Monday, November 24, 2014

MOUNT COLOSSI

Danae scrambled ahead of me through the clawing brush ever higher up the Mount of the Colossi. I followed smiling despite myself.

“Come on, Danae, give it back,” I called after her. “It’s mine. I found it.”

“But I know where it goes!” she said for the hundredth time and brandished the massive faceted gem I’d found rolling in the surf. It flashed, filled with its own light, a strand of burning lightning frozen and captured in its amber heart. She grinned at me, that same grin that had captured my heart when we were just children.

“How could you possibly—?” She took off again and with a growl I followed. The hard white and gray soil beneath my feet shifted and crumbled making me stumble, but Danae ascended the steepening incline like a mountain goat. Of course she was just in her long tunic. I lugged my short sword, bow quiver and heavy cloak. I had to use the coarse creeping juniper and myrtle to haul myself higher up our childhood playground. We hadn’t been up here in ages. Not since our coming of age.

She disappeared from view, cresting the mountain’s chalky brow above me and for a moment I was alone suspended between the gray sky and grayer sea far below. I looked out towards Claw Hill a little ways away, the ring of stones on its peak stood dark against the pale earth. The wind gusted. The gulls screamed and far below the boom of the surf echoed up to me.

“Are you coming or not?” Danae said from above. Her face appeared above me.

“How is this harder to climb now than when we were kids?”

She disappeared with a giggle.

A moment later I scrambled atop the gently sloped peak of Mount Collosi. Here the myrtle was in bloom and the juniper berries ripening so that the mountain side was covered in flecks of blue. Danae ran ahead, a figure of white stark against the dark blanket of foliage. She dropped to her knees beside a tumbled hump of black stone and started pulling up weeds and breaking branches. When I finally caught up she’d cleared away the brambles from a flat gray stone I recalled as being much larger years ago.

“Remember?” She said and like a rush I suddenly did.

“The elf hole!” I said. I knelt as she easily flipped the stone away. It had taken both of us to move it when we’d placed it years ago. There beneath it lay a seven sided hole, its edges curiously sharp. It held stagnate rain water, shells, smooth stones and a faded bit of ribbon—the treasures of our youth. I grinned as she scooped the baubles out one after another. I picked up a triangular stone that had once been a fine knife for me to play with.

“I wonder how long we spent up here. Even in the rain,” I said testing the grip of my old toy. “There was that one time, we took that old canvas…”

Danae finished scooping out our treasures and before I could think to stop her, she thrust the great gem into the hole. It fit as perfectly as a blade to a scabbard, slotting home with a snick! The light within suddenly blazed ten thousand times brighter. The ground beneath us trembled and we scrambled back from our old treasure trove.

“What did you do?” I gasped.

“I—I…”

Everywhere golden light shot up from the cracks and crevices in the ground. The whole mountain shifted. We ran stumbling and falling. At first we made for the steep cliff we’d ascended but I snatched Danae’s hand.

“We’ll fall! This way!” I turned us towards Claw Hill. We’d made it only a little way down the ridge when the ground shifted beneath us again. Huge cracks split the earth. The seven standing stones toppled slowly towards each other and then impossibly the entire world seemed to heave up beneath us.

“Danae!” I screamed her name but sloughing dirt and tumbling stones separated us. For a moment there was only terror and madness as the earth itself rose up, trying to swallow me. I crawled and rolled, and tried to run. Branches and loose soil clawed at my feet. Huge rocks whizzed by and then all became still. Somewhere I could hear Danae screaming.

I looked up and my blood froze.

Out of the mountain rose a massive black figure, not unlike a man. Its limbs were long, spindly (if anything so massive can be called that), its head small and misshapen. Two tiny points of gold light blazed for its eyes. The black stone flesh was tattooed in swirling patterns and glyphs of golden light. A rumbling growl emanated from it as it slowly straightened to a massive height. It tugged its hand free from where its fingers hand once been the ring of stones atop Claw Hill. It dragged its legs from the earth and without a moment’s hesitation strode away, the massive foot swept over me, blotting out gray sky for a moment.

Claw Hill. Mount Colossi.

“Colossus,” I whispered the word. I started shouting as I rose on unsteady legs.“Danae! Danae!”

I found her a little while later, crushed. The stone must have landed on her and bounded away for her blood was splashed about in a wide spray of crimson around her pulped body. Her dark eyes were closed, her face twisted in agony, her mouth open showing broken teeth. I stared, suddenly empty. I knew I should be breaking, weeping, but instead there was only a cold void that filled me from top to bottom. For a moment a spark of wrath flashed within me. I still had my sword. I looked around and spotted my bow but my arrows were scattered and broken. Then I looked towards the Colossus and felt the ground tremble beneath its step.

I stood a long time until I could no longer feel the giant’s footsteps.

Then my knees surrendered. I fell and the tears came.

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~SJA

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

GLORY AND GORE

Inspired by Lorde's song Glory and Gore.

There’s a humming in the air of the green room. It makes the whole room feel like it’s skittering, filled with static electricity or robot ants. Maybe it’s just the air scrubbers, or some loose vent cover somewhere. Or maybe it’s just our nerves. We’re all still in our formal wear from the talent portion of the show. We look like a bunch of prom-goers waiting in an Emergency Room—wondering who’s going to live or die.

We’re the final six.

Of course six doesn’t mean squat. It’s the final five we want. Then we get the first pay off we’ve seen since passing auditions nearly three months back. I shake out my hands for the hundredth time, hoping this time it will get rid of the jitters. Other people are busy on their com-swatches, sending out last minute pleas for votes, or thanks to their many fans.

“Bam!” Thomas Cochran suddenly says. “Two million fans.” He scans the room with a smirk. He’s gorgeously fit and can turn on the charm for the cameras. A deadly combo. Too bad he’s rotten to the core. I think there used to be a song about that. Something about a pretty boy with an ugly heart. “There’s no way I’m up for elimination. Not with numbers like that.”

“You heard the judges, they thought your singing was crap,” Mae says, ever the debater.

“Yeah, but the judges don’t get to vote. Not anymore. It’s all up to the world now.”

I swallow the burning bile at the back of my throat. I don’t have many fans—only a couple hundred thousand. I don’t have the knack for schmoosing people and during the talent portion of the show I’d forgotten my dance routine. I’d tried to fake it but no one had bought it. Truth be told, dancing isn’t my real talent. My real ability shows during eliminations. Still it worries me. No one likes facing the possibility of being sent home.

The seconds continue to crawl past, punctuated with the dull tapping of everyone checking and rechecking their swatches. Everyone but me and Gianna, who half-sprawls atop the glass table, poking one of the cheap cups slowly from one edge to the other. I shake out my hands for the hundred and first time to no avail.

CRASH! Everyone jumps at the sound of the glass breaking. Gianna’s pushed the cup off the table. She shrugs. She’s older than all of us by a few years. Twenty, I think. She’s fought in the army on three continents, launched into a minor acting career after appearing as the Army’s poster-child in a variety of ads and has the most amazing alto voice you’ve ever heard. She’s the essence of the show. A real triple threat, just like the name of the show.

“Gah! What’s wrong with you?” someone says

“Better than listening to the sounds of your desperation,” she answers. Everyone glares and I can almost hear their thoughts. I hope you’re the one eliminated. But Gianna won’t be—at least not easily. She was a contender last season and only got eliminated due to a freak injury. She’s heavily favored to win and she knows it. So does everyone else.

We return to our waiting. I keep replaying that stupid dance routine and my epic failure. How can I remember the routine so perfectly now, but an hour ago…? The green room door opens. One of the many PAs enters with a cloud of camera drones that eagerly zoom in on the six of us.

“The results are in.”

Some start hamming it up for the cams. Deep breathing, teary gasps. I try to stay calm—stoic. It’s the one thing I have going for me. People think I’m cold as ice, that I don’t have fear or regret. I’ll make it work for me.

“Aster, Gianna, you’re going up for elimination.”

She says it so matter-of-factly I almost miss it. Then the icy fist slams into my gut. I have to go up against Gianna-the-freaking-veteran. I’m doomed. I shake the thought away. The mind is half of the battle. I have to win there first. The PA continues as if my life isn’t about to end. “We’ll get the entire cast ready to go, set up on the main stage for the judgement. Check your swatches. The director has pushed some suggested lines and reactions. Wardrobe is ready for everyone so let’s go.”

Reality TV. Nothing real about it—except the money.

I swallow my dread as we head out. There’s a flurry of excited conversations and exchanged glances. The others think I’m as good as gone.

They get us all dressed quickly. We slide out of our shimmering formal wear and into snug leather and plastine, stuff designed to look “tough” more than actually offer any protection. The entire time we’re surrounded by wardrobe and production staff as well as other contestants. Then there’s fresh makeup. New hair styles. Then they film us pretending to get ready and saying potential good-byes. Sometimes they have us repeat something we actually said, other times we’re fed lines and reactions. The cameras seem to linger on me, getting more footage than the other contenders. They think I’m going to be eliminated—they need that extra footage for the farewell montage.

“Not today,” I vow. That ten million is going to be mine, even if I have to go through the veteran.

Then we’re brought up to the big stage and we have to wait in the wings while they bring in an audience, prep the judges, and finish adjusting the lights and redressing the stage. We’re all sitting in silence, me because I’m nervous out of my mind, the others probably because they’re working on their lines.

I glance at the swatch in my sleeve. I’ve been given five options to say when the producers ask me how I feel about being up for elimination but I’m not going to use them. I’ve picked a line. Had it in mind since before auditions.

Suddenly Gianna pipes up. “You know. They had stuff like this in ancient Rome. People battling for the entertainment of the masses. Gladiators.”

For a moment everyone’s silent but inevitably Chochran pipes up. “I’d friggin love to see a gladiator sing Teenage Dream before going out to battle.”

Mae falls for Gianna’s goad as well. “We auditioned for this. We can quit any time. We’re not slaves or like, prisoners.”

I expect an argument, but Gianna just shrugs again. “Sure. Keep telling yourself that. Anyway, the height of the games coincided with the height of Roman corruption. See, no one cared the country was falling apart so long as they were being entertained. I think that’s what we are. My dad called it the opiate of the masses. The Visigoths are on the hill but no one cares because, hey, Triple Threat is on.”

I frown at the thought. Where is all this coming from? Is she trying to rattle me? Trying to get me to forfeit? Or is she just running her mouth? “If you think that, why don’t you quit?” I snap before I realize everyone will think I’m hoping not to have to fight Gianna. I can't appear afraid.

“I’m pretty sure I can kill you all, one by one to get that ten million,” Gianna says. “And even the Visigoths take cash.” That silences everyone.

She should have saved that line for the cams, I think. It’s a good line.

The production staff finally have us line up, down the length of the stage. There are lights, holograms, smoke, music cues. The producers start filming lines, responses they’ll splice together in editing with the judges asking the same questions. Everyone is performing at full bore now. Tears, anxious faces, stiff upper-lips even though they know they’re not going into the arena after this. I feel confused. Conflicted. I stare down through the crystalline floor to the bright mottled orb of the earth hundreds of miles below us. What am I doing here? Distracting the world from problems it should be facing?

I’m next.

I shake off the thought. It’s just Gianna’s mind games at work. The cams and production assistants and director with their black clothing and nerd-chique hairstyles gather around me. This is the worst part for me. Worse than what’s to come.

“Got your lines ready?” the director smiles his taxed smile.

I nod and try to look delicate, cool. A stylist fusses with me for another second and then the cams are on, little red lights winking away as they orbit me.

“So this line will come from Simon,” the director says. He indicates an empty judge’s seat. “So we want you looking that direction for these close ups. Okay.”

A PA reads the line with the enthusiasm of a wanna-be. “What would you say if I told you, you were up for elimination tonight, Aster?”

I jump on my line. “The ancient Samurai used to say, ‘I am already dead. Only victory will return my life.’”

There’s a buzz of excitement from the staff. They’re all grinning, nodding and for a moment my heart surges full of pride. My line’s a hit.

“Great! Great, Aster. Let’s try another couple that we’ve prepared. Give the editing monkeys some other stuff to work with.”

I rattle off the other lines with a lot less enthusiasm, hoping that’ll make them use the first take. After a few minutes more they wrap up my close ups but instead of going to the next person they backtrack to Gianna. To my horror, they give her my line. They’re all grinning and nodding again as if they thought of it. A hollow fills my stomach and a hot fury, my heart. I try not to cry. It’s such a stupid thing to cry about.

Eventually they finish the close-ups and we move onto the wide shots with the actors/judges delivering their lines. Then the final judgment, which Gianna and I have known for hours is declared and the platforms beneath our feet slowly lower us into the floor. They edit the footage so it looks like we’re taken directly to the arena but really we’re just under the stage. They take us out, doctors look us over, we’re redressed, this time in better armor and then we’re given our weapons. Swords. No shields.

They want an ugly match tonight. The execs must want a boost in the ratings.

My anxiety and energy are building. I feel that humming in the air again. I dance on the balls of my feet. My heart rate is going up. I can feel it thumping in my finger tips. My mouth is dry. My palms wet. I spin the sword experimentally. It’s not like the ones I’ve been practicing for the past few years. It’s a heavy broad blade designed for hacking, as well as crushing thrusts. I can hear my father’s voice telling me I’m ready, that he’s proud of me, that there’s ten million on the line.

I glance at Gianna. She doesn’t seem to have any of my pre-fight jitters and just stands staring out towards the arena that’s beginning to fill with the crowd that had been watching our “final judgement” earlier. These people must have been in line since dawn this morning. It’s going on eight PM now and we’re finally getting to what they want.

The death match.

“You ever think about death?” Gianna asks. I pause in my nervous excitement, looking for another mind game. She turns to me, her dark eyes hollow. “It’s alright if you do.”

“Barely anyone dies in these eliminations.”

“Yeah. I know. But do you think about death, about it really, truly finding you and ending everything?”

I swallow again. Her simple words have pierced my excitement like a needle through a balloon. I suddenly feel older than my sixteen years, stretched thin and tired. “Yeah,” I admit.

“Me too.” Her voice is soft, almost too soft to hear over the cheering of the crowd and the thundering music as the arena doors swing open, beckoning us towards the final five.

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~SJA

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

PUSH AND PULL

Cekme fought listlessly, his sword hardly making into place to parry his opponent’s savage stroke. The weariness of too many blows, too much lost blood covered him, threatening to drag him to the featureless ground. He feared, as he always feared at this point of the fight. His chest heaved. His wounds burned. His hands trembled. The end was a few strokes away. Death reached out its harsh hand.

His opponent, his twin brother Itmek, stepped back for a moment rather than pressing his advantage. He was young, sixteen, and darkly handsome just as Cekme.

“Ten thousand. Time to be free,” the boy said and smiled mockingly and poised his wicked blade above his sweat sodden head, his curling black hair hanging lank. “You know. I’d have thought I’d get bored with this, brother, but no.”

If he hadn’t said anything Cekme might have just let the blow land he was so weary but the taunt seared a red line through his mind. For centuries they had fought. Could he let his brother win? Could he accept ultimate defeat? Itmek’s smile broadened. His sword chopped down and the battle fury finally came upon Cekme. He twisted aside at the last instant. His brother’s sword scraped the ground but the point darted back up, twisting, lunging for his throat. The the lethal blade suddenly seemed absurdly slow. Cekme let the lunge slide past and drove the heavy bronze pommel of his sword into his brother’s shoulder. His knee shot up, thudded into his brother’s thigh. His elbow made a short, sharp circle and cracked against Itmek’s jaw. Muscles, weary from endless battle gave way beneath the blows, and Itmek went down, his sword spinning away into the blood stained dust.

Itmek scrambled for his blade but Cekme stepped on his brother’s back, forcing him down. He lifted his sword.

“No!” Itmek screamed, his voice high and panicked.

The sword fell. His brother’s life gushed out, red and bright. Cekme stepped back from the suddenly still body and hobbled slowly away. He stopped perhaps twenty feet away, where in the smooth white grit of their featureless prison 9,999 little hash-marks had been scored. One for each time his brother had killed him without being killed himself. He spat on the closest marks and kicked them contemptuously, scuffing them from existence. He turned back to his brother’s body and sat down, his bloody sword resting across his knees. He let his eyes close. With the battle done, the weariness had returned.

He didn’t know how much time passed. There was no way of knowing in the ever-even light of the prison the gods had locked them within. A footstep scraped. Steel rang as it was dragged up from the hard ground.

Cemke sighed and opened his eyes. Itmek’s baleful glare scorched across their eternal battlefield to meet his gaze.

“We agreed! We would end it, thwart the gods’ punishment!” Cemke shrugged but his brother continued. “We were so close. Ten thousand battles.”

Such was their punishment for the foolishness they’d exhibited in life. Ten thousand deaths in a row, each hard won or the oblivion of the afterlife would not find either of them. Cemke supposed he had not yet ceased to be a fool. Almost, but not quite.

“I changed my mind.”

“Idiot!” Itmek snarled and pointed his weapon. “Pick up your sword!”

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~SJA

Monday, August 18, 2014

ZOIE AND THE ZEES

The Zoe knew she couldn’t out distance them but she kept running anyway.

And they kept coming, over a hundred shuffling, stinking groaning Zees.

She was fast but they were relentless. She was quiet but they had her scent. Eventually they would run her down. Even so she kept running, kept fighting to stay alive. In a land filled with death, with creatures that literally crawled out of their graves, it was an uncommon thing. Too many gave up. Too many quit fighting. Whole armies and nations had rolled onto their backs and waited for a swift, brutal death when the zombies first rose up. Not her though. She was too cleaver to quit.

She dodged down an ally and paused to catch her breath. It was ridiculously hard to breathe through the mask she wore.

Why had people given up so easily? She wondered. If I can survive I imagine most anyone can. I’m hardly a teenager.

The scrape of dead flesh on asphalt grew louder. The stench became overwhelming and Zoe took a moment to adjust the breath mask over her face. The packaging had said that it eliminated odors but the reek of rot seemed to seep through no matter how often she changed the filters. She let the mob get within a few hundred paces before starting to run again. She jogged, conserving her strength for any surprises. The chase was almost finished.

She ascended a flight of concrete steps, and passed through the broken fence that had once enclosed the fitness center’s pool. A dozen hand written signs papered the fence. “Living, Keep Out!” “Danger” “Zee Trap. Do Not Enter!” She passed them without a second glance and trotted to the edge of the now-dry pool. She kicked the switch and the generator roared to life. The lights blazed, bathing the pool area in harsh white light. A claxon began to wail. If there were any Zees that hadn’t been following her yet, they’d be on their way soon.

Here, Zombie-zombie-zombie, she silently called with proud smile.

She skipped across the narrow catwalks to the central platform—a pole mounted to a round table, stood in the pool’s main drain and cemented in place. It felt a little wobbly but it was plenty stable and her own design to boot.

The Zees came a few minutes later and immediately began falling into the pool. They were far too clumsy to cross her spidery walkways and they simply marched to their doom. Some died falling, their mushy skulls cracking open on the hard pool bottom. Others survived to mill about trying to reach her but since she was suspended over the deepest part of the pool there was no fear they might reach her. Eventually the survivors all made their way to the shallow end and...

BRRRRRAAAAP!

The industrial wood-chippers positioned there took care of the first Zee that tried to escape that direction. Zoe wondered again why so many people had given up when the Zees were so easy to dispatch.

Maybe most people just aren’t as cleaver as me, she thought. She sat down, put on her headphones, cranked her music, opened her book and relaxed as the claxon continued to scream and the wood-chippers roared.

Liked this? Writers live and die on word of mouth so please share or follow or join my mailing list. See the top right of this page.
 
~SJA

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Unwrapping Story Ideas - Guest Post



Photo Credit: www.morguefile.com, photo by iphis

I grew up in a big-city, ethnic neighborhood where men gathered at smoky bars for a beer after working all day in the factory (to earn a wage that put bread on the table but rarely put their kids through college), where women shared gossip during a rousing game of bingo in the church basement, and Saturday night bowling leagues were an essential social requirement.

Our family bought rye bread from a bakery, bologna from the butcher, and penny candy from a grouchy old man in the corner store. He would visibly cringe when I laid a quarter on the counter and began a child’s ceremony of choice—two bb bats, one atomic fireball, four flying saucers that melted on the tongue to reveal tiny balls of sugary goodness hiding inside, two red shoestrings, one caramel (for Mom), two bit-o-honey, four candy lipsticks (to share with my sisters), and on and on until the entire twenty-five piece assortment was placed inside a brown paper sack and I scooted happily outside.

The elementary school had a big playground that doubled as an asphalt parking lot; we lost a lot of balls to the busy street below. When the shrill school bell rang, adrenalin would shoot from the top of my head down to my toes as I raced to class, sad that I had once again missed an opportunity to erase chalk from the blackboard. Today, in the early days of spring, when the snow melts and the sun shines strong, I can still catch a whiff of remembrance; drying winds that lick rock salt off roadways can mimic the chalky smell.

Once a week, my fellow classmates and I went to the school library. It smelled like old paper and lemon wax, and books were shelved on oak bookcases large enough to sail through the Atlantic with a crew of glib librarians. But everything seems bigger when you’re just a little kid.

Photo Credit: www.morguefile.com, photo by click

At first, I looked only at picture books. To my mind, Dick and Jane were real people. Several years older and wiser, I searched titles for interesting language. My favorite was one cataloged under Religion called Purple Violet Squish. I eventually bought—and still own—this David Wilkerson book.

The title of another book eludes me, but I remember some of its content. This work of science fiction, the first science fiction I ever read, inspired me to think outside the box. Over forty-years later, it still does.

For example . . .

My protagonist, we’ll call him Jim, enters a time portal and catapults through decades before landing in his own school cafeteria. He’s shoved into line and picks up a tray as he stands before a flat screen with pictures of edible selections. His finger touches a glossy of beef stew, and instantly, the machine spits out a duplicate on an index card.

He takes it to a table (made of transparent acrylic so the lunch monitors, which are beams of light, can see everything), sits on a hover chair, and wonders if a waitress will bring him his food. But the moment he places the card on the table, the picture emerges into a 3-D version of beef stew.

Within seconds, the aroma of grilled onions wafts from the paper to his nose. Savory celery chunks appear. The rim of the picture becomes the brim of a bowl full of bubbling hot stew.

At this point, a real human hands him a spoon. He dips it into the bowl, lifts a carrot to his lips, and swallows. Something in his brain is immediately comforted. At the same time, an idea registers that he must control his consumption to maintain mental acuity and physical prowess.

He takes another bite. Creamy potatoes fill his mouth with memories of happy family dinners. As the soft lump slides down his throat, he notices a perfect pea pop to the top of his dish. He bathes his spoon with gravy to retrieve the pea, and slurps it down with gusto. His eyes grow wide. That single pea tastes like his grandmother garden looks, bursting with color and steamy summer heat.

And there you have it—one potential scene in an other-worldly story, derived from the recollection of reading my first science fiction book. Some of the best story ideas are those that have incubated in memory—a vague remembrance of elementary school, a camping trip, the dog that chased you down the sidewalk . . .imagine the possibilities.

For me, story ideas from penny candies and childhood innocence build when I ask lots of questions. What if the grouchy candy man was not human (in reality, I often wondered if he was)? What if the candy had been replaced with alien produced drugs? What if the man was merely trying to protect young customers from buying the dangerous food? What if we bought them anyway?

A creative writer must constantly dream up new scenarios, and asking “what if” is essential.

At the moment, however, the question I ask myself is, “Why can’t candy still cost only a penny?”

~Amy Nowak

Historical Novelist Amy Nowak has lived in and researched the American West for over thirty years. Her exploration of prehistoric ruins and study of European expansion has inspired her to write candid stories that embrace bygone events, while her approachable characters arouse vitality, spiritual contemplation, and hope. She loves to cook southwestern style food and dithers between red sauce and green, but she’ll take either with a squeeze of lime. Be sure to check out her website.

Friday, May 2, 2014

THE EXTERMINATOR

“At firs’ I thought it were gophers,” the farmer said and spat a thick spray of tobacco juice. I watched it glisten as it arced through the afternoon sun and wondered what exactly I’d done to deserve this fate. I’d stumbled through life from gig to gig, family-less, fortuneless, directionless until at eighteen, I settled on this.

Some people might call it an adventure.

I just call it work.

I’m an exterminator.

“’Course once the holes got bigger I knew it had t’be some-it else.”

“Right. Sure.” I glanced around at the farm. It was situated at the mouth of a narrow canyon. A dense wood of dark evergreens loomed over the crack in the earth. Wagons, crates, barrels and sacks filled with, as yet, undetermined excess choked the gully. No wonder this guy had pests. Anyone with half a brain knew that this much garbage would attract all sorts of unwanted attention.

“I tried settin’ out some traps but no luck.”

I shrugged. That didn’t mean much. Most amateurs couldn’t set a trap that would snare a mouse much less the larger pests that roamed the world. Even when a trap is properly placed, hidden and bated they’re only marginally successful.

“What type of bait did you use?” Roardan asked. He was there to observe me in action and compile a report for the guild master, but he never could keep his yap shut.

“Oh, I use th’ good stuff. Virgin,” the farmer said, hacking another blob of browned saliva onto the ground.

“Well, we’ll take a look in the canyon and figure out exactly what we’re dealing with. After that we can figure out a fee and—”

“Fee don’t matter,” the farmer growled. “They’re ruining my crops. Take care of ‘em. Y’er supposed to be the best. Git to it.”

Roardan could barely keep from soiling himself with excitement at the prospect of severely overcharging the ignorant farmer.

We headed into the canyon.

Immediately it became clear that we weren’t dealing with gophers. Caverns and tunnels, some a few feet across, others as big as doorways, pocked the walls of the gully. The rubbish that stood intact at the mouth of the canyon was demolished further back. Torn, broken and gnawed. Other spoor of the pests was evident. Tracks, some remarkably large, criss-crossed the sandy ground. A little ways ahead, leashed to a metal stake, sprawled the trashiest woman I had ever seen.

She was foremost filthy. Her bleached hair stood out in a tangled nest. Garish makeup smeared her gaunt face. One pale thigh was sun-burning brilliantly where her too short skirt had ridden up over her hip. The soles of her bare feet were black with grime. She clutched a rusty dagger in one fist and a brown bottle in the other. Swirly tattoos on her ankle, neck and the small of her back completed her look. For a moment I thought she might be dead but she grunted, belched and flopped over onto her stomach.

“I’ll be roasted alive if that’s virgin bait,” Roardan sniggered.

I nodded in agreement and cut the girl free. The only thing she was attracting was flies. She repaid me by vomiting up something that smelled like pure alcohol. We pushed on farther back into the ever-darkening canyon hoping for some solid proof of what we were facing. And then we got it. Outside an especially wide cave opening stood a row of heads, some human some bestial, all spiked along a sagging bit of split rail fence that stood before the cavern’s mouth. Animal pelts, wolf and fox tails, raven wings, scraps of tattered cloth had been nailed to the gray wood forming a grizzly and haunting collage.

Roardan swore.

I unslung my equipment bag and began strapping on my gear. I buckled on my white chainmail coverall, pulled on my tall black boots. Steel gauntlets covered my hands as I settled my helmet on my head and buckled by belt around my waist where vials of holy water, healing potions, mind enhancers, muscle strengtheners and half a dozen other buffs dangled from leather thongs. I synched the straps of my kite shield tight against my forearm and hefted my mace of Holy Vengeance.

“Maker be with us,” I prayed. “Looks like this farmer has a bad case of orcs.”

Roardan plucked a few notes on his small harp. The bard was as ready as I. Together we strode forward and entered the cavern. It would be hell, crawling through tunnels hunting down every last member of the orc clan that had moved onto the farmer’s land. But it was our job. Some people might call it an adventure. I just call it work. I’m an exterminator.

~SJA

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