Category Archives: Fantasy

Fantasy fiction

Very Short Tales Of Non-Adventure, Part 1

For  a while, I’ve had in the back of my head assorted tales of things not going according to trope, mostly for the fun of it. Here’s the first, hastily scribbled (if a keyboard counts as scribbling) in an ICU waiting room a few days ago. At some point in the future, I might edit/polish it up a bit, or a lot, but for now, it meets the standard of quality I’ve always aspired to for this site: Free, and worth every penny.

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The tavern was old, dating back at least to the Second War Of The Four Lords, though some claim it was built on the spot where an even older building had burned down. Dark smoke curled like grapevines around the rafters, filtering the red, flickering, light from a dozen torches set around the walls. A crimson glow emanated from the kitchen, as did the smell of roasting meat and the sounds of the innkeeper barking orders at his apprentices.

The four of them sat in silence, the silence that comes from old comrades who know each other so well that communication doesn’t require words. Drerigari, the oldest, was eye-level with her oversized and overflowing stein, the benches here not being built with dwarven anatomy in mind. Gallian, sometimes called Blueknife or Bleeding Wind, seemed to slip in and out of the shadows, occasionally startling a server when one stopped by. Cerridian of Dry Lake was her opposite; loud, boisterous, and seemingly incapable of keeping still. Last was Sir Jerrem Mornfeld. Technically, he no longer merited the “Sir”; his oaths of service long-since voided by a matter of honor, but few would dare tell the huge man that, even if he was momentarily not wearing his almost legendary suit of giant-forged armor. He was, after all, still carrying a greatsword made of red crystal, one which muttered in dead languages and reeked of old blood.

Most of the tavern’s other patrons were wise enough to stay well away from them; even if the four lacked any malicious intent and wanted nothing but a quiet drink, everyone knew their kind, and those who drew near to such types would find themselves sucked in to their activities, intentionally or not. It was simply how things worked, as sure as the turning of the seasons. One old man, though, perhaps so old he no longer cared about his fate, pulled a chair over to their table and sat down, facing them.

The four exchanged glances. By unspoken decision, it was Sir Jerrem who spoke for the group this time.

“May we… help you?” he asked, his voice measured and eerily calm.

“No, no, no, no, yes… I can help you!” said the newcomer. “Heard you was going along the Old North Road, towards Crownbreaker Ford.”

Sir Jerrem nodded, gesturing for the man to continue. Though none but her allies saw it happen, one of Gallian’s unguessably large collection of knives made its way to the palm of her hand.

“Well, just thought I’d warn you, then, ‘bout the bandits!”

“Bandits.” Jerrem’s voice was now flat.

“Oh, aye. Small army of them. Hardly anyone can travel up the Old North Road. The weak they just plain rob bare, the strong pay a ‘toll’ to avoid too much trouble. Terrible thing.”

Drerigari snorted. “Have you no guards in this town? No patrols? No warriors?”

“Aye, of course we do! But the bandits don’t come out when they spy a great force of armed men tromping about, and we can’t root them out of their hidey-hole. No one knows where ‘tis, for one!”

Cerridian tossed a coin in the air, where it seemed to vanish, then casually plucked it from behind the old man’s ear. “So, a noseless hound could follow this trail. You know where they are, and you’ll tell us… for a small fee.”

“No, no, no, yes, a small one. Very small.”

Negotiations then commenced. When they were done, the old man left happily, and the four took out an old parchment map.

“Those bandits are ill news for this poor town”, whispered Gallian.

“True. Most trade has to go up and down that road. The bandits are causing these folk much misery.” Jerrem finished off  his drink.

“Well, there’s the place the old man described.” Cerridian’s finger circled a small squiggle on the map. “An old mill. Probably part of the remains of a great castle, filled with twisty underground passages.”

Drerigari snorted with laughter. “I know something of that! I’ll bet there’s warrens all through these woods. Using them, those bandits can pop up anywhere, anywhere at all. Clever rodents. Hm. I wonder what else might be lost deep down among those ancient halls?”

Gallian studied the map some more. “Can you guess the likely bounds of these tunnels?”

Drerigari’s finger traced a complex line around the map. Sir Jerrem followed after with a pen, making quick marks. They all looked at the completed project.

“I think I see what we have to do”, said Jerram. “I don’t like it, but we all know it’s the only way.”

Cerridian flipped a slim blade into the air, caught it, and stuck it back into his boot. “Yes. We’ll end up being a day late for our meeting, but if we go here,” he tapped the map, “and then here, we’ll completely skirt the bandits’ territory. We got our coin’s worth from the old man.”

Sir Jerrem began to fold the map. “We certainly did. One pointless distraction avoided, at any rate.”

The group departed the inn, completely avoided the highwaymen, and made it to their meeting in the capital without any incident, though they were mildly rebuked for their lateness.

The end.

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Rereading this, it occurs to me this band might someday run into Haldebard.

Ye Olde Magick Shoppe

Something that just walked into my head… not sure if it’s part of anything larger, or not…


 

One Fine Day At Ye Olde Magick Shoppe

Haldebard sighed. The war… well, the nearest war… was over, and that meant the sad tromp of soldiers back from the battlefield. Conscripts graciously allowed to return to what might be left of their farms, mercenaries regrouping to seek more work, and sworn soldiers of the Duke finding that the coin counters had counted the coins and it seemed a few too many soldiers were surviving to collect their promised pensions, so some would have to go. Haldebard didn’t particularly care about that; he was of the opinion that the tax collectors already took too much, not that he’d share that opinion, due to the high value he placed on his own life.

He knew what happened after wars. They’d come here. They’d all heard tales and legends and rumors, of how some trophy taken in battle turned out to be worth a dragon’s horde, and they expected him to empty his coffers into their pockets in return for whatever rusted blade they dropped on his counter. The door creaked open. First customer of the day.

Haldebard glanced up. Yes, exactly like the dozen from yesterday. Dirty, battle-worn, a clanking pack full of armor, stringy hair that might be brown under all the filth, scars that showed he wasn’t important enough to get the attention of a godsworn healer and had to make do with the services of some random leech who tramped after the army, mixed in with pack boys and camp followers. The man inhaled deeply and straightened up, undoubtedly of the opinion that he, a big, tough, manly, soldier, would easily cow the frail merchant into parting with his coin.

“No”, Haldebard said, before the customer could even open his mouth.

“Hail to thee, merch…er… what?”

“No”, Haldebard repeated. “No. I’m sure it’s a word you’ve heard many times. Let me assure you, it means more coming from me than from whatever village girl you last heard it from.”

“I don’t… she didn’t… wait, what? Look, I’ve got something…” He started to fumble at his belt. Haldebard held up his hand.

“Nooooo”, he said, as if talking to a slow child. “You probably can’t read, but if you could, the sign outside the door would say ‘Arcane Rarities And Curios’. That means, ‘magic’. Booga booga! Wizard stuff. Get it?”

The soldier nodded enthusiastically, like a happy puppy. “Yes, yes! This dagger, uh…” he was still trying to detach it from where it was tangled in his pack straps. Civilian garb did not suit him well. “…it’s magic, it…”

“No”, Haldebard said once more. He then pointed to the crystalline lattice over the door. “See those?” The man turned to look, nearly knocking over a nearby display with his pack.

“Those”, Haldebard went on, “glow and sparkle when any kind of magic passes beneath them. They didn’t glow. You bear no magic, not a jot, not a tiddle, not a dram. You have nothing to sell to me. I can tell by looking at you that you are not here to buy. This is a business. People who come here either buy, or sell, or they get out.”

The soldier reddened. “Listen, you… you… shopkeep! I nearly died protecting this land, so you can…” He didn’t see Haldebard glance, barely for an instant, at the suit of armor in the corner. He did see the suit animate and draw its blade, and begin to glow a sickly green, which played over the countless items scattered around the store.

Haldebard fixed his gaze on the would-be customer. “You can get out. For the moment. In about three heartbeats, you won’t have that option.” The animated armor, clearly without a wearer, clanked forward grimly. The customer backed out in a panic, tripped on some loose cobblestones, and fell. The door slammed shut. Haldebard sighed again, signaling his metal guardian to return to its dormant state. “And it’s not even second bell.” He opened up his latest acquisition, a selection of parchments from Old Talstane, each of which contained an animated, erotic, sequence that would replay endlessly, and considered if pricing them individually, or as a collection, would be preferable.

The door opened again. Haldebard looked up, prepared to dismiss this one as well, then noticed the gems were sparkling. Even if the profit for whatever bit of feeble hedge-magic he was carrying would be small, it would still be a profit. He forced a thin smile onto his face, an exercise that was physically painful.

“Greetings and welcome to my humble store. Do you seek items of great power, or do you offer me something to peruse?” Haldebard evaluated the new entrant even as he listlessly recited the greeting. A bit cleaner than the last. Dark skinned, black hair that showed signs of recent tending but which was a bit out of sorts from travel, gold rings set with stones small enough to be authentic, clothes that were well-worn but of good quality and which needed cleaning more than mending.

The man didn’t respond immediately to Haldebard’s question. He was slowly scanning the store, eyes passing over the glowing bottles, the sparkling amulets, the collections of bones and mummified flesh, the rings and knives in secure cases of what seemed like glass, the armor golem, the books and scrolls. When he was done, his face twitched slightly and he made a barely perceptible nod to himself, then seemed, for the first time, to actually notice Haldebard.

“Selling. Are you the owner?”

Haldebard nodded.

“Good. I hate wasting time only to get the” — his voice became a high, sycophantic, whine — ‘Ah, I must get my master’s approval to make such a purchase’ drivel.” He detached the scabbard from his side and set it on the counter. “Here. What’s this worth?”

Haldebard looked up at him. “Are you offering the scabbard or the blade, or both?”

“Blade. You can keep the scabbard for free, if you want. Hell, keep it for free if you don’t want, I don’t feel like carting it around anymore.”

“I am not a bonepicker. Toss it where you wish, just not in here. Now then…” He drew forth the sword, tilting and turning it, feeling the weight, and holding it up to catch the few rays of sun that filtered through the windows. (Haldebard had found that a gloomy pallor was what customers expected, and had had a small illusion placed to provide the proper atmosphere.)

He made a few soft tongue-clucking noises as he considered the sword. Hm. Decent quality. Clean. Shiny. As a sword alone, it would fetch a fair price. Haldebard strapped a brass and silver monocle to his right eye, and closed his left. The room became a swirl of colors and patterns, but he focused closely on the blade. The counter top had no enchantment on it, not even for cleanliness or security; indeed, it was fashioned of wood known for rejecting all enchantment, so it formed a clean, black, backdrop for the study of auras.

The blade had one, so the man at least was offering something worth buying. The gems detected only magic, not where it was held on the person. Haldebard spent several minutes watching the auras at play, ignoring his customer’s increasingly dramatic sighs, fidgets, and foot-tapping. Strands of crimson and cinnamon, overlaid with sparkles of azure that flared and faded. Flare time was one… two.. three counts… luminescence, about three tenth-wisps… two dominant hues, two, no three, subordinate… good coverage, no dead spots or transient whorls… hm. Not, not quite. There was a wavering in the aura, a flicker here and there. A trivial flaw. It probably meant the blade turned green on the Solstice, or made wine sour in the skin randomly, or some such. Minor.

“Fifty gold. I’m in a good mood.”

What?

“Fifty. Five followed by… ah, wait, you’re Tulachian, aren’t you? Uhm, El. El gold.”

The man snarled impressively. Haldebard had seen better, but on rare occasion.   “My parents were Tulachian. They settled here. I was born not ten miles from this town, in the Province Golthar. Do I sound Tulachian? Do I wear Tulachian armor? No! I am not confused as to the meaning of ‘fifty’, I am confused as to how a scrawny thing like you has the balls to insult me to my face with that ridiculous offer!”

Haldebard considered signaling the golem, but held back. This was just bargaining.

He smiled blandly, his face the epitome of calm reason. “Hardly an insult. It’s a year’s pay for many.”

“And it’s a thousandth part of what this blade is worth! Are you actually a merchant of the mysteries, or are you a delusional junk peddler with gullible clients?”

Haldebard sneered. “Fifty thousand gold? If someone’s delusional here, he’s not on this side of the counter. You fought for the Duke in the war, yes?” Haldebard didn’t wait for an answer. “I am a loyal subject of his Highness, and I have great respect and admiration for those who serve him and protect our realm, and of course my tiny… but very well respected… shop. I will double my offer.”

“Two piles of shit does not tempt me more than one pile. Still…” he made a great show of looking around. “It’s obvious times are hard and you are poor. The taxes imposed must have truly broken you, to judge from what you’ve got here. Twenty thousand.”

“My penury”, Haldebard continued, “has more to do with my excessive generosity than with the perfectly reasonable taxes requested by our noble Duke. Two hundred. I’ll be lucky if I can sell it for that, there’s rather a surplus of blades coming in now, you know.”

“A surplus of junk that some wandering fraud passed off on some clueless peasant as a blade of power, you mean. I’m not surprised you’d be taken in by such things, based on the other crap in this place. It reminds me of a rover’s ‘wagon of wonders’. Ten thousand, because I am bored and tired and seek to move on. Be grateful my ill mood is one which moves me to end this bargaining, rather than your life.”

Haldebard drummed his fingers. “Your sword truly is magic, or I wouldn’t be wasting my time, but, sir, skilled as you surely are as a soldier, it is possible that some ‘wandering fraud’ may have convinced you that this sword is much more than it is. It’s not exactly Tollorian’s Lost Blade now, is it?”

The man tapped angrily on the turquoise runes on the sword’s hilt. “See that? You ought to know those signs. This is Jandurial, Slayer of Colgoran!” He smiled smugly.

Haldebard smiled back, equally smugly. “Oh, it has a name. Well, that’s special. My left boot is called Clompy, Slayer Of The Large Hairy Spider I Found In My Privy Last Tuesday. Will you pay me a thousand gold for it?”

The soldier gaped at that, like a shia-haz master whose opponent had made a wholly unexpected move, but this flash of confusion lasted only for an instant. Haldebard was ready to activate the armor and a dozen more defenses, but then the dark-skinned man laughed, quite loudly. Something in the back room was awakened briefly by the noise. “Ha! By the gods, man, your balls must be half your body weight! Five thousand, then.”

Haldebard sighed once more, and tapped a single finger on the wood as he pondered. He had to admit, he was starting to enjoy this battle more than he had any such session in months. It might not be bad to have a man like this as a friend, as there were occasionally things to be dealt with outside the shop he’d spent years weaving into a fortress for himself.

“Look”, he said, trying to let his face and tone express his actual feelings, which required some effort; putting on various masks was so instinctive he found he had a hard time taking one off. “Your parents were merchants, weren’t they? I’ve only ever heard of Tulachians being allowed to actually gain citizenship if the came here with gold. So you must know something of trade, and you know what I’m saying now is truth. There are laws more dire and unforgiving than those of any noble or mad mage, and those are supply and demand. With the war ended, there’s a lot of supply, and not a lot of demand. Yes, I’m offering less for this than you’d get a year ago… and if, oh, let’s be honest, when another war breaks out, I’ll be selling this for… well, a lot more than I’m going to pay you for it, but still far less than you think it’s worth.”

The soldier nodded, slowly, his lips tightly clenched. “You do speak truth. It pains you. I also speak the truth — this blade is enchanted. You have already admitted as much.”

“Oh, it’s magical. I don’t deny that. I wouldn’t have wasted five breaths on you if it wasn’t… ask the clumsy sot who was here before you. It’s just not a particularly special magic. It really doesn’t matter if it’s got a name. People name everything.”

The soldier couldn’t entirely hide his slight smirk. “Even boots.”

“Even boots, yes. What matters is the might of the enchantments upon it… and if you’ll accept for a moment I am still speaking truth, these enchantments are weak. There’s the usual basics every craftmage starts with just to make the blade survive the enchanting process… it is stronger than all but the best iron, it rusts very slowly, the edge requires only the barest maintenance to keep sharp. There’s an enchantment of accuracy on it, it will twist a bit to dodge a parrying blade or pull your arm forward, just a little, to turn a miss into a hit, but it’s a minor one, something an adept of the first mysteries could manage. It also has what’s sometimes called the iron-bite, it will rend and tear when it passes through a living man, so the wounds it leaves behind are somewhat more grievous… but, again, a basic version only. It’s also got a minor flaw. I’d be inclined to undue generosity if you’ll tell me what it is, so I don’t need to spend a week figuring it out.”

“Flaw? You may know magic, but not blades. I lived by this blade. If it was flawed, I would have died by it.”

“As you say, you know blades, I know magic. Do odd things happen around the sword? Does it make sounds like a chicken? Does food taste strange to you? Do you find bees circling your head even in places where there are no bees?”

“No. And I’m not going to tell you of every time I banged my head or stubbed my toe so that you can then claim this is a cursed sword of toe-stubbing and cheat me. Eighteen hundred.”

Haldebard considered. It was very possible the soldier knew full well it was flawed, but wasn’t going to admit it. It was also possible he’d never noticed any pattern to his ale souring or his sudden fascination with sheep. “Fine. I’ll need to keep it off the shelves until I can fully analyze it, then, so I need to consider lost sales… Fourteen hundred.”

“You won’t be selling it for at least a year, long enough for you to do all sorts of mumbo-jumbo. Fifteen. Fifteen hundred.”

Haldebard finally nodded. He produced a small sheet of parchment and uncorked a bottle of ink. The fluid inside gave off a sulfurous stench and bubbled for no good reason. He wrote, in large, flowing, letters, “Tender unto the bearer coin or certificates of value equal to one thousand, five hundred, true coins of the Emperors’s own mint, bearing the Duke’s mark, to be drawn from the account of Haldebard, authorized and guildsworn dealer in items of mystery.” He waited a few moments for it to dry, then breathed upon the page. The letters sparkled. He rolled it up, dripped wax on it, and sealed it. “Here. Take this to the counting house. They’ll give you what you’re owed, minus their usual fee. He braced himself for the usual burst of stupid questions, but the soldier simply took the rolled parchment, gave a polite nod, and left.

The gems above the door flickered as he walked out. Haldebard considered this. His customer evidently bore more magic than this blade. Interesting… either he didn’t know he had other enchanted items, or he needed them more than he needed hard coin.

His gaze returned to the sword. Might as well get it done, he thought. He turned back and took out a large wooden stand, big enough to hold an opened tome. He placed two sheets of parchment on it, and used his finger to trace a pattern on the left-hand sheet. There was a flutter in the air when he was done with the gesture. He also retrieved a flask of more mundane ink — bloodtwinned ink was expensive, and used only when demanded as a proof against forgery.

He began to write, in smaller, tighter, letters than bill of sale. “Purchased on the fourteenth day of the spring of the sixth year of Duke Margolith the Second, long may his wise and just rule continue, a blade, alleged by the seller to be called Janduriel, and bearing two enchantments of the first order, the first being of accuracy, the second being of ironbite, and a flaw or warp, of minor degree, yet to be identified. I attest, on pain of all applicable punishment, I saw no sign of blasphemous powers, diabolic nature, or entrapped spirits. A payment of fifteen hundred was made, the guild’s fees to be added to my annual tally and paid at the appropriate time.”

As he wrote on the left sheet, each stroke appeared, echoed, on the right sheet. When he was done, he took one of the twin pages and placed it in a thick binder, then took the other, rolled it, then sealed and marked it, placing it in a small oaken box, one decorated in a complex pattern of curves dotted with silver droplets, below the counter.

I swear, he thought to himself, the damn parchment-maker’s guild must have dirt on the elders of every other guild in the kingdom, the way they keep coming up with new ways to make us consume their wares. He tapped four of the many points on the box’s carved surface, and there was a faint, musical, chime. He didn’t bother opening the box to verify that the scroll was no longer within it.

“Well”, he said, to the empty store, “might as well analyze that flaw.” Years before, Haldebard reflected, he could have sold it “as is”, or with a suitably cryptic “may contain as yet undiscovered enchantments, possible of great power”, warning, but the guild frowned on that now, and there was a saying “It is safer to have a demon smile at you than to have the guild frown at you.”

The blade was still sitting on the voidwood. He rolled his arms and twisted his back, looking forward to a long session of standing still and staring. Considering for a moment, and, he admitted to himself, looking for any excuse to put off doing the actual job, he wandered to the back room and brought out a massive tome, Jovar’s Compendium, Sixth Edition, a great work filled with pages which showed colors and patterns of auras, all of the documented types, levels, and degrees, along with their many “signatures” — tones, scents, even the summoning of memories or brief flashes of emotion. One day, Haldebard hoped to be able to afford to bind a book imp to it, so he could simply describe what he wanted and have the imp find the correct page. One day… maybe if there was a decent war in a year or two, maybe if he could turn the junk he was buying around at a decent clip… dream on, he told himself, dream on.

He heard the door open even as he was returning with the book. As he hurried back to the front room, he looked up at the gems, and saw they remained dull and lifeless. Stomping through the store was, of course, another warrior back from the war, this one with an immense sack. The newcomer bellowed, “Hey there, mister magic guy! I gots stuff for y’all!” Before Haldebard could even begin to tell him to get out, he upended the sack, dumping an astounding quantity of random items out onto the counter.

Haldebard stared. He knew none of them were magic, but what did this oaf think he was selling?

The oaf smiled broadly. “Four orc livers, a dagger, two gutripper eyes, a scabbard, some large rocks, I think that’s an eagle’s feather, the beak of a mmmph” Haldebard had shot out a hand and clamped it over the speaker’s mouth. He then held up a finger, in a common gesture of a teacher asking for a moment’s silence.

“Why are you bringing me this collection of butcher’s scraps and well-spoiled spoils of war?” He slowly removed his hand to allow the customer to answer.

“To sell! All the guys tolded me, when we marched home, to collect anything that looked kind of interesting, ’cause someone here would pay good coin for it!”

“Did they, now?”

“Uh yup! And when I got here, I were tolded that if I had odd stuff to sell, this were the place to sell it!”

The shopkeeper looked at him quizzically. “Is that a Celarian voice I hear? You are far from home, if so.”

The soldier nodded his head rapidly, reminding Haldebard of a pet desperate for a treat. “Yup, I sure am! I went off to war to seek mah fortune, I did, and won’t they all be surprised when I come back with all the gold you’re gonna give me for this! So, what do I get?”

Haldebard nodded. “They won’t be too surprised, I’m sure. You must have written to them on your journeys. I understand that all outposts sworn to the Duke will accept messages and have them carried homewards for soldiers.”

“Aw, I never got time to learn none of that scribblin’. They’ll just be happy to see me when I come back with mah gold. An’ I ain’t got much time, I wanna go get drunk, so tell me what I get!”

Haldebard said nothing, but glanced over at the emerald-armored golem, then at the seemingly stuffed longtoothed leatherwing hanging overheard, then at the jar in the corner which contained a roiling ball of dark mist and crackling lightning. All three silently and swiftly animated and moved towards the customer.

He didn’t bother watching the outcome, but began to scribe another document. “Unto Zamriff, sometimes called The Odd-Fingered, and member in good standing of the registered order of reanimators, greetings. I have one for you, usual rates. Fair warning, this one was stupider alive than most of yours are after treatment, but that doesn’t get you a discount. Send someone after ten bells for the pickup. By the way things have gone so far this morning, you might want to send a small wagon.” He placed the scroll in the box below the counter and tapped out a different pattern of sigils, and was rewarded with a slightly different chime.

Well, that will help me make rent this week, if nothing else.

He looked at the golem, waiting patiently. Haldebard pointed to the pile of junk left on the counter. “That to the waste dump in the alley, and that”, pointing to the body on the floor, “to the basement storeroom.” The golem went about its work.

The city bells tolled. Haldebard counted. Three. Three bells. By all the gods, it’s only three bells. There’s no way I’ll get anything accomplished today. Reluctantly, he set aside the tome and placed the blade under the counter, then waited for the door to open once more.


 

Author’s Notes

This work is a bit unique compared to almost anything else I’ve posted here, for the really trivial reason that it was written in the WordPress editor. Yeah, that’s a pretty low bar for ‘unique’. Don’t ask me why; I just started writing it, and this is what came out.

The whole thing kind of arose in a spontaneous flowering after the ‘Clompy’ line walked into my brain a few weeks ago and demanded to be let out. 90% of this was written in one spasm (plays have acts, symphonies have movements, writing has spasms), and the rest written in two or three smaller, I dunno, let’s call them twitches. Editing, as always for stuff like this, was minimal; what you see is pretty much what first came out. I do see some concepts for a larger tale here, some hints of something considerably longer but not any more original, and I may see if they coagulate in my mind, or not.

And, yeah, the hapless doofus at the end is my pathetic little swipe at the MMORPG tradition of bringing back orc tongues and boar testicles to any merchant, any one at all, and demanding they pay you good money for them. Someday, the merchants will strike back.

Lastly, the title is a callout to the late, great, Don Martin’s titles for his cartoons in MAD.

The Name Of His Wife

The Name Of His Wife

Jacob Brown sat on  a rough wooden chair. The light from a single flickering candle illuminated sod walls. He set down a wooden bowl filled with watery gruel, which was his breakfast, and blew out the candle. Dawn would come soon. No sense wasting wax.

There was a place across from him, a place where his wife usually sat. It was empty. It was always empty. Ever since…

Yesterday?

Last week?

Forever?

He shook his head. How could it be forever, he wondered. I mean, she was here. Until those damn orcs came. Until…

He struggled, for a moment, to remember her more precisely. Her laugh. The color of her hair. The things they fought about. Nothing came to him. All he knew was, she was gone, taken in a raid, and he missed her, and would do anything if someone could save her. He knew the orcs kept prisoners alive for weeks or months. He had some hope.

Maybe I could….he thought, then stopped.

I can’t do anything. I’m no warrior. I can barely guide a plow, much less swing a blade.

The sun began to stream through the wooden shutters. Jacob stood up and walked to the door. Have to keep the farm running, he thought. Nothing else to do. Nothing else I can do. He spared one last glance at the empty place setting…was she really here only last night? Or was the raid last week? Why couldn’t he remember? Then he walked out.

There were Heroes there.

You always could tell Heroes. Their clothes were bright and varied. Their armor shone, or glowed, or burned with heatless fire. They wielded swords too large for a normal man to lift, much less swing around as if it were a twig, or they were themselves glistening with magical might, their very flesh aglow. Some walked in the shape of a wolf, but spoke with the voice of a man.

They were walking to his hut, crossing through his carefully sown fields, stomping the few shoots which had managed to spring to life. Spring…was it spring now? He should be planting…but that didn’t seem right…he didn’t remember plowing last week…but he must have. The fields were plowed. The fields were always plowed… but he never remembered plowing them.

No matter. The Heroes were approaching. He struggled to listen to them. Heroes were hard to understand unless they deigned to speak to you; to Heroes, simple farmers and smiths and innkeepers barely existed. Jacob knew the rules – don’t interfere with them. They are children of the Gods, and they must be accorded all courtesies. Accede to their requests, and be invisible if they don’t want to deal with you.

Lately, though, he’d found it growing easier to hear them. He wasn’t sure why, but he could grasp snatches of their conversation.

“…you sure this is the place? I think I started in this village.”, said one. He was garbed in the robes of a High Priest of Simmureyal, and an angelic halo girded his skull.

“Yeah, there’s the guard who lost his socks. Why are we wasting our time here?” said another, a woman in glistening azure mail, an ax big enough to fell oaks strapped to her back.

Then their leader spoke. He was a knight, wearing a suit of heavy spiked mail. Jacob wondered at the ease with which he carried himself. Such armor must weigh hundreds of pounds.

“Look, this is the right one. I know this guy who knows this guy who’s seen some of the hidden areas. He doesn’t care about this place, but he told me about it. We can be the first to do it.” He stopped. “Hey, there’s the farmer dude. Jacob Brown. That’s the right one!”

“About time,” said the Priest. “We must have gone through a dozen of these stupid hovels. They all look alike.”

The leader of the Heroes approached Jacob, who quailed back. The Hero smiled in a friendly way, his helmet disappearing as they were wont to do. He spoke to Jacob directly.

“Ho there, Farmer Jacob! What news have you?”

Jacob blinked in surprise. He’d never had a Hero speak to him before. He stammered for a second.

“Is he responding?”

“Hold on, he’s going to. I know this is the right one.”

Jacob finally found his tongue. “Ah…ah…I….greetings, noble knight! You honor my poor farm with your presence. Please, if there is anything I can do for you…”

“We seek to doeth good for thee, humble farmer!” spoke the knight. “Be there anything ye needeth?”

Jacob shook his head at the odd accent. It was, he reminded himself, the way of Heroes. Need….

“My wife!” he finally sputtered out. “My wife…she was taken by orcs in the raid…the Yellow Fang tribe…they lair in the hills north of here, there is a chance she might be alive…”

The Hero just looked at him, as if waiting for something else.

Jacob’s mind spun. He had to offer them something for their risk…he couldn’t ask them to fight and possibly die for him without some token…but he had nothing…nothing but…

“I have so little to offer you if you will help me, but I…I have an old sword which my grandfather wielded in the War Of Tyrant’s Fall. It might…might be worth something to a historian, perhaps….”

The Knight made an odd gesture with his fist and turned to his companions. “Yeah! This is the right one! Damn! We do this fast and we beat everyone else to it!” He then turned back to Jacob. “Fear ye not, old man! We’ll get thy daughter back from thee orcs!”

“Wife, good sir.”

“Ah…right, yes, your wife. We’ll getteth her. No problem!”

The ax-wielding woman spoke. “Hey, where’s Korson?” Even as she finished, though, there was a flicker, and a shape appeared, a tall, thin, man in long robes, surrounded by swirling mists of fog. “Sorry…got dropped. The cat yanked the interface right out of my socket. Took me a minute to reorient myself and plug back in. Let’s go!”

Jacob stared as he watched them saunter off, this time crossing his western fields. They were taking the single straightest line to the orc’s lair, ignoring the roads, moving with Heroic grace and speed over his fields and the thorn-strewn lands beyond. Could they do it, he wondered. Could they save my wife?

What was her name? Why can’t I even remember her name?

It was maddening.

He thought about trying to undo the damage the Heroes had done to his field, but realized that if… that when they returned with his wife, they’d just tromp back over them again. A headache was beginning to form; every time he tried to remember any fact about his wife other than “She’s gone”, the pain spiked. I have to talk to someone, he thought.

The village proper was less than a mile down the road. He passed old Sergeant Tomlinson as he headed there. The “Sergeant” was nothing of the kind, having never served in any organized army, but he had some idea of how to wield a sword and could raise the alarm if bandits or orcs were spotted.

“Ho there, Tomlinson! How goes?”

“Not too bad, not too bad. Realized I’d walked out on patrol today without me socks on, if ye can believe it! Fortunately, there was a gnome walking by here looking for odd jobs, so I sent him. Nice little fella.”

Jacob frowned. “Didn’t you… didn’t you leave them behind yesterday, too? And wasn’t it some apprentice wizard you found to go fetch them for you?”

Tomlinson flushed. “Well, how daft d’ye think I am, losing my socks two days in a row! I think I’d remember if I lost ‘em twice…ah, here’s the fella now.”

Jacob watched as Tomlinson happily took his socks back and tossed the gnome a few copper pieces for his trouble. The gnome looked at Jacob oddly, as if searching for something, then shrugged and ran off down the road.

Tomlinson put on his socks gleefully. “So, where ye headin’ to?”

Jacob shrugged. “The village. I need…I need to talk to some people. Tomlinson…did the orcs raid last night? When did they come?”

“No orcs for a long time. Can’t recall any raids.”

“But…my wife…they took my…”

Jacob stopped. A shifty-eyed man in worn leather walked by them. Jacob flinched back, wary for the few coins in his pouch, but the man ignored him. Instead, he fixed a piercing glare on Tomlinson, then seemed to notice something and smiled.

“Hey, Sergeant. I don’t suppose you have anything you need doing?”

Tomlinson nodded. “Do indeed there! As it turns out, this morning, I forgot me socks…and the road is cold this day! My house is over that rise. If you’d be so kind as to fetch them for me…”

Jacob backed away and hastened for the town. Either the whole village was going mad…or he was.

***

The Green Gander Inn formed the physical and cultural center of the town. It was a large, two story structure, with a roof of thick thatch and walls of mortared stone braced by timbers. Smoke poured from the chimney, and the smell of roasting meats wafted out. A steady stream of people dashed in and out of the place, running pell-mell to and fro. Jacob knew none of them; they were all apprentices of one sort or another – young men eager to take up the mercenary’s call, novices fresh from seminary, would-be sorcerers still struggling to master their first spells. There were a lot of them in the area, Jacob noted, though none of them were the children of anyone he knew. They never seemed to settle here, either… just vanish into the great large world beyond the village, to return on occasion as Heroes, or never to return at all.

The inside of the inn was brightly lit by oil lamps and a roaring cookfire. Jacob looked around, and finally spied Sackson. “Sack”, as he was commonly known, was a fixture at the Gander. Jacob pulled a stool up and sat down next to him. The apprentice’s chatter was simply a vague buzz at this point.

Sack stopped drinking for a brief moment, raised his glass in acknowledgment, then downed the contents in a single gulp. The bartender quickly replaced it.

“What’s up, Jake?”

“You didn’t hear? The raid? My wife?”

Sack frowned. “The raid…Right. Orcs attacked the village last…night, was it? Got your wife. Tragic. Here. Have a beer on me.” A coin appeared in his hand and was flicked to the bartender; a second mug was quickly placed on the bar, in front of Jacob, who ignored it.

“Sack…we’ve been friends for a while right?”

“Ever since we were kids.”

Jacob nodded. “What was my wife’s name?”

Sack’s face froze. Totally. All hints of life vanished. For a second, Sack became a flesh-colored statue. Then he returned to normal. “I….I don’t know. Can’t remember. Too much booze, I guess….” He seemed suddenly troubled.

Jacob continued. “You’re my best friend, so you must have been at my wedding. When was it – spring, summer, or fall?”

Sack sat the beer down. “I don’t know.” He looked down at his hands, then around at the bar, as if seeing them for the first time. “Why don’t I know?”

Jacob’s voice began to rise. “Who were her parents? Was she born in this village?”

Sack was backing away, his eyes wide. “I don’t know, I don’t know! Why are you asking me this?”

Jacob grabbed his friend by his burly shoulders and shook him. “Because I don’t know either! She was my wife, Sack, my wife, and I can’t even remember her face!”

People were staring. A mercenary youth, a battered and worn greataxe slung over his back, approached him. “Pardon, sir, but if you have any foes you need slain…”

Jacob practically spat on him. “Piss off.”

The mercenary faded back into the crowd. Jacob whirled back on his friend. “Sack, when did you last leave this bar?”

“Uhm…last night, I suppose. I mean, I have to go home sometime, right?”

“Where do you live? Which house? In town? Out in the fields?”

Sack said nothing. He began to look more frightened.

“Did you leave last night? Do you remember leaving? Do you know what the sun on your face feels like?”

Sack stood up suddenly and kicked the chair away. “I’m leaving now.”

Jacob smiled. The two of them would solve this. There was an answer to be found. They both strode to the inn’s door. Jacob noted the buzz of noise from the visitors was growing louder; he allowed some of it to filter in.

“…he’s leaving?”

“Didn’t think he did that.”

“He never leaves. He’s been here since, like, the alpha.”

“Must be some new event.”

“We ought to follow them….”

Several of the crowd began to cautiously tag along. Jacob ignored them. The pair passed through the door.

Sack vanished as he set foot over the threshold.

Jacob’s eyes widened, He called out for him. “Sack! Sackson!” He ran back into the bar, hoping to see him at the stool at the end, but it was still empty. The milling crowd began to press in on him, asking about his friend, asking if he needed anything done.

Jacob cursed, and forced his way out of the crowd. A dwarf holding a small leather purse raced past him, heading for Sack’s old seat, then stared in confusion.

“Huh? He despawned? What’s up? I’ve got a turn-in!”

Jacob just ran.

***

He paced the length of his farmhouse, a fairly short walk. The old blade lay on the table…if the Heroes did return with his wife, he wanted to have it out. The less time they spent tromping on his crops, the better.

He hoped they’d return soon, one way or another. The longer he sat alone, the more his thoughts raced around all the dark holes in his mind. He knew he knew things, but the things weren’t there. He knew he was born and raised here, but he had no clear memories of his childhood. He knew he had parents, but they had neither faces nor names. He knew he had a wife…and that was all he knew about her, the mere fact she existed.

There were voices and footsteps and the sound of newly sprouted plants being trampled.

Jacob listened.

“Are you sure we get the sword? We kind of messed up…”

“Yeah, don’t worry, I checked it out with my friend. It’s rigged. We can’t save her no matter what, there’s some kind of timer trigger. It’s more, you know, dramatic or something.”

“Right, like anyone bothers paying attention to that shit.”

Jacob’s face went slack. They…they didn’t save her? What?

There was a knock.

Soul-numb, he went to the door. The Heroes were there. The leader spoke.

“Greetings, Farmer Brown. We bear dark and grave tidings. We…”

“You didn’t save her.” His voice was low, calm, flat.

“Uhm… no. We struggled, racing to breach the orcs’ defenses before…”

“Get out. Leave this farm and never return.”

The Hero stopped. His fellow Heroes were looking at him in a mix of anger and confusion. “If we blew this….” one of them began. He waved them to silence and returned to Jacob.

“I am deeply sorry for your loss, but we did try. Surely that’s worth something…”

Words appeared in Jacob’s mind: I am glad you risked your lives to aid me. Here, take the blade anyway. It is of no use to me. He felt his mouth beginning to form the words.

“No!” he shouted.

He turned, spun, and grabbed the sword. He didn’t hand it over to the Hero, but, clumsily and gracelessly, jammed it into his gut. The sword suddenly flared in his hands, sheathing itself in violet fire. The rust and grime vanished, and the blade became mirror smooth.

The Hero he had just stabbed staggered back and gurgled a few times. Then he collapsed, flickering into nothingness before his body could hit the ground. The others stared in momentary shock, then recovered.

“Cool!”

“Wasn’t expecting that!”

“Guess this is the hard part! Let’s get ‘im!”

The three other Heroes charged. Jacob held the sword in what he hoped was a defensive position, and steeled himself to join his wife. Maybe, he thought, maybe, in the afterlife, I can ask her her name.

They came for him then, axes swinging and spells blazing. Explosions of color and light surrounded him…and he felt nothing. The blades passed through him. The blazing explosions destroyed his tiny home, but didn’t even singe his hair.

The Heroes were confused.

“What the?”

“He’s still flagged non-com to us! We can’t kill him!”

“Aw, shit, it’s bugged!”

“Hey, why hasn’t Valkor relogged?”

“I don’t know, I’ve tried rezzing him, but he’s not responding.”

“What’s that nutty farmer doing?”

Jacob suddenly understood.

He couldn’t be hurt by the Heroes, but he could hurt them.

And he wanted to.

Everything began to fall into place. Everything began to fit. All we are, he realized, is playthings for the Heroes. They’re chosen by the Gods, and we’re their toys. We exist to teach them, guide them, worship them, or be killed by them. That’s what we’re supposed to do. We barely have lives outside of them.

Enough. Gods be damned!

He launched himself into a clumsy attack, but the blade moved of its own will. Farmer Brown found himself ducking, weaving, and striking. The priest fell first, appropriately, since Jacob had spurned the gods. The warrior woman with the axe was next, her blade a phantom against his, unable to parry its lethal touch. The wizard ran when he saw his spells fail, but he was easily winded and Jacob felt as if he could do anything.

They left behind no bodies, not even blood on the blade. Whistling jauntily, Jacob returned to town.

***

It was dead.

Everyone in it seemed to be frozen, locked solid in position, Even the leaves blowing in the wind hung motionless in the air. The sky above had turned to ash, a uniform gray from horizon to dome. The sun had vanished, though it was still daylight.

Jacob entered the Gander.

Sackson was there. He was behind the bar, smashing open bottles and guzzling them down. He looked up.

“Jake? You… you’re still here… I mean, moving… I mean… what’s happening?”

“I killed some Heroes.” He sat down at the end of the bar and helped himself to some nuts. “Wasn’t even hard.”

Sackson dropped the bottle he was holding. It fell a foot or so, then hung in the air. “You… you what?”

“Killed them. I was sick and tired of being fodder for their games, so, I killed them. I cursed the gods and I drew my blade and I killed them.”

Sack’s face paled in horror. “You’ve killed the world.”

Madness glinted in Jacob’s eyes. “So what if I have? What kind of world is it, where the Gods push us around like stones in a child’s game? Besides, you’re still moving.”

“I don’t know why. I still can’t leave, Jacob, I try, and then I just go… someplace else, someplace filled with frozen fire, someplace made of words, and then I come back here. I think… I don’t think we have long to live.”

“My wife’s dead. And nameless. I don’t much care.”

Sack reached across the bar to try to grab him. Jacob stepped back, bringing up the blade.

“Jake… please… atone! Apologize! Beg the gods to forgive you… bring the world back!”

Jacob Brown looked upwards and spread his arms. “Do your worst!

The world began to fall apart. There was a howling, and all of reality changed. Every line suddenly seemed sharper, infinitely sharp, as if each component of the world were being pulled out of it.

Sack fell to his knees, half-sobbing, half praying. As Jacob watched, he saw things begin to crawl along his friend’s face and body. They looked, at first, like black worms, like an infestation of the most vile sort, but then Jacob saw they were words, strange words he could not understand. The blackness grew and grew until it covered his friend entirely, and then he vanished.

Nothing remained outside the inn. There was no darkness, there was no light, there was just nothing. The inn itself was dissolving around him, black wordworms crawling everywhere, turning everything into letters and then into emptiness.

No, thought Jacob. I’m not going. They’re not taking me.

He looked around in desperation. There was something… a rip, a tear in the world. Beyond it was light.

Jacob leaped for it as the inn finished dissolving. He felt pain, a horrible burning, He could feel his skin crisping, his fat melting, his bones cracking in the heat, but he struggled to keep his mind, to keep himself together. Then the pain, and all other sensation, vanished.

Epilogue I

BEGIN PRESS RELEASE:

Worlds Of Infinity, Incorporated, wishes to announce its deep regret and sorrow at the apparent deaths of four players of Quest Of The Heroes. While we mourn their loss and extend all condolences and sympathies to their families, we deny any possibility that a coding error or feedback loop could be responsible. While Quest Of The Heroes is currently offline until all investigations are completed, we at Worlds Of Infinity are certain that no action of ours could have led to this tragic situation.

BEGIN BOILERPLATE:

Quest Of The Heroes is the crown jewel of Worlds Of Infinity. After ten years of continuous play, it remains the most popular simulation in our lineup. We continue to dedicate full resources to it, including recent upgrades to our SimuReal Interactives, providing the best and most immersive experience possible. We Are The Makers Of Worlds TM.

Epilogue II

Jacob was somewhere else.

It was a strange place.

It seemed to be a room, but a room such as Jacob had never seen. A soft cloth was underfoot, almost like the hide of some odd animal, and there were large metal boxes, the strangest chests Jacob had ever seen, standing everywhere. The room seemed to go on forever, but every few dozen feet, there was a standing rectangle of green fire, the size and shape of a door. Here and there, far away, in the distance, he saw figures stepping out of or into the green doors, seeming to vanish or materialize. Some sort of magic portals?

He noted, with some grim delight, that he still bore the sword.

Jacob just stared in wonderment. This was no heaven or hell he had ever heard of.

There was a voice.

A man was there, strangely dressed. He didn’t look like a Hero…he looked, Jacob thought, like a tax collector.

“You!  You there! What are you doing here?”

Jacob fumbled for an answer. “I… I am lost…”

“Lost?” The man seemed angry. “Oh, please. I know that getup. The damn game is offline, so you’re busy hacking to see if you can find a backup server somewhere. This isn’t your stupid game. You’ve managed to log into the V-Space Accounting Database.” He sighed, then continued his rant.

“God damn useless sim addicts. Well, I don’t know how you got through the firewall, but you are in deep, deep, trouble. You know what the laws are for trespass into private zones? I’m getting a trace on your signal sent. Might as well unplug, the cops will be there soon. No sims in prison, you freaking fantasy nut. Now log, I’ve got accounting data to lookup. Whole company is in a tizzie thanks to you losers.”

Jacob tried to puzzle out bits and pieces of the speech. “You… you work for the gods? For the Makers Of Worlds? You are their servant?”

The man rolled his eyes. “Great, not only an addict, but one of those roleplaying weenies. Yeah, I work for ‘the Gods’. Sheesh, they’re going to love you in the can! Here’s a hint, loser – don’t drop the… ”

Jacob sliced his head off, cleanly. The body vanished. He expected as much now.

If I can kill the servants of the gods…and their Heroes…perhaps I can kill the Gods themselves.

He went to one of the rectangles and gingerly stepped into it. There was a moment of light, then a sense of dissolution, then he appeared somewhere else. It was another room, similar but not identical to the one he had just occupied.

I am in the realm of the gods. I wander their halls… and here, they can die.

This place is immense, he thought, but I have time. Somewhere in here, I will find the Gods. Then I will kill them.

He smiled a thin, cold, mad, smile.

I am a Hero, he thought. I have a Quest.


As with most of my fiction, this was written in a moment of desperate panic before my monthly writer’s group meeting.  It was posted ages ago on the original Joomla version of this site, then never moved over in the Great WordPress Revolution of… whenever I switched to WordPress. I think it was 2010. (Wow, that means I wrote the Star Rovers piece a long time ago.) Prior to reposting it now, I gave it a quick edit to clean up a few sentences. (No matter how many times you reread your own writing, you always find one word to change here, another word to add there…)

Anyway, I thought it might be interesting to mention that a small bit of the inspiration comes from a quest in Vanguard (ah, Vanguard… you could have been amazing. A perfect example of the harsh reality of “Ship Now or Ship Never”). You were sent to go rescue someone from lizardmen, but as soon as you got near to the village, the text box informed that you heard a scream and that they were dead. No way to save them. (Given how borked the NPC pathing/follow was, it’s probably for the best it wasn’t an escort quest.)

The Tale of Gramlak Boarskewer And Mister Kettlehead

By Way Of Introduction

This was submitted for the Blizzard 2010 writing contest; it did not win, place, or show. Sigh. The version below is very slightly different than the one actually submitted, mainly in that it was not cut back to 7500 words to fit the contest guidelines. Much as I’d like to delude myself into thinking otherwise, I doubt the extra 500 words would have made much difference. This story references places, characters, events, etc, in World of Warcraft and is not intended as an attack on their copyrights or trademarks yadda yadda yadda, the actual story is mine and remains copyright to me, etc, you know the drill.

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