Friday, July 3, 2009
"Prepare to fight!"
The magical colors of the transfer portal streamed past him and Josh had to swallow hard to avoid tasting his breakfast a second time.
The stream of light stopped abruptly and Josh found himself standing in the middle of a full blown battle. He felt the weight of the shield on his left arm, heavier than he had expected. Or was that a side effect of the chain armor he was wearing? There was no time to contemplate as the flow of the battle shifted in his direction.
Josh reached a mailed hand across his body and grasped the hilt of the sword belted at his left hip. He unsheathed the blade with a snap. The metal hummed as he brought it before him, ready to receive the rush of the oncoming horde. He steadied himself and watched as a group of four of the fur clad invaders overwhelmed one of his fellow Defenders, then turned his way.
With a bloodcurdling battle cry they came.
Josh registered the presence of two other Defenders, one on both sides, and then the barbarians were upon them.
His opponent was large, standing at least six and a half feet, with a broad chest and thick corded muscles. The sword he swung was equally large, a two handed monstrosity that descended towards Josh' helmeted head.
Josh brought his shield up and the giant sword struck it hard, sending an unpleasant shock through to his elbow. He gritted his teeth and thrust below his shield. He was rewarded with a grunt as his sword slid easily through furs and into the barbarian's gut.
His opponent growled in pain and brought his sword up for another blow. Josh stepped forward, ramming the blade to the hilt .into the man's stomach, then gave a sharp twist. The barbarian jerked, then seemed to collapse, giant sword falling from stiffened fingers. Josh withdrew the blade and spun, searching for a new opponent.
The Defender to his right wore a white surcoat emblazoned with the Red Star of Eldenrest. He traded blows with his adversary, but seemed to have things under control. The Defender to his left, however, was in dire straights. The remaining two barbarians had flanked the blue shirted man and while the first tied up his sword and shield, the second aimed a wicked axe blow at his back.
Josh rushed forward, sword outstretched, and managed to catch the axe head a glancing blow, throwing it out wide. The invader snarled and turned his attention to Josh. He took the double-bladed axe in both hands and launched a mighty overhead chop.
Josh swung his shield up and out, deflecting the sharp blade. He quickly swung his sword before him in a horizontal cut, more to force the barbarian to contend with the weapon than to actually hit the man. The barbarian leapt back out of harm's way and began to circle warily. Josh noticed that the man in blue had recovered and was now forcing his opponent back. He had only a moment to smile before his own opponent charged.
The axe came around from his left in a wide sweep. Josh ducked the swing and stepped into the invader's charge, driving the ridge of his shield into the man's face. The barbarian rocked backward, stunned. Josh smashed him again, and then again, blood spurting from the man's fractured nose. The barbarian fell backwards, unconscious and Josh quickly finished him.
All around him, barbarians were falling. The field was theirs.
Josh cleaned his sword on the fallen man's clothing, then rose to find his fellow Defenders facing his direction. The knight from Eldenrest wore a determined expression. The blue shirted man stank of pure terror. He raised a bloody sword and pointed behind Josh.
Josh noticed the deep booming for the first time now, the sound of hundreds of drums beating in unison. He turned.
The barbarians had reinforcements.
Goblins, brandishing clubs and spears, stood within the mountain pass. Thousands strong, they awaited the signal to fall upon the meager party of Defenders - now numbering less than a hundred.
The knight of Eldenrest spoke, his voice even. "We must hold them here until Lord Avery arrives or Fiernheld is lost."
Josh nodded grimly. "We will hold. We have to."
The drumming ceased and a single horn blast sounded, echoing through the pass. There was a moment of silence and then the goblins descended upon the Defenders like a black wave of death.
The Defenders formed tight ranks and braved the charge.
Josh was forced back a few steps, but he got his feet under him and shield up. A club glanced off the shield. His sword took the legs out from under the goblin, severing the spindly limbs at the knees. He bashed another goblin in the face then parried a blow from a third.
The Defenders shields made the difference, enabling them to fight from a protected position. The goblins took them away.
Josh saw a large javelin headed his way and threw up his shield arm instinctively. The missile buried itself deeply in the shield, it's sharp head piercing through to the other side, nicking his arm. The pain was negligible, but the weight of the javelin drove his shield arm down. He was forced to drop the shield.
All across the battle field, Josh saw similar results. The goblins were not incredibly accurate, and more often than not, they hit their comrades as opposed to their opponents, but those that did manage to strike a Defender took a shield out of action.
The line surged and threaten to break, right where Josh was standing.
With a roar of defiance, Josh waded forward into the goblin host. His first stroke beheaded the goblin before him, the second took an arm off at the shoulder. Two more steps and another pair of the filthy creatures were down, abdomens slashed through by his blade.
It was not enough. Josh saw the blue clothed Defender fall to his right, a goblin javelin thrower having succeeded at hitting its target. Josh sidestepped a spear and swept his sword up under the goblins chin, even as the knight of Eldenrest took a heavy club blow to the back of the head. He went down under a black swarm and moved no more.
Another goblin fell to Josh' sword. Then he felt the hit.
The club smashed into his side with such force that he lost his breath. Another club smacked his hand and he dropped the sword, his fingers numbing. He fell hard to his knees. There was nothing he could do to stop the spear thrust....
But as his vision deepened to blackness he could see the cavalry arrive.
_ _ _ _ _
Josh took off the visor and blinked. His eyes quickly adjusted to the room's fluorescent lighting. He smiled broadly and put the headpiece down next to the machine, then walked out of the exhibit, heading straight for the back of the line. He had to do this again!
A clap on the back caused him to turn.
"Dude, that was the most awesome game I have ever played. Virtual Reality Rules!"
Josh rubbed his shoulder, but didn't slow his pace as his friend Michael joined him. "I know, it was totally sweet! I was the guy in white with the lion emblem. Which one were you?"
"I had a blue tabard."
Josh laughed. "That was you? I saved your freakin' life! You, like totally owe me."
Michael reddened. "Yeah, well, it was my first time and you've done it before. Is it the same scenario every time?"
"Naw, it's random, but the background setting remains the same. The Kingdom of Fiernheld."
"I wonder how they do it. I thought VR technology like that was still years away."
"Who cares! I'm just glad it's here now."
They reached the back of the line. It stretched quite a ways down the convention room floor. It was going to be a long wait back to the Nanosoft booth and their VR machines.
_ _ _ _ _
Lord Avery surveyed the scene as his army mopped up the remaining goblins. So many enemies dead. Where were the defenders? The small number of Fiernhelden soldiers who lay among the dead were certainly insufficient to have held back such a large invading force.
"You wonder about the location of the rest of the defense force."
Lord Avery turned to see Mortessa approaching him on horseback, her small frame belying the powerful sorcery at her command. He nodded. He had long since ceased asking how Mortessa knew his very thoughts.
"I sent a small illusory force ahead to aid the soldiers here."
"Are you saying an illusion did this? I find that hard to believe."
"I have strong allies in other planes," Mortessa said. "They are willing to lend me life forces for a time. I mold those life forces into forms that suit my needs."
"And what do these allies expect in return?"
"What all Warlords desire," she replied, "Control over their world. I just feed them a few illusions."
Thursday, July 2, 2009
"We're in position."
Fitch Willam received the report from his lieutenant with a nod then turned back to observe his victim again. The man's camp was situated in a small clearing at the top of one of the many rolling hills that overlooked the town of Rallingford. At the present, the man, apparently a monk of some sort, was seated in a lotus position facing the rising sun, hands resting lightly on his knees. He had been seated that way for the past half-hour, meditating quietly.
He was of average height, very slim - Fitch guessed about 25 years of age. He was dressed in loose-fitting gray trousers and a simple beige shirt that hung to just past his waist. His feet were bare, ankle high black shoes sitting off to one side. The man's head was also bare; the head completely shaved save for a small square section near the nape of his neck. The hair from this spot was a dark brown and had been formed into a braid that hung all the way down the man's back. His face was all angles, even his eyes angled up. The man's head, hands and feet were very tan, indicating that he spent a great deal of time outside, though Fitch doubted he had traveled too far. He had no visible weapons and his other possessions seemed limited to a bedroll and a small knapsack, but Fitch knew that such impoverished appearances were often intentional to discourage just the sort of thing that he and his small band of cutthroats intended. Indeed, Fitch had seen the monk place a very expensive-looking carved jade box into that knapsack just before the man began his meditations. Where there was one treasure there was often more.
Fitch went over the plan once more in his mind. He and his lieutenant, Groyce, were on this side of the hill. Harper and Abrans were on the other. Krauss was positioned between the two groups. There were no attackers on the fourth side of the hill, as it would have been difficult to position someone in the direction the man was facing without alerting him to their presence.
The plan was simple. When the signal was given, Krauss would rise up from his concealment and take the man down with a well-placed shot from his crossbow. Should that fail - and Fitch doubted that very much given Krauss' expertise with the deadly missile weapon - Fitch, Groyce, Harper and Abrans would overwhelm the man in armed combat.
"With the man unarmed, this should be a walk in the park," Fitch thought.
He nodded to Groyce to give the signal. Groyce gave a subtle whistle that sounded like a chickadee.
Krauss popped up from his cover. He swung up his crossbow, sighted and fired in one smooth action.
There was a blurred motion and their quarry was standing on his feet, crossbow bolt clutched in his right hand. Fitch's mouth hit the ground. How in the seven hells...?
He had no more time to think about it as his band rushed the unarmed monk. Harper reached him first, slashing across with his broadsword. The man ducked the attack and came up, placing a side kick square into Harper's abdomen. Harper was thrown back, clutching his stomach and gasping as his lungs gave up their supply of air.
Abrans' twin short swords struck out at the monk as he finished the maneuver, one slashing low at the man's legs, the other stabbing straight across. The monk leapt gracefully over the slashing attack, placing him directly in the path of the thrust, but Abrans' sword was deflected by the captured quarrel as the man swept it across the sword's path. As the monk's feet touched the ground he spun into a roundhouse kick that caught Abrans full on the side of the head and sent him tumbling to the side. The monk tossed the now broken quarrel to the ground and settled into a practiced fighting stance as Fitch and Groyce reached him from the other side.
Groyce came at him quickly with a wicked serrated dagger. He slashed and thrust repeatedly, but the monk simply slapped aside the attacks as if they were of no consequence. Fitch circled around behind and added his own attacks with his rapier. The monk took it in stride, deflecting the blows from each of them with a minimum of effort, his hands in exactly the right place, sometimes, it seemed, before the attacks were even launched. If they could just hold him off until Abrans and Harper came back in, they would have him.
Fitch feinted then stabbed in low as Groyce slashed down from above. The monk's hand caught Groyce's wrist in a lock hold as he twisted away from Fitch's lunge. The twist turned into a spinning heel kick that caught an approaching Abrans full on the jaw. An audible crack was heard and Abrans hit the ground, unconscious.
The spinning movement had wrenched Groyce's wrist into a painful position. He was forced to drop his dagger. The monk released Groyce and plucked the knife out of the air just as Fitch noticed a movement out of the corner of his eye.
Krauss pulled the trigger of his reloaded crossbow. His aim was true, but his target was no longer there. It seemed to Fitch that the monk was there one instant, and in the next he was five feet to the right. There was no blur of movement; he just simply transferred to a different space.
The bolt slammed into Groyce, tearing a fist size hole through the man's neck. He went down in a heap, eyes registering in shock that he was dead. The monk drew back his arm and unfurled it toward Krauss, a smooth motion like the cracking of a whip. Groyce's dagger hurtled through the air and embedded itself into Krauss' chest. The crossbow tumbled from the archer's numbing fingers and he crumpled to the earth.
The monk settled back into a fighting stance, his braid coiling around him like a snake.
"Why do you attack me?" he asked simply. "I have done you no harm."
Fitch was torn. This man clearly outclassed him, even without a weapon. He knew that he had no hope of defeating him on his own. And yet Fitch's own sense of loyalty to his band demanded that the monk pay for killing Groyce and Krauss. For all he knew, Abrans was dead, too. He then saw Harper get to his feet behind the man, having recovered his wind. He crept up silently on the monk from behind. If Fitch could keep the guy talking then maybe they would have a chance.
"You have something I want. I intend to take it from your dead body."
Harper was only twenty-five feet away.
"You did not ask. Whatever I have that interests you I would share freely. There is no need for bloodshed."
"Yeah right. When you're gone I'll take that jade box and whatever else it is you've got in that sack of yours."
"It is yours."
Fitch charged the monk just as Harper attacked him from behind. The man turned as he finally heard Harper's approach. He shouldn't have been able to avoid the blow - there was simply not enough time between when the monk noticed the attack and when it should have struck for him to move away - and yet he did.
The monk spun to the side, Harper's sword missing him by no more than a hairs' breadth. Fitch was forced to halt his charge to avoid hitting his now off-balance comrade.
The monk twirled away, his braid spinning in a graceful arc across his path. He stood simply, hands at his sides.
"I give you one more chance," he said plainly. "Take your unconscious friend there and leave peacefully. Even now I hold nothing against you. Attack me again, however, and I will be forced to destroy you."
There was no menace in the monk's words, but Fitch felt the threat they implied. He swallowed hard. He didn't want to die today.
Harper, apparently, had other thoughts.
"For Groyce and Krauss!" he cried, and launched himself at the monk.
Fitch watched in awe as the monk became a blur of movement. He struck Harper six times in the space of two seconds. A spinning kick knocked Harper's blade out wide, then the monk stepped in and delivered five lightning punches. Two struck Harper in the solar plexus, two on either side of his neck. The last strike sent the heel of the monk's hand up into Harper's nose, shattering his face and sending shards of bone into the man's brain. The force of the blow lifted Harper two feet off the ground and sent him flying backward where his lifeless body thudded on top of Groyce. The monk turned and regarded Fitch with a questioning expression.
Fitch dropped his rapier and took a step back.
"I want no part of that," he said hastily. "Just let me take my man and I'll leave."
The monk nodded.
Fitch moved quickly over to Abrans, keeping one eye on the monk. Abrans' jawbone had shattered, but he had lost no blood and his breathing was steady. He was going to make it.
Fitch left Abrans' swords on the ground where they had fallen and hoisted his friend's body up onto his shoulders. He then left as quickly as he could without giving clearing a backward glance.
Maybe his Mother had been right. Maybe it was time to take up farming.
The monk named Quonos watched as the bandits left the clearing. He then surveyed the results of his defense. He sighed.
"Why must men insist on violence to get what they want? This is something that I will never understand, no matter how much time I am away from the temple."
Quonos retrieved a charcoal stick from his pack and traced a sigil on the forehead of each of his dead attackers.
"Your journey through time has ended," he said. "May your stay in the next dimension of life be more fruitful."
Having performed his order's last rites, Quonos silently buried each of the fallen outlaws, using their weapons as headstones. He then gathered together his belongings and moved on.
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
The knock was a sharp staccato. Carmen listened carefully, verifying the appropriate pattern, before opening the door. Two girls stood in the shadows outside. The closest stepped forward into the light. She was dressed in a short, sleeveless black dress over which hung a black lace shawl. A black ribbon choker encircled her neck. Lacey tights with intricate rose patterns covered her legs, while heavy black boots graced her feet. Her long black hair was straight, contrasting sharply with her pale white complexion. Black eyeliner and vibrant red lipstick highlighted her face. Black fingernail polished flashed from her hands as she made the ritual sign, identifying her as a clan member.
Carmen made the requisite counter sign. "Greetings, Victoria. You have a friend with you tonight."
"Yes, Mistress. This is Shelleigh."
The second girl stepped forward. "Hi."
Shelleigh had made an attempt to look like Victoria, but she was only partially successful. Her clothes were too preppy to be true Goth, and her face had too much color to pull off the extreme makeup, but Carmen gave her marks for effort. Victoria had been a clan member for some time and not many could compete with her when it came to style.
"Wish you to join with us?" Carmen asked. It was obvious, but the formalities must be observed. The girl nodded. Carmen raised an eyebrow. Victoria nudged Shelleigh gently.
"You have to say the line," she whispered.
"Oh, right. Let's see." Shelleigh straightened her shoulders, bowed her head and whispered, "It is my wish, Mistress."
"Then I welcome you, Shelleigh," Carmen replied. "Be at peace while you are with us. Come, the others are already gathered."
Carmen led the two girls away from the emergency exit and into the stacks.
"Why is it so dark?" Shelleigh asked as they made their way to the central study area.
"The clan prefers the dark, dear," Carmen said. "Don't worry, your eyes will...adjust...soon enough."
A moment later they emerged from the stacks into an open area. Tables and chairs had been pushed aside to form a roughly circular area in the middle of the room. Electric candles had been spaced at even intervals within the circle. They weren't as nice as the real thing, but these days one made certain concessions for sprinkler systems, especially in a library.
The rest of the clan gathered around as they entered. Like Victoria, several of the other kindred had brought friends. Carmen licked her lips in anticipation. Recruitment nights were always exciting.
"Take your places, my Daeva kindred. It is almost midnight."
The assembled clan members gathered in a loose circle with Carmen at the center. They were silent as they waited the appointed hour; the only sound was the second hand of the large wall clock as it moved time forward. Only seconds remained. Fifteen. Ten. Five. One. Midnight had arrived. It was time for blood to flow.
Carmen opened her mouth to speak...and the lights came on. Clan members raised their hands to cover their eyes. Several hissed, showing fangs. The guests looked around in confusion.
"Who are you and what are you doing here?"
Carmen looked over to see a large man in the uniform of Campus Security standing in the main entry to the room. One of his large hands held a radio. The other was clutching the butt of his gun.
Carmen sighed. Of all the lousy timing. "It's all right, officer. We're a registered campus activity." She pulled a folded piece of paper from her bodice and walked over to the guard.
He took the paper from her and looked it over. "Larp? What's a larp?"
"LARP," Carmen said, "stands for Live Action Role Playing. We dress in costume and pretend to be characters in a game. See?" She opened her mouth, took out the plastic set of vampire teeth and waved them in front of the guard. "We have permission to be here until one o'clock."
"I wish someone had told me about it," the guard said. "You gave me quite a fright. Well, this seems in order, so I'll let you be. Make sure you turn out the lights before you go."
"Of course, officer," Carmen said. She walked him to the door. "Have a good evening." She locked the door behind him, and then turned off the light.
"Stupid kine," she whispered as she made her way back to her place in the circle, "always getting underfoot. Now, where were we? Ah, yes."
Carmen smiled, her natural fangs glistening in the electric candlelight. "Let the feast begin."
No one paid any attention to the screams.
Tuesday, June 30, 2009
"Don't do this."
Richard Friedman paused in his packing. "What would you have me do instead, Mark? Return to the U.S.? Undergo more useless treatment?" He shook his head and shoved another packet of thousand dollar bills into his knapsack.
Mark gripped his shoulder. "Yes! For Pete's sake, yes!"
"For what purpose? So I can waste away in my apartment while the world continues its mad dance, oblivious to my suffering?"
"To buy more time, Richard. To give the doctors a chance to find a cure."
Richard wrenched his shoulder free of Mark's iron grip. "Find a cure? There is no cure. Not in Chicago. Not anywhere. Except maybe here." He grabbed another stack of bills and jammed them in with the rest.
"Think about what you're doing. You're throwing your life away."
Richard couldn't take it any more. He wheeled on his friend, his voice rising in a shout. "I have no more life! Can't you see that? My life ended the day the doctors made their 'pronouncement.' Three to six months to live, they said. Julie saw it, even if you can't. It took her all of two weeks to pack her things and move out. My clients shared their heartfelt condolences and then quietly made overtures among the other partners for representation that would still be around when their cases went to trial. The drugs they filled me with were worse than the cancer. When I wasn't doubled over in pain I was so sick I thought my guts had burst.
"I'm not living, Mark, I'm already dead. My body just doesn't know it yet."
Mark sighed. "I know this hasn't been easy for you."
"You know nothing."
"How can you say that? Because I'm not going through it myself? No, I don't have cancer. No, I don't know what it feels like to have my supposed cure leave me clinched and dehydrated on the floor. No, my wife hasn't left me, and my job is still secure. But I've been there for you, man. I've watched you suffer. I was the one who took you to your treatments. I was the one who picked you up off the bathroom floor when you couldn't move. I was the one who cleaned you up and put you in bed, and then sat there through the night watching you suffer through dry heaves, knowing there wasn't a damned thing I could do. Don't tell me I don't know what it was like!"
Richard stared at his friend, at the heat and hurt warring in his eyes. "You're right. That was out of line. I'm sorry."
"You should be. I've been your friend since the 5th grade. When have I ever not been there for you?"
Richard forced a smile. "You've always been there. That's why I don't understand your attitude right now."
"Because you're not being rational. Think for a moment about what you're doing."
Richard could feel his frustration mounting again. "The cancer is in my bones, not my brain. I've thought this through. This is my only choice."
Mark threw his hands up in the air. "How can you say that? You're about to take every penny you own and hike up a mountain in search of a legend. How does this help anything?"
"Look, you were the one who suggested flying to Nepal in the first place."
"I suggested doing a little traveling. You chose Nepal all on your own."
Richard sighed. They had been through all of this before. "Mark, you aren't going to talk me out of this. My mind is made up. Unless you plan on forcibly restraining me I'm going through with it."
Mark closed his eyes. When he opened them again, Richard could see the resignation.
"Fine," Mark said. "Take your money and hike up into the mountains. Have your fool's search for Shangri La. I won't stop you. But don't expect me to help you, either. I love you too much to watch this any more."
"Will you at least wish me good fortune?"
Mark looked at the knapsack. "No good fortune will come of this. Goodbye, old friend. I will miss you."
Then he was gone.
One floor down, Mark knocked on the door to room 212. There was a pause as someone looked through the peep hole, then the door opened. Mark looked both ways down the hall to ensure he wasn't seen and went inside.
The man in the room wasn't a local, but he could pass as one. Mark had met him through some business contacts some time back and flown him out to Kathmandu when Richard had decided on this plan. Mark didn't like the man much, but he had been useful. His name was Niraj.
"He's going to do it?" Niraj asked.
"Yeah, he's going to do it. I think this last fight clinched it. No one is going to talk him out of it now."
Niraj sat down at the room's small table. He picked up the short knife on the table top and resumed peeling persimmons. He popped one in his mouth.
"You know," he said, gesturing with the knife, "this would be much easier if you simply let me take care of him. There would be no need for the elaborate subterfuge. We could be done and out of here in the next ten minutes."
"I told you, we aren't going to hurt him. If he goes traipsing around the mountains in his condition and succumbs to the weather, that's his fault, not mine."
"This whole thing was your idea. What difference does it make whether he dies in the mountains or in his hotel room. Dead is dead."
It was true. This had been Mark's idea. When Richard had decided to change his will, leaving his sizable fortune to a worthless leukemia foundation rather than his best friend, Mark had to act. He was the one who had stood by Richard through thick and thin. He was the one who had sacrificed to make sure Richard had never been alone. He was the one who had spent his life living in Richard's shadow. That money was supposed to be his. He had earned it. So yes, it had been his idea, but that didn't mean he had to get his hands dirty.
Mark thrust his finger at Niraj. "It matters to me! I'm paying the bill, I make the decisions. You understand me?"
Niraj raised his hands, palms forward. "No problem, boss. We do it your way. I was just saying."
"Well keep your thoughts to yourself." Mark took a seat on the bed. "You have everything ready to go?"
"The gear is already in the car."
"Then there's nothing left to do but wait."
Richard shouldered his knapsack as he left the hotel. He had hoped that Mark would see him off, but there had been no response at his room. He hadn't wanted to leave without seeing Mark one last time to smooth things over. It seemed it was too late for that.
He hailed a cab and gave the driver his destination. The cabbie gave him a look, then shrugged and they were off. Richard settled back for the ride. It would take an hour to get to the trail.
He tried to nap on the way. He would need all the strength he could muster to make the arduous climb, but sleep eluded him. His thoughts were a mixture of doubt, fear, and excitement.
What was he doing? What kind of fool would think the legendary city of Shangri La actually existed? And further, that it could be accessed from a hole in the side of a mountain near Kathmandu, Nepal. A desperate fool. That's what he had become: a desperate fool. He didn't want to die. But that's what was happening. The cancer continued to eat away at him and there was nothing he or the veritable army of doctors he had hired could do about it. But if the legends were true, if Shangri La actually existed...perhaps that would be his salvation.
Mark wouldn't admit it, but it had been his suggestion to visit Nepal. Perhaps the eastern mystics could do something that modern medicine couldn't. He had jumped at the idea. What other option was there? He could sit at home and waste away, or see if something outside the previous boundaries of his experience might save him.
They had spent four days in Kathmandu asking questions before they found Niraj. Niraj claimed that Shangri La did exist. He had seen it in a vision - had seen Richard in a vision - and could guide him to the place he needed to go. Richard had been skeptical at first, but Niraj told him things about himself that no one could have known, specifics of his life that could only have been discerned via supernatural means. Hope sprung up within him. He had begged Niraj to tell him what to do.
"You will not like what the gods require of you, Richard Friedman of Chicago. To enter the holy valley of Shangri La, to drink from the waters of life, you must be willing to give up everything. All of your possessions, all of your physical and emotional ties. All of it you must give as an offering to the gods."
Richard hadn't cared. He was beyond that. Wasn't he giving those things up in death, anyway?
"The offering must be real, Richard Friedman. The gods do not accept wishes and desires. You must show them you are sincere by your actions."
There was only one way he could think to do that. It took him seven days to liquidate every last one of his assets and have the money physically sent to Kathmandu. Mark had been stunned.
"You wanted that money for leukemia research! And now you're just going to throw it away?"
Mark hadn't understood. He hadn't left the money to the foundation because of the research. How could future research help him now? He had left it to the foundation because in doing so he would leave a legacy. His name would be forever remembered. He would live on.
But that's not what he really wanted. He didn't want to live on in memory - he wanted to live. And if that meant carting the sum total of his worldly possessions up the side of a Himalayan mountain to offer to foreign gods he would do it.
In the end he must have dozed off, because the next thing he knew they were at the trail head. He paid the taxi driver with a thousand dollar bill and told him to keep the change. What did it matter? He was giving it all away in a matter of hours anyway.
As the cab drove off, Richard surveyed the trail. It was steep and snow covered. He zipped his parka tight and pulled on his gloves. It was going to be a tough climb, and he was so tired. Courage, he thought. One way or another it will be over soon.
He took a deep breath and set off up the slope.
"Can you see him?"
Niraj peered through the binoculars. "He is nearing the spot. With the way he is limping I am surprised he is still moving."
Mark was surprised, too. They had been following him for three hours now. It had been snowing for the better part of two. The way had been difficult, even for two healthy men. It must have been hell on Richard.
Mark felt a pang of guilt, but he quickly shoved it to the back of his mind. He had made his decision. He would live with it. Of course, recovering the nearly four million dollars in cash from Richard's body would help with that.
"He stumbled!" There was an undeniable excitement in Niraj's voice. Mark almost hated himself for feeling it, too.
"Let me see," he said. He took the binoculars. It took a moment to find Richard in the blowing snow. He had indeed fallen, but he wasn't giving up. Mark watched his friend struggle back to his feet. Mark felt a small sense of pride in that. Irritated by his weakness, he shoved that feeling to the back of his mind with the other.
He handed the binoculars back to Niraj. "He's back up. We better keep moving or we'll lose him completely."
Richard stumbled forward again. He couldn't go on. His legs felt like jelly. And he was so cold. His face burned from exposure to the frigid wind. He tried to brush the ice from his eyelashes but he wasn't sure if he succeeded. He had lost most of the feeling in his fingers several minutes ago. He had tried, but the mountain had gotten the best of him. If Shangri La did exist, he would never see it.
The wind broke and for a brief moment he could see where he was. To his surprise, up ahead on the left, he could make out a dark area in the snow that looked like the entrance to a cave.
The cave! He was so close. He could find the strength to make it to the cave. It was just a few yards.
Richard dug his fingers into the snow and began to pull.
"He's entered the cave," Niraj reported. "But just barely. Took him a good ten minutes to pull himself in."
"How much shelter will it give him from the wind," Mark asked.
"Not much. It's pretty shallow as caves go – maybe four feet deep. He's finished."
They waited another hour just to be sure. By that time the cold was starting to get to them, as well. Richard never left the cave.
"You better go now," Niraj said, slipping a new hand warmer into his glove. "If we stay out here much longer the mountain will claim us as well."
Mark agreed. He slowly made his way the last three hundred feet up the snow covered path to the mouth of the cave. Richard had crawled the distances on hands and knees. How he made it Mark didn't know.
Mark arrived at the cave and peered in. The swirling snow made it difficult to see inside. Mark pulled a flashlight out of his pocket and turned it on. Steeling himself for the sight of his friend lying dead on the ground, he shined the light into the cave.
It was as he expected. There on the ground, in a snow covered lump was Richard. His heart jumped into his throat. Dear God, what had he done. In a rush of emotion he reached down to dust off the body.
He found an empty coat.
Wait, that couldn't be. Mark grabbed the coat and pulled. No body. A quick search of the cave showed Richards coat, boots, gloves, hat and snow pants – all of his cold weather clothing – but not Richard. The knapsack, where was the knapsack?
He found it, at the very back of the cave buried under a snow drift.
It was empty.
Mark called to Niraj who arrived moments later. Together they searched the cave, then the entire area on the outside. Nothing. They reviewed their trip up the slope. They had watched Richard the entire time. He had never removed the knapsack, never even opened it.
Where could he have gone? What had happened to the money?
It was a mystery they had no answer for. Perhaps Richard had found what he was looking for. They would never know.
Only one thing was certain. No one ever saw Richard Friedman again
Monday, June 29, 2009
"I want him dead!"
The Marquis de Tabernu slammed his fist down on the tavern table, sending the still full tankard of ale teetering on its side. The right hand of the other man at the table shot out and steadied the drink before a drop could spill. The speed of the reaction was enough to take the Marquis aback. He stared at his companion. The man spoke as if nothing untoward had occurred.
"The Ghost is not called as such for nothing. You must realize this. In the three years he has operated in this city, he has absconded with countless treasures - from the storerooms of the well-guarded merchant quarter, to the hidden safes of the nobility - and left nary a clue to how he does it. No one knows what he looks like, what establishments he frequents or how to contact him. Some doubt he is even real. What makes you think that anyone can even find such a man, let alone kill him?"
"The reputation of your master says he can. Do you think I would risk sullying my own good name by coming personally to a wretched hole like this unless I believed what they say?"
The man rubbed long fingers over his clean shaven chin. "And what do they say, milord?"
The Marquis exhaled loudly and leaned forward on the table. "They say The Hand can kill the king's own babe in its crib and the blame will be placed on the nursemaid. They say he can slip into a camp of battle trained soldiers, slit the bully sergeant's throat and have no one be the wiser until they realize they've slept past noon. They say he can remove a man's heart so quickly he can watch it beat its last with his own eyes before he dies."
"But surely, milord, the man that cannot be found cannot be killed."
"They say that no one can hide from The Hand."
"So they do. They also say that his services do not come cheaply."
"I am prepared to pay whatever is required."
The man seemed to consider. "My master will require 10,000 gold royals."
The Marquis' face turned a violent shade of red. "That sum will impoverish me!"
"Only for a year or two, milord. If it is too much...." The man began to rise from his chair. The Marquis grabbed at his sleeve.
"No. Not too much. I will pay. Where and when?"
They made the arrangements and the Marquis rose to leave.
"If I might be so bold, milord, what did the Ghost steal from you that you would be so willing to pay my master's fee without requesting the safe return of the item?"
The Marquis' eyes took on a dangerous look. "Do you have a daughter, sir? Some things, once stolen cannot be given back."
He shouldn't take the job. He didn't need the money - his exploits over the last three years had made him wealthy enough to retire comfortably for the rest of his days. He wasn't concerned about his reputation either; that was flawless. The Ghost had no equal and everyone knew it. There were a dozen other reasons why he should leave the job alone, including the very real possibility of a trap.
The Marquis de Tabernu had put a price on his head. Funny how touchy some fathers were about the chastity of their daughters when others were willing to sell theirs hourly for a pittance. The sum the Marquis was offering was large enough to finance a small army. It was certain to empty the man's vaults. The Marquis had substantial assets, it was true (not the least of which was a stunningly attractive, very well endowed daughter), but most of those assets were tied up in his business dealings. Liquidating sufficient funds to amass the amount of gold he was offering in such a short period of time was sure to cause him substantial losses. Marc Leclerc, the Marquis's chief rival, was bound to take full advantage of the situation. Could it be simple coincidence that the item to be stolen belonged to Leclerc?
He didn't think so. The Marquis was behind the job. He had to be. The plan was so transparent: Hire the Ghost to steal the Eye of Cheqat - the most well-guarded, valuable jewel in the kingdom. If he was caught, the Marquis had his revenge. If he was successful, the Marquis would attempt to capture the Ghost as he made delivery, and then sell the jewel back to Leclerc to recoup his losses. A two for one. No, there were no positives to this job. It was an impossible situation.
Which was exactly why he was going to take it.
Thieving had become too easy. Everything was so mundane. This would be a challenge, and the Ghost was starving for a challenge. He would do it. It would be his final job, his last great heist. His grand triumph. Could even the Ghost steal the best guarded treasure in the kingdom? People had said not. The Ghost was about to prove that he could, in spite of the clever traps of vengeful fathers. After all, he was the Ghost.
He could steal anything.
The guards on Leclerc's estate were more plentiful tonight than they should have been. Their patrol routes were new and more complex, the men more alert. The Ghost knew there could only be one reason. Leclerc had heard about the job and had increased his security. The Ghost wasn't surprised. No one could compete so successfully with de Tabernu in the financial arena as Leclerc had managed to without an extensive information gathering network. Leclerc's spies had tipped him off to the robbery attempt.
The Ghost smiled. Not that it would matter. What good were guards against a ghost?
The thief grasped the ring on his left hand and twisted the setting clockwise. The large sapphire flared briefly, a flash of brilliant blue, and then all color faded from the stone. A moment later all color faded from the Ghost as well. Both transparent and insubstantial, the man became a ghost in fact as well as in name.
He patted the ring, smiling broadly. He thought back to the mark he had taken it from; another thief, boasting loudly about his pretty take. A few drinks and a sharp knife later and the ring became his. It was unlikely the man had known what he had. Magic items were not common, after all. In all of his subsequent heists he had failed to find another. It didn't matter. The ring was enough. It was his most prized possession. It had made him the Ghost.
He moved past the guards at a leisurely pace, waving hello as he floated by. They did not see him. The Ghost smirked. They never did.
He penetrated the wall of the mansion and took a moment to gain his bearings. If the floor plans he had obtained to the estate were accurate, Leclerc's treasure vault holding the Eye would be in the cellars. Forgoing the unnecessary stairs, the Ghost descended down through the floor.
It took a few minutes, but finally he arrived at the vault. Security had indeed been tight. He had passed several guard stations - one with dogs, been through a number of locked doors - each fiendishly trapped, and discovered one room that housed what looked like a basilisk! A normal thief, however skilled, wouldn't have stood a chance.
The Ghost was not a normal thief. He passed through the door.
He was surprised to find Leclerc himself in the room sitting in a straight-backed wooden chair, flush against the door. The merchant's sword was unsheathed, lying across his knees. He stared intently at a chest in the center of the room. The chest had been wrapped in chains, secured with multiple padlocks.
Leclerc didn't look it, but the Ghost judged the man certifiably insane. To go to such lengths because of one thief? Still, even these lengths would not be enough.
The Ghost moved to the chest and peered inside. There was no light source in the confines of the chest, but the ring made that moot. While under its power the darkest places appeared as if at noonday. The Ghost could make out the shape of the stone under a silk cloth. Atop the cloth curled the sleeping form of a pit viper.
Shades and shadows, but the man was paranoid! And all for naught.
The Ghost slid his hand in the chest, through the snake to the Eye. For the briefest of instants he willed his hand solid. He grasped the stone and let the power of the ring return him to full ghost form. The Eye remained solid to his touch.
He pulled the jewel from chest and held it before him. The Eye of Cheqat, a beautiful blue diamond larger than his closed fist. Guarded against the assault of a small army, the Ghost had succeeded in removing it from under the very eyes of its owner.
He waved the stone in front of Leclerc's nose, and then made his triumphant exit.
The dropoff location was at a crossroads about an hour north of the city. With the exception of a small stand of trees, open farmlands stretched for miles in all directions. The Ghost surveyed the spot for a full hour before the appointed time. He was certain it was not being watched. This puzzled him. He had been so sure de Tabernu would have his thugs out in force, ready to seize the prize. Instead, there was nothing.
Just before the hour arrived a lone figure walked up the road from the direction of Town, carrying a large rucksack. The hood of the man's cloak was up, obscuring his face, but the lithe shape was inconsistent with de Tabernu's bulk. He appeared unarmed. When the figure reached the crossroads it set the rucksack down in the middle of the road and stepped back the required fifty feet.
The Ghost shook his head. The whole thing seemed unreal. Where was the trap?
He waited an additional fifteen minutes. When he was certain no one else was coming, the Ghost twisted the ring and advanced to the road. He made a thorough inspection of the rucksack and its contents. Everything seemed normal. He carefully placed the Eye in the sack and retrieved the balance of his payment in its leather pouch. The transfer complete, he moved back to the woods.
The deal was done. He should have walked away, but curiosity burned in a very real way in his chest. He turned back to the road and twisted the ring.
"Why?" he called out as he became solid again. "Why have you made no attempt to capture me?"
The man walked to the rucksack and opened it. Only after he had withdrawn the Eye did he look at the Ghost.
"I was not paid to capture you, my friend. I was paid to kill you."
"Then I'm afraid you failed, friend, for here I stand." The burning in his chest grew stronger. Strange that he should feel such a passionate animosity against one who could hardly harm him. Not when he possessed the ring.
"Actually, you died the moment you relinquished my jewel." The man threw back his hood, revealing the smug face of Marc Leclerc. "You must be feeling the heat of its wrath even as we speak."
The burning grew more intense. Painfully so. "What...what have you done?"
"It's not what I have done. It is what you have done. The Eye of Cheqat is no ordinary diamond, my friend. It is cursed. The possessor of the stone is required to do everything in his power to protect it. Should he ever fail to do his best, should he lose the stone because of a lack of effort, the Eye exacts its revenge. You, my friend, have given it away freely. You feel its wrath even now."
The Ghost's skin was on fire. Smoke hissed from his pours. The pain was so acute he fell to the earth screaming. In his agony his eyes fell on his ring. The ring! It could save him. It would save him. He reached for it, and everything went black.
When his servant arrived with the horses a few moments later, Marc Leclerc was standing over the smoldering remains of the Ghost. He sifted through the hot ashes with his toe. A glint of sapphire caught his eye. He bent and retrieved the ring.
"Give this to the Marquis de Tabernu as proof of the Ghost's demise. Tell him the Hand has fulfilled his contract."
The servant took the ring and dropped it in a pouch. He handed the reins of the second horse to Leclerc.
"How did you do it, Master?" the servant asked. "How did you kill a ghost?"
"It was quite simple," the Hand replied, mounting the horse. "I invited him to kill himself."