Monday, April 7, 2014

3 Swords, pt.7 of 7.

"Come at me outlander!" Gourlak called to start. Azurdanak edged forward in a perfect three point stance until he saw the war chief rear back with his club. He darted in past the shield.
Gourlak's warpaint had a noxious stench that caught Azurdanak like a wall once into the war chief's personal space. He choked, which gave Gourlak enough time to adjust and knee him in the chest. The wind knocked out of him, Azurdanak staggered and got brushed back by the shield instead of crushed by the club. 
"Hah hah!" Gourlak cackled and moved in. He raised the club again and Azurdanak could only dodge. The chief's arms were longer than anticipated; the tip of the club brushed his face, loosening a tooth but leaving his skull intact. 
Azurdanak skipped sideways to put a bonfire between them as the crowd jeered. The fight had gone badly, quickly. Fighting stinking man-giants between blazing bonfires was not a lesson Thibidout had deigned to offer. 
Still, principles could be extracted. Azurdanak recalculated. He worked the timing of his breath into the timing of his steps. Wait for the swing, hold breath, move in, redirect the knee, shift Gourlak's balance, and topple him into the fire. Gourlak would not fall for that, but the scrum would create an opening in Gourlak's defense--an opening Azurdanak would exploit. He cycled through a score of different scenarios and contingencies as he and the war chief circled the bonfire. Satisfied that he had covered the angles, he stopped retreating and moved back into position.

When not directly engaged, Rone looked where the action was not. He often found, as he did now, that insight awaits the observer who watches the spaces between things. He stood 20 yards outside the camp, in the dark, in the tall grass, watching sparks mingle from the fires. And thus he alone noticed increased activity at the trading post. No longer were just heads peeking over the battlements; entire bodies stood on the walls. Frantic pointing and running. 
Rone turned his head in time to see a great, translucent wildcat, perhaps 30 feet tall at the shoulder. Crouched frighteningly nearby, its eerie yellow eyes trained on him. When it hissed, Rone observed it was missing its top canines.
He left his calm demeanor like a lizard leaves its tail, bolting toward the Urugan moot, not at all certain he would make it to the safety of the mortal crowd.

During all of this, Dahlia remained in Gourlak's tent, angry and aimless. Too proud to go out and watch Azurdanak do his boring sword dance, she sullenly carved genitalia into wooden surfaces with a table knife.
"M'lady, you have a special something," came a smooth voice with an Urugan burr. "Something no one can match."
Faster than a wing beat, her sword was in her hand. "Faugh. I might be amused to hear your voice if it weren't dripping from your greasy face."
"Lady, I gave you everything but offense! And this is your gratitude." He sauntered into the tent and let the flaps close behind him.
"I didn't give you the thrashing you're clearly asking for," she said. "Would you feel gratified to receive that now?"
"What I want from you are the teeth you stole from me. You don't know what they can do, and I still have need of them. If you give them to me now, I will save you from the indignities that will surely follow when my father crushes your skinny wizardling. If he hasn't already."
A great shriek from the crowd rose from outside the tent. "That is likely his end now," said Faugh. He leaned against the center tent pole. "Kill me and you will not escape the camp. Give me what I want and you'll leave unharmed, I promise."
Dahlia had considerably more respect for Azurdanak's fighting skill than she did two weeks ago, but she doubted he would best Gourlak. And she had no reason to hate Faugh other than instinct. But the instinct was very strong.
"After you relieved me of the Grimalkyn talismans, I followed you." Faugh narrated like a campfire tale spinner. "Imagine my delight when I discovered you had brought them to my very home. And then you blundered into my father's ill graces. How easy it would be to reclaim them! 
"Soolteg would never have missed them if you hadn't brought them back, of course. That man has more sacred bones than an ossuary. But once you did, he was bound to sense their power and tie his interminable sense of foreboding to your arrival. I couldn't have come back into my exiled home without your ruckus. But you did facilitate my return. Omens upon omens. What a fortuitous time for my reinstatement. When I reveal your possession of the talismans, I will be --- not forgiven, perhaps -- but tolerated again. How convenient."
"Faugh, I don't know what you're really up to," said Dahlia, "but I know why whores paint their faces. And your cheeks are too damn rosy," she said eyeing the distance to the tent flaps. "You care about yourself above all else. So here's what will happen in the next minute. I will leave this tent. In exchange, not only will you live, but you will keep at least one of your eyes. It could go even better for you if you stay quiet and calm."
"Calm?" he said merrily. "Of course. Quiet? Never one of my strengths." And with that, he kicked the center post of the tent, bringing the leather edifice down on them both.

Rone charged pell mell through the moot with the Grimalkyn scant feet behind. Now in the light of the bonfires, it was revealed. The great ghostly wildcat was mottled in color--gray on the face and head, darkening to an ochreous color along its spine, arched and threatening. Its sides were spotted dark and light and freakishly translucent. It loomed over the menhirs and tents. With one swipe, it could tumble half the camp. 

"The Dreads!" Soolteg looked up and babbled. "Pravas Ka, Eater of Memory, walks the night! These outlanders brought the Dread Grimalkyn among us!" 
Gourlak looked up at the terrible towering wildcat and shouted, "Urugans, do not quail! Find your knives--"
Further orders were cut short. The war chief gurgled as the Azurdanak's leyblade sank into his throat. 
Only then, as proper training indicates, did Azurdanak look away from his opponent. He saw the massive spirit creature and blinked once, slackjawed.

With the loss of their leader, the Urugans fell to bedlam. Soolteg shouted dismal prophecies while tribe members scattered around him. Rone had disappeared in the chaos and the Grimalkyn had enough new targets that the Wanderer was forgotten. Great swipes of its paws swatted clumps of humanity far into the air. It rent flesh with its teeth and crushed tents underfoot in its rampage. Its ghostly body passed through the standing stones and its head swiveled with searching menace. 
The wildcat's nose sniffed at an etherwordly air until its gaze leveled on the fallen war chief's tent.

Dahlia's sword was no help beneath the heavy collapsed tent. She thrashed to gain footing, but could not see or stand straight. Faugh, reared in such tents, knew how to maneuver. He crawled quickly behind Dahlia, knocked her down, and put his knee in her back. 
"Your life is mine, wench. First tell me where the teeth are. I will search you bodily if I must, and I assure you, I will explore every cavity." 
Dahlia struggled, but had no leverage. She went limp. "You win, Faugh," she said, teeth gritted. "They're in my bosom. Let me up and I'll get them for you."
"I'll just get them from here," he said, laying on her. He reached around to feel between her breasts. 
He could not extract the teeth without letting up a little. In the moment of release, Dahlia senselessly thrashed. She used the space to wriggle around to face him. He grabbed the teeth and groped her in the commotion. He still lay atop her, but his pin was broken.
He held the carved teeth between them in the dark, close space. They were both sweaty with exertion.
Dahlia could hear his labored breath inches away. "Your charm finally swayed me, Faugh. Take your prize." She blindly head-butted the teeth into his mouth and brought her knee up to kick him in the groin. His reflexive inhalation sucked the teeth into the back of his throat. He choked and spit blood onto Dahlia's face.

The scent of blood mixed with its missing corporeality finally gave the Grimalkyn purchase on its target. Claws like scimitars ripped through the tent, catching Faugh and lifting him off Dahlia. Open to the sky now, Dahlia saw the Grimalkyn for the first time in the firelight. She screamed in terror at Dread manifest.
The Grimalkyn roared as it brought its paw back down, crushing Faugh against the tent. Then the great spectral cat crouched and began eating him alive. Faugh's screams ended, but the sound of crunching bones carried an involuntary shudder through to Dahlia's soul. 
She sprang from the tent while the Dread was occupied. Only years of habit saw her sword in hand before fleeing. She ran the entire quarter mile to the trading post.

The post was flooded with frightened Urugan women and children, along with several non-Urugan servants who had escaped the madness. Inside the walls, she picked out Rone's mohawk stripe above the the refugee chaos.
Rone supported Azurdanak, who had fared poorly in the stampede. His left arm looked broken and his face was bloody. His expression was full disgust.
"Only six kills," he said. "Two more tried to avenge their fallen war chief during the tumult. I had to slay them with a broken arm. Six! I expected two dozen at least. I could have dispatched Crosian outlaw rabble if I had only been hunting six." He slumped against Rone, the last of his energy spent raging at fate.
Dahlia looked at Rone. Rone met her eyes briefly and then glanced away to a swirl of moths above a fire. "Outlaws, huh?" she said. 
"I know a bounty on a bandit 'prince' and his horde over in Phaestra. Prince Eleques and his 60 Hatchets? You get the kills, Rone and I get the reward. That sound fair?"
He looked up at her. "We'll leave tomorrow."

Monday, March 24, 2014

3 Swords, pt 6

Soon they sat on pelts around a low table inside a voluminous cured-leather tent. The three sword fighters sat together, with Rone closest to the warchief. The old, balding Urugan sat to Gourlak's right and a weasel-faced Urugan with greasy hair sat to his left. Dahlia recognized him with a thud in her chest. The silver-tongued exile. His eyes met hers and they were full of mischief.
Serving women handed around platters of roasted game and blackened grains, hearty food that left a burnt taste in everyone's mouths. As they ate, Gourlak spoke with a deep commanding voice. 
"Rone, either you have not beaten your servants enough or you are not what you say you are. My shaman, Soolteg," he gestured to his right, "tells me the Dreads of this land are moving among the moot but he cannot divine their destination. Then I find your so-called servants brawling among one of my clans and you sneaking in the dark. At the same time you arrive, my exiled son, Faugh, also returns and names you as Hidden Evils. Explain this."
"That man is a liar!" Dahlia shouted, pointing.
"Silence, woman. Faugh is a liar and a thief. But neither means he is wrong," Gourlak said. "Where you find spoor, game is ahead. What I must know is whether you are the spoor or the game."
Gourlak turned to Rone. "Since you let your woman speak freely, I assume she is not your servant. More liars than my son sit at this table." Dahlia's face flushed at being found out. Rone's face was impassive.
"We Urugans have a tradition that you outsiders will not know. Once you enjoy a man's hospitality, you must tell your story with honor and honesty. Now that you have eaten, Rone, I would hear your story."

Rone looked placidly at his plate as he finished chewing. "My story is humble. I was raised in the mesas of Ashur-kun among the warrior-monks. There I learned the sword skills of the Wavering Way, and how to live in patterns. I have seen under the Macrocosm. I have been catechized by the Scions of Shadow and Silence. Now I wander searching matters that defy understanding. I see movement in stillness. What can still surprise one so schooled? The only enlightenment is in the unpredictable."
Gourlak's mouth turned down. "That's no story! That's a recitation. Tell me your story before I take offense, Wanderer."
Rone looked back at him quiescently. "I was still a student in the way of Kurtul-maal, studying with the masters above the sandy floor of the Ashur-kun. There was a girl among the boys, loved intensely by us all. The masters had never accepted a girl before because it interfered with concentration. 
"And Aulita interfered with everything. Silky black hair and eyes blue like still water. She carried deep sorrow with her. But when she laughed at something you did, the world was new. You would rather please her than ten masters.
"I did not stand out among our coterie. Larger, yes, but not the smartest or fastest or the quickest study. I think the stillness is what drew her to me. I wanted her attention desperately, but all I knew was quiet. Yet quiet was the shelter she sought." Rone fell silent and shifted in his seat before continuing.
"The rainy season in Ashur-kun brings torrential flood. Raging for a short time, then a trickle, then gone. The masters told us to stay indoors during the rains, but Aulita was deep in meditation and did not feel the rain on her skin.
"A fist of wind threw her from the mesa into the waters. In half an hour the rain had stopped and the water subsided. We never found her body. Sometimes I consider that she is still alive, though I know not how.
"Aulita taught me flexibility of the spirit. Partly I wander for her."

"Your storytelling is more humble than your story," Gourlak said, staring into Rone's eyes. "But I can see your truth." He finished a great hank of venison and wiped his hands on a rough cloth held by a servant girl.
"Well, eating and storytelling are done. I must decide what to do with you three." Gourlak stood to his full height, hair brushing the hanging lantern above him. "Killing my warriors is impressive, but cannot go without redress." He picked up his great club. "Rone, let us settle this the traditional way."
Azurdanak stood as well. "Rone is not the one who began this tumult. It was my doing. I will fight you, outside, where all can see."
All eyes turned to Azurdanak. Gourlak looked surprised at the interruption. "Hm?" he said. "I just meant for you to give me your woman and go free. But a duel sounds interesting. Let's do that." 
Dahlia glared at a dozen backsides as the tent emptied. Faugh was the last and the only one to look back at her. And smile.

Two huge fires were stoked to a blazing height casting long eerie shadows off the standing stones out into the darkness of the steppes. In the sudden arena, Azurdanak stretched his arms out to his sides to get a measurement of the space. He watched Gourlak swing long, thick arms in huge, swooping circles, limbering up for the battle. Geometry was not in the thin man's favor. 
Nearly the entire moot gathered in a circle just outside the firelight. Several other clans had also heard the news and come from their camps to watch: the noise was a dull roar. Only Rone noticed, in the far distance, fires lighting up the grounds around the trading post. Furtive heads poked over the battlement, wondering whether the Urugans massed for an assault.

 Gourlak hefted his shield onto his left arm and gripped the leather bindings of his club with his right. His bronze breastplate was etched with a panorama of beasts fighting. The fire shone on the fresh warpaint on his face, arms, and legs. He had killed hundreds of men. With leonine poise he prepared to add another to the godskept list of his fallen.

Azurdanak's brow nearly folded in on itself as he studied the fighting grounds and his opponent. Size, strength, and experience were his foe's powerful assets. He would need to stay in the center of the field. The chief could toss him into the fire with club or shield and no form will save a duelist from immolation. The war chief would win a long fight. Therefore, Azurdanak would need to move inside Gourlak's reach quickly and puncture his unprotected armpit. He recited the incantation to conjure his ley rapier. His form would need to be flawless. 
Fortunately, flawlessness was his strong point.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Storm Version 2

300 words?  I left myself enough to brag!  Easy...

I wasn’t always like this.  I used to look much like you did.  We were pretty similar- even if you don’t want to admit it.  I spent my days resting in luxury.  Occasionally I would be called upon by some stranger that wanted to come and check me out.  That happened more when I was younger, though – I was more popular back then.  As I got older, I got shoved further and further into the back; most people don’t make it back this far to even see me; and the ones that do hardly remember me.  My life may not have been exciting, but it was comfortable.  And that’s all I wanted.

Then the storm hit. 

Everything went into chaos.  Fortunately, I hadn’t been near a window in a long time - that’s where they store the newbies, so I figured I was safe.  There had been storms before; the whole building would shake, and the roof would pound like someone was riding horses on top of it.  But they never bothered me much.  And, at first, I thought that this storm would be just like the old ones.  But, then, as I heard a tearing noise that shook me to my core, I realized that the roof was no longer there!  Suddenly, I was exposed to the elements – and some uncontrollable force picked me up off of the shelf and hurled me to the ground outside of my library.  There I sat – pages soaking in the mud.  Dirty and warped, I knew I would never be the same.

Monday, March 17, 2014

3 Swords, pt 5

When Dahlia and Azurdanak finished setting up, they traipsed to another camp through thigh-high grass in the dark between bonfires. This camp was larger, set in the midst of the menhirs. Unknown in this camp, the rude stares began anew. 
Without Rone's disarming protection, Azurdanak seized initiative. "Who among you wishes to wager lives for exorbitant wealth?" he cried. 
Dahlia thought this a terrible opening gambit. No one appeared surprised or challenged.
"You do not belong here," a tribesman said with a wave like batting at flies. "Leave before I break your puny bones."
"I am no farmer to surrender my yield," Azurdanak said disdainfully. "I am Azurdanak of the eldritch blade. You shall heed my challenge!" He clapped his hands and uttered the incantation. The shimmering blue rapier sprang into his hand.
Audible gasps and whispers of "witch". People were on their feet. Some of the men fell back. Others spat, made warding signs, and drew their long knives. 
"Only the one who defeats me in single combat will receive the prize, one thousand barons. Those who do not fight singly forfeit the prize... and their lives."
A murmur rose. One thousand barons would feed a clan for a year. Dahlia raised her eyebrows. If she had known 'Danak had that money, she might have just taken it. She decided he was bluffing. That's what she would do.
"I'll take your money, witch." A great muscled warrior with tangled long brown hair stepped toward Azurdanak. He stank of mead at five paces. The crowd parted around him and a chant of his name began: "Felgred! Felgred! Felgred!"
Azurdanak stepped into position. "Begin."
Felgred screamed and charged. Azurdanak stepped off line and nicked him as he stopped short. The great man rounded on him, but Azurdanak moved again, staying to the warrior's right and a little out of reach. The rapier was several inches longer than the knife. Azurdanak calculated the reach and exploited it mercilessly. 
"You're not fighting," Felgred huffed. "You're dancing."
"This is fighting, oaf," Azurdanak prodded.
Felgred however, knew only one way to fight. After a few more wild charges, the barbarian was cut and bleeding badly.
"Your witch-sword saps me!" Felgred said, swooning.
"The sword has nothing to do with it. You're feeling preliminary effects of blood lo--" Azurdanak's didactics enraged the barbarian, who interrupted him with a final rush, knife held high. The Kainenlander finished with a decisive thrust between the ribs.
All Urugan warriors were on their feet now, demanding the next turn at killing the witch. One finally shouted the others down and pulled his long knife. It was exquisitely made, a masterpiece from a different era, when Urugan smiths were counted among the finest in the Five Lands. "Your witch sword won't save you this time, weakling."
Seventeen seconds later, the man fell dead, and his knife disappeared into the crowd. "He killed Gurgred!" came a cry, and the wailing of a woman rose from somewhere among the tents. 
Azurdanak's face hardened. The murmur grew, and another man stepped up as the corpse was dragged away. He drew a massive greatsword and stared grimly at Azurdanak. 
Like a reflex, Azurdanak shifted his stance to one more defensive and mobile. He was all feints and darts. Every time the man-mountain committed to a swing, Azurdanak stepped into the opening he left and jabbed, exploiting the rhythm of his foe's missed swings. The difference in reach and weight was significant. A mistimed jab would be the end of the lithe fighter, but azurdanak's footwork was precise. Feint, swing, jab, again and again. Dahlia grew impatient just watching the warrior who kept falling for it. This was a variation on what Azurdanak had done to her when they first met. She saw why the crowd grew bored. It was monotonous.
For nearly a full minute, each time Azurdanak was just where the great blade wasn't, until the barbarian's pelts were matted with blood. Exhausted from the effort, the great man heaved forward onto Azurdanak, where the glowing blue rapier waited to sink into his abdomen.
When his tribesmen pulled the corpse off him, Azurdanak looked a little flattened. The mageblade was gone. 
"Focus stupid..." He muttered. He rattled off the incantation and the sword reappeared in his right hand.
"Where are your men now that I've defeated your simpletons and drunkards?" The taunt was feeble, but he was shaken and hoped to hide it behind the insult.
Dahlia could see however that an angrier mood had taken over the crowd. The word "witch-sword" passed more freely now in mutterings. Discontent at the ease with which Azurdanak had dispatched their warriors was growing pronounced. Dahlia had her own sword out now, but no one seemed to pay her any attention, which annoyed her.
Finally an old woman pointed at Azurdanak and shouted, "The sword! It bewitches our warriors! Fall on him, kinfolk! Destroy the Dreadseed before it takes another!"
Azurdanak and Dahlia had discussed this eventuality, but it was happening ahead of schedule. "Dahlia, your assistance please." 
Dahlia sprang at the old woman, choking her with her gauntlet. "Silence, crone!" 
This incensed the tribe and drew their attention to her. Clubs and flaming branches from the bonfire appeared in hands that didn't hold long knives. 
"You may inform Rone that I am docking his pay for his untimely absence," Azurdanak said as he maneuvered to Dahlia's back. 
"He might be the only one alive to get paid, Kainenlander," she said. But Dahlia had none of Azurdanak's grimness. She brightened in the firelight as the Urugans encircled them. Duels and footwork were for fencers. She was a scrapper. This was her joy.
The Urugans surged, fighting with fear and desperation. Dahlia sliced and punched and grappled her way into the mob, a roil of chaos in her wake. Knife blades flashed, and the sword fighters parried and returned blows as howls of "Witchcraft!" flew into the night.
Azurdanak tried to stay with her, but Dahlia had no knack for teamwork. As she drew more attention, he became her bodyguard instead, fending off knives aimed at her flank. She fought to wound--hamstring cuts, throat punches, and various soft tissue shots. Bodies fell, but the tribe fought like a wolfpack, returning in waves. Nicks and bruises began to take their toll on the pair, fighting a mob composed of sinew and hate.

As they began to falter, a great voice stilled the crowd: "Too-lagan! Chamerkosh! Your war chief commands you to stop fighting!"
The crowd stopped instantly and turned to face the largest Urugan Azurdanak had seen yet. Standing between the two largest menhirs, he held a great club in one hand and a shield in the other. To his left stood a wiry, balding Urugan. To his right stood Rone. 
"Pale one, I am told you are killing my warriors in single combat with a witch-sword."
Azurdanak huffed, short of breath, "I challenged them and they accepted the stipulations."
"I am Gourlak, War Chief of this moot. Put down your swords. Eat with me tonight."
Rone barely nodded to Azurdanak, but he caught it. "I accept your gracious hospitality, War Chief."

Monday, March 10, 2014

3 Swords, pt 4

Dahlia brought an armload of wood back to camp.
"I heard the scream of a wounded man," Rone said to her offhandedly. "And you did not have that knife or pouch on your belt when you left. Did you encounter trouble?"
"Don't you have some of your own business to mind?"
"My business is watching patterns. Your pattern is to encounter trouble. How fortunate that our goals so frequently intertwine."
"Fortunate wasn't the word I was thinking of," she said. "But to answer your nose, I encountered no trouble. A bandit trio, however, suffered significant losses." She gave them a brief synopsis, and then couldn't resist showing her haul.
Azurdanak's eyes narrowed when he saw the scrimshaw. "May I see those teeth?" 
She paused. "You can look at them while I hold them."
"I don't want your spoils, just let me see." Nonetheless, Dahlia held them up for his inspection without letting them go. She rotated the canines slowly so he could see the whole carving.
"Some Urugan shaman is likely smarting at the loss of these," he said after pulling away from the inspection. "You left a bold thief alive."
"He was too good at talking to be any good at fighting," Dahlia said, unworried. "He's no threat."
"So long as you never sleep, I agree." Azurdanak's thin lips drew down to lines. "Vigilance will be at a premium tonight."
Rone snorted. I'll take first watch." 
Dahlia placed the teeth in her bosom. They were worth even more than she'd thought! There was no way the Urugan sneak thief would get them back now.
Despite concerns, the night passed uneventfully.
As did the next two days' travel to the Crosian border. 

The trading post on the border was engorged. The Urugan moot was fully underway. Urugans are not quite the barbarians their victims make them out to be. They are grim, harsh people, with fleet horses and tempers. Their gods are dark and fearsome, and as the god, so the people. Their civilization occupied the Uruguan Steppes for nearly a millennium;  dashed ruins still litter the tablelands amid high grass and stunted trees wind-swept into strange shapes.
A calamity befell the entire civilization for reasons enshrouded, although to this day Urugans look on agriculture with deep suspicion, and only eat plant matter when scorched by fire. Nomads now, they follow herds of elk and bison across the rugged steppes. 
For most of the year, any Urugan this close to the Crosian border would be considered a raider. The trading post was fortified for such a springtime contingency. 
A quarter mile beyond the post walls, however, stands a great horseshoe of weathered menhirs, some as tall as 20 feet, so old that even legends of their original meaning are dead. Now they mark the border between Crosia and the wild steppes, though the Crosians build nothing near the stones out of vague superstition.
At the autumnal equinox each year, the Urugan tribes convene around the standing stones. For two weeks they conduct dark rituals celebrating and placating the underworld god, Veles, stealing the cattle of their sky god, Perun, and driving them into the underworld. They drink and fight and carouse and help each other prepare for the coming cold before drifting back into the wilderness to hole up for winter.
Azurdanak explained all of this to his companions as they stood by the trading post gate. Rone had been watching the Urugans who came into the trading post, while Azurdanak and Dahlia busied themselves with stabling the horses and securing provisions.
The next day they laid out plans. Then just before sunset, Rone, Dahlia, and Azurdanak strode into the Urugans' camp and stood out like cardinals among crows.
Rude stares were their primary greeting. When it became clear they were more than Crosian gawkers, a tribal chieftain was summoned.
The chief approached Rone (the largest of the band, and therefore, the leader). "Night is falling, and outsiders are not welcome in our moot," he said. "Why are you still here?"
"This is where my travels take me," Rone said gruffly. "I'm no kin, but nor am I an outsider." The Urugans grumbled in reply.
"One of my servants found this knife," he pointed an open palm at Dahlia without looking at her. She stared at his hand until he barked, "Woman! The knife." 
She sullenly handed him the knife from her belt. "Learn when I'm talking to you," he said, eyes shot sidelong toward her smaller frame in his shadow. 
Azurdanak stared wide-eyed at Rone. His voice, posture, and demeanor had changed like the rainy season sky--from calm to brooding in seconds. He looked nothing like an Urugan, but in a day had learned to mimic their behavior like a true son.
"Chieftain, do you recognize this knife?" He said, holding it out to him handle first. The Urugan chief took it, drew the blade, and admired the quality. 
"It looks well-made," he begrudgingly offered.
"It is a gift to you and your clan in thanks for your hospitality," Rone said. 
The chieftain eyed Rone. "You can stay for one night. Unless you want to trade that sword as well...."
Rone sneered. "You'll get the sharp end for free if you enter my tent. I'll be here two nights if it pleases me."
"Be gone before the sun two days hence," the chief said. 
Both men grunted satisfaction.

"How did you do that?" Azurdanak asked.
"Quick study is not the sole provenance of wizards," Rone said. "You must both treat me as your master while we're here. Begin setting up the tents while I look around. Azurdanak, if you begin your work tonight, slip away while I am occupied."
"Every time Rone plays shapechanger it costs me money," Dahlia grumbled. But Rone was already gone, swaggering toward the Urugans' bonfire.

Monday, March 3, 2014

3 Swords, pt 3

"You're a strange one," Rone said. "You have manners and airs of a wizard, but none of the entrappings. No books. No college robes. You summon a sword, but not servant or guardian spirits. It's a rare wizard who does his own scutwork."
"Well observed," Azurdanak said. "You should know the rue you travel with."
"My homeland is far away, known to us as Kainenland, founded by a conjurer of renown."
"I've heard of it," said Rone. "I've heard it called the Towerlands."
"Indeed you have. Wizardry runs in Kainen blood."
"And you're not one of the vaunted conjurers?"
I was in training for such. But events, as they do, transpired. A vast curse befell my people, called up by my master, Symerond, consorting with forces beyond his mettle. Pyrotechnics ensued and Symerond lay dead at a maleficent's cloven feet."
"A maleficent? So you're diabolists?" Dahlia asked.
"Not after that affair," he said dryly. "The maleficent was and remains bound within my master's tower, but his reach was not so hindered. Crops withered. Rivers ran red. Barricaded in Symerond's tower, the maleficent demanded firstborn sacrifices. We resisted for a time, but... necessity became reality.
"After some months, research uncovered a way to breach the tower and potentially lift the curse: one thousand deaths bought in single combat.
"I had wanted only to be a scholar-wizard, steeped in study. Perhaps take on an apprentice of my own some day. The Kainenland greybeards decided otherwise. 
"Symerond had no known living relatives, so the task of lifting the curse fell to me, his intellectual heir. A curse which can only be lifted by the sword.
"Of course I had as much experience with swords as eels with kites. So I embarked on a natural course--I sought the finest teacher and commenced study."
"Who was your teacher?" Rone's entomological reverie had ended some moments before and he seemed drawn in to this part of the story.
"The renowned fencing master, Thibidout of Ravenna."
"I know of Thibidout. But not you," Rone said.
"Then it is as I have wished. Notoriety does my cause no service. Convinced of the import of my quest, Thibidout trained me in secret for five years."
"Five years won't make a master swordsman," Dahlia said.
"But brilliance, need, and keen study do. I do not possess Rone's strength or the lifetime of discipline. Nor do I have your grace or natural ability. I used what I have: quick study and knife-edge focus. For five years I studied the Derecha school of fencing under Master Thibidout. His system is objectively the best. No weapon can prevail over a Derecha master, especially one wielding a ley rapier."
"I've heard the Derecha boast, but never had the good fortune to observe it," Rone said diplomatically.
"Watch closely then," Azurdanak said. "Thaumaturgy was my destiny, but then wizardry became waylaid. Now I am an itinerant swordsman on the grimmest of missions."
The life you choose is seldom the life you live," said Rone.
"We all know that song," said Dahlia.

"That's a long tale under a short hat, 'Danak." Dahlia had given Azurdanak a nickname the first day out. He refrained from objecting lest she return to "Stick Arm" or a less pleasant moniker. "I still think you're borrowing trouble. But I respect your courage. And you're a middling swordsman. You might live if you keep moving."
"I shall do both," Azurdanak said. "Death is no acceptable option."
"That choice is not entirely yours," said Rone.
"I have not had the luxury of choice for seven years." 
Rone met his eyes and nodded in response.

The next evening, an hour before sundown, Dahlia was collecting firewood in a thicket when she heard a single footstep rustle behind her. Her sword was in her strong right hand in time to ward off the club descending on her back. 
She whirled to face three assailants: two ragged Crosian bandits: one missing part of an ear, one with a snaggled tooth recovering for another blow with the club. And a swarthy greasy-haired Urugan wielding the traditional long knife of his people.
"Looks like we found a bird alone here in the grass--" 
The snaggletoothed bandit's taunt was cut short. Dahlia leapt toward him and cut his wrist deeply. He cried out and dropped his club. Now in close, Dahlia pulled his own knife from his belt and gutted him while he stared at his gashed wrist. 
As the other two maneuvered to attack, Dahlia rolled forward and beyond them, nicking the missing-ear bandit's calf along the way. He crumpled and Dahlia rolled back to finish him with a quiet gurgle.
The Urugan hesitated which gave Dahlia enough time to stand and face him. He slowly sheathed his long knife and held up his hands in front of him. "I see you are not the wounded bird we mistook you for for, m'lady," he said in an unusually cultured, musical voice for an Urugan. "Forgive the egregious presumption. I am but a lowly outcast from my tribe, seeking to make his way in a strange land. I fell in with lesser company, and you have shown me the error of my ways. Perhaps you will also show mercy?"
Dahlia laughed. "I have no quarrel with you, exile. Be on your way and choose better allies next time. I claim rights to these louts' pockets though."
"Of course, my lady. Who would gainsay such a reasonable request?"
"And yours," she said lowering her sword to the pouch on his belt.
He paused. "But that I would have offered it first to a lady of such keen demeanor," he said, untying it from his belt. He threw it at her feet, and she kicked it a couple of yards beyond his reach. 
"Your tongue has a spritely dance for an Urugan."
"My kin and I have occasionally had differences of perception."
"Hence your banishment."
"As you say, my lady."
"I'm not your lady, exile. Now go find a better class of gutter trash to roll in."
"Your mercy is matched only by your beauty," he said. He looked again at his forfeited pouch and backed many paces before turning away from the broadsword.
Dahlia picked up the pouch and sorted through it. A handful of silver coins and a couple of long fangs from some animal carved with primitive scrimshaw. They might sell to a curio collector. The bandits had only a few copper coins between them, but the knife she took from the first one had decent craftsmanship. Shame he hadn't thought to use it.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Assault on Station 39

“We have to hold out just a little longer!” Commander Moore shouted out above the sound of explosions.  “They’re almost finished.  We have to buy the enough time to get Codename Destroyer completed.  No matter the cost.” 

His men were exhausted.  Somehow word had leaked that their remote outpost was where the work was being performed.  Nobody knew how it had happened, as only the very top personnel of the military were even aware of Codename Destroyer, much less its whereabouts.  Regardless, the Kardin Fleet had descended on them three days ago, and Commander Moore and his forces had been under constant fire since then.  If he was honest with himself, he didn’t know if they would last much longer.  But, he knew that his men needed his confidence, even if it was inauthentic.

“They should be running low on energy.  They won’t be able to hold up this assault much longer – Lt. Anson, I need the shields to hold just one more hour!” 

“Sir, I don’t know how they’ve lasted this long!  It’s only a matter of time before they collapse; and if I put any more energy into them, they might take the entire station with them when they do,” Lt. Anson shouted back through the comms.

“Lieutenant, I don’t care what you have to do, and I’d rather this station be blown to bits than for Codename Destroyer to fall into Kardin hands.  Just do it!”

A high pitched whine became audible throughout the station as Lt. Anson’s last bit of fission generated power was pushed through systems that were no longer able to handle the strain.  But, as long as the troops on Station 39 were able to hear the whine, they knew that they were at least alive, so nobody complained.

“Commander Moore, we’re losing men everywhere.  When will reinforcements arrive?”  This time it was Doctor Yang crackling over the comm relays.  He had been in battle before, but it always made him sick to see this many men dying – and for what?  Some science experiment; that’s all he got to know.  That’s all any of them got to know.  Commander Moore, knowing full well that they were on their own, chose to ignore Doctor Yang’s pleas.

In the lab, the scientists were frantically trying to keep Codename Destroyer intact, while also desperately trying to finalize the last steps needed to bring the power core online.  There were so many parts that hadn’t been tested that they had no idea what would happen.  Frankly, they were throwing pieces together so quickly, that they were certain that they had made some mistakes.  And they knew that any mistake at this juncture would be fatal.  There simply was no time to fix anything.

“Shields are down, sir – and they’re not coming back up!” Lt. Anson called back through the comms.  “We’re sitting ducks; they’ll be boarding us shortly.”

Almost on cue, Kardin shock troops immediately could be heard cutting through the side of the station.  Commander Moore and his men all pulled out their sidearms.  “You – you go and protect the lab!” he shouted to all of the other men on the bridge.  They hesitated briefly, knowing that if the Commander stayed, he had no hope of surviving this fight; yet they conceded and retreated through the spiderweb of hallways that led to the lab.

Just as they were leaving earshot of the bridge, they heard gunfire.  A few targeted shots of a hand weapon followed by the repeating explosions of the shock troops’ weapons.  Then nothing but the clang of heavy boots slamming against the ground.

The Kardin troops were filing through the opening that they had made in the Station by the hundreds.  The only thing between them and capturing Codename Destroyer was the empty hallways and the small handful of troops that had left the bridge under Commander Moore’s orders.  It was only a matter of time. 

In the lab, the scientists heard a few shouts.  They were muffled through the blast doors, but they could hear enough to gather that the base had been compromised.  They continued their frantic work, and very soon the muffled shouting turned to the explosions of weapons.  Then clanging on the blast doors as the Kardin troops began cutting through the final layer of protection.  And, just as theyfirst shock troop stepped through the newly penetrated doorway, they heard a deep bass sound booming through the lab:  “Codename Destroyer online.  Awaiting orders.”

Friday, February 7, 2014

The League

I used to be a pro basketball player.  Back when there was only one league – his league.  You know who I’m talking about – Jose Rosebloom.  The owner of the World Basketball Federation – the WBF.  He’s the one that started fixing the games.  At first, he kept it secret; just paying off the refs to ensure that the more marketable teams would win.  Then, as viewership waned, he started upping the ante.  Soon enough, he implemented automatic scoring baskets and got rid of human scorekeepers.  At the time, it seemed like Jose was simply trying to keep up with technology.  Then, he got rid of most of the referees.  This was another move that he claimed would make the league more sustainable financially.  Unfortunately, more and more obvious calls didn’t get called, because the ref never seemed to be in the right position.  Still, most people were unaware that games were being fixed.  Until those finals, that is.

It was 2045; Sacramento was playing London.  London was the underdog, though they brought in drastically more fans.  Fortunately, so the fans were led to believe, they were able to keep up with Sacramento, and the finals were tied 3-3 going into the final game.  In the fourth quarter, London was losing by two points, and Sacramento had the ball.  That’s when I made my move.  I played for the German national team – it was up to me to make sure that a European team won the Finals.  So, I ran on the court while both teams were on the other end of the court, and I made a three-pointer for London.  Since the referee was on the far side of the court, he never saw what happened.  The entire crowd was in an uproar, and I can only imagine what was happening as people watched the game around the world.  How could this count?  Sure, the score was kept automatically, and so the three points put London ahead, but wouldn’t someone stop the game and arrest me?  I mean, everybody saw it!  But, nothing happened – no replay, no reversed decisions, and no arrests.  I think that’s when a few people wised-up that the game wasn’t as pure as they had always believed.

After that Finals, run-ins became more and more common; especially on televised games.  When the most popular teams played each other, there was rarely a clear-cut victory.  Between “missed” calls, players from other teams running on to the court to “get revenge” against a team that cost them a game, you couldn’t really tell who the best teams were anymore.  Sure, you could see who won the championships, but you didn’t know how good any of their players were.  But, that’s just how the league is.  Nobody really believes it anymore – well, except for kids. 

But, this story isn’t about the WBF, it’s about me.  And, a few years after the original Finals where everyone learned my name, I was scheduled to make another run-in; this time when Paris played against New York.  My team was supposed to get along well with the other European teams, and so I was supposed to help Paris win.  It was the same basic setup – Paris was up by one point in the final game of the championship.  This time, to add extra drama, I wasn’t supposed to run onto the court until there were only two seconds left – and I was supposed to shock the world by helping New York win against Paris.  So, I waited, and I did my part.  I ran onto the court, just in time, and I took my shot.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t a clean swish like the last time – it bounced around the rim… until it was too late.  My shot went in, but the automatic baskets stop scoring at the final buzzer.  My shot didn’t count.  Paris won the championship, despite my efforts. 

I got fired.  Jose said that I was a disgrace, and that if he couldn’t count on me, then he had no use for me.  With nowhere else to turn, I began playing in the illegal street basketball leagues.  The ones that were run by bookies, and the ones where they actually still had multiple refs - where they actually let the skill of the teams determine the outcomes.  Once word got out that the WBF was rigged, people were looking for ways to resume gambling.  At one point, some of the leaders of the street leagues had tried rigging games to make more money, but when people got wind of it, all of the money dried up, so that didn’t last, and they were forced to let the teams actually compete.  I was forced to play the game on my own, and I only got to win if I was better than the other players.  And, as it turns out, I was better than the other players. 

When I realized how good I really was, I started to get paid better; at least compared to the other guys in the league.  But, I wasn’t satisfied.  I didn’t want to be remembered as the guy who got fired from the WBF.  It seemed like no matter how well I did in the street leagues, I couldn’t shake that mental image.  And so, I started doing the stupidest thing I could think of – I started betting all of my money.  Any time I got paid, I’d bet whatever I had on my next game.  Sure, I lost a lot of money, and several times I had to start over, but we got on a winning streak that saw me actually start to make some real cash.  Eventually, I had a few million, and I had an idea.  I saw that the worst team in the league, the Bayside Ballers, had five thousand to one odds that they would win the championship.  And I bet it all on them. Fortunately, there were no real contracts in the league.  So, as soon as I placed my bet, I quit my team; and became a Bayside Baller.  I still didn’t know if I was going to lose all my money, but I had a chance to become a billionaire.  And, though it was a tough season, I made it.  I had $20 billion. 

Well, at least I was owed $20 billion.  But, in actuality, the bookies didn’t have nearly that much cash.  So, they gave me what they did have – ownership of the street league.  Now, I was the most powerful man in the world of real basketball.  My first step was to make the street league legal.  I hated Jose Rosebloom, and I saw my new league as a way to compete with him and to try to take him down.   And, though my league didn’t have the history and the fame of the WBF, I had the distinction that my league was real.  Unfortunately, the WBF had turned basketball into a joke, and so nobody would take us seriously.  We couldn’t get any news publicity.  Even though our games were real, all of the news outlets had stopped covering basketball.

My frustration with the WBF boiled over; as did the frustration of my players.  There were fights between my players and players from the WBF.  There were even occasional death threats.  Though the news wouldn’t report on any of our actual games, these stories made the news.  Everyone heard about our feud, and it escalated more and more until eventually, it happened.  A plane that Jose Rosebloom was piloting went down in the mountains, killing him instantly.  With nobody left to run the WBF, I was able to easily purchase the league and merge it with my own – keeping the best players, and forcing them to actually compete.  There were no run-ins and a full complement of referees was used in each game.  In the wake of Jose’s tragedy, interest in basketball had begun to return.  Jose’s untimely death had been a blessing in disguise for the sport that he had affected so much.  At least, that’s what the news reported. 

And as long as Jose keeps a low profile, we should be able to keep it that way.