Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Story Time, Again

Though I be loath to push down my "Writing Philosophy" post (I wonder if there is a way to make a "sticky" of a blog entry?) inevitably I must. Today I present another old action comedy once published in the excellent webzine Sorcerous Signals, and set a little later in the same world as my other thus far posted stories...


Finn leapt from the tower's edge, landing atop the gargoyle flying after a woman on the street below.  It thrashed in his grasp, struggling to get free, before Finn hammered his mace down into the monster's head.  Its skull collapsed under the heavy steel, and its body cushioned his fall as it spattered on the cobblestones below.  Shaking the pain from his leg, the giant warrior began the search for his partner.

He found her lying on a pile of corpses in the ruins of the plaza, covered with wounds and surrounded by dozens of slain enemies.  Two large arrows and the hilt of a sword jutted from her chest, and a deep slice gaped on her side.  Her face was contorted into a grimace of pain, and Finn could tell she was alive by the way she still shook with agony.  He started towards her, calling her name.

Amber rose to her knees, dragging the sword from her mangled chest.  Blood spurted from the wound and streamed out over her lip, but she managed to stand.  "Where the hell is Winston?" she asked.

Watching his dark-tressed daughter endure wounds that would have easily killed a strong man, Finn smiled with pride.  She was so much like her mother Rose, tall and strong though not quite as heavy.  "He's gone.  That little bastard escaped again."

Winston was the diminutive goblin who had led the monstrous army, the perennial enemy who always survived.  Amber staggered to meet Finn and turned her side towards him, revealing the tip of one arrow protruding from her back.  "Break it off, Dad?"

He did, and saw more blood spray as she pulled the shaft  free.  The last arrow stub was still visible between her breasts.  "Aren't you going to pull that out too?"

"The point's deep inside; I don't feel like dealing with the pain yet.  I'll get it when I'm ready."

"You really should get better armor already.  That chainmail never seems to hold up."

"But Dad, I like my chainmail.  Plate's so heavy!"

"It's your choice, if you like being full of holes."  Finn's voice softened.  "But I hate seeing you get hurt.  I should have taken better care of you."

Amber touched his hand.  "It's fine.  I'm okay."

Finn's chest swelled further with pride.  "You're so brave.  Stay here; I'm going to check how things are going in the rest of town."

She nodded.  "Sure.  I need to patch these wounds up, anyway."


Amber's hands shook as she wrapped her midsection with lengths of cloth.  She had put on her game face for Finn, but her body was wracked with agony.  What if she died?  But there was little anyone could do to help her.  Her wounds would have been mortal for a normal person, and she could only trust in the immense vitality that was her inheritance to save her.

An unexpected noise made her push her worries aside.  "Help, somebody help!" a high voice cried from somewhere above.  

She looked up and saw a little boy hanging from the roof of a market stall, one of the few still left intact.  Lurching over, she reached up.  "Let go.  I'll catch you."  The boy did as told, and she set him on the ground.  "What were you doing up there?"

"I can't find my daddy, so I climbed up to look for him.  But I slipped."

Amber knelt and put her hands on his shoulders, ignoring his stare at the arrow sticking out of her chest.  She had to swallow the blood down as she spoke.  "Your father?  What does he look like, and when did you last see him?"

"He's a fruit seller, and he told me to hide in the stall until the monsters were gone.  Then he went to fight.  He's, uh, tall, with hair on his face..."

Amber frowned.  If he had been one of the men to meet the initial attack, odds were that he was dead.  With luck, he might only be lying wounded somewhere in the square.  "Is there anything special about how he looks?"

"He has brown hair... and a blue sash."

A blue sash.  At least that was better than the other "details" the boy had provided.  Amber nodded and forced a smile.  "I'll find your father for you.  Just stay here, okay?"

She stood and began to limp away.  Before she could begin checking the bodies strewn about the marketplace, Finn walked back into view.  "Where are you going?"

"I found a survivor.  A little boy was hiding in one of the stalls, and he's anxious to find his dad.  I don't know if he's alive, but if he is I'm going to find him.  He fought here against the monsters when they first arrived."

"I'll find him.  You just rest, girl.  You're leaking everywhere."

She smiled bashfully.  "I guess I can just stay here and watch the kid.  His father's... um... got a blue sash.  And facial hair.  Hurry up, though.  If he's alive, he might not be for long without aid."

Finn frowned.  "Great details.  I hope sashes aren't popular around here."  He began to walk away, but stumbled and bent to rub at his knee.

Amber ran to him.  "Dad!  Are you alright?!"

"I'm fine.  Just banged my knee jumping off that tower."

"Maybe you should just retire, old man."  Finn was nearly fifty.

"I may be getting a bit long in the tooth, but don't worry.  Old Finn still has the strength of ten men."  Amber whistled--gurgled, really--and he added more softly, "All right, maybe nine."

"Did I do okay today, Dad?"

"You did great.  Better than that wimpy brother of yours.  'I don't want to come'?  Makes me wonder how he's my son."

"You ever think maybe Mom... you know... cheated, and had Jacob with someone else?"

Finn grinned.  "Did you just forget you and him are twins?"

"Must be the blood loss, Dad.  But I think we should talk later, after you find the fruitseller."

"Take care of your chest, honey."

Amber returned to the market stall by which the boy was waiting.  "Where's my daddy?!" he screamed.  She absolutely could not believe how loud he could be.

She shook her head, trying to dispel the ringing in her ears.  "I've got someone looking for him.  So what's your name, anyway?"

"Eric.  You're bleeding, miss."

"Yeah, I know.  I'll be fine.  Name's Amber, by the way."

"You're the Iron Flower's daughter, aren't you?"

"How do you figure?"

"You shouldn't even be alive, and you're standing up and talking."

Amber began to work at the arrow buried in her chest, wondering how she was going to get it out.  She didn't want to cut herself open, nor push the point all the way out her back.  She had already lost so much blood, and the lightness of her head scared her.  Even she could only take so much.

"It hurts, but I think I can take it.  I'm just annoyed we didn't get here earlier than we did."

"Where do you think my daddy is?"

"I'm sure he's safe", she lied.  While at least half of Pildeu's residents had survived, much of the bloodshed had occurred in the marketplace.

"I want to go find him!"

Amber flashed what she hoped would be a reassuring smile.  "Don't worry, my dad's looking for him right now.  Hey, I got an idea.  Maybe I could take you back home to your mommy, and you can wait for him together."

"I don't have a mommy."

She didn't ask if she had died or run away; it hardly mattered right now, and talking about it might only make Eric more upset.  But she had no idea what else to say.  "Want some water?"

"No.  I want my daddy.  You're tired, I know.  You don't have to come.  I'll look myself."  He tried to walk away.

Amber grabbed his arm.  "No!"  While she was sure the boy would be haunted by the blood and death he'd already seen today, she didn't want to add the image of his father's corpse to his nightmares.

"Let me go!"

She sighed.  "Listen, if we wander off now, my dad's going to be angry.  And he's pretty scary when he's angry.  Want me to tell you a story?"

"No!  I want my daddy!"

"Once upon a time, there was a beautiful princess named... um... Amber.  The princess lived in an iron tower built by her mother, an evil tyrant who thought no man was good enough for her daughter.  So one day, a brave prince named Shannon rode up to the tower.  'Amber!' he cried.  'I have come to rescue you from your prison of chastity!'  'You cannot defeat my mother alone,' Amber replied.  'But my father will help you.  He is a good wizard who lives in the... uh, um... darn..."

Eric began to cry.  "Your story stinks!  It sounds like every other story the old beggar lady tells us.  But what does chastity mean?"

"It... um..."

Finn's return saved her.  "I don't see him," he boomed from close by.  "Maybe we should bring the boy."

She scowled as her father limped into view.  "And risk letting him see, well, you know?"  

"Damn.  Have to think some more."  He paused, squinting.  "Amber, what the hell is that arrow still doing in your chest?"

"I haven't decided-"  Before she could finish, Finn grabbed the arrow and ripped it out.  She shrieked in agony, grabbing a signpost for support.  "Shit, Dad, could have... warned me...

"Did that mace hit mess my face up too badly?"

Finn grunted.  "It only nicked you.  Stop being so vain.  I wish your mother could be here."

"Mom uses facial creams all the time."

"Yeah, but she doesn't fuss about how her wounds make her look after combat.  At least her complaints are more sensible; she usually just whines about pain, nausea, shortness of breath..."

"Well, Mom's busy with her dark lord, so you're stuck with me."

Finn smiled and patted her shoulder appreciatively.  "You're right there.  No point in an argument's better than the one that wins it."

"Where's my daddy?!" Eric shouted.

Amber's shoulders slumped.  She was really tired, and her confidence in her babysitting ability had totally disappeared.  "We couldn't find him yet, but we're not going to give up.  How about we get you something hot to eat?"


Eric ended up tagging along everywhere Amber went that day, much to her and her father's dismay.  The end came when Finn went to the town hall to address the surviving citizens.  Amber had been leaning against a wall, holding Eric's hand and comforting him when he looked upset, when she began to doze off on her feet.  Slipping from her grasp, he then ran in front of Finn and asked, interrupting the warrior's unity speech, his loudest ever "Where's my daddy?!"

Mercifully, that outburst had led to a young widow taking note of Eric's plight, and offering to take care of him for the time being.  As the inn was wrecked, Finn and Amber wound up staying in the former home of a carpenter's slaughtered family.  Too tired to cook real food, they ate a dinner of jerky and bread and retired for the night.  Amber choose to stay in the eldest daughter's room, and was examining her chipped, cracked nails by lamplight when she heard a sound outside the window.  She turned, snatching her sword up from her bedside.

"Eric!  What are you doing here?"

"I know where my daddy is!"

"Really?  How?"

"I snuck out of my room and went around asking people if they saw him.  So a lady in the infirmary told me she saw him flying out of town!"

"You went into the infirmary?!  And... flying?"

"Yeah, in a monster's claws.  They kidnapped him, you have to save him!"

"Can't the guardsmen help you?  I'm not in the best shape."

"They said he's probably dead already, and that they can't risk going after the monsters.  He isn't dead, is he?  You're a hero, can't you save him?"

"Which way did they take him?"

"West, she said."

"Okay, Eric.  I'll find your father for you tomorrow."  I am so stupid, Amber thought.  But she would likely have nothing useful to do if she stayed in town, except stand around and watch her father act important.  At least she could try to save one little family.  "Just let me sleep for tonight, alright?  My chest has more holes now than my socks."

"What does that mean?"

Amber sighed.  "It means I'm in a whole lot of pain."  She closed her eyes and flopped back on the bed, allowing unconsciousness to seize her body.  It was easy to faint, as only the active exertion of her willpower had kept her from doing so throughout the day.  Before she was totally out, though, she felt Eric pull her blanket over her, tucking her in.


She woke in somewhat less pain, but her body seemed even more stiff and clumsy.  She lurched down the hall to her father's room, where she found Finn already up and dressing.  "Hey.  I'm going out of town to find Eric's dad.  You want to come?"

"I can't.  I have to organize the defenses in case of another attack.  Will you be okay?"

"I only have a chest full of holes, and I'm Mom's daughter.  I'll just run away if I meet somebody too tough to handle."  Only now did she noticed how tired and haggard Finn looked, and the way he still favored his knee.  "Dad, are you sure you're okay?"

"Come on, Amber, your father's the strongest man in Kayland.  Just go and kick some ass."

Finn was indeed a mountain of a man, and few could match his strength.  But he was growing older, and time caught up to everyone.  Amber knew most men who lived for battle ended up dying there.  She hoped that day would not soon come for her dad.  

Amber walked back to her room, where she had awakened to find Eric in her bed, sleeping next to her.  She had bled on him, and hoped he wouldn't be too freaked out.  He was waking up as she arrived.  "Help!  I'm bleeding!"

"No, Eric, you're fine.  That's my blood."

"Are you alright?"

She considered the question and shuddered.  "Please don't ask me that."


"So, you know anywhere specific your father might have been taken?  West is a pretty big place..."

Eric frowned.  "No..."

Amber knew then that all she could do was go out and search the area to the immediate west of town for a reasonable amount of time.  If she found any monster lairs during this time, she would seek Eric's father there.  And if she found him... well, it would be a miracle if she actually managed to find, and save, him.  But at the same time, she felt a bit guilty over her defeatist attitude.  Eric believed in her, and she needed to focus on the hope she might succeed.  But that hope was very small indeed.  Yet she would try, for she knew very well what it was to worry for a parent, and understood Eric's distress.

"Eric, go back to the nice lady who took you yesterday and apologize for running away.  I can't take you with me to go monster hunting."

"Will she be mad?"

"Probably.  But she should understand, you miss your dad."


She followed him there, not quite trusting him, and waited until the widow--Helen, whose name Amber had forgotten--took him inside.  Then she walked out the town's western gate, looking for a miracle.


Her first glimmer of hope came that afternoon, when she saw a manlike shape fly over her from a point to the west and slightly north.  If it had taken flight from its lair, there was a chance Eric's father could be there.  The trek through the snows was rough this time of year, and the cold air stung her damaged lungs.  Amber found herself coughing up blood repeatedly.  Still, she felt strong enough to continue.  Her hopes soared when she saw a blue sash hanging from a tree branch overhead.

Amber continued to walk, and soon heard what sounded like loud whispers echoing through the forest of spruce and fir.  She drew her sword, warily following the source of the noise.  A rough hillside came into view.  A cave was visible halfway up the slope, and in its mouth Amber saw several creatures milling about.  They were bipedal like men, tall with pitch-black, leathery skin devoid of hair.  Their muscled arms were so long, their sickle claws hung past their knees, and great bat wings protruded from their shoulder blades.  Teeth like needles filled their mouths.  Gargoyles, her father called them.  But rooftop ornaments were hardly this fearsome.

She had fought such beasts before, but Amber did not feel inclined to simply run up the hill and charge their nest.  Maybe on a better day, but today she was hurt and short of breath.  She crept around the hill, her eyes scanning its surface.  Could there be another way in?  Suddenly, a hot breeze blew across the back of her neck.  She spun, her sword sinking into the lunging gargoyle's side.  At the same time, its talons flashed at her face.  They passed through air as she leaned back, and she pulled her sword free.  The monster took a step forward, then collapsed.

One down.  But it had moved fast.  Amber pictured again the cave mouth, where she had seen at least four such beasts.  Well, even gargoyles had to sleep sometime.  She sat down against a large tree, waiting for the creatures' strange speech to die down.  Eventually, it did; by then, it was late into the night and Amber was close to freezing.  Wincing as she flexed her stiff joints, she rose and began up the hillside.

Her doubt and fear grew as she approached the cave, as silently as she could.  What was she doing?  She didn't dare light a torch yet, and could barely see in the moonlight.  The slope felt uneven beneath her, and she knew any slip could alert the monsters to her presence.  She took deep breaths, trying to remain calm.  She was a strong warrior, she reminded herself, who had killed at least fifty monsters in the last battle.  But now she was sorely wounded in enemy territory, and her heart was pounding.

As she came close enough to see into the cave, Amber made out the still forms of the gargoyles she'd seen, still very near the mouth of the cave.  There were five of them, she realized, not four.  Didn't they need shelter?  It seemed they had no problem sleeping in the cold.  Still, this made it convenient for her to kill them now.  She began to draw her sword--and the rasp of steel against the scabbard split the silent night air.  Crap.

She dashed forward and to the right, cleaving the spine of a prone gargoyle before it could fully wake.  Then the others were rising, hissing and snarling in outrage.  Amber rushed one she judged slow to move, only to be tackled and borne to the ground by the first gargoyle up.  She kept her sword arm free, but was too close to use it against the first attacker.  Meanwhile her left forearm was being torn to shreds as she tried to ward off the slashing claws of her enemy.

A second monster sprang, intending to dogpile her, but she raised her sword and it impaled itself on the blade.  She grabbed the first gargoyle by the face, her fingernails raking at its eyes, and threw it off herself to the side.  A third monster ran at her, kicking her in the ribs.  Its claws cut her deeply, but a worse pain came from the jarring of her older injuries.  She screamed, blood gushing from her mouth.

Grabbing the monster's ankle, she jerked it off its feet.  But she had no time to finish it, because the first and fourth gargoyles were bearing down quickly.  She drew a dagger from her belt sheath and threw, catching the newest attacker in the throat.  Thankfully, it fell right away.  She caught the other one in the mouth with a hard punch, driving it back though its teeth gashed the skin of her knuckles.

Amber sprang to her feet then, driving a mule kick into the temple of the third monster before it could rise.  The first tenacious beast rammed into her, its claws tearing open the chainmail over both her shoulders.  She grabbed its arms and spun, throwing it into a wall.  It raked her belly, drawing blood.  Behind her, the fallen gargoyle stood and leapt onto her back, clamping its teeth onto her trapezius muscle.

Desperate now, Amber bearhugged the gargoyle she had pinned against the wall and staggered backwards, her leg muscles burning with the strain of carrying both monsters.  With a shout, she jumped over the threshold of the cave mouth, plummeting down the hill.  The three of them tumbled over and over, rolling over each other, smashing against jagged, unyielding stone time after time.  When they finally came to rest at the bottom, Amber, cut and bruised all over, was the first one up.  The stunned gargoyles got no chance to rise again.


Torch in hand, Amber limped warily into the dark cave.  Her boots squished through something soft and mushy, and her nose crinkled with the stink.  She was walking through gargoyle shit.  The walls and roof were moist, and on occasion water dripped onto Amber's head.  If Eric's father wasn't in here, she'd be pissed.  Scratch that.  She was already pissed.

A low, foreboding voice cut through the air.  "I have a visitor, I see.  You must be strong, to have defeated my pets."

Amber made out a form in the tunnel before her, which she figured to be wearing dark robes which allowed him to blend in.  "And who are you?" she asked.  "The shit-eating, fly-brained slave of the gargoyles, or just their whore?"

"And she has spunk, too.  It will be fun to see you scream alongside that foolish man who so vainly defies me."

"Does he have brown hair, and facial hair?"

"Huh?  Do you know him?"

"Sort of.  I'm looking for him.  Give him to me, and maybe I'll let your pathetic self go today."

"Who do you think you are, to make demands of me?"

"Who do you think you are?  What are you, one of Winston's cronies?  Winston himself ran scared from me last year in Gustrone.  My parents are the greatest heroes in the world, and I will live up to their bloodline!"

And then, the figure's evil villain speech began.  "Silly girl, I am no servant of that little worm Winston!  For now he calls me an ally, though soon he will know who the true master is.  For I have mastered the art of human transfiguration, and with the monster army I create I will rule the lands of Norh!  And you, girl, will be my newest masterpiece."

Amber was not impressed.  "Terrifying.  And with your little winged bodyguards dead, what exactly are you going to do against me?"

The figure seemed to suck in a huge breath.  "Chimeric Metamorphosis!" he shouted--and his form began to swell.

Amber threw her sword.

For a few moments, the figure remained standing, shaking as it continued to transform.  Then it crumpled to the ground, convulsing helplessly as its lifeblood poured out around the sword through its chest.  Amber ambled over to it and wrenched her blade free.  "Sorry, but I just wasn't in the mood for another battle tonight.  Boy, I need to sleep!"

She continued to the back of the cave, where she found a tall, brown-haired man lying inside a shabby wooden cage.  Amber rapped on the bars.  "Hey, you!  Did you lose a blue sash?"

"Uh... what?"  He looked down, scratching at his stubbly chin.  "Ah, I see I don't have it anymore.  How did you know?"

Amber smiled, no longer caring that her chest felt full of molten lava or that the rest of her stung and throbbed all over.  "Long story.  Your son's waiting for you."

"My son?  He's alive?  Thank the gods!"

"Do you know where the key to this thing is?"

"I don't know.  The master should have it, I guess."

"What?  All those steps back?  Oh, hell.  Nobody'll be using this cage anytime soon."  She raised her sword and began to hack away.


Amber slept in camp until late next afternoon despite all the freed man's protests, and returned to town sometime during the night.  She headed to Helen's house right away, certain that Eric would gladly be woken up to see his father again.  She smiled as Helen opened the door, and the widow nodded in understanding.  Eric quickly came downstairs, fixing wide eyes on Amber's companion.

"Who is that?"

"That's not my son," the man said.

Amber's jaw dropped wide open.  "B-but, Eric, you said that lady saw, saw..."

"I already found my daddy," Eric said.  "He was buried under a pile of bodies.  Your daddy didn't look hard enough."

"He's all right," Helen added.  "Just a bump on the head and some scratches.  But thanks for trying."

"So who... are you?" Amber asked the man.

"I am Samuel, a former soldier of the Coblan army.  I reached corporal before retiring, and now work as a shoemaker.  I am happily married, with three daughters and a son.  Last year, my son went missing during a hunting accident..."

Amber barely heard any of it.  She was swaying on her feet, her head spinning.  Seeming to notice her new wounds for the first time, Eric asked, "Are you alright?"

"Please, don't... ask me... that," she gasped.  Then she closed her eyes, and toppled like a tree.

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