him, propped against the cell bars with his neck twisted to an impossible angle. His eyes were open but had finally rotted away, which was something of a comfort. For days they seemed to follow me wherever I went. Not that I had far to go. “I feel there’s a connection between us,” I told him. “A bond if you will. Perhaps it’s different for dwarves but I’m quite excited. I took your life and for that I finally get to be done with mine.” It was a simple matter. I’d already been locked away for the rest of my natural days. There was no hope. No escape. Just years upon years of sitting and waiting for time to finally give up on me. To make matters worse, they’d locked Brugar in with me. The loudest, most violent dwarf they could find. I’m certain it was just some form of punishment, if not a game or bit of fun. The moons know how Fortan men love their bits of fun. Every chamber in my part of the dungeon housed two cells. When they brought in Brugar the guards could’ve thrown him into the vacant cage next to mine. Instead they took amusement over us sharing. As did Brugar, I think. He’d made a quick point to turn me into a punching bag. He ate my food. He took over the straw pile I’d fashioned into a bed. He most recently took to attacking me out of boredom. We scrapped. We both took our wounds and, I think, regarded one another as equals. Not many men can hold their own against dwarves and I took his violent advances mostly as an opportunity to learn. For a brief period I grew to look forward to them. But as time wore on I grew broken, tired, and thin. The realization set in that this was all life would ever have to offer. So one morning I awoke Brugar with a kick to his throat.
            He was quicker to recover than I’d expected and the struggle lasted a good while longer than I’d have liked. Long enough at least to change my stakes in the outcome. It’s vague now but I remember losing the will to go through with it. I couldn’t allow him, this animal of a dwarf to be the opponent that finally killed me. So a change of plans occurred while I clung to his back and he rammed me against the wall. And the cell bars. And then back into the bars several times more. Finally I grew committed to my will for victory and gave his head a hard twist. Her jerked forward, resisting the effort. The added tension only eased the kill. Another pull and he was given the escape that had been meant for me. From there it was a simple matter of waiting for the guards to make their rounds. Once they found us, or rather me sitting atop his corpse and picking my nails, I was given a thrashing. Shortly after the warden sent a letter to the king, requesting the death of a soul most rotten. And I remember how relieved I felt. I laughed even, although I couldn’t fully explain why. It had been years since I’d felt so amused. They had to kill me. Had to. It was the only punishment they had left. I felt an added sense of victory in that Fortia was forced to shorten the terms of my confinement. Finally, I’d be given all I deserved. Finally, I had peace.
            So there I was, spending my final days relaying to the corpse of a dwarf my story. I joked about all of life’s little ironies. I rambled over the heists I’d performed and the battles I fought. Oh, the adventures I’d had. How I missed that thrill of danger and stepping into the unknown. But those days were gone. I had no family, no friends, and for most of my life I preferred the ease of such simplicity. Whatever time I had left would be spent in the motions of eating my final hidden scraps, sleeping, and defecating in the space between. “Who would’ve thought it?” I told Brugar. “The son of a slumlord and a four-breasted whore dies alone in a dungeon. Surely when they speak of my fate all the world will gasp and wonder what went wrong.”
            It was about then that you came into my life. From somewhere beyond my cell’s chamber door, I heard a distant rapping and rustle. “Kill me!” the voice of a woman shrieked, barely a whisper through stone walls. “Just kill me!”
            “Silence!” one of the guards said, followed by the distinct echo of a slap, several screams, and more calamity. I couldn’t help but to lift my head and peer at the darkness at the foot of the door. It’d been so long since I’d heard a woman. I couldn’t help but wonder at and doubt the sound. My breath held itself in. My heart grew still. The shrill screams and sounds of disaster grew louder than before. They pulled at me. I found myself half sitting, leaning, edging toward the chamber door. What mystery was this? Whose voice broke the stillness of my slow death?
            The sound of a key turn jolted me with the most fantastic terror.
            “A visitor?” I thought or maybe whispered.
            The door burst open. The whole ordeal must’ve taken but a few of seconds. From the chamber door to the other cell was a mere couple of strides. They could’ve had you locked in and left the room before I could draw a breath. And yet every time I recall the moment it lasts. It lingers for ages and days. Luthro was the first guard in. He’d kicked the door and held one of your arms. Another guard, some weasel named Birrit, held your other. Blood sprayed with his spit as he demanded your silence.
            They held you face down. You thrashed your head around as you screamed for death; your raven black hair tossing wildly, casting waves at your every resisting motion.
            A third guard followed. Lurch, I think he was. He held your bare legs together and fought to keep his footing. Of the three he was the only man wearing his helmet. I could never imagine how, but you must’ve caused the dent in its side.
            All three men had been tattered with bruises and scrapes. I couldn’t tell whether the blood streaks were from their wounds or yours. All of them struggled to hold you like they were hoping to contain a wild fire.
            “By the moons be silent!” Birrit said as he brought his knee to your chin. The hit turned your head and as your hair was swept up I caught a glimpse of your pale, bruised face and the fresh cut on your lip. I remember noting the specks on your cheeks and being uncertain if they were from a spray of guard’s blood or if you bore freckles. You turned your head back and as your hair dropped, it parted in an arch that revealed your pointed elfin ears.
            You screamed thunder, loud enough I’m sure to startle the entire prison. I myself was lost in awe. A woman in the Jerbaisy dungeon. An elf in the Fortian Kingdom. Tiny, petite, and a match for even the guards of the strongest prison in all the lands. Pale, porcelain skin, and with hair like a weeping willow at midnight. What a radiant and rare maiden you were.
            With all three of the king’s men trapping you tight as a cross in their arms, they used all their combined strength to cast you into your cell. You bounced off the far wall just as the metal bars clanked shut. You rolled on the floor and cursed in your elfin language. I couldn’t see the tears beneath your hair, but I knew the sound of weeping. You commanded them for death, and with you safely out of reach, the three guards let themselves have a laugh over your words.
            “Or what?” Birrit said. “You’re in our keep now, darling. The good king wishes you many moons under our roof. And most unfortunate for you the king’s will is the infallible will of the gods. Enjoy these walls, rabbit ears. You’ll be a thousand years older and mad before you see the outside of them.” He smirked as he spoke. Even with a broken nose and a cut gushing red over his eye, he smirked.
            You continued to threaten and Birrit continued to mock. I became distracted when Luthro turned to me and laughed in that hefty tone of his. “Lost a little weight there, Lama?” he said. “Thought we’d bring you a friend. Pretty little thing, that one. Least she was before we broke her face in. Gives you a good last look at all the twigging you won’t do no more. We’ll be feeding her too. Wouldn’t want for you to miss the smells of the chef’s gruel.” He chuckled to himself. When I gave no response he kicked at my bars. “You got nothing to say for once? Where’s the stupid wit?” He watched me a moment longer and then finally left with the other guards, locking the door behind him.

I didn’t speak on our first day together. I just watched you scream, rattle the cage door, and plea for death. It took hours, maybe even a day or so, but eventually you cried yourself into a slumber.
            I attempted sleep but was too excited and fitful for rest. You had given such a fight. I kept thinking over the blood smears and spatters on you and the guards. And the dented armor on Lurch. Your wounds. Theirs. In my mind I kept trying to piece the battle together. How you must’ve fought. What it took to subdue you. Your scream. And oh the sound of your voice. I rolled around on my sides and back. I fluffed my straw mat. I paced my cell, and yes, watched you sleep. If I’d had a way to lay a blanket over you, or even one to provide, I think that may have calmed me. But without one, after all my restlessness, I sat in the corner of my cell with my heart pounding, watching as you slept at the gate of your cell, your hands still wrapped around the bars.

            The next day you were hollering for food. But even then I think it was more to pester the guards than satisfy any other appetite. Few men crave food their first few days locked in a hole. That’s when reality sets in and the belly ignores itself. But there you were. “I’m hungry!” you commanded. “You have to feed me! You don’t keep prisoners just to let them die!”
            I fought to break my silence. It was all too pleasant to hear a woman’s voice so I allowed you your rebellion uninterrupted as I gazed into the eternity of my ceiling. It was always the  blackest part of the room, so dark I could never quite tell where it began. It looked as a void would, lingering just overhead. Allowing me to become acquainted with it I suppose. The thought of food made it feel closer. But you were distracting me from its slow encroach with your screams and carrying on. It took some time but finally I worked up the nerve to strike a conversation. “That won’t work, you know,” I said.
            You jumped back for the far wall with a noise that was somewhere between a squeak and a yelp. I hadn’t meant to startle you but for having done so the consequences were immediate. I had attempted to tell you how they neglect the poorly behaved prisoners. Yelling, screaming, and fighting results in withholding meals, among other punishments. Thrashings more often than others. But you didn’t allow me a word of it. As soon as my lips parted again I saw your sneer. I hesitated. Your expression was blood hungry. You looked at me the way other men and animals had in combat. You looked at me with all the venom of a striking viper. And just as I read your face I was being shoved against the cell bars and then thrown to the ground.
            “Brugar?” I coughed, rolling away from the dwarf as he stomped for my head. I avoided several more attacks and even managed to land a kick into the side of his face. But that’s when I realized his head was still cocked to an off angle. His eyes at that point were mush drained onto his face. And yet there was a faint glow in his sockets. Some distant light from miles upon miles away. I caught the sight for only an instant. Brugar kept coming. Wild punches and obvious attempts at latching onto me. He dragged one foot and stepped heavy with the other. His attacks were slow, weak, and amateur. Any sense of combat he’d had in life his corpse couldn’t seem to recall. And yet my counters and strikes were all useless against him. He just kept coming.
            Back then you still had a lot to learn. Brugar moved like a corpse. Stiff and deliberate. Had it been an open space, and had I not tripped over my waste bucket, he never would’ve caught me. Even starving and weak, I would’ve stayed a step ahead. But as fortune would have it I fell back onto the ground and his full weight was upon me. With his moistened, rotten hands he throttled me.
            I didn’t understand what was happening at the time. I was certain he remained a corpse, but I’d only ever heard of necromancy. I didn’t know fully what it was or even how he was still able to attack. I just knew Brugar was after me. Dead or alive, he was back and ready to end me for his death. So with his wet hands preventing me from swallowing the air, I finally gave up the struggle and just watched the side of his vacant face.
            “Do it,” I mouthed. “I deserve this. Do it.”
            He pulled me closer, his fingers crushing down on my throat. Every instinct in me was fighting to breathe, wanting to attack Brugar, wanting to find some escape. But my will wouldn’t stand another battle. To be strangled by my final victim was a fitting death. Something the gods of the moons might agree I deserved. I’d already bested the dwarf once. Now was his turn for victory. I let him kill me.
            “Why aren’t you fighting?” you asked while his lips moved somewhat in unison to your question.
            That’s how I made the connection. Brugar was dead. He wasn’t any sort of undead and he hadn’t returned for revenge. It was you. Brugar had merely become the instrument of your will. His body was your puppet. And after a moment his grip weakened, allowing me to draw breath.
            You asked, “Don’t you want to live?”
            “Nothing,” was the only word I could get out before breaking into a fit of coughs. The dead dwarf’s grip loosened further, but not enough to let me free. I tried again to speak. “Nothing for me,” was the phrase I managed to say. It was followed by, “Only rest. Please. End me.”
            It took another moment or day but eventually you released Brugar’s grip. He collapsed back into being just a corpse. After I found the strength I rolled him from me. He’d become so decomposed that as I pushed him over his belly skin ripped and remnants of his intestines spilled out. “No!” I coughed. “You could’ve finished me.”
            “I don’t get to die,” you told me. “Why should you?”
            I admit there was no argument. Instead I just collapsed and sucked in the tainted air, rich with his decay.

            Later I felt compelled to risk talking again. I was hesitant but at best you’d speak back. Or perhaps decide to use Brugar to silence me. Either outcome would’ve been victorious. So I spoke my mind. “Why would they lock you in this Black? What could you have done?”
            I awaited your answer. And waited. And slowly realized another outcome. One that crushed worse than Brugar’s choking fingers. You were silent to me. I did my best to ignore the pang. I left the question to hang and shut my eyes. I joined you in the quiet.
Somewhere in the halls a guard patrolled, singing to himself one of the king’s many hymns.

            They brought food for you the next day. A runny bowl of gruel. One of the guards must’ve fancied you because with it was a spoon. You dashed across your cell for it, and in an instant you were heaping in spoonfuls without so much as chewing. “Oh gods,” you turned your head away and gagged. “Oh gods. Human food. It’s horrid.” But after fighting a groan from your stomach, you scooped in several more bites.
            “You’ll grow accustomed,” I said.
            You jumped back. Brugar’s body twitched on the ground, which caused me to jolt. Under more trusting circumstances, we likely would’ve laughed over the scare, but you just stared up at me from between your tangled locks and the bars joining our cages. After fighting down a couple more bites you said, “Where’s yours?”
            “Oh, I’ve already suffered my last meal,” I said. “I killed our dwarven friend here so they’ve granted me a death sentence. Starving me to oblivion, as it were.”
            You scooped another spoonful of food. Slower this time. “They won’t hang you? Or post you to the cross? Or run the guillotine through you?”
            I sat up and moved closer to the bars. Not too close. You were actually speaking to me and as little as I tried to show to it, this was the most excitement I’d had in years. I didn’t want to scare you. But to be spoken to again? Or rather, to be spoken to like an actual person and not as the bane of an overly territorial dwarf. I admit now the struggle to maintain some reserve was overwhelming. “Afraid not. Lovely as those options sound, it’s not my decision. Rather it’s by rule of the king. Or the arch bishop. I’m still uncertain as to his title these days. In his wisdom he decided starving prisoners was the most humane among death sentences. The slow suffering is meant to prepare my soul for the eternal damnation it’s about to face. I’m to use this time to realize all the pain I’ve caused and beg forgiveness. Beg to the walls, I suppose. The gods know moonlight never reaches here.”
            You stopped eating entirely and looked at the few remnants left in your bowl. “I was trained as a priestess and a healer,” you told me. “If you wish forgiveness I will help you pray.”
            I grinned as a fool. It would be the first time of many on your account. Such an unexpected kindness from the elf girl who’d taken on an entire set of Fortan guards. And you were a priestess? A necromancer priestess? You were becoming more interesting by the second. And yet for such an overwhelming gesture I could only be myself. “That’s quite an offer,” I said. “But the gods never charmed my life before. I feel little need to interrupt them now.”
            “Oh,” you said, continuing to look into your bowl. “Do you not feel guilty?”
            “Not of everything,” I shrugged and inched closer to the bars. “Not the killing. Not the plunder, or whatever things the good king says my soul will be penalized for.”
            You quizzically looked up at my response. You inched closer to the bars, peering around them and watching me as though you were sizing me up. To have you look upon me was every sort of uncomfortable. Under other circumstances I’d likely have run for the hills. I hadn’t seen my reflection in years. For all my boasting to Brugar of the man I’d become I was still wasting away in a dungeon. I was nobody worth looking upon, and not even long for this world. I couldn’t help but lean away and find somewhere, anywhere else to look. I felt awkward being watched and babbled something nonsensical like, “It serves little purpose. Begging for forgiveness when all I’ve ever done is give back what life handed me.”
            “Then,” you started to say, but paused for a moment to look down at your bowl. “If you will not pray will you at least help me finish this rot?” When I looked up, you were sitting in your knees, holding your bowl up in both hands to the bars. Your head was down and your face hidden beneath the shadows of your hair. It was such a humbling moment. How could I refuse?
            I looked down at your bowl and slowly reached for it through the bars. I said something foolish like, “Never again did I think I’d be punished with the chef’s own gruel. I suppose damnation can wait another day.”

            Some time later, perhaps a few days, I was lying on my straw mat, staring up into the darkness of the ceiling again. It felt more distant than before. I wasn’t sure if you were asleep or awake but I still asked what made you decide to feed me. In all truth I had to appear every kind of awful. The fact that I’d been squatting with a corpse for some time couldn’t have helped matters. But you still did. You pushed me to live. And to this you said, “You seem like a kind man.” But then you were quick to add, “But I suppose for all I know, you’re some ruthless murderer.”
            My grin again was foolish. Idiotic. Perhaps even sheepish. “But I am a murderer,” I said. “That’s why I’m here. Or at least in part. The chase which led me here took more than a handful of lives.”
            You were silent for a moment before asking, “Soldiers then? Patrols?”
            “The king’s men, yes. Some hostages. A few souls who saw fit to stand in my way. Lives of those both innocent and guilty I’m sure.”
            “Oh,” you said. “And what- Why were you being chased?”
            “Why?” That truth I’ve always wished I’d kept to myself. “It started with a fish I suppose.”
            You didn’t speak and I took your silence to mean I should continue.
            “I’d been paid a handsome sum for the heads of several paladins. Having just completed my contract, I was fleeing, attempting to blend into a market crowd. My appetite struck me and I helped myself to a grilled trout on a skewer from some fisherman’s booth. How could I have known he’d enchanted the food against theft? As soon as I bit into the fish it began to scream, announcing itself as stolen. So the fisherman took chase. Him I beat down. But he was a larger fellow and an able fighter. By the time I broke his knee the sheriff and his lot came running. I think also some people who fancied themselves as heroes. So I cut my way through the lot. From there I spent several weeks jumping between villages and woodlands, trying to outfox the Fortian army. My mistake, I think, was underestimating just how many soldiers the king had in the central kingdom. I’d make it to the outskirts only to discover a battalion already awaiting my arrival.”
            “Wait,” you said. “I know this story. You mean to tell me you’re The Fish Thief of Luna Falls?”
            “You know me by that name as well?”
“The entire kingdom does.”
Why my stomach grew a knot is difficult to say. I suppose I should’ve enjoyed the idea of an entire kingdom knowing of my exploits. But it wasn’t so. To this defeating news of a legacy I sighed. “I thought it was only the guards who called me that.”
“They tell your story of the screaming fish to frighten children and deter theft.”
“I’ve been a killer since before I was a man. I’m told I’m the broken one. The man who deserves his death in a lonely cell. I’ve slain princes and dukes. I’ve stolen riches by the mountainful. I once cut my way through fifty three armed soldiers to deliver their commander news of his divorce. As requested. The letter pinned to his chest. With a lance. And this is how the world will know me? The Fish Thief.” 
“Do you feel nothing then? For their deaths?”
            I rolled to my side, feeling little need to lie. “No, I carry them. I think on them and wonder to myself sometimes, what would their lives have become had I not intervened. I’m not heartless. Without any pride I think you were right to say I’m a kind man. At least I don’t feel evil in my heart. But I am a killer as well. Certainly more monstrous than The Fish Thief implies.”
            “You’re proud of the death you caused?” you asked. “Do you regret stealing that fish? Causing so many men to die because of your actions?”
            I was compelled to say otherwise out of fear I might offend you. And yet the words that came were, “No. No. I was born into a life of death. A snake doesn’t feel sorry after eating a mouse. I’m simply saying I know what I am.”
            When I looked through the bars again you were standing against them, watching me. Your eyes were green.


###