The pummeling heat was gone. The howling of the rending sandwind was gone. The chatter of voices in my head was gone. The devouring void inside me was…not gone, but dormant. I felt a gentile hand brushing my face along with a warmth beneath my head as I sipped beautiful water. I tried to open my eyelids, but the world was too bright for me to keep them parted. I groaned at this point.
“Shhhh. It’s ok. It’s ok,” said an angelic voice somewhere very nearby but sounded as though it was from somewhere beyond the stars that shone so brightly in the night sky.
I tried to speak, to inquire as to where I was, as to what had happened, but my voice was still so heavily damaged that everything came out as garble.
“Don’t strain yourself. Just relax. Everything will be alright.” Arguing with an angel is a pointless task, but I had become an expert in acquiring those.
Again I attempted to use my voice, but I could only manage something that resembled the noises a rabid wolf who’s throat had been slit would make.
“Please, just rest. Here, have some more water.” The edge of the drink touched my broken lips, waiting for me to take it in. My eyes clenched tighter, wanting it to go away and let me shrivel into nothingness. But it did not leave, and soon I found myself consuming more of the base element of life. I drank deep until I jerked away, gasping for air. Amidst the darkness of the backs of my eyelids, my breathing eventually slowed and deepened. My knees and back felt as though blazing steel had been shoved into them, but once I remembered that I had dealt with that sensation for decades I regained a modicum of my mind.
“Why…?” came my incredulous partial question.
“Go on. Just ask me,” was all the more the caring voice asked after a few moments.
Once I had what I deemed a sufficient amount of air in my lungs, I completed my question. “Why…didn’t you let me die?”
“Because we’re not ready to let you go.” I felt the gentile hand stroking my brow.
“But I can’t win. I couldn’t save the village, the kingdom, I can’t even reach the Ivory Tower.” My body was unable to waste water on tears at this point, given the condition in was in.
“That doesn’t matter. We still need you.” The warmth beneath my head radiated more strongly.
“Please. Just let me go. Please. Let this be over. Please end this.” My limbs dropped powerlessly to the surface I was on.
“…no…we still need you.” I began to question what group the voice was with, and just how sadistic said group was to keep me in this state.
“Why? How?” I asked in a quiet, cracked voice.
There was a pause, but not from trepidation or falsity. “Because you’re you.”
There was a shifting, and the warmth was gone. I was able to hear something, and barely opened one eye in the shadow of the bridge of my nose. I thought I could make out a door with a blazing white light behind it with a figure standing before it. I attempted to lift a had towards the figure, but it was gone before I was cognizant of the fact.
“Why didn’t you let me die?” I received no answer, the figure merely turned and walked out of the doorway, black cloak and angel wings flourishing an an unseen wind.I felt it would be some time before I was ready to stand again.
I had been walking for some time. Time no longer mattered to me, so I stopped counting the times the sun and moon came up. After navigating the cavern, I came upon a vast desert. Wreckage from some war lost to history that had taken place here littered the land. Ballista and catapults and crafts of some foreign design were strewn across the landscape. I wandered near and through them and recovered a few interesting trinkets along the way, but nothing that would truly help me in my quest. Occasionally, I would sit in the shade of one to rest, feeling the damage in my knee and back and neck getting worse despite the heat. A strange odor permeated the area, but I came to a point where I stopped noticing it. Perhaps that is what tainted the water, which I had no choice but to drink after my supplies had ran out long ago. It made me feel…strange. I cannot describe to you what affect it had, as I am not entirely certain how it made me feel, but after consuming it I did indeed feel, in a word, different.
My only guide through this blasted terrain was the Ivory Tower, which I continued on to. However, it seemed that the longer I walked, the further away it became. I was certain that when I began into the desert, I could make out a score of levels over the horizon. After walking all that time, however, I was only able to make out the spire and one level of windows. The voices in my head had long since been telling me that the tower was running from me. I had shaken it off as temporary insanity brought on by isolation, but at that point I was no longer certain they were wrong.
My health had degraded by that point. Having had no food for some time, I had noticed my ribs were much more prominent, and I had begun coughing up a think, yellow mass from my lungs. Additionally, my skin was darkening and cracking due to my extended time in the blasting sun. Occasionally I would notice that my hands were bleeding from new cracks in the skin, and on occasion I would find blood in the yellow masses I coughed up. Eventually I stopped caring about these things, focusing only on reaching the Ivory Tower. I was convinced that once I got there, all of this wouldn’t matter. That somehow, mystically, all things would be healed. All sentient creatures have an impossible need to believe in something that they cannot define or support through logical debate - this was mine.
I had walked far enough through this age-old battlefield that the wreckage dissipated, to the point that I was left with no cover from the elements. I tried to hold a sack above my head to provide some cover from the heat during the day, tried to sleep in that same sack to stay warm at night - both were equally ineffective. I felt some indefinable sickness come over me, which had the odd side-effect of causing me to constantly smell smoke and leave a syrupy sensation on my tongue. I had also come to the point that I no longer craved sustenance. Whether this was from the disease I had contracted or a natural effect of from mental or physical duress, I do not know. However, the reason is not important, only the effect.
After a time, I began to hallucinate. People I thought I knew appeared before me, and I spoke to them as I plodded through the infinite desert. They told me how their lives were coming together, how they cared about me, how they were worried about me, then they left me. I found it pathetic that even my own hallucinations found a need to escape me. This continued on over whatever amount of time it was that passed.
One day, I found my eyes were as dry as my throat as a diabolical sandstorm hurled itself at me. There was no refuge I could take, so I stood against nature with no weapon or armor to retaliate with. I fought against it as long as I could, but eventually I fell to the ground and began to be covered by the sands. I attempt to wipe away enough debris to keep stable airflow to my face, but that was an ultimately futile attempt. Face down, unable to escape, I stopped moving from exhaustion and lack of hope, and the sands of time began to bury me. I heard a demonic voice melodically singing to me as I felt the weight begin to press down on me:
“All my time seems to be wasted
Will it stop or is it only beginning?”
I prayed to gods I do not hold dear that it was the former.
Another, equally hellish voice sang forth:
“How much more can I take?
How many days can I fake
Of this thing I miscall my life?
I walk along this path so well
That was made for only me.”
I do not know what gave me strength at this point. Was it some spell cast upon me by the Woman in Black Armor? Was it ancestral spirits giving their power? Was it just my own stupidity in thinking that I could win odds of 1:6,000,000,000? I do not know. We will probably never know. But whatever it was, I will never forgive it.
I thrust a fist up out of the sand, and used it to pry myself up from beneath the heavy waves that had covered me. Ignoring the sting of sand that was in the multiple rips across my skin, ignoring the hunger inside me that was devouring me from the inside, ignoring the pain of ripping tendons and muscle in my knee and back and neck, ignoring the revulsion of my lungs from the sand I had inhaled from whatever amount of time I had spent buried, I found myself gasping for air above the waves. After a few moments, I was surprised to find I was no longer in the storm. With dazed, parched eyes, I looked around but found no trace of the storm. Flopping back onto the dune, I took a moment before uncovering my lower back and legs and tearing myself out of the cocoon that had been made for me, then began crawling up the hill that had been created. I made it to the top, looked over the edge, and as I lost my breath I saw the Ivory Tower below me, spire to base. Not more than a stone’s throw. I was but a tumble down a hill away from my goal.
Then it vanished.
With what meager strength I had left, I looked aimlessly from side to side. Eventually, I became aware of the spire far in the distance. Amidst the heat shimmer, it looked as though it was waving at me. Taunting me. Laughing at me.
I fell against the sand. At that moment, I knew this is how my quest would always end - unfulfilled, beaten, pointless. I lay there in the early dusk light, waiting for whatever carrion would have me.
This is what I had become - an angel of darkness.
I looked around, seeing the carnage that I must have brought forth on The Pack in the early hours of moonlight. Tufts of fur and clumps of innards were in pieces everywhere. On the ground. In the trees. Dripping off my tunic. Falling out of my mouth.
Nothing moved in my vicinity, with the exception of my lungs heaving from exhaustion. My brain was on fire from the exertion I had set forth. My knee was exploding with pain, apparently damaged in the skirmish. A brief train of logic came sideways out of my mind, mentioning that the amount of blood that was on my captured sword would never be able to be cleaned, and that this sword would soon break from the corrosion…I did not care.
I fell, apparently having been in that vertical hellacious stance for some time. I couldn’t move my neck, apparently from some damage incurred in the battle I couldn’t remember, so I stared at the ground gasping for air with my heart throbbing in my chest. I flashed back over the last few hours of what I could remember of my life.
The rabbits had told me about how The Pack had been hunting them mercilessly for months. In the past, diving into their burrows would have been enough to escape them, but now The Pack would continue pursuit through the ground. Two wolves would begin to burry and collapse other entrances while three more would dig into the hare home, then the pack would come and devour any herbivore they would find. Their herd had been reduced to less than one-third in less than half a year. It was remedial math on my part (as I’m an idiot when it comes to the ways of academia), but I figured that they lost over 1,000 in less than three months - starting roughly when I had made my appearance in the town.
My ill-begotten heroic tendencies led me to wait in hiding near the hare’s home, waiting for the now-daily murderous strike by the lupines. The fanged ones did not disappoint. Beyond this, my memory becomes quite vague. I remember The Pack appearing, tearing the herbivores apart, more then decimating what they had left. But I think what truly launched me over the edge was seeing their viciousness towards the youngest of the cottontails. It was that that point my mind snapped. Teeth, steel, and claws, all mine, vented blood. In a matter of long minutes, The Pack was no more.
I had exterminated the entire local race of wolves. Perhaps they were only hungry. Perhaps they were just doing their version of farming - does anyone care about the woes of a crop of wheat? Perhaps there was something more. It didn’t matter. All I wanted was blood. The death of my enemies I deemed unfit to live. I asked no questions, gave no quarter, allowed no second-guessing. I knew I was right. I knew I was right…then.
I managed to stand myself up, using my renegade sword as a cane, and began to limp back to town. I asked no quarter from whatever lone-ears remained of the herd. All I wanted was several strong drinks to wash the sinew from my throat, to collapse in my bed, and to dread the usual daily cycle again. Obviously, I was not lucky enough to have that luck.
I came within a few hundred yards of the town, and I saw flame. My heart, already over-taxed from the battle with the wolves, lurched so much in my chest that I thought it was knock me to the ground. But there was something that kept me upright, kept forcing me to walk on - rage.
I made my way into town, heading to the only place I knew I could get answers as to what just happened. Questions raced through my mind - had a team of evil mages struck the town? Was it an enemy province attempting to expand their territory? Was there a dragon attack? I found the madame, running from residence to residence, and stopped her.
“What the hell happened here?!?!” I screamed over the screams and ambient noise associated with destruction.
She looked at me, and I noted something in her eyes. Not shock, not despair, but something else - blame. “It was the marauders!” she yelled back at me. “The guard wasn’t enough, they destroyed them and us!” My heart, still full of rage and despair, sank. I fell to my knees.
“I’m sorry,” I muttered amidst the fire and the flames and chaos. She looked at me, that madame, with a mix of understanding and hate, and rushed to the next house. At that point, I knew my next mission. I knew what had to be done. I stood, with a forth-wind. I ripped the bracer from my leg tearing it into a myriad of pieces, and staked out of the city. Along the way, I ran across a battalion of marauders attempting to rape a young woman. All the more I will say of this battle was that the marauders never took another breath, the woman was saved, I gained a second weapon, a shield, a make-shift piece of armor, and the costume of o a marauder…and my rage only grew.
I came upon the encampment of the marauders, dressed in their guise, hobbling as I made it to their checkpoint.
“Dude, hey, you alright, man?”
I had learned their words in my time in the city. “Check it out, dude, these fraggers got some uber-killer! I’m dyin’ here, man!” And, on purpose, I collapsed, an evil smile on my lips as I faced away from them. Of course, as I predicted, one ran off to help his ‘bros’. the other stayed to ‘help’ me.
‘Dude, we’ll make ‘em pay!” he said, rolling me over to give assistance, and as he did so I shoved a forgotten kobold dagger through his heart.
“Die,” was all the more respit I gave him as his life spilled across me. After I threw his lifeless body off me, I proceeded into the encampment with what can only be described as am evil mindset - I planned to kill them all.
The next few deci-minutes are not to be revealed at this time - that description is only for the most stout of heart, and only with the clearest of minds describing and reading. But, to summarize, within 40 minutes, The Marauders were not just decimated, but eliminated.
The townsfolk would never know the story. They would simply realize they were no longer under attack and rebuild. They would never see me again. The fleeting few remaining rabbits would likewise never see their exalted Pian. For after I had created my own new bloodbath venting The Marauders, I was able to continue my mission.
The path to/through the cavern was now clear, as I had eviscerated every evil member between me and it. I saw where I had to go. I stood, bleeding and crippled as I was, and began walking through the late hours of night towards the path towards the line that drew me. As I made it to the mouth of the cave, I heard a voice to my right.
“So, this is how you want to do it? Complete your quest on the broken bodies of those you’ve defeated?” It was the woman in black armor.
I stopped, turned my head to look at her over my right shoulder, and said, “What do you expect me to do? Talk to people and make the villains realize the error of their ways and let me pass as the innocents are wounded, critically?”
There were two or three emotions that flassed across her face before she finally answered, “Yes.”
I turned back to the cavern, saying only, “That is unacceptable,” I stalked forward, my back and knee causing me excruciating pain. I made it three steps when I stopped and turned my head again back to the woman in black. “You realize, of course, you’ll have to tell me why you care about me.”
After a long pause, I heard her quietly say, “Yes.”
I partially turned my torso to her, and said, “You also realize that you are my salvation. I am aware of this, as are you. And if I find a way or save you, or avenge you,” I spat out the last phrase, “then I will put aside my mission and do so. For you and everyone we hold dear.” Admittedly, I didn’t know what the ending meant, but I knew I would hold true to it with every fiber of my being.
The woman in black armor was silent.
“I see you understand me,” I said in a hoarse voice, having coming off of two vicious concurrent battles that I should have never been alive to see. “I’ll save you all. If I must face eternity itself, I will, save all of you. You’d better make a list, because I’ll probably forget.” I began my march into the cavern. “I’m an idiot that way,” I said under my breath. I could feel her staring at me, but I didn’t know if the sentiment was hatred or compassion. Either way, I knew I was on my own once I made it past the end of the cavern. I expected nothing different.
By Nina Malkin At this moment, my husband’s hair is as long as mine. In fact, fans of the animated series Metalocalypse would agree that he bares a striking resemblance to Toki Wartooth (though some of the elderly religious ladies in our neighborhood insist he looks just like Jesus). Come summer, however, my guy will do what he’s already done several times before—shave it off, shave it alllllll off. And he’s just as sexy to me bald as with a full head of silky locks. But since some women harbor a bias against baldies, I thought I’d point out a few reasons why a guy who hasn’t got all his hair is really all that—and more.
He’s about face. My sweetie’s got gorgeous blue eyes with lashes an ostrich would envy, and they’re far more noticeable when he’s bald. And in my continual observations of men (I’m married, not blind), I’ve found there’s no better foil for a standout feature than a clean scalp. Be it an aquiline nose, chiseled cheekbones or a powerful jaw, the backdrop of baldness sets it on display.
He’s wash and go. Hair — as any woman knows from fussing with her own — requires copious grooming, and less maintenance can equal more masculine (sorry, I know it’s a stereotype but one that a lot of women I spoke to voiced!). “I don’t want to be with a man whose gel and mousse routine is more elaborate than mine,” says my friend Amy, who’s never seen her guy with a strand above his eyebrows. Am I guilty of buying my husband his first bottle of conditioner when he struggled with snarls during the early stages of his current great grow-out? Yes. But am I pleased to have more bathroom time to myself during his bald phase? Yup!
He feels fantastic. Have you ever stroked a freshly-shaved head? If so, you know the basis for the adage “Once you go bald, you never go back!” Indeed, fans of bald dudes can have a very strong desire to touch and kiss their partners’ clean-shaven heads. “I’m crazy about the way it feels,” says one woman who wishes to remain anonymous.
He’s thoroughly modern. Baldness has always held a certain futuristic sensibility. There’s something streamlined, sleek and even chic about a hairless head, so in a way, bald is the new hair. As the century turned, Elite model Mick T. (whose vital stats proudly list “bald” under “hair color”) represented the new era on a Newsweek cover, and now that this decade is nearly over, the time for bald has come. If Sex and the City is the arbiter of all things romantic and fashionable, then actor Evan Handler — now reprising his role of Harry Goldenblatt, Charlotte’s hubby, on the big screen — proves it.
He’s either a biker kind of guy… Archetypically, bald guys fall into one of two attractive categories. First up, the cool tough guy. Often personified by athletes, a la Evander Holyfield, Charles Barkley, Michael Jordan and Andre Agassi, such action stars as Jason Statham and Vin Diesel, and (ooh!) let’s not forget my earliest crush, Popeye, these guys push the envelope of hairlessness. He needs to be the ultimate in aerodynamic sleekness and so shaves off what pesky stuff may remain around the perimeter.
Or he’s a sweetie. Flip the archetype script for the triple threat of smart, sensitive and spiritual—the bald fella who’ll translate the gobbledygook of a computer manual for you, compose a sonnet and master the lotus position all in the course of a single date. Think the Dalai Lama; think Buddha. Or to bring it down to earth a tad, think musicians like Moby and American Idol alum Chris Daughtry (who recently hooked up with Ben & Jerry’s to help fight poverty). While I’ve never dated a bona fide prophet or a rock star, I can speak with authority about a former bald boyfriend who enjoyed poetry, checked in regularly with his higher power and easily programmed my VCR (it was the 90s, OK?).
He’s beyond bald. Despite all the paeans above, you may simply believe that bald is not your bag. But before you dismiss every mane-challenged man out there, listen to these wise words from my friend Jenny: “I wouldn’t say I’m attracted to bald guys, but I’ve been attracted to guys who happened to be bald.” In other words, she is drawn to the man in all his glory—the sense of humor and the killer smile and all the other qualities that contribute to the total package. If you ban bald guys as potential loves, you vastly limit your dating options. So keep in mind that hair does not make the man. Take my man, for instance. The reason he hasn’t seen the barber in four years lies in his intention to reach the necessary 10-inch-long tresses required for a donation to Locks of Love, the organization that provides hairpieces to financially disadvantaged kids suffering from medical hair loss. That’s the kind of person he is—and that’s why I love him. And there are plenty of other guys out there whose heads may be challenged, follicle-wise, but there hearts are definitely in the right place and then some…
The town suffered as well, as the ruffians that accosted me beset the town. With my re-sharpened sword I stood against them counterattacking from the shadows, but not before the blacksmith, the tavern keeper, the stable master, and the captain and half his city guard were slain. I had thought of leaving to continue my quest and leave the city behind, but it seemed my choice had been made for me - the marauders had based themselves at the mouth of a cavern that stood between me and the Ivory Tower, and with my damaged leg I would not be able to stand against them all in the open. With their losses, only three highly recognizable figures were left to control the city: the governor, who ruled with an iron fist on occasion, the Madame of the local house of ill repute…and me.
The governor was a man seemingly possessed of loud spirits, which to this day has not been disproved, but I think that perhaps this is all a façade in order to keep future enemies away - who would dare attack a province governed by a madman, after all?
The Madame was, at her deepest core, a good woman. However, the nature of her profession and losing several of her girls to the invaders had taken their toll on her. She had become as loud as the governor and now walked openly with a weapon on her hip. At times, however, at the tavern, I could hear the sadness and regret in her voice along with something else - something small, something distant, something I had felt before, but couldn’t quite remember.
I, however, had been vastly promoted. I awoke each day before sunrise, running as best I could to the stables to run the steeds twice around the corral, restock feed bags, and change water as best I could in the small time I had. Then it was off to the smithy to attempt to stoke the fires and mend and create what I could with the meager knowledge I had of such things for the boys and old men we had recruited to keep peace in the city. After that, I hobbled to the guardhouse to attempt to train this near-miscreant batch of new recruits in basic city defense while keeping the old from attempting to take over the town. That was done when the sun began to sink, which meant I needed to keep the smithy fire burning on the way to re-feeding/running the horses, which was merely a stop on the way to the tavern, which I was now the keeper of. Hobbling down the street, I would hear Madame screaming at clientele or prostitutes from several buildings away. However, every day I passed, she would turn silent as she came to the window, looking down at me, and would give a slight nod as if to say, “Thank you,” which I would then return in kind. She would then turn back into her house and begin screaming again as I made my way to the tavern. As I turned into the place of drink, I would scowl as I saw the fires of the encampment of the marauders in the distance.
It was mostly quiet at the tavern, the village still reeling from the heavy attack they had suffered. Once in a while a city guard or oafish farmhand would get out of control in an ale-induced rage, but even in my broken form I was able to put them in their place before much damage was incurred. At a certain time each night I would chase out the patrons - young men and women leaving in embraces to do what couples do, drunken workers helped out by others, the local bard of the night scheming to get the last unclaimed coins from tables. I would then begin my new ritual: bar the doors, place three weapons strategically around the room, take the bindings off my leg, and open a bottle of mead and drink while studying maps to and writings about the Ivory Tower while making notes of what I could interpret. The mead made me forget the pains of my body momentarily, and made me desire my goal of the Ivory Tower more. I thought back on my meeting with the woman in black armor, and wondered if she would ever appear again. Amidst these thoughts, I would fall asleep over my writings, only to wake to start the process again, biding my time until the time was right to somehow make my way past the marauders.
This went on for weeks that bled into each other until I could not tell one from the next. One day, between the stables and the smithy, I hears something moving in a barrel of rubbish on the side of the street. Cautiously I approached, wondering what enemy I would find. Peering over the edge expecting to be attacked, I saw what was causing the noise - a small rabbit that had holed-up in a half-broken mug. How it got there was a mystery to me, but I knew what I had to do - return the scared creature to the world it knew. I reached into the barrel and slowly hoisted the mug by what was left of the handle and began heading towards the edge of town. Along the way, maidens and children rushed up to see what I had. They looked on and cooed as maidens and children do, and even a few passing city guardsmen had their hearts soften when they saw the poor, trembling thing. Eventually, I made my way to the edge of town where the grasses started, and I poured the frightened youngling out of the mug. At first, it wouldn’t leave the perceived safety of the mug, but after I was able to get it out I stood back expecting it to bolt faster than my eyes could register. However, it only sat there, breathing as though its heart were about to burst as it looked at me. I looked back at it, and I sympathized with it’s fear. After a few moments I realized I had done all I could, and I turned and proceeded to the smithy with hopes that the fires were still hot enough to not set back the entire rest of my day.
Some amount of time passed as late spring became early summer. I had made no further progress in my research of the Ivory Tower, even though I had found time to make a few travels to the town historian. Still the marauders could be seen blocking my path. I had begun to think that I would rot in this town; part of me wanted to. While it wasn’t what I had dreamed of, I had gained some level of respect there. Respect alone, however, is unfortunately not enough to sustain a being such as I.
One day, as I was making my first daily journey to the smithy, I became dully aware that many townsfolk were standing about looking at something that caught my eye as I made my way to the entrance. At first I thought nothing of it, but after a few seconds the haze of post-alcohol was pierced by reality. I froze, slowly rolling my eyes to the side to clearly see what I could not have seen: a hoard of hares were staring at me intently.
“That’s him!” came a quiet, high-pitched voice. I felt something spark in my head.
“Are you certain, Bit?” asked a similar, yet different voice. My brow twitched at that point.
“Yeah, mommy, that’s him! That’s the one! That’s the one who saved me from hades!” said the first voice, this time more excited. Some sort of clicking throat noise escaped me at that point as I still remained motionless in disbelief.
“Oh, speed of the wolf, Otten, look at the mark on his head!” I absent-mindedly wiped at my cheek at that point, hoping I could wipe away this new insanity.
“It is true! We thank the saving-scents and the ball in the sky!” said a slightly more authoritative yet still diminutive voice. “To all things holy, the Great Savior is among us! I, Priest Avor declare this to be so!” I may have lost my footing for a moment and staggered at that point.
“All praise the great Pian who will save us from the dreaded Pack! All praise the great Pian, Maxximus!” chanted the congregation of hares. My leg gave way at that point, and I dropped to the ground with what must have been a look of horror on my face. A legion of demons was something I was prepared for. A sneak attack by bandits was trivial. But to be declared the deity of a group of over-sized hopping-mice was something I wasn’t prepared for. I was also not prepared to be buried by 300 of the furred creatures and assaulted by their ensuing chatter.
“Can you really save us?”
“Can you bring fire from the sky?”
“Where were you when my brothers and sisters were being eaten?”
“How do you hop properly if you only have two legs?”
“Please fix my leg.”
“Can you bring my daddy back from inside the wolf?”
“Stop the pack!”
“What makes you different from the other giants near here?”
“You smell funny.”
“How can you hear with such small ears?”
“Do gods get scared?”
“What is the connection between the increased use of magic by giants and the fact that the yellow ball burns more in the hot time and hard sparkling rain comes more during the cold time?” All of the rabbits stopped chattering and looked at the hare who had asked that question. The inquisitive cottontail looked at the group and asked incredulously, “What, that’s worse than ‘You smell funny’?”
At this point, I chanted, “Get off, get off, Get Off, GET OFF, GET OFFGETOFFGETOFF!!!!!” increasing in volume and speed with each repetition. “What is going on?!?!” erupted from within me.
The hares scurried to their original mass location, communed before me.
“We have angered Maxximus. Forgive us, or great Pian. We lay low in your glory.” As far as I could tell, Priest Avor had said this, after which the entire group crouched down on the ground and laid their ears low and closed their eyes. “We accept what punishment you may give us, we only humbly ask that in return for our sacrifice you save the rest of our herd from the Pack.” For a few moments we all sat in silence, and I became aware that the villagers were looking at me with as much disbelief as I was in at that point. Eventually my shock of recent events subsided.
“Stop doing that,” I said to the long-ears in front of me. Slowly they opened their eyes, their ears came forward, and they looked at me in what I could only determine was awe. “What are you talking about? My name’s not Maxximus or Pian.”
Priest Avor came forward. “You must be Maxximus. You are a Pian. You have the mark on your head.”
“What mark?” I asked incredulously. I looked to one of the villagers and asked, “Do you see a mark on my face?”
It took a few seconds for the shepherd to answer, “Who have you been talking to, son?” By the look on his face, I could tell that I had the only voice he heard speaking. Glancing at the other villagers, they were of the same opinion.
I sighed as I looked to what I could see of the tip of the Ivory Tower and said, “Apparently, I’m losing my mind.” I could have ignored the hares at that point, except for the fact that I realized in my field of vision of the Ivory Tower, on top of a roof, was the woman in black armor. She looked at the tower, then back at me, and simply nodded, and I knew what I had to do.
Resigned, I struggled to my feet and held open the front door to the smithy. After a few seconds of nothing happening, I looked at the rabbits and said, “Come on, get inside. Just do it in an orderly fashion. And don’t leave pellets everywhere.” To the surprise of the townsfolk, the rabbits calmly hopped into the front of the smithy. I looked at the shepherd and said, “Tell the guards to practice what they were shown yesterday and continue rounds of the city. Tell the Madame the tavern is closed tonight unless she wants to tend bar.” I turned to close the door.
“Son,” asked the shepherd, “what are you doing?”
“You’ve got your flock…apparently I’ve got mine.” I closed the door on a disbelieving village. Finding a stool, I placed it before the hares and sat upon it while stretching my leg. “Alright,” I said with a frown, “tell me about this ‘Pack’.”
I went back into the breach alone, prepared to fight. Wanting to fight. I paid no attention to the approaching storm, heard not the thunder over the beating of my own heart. Against the demons I stood, alone, attempting to cut a path through the mass. And I was brilliant. Dozens fell before me, more ran in confusion. I made my way over the corpses and pushed into the valley, and I looked with on with hopeful anticipation at what I had been chasing for so long.
It was a trap.
Thousands stood before me, blocking my path to the Ivory Tower. The demons I thought I had slain stood again behind me, sneered, and ran back into the breach towards the unprotected region I left behind. I screamed and turned to give chase, which proved to be my undoing. I had forgotten the one rule any amateur combatant knows above all others: never turn your back on an enemy.
I felt a force plunge through me from behind. Stunned, I gazed down and saw a barbed thing sticking out of my chest which had bits and pieces of my entrails hanging from it. I felt the blood drain from my head and out of the wound as my assailant ripped it backwards through me. My weapons fell from me as I fell to the ground, and I became aware of the raging storm that was pelting everything in sight. I turned my head, spasming, and saw the hoard descend upon me as the storm intensified. As I was torn asunder, massive explosions of thunder erupted as laughter from a perverse audience. With one last ounce of strength, I turned what remained of my head again and saw through the breach that what I had left behind was being overrun and destroyed. As the weapons tore me to pieces, my only solace was that I would soon be dead and the pain would be gone.
The war was over, and I had fallen again. The Horde moved on, leaving my remains under a darkened raining sky of hate. I became aware of a presence approaching me, and it began speaking. I could no longer comprehend language, but I knew that Death had come for me. Finally. But something was amiss. I was not released from the mortal coil, and my agony continued as the storm ended. The dark figure continued to speak.
Eventually I became aware that my limbs were no longer scattered across the field, but were back in their proper places on my body. I began to be able to see light and shadow, and I could hear the sound of a wind crossing the plain. Still there was a murmuring that I could not discern.
As the fog of regeneration cleared from my eyes, I rolled over onto my back and saw the sky again - the clouds had began to break, and a strange amber hue was filtering down. I took a heavy breath into now-functioning lungs as a bird flew by far overhead. I became aware that the stream of quiet speech from beside me had ceased. I sat up quickly, a quick shivering of pain crossing my abdomen as I did so. I winced as I looked to my side and finally saw the body of the figure who had recently approached.
Clad in armor under a black cloak, I was only aware that the figure was female after she spoke, “You’re not finished yet. Get back to the battle.”
Incredulously I looked around as I stood on shaky legs, my clothing and armor in tatters, seeing nothing but ruin. “What battle? There is nothing left to fight for. I have no weapons, no armor, the land I came from is gone. How can I fight? What is the point of fighting?”
The woman in black pointed away without taking her gaze away from mine. “Your goal.”
Slowly, my vision followed her outstretched arm, seeing in the distance that which I began this quest for - the Ivory Tower. It seemed further away now, changed somehow, with more treacherous terrain to cross before getting to it, but it was still there. Thoughts raced through my mind, colliding at times. I began to wonder whether I should continue my quest or run for the nearest cave and live the life of a hermit. I remembered the pain I endured from the recent battle and so many more before it. “What if it’s not what I think it is? What if I’m not strong enough to make it? What if once again I --” I stopped as I turned back and realized the woman was no longer there. I let loose a long sigh, gave one last glance back through the breach to my old land, then turned to the distant Ivory Tower and began a new march. As I walked, I recovered pieces of armor that might have been able to be fashioned into new protection. A weapon, plunged into the ground, found itself taking the journey with me. I noticed a small village ahead that looked like it could afford me some shelter from the approaching night and possibly some provisions for the journey ahead.
So, with a bag of pieces of armor, an uncertain weapon, and trepidation and doubt as my companions, I began my mission for the Ivory Tower again.
If I find out any more information, I think I’m gonna lose it. Everyone’s always so fucking concerned about learning more to be a better human being or some such nonsense. I just wanna be a good rock. Not even a better rock, just a good one. Maybe a nice granite. I’d even settle for a harder sandstone. That might actually make more sense.
There’s just too many battlefronts - I can’t cover them all. There’s just me, and there’s so much shit going on, and I don’t even understand the tactics on some of the fronts. The others just have too many otters charging me to do anything about.
My world is spinning. On occasion. When it’s not digging in.
And still reinforcements and supplies come in. New weaponry. New armor. Field doctors. They patch me back up and send me back out again. To fight alone. One for all. Any for One?
I don’t want the war anymore. I’m tired. Stop bringing me back just to fall again. Either save me or kill me, don’t leave me in this hell.