<![CDATA[Swords and Sorcery Magazine - Archive]]>Mon, 13 Feb 2017 19:54:20 -0800Weebly<![CDATA["Smoke Out" by Melanie Smith]]>Tue, 31 Jan 2017 14:38:00 GMThttp://swordsandsorcerymagazine.com/archive/smoke-out-by-melanie-smithIt wasn’t the dragons that were the problem, it was the unicorns.  Sure enough, the dragons weren’t easy:  they leaked out hot streams of copper alloy piss as they undulated in the air above the town, which spattered down on the houses below to start the odd conflagration, to cause the odd scald.  This calescent incontinence was more of an inconvenience than their propensity to breathe flame:  after all, they only belched a bonfire when they were really riled, and even then purely as a last resort:  vomiting fire drained the creatures, and their innards’ embers would be cool for many days afterwards, rendering them weak.  Docile even.  The dragons swarmed now and again, as wasps do: usually in the autumn when they were getting in the mood to hibernate, but as long as they were let be they didn’t cause us too much trouble.  And blackthorn smoke warded them off if things looked like they were getting out of hand.  We left out a few goats in a field south of town, the odd criminal, too, and they would mostly just take those and lit on back to the mountains, their shadows rippling across the grasslands, the smell of blood and metal diminishing with their departure.  And then we would clear up the cooled and stinking clag of their urine, patch up damaged thatch, bind the occasional burn, and get on with things.  We needed them, you see.  They could be dangerous, but their dung was a miracle mineral manure that we collected and spread over our farmed fields:  our crops grew ten times the size they rightly should, and in half the time.  Our town had known dragons since its incorporation way back in the blurred and distant past, and had never known want, or famine, or even the smallest hint of hunger.

But the unicorns were something else.  Terrible creatures, thrice the size of a shire horse, with a razory run of plates along their backs that marched up their thick necks to culminate in a wickedly serrated horn.  This protuberance rose from between piggy eyes and was barbed: these barbs were poisonous, so if you didn’t die of the initial goring and subsequent voiding of your intestines, you’d be cut down by a lung liquefying toxin.  They were less predictable than the dragons, too, and entirely immune to appeasement.  More intelligent.  They came for the first time one winter ten years back.  Our stores were fat with grain and salted meat, and, as with the heartbeat of the countryside around us, the pulse of town life had slowed with the dropping temperatures.  Folk stayed by their fires, content and nodding and waiting for spring.  The dragons were asleep, too, and the fields were covered in an opalescent blanket that, from time to time, was whipped into a misty aerial froth that hung in the air for hours.

They came at dusk, with the purpling of the horizon, when the trees were black shapes against an ice-cream sky and the last rooks were circling.  I became aware of an oscillating judder, felt in my feet; this pounding syncopation quickly spread so that I felt its jarring beat in my legs, my hips, in the push and pull of my own heartbeat, and I was on the verge of pulling up the floorboard for my blade when the town siren began its long scream. By now, that seemingly subterranean thunder had resolved into the almighty pounding of hooves, and then the first scream came.  God help me, I took one look outside my cottage, and retreated, pulling up that floorboard after all, not to retrieve my weapon, but to lie alongside it in the crawlspace, pulling the board back atop me so that I lay in a webby tomb, listening to the deaths of my neighbours and the awful rampaging of the monsters I had so briefly seen outside.

When I emerged just before dawn the next day, the town was slick with blood and shit.  The survivors told their tales and, at the fading of the sun, those of us that remained sought refuge in the crypt beneath the church, where we huddled in a cloud of our own rimy breath until daybreak.  But the unicorns didn’t return that year, and we never knew what they wanted, other than gore and grief, for our stores went unmolested, our barned cattle unharmed.  It has been said since that it is our dread that feeds them, but I think that is just old world nonsense.  More like they do not come to us out of hunger – their bellies seemed pretty full to me, what little I saw of them – for I believe their prey lies elsewhere.  I think that they come to us for sport, in the wintertime, when whatever doorway leads to us opens and they are allowed brief access.  I had a brother once who ventured west, way beyond the smoking lakes and the crystalline passes that mark the northern border of our principality.  He went to hunt the mountain lions, and he returned many months later with a sackful of pelts and stories of his many trails.  I asked him how they had tasted, those mountain lions that he had snared.  He told me they had tasted awful; he had subsisted happily on fish and berries.  His joy in their killing was not the base jubilation of the survivor who knows his empty stomach will be filled, but a narrower pleasure – to my mind, a hollow euphoria.  Perhaps it is this these horned terrors feel in what passes for their brains when they come to hunt us.

They came again one winter dusk the following year, putting to smoking ruin our hopes that their previous visit had been a one off aberration.  They sensed the traps we had laid.  Their leathery hides proved impervious to blade or bow.  They leapt our ditches with brutal grace.  And blood spattered bright on our frost-scummed streets once more.

And so, as the last of the next year’s leaves shivered and fell, I shouldered on a pack and left for the mountains.  I knew that I would probably not survive: no dragons had been sighted for a week, and we presumed they had begun their hibernation, but no-one knew for sure.  And autumn was always dicey when it came to dealing with dragons:  they were sleepy and slow and angry as their blood cooled and the heat in their bellies banked to low embers.  It was only during this season that we in the town would be wary when their bulging shadows fluttered over our streets and squares.  If we could spare them, two or three felons would be tied up alongside the goats in the field just beyond the boundary line, and this seemed to appease the beasts, for the most part.

But, should I have encountered a dragon in my trek towards their home in the stony fastness, I fully expected a charry death.  A quick one, if I was lucky.
And yet, as I clambered higher into the foothills, the skies remained clear and blue, free of cloud and beast, the quality of the air so crisp and sharp that, looking back, I could easily make out the small details of the distant town:  the flag topped turrets of the Elders’ Seat, the jostle and push of the market square, the gloomy squat of the town jail.  I surged on upwards and, after a day’s travelling, I finally reached the yawning hole in the rock-face where we believed the dragons slept through the winter.  As I approached, a hot metallic smell assailed me, filling my lungs, so that I used a rag to cover my mouth and nose as I came closer.  Piles of half molten dragon dung still steamed and hissed all around the cave mouth, and, from deep within that hellish hole, I thought I could make out the distant huff and wheeze of the sleeping beasts.

Here I stopped, and, putting my bound pack down on the snow scrimmed ground, I set up a rudimentary camp, and waited.  Hours passed, and days, and the weather drew in close and cold as I huddled beneath my furs and chewed on strips of salted meat.  The nights were long and bitter, and many were the times, come dawn, that my entire body was without sensation, and I watched as the first blooms of frostbite flowered on my toes and fingers.  I watched the town, always.  Sometimes it appeared to float on a scrappy cloud of mist, sometimes it was a lone patch of mute colour amid a sea of hoar.  And sometimes it disappeared entirely, and those times were the worst.

But there finally came an indigo dusk when the grasslands beyond the town’s borders sparkled with a half frozen, diamond dew that winked and glittered at me across the miles to where I lay, now well beyond shivering, outside the dragons’ cave.  A sharp prickling innervated the muscles of my back and neck and I was up and standing, insensible to my blackened feet, even before I saw the herd of unicorns materialize out of the murk of the forest that flanked the town.  I struck my tinder and set its spark to the stacked pile of blackthorn that I had kept covered and dry during the many days of my watch, and saw how the barbed wood took the flame and gobbled it, as if it were the wood eating the fire, and not the other way around.  The first screams rose thin and distant from the town as I kicked the conflagration, trailing blackthorn barbs, into the coaly blackness of the cave. I heard the wood skitter and woof as it slid into the great hole, thick gouts of pungent smoke trailing behind it in ragged flags.

I could not bear to look down at the town, so I watched the entrance to the cave instead.  At first, there was nothing.  And then there was.  A chorus of enraged, damp screams split the twilight and, wasp-like, a swarm of dragons, woken by the blackthorn smoke and utterly enraged, flew out into the winter night.  They were clearly confused, flying haphazardly, snuffling sparks, and murderous.  In their semi-sentient state they did not notice me at all, lying prone on the ground, but instead began to coalesce together with more purpose, and flocked as one towards the town, desiring only destruction.

Townsfolk died that night, to be sure, and many as the result of my actions.  But I have learned to live with that, for the dragons, alive to some ancient instinct, perhaps, wiped out every single last unicorn that winter evening.  They swooped down on them, tearing and terrible, with a ferocity that we had never seen directed against our own kind.  They breathed what fire they could, and the stink of roasted flesh reached me up on my rocky perch. And they did not cease until the final horned monster was destroyed, even as its dying struggles mortally gored the dragon it fought.  I cannot describe to you the noise that the unicorns made as they perished: hearing it near drove me mad.

 It is winter again now, and the tale I have told you concerns events ten years past.  And in all that time, we have never been troubled by another unicorn.  Nor by the dragons, either, who flew away that night and did not return come spring.  The crops we grow now are of the standard size and, on occasion, they fail, and we know what it is to feel the pinch of hunger when the days diminish and the fields are frozen.  And I would be remiss if I did not record that many of us here still watch the skies as the land wakes again each year, and listen, with something like longing, for the drag and waft of great wings overhead.

©December, 2016 Melanie Smith

Melanie Smith lives and writes from Gloucestershire, England. Her story "The Locked Door" appeared in The Flash Fiction Press in November. This is her first appearance in ​Swords & Sorcery.]]>
<![CDATA["Getting Better" by Rob Francis]]>Tue, 31 Jan 2017 14:34:29 GMThttp://swordsandsorcerymagazine.com/archive/getting-better-by-rob-francis“They dead?”
Agris squinted at the sun, the rictus that passed for a smile on his battered face making him seem almost a corpse himself.
Leos looked down on the two withered bodies by the side of the dirt track, flaking skin stretched and taut enough to see the white of bone beneath. In places the skin was torn, knuckles and cheekbones poking through. He scratched at his whiskers.
“In my expert opinion, I’d say: almost definitely.”
Leos had seen his fair share of the dead. He’d come across pretty much every representation of humanity cold and still at one point or another. Each one had been a lesson in his ongoing education on the theme of The World Doesn’t Give a Shit. But something about this pair bothered him especially.
It wasn’t that they were probably a young couple with no more than two score years between them. Nor the way they had died side by side, the boy’s arm over the girl’s back, perhaps comforting her towards the end. And it wasn’t the way their skin was powdery and pale, stark against the yellow and grey of their exposed teeth and erupted bone; though that was bad enough. After a moment he had it.
“They still have their eyes.”
Agris turned from his contemplation of the sky and stretched out his neck, the cracking of his bones making Leos wince. The big man looked down at the bodies for the first time, a long look that suggested some deep thinking.
When no words of wisdom seemed forthcoming from his partner, Leos nudged him in the right direction.
“These lands are full of scavengers, ‘Gris. Why would they graze the flesh and not take the eyes? The eyes always go first. Caws, rats, grass hogs – they all love eyes. Remember when you almost lost one that time the bailiffs were after us, sleeping with your eyes open? Caw almost pecked it out.”
Agris nodded happily at the memory. “True, true.”
“They must have been in the sun for ages, from the state of the skin. Seems odd they have any flesh left.”
The two men stood in silent observation for a moment longer, then Leos felt his interest begin to wane. He turned back to the road. It was still a long way to Pit Town on foot, and soon the day would be too hot for walking.
“Come on,” he said. “Let’s find a decent stand of tar trees and rest up. If I don’t eat some smoked grass hog soon I’ll forget how awful it tastes.”
Leos had wandered a dozen paces before he realised Agris wasn’t following. His hulking frame was hunched over the roadside dead, brow furrowed and nose held almost to the milky flesh of the boy’s arm. Leos watched in fascinated horror as he gave a long, hard sniff.
“Gods, ‘Gris! What are you doing?”
Agris slipped a stiletto out of one of his boots and slid it into the withered limb, prying up the skin. A small cloud of dry white flakes drifted into the air.
“I’ve seen this before. Before.” Agris’s face spasmed, and Leos waited for the trembling to subside. His partner had an impressive selection of physical and vocal tics, and Leos had learned patience with them a long time ago. Agris’s fighting prowess was worth having to watch him gurn away whilst repeating himself half the time.
Finally Agris drew in a breath. “These bodies are fresh.”
“’Gris, the flesh is half-gone, and the skin–”
“It’s milk-rot. I told you, I’ve seen, seen it before. A sickness. Saw a whole town dying… from it, once.”
Leos knew better than to ask. Agris had some kind of troubled past that he never really spoke about, unless you counted garbled screaming during his night terrors. It was better to take what nuggets he offered and never dig for more.
“Milk-rot? Never heard of it.”
“It kills the skin and makes the bones brittle. The dead and dying look wasted, and half-rotted. That explains the eyes – animals are smart, smart. This pair wouldn’t taste good.”
“Shit.” Leos’s guts gave a shiver and his arse clenched up tight. “Can we catch it?”
“Not, not from the dead.” Agris stood and slowly licked his stiletto, his big red tongue wrapping around the blade. He winked at Leos and grinned. Or perhaps that was involuntary. Leos couldn’t always tell.
Leos felt vaguely nauseated. “Let’s go.”
“There’s more.” Agris pointed to the bodies again with the dagger, spittle dripping from its tip. “The wrists all have chafing, hardly any skin left, any skin. Prisoners.”
“So they escape, then get sick and die on the road? Unlucky bastards.”
“If they were on this road, they must have come from Pit Town, or nearby. Must have.”
Leos nodded. “We’d best be careful. Looks like a shitty way to go.”
Agris laughed, a shrill squeal like that of a little girl. “No worries, Leos. You get sick, I’ll put this through your heart quick as you like, quick.” He waved the stiletto. “No suffering for my friend.”
Leos shivered, despite the midday sun. “Thanks ‘Gris,” he managed. “Friends like you are hard to find.”
Agris beamed and rammed the blade back into his boot.
They continued down the road in silence.
Pit Town was even less impressive than its name suggested. From the rise overlooking the settlement, Leos could see a crossroads with just over a dozen small wooden buildings huddled around it like frightened sheep, each more dilapidated than the last. Lean cattle grazed the surrounding scrubby fields, and crude fences enclosed planted rows of what was probably dry cabbage and nut carrot. A small stream ran past the edge of the town, though there was little flow that he could see. Little sign of anything moving, in fact.
“I’ve taken shits bigger’n this place. Shits.” Agris snarled and then burst into a giggle that trilled into the still evening air. “You think he’s down there?”
Leos shrugged. “Lady Scree said he had family here, and after Pit Town there’s only dry scrub for fifty leagues at least. Unless he’s hiding up there with the miners,” he nodded towards the range of half-forested, half-cleared hills that ran to their left, “then Pit Town makes the most sense. Either way, someone may have seen him, heard from him.
“Thing is...” Leos looked at Agris for a long moment. “I can’t see any signs of people living down there. What if they’re all dead from that milk thing, like those poor bastards by the roadside? We going to find a pile of corpses, or houses full of the sick? Might be best to wait and watch.”
“We could ask them.” Agris pointed towards the settlement. Leos turned to see two figures approaching along the path. Two men, with a bedraggled dog between them.
Leos watched them near. Their clothing spoke of a poverty Leos was familiar with – tunics and trousers sewn together from odds and ends of different materials in a variety of shades of brown and grey, making a dull patchwork. Their shoes were flat sections of tar tree bark, worn smooth and tied in place with string. Either they were vagrants, or Pit Town was severely lacking in prosperity. Clothing aside, each looked very unlike the other – one tall and broad, the other short and wiry. Each carried a spear, though the taller man’s seemed to have been broken at some point in the past and was really little more than a rusty iron spike on a stick.
Leos looked down at his own scuffed and tattered clothing and wondered if he and Agris presented a similar image to others at first sight. For some reason the thought made him nervous. He caught himself fiddling with the handles of his knives, and had to force his hands to relax.
“Agris!” he hissed. Behind him he heard the rustle of cloth, followed by a satisfied grunt and spattering sound as Agris took a piss. Leos sighed. Agris began to whistle.
When the patchwork men were a couple of dozen paces away, Leos made his overture. “Good evening sirs! This Pit Town?”
The tall man shook his head. “You’re not welcome here, strangers.”
Leos turned to Agris, and was relieved to see that the big man’s hand now gripped only the hilt of his scimitar. He raised his eyebrows. “Everywhere we go, the love pours forth.”
Leos turned back to the patchwork men. “We’re looking for Tapper Drake.” The eyes of the shorter man widened just for a moment, and then narrowed again. Leos smiled. “We were told he has kin here. You kin?”
Short shook his head. “Tap left years ago. Not seen him since.” The man glanced down at the dog that stood at his feet, and Leos took a moment to study it. It was a sheepdog, well past its prime. Hair balding and matted, one eye milky white. The animal seemed awfully still and quiet. It watched Leos silently.
“You’re not welcome,” Tall said again, though he seemed almost sorry to be delivering the news. “Nothing for you in Pit Town. We’re closed to strangers.”
Leos heard Agris shift his weight and stifle a giggle. He could read his partner well, and decided to end the conversation before the pair were a patchwork of body parts rather than just clothing. “Come then, Agris. Best be looking for Tapper elsewhere!” He turned and gently pushed the big man back, and together they traipsed back along the dirt track they had spent several days traversing. Agris was muttering under his breath, but Leos knew he wouldn’t do anything stupid now. No more stupid than usual, anyway.
After a few dozen steps, Leos looked back to see the men and their dog still standing in the road, watching them leave. Short raised a hand towards him, though whether in farewell or some kind of appeal, Leos wasn’t sure. Then the pair turned and trudged slowly back towards town.
The sheepdog stood for long moment, watching, and then it too turned and began to trot away.
There were no lights from the buildings. Pit Town was as dark as the grave, and Leos and Agris crept unobserved around the small houses, listening at doors and peering through gaps in the shutters. Every house was deserted.
A sliver of moonlight escaped the clouds and the pair exchanged wry nods. Hours before, they had covered their clothes, skin and hair with ash and blackened their blades with tar tree sap. It all seemed a bit unnecessary now.
“I suppose we’ll be next.”
Leos and Agris both froze at the voice, which seemed to be coming from one of the larger buildings at the heart of the settlement. Together they sidled down the side of the building, finally coming to a stepped wooden frontage that led up to the main door. On the road in front were two dark shapes that Leos found hard to discern for a time, until the clouds shifted and the town was drenched in the light of the full moon for an instant.
Two men, sitting on the hard ground and sharing a flagon: Tall and Short, the welcome party. Leos looked up at the entrance to the building. Above it swung a shingle on which someone had drawn a white pick-axe and added the words ‘The Miners Resst’. An inn, Leos supposed.
“The others will be back soon.” Tall leaned towards short and dropped his voice a little, though he was clearly well into his cups. “Young Scratch will bring back the miners in a few days, and she’ll have others to… work with. We’re no use, she told us that.”
“Never been so happy to be useless,” agreed Short. “Still scares the shit out of me though. Where did she come from? What does she want?”
“Touched by the gods,” said Tall. “You saw. Dead lizards walking around, half-rotted. Scratch’s old sheep hound, too. Never seen the like.” He took the flagon. “Once they’re back, we run.”
Short nodded. “I’ve a cart all set in the stables. Enough food to get us to Promise Heights. I ain’t ending up like that poor bastard in there.” He waved behind him at the inn. “I wonder what those two lads wanted with him. They looked serious.”   
“Trouble, no doubt.” Tall hawked and spat. “Been enough of that since she turned up. We’re best out of it.”
“Aye. You think young Linya and Rood made it?”
“She’d already given ‘em the rot, set to work on ‘em. If they made it more than a few leagues I’d be surprised.”
A silence descended. Leos watched the pair for a moment, thinking about what he’d heard and wondering where their dog was. Nowhere nearby presumably, or it would’ve sniffed Agris out long ago.
Leos motioned to Agris, and the two of them retreated back down the side of the building to the rear, where the back door was partially hidden by several old barrels.
“Now what, now?”
“Well,” said Leos, “It sounds like Drake might be in the inn.” He paused. “Probably with someone dangerous, and possibly in a bad state.” He sighed. “I suppose we’d better go get him, if we want to get paid. Lady Scree needs her information. You got your picks?”
Agris winked and pulled a finger-length piece of metal from his pocket. His meaty paw jabbed the pick inside the lock and then with surprising delicacy he began to wiggle it around, tongue poking out with concentration. Moments later the lock clicked, and Agris retreated with a flourish, leaving Leos to open the door and creep into the inn.
He found himself in a dark narrow corridor lined with doors. At the end, a door stood ajar, and Leos could see a faint glow through the opening. He gently eased his blackened dirk from its sheath and moved forwards, feet apart and weight spread as evenly as possible, hoping that none of the floorboards would creak.
He was half way to the door when Agris galumphed into the inn behind him, sounding like a pony trying to kick its way out of a barrel. 
Leos winced and rushed forwards, giving up all attempt at stealth. Springing through the door, he came upon a scene that made little sense.
The main room of the inn had been cleared, all the tables and benches piled around the edges, and in the middle stood a naked man, held upright by ropes lashed around his wrists that led up to rings set in the ceiling timbers. A circle of candles on the floor covered him in jaundiced light. The man’s skin was white and thin, and the bones of his knees and elbows had torn through it. He seemed barely conscious and was swaying, drool dangling from his bottom lip, eyes half open. Across one eye there were three long pale scars; marks described by Lady Scree herself.
Leos and Agris shared a glance. Tapper Drake.
At his feet was the mangy sheepdog they had seen on the outskirts of Pit Town. It sat staring up at Drake, and at first Leos thought that a leash or rope hung from its muzzle, but then he realised that its jaw bone was gone, and it was the dog’s tongue dangling free.
Slowly it turned to regard Leos, and he started as a voice came out of the shadows.
“Oh. You came anyway.”
A small girl emerged from the corner of the room, barefoot and clothed in a faded grey dress. Leos would have guessed her age at around thirteen or fourteen, though her face was lined and streaked with dirt, so he couldn’t be sure. Her eyes were a smoky white and restless in their sockets, and he knew she was blind. 
Agris growled and slid his scimitar from its scabbard, but Leos raised a halting hand.
The girl remained quite still. “I’m not sure I can use you, but you came anyway. That’s going to be a problem.” The dog bobbed its head as if in agreement, tongue flailing.
“What is this?” Leos peered around the gloom in search of anyone else, but there were only the benches, the tables, the candles, the shadows, the dog, the girl and the drooling wreckage of Tapper Drake. “Who are you?”
“Mist,” said the girl. “The mercies called me Mist, back at the sanctuary. They said the fog brought me to them as a baby.”
“What’s happened to him?” Leos nodded at Drake, and the dog turned to look before returning its attention once more to Leos.
“The hills here are sacred, and the people of these lands are their children, growing in their shadow. They are more attuned to my Art than most.” Both girl and dog closed their eyes for a long moment before Mist continued. “And yet still I can’t bring them back like the animals. Even using the rot to prepare them. People are so difficult. I’m getting better, though.”
“Lych charmer,” whispered Agris. Leos thought he heard a touch of respect and admiration in his partner’s voice.
Mist smiled. “Yes, I have heard myself called that. I can bring animals back, and when I do, I can see through their eyes.” She barked a laugh. “The gods are hard but fair with their gifts. They gave me no eyes but let me use many others.”
“I’m not sure that’s a healthy pastime for a young girl,” said Leos doubtfully. He still held his dirk but was unsure what to do with it. Where was this going? Back to basics, he decided. “Anyway, I don’t really care about all that. We came for him.” He waved the blade in Drake’s direction.
“He’s busy,” said Mist, moving to stand beside the dog. “Until the others arrive, he is my last subject.”
“Why bring them back?” asked Agris in a low voice that made Leos’s stomach knot.
Mist looked confused. “Why not? It’s what I do. Why does the painter paint, the sculptor sculpt, the killer kill? Because that’s their purpose.” She pointed at Drake. “This is mine.”
Agris stepped forwards, scimitar positioned across his body. “Causing others to suffer?”
Mist sneered. “You’ve caused your fair share, I’m sure.”
Leos nodded. “Can’t argue with that. But we need him. Alive.”
On an unspoken cue he and Agris moved as one, Leos towards the girl and Agris towards Drake. Mist snarled and raised her hands. Leos felt a sharp tightness in his chest, as if a heavy weight had been placed upon it.
A strangled scream from outside stopped everyone. Leos felt the pain subside and backed away, sucking in air, eyes fixed on the door to the street.
“What? No, wait!” Something banged hard against the door, and whoever was protesting outside fell silent. Leos and Agris shared a meaningful look. They both know the sound of things turning to shit when they heard it. Together they edged towards the door they had entered by.
The door handle turned, stopped, and then the door burst inwards, two figures rushing into the room. They looked nightmarish, tattered and torn and horribly pale. The roadside lovers, Linya and Rood. Leos couldn’t believe how fast they moved, especially given their very literal lack of vitality, and both he and Agris stared in shock as Rood ran a knife through Tapper Drake’s chest, while Linya leapt at Mist. The girl wore an expression of both joy and surprise as the dead woman bore her down, and Leos heard her cry “It worked! But I can’t see– “ before Linya’s blade started to rise and fall.
“Run!” shrieked Leos, but Agris was already charging, scimitar whipping at the man’s head. Rood stepped backwards but not far enough, and the curved blade cored a groove in his face that almost split his skull in two.
Leos cursed and rushed at Linya, knife in each hand, running them through her chest, momentum carrying her back against the wall. The blades jammed hard into the timbers and she was pinned. Leos lurched back before her flailing hands could reach him and turned to Agris, who was busy hacking the limbs off Rood, though the separate parts still writhed pitifully.
Linya spat and hissed, tugging against the knives, though they held fast. Her words seemed garbled but Leos thought he could make some of them out. In particular the phrase ‘pair of bastards’.
He crossed to Mist. The girl’s dress was ripped and sodden with blood, her throat gouged open. But there was a twisted smile on her face. Leos supposed she had died happy, or at least as happy as anyone could be whilst being repeatedly stabbed.
Agris joined him. “Talented,” he said. “But misguided. With a proper mentor...” Then he shrugged, and nodded at Drake. “Not gonna get... anything for Lady Scree now, anything.”
Leos looked at Tapper Drake’s dangling corpse for a long moment. Not a nice way to go, despite the man’s odious character and history of botched assassination attempts on important and ruthless people. The sheep hound lay next to Drake, looking like it had died days ago.
He stood before the woman, still squirming against the wall. “Can you understand me, Linya?”
A pause, low hissing. “Yes.”
“Why come back? To this place.”
“All is rage and hate. Here. Now.”
“And death?”
Leos nodded sadly. “But you remember your life?”
“Yes. Some.” Her eyes drifted to Rood’s dismembered body. “I remember him.”
“Feel pain?”
She shook her head.
Leos turned. “Agris. Get a bedsheet and some rope. And bring in the guards. They’ll be just outside the door I expect. If they’re still clinging to life, give ‘em a push. I’ll see what supplies I can rustle up.”
As the sun rose they left Pit Town behind. Smoke rose into the sky from the burning inn. It had seemed the cleanest way to end things. Ash on the wind. The returning miners wouldn’t know what had happened, and that was for the best.
Agris led a donkey pulling an old cart, both of which they had found in a stable. The cart had been laden with bags of food and a few farming tools, just as Short had described. Now most of the supplies were slung on Leos’s back, and the cart held the wrapped and bound body of Tapper Drake, the smell wafting in the breeze already starting to become offensive.
Agris wrinked his nose. “You sure this is a good idea, Leos?”
Leos shrugged. “Whatever the lych child did, it worked for the roadside lovers. Might be it’ll work for young Tapper.”
Agris grunted. “Maybe we should have just kept the head.”
“No-one knows how this works, ‘Gris. Can a dead mouth talk without a pair of dead lungs? These are the mysteries of life, I suppose. Or death. Or whatever is in between.”
When, less than a league further on, Tapper started thrashing and cursing inside his wrappings, Leos couldn’t help but grin. “By the gods, I’m a clever bastard.”
Agris snorted. “Let’s hope he remembers who hired him, or we still… might not get paid.”
“Even if he doesn’t, I’m sure someone would pay for a genuine reanimated corpse,” said Leos. “Pay well. Can’t be many of ‘em knocking around.”
“Money for us, and only a half-dozen dead this time, dead,” said Agris, baring his rictus grin again. “We’re getting better at this.” The big man dropped back and began chatting to Tapper, trying to start some kind of conversation.
Leos sighed and turned his face into the wind. It was going to be a long walk back to Lady Scree.

©December 2016 Rob Francis

Rob Francis is a British writer and academic. He has publish numerous non-fiction works. His story "A Fine Bounty" appeared in Swords & Sorcery in November of 2015. His fiction has also been seen in numerous other publications including Everyday Fiction and SpekLit.]]>
<![CDATA["The Blade That Seeks" by Edward H. Parks]]>Tue, 20 Dec 2016 20:07:37 GMThttp://swordsandsorcerymagazine.com/archive/the-blade-that-seeks-by-edward-h-parksThe ship pitched and swayed again, as it had all morning. Uncle Gelearde lurched over to the gunwale and retched. His belly was empty after a long night on this gusty sea, and he suffered through another lengthy round of dry heaves.
 “Could help you with that, you know.” Aunt Clotilde sounded miffed.
 “Keep your pouch in your cloak, woman!” Gelearde waved his arm at her without looking up from the rail.
 Galwyn shook his head. His aunt and uncle, though brother and sister, argued and bickered frequently like an old married couple.
 “Look up, Uncle. I can see Utoa on the horizon. We’ll be there in a few hours.  Keep your eyes on the island. Looking at the water will only make you feel worse.”
 “Thank you, boy.” Gelearde straightened up and looked to the northwest. The hills of Utoa Island were shrouded in the overcast sky.
 Gelearde’s profile reminded Galwyn of the head on a coin: bushy eyebrows, an aquiline nose, and a finely trimmed, pointed beard jutting from his chin.
 “Aunt Clo probably could help with your seasickness,” the younger man ventured.
His uncle shook his head and untied the chinstrap on his cap. Gelearde regarded his nephew with pride. The boy he once knew had grown into a tall man and a skilled soldier.
“Her skills are too unpredictable. I’ll take my chances until we land.” He managed a weak smile. \
 Clotilde brushed a wisp of her wild, frazzled hair from her brow.
 “Ungrateful old goat!” she sniffed.
 Galwyn looked up at the frigate birds wheeling over the ship and went over the details of their commission again in his mind. He recalled the audience with King Vortryx in Port Cunin. The market by the quays had bustled with merchants hawking their wares and screaming gulls hovering over the fishing boats. And looming above it all, the King’s lavish palace perched on its bluff facing the sea. The long climb to the gate had felt like a pilgrimage to see the fabled monarch.
 “Your reputation precedes you, Master Gelearde,” the King smiled indulgently. The ancient sovereign had a reputation as a stern ruler, but his court was filled with smiling people of every description, chatting with each other in low murmuring voices. A tall soldier in armor stood off to one side of the throne. Much like Galwyn, Gelearde thought to himself. Clotilde and Galwyn stood back with the courtiers while Gelearde ascended the dais before the throne.
“You are too kind, Sire,” his Uncle said.
“Not at all, not at all! You are a scholar and a man of many talents. You come highly recommended. Isn’t that so, Neguan?” He glanced at the soldier next to him, who nodded in response. “And that is why I have sent for you.”
The King was a very old man, but he still had a strong voice.  He was stooped over from a crooked back, and leaned on a large bronze staff. “Do you see this talisman?” The King fingered a large gold medallion that hung from his neck, with a dark red gem at its center. “It is an heirloom of my family, and is one of two identical pieces that were made. The other one was stolen from this palace many years ago by a former close and trusted advisor.” He paused and scowled as he regarded the gem.
“Pray go on, Sire,” Gelearde urged.
“Sendatur!” The King spat the name as if it were an insult. “He was my father’s advisor before me and served my family for many years. I have good reason to suspect that he was the thief. He was always jealous of me.”
 “And how can I be of help to the Crown?” Gelearde remained impassive.
 “Sendatur left the court and returned to his home island of Utoa. I sent men after him, but they never found him or the medallion, and the trail has now grown cold. I’m sure he’s dead by now. You should start there.” The King held Gelearde in a steely gaze. “The talisman belongs to me, and I would have it again before I die. I want you to ascertain its whereabouts and return it here. You will be richly rewarded, I assure you.”
 “Very well, Sire.” Gelearde bowed. “I will go to Utoa.” 
 They took passage on a small trading vessel that plied the Cunin Archipelago with cargo and passengers, and after several days at sea were now approaching a fishing town on the coast of Utoa.
 The sky cleared as they spent the day visiting various shops and boats in port. Gelearde spoke with proprietors and fishermen. Clotilde, listened intently and asked the occasional question. Yes, they had certainly heard of Sendatur. Old Utoan family. No, they thought he had died years ago. They believed that Sendatur’s family had a burial mausoleum at the peak of one of the hills. No one goes there anymore. The three of them purchased walking staves and other supplies, then took lodging in the inn for the night.
 They rose before dawn and packed their things. Gelearde’s appetite returned and he ate a hearty breakfast. Clotilde sipped tea in the dark and ate a roll with butter and honey. Galwyn, still accustomed to military fare, ate his usual bread and meat. The little band left at first light and began the long trek up and inland. It was not an easy trek for the two siblings, and Galwyn made them pause at regular intervals. Evergreen trees had given way to scrub and boulders when they paused for lunch.
 “Well, look who’s dropped in on Dortok’s little fiefdom!” A burly man stood in their way with a sword in his hand.
 Galwyn started to his feet, reaching for his sword.
 “Galwyn, don’t!” It was Aunt Clotilde.
 “Yes, Galwyn, don’t. Just look around you.” The man leered jocularly.
 Galwyn glanced slowly to either side. They were surround by armed men crouching in the brush. He let out a sigh of exasperation, and sat back down, disgusted at himself. How could he have been so careless?
 “Passing through Dortok’s realm merely requires a modest toll - every coin in your purse!” He and his brigands laughed together.
 “Duck”, Clotilde said to Gelearde through clenched teeth. He knew that tone all too well, and immediately dropped to the ground like a cut rope.
 Muttering and gesturing, Clotilde unleashed a spray of jagged ice crystals from her hands at the nearest group of ruffians. They cried out in agony as the frozen shards tore their flesh. Gelearde could feel the bone-chilling cold on his skin, and shielded his face with his hand. Galwyn swept his leg against Dortok’s ankle and leapt to his feet as the man toppled to the ground. He drew his sword and held the point to the man’s throat.
 “That’s Captain Galwyn to you, you cur. Chief of the Uldum Night Watch am I.” 
Gelearde slowly climbed back to his feet and looked around. Several men lay moaning and bleeding, their bodies contorting in pain and covered with frost. The others had fled. He looked down at their leader, now not quite as haughty as he had been a moment ago. 
 “I’m pleased we found you, Master Dortok. We’re searching for something, and we could use a guide who knows the area.”
Yes, Dortok knew where the mausoleum was. He knew enough about it to stay away. 
“I lost two men there last full moon. They went poking about that hilltop and never came back. I’m not going near that place!” Dortok was a sullen now as he was jovial before.
“Yes, you are,” Galwyn replied. He followed behind Dortok, sword at the ready.
The Mausoleum was a squat stone building covered in carved runes, human figures, and boats. The only door faced east. Two decomposed bodies lay nearby.
 Gelearde approached the door cautiously, and withdrew a leather sack from beneath his cloak. He rummaged for and found a thin metal rod. The end was fashioned into the shape of a dragon’s claw and clutched a small crystal ball. He waved the rod slowly about as he walked, pausing occasionally to dwell on something that caught his interest, and wrinkling his nose at the stench of the corpses.  Finally, he stood before the door.
 “Clo, you still have some of the dweomer dust, don’t you?”
 She produced a small pouch and walked up to join him, also wrinkling her nose, then placed it in his outstretched hand and backed away.
 Gelearde took small pinches of light gray powder from the pouch and flicked them at the large metal hinges, the rusted iron bar, and other features of the stone door. The others perceived no effect, but he nodded knowingly to himself.
 Finally, he backed away and withdrew a bone wand from his sack. He waved it in a large circle and muttered an incantation.
 Suddenly, the iron bar crackled with lightning that spread and ran around the rim of the door frame. Acid hissed from the latch and dripped to the ground, bubbling and smoking. And small darts shot up vertically from the ground in front of the door, right where Gelearde had been standing.
 Dortok squealed and turned to leave. Galwyn grabbed the man’s collar with his free hand and held the bandit in place.
 They entered into an antechamber lined with stone statues, presumably likenesses of members of Sendatur’s family. Another stone door stood opposite the one they came in.  Once again Gelearde repeated his examination with the crystal ball.
 “This one is safe,” he proclaimed. “No traps.”
 “After you,” Galwyn gestured Dortok to the door with his sword.
 The bandit approached the door with trembling knees. He put one palm on the door, then drew it away quickly. Nothing happened. The man giggled with relief, then pushed the door open.
The stone door creaked and dragged slowly against a tangled mass of cobwebs that filled the doorway in the room beyond. The strands were as thick as canvas thread. A multi-legged creature, its abdomen the size of a large cat, scuttled amazingly fast down from the ceiling into the middle of the doorway. Dortok shrieked and sprang back.
 “Move!!” Clotilde bellowed, and everyone sprang away from the door.
 Clotilde quickly uttered a spelled and pointed her finger at the beast. A large spark shot from her fingertip to the creature, enveloping it in a mass of electrical arcs and sparks. The thing shuddered and hissed, paralyzed to move, and the cobwebs caught fire in a flash. When it was over, a huge spider lay dead in the doorway, its legs still twitching.
 “Should’ve let me go first,” Clo said, and pulled a necklace out of her tunic. The pendant glowed to life, its shine revealing shapes ahead through the doorway. She proceeded through, kicking the smoking corpse aside without as much as a glance down.
 “Hate spiders,” she mumbled to herself.
 In the center of the main crypt lay several sarcophagi, and stone benches lined the walls. The benches were crowded with urns and figurines. Gelearde followed Clotilde and called the others in.  He moved among the stone caskets, peering down at their carvings and inscriptions. Finally he motioned Dortok over.
 “Help me get this lid off.” The brigand looked back to the door, saw Galwyn regarding him coldly, and decided to comply. The lid fell to the floor with an echoing thud.
 “Hello, Sendatur, you old fox,” Gelearde spoke to the mummified body of an elderly man, still bearded with long white whiskers. Sendatur lay clothed in a gold-threaded robe, his teeth showing in a grim rictus. Gelearde thought he smelled something odd. He bent down and sniffed. There it was, bitter like old roots.
 “Poison!” he exclaimed.
 While Gelearde and Dortok searched the body and its casket, Clotilde perused the figurines and Galwyn wandered around. One of the other caskets caught his eye. The name stamped into a metal plate on the side read “Tryvor”. An inscription was carved on the lid that he could read.
Our kith, but not our kin. Yet welcome to dwell within.”
Kith, but not kin? This person was not from Sendatur’s family? Galwyn shoved the stone lid aside. Another mummified body lay within, but this one had been a young man, perhaps the same age as Galwyn himself. Thick locks of red hair clung to the man’s skull and a downy beard, just beginning to fill in, adorned his chin. The strong lines of his brow and jaw suggested that he had been a handsome fellow. The dead man was garbed in fine leather leggings, boots, a luxurious tunic, and a chainmail shirt. He clutched the hilt of a fine sword and scabbard to his chest. Who was this Tryvor? A warrior? Or a soldier like himself? He could see several brown-crusted slits in the man’s neck. Stabbed! He felt sympathy and kinship for this long-dead comrade, a brother-in-arms who displayed a noble aspect, even as a shriveled corpse, and who had been ruthlessly cut down in his prime.
 Gelearde finally stood up from his examination of Sendatur’s resting place.
 “It’s not here,” he said to no one in particular.
 “I know”, replied Clotilde. “But I think there’s something over here.”
 Gelearde hastened over and pulled out his crystal ball rod again. He waved it over several urns and figurines, then settled on a particularly old urn in the middle of all the clutter. Clotilde and her brother looked at each other knowingly. She removed the lid and he plunged his hand into the ashes inside. He presently pulled out a metal chain and held it aloft. A gold medallion with a red gem dangled and glittered in the light of Clotilde’s pendant. The is gem was bright red like a fire opal, not dull red like the King’s, but the two pieces were clearly identical.
 Just then the two noticed Galwyn bending over the other sarcophagus.
 “No!”, they cried in unison, but it was too late.
 Galwyn had desired to look at the dead man’s fine sword for himself, to examine its blade and feel its heft. But as soon as he touched the hilt, he stiffened and uttered a stifled moan. Then he drew the sword swiftly and held it high above his head. The blade was as black as ink.
 “At last!” he said. “A true swordsman!” But it was not quite Galwyn’s voice. 
 The man who stood before them now spoke in deeper, more sonorous tones, and his voice echoed, as if the crowded burial chamber was more like a great pillared temple.
 “Galwyn!” Clotilde exclaimed. “Now you’ve done it!”
 Gelearde approached slowly. “May I see that sword?”
 Galwyn lowered the blade to point at his uncle. “None may take this now.”  Gelearde stopped in his tracks and thought for a moment.
“Excuse me, but who am I addressing at the moment?”
 “I,” intoned the voice, “am Retaliator.”
 “And what are your intentions here?”
 “I seek the one who killed my master, so that I may slay him.” 
“Who is that talking?” Clotilde interjected.
 “Ssss!” Gelearde shushed her with a slice of his hand. “It’s the sword!”  Gelearde pondered the situation again, uncertain. How to handle this?
 “You are now held by the hand of Captain Galwyn, your new owner and a most worthy master.”
 “My master is dead. No one owns me. This one is strong. He will carry me to my vengeance.” Galwyn’s eyes were turned up in his head, half-lidded.
 “But he is our companion. He travels with us.” Clotilde joined the conversation.
 “I will seek my own path.”
 “Do you know where your quarry is now?” she asked. (“Good, Clo!” Gelearde whispered). 
 The voice paused for a dozen heartbeats.
 “Then you will find what you seek as easily with us as by yourself,” she retorted testily.
Gelearde put his hand on her shoulder, as she seemed about to say something else. He didn’t want her to antagonize the sword.
 “We travel widely,” he said, “and I have many skills. If you join us, I will help you find what you seek. I will help you to deal out justice.”
 Another lengthy pause. “I will accompany you.”
 Galwyn’s hand slid the blade into its scabbard. He belted the weapon around his waist, then blinked several times. He turned to his aunt and uncle.
 “What happened? Why are you two looking at me like that?”
 “Seems you’re possessed now,” Clotilde answered the bewildered young man. “Should never just go reaching for a strange blade like it’s a new toy, you know.”
 “Dortok?” Gelearde called out. Where had he gotten to? He searched the room with his eyes. The bandit was cowering behind Sendatur’s casket, his eyes as big as plums.
“You aren’t thinking of bringing your little band back here to plunder this tomb, now are you?” The brigand opened his mouth, but did not answer.
“I’ll just reset the traps, you know, and add a few of my own that are even worse. Do you understand?” This time the man nodded his head vigorously.
“I think you can go now”, the older man said gently.
“So this is a magic sword, ay? What does it do?” Galwyn held it up in the light. They were half way down the hillside, and paused for a rest. The black blade was shiny like obsidian, and scrawled with runes that looked like pure gold.
 “Not just a magic sword, Galwyn: a purposed sword. Those are rare, and always named.
But I’ve never heard of this one before.” He paused to stroke his beard as he pondered that. “Hmm, this one appears to have been crafted to avenge its wielder in case of death.  So it must seek out whoever killed Tryvor. Perhaps once it fulfills its purpose it will truly serve you. What does it do? I imagine it has some magical abilities that will manifest themselves the next time you are in combat, but its main power is the ability to compel cooperation for its purpose.”
“Very disciplined magic, this,” Clotilde ventured. “Very orderly and purposeful. Wouldn’t be surprised if it was crafted to be good at fighting others. Good against armor or other weapons, perhaps. Or it protects the wielder.” She brushed a curl of blonde hair out of Galwyn’s eye, as she had so often done when he was a child. “And it won’t stop until it has its vengeance.”
 Gelearde nodded in agreement. “Likely so.”
 “But I don’t want to spend the rest of my life chasing after some murderer!” Galwyn protested.
 “Be at ease,” his uncle said soothingly. “The sword lay in that sarcophagus for a long time. The one it seeks is probably long dead by now.” 
“Well, it doesn’t think so!  Wouldn’t it know that?”
 “It’s not all powerful, now is it?” Clotilde answered for her brother. “If the killer were on the other side of the world it couldn’t sense his presence. Gelearde is right: you probably have nothing to worry about.” And she continued down the path.
 “Probably?” Galwyn sheathed the sword and followed her.
 “I’ll reason with it,” he said.
 “Can’t reason with it!” Clotilde admonished, not turning around.
 “Then I’ll throw it into the sea!” he shouted.
 “Can’t throw it away, either.”
“The sword is not a living thing, Galwyn”, Gelearde added. “It’s … it’s a magical force, you see. It’s not intelligent the way we are. It only exists to fulfill its purpose. And one of its powers is the ability to control you whenever it needs to in order to achieve that goal. You cannot defy it. You’ll just have to live with it until I can came up with something.”  The young man glowered and said nothing.
The journey back to Port Cunin was much like the trip out. Gelearde retched at the railing and Clotilde sipped tea in their cabin. But Galwyn sat by himself in the bow and brooded at the horizon as if it were his impending doom.
“It doesn’t heed my commands, Uncle,” he said to Gelearde without looking up. “Nor does it give me commands, either. In fact, it doesn’t speak to me at all. But when I try to throw it into the sea…well, I just can’t”.
Gelearde patted his shoulder without answering.
The next morning saw the King’s palace looming over Port Cunin from its cliff by the sea.
“Why are we here?” Galwyn asked Gelearde as they disembarked, but his voice was deeper again. It was Retaliator.
“The palace here has learned men and a library. I hope to find out more about Tryvor and who killed him,” the older man answered.
“Very well,” Galwyn said, and blinked at his uncle.
 When they reached the palace they were ushered immediately into the throne room by a smiling young courtier. Gelearde proceeded first toward the throne dais.
 “Success, Sire! We found the … hey!” He was rudely shoved aside from behind, interrupted in mid-sentence.
It was Galwyn, charging the throne with the black blade in his hand. The golden runes glowed red now.
“Murderer!! You doom is at hand!” Galwyn bellowed.
 Gelearde was bewildered. “What? Him??” He looked from Galwyn to the King.
 A cry of alarm arose from the courtiers and servants. Most of the palace soldiers were caught off guard and just stared, but their captain drew his sword and interposed himself between his king and this attacker. This was the man the King had called Neguan. Galwyn brought the black blade down in a high arc onto the other soldier’s upraised shield, splitting it nearly in two in a shower of sparks. The man cried out in pain as he was battered to the ground. He rolled away and held his shield arm as his sword clattered across the floor.
 Galwyn strode purposefully up to the throne. Surprisingly, the King stood his ground and held his staff at the ready. Galwyn swung Retaliator at the King’s head. The old man parried the blow, and the sword glanced off the metal shaft in another shower of sparks. But the King’s staff did not break.
 The palace soldiers regained their composure and moved forward to engage Galwyn.
Gelearde turned to Clotilde.
 “Help him!”
Clotilde gestured again as she had on the hillside. This time, a flurry of ghostly hands appeared. They swarmed around the soldiers, batting their helmets askew, and deflecting their weapons. They could not mount an effect attack. The combat by the throne continued as a duel between two men.
 Gelearde stood by her confused, shaking his head as he struggled to understand what was happening. Galwyn feinted low, then swung again at the King’s head. This time the sword caught the edge of the royal crown. The headpiece flew off the king’s head, and with it a white wig. The crowd gasped as they saw that Vortryx had a full head of close-cropped black hair. The King flung off his great cloak and stood straight, revealing a muscular physique. He noticed the magic being used against him, and stole glances at Clotilde as she continued her incantation. A sinking feeling overcame Gelearde. This man is not what he seems, and he has skills to be reckoned with. 
But then sudden comprehension dawned on him. He leaned over to speak into her ear.
 “Clo, the King’s medallion!” She nodded her head.
 As suddenly as it began, the combat ended, and in blood. Vortryx bought time to act with a skillful move. He parried Galwyn’s sword, trapped the blade against the floor with the headpiece of his staff, and then spun in the other direction, catching the young man across the temple with the spiked tailpiece. Galwyn was knocked unconscious and toppled backward, bleeding from the head and losing his grip on Retaliator.
 Clotilde ended her incantation and began a new one just as Vortryx reached inside his tunic. The medallion was ripped free of his neck, and flew across the room to her hand. But then the King drew his dagger and threw it, burying the blade in Clotilde’s sternum. She cried out and fell back into Gelearde’s arms.
 The King now stood alone, looking triumphantly down at his newest victims.
 “Seize them!” he bellowed at his soldiers, gesturing wildly. “Seize them all!” But none of the soldiers moved. They looked at the King with fear and revulsion. His sweat ran down his face, washing off the expertly applied maquillage he had worn for so long. They stared uncomprehendingly as they saw now that he was not an old man at all. On the floor behind him lay his cloak, with a cushion sewn in below the nape of the neck to make him appear hunchbacked.
Vortryx turned toward where his palace captain lay on the ground.
 “Neguan! Give the order!”
 But Neguan, too, refused to move.
 “Sire, what are you?”
 Gelearde looked down at Clotilde’s face. She was still breathing. He looked around for something hard and readily at hand. There! Neguan’s sword lay on the floor nearby. He grabbed the medallion from Clotilde’s clasped hand and lunged across the floor for the sword.
Vortryx must have sensed something wrong, something that threatened his being even more than a magical black sword. He whirled around in time to see Gelearde kneeling on the floor, placing the medallion on the cold stone, and raising Neguan’s sword high above his head.
 “STOP!!” the King screamed with both arms stretched out in supplication.
 Gelearde ignored him and brought the flat of the blade down on the gem. The jewel in the medallion shattered into dull red sand with a noise like a thunderclap.
 Vortryx screamed and clutched his chest, falling back onto the steps leading up to his throne. The spell of the medallion broken, his face shriveled and withered as he aged all of the stolen decades of his life in mere moments.
 Gelearde walked over to the black blade lying near Galwyn. He saw that his nephew was coming around. Enough, he thought. Galwyn was his own man, not a pawn in some ancient feud. The scholar from Uldum looked at all the destruction this cur of a king had wrought. His sister lay dying, and his nephew clutched his injured head with bloody hands. All members of the court stood slack-jawed, coming to grips with the reality that they had spent their whole lives serving...what? A man, or a monster? And Neguan, the captain of the palace soldiers, still lay on the floor clutching his shield arm. That was likely broken, but he still had one good arm. Yes, the man still had one good arm.
 Gelearde took careful aim, and kicked the black sword Retaliator across the floor at Neguan. The weapon spun horizontally, whirling across the polished stone and coming to rest against the soldier’s thigh. Neguan’s body stiffened, and he looked down curiously at the sword.  He grasped the hilt and awkwardly stood up, wincing in pain, then strode purposefully to the throne dais.
Vortryx, now showing his more than one hundred years of age, lay gasping and wheezing as he watched Neguan approach. Only his eyes moved in the shriveled husk of his face.
 “No, Neguan! Not you!”
 But Neguan ignored his pleas, and stood over the King with the black sword held high. Gelearde heard the deep, echoing voice again, the one from the crypt, as Neguan proclaimed Retaliator’s judgement for all to hear.
 “Here lies a craven assassin and murderer. Let justice be done!” And he plunged the sword into the King’s chest.
 The blackness flowed down the length of the sword’s blade from its hilt to the point, like ink dripping off a quill, revealing a silvery metal. The red runes faded and were gone. The King was dead. Retaliator now appeared as an ordinary sword, albeit an ornate and very fine quality one.
 “Aunt Clo!” Galwyn was now stumbling over to the stricken woman.
 Gelearde rushed to her side.
 “If I am not the most addlepated dunderhead!” he castigated himself.
 “The other medallion!” He pulled out the duplicate piece with the fiery red gem and placed it around her neck.
 “What are you doing?” Galwyn’s speech was still slurred.
 “I don’t know! Trying to activate this thing! If she was awake she could tell me.”  He rummaged in his leather sack and began tossing items out.
 “And I am twice a dunderhead!”
 “Whuh?” The young man shook his head still groggy.
 “Tryvor, Vortryx. They’re practically the same name.” He shook his fist at the dead king’s corpse. “They were brothers!”
 Neguan had joined them, still holding the now perfectly normal-looking sword.
 “I’m sorry, sir. We didn’t know what he was.”
 “Never mind that now! Where is it?” He dumped out all of the remaining contents of the sack: rods, and wands, feathers and lenses, small vials, and… there!
“The triggerstone!” Gelearde exulted. “It’s got to work!” 
He held a small stone of murky, translucent blue, chased with white quartz veins. Gelearde pressed the blue stone against the red gem and muttered an incantation he had heard Clotilde use a long time ago. He hoped he got it right. Finally, the blue stone began to hum in his hand, and medallion’s red gem glowed softly. Clotilde stirred and coughed. The magic of the medallion was now tuned to her.
 Gelearde pulled out a kerchief, then placed it against Clotilde’s chest. The King’s dagger was still embedded there. With one swift move, he pulled the dagger out and applied pressure to the wound. Clotilde gasped and cried out in pain. Then he placed the medallion on top of the spreading blood stain and pressed gently.
 The gem stopped glowing, and then its bright red color began to turn darker. Color returned to Clotilde’s cheeks as it faded from the gem, and she breathed more steadily. She brushed Gelearde’s hand aside and pressed the medallion against the wound herself. It would take all the of the jewel’s magic to heal her back from the brink of death. When the gem finally turned completely black it crumbled into a pile of obsidian sand. Gelearde gently pulled the medallion away. There was no trace of a wound under her bloodstained tunic. He turned the medallion over and noticed a symbol embossed on the back. He recognized it from the crypt on Utoa. It was Sendatur’s family crest.
 That night they stayed in a suite at the palace as Neguan’s guest. Gelearde slipped out the next morning while Clotilde and Galwyn still slept. He made his way down to the royal library, and was surprised to find Neguan sitting in the corridor by the great door, cradling the sword Retaliator across his knees.
“I thought you might come, Master Gelearde,” the soldier said. He looked down at the sword in his lap. “I can find no mention of it in any of the texts.
“I’m not surprised,” the scholar answered. “I think it may be very old, from the ancient empire even. May I examine it?”
The soldier stood up and backed up a step, his eyes narrowed in suspicion.
“I don’t need to touch it, just look at it”, Gelearde reassured him, his eyebrow raised.
Neguan slowly held the sword out, point down, clutching the hilt with both hands. The older man took out his small crystal ball and held it to his eye. He leaned forward and made an act of closely examining the sword, looking slowly up and down the length of the blade.
“It is a fine sword,” he declared, straightening up. “Those worn runes at the hilt merely spell its name in the old continental scrit. They must have been covered by the blackness before. And the scrollwork is also from another age. Retaliator is ancient. Well, may I enter the library?”
Clotilde and Galwyn were still asleep at noon. The smiling courtier from the throne room swept into the suite to greet them with a flourish, the left again to summon a troop from the kitchen to bring them a sumptuous lunch.
 Galwyn set down his spoon and adjusted the bandage around his head. “I still don’t understand how Sendatur fit into this whole thing.”
 “Neguan filled in details while you were still sleeping,” Gelearde replied. “Everyone at court remembered that Vortryx had an older brother, but the story was that he disappeared on a hunting trip when they were both young men and was never found. My guess is that Vortryx murdered him to put himself in line for the throne. Then when their father died soon after that, Vortryx was crowned king.”
 “Bet that Vortryx murdered his father, too.” Clotilde added.
 “Yes, it’s interesting that all this transpired soon after Vortryx returned from his education abroad.”
“He was a rotten one, that one was!” she interjected. “You don’t learn murder and poison and disguise just anywhere! He fell in with an assassin’s guild somewhere on his journey!”
 “I believe you’re right, Clo. More partridge?”
 “But what about Sendatur?” Galwyn reminded him.
 “Oh, yes. Well, that medallion was no Vortryx family heirloom. He lied about that. It belonged to Sendatur’s family. That gem held great healing magic, and Vortryx wanted it to prolong his miserable life. I think Sendatur was a bit of a wizard.”
 Galwyn thought about that for a moment. “So Sendatur made those medallions.” 
Clotilde shook her head, and swallowed some partridge.
“Uh-uh. Much too old. Those were made centuries ago, by an ancestor, no doubt. But he would have known what they are and how to use them.” 
“Yes, I believe that Sendatur suspected Vortryx of everything: the murder of his brother, the likely murder of the old king, and his desire to possess that medallion. I further speculate that he used his skills to locate and conceal Tryvor’s body.”
 Galwyn shook his head again. “But then how was the sword involved in all this?”
 “Ah, that’s where Neguan helped me the most. He gave me access to the palace library. There were some journals written by courtiers there, including one from Sendatur himself, from when the previous king was still alive. You see, it was known that Tryvor had a magic sword, an artifact from well before the Season of Chaos. But he made no mention of it being a purposed sword. It was simply an artifact of great martial prowess, befitting of a crown prince. That suggests to me that Vortryx didn’t know its true nature either, and so didn’t bother with it.” 
“But Sendatur would have found out about the sword, though, wouldn’t he?” Clotilde thought out loud. “When he found the body, the sword would’ve rejected him! Not suitable, not a swordsman.”
 “Yes!” Gelearde agreed. “Then Sendatur could have made sure that no one handled the body who the sword would want to possess. Himself, or anyone not skilled with a sword.”  He turned back to his nephew. “It seems that Sendatur interred Tryvor’s body in his family crypt on Utoa as a trap for Vortryx, and to guard the second medallion. This must have happened after Vortryx stole the first medallion. He knew that his own days were likely numbered. And they were. Vortryx poisoned Sendatur, after all.”
“He knew?” Galwyn looked puzzled.
 “Sendatur knew that Vortryx would come looking for the second medallion, sooner or later.” Clotilde explained. “Vortryx probably thought the medallion would last forever. What did he know about magic? But it started to wear out.”
 “The burden of keeping Vortryx young gradually drained the gem. He used it for almost a century, progressively making himself look older with his assassin’s disguise skills, while staying young, thanks to the medallion. That’s why the gem was already dark when we first saw him. When he finally realized what was happening he knew he had to have the second medallion to keep living agelessly, at least for another century or so.”
 “So now Retaliator is just a normal non-magical sword?” Galwyn seemed disappointed.
 “Oh, no! It’s still magic. I detected that when I was with Neguan this morning.”
 “Then what will happen to it?”
 “Retaliator will serve Neguan from now on.  After all, it was he who dealt the deathblow to Vortryx. And if Neguan is ever murdered, the blade will turn black again, and Retaliator will not rest until Neguan’s death is avenged.”
 “Well, isn’t that just wonderful!” Galwyn said sarcastically.
 “What’s wrong, nephew? I thought you wanted to be rid of that sword.”
 “I thought I did, but it was great sword. It almost cut Neguan in two! When will I ever get the chance to have a sword like that again?
 Clotilde clucked her tongue and cuffed Galwyn on the shoulder.  “I liked you better when you were possessed!” 

©November, 2016 Edward H. Parks

Edward H. Parks writes both science fiction and fantasy. His has appeared in Interstellar FictionPerihelion, and one of the Third Flatiron Publishing anthologies.]]>
<![CDATA["Grey Wings and Promises"  by Louis Palmerino]]>Tue, 20 Dec 2016 20:05:06 GMThttp://swordsandsorcerymagazine.com/archive/grey-wings-and-promises-by-louis-palmerinoFirst, I had to save your life before it began. It wasn’t easy, and cost me more time and coppers than I had to lose, but you were worth that to me.
I remember the day as clear as the dockside bells. They were clanging and clonging all along Linkstone Harbor as I joined the army of ragged longshoremen taking their leave for lunch. I had half an hour until the foremen came looking for me. Somehow in that short time, and on an empty stomach besides, I had to find an herbalist. They were the only ones who could help you, I’d been told––the only ones who could concoct the draughts of bloodless birth that could save you. Salty spittle from the sea stung my eyes as it never had, and the vast brick-and-brown-plaster city, sloping steeply up from the waterfront as it did, seemed to be sliding down on top of me. I was nearly in a panic.
I dashed between the open storefronts of Harborside Row, stopping whenever I saw someone selling plants and medicines. But no herbmonger would help me. They told me I was wasting their time, and that I could never afford their wares, anyhow. This did neither of us any good. Your time was short, and I needed to find help that day. I heard the first vulgar bellows of the dock bosses calling us back to work.
Then, I had a desperate idea. The Magrim would help us.
In children’s rhymes and nursery stories, magicians often wore bright smiles and pointed hats, but the Magrim of Linkstone bore no such cheer. They were a shady lot, stalking around the city’s squalid cellars and back rooms, using their powers to run smuggling rings and protection rackets. But they were also known as solvers of unsolvable problems. Where scornful merchants and stony-faced bureaucrats failed, the Magrim stepped in, becoming unlikely friends of workers in need. Of course, their prices were steep, and often measured in methods other than gold. But you were worth that to me.
I dodged past a shouting fruit peddler and through the door of an indoor meat market. The smells of sweat and smoke battled in my nostrils. If you’d been here, you’d surely have cried. I nearly did myself. I could barely see as I pushed through the dim room towards a corridor in the back, where I knew by words and whisperings my goal lay. The hallway went down a short flight of stairs, and ended in what appeared to be an office.
Behind a desk sat a birdlike woman in a beige overcoat, with a flat brown hat cocked over her eyes. She seemed to be poring over a long sheet of figures, her right hand plucking the beads of an abacus, her left jotting down numbers I could not see. Servants bustled in and out from back doors with more papers, pulling from and adding to a pair of neat piles at the corner of the desk. My father told me when I was young to never approach a Magrim magician unless you had business to propose. The slow, terribly patient way the woman looked up at me told me why.
“Now what can I do for you?” The Magrim’s voice was crisp and even.
I thought of how I should speak about you. You were worth all the meager gold and copper I had, but I dared not tell the Magrim this.
“I need help. My wife is heavy with child, and the midwife thinks she will die in childbirth.” It all spilled out too quickly. “There has to be something you can do.”
A servant brought the Magrim a thick cigar, which she lit with a click of her fingers and smoked slowly. I sensed that she knew your life was in her hands.
“If you tell me where and when,” the Magrim said, “I will be there at the appointed time.”
I was so relieved I nearly wept. I had saved you from the brink of nonexistence!
“Of course, there is the matter of cost.” The Magrim was not finished. “I need you to promise me some things. First, I need two silver Standards up front, and another when I am done. Second, our arrangement must be completely secret.”
“It’s yours, it’s all yours!” I said, as I emptied a pocketful of coppers onto the desk. The Magrim looked down at the little heap of coins. It was not nearly enough.
“And make sure the child does not fall in too close with our dear Prince,” the magician added. “I don’t need to be bringing more of his people into the world.”
It was the first time the Magrim had flinched from her collected demeanor. I hastily agreed with her, not even knowing what she meant. You were all I cared about, and you were safe. You did not need to be one of the Prince’s underlings. You would be a Prince yourself.

The hour came late at night. You could wait no longer. I was pacing anxiously in my low garret room, my wife doubled over in pain on the straw mattress, the round besmocked midwife bustling around preparing tinctures and elixirs, when there came a rap at the door. My wife continued to groan, but the midwife went still. I opened the door to see the Magrim from the meat market standing over me.
I could not find the breath to thank her as she came inside, swept off her hat and stepped towards the bed with the aid of a curved wooden cane. My wife looked up at her with a helpless kind of fear. I had not told anyone the magician would be coming.
“Don’t be afraid,” the Magrim said, “I am not here on death’s business today.”
The midwife, stunned, stepped aside as the Magrim knelt down beside my wife. I heard a low murmuring that I thought might be noise from another room, but I quickly realized, as the volume rose, that it was the magician speaking. I expected to hear words I did not know, but I understood her clearly.
“Get out here...you stubborn little thing,” the Magrim sung with the lilt of a sea-chanty. Around her clasped hands, a smoky green light gathered which irritated my eyes, disturbed my memory. My vision seemed to cloud. I thought I saw the midwife slide ghostlike to stand in from of the Magrim, her hands extended towards you as you struggled closer to the world.
From my father’s ramblings, I learned that I had been born in an alley. My mother had been a prostitute, and he a pay-by-day hired hand for when the trade caravans rode into town. Coppers came hard. I’d lived in a blur of inns, hostels and boarding houses as my father worked for vittles, bringing home a different bottle and a different woman every night. The guests became my caretakers, teaching me my letters and numbers, feeding me with stories of knights, magicians, and the Prince’s court. I was captivated. I memorized the names of the heroes, and told the tales to my father when he came home. He would listen to me, laugh along as if he were enjoying himself, and then hit me, saying he needed to rest and that I should not bother him.
I made a promise to you then that I would do better. That you would be one of those heroes someday.
And here I sat in a place that, though small, I could call my own, watching your seamstress mother, her hired midwife and a Magrim Magician help bring you to me. The stories were flickering to life!
“Come on out, child, no one’s trying to kill you,” the Magrim chanted, and my vision blurred anew as my wife let out a horrific wail. I heard her heavy breathing, saw the green light from the Magrim’s hands engulf the room, and thought to myself that I would not fail you. I could not fail you. The very energies of history were on your side! “Get out here, no one’s going to hurt you,” the Magrim said, and I screamed along with my wife this time as I imagined her pain. Our voices melded into a ghastly chord that surely would have awoken my father’s bones had they not been cast out to sea.
“Come on out. Here we go!” the Magrim shouted. 
And there you were. The midwife caught you by the head, cut you free from the afterbirth, and handed you to me. I held you for my wife to see. You were a mottled, purple thing, but when you cried you gained color. I looked into your eyes, hard brown like mine and my father’s, and tried to imagine them looking out at me from under an armored visor, or from beneath a crown. You blinked. My face glowed as if I were standing before a roaring fire. I looked up, catching the eye of the Magrim for a brief second. I saw her reflect a fraction of a smile on her own face. She got up from her knees, and twisted her hand around the crook of her cane.
A blue-white bolt flashed from your forehead to where the Magrim’s hand rested on her staff. I jumped, and nearly dropped you, but you were unharmed. The magician staggered backward and slammed into the wall. I had never before seen a Magrim look afraid.
“This boy might have a touch of my skill!” the magician said. Her tone was no longer dismissive, but reverent.
It was as if the story were telling itself! I looked at you, my face still glowing, and then at my wife. To my dismay, she looked not happy, but doubtful and disbelieving.
“How...how can you be sure?” My wife had somehow found the energy to speak. I gave her a mortified look, but her eyes had turned to the magician.
“I have seen cases before,” the Magrim said. “Make sure to look after him. It is not common.”
I stared back at you and felt a surge of determination. You would prove your mother wrong. She would nurture you to greatness, but you wouldn’t need her. You wouldn’t need me. I only hoped that someday you would spare us.

Had I a crier’s voice, I’d have told the world about you. I watched you grow from a helpless babe into a toddling young boy with the sort of brightness about the eyes that I could only envy. I was constantly on the lookout for any hint of your powers––an unexplained spark of fire, an object moving without being pushed––that might have elevated our existence above the dirt squalls and stale bread that were our lot. I saw nothing. The details of our lives remained the same: Work was hard, food was scavenged or stolen, and coppers rarely clicked together. It did not help that the Magrim were breathing down my neck more than ever.
Sometimes I feared that you weren’t special after all. That you would never wear a spellwriter’s coif or a king’s crown. I tried to dispel these thoughts and remember that you were indeed a prince among peasant’s sons, a boy with uncommon talents––I had seen so with my own eyes! But doubt grips with strong fingers, and sometimes, in my lowest moments, I put it to words.
“Would you stop talking about your kid for just one damn second?” said the burly Darjei, who worked the docks with me. “This place has a devil of an echo, and the guards are out.”
We were in a sewer pipe below the city, on one of our palace runs. It was a cavernous, gloomy place, made passable only by a narrow ridge just above the line of filth, on which we walked single file. Each day after feasts, the vast kitchen that served Linkstone’s nobility and their guests at the Prince’s tables had cartloads of food it did not use. If one could navigate the pipework––a good distance uphill, mind––and reach the palace before they threw the food in, the rewards were bountiful and cheap.
“No guard would ever come down here on their pay,” I answered, “and besides, the Prince’s Police do not intimidate me. Someday my son will command them, and they won’t dare attack me.”
Darjei stopped and gave me a look of disgust. 
“Look, letting the Magrim come poking around to keep track of your son isn’t a sign that he’s special,” Darjei snarled, “it’s a sign that you’re a fool.”
“If there’s one thing not to talk about, it’s those magicians,” said another dockworker who had come along, the sharp-tongued Wylan. “They’ve got ears down here if anyone does.”
We kept moving, trying not to let the smell bother us. You had better be special, I thought, if only to keep me from having to come here. 
It must have taken us an hour to climb to the palace. The pipe eventually leveled off and narrowed, and suddenly we came to a rickety plank platform. Two soldiers of the Prince’s Police were posted on the platform, guarding each side of a bolted wooden door. 
“You’ll be here for the food, then, I expect,” the nearer of the two said. “What’ll it be?”
Wylan and Darjei pulled out their coinpurses and counted out a considerable collection of coppers into the guard’s waiting hand.
“I see you want the good cuts this week,” the guard said. “Someone’s hungry.”
With the clattering turn of a key the door opened and the guards retreated inside, leaving us alone on the platform.
“What an indignity,” Darjei said, “to have to smuggle food through pipes of shit just to get it to my plate! Thank Gods I’ve only a few more weeks of this.”
Wylan’s face curdled like milk, as it always did when Darjei started bragging. “And where is your highness going next?”
“To the civil service!” Darjei said. “I’ve gotten myself a position at the Prince’s Harbor Company. No more of this lousy pay-by-day work. I’ll have a full wage, paid on time every week. And if you two are smart, you’ll join me.”
I tried not to laugh. The Harbor Company churned through poor souls like Darjei. Every week, I would hear about another stevedore entering the civil service, who would come by and say his smug farewells as if he were better than us. But two months later, he’d be back out on the wharf, having to face up to everyone he wronged. Unless you could get a skilled position, like a scribe or an overseer, the civil service discarded you like bones.
“Here’s some pickings for each of you.” The guards came back out, bearing heavy cloth sacks of food. “Bread, cheese, all the rest. Check it if you don’t believe me.”
We each shuffled through our sacks and were satisfied. Then the second guard, who was not carrying food, revealed another item: a long leather tube which rattled as if it contained something.
“And this is for you, per our arrangement,” he said to me. I took the tube, uncapped it where it opened at the top, and slid out a scroll taken from the royal library. On the Growth and Maturation of Magic in Young Boys.
“Perfect,” I said, sliding the scroll safely back inside the tube and reaching for my money.
Darjei gave me another disgusted look as I paid the guard. We said our stern farewells and went back down the dark pipe, hefting each a burden.
“You and your fucking reading,” Darjei said. “You’re lucky you didn’t get us locked in chains with that nonsense.”
“Now hold on,” Wylan cut in. “If you’re going to get us civil service jobs, why not try to get him in as a scribe? He’ll move up quickly, and can make sure we don’t get tossed out.”
Darjei looked reluctant, but I could tell he liked the idea. It was good enough, at least, to give me serious pause. Scribes worked under intense scrutiny, but were paid well both in wages and joint-stock kickbacks, and had some chance of climbing the Company’s ranks. 
I thought of what might happen to you. I was seriously tempted, but then I recalled what the Magrim had said before  you were born. And make sure the child does not fall in too close with our dear Prince. What would become of us if the Magrim found out I was on the Prince’s very payroll? 
It occurred to me then, brilliant and dreadful: if you were so special, then why couldn’t I be as well? What was stopping me from wearing coifs and crowns just as you would one day? If I could not have the powers of sorcery, I should at least have the powers of oversight. To hire and punish whomever I pleased, to handle mounds of silver, to have some small part in making sure the great rolling leviathan that was the city of Linkstone kept on rolling smoothly.
“I guess I could do that,” Darjei said, then turned to me, “what say you?”
“It sounds better than wading through shit for vittles,” I replied, as Darjei himself might have.


“And there goes a Magrim,” I said to you, pointing out one of the magicians stalking down the street a ways distant. “They don’t like the Prince. They want to rule Linkstone!”
You made a scandalized face that I wish could have been preserved in a portrait.
We were walking along the harbor, four months after I started my new job with His Majesty’s Civil Service. The work was grinding, but the rewards came quickly. On my first wage day, I’d been handed more silver than I’d ever seen in one place my whole life. That day, I had proudly walked into the meat market and bought the juiciest cuts I could find.
And as I learned, you learned. I finally began to make sense of the city I lived in––its history, its rulers and its power struggles. I explained to you what I could, for you would surely need this knowledge when your time to rule came.
“And this,” I said, “is the Lower City.”
I made a sweeping gesture pointing out the wharf and the many shops that ran along the esplanade. The sun was falling, casting a bright orange sword on the western sea. The brown plaster storefronts caught a warm glow, the color of tangerines in fruit stands, turning the rickety buildings into august towers in the gloaming.
“Is that where we live?” you asked me. You were learning your words well!
“For now,” I said, then turned your attention away from the harbor. The city climbed up and away from the waterfront, the winding streets and alleys leading to the foot of a sheer granite wall that marked the limits of the Citadel. Behind the wall rose a limestone palace, which grasped heavenward with flying spires and buttresses. Like the buildings below, it caught a glistening share of the sun’s evening rays.
“That is the Upper City,” I said, “and at the center of the Upper City rests the Prince’s Palace. You and I will live there someday, where with your powers and my influence, we will be the leaders of Linkstone.”
You looked up at me agape, your tawny hair and brown eyes agleam with the blazing red of sunset.
“Are you sure?” you asked.
“I promise.”
Slowly the evening died. We wove our way home in the semidarkness, dodging past shuttered buildings to the boarding house where we still lived. Only for a little while longer, I thought to myself.
“Off to bed now!” I told you when we came inside. You dashed away, and I went over to the corner by my pallet, where rested the long leather tube with the scroll in it. I pulled it out, and rolled it to a spot I had been poring over for weeks.
...most boys will begin to show their prowess at 3 years, with clear development by ages 4 and 5...
I don’t know if I expected you to suddenly levitate, or try to cast fire at me, but I had been feeling doubtful all day. Even though I’d seen proof, for some reason I expected more. 
“You know, the words aren’t going to change the longer you look at them.”
I had not noticed my wife come in from the other room. She gave me a look that was both sympathetic and angry.
“I’m just reading,” I said, trying not to plead with her. “I’m just reading.”
“You have a note on the nightstand,” she said stiffly, “why don’t you read that?”
I laid the scroll down and saw a folded sheaf of paper where she’d indicated, neatly tucked into a six-sided shape. I pried it open, and saw the looping scroll I dreaded:
We understand that you have begun work at His Majesty’s Civil Service. Felicitations on your new endeavor! We have been watching your son intently through this transition, and are concerned for his well-being. We are owed ten silver Standards for his protection. Please pass the needed sum under your door, marked for our collection.
I tried to ignore it. I tried to look like I was reading without care, rather than with wide, shocked eyes. I glanced towards the door, then down at the drawer in my nightstand where I kept my coins. I flung it open and counted through my silver. All my silver! My whole life I’d scarcely known what that metal felt like, and now the coins were splashing through my hands, cool as water. Yet it wasn’t enough. I counted only seven Standards and fifteen coppers.
“Are you putting stories in his head again?” my wife said, talking about you. “The things you tell him are crazier every day.”
“I was just reading!” I said.
“And now you’re about to give more money to those Magrim monsters,” she continued. “Did you ever think it might all just be a trick? That they just made it look like he was special to ensnare you?”
I threw the coins forcefully into a brown pullstring purse and flattened them out. I laid the purse on the note, placed both on the ground, and forced them under the crack beneath my door.
“How powerful are we now?” my wife yelled. “That’s food for a month, gone. You told me we’d be out of this place by now.”
I stood up from where I was kneeling by the door and grabbed her shoulders. 
“Don’t you think I know that?” I implored, almost tearfully. “Don’t you think I remember what I promised you?” 
After a long moment, our eyes unlocked. We looked up at the dusty brown ceiling, and around the cobwebbed crate of a room that we called our home. I remembered the rush of warmth I’d felt toward her as we’d surveyed it for the first time, thinking it the first stop on some grand journey of ours. Somehow, I could not get angry at her. 
Instead I thought of you. How you had shown me a sign that might have burst me out of this box, and then tantalizingly cut me off! I did not need you. If you wanted to mutter spells for your whole life, then be that your lot. I would be the one to rise and rule, and I was well on my way.
There was a fluttering, and another six-sided note slipped under the door. I picked it up and unfurled it:
Not enough.


My study at the Harbor Company House was dark. My desk was bare but for one candle that lit the room. I had scarcely any idea what to do with the space. The very idea of having two clean chairs for my guests was outlandish to me, yet there they were, basking in the candleglow. 
Darjei and Wylan came in, looking confused. They each took a seat.
“Well,” I said. Barely even a word, but as I clasped my hands, their backs seemed to snap upright and their eyes darted to mine. I knew exactly why this bothered me, and it was because neither of them would have done that half a year ago, when we were all still dockhands pinching coppers.
“I’ve called you here to address a concern I have,” I continued. “I’ve been worried that you have both become a bit...despondent in your work of late.”
Darjei and Wylan maintained their decorum, but could not hide their puzzlement.
“What do you mean?” Darjei said, in a submissive tone that made me want to grind my teeth. “All the work has been done on time.”
“But attitude is important, as you have spared no chance to remind me.” I said. “We cannot look a bunch of dullards on the job.”
“I don’t remember...ever saying that to you.” Darjei said evasively.
I thundered my fist on the desk. “What has gotten into...or rather what has gone out of you two? You’re like husks these days! And you’re making me look bad. How am I––how are any of us supposed to get ahead when we can’t even take the daily trouble to look like we’re alive?”
Both of them were visibly stunned, but neither moved nor said a word.
“What happened to cursing the dock bosses behind their backs? What happened to plotting our future over a drink?” I yelled. “It’s still me. You’re both still you. What’s going on here?”
“We’re just trying to keep our jobs, sir.” Wylan said. I might have forgiven him, but it was that last honorific, so deferentially applied, that put me over the edge.
“Well your fortune’s run out! Leave my sight and never enter it again!”
There was a horrific pause, slow like poison leaking down a blade, as they and I realized what I had just done.
“Wait, what are you saying?” Wylan said. “We didn’t do anything––”
“I don’t care,” I said. “Get out!”
There was another moment of pause as I looked at both of them, and they looked back at me with no hint of recognition on their stupefied faces. Then, with a low grumble, Darjei came to life.
“You ungrateful ass,” he growled, bringing himself to a boil. “Have you lost hold? I gave you this job––I handed you the bloody keys to this room, and this is how you use them? You have no power over me. I will leave here, but not by your command. Not on my life.”
I let out a great, breathless, pitiless “Ha!” of both fury and pleasure.
“Just let us be,” Wylan said, “no need for this craziness. Let us leave in peace.”
“And you had better, or I’ll get the Prince’s Police to help you,” I said. “This is my study. This is my fiefdom! And soon it will be my city. The Prince and the Magrim be damned!”
Darjei’s look of anger became one of fright, as did Wylan’s. They stared around at the blank walls, as if expecting to see eyes and ears.
“You can have this wretched study,” Darjei said. “You don’t even know what you’re doing with it.” He practically carried Wylan to the door and shut it with a flat echo behind them. I slammed my head into the desk in rage. 
I don’t know why I did it. My mind raced through reasons and rationalizations, but none of them could capture the anger––the furious flash of lightning!––that had made me send my only two friends in all of Linkstone back to their lives of toil. Maybe it was for you. I guess I just could not stomach having them ruin our rise to power. 
There was something wrong with them. They were lifeless agents of my enemies, and with their dismissal I exposed them. Yes, that was it! I reached into my desk and pulled out one of the only items I kept there: a flask of rum. With a single swallow I drained it, relishing the burn of the warm liquor on my throat. I walked calmly across the room to the door, hurled the flask as hard as I could back at my desk, and closed out of my office in silence.
It was a long walk home that evening. The tall limestone palace twinkled indifferently in the moonlight above me, and the ocean crashed hungrily on the pier below me. I felt surrounded on all sides. I had to get back to you. I had to see the spark of magic, the glint of crowning gold in your eyes. Oh my son! You bane and redemption of my existence! Nothing in my life was the same anymore, and I needed you. I knew who you were. I knew what you would become.
The garret was quiet when I came in, and you were sitting there at the base of my pallet. I heard my wife snoring in the next room. We locked eyes, and I saw that you looked confused. I crept toward you, taking an unlit candle in a dish from by the door and holding it out to you.
“I’m gonna need you to do something for me,” I said, the candle dish shaking in my hand. “I’m gonna need you to do a trick. That’s right.”
You scratched your chin.
“You see this candle?” I said. “Without using flint, I want you to light it for me.”
I had to see it with my eyes again. The flash of blue light, that hallowed moment where, for once, I was free. You only gave me that look again, puzzled and inquisitive.
“Use your powers,” I said. “You know what I mean. Focus.”
You screwed up your face and stared as hard as you could. Your little arms extended wildly towards the candle. I willed it to work, but the wick stayed inert. No light came from the dish in my hand. 
I started to panic. I scrambled to find my flint. “Try it again,” I said. “Try it again.”
“Nothing’s happening,” you said.
“Try it again!”
I found my tinderbox in the drawer of my nightstand, but I could not steady my hands enough to get a spark. The rum was hitting me. I finally produced a spark after nearly a dozen tries, but the wick did not catch, and the flints popped from my hands and spilled to the floor. I swore and fell to my knees with a painful crash, scrabbling for them.
All this had woken up my wife. “What are you doing now?” she said, as she saw the tinderbox on the floor.
I begged you with my eyes not to speak.
“He wanted me to do a trick,” you said.
“Not this again!” she said, lunging for you. I dove across the floor to stop her.
Something in my head doesn’t want me to remember what happened here, or what I said. Perhaps I blacked out from the rum. I must have cursed quite loudly, for I remember a harsh ringing in my ears at about the pitch of my voice. Maybe I struck her. You were still sitting there––that I remember––saying “Stop it stop it stop it” but otherwise remaining calm. You didn’t even shed a tear. Maybe I ought to be proud of you for that. Otherwise, I have no memory of that mad frenzy, barring a cut lip and a scrape on my knee. I laid there, tired and drunk, my vision flickering and my mind half-aware. 
But nothing clears your head like a stern knock on the door.
Everything went quiet. I crawled around from my prone position to face the door, not even daring to rise to my feet.
“Who goes?” I said, though I knew.
“The boy’s guardian,” the Magrim answered, her voice dry but compelling.
My door swung inward as the magician let herself in. The lock, bolted, apparently had not seen fit to protest. The magician tipped her hat as if she might be calling at dinner.
“You low-level bureaucrats are the worst irritations,” she said in a bored mutter. “Late on payments, an improper parent to boot––and they’re letting you run the city?”
I sensed a change in the magician. The wall and doorway behind her began to shimmer, as if seen through a smoky haze. None of this was reflected in her face, which remained waxy and expressionless.
“I need some collateral until you’ve made your payments, and it doesn’t look like you have much,” the Magrim said. “The boy will come with me.”
You were as stunned as I was. The magician’s words crashed on my mind like a ship missing its dock.
“Wait,” I said, trying and failing to subdue my panic, “I’ll make the payments. I just need time.”
“There isn’t any,” the Magrim said, as if she were checking a sum on one of her balance sheets.
“Then take me instead!” I implored. I was nearly hysterical.
“Don’t be silly, I need you to be able to work off the money.” the Magrim droned. “Come on, son. I shan’t harm you.”
I looked to her, and then to you. There was a brassy glint in your hardwood eyes. I felt a surge of strength in my legs, and I stood up. Darjei and Wylan might have abandoned me, my wife might think me a drunkard and a madman, but I was damned if I would see you escorted away from me by anyone but the guard of kings, taking you to your rightful throne!
“No,” I said.
The magician almost looked sad as she rolled up her sleeves. “I’m afraid so,” she sighed. “You’ll have to have a word with your friends at the Harbor Company if you want things to change. But forthwith, he comes with me.”
I almost did not notice the Magrim rise off the floor. She spread her arms wide, and the smoky air in the doorway seemed to envelop her. Suddenly, with a howling blast of air, a great ethereal bird of prey bore down on me in my own home, feathers the color of charcoal and wings stretched across the room. It swooped past me, driving me aside like a windborne leaf, and seized you. In flight, towering over me like the stone walls of Linkstone, there was nothing I could do to stop it. You were there, and then not. The bird dissolved into a cloud of smoke and fled out the door. I thought I saw the hem of a tan coat brush past the threshold before the door slammed shut.
You were gone.
My knees gave, and I collapsed onto the floor. I could not move for the shock. All I can remember doing was sobbing. Right there on the floor, hands curtaining my face. Some dark part of me did not miss you, the chief obstacle to my power, but my conscious mind quickly strangled this thought. 
I realized you were all I had in this damnable city, with its accursed palace, its blight-ridden power struggles, and its buildings that leaned over me as if to crush me. 
I was aware, after a while, of my wife climbing onto me from behind. I thought she might be ready to throttle me, but instead she collapsed pitifully into my side, arms splayed around me and eyes teary red. I turned to her, and between us passed an understanding such as we’d never had. We both knew I’d have to leave my post at the Harbor Company. I’d have to go find the Magrim and pay some steep bribes to get you back. We might have to sell the garret. I supposed it might be some kind of adventure, but then I realized it would just be more bickering with bureaucrats, another trek through the bowels of Linkstone that needs no telling. Now that I’ve reached the point in my story where we’d all learned our solitary stations in this city, there is nothing more to say.
I will see you again. I promise.

©November 2016 Louis Palmerino

Louis Palmerino is a Manhattan based writer. This is his first published story.]]>
<![CDATA["Cursed and Beloved" by James Lecky]]>Mon, 28 Nov 2016 22:21:43 GMThttp://swordsandsorcerymagazine.com/archive/cursed-and-beloved-by-james-lecky“Does his heart still beat, Brother Edric?”
“Aye, my lord Abbot, the pulse is weak but there is still the spark of life in him.”
“More than a spark, I think,” the Abbot said. He looked down at the man upon the narrow cot, at the slim yet muscular frame, the dark hair and hawkish features. The chest and arms were marked with numerous wounds – most of them recent, but not all, the older injuries revealing themselves as puckered scar tissue.
A strong man, without doubt, strong enough to survive his wounds and resolute enough to defy the ocean itself.
The brothers had found him that morning, floating in the water just beyond Skull Point, as they checked their traps for crab and lobster. Corpses were not uncommon at this time of year - raiders from the Lochlan Isles would harry the coast until the first snows came - and at first they had thought him a drowned corsair. But his dark hair and the weapon he carried, an axe of ironwood and steel on a harness at his back, marked him otherwise.
A decent burial then, rather than a shallow pit and a hasty prayer, but his eyes had opened for a moment as they dragged him onto the skiff and so they had brought him to the monastery and the care of Brother Edric.
“He will live then?” the Abbot asked.
“If Erattis sees fit, yes.”
The Abbot nodded. “The will of Erattis and the skill of Edric -  a powerful combination.”
“I am merely a vessel,” the monk said. “The goddess guides my hand.”
“Your humility becomes you, Brother,” the Abbot said. He turned from the cot and its sleeping occupant. “Inform me when he wakes.”
“Of course, my lord.”
He dreamed of darkness and of blood, of things that would have cracked the mind of an ordinary man – of a great monolith risen from the ocean depths and the women he had tried – and failed – to save from the clutches of its insidious deity.
And in his dreams he saw himself hacking though a legion of enemies – soft, weak things that tore apart easily under the blows of his axe – felt their swords and spears slice his flesh. Saw, too, the dark tower slide back beneath the waves as he rowed away, covered in the gore and offal of those he had slain.
It had almost taken him under with it, down into the starless depths, but he had matched the last of his strength against it and won. But the sea, stronger even than the gods it concealed, showed him no pity.
Storm-wracked and directionless, he remained at the mercy of the waves for days until the fragile little boat struck a submerged barrier of rock. The ocean rose up, gleefully, to meet him. And then  – 
He awoke to the tolling of a bell.
Weak sunlight entered the room through a small window high on the bare stone wall.
Pain tugged at him as he rose, although his wounds had been expertly stitched and any risk of infection washed out of them by salt water.
The sea can be generous in her own way.
How long had he slept?
Days, at the very least, for he felt vigour returning to his limbs and clarity to his mind.
No sign of clothing, other than a rough brown robe at the foot of the bed, but his axe, still in its harness, hung from a peg on the wall and a bowl of oat porridge had been placed on a small stool.
He checked the weapon first; the steel unmarked, its edge keen, the spikes on its head and rear clean and deadly. He dressed, then ate the cold, unsalted porridge, licking the bowl clean.
Eat when you can eat, sleep when you can sleep, for you never know when you'll eat or sleep again.  A warrior's maxim, and one that had served him well.
Was there danger here?  Unlikely, or at least unlikely for now, enemies rarely allow captives to keep their weapons, and the room, rude though it was, was not a prison cell, the door opening smoothly on leather hinges.
He stepped outside, into a cool stone corridor.
A young man with a besom swept the floor, he wore a rough brown robe and his hair had been tonsured. He looked up as the door opened, startlement on his face.
“Brother Edric!” he called. “Brother Edric! He is awake!”
“Do you have a name, friend?” the Abbot asked.
“Only that?”
“Only that.”
The Abbot nodded. “It will do for now.” He pursed his lips together, ruminating on the words. “I will not ask where you have been or where your destination might lie,” he said. “Such information is yours to offer as and when you wish.”
“Thank you,” Tomas said.
“You are, of course, welcome to stay until your strength is fully recovered.”
“Thank you,” Tomas said again. “But I cannot repay your kindness – at least not at the moment. The sea took what few coins I had.”
“We require no payment,” the Abbot said. “Only your assistance, if you are willing to give it. There are chores to be done... wood to be chopped, for instance, if you feel up to the task.”
“It has been a while since I last chopped wood.”
“Yet you carry a fine axe.”
 You are a clever one, my lord Abbot, for all your grey hair and gentle smile.
“I was a soldier,” Tomas said.
“I fought in the North.”
For the first time the Abbot's smile faltered. “You are a follower of Vaulth?” he said.
Tomas shook his head.
“No longer, I am done with such things.”
“There are those gods in whose name terrible deeds are done,” the Abbot said. “But Erattis is not one of them.”
“Erattis,” he did not know the name. But then the world is full of gods, great and small, one man cannot hope to know all their names.
“You owe your life to her,” the Abbot said, but the way he said it did not make it sound like a debt. “And to the healing hands of Brother Edric.”
“I am grateful to them both.”
“The goddess you can thank at any time,” the Abbot said. “Brother Edric you may thank after supper.”
Edric did not look much like a healer. He stood a good six feet or more in his sandalled feet and had the build of a prize-fighter. A prize-fighter's crooked nose, too, broken and badly set some time ago. An old man, though he carried his years lightly.
“You were lucky, friend Tomas,” he said. “Usually we throw the ugly fish back into the ocean.”
“I doubt the sea gods would have thanked you for that.”
“You may be right.”
They sat in the fragrant surrounding of Edric's herb garden and watched the sun set over distant cliffs. The monk had produced a flagon of wine after supper – more oat porridge, this time mixed with a little honey – and had encouraged Tomas to drink claiming that it was 'good for the blood'.
“Good for yours and good for mine, too,” Edric said, pouring himself another bowlful. “Is it to your taste?”
“I've had worse.”
“Better too, I suppose.”
The monk laughed, a big hearty guffaw that seemed strange coming from a holy man, yet it suited him. “Damn me, but you're a tight-lipped one. What, does it cost you a silver wheel every time you speak?”
“I thanked you for you help, what more do you want?”
“Gratitude is more than just words, my friend. Still, I suppose you have your secrets – we all do.”
 “I am – I was – a wicked man, Edric, perhaps you should have thrown me back into the sea.”
“Oh, I'll admit that you look wicked – you looked downright demonic when Brother Armin and Brother Derand brought you to me – but a truly evil man would never admit it, even in jest.”
“I rarely jest, Edric.”
“No,” Edric said, taking a gulp from his bowl. “I don't believe you do.”
They sat in silence for a while, drinking the dark, sour wine and allowing the night to creep over them.
Then Tomas said:
“What are you doing here, Edric? You're no more a man of prayer than I am.”
“Never judge a man by what you think you know,” Edric said. “But, aye, you're right – up to a point. I was a soldier, many years ago. I served with the Corps Vermilion.”
The Vermilion – Vaulth's tits, I'm in the presence of history.
“And if I can know peace,” Edric continued, “so can you.”
Tomas turned sharply to look at him.
“Don't get your harness twisted, boy, you're not the only one who can make a judgement. I saw it in you from the first, so did my lord Abbot. What are you.... a baresark?”
Tomas shook his head.
“I took the Black Vow.”
Edric swore, an obscene soldier's oath, made all the worse by the tranquillity of their surroundings.
“Still think I can find peace, brother?”
The monk did not reply for a long time.
“Anything is possible,” he said at last.
But the words had more hope than truth in them.
And for a while he did know peace, or at least something akin to it.
No mention was made of the Black Vow, although Edric must have told his brethren about it, nor did their kindly attitude towards him change in any way.
In the mornings and evenings he joined the Brothers in their devotions, although he never prayed to their goddess – hypocrisy had never been one of his failings – instead using the chants and beatitudes as a form of meditation. 
Between times he helped Edric in his garden, toiled with the Brothers as they planted crops and – as the Abbot had first suggested – chopped firewood and trees in the nearby groves, feeling his strength return with each day that passed. He even became accustomed to the rough monk's vestments, his own clothing having been reduced to tatters and rags by the sea.
But the absence of war is not the same thing as peace.
His nights were troubled; with memories and dreams, with fragments of a past that refused to release its grip upon him... 
A spear in his chest. Blood in his mouth and throat. The harsh whistle of air from a pierced lung. 
I'm dying. 
Berick, the Battle-Mage, was by his side, grinning down at him.
“Hurts, doesn't it, boy?”
He tried to speak through the blood and the pain and the suffocation, but only a bloody bubble emerged from his lips.
“It doesn't have to be this way,” Berick said. He spoke the words conversationally, as though they sat by a fireside rather than in the middle of a maelstrom of steel and death. “The Black Vow can save you, if you take it.”
He shook his head, the small movement sending waves of pain and nausea through him.
“Don't be a fool, boy,” Berick said. “You're a good fighter – just unlucky today, is all – and Prince Albrect needs good fighters. The Vow will heal you, make you faster and stronger. Just say yes.”
He could feel ice in his bones, see the steam of his own blood as it pumped from his chest and into the frigid air as the life drained out of him.
And he was afraid – afraid of death, afraid of the Vow and what acceptance might mean...
But dying hurt so much....
“Will you take the Vow, Tomas? Will you?”
“Yes,” he said, the word a scarlet whisper. “Yes.”
 The steady, rhythmic whack of steel against wood, the feel of an axe in his hands, a cool breeze from the sea against his skin.
It's good to be alive. And the fact that he could even think that shocked him a little, brought an unaccustomed smile to his lips.
He had been in the grove since dawn, hacking and splitting, hauling logs down to the monastery gate, only stopping at noon to eat some bread and cheese and drink a little wine.
Another hour, maybe two, and I'll go to Edric, see if the old warhorse needs me today.
The sound of hoofbeats stopped the axe in mid-swing. He turned to the source and his smile faded.
Two men on small horses, coming up the narrow path towards him. Both wore dull cloaks and leather armour. He could see the pommels of their swords, jutting from beneath the cloaks.
 Not Lochlanites. Too dark-haired for that, and they rode easily, unhurried, like two men out for a pleasant canter.
Or two men with nothing to fear, confident to the point of arrogance.
“Good day to you,” the first said. 
“Good day.” He let the axe fall to his side, but kept his hand upon its haft.
The rider saw his robes folded on a tree stump and said. “Are you from the monastery?” He nodded to the grey stone walls, half a mile distant, just visible through the trees.
“Aye. Have you business there?”
“Business with the Abbot, not with you,” the second rider said.
“Manners, Dar. I'm sure our new friend here can deliver a message for us.” He leaned forward in his saddle. “Do you have a name, brother?” The tone both mocking and threatening at the same time.
“Now, brother Tomas, tell your Lord Abbot that Duke Uzlin wants the book – the Tenebris –  he won't ask twice and he'll kill any bastard that stands in his way. Do you think you can remember that?”
“Yes,” Tomas said. He shifted his grip slightly on the axe. The wood felt warm beneath his hand, he was aware of dappled light as it played over the sap-stained blade.
“He's a clever one, Elias.” Dar said.
“That he is, Dar, but perhaps we'd better carve it on his arse in case he forgets.”
“Just to let my lord Abbot know that the Duke means what he says.”
They swung down from their saddles. Tomas let them.
Elias drew a dagger and took two steps forward....
...Tomas split his head open, the blade of the axe cutting down as far as the bridge of the man's nose, the cracking of his skull loud in the small grove.
Dar had time enough to curse while Tomas wrenched the axe free. Time enough to turn and run when he saw the killing look in Tomas' eyes.
“Do you have a name, friend?” the Abbot had asked.
“Only that?”
No, not only that. Never only that.
He killed the second man as easily as the first, half-severing his head with a savage sweep of the axe.
Tomas felt blood on his cheek, in his beard, running across his bare chest, and he wiped it away with something akin to disgust, but at the same time relishing the warmth of it, the coppery smell that filled his nostrils and senses.
 Black Tomas they had called him in the North. Black for the colour of his hair. For the colour of eyes when the rage was upon him. Black for the colour of his soul. And for the Vow he had made.
He shook the blood from his axe, the rage in him already beginning to fade, sated for the moment.
A sound in the trees, the sharp note of a bowstring, and a crossbow bolt lodged itself in the ground near his feet.
More of them!
He ran forward, crouching low, and broke into a small clearing in time to see a third rider galloping away. An oath escaped from his lips – there was no hope of catching the fleeing man, not on foot. He turned and jogged back to the monastery.
“Duke Uzlin's men?” the Abbot asked.
“So they said.”
“I thought we were protected from them,” Edric said.
“As did I,” the Abbot said. “But the wards must have failed, or been breeched.”
“I understand nothing of this,” Tomas said. “Who were those men? What does their master want from you?”
It took a moment for the Abbot to answer. He glanced across at Brother Edric, who nodded, just once.
“In our possession we have certain books from the Elder Days,” the Abbot said. “Harmless and beautiful things for the most part. Our order is dedicated to their preservation and translation, to bringing what little light we can into dark times.”
“'For the most part'?” Tomas said, “What do you mean by that?” They sat in the cool of the Abbot's chambers, talking in low tones despite their privacy.
Another glance across at Edric. Another tacit agreement.
The Abbot rose from his chair.
“Come with me,” he said.
They moved through quiet corridors and down narrow steps into the vaults beneath the monastery. Here, a score or more of the brothers sat with parchment, ink and quill, lovingly copying and illuminating from old books and manuscripts. The lights here were dim, pale yellow, the only sound the scritch, scritch, scritch of nib on vellum.
At their approach, the senior copyist – an elderly stoop-back with watery grey eyes – rose and came to meet them.
“My Lord Abbot,” he said. “To what do we owe the pleasure?”
“I wish to see the Liber Tenebris, brother Ansel,” the Abbot said.
The old man, already sallow from lack of sunlight, paled visibly.
“Are you sure, my lord?”
“Quite sure, brother,” the Abbot's tone brooked no argument.
Ansel reached into his robe and produced an iron key from around his neck, he motioned them to follow and went to a small but stout door close to one of the copyists' alcoves.
What nature of a book needs to be kept under lock and key?And the name – the Liber Tenebris – it speaks of ominous things.
They entered the room, Brother Ansel handed Edric a tallow candle and then stepped outside again, locking the door behind them.
Other than a single lectern with a large leather-bound volume upon it, the room was empty. The candle-flame guttered even in the stale silence.
“The Liber Tenebris,” the Abbot said. “Sometimes called the Book of Dark Days – a history of the Elder Times, before mankind rose from the mire.”
“Aye,” Edric said. “That and more than that. A grimoire of terrible power if a man could read the words it contains.”
“A man such as Duke Uzlin?” Tomas said. He took a step towards the lectern and placed his hand upon the cover of the book. It crackled beneath his palm and the binding seemed to shift, like a cat unwilling to be stroked.
“A dabbler in the black arts,” the Abbot said, “but a danger for all that. He would slaughter us all without a second thought to possess the Tenebris.”
Tomas made to open the book, flicking the silver clasps that held it closed.
“Please,” Edric said. “I do not think that is wise.” 
“Can a mere book hold so much peril?”
“To the wrong eyes, and in the wrong hands, yes – men have been driven to madness by the things that the Tenebris contains, so long as they can read its passages.”
Tomas took his hand away, his skin felt contaminated even after such a brief contact.
“Then why keep it?” he said. “Surely a fire is the best place for such a thing.”
“The flames would refuse it,” the Abbot said. “And for all its evil the Liber Tenebris is a thing of great value – an insight into the greatness and terror of the Elder Times.”
“And this petty sorcerer – this Duke Uzlin – he would have the book for his own?”
“He has tried before, until we hid ourselves from him with bright little magics. But those have failed us, or so it would seem.”
“Then conjure more.”
The Abbot passed a shaking hand across his forehead, sweating despite the coldness of the room. “Such things take time,” he said. “Time which I fear we may not have.”
“True,” Edric said. “The Duke will come with others, and take what he wants by force.”
Tomas ran his hand across his face, feeling the dried blood that still clung to his beard.
“How long would you need to hide yourselves again?”
“A few days to complete the incantations, but...”
“I'll buy you the time.”
“No,” the Abbot said. “I cannot allow this.”
“What other choice do we have?” Edric asked.
“None,” said Black Tomas.
So this is how I repay kindness. With bloodshed.
But then, what other way do I know?
He crouched in the lee of a gnarled oak, a sword sheathed by his side, axe held across his knees, a dead man's armour and cloak on his back, waiting.
A day and a half had passed since he had slain the Duke's messengers, time enough for Uzlin to gather his forces.
The Order of Erattis had begun their preparations, marking out a series of arcane lines in the monastery's courtyard, singing low incantations in a strange, almost inhuman tongue, the melodies by turns sweet, then harsh and atonal. Tomas knew little of magic, and, in truth, like most fighting men, such things left him unsettled and anxious. Yet he trusted the monks – they had saved his life, helped him heal without expectation of reward, sheltered him even when they became aware of his true nature. Still, he was glad to leave the environs of the monastery and move into the woodlands to keep a vigil for Uzlin and his men.
 Perhaps, after all, there are still good men in the world.
And you, Black Tomas, could you be a good man?
He had no answer to that question.
The sound of cracking twigs brought him out of his reverie.
There, off to his left, men were moving through the trees. A widely-spaced advance by the sounds they were making.
 How many?
At least half a dozen. Cautious but hardly stealthy.
He rose and made his way towards them, clinging to the shadows and natural cover that the trees afforded – his time in the North had taught him well, and he scarcely made a sound as he stalked his prey.
 Prey? Aye, think of them as that – as quarry rather than men.
A flash of blue cloth glimpsed through branches and he manoeuvred himself forward a little, squatting down in the cover of a small shrub. When the man drew level, Tomas stood and struck, the axe powering itself into the blue-clad warrior's chest through the quilted armour he wore.
The man died with little more than a grunt. Tomas left him where he fell and moved on to the next. 
He killed the next in the same way, looming out from ambush and taking his head from his shoulders before he had time to understand what was happening.
The third was quicker, bringing up his sword to block the strike and screaming a warning to his comrades. Tomas stepped in close, smashing his forehead into the man's nose, crushing it like a rotten fruit and, as the man staggered back, put the spike of his axe into an exposed throat.
But they had seen him now, quarrels flashed through the humid air and Tomas threw himself to one side, the missiles passing over him.
Close, though, too close.
Then he was on his feet and running, shortening the distance, using the trees as cover. He could hear cursing, barked orders:
“Nail the bastard!”
“He killed Xaxlas!”
“Where is he?”
“Feric! Barnas! Where are you?”
They had clustered together, the way that frightened men will, no more than a few feet between them – swords in their hands now, crossbows thrown at their feet.
Three of them. Only threeSurely the Duke would have sent more?
And then he was in the middle of them, axe flashing to the left and the right. An arm, the sword still clutched in nerveless fingers, flew away into the undergrowth; a torso split, spilling foul-smelling intestines. He was through and on the other side, whirling like a dancer, smiling like a demon.
A single man faced him, his comrades on the ground, pumping their lives out with every heartbeat.
“Please,” he said. “I don't – “
Black Tomas threw the axe. It smashed into the man's face and made a red ruin of it.
He laughed then. For the joy of it. For the strength and power coursing through his limbs. For the knowledge that he was one of Vaulth's chosen....
Cursed and beloved.
And with the knowledge came a fierce soul-sickness, that same revulsion that had, in the end, driven him away from the north, from the crusades and, ultimately, from Vaulth herself.
It took a long while for the nausea and the rage to pass, and when they had he crossed to where the dead men lay and retrieved his axe.
The weapon felt comforting and repellent at the same time.
If I were a stronger man I would never hold it again. 
As he walked out of the treeline, the faint smell of smoke came drifting towards him.
He looked down to the monastery and saw grey tendrils drifting over the walls, saw a group of horses tethered just outside the gate.
It took him a moment to realize what had happened.
 A feint! The men in the trees had been nothing more than a diversion – or a sacrifice.
He ran, covering the distance in what seemed no more than a few heartbeats.
A startled warrior, left to attend the horses, looked up as he approached, fumbling with the lock of his crossbow.
Tomas killed him before he had a chance to aim....
Inside the gate, the courtyard had become a charnel house. 
Brown-robed figures lay on the grass, slumped in the cloisters, staring with sightless eyes. Brother Edric sat against one of the ornate pillars and, at first glance, might have appeared to be asleep but for the quarrel that jutted from his throat.
The sound of harsh laughter, of fragile things being smashed and broken underfoot – warriors looting in the wake of their slaughter. He knew the sound only too well.
 Take me now, Mother Vaulth.
Black Tomas waited for the power of the dark goddess to worm its way into his soul... when it did he fought against it, denying the fury that welled up in him.
Fought against it... and for the first time won the battle.
So it was with utter clarity and icy hate that he stalked the Duke's  men through the rooms and halls of the monastery, killing them one by one.
When it was done, he went down into the vaults.
The copyists lay dead around their lecterns, spilled ink mingling with spilled blood. My Lord Abbot was there too, his throat slit from ear to ear, and the door of the room which held the Liber Tenebris had been wrenched from its hinges, the trace of dark magic still lingering on the twisted metal and shattered wood.
He stepped inside, the axe held ready.
The Duke Uzlin – the portly man in yellow doublet and hose could be none other – stared at him with blank eyes, an idiot's terrified grin upon his face and thick drool dripping from his carmine lips.
In one hand he held the Liber Tenebris, opened to the second or third page – he had read no further before its infernal contents had wiped away his mind.
Tomas reached down and gently took the book from him. The drooling idiot mewed, the sound less than human. Tomas put the spike of the axe against his throat... and then withdrew it.
 NoKilling you would be a mercy, Your Grace, and I do not feel merciful today.
As he closed the book he saw the words written there – arcane gibberish in a language he could not read – and even the sight of them sent a wave of revulsion through him.
He returned to the courtyard. Flames had already begun to belch from the rooms, in a few hours the place would be nothing more than a shell.
“I am sorry,” he said to Brother Edric. “I could not save you.”
 Only avenge you. And what good is vengeance?
He chose a horse from those tethered outside – a piebald mare who looked gentle enough – and cut the rest free. Then he rode down to the little bay where Brother Armin and Brother Derand had found him all those weeks ago.
Weeks? Has it only been weeks?
At the top of the cliff they called Skull Point he wrapped the Tenebris in a square of cloth cut from his cloak and weighed it down with rocks. Then he threw it into the sea as far and hard as he could. The waves rose up, as though even the sea sought to reject this awful thing.
It vanished beneath the water and he watched it sink.
Stay there, he thought, where no man can find you.
By sunset he was miles away, heading south.

©October, 2016 James Lecky

James Lecky is a writer, actor and (occasional) stand-up comedian from Derry, Northern Ireland where he lives with his wife and cat. His short fiction has appeared in a number of publications both online and in print including Beneath Ceaseless SkiesHeroic Fantasy QuarterlyArcane, the anthology Chilling Horror Short Stories and the upcoming Sword and Sorcery anthology from Robot Cowgirl Press, as well as previously in Swords & Sorcery Magazine. You can find his musings on various topics at https://jameslecky.wordpress.com.]]>
<![CDATA["Ephemera" by David Bowles]]>Mon, 28 Nov 2016 22:18:53 GMThttp://swordsandsorcerymagazine.com/archive/ephemera-by-david-bowlesIn the thirty-sixth year of the reign of Emperor Axayacatl, his wife Asako cajoled him into reinstating Tanabata as an imperial holiday. The Star Festival was the perfect time, she suggested, for his subjects to implore the gods for the skills they needed to maintain the glory of the Empire. Such an outpouring of dutiful verse—the traditional conduit of these special prayers—from Tenochtitlan to Kyoto would continue to cement the hegemony of Anahuac and curb any expansion by the Ming.
As fate would have it, the Imperial Poet Macuilxochitzin was summering in Kyoto the month of the festival, staying at the palatial estate of Ahuizotl, her second cousin and younger brother of the emperor. As tlatoani of Kyoto and more broadly shogun of the Nipponese isles, Ahuizotl saw it as his duty to blend his homeland’s cultural sensibilities, toltecayotl, with the more Buddhist notion of wabi-sabi. Therefore he declared that, to conclude the festivities, the aging Mexica princess would engage in a public conversation on poetry with Sogi, beloved itinerant monk and master of the renga form of linked verse. Now in his seventy-fourth year, Sogi had taken up residence at the Shokoku-ji temple, and he expressed cheerful willingness to participate. The whispered apocrypha of official history intimated that the two had clashed decades before, during the Unification, and the people were anxious to witness their reencounter.  
Preparations began a week before the festival, on the very first day of Huey Tecuilhuitl, the eighth solar month. Dew was harvested from taro leaves each morning to create a special ink. Paper merchants prepared the tanzaku strips upon which the people would write their prayer poems. Children made origami stars and cranes. Bamboo trees were trimmed.
All across the Empire of Anahuac, the subjects of Axayacatl considered their prayers carefully, composing onegaikoto in the secret recesses of their hearts, revising those syllables to meet the strictures of the waka form. In Nahuatl, Nihongo, or—in the case of many intellectuals—Guanhua, the language of the Middle Kingdom, poems lay waiting for brush and ink and paper.
The morning of Tanabata arrived. Men, women and children donned colorful garments—kosode, huipil, tilma—and committed their prayers to tanzaku, which they then hung on bamboo or ceiba trees along with the origami figures they had prepared. A million patriotic pleas, spiraling slowly into heaven, pleasing to the gods. The air was redolent with happy piety.
The streets were a riot of color—regional dances, parades, processions of the lovely impersonators of goddesses Xilonen and Cihuacoatl, whose ceremonial month it was. There was music and sport and an abundance of food; none lacked for entertainment with so many jugglers, actors, clowns.
As shadows began to lengthen across Kyoto that afternoon, hundreds were permitted to stream through the gates of the imperial compound to lounge amidst the shogun’s gardens and await the unprecedented encounter.
A raised wooden platform had been erected at the foot of a bridge that spanned a koi-laden brook. Attendants busied themselves upon it, laying out mats and writing material.  Then, with stately fanfare and pomp, the shogun crossed the bridge with an entourage of retainers and attendants, calling out to his people.
“Imperial subjects, welcome. During this Star Festival we celebrate unlikely connections. Tonight the gods Orihime and Hikoboshi, separated the rest of the year by the glowing river of heaven, are reunited at last. So, too, did our two great peoples reach across the vast sea to join together as a single, mighty empire. And now, we bear witness to the very first encounter of our two greatest living poets.”
From gaudy pavilions emerged the two elderly figures, making their stately way to the platform and kneeling upon the mats. Macuilxochitzin spread her jade-green cueitl skirt carefully, her bronze skin contrasting starkly with the white of her blouse and braided hair. She drew a low writing table close and glanced at Sogi, who wore the saffron yellow robe common to Buddhist priests. He winked at her. Narrowing her eyes a bit, she spoke.
“When the Emperor arrived on these isles, he found this city a smoking ruin. Both the shogun and his deputy were dead, but the civil war had spread like wildfire. Lord Axayacatl and his generals had soon pushed the Yamana clan onto the island of Shikoku, where definitive victory was won. I celebrated this feat in a poem twenty years ago. To honor today’s festivities, I have translated part of it for you.”
Drawing a deep breath, she looked down at the characters before her and began to declaim.
Axayacatl, you tore down
The castle of Jizogatake.
Your flowers and your butterflies
Went spiraling through Iyo,
Sanuki, Tosa, and Awa--
Your might gladdened our hearts
Like the songs of our homeland.
Gravely you offered
Flowers and plumes
To the Lord of the Near
And the Nigh.
You laid eagle shields
In God’s hands
In that perilous place,
That burning plain: 
The battlefield.
Like our songs,
Like our flowers,
You gladden the Giver of Life,
O Master of the Sea-Ringed World.
And He who stands
Forever at our side
Is burgeoning
With ocean flowers, fire buds--
Those blossoms of war--
Blissfully intoxicated.
The Mexica princess folded her hands upon her lap. “Everyone knows that my father was Tlacaelel, advisor to three emperors before his death. When the Ming reached our ancestral shores, he understood the moment was divinely ordained, that we must learn from the Middle Kingdom navigation, metallurgy and above all the characters that embody sound. But Tlacaelel saw writing as primarily a tool of statecraft, religion, culture. It was my cousin Nezahualcoyotl, king of Texcoco, who became the true architect of Anahuac poetry, discovering, as had your own forefathers, that written verse has power.”
There was a collective gasp as she lifted her brush and dipped it into the bowl of ink. With quick, supple moves of her wrist that belied her years, Macuilxochitzin flowed lovely characters down the page. An understudy stepped to the platform as she finished, and with a flourish he removed the paperweight and held the poem up for all to see.
The ink quivered upon the paper, glistening and vibrant. Alive. Many whispered the words to each other, partaking in the spread of creative energy.
“Bright Feathered God, / with blossoms you paint us to life— / divine calligraphy.”
Bowing her head slightly, the poet acknowledged the heightened awareness her work had caused. “Inspired by one of my cousin’s most famous poems. The lesson is simple. The Creator has drafted us into existence, his ink that holy substance that underlies the universe: teotl or ki. We manipulate that same teotl with our brushes. It trembles along our limbs, arising from the act of creation, and if we use the right ink, it imbues the characters with divine energy. The gods feed on it as they would a sacrifice, sated by the outpouring of our souls. They are pleased.
“The implications are clear. We believe in the ascendency of Anahuac. We trust that our destiny is manifest in the success of our endeavors. Patriotic verse written in calligraphy cements our nation’s hegemony, and so the proper subject of serious poets is eulogy, the immortalizing of the great, the praise of warriors slain in battle, the eternal renewing of the Empire’s strength. Our example should be Hitomaro, whose devotion to the Empress Jito centuries ago is still unparalleled. Of her, he famously wrote ‘Even mountains and rivers / therefore together serve / our Sovereign as a goddess.’ Let us strive for that same fealty today.”
With a subtle gesture, Macuilxochitzin ceded the floor to Sogi, who gave a single vigorous clap and smiled.
“Well said, my Lady. Your own poetry and the works you cite thrill my heart, stir my love for our magnificent hybrid nation. As you point out, poets of our islands have for centuries known of this power. We uncovered the secret of dew from taro leaves, took the magic beyond what the Middle Kingdom had begun. And, indeed, it has long been our tradition to ensure that our culture endures and spreads.
“Yet, for those who practice Rinzai Zen, our reasons stem from the three marks of existence: its emptiness, its suffering, its impermanence. Life is made rich and poignant precisely because of how fleeting it is. When we accept that we are nothing, that we will suffer, that we will fade away, we discover beauty and meaning in our broken loneliness.”
Sogi closed his eyes, calling up words. “Lord Nezahualcoyotl himself spoke of this hollow, painful intransience:
In vain was I born.
In vain I emerged
From the House of the Sun
To walk this bitter earth
And live a wretched life.
“Yet for all that, the philosopher king told us to rejoice, to sing and drink life to the deepest dregs:
Though the labor be in vain, my friends,
Take pleasure in our song, our song.
Pick up your precious drums and beat!
Shake loose the flowers, spread them well--
Even if they finally wilt!
Quiet laughter greeted this sentiment, and the priest rubbed a spotted hand across his shaven head. “In that respect he reminds me of Ikkyu, the irreverent monk and poet who delighted in shocking us into enlightenment. Once, a man near death who wanted Ikkyu to leave his bedside told him, ‘I came alone and must go alone as well.’ Laughing, the monk replied, ‘Coming and going are delusions, friend. Look—I’ll show you the path upon which nobody comes or goes.’ Everyone talks of heaven, but perhaps we’re already there, yes? Nezahualcoyotl told us ‘It’s not true / that we come to live on earth— / we only come to dream / then we rise from our slumber.’ Ikkyu summed it up thus: ‘You’re the only koan that matters.’ I love that. Look, my brothers and sisters."
Sogi twirled his brush mischievously, then spat into his bowl of ink before dipping it. Fluid motions like a dance, broken abruptly by a jester’s flailing jerk, and his poem was complete. Gently he lifted it, turned it to his audience, recited the lines.
We may realize
that people are merely dreams--
the house abandoned,
its wild garden becomes home
to a swarm of butterflies.
As he said the last word, the characters rearranged themselves on the mulberry paper into inky moths that fluttered from edge to edge, delighting everyone gathered. Even Macuilxochitzin had to smile as the monk pantomimed shooing his animated words back into position.
“As you can see from my colleague’s antics,” she said, suppressing a laugh, “adding a bit of one’s self markedly increases the power of the creation. But what the Nahua bards discovered under my cousin’s tutelage was startling—magic like nothing we had imagined. Give a master poet amatl paper from the Nahua homeland, let her write upon it with Nipponese ink using characters from the Middle Kingdom, and behold!”
She laid a thick sheet of mottled brown paper on her writing table, turned away from the crowd to dribble spit into her ink, and then drew her brush quickly down the page.
“The Kyoto gardens / before the fireworks— / every heart feels peace.”
An amazed, contented sigh rose collectively from those gathered. Sogi himself closed his eyes and grinned, tears dampening his cheeks.
The Mexica princess surged unexpectedly to her feet. “In the right hands, with the right tools, poetry can quite literally move the soul. But that is just the beginning, dear imperial subjects. My ancestors, too, had their secret sorceries. At the dawn of this age, when the newly formed sun struggled to leave the horizon, the Feathered God led all the other deities to bleed themselves in sacrifice, giving movement to that diurnal light. Blood, you see, is concentrated teotl.”
From her skirt, she drew forth a long maguey thorn and pierced the index finger of her right hand. As blood welled, a darker red than anyone could credit, Macuilxochitzin smeared calligraphy down the inside of her left arm, raising it for all to see.
“A thousand orange blossoms / fall upon their heads.”
Materializing from nowhere, mandarin flowers showered down on the crowd. The people, though they had heard of such deeds before, were struck dumb with astonishment, simply stretching out their hands to catch the white petals.
Sogi gathered blooms to his chest with a blissful expression, bent his head to take in their sweet perfume. Wordlessly, the monk stood and stepped down from the platform. Turning to face the shogun, who had been watching from the bridge, he gave a deep bow. Then he began to wander through the garden, searching. He came upon a cherry tree, its green leaves naked of blossoms this late in the summer. On the ground below it was a fallen branch, dried to a brittle brown.
“Look, my friends,” he called, walking back toward the brook. “The fleeting world. Spring comes, flowers, drops to the soil. Summer begins the browning. Autumn brings the gold. Then comes winter, quiet death for all. Yet the greatest magic is imbedded in the world. Ikkyu knew this, and he cautioned those who seek knowledge elsewhere:
Day after day priests pore over Dharma
And endlessly chant their intricate sutras.
Yet before all that nonsense, they should first
Learn to read the love letters sketched
By wind and rain, by snow and moon.
The monk gestured at the water. “Oh, beloved, look on the wonders of this humble, broken world.”
His hand moved so quickly that the characters he sketched upon the surface with that stick could be read before the slow current dragged them away.
“For a moment / the river of heaven / flows among them.”
Sogi drew away with a strange little hop, and the brook leapt from its course, twisting serpentine through the air, rushing toward the crowd and weaving itself among them. Children shouted with delight and splashed each other, but the adults were overcome with awe as they looked upon gilded koi swimming through the air within that miraculous stream.
A minute later, the water had poured itself back within its banks, and the crowd burst into thunderous applause.
Macuilxochitzin descended, approached Sogi, bowed. With a weary shrug of his shoulders, he reached out and drew her to him. She did not resist his embrace.
The shogun returned to the platform, lifting his arms in a call for attention. “Beautiful and enlightening! Yes, we are short-lived. That is why our prayers, our poetry, have such worth, such power. Brother Sogi and Princess Machuilxochitzin have shared different facets of a single truth with you. Life is fleeting. Enjoy what you can. But contribute whatever magic you receive from the gods to the things that last longer, the things you love, the things that you would leave to others. Family. Culture. Empire. Now, go, residents of Kyoto. Night will soon be upon us, and there are still many more festivities to be cherished before Tanabata concludes!”
At his command, the crowd dispersed, taking with them stories that would live for generations. The poets tarried by the brook for a time and then retired in silence to their pavilions.
Gradually the skies darkened over the city, revealing the glittering stars and the true River of Heaven, milky and bright, low on the horizon.
People gradually made their way into the hills. Special teams of pyrotechnicians—trained by experts from the Middle Kingdom, where the art had been perfected—launched a spectacular show over the roofs of the city. Fireworks danced fleetingly in the sky, leaving smoky traceries that were wisped away by gentle breezes.
Those gathered near Shokoku-ji temple noticed the two elderly poets standing together, looking up at the display, leaning heads together, whispering.  Any apparent tension between them had dissolved as the evening wore on.
After the fireworks, most throngs disbanded as folk went home for more intimate companionship and sleep after the draining, joyful day. But the most pious, penitent and poetic drifted to the temple steps, their amatl tanzaku strips in hand.
The full moon silvered the swaying bamboo as the head of the temple lit a bonfire in the courtyard. In small groups, people approached and tossed their poems on the flames, watching ash and charred bits of paper spiraling toward the heavens.
Finally Sogi and Macuilxochitzin approached with their own onegaikoto. Rather than drop them on those lambent tongues of flame, they dipped the amatl sheets into the fire and turned away, the poems alight in their hands.
Together, in an elegant, elaborate dance, they wrote upon the empty air with burning paper. Characters hung suspended like red-orange afterimages, retaining their shape for the space of several heartbeats.
Flickers of flame
we twist briefly on the wind
yearning to be stars.
Take us in your hands, O gods--
create a galaxy.
Then, as the poets stood hand-in-hand at the heart of the temple, their poem dissolved into sparks that drifted up into the night, losing themselves in the River of Heaven that flows from Kyoto to Tenochtitlan and on into eternity.

©October 2016 David Bowles

David Bowles is a Mexican-American author from south Texas, where he teaches at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. He has received awards from the American Library Association, Texas Institute of Letters and Texas Associated Press. He is the author of  the Pura Belpré Honor Book The Smoking Mirror. Additionally, his work has been published in venues including RattleStrange HorizonsApex MagazineMetamorphosesTranslation Review, the Langdon Review of the Arts in TexasHuizacheConcho River ReviewEye to the TelescopeAsymptote and BorderSenses.]]>
<![CDATA["The Scroll of Jadugara" by Jeffery A. Sergent]]>Sun, 30 Oct 2016 17:28:48 GMThttp://swordsandsorcerymagazine.com/archive/the-scroll-of-jadugara-by-jeffery-a-sergentThe bottom level, the ninth, was nothing more than a circular floor about thirty feet in diameter.  The stairs led upward and away from the deep-set chamber in an ever-widening spiral which was lost in the darkness, and at each of the eight levels above, a wheel-shaped room contained a multitude of shelves filled with uncounted scrolls and tomes, untouched for ages.  The further one journeyed down the spiral, the smaller the size of each chamber, but the rarer the items it held.  Consequently, the more dangerous the descent for someone who wasn’t supposed to be there.
Jade had discovered several traps thus far, nothing to brag about in terms of disarming, but this last one was a challenge.  This was the real test.  Not only was it nine times as difficult to decipher – once she had found it – but it was more challenging than any trap she’d ever encountered before.  This made Jade happy.  Just because it was more challenging didn’t make it unsolvable.  It simply demanded more patience and more skill, and she appreciated that.
The light of her torches danced within the pale green of her almond-shaped eyes as she studied her handiwork.  Pleased, she shook back her raven hair and stretched out on her stomach to guide a wire-thin prong into the slot at the edge of the dais.  Three others of varying size and shape already protruded from the narrow opening, along with one of her best daggers.  Certainly, the tip could break, but it was a risk worth taking.  At the center of the dais stood a pedestal.  Upon that pedestal rested the Scroll of Jadugara, the object of her quest.
Something clicked.
“Got you, you sahte.”  The scroll was as good as hers.  She stood, stretching her back, rolling her neck from side to side.  Her bare arms and midriff were feeling the chill of the depth now.  The torches – one sconced by the stairwell, one laying near her tools – provided enough light but little to no heat.
No matter.  She’d soon be on her way.  “And taking care of business,” she whispered – not because anyone was around but because she was in a library.  When her mother had taken her to the libraries in her father’s halls leagues and years away in the windswept lands of the north, she had impressed upon Jade the need for silence, despite what one may be doing there.  It seemed that in the Eastern Empire, learning was more respected.  But none of that mattered now.  Her home was gone, and her family exiled to the Middle Kingdoms where everything was . . . different.   She felt she couldn’t learn or do anything.  Wherever she lived, she was constantly reminded she was the one who was different.  A perfect mixture of East and North, but an imperfect fit anywhere.
  Circling around and back, she examined the scroll and its pedestal.  The parchment had aged to the point of looking burnt.  Strangely, no dust lay upon it.  The pedestal was actually part of the dais.  Kneeling before it, she ran a hand lightly – oh, so lightly – across the smooth surface.  Satisfied, she stood.  She thought the lambent glow in the air had been playing tricks at first, but she had seen true.  A soft, golden glow surrounded the scroll.  This she studied until she was certain the glow emanated from the item, not from around or beneath it.
Magic, without a doubt.  But could she touch it?  As she pondered, she fingered the gem attached meticulously to the wide leather choker about her neck.  At first glance the stone would seem gray or white or streaked with both.  What the keen observer would note was that the colors and patterns swirled deeply within it.
“What to do?  What to do?”
She unsheathed another dagger and lightly touched the scroll with its pommel.  Nothing.  “Time to go then.”  She slowly moved her hand toward it, and as her fingers entered the golden glow, they tingled pleasantly.  She paused to see if anything more would happen.
One breath.
She gently took hold of the ancient parchment, using only the tips of her gloved fingers; even as she did so, a deep, booming laughter filled the room.  It echoed through each floor, rising to the ceiling somewhere far above.  She snatched her hand back and launched herself to the edge of the dais, cursing with every breath.  She hated magic – hated it!
Blowing a strand of hair from her eyes, she poised on the balls of her feet and waited, hands gripping the hilts of the short swords freed from the scabbards strapped to her back – waiting for the guards that must surely come.  Had she missed something?  A trap?  A pressure plate?  She swore again but had already begun to plan her escape.  She would engage, fully commit them to the fight, then flee.  “Keep it simple,” she whispered.  “Simple usually works.”  It was one her father’s favorite aphorisms, and one she’d found to be true.
Well, most of the time.
As the laughter trailed away, however, something a thousand times worse than guards began to appear.
Dread weighed in her stomach like a stone.  “Oh gods.”
Columns of pitch black smoke spewed from each end of the scroll; instead of rising like smoke ought to have behaved, however, the columns blew toward the front of the pedestal, entwining together like coils of thick rope – like coils of hard muscle – coalescing into a vague shape – becoming solid.  Then it was gone, dissipated as if by a wind Jade hadn’t felt, and in its place stood a creature, nearly seven feet tall, the skin of its corded, hairless body black as obsidian.  It was a handsome thing, even with the pointed ears and needle sharp teeth showing through its hideous grin.  All of this she had noted in the span of few heartbeats.  In the next, she attacked.
She pounced, slicing it twice across the chest.  Just as quickly, she had bounded away, blades poised to strike when it retaliated.  But it didn’t.  The beast looked down at the trails of black fluid steaming from its chest, then as its eyes fell upon her, it laughed that booming laugh that had heralded its coming.
Jade grimaced.  That she had not expected.   She didn’t dwell on it, however; she had her next attack already planned.  If it was like any other male, it would do anything to protect the family jewels – or treasury in this case – but that would merely be a feint of course, while the other blade would be slipping into its lung before it could realize what was what.
“Feisty,” it said in a melodic baritone, grinning even more.  She definitely hadn’t expect that – monsters should have harsh, ugly voices.  “I’m going to enjoy feasting on . . .”  It sniffed the air.  “Your . . .” It inhaled deeply. “Your scent. ”  The monster strode toward her, growing excited.  “I can smell your soul.”
She cursed herself for not attacking already.  What a fool!
She tried her maneuver, but it casually turned aside as if Jade had been moving in slow motion – her thrust aimed at its lung missed completely.  She tumbled off the dais, rolled to her feet, swords pointed at the beast.  Her eyes, however, never ceased searching for an escape route.  She wished it’d been four or five guards.  Six or seven even.  They would have learned to fear her by now.
The creature simply grinned – did it have any other expression? – and licked its lips.  “Jadugara has out done himself this time.”  And that nearly knocked her off her feet.
As the monster reared up, Jade waved her sword at it like a finger.  “Hold on a second.”  The other sword, she kept ready just in case.  “Did you say ‘Jadugara?’”
“Yes.”  The monster puffed its chest, blowing smoke from its nostrils.  It inhaled deeply through its nose.  “What is it about you, female?  Your spirit excites me, but I can smell your soul while you yet live.”  He raised a taloned hand as if meaning to swat away an annoying insect.
Jade hopped back.  “This Jadugara, he’s a wizard, right?  Scraggly beard?  Bald?  Needs a manicure?”
“Yes,” the demon said, lowering its hand.  A chuckled rumbled in his chest.
“Lives here in this city?”
“I suppose.”  The words sounded like water hitting wet coals.  “He did so when he summoned and bound me to this scroll, though it was not even a city then.”
“Son of a herif,” she whispered, then looked up at the creature.  “Can I ask you a few questions before we finish this?”
The demon stared at her several heartbeats through squinted eyes.  Then, throwing back his head, it laughed louder and longer than before.  “I like you, little one.  You are making this feast so much more enjoyable than the usual cowards he sends.  They usually fall whimpering before me, pissing their pants, and begging for their lives.”  He chuckled once more.  “You may ask, but not too many mind you, I haven’t eaten in a many moons.”
She bowed.  “Thank you, oh gracious demon.”
“Please refrain from using that – vulgar expression.”
“What shall I call you then?”
“You could try my name.”  He crossed his arms across his massive chest.  “I am called Shentani.”
Jade’s eyes widened. 
“Oh, do not get any ideas,” the demon said.  “You cannot gain control of me with it.  It is but one of my nine names, but it is not that name.  The ninth is the one which holds power over us, despite our own great power.”
“And that’s what Jadugara did to you?”
He glared at her.  “Yes, little one.  I was cocky and stupid.  The wizard drugged me with virginal souls.  It dulled my senses and my wits.  I should have known better than coming to this world.  But I did what I did, and he did what he did.  Now I am bound to the scroll, from which he drains my power for himself.”
“So, he is only more powerful than the other wizards because of your power?”
“That is so.”
“How long have you been kept here?”
“By your reckoning, centuries.”
“So this library is his, and he sent me here for you to eat?”
“Yes.”  His chuckle was like a rumble.  “That is the ruse he has been using all this time.  He sends a mortal here with the promise of vast treasure or reward.  I eat them.  If I am not nourished on this plane, I weaken.”
 “And when you weaken, he weakens.”  It all made perfect sense now.  She paced back and forth then kicked at a small piece of debris.  “Curse me for a fool.”
“Yes,” the demon said.  “You are cursed.  What did he offer you?”
 “He promised to return my soul to my body.”  She touched the stone at her neck.  “It’s been stuck in this bloody thing.”
“Ah,” the demon said excitedly.  “A soul-stone!  That is what I’ve been smelling.  I’m sorry this did not work out better for you, little one.  I believe I could like you, but honestly, I cannot wait to eat you.  And your soul.”  He seemed to drool as he stared at the stone.
She waved her sword like her hand.  “Okay, wait.  Let me ask you one more thing before supper starts.”
His brows furrowed.  “Yes, but only because I like you.  And do be mindful that I must soon return to the scroll.”
“You’re on a time limit?”
“Yes.  Mere heartbeats by my measure.”
She humphed.  “Wouldn’t you rather be free all the time?”
The creature laughed.  “Of course, little one, but until I am summoned by name in front of him, I cannot harm him.  He knows to keep me away.  That is why I am here, and my meals are sent to me.”  A frowned formed across his needle teeth.  “Unfortunately, little one, I must feast now.  If you would do the honor of giving me your name, I will remember you for as long as I am bound to these scrolls.  Maybe longer.”
She assumed a fighting stance, not looking forward to see how she was going to fare with this foe.  “Jade,” she said.  “Daughter of Stephen Harrowden, Warden of the North, and the Lady Kwan Yin.”
“An unusual genealogy for an unusual mortal.”  It actually smiled this time.  “I like it.”
She had to stall it long enough to figure things out.  “My father ruled as Baron in the Northlands, while my mother hails from the Eastern Empire.  He won her as a prize on some sort of crusade, but they fell in love.  And . . . well, here I am.”
“Remarkable,” Shentani said.  “A child of two worlds who walks yet in a third.  How came you to this one?”
“My father was betrayed by one of his kinsmen.  We fled south and ended up here.  And I’ve just been wandering, trying to fill in the gaps of what my tutors had told me about the world.”
“And have you succeeded?”
“Enough to know that the world can be as harsh as it is beautiful and that some people can be real pooh-du.”
He laughed long and loud.  “That describes much of my realm as well.  But tell me one last thing.  How came your soul to be separated from you?”
“A wizard.”
“Never trust wizards.”
“Oh, I’m seeing that more and more.”  She laughed with him.  It seemed odd to be doing it, but it felt good.  She then positioned herself to strike or dodge, whichever proved most prudent in the next few seconds.  But she supposed it wouldn’t hurt trying to buy just a little more time.  “What about you?  Don’t you get bored being in a scroll?”
“Yes and no.  I do mathematical equations, consider philosophical problems.   I have composed two poems of epic length, but . . .”
Jade shook her head.  “Yeah.  It’s painful not to be able to share them with anyone.”
“Yes.”  Sorrow tinged his voice.
“You’re not how I pictured a demon at all.  I expected something less sophisticated and something more . . . well, evil.”
“We of the Nguvu are beyond human conceptions of good and evil and a mere glimpse of our world would sear your mortal brain, but . . . that’s of no consequence.  I must feed.”  It rose to its full height, its face becoming the monster Jade had first encountered.
The creature swatted with one hand, and as Jade lunged aside, attempted to grab her with the other.  She rolled behind it and drove her sword toward its lower back.  It twisted easily away: it was simply too big, too quick, and too smart.  For the first time in her life, Jade was unsure about her chances of escaping.
She needed time.  Time to think.  Time to plan.   And she could think of only one thing that might buy her that time:  “Let me free you!” she shouted.   Her breath came in puffs as she prepared to dodge and attack again if this didn’t work.  And then she would probably die.  “I can free you.”
The Nguvu hesitated, lowered its arm.  “How?”
“Let’s make a bargain – isn’t that what your people do?”
“What do you have to offer?”
She paced back and forth, wracking her brain.  Finally, she shrugged.  “All I got is me.”
“You are comely, but I am afraid you would not survive the experience.”
“My services,” she said, but thanked all the gods her father worshiped, all the ancients of her mother’s people, and the thousand myriad gods to whom the people of the Middle Kingdoms bowed because that was not even one option she would consider.  Maybe.  “I will take the scroll to Jadugara, and you will force him to release you.”
“It is not that simple.  I can do nothing unless summoned, and he, I do not think, would choose to do so.”
Jade straightened and lowered her weapons as an idea came to her.  It would be her last ploy.  It was all she had left.  “I could.”
Shentani’s eyes widened.  “But you do not know my dokuz name.”
“Tell me.”  She was nearly giddy with excitement as the idea formed.  “I will take the scroll and summon you before him.  You zap him or whatever.  We go our separate ways.”
“Should I give you my name, you would hold power over me once the wizard is slain.”
“I’ll tell you to go home.”  This had to work.  If not, she was dead – or worse than dead.  “Promise.”
Shetani smiled.  “It is not that I do not trust you, Jade of North and East – I have not had the best experiences with your people.  What assurance can you give me that you will set me free?”
She had only one item that the Nguvu would find worthy of a bargain.  She unclasped the necklace and held it toward him.  The soul-stone sparkled in the flickering lights of the library.  “I have this.”
Its eyes widened as if of all things, this would be the most impossible to occur.  “Intriguing,” it mused, rubbing at its sharp chin.
“You hold my soul.  Once I summon you, avenge yourself.  Return my soul, and then I will free you.  Or vice versa.  Doesn’t matter to me.”
“You are very brave, and very trusting with such a precious object.”
“To tell you the truth, I’ve never been sure that it was actually in there until now.  I’ve learned something, so I’m good with that.  Plus, I don’t want to get eaten.”
The demon’s laughter shook the walls of the room.
“I like you, little one.”  He took her soul.  “I accept your bargain.”
Jadugara was waiting for her. 
It could have been the shouts of his guards as they had died.  It could have been the death-screams of the jackal in the previous room.  It could have been something magical.  It didn’t matter in the end.  She stood before him, blood dripping from her two blades.  Her sweat-drenched hair clinging to her face.  Her left sleeve ripped off below the shoulder.
“You survived?”  At least he wasn’t playing coy.  That really would have rubbed her the wrong way.  In reply, she held out the scroll.
He did not act shocked or surprised.  “You cannot destroy what my magic has created.”  A smug smile crawled across his lips.  “Harm me and you will never get your soul back.”  He stepped toward her.  “However, I suppose you deserve something.  Hand me the scroll, and I’ll work the spell to return you your soul.  What say you?”
“Sorry, wizard, but for some odd reason, I just don’t trust you.”
“Do you think to coerce me with threats?  You cannot harm me.”
Jade smiled.  “Oh, I don’t plan on it.”  Then she spoke the name.  Three syllables.  The softness of the sound made it seem like a whisper and a hiss at the same time, but its power could not be denied.  Once spoken, all reality seemed to tremble then smoke began to pour from the ends of the scroll.  Jadugara cowed in fear.  He stumbled back and collapsed onto a divan.
The smoke coalesced into Shentani.   The wizard whimpered as the Nguvu loomed over him.  Jadugara raised an arm in a feeble attempt to ward the creature off then began pleading for his life, offering wild bargains, but all in vain.
“Know this, wizard,” the demon said, “once I’ve devoured your soul, you will suffer nine times nine thousand years before I will allow you to die.”  It spoke not another word or waited for any kind of response but casually pushed its hand into Jadugara’s chest.  Jade cringed but could not help but watch.   Instead of the bloody organ she expected, Shentani pulled a milky wisp from within the body, a ghostly reflection of the wizard himself.  The shadow’s scream echoed as if miles away, and it squirmed as the Nguvu leered at it.  Then its jaw opened wide, much wider than it should have been able to do, as it shoved the shadow and its own fist into his mouth.
Afterward, it stood as one savoring a fine morsel, the delicacy of a lifetime, and let out a deep growl of delight.  Its jaw dropped once more and a long deep brown, sinuous tongue slithered from its mouth and around the wizard’s unmoving body, which stared wide-eyed into nothing, and pulled the lifeless husk slowly into the cavernous maw.  The Nguvu had to toss its head back, bird-like, several times to get it down.  Its neck bulged and convulsed grotesquely as the body passed into the broad chest and was gone.  Jade watched fascinated and shuddered to think that could have happened to her.  Still could, she feared.
The eyes hungered when they turned upon her.  She held the scroll out to remind him of his bounds.  “We had a bargain,” the Nguvu said, pulling her soul-stone from nowhere.
“We did,” Jade said more calmly than she felt.  “And I intend to honor it.  I said your name which gives me power over you.  With that power, I release you from the scroll.  Return to your home.”
Shentani took a deep breath, every muscle tensing with relief.  The light of the scroll dimmed then faded.  All that was left was crumbling, brittle parchment which drifted to the ground.
“You would make an excellent Nguvu,” he said, handing her the soul-stone.  “Our bargain is fulfilled.”
Jade reached tentatively for the stone.  It could still choose to change the terms of the bargain.  And then what?  What could she do?  Go down fighting.  Die.  Suffer for eternity.  Not very pleasing prospects.
As she was lost in thought, the demon clutched her trembling hand.  She gasped.  Its powerful, taloned hand dwarfed hers, yet it was surprisingly silky and radiated warmth.  It smiled its needle-teeth smile and gently placed the soul-stone in her palm.
“Take care of this stone,” it said.  “What is inside is more precious than all this world.”
“I will,” she whispered.
“Goodbye, little one.”
She waved.
The Nguvu tossed its head back and laughed until the floors vibrated.  The next instance it was gone.  No smoke.  No flash of light.  Just gone.  Jade was sort of disappointed.
As she turned to leave, she wondered if Shentani had had the power to restore her soul.  She could call him back.  She did know the name . . . but better to not press her luck.
Oh, well.  Maybe sometime she’d use it.  If she ever got too desperate.

©September, 2016 Jeffery A. Sergent

Jeffery A. Sergent is a high school teacher in southeastern Kentucky and a lifelong fantasy fan. He sponsors. edits and contributes to his schools fantasy fanzine Fantasm. His work has appeared in Alienskin and previously in Swords & Sorcery Magazine. He has also written a novel, Absent, and is a regular contributor to Nerdbloggers.com.
<![CDATA["Bluffing at Farbridge" by Jason A. Holt]]>Sun, 30 Oct 2016 17:26:32 GMThttp://swordsandsorcerymagazine.com/archive/bluffing-at-farbridge-by-jason-a-holtThe Shatterstone Horn had been stolen, and Higomu had orders to get it back.
There are only two ways to escape from the Redwood Valley with a stolen artifact. One can either board a boat and leave by sea, or one can take the Klindrel Road and cross the mountains. The rest of Higomu's secret society was watching the harbor, but Higomu was the only one watching the road.
He hoped the thief had chosen the road.
Higomu's story was simple. He was a linen merchant carrying samples to the Klindrel. Being alone--and fearing banditry--he was waiting at the Farbridge Inn for a caravan to form.
The story gave him an excuse to speak with any traveler passing through town. And it gave him an excuse to sit around playing thirty-five with the innkeepers and their daughter. Higomu made certain to sit where he could watch the bridge.
For three days, the town saw only local traffic. The only other traveler at the inn was a giant waiting for someone to hire him as a caravan guard. On the fourth day, Higomu began to worry.
"You seem pensive this evening," observed Mimi, the innkeepers' daughter.
"I have been waiting longer than I expected," Higomu said. He felt certain he had reached Farbridge ahead of the thief, but four days ahead? Higomu suspected the thief had chosen to leave by sea. But in that case, the message giving him this assignment should have been closely followed by a message that the thief had been caught.
"I, too, have been waiting longer than expected," said Mimi.
"What? Oh. Yes." It was Higomu's turn to play.
He took a tile from his hand and placed it face down atop the stack in the center of the table.
"Twenty-nine," he declared.
"Twenty-nine," Mimi echoed, with a great deal of skepticism. "Higomu, do you realize this is the third time you have claimed to play tile twenty-nine?"
"In truth?" he asked.
It was so, but she hadn't called his bluff earlier, so she could not know if he had played the tile then or if he had kept it to play now.
"In truth," she said.
She studied his face, but it would do her no good. The psychology of the game was not her strength. She was sharp at logic, however, and Higomu could see her chasing down the possibilities:
If she accepted his twenty-nine, she would have to play her thirty-four. Then he would play his thirty-five and she would lose. So her only hope of winning was to call his bluff this time. But he knew that, of course. Which meant--
A wagon was approaching the Farbridge.
"Excuse me," he said.
Mimi glanced out the window. "Of course," she said.
As he rose to leave, she said, "I'm calling your twenty-nine."
Higomu nodded in acknowledgment. He had won the game with his first bluff. It was too late for her to affect the outcome now. Higomu left the inn.
The merchant at the bridge had four Klindrel guards--black-bearded giants twice as tall as Higomu. The wagon was Klindrel-sized, drawn by oxen instead of the manageable draft sheep that were favored in the Redwood Valley. The merchant himself seemed small by comparison, though he and Higomu were nearly the same size.
"Good day," said Higomu, interrupting the merchant's conversation with the tolltaker. "May the wisdom of the Goddess be upon you."
The merchant gave him one nervous glance, then pretended to ignore him. The giants placed their hands on the hilts of their swords.
Higomu smiled, reached into his leather satchel, and withdrew a handkerchief. See? He was just a little merchant carrying samples of linen. His satchel held no weapons.
In truth, his blade was snug against his belly, concealed by the excess cloth of his chiton blousing over his belt. But Higomu doubted these people would give him cause to draw his deathblade.
Although the giants' faces remained suspicious, their shoulders relaxed.
"I was wondering," Higomu called, "if I might prevail upon you--"
The merchant urged his oxen forward, and the wheels started rolling. The giants kept pace. Taking their cue from their employer, three of the giants ignored Higomu, but one continued to glance back suspiciously as the wagon rumbled across the bridge that spanned the Redwood River.
Higomu allowed his shoulders to slump. For the benefit of any townspeople who might be watching, he let his disappointed gaze linger a moment on the departing wagon. Then he approached the tolltaker.
"It seems he has no time to speak with me," Higomu observed.
The tolltaker cast a suspicious glance at the wagon. "Trust me, you do not wish to travel with him."
"But he seems well guarded."
"His motives are well guarded, too," said the tolltaker. "In a hurry to cross the bridge? With evening coming on? Either he deeply enjoys setting up camp in the dark, or he has something on that wagon that he fears to have sitting in town overnight."
"Ah," said Higomu. "Now I see what you mean."
He watched the wagon finish crossing. It turned upstream to follow the Klindrel Road.
"Thank you for your concern," Higomu said. He offered the man the handkerchief. "Please enjoy this sample of Long Creek linen."
* * *
Mimi had conceded the game and set up the tiles for a rematch, but the giant who was waiting to become a caravan guard had returned from his afternoon walk. He kept Mimi busy fetching him food and drink. Higomu played one game against her mother and one against her father. Then he excused himself and went to his room early.
Once the town was asleep, he climbed out the window and crossed the Farbridge.
Fog clung to the river, but Higomu had no trouble finding the merchant's campsite. The smell of the campfire remained long after the flames had been doused.
Higomu wondered how many guards would be assigned to each watch. It was wisest to expect all four.
He had left his sandals in his room, so his barefoot approach was silent. His chiton was whiter than he would have liked, but it still blended into the fog. His biggest concern was that he might bump into a giant while searching for the wagon.
Higomu was startled by a noisy huff.
City boy, he chided himself. You forgot about the oxen.
As he drew nearer, he could hear the beasts grunting and chewing noisily. They were loud enough to cover any noise he might make.
But where to find the wagon?
The merchant is nervous. He does not wish to encounter anyone. The wagon must be taken off the road, even though it's dark. The wagon is hidden. Then the oxen are unhitched. The oxen are probably led forward and picketed some distance away.
If that were all true, Higomu deduced, then the wagon would be hidden behind the screen of osiers he had just passed. If so, then the guards would be there, too. And perhaps even the merchant himself.
Higomu crept into the forest and made his way back toward the osiers ... very slowly.
After a time, he heard a soft snuffling--the troubled sleep of a dishonest merchant.
Higomu had hoped to search the wagon, find the Shatterstone Horn, and escape back to civilization before anyone knew the artifact was missing. But now he knew where the merchant must be sleeping. He knew where the artifact must be hidden. And he realized that he either had to kill five people in the dark or creep underneath the wagon and wait for dawn.
* * *
It was devotion to the Goddess of Knowledge that had led Higomu to his career of ensuring dangerous artifacts did not fall into the wrong hands. Now, waiting for dawn while lying in damp moss as dew accumulated on his thin linen chiton, Higomu considered that he might have instead shown his devotion by becoming a theologian.
Gradually, light crept into the forest and illuminated the boots of the giants standing guard at each corner of the wagon. These Klindrel were disciplined men. They had not spoken a word all night, and only occasionally had they shuffled their feet.
Finally, the sleeping merchant awoke and conferred with the leader of the guards. Their voices were quiet, respecting the stillness of the morning, but not tense. Plainly, the merchant was relieved to have survived the night undiscovered.
The merchant went to do what all men must do upon waking. Two of the guards were sent to fetch the oxen. Higomu recognized this as his best chance.
Though the wagon was giant-sized, its seat was easily accessible by a ladder built for Higomu-sized people. He climbed up.
The seat was warm, for that was where the merchant had slept. As Higomu had suspected, the seat was hinged--it was the lid of a storage box. Higomu raised the lid, reached inside, and withdrew a cedarwood case with silver-painted carvings. The symbols for motion and earth were featured in the design.
The two remaining guards had not yet noticed Higomu. He had the Shatterstone Horn's container, but did he have the horn? Higomu released the hasp and opened the beautiful cedarwood case.
It was empty.
"Hey!" shouted the merchant. "Stop him!"
The two guards looked to Higomu in surprise.
Higomu dropped the case, leapt from the wagon, and charged at the merchant.
The man's eyes widened in alarm and he tried to step away.
The merchant was no fighter. Higomu caught him in the middle and drove him to the ground. Before the merchant could recover his wits, Higomu had his deathblade against the man's throat.
"Where is it?" Higomu asked. "Where's the Shatterstone Horn?"
"It's not in the case?" the man asked.
"The case is empty," Higomu said.
"Then I don't have it."
Higomu searched for truth in the man's frightened eyes.
"I was hired to transport the case," the man said.
"An empty case?"
"That's none of my business," said the merchant.
The merchant was a better bluffer than Mimi. Higomu would get no more information under these circumstances.
By this time, the other two guards had returned and all four had drawn their swords. However, with his blade against the merchant's throat, Higomu still held the advantage.
"Tell your men to back off," Higomu said.
The merchant gave the order in the Klindrel tongue. The guards' leader gave a reply that sounded very much like the Klindrel word for "kill".
The giants charged. So much for that advantage.
Higomu sheathed his blade and stepped away from the frightened merchant. The four giants had good angles of attack. They would not get in each other's way. Their strengths were teamwork, training, and discipline. That meant their weakness was the unexpected.
Higomu leapt sideways to a tree, wedged his toes in a fissure in the bark, and launched himself upward to an overhanging branch. He swung his body toward the nearest giant, released the branch, tucked into a reverse somersault, and snap-kicked the giant in the jaw.
The giant went down.
Higomu landed in a mass of dewy bracken and sprinted away through the forest.
It took the Klindrel a moment to react, which gave Higomu a good head start. He could probably win a race back to town, but it would be easier if he could convince them to give up the chase.
Higomu reached inside his chiton, untied a slipknot, and withdrew his climbing cord. Behind him, the giants thrashed through the undergrowth, but he was far enough ahead to be out of their sight.
He lashed one end of the cord to a young fir, then ran around a tree on the opposite side of the trail and dived into a clump of ferns. The lead giant came pounding along the same path. As the giant drew near, Higomu yanked the cord taut.
The giant tripped on the cord and fell flat. His sword bounced loose from his outstretched hand.
Higomu seized the sword, bounded onto the giant's back, and drove the sword straight down through the loose cloth of the giant's tunic, burying the blade to the hilt in the mossy forest floor.
The giant tried to rise and discovered his clothing was pinned to the earth. As he roared in frustration, Higomu sprinted away.
When Higomu neared the road, he slowed to reassess the situation. He heard their angry voices, but they were no longer in pursuit.
Good. Higomu's people sometimes disparaged the intelligence of the Klindrel, but these men had proven themselves wise enough to take the hint. They would not force him to kill them. Higomu thanked the Goddess of Knowledge for her mercy.
* * *
By the time he reached the Farbridge, Higomu had reasoned out why the blade-to-employer's-throat trick had failed:
The merchant was not the employer. He had not hired the Klindrel guards. They had hired him.
The merchant had been truthful when he'd said the contents of the box were none of his business. He was not the thief. Nor was he the courier. The merchant was a decoy, and Higomu had just exposed himself.
To whom?
If the Klindrel had employed the merchant that implied that this was a Klindrel plot. Perhaps the Klindrel had not performed the theft, but they must be the ones who hoped to benefit.
The hypothesis had logic. The giants were constantly at war with each other. The Shatterstone Horn could be a formidable weapon. It was logical they should wish to possess it. Once they had time to examine it, perhaps they would even discover how to make more. That was the outcome that Higomu was sworn to prevent, whatever the cost.
And so he had left the inn at night to chase a decoy. The subtlety of the plan surprised him. Higomu appreciated how difficult it was to manage a clandestine operation in another people's territory. He, at least, could visit the Klindrel as a linen merchant. But the Klindrel had so few merchants of their own that any giant playing that role would be the object of scrutiny. The only Klindrel who could move about the Redwood Valley unremarked were the caravan guards.
Such as the inn's other lodger.
Higomu finished crossing the bridge with his gaze fixed on the inn. Mimi emerged from the stable leading the giant's horse. No caravan was forming, but it seemed the giant was now ready to ride.
Higomu approached the toll booth.
"I ... bid you good morning," said the tolltaker, not sure what to say to a man who was returning to town without having officially left.
"Likewise," Higomu said, paying the toll both ways.
The giant appeared in the doorway of the inn, carrying a bundle about the size of the cedarwood case. Higomu understood, now.
The giant had gone to meet the wagon while Higomu and Mimi were playing thirty-five. His compatriots had given him the artifact and then proceeded to the bridge that Higomu had watched so carefully. They had drawn Higomu away, and now it was time for the giant to make his escape.
On horseback, he would be uncatchable. Higomu's people were trying to breed sheep-sized horses so that they could ride as giants did, but Higomu did not know how to ride a horse of any size. Or rather--he was certain he could ride one, but he had no idea how he would convince it to go where he wanted. This was his people's last chance to keep the Shatterstone Horn in the Redwood Valley.
"Whatever happens," he told the tolltaker, "don't let the giant cross."
"He paid before breakfast," the tolltaker said, and Higomu knew there was no sense talking to him.
Mimi spotted Higomu now. She waved and called, "Out for an early walk this morning?"
The woman was oblivious.
But the giant was not. He untied his bundle and dropped the canvas in the street, revealing the Shatterstone Horn.
The artifact was a brass cylinder with a curious twist in the middle. The giant cradled it in his arm so that one wide mouth of the cylinder opened up toward his chin and the other end pointed forward--toward Higomu.
Without dramatic preamble or explanation, the giant strode to his horse and drew from his saddlebag a round, stone ball as big as Higomu's head. He dropped the massive thing into the top opening of the horn.
The stone clanked into the bend of the cylinder. The artifact emitted the dull crack of splitting stone. Then a dozen sharp projectiles were flying toward Higomu, screaming as they hurtled through the air.
But Higomu had been well briefed on the Shatterstone Horn. He was already diving for cover behind the toll booth.
Stone struck oak and splinters flew. Granite fragments spiraled through the air and splashed into the river beyond.
The tolltaker gave a small sigh and collapsed onto the cobbles, bleeding from a stump of an arm. The rest of the shredded limb lay on the ground behind him.
Higomu noted the holes in the tollbooth, right above his head. The tollbooth's boards would screen him from view, but they were not stout enough to protect him from the weapon. He dashed for the corner of the nearest house.
A second stone clanked into the tube. The stone shattered. Fragments whistled through the air, but Higomu was behind the building when they struck. They embedded themselves in the daub-and-wattle wall.
"Little man," the giant called. "Show yourself, little man."
His accent was strong, but the words were clear enough. Even so, Higomu chose not to comply.
"Show yourself and step aside," the Klindrel said. "Step aside and I will not harm you."
Higomu looked back at the perforated toll booth and the spurting wound of the tolltaker. Under the circumstances, he was not inclined to believe this giant.
"Little man," the giant called, "show yourself or I will shred the girl."
Mimi. She must still be standing with the horse.
"Come here," the giant said. He was not speaking to Higomu now. "Walk in front of me."
Higomu peeked around the corner. The giant was arranging his reins so that he could hold them and the artifact in the same hand, while controlling his third stone in his other hand.
His third stone? Higomu suspected it was his last. That was why he was negotiating. He had one body-shredding shot left, and he wished to use that threat wisely.
"I see you," the giant told him. "But my aim does not leave her back."
To Mimi, the giant added, "Keep walking. We cross the bridge now."
With a sigh, Higomu stood up and leaned against the corner of the building. "Very well," he said. "You win."
The pair approached the bridge. Mimi averted her gaze as she stepped around the tolltaker's orphaned limb. The horse snorted.
The giant remained calm. As promised, he kept the artifact aimed at the innkeepers' daughter.
The Klindrel moved with a warrior's grace, but the weapon was unfamiliar to him and the situation was too awkward--reins and weapon in the same hand, stone ball at the ready in the other, eyes on the woman in front while trying to remain aware of a man he wanted to leave behind. Higomu waited until the instant of greatest weakness. Then he charged.
To the giant's credit, there was no hesitation. The stone ball clanked into position even as the giant pivoted fluidly to aim the weapon at Higomu's midsection. But Higomu had heard the weapon used twice, and now he knew the timing between the clank, the crack, and the expulsion of rock.
Higomu dived to the cobbles, and the screaming stone fragments struck only the hem of his chiton.
He rolled to his feet.
The giant dropped the artifact and drew his sword. His horse skittered nervously onto the bridge.
The giant offered no moment of awkward indecision. He was wholly committed to killing Higomu, offering no advantage.
Higomu did have an asset, however. He reached inside his clothing and withdrew a handkerchief. Although the giant noted the gesture, he could not see the object, for Higomu kept it concealed within his hand.
The giant lunged. Higomu jumped back. The giant advanced. Higomu retreated.
With footwork and thrusts, the giant drove Higomu toward the pockmarked wall of the building that had sheltered him. Higomu allowed himself to be driven.
He held no weapon. He had no means of counterattack. He wished to appear completely at the giant's mercy.
When he was a half-step away from the wall, Higomu leapt backward, pushed off the wall, and flung his handkerchief at the Klindrel's face.
The giant had anticipated one last desperate trick. He raised his guard and turned his head. Distracted by the fluttering white handkerchief, he straightened his front knee just a little too much.
Higomu came down hard on the giant's knee with a thrust-kick that popped ligaments.
The giant collapsed in agony.
In an instant, Higomu was on the giant's back, twisting his arm, compelling submission.
"Mimi," Higomu called, "bring the horse."
The young woman had shown enough presence of mind to seize the horse's reins when the giant dropped them, yet she was so dazed that it took her a moment before she realized she had been addressed.
"Good," said Higomu, when Mimi had brought the horse to his side.
He extracted a knife from its sheath on the giant's belt and slid it across the cobbles toward Mimi. "Now cut off a rein and use it to bind his hands."
By the time Mimi had sliced through the thick leather, they had been joined by other citizens, all quite willing to hold the crippled giant down, bind his limbs, and glower menacingly to dissuade him from thinking he could escape. This Klindrel would have a lot to answer for.
Higomu left the giant in their hands. He walked across the cobbles and picked up the Shatterstone Horn. A short distance away, the tolltaker's wife was securing a tourniquet on the unconscious man's arm. A healer was hastening to the scene.
Tomorrow, when Higomu's nerves weren't jangling, he would evaluate the incident and consider what he should have done to keep the tolltaker from being maimed. But right now, he needed to pack up the artifact and get out of town. He was a covert operative for the Order of the Lock. It was not his job to answer questions.
He went into his room at the inn, put on his sandals, and wrapped the Shatterstone Horn so that it looked like a bundle of linen. He was working on a way to carry the bundle on his back when Mimi stepped into his room.
"Thank you for saving my life, Higomu."
I did nothing of the sort, and when you calm down enough, you'll realize that I nearly got you killed.
"You're welcome," he said.
"That was a brilliant bluff," she said. "I thought you were going to let him take me across the bridge."
This whole week has been a bluff. "Well, I couldn't let that happen."
"But one question: How did you know he was bluffing? How did you know he would not kill me as he promised?"
I needed the artifact. If he had wasted his last stone on you, that would have just made my job easier. When the logic is cold, I must be cold. But you don't understand, and for that, I thank the Goddess.
"Well, Mimi," he said, meeting her eyes for the last time, "you won't know the answer until you learn to read faces."

©September 2016 Jason A. Holt

Jason A. Holt is a game writer and author of fantasy adventure novels. Higomu is also featured in his novel The Artificer of Dupho.]]>
<![CDATA["Ex Libris" by Dan J. DeFazio]]>Wed, 28 Sep 2016 17:47:14 GMThttp://swordsandsorcerymagazine.com/archive/ex-libris-by-dan-j-defazioOf all the gambling houses in the City of Dreadmoor, the Silver Moon was by far the most exclusive. While the lower-classes rolled the bones and watched grub-fights in the Greased Goat and The Shrieking Wife, the well-born and well-paid preferred the ambiance of The Silver Moon’s wood-paneled chambers. Here, among powdered wigs and silken finery, count and countess, courtier and courtesan, mountebank and malefactress wagered hundreds of ducats on the toss of the dice, flip of a card, or spin of the wheel. Admittance was selective. You had to either be someone or know someone, and all means of ingress and egress were strictly guarded.
The Bastard D’Uvel doffed his plumed hat and gave it to the attendant as he entered the foyer, a few wisps of evening fog following him inside. He ran his fingers through his blonde hair and straightened the lines of his black doublet.  
“Monsieur D”Uvel,” said the valet with a nod. “Welcome back. It has been too long. What is your pleasure this evening?”  
“Good evening, Andre,” said D’Uvel. “A game. Something to engage the senses and challenge the intellect.”
“This way,” said the valet, pulling back a green curtain and motioning inside. D’Uvel descended two steps into the grand salon. He scanned the room with his steel blue eyes. The tables were crowded with people playing card games like Scant and Hazard, and spinning the Devil’s Wheel. A roar went up as a fat duke rolled a seven, extending his lucky streak.
“Too pedestrian,” D’Uvel announced. “I was looking for something more unique.”
“I have just the thing.” Andre said, ushering him into a second salon.
The next salon contained a large X-frame. Shackled to it was naked girl, her body glistening with sweat, her tangled hair obscuring her face. Guests took turns flinging small darts at her lithe body, covered with red puncture marks. With each hit the girl emitted a gasp and her body trembled.
“The game is called Kiss; it is the newest rage,” explained Andre. “A favorite among the nobility. The louder the peasant girl screams, the more the house pays.”
A pretty young countess landed a dart in the girl’s right breast near the nipple, causing the target to cry out. The crowd cheered and exchanged chips.
D’Uvel felt his stomach begin to turn. “Too barbaric. Have you anything more—-cerebral?”
Andre seemed crestfallen, but motioned for D’uvel to follow him through an arch into the third and final salon.
It was darker, illuminated by a crackling fireplace and a handful of candles set on small marble tables. The room was empty except for a sole occupant.
She was beautiful, legs crossed casually on a plush settee before a chessboard. Her dark hair was piled on her head a few stray coils framing her straight jaw, others descending to her pale shoulders. Her corset was pulled immodestly tight, and she wore he wore black leather breeches and knee-high, high-heeled boots. The wintergreen scent came from the stub of a thin cigar she held casually between her fingers. Weirdweed. It was a leaf smoked by wizards, thought to aid their concentration.  
“I think I can take it from here,” D’Uvel said, placing a silver shilling in the valet’s hand. He took the hint and stepped backward out of the room, closing the curtain behind him.
“You are not amused by Kiss?” she asked, arching her eyebrow.
“It doesn’t seem very sporting,” he said, moving closer.
“Join me for a game? Mr…“
“D’Uvel. Franz D’Uvel. I’d be delighted,” he took his seat in front of the white pieces. “Alexa--if I’m not mistaken?”
“Have we met before?” She regarded him with a casual disinterest. “I can’t recall.”
“It was during the Night of Masks. You wore a violet gown with a black cat’s eye mask. If memory serves, I barely escaped with my life.”
“You’ll have to forgive me,” she said, taking a quick drag and exhaling smoke at the ceiling. “I don’t remember. Or perhaps you’re not that memorable. In any event, I am in need of an opponent. Tell me, D’Uvel. Do you play chess?”
“I dabble,” he lied. In truth, D’Uvel played quite regularly. He had even made a study of the game, occasionally visiting the coffee shops around the University Theologica and playing the young scholars there. “Can I get you a drink?” he offered.
“You may. Wine, please. Red.”
Soon a serving girl had placed two crystal goblets on either side of the table in front of them. Alexa took a long sip.
“Please,” he said, motioning to the board. “I insist you go first.”
She moved her knight forward, followed a by a pawn and bishop. She played quickly, employing her queen to assault his left flank. It was the strategy of an amateur, D’Uvel noted. He took his time and countered slowly, feigning indecision, taking the opportunity to observe her more closely. She wore little makeup, save for her rogued lips, and her brow furrowed in concentration. She wore a black crepe scarf around her slender neck and the nails of her fingers were painted blood red. One was adorned by a skull ring with ruby eyes—-the kind worn only by members of the secretive Wizard’s Guild.
“Check,” she said.
He maneuvered his King out of harm’s way and positioned his knight so as to threaten her queen. She retreated and he quickly pinned her queen between his knight and bishop. Within just a few moves he turned the tide, rapidly trading piece for piece, but always ahead.
“Check,” he announced.
She scanned the board, nodded graciously and smiled. She placed her finger on the top of her king and tipped it over.
“It seems you’ve defeated me,” she said, stubbing out the remains of her cigar in the ashtray.
“A lucky move on my part,” he said. “Another game?”
“I think not,” Alexa said, yawning. “Thank you for an enchanting evening, but I must be going. Farewell, Mr. D’Uvel.”
“But the night is young,” he said, rising. “Why not play again?”
“This game has ceased to amuse me. I like risks, thrills. Perhaps the Devil’s Wheel…”
“A small wager then?” he offered.
She eyed him suspiciously. “And what are to be the stakes?”
“You choose.”
She sat down again and crossed her legs, and said, “Very well. How about this: if I win, you will do whatever I wish for an entire night. If I should lose, I will do whatever you wish for an entire night.”
“Whatever I wish?”
Her red lips formed a lascivious smile. Her green eyes bored in on him. “Whatever you wish.”
D’Uvel considered. He was an experienced gambler, and an experienced gambler could smell a trap. Here was a stunningly beautiful woman, who happened to be a wizard, wagering on a game for which she had little apparent skill. Clearly this was a trap. She had, perhaps, deliberately lost the first match in order to gain his confidence. She was undoubtedly playing him for a fool, but to what end? Whatever she was after, it was clearly not a game of chess. Perhaps she had been lying in wait all night, just biding her time until an idiot with a sword walked in to challenge her. Well, if she thought he could be that easily gulled, she had another thing coming. It would take more than a tight bodice and a pair of heels to beguile a sword-whore with the cunning of the Bastard D’Uvel!
“I accept,” he heard himself say.
“Very well. Please—-go first.”
Cautiously, he opened with his knight. She countered with her pawn. Her play was quick and deliberate. His mind raced frantically. Rapidly, the pieces mounted on both sides of the board.
It took her all of five minutes to defeat him.
“A lucky move on my part,” she said.
He seethed. “You bewitched me!”
She laughed girlishly. “Mr. D’Uvel—-I don’t need a spell to defeat you. Your own arrogance did that. Now sit down and listen, and I shall tell you the night’s itinerary.” 
He opened his mouth to respond but nothing came out but a hapless stammer. Defeated, he sank into the chair.
“Good then,” She lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “What do you know about the Scriptorium of Vilius Rhune?”
He had heard the name. He had first heard it mentioned at the University when he was a student. “The largest private library in the city. Some say it rivals that of the Collegium Theologica itself. The owner and curator is called Villius Rhune. Some say he’s a hundred years old—-others a thousand. No one has actually seen him, so no one can say what he looks like. He never leaves the Scriptorium’s tower. It is said the Scriptorium is guarded by powerful magic and cunning traps. No one has ever entered the scriptorium and emerged to tell its secrets. Is this the library which you’re talking about?”
“The same. But it’s worse than that. Rhune has a cult of trained assassins who double as his librarians, guard the Scriptorium and accumulate rare books for him. Two nights ago one of the librarians came to my townhouse and nearly murdered me…”
She removed the scarf to reveal purple bruising on her neck from the ligature marks. “…and stole a book—-a rare book on the subject of alchemy, called the Libris Chymical. Tonight you will accompany me into the library, where we will recover the book in question.”
“Why do you need me? You’re a wizard. Why don’t you get the book yourself?”
“Every queen needs a knight. Call it insurance—a simple errand for someone with the prowess and cunning of the Bastard D’Uvel.”
D’Uvel sighed. It was going to be a long night, he thought.
The golden lights and drunken revelry of the Silver Moon receded as D’Uvel and Alexa walked through the fog-shrouded streets of Dreadmoor. D’Uvel moved with the mien of a panther, supple muscles tense under his doublet and cloak, rapier hanging on his belt. Alexa strode alongside him, her heels clicking on the wet cobbles. They had eschewed a coach, for the Scriptorium was not far, just across the bridge in the Scholar’s District, home to bookbinders, scribes, and lawyers, and the University—the renowned Collegium Theologica.
The buildings were dark and the streets silent in the Scholar’s District, the students having abandoned their studies in favor of carousing at the Street of A Thousand Taverns. The professors, meanwhile, had retired to the coffee shops to plot revolutions and demonstrations in the name of social justice and equality—-women’s rights, dwarf rights, goblin rights—-D’Uvel could not be bothered with any of it. He had been a student at the University once, briefly, years ago. He had entered ostensibly to study theology, but his actual studies included seducing barmaids, brawling, and occasionally writing bad verses. He had lasted once semester, after which he was expelled for dueling. And the duel hadn’t even been lethal. He had heard his opponent, the loathed Otto von Schnoss had survived the affair, albeit with one less testicle and a commensurate ability to replicate. Nevertheless, the scandal brought an end to Franz D’Uvel’s less-than-promising academic career. Now the lecture halls with their leaded windows were nothing but a distant, unpleasant memory.
They crossed a wooden footbridge that spanned a minor tributary of the River Skuld and turned the corner onto a lantern-lined street. They passed a single watchman with his truncheon, but he just tipped his hat and allowed them to pass without questioning. Why would he? To observers they appeared like a noble dandy and attractive consort out for an evening stroll. Even through the fog D’Uvel could make out their destination ahead.
The Scriptorium was so large it encompassed an entire city block. The main tower of the Scriptorium stretched into the starry sky, clawing its way toward the two moons above.
It was made of grey buttressed stone with large, round stained glass windows as were found on the great cathedrals of the city. Gargoyles perched on the roofs above, staring downward at the street. A high, ivy covered wall surrounded the perimeter, the only means of egress was a pair of ornate wrought-iron gates that were chained shut. Steps lead to a stone portico, at the center of which was a massive, ironbound door.  
As D’Uvel walked closer, he imagined he saw the gargoyles craning their stone necks to follow him. He shuddered, but could not escape the thought.
“We’re behind watched,” he said.
“Undoubtedly,” Alexa replied. “I would expect nothing less from Vilius Rhune. Hold my arm and keep walking. Check for guards.”
He took her slender arm and lowered the brim of his hat to obscure his eyes. There were no guards; at least none that were visible.
“And how do you plan to enter without being seen?” D’Uvel asked.
Alexa kept strolling casually, mumbling some ancient language under her breath. She stopped at the wall that surrounded the Scriptorium. She turned to him and looked him in the eye.
“Kiss me,” she said.
“Excuse me?”
“Kiss me, you idiot.”
He leaned down and kissed the side of her cheek, gently.
“Like you mean it,” she commanded.
Dutifully, he pressed his lips to hers. Her mouth opened, her tongue flicking playfully against his. It felt course, almost sandy, her breath tasting like wintergreen. He pressed her closer to him, pushing her up against the cold, ivy-covered wall.
“That’s enough, thanks,” she said abruptly, pushing him away. He opened his eyes to find he was surrounded by fog so dense he could not see more than an arm’s length away from him. It was if he stood in a cloud. “Now follow me.”
Leading him by the hand, she stopped at the massive gates and took hold of the iron padlock. Muttering again in another language, she passed her hand over the lock and it opened, just as surely as if she had inserted a key. Uncoiling the chains, she pushed the gate opened and ushered him inside, then wrapped the chains back around the gate so as to give the appearance they had not been tampered with.
Moving swiftly, they advanced up the stairs to the portico to the entrance. The ironbound door was embossed with skulls and menacing-looking runes in some arcane tongue D’Uvel did not understand. Alexa went to place her hands on the door; D’Uvel raised his arm to prevent her.
“Wait.” D’Uvel said. “This door may be trapped. Notice these strange runes…”
She let out a frustrated sigh. “This one says, ‘Silence, please.’ The other says, ‘No Smoking.’ Now step the fuck back and get out of my way.”
Cheeks flushed in embarrassment, he took a step backward.
“Patefacio,” Alexa said, placing her hands on the grey wood. The ponderous door opened with a groan. “Inside—quickly. And don’t touch anything.”
Within was a room unlike D’Uvel had ever seen. Whereas the Collgium library was long and rectangular, the Scriptorium, was built vertically. Ornate stone columns supported six floors around a center atrium in which D’Uvel and Alexa now stood. Intricately carved wooden staircases ascended to the top of the tower, connecting by a web of wooden footbridges spanning the center on every other floor. The atrium floor was made of finely polished marble with a spiral pattern. Rows of shelves spread out from the center like the spokes on a wagon, disappearing through archways and obscuring the library’s dimensions. No torches or candles burned. Instead, lamps hung from the ceiling on long chains and on sconces. They did not flicker but emitted a steady, soft glow.
“Moonstones,” she whispered. “They do not burn and are always cool to the touch. No chance of fire. Come. This way.”
She darted into the nearest stack. He followed. In doing so he brushed too close to the books and was startled by the rattle of metal links—-the books were fettered to the shelves by iron chains. Alexa scowled angrily and raised her finger to her lips. He shrugged sheepishly. The air smelled of mold, vellum, and tooled leather. The books were thick leather-bound tomes with gilt-edged titles in unpronounceable tongues. Alexa ran her finger over them. All were covered with a thick layer of dust.
Curiously, D’uvel noticed that although the shelves were dusty, the floors were swept clean.
More curious was the skin in the center of the aisle. It was pale and coiled. He knelt to examine it. It was similar to that of a snake—a large one, yet there were no scales. Instead it was smooth and hard like a shell.  
Alexa tapped him on the shoulder and pointed down the aisle. A spiral staircase beckoned upwards to the next level. Alexa nodded to the staircase and motioned for D’Uvel to go first.
D’Uvel padded his way up the stairs, his senses alert, Alexa close behind. At the top he found himself on a narrow walkway with no railing. He peeked over the edge at the center atrium. None of the floors had railings—-Vilius Rhune must not be a wine-drinker, D’Uvel mused.
That’s when they heard it—a skittering followed by the tinkling of chains from below. They paused, absolutely still, and listened.
Seconds passed without any sound. They locked eyes, but said nothing. They didn’t need to. They knew something was following them, and that something was on the floor below. Alexa pointed upwards, motioning for them to continue.
On they walked through stacks, silently, methodically, pausing occasionally to run her finger along a spine, then moving on. They ascended another staircase, then another, winding their way upwards. It was near the top floor, in the center of an aisle that they found the corpse.
It lay face up on the flagstone, tongue protruding, eyes rolled upwards. He wore a dark grey tunic and breeches with soft, mouse-skin boots—-the clothing of a thief. On the floor near one hand was a knife in the other was a tension wrench and hook pick.
D’Uvel looked more closely at the face. He recognized the thick jowls and bulbous nose.
“I know him,” D’Uvel whispered. “His name is…was Fardulf. A burglar. And not a very good one, it seems. Operated out of the Drowned Rat in the Freemarket district. No doubt he was hired by some wizard or scholar to steal some ancient tome. Observe the edge of this knife. No blood. That means he was taken by surprise. Yet it’s curious. Were he stricken from behind he would have fallen onto his face. ”   
“Look at the top of his head.”
D’Uvel lifted the head. The man’s disheveled mop of hair had obscured his injury. In the top of his head was a neat hole, not larger that the top of a wine glass. Inside the skull was nothing. The brain was missing, scraped clean.
That’s when they heard the sound again.
It was a skittering and clicking, not unlike a roach, but larger. Much larger. The hairs on his neck pricked up. He rose to his feet.
“What was that?”
Alexa raised her hands and spread her fingers wide, the air around her seemed to shimmer for a moment, bending like ripples on a pond.
“It that supposed to protect us?”
“Just me.”
The noise came again, closer this time. D’Uvel drew his rapier and pressed his back to Alexa’s.
“Remember when you asked why I needed you?” she asked, breathing quickly.
“This is why.”
A shadow darted across the entrance to the aisle and rustled amongst the shelves. D’Uvel turned toward the stacks and drew his poniard. He followed the sound as it raced upwards, disturbing the chains.
There was a long pause. D’uvel stood crouched in fighting stance, looking upward, every muscle and sinew tensed. Seconds passed. D’Uvel could hear Alexa’s shallow breathing. Then, he saw it.
A pair of two-foot long antennae poked over the top shelf, groping. Then the thing sprang, dropping on top of him, a dog-sized mass of writhing legs and frothing mandibles. Instinctively, he leaped backwards, swinging his blade blindly. Something shot out at him, a proboscis or stinger of some sort, and narrowly missed his forehead. The speed of the creature was incredible, a blur of writhing legs and mottled flesh. It scrambled across the shelves and leaped again.      
D’Uvel ducked, driving the sword along the length of the creature’s soft, fleshy body. Yet it did not die; it lifted itself up on its hind legs, pale intestines dragging behind it, and hissed. D’Uvel was frozen in terror as it lifted itself to its full man-sized height.
Then suddenly, it exploded.
Slime, innards, and legs flew everywhere, splattering the aisle and D’Uvel. The legs on the torso of the beast still twitched and writhed, its stinger waving impotently. D’Uvel turned to see Alexa behind him, her fingertips smoking, the air smelling faintly of ozone.
“Were you stung?” she asked.
“No,” he said, patting himself just to be sure.
“Bookworm. They paralyze their prey and then devour their brains. Some wizards raise them as pets. You’re sure you’re not hurt?”
“I’m fine. Thank you.”
“Don’t mention it.”
Alexa twisted the face of her skull ring to reveal a hidden compartment. Inside was a fine white powder. She placed it under her nose and snorted the entire contents. Moonsnow. Made from the meteorites thought to have come from the moon itself. Wizards used it as a source of magical power. Rubbing her nose, Alexa motioned down the aisle to the rows beyond.
“Shall we go? This way. What we’re looking for is on the other side of that bridge.”
At the end of the aisle was a narrow footbridge that spanned the room. It looked sturdy but had no railing. D’Uvel looked over the edge at the spiral pattern on the tiles five stories below. Taking a deep breath, he stepped across.
He was alert and on edge, waiting for another creature or one of the dreaded librarians to make a sudden appearance, but none did. On the other side an archway led into a hexagonal chamber. The walls were honeycombed with niches filled with hundreds of vellum scrolls and books. Every square inch, even above the doorways was packed with documents. Two more archways exited the room. D’Uvel could see staircases beyond.
In the center of the room which was a large desk. Chained to it was a tome of immense proportions. Hunched over it was an old man wearing thick rivet spectacles. His skin was tight and sallow, stretched tight over his skull. He smiled, revealing only a handful of rotting teeth and blackened gums. He held a quill, still dripping with ink, which he returned it to its pot.
“Welcome Ms. Braur,” he said in a voice as cracked and leathery as the books that surrounded him. He craned his head and adjusted the spectacles. D’Uvel held his rapier up, ready to defend himself.
“Are you impressed by my little collection?” he croaked, a smile on his thin, cracked lips. “Here are books so ancient that the languages they are written in are lost to antiquity. The civilizations which produced them have long disappeared from the face of our world, swept clean by the deserts, volcanoes, even swallowed by the sea itself. Yet, the books remain, their stories preserved, resting silently on my shelves. It would take you a lifetime to read them all. Fortunately, I have a lifetime. Several lifetimes in fact. My drugs and sorcery have allowed me to extend my mortal lease so that I might read them all. I was just perusing the Liber Chymical. Fine condition, although there is a bit of wear at the edges. No matter. Now. How many I help you?”
“I want the Liber Chymical back. You stole it from me.”
“Wrong!” he shouted, his voice echoing through tower. He opened the front cover and pointed with his clawed finger. There, on the inside, was a stamp depicting a skull and the name Vilius Rhune. ”See the Ex Libris. The Liber Chymical is mine—-stolen from this library decades ago by a cunning thief.”
“I found it on a quest in the Tomb of Bhak Bhazhul.”
“Then I thank you for returning it to its proper home.”
“You may thank me by letting me borrow it so that I may copy the contents, which, by the way, I was midst of doing when your assassin tried to strangle me.”
“No. I’m afraid it’s out of the question.”
“Books are written so that knowledge might be shared.”
“Ha!” he laughed. “To the contrary, books are written so that knowledge may be controlled. He who controls knowledge, controls thought. He who controls thought, controls people! But I grow weary of this discussion. You and your assassin have violated this sanctum, sought to steal from me, and killed my pet. And for that you must be destroyed!”
A garrote wrapped around D’Uvel’s throat and yanked him backwards off his feet. Instinctively he dropped his rapier and his hands went to the cord to pry it away from his neck. Impossible! He thought. No one snuck up behind the Bastard D’uvel. Yet someone unseen had done just that, and now they were dragging him through the archway and out of the room, back to the ledge.
Alexa heard D’Uvel’s strangled gurgling and whirled to see him being dragged backwards through the archway by a cowled figure. Seething with anger, moonsnow racing coursing through her veins Alexa, raised her hands. A massive charge built in her fingers and she was about to release it, when she glimpsed a second monk out the corner of her eye, garrote raised above her head.
She turned at the last moment, discharging a blue flash of energy into his torso. He was repelled backwards into a case of books. It exploded in a whirlwind of parchment and dust.
She expected the figure to stay down. Instead it stood, shook himself off and lowered its cowl. She saw its gruesome face in the lurid light of the glowstones. It was pale, bald, devoid of any hair, its skin translucent, under which could be seen a web-work of veins and capillaries. Its eyebrows had been plucked clean and it was clean-shaven, giving no clear clue to the creature’s gender. The eyes were black, the pupils pink.
Most disturbing were the lips. They were stitched shut with thick black thread in a crisscross pattern. It dropped the garrote and drew a serrated dagger. She was about to cast another spell when another hooded figure emerged from a third archway to her side.
“Meet my librarians,” Rhune said. “Both Brother Makin and Brother Crow have spent years studying the fighting arts of the Far East. Perhaps your sorcery might defeat one of them, but both? I think not.”
She was surrounded. Rhune was right. Her magic was powerful, but she could not hope to engage both of them at the same time. She had to stall for time.
“Why do you sew their lips shut?” she asked.
“So they can never reveal the scriptorium’s secrets, in the event there are captured.
“But why would they choose to serve you?”
“I pay them well. In drugs, mostly. Purple lotus. It places them in a constant state of euphoria. Over time, they forget who they are, where they came from. All they know is the taste of the lotus…and killing.” 
“You’re mad,” she said.
“For a learned girl you’re most naive. Madness is all a matter of perspective. Good men. Evil. Sane. Mad. History is written by the victors. And now the time has come to write the last chapter of your story. Sadly, I will be the victor, and you will be nothing more than a footnote.”
“And now,” he said, his face contorting into a demonic leer. “Brother Makin and Brother Crow. Kill her…”
D’Uvel, kicking wildly, was dragged to the very edge. The thin chord dug into his throat, his gloved fingers working frantically to prevent his larynx from being crushed. The monk shoved him from behind, intent on either strangling him or pushing him over the edge. D’uvel dug his boots into the lip of the edge. A brick came loose and fell, shattering on the floor five stories below. Stars danced in front of D’Uvel’s eyes as his vision began to darken.
No! He refused to die like this. Still clutching the garrote with his left hand, D’Uvel groped for the pommel of his poniard with his right. There it was! He yanked it free from its scabbard and jabbed desperately behind him. The long point lodged in the monk’s right thigh, between the meat and bone.
The monk let go of the garrote and D’Uvel fell forward onto the bridge that spanned the center of the tower, gasping as the oxygen flooded back to his brain. He scrambled to his feet, he turned to see the monk standing on the ledge, clutching the hilt of the poniard.
Taking the pommel in both hands, the monk pulled it free. Blood ran down his leg, soaking his breeches, yet it gave no scream. That’s when D’Uvel saw that the monk’s lips were sewn shut. The pain should have been enough to fell any man. The blood loss enough to drop the largest opponent. But the monk limped on, dragging himself onto the bridge, D’Uvel’s poniard in his hand.
D’Uvel unclasped his cloak and wrapped it around his left forearm. He raised his hands and turned to the side, left foot forward, to expose as little of his torso as possible. He waited and crouched into a fighting stance.
The two stood for a moment in the center of the bridge, their muscled coiled and ready to strike. Slowly, the monk raised the poniard above his head.
And struck, driving down at D’Uvel’s neck. D’Uvel blocked the blow with his left forearm and struck the monk full in the face with his right foot. The monk teetered, but did not lose his balance. The two exchanged a flurry of blows, grappling for control of the blade. D’Uvel caught his wrist, twisting the blade away from his body and driving his boot into the side of the monk’s knee. It buckled with a crack and D’Uvel shoved, sending him over the edge.
No scream escaped his sewn lips. All that could be heard was the flapping of his robes as he fell. D’Uvel looked over the edge just in time to see the monk’s skull burst like a melon on the marble floor below.
A moment later Alexa burst through the archway and charged onto the bridge, carrying his rapier. They met in the center.
“You dropped this,” she said, handing him the hilt.
It felt good to have his sword back in his hand. “Thanks.”
“Don’t thank me yet.”
Two monks emerged from the archway, followed closely by Vilius Rhune, carrying the Liber Chymical in his claw-like hands.
D’Uvel turned to flee and found another two monks waiting at the other side of the bridge.
“Trapped!” Vilius Rhune cackled, emerging from the arch, fingers wrapped around the leather cover of the Libris Chymical. “There is no escape. You are surrounded on all sides.”
D’Uvel scanned the stairs. There were more robed figures, nine or ten in total, staring down from where they were perched on the staircases. In unison, they all drew serrated knives and brandished them menacingly.
Rhune grinned in triumph. “You cannot possibly kill all of them.”
“True,” Alexa said, closing her hand into a fist. “But we don’t need to.” She unclenched her hand to reveal a fire dancing on her palm, like a torch. She held it out and smiled evilly.
“If one of them takes so much as a step further, you can kiss your precious books goodbye.”
The flame flared blue. Alexa’s brow furrowed. She waved her fiery hand with a flourish, illuminating the thousands of scrolls that filled the niches of the room.
“Stop!” he ordered the monks, waving his hands frantically. He addressed Alexa. “You wouldn’t. You couldn’t. All this knowledge would be lost!”
“What difference does it make? I’m never going to read them.”
Vilius Rhune’s jaw hung open. They locked eyes, and he could see she meant it.
“Maybe we can make a deal,” he said at last. “I’m not unreasonable. After all, we’re both scholars.”
“I want the Liber Chymical back,” she said coldly. “I’ll return it after I finish copying it.”
“A reasonable request,” he said, approaching her slowly, holding book outward in his clawed hands. “Here. Take it.”
She snatched it from his hands held it tightly to her breast. He stepped back, off the bridge.
“One more thing,” she said. “Should your monks ever visit my house again, or should any retaliation be attempted on your part, the Bastard D’Uvel and I will return and burn this place to a cinder.”
D’Uvel tried his best to look steely, trying to push the thought of being strangled in his sleep by a cult of murderous librarians as far from his mind as possible.
“You have my word,” said Vilius Rhune, withdrawing into the shadows. His monks slid their daggers back into their sheaths and stepped aside. “Farewell Ms. Braur. Enjoy the book. After all…knowledge is meant to be shared.”
Cautiously, D’Uvel and Alexa descended the stairs and exited the tower into the night fog.
Back at the Silver Moon, Alexa and D’Uvel sat on either side of the chess board. The salon was empty, except for them. The Liber Chymical lay on the settee beside them. Full goblets of wine lay either side of the playing table.
“So,” D’Uvel said, taking a long swallow. “The book. Why is it so important to you?”
“Alchemy,” she said, taking a sip. She lay her glass down gently and twisted the face of the skull ring to reveal the secret compartment. She snorted the last of the white powder and shivered. “I need it so I can create moonsnow. Without it, my spells are far less effective.”
“I hate to seem like a nag, but isn’t that a dangerous way to live?” 
She gave a small shrug and snapped the compartment shut. “Is it any more dangerous than selling your sword to the highest bidder? You’ll be dead long before me.”
“Fair enough,” he said. “Next question: what if I had won the match?”
“Not possible.”
“And why is that?”
“Because I’m an expert at chess. Moreover, I know the Bastard D’Uvel. The Butcher of Karlstad? The terror of Carcosa? I knew you would never be able to resist a challenge. Especially a challenge from a woman. Especially an attractive woman. I was always two moves ahead, so to speak.”
She was smart. He had to admit, she had gotten the better of him. 
“Last question,” he said. “That kiss by the wall—-”
“—-A necessary diversion in order to make the ruse seem convincing. I apologize if I caught you by surprise.”
“So…that was acting?”
“Of course,” she said. “Our relationship is strictly professional. In our line of work, it’s best to avoid… entanglements. Don’t you agree?”
“Of course,” he lied, trying his best not to sound disappointed. “No entanglements. Strictly professional.”
There was a long pause as their eyes met. The silence hung there. Neither party was willing to break it.
“Good,” she said at last. “Then we understand each other. Care for another match?”
D’Uvel sighed. She was right. She was always right. She was always two moves ahead.
“Very well,” he said, taking another long drink from his goblet. “Your move.”

©August, 2016 Dan J. Defazio

Dan J. DeFazio's story "The Death of the Bastard D'Uvel" appeared in the December 2015 issue of Swords & Sorcery. He has also been published in ​Dragon Magazine.
<![CDATA["Tools of Gods and Magic" by S. Creaney]]>Wed, 28 Sep 2016 17:43:44 GMThttp://swordsandsorcerymagazine.com/archive/tools-of-gods-and-magic-by-s-creaneySolene walked back from the bar's outhouse, her mouth worked into a frown and a bit of paper crumpled in her big fist, to find Brigh being prattled at by a young girl.
There was a desperate look to the girl: sallow skin, rough brown hair, a cheap linen dress with a hastily stitched tear up one side. No matter what the desperation was obvious. Only someone with no options would sidle up next to someone like Brigh.
Solene sat down, reaching for her cup of water with her free hand. There was a stagnant smell to it, but Solene drank it anyway. The unnamed god purified any foulness that passed her lips.
The girl's eyes darted from Brigh's sour, painted face to Solene's dour, sun burnt one.
Brigh shifted so that her shoulder eclipsed the young girl's face. She clutched her mug to her chest and snorted, as if the act of looking away erased the girl's existence. "I'm half a hero in my own land, but still never got begged for help the way I do with you."
"I am a holy knight," Solene said simply. She unclenched her fist and smoothed the paper against the table. "My role is guardian to the people who follow the truth of the unnamed god."
"Are you?" The girl exclaimed. She stepped around between the two women. Brigh's lip curled at the corner, showing off a snaggletooth and her frustration. Solene nudged the paper at her barbarian comrade with a finger. Brigh snatched it, eager to have her eyes occupied with something that wasn’t the girl, and made a show of looking at it. Though she couldn’t read the writing on the flier she hummed thoughtfully.
“There are dark priests about,” Solene offered. “The town must be cleansed.” She spoke calmly, evenly. Brigh’s look of displeasure deepened. “You have no obligation here. However, I must take this task. Stay here. Eat. Drink. I will return when the stain of evil has been washed from this place.” Brigh pushed her thumb through the center of the paper with a senseless destructive streak Solene came to expect. The girl used the brief pause to regain their attention. She took a step into the space between their bodies and touched her finger to the very edge of the paper Brigh held.
“My brother,” she said, “was taken by them. That’s the help I wanted. To get him back.”
“Shit,” Brigh said and knocked her drink back. The warpaint made her face pale gray, faded black around the eyes. Skull-like. It was a face meant to strike horror into the hearts of enemies, to keep the blood and murder off the soul of the woman beneath. Brigh’s people believed in different faces for different jobs, and not letting a job define the heart of the person doing it. Solene had been raised the opposite. As a holy knight she was meant to be nothing more than a tool of the unnamed god. Brigh was a warrior, but beneath it she was a good person. Sometimes it made Solene wonder what sort of thing she was beneath her god’s unwavering demands.
“Shit?” The girl repeated tightly. “Does that mean you won’t?” She turned her watery brown eyes to Solene.
Solene stared at Brigh, rose her eyebrows so they disappeared beneath the thin fringe of hair she was allowed.
Brigh tossed her empty mug behind the bar with a dull clatter. She tore up the paper declaring the opening of the shadow priests’ church and let the tatters fall. Solene frowned as Brigh showed her teeth in an eerie grin. The girl looked between them more nervous and desperate than ever.
Solene knew she should calm the girl. She was going to kill the dark priests and find the boy, if he still lived. But she was poor when it came to speaking to the commoners. It had hardly been a part of her training.
“Are you planning on just asking them to give up what they have and hit the road?” Brigh asked Solene, still ignoring the girl overall. She propped her elbow on the bar and pulled her wrist to her ear, shaking it so that the string of teeth she wore jangled.
“No,” Solene said. “I will fight them, and I will kill them, and I will hold vigil over their remains. Blood must be spilled.”
The girl looked no less certain for hearing Solene’s decree. Spoken straight from the instructions of the unnamed god to the holy knights. Just as Solene had heard them during her Awakening in the monastery where she was raised and trained. The girl was town raised and deaf to the unnamed god’s commands. It struck a strange mix of pity and distaste in Solene.
Brigh reached across and shook the teeth at Solene. “Remember when we agreed to travel together? Remember how I said not to try to trick me into doing good deeds?”
Solene swatted the bracelet away. “Show me,” she said to the girl, standing and loosening her blade in its place across her back. The girl stared up, awed. “I will find your brother.” Brigh huffed something like a laugh. “If he is to be found.” Solene paused, stared down at the girl staring up at her. “That is my word.”
The girl’s face broke apart in a smile overshadowed by grateful tears. She reached out but stopped her hands before they could touch Solene’s silver armor.
Brigh stood and shook her head, but her lips were still smirked up at the corners.
The bar fell strangely silent as the three processed through the narrow spaces between tables and chairs.The same mutter that wound its way over the patrons when they entered followed them out. Brigh thumped a fist against Solene’s shoulder, all loose violence and eager jostling, and hissed out a laugh.
Outside the bar, where usually there might be horses, an oversized hound lazed. The beast was at least the length of Brigh with a height that reached her middle. The girl jumped away as it lifted its shaggy gray head, eyes reflecting yellow in the moonlight.
When the dog saw Brigh its tail thudded the road and it lumbered happily to its feet. Brigh knelt just long enough to wrap her arms around the animal’s neck and knock their foreheads together with great affection. The girl looked over at Solene, uncertain, and the holy knight offered her an indifferent shrug. It seemed to communicate the point well enough. The girl kept herself close to Solene’s side nonetheless. As Brigh righted herself the dog took its place beside her. She maneuvered her spear off her back and slung it across the line of her shoulders, arms folded over so her hands hung limp. All eyes fell on the girl.
“My name’s Clara.” The girl’s voice squeaked. Brigh curled her lip to show her small, sharp tooth again.
“No one asked.”
“I am Solene. That is Brigh and her hound Rinn.” She glared at Brigh as she spoke. “He is a good dog. You need not fear him. It is more than can be said for his master.” Solene’s mouth didn’t burn because she wasn’t lying.
“Oh,” the girl muttered. She spared another nervous glance between Brigh and Rinn before shuffling to Solene’s other side and pointing into the night. “The priests’ve set up in what used to be a butcher’s slaughterhouse.”
“Figures,” Brigh said. She rolled her eyes as if the location was too obvious to hold any amusement for her. She hopped down off the steps of the bar, studded leather and mail tinkling with the movement. Rinn stuck by her heels and they peered together into the darkness in the direction the girl indicated. “How about leading the way, huh?”
Solene started walking, armor shining with blessed runes under the stars.
“You’re really real,” the girl, Clara, muttered in awe. The back of Solene’s neck itched with the heated weight of her admiration. She would never be comfortable with the worship of the commoners.
Brigh slunk along with Rinn padding silent and lanky just a step behind. For all the jewelry made of human teeth and hair and the skeleton look to her face she garnered less attention when they walked. She was just a foreigner whereas Solene was sent by god.
She adjusted her gait to align herself with her barbarian companion’s strut, Rinn backing off another step to give her space, and Clara bringing up the rear. She arched an eyebrow and Brigh returned the gesture, words unsaid but understood. Brigh was a good ally to have in a fight… to a point. She was afflicted with a thing called the blood fever, a curse of some sort that overtook her in times of violence. Solene’s holy vows kept her from doing harm to any innocent. Brigh did not have such limitations even when in her right mind.
“This all sounds like a good deed to me,” Brigh said in a tone just shy of threatening which meant it was amusement. Solene frowned and Brigh rolled her slate colored eyes. It was as good as an understanding they were bound to come to on the subject.
From behind, Clara said, “We have to take the next left. Then go straight. It’s the building with the bull statue out front.” Solene looked over her shoulder and nodded. The girl was crying, silent tears running clean across her ruddy cheeks. Scared.
“They just left all the butcher’s shit up?” Brigh asked in an offhanded way, masking any concern if she had it. “People out here sure are lazy for all their talk of the wills of gods.” They followed Clara’s directions, down a street that stank of rot. Brigh wrinkled her nose while Rinn let out an unsteady whine. Solene’s stomach heaved, a repugnant sensation filling her as their destination approached. The bull statue’s silhouette cut the monotony of the street, dark on just a bit darker. “You’d know if she were pulling something, right?” Brigh continued, turning to look at the girl full on for the first time though her voice was pitched for Solene. “What’s a holy knight worth to a bunch like this, huh? Probably some good coin for a little nothing girl to get in exchange. But you’d know, right? Get that whisper in your ear telling you something’s not right?”
Solene looked at Brigh, her voice all cold and slick like the belly of a snake. The voice of someone used to traps, used to setting them and springing them. Solene looked at Clara, face paler than the gray paint made Brigh’s because she was so afraid. A look in her dull, watery eyes that was near enough to wonder to show she wasn’t smart enough to even dream something like what Brigh was saying.
Solene shook her head and kept walking. Brigh shifted her shoulders, a movement halfway between a shrug and an adjustment of her armor, and let it drop. She was unpredictable, volatile and it made her a danger to have around even without the blind murder fury she sometimes fell into. Solene wasn’t sure how much of their partnership was based solely around expecting to have to throw herself between Brigh and a rampage.
The girl whimpered. “That’s the place. They took my brother. He’s only a kid and I think… I don’t know what they’ll do to him.”
Solene unsheathed her sword. “I thought you had a brother as well, Brigh.”
Brigh took a moment to glare at the church and then at the girl and finally at Solene. “I’m here aren’t I?” The words came like venom. Clara winced. Solene nodded gently. Brigh was sharp and deadly, made for blood and hardship. But there were little splinters of softness that led to the human heart of her. They surprised Solene when she saw them, and they warmed her as well. She supposed that was part of their partnership also.
Rinn nudged his head against Brigh’s thigh and she unlooped a hand from her spear to rest it between his curled over ears as they stared at the church. The statue of the bull was cut from marble, gilded with slips of bronze. Not something left behind by the butchers. Solene swallowed down sour spit, her body sick with the presence of evil. It was incentive to destroy it, to kill the heathens, to vanquish all evidence of anything besides the unnamed god’s good and stalwart followers. Brigh tapped the bottom of her spear against the armored helmet Solene had strapped to her belt with an empty thunk.
In the darkness of the side street, illuminated only by the runic glow of Solene’s armor, Brigh’s face looked more a death mask than ever. She pushed a tangle of her dark hair off her forehead and behind her ear. She glanced at Clara without moving her head.
Solene nodded and the next words out of Brigh’s mouth were in her thick, native tongue. “I think we should split up when we get inside, and I think the girl should go with you.”
“For the obvious reason?” Solene asked. Brigh rarely expressed concern over the consequences of battles. She gathered what Solene meant and nodded unhappily. She pursed her lips as if there was a bad taste in her mouth. Solene wondered what the people in Brigh’s home, the ones that she claimed looked to her as some courageous hero, would think if they saw her now. Worrying that she might kill a young girl while doing the work meant for a holy knight of a god they didn't believe in. It seemed bizarre no matter what the angle.
“You got me doing good deeds and feeling guilty all at once.” She grinned a hard grin. “Aren’t you just the best at your job?”
“Apparently,” Solene responded. She looked over at the girl, watching with no comprehension to what was being said. She had a face that said she might have figured it was about her, about her life and the hands it rested in.
She took a step that was meant to be steady but just looked awkward, thrust her hands on her hips, rose her shoulders high. “I want to come and look for my brother. I want to help.”
Solene turned her attention back to Brigh. The other woman gave a loose shrug. Neither of them had intended to let her do anything else. It seemed in poor taste to spit on the girl’s moment of conjured bravery. Solene nodded her head. Brigh dug along the crisscrossed belts at her waist, tossed a dagger at the girl. It smacked her hilt-first in the chest and dropped to the ground.
Clara scrambled to pick it up, body shivering all over.
“You ever hold a blade before?” Brigh asked, an edge to her voice that was part mocking and part honest concern.
“Kitchen knives.”
“That supposed to impress me?”
“No, I’m sorry.”
Clara stared down at the dagger in her scared little hands. She tried her best to strangle her crying. Did a half decent job of it, all in all. Brigh looked back at the church with her lip curled, but Solene knew she was doing it out of compassion rather than scorn.
“Stay behind me,” Solene said. “Stay out of Brigh’s way once the fighting starts.”
Clara nodded, eager now. Solene approached the church. Her breathing came out heavy even before she lifted her blade and split the door. Rinn snuck between all their bodies and jumped into the heavy darkness of the entrance beyond the door. He was all stealth and strength. Clara uttered a nervous noise for him, but Rinn was a warhound born and bred.
Brigh put one leg through the gash in the wood, looked back at Solene and the girl as she was half in and half out. “Don’t get hit.”
“A better warning for you,” Solene replied and then Brigh was gone. The light from the holy armor did little to penetrate the darkness ahead. Even more evidence of the evil at work. “Are you ready?”
The girl made a noise. Yes or no, it wasn’t clear. Solene wriggled through the narrow opening she had created. The darkest of the shadows hissed as she pressed inside, white steam rising from the runes on her plate. She tread slowly in a few steps, the pitch black roiling back against the magic of her. The light of the runes intensified so that Solene could almost swear they were buzzing, making a noise like bees in the summer or teeth reverberating in a jolted mouth. She paused when there was enough space between the enhanced shadows for the small glow to be noteworthy.
“I will not look back to make sure you are with me,” she said to the girl, keeping her word and not looking back even this once as she stepped further into the unholy church. She unstrapped her helmet from her belt and fitted it on her head, her whole body a glimmer of silver in the darkness.
The girl sidled up close behind her as the shadows slid in their places.
The path that Rinn and Brigh cut through the church was easy to follow, a meandering line of broken relics. A pulsing in Solene’s stomach directed her and eventually the two paths diverged. There were still no proper lights, and the only evidence the church wasn’t abandoned came from a distant moaning sound whose origins Solene thought it best to ignore for the time being. They reached a wide, open room filled with the same black light Solene’s magical gear had been combating the whole way. At the center of the room, on an upraised dais, a giant minotaur sculpture was painted with rotting flesh and burning with shadow fire. There was a wet noise as Clara spilled her stomach on their feet.
Solene hefted her enchanted blade and severed the man half from the bull half of the monster god. The idol was a repository for the impure energies the dark priests were collecting and hoarding. As it shattered an unearthly screech shook the building. Devastating heat layered itself over the room while Solene muttered a prayer of exorcism for the arcana that had been kept and manipulated within the minotaur’s form.
The left side of Solene’s body prickled with a fizzling, burning sensation that was less pain and more a discomfort. She swung her sword into the shadows, felt it connect with a substance of weight as it jarred the joints of her arms, and heaved her weight behind the swing until she felt whatever spirit was housed in the darkness begin to buckle. She channeled her thoughts onto victory and righteousness and the prayers she learned as a child. There was another shriek and the tip of her sword tore through the final layers of resistance.
The sconces on the walls burned bright suddenly. Solene narrowed her eyes at the quick change, gritted her teeth as more sick flutterings filled her, and let the girl hide behind her as she turned her back to the only wall. Doors she hadn’t seen in the conjured shadows were on two sides of the room so she faced out to the hallway they had come through and shuffled backwards until the broken bits of the minotaur crackled under her boots.
The low moan was loud as ever, coupled now with a reedy whimper from the girl as she cowered within the remains of the idol. The door to the right burst open and Solene schooled her face neutral as three black robed priests crowded in, thin sticks in their hands for casting spells.
Their faces were things of nightmares; waxy skin and sunken eyes, teeth bared and stained yellow and brown, hair nothing more than the wisps of dust found on old corpses. Solene gripped her sword tighter, felt the calming ooze of holy magic as it channeled through the blade to her heart. The evil priests snarled in an evil language, something so foreign and foul the unnamed god did her the service of leaving it untranslated in her ears.
Magic stirred in the air around Solene and the girl, snapping and biting at them like hungry reptiles. The runes on Solene’s armor glowed blindingly and protected her, creating enough of a safe space that Clara wound up protected as well. Despite it she screamed and despite Solene’s training she turned to see. The girl was pale and shaking, a breath away from fainting straight out, the dagger clutched to her chest like an article of faith that would save her from the slathering monster that hovered, half built over her tiny body. Solene twisted around, but that put her back to the priests so she twisted again, balanced between priests and monster with her back to the unopened door.
The shattered fragments of the minotaur were being rebuilt by the priests, shadows slithering through the cracks and holding it all in place. The creature’s eyes were stone, simple and unseeing, but breath hissed and steamed from its pierced nostrils as foam gathered at the corners of its twisted mouth.
Solene charged the monster, ground her sword’s edge against the forearm it brought up to protect itself. She managed to get the back of one foot near enough to Clara to give her a sharp backwards kick out of the worst of the fray. The girl yelped, rolled, and scurried to a corner. Solene stopped watching after that and focused her attention on the minotaur with a vicious snarl.
It swung its arm away from her blade, sparks flying at the contact, and thrust its head down into her chest in the short moment before she could regain herself.
Pain even the holy runic armor couldn’t save her from exploded across her ribs as the metal buckled slightly. The beast pushed and Solene struggled to keep her footing, forced to back away in a quick, awkward scuffle. Her sword dropped and she braced both her gauntleted hands against the horns of the minotaur’s massive stone head. She locked her knees, held her legs, and strained her shoulders as she began to push back against the beast.
There was a wild howl followed by a crash, and the sickly overwhelming stench of fresh blood flooded the room.
Brigh and her blood fever.
Rinn threw himself against the back of the minotaur, teeth grinding and claws scrambling with the too smooth stone of the monster. His weight disrupted the delicate balance between her and it, and as the hound slipped against the creature Solene managed to knock its head to the side. Finally free of its horns she lunged for her sword, tumbled, and caught it up in a movement not quite as elegant as she would have liked. She struck out at the minotaur’s cloven feet, shouting with god given vengeance at the bastardization of magic, and cracked one nearly straight through.
The minotaur made a noise like flint being struck too hard and threw Rinn from its back. The dog landed on its feet and circled around so that he and Solene had the monster between them. In the haze of battle she couldn’t catch sight of Clara, but couldn’t find the ease of mind to worry too much. She could make out the sound of screaming behind her, magic crackling, and flesh tearing. Brigh, she thought and feared what might happen when the barbarian defeated the priests.
She would have to fight them both, Brigh and Rinn.
Solene rallied her faculties as Rinn attacked again, using his body as a distraction for Solene to make the strikes. She chopped across the monster’s human shaped shoulders, cleaved her blade into the thick neck, lifted it swiftly and brought it down again until she felt it strike a notch of shadow. Pain lanced up her wrist into her chest, seeming to trace the line of dented armor. Darkness spewed up out of the fracture, pushing against Solene’s sword with all the force of a geyser. She gritted her teeth, strengthened her stance, and pressed further in with her sword.
The minotaur grunted something that might have passed for language, or might have been simple animal anger. Rinn grabbed it by one of its horns, hung the whole weight of himself from it, and dragged the beast off balance. Solene raised her sword and spun around to get force behind it, hacking up beneath the monster’s chin through the underside of its great neck. Her sword felt hot in her hands as more shadows fell from where man and bull were fused. The minotaur reached out, spittle flying and breath an inconsistent huff, and dragged its fingers into the gap between her breastplate and her helmet. It pulled her down onto her knees.
Solene winced at the feeling of the stone floor against her plate armor against her knees. She heard Rinn yelp coupled by the sound of a body skittering away. Hot slobber dripped through the eye slate of her helmet. Her skin crawled. She adjusted her grip on her sword and stabbed straight up. Grit peppered her eyelids, her cheeks. There was a high, dry rumble and a sound like hot air escaping a too long forgotten kettle. The beast stood still, crumbling slightly from where her sword pierced through neck and head. The tip of her blade protruded from between its ears, glowing runes pulsing in time with her pounding heart.
She forced herself upright and yanked the sword from the stone skull of the minotaur. Rinn held himself tight and low to the floor, eyes watching with a vaguely human sense of dejection. Solene closed her eyes and prayed.
Just as Brigh’s shoulder crashed into her back, Solene brought the pommel of her sword back and smashed it against whatever soft part of the barbarian was within reach. By the sound of the crunch it was her nose, and the following feeling of blood leaking through the crevices between helmet and body armor confirmed the suspicion. Brigh ignored the pain, more than likely was fueled by it, and got her legs around Solene’s waist and one arm wrapped around her neck. There was a blade in her free hand which she slashed against the already out of sorts seam of metal under Solene’s shoulder.
Solene let herself fall backwards, weight of her muscles and armor pressing the air from Brigh’s lungs with a bitter whoosh.
“You are not this,” she said haltingly as Brigh struggled beneath her, still stabbing wherever she could reach. “I say that you must cease, that light must shine, that your soul return.” Solene concentrated on the pain in her chest that was part injury and part a strange affection for the cursed woman. Brigh tensed and sputtered, a garbled and strangled noise as if she were drowning, managed to get the point of her dagger into the gap by Solene’s neck before her body went rigid and still.
“Is it… over?” Clara’s voice piped. “Is she…?”
Solene untangled herself from Brigh’s body, bloody beyond all comprehension, and stepped away as Rinn laid his head on his master’s chest and whimpered patiently. Clara skirted the now empty statue and the unconscious barbarian to press herself to Solene’s side. The holy knight reflected inward, felt no latent stirring of distress, and sheathed her sword. She looked over at the viscous remains of the priests. When Brigh fought in a blood fury she fought with no sense of restraint. Solene saw bones and organs shimmering in the bloody slick of bodies totally torn asunder. Clara gagged uselessly, stomach empty from vomiting earlier.
The girl threw Brigh’s dagger away and covered her face in her hands, half sobbing and half dry heaving. Solene frowned, thought to lay a hand on the girl’s shoulder, but thought better when she saw the shadow icor and stone dust that coated her gauntlets.
Though the odds of anything surviving in the areas Brigh cleared were minimal Solene investigated them anyway. She left Clara in the temple with Rinn and Brigh, much to the girl’s distress.
Solene went room to room, bloody scene to bloody scene, and purified the building of its unholy purpose. Outside of demonic portraits and statuettes, Brigh’s swathe of utter wanton devastation was the worst she saw and would have been too much for the girl to handle. Solene felt justified in leaving her behind.
In the basement she found one body soaked to the bone in blood and viscera, but miraculously alive.
“Is your sister Clara?” Solene asked.
“Yes,” the boy said, voice hollow and eyes distant.
Solene grabbed him up out of the cold, congealing bodily fluids. “Come with me,” she said. He tried to wiggle away, but the dampness of the black cloth clung to him. “This place is cleansed.”
“Oh,” the boy managed.
He began to cry as they made their way up to the main room, each step through the slaughter another desperate sob. She kept her hand on his shoulder, but it wasn’t for comfort.
Clara was rubbing Rinn on the stomach with a weak little smile when Solene and the boy returned. Brigh watched them from her place on the ground, eyes slitted to nearly nothing, paint ruined with the drying blood beneath her nose. The girl looked up at the heavy sound of armored footfalls and noticed Solene and the boy she dragged with her. The girl sprang up, tripped once over a shard of the minotaur, and threw her arms around the boy’s shoulders. She didn’t seem to care about the blood ruining her dress, and Solene thought there might be something heartfelt in that.
Brigh rolled into an upright position. Rinn rolled over to lay lovingly at her feet.
“Cal! I can’t believe it, Cal!” The girl exclaimed. The boy’s face was still slack and sick. His hands laid loose against Clara’s back. Solene watched him catch sight of Brigh, watched his throat bob in a repressed gag.
“That one stabbed me,” Brigh said from the floor, casual as could be.
Solene reached back and pulled out her sword, the metal ringing ominously in the silent room. Clara clung to her brother tighter, looking up at Solene as if she was a traitor of the worst sort. She resisted the urge to tell the girl that her brother was the traitor here, black robed and black hearted. Brigh did not.
“He was guarding a room of prisoners. People to sacrifice, I imagine, if I judged the look of the place right.” She stood, favoring a leg and a hip and making it all awkward and jerky. She left out the part of the story where she slaughtered those prisoners in a blood fury. Solene supposed it mattered little at this point. “He signed up to join them for the place to sleep and the full stomach, and left you in the street without even a word.” Family betrayal was like a crime for Brigh so she didn’t hold back in favor of feelings.
“Cal wouldn’t--” The girl started. The boy had nothing in his own defense.
“I will judge him,” Solene interrupted. She held her sword in front of her. “I cannot strike an innocent, so if he is innocent he has nothing to fear from me.” Clara held closer for a moment, as if to keep herself between Cal and the blade, but she stepped away with a face full of honest trust. Cal seemed, possibly, paler. He stared up at Solene with tear stained eyes. She lifted her sword and swung.
The next day, after a long rest and an inventory of their injuries, Solene and Brigh left the town with as little fanfare as when they entered. There was fresh paint on Brigh’s face and it hid the bruising that ringed her eyes, but not her swollen nose and pronounced limp. Solene wore light armor rather than her standard plate, and her hands were freshly wrapped in unction slathered bandages for the blisters the shadow magic had caused. Rinn was mostly untouched.
“You can never hurt an innocent, huh?” Brigh asked with a suspicious side eye. Solene frowned and kept her gaze forward.
“The unnamed god prevents it.”
“It’s not just a lie you tell commoners so they trust you better?”
“The unnamed god does not lie.”
Brigh paused, chewed her lip, and rolled her shoulders against her armor and pack. Solene flexed her hands into fists, felt a few blisters pop and seep against the motion.
“I must be seeing things then, cause I thought I saw blood on his neck. Like your sword nicked him.” Brigh turned to stare at her head on and Solene returned the favor. “Like you were going to cut his head off and decided not to at the last moment.” She smirked and her snaggletooth snuck passed her lip. “But I must be seeing things. You wouldn’t do that, spare an evildoer or whatever, right?”
“Not even me?” Brigh asked. She widened her smirk in self-satisfaction, winced as it stretched her freshly broken nose.
“I would not spare an evildoer. I am only a tool for the unnamed god’s whims,” Solene stated solidly and her mouth burned because she was lying.

©August 2016 S. Creaney

S. Creaney lives in New York City and is a passionate fan of fantasy fiction, especially sword and sorcery. This is her first published story.]]>