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.)

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