Weekly Update – August 30, 2016

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I’m finally through the insane gauntlet of conventions and am ready to get some serious writing done! Well, after I spend today shampooing the carpet. Trust me, it needs to be done. Our floors are gross.

But hey, there is some excellent news to report, and that is that Julie has finished her edits on The Adventures of Strongarm & Lightfoot – Assassins Brawl! I’ll be working on the final edits and formatting this week, and then it’s just a matter of getting my cover art.

Remember that next month, I will be making the first book in the series, The Adventures of Strongarm & Lightfoot – Scratching a Lich available for free through Amazon for five days! You’ll be able to get the Kindle edition for free from Monday, September 19 until Friday, September 23, so grab a copy for yourself or gift one to a friend.

For those of you who have already ready book one, I have a treat for you: the first two chapters of book two! The preview is at the end of the post for the benefit of those who haven’t read the first book yet (obviously, if you haven’t read the first book, there are major spoilers in the preview chapters, so read at your own risk.)

WRITING PROJECTS

Action Figures – Issue Six: Power Play: Pre-editing revisions are done, in the queue for editing.

Action Figures – Live Free or Die: Pre-editing revisions are done, in the queue for editing.

Action Figures – Issue Seven: The Black End War and Action Figures – Issue Eight: No progress to report.

Action Figures – Issue One: Secret Origins:  Audiobook recording in process.

APPEARANCES and EVENTS

MISC.

Here it is, readers: chapters one and two of The Adventures of Strongarm & Lightfoot – Assassins Brawl!

Welcome back, my friend, to the world of Ne’lan.

I am pleased to inform you that precious little has transpired since my previous tale, and we are free to pick up right where we left off. However, certain critical moments from my last story may have slipped from your memory due to their seemingly inconsequential nature at the time, and so as a courtesy to you — and to newcomers who chose to forgo the first adventure entirely and join us here instead — I shall now recount the events of the recent past so we are all on the same page, literally and figuratively.

If you remember the first tale well enough, feel free to skip ahead. I won’t take it personally.

No? Still with me? Very well, then. As we say in the storytelling business: when we last left our heroes…

Lord Spendle, warden of the city-state of Ambride, found himself in a delicate situation fraught with potentially severe political ramifications. Lord Spendle’s daughter Alyssa had been promised to Lord Paradim, warden of Somevil, to seal a pact between the two lords, a pact that promised increased prosperity for both cities. All was well until a band of savage Hruks stole Alyssa’s dowry, a treasured Spendle family artifact in the form of a drinking horn. Lord Spendle hired and dispatched several mercenaries to retrieve the horn, but none returned in triumph.

And then he contracted Derek Strongarm and Felix Lightfoot, adventurers for hire.

Derek and Felix retrieved the horn, much to Spendle’s delight — and Alyssa’s dismay, for in salvaging the pending marriage, the adventurers unwittingly interfered with Alyssa’s secret dalliance with Elmore, Spendle’s chamberlain.

(This, in all honesty, has nothing to do with the events that immediately followed, but it is particularly relevant to our forthcoming tale, which is why I mention it now.)

Meanwhile, Erika Racewind was dealing with problems of her own. Lord High Ograine, ruler of all Asaches and head of the wardens’ court, had charged his bodyguard with ferrying his eldest son, Randolph David Ograine, to the dread land of Hesre. According to an ancient prophecy, young Randolph David was the fabled Reaper, he who was fated to travel to Hesre, destroy the lich-lord Habbatarr, and prevent a global holocaust. Her mission went swimmingly until Habbatarr’s cultists ambushed Erika and slew her companions, a company of soldiers from Ograine’s grand army.

Desperate to replace her company but short on options, Erika resorted to hiring Derek and Felix, themselves desperate for a payday of such magnitude that they could afford to retire before their chosen lifestyle resulted in an untimely and gruesome demise. Together they traveled west toward Hesre, along the way picking up a fifth companion: Winifred Graceword, an acolyte of the goddess Felicity. Winifred’s holy order directed the party toward the Lost City of Wihend, the ancient city-state of the elven people before its queen, Artemisia Renn the Shattering Hand, splintered her one tribe into four separate factions and banished them from their ancestral home.

(I understand this is a lot to take in. I’ll give you a minute to process it.)

Armed with an artifact known as the Might of the Shattering Hand — Artemisia Renn’s legendary armor, said to be imbued with supernatural power — the heroes continued their journey toward Hesre. They survived assaults by Habbatarr’s loyal cultists, endured a rapidly dwindling food and water supply, and tolerated David’s increasingly surly attitude until they at last reached the edge of Habbatarr’s blighted domain.

There, several cruel truths were revealed.

David was not the first-born Ograine son but the second, and his quest was but a ruse intended to draw the cult of Habbatarr’s attention away from the true eldest son, David’s twin brother Alexander, as he traveled in secret to Hesre. David was never expected to survive the journey, much less fulfill the prophecy.

The architect of this heartless plot? None other than Lord High Ograine — and Erika was his willing co-conspirator.

Derek, Felix, and Winifred struck out on their own to rescue David from Habbatarr’s clutches, but a guilty conscience compelled Erika to defy her lord’s orders and join her friends in their noble mission of mercy. Together they penetrated Hesre and stormed the keep atop Mount Relok, where they discovered that fate is not always what it is cracked up to be. In defiance of the prophecy, perhaps even in defiance of the Gods themselves, David struck a fatal blow against the lich-lord, reducing him to ash with a single well-placed Finger of Flame spell.

With Habbatarr destroyed, David returned home to confront his father. In a moment of grief born of Lord High Ograine’s unspeakable betrayal, David rejected his family so he might start a new life.

Our tale resumes in the hours immediately following the grand funeral for Randolph David Ograine, now believed by the entire land of Asaches to have perished heroically in the course of fulfilling the prophecy.

 

 

ACT ONE

In Which Our Heroes Assess the Current State of Things

and are Displeased with Their Findings

 

 

ONE

The Mourning After

 

As per the instructions conveyed to them through a castle page, the quintet of Derek Strongarm, Felix Lightfoot, Erika Racewind, Winifred Graceword, and David Last-Name-Yet-to-be-Determined (formerly Ograine) took a table in the back room of a nameless inn at the edge of Oson, grand capital city of Asaches. While they waited for their final guest to arrive, they decided to avail themselves of the inn’s surprisingly generous menu.

“Man, they have a lot of good stuff here,” Felix said, perusing the lengthy sheet of parchment upon which was written the inn’s bill of fare. The variety of venison-based dishes alone was staggering.

“And good prices, too,” Derek noted.

“I think we can afford to indulge ourselves.”

“We have a few debts to settle, you know.”

“Oh, like what?” Felix said, slapping his menu down upon the table. “You still want to pay that inn back for smashing a couple of windows?”

“Which never would have gotten smashed if I hadn’t been attacked,” Erika added distractedly. An especially tempting pork stew had caught her eye, the kind she used to enjoy regularly as Lord High Ograine’s most valued retainer. Used to enjoy, and perhaps never would again…

“She has a point. That one wasn’t our fault.”

“And the damage we did to Clarence Miggis’s house?” Derek said.

“Technically also not our fault because, again, we were attacked. Plus, we saved his wife’s life, so — oh, don’t give me that face.”

“What face?”

“That disappointed face. Sorry, man, but I don’t want to spend our hard-earned money fixing problems we didn’t cause.”

Derek gave Felix that face again. Then he said, “Do you have any objections to making a donation to Winifred’s order? To thank them for saving your life?”

“And mine,” David said as if that fact was vital to the discussion.

“No objections whatsoever,” Felix said.

“Of course not,” Erika said. “Wouldn’t want to screw up your chances of fucking Winifred, would you?”

“That has nothing to do with it.”

“Uh-huh.”

“It doesn’t,” Winifred said, smiling pleasantly as always. “We’ve already enjoyed several evenings of vigorous sexual intercourse.”

“Yes we have.”

“Okay, new topic,” Derek said before Felix could share any details, as he was wont to do. “After we’re done here, where are you three going? You have any plans?”

“I must return to Temple Ven,” Winifred said. “Matron Delsina kindly allowed me to accompany you on your quest, but now that Hesre is behind us, it’s time to rejoin my order.”

Derek nodded. “I’ll give you our donation before you go — and, if there’re no objections, Artemisia Renn’s armor. It belongs to the elven people, and I think you and your sisters would give it the home it deserves.”

Winifred beamed, tears glittering in the corners of her eyes. “Oh, Derek…”

Derek glanced over at Erika. She gave a vague shrug in return. “Fine by me,” she said. “I don’t care.”

Derek doubted that but was in no mood to argue. “What about you?”

“Haven’t given it any thought, honestly. I imagine I’ll find work easily enough.”

“Doing what?”

“Something violent, no doubt,” Felix said.

“It is what she’s best at,” Winifred said.

“And what about David?” Derek said.

“Why are you asking me?” Erika said. “He’s not my problem anymore.”

“But you’re my bodyguard,” David said with a sudden hot flash of dismay.

“I was your father’s bodyguard,” Erika corrected, “and my obligations to him are done. All of them.”

David shrank in his seat. “Oh…”

“If I might make a suggestion?” Derek said. “Why don’t we all stick together until we get back to The Perfect? We have to return Bravia and Titania to Lord Spendle, and Winifred, you’re heading that way anyway…”

“Splendid idea,” Winifred said. “I’d be delighted to extend my time with such wonderful friends.”

“I don’t think —” Erika began.

Derek cut her off. “Ambride is a central hub for adventurers. There’d be a lot of opportunities for a capable fighter like you. If you’re looking to start a new life, Ambride would make a great base of operations.”

Derek waited for a response but received silence. He took that as a positive sign; she hadn’t openly embraced the proposal, but she hadn’t rejected it either.

“But what about me?” David said.

“Um,” Derek said, having no sound answer for the lad. David had rejected the Ograine name, a valuable currency in and of itself, and now found himself a pauper in every sense of the word. How terrifying it must be for a boy who’d grown up in privilege and prosperity to suddenly have nothing.

At least as terrifying as growing up among modesty and suddenly having nothing, Derek thought.

“We’ll think of something,” he said, though his promise felt empty, weightless.

“You might want to do your thinking somewhere else.”

The companions turned toward the new presence in the room, a tall, solid woman clad in fine plate armor and a surcoat bearing the unmistakable sigil of the Ograine family: a hand against a quartered field of red and blue, surrounded on either side by swirling golden ribbons.

“The last thing anyone needs to see is High Lord Ograine’s dead son walking around,” Helena Greystone said.

 

 

TWO

The First Day of the Rest of Randolph David Ograine’s Life

 

Captain Greystone entered the room without waiting for an invitation and, with an air of ceremony, dropped upon the table a heavy saddlebag. The impact caused the companions’ mugs to shudder and slop precious beer over the edges. She seated herself between Derek and Felix — a position that, not coincidentally, placed her directly across from Erika, well out of her reach.

“Racewind,” Captain Greystone said. A chill settled on the room.

“Greystone,” Erika replied, turning the temperature down several degrees more.

“Mr. Strongarm.”

“Captain,” Derek said.

“Now that we all know each other,” Felix said.

“Let’s make this quick, for High Lord Ograine’s sake as well as yours,” Greystone said. She reached into the saddlebag and produced five small leather sacks, each of which jingled musically as she distributed them. “Mr. Strongarm, Mr. Lightfoot, that is your payment for escorting the late Lord Randolph Ograine to Hesre, as per your contract with Erika Racewind. Miss Graceword, although you weren’t part of the original contract, High Lord Ograine felt obligated to acknowledge the considerable danger you faced on his son’s behalf and thank you accordingly.”

Winifred gave Greystone a small nod.

“Erika, consider that your severance pay, and Lord High Ograine wanted me to extend his sincere gratitude for your many years of loyal service,” Greystone said with the same revulsion she might normally express over finding a fly in her soup. “David, that is to help you on the next step in your life’s journey.”

David scowled at the bag, then at Greystone, then shoved the sack back in her direction. “I don’t want it.”

“David…”

“I. Don’t. Want. It.”

“I’ll take it,” Felix said, reaching for the bag.

“So we can hold onto it for David,” Derek said.

“Says you.”

“You’ll notice a little more gold in your sacks than you were promised,” Greystone said. “Consider that an expression of High Lord Ograine’s gratitude for your…discretion in the matter of his late son.”

“Of course,” Derek said, biting back a twinge of disgust — but it was not the implication that honor alone was insufficient to guarantee his silence that rankled him so. No, his loathing was of the self-centered variety, for he was now part of a conspiracy to protect a man from ever answering for his crimes against his own flesh and blood. He understood the volatility of the situation and how one misplaced word could unleash chaos among the wardens, men and women constantly seeking to improve their station through any means available. There was so much more at stake here than High Lord Ograine’s grip on the reins of power, yet Derek could not overlook his role in maintaining this fiction. Where’s the sense in sacrificing one’s soul for the greater good, he fumed, when there’s nothing good about it?

“I trust there are no questions,” Greystone said, looking at each of the party in turn. “Very good. Bravia and Titania are tethered outside. I strongly suggest you enjoy your meal quickly and depart as soon as possible.”

“That sounded like a vague threat,” Erika said.

“Racewind, you know me. I don’t make vague threats.”

That was true; Helena Greystone preferred explicit, detailed threats.

As she rose from her chair, Greystone slid the saddlebag toward David. “There’s one more thing in there for you, and only for you. High Lord Ograine thought you might find it of use, or at least of interest.”

“I don’t want that either,” David said.

“It’s yours nevertheless. Final word of advice,” she said en route to the door. “You should do something about your young friend’s appearance. He bears a striking resemblance to a dead boy I used to know.”

All eyes turned toward David.

“Yeah, we should do something about that,” Derek said.

“About what?” David said, a nervous tickle growing in his belly.

“You look like you.”

“Who am I supposed to look like?”

“Someone other than you.”

“Oh, sure. Of course. That cleared everything right up.”

“Gods, kid, you’re dense,” Felix said. “Everyone in Asaches knows who Randolph Ograine is and what he looks like. Someone will eventually recognize you if we don’t change your appearance.”

“Oh. Right. I knew that.”

“I’ll take care of it.” Felix drew his favorite skinning knife. “Come with me.”

“Uh,” David croaked.

Felix escorted David outside to the inn’s public horse trough, where Bravia and Titania indulged themselves in preparation for their trip to Ambride. There Felix, amidst no small amount of vocal protest, forced David’s head into the clean, cold water — taking a measure of satisfaction in doing so — then set about slicing handfuls of wet hair from the lad’s scalp. A second pass of the knife removed the remaining stubble, leaving nothing but smooth, naked skin.

They then rejoined their companions, who had taken the liberty of ordering lunch. They paused in their meals to inspect Felix’s handiwork.

“I could take the eyebrows off too, if you think it’d help,” he offered.

“No,” Derek said after a moment of thought, “I think that’ll do.”

“My head feels cold,” David said. “And I look funny.”

“Great, now he has two new things to complain about,” Erika said.

“So? It’s not like any of us will have to listen to him for too much longer.” Felix sat down to his lunch of venison stew. “Like you said, the little bastard isn’t our problem anymore.”

Felix braced for a retort, at the very least an offended interjection. He’d grown used to their repartee, even enjoyed it after a fashion. Instead, David simply sank into his chair, picked up his spoon, and listlessly stirred his stew.

“Show us what’s in the bag,” Felix said, ignoring the unexpected pang of guilt burrowing into his chest.

David scowled at the saddlebag and suddenly became intensely interested in his lunch. He scooped stew into his mouth, his gaze flitting back and forth between his bowl and the saddlebag as though expecting the contents of the bag to at any second leap out and attack him. Eventually, inevitably, his curiosity prevailed. He pushed his half-empty bowl aside and reached for the bag. The weight caught him off guard. He peeled back the flap and peered inside, his brow creasing.

“What is it?” Derek said, his own curiosity well and truly piqued.

David removed a folded piece of parchment bearing his name. He opened the letter and read it, anger and sadness and something akin to fascination competing to rule his face. Without a word David stood, crumpled the parchment, left the room, and returned a few seconds later sans the letter, which he’d deposited in the inn’s main fireplace.

“David?” Derek said.

“It was a letter from my father. Apparently, before we left Hesre, his army ransacked Habbatarr’s castle and recovered several artifacts, including some books,” David said, laying a hand on the saddlebag. “This is one of them.”

In perfect unison, David’s four former guardians pushed away from the table. Derek resisted a nonsensical impulse to draw his sword.

“That’s one of Habbatarr’s spellbooks?” Erika said.

“I don’t know if it’s a spellbook,” David said.

“Whatever it is, you shouldn’t have it.”

“I dare say no one should have it,” Winifred said.

David drummed his fingers on the worn leather saddlebag, eyes narrowed, mouth set into a firm line.

“David. Take that thing to the fireplace and throw it in,” Erika said. “Right now.”

“You’re not in charge of me anymore, Racewind. Sorry, I mean I’m not your problem anymore,” David said bitterly.

“Dammit, David…”

“Hold on,” Derek said. “David. I think Erika’s right; that book is dangerous.”

“You don’t even know what’s in it,” David countered.

“And I don’t want to know. The thing has Habbatarr’s stench all over it. I think destroying it is the right call.” Derek hesitated. “But I can’t make that decision for you. None of us can.”

“Derek,” Erika began.

“No. David’s right. If you’re not responsible for him anymore, you don’t have the right to tell him what to do. He’s his own man now, which means it’s his call.”

David tapped a slow rhythm on the saddleback and stared out into nothingness for some time. With a sigh that conveyed no sense of his feelings toward the matter, he slid the saddlebag off the table, placed it next to his chair, and declared, “I need to think about it.”

“You do that, buddy,” Derek said. “Give it some thought. You’ll make the right choice.”

By which he meant David would throw the book, saddlebag and all, into the fireplace without ever glancing at the evil lurking between its covers.

 

***
The companions returned to the road around high noon, with Derek riding atop Bravia and Felix and Winifred sharing Titania’s long, broad back. Erika and David rode upon nameless steeds from High Lord Ograine’s stables, two final gifts to his former retainer and former son.

The journey to Ambride passed in silence, a silence born of shared discomfort over the presence of Habbatarr’s book — and, though no one would admit it, over the impending dissolution of the party. A powerful bond had been created en route to Hesre, a bond that overcame such petty barriers as cultural differences and conflicting personalities, and Derek in particular was loath to part ways with Erika, Winifred, and David — perhaps, in light of his highly uncertain future and paper-thin prospects, especially David.

He took comfort in knowing Felix would remain by his side. High Lord Ograine’s reward would keep them well fed and in comfortable quarters for many weeks, but it was by no means the nest egg they’d hoped for when they agreed to escort David on his ersatz mission to Hesre. That meant there would be more work, more quests, more dangerous tasks only two skilled adventurers such as they could accomplish.

But what great things could they accomplish, he wondered, if there were more than just the two of them?

“Have you given any thought to joining the adventurer-for-hire business?” Derek asked Erika in a manner too casual to be sincerely casual.

“I’ve given it some thought,” she said.

“Felix and I have a lot of connections in Ambride. We could introduce you to a few people.” Erika shrugged noncommittally. “There are always solo jobs, but the money isn’t great. You’d get better paydays working bigger jobs, the kind you’d need a partner or two for.”

“I see.”

“I know, it doesn’t sound like it makes good financial sense, splitting a reward three ways, but the cut per person —”

“You’re asking me to partner with you and Felix.”

“No,” Derek said. Erika raised an eyebrow. “All I’m saying is —”

“You’re terrible at subtlety. Almost as terrible as you are at directness.”

“All I’m saying is, you have options and I’m offering to help, if you want it.”

“Why would I need your help? I’m a grown woman. Hell, I’ve been alive longer than you have.”

“You do act like a cranky old woman,” Felix teased.

“And how many of those years have you been on your own?” Derek said. “You spent most of your youth with the M’ribela, and then how long working for High Lord Ograine? Sixteen years, give or take?”

Erika neither confirmed nor denied Derek’s accurate guess.

“If you think about it, you’re in the same boat as David,” Derek said. “You’ve never really been on your own. You haven’t had any real control over your own life.”

“I am in control of my own life,” Erika said. “And I don’t need your help.”

“Okay. But it’s there if you want it.”

“Noted.”

From that point on, Erika kept enough distance between herself and Derek to render further conversation difficult.

The sun had set by the time our heroes arrived at The Perfect in Ambride, considered by many in the trade to be one of the best publick houses for meeting contacts and finding work. It earned this reputation in part because of its owner, Fenster Dott, kept his house in order and came down hard on any rogues or ruffians who dared to step out of line. He’d personally ended many a nescient barroom brawl by removing the would-be brawlers’ ears with his bare hands. I would like to note that Fenster, a gentleman at heart, always returned the ears to their rightful owners before ejecting them from his establishment.

Derek declared the hour too late to return Bravia and Titania to Lord Spendle and suggested they do so first thing in the morning after a good night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast. To this the travel-weary companions agreed.

A cheer rose from several of The Perfect’s patrons as Derek and Felix entered, cries of welcome from fellow adventurers and, if not exactly friends, colleagues. Derek and Felix returned the greetings and led their company to an empty table in the main dining area. As Derek reached for a chair, a weight impacted his leg with enough force to knock him off-balance — no mean feat in light of Derek’s impressive mass.

“Bullmoose!” Derek said, kneeling to lavish affection on the black mastiff that called The Perfect home. Bullmoose sat, uttered a throaty whurf, and allowed Derek to vigorously massage his thick jowls. “Fenster.”

The man behind the bar grunted. For Fenster, this was an enthusiastic greeting. “Derek. Thought you were dead.”

“Nope. Had a couple of close calls, though.” Dott grunted again. “How’s the room situation looking tonight?”

“Got a few.”

“Hey,” Derek said, turning to his friends, “I’m going to reserve some rooms for us.”

“Private room for me,” Felix said.

“Same here,” Erika said.

“Me too,” David said.

“Guys, come on, let’s not go crazy,” Derek said. “I know we have some money but it’ll be gone before we know it if we indulge in things like separate rooms.”

“Derek, Winifred and I plan on saying our goodbyes tonight,” Felix said with a telling inflection. “Do you really want us in the same room as you?”

Several images, sounds, and a couple of smells flashed unbidden through Derek’s brain. “All right, two rooms,” he said.

“I’m not sharing a room,” Erika said. Derek frowned. “It’s my money; I’ll spend it how I see fit.”

“Three, then,” Derek said to Dott.

“Four,” David said.

“We only have three available,” Dott said.

“Someone’s going to have to double up with me,” Derek reported.

“David will,” Erika said.

“I thought we established that I get to make my own decisions now,” David said.

“We did, right after we established that you can’t order me around anymore.”

David sighed melodramatically. “Fine,” he said, lowering his voice. “I’ll share the room and spend the night reminiscing with Derek about how you conspired with my father to sacrifice me to Habbatarr.”

Erika’s mouth fell open. “Are you emotionally blackmailing me?”

“Erika, please. I’m of noble birth,” David said, feigning effrontery. “I’d never do anything so crass.”

“Derek, you’re bunking with me,” Erika said.

With the rooms reserved and paid for in advance, the companions settled in for a last dinner together, a repast marked by light conversation that steered conspicuously away from the topic of what Erika and David would do with themselves come the next day.

Sated, the quintet lingered downstairs a while to enjoy the fire and a few more drinks before retiring upstairs to their rooms. Derek was relieved to find that one of the rooms had two beds, a feature he hadn’t thought to request.

“You care which bed you take?” he asked Erika.

She stepped into the corner of the room farthest from the door and surveyed the space, taking into account the location of the one door relative to the two beds, the placement of a beaten bureau, and the window overlooking a small rear courtyard where Bullmoose did his business. Fortunately, the breeze was such that it carried the odor permeating the very soil of the courtyard away from the publick house.

“This one,” she said, marking her territory by removing her sword belt and tossing it onto her bed of choice.

Derek stripped off his piecemeal armor — a collection of mismatched leather, chain, and plate — removed his sword belt, wrestled his boots off, and stretched out onto the thick, firm mattress with a groan of relief. These beds were not the luxurious feather beds they’d enjoyed during their all-too-brief stay at the Ograine home, but they were more comfortable in a sense. They were familiar. They felt like home — or as close to home as Derek knew these days. All he needed now was the smell of his mother’s cooking wafting up through the floorboards, the background murmur of the livestock, the din of his sisters having one of their spirited debates…which he would have gladly traded for the noises now penetrating the wall separating his room from Felix and Winifred’s.

“What in the world?” Erika said, pausing in the process of removing her boots to listen to the cacophony of grunts, squeals, and cries of delight — though she did not have to listen closely, thanks to the generous volume with which these sounds were projected.

“Oh, here we go,” Derek grumbled. “We might want to go back to the bar. This is going to go on for a while.”

Erika sat on her bed, her expression wavering between disbelief and perverse curiosity. “Are you kidding me? That can’t be for real.”

“It is.”

“No,” Erika said with a shake of her head. “No one actually makes sounds like that during sex. I’ve never made sounds like that.”

“…What?”

“What?”

“Uhhh…”

“What’s that look for?”

“You…you, uh…”

Erika allowed a smirk. “Why, Derek, did you think I was —?”

“No! I mean yes. I mean, um…never mind. Forget it.”

“Oh, no, you’re not getting off the hook that easily.” She learned forward and rested her elbows on her knees. “What made you think I’ve never been with someone?”

Derek felt a prickling heat creep up into his face. He tugged at the collar of his shirt to release it. “I guess I couldn’t picture you tolerating anyone being…um. That close. You don’t really like people, after all.”

Erika sat up, considered this, and nodded. “True enough. That doesn’t mean I don’t have needs. Granted, I don’t indulge them often because, as you correctly pointed out, I don’t like to let people in — so to speak.”

Derek tugged at his collar again.

“But I’m not so strong-willed I can keep my urges at bay forever.”

“I guess I understand that.”

“You guess you understand that?” Erika’s smirk took on an impish edge. “You mean you’ve never been with someone?”

“Um…”

A small stroke of good fortune in the form of a knock at the door saved Derek from answering the question. David didn’t wait for an invitation before entering.

“Oh. Never mind. It isn’t any quieter in here,” he said, his lips shriveling into a disgusted pout. “Is this going to go on all night?”

“Felix would like to think so,” Derek said, mostly to himself. “Give him a half hour. Once he’s done he’ll be done for the night.”

Resigned to a later bedtime than they’d planned on, Derek, Erika, and David returned downstairs and took a small table near the fireplace. The room’s population had halved since their arrival, the departed consisting mainly of locals who had homes to return to and their own beds to sleep in. Derek envied them. He recognized those who remained as fellow adventurers, some by face (which, in some cases, lacked an ear), others by a distinct look he’d come to associate with those in the profession. Their clothes were faded, worn, and frequently repaired. Their arms and armor, if they had either, were old and battered. They had scars, limps, missing fingers, missing teeth, nervous tics and odd inflections to their speech that suggested they’d taken a few too many blows to the head. Many were burdened by dark memories that showed through their eyes as a distant, distracted stare. Those were the men and women Derek truly pitied, for something inside these people was broken beyond the reach of medicine or magic. Some deep, dark trauma had snuffed out a portion of their souls, and their physical forms had yet to realize it. They were revenants.

They could be Derek’s future.

He turned away from the dying fire and considered David, who had succumbed to his exhaustion and sat in his chair, teetering on the razor’s edge of sleep. His head lolled forward and snapped back upright, his eyes fluttering open for a moment. They were dull, unfocused, unseeing. A chill slipped down Derek’s spine and curled into a ball in the pit of his stomach.

They were a revenant’s eyes.

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