[EDIT: In less than 24 hours of my asking for help, you wonderful readers, friends, and fellow writers have helped me out of the woods, in terms of the immediate $ end of things. THANK YOU ALL SO MUCH FOR YOUR MATERIAL AND SPIRITUAL SUPPORT, and for all the kind words about my writing. If you would still like to leave a 'tip' for this story, or act as a 'patron,' you can do so via paypal (I'm firstname.lastname@example.org there). BUT I WANT TO STRESS THAT I AM NOW ABLE TO MEET BASICALLY ALL OF THE EXPENSES LISTED BELOW.]
Hello. If you’re reading this, chances are pretty good that you’re a reader of my fiction and/or an IRL or online friend. In any case, a warning: This post is quite long, and it’s deeply (perhaps uncomfortably) personal.
I’m writing this post because I am, not to put too fine a point on it, in trouble and in need of help. The sorts of trouble I’m in are several – I’ve been wrangling with near-debilitating physical and mental health issues, I’ve been unable to find work, and I am drowning in debt and unforeseen expenses. What’s perhaps worse is that – with the exception of twitter glibness, and a ‘faking it’ convention appearance or two – these things have led to me shutting down and isolating myself due to despair (online friends, I’m sure you’ve noticed what a poor correspondent I’ve been in recent months).
This post is my attempt to break out of that self-imposed isolation, and to reach out for help. Some things, of course, others just can’t help with. But the financial end of things – which in turn affects so many other aspects of life – is an area where I can ask for help, embarrassing as it might be to do so. So that is what I’m doing here.
In essence, this is a plea for a sort of patronage. A number of you have bought or spread word about my first novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon, and I can’t thank you enough for that support. I’ve also had a humbling number of readers write to ask how they can further support my writing. So here I’m offering up a new piece of fiction and, with it, a request for further support. Depending on who you are, this support might be described as help for a friend in need, patronage for a writer whose long-term career you’d like to support, or both.
Of course, the internet is brimming with people asking for help. Help with profoundly worthy, life-and-death causes. Help with creative projects that are much more impressive and important than my own pulpish scratchings. The world is full of people in more dire straits than I’m in. Therefore, I want to be as clear and as honest as possible about what the stakes are here, and what sorts of things I’m asking for help with:
- Living expenses for the next month or two, including food, rent, phone and other utility bills. I am, God willing, not going to starve or lose my home. I’m very, very blessed to be married to one of the smartest, most hardworking people I’ve ever met. As the economic crisis has made me less and less conventionally employable, my wife has remained extremely supportive of my writing career. More importantly, she works like a dog everyday to make sure our kids have the sort of security that their writer/freelancer Dad is, quite frankly, unable to provide alone. I’ve been madly editing manuscripts on a freelance basis to try and take some of the burden off of my wife, but of late I’ve barely been treading water. And the more of this work I take, the less writing gets done, and the worse the fatigue gets.
- Treatment for anxiety…and depression…and chronic fatigue…and vicious insomnia. All of the above, really. This is the part where I out myself: I’ve known for years that I have some pretty powerful mental health challenges facing me. For reasons of deeply-etched personal and sociological history, though, I’ve always dealt with them in unsustainable, self-destructive ways. And I’ve dodged professional help in dealing with these challenges. Recently, however, I’ve been emboldened and inspired by the openness with which writer-friends Scott Lynch and Jim C. Hines have faced down similar issues. Their example has come at just the right time for me, since my own issues have reached true crisis points of late. I’m in the very very early stages of opening up about this, and am not in a place where I’m ready to talk a lot of specifics. But even figuring out what one’s options are costs money. Again, unlike many writers I know, I’m lucky enough to have health insurance, so this isn’t the prohibitive expense it would be for some folks. But frankly, even co-pays and prescriptions are beyond my means right now.
- New glasses: I’ve been wearing the same heavily-scratched pair for years, and the prescription is (very) out of date. Due to eye surgeries I had as a kid, I need special (and expensive) lenses. Our vision plan covers only a pittance of this.
- Travel to conventions. Here’s an example of the sort of bizarre contradictions that can plague a new mid-list author: I’ve been invited to be a panelist at the World Science Fiction convention in Chicago. My novel will be on sale there. A reader will be cosplaying one of my characters there! And yet, even driving there, even splitting a room with two others, I can’t afford to go. No one will die if I don’t make it to Chicago. But if the help of a few supportive readers/friends can make a trip possible, it seems silly to let pride keep me from asking.
This is a very-much-not-exhaustive list of the sorts of things that I need help with. Embarrassingly, this is not the first time I’ve come to the people of the internet for assistance. Indeed, thanks to the amazing generosity of a slew of folks last year, I was able to replace my dead computer and thus continue writing. But in the course of raising that money, I raffled off most of the writer-ish things I had to offer (tuckerizations, signed copies, critiques, etc.).
So what do I have left to give supporters? Not much, I’m afraid. As a sort of gesture of (I fear rather presumptuous) thanks, however, I am including the one writerly thing I’ve still got to give: My only unpublished short story.
The past year or so has been surprising on a number of writer-fronts, but one of the biggest surprises has been this: After becoming a master of the fine art of collecting rejection letters, publishers are now asking me (!?) for short stories. And, in a turn of events that once would have been unthinkable to me, I’ve had to turn them away. Why? Because, due essentially to a combination of crippling anxiety and chronic fatigue, I haven’t written a short story in ages.
Well, that’s not entirely true. I’ve written exactly one short story in the past two years: “Iron Eyes and the Watered Down World.” But even though several top SF/F magazines have been politely nudging me for work, I haven’t sent them that story – because it’s not something they will want. I’ve become known for stories that tweak genre conventions and explore underutilized settings. Stories that explore what it means to be Other at the same time that they explore what it means to be human.
And, uh, this story is basically Conan pastiche. I sort of wrote it in spite of myself; a spontaneous , damn-near-fanfic effusion occasioned by reading Jonathan Strahan’s and Lou Anders’ sword-and-sorcery anthology Swords and Dark Magic, which book got me through a couple of VERY hard nights when my kids were ill. It’s not the best or most profound or most challenging thing I’ve ever written. But I hope at least that it’s fun.
Obviously, this story is free to read. But if you enjoy “Iron Eyes and the Watered Down World,” or if you would just like to help – whether out of friendship, or a desire to support my writing, I’m asking you to consider acting as a ‘patron’ by sending whatever bit of much-appreciated support you can manage. Whether it’s $5, $50, or $500, it will help more than you can know.
I’ve become painfully aware of late that one’s time and mental energy really are precious resources – so whether you’re able to help or not, I appreciate you taking the time to read this. Be well.
With love and thanks,
Iron Eyes and the Watered-Down World
by Saladin Ahmed
Zok Ironeyes stared at the tilecard table before him and cursed softly as Hai Hai clacked down the Dragoness tile with a gloating grunt.
Hai Hai looked up from the table and locked her shiny black eyes on the innkeeper, her nose and whiskers twitching. The scraggle-haired, red faced fool avoided Hai Hai’s gaze with the shame of a man who’d been caught staring. Zok couldn’t fault the innkeeper’s curiosity. The man had probably seen only a handful of rabbitmen in his life, for few of Hai Hai’s people ever made it this far south. But if the proprietor of the preposterously-named King’s Crest Inn didn’t watch himself, he was like to get his nose broken at least. Hai Hai wasn’t one to indulge untraveled bumpkins’ gawking.
“This innkeeper ain’t more careful with his stares, he’s gonna find himself smiling that swindler’s smile with only half a face,” she said. Her furry, four-fingered paw drifted to the hilt of one of her twin sabers as she peered skeptically into the hammered-brass mug before her. “And if this is true Rubywine, then my father was a fucking fox-lord.” Her paw left her sword and pulled at the pink-tinged end of one white ear. “Thousand-gods-damned hicks and their thousand-gods-damned dyed wines,” she muttered before looking up to level a weary gaze at Zok. “We need to spend our spoils in a real city again, Zok. I’m sick to death of these pathetic little dust-bucket shithole towns. Not cozy enough to be a village, not busy enough to be a city. And where in the three hells is that priest of ours, anyway?”
Zok shrugged. “This is where the four fickle gods of the road have led us. And I’m sure Mylovic will be here soon,” he said, only half-listening. He eyed the tilecard table again and saw that he was screwed. Hai Hai had put the Dragoness into play as soon as Zok had used up all his Knight cards. A better player might have wormed his way out of such a corner, but Zok had played enough games against Hai Hai to know that wasn’t going to happen.
He sighed over his lost coins and studied the Dragoness tile. The inn’s tilecard set was an old one, painted in the ornate Emerald Empire style, with the Dragoness depicted not as a serpent, but as a beautiful green-eyed woman. A woman that looked enough like Fraja that it made Zok sigh a second time.
He reached into his purse to pluck out a forfeit-coin and paused, running a calloused finger over the thick gold hoop earring he’d carried for all these years. Sometimes he almost thought he could feel his wife Fraja call to him when he touched the earring. But of course Fraja was a decade dead and gone.
Zok’s withdrew his forfeit-coin, but he kept his hand closed around it and stared at the table for another long moment. Surely there was some opening left to him…
One of the inn’s serving boys came to the table and refilled Zok’s mug, the fourth time he’d done so in half as many hours. Hai Hai cursed the boy for the swill his master served and Zok looked up from his hopeless situation to stare at the lad. The witless little fool stumbled and bumped Zok, half tripping over his chair in fear and just barely managing not to spill black ale all over Zok.
Zok watched the mousy-haired boy scurry away and he snorted to himself in disgust. When had the world’s young men become so weak? Spineless sulkers or giggling idiots, all of them. Where were the fathers who ought to be molding them into true men? It was worst here in the south, but it was more or less the same everywhere these days.
Just another sign of a watered-down world. Every time Zok chanced upon his reflection in a gazing glass, he saw more and more grey hairs threaded amongst the red. Every day he felt more like Menace, the bespelled broadsword at his hip – a deadly, out-of-place relic from another era.
The women nowadays were no different than the boys. In the years since Fraja had died, Zok had hired whores in half the world’s cities and villages, for no matter how much he missed his wife he was still a man. A man ‘full of fuck and fight,’ as Fraja had used to say admiringly.
Hai Hai herself had said more than once that they only worked together so well because humans and rabbitmen couldn’t copulate. Zok had seen the savage vigor with which she pursued her own race’s males whenever they were in the north. Hai Hai claimed to have left seventy-four children scattered across the Amethyst Empire’s cities, and more than once she’d rode off with Zok, leaving some soft, pleading rabbitman and his litter of children with nothing but a handful of coins and hard words.
That was a wandering warrior’s way, though it wasn’t Zok’s. Since Fraja, he’d never bedded a woman without hearing her oath that she was a barren-tea drinker. For if Zok still had a man’s needs, he nonetheless knew he would never marry again, nor sire children. That he would never love again. Whoring was a different thing. The exchange of coin for cunny was a transaction, and thus not quite a betrayal of Fraja’s memory. Somehow, it felt less disloyal to pay for what he needed. He told himself Fraja would understand this.
Hai Hai gestured to the board and bared her long front teeth in a sympathetic smile. “So, can we call this a made match? I mean, I’m willing to bury your ugly nose deeper into the shit-pile if you insist, but I think we both know where this is going.”
Zok grunted his surrender and threw down his forfeit-coin and his two useless tiles.
Hai Hai’s whiskers twitched as she scooped coins from the table into her purse. “Honestly, Zok, I don’t know why you keep playing me. Four out of five times, I drain you dry. I’m starting to think you like humiliation.” She stood and stretched, her long ears stiffening as she wiped wine from her white face-fur. “Speaking of draining, I got to piss.” She held the table and steadied herself. “Whoa! This dyed wine might taste like fox piss, but it did the trick! Twelve mugs usually doesn’t do shit for me!” She headed tipsily out the Inn’s back door to the privies.
Alone at the table, Zok looked around the inn again with beer-blurred contempt. The south. Fraja’s people were from somewhere near here, though she’d left her home as a girl. Her spirit had been too big to be bound or broken by dust-choked streets and backwater poverty.
If only her body had been so invulnerable. For the ten-thousandth time in his life, Zok saw in his mind’s eye the toad-headed demon that killed Fraja. The demon that had escaped his vengeance.
Hai Hai returned to the table and sat down. She picked up her mug, found it empty, and slammed it down again with an annoyed grunt just as their traveling trio’s last member walked through the inn’s open front doorway.
“What ho, boon companions?” Mylovic beamed as he approached their table, his thick rust-colored robes hanging heavily in the windless air. The squinty little red-headed priest ought to have been sweating his balls off, but his divine sorcery apparently kept him cool, just as it had kept him from shivering when Zok had met the man in the Witch’s Teat Tavern in the great northern city of Frostlock three…no, four years ago now.
“What ho, yourself, holy man,” Hai Hai said irritably. “So what did your precious prayers tell you? Where in the three hells are we headed next?”
Mylovic pulled chair to table, smiled a far-too-wide smile and blinked bloodshot eyes. “Well, the temples here are ah…less than ideal in their facilities. The road gods’ idols in particular are poorly maintained and thus their wishes are far from clear here.”
Hai Hai eyed the priest’s stupid grin and twitched her whiskers in annoyance. “And I suppose it doesn’t help that you’ve got a head full of pinkpoppy incense, does it, priest? You reek of the stuff. Have you been smoking it since we left you this morning? The last time you tried to make gods-contact with your head full of pink puff-clouds you directed us to that abandoned mine and we ended up knee fucking deep in green gremlins!”
The priest spread his hands before him in a helpless gesture. “That wasn’t my fault, sweet Hai Hai, but we’ve had this argument too many times before. Anyway, all my gods-contact has told me is that vengeance and riches lie north along the Road of Three Lakes, and that we should leave tomorrow at first light.”
“North? Well,” Hai Hai said, her ears unstiffening in mild mollification, “that at least is good news. If I’m never south of the Green Cross again, it’ll be too fucking soon.”
Mylovic bowed his head “I am happy to bring you happy news. Now, will one of you pour me a drink? My…supplications have left my mouth parched.”
Hai Hai scanned the room in irritation. “Where is that half-witted serving boy, anyway? Such shitty service! That boggle-eyed innkeep is lucky these fucking bumpkins have never seen a real drinking-house. If they knew any better he’d be out of business.”
“Well, I’ll leave this to you two — I’m done here,” Zok said. He was surprised to find himself well and truly drunk already. It didn’t happen that often — he was a big man, after all, as experienced at drinking as he was at killing. Hai Hai was right — however unsubtle and bitter this town’s drink was, it did what it was supposed to do.
It wasn’t until he came to his feet that he realized he was more than drunk. He started to swoon. His head was heavier than black beer could account for.
Zok took a few stumbling steps. Then his head spun and he felt himself fall.
He heard shouting, and things being knocked over. The next thing he knew he felt Mylovic’s cool hands on him and heard the priest humming a hymn to the god of purity.
Instantly Zok’s head cleared, and his stomach stopped lurching. He came to his feet quickly, and saw the inn’s patrons fleeing. Hai Hai – whose rapid metabolism made her nearly impossible to drug or poison – had the innkeeper pinned against his bar, one saber on either side of his throat. The little bit of tipsiness she’d shown was gone now.
This idiot tried the old bad-beer-burgle on us!? Doesn’t he know warriors when he sees them? Zok remembered the seemingly clumsy serving boy bumping into him. Instinctively, his hand went to his purse. It was still there, and, digging in it, he found that it still held all the coins that Hai Hai hadn’t won from him.
Then he realized Fraja’s earring was gone.
Zok screamed like a wounded beast and knocked over two tables. He turned to the pinned-down innkeeper, whose eyes widened with terror.
Hai Hai sheathed one saber and yanked the innkeeper up by his greasy long hair. “You just fucked with the wrong folk, friend,” she shouted in the man’s face, clearly enjoying the chance to indulge in a bit of brutality. “Your drugged drink didn’t work. Now, I’ve still got my purse, so this isn’t a simple robbery, is it?” She shoved him toward Zok.
Zok grabbed the innkeeper by his shirt and slapped him hard enough to rattle the man’s teeth. “Where’s my wife’s earring?” he boomed.
Either the innkeeper was a very good actor, or he was genuinely confused. “Please! Please don’t hurt me, masters! I don’t know what you’re talking about! By the twin gods of truth, I swear it!”
Zok put his hands around the man’s throat.
Hai Hai’s whiskers twitched dangerously. “You tried to knock us out. Give me one good reason I shouldn’t chop your balls off before my friend chokes you to death.”
“My wife’s earring!” Zok shouted again. The innkeeper sputtered and his eyes bulged.
Mylovic put a calming hand on Zok’s shoulder. Zok loosened his grip.
The priest cast a sympathetic grimace on the innkeeper’s pain. “My friends have been wronged here. If you know anything at all, good sir, I suggest you tell them. They can be most…unreasonable. The five gods of fury have nothing on Hai Hai when she’s of a mind to hurt someone.”
The innkeeper cast a wild look around him, as if he might find answers amidst the inn’s rafters and tables. “The boy! It must have been the new boy, Sorgo! He’s only been working here a fortnight, masters! I know him not! I swear I know nothing of drugs or burgling!” The man began to weep and burble. “Please! Please, masters!”
Hai Hai sheathed her second saber. “I think he’s telling the truth.” She seemed disappointed.
Zok drew a deep, steadying breath. “Well, someone just drugged us. Someone who didn’t give a gods’ damn for my coin just stole something specific from me. Something very important. If it wasn’t done on your order, it was still done under your roof. Tell us about this boy.”
The words spilled forth in a sputtering stream “He… He’s called Sorgo, masters. A street-boy. The Hireguard took him in a few years ago. They gave me his work-chit for a year as repayment for a debt.”
“Where is he now?” Hai Hai asked.
“I… I don’t know. Most days he’s here until I close, but…” the man gestured helplessly at the empty room and overturned tables.
“He’s your boy but he doesn’t live here?” Zok asked, sounding calmer than he felt.
“No, master. I’ve no room for him, and no obligation to feed him. He still sleeps at the Hireguard’s hall. Still does some cleaning and such for them before he does his duties here each day.”
“Well, we’re gonna find him, you can be gods-damned sure. And if he points his grubby little finger back this way, innkeeper, you’re dead. You stay closed for now. Shut your door, don’t go anywhere and don’t say a gods-damned word to anyone, you got me?”
“Yes! Yes, yes, of course! Anything you say, masters.”
Mylovic leaned in and brushed a hand over the man’s shirt, smoothing out wrinkles. “Some advice, good sir: Do exactly as my friend says. Don’t think to run or to call on the Hireguard. I swear by the twin gods of truth that it won’t end well for you if you defy her.”
The innkeeper swallowed loudly, then nodded.
“Now,” Zok said. “Give us directions.”
Half an hour later they walked the squalid streets of a town that seemed half-empty, Hai Hai drawing stares with each step. As they neared the Hireguard hall, Zok realized they needed to be more discreet. At his urging Mylovic mumbled a prayer to the gods of sight, and the stares stopped as the priest’s eye-slide spell took effect.
Under the spell’s hold, a gaggle of giggling boys playing some stupid chase-game plowed past the companions, half-heedless of what they were doing. Again Zok found himself snorting with disgust for the young. In his day, in his home village, boys that size would be learning to work a blacksmith’s bellows, or to lift a broadsword.
A buxom, black-eyed lass passed by and Zok’s irritation melted away. Without meaning to, he followed her swaying hips with his eyes, which earned him a “back to business!” poke in the gut from Hai Hai. Mylovic, meanwhile, paid the girl no notice. Like all priests, he’d had his desire for women magically shorn from him in exchange for his strange powers. The gelding rites were supposed to strip a priest’s bodily desires, but it seemed to Zok that Mylovic had merely replaced his lust for flesh with a doubled lust for poppy-smoke and nose-dusts.
Finally they came the grey stone hall of the Hireguard, one of the largest buildings in town. As with many smaller southern towns, the Amethyst Empress didn’t deign to use her legionnaires here. Instead this dust-hole was policed by imperially-sanctioned mercenaries.
Zok gestured his companions into an alley with a view of the hall. He took a long appraising look, then turned to Mylovic and jerked a thumb back at the hall. “You’ve seen my wife’s earring many times, man. Can you use your prayers to tell me if it’s in there?”
Mylovic nodded once and took Zok’s thick wrists in his own small, soft hands. The priest spoke in a more forceful voice than his normal lilt. “Keep your eyes open, but picture the thing you’re looking for now, Zok Ironeyes. Now turn your palms upward.”
Mylovic closed his eyes own eyes and screwed up his face in concentration. He started to sweat, and seemed to stop breathing. After a few long moments, he exhaled loudly, released Zok’s wrists, and nodded.
His voice was his own again. “The god of lost things says that what you seek is indeed in that building, my friend.”
Hai Hai’s shiny eyes narrowed. “You’re sure about this, holy man? This isn’t some poppy-chomp-fueled guess, is it?
“O Sweet Hai Hai. I swear, a man not blessed as I am by the three gods of patience might grow tired of your constant doubting.”
“Both of you keep your mouths shut,” said Zok, who was in no mood for his companions’ bickering banter.
“So what now?” Mylovic asked. “Do we announce ourselves and tell them how their houseboy has wronged us? The Hireguard aren’t exactly known for their openness or honesty.”
Hai Hai snorted. “No, they ain’t. So the lawful approach won’t work. We could crack that nut,” she said softly, echoing Zok’s thoughts as she gestured toward the hall, “but it would make a thousand-gods-damned lot of noise.”
Zok nodded. “We’ll be as quiet as we can. We go around back.”
He started to move, but Hai Hai’s paw on his shoulder stopped him. “Zok. I know you don’t want to hear this, but as your sword-sister I have to say it: This is only a trinket we’re hunting here. We can go in there. And we can reclaim what’s yours. But that won’t bring your Fraja back.”
Zok looked at Hai Hai, and he knew there was murder in his grey eyes. “I’m going in. You two don’t have to come.”
Mylovic smiled negligently. “In for a card, in for a tile, I say. I’m with you, O gigantic one.”
Hai Hai’s ears stiffened and she studied Zok a moment. “Your wife must have been quite a woman. Quite a woman. Of course I’m with you, too. Let’s do it.”
Making their way in without being noticed proved easy enough. A simple alarm-ward which Mylovic neutralized, and an unimpressive stone wall that even the priest surmounted with a little help from Hai Hai. The Hall wasn’t really built to prevent entry – Zok doubted that anyone in this town of cowards had ever even tried this.
A moment after they vaulted over the wall two guards wearing the shield-and-jewel Hireguard livery rounded a corner, nearly bumping into Zok. The fools broke off their chatter and stood slack-jawed for a half-moment before fumbling at their scabbards.
Clearly, the mercenaries weren’t used to intruders, as they tried to handle the threat themselves instead of sounding the alarm. Hai Hai gutted one with her sabers before he even got his weapon out. The other was quicker, but Zok knocked his sword away and cut him down in two strokes.
They hid the bodies behind a scraggly bush, then found a cellar entrance. It was unguarded and unlocked. Zok found himself almost disappointed by the mercenaries’ laxity.
They filed inside and found the cellar empty. Zok wasn’t surprised. A piss-pot, half-dead town like this barely warranted a Hireguard hall in the first place. No doubt this one was manned by a minimum compliment of men.
But, he saw by the light-shaft seeping in at the cellar door, that didn’t mean that the place was devoid of wealth. The high-ceilinged cellar held earth-apples sacks and ale-casks, yes, but there were also lockboxes here, and porcelains, and bound chests meant to hold valuables. It made no sense, but there was the evidence before their eyes.
Hai Hai whistled softly. “Well, well, well,” she whispered. Her glance flicked to an open stairway at the far wall, which likely connected the cellar to the rest of the building, then returned to the lockboxes.
“This isn’t what we’re here for -” Zok began, but Mylovic cut him off.
“No, my friend. But this wealth – we’d be fools not to take notice.” Greed was the only thing that ever united Hai Hai and the priest.
A great pile of iron barrels and ebonwood chests sat in the corner. Hai Hai stooped to examine a chest, running a furry finger over the lock.
“Wait!” Zok shouted, sensing something was wrong.
Hai Hai jumped back, but it was too late. There was a great nerve-shearing metallic screech, like the gates of all three hells thrown open at once. The barrels and boxes quaked and shifted as if lifted by an unseen hand. Zok and is companions watched in horror as the containers tumbled onto one another and rose, melting together and resolving themselves into something vaguely man-shaped. Something eight feet tall and twice as wide at the shoulders as Zok.
Hai Hai, the first to shake off her shock, drew her swords.
“Foxshit and fire! A thief-smasher! A fox-fucking thief-smasher!”
Zok gripped Menace’s hilt. “Mylovic, can’t you do something here?”
The priest shook his head. “It’s warded against supplication-spells. I’m no use here.” He backed away several steps.
Hai Hai, though, moved forward, her sabers slashing fast as lightning at the thing’s iron-and-ebony hide. Zok had seen their spell-sharpened steel slice a man’s hand off at one pass. But at each blade-stroke the lumbering thing before them merely jerked about a bit harder, as if annoyed by the bites of an insect.
Still, Hai Hai’s thrusts and slashes kept the thing distracted and off-balance. It focused its pulverizing punches on her, and she was fast enough to stay one step ahead of its strikes.
Until she grew tired. Then the fight would turn.
But Zok wasn’t afraid. Menace had been forged in the fires of the Daggerpath Mountains to fight both men and magical beasts. The broadsword glowed golden in his hands as he leaped forward.
The thief smasher’s barrel-fists slammed down like massive hammers once, then twice, missing Zok by a hairsbreadth each time. Its attention was split now between he and Hai Hai, which meant they had a chance here.
Zok swung hard at the thing’s arm, and Menace burned even brighter. Blue sparks flew as Zok’s sword sheared away half an ebonwood arm.
The thief-smasher thrust out an iron-bound knee and caught Zok square in the chest. He shouted out in pain, then fell to the floor, struggling to catch his breath.
Hai Hai leapt over and stood before Zok protectively. She jabbed her sabers in and out of the thing’s ruined half-arm like rapiers, and it backed off a few huge steps, apparently more vulnerable on its insides.
Zok fought past his pain and struggled to his feet. Behind him he heard Mylovic mumbling, though the priest had said his invocations were useless.
Hai Hai pressed her assault, forcing the creature to turn its back on Zok. The thief-smasher guarded its wounded arm, though, and Hai Hai’s little leaps grew slower. A few more minutes of this and the thing would pulverize her.
Zok dug deep within himself for the battle-madness he needed. He shot forward again, Menace cleaving out ahead of him. Again the blue sparks flew, and a great gash opened in the thief-smasher’s barrel-back. The creature turned and seemed to stare at Zok, though it had no eyes. Zok braced himself for another assault.
But just then Mylovic ceased his mumbling and the air grew thick with scents of rust and rot. There was another shearing sound like the one that had brought the thing to life, then the thief-smasher collapsed in a pile of chests and barrels. Zok and his companions barely managed to hop out of the way of the debris.
Zok turned to Mylovic, who was panting. “It was only the thing’s outsides that were warded. Once it was wounded I sapped the false life that—”
The priest’s words were cut off as the door at the top of the stairway burst open and six Hireguards, swords drawn, stormed down the stairs. Zok met their charge, planting his feet on the stairway so that only one man could come down at a time. He drove his sword through the foremost swordsman’s shield-and-jewel tabard, through chainmail, through innards.
The man fell, tripping up the man just behind him. Hai Hai leapt about at the stairway’s exposed side, her sabers darting in and out, and wherever she leapt men bled.
The other mercenaries struggled to step clear of their now-dead compatriots’ bodies, but Menace met them as they reached the bottom of the stairs. Zok took a few blade-grazes, but soon half a dozen Hireguards lay dead.
“Well, we’ve been found!” he boomed to his companions. “So let’s find what we came for and get out of here!” Stepping over the dead men, he scrambled up the stairs.
Another knot of Hireguards stood in the building’s large mainroom, weapons at the ready. But they weren’t what interested Zok. As he heard his companions rush up behind him he caught a glimpse of a mousy-haired little figure behind the armed men. The little shit who had stolen his wife’s earring. The boy spotted Zok, squawked, and ran up another stairway on the room’s far side.
Zok growled at the four men before him just as Hai Hai and Mylovic reached his side. Hai Hai’s blades dripped with gore, as did Menace, and godsflame played between Mylovic’s palms. Zok imagined they made for quite a sight to the sort of weak-seeded cowards that passed for mercenaries this far south.
And, indeed, though they had a great advantage of numbers, the mercenaries looked terrified. “The Empress! The Empress sent them! She knows!” one of the men shouted. Zok had no idea what the fool was blathering about, but the rest of the men looked even more afraid at these words.
As one, Zok and Hai Hai surged forward, swords slicing out. Two men fell screaming. Then the rest broke, shoving each other out of the way as they made for the door.
Zok ignored them, heading for the far staircase to the second floor without saying a word to Hai Hai or Mylovic. He took the stairs three at a time, heedless of any possible threats.
From the second floor landing Zok could see three wooden doors, all closed. Behind one his keen hearing picked up the sound of someone – a boy, perhaps – crying.
Pathetic, Zok thought as he heard his companions rush up behind him. Zok gestured toward the door with his swordhilt and prepared to kick it in.
But Mylovic grabbed his shoulder. “Wait! Wait, Zok! Something is wrong here! All is not as it seems. I… I smell something.” Zok tore away from the priest’s grip and gave him an irritated look, but he stopped cold at the fear in Mylovic’s eyes. The priest squinted hard at the door and sniffed the air, his nose twitching as if in imitation of Hai Hai’s.
“Demon-flame,” Mylovic said at last. “The stuff of the Hells. I can’t say what it means, Zok, but if your wife’s memento is mixed up in this somehow, you have to tread carefully here.”
Mylovic was a shirker who lived in smoke-and-powder land half the time, but he was also a true friend, and he knew more of unearthly matters than Zok ever would. Zok had come to trust his judgment.
“What do we do, then?” Hai Hai asked impatiently. “We can’t stand here all day.”
“Can you do a scrying on that door?” Zok asked.
“I can try. But I’m swiftly running out of favors with the gods here, my friend,” Mylovic said, a rare note of annoyance entering his voice. “After this little adventure is over you owe me at least a month in a good city inn, snorting as much three-leaf and drinking as much mushroom tea as I can hold.”
Somehow Zok managed to smile. “It’s a deal.”
Mylovic knelt before the door and gestured for Zok to do the same. Hai Hai stood guard, her ears twitching nervously, but it seemed no more Hireguards were coming.
Mylovic said some words in a lilting chant, then placed a hand on Zok’s neck. And suddenly it was as if a large hole had appeared in the wood before him.
Through the hole-that-was-not-a-hole Zok saw the mousy-haired serving boy standing before a mirrored wash basin. The whelp held Fraja’s earring out before him. And the wash basin was full of green flames.
“I’ve waited so long for you to return!” the boy said to the flames, sobbing his words out. “But he’s after me! The one you told me to take the earring from! He’s downstairs! He’ll kill me – you’ve got to help me!”
Zok’s heart almost stopped when he saw the warty, mud-colored face in the flames that the boy spoke to.
It was the toad-headed demon who had killed Fraja.
“THAT DOES NOT MATTER!” the demon rasped and grunted. “PLACE THE EARRING IN THE BASIN!”
Mylovic whispered in awe. “Toad-headed. You’ve spoken of this before. That is the demon that killed your wife? The one you’ve been seeking all these years?”
“Aye.” Zok could barely restrain himself from barging through the door, but he would not endanger Fraja’s soul with rashness.
Mylovic’s voice shivered as he spoke. “It’s a thing from the third hell, Zok. The Hell of the Beasts. If this is the creature that killed your wife, it probably wants the earring as a victim-trophy. With it, the demon can punish her soul the way it did her body.”
Zok tore his gaze from the scene before him and looked at Mylovic. The priest’s expression was uncharacteristically grim. “Forget what I said about caution,” Mylovic said. “The third hell isn’t a pretty place, Zok. Not even as hells go. The tortures there… The risk is worth it. You’ve got to stop this. Now.”
Zok didn’t need to be told twice. The door splintered and its hinges screamed as he barreled through it.
Zok shrugged off the splinters digging into his flesh, drew Menace, and strode toward the boy. The boy dropped Fraja’s earring into the basin then fell back in fear. He cowered and quaked like a lamb. Then he fainted.
Zok snorted in disgust. He saw little enough shame in thievery. At least it required bravery of a sort. But this chicken-hearted timidity… Yes, Zok thought, boys these days were whimpering shadows of what he’d been in his youth, and southerners were worst of all.
But that didn’t matter now.
He was about to cut the little demon-thralled coward down when a voice cried out “Zok, wait! Wait!” and he felt the blood freeze in his veins. The voice wasn’t the toad demon’s dark, grunting rasp.
It was Fraja’s voice.
Zok stopped in his tracks. The demon’s face was gone. It was Fraja’s face – more lovely than the face on the Emerald Empress tile – in the flames now.
“Fraja?” he heard himself ask. “What… What trickery is this?”
“No trickery, Zok. Or, at least, the trickery is at an end now that you’re here before me.”
“Where is the demon that holds your soul, my love?” Zok asked. “I’ll cut him down, whatever Hell he may abide in! I’ll –”
“That demon finished with me years ago, Zok. He feasted upon my bones and left to find other victims. My soiled soul meant little enough to him. This – all of this – has been my doing.”
“Your doing?” Zok asked, glancing at his companions, who kept a polite, silent distance. “I don’t understand.”
“Sorgo is my nephew, my only blood-link to this world, and thus the only living thing that I could visit – though only for flashes at a time, and only wearing the gruesome shape of my death. You and he are the unfinished business that binds me here.”
“Your… Your nephew?” Zok asked, feeling half-witted as a thousand emotions warred within him.
“Aye. The only child of my sister Kroja, who died a few scant years after his birth. You remember my sister, Zok? The one we ran into at that inn near the Green Cross all those years ago?”
Zok lowered his eyes in shame at the memory of what he’d done with Fraja’s sister one afternoon when Fraja had been away from the inn. His own foolish words from that day filled his head now. She reminded me so of you, Fraja! She worked her wiles on me! I’m only a man!
“I do,” was all he said.
“Well, I would hope so. You certainly left her something to remember you by after we parted ways with her. It only takes one tumble to make a child, Zok.”
It took Zok a long moment to understand what his wife’s words meant. He felt his mouth fall open as their meaning dawned on him.
“Yes, Zok. Sorgo is your son. I sent him to steal my earring from you to bring you here, where I first appeared to him. Such visitations have their requirements. All of the elements — salt water and silver mirror, a boy of my blood, and a thing touched a thousand thousand times by one who loved me — are here now, and I can finally speak to you directly.
“When I saw how Sorgo saw me, I thought to haunt him at first – to drive him mad with fear. Half-death makes one vengeful, and he was a reminder of your unfaithfulness. I cursed my sister, but she was dead already. But when I tried to frighten the boy, I saw that he was only intrigued. That he’d been left to such a dead, dull life that a demon’s visitations were the most wondrous thing that could happen to him. And as the months and years rolled on I came to love Sorgo. He is my nephew, after all. And, despite his timidity, I see you in his eyes. But I could do naught but visit him once a month for a few minutes. And never in my own shape. But even those few minutes felt like a cool wind to one in the blazing realm of the half-dead.”
“I don’t understand,” Zok said “I am…was your husband. Every day I think of you. I’ve touched this earring till the engravings have been rubbed away. Why did you never grant me a visitation? Even had it been to call me to task, I would have welcomed it.”
“I had no power to, my love. The weakest nudge in a corner of your mind when you touched that earring was the utmost my efforts could produce. The seven gods of death care about blood. Love and human contracts mean nothing to them.”
Fraja cut him off with the same look of pitying contempt for his intelligence that she’d given him so often when she lived. “It’s hard to explain, Zok. And I haven’t much time.”
If Fraja could not give him explanations, then Zok wouldn’t worry her further by asking for them. He only needed to hear one thing now. He swallowed before he spoke again.
“Do you miss me?” he asked.
“More than anything, my love.” Fraja’s voice was warm, and it brought tears to Zok’s eyes. “More than you can know. You think you long for me, but you don’t know what it is to miss someone the way I miss you. Your arms. Your smell. Your dick.”
In spite of everything, Zok felt himself smile through his tears.
Fraja’s voice grew brisk again. “But I didn’t bring you here to tell you that. I brought you here to tell you that Sorgo is yours, and that you must care for him, Zok. For my sake, if nothing else. You two are the last connections I have to the world of flesh and earth. The shattered halves of the ring that I would wear before I go to meet the Maker of All Gods. I need to know that your fates have been forged together, or I’ll never know peace.”
“But… But I know nothing of fathering,” Zok said.
“Then you must learn, my love.”
Zok glanced behind him. Hai Hai and Mylovic had withdrawn from the room and stood guard on either side of the shattered door. Sorgo moaned and began to stir.
Zok looked back to Fraja’s phantasmal face and nodded once.
“It will be as you say, beloved.”
Fraja smiled. “I will always love you, Zok. And this will not be our last meeting. Someday we will wed again in the Heavenly Hall of Hunters. Until then, keep my earring. And think of me now and then.”
Fraja’s face vanished, and Zok saw only his own reflection in the mirror.
Zok stood once again in the cellar of the Hireguard hall, a silent Sorgo beside him. Hai Hai took tally of the riches around them, while Mylovic read and reread a small ledger they’d found hidden in a cunningly concealed lockbox.
“Well!” the priest said finally. “This is interesting.” He fell silent for another few moments as he read over the ledger yet again. “Very interesting,” he continued. “So this is what that mercenary meant when he said we must have been sent by the Empress. This is why none of the Hireguard have come back here to harry us.”
“Stop being so gods-damned mysterious, priest,” Hai Hai said. “What is it?”
“It would appear, dear Hai Hai, that this particular chapter of the Hireguard has been skimming a good amount from the Empress’s taxes and tariffs over a good number of years. A very good amount. Quite bold. No doubt this is the source of these surprising stores of wealth.”
“You’re sure about this?” Hai Hai asked.
Mylovic sighed a longsuffering sigh. “You know I’m the only member of our merry little death-dealing troupe who can read more than his name. I swear, if I didn’t fear the five gods of lies, I’d earn myself a few moments of peace by telling you this book was a ward-warning that all rabbitmen hearing these words must keep their whiskered mouths shut for a year, or die by lightning-fire. Lucky for you, I’m an honest man.”
“So we’ve done the Amethyst Empress a favor by killing these fools,” Hai Hai said. “Still, I doubt the Legion will see it that way. They’ll still want our heads for what we’ve done here.”
Mylovic rubbed a hand through his red hair and frowned thoughtfully. “Perhaps not. There might in fact be a way for us to walk away from this. If we move some bodies around, a few confusion and disguise invocations should be enough to convince any investigators that the thief-smasher went berserk before collapsing from its own corrupted magic. And a few well-placed hints would let the Legion find this ledger, which would do much to make them less interested in avenging these men. Of course,” a smile crept across Mylovic’s sleepy features, “a few alterations in the ledger would also allow us to garnish a nice bit of what we’ve found here, and make our trouble worthwhile.”
Hai Hai’s whiskers twitched appreciatively, and she gave the priest a rare smile. Zok couldn’t help but smile himself. Sorgo still wore a haunted look, but Zok thought he saw a smile starting to form.
The violet light began to grow dappled with orange. Zok was surprised to find that he’d never noticed how beautiful the southern sunrise could be. He stood at the edge of town, the boy Sorgo beside him, Mylovic and Hai Hai before him astride road-ponies.
Zok would not be going with his friends. He had a duty here.
Shattered halves of a ring, Fraja had said. Zok wasn’t a man of words, but he had always admired the way his wife could talk about one thing in order to speak truth about another thing. Fraja might say that the path he walked with Hai Hai and Mylovic was paved with sword-blades. Sorgo wasn’t the sort who could live such a life beside him – not like Fraja with her quick wits and her dagger. And if Sorgo could not live on the warrior’s road, Zok would learn to live a different way.
Hai Hai twitched her nose once, and her ears jerked in different directions. “You’re sure about this, Zok? We have a good thing going here, the three of us.”
“A good thing,” Zok agreed.
Hai Hai’s ears stiffened. “But you’re sure this is what you want?”
“No,” Zok said. “Not sure it’s what I want. Sure it’s what I need to do.”
Mylovic smiled beatifically from atop his pony, a wad of poppy-chomp already working in his jaw, despite the early hour. “I usually have little reason to call on the four gods of the family, Zok. But I’ll do so at the next temple, and beg their blessings upon you.”
Zok smiled his thanks and patted the priest’s skinny leg.
Hai Hai nodded once to him. Then his two companions rode off and began bickering about something Zok couldn’t make out.
Zok watched them go until they turned a bend in the road and were lost from sight.
Beside him, Sorgo breathed wheezily. Zok turned to the boy.
To his son.
“So,” Zok said. “First, you tell me about this town of yours. Then we’ll figure out where we go from here.”