Anti-Heroes

 

 

That Nameless Little Town

 

“I swear, city guard get twice the pay and actually get to live in real cities. What have we got out here?”

Huk shrugged his massive shoulders. “Lack uh stabbin' I suppose.”

Tigs snorted. “Tell that to that pincushion we found last week. Man looked like a reverse porcupine.”

Huk sighed. “No, my charmin' an' educated friend. I mean, out here, we, as guards, don't get stabby stabbed. We ain't got a thieve's guild and we ain't got crazies runnin' through the streets claimin' they found the lost Blade of Bumlick the Great. Here we got good, normal bad-folk.”

“You,” Tigs accused, “have no sense of adventure.”

“Wrong yuh are,” Huk said with a smile. “I have the keenest sense uh fuckin' adventure ever had by anyone. It's kept me clear uh the damn mess me whole life.”

“That may be the saddest—Oh, shit.” 

Tigs stopped cold. Huk did as well. Much as he'd love to batter his partner's dreams into mud and squat on them, he knew Tigs's voice had hit that tone, the one he saved for spotting citizens hell bent on making him work. Huk followed the other guard's gaze. “Ah, shit,” he muttered.

“The Devourer has risen,” squeaked a voice. A small crowd had formed a doughnut, heads tilted down at the speaker. Either horse apples had started reciting the Litany of Klaf, or the crowd was enraptured by a very short, very young evangelist.

Tigs and Huk performed the Miracle Of The Parting Of The Mob Of The Goddamned Idiots. A practice named by Tigs, yet performed by guardsmen of every era in every city of every world. It mostly consisted of clubbing people with spear-shafts and bellowing “Out of the way!” Actually, it consisted entirely of that.

Once the guards had cracked the thin shell of the mob, it took little effort to locate the gooey center. Said center was dressed in worn farm clothes, topped with a mop of bright gold hair, and had just enough road dust to be adorable. “Who're you?” asked the gooey center.

Tigs glanced at his partner, but Huk's eyes were searching the impromptu gathering, leaving him as ambassador of the township. “We are men with fancy spears and fancy uniforms, which sadly come with the burden of asking questions. Such as 'Why me?' or less frequently 'Why is this child blocking traffic?'”

The gooey center glared at him. The gooey center was clearly not impressed by spears or uniforms, no matter how fancy they might be.

“End uh the world's comin',” the kid said.

“Course it is,” Huk tossed in, “Not like the end uh things is leavin', is it?” He never looked at the child, instead his squinty little eyes slid back and forth across the crowd, carefully searching for an excuse to bludgeon someone.

“Demon's killed me pa,” said the gooey center, indignantly.

“And your mother?” asked Tigs. Unlike Huk, his eyes never left the child, as he was under the impression that anything that adorable was most certainly packing knives.

“Never knew me mum,” he said quietly. The remnants of the crowd gave out a collective “aw” of sympathy, but the gooey center wasn't having any of it. “It don't matter. She weren't me real mum anyway. I'm royal! Look, I got a birthmark an everythin'.”

The boy unfastened his britches, but fortune saved Tigs from having to improvise a bum-in-public discouragement policy. An old man snaked through the crowd and grabbed the kid before the lad was able to moon his nobility to the gathered peasantry. “Hold on Jepth,” the man said blowing through his long white beard, “No one needs to hear your stories. Sorry for the commotion officers, the boy got away from me. Please disregard his fancies.”

“Who're you?” Huk asked. Well, loomed. Huk loomed the question at the geriatric.

“I'm—I'm his grandfather,” the old man lied.

“No you ain't,” said Huk.

“No you ain't,” said the kid. “You're Ellum the Sorcerer, Slayer of Drath, and Guardian of the Horned Wall.”

Tigs and Huk glared their professional unimpressedness into the old coot. To his credit, the bearded old bastard just planted his feet and stood tall. His eyes dared anyone to challenge the boy's claim.

“You're Ellum,” said Tigs, in his This Is Bullshit voice.

“What of it?” the old man spat.

Tigs' face lit up with mock cheerfulness. “Well, it's quiet the relief, I have to say. See, I know a wizard desperate to prove that his years of studying the arcane arts have been justified. He would love nothing more than to test his metal against the legendary Ellum of legend.”

“Name a time and place.” The words had barely hit the air before Huk's spear shaft swung up between his legs. The frail old man popped a few inches off the ground before landing on his knees. Then he had a little lie down. His eyes were bulged open and a soft keening streamed from his mouth.

“Behold!” Tigs shouted, slapping his spear butt into the wet mud, “Huk the Extroverted has bested Ellum the Something-or-other. He has transformed the all powerful sorcerer into the singing eunuch you see lying before you.” His voice dropped to a growl. “Now piss off before we do another magic trick.”

The crowd of mostly men rapidly decided they had better places for their genitalia to be. The sole woman stood her ground, but was worn down by Huk's professional looming and Tigs' rather unsettling smile. She harrumphed loudly and sloshed off.

“Come on,” Huk said gently tugging the boy away from the old man. “Come on, lad. He ain't a wizard.”

“How you know?” he asked. It was half real question and half indignant defensiveness. Still, the boy fell in step with the guards, leaving Ellum the Would-Be cuddling with the mud.

“Cuz that's the second old codger scooped up a kid with the prophecy scam just this month,” Huk said. It had really been four, but Huk viciously pretended he couldn't count.

“And you'll also notice a certain lack of us being turned into privy newts,” Tigs added. “If I was a wizard that'd just had my berries jammed, that's what I'd do to the poor bastards that set on me. So it's true? No mum or dad?”

The kid nodded his shiny blond head, and completely missed the tactical change of subject. “Other kinfolk? Close friends?” Tigs pressed. The boy just shook his head.

“Madam Baum,” Huk said.

“What?” asked the kid.

Tigs gestured vaguely down the muddy lane. “She's a lady that takes in little boys and girls that have been de-parented by demons, prophecy, or diabetes. We'll get you set up there.”

“Will I still get to avenge my pa?”

“Course,” said Huk, “So long as he was killed by dust monsters.”

Tigs smiled. “You lucky little devil. You'll be learning to wield the sacred Broom of Cleansing, bane of cobwebs everywhere.”

 

 

The Back Alley Of Destiny

 

“How on the Baker's Earth did you talk me in tuh this?”

“Oh, come on Huk,” Tigs replied. “What's not to love? We're wearing finely embroidered doublets walking down a lamp-lit street paved with real cobblestones, all while being paid three times what we made in that nameless little town.”

Huk snorted. “We're also paying four times what we did for everything while workin' nights an' surrounded by cutthroats and killers uh every stinkin' stripe.”

“Ah, city life,” Tigs breathed reverently. “Fear not, my friend. If we secure jobs at the castle we'll be paid even more while not having to worry about room and board. They even have indoor plumbing. It's perfect.”

If. Every bugger in the city guard wants castle work an'—” He stopped cold. 

Tigs paused as well. Usually he had the more finely honed danger sense, but there was nothing raising hairs at this late hour. Huk was staring determinedly down an alleyway sheathed in darkness. The kind of I Will Kill You darkness that you can only appreciate when it's framed by cheery street lamps. 

“What is it?” Tigs asked via whisper.

“Me adventure sense is tinglin',” Huk reply-whispered. He backed away from the alley like he was afraid it'd startle. Tigs, ever a skeptic of the much vaunted adventure sense, opened his mouth to protest, but was interrupted by adventure. More specifically, the inhuman, in-animal scream of something that Should Not Be, yet not only Was, but was pretty fucking pissed besides.

Realizing his mouth was open and for once hadn't said anything, Tigs corrected the balance. “Tell me that wasn't a Moon Hound.”

Huk continued his reverse tiptoe, slowly and silently removing himself from the alleyway's evil glare. The little frown of concentration told Tigs that he was carefully calculating a vital number. Possibly how many silent sneak-away steps were needed before an all out sprint. Maybe he was factoring how long his legs were compared to Tigs' and planning the proper moment to trip his partner when running from the demonic Hound.

Another warped howl jarred the night, and another, and another. They formed an overlapping chorus that was crap for music, but made a pretty handy laxative.

Tigs was seriously considering if pissing himself would give him a sprinting advantage over Huk when a sound far more horrible came from the alley. It was an audible smack, followed by a prepubescent “Take that, dog!”

Huk froze and Tigs' stomach fell to his knees. “Was that a child?”

“Sounded like one,” Huk whispered.

“You know,” Tigs said softly, “for a minute there, I thought we might have a chance.”

“Really?” Huk asked as he took a step forward.

“Well,” Tigs said matching his partner's stride, “I might have.”

“Please,” Huk said, lighting a torch off a hanging lamp without so much as a break in stride, “I'd uh tripped your ass sixteen paces down the street.”

“You'd have tried, my oafish friend. However, you have never factored in my bastard detection skills, and you, I detect, are a filthy bastard.”

Huk nodded at the compliment. The two men went silent, which seemed to be a theme. The entire city had gone quiet after the Hounds' cries. The only residents to ignore the noise boycott were the Hounds themselves and the whooping, idiot child that wouldn't stop screaming “Ha ha!” and “Suffer, fiend!”

Huk and Tigs rounded the alley bend with the enthusiasm of convicts climbing the gallows. Imagine the surprise when upon stepping onto the metaphorical platform they were given a pardon and an apology feast instead of a noose. Or with less symbolism, they came around the back of the alley and found three Moon Hounds lying dead with a scrawny kid shoving the jagged end of a stick into the throat of a fourth. 

The last Hound tried for a death roar but only managed a mewling gurgle. The kid jerked his stick free and raised the ichor covered wood to the sky in triumph. 

“No gods buggerin' way,” muttered Huk.

The youth, all seventy pounds of him, spun around to face the guards. He leveled his broken murder stick and glared. 

“Easy, lad,” said Tigs, ever the diplomat. “We're city guard. We heard the commotion and came running.”

“Walkin',” Huk corrected under his breath.

Tigs overrode his partner's shameful honesty with a flow of smooth bullshit. “Being the high-minded civic guardians that we are, we couldn't let vile demons roam our streets unchall—Is that a broom?” His eyes swung to a mangled bit of wood and straw, then to one of the dead Hounds, bristles lodged in its eye, then back to the child's broken stick. “Did you just kill four Moon Hounds with a goddamned broom?!”

“Melvin!” the kid screamed. Tigs flinched from the foreign battle cry, but the little toe-head ran to a bundle of sticky rags that neither guard had previously noticed. “No,” he cried. “No-no-no-no-no! Oh, no. We're done for. He was the last scribe!”

Huk cast a glance Tigs' way, but his partner just shrugged in confusion. The big man sighed. “Uh, I hate to interrupt yur weepin', but this is a city. There's all kinds uh scribes an' whatnot.”

“But he was the last!” the kid wailed. He threw his broken broom handle down (something Tigs was fervently grateful for) and pulled a shiny cylinder from his robes. “We're all doomed,” he said, dejectedly.

“Come again?”

“This puzzle box holds a map to the resting place of the Staff of Klaf, but it's written in an ancient language and Melvin was the last that could read it.”

“Well that is quite the shame—” Tigs started, but was interrupted by one of Huk's signature nudges. It was the kind of nudge that knocked unsuspecting men into manure piles and could get you banned from pottery shops. A veteran of such jostling, Tigs merely stumbled. He met his partner’s gaze and the two held a battle of glares.

Tigs fought bravely, but was no match for a Huk brimming with self-righteousness. “Let me see it,” he said, turning away from Huk's smugness.

“Why?” the kid asked, pulling the gaudy tube to his chest.

“Because I am a great sage of a long line of sages, keeping our secret knowledge hidden by working night shift in crummy neighborhoods, lo these many years. And only now can my great and powerful knowledge be used to solve a little boy's toy puzzle in a back alley at the insistence of my obnoxious partner.”

The kid blinked, bewildered perhaps by the use of sentences containing more than five words. Tigs sighed a great put upon sigh and held out his hand. Eventually, the kid took the hint and offered up his prize.

Tigs turned it over in his hands, considering the ornate device carefully. “It's Thennik script,” he said.

The kid's eyes brightened. “You can read it?”

Tigs nodded. “As could half the people on the docks and probably a quarter of the scribes in this city.”

The bright look turned to a frown. “Then why did Melvin say he was the only one that could? And why bring me to this alley?”

Huk arched an eyebrow. “Pretty little thing like you?”

“It's likely,” Tigs said, glaring at Huk, “he was in league with whomever summoned the Moon Hounds. Perhaps he even summoned them himself and the foul beasts turned on him.” 

The kid gave Melvin's corpse a dismissive “Hmpf” before turning back to Tigs. “Please, how do you open the box?”

“Boxes have corners,” Tigs replied. This confused the boy, so Tigs moved on. “The dials are covered in numbers, but there's a riddle written between. 'Lo, the demon lord Klaptis was fleeing the sundered city at a swiftness of ten leagues per turning. Three turnings passed before Klaf the Just learned of the devil's cowardice and followed after. With a swiftness of three hundred leagues per cycle, how many turnings did it take for Saint Klaf to run down the wicked Klaptis?”

“That's the great riddle?” asked the kid.

“That's the great riddle,” replied Tigs.

“What's it mean?”

Tigs shrugged. “I don't know. It's as if we'd need someone who could calculate Thennik time increments.”

“Don't look at me,” Huk said. 

Tigs looked at him. It was a special You Started This look.  Huk knew it well. He'd invented it. The big man slumped, “It's ten,” he said in near-whisper.

“Pardon?” Tigs asked, just to be a shit.

“Ten. It's ten stupid turnings before Klaf bum-slaps Klaptis.”

Tigs smiled, his fingers already working the complex dials of the puzzle tube. The device popped open and a scroll slid into his palm. He handed the paper over without hesitation. The kid unrolled it with the kind of reverence only the young are insane enough to posses.

“Is it everything you were looking for?” Tigs asked. There was a decisive nod of the blond head. “Can you read it?” A second confident nod. “Off you go then. Can't have the Staff of Klaf rotting in some tomb when there's Moon Hounds stalking the world again.”

“Thank you so much. I'll never forget you!” the youth shouted, while sprinting off into the night.

Huk waved to the retreating blond head. “He look familiar to you?”

“Not in the least.”

“Hmmph. Think that was wise?”

“Letting the map to Klaf's tomb run off? Well, that depends. It's almost certainly a fake, but even fakes can be worth some coin to the right buyer. Personally, I'd put more stock in the reputation of two vigilant city guards that slew twice their number in Moon Hounds. Those are the kind of stalwart men that get promoted to castle duty. Failing that, we now possess a Thennik era cryptex made of gold and serpent-ivory. I'd say letting a map of dubious authenticity wander off wasn't much of a loss.”

Huk rolled this around then shrugged. “Might be right. Still, I meant letting the little bugger run off into the wilds alone.”

Tigs looked at his partner as if he'd gone mad. He threw his arms wide, a gesture encompassing the grisly scene of butchered demon dogs and gutted Melvin. “Huk, I'm going on pure instinct here, but I think our young friend will be just fine.”

Huk shrugged. “Probably,” he said, moving back toward the street. “You buy any uh this Klaf an' Devourer business?”

“Please,” Tigs snorted, kicking aside the bloody bundle of wood and straw. “I just want the little maniac out of the city before he finds another broom.”

 

 

Hot and Cold Running Guardsmen

 

“Why aren't we moving faster?” the young man demanded.

Tigs nodded to his partner, letting him field this particular inquiry. Huk sighed. He'd been doing that almost every other moment for the last three days. “Cause yuh never wanna be the first bloke in line to kiss a dragon.”

Herkin, having yet to penetrate Huk's rustic accent, shifted his bewildered expression to Tigs for translation. Again. Tigs let out his own sigh. “You don't run as fast as you can to the source of a full-castle alarm.”

“Oh,” said Herkin, “So that you aren't winded when you engage the enemy. That's sensible.”

Huk and Tigs exchanged what an outsider would call a Look, but what they over the years had come to silently agree to as Look, This Idiot Is Going To Get Us Killed. “Right yuh are, Herk,” Huk said. “Gotta preserve our strength fer the goblin horde or whatever that's buggerin' things up.”

Herkin looked helplessly at Tigs as they jogged down the stone corridor. “Oh, come on,” Tigs shot back. “You had to have caught at least some of that.”

“Something about gobbling whores and buggering?” Herkin tried.

“Seriously wonderin' about our lad's potential. Captain's nephew or no.”

“No idea,” Tigs said, avoiding Herkin's baffled expression. The gong-like ringing of the castle alarm stopped its steady beat, the last note left to hang ominously in the air. A cacophony of shrieks, bellows, and the furious hammering of metal on non-metal foiled any delusion that the danger had ceased with the alarm. The trio of guards slowed their jog to something akin to a shamble, only less enthusiastic and a lot more sneaky.

Tigs threw up a hand. Huk stopped and had to grab hold of Herkin's doublet to keep the guardling from following. Tigs payed them no mind, focused as he was on the oak door emitting all the noise. He risked a few more steps and pressed his ear to the wood.

“Goblins?” Herkin ejaculated. Huk slapped a broad hand around the lad's mouth and gave him a disapproving shake of his head.

Tigs barely noticed. There was something very familiar about the carnage being carried out on the other side of the door. Something in the back of his brain was screaming at him, jumping up and down with flags and flares. Then he heard it. Barely audible through the thick wood and chaotic noise.

“Take that, dogs!” a familiar voice shouted. It was older and deeper, but unavoidably recognizable.

“Fuck this!” Tigs spat. He shot past Huk and Herkin in a breath and didn't stop until he was wheezing safely around a distant corner.

“What is it?” Herkin asked, popping up like a knob infection. “Dragonmen? Undead?”

“Worse,” Tigs said between gasps. “Heroes.”

“Now, that's just unfair.”

“Aye, Huk. I think it might be our lad of the murderous broomstick.”

“Ah,” said Huk the chatterbox.

“You mean there's just one guy?” Herkin asked. 

“He might have brought a friend or two,” Tigs growled.

“With the others, we'd still outnumber them. For Baker's sake, the captain is in there. What will he say if we don't show up?”

“Probably, 'Argh, I'm all dead,'” Huk said. “Besides, he cheats at dice.”

“And you have to think of that lovely young wife of his,” Tigs added. “She deserves to learn of his brave last stand from someone who knew him. There's no telling the kind of consoling the lass will need.”

Herkin shifted his disbelief back and forth between the men. “This is the Huk and Tigs that slew Moon Hounds? Well, I'm not scared of doing my job.” He bolted. Huk made a grab, but the lad was young, fast, and, like most men his age, determined to be an idiot.

Tigs and Huk let out a collective groan, then began jogging back down the corridor, knowing full well that they weren't spry enough to catch the hotheaded little moron. Still, it was a close thing. It took Herkin three tries to kick down the oak door. Tigs had his fingers on the boy's doublet just in time for the fabric to be ripped from his grasp by Herkin charging through the door.

“Stop fien—Aaaaah!” Herkin's scream was punctuated by an ugly, wet sound. Tigs' insubstantial grasp was just enough to pull him into Herkin's wake and more than enough to get him spattered in Herkin's gore. He stumbled into the library, freshly decorated with the innards of his coworkers.

A woman clad only in blood and a few coyly positioned ribbons came at him with a pair of swords and a banshee scream. Tigs tried to backpedal but slipped on someone’s entrails and slammed onto the stone floor. The banshee's follow through would have cut him in half, but a spear miraculously interposed and shoved the surprised woman back. 

Huk stepped between Tigs and the naked psychotic, giving his friend time to climb to his feet. Tigs did his best, but the floor was covered in people goo and all he managed was to stain his doublet beyond salvage. 

The woman let out another eye-bursting scream and charged Huk. Even on the wrong side of his fourth decade, Huk was a force to be reckoned with. He retained his size and strength and had a lifetime of putting down the nastiest of lowlifes. His opponent might have weighed in at one hundred and twenty pounds dripping wet.

Poor Huk didn't stand a chance. 

Her first strike was an over hand swing that Huk parried by raising his spear. The deception accomplished, she snapped out a single perfect kick, inflicting upon Huk the same brutal groin smash he had used on many a would-be wizard. He dropped his spear and reflexively grabbed his injured manhood with both hands. His bulging eyes watched as the banshee's blade sped strait for his throat.

“Essalyn, hold!” commanded a voice. The blade stopped immediately, point pricking Huk's skin and tickling his windpipe. “Hold, my love. I know these men.”

And there he was, pushing his way through a mound of corpses with a brightly glowing pole that could only be the Staff of Klaf. His gleaming armor was spattered with blood, yet his shiny gold hair was somehow unsullied by combat. He had grown tall and heavily muscled, and carried himself with the confidence that only idiots and serial killers seemed to project. 

Tigs finally managed to claw his way upright, spitting out a tooth in the process. 

“Sorry about that,” said the golden haired idiot.

“Wasn't mine,” Tigs said.

“Oh, good.”

Tigs glared.  “Not really.”

The muscled young man turned his attention back to the interrupted homicide. Huk was stuck in the unfortunate pose of a man whose body wishes to collapse in agony and yet is simultaneously attempting to will itself the power of flight. His slender dance partner could have been a statue for all she moved. A statue carved by a hormonal twelve year old with more fetishes than pimples. 

The scene seemed to have no impact on the great and overly muscled one. “Twice have these good men aided me on my quest,” he said, “I would know why they now serve a dark lord.”

Tigs eyed the stick-wielding giant, then his stabby little girlfriend. “A dark lord.” It wasn't so much a question as congealed disdain. Huk shot him a look of sheer desperation. The situation needed surgical diffusing. Tigs spat out the gob of scorn and shimmied into his mental scrubs. “Alright Blondie, call off your attack nudist and maybe we can have a conversation.”

“My name is Jepth,” said Blondie. “You don't remember?”

“Nope.”

The towering youth eyed Tigs in silence, possibly sizing up his skin for furniture leather. Deciding the guard was too runty to cover a decent footstool, he gestured with the holy glowstick. She pouted a bit, but the scary sword-girl took her stabby things and backed up a few steps. 

Huk's eyes darted between his monstrous little assailant and his equally monstrous savior. With imminent death on holiday, he came to his senses. Unfortunately, those senses included pain. Huk let out a miserable moan and sank to his knees, still cupping his jammed berries.

Blondie slammed his staff into the floor. A pulse of golden energy rippled across the stone. “You will tell me why you wear the uniform of the foul baron!”

“We can't all go naked.” Tigs instantly regretted the jab.

Blondie was running out of patience. That or he had a murder quota, and was feeling a bit behind on the corpse making. Either way, Tigs had no desire to add his name to the castle's casualty list. He decided it was best to spin a tale of the daring Tigs and Huk, master spies, who infiltrated the wicked baron's service with an aim to Bring the Monster Down. 

He opened his mouth just as Huk's language center came back online. “No man that pays over-time is all bad.” 

And there went that survival plan. Tigs felt the very real need to murder his friend. Slowly. With a spoon.  

Blondie turned to him for confirmation. The damage was done. Tigs nodded. Whatever else the baron did, he paid his boys well.

Blondie was not impressed. He shook his head sadly. “Such petty needs. Do you realize that he summoned Apscal, the demon prince of fire? That he will loose the monster on the world once more?”

“Sort uh,” Huk supplied. Tigs decided that his murder should also include needles. And maybe the tactical use of cockroaches.

Blondie was looking at Tigs again. So was his girlfriend. She was quivering with rage. Probably rage. With that outfit, it might have been hypothermia.

“Look,” he said, trying to steer the conversation back to survivable ground. “You've got it a little right and a little wrong. Yes, the baron summoned Apscal, but it was to imprison him. Believe me, he has no intention of ever setting the monster free.”

“He seeks to learn dark magics from a demon prince?” blurted murder-girl.

Tigs shook his head. “No.  He—Look, could you put something on? Maybe wrap yourself in a tapestry or something?”

“She is a virgin daughter of Essal. They fight with only their father's ceaseless gaze as protection.”

“That's just creepy,” Huk said.  The virgin daughter shot him a look. Her swords twitched. “I, uh, mean wouldn't armor be helpful?”

“Didn't help your friends, did it?” the little monster spat.

“Point.”

Tigs had had about enough. “Could you at least pluck Herkin's eyeball from your cleavage holster? I'm a little tired of meeting my friend’s gaze without seeing his face.” Tigs didn't wait for her reaction, instead spinning on the towering killer. “As for you, Blondie, yes, the baron did summon and bind a demon. No, he didn't learn any magic from it, foul or otherwise.”

Blondie tried to exchange a glance with his lady love, but she was busy plucking bits of people from her skin and combat ribbons. “Then why do it?”

Tigs ran out of steam. It was just too stupid to voice.

Huk was never one to fear to tread through the shadow of the valley of idiocy. “Hot baths.”

“What?”

Tigs sighed. “Hot baths. There's a natural lake at the top of the mountain. The baron commissioned a set of pipes so it'd flow into the castle. Being mountain water, it's ice cold. Never sat well with the boss. One night there's a big storm and a lot of lightning. Next day, hot and cold running water.”

Blondie and the naked killer looked skeptical. “The baron ensnared one of the five greatest evils the world of man has ever known to heat his bath.”

Huk shrugged. “Well, it helps with coffee, too.”

“Look,” Tigs intervened, “does it matter? You came here for the demon prince, right? We can help you with that.”

Blondie looked at him, six feet of blood-speckled smugness. He raised his glowing staff into the air. He probably meant to look heroic. To Tigs he looked like the leader of a marching band after a particularly nasty sports riot. “I have the sacred weapon of Saint Klaf. With this, I can vanquish any foe, demon or mortal. What use do I have of you?”

Tigs weathered the bombast with aplomb. “Far be it from me to stand between you and your well deserved hero's death, but we know where the emergency valve is. The baron had it installed if things ever went bad. You just turn the crank and it drops half of that lake onto poor old Apscal. We'll show you where it is if you promise not to kill anyone else.”

Blondie's face fell. “That seems. . .  cowardly. And unsporting. And too easy. Besides, I cannot leave the baron unpunsihed.” He shook his magnificent main. “No, I will stick with the weapons I know.”

Huk snorted. “Apscal boils water through seven meters uh rock.” That penetrated. Hero-boy looked like he was just goosed by doubt for the first time in his life. He turned to Tigs. Tigs nodded.

“Oh. . .  I . . .  Huh.” Blondie wore the bewildered expression of a farm bumpkin trying to figure out how he just lost his flock to a street hustler.

Tigs waited. He could see reality duking it out with grandiose self-esteem behind Blondie's eyes. From the look of it, reality usually lost these fights, but was determined to make a good showing. It went the full three rounds, but Blondie finally sagged, laid low by twin evils of physics and common sense.

“Where’s that valve?” he asked dejectedly.

“Right this way, lad,” Tigs said, failing to keep the relief out of his voice. “Right this way.”

 

 

All Along the Horned Wall

 

Ethereal light slithered over the great wall. Wisps of snow danced like wraiths on the winter winds, scattering before the shadows of men. It was as if the very air had gained wicked sentience. The night had become a hungry predator, torn between waiting for the perfect moment to strike and the desperate urge to feed.

“God, I need tuh piss.”

Tigs regarded his lumbering friend, then the long wall, clear of living things for as far as he could see. “Would there be something inhibiting your necessary release, my stalwart companion?”

“The little nudey murderers. They been huntin' any man that drops his trousers.”

“Ah, I heard we'd been blessed with a contingent of the virgin daughters. You aren't telling me that they run around in their unmentionables in this weather?”

Huk groaned. “Yep. Claim that the gaze of ol' daddy Essal keeps them warm. I give it a week before they bundle up. Lord, I think I'm drownin'.”

“Huk, I see not a soul on this haunted moonless ridge of stone. Now, I have grown old, but I'm almost certain I would notice a naked lass lurking amongst the smooth rocks and frigid air.”

Huk stopped, carefully examining the shadows with his paranoid eyes. “Yuh sure? They're sneaky. One uh them was hiding round the privy an' tried to make Kord in tuh a unique.”

“Eunuch,” Tigs corrected. “You can't blame the girls for being curious. If any of the stories about them are true, they've never laid eyes on a man, let alone the interesting bits. Anyway, I'm sure you're safe up here. Just don't impale Little Huk on the antlers.”

Huk gave the wall another sweep of his suspicion, but nature won out. He leaned his spear against the crenellations and began pawing at the layers of clothing. “Why the hell these idiots mounted thousands of deer horns on the outside uh the damn wall, I'll never understand. Are they there tuh warn off all the dangerous deer from layin' siege?”

Tigs, ever the historian, opened his mouth to enlighten his friend, but was interrupted by a man stepping out of the shadows. Literally out of shadows. Like stepping through a door, only terrifying. Both guards jumped. Belatedly, Huk fumbled for his spear, knocking it over and sending it rolling down the wall.

“Shit,” he said, and when he recognized the new arrival, “Double shit.”

“Gentlemen,” Blondie said. He wasn't wearing his finery. The golden armor and magic light stick were nowhere to be seen. Wrapped in the layers of hide and furs, he looked just like any other guard walking the wall. Well, except for the perfect jawline and the glorious cascade of gold hair.

“Yuh don't have your girlie hidin' under them furs, do ya?”

“What?” Blondie said surprised. “Of course not.”

Tigs went for a deflection before Huk had time to mention his full bladder and fear of unsolicited circumcision, thus conversationally linking his penis with Blondie's betrothed. “To what do we owe the honor of a visit from the savior of the world?”

Blondie's huge frame wilted. “Am I? Look there.” He gestured to the sky. “Look at the silver maw of swirling light where the moon should hang. You know what crosses my mind when I look at it?”

“Pretty?” Huk guessed.

Blondie snapped him a sharp look. “You can't be serious. That is the physical manifestation of the Devourer, eating our world.”

“Yep,” said Huk, “an' it's pretty.”

Tigs smiled. “I have to back my partner here. It might be the end of things, but it is rather soothing to look at. I mean, as far as apocalypses go, this one has style.”

Blondie snorted. His hand drifted to his rump. “You know Ellum and the other mages have been collecting every orphan that bears the mark for the last fifty years. There are dozens of us that fit the prophecy.”

Huk gave Tigs a look. Tigs cleared his throat. “Uh . . .  Something on your mind, lad?”

“If I go to fight the Devourer and I'm not the one, I cease to exist. No soul to feast at the Baker's table for eternity. No one will even remember me. Every trace of my life will vanish. But if I die another way, another will take my place, will defeat the Devourer.”

Huk tried to look somber, but it was ruined somewhat by his crossed knees and potty dance. “I'm not sure that's how it works,” he managed.

Blondie wasn't listening. “I came up here to say goodbye. In some ways, you two are my closest friends.”

“That's plain sad, that is.”

Before Huk finished the sentence, Blondie stepped to the edge and flung himself forward. Having a bit of history with stupid youngsters, Tigs and Huk were already moving. Tigs dove full on, grasping for the plunging giant. Huk caught his partner's belt, anchoring him with his significant mass. Still, his feet began to slide toward edge.

“You got him?” Huk asked, temporarily forgetting his accent.

“Yes, but I can't hold on.”

Huk planted his feet but the frozen stone wasn't feeling fertile. He slid an inch, then a foot. Then collided with the crenellations.

“Let me go!” Blondie screamed.

“Not fukin' likely!” Huk shouted back. 

“I can't hold this fat bastard much longer!” Tigs chimed in.

“I'm not fat!”

“You sure as hell aren't skinny!”

Huk ignored their bickering. He was too fascinated by the way Tigs' belt was slipping out of his gloved hand. It was like a little leather tide, gently but inexorably receding. “Fuck it! Tigs, drop him.” 

Just like that, a weight was released. Huk pulled Tigs back onto the wall. He dropped the smaller man, but didn't pause to check on him. Instead he stumbled forward, stopping at the gap where the hope of the world just vanished. A second later, the sound of warm, liquid spattering filled the silence.

Huk sighed a long “Aaaah” of relief.

Tigs pushed himself upright and took in the scene. “Uh, Huk—”

“What the hell are you doing?” demanded an indignant voice.

Huk was too far gone to dam the river and too perplexed to change aim. “Uh . . .  Do ghosts get uppity that fast?”

Tigs glared at him. “Only the lively ones. I wedged his foot on the crux of some antlers. Now, could you stop pissing on Lord Blondie, the Potential Savior of Everything?”

“My name is Jepth!”

“Right yuh are, squire.”  Huk adjusted his aim, sighing in relief the whole way.

“Let me down you bastards!” Blondie screamed.

Huk buttoned up and looked at Tigs meaningfully. Tigs sighed. They had divvied up responsibilities long ago. Huk did the big manly things and Tigs did the little manly things. This was clearly an issue of small manliness.

Tigs rubbed his temples and tried to focus. It didn't help that Blondie wouldn't stop cursing them. For a consciousless death machine, he had pretty juvenile taunts. Normally Tigs would find an adult throwing around school yard insults cute, but near death experiences tended to make him grumpy.

“Oh, shut it, you giant baby. You think anyone can hear you? You picked this spot to learn to fly because there were only two people to stop you. Two people you didn't think up to the task. So you get to hang around a minute and listen.

“I don't care that it took twenty years for a sliver of fear to crawl through that thick skull of yours, but you don't get to hop off the nearest great wall and pretend everything will work out hunky dory. There's nobody alive that's accomplished what you have. You were killing Moon Hounds with custodial equipment before you saw your first naked woman. You brought back the magic stick of destiny. And you, my idiot friend, killed the surviving demon princes.”

“Not by myself,” Blondie whined.

“Close enough,” Tigs snapped. “Have you even thought about that crazy little ball of murder you're engaged to? What happens to her when you go all dead?”

“She'll . .   She'll find someone else.”

Huk snorted. “Not fuckin' likely. More like she'll murder every man that looks at her. Or just do herself in.”

“She wouldn't.” Blondie didn't sound too convinced of that, though. 

Tigs smiled, they were gaining ground. “The way I see it, you've got two options. One, you can sack up and face the Devourer. If you fall, you don't have to deal with any consequences, because you won't exist. Someone might even step into your gap and win the day.  All is well.

“On the other hand, you can off yourself. This would definitively score you an afterlife, but not one you'd want. A chosen one that opts out isn't getting feasts and finery. More likely you'll be drinking Huk's piss for the rest of eternity while the gods glare at you with big disappointed scowls. Is that what you want?”

Silence stretched out. Huk beseeched Tigs with worried eyes. For his part, Tigs just chewed his lip. And they waited.

“I guess not,” came the despondent voice. The guards shared a sigh of relief.

“Right then. Glad that's all sorted.” Huk turned and started walking after his fugitive spear.

“Are you going to help me back up?”

Tigs shrugged, though there was no one to see. “I don't see why. After all, a quick climb up a wall shouldn't be a challenge to the prophesied savior of all there is. And if you don't manage it on your own, my partner and I shall return in about an hour.”

“Hour an' three quarters!” Huk called back. “We're stoppin' fer mulled wine an' warm fires!”

“What if I decide to jump again?” Blondie's voice threatened.

Tigs grin broadened. “Well, your lordship, I guess you'll spend eternity watching your girlfriend slap stink with someone else. Roll it around. We'll be back. Eventually.”

He turned and jogged after his partner. It didn't take long to catch up. Huk was leaning on his reclaimed spear, waiting. “Lucky, tuh have them antlers all mounted up.”

Tigs nodded sagely. “How long do you figure it took them to line the whole wall with the damned things?” He didn't say guess. Huk didn't guess. Huk figured. A frown creased the large man's forehead as he pondered it.

“Reckon it depend's on populations uh hunters an' deer. Also, gotta factor in disturbances. Wars an' the like. Cut it rough an' it's least a hundred and forty years.”

Tigs shook his head. “That's a damn fine grudge to hold against an animal that's never done anything to you.” He eyed his partner. If Lord Blondie the Magnificent turned into Lord Blondie the Holy Shit, I Fell, the world was done. “Huk, I've been meaning to ask this for a while, but why do you hide your knack for numbers?”

The big man eyed Tigs in return. Finally he gave a soft shrug. “Madam Baum once told me if people learned uh it, there'd be an accountin'.”

Tigs dwelled on that as they strolled. Like many an orphaned child, he too had been raised by Madam Baum. She was never one to make silly threats. A filthy little suspicion crawled through his mind. “Huk, are you sure she didn't say you should be an accountant?”

“Wassat?”

“They're like moneylenders only with less leg-breaking. They just keep track of coin for rich folk.”

Huk scratched his head under the thick, winter hat. “No adventures?”

“They pretty much have the opposite of adventures.”

“Hot damn. All these years, could uh been countin' change for some muckety-muck.”  He stopped and took in the glowing wound in the sky.

“It is pretty,” Tigs offered.

“Aye.” Huk took on a quiet air, seeking his words carefully. At last he asked, “Why you never told anyone about that mark on yer bum?”

Tigs leaned over the wall and touched the tip of a protruding horn.  The moonless light glimmered off a distant figure struggling to climb back onto the wall. Tigs imagined he could make out little Huk-cicles clinging to the would-be savior.

A smile bent his lips as he turned to walk on. “Honestly Huk? Any world that'd have me as a savior deserves a bite out of its ass.”