Sunday, May 25, 2014


The car rolled gradually to a quiet stop.  Its driver opened the door and slipped out, closing the door gently, silently, as though his very presence disturbed the tranquil setting.  His measured footfalls padded away onto the grass.

Inside the car, a girl sat and watched her father's ritual.  She allowed an exasperated sigh to escape.

"Now, Jenny," her mother chided, "relax.  We'll be at Uncle Don's soon enough, and you'll get all the time to play that you want.  Let your father have his time now."

Jenny shook her head.  As she and her cousins neared their teens, they were proud to be growing out of 'play time'; now, they enjoyed sitting and talking like adults.  Still, sitting and talking with her cousins was much better than sitting in a car with its radio muted.  "Fine.  But what is he doing?  Why does he have to do it every year?"

"I think you should go ask him.  He can tell you better than I can."

Jenny jumped out of the back seat and mimicked her father's solemn walk between the white marble stones that stood stretched in rigid formation across the grassy field.  As she approached the spot where he was silently planted in a position of attention, his arm snaked out, wrapping across her shoulders and pulling her in to stand close beside him.

"Dad," Jenny started, expecting her father to shush her too-loud voice as it cut through the quiet sensation of peace that blanketed the graveyard.  He didn't, though, so she continued, "Mom told me to ask you why you stop here every year."

The man, the grey hair dappling his temples his only sign of age, nodded as though he'd been expecting the question.  Inclining his head toward the tombstones to their front, he said, "For them."

"Yeah, I know that, Dad.  Every year the principal comes over the PA system on Friday and tells us this weekend we need to honor our fallen veterans.  You were one, weren't you?"  He almost never talked about it, but she'd seen the pictures in his office at home.

He chuckled soundlessly.  "Not a fallen veteran, Jenny.  I'm one of the lucky ones; I came home to your mom and to you."

"Did you know any of these guys?"

Jenny saw her father nod, but then silence stretched between them to the point that she suspected she wouldn't get an answer.  Finally, though, he inhaled slowly and then said, "Yeah.  Paul," he indicated the stone directly in front of them, causing Jenny to focus in on the details scribed on that one stone out of the thousands that surrounded them as he continued, "was a great guy.  He always smiled, no matter what.  CO said we had to spend our Friday evening cleaning our weapons, and Paul would be the first to get down to it.  'Quicker we get to it, quicker we get done,' he'd say through a smile.  John," he indicated a stone a few spaces down and Jenny moved to read that one as he continued, "tall redhead kid that was always in trouble.  Kid could do some pushups, though.  He had plenty of practice.  No sooner did we get set up in tent city than he hauled out some of those little bottles of whiskey--contraband, they were.  Could've gotten us all stoned."  This time her father's chuckle could be heard.

"How did they die?" she asked as she came back over to be folded under his arm.

Her father pulled her in closer to his shoulder.  He stood and spoke, often using his free hand to help describe things, longer to her of his military time than he'd ever taken the time to before.  He told her of the frustration they'd felt seeing their friends lying, dying, from a roadside bomb that gave them no one to shoot back at.  He told of moving through cities, protecting local groups, and then roaring to rip an entire building down to its very foundation after a sniper had fired from its roof.

He also told of good times, though, of training, of living, of laughing with the other men.  The camaraderie he described, that Jenny could hear in his voice, was deep and lifelong. 

Finally the storytelling session wound down to a close.  Wiping the cascade of tears from his face, he turned back toward the idling car. "Guess we ought to be getting to that cookout, right?" he asked.


"The soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war." - General Douglas MacArthur

It's very hard to describe the feelings I get as a veteran every Memorial Day when my heart and mind recall people I served alongside who gave their lives in defense of this nation.  This weekend, my heart goes out to all of them and to their loved ones.

Have a wonderful Memorial Day, all.


photo credit: Storm Crypt via photopin (cc)

Saturday, May 24, 2014

West Point Graduation

"Life would be infinitely happier if we could only be born at the age of eighty and gradually approach eighteen." - Mark Twain

Man--was it really a quarter of a century ago?  May 24, 1989--let's see, 2014 minus 1989 is, um, well, borrow a one there, and another one there, and, oh gosh, yes, the answer is indeed 25.  Twenty five years it has been, then, since I and over a thousand of my fellow classmates stood on the field in Michie Stadium at West Point, got ourselves completely drenched, watched the Vice President of the United States of America become Yet Another Graduation Speaker Whose Speech Is Entirely Forgotten (we didn't have Youtube back then, see...), and completed our journeys through the hallowed halls of the United States Military Academy. 

Boy, what a journey it was.  Papers could all be hand-written back then, because there weren't a lot of typewriters and computers were only used for signing up for classes and for learning to program in Pascal. The Soviet Union was still a big, bad enemy at first--we all got to hear "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" from our tables in the Cadet Mess Hall.  Guns 'n Roses and Bon Jovi were still fairly new rock groups. 

We learned to march--badly, at first.  They lined us all up a few days after we'd gotten there for the annual Fourth of July parade.  Then they made us all march out onto the nice, comfy grass of the plain in the heat of July and invited us to stand at attention while they fired fifty long, slow volleys from the cannon, one per state (but you probably guessed that).  As the sweat dripped and knees locked, the grass started looking even more comfy.  I have no idea how many of my "new cadet" (we weren't even called plebes yet) classmates took the deep green horizontal up on its invitation--no, I wasn't one of them--but I do remember hoping that it was just a haze-the-new-cadets thing.  Surely they wouldn't do "parade till you drop" throughout the year.

Answer: yes.  Yes, they did.

Some of us got in trouble as the years went on.  Sometimes it was for a little thing, like not doing homework, and we either received a few demerits or, perhaps, a few hours of walking back and forth between the barracks buildings to think about it.  Sometimes it was for a big thing, like--well, like bouncing a check.  I accidentally bounced one once.  It was to the Post eXchange in Mannheim, Germany, while I was over there on Cadet Troop Leader Training.  Not only did I receive twenty hours of marching across "the area" to think on my transgression, but I also got to see my tactical officer's face turn red and his veins bulge out as he showed me the "find this bad boy" slip that had been signed by every commander up to, and including, the corps commander in Europe, then the Superintendent of West Point, and then every person down from The Supe.  Headlines, he screamed.  Woo hoo.

We took classes in all sorts of things: calculus, Shakespeare (and I still shudder at that), political science, counseling, quantum physics, aerospace something-or-other, military science I, military science II, military science VIII, close quarters combat, volleyball, and--well, you know.  Four thousand students, lots of majors, lots of good academics going on there. 

We were athletes.  In addition to our required PE classes, we had to participate in intercollegiate or intramural sports.  Usually I sucked down pool water with my intramural swim team, but one time I was asked to be a judge for the intramural boxing league, and another I got to be the coach of the intramural racquetball team (which kicked butt, I have to point out). 

We did a whole lot of other stuff too, but there aren't enough bits left in this post to scratch the surface of all that.  It all came to an exciting, highly anticipated end on May 24th, 1989.  We lined up in our sparkly Full Dress Grey Over White uniforms and marched in to sit on the football field.  Vice President Dan Quayle walked up to the mike and spoke, about--um, something. 

It rained. 

Rained, hell: the firmaments opened and poured great big gumball-sized drops of water down upon us.  Most of us knew the legend that a class whose graduation was rained on would see classmates fall in battle--a legend that, sadly, has come true for us.  That said, we sat there bravely, stoically through the deluge, ready and willing and able to face the challenges ahead. 

We all stood at one point and took our turns walking up and through--not across, as is more often done, but straight back through--the stage.  VP Quayle personally handed the diploma to each of the "Star Men"--the top 5%, which included women, too, if you were curious--and then retreated out of public eye to stand in the shadows and shake the rest of our hands.  I didn't see him, in fact; I blasted right by the Veep and had to back up sheepishly to receive his congratulations.  Oops, yes, but at least, I thought, I hadn't worn "non-regulation" undies.  Several had, in defiance of the uniform policy, and once the rain turned the thin white linen of our trousers see-through those great big blue polka-dots (and other designs, but Blue Polka-dot Cadet was in front of me) blazed like beacons.

I had a lot of good friends in that group.  There were others, of course, who really weren't anything I'd call friends at all.  That said, friends or not, in my circles or no, I'm proud to call every one of them a classmate. 

'89: We Strengthen The Line.

And--no, seriously, guys.  Twenty-five years?  Really?  I'm not that much older, am I?


Friday, May 23, 2014

The First Review

As an Indie author you can find a lot of a lot of advice out there on the Interwebutaries on how to deal with the business side of writing.  There's blogs on formatting; there's blogs on publishing.  But what you'll find the most of, I think, are blogs about how to cultivate a solid set of reviews.  Heck, you'll even find blogs about blogs about how to cultivate a solid set of reviews. 

Why such attention to the topic, you ask?

Because it's the hardest part of this whole business, I think.

Reviews on books serve the same role as customer testimonials do for any service company's marketing plan.  Specifically, they're central, crucial to the whole process.  Hocking a book with no reviews is like asking people if they'd like to gamble, and while it's true that $2.99 (the cost of most of my novels) ain't exactly a Vegas-high-rollin' bet, it's still, to the reader, a crapshoot for the cost of a couple of sodas.  I know this first-hand--I am a reader, and I generally pay for the books I read, and I like to know what I'm getting first. 

Ferinstance, if I buy a Mountain Dew, I know what it's going to taste like.  That's why I buy it.  I remember the first time I bought a Cheerwine; that wasn't a risk, either, because it was highly recommended by the person I was with.  See what I mean?

Getting people to review your book, though, is tough.  For one thing, there's a lot of baggage that goes along with that.  Specifically, when I started with Cataclysm way back in the dark ages of Indie publishing, most reviewers wouldn't touch an Indie book.  Nowadays a lot more will, but they seem to be inundated with review requests.  And then there's the friends and family, whose reviews are actually worth a little less anyway in terms of credibility (no matter how well-done they are), and who face the question of how honest they should be to balance integrity with continued friendship. 

And then there's the rest of the marketing plan that's at stake.  Many promotional sites will just take your Paypal/Visa/MC payment and slot your book cover in with all the rest, but some, and some of the better ones, take reviews into consideration.  That means you can't even promote a book through those channels until you obtain a certain number (and a certain average rating) of reviews. 

(to be clear--I didn't mean to imply that you cannot promote your book at all without reviews, just that your options are a little bit limited)

So generally here's what happens: if you're an experienced Indie author, you already have a list of reviewers who work in your genre (and if you don't look at what genre they review, shame on you).  Once the book is at the point of being reviewable (read, publishable) you reach out to all of them.  It needs to be a bunch, too, because 50-70% of them ignore you due to being overworked, and 50-70% of the ones who don't ignore you, tell you politely to stuff it. 

Others, though, accept your book for review and put it on their stacks.  Months, I should add, worth of stacks. 

So then you wait.

And then you wait some more.

If you get a great reviewer, as I did, after a wait you'll get an e-mail blip to tell you she's reading it.  Oh, the excitement that brings you!  And then, days later, she sends you the review draft.  That's even better!  And then, you receive a note from her that it's live.  Wheeeeeeee! 

No, I'm serious.  It's that exciting.

Anyway, my first review is up and on "Just Reviews" blog, done by Gabina.  Here's the link below, and please, go read it if for no other reason than to give her the traffic such an effort is due.  Enjoy, and if you decide Prophecy sounds like a good read, you can click the cover on this page.



Thursday, May 22, 2014

Featured at Fire & Ice Today

So today I'm over with the great folks at Fire & Ice.  I have an interview posted on their "Fantastic Indie Authors" page, with some all-new answers to first-time questions, and Prophecy: Elf Queen of Kiirajanna is also featured on their book tour page. 

Here's the interview:

In your own words, please describe your book.
One of my reviewers said the book is like Princess Diaries meets Elfquest, and I like that description, but there’s one additional piece that that description is missing.  I grew up in the Southern United States, see, and I have always cherished the spunk and little bits of attitude displayed by folks from there, and so I wrote that into the main character.  So I’ll just append a little: it’s like Princess Diaries meets Elfquest meets Dukes of Hazzard.

Woo hoo!  Who wouldn't want to read Princess Diaries meets Elfquest meets Dukes of Hazzard, right?

Featured book post:

So please, go and enjoy.  I'll return in the next few days for my regularly-scheduled stuff.


Sunday, May 18, 2014

Shadows of Meaning

Today at church I saw something I hadn't seen before.

Let me be clear that that's not all that new of an occurrence.  I'm always noticing things I hadn't seen before.  Part of that is human nature; for some reason we tend to tune out a large portion of our background, and every so often part of it blips its way through and surprises us.  Another part of that, though, is my newly-awakened artistic side.  See, it wasn't till I started writing a lot that I really began looking around and wondering things like "what if?" and "what else is there?"

So I'll get to the point.  The church has a very artistic cross and bird piece at the head of the pulpit.  The cross is unlike anything I've ever seen; instead of two crossed pieces it's made of three round pipes that swoop up gracefully, each one heading off in a different direction toward the top.  It's not a cross, per se, but rather a trinity of tubes that gives viewers the impression of a cross. It's pretty cool.

The other bit is a series of multicolored bird-shaped pieces of metal strung from one side to the other on invisible cables that aren't quite parallel.  When the lights are on, it gives the impression, from the congregation area, of a flock of glistening red, blue, silver, and white birds streaming across the air above the pulpit.

I've seen that before.  What I hadn't noticed till today was the other flock of birds. You see, behind and below the vibrantly-colored flock is a similar set of blackbirds, all flying the same direction.

I mean, yeah, at one level it's just the shadow of the metal birds on the invisible cables.  I know that.  But if you forget about the cables, forget about the light sources and the physics that causes photons to go in straight lines and just take in what's in front of you, there are two flocks of birds.  One flock is brilliant and multicolored, while the other is mysterious and entirely black.  They're both going the same way, in the same formation, at the same time.

Metaphor?  Sure, but I won't bap you over the head with it.  While I was pondering its nature, though, I couldn't help but wonder if the artist had meant it to be there.  Had she seen, as we all did, a single gaggle of brightly-colored birds?  Or had she designed it to be a metaphorical brightness vs. darkness exhibit?

It was fitting that one of the pastor's side comments was about Bob Dylan, who, according to the pastor, has sworn up and down that his songs have no "meaning."  That's pretty interesting, if you think about how much meaning has been attributed to his music both by the civil rights movement and by the peace movement.

Could it be?  Is it possible to create something that has meaning that you as the creator didn't intend?

Simple answer: yep.  It is.

My own work is proof of that.  Once I was done with Ascension: Return of the Gods, and then Deception, the third book in the series, too, I noticed how much of a thematic nod I'd given the issue of what it meant to be a god, a demigod, or to have godlike powers.  One of my beta-readers brought it up to me, too, and I had to smile.  Did I mean to?  Nope, I just wrote a fun story.

Later, when I was nearly done with Prophecy: Elf Queen of Kiirajanna, the same beta-reader mentioned my thematic play on what it means to be a ruler in that novel.  Yep, she nailed it.  Did I mean to write a treatise on effective rule?  No, I wrote a story that has a guy who is an effective ruler (and yes, that will make for some interesting plot curls later on).  He's not even the main character. But I'm glad to have achieved that depth of meaning, with or without attempting it.

I mean, sometimes they're just the shadows.  Sometimes the shadows can be pretty also, in their own way, though.

Meanwhile, maybe others will read my books and notice the shadowy flock on the wall, too?


Friday, May 16, 2014


So, growing up, I heard many times that only experts should attempt to pick and eat wild mushrooms.  Of course, that made me wonder what qualified one as an expert.  If you eat one and live, are you then an expert?  Or is it two, or three?

Similarly, a friend of mine--well, not someone I know personally, but she's like a friend when I read her blog--mentioned the fine art of parachuting in her post this morning.  She had some beautiful images, and also a well-made point regarding how the sport pertains to writing.  Seriously, she does a wonderful job writing about it.  I'll just point you there and suggest you go read her blog, too.

That said, she makes a point with parachuting similar to what I always thought of mushrooming.  Specifically, she says, "Skydiving is an interesting sport. There are only two categories---Grand Champion and Stuff On a Rock."  What is it about skydiving that makes one an expert, then?  Is it making it safely one time to the ground and avoiding being Stuff On a Rock?  Or is it two, or three?

Spoiler: no, it's not.  Now that, I can attest to personally, as I am a (military) skydiving (relative) expert, having gone through the three week training at Ft. Benning, Georgia.  I successfully avoided becoming Stuff On a Rock five times in a row, and thus and foresooth, an expert I am.

The appropriateness of the length of the training is somewhat of a debated matter.  Two weeks of actual training seemed to drag on, honestly.  I am, of course, very much of a non-expert at skydiving instruction, and that's why I can only guess that it might have been shortened successfully.  That said, many of the body motions we went through in order to successfully avoid splatting were the types of things you have to train your body to do, and for those you need practice--two weeks of it, perhaps. 

So, like, I don't know.  That's admittedly out of my expertise.

Education?  That is my expertise, to the point where I have nearly two decades of experience in it, eight years of experience managing it, and a doctor of philosophy degree in it.  Yes, there are other experts, but I own my spot among them.  Matter of fact, there was a time right before I defended my dissertation when I was the sole expert in the universe on that one little, narrow slice of the education world. 

Oh, and I've taught math, several terms at levels from remedial college math up to calculus II.  That's not as easy as it sounds--um, not that it sounds particularly easy.  First, you have to get people to where they don't whimper in terror every time you say the name of the course.  Once that's accomplished, you have to go back and remember how it was that you learned to do it, yourself: "FOIL?  What the heck is that?  I don't remember!"  Then, at some point in the term, preferably before it begins but more likely as the term is proceeding at breakneck pace, you have to come up with other tricks to deal with the simple reality that all students don't comprehend stuff the same way.

Juggling helps sometimes, as does the ability to watch what you're writing on the board while making eye contact with every student in class simultaneously to make sure nobody slinks out in horror.

It's--exhausting.  Rewarding, too, but quite exhausting.

But teaching math is a profession, a calling.  It's way beyond what the snide "those who can, do..." insult suggests, as it requires not only a knowledge of math, but also a certain amount of expertise and experience in the techniques involved in teaching it.

That's why I've gotten irritated lately over the Internet meme showing a subtraction problem done the long, demonstrative way.  It's a method I've used to teach the topic, myself, but when I let that out in a group I get dumped on as an idiot, too.  "All y'all who've earned a buck or more teaching actual mathematics to an actual classroom of people, raise your hands," I invite them.  Hey, I've successfully taken a lot of math! the objection comes.  "Cool," I counter, "I've had thousands of dollars worth of successful dental work done on me.  Can I be your dentist?"

Expertise.  In dentistry, I got none.  In math education, though....

That leads us, not to math, but to my other favorite topic: writing.  First, let me give the big bold statement for this post:

Reading a lot does not make you an expert on writing.

There, I said it.  I know.  I, too, have seen, over and over, the exhortation by fabulous writers that, if you wish to be a writer, you must read.  That's absolutely true.  Absolutely, coldly, totally, vermouthly true.

It's just not enough.

So what does it take to build expertise in writing?  Just like anything else, it takes a certain amount of training, and it takes a certain amount of experience, hopefully without dying from it.  That mushroom expert?  He had to be shown what to look for.  I've actually taken a brief class in it--not enough to be an expert, but at least enough to identify a couple of edible varieties.  It was a short classroom experience followed by a practical exercise in the nearby woods.  And no, I didn't die from eating the mushroom, though I kinda hope you already knew that.

What about the pedagogist--er, teacher?  There are formal training programs required of school teachers in most states, but what about college teachers?  I sat through a three-hour orientation that was more focused on required paperwork than on technique, and then I received a copy of a generic syllabus and a textbook.  After that, I spent two years, easy, bumbling around in a classroom trying various things before I was willing to consider myself fairly competent at it.

So what about writing?

We should all go sign up for an MFA, right?


Some people do take MFA courses, indeed.  I've looked into the program, myself, and when I do my intellectual mouth kinda waters a bit.  Those courses in characterization through the different types of fiction look awfully fun to me.  Besides, holding an MFA credential seems (to someone on the outside of that club) to do the same for a writer that holding a PhD credential does for a college teacher: doors, alohomora (points if you catch the reference; extra special bonus points if you can say it like Hermione).

That said, I'm still paying off my MBA and my PhD, man.  Another degree isn't going to happen anytime soon.  If you're in the same boat, then, how do you obtain expertise in writing?  Is it even possible?  The answer to that last one is pretty obvious, actually.  Yes, it is.  Many of the world's most famous authors got there without attending a formal writing program: J.K. Rowling, Danielle Steel, Barbara Kingsolver, Kurt Vonnegut, Jonathan Franzen, John Grisham....

Wait.  John Grisham is a special case, I'd just like to point out.  Writing program, he didn't do, but he was a lawyer.  Law programs, you have to admit, are writing programs.  Granted, the legal discipline tries its hardest--and frequently succeeds--to prove that there actually is something more boring and obtuse than academic writing.  Still, writing, it is.

So all that said, it has been proven that you can be a plenty-successful writer, at least at the modest level of fiscal success enjoyed by J.K. Rowling and Danielle Steel (irony alert), without going for the MFA.  But how?

Well, practicing writing is one way.  How much practice?  The best answer, I think, is "a lot."  Famous authors have pegged different word counts to a comfortable degree of ability.  I've heard three hundred thousand and five hundred thousand, both.  I'm about there, and I'll agree that, personally, I feel like my writing expertise is heads and tails above where I started. 

But that's not enough, either.

No, you also have to participate.  Go to workshops.  Go to conventions.  Do critique circles (but do smart critique circles).

Oh, and keep writing.  And keep reading.  Because even though those aren't sufficient, they're absolutely required.  Required, and fun.

Have fun!


Tuesday, May 13, 2014

To Call A Champion - A Short Story

I've been writing short stories recently, mostly because I've always had a weakness ending them and want to work on that.  I have a couple out on submission at the moment--won't make me rich if they're accepted, but it'll at least be paid writing that qualifies me toward membership in the SFWA.  That, and writing that appears in others' publications help me get into those markets with my books.

You know, sometimes it's all about the marketing.  :-) 

Anyway, here's a short that I wrote for the blog.  Want to do me a favor?  If you enjoy the writing, tell others about it.  Share the word.  Trust me, telling others about his work is one of the three best things you can ever possibly do for a writer friend.

(the other two, if you're curious, are writing a review on his book, and showing up at his door with coffee and/or chocolate.  That, or give foot rubs.  The four best things you can do for a writer friend....)


To Call A Champion

The king stood silently, his eyes searching westward through the narrow window as his hands nervously kneaded the stone sill.  Through the dust and the fog and the distance he imagined he could see the battle playing out.  As if by sheer force of imagination he could ensure the outcome, he let scenes play through his head of the great defensive victory to come, hearing the trumpets celebrating his mighty warlord’s return after sweeping through the usurper’s ranks. 
The imaginary battle was interrupted by sharp footsteps behind him.
He knew who approached from the regularity of the clicks of the heels.  Without turning his gaze from the battlefield, he asked, “What news, Jaffy?”
The necromancer cleared his throat awkwardly.  King Erwin had been around his chief advisor long enough to recognize the sound and start worrying in earnest. 
“It’s bad, isn’t it?”
“It isn’t good, Sire.”
“Someday I would like for you to tell me the difference between ‘bad’ and ‘not good.’”
“Well, the difference is—,” Jaffy started, but the king cut him off sharply.
“Someday, I said, not now.  Now, I would like for you to tell me how the battle fares.”
“Badly, Sire.”
Erwin turned and drew out a sigh.  “I’m surprised you didn’t say ‘not goodly.’”
“Well, that too.”
“I knew that!  I knew it, too, even!  Now, tell me, with some degree of specificity please, how the battle fares out there, or is your scrying magic not up to the task?”
The necromancer’s back stiffened and the lines around his eyes hardened.  In a quiet, deadly voice, he replied, “My scrying magic is up to whatever task you request, Sire.  Grole is dead.”
Erwin’s shoulders sagged.  “My last champion,” he mourned, reaching up to press his fingers over his eyes.  It was news of the worst kind, he thought, wondering absently if Jaffy would’ve called it news of the not-goodest—most-not-good?—kind.
“The rest of the army?” the king asked, his tone making it clear that he already expected more bad news.
“It is bad, Sire.”
“Oh, shut up.”
As long moments of silence stretched out, Erwin removed his hand from his eyes and glared at his advisor.  “Well?”
“You ordered me to shut up, Sire.”
Barely keeping his temper in check, Erwin pulled the syllables out, elongating each sound as he said, “How bad is it?”
“Our undead became uncontrolled when Grole was cut down, and the ones that were still up just wandered away.  The royal dragons could not risk an attack then without ground support.”
“But I thought they had ground support, or did the live soldiers get cut down with Grole?”
“They did.”
“How?  We had thousands of live soldiers.”
“You had thousands of them three battles ago.  This morning, you had forty-two.”
“Oh.  And now I have…?”
“Forty-two more corpses for me to work my magic on tonight.  If I could get to them, that is.”
“Oh, goodie.  More zombies.”
Jaffy shrugged.  “They’re better than nothing, Sire.  They move slowly and without independent thought, but in a large enough concentration they can overwhelm an enemy horde.”
“I knew that already.  Question is, who’s going to lead them into battle next time?”
“Well, there is that.”
“Without a champion, we’re toast.  Who do we have available to promote?”
“Nobody, Sire.”
“There’s got to be somebody.  How about the cook?  He can swing a knife.”
“May I remind my king that a key trait of a good champion is knowledge of tactics and ability to move troops effectively, no matter how well he wields a bladed kitchen implement?”
“Stop being so negative.”
“Some would consider my words realistic, not negative, but I shall comply with Sire’s orders.  Shall I fetch the cook to be fitted for armor?”
“Are you crazy?  The cook would make a horrible champion.”
“Of course, Sire.  My—um—error.”  The white-haired mage’s expression remained calm and neutral.
“Can’t you summon a champion for us?  I thought you were one of those mages with some intense kinda power going on.”
“My power lies in raising armies of undead to fight for my king.  There is such a spell available, however.  I took the liberty of inquiring at the hall of mages already.  They are willing to summon a most powerful of champions to lead our horde to victory for the low sum of *mumble* *mumble* thousand gold.”
“How much gold did you say?”
“I, ah, said two hundred thousand gold.”  Jaffy actually winced as he said the amount.
“How much?”  Erwin’s face turned a bright shade of red, a color that Jaffy thought clashed horribly with the purple of the king’s robes.
“Two hundred thousand, Sire.  It is a very expensive spell, with very expensive material components.”
“Like, obviously, piles of fricking gold.”
“You—you know the material components of the spell, Sire?”
Erwin buried his face in his hand for a moment.  “Call it a lucky guess,” he said through his fingers.
“The components are expensive, as you have luckily guessed, but part of the extreme expense goes to pay the wage for the skilled caster such a spell requires.”
“You’re a skilled caster.”
“I am, Sire, but only in necromancy.  You hired me—,” Jaffy started to object, but Erwin cut him off.
“I hired you to cast the spells I need cast.  Can you cast this one or not?”
“I can, but—,” the necromancer started, only to be cut off once again.
“Good.  I expect you to cast this spell, then.  Tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow, Sire?  But—but—but—but a spell of this magnitude takes weeks—.”
“Did I mention that what is left of this kingdom is on the line?”
“Yes, but….”
Erwin waited as Jaffy’s face played through several expressions; obviously the advisor was mentally measuring the available objections.  Finally his grey-haired mane fell forward and his shoulders slumped as the mage capitulated.
“I shall do it.”
The next morning, Jaffy marched into Erwin’s throne room leading a tall, grinning man.  “Sire, may it please you, I would like to present your new champion, Bob.”
Erwin looked up from his consideration of the gloomy spot in the report showing how much gold was no longer in his treasury.  “Where?”
“Where what, Sire?”
“Where is this new champion?”
“He’s right here, Sire.”  Jaffy motioned to the tall man standing behind him, who grinned and mustered a meek-looking wave.  “He’s not bowing, is he?” Jaffy asked, interpreting the expression on his king’s face without turning his head to verify.  “Champion Bob, it is proper that you bow to your king.” 
“Oh, right,” mumbled the deep voice from behind him, and Jaffy watched Erwin’s face closely to make sure the monarch’s clouded expression cleared up. 
It didn’t.
“That’s—a champion?” Erwin asked.
“Yes, Sire,” Jaffy said, his voice not sounding very certain.
“That’s not a champion.  That’s the cook minus the poofs of flour and the bladed kitchen implements.”
“He’s not in the best physical shape, granted, Sire, but with a solid training regimen, in a few months he’ll be—.”
“Dead.  As will we all be in a few months.  What—when—where—on which world, exactly, is this tall bag of saggy flesh a champion?”
“Hey, now, that wasn’t called for.  I’m pretty good at twelve-ounce curls, if you know what I mean,” Bob’s deep voice sounded again, but both of the shorter men ignored it.
“He may not be a champion per se, Sire, but he claims to have been something his world called a master dungeoneer.  It is very similar, I believe, to what we seek.”
“Where’s his armor, then?  I shouldn’t be able to tell that he has absolutely no bicep muscle definition, but I can see that from here.  That’s no champion!  Send it back to being a master dungeon, and summon me a real champion!”
“That’s dungeon master,” Bob interjected and was ignored again.
“I—ah, I cannot, Sire.”
“What does that mean?” Erwin said through a glare.
“It means you’re stuck with me, oh mighty king.  Hey, how much of the loot do I get to keep?”
This time the king didn’t ignore him.  Rotating his furious glare upward by several degrees to take in Bob’s uneven, uncertain grin at the very top of the man’s towering height, he barked, “There is no loot, charlatan!  If you are lucky—very, very lucky—you just might get to keep your head!”
Lowering his voice but not his glare, Erwin asked, “No, really, Jaffy.  What do you mean you cannot send this master dungeon master—thing—back where it came from?”
“The spell only works in one direction, Sire.”
“So cast it again and put whoever comes through it in charge of lumpy there.”
“I—ah, I cannot, Sire.”
Now the king lowered his glare to glower at his advisor’s face.  “What does that mean?  And no, Bob, I would much prefer that you keep your mouth shut unless your input is explicitly requested.”
Jaffy actually heard Bob’s jaws snap shut as replied, “The funds in the treasury only barely allowed for one attempt, Sire.  We—you—cannot afford a second shot.”
“And tell me this, then.  Why did we—I—not have someone competent cast the first attempt, if it was a single-shot only that the entire kingdom is riding on?”
“It was my decision, Sire, after my royal majesty convinced me of the wisdom in his fiscal decision-making.  I take full responsibility,” Jaffy said, bowing his head a little too low and quickly.
“Uh huh.  So we’re stuck with this one.”
“Yes, Sire.”
“I see.  Well.  A pickle, then, but perhaps not entirely sour.  So, Champion Bob, I presume that despite your lack of physical prowess, you have known the fields of military campaigns?”
“Oh, you bet I have!” Bob said, head nodding enthusiastically.  “I’ve managed entire campaigns, months-long at times, through every sort of terrain available from the game shop.  I’m pretty much a strategic expert, if you ask me, and Sire, I think you did.”
“I see.  And how many people have fallen to your own blades?”
“I, um, well—nobody.  I’m actually usually running the bad guys.  It’s their blades, and maces, and spells, and so on that player characters fall to.  And you might wish to know that I’m well known—even famous—in my own realm for making people reroll ‘em up.”
“I see.  That would impress me more if I knew what it meant, but we have no time for that now.  I get that you’re a behind the scenes manipulator kind of leader, in any event.  That might work.  It’s different from the champions we’ve had in the past, but then again, they’ve all failed and died painful deaths.  Your ‘Way of the Weasel’ might be called for now, right?”
The sound of a hard swallow was clear in the chamber.  Bob finally agreed, “Um, right.  Hey, about that—is death a guarantee if I fail?”
“Pretty much.  Don’t take it personally, though.  My death is also guaranteed if you fail, as is that moron of a necromancer who summoned you.”
“And what if I succeed?”
“You live, of course.  The necromancer is still questionable.”
“Right, of course.  But, um, as much as I hate to be too forward with His Majesty and all, and even though I’ll be very happy to keep my life, um—,”
“Spit it out, champion.  We have little time,” the king said, gesturing back down to his report.
“Right.  So what about gold?  Jewels?  Fine gems?  Maybe a feisty wench or two for the champion who saves the kingdom?”
The king released a long, tortured sigh.  “A wench or two I might be able to afford.  After the exorbitant sum we expended on getting you here, the rest of your request is quite unlikely.  Still want the job?”
“Oh!  I didn’t realize I have a choice!”
“You don’t, moron.  I just wanted to hear your answer.”
“Of—oh—well—um—right, then.  May I be the first to welcome you as my new boss and exclaim loudly for all to hear that you can count on me!”
“I sure hope so, Champion Bob.”
“So, how long till this big battle that I’m most certainly, assuredly going to win?” Bob asked, his expression anything but certain and assured.
Both shorter men looked up toward the clock on the wall with calculating expressions, prompting a groan from the new champion as soon as he realized what the looks meant.
“Depends, I’d say, on where you wish to set your lines,” Erwin said.
“Right.  Maximum time?”
“Our enemy will be at our walls two mornings hence.  I would recommend you not wait until then to engage him, though.”
“How many troops does he have?”
“I tire of answering your irrelevant questions, champion.  Go.  You go with him, vicar, and satisfy his curiosity as you can.”
“Vicar, Sire?”
“A well-deserved promotion, Jaffy, and one which I am pleased to announce will allow you to take the heat for any military problems my reign suffers.  If your mighty champion there fails, you just might get another promotion handed to you, and quite soon.”
“Yes, Sire,” the mage said drily, and then he herded Bob out of the room.
As he watched them depart, the king heard Bob’s deep voice ask, “How hard can it be, anyway?” and winced.
“How hard can it be, anyway?” Bob repeated to himself the next afternoon.  This time he used his deep voice to elevate the words onto the wind, enjoying the sound of his voice as it echoed around the draw he was perched at the top of.  There wasn’t anyone there to hear him, anyway, he thought, and then corrected himself: there wasn’t anyone who was alive there to hear him.
Thinking of his assembled military forces, the new champion crinkled his nose against their smell.  Jaffy had promised him they were all the freshest of corpses that he’d raised, but three hundred corpses still smelled like three hundred corpses, no matter how fresh they might be. 
“Oh, why couldn’t I have been summoned to a realm where my armies were comprised of beautiful Valkyries?” he asked himself, and then shared the chuckle with the closest zombie. 
The soldier, sensing his champion’s interest, swiveled its still-smashed head toward Bob.  “Mmmrrr?” the creature asked, seeking clarification on the command it thought had come its way.
“Nothing,” Bob said, gritting his teeth.  Jaffy had warned him that the animated dead had no emotions, no laughter, no joy.  They only followed simple commands, like attack and kill.  Bob had been disappointed, if only slightly, that his first experience with real zombies had proven that the word brains had no impact, either. 
“Errr,” was the creature’s response.
The dust of the opposing army’s advance had been visible for most of the afternoon.  The draw Bob had chosen wasn’t the only route to the capital city, but it was the fastest, and based on the little the Vicar had known about the usurper, Bob was sure he would take the fastest, easiest route to what he must be assuming would be a quick final battle.
Three hundred against three thousand were pretty bad odds, but the number of troops on his side reminded Bob of an action movie he’d once watched.  Bob had raced home after the closing credits to read up on the Battle of Thermopylae on Wikipedia, and so thanks to his nearly-photographic memory he was certain that he went into this encounter an expert on the matter of strategy with small forces fending off much larger armies. 
Bob thought back across the many campaigns he’d run on the top of his dining room table.  Several times he’d seen parties of five or six fight off ten times as many goblins and orcs, usually by using choke points like Bob had set up for the coming battle.  Granted, they were usually five or six high level characters, while Bob only had a few hundred low-level zombies on his side.  Still, every time he’d seen the tactic fail it was due to a player acting out of sync with the group, while the zombies were all forced by the talisman Bob wore to act in concert.
He was confident.
An hour later, he was still confident, but his feet were starting to hurt.  In tabletop play, Bob reasoned, the boring waiting stuff was bustled away with a click of the DM’s dice.  His parties often traveled hundreds of miles in seconds, only to spend eight or nine weeks of real time inside a single small cave. 
Bob shifted his weight from one foot to the other, going over the attack roll tables in his memory to keep his mind off of his sore muscles.
Bob’s assumption of overconfidence in the enemy commander was what had saved him, he realized as he stood in shadows looking over the bloody battlefield another hour later.  His own troops had had no more blood to shed, but they’d cut viciously through the force of live soldiers, slowly but inexorably pressing down from the steep walls of the draw through the weak side ranks of the usurper’s army.  Bob’s glasses corrected his vision to better than 20/20, which let him pick out the enemy commander quickly, and when the commander’s banner fell all the remaining enemy troops held up their hands in surrender as one. 
It was even better than he’d dared to hope.
“You—you did it?” Erwin asked when Bob raced back into the throne room, the champion’s breath starting and stopping in gasping spurts. 
Bob nodded and looked suspiciously from the king to his pet mage and back again.  Erwin had removed his plush velvet robes from the day before, and now Jaffy was wearing them, as well as the king’s crown and a deep, disgusted frown that belonged solely to the necromancer.  Meanwhile, Erwin had stopped in the process of buckling a belt around the waist of a pair of jeans, a normal-looking t-shirt above and tennis shoes on his feet. 
“Well, then, it, um, would appear that a celebration is in order, eh?” the king said, walking over to Jaffy and yanking the crown off of the mage’s head.  Jaffy’s scowl deepened, but he said nothing.
“Well, you’ve got a couple thousand prisoners to take care of first,” Bob started, his years as dungeon master coming out in his attention to the details that most adventurers wanted to ignore.
“Why aren’t they already taken care of?” the king asked, a perplexed look on his face.
“I don’t have anywhere to house or feed them,” Bob said.  “That seems like your job.”
“Why would I house or feed them?  They were coming to kill us.  Go kill them, and then Jaffy can raise their zombies to make us the largest army we’ve ever had.”
“I—no,” Bob said, his head shaking, a look of revulsion on his face.
“No what?” Jaffy asked.
“No, Sire.  I’m not going to kill prisoners.  That’s against the Geneva Convention, man.”
The ruler and his advisor shared a questioning look, and then Jaffy asked, “The Geneva what?”
“The Geneva Convention.  It’s been around forever, and it says things like—well, like you can’t kill prisoners.  Go Google it, or, um, oh….”  Bob’s voice died off as he remembered where he was.
“Just go kill them.  And kill him, too,” the king ordered his advisor.
“No!  You promised me wenches when I won, remember?” Bob said, his voice barreling over the quieter Jaffy’s reminder to his sovereign about how much he had paid to summon his champion.
“Oh, fine.  Give the champion his choice of wenches from among the prisoners, and then—oh, whatever.  Put them to work in the fields.”
Bob’s eyebrows furrowed as he thought for a moment, and then he objected, “I don’t remember seeing any female troops among the enemy prisoners.”
Erwin shrugged.  “Not my problem, champion.  I said you got your pick.  I didn’t say you’d like them, or approve of their gender.  Oh, and Jaffy, please retrieve your talisman from our former champion.”
“Shouldn’t that be Vicar Jaffy, Sire?” the mage asked as he swiveled an appraising expression toward his king.
“Oh, ha.  Ha ha.  Don’t be silly, Jaffy.  Go get the talisman and show this man to his place.  And give me those robes back.”
“No,” both mage and former champion said at the same time.
“No?” the king replied, raising his eyebrows.
“No,” Bob said.  “It occurs to me that I command all of the undead out there, and with them, their prisoners.  I recall that, all said, I happen to command what you said is the largest army you’ve ever had.”
“Jaffy?” the king asked, his voice rising in pitch.
“Jaffy what?  I kind of like these robes, Erwin.  They’re comfortable.”
“They don’t match your hair color at all,” Erwin said, sarcasm ringing in his voice.
“I could dye my hair,” Jaffy said, crossing his arms across his chest.  “And you could—just die.” 
Erwin looked at Bob, panic evident in his face.  “Are you going to stand by and watch your king threatened like this?”
“Nope,” Bob said.
“Well, good,” Erwin said, stamping his foot to show his own impatience.
“I’m going to add my own threat to my former king,” Bob finished, holding the talisman that controlled the zombie horde up over his head.  It started glowing faintly, a sign that active control over the animated corpses was being re-established.
“Give it here,” Erwin said, stamping his foot again, petulantly.  He measured the distance from the floor to the tall man’s hand and realized that there was no way he could jump that high.
“Nope.  They’re coming for you, Erwin.”  Bob’s voice took on the sing-song quality of a good taunt.
Guards!” Erwin screamed frantically.
“Guards?  You’re kidding, right?  Where do you think we got the three hundred corpses?” Jaffy taunted, also, as he pulled a knife from below his robes.
After a final desperate look around the room, the deposed king fled.
“Nice job,” Bob said, watching as the door slowly swung closed behind Erwin.
“Nice job, Sire,” Jaffy corrected.
“Not a chance, Jaffy.”
“You would wear the crown, then, outsider?”
“What crown?  Your former king took it with him.”
“Valid point.  So what is your desire?”
“To go home.”
“Nothing is impossible.  Once, I was actually playing in a friend’s game, and he sent the four of us up against a lich.  A lich!  It sure looked impossible, but it wasn’t.  We won, in large part thanks to my own quick thinking and battle prowess.”
“I’m sure,” the mage said, looking meaningfully at Bob’s lack of musculature.  After a moment, Jaffy continued, “Tell you what.  Let’s make a deal.  You keep the prisoners in line and working, and I’ll work with the mage council to see if there’s anything they can do.  It might take a while, but I am sure with all of the laborers you’ve brought they’ll be happy to trade work for spell casting.”
“That’s fair.  Oh, and Jaffy?”
“Got any Dew?”
As the mage-turned-king blinked at him in cluelessness, Bob explained, “It’s a soft drink we had at home.  Sparkly, green, sweet, with a good caffeine kick.”
“I—can probably mix something up,” Jaffy said, and a sudden gleam in his eye made Bob nervous.
“Never mind.  I’ll just get some beer.  Oh, and about that gold I was to get for saving the king’s—your—life.  Can I have some of it now?  Beer costs, you know.”
Jaffy took the pouch from his own pocket, looked inside, and tossed it to Bob.  Four or five coins clinked together inside.  “That will keep you in beer for quite some time, champion.”
“Thanks.  I don’t suppose there’s any pizza, is there?”  Bob’s face turned up in a lopsided grin to show he was mostly joking.
“I have never heard of this pizza substance, so probably not, champion.  I am sure, though, that you will find plenty of beer available outside of the castle.”
Bob took the obvious dismissal and left, hoping to find some wenches available.

(Author's note: I must give credit to Erfworld for the main plot concept.  It was a fun idea that I heard about at a session and decided to play with some, myself.)