|The Dreaming Fire|
|Against a Diamond|
The Chosen One
Part 1. The Quest
“So, my orphan-boy, do you desire to be a swine-screw forever?” she croaked. Her voice sawed into his ears like the screech of a bog owl mid mating season, drawing him from his stupor. She waddled across the muck floor of the hovel, a shadow, a thin bone knife jutting from her fist like the under-tooth of some great slimy fish. “Forever don’t always take so long as you think it might, boy … sometimes forever takes but a second…” She edged forward, leading with the poker.
“Blow it out your arse, lady,” Malving spat. He writhed and wriggled away like some bloody canker-worm, all the while trying to break the twine bonds that held his wrists and ankles together. Then he struck the mud wall and knew he could go no further. If he could just slip his hands free … he was bigger than her … he could wrestle that knife away … stab her … kill her. His face burned red as he struggled again … without fruit. “RRRRrrrrg … Sanctos damn you—what the hell do you want? Huh? Get away from me with that thing!” He batted at the sharp bone poker without effect.
“I want you to realize your full potential,” she croaked. She hopped closer, the wet slap of her rotund belly against the ground splashed gravel and brown putridity alike. She draped her fingers upon his leg and slid them up to his knee, leaving four snail trails glimmering. “Pretty pretty pink skin, so soft and smooth…” Her bloated green body appeared like nothing so much as the tumescent udder of a pregnant muck-ox, a tumescent green ox udder with twigs for arms and thick green bile-sausages for legs. Atop a neckless frog head sat a fragile bone tiara. Round red eyes flanked by mascara and long lashes reflected what stifled sunlight eeked in through the wall cracks. “I can cut out your heart and wear it around my neck as a pendant, boy.” She waddled closer … how something so fat and diabolically assymetrical could even move was beyond Malving’s limited scope of mathematical and physical possibilities. “Or … I can not…” she croaked.
“Cannot what?” Malving asked.
“Can … pause … not,” she repeated, lifting the thin bone knife for emphasis.
“Cannot what? Are you a cragtarn bogtard? Cannot what?!” Malving spat. If he could just get free—she was fat, but she wasn’t very big at all—he was three times the size of her—easy, even with her bulk. “Cannot what?!”
At that, a deep voice from the back of the room echoed out like a tinny-rusted gong. “I believe she is in the preliminary stages of bargaining with you, orphan-boy.”
Malving’s hope fled him like last night’s Swamp Rat stew. He and the fat croaker were not alone. Even if he somehow managed to break free … he squinted past the fat croaker … a shadow gallery of silhouettes stood against the back wall. There were four—no, five of them, splayed out in a line.
One was obviously a giant, or troll or Cyclops—it was big—its cloaked head nearly hit the ceiling of the crooked hovel—it had to stoop. The others he couldn’t tell what they were, except for a small one that might be a croaker, too. A huge notched bone saw-sword lay across its shoulder, the blade almost as tall as the giant.
“Ahem.” It was from the giant that the voice seemed to emanate. It filled the entire hovel. “The Madam is simply saying that she can or, conversely, she can not cut out your heart. She has established both that she in control and that she wants something of you. It would seem whether or not she gets what she desires is tied directly to both the fate and destination of you heart, orphan-child.” A single purple eye flashed in the darkness of its cowl, and his shroud opened with a flourish to reveal an enormous obsidian drum slung from his shoulder—it was verily half the giant’s size … he cracked his long clawed fingers and thudded upon the taut drumskin—!DOOM!—!DOOM!—!DOOM!
“D-Don’t call me orphan—my name’s Malving,” Malving said, ushering up his courage. “Y-You inbred turtlemucks! You’re all bogtards! All of you!” He added for good measure.
The members of the shadow gallery muttered amongst themselves and Malving distinctly heard someone mutter, “That was uncalled for…”
“Heh, heh, heh … this one has promise,” the fat croaker madam said, leaning in close.
“Sanctos—your breath smells like a pig-fart!” Malving snarled.
“Getting nostalgic, are we, boy?” The fat croaker said as she drew her bone knife over her head and then whipped it down upon his—!KRACK!
Blood and black hair flew—
“Ouch!” cried Malving, shielding his face—
—!KRACK!—Again the croaker flicked the flat of the bone knife out, leaving another horizontal stripe of flayed red meat hanging from his forehead and arms.
“You don’t know what you’ve done,” Malving shouted, pointing with his bound hands. “My father’ll hear, he’ll come find me. He’s Gurton Gatorhand—a great slayer—and he’ll slayer all of you!”
Feet pounded across the mud floor as the shadow gallery nearly trampled one another scurrying for the door—
“!@#Stop#@!” the fat croaker commanded, spinning in place and pointing a slim green digit—the first of the five to reach the door froze in place—hand on the doorhandle— holding up the other four. Her voice was a reverberation of dark cavern echoes and sent swirls of indigo chaos and vermilion hate energy devil-dusting away into nothing as her echo faded. “I’ll not fail in my quest,” she muttered. “I’ll not be shamed. Lorgex shall not see me fail…”
Malving sneered, “You’re nothing but a wart-sack full of—”
“Silence, worm!” she cried, the bone poker pressing at Malving’s pink throat … now pricked red. “You are a slave, lower than the very swine piss that stains your rags yellow. You are an orphan. No sire to come slaying. No sire—no slaying. Every whelp in Cesstern knows the name Gatorhand.” She croaked over her shoulder at the shadow gallery, still tied up in a jumble at the door. They acknowledged, and began to reassemble into some impromptu formation, except for the one at the door who still stood frozen-shaking at the Madam’s command.
“No one cares for you, Malving,” the croaker croaked. “No one is coming. Not your owner, not your imaginary sire, not the piss-drunk Moorlords. Even the swine you molest care not for you. But … perhaps … as unlikely as it seems … Madam Pspew … has some care for you, yes?” She lowered the knifepoint to scrape along his chest. “Perhaps she has some use…”
“Use? Care? You’re a croaker—croakers only care about flies,” Malving snarled. He slapped away the bone knife, drawing a line of red to his stomach. “Aborted frog fetus! Get that away from me! Let me go!”
“Good, good, yes … demands … you make demands and insult when you should beg and flatter,” she said. “This pleases me. But you shall beg. Yes, and you shall acquiesce … and grovel. Abzgorn will demand it in the end … best for you it begin now. You shall start by addressing me by my title, for I, too, have a name, you soft pink maggot.” She licked her painted on lips and drew herself up to her full height, adjusting both wig and tiara before she snapped back her indigo cape to some arcane effect. “It is I, Madam Pspew who stands before you! Alms Alcolyte now—yes, but soon, full Wrackolyte and apprentice torturer—Consort to the Craven Lord, He-Beneath-the-Mountain, the Dark One—Grimnir. And you will address me as such unless you wish to end your life with a cracked chest cavity within the deep torture vaults in the catacombs of the Woebringer’s Black Temple. Ha Ha Ha!”
“No!” Malving cried, raising his hands as she stabbed the bone knife down into the earth as though it were a corpse, repeatedly, mere inches away from Malving’s nose and—!CRACK!—the bone poker suddenly snapped in half—
“Grim-damn swine-bugger…” she muttered beneath her breath. Madam Pspew glared at the broken knife and then glanced over her shoulder at the reassembled shadow gallery, gritting her teeth at the muttered giggles. She slid the bone knife shard into her torture bag, and from underneath her indigo cape withdrew a small but stout fish club which she handled with unabashed thuggishness betwixt her tiny nail-less green fingers. “Will you come willingly?”
“Go hump a log, Madam Screw,” Malving growled. He glared up into the crimson eyes of Madam Pspew. He didn’t have to glare too up, as she would have stood far shy of two feet off the ground even if she straightened out her humped back, maybe a full two feet if you counted the purple teased hair of the obvious wig that sat like an inverted frozen octopus upon her woefully misshapen head.
“You’re all going to stand there and do nothing while she kills me?” Malving asked, looking past Madam Pspew and to the shadow gallery. One of the men dropped his eyes to the ground, presumably in shame, but did nothing. “You scrag-humps aren’t worth piss to a parched man,” Malving snarled. “I’ll do it myself.” Mightily then with a monstrous spasm he reeled against his bonds, bowing and contorting his body into angles sickening to behold in some final effort to break his bonds … growling … teeth bared like some wild beast caught in an iron spring trap—but he failed … and lay there huffing at the effort, not broken perhaps, but desperate.
Madam Pspew just sat and smiled.
“Damn you, Pspew!” he snarled, and then at the shadow gallery. “Get me out of this—I’ll pay you—money! I’ll pay you what you want—“
“A swine-screw outbid the Alms Acolyte of the Dark Lord’s Temple?” Madam Pspew guffawed. “I do like you Malving, it is a pity.” She pulled something from under the folds of her indigo cape, a contortion of metal and bone and leather, and placed it on the ground by Malving’s head. Madam Pspew pointed at the Shadow Gallery. “Their kind craves but three things, Swine-screw … they crave power … the glitter of gold … and the soft caress of a rotting corpse.” The contraption before him was a muzzle for a blood-mastiff, all the hooks and straps and barbs were intact, the tongue spike as well, but the overall frame was modified … for a human. Madam Pspew’s eyes glowed red as she placed the contraption upon his face and then yanked a strap tight … and then another. “Bring the pillory,” she demanded of her shadow gallery as she tightened the third strap.
“Fuuughht!” The tongue spike stifled a curse on Malving’s lips and he only managed a snarl as he contorted against his bonds once more.
“Pity for you, you have but one of the three cravings to offer them, though it would do you small good were you to offer it,” Madam Pspew whispered. “But yet you struggle and still remain unbroken, and that shows promise…”
Part 2. The Chosen One
“By Sanctos’ muddy hole, still I can see nothing,” Lorgex the Eyes muttered in irritation. His old bones creaked as he straightened up from his vantage point of leaning over the grinning skull. The grinning skull was attached to a body, which what strapped to a torture slab. “Pspew cannot hide from me. The eyes. I must disconjunct them.” He wiped smears of blood down either side of his leather torture slicks and then started puttering around in his torture bag. “Where … where are they now … where, where, where…?”
“The ice you tread was rotted already, Lorgex, and beneath it lurks the many tentacled horrors of the old world … and now you jump up and down,” said Abzgorn the Ribspreader, in the very midst of performing his namesake duty. Perhaps like the artist he was, he saw it as a spiritual calling and not so much as a duty. “Sneering has already considered castrating your appointment as wrackolyte, you know.” He adjusted a ribspreader and peered so deep in the chest cavity his hooded head dissappeared. “Quickly now … the time is nigh … its heart beats the fluid more slowly … weakly … see?” He pointed at the crimson fist of muscle that lay twitching amidst a vermilion carnation of flensed skin and fat and dislocated bone.
“You seen my eye-gougers?” Lorgex asked, looking under the crystal torture slab.
Abzgorn shrugged without looking up as he reached into the remnants of the chest cavity and began squeezing the heart rhythmically.
Whatever creature lay upon the table was by now unrecognizable, but appeared to be portions of some sort of skeleton lodged within the afterbirth of an inbred swamp troll.
“I left them right here!” Lorgex screamed. “I know it, I remember it. My eye-gougers, I always put them right in this pocket. Curses!” He picked his instrument bag up—looked under it, cursed—patted down his torture slicks and the robes underneath and then dove back into his bag—only this time he started rifling through with abandon, tossing metal forks, spike-spirals, and chisels and other horrible blood crusted instruments over his shoulder in his desperate search effort. “Demon spume of Juknar! Where in the Craw can they be?! Aaaarch!” He flung his instrument bag against the wall and started slamming his fists the torture slab. He could not fail again. “She must have taken them … she had to have…”
“You’re paranoid as well as unprepared,” Abzgorn said. “One is understandable, the other spells doom.” He reached into his own torture bag with one hand while continuing his life sustaining massage technique with his other. “Here … try these … they should work.” He tossed a pair of nad-wrenches across the table.
Lorgex’s geriatric fingers creaked and fumbled first, but eventually he wrangled them in. He glared down at them with disdain. “They’re too big … they’ll shred the membranes. I won’t see clearly—”
“See shadows, or see scat,” Abzgorn said, picking at something between his teeth with his off hand. “Your poison. I care not. Now, did I mention the High Wrackolyte’s remarks concerning Madam Pspew—“
“She’s no Madam!” Lorgex snarled pointing the nad-wrenches. “She’s the damned alms collector, a paid pauper—she’s no madam. No damned wart-back croaker’ll be a wrackolyte of Grimnir—not while I still live and breathe!”
He throttled the nad-wrenches in fury.
Abzgorn shrugged again. “Be that as it may, she was allotted the task of…” Abzgorn suddenly closed his lips.
Lorgex’s blue eyes beamed ravenous in the half dark. “You know why she left the Temple?” he said, leaning forward, wiping drool from his stubbled chin with the back of his hand. “To what purpose? Who sent her? Tell me.”
“Ooops!” Abzgorn said as an arc of blood shot suddenly up from betwixt his fingers and nearly hit the shadowed ceiling. It splatted down somewhere in the dark. “Better hurry, Lorgex … it’s almost gone, and only—“
“Yes—yes, the dying see all,” Lorgex said as he sidled over the skull. He looked down at the eyeballs still cupped within their sockets. “Tell me, please, Abzgorn—Teacher, what task has the High Wrackolyte set for the putrid little wartback?”
Abzgorn waved a hand. “I cannot say.”
“But you must!” Lorgex pleaded as he ripped the nad-wrench straight up—!POP!—and caught the mid-air eyeball in his fist. “You must tell me—I must know! She covets my position—craves my power. If I could prevent her—she must not complete it. Tell me. I must stop her.”
“High Wrackolyte Sneering was very clear she wanted no one to know,” Abzgorn explained, fingering his jaw. “Of course … she didn’t want me to know either … and I found out…”
Lorgex set about his work on the left eye now. “What is it you want, hmmmm?” Lorgex asked. “What do you desire? I will get it for you—you have only to name it. Aha!”
!POP!—Lorgex caught the other eye.
“Weave your scrye now, or all is wasted,” Abzgorn said, his hand still buried within the chest cavity.
Lorgex lifted the eyes over his head, leaned his head back and squeezed his fist until it shuddered with geriatric rage. The aqueous-juices poured into his own eyes and across his face, streaming down onto the tops of his robes and onto the torture slicks below.
Abzgorn withdrew his hand from the ribcage and the buzzing as if a hive of bees were swarming filled the chamber.
Dark words Lorgex muttered then, the language of pain and jealousy and rage, the tongue of fear and hate. The buzzing grew louder. The clear juices began to hiss, to steam, evaporating as though Lorgex were superheated somehow. The white gases swirled around him, and then entered him through his mouth, his nose, his ears and his eyes. The buzzing was a cacophony of vibration … tools danced across the torture bench.
Lorgex shuddered in ecstasy as he SAW.
“I can see her, Abzgorn … her shade … she walks—no she rides…” Lorgex whispered. “She rides in the company of others … a … a Cyclops, that fool the Shroud perhaps … and, Rrrrrrg, another putrid wartback … men, too…”
“Are you sure?” Abzgorn asked, walking closer. “Shades are not visions, Lorgex … some may plead false…”
“You think me a simpleton?” Lorgex rasped. “They are true. Were they false, I would see, I am a mere acolyte … no more. Was I not branded Wrackolyte Lorgex the Eyes?” Lorgex reached out into the air as though caressing the ether swirls or some unseen thing, and then he jabbed at the unseen thing with the nad-wrench. “Yes … yes, I see you, Pspew, what … what are you saying? Where are you going—no … coming … yes … you are coming here, but what are your words? What are you saying? What is your purpose?”
“There is no one else with her?” Abzgorn asked.
“No … I … I see nothing—wait—wait there is more, she does not walk, she rides atop a child—a pilloried child—a human child,” Lorgex muttered. “She has pilloried him … muzzled him, perhaps. She brings him here, to the temple.”
“It is true, then?” Abzgorn asked of the ether. “She brings him here now?”
“Who? Who is this child?” Lorgex demanded. “Is it a sacrifice? Abzgorn, I must know! You shall have whatever you want of me! Name it.”
“You shall learn the terms of your debt later, Lorgex the Eyes, if you desire an answer,” Abzgorn said coming near. “Do you accept those terms?”
“Yes! Yes, I agree,” Lorgex shouted, clutching madly as the last swirls of pale mist evaporated into nothing. “The shades are passing … I … I cannot see them … She is coming … they are coming. I must gather the chitterlings quickly, waylay her before she enters the temple.” He blinked his eyes and seemed almost to lose his balance for an instant, but regained it by clutching onto Abzgorn’s robes. “Who is the Child? What is his importance? I must know—I must stop Pspew—she cannot complete her task—she must be stopped—destroyed! Who is the Child!?”
“The child is no sacrifice, Lorgex, I assure you … no, the child is the one sent to usher in a new age of darkness,” Abzgorn said, clutching Lorgex’s skull tight between his two hands. “After centuries, he has been found. Blood of the Ancients reborn anew, he is the one to lead the Craven Lords’ hordes forth from the Craw. He will destroy and defile and debauch all that is Shagra’lor, from Serpent Sound to Bauble’s Bay! Lorgex the Eyes, man, your Acolyte Pspew brings to the temple the Chosen One! The Chosen One of Grimnir!”
“No!” Lorgex screamed, clutching Abzgorn’s robes. “No! It cannot be! Pspew is not worthy of that honor! I must have it. It must be me! It shall be ME!”
3. Mugger’s Folly
“Come back and fight!” Madam Pspew bellowed. Her green neck sack burbled big and round as a Cyclops teat as her whip cracked—!CRACK!—and then cracked again—!CRACK!—over her head. “SCRAG-HOLES!” Atop the solid marsh-oak pillory that was fastened about Malving’s slumping head and hands, she clung like some tree-frog goddess of mis-fashion and titanic-arboreal blobulations. And upon that altar of wood and flesh she was wrath incarnate. They fled before her, a stumbling mass of arms and legs and bone weapons and rattling armor—stinking bodies meleeing madly for escape. The alleyway was long and bent and crooked, like most things in Cesstern. They all fled stumbling and tripping before her.
Regretably for Madam Pspew, “they” represented four out of the five mercenary guards she had hired on implied retainer, and the only reason she had not fled before them was the simple fact that for her mount she had chosen a stooped thirteen year old boy who was muzzled, pilloried, shackled and dead tired from multiple floggings, not to mention that he had a fifty pound frog attached to his head. He mumbled obscenities under his muzzle.
Madam Pspew glanced to her left. Only the one called Izula had stood by her, and only then because she was very, very stupid. The giant sword she wielded was trembling between her hugely knuckled fists … her huge croaker pupils had constricted to pinpricks of black on yellow … and she was drooling. “Grim-damn bogtard croakers,” muttered Madam Pspew.
“A pity, it seems their services were not secured, Pspew,” Lorgex the Eyes announced smugly as the greater portion of Madam Pspew’s entourage disappeared out of the back alley and into the press on Sycamore street.
“That’s Madam Pspew, you shriveled old abortion,” Madam Pspew spat. She glanced about casually for some sort of escape, any sort…
“Give me the Chosen One, and you can go free,” Lorgex said.
“Chosen One?” Madam Pspew muttered, raising a nonexistent eyebrow—she glanced down at Malving.
“Huh!?” Malving grunted.
“Relinquish him not, and my chitterling cohorts shall chew the very flesh from your bones,” Lorgex said. “It is said croakers are something of a delicacy in chitterling cuisine.” He smiled at her and for a moment she thought the tight skin over his emaciated face would rip free of the skull so prominent beneath.
“Eat eat … chew chew .. froggy froggy,” the chitterlings chattered. They stood waist high all about Lorgex. Stooped, giant man-rats they were, with all of the charm of normal rats coupled with the morals and opposable thumbs of men. Like paired gravestones, huge slanted chisel teeth jutted from beneath dripping muzzles and cocked red eyes blinked impatiently for the command.
“Anything that hasn’t already shot out the ass of another creature is a delicacy to chitterlings,” Madam Pspew croaked haughtily, though if she was trying to make a point, she really hadn’t.
The chitterlings all nodded furiously in slobberly agreement.
“I will have the Chosen One,” Lorgex said, crossing his arms over his concave chest.
“He is mine,” Madam Pspew croaked, stalling for time. She had to get the hell out of here. There were too many foes … one foe was generally too many foes. She mustered up whatever false-courage she had—“Be gone, Lorgex, or Izula, here—stop drooling—Ahem, Izula will give you and your rats something to chew on!”
She glanced at Izula, who was huffing hard and slow and foaming … she was foaming now at the mouth … which was possibly an improvement over the drooling. “Hop up there, Izula, hack their malehoods off!” Maybe she was struck dumb … maybe she was a bogtard … even so … it would still take the chitterlings a few seconds to eat her … then the boy, of course … by then Madam Pspew could be … she sighed … a tenth of the way down the alley … she was built for many things: power, torture, them not her, seduction, commanding various species of slimes and mercenaries, which in the end are really not so different. Alas, speed was not on that list. The stench of the heaped garbage from the Swamped Rat Tavern dampened the chatter inside. The back door was buried somewhere beneath that glacial midden heap.
“Very well, Pspew, you had your chance,” Lorgex sneered. “Take them, chitterlings! Chew them! Bite them! Gnash them! Sharpen your teeth on their marrow! You shall have all the old cheese and torture scraps promised!”
A wave of red beady eyes and chipped teeth and damp hairy limbs surged over Izula and crashed around Malving’s legs and torso. He screamed in muzzled terror and turned to flee but he was knocked from his shackled feet and slammed pillory first to the ground.
“Gimpy! Do not gnaw the man-child!” Lorgex’s voice rang. “NO! Bad Gimpy—Bad Gimpy!”
Madam Pspew’s whip flew from her hands as she smacked down hard—bounced twice—then rolled across the alley floor like a glutinous ball of phlegm. Into the Swamp Rat’s midden heap she slammed, sending an avalanche of filth and animal bones down, engulfing her immediately as clawed rat feet stomped towards her. Sniffles and snuffles and teeth thrashed through trash all around her as she clawed her way—head still ringing—out.
“Bring him to me, Gimpy!” Lorgex screamed. “Stop—stop biting him!”
As Madam Pspew scrambled free of her tomb—a roar exploded up the alley—just before a chitterling soared through the air and tackled her back into the heap. More roars and cries bellowed out as Madam Pspew struggled with the huge chitterling … it was too heavy to move … it’s bulk was pressing her deeper into the midden heap … suffocating … a blood-flecked rat muzzle was in her face—teeth bared to the black gums.
Madam Pspew whipped her fishclub out and knocked a great-tooth loose from the chitterling’s black-gummed maw—or would have if she could have found it or moved even in the slightest. The chitterling sprayed black breath as it hissed down to tear into her—“!@#STOP#@!”—spat Madam Pspew into the chitterling’s face—her voice shockwaving the air—and it froze, twitching.
Madam Pspew weaseled and clawed from underneath the rodent and crawled towards the Swamp Rat’s back door. She hopped onto the door handle and pulled with all her limited might, but the door would not budge. “By Grimnir’s black name, open this door!” she screamed—she pounded—still it would not budge. She turned and the chitterling was moving again—barely—though … it was twitching … it was dying. It had been cut in half below its stomach … black tentacles of gore and innards trailed it like some doomed comet’s tale. Madam Pspew glance down, she was covered in hair and black wet filth.
Sounds of melee were dying up the alley—she was alone save the legless, dying chitterling. “Your strength is mine, now,” Madam Pspew whispered. She pounced then upon her dying, twitching foe and with her broken bone knife—if not deftly—managed to hack and saw the still beating heart from her dying foe. She clasped the heart in her hands then and whispered to it in black broken verse, “Beat … beat … beat…” and the heart continued its vile rhythm. Madam Pspew slung the heart on a sinew cord and placed it around her neck. The sounds of melee died as the beat of the heart took its place. A yellow wind oozed down the alley and in the distance she could hear the flesh-peddlers’ hawkings from the Sickamore Slave Market. “Izula…” Madam Pspew whispered, peeking out from amidst the tumbled midden heap.
Lorgex had stolen the swine-screw…
No matter, she yet lived…
She adjusted her purple wig and tiara…
and crept out…
clutching the broken bone knife in one hand…
and the still beating heart in another…
she found Izula amidst the circle…
It was a circle of limbs, of torsos, heads, and long pink rat-tails flung about as though some sort of razorback tornado had inhaled all of them and then spat them all about in whirling gust of body parts. Izula lay sprawled amidst all the dead chitterlings, impossible to tell how many. Gashes and flaps of hanging green skin covered her body … her skull was laid bare and stove in, and in more than one place. Her long bone saw-sword lay, too, clutched in her monstrous fist across her chest. Her eyes were still open.
Madam Pspew closed Izula’s eyes and then touched the hilt of the blade with a delicate wet finger … it was fine work really … the work of a master swordsmith if Madam Pspew were any judge … the work of Skullhammer, perhaps? Skullhammer’s work was the finest in Cesstern, perhaps in all of the Craw. It would fetch a good price—her armor, too! And, perhaps Izula had some other goodies as well—money or gems—she rifled Izula’s corpse—and the chitterling corpses, too! She could sell them to the Swamp Rat for stew.
“Fear not, Izula, you shall not suffer the fate of the rat things, though you would have been the tastiest of the lot,” Madam Pspew croaked. “Croakers, we both are in the end … well, your end … and we must watch over one another in the land of slim morals and black croaker prejudices. We croakers are not stew.” And anyways, Izula’s corpse she could sell to the Skullwright academy—they would pay well—No—Ragnhild’s Reanimations! She paid much better than the school did for newly dead corpses. And a croaker corpse, too, it might be viewed as being somewhat rare, or uncommon at the least, being a minority and all. That was good … perhaps Madam Pspew could deface it somehow, to make it look even stranger … more exotic … expensive … like some sort of a mutant, perhaps? Raghnild probably paid well for mutants. “Yes … it could be done…” Once more, against all odds, heroism and ingenuity, Madam Pspew had turned near defeat into a windfall. Truly Grimnir had blessed her again. Madam Pspew wrenched on an armor strap at Izula’s shoulder—
“Crrrrrrrrrrrrrrroooooooooak…” Izula croaked meekly. Her pupils dilated.
“Oh no…” Madam Pspew muttered as shock and disappointment shot like lightning through her. Izula wasn’t dead … not yet. “Hop toward the dark, Izula…” Madam Pspew would lose so much: the sword, the armor, the one of a kind mutant croaker corpse with the chitterling head and the extra arms and the long pink tale shooting out of its neck. She had such plans! But then, it was never too late to make Izula a corpse … and murder was hardly frowned upon in Cesstern … and certainly not by Madam Pspew. Madam Pspew was a proponent of all murder save her own.
But then … Madam Pspew had not paid Izula yet … and that meant she owed Izula the implied-retainer of a hay-sliver and two plogs … and a debt owed and left unpaid was, strangely, something Madam Pspew could not swallow … it was bad business … word would get out … no more meat-shields would work for her … protect her … die for or instead of her … and Izula had proved rather useful in that function, even with that bogtarded drooling problem. Madam Pspew looked around and counted chitterling heads … five … six … eight … nine, including the one that had landed on top of her. The heart at her neck beat.
“Croooooak…” Izula croaked up a blot of dribbly pink foam.
Yes, she was useful … but more importantly, she was very, very stupid … and very, very stupid meant she was probably very, very loyal as well. And very loyal people were generally more willing to do very stupid things for other people. And Madam Pspew was always asking people to do very stupid things … for her…
“I can still make a few plogs on the chitterlings,” she muttered to herself, pushing back her indigo sleeves. Madam Pspew scraped a handful of dirt from the muddy streets and then shoved it into her mouth … and she chewed and swallowed. Reaching forward then she tore open Izula’s mouth and then hocked and then spat the black earth bile inside. With her soft hands then she grasped Izula’s head … the shattered skull shifted like a bag of broken pottery shards … Madam Pspew leaned in close then and whipered, “!@#LIVE#@!” into Izula’s round ear drum … and live she did.
4. A Vintage worthy of Pspew
“Grim-damned Luzgar … already on the list,” Madam Pspew muttered, “a copper a corpse … chiseler … kidnapper … one of these days…” Two copper plogs scraped sparsely in her bag. Luzgar, The Swamp Rat owner had not only low-balled her on her offer, but had also charged her a delivery fee to drag the carcasses into the bar, which had left Madam Pspew with but her depressing five. And she was always hungry after battle … four … and then she had seconds … three … and then thirds … two. And two would make no dent in her debt to Abzgorn for the loss on the boy. Lorgex would take the bounty.
“Grim-damned Lorgex.” Madam Pspew glanced up at the warped skull face of the Black Temple entrance, the Obsidian Gates. A long night of alms collections skimming was before her, to recoup her incurred losses and pay Abzgorn the Ribspreader not to murder or torture her while she slept. Better start sooner than later. She took her post at the Obsidian Gates and mentally prepared herself to accost anyone who ventured near. The black chitterling heart strung about her neck beat in staccato rhythm with her own.
“Halt! Who goes there?” a challenge rang out from within the darkness of the Black Temple proper.
“Shut your gob-hole, you eunuch sludgeworms,” Madam Pspew croaked at the two guards. There were two guards, she knew, even though she could see neither. There were always two guards, and they were always hiding. “Have I not stood at this post nigh on three years? Imbeciles…”
“It is our sacred duty,” said the other guard, possibly hidden behind a potted angler plant. They were both almost supernaturally proficient at hiding, in fact, and not because they wanted to take people unawares.
“We have to ask for verification, Alms Acolyte Pspew,” said the first guard, who might have actually been the potted angler plant. “You shan’t grow cross, Acolyte Pspew. As it stands—ooh—someone approaches—Shhhhh. Hide. Don’t tell him we’re here. Shhhh…”
“Hail, Grimnir,” Madam Pspew croaked at a figure as it stumbled drunkenly—it had to be drunk or it would never go near the temple of Grimnir—from the dark and into the temple wall and passed out nearly within the Obsidian Gates. Madam Pspew hopped toward it. “Give to the Temple of Grimnir or I’ll curse your loins flaccid!”
The goblin didn’t move much … it just burped and drooled and twitched once or twice…
“Shhhh … don’t move, he’s right near your feet,” whispered the second guard.
“Did he see us?”
“I don’t think so—Pspew—did he see us?”
“Did she do that to him? He looks pretty flaccid…”
“Pathetic,” Madam Pspew croaked at the guards. She began then one of the less savory tasks of the Alms Acolyte: rifling though the pockets and orifices of a drunken goblin. The problem wasn’t not knowing what you’d find, it was knowing exactly what you’d find. Madam Pspew began tossing teeth … hairballs … pig ears and other such non-monetary items over her shoulder. A small pile soon metastasized.
“Find anything?” whispered the first guard.
“A half drunk flask of Gat’s Green-spume,” Madam Pspew said, holding up a bone flask. She shook it a bit. “Fetch a plog … maybe…”
“Oooh, what vintage?” the second guard whispered.
“Late Ufmogh,” guessed Madam Pspew, taking a swig.
“Ooh … two days old,” the first guard whispered. “Could … we sample the brew?”
“Useless as nads on a zombie, you two are,” Madam Pspew spat at them. She took another swig of the sour red brew. They called it Gat’s Green Spume for its color when it came out.
“Oh, pooh,” whispered the second guard. “Is it our fault Ezymiul burned down our library? Such a brute—no love at all for the written word. Why, two complete sets of Digmark’s Goblin Sonnets gone up in smoke. Alas, we were never trained as guards … if it wasn’t for the gossip, I don’t know how we’d get on.”
“Gossip, yes—Madam, anything juicy we might glean from you recent travails?” whispered the first guard. “There’s been numerous rumors scuttling about as of late, most of them centering upon Wrackolyte Lorgex the Eyes and yours truly. Alleyway fisticuffs … captives … intrigues … murder … bamboozlements … oh, do tell.”
“Have you two seen Lorgex?” Madam Pspew asked.
“He entered with a young boy not four hours ago,” the first guard whispered. “Who was he? A fugitive?”
“Probably just a sacrifice, right?” the potted angler plant whispered. “A good sacrifice, though. A blood tithe, maybe? Or a stranglee? Is he son of a king, yes? No?”
“The son of a—no, the boy is a swine-screw,” Madam Pspew rasped.
“Then why did Lorgex bring him directly to the High Wrackolyte?” the first guard whispered. “Please Madam, tell us, we can keep a secret. He’s the seventh son of a seventh son, right?”
“He looked rather pleased with himself,” the second guard whispered. “Though he always seems a little too pleased with—Oh—and by the by, Acolyte Pspew … High Wrackolyte Sneering requested your presence in the lower torture caverns. Says she has some business to work out between you and Lorgex the Eyes.”
“Damn him!” Madam Pspew said as she kicked the drunken goblin. It didn’t seem to affect him. Business with the High Wrackolyte usually involved the asystematic removal of one’s vertebrae from whatever orifice was furthest away. Madam Pspew clasped her torture bag under arm, pivoted on heel, and commenced marching directly toward Westleaf, which on the other side of the Drazhelm continent. It would only take her a month or twelve to get there … if she didn’t starve … and she wasn’t eaten … or raped and eaten by the Grim-damned Cinderskin kobolds … or hunted and skewered by those rampaging Rushockmen, or obliterated by that psycho Lord Slaughterhand and his eight marauding War-Paladins of Sanctos—
“Oh, Madam Pspew!” said the first guard, “she said he’d be scrying for you—Lorgex—and they would expect you nigh-directly.”
“Damn his eyes!” Madam Pspew croaked. If she was being watched, she had better go. Perhaps the High Wrackolyte was excessively drunk this night and would somehow see fit to have mercy upon her … yes, maybe she would just kill her once … and not torment her as much in the AfterNight. As Madam Pspew turned back through the Obsidian Gates … she wished Izula had been conscious enough to accompany her … she might have been useful … maybe she could have dressed her up in a purple wig and pawned her off as herself … no … that wouldn’t work … she was much too thin … too damned symmetric … Madam Pspew drained the last of the spume dregs and tossed the flask into the potted angler plant…
“Oohh! Thank you … oh.”
5. Two Round Reprisals
Lorgex tussled the sweaty dark fur behind Gimpy’s ears and stood proud as a father over his newborn babe, personified in this instance by a four-foot tall rat with a severe leprosy problem, or an adolescent boy who lay beaten, shackled, muzzled, and pilloried upon the ground. Gimpy kicked his leg like a hound and chattered in delight at the unexpected treatment. “Good, Gimpy, good draggy-drag,” Lorgex said scruffling the chitterling behind the ears.
“Alms Acolyte Pspew may enter, Abzgorn,” High Wrackolyte Diathama Sneering announced with a lazy raise of her slender arm. She was beautiful in a demanding way, a cold, stern, sadistic, horribly demanding way that bespoke of an evil not only that came natural to her, but was also worked upon, trained upon possibly with endless hours of mechaniacal machines specifically designed to heighten and intensify one’s own innate cruelty.
“Yes, my Lady.” Abzgorn’s hooded head bowed low before he drew upon a great onyx chain. The door shuddered as it opened, sidewise as the maw of some great insect’s, black rune-hardened steel screeched in protest. Curved impalements upon the door swung fleshy and loose, too rotted to be recognizable.
Acolyte Pspew stepped through, careful not to impale herself upon one of the many barbs or hooks.
Lorgex stifled a guffaw, and Gimpy immediately started gnashing his tombstone teeth and wiggling his tail like a panther staring down a flock of baby chicks. “Bitebite, froggy frog,” Gimpy growled deep in his throat. Good … Pspew would bear witness to his accolades … or perhaps the granting of a slave … perhaps multiple slaves, or, dare he dream, a promotion? No, no that was too much to hope for … but then … he glanced down at the boy … was he not the Chosen One? What prize to award the bearer of such a prize? Mayhap the High Wrackolyte would deign to let him caress her … just once? Lorgex the Eyes wiped the white foam congealing at the corners of his mouth.
In any instance, it would break Pspew, crush her spirit to know he had won. For her to see him raised while she—Ha—she would be condemned to a life of alms collection, a paid pauper forever begging and digging into goblin trousers in search of sustenance. Slimy. Pathetic. What she deserves. All of his teeth glittered as he gave Pspew his most triumphant smile.
“And so this is the reason thou saw fit to disturb myself and my guest within my private chambers during the very zenith of the pleasuristic hours?” said the High Wrackolyte Diathanus Sneering. Her voice cut the air like a clear crystalline knife. Pebbles upon the cavern floor vibrated as she spoke. “A boy?”
Lorgex’s face dropped … he hadn’t expected this … accolades—yes, certainly—he had expected accolades … what was going on? Something was not right, what was it?
“Explain thyself,” the High Wrackolyte said. “Know this, though, Lorgex the Eyes, before thou speaks … I was in the midst of entertaining my fourth, late-ex-husband when thou burst in … quite uninvited.”
“I … ahem … the b-boy, my Lady, is … q-quite … special, I assure you,” Lorgex began. He coughed once and glanced at Abzgorn the Ribspreader, then dabbed his suddenly dewy bald forehead with his sleeve. The torture room was suddenly unseasonably warm. He swallowed … couldn’t for lack of spit … then glanced at the door—then at Pspew, whose face was now a shivering ricktus of barely suppressed demonic hope … he glanced back at Abzgorn, who watched intently…
“Hastily … old one … explain thyself,” High Wrackolyte Sneering said. “Thy answers are not etched upon the Ribspreader’s covered flesh, or I would know them intimately already. Is that not so, Abzgorn?”
“It is so, my Lady.” Abzgorn bowed. After he bowed he pulled a small bag from his robes and popped a small strip of jerkied meat into his hooded mouth. Then he ate another, watching…
“The boy, m-my Lady, he is the Chosen One,” Lorgex blurted out. “The Chosen One of Grimnir. The one who shall marshal forth Grimnir’s—”
“Every babe knows the story of the Chosen One, old man,” the High Wrackolyte said. “I see a swine-screw … a swine-screw and nothing more.” Her voice rang in the cavern with the finality of an executioner’s axe. “Abzgorn, perhaps my eyes have disowned me, what is it thou sees?”
Lorgex’s stomach nearly dropped out his backside … it was a death sentence, and not a good one—he stared with pleading doe eyes that begged for mercy, companionship, understanding—anything from the Black Temple’s Head Torture Specialist, Abzgorn the Ribspreader.
“He appears to my eyes to be a lowly swine-screw, my Lady,” said Abzgorn. He slowly inserted more jerkied meat into his hood and watched Lorgex as if he were some sort of savory bug.
Lorgex the Eyes nearly fainted; he clutched onto Gimpy for support. He glanced at the door—his head reeled—then at Pspew—who was nonchalantly drawing her thumb across her own neck—damn her! Gimpy whined.
“Acolyte Pspew … what is it thou sees?” the High Wrackolyte asked.
“I see a palsied old geezer fit only to finger-dig plogs wrist-deep from the tightest of goblin arses,” Madam Pspew said. She adjusted her tiara. “Lying on the floor next to him, I see a rat and a swine-screw, my Lady.” She bowed.
“I adore your necklace, Acolyte Pspew.” The High Wrackolyte’s lip twitched at the corner for the barest of moments, and was then cold hateful alabaster once more.
Lorgex the Eyes knew in that moment he was doomed. Doomed in ways he dared not imagine for fear of loosing his bowels in that very instant.
“M-my Lady, I was told that the b-boy was the Chosen One,” Lorgex pleaded, his last vestiges of dignity fleeing into a whine. “It was said—“
“Said by whom?” the High Wrackolyte cracked like thunder—chunks of ceiling rained down. All in the room ducked except the High Wrackolyte—she merely stood—pursing her lips together … boring a hole through Lorgex the Eyes with her own. “Said by WHOM!?” The floor shivered—
“By Abzgorn the Ribspreader, my Lady,” Lorgex said, pointing with one hand and covering his head with the other as fist-sized rock chunks hailed down. “He told me, my Lady.” He looked at his teacher. “Do you deny it?”
“I deny nothing.” Abzgorn shrugged. “An entertaining jest about the Chosen One, my Lady. A jest and nothing more,” Abzgorn said. He shoveled another strip of jerky into his mouth, watching like an owl. “Lorgex had come unprepared to torture times too numerous to count … his skills are most poor. My patience was ended. And the dotard obviously thought my story true. He was never a quick study, and at his age,” he shrugged, “I was merely waiting on a delivery from Acolyte Pspew … a personal request … I had preordered a man or boy for inter-thoracitory delving. My order had been waylaid, by Lorgex it seems … and his rat ilk. I see one. Where are the rest of them, Lorgex?”
Lorgex’s quick acid glare at Madam Pspew told his whole tale.
“Whose dark eye watches over Acoltye Pspew, I must wonder?” Abzgorn pondered, placing another meat hunk on his tongue. He chewed slowly … thoughtfully. “I’ll have my boy, then, Lorgex.”
“No, thou shan’t,” the High Wrackolyte said. “I have spoken with him these past hours while we waited for Acolyte Pspew. He is a vile, wretched young thing. Evil courses through the bones in him. He possesses swears and curses beyond his adolescent years. It was through your own machinations that you lost him, Abzgorn. The Temple shall appropriate him. Thou shall need abscond another human for your delvings.”
Lorgex started edging his way toward the door…
“A thought just occurred to me, my Lady,” Abzgorn announced. He then pulled on the door chain—the door screeched shut just before Lorgex could escape. He clawed at the wriggling seam between the two mandible slabs of black iron. “Mayhap Lorgex might fill that position?” Lorgex offered. “He has proven inadequate at everything else. It is doubtful, but he might in pieces prove the use that as a whole he could not. In the name of Grimnir, of course.”
Lorgex evacuated his bowels on the cold stone floor…
The High Wrackolyte waggled a scolding finger. “Abzgorn, you scamp, thou knows it is most unseemly to dissect fellow wrackolytes of the Dark Lord,” she said, almost laughing. She shook her head in mirth and continued, “I could never allow such an abhoration to occur … through normal circumstances, of course … why, only under the most dire of transgressions would I even consider it … a transgression most difficult at best to incur … a transgression level that admittedly has been met with by brash Lorgex’s intrusion into my chambers … and have forced me to consider and then reconsider … and, finally, yes, to acquiesce to thy most reasonable request. Thou may have him to whatever design, Ribspreader. May you achieve in his chest, what he failed to achieve in life.” A darkness spewed in tendrils then from her mouth as she then spoke, “%!@#LORGEX, LAY UPON THE SLAB, AND DO NOT MOVE#@!%”
“Nnnnnnnnn—“ Lorgex’s screech was stifled as her clarion power voice took over. Herky jerky golem-like, Lorgex jittered—fighting fruitlessly—and stutter shuffled his way zombiefied to the torture slab and flopped his frail body face-first—!SLAP!—up onto its cool smooth expanse. Then like a land-bound bog-trout he contorted, flipped, and landed—!SMACK!—on his back.
“Acolyte Pspew, restrain him,” commanded the High Wrackolyte.
Madam Pspew waddled to the slab and clomb her way up. Her torture bag she plopped down at Lorgex’s head, which she then caressed like a sick puppy, running her slimy fingers through his sparse wisps of hair. “There, there, sweet Lorgex…” she whispered, grinning. Fifteen various straps she drew … then fastened … and then cinched down across Lorgex’s arms … his legs … his head … neck, torso, and hips. Mobility was denied all joints but his fingers and toes. They splayed out in wriggling terror.
Desperat-insanity wriggled in Lorgex’s eyes as he did then the unthinkable—he begged. “Madam Pspew! No! Please—have mercy!” Lorgex the Eyes pleaded. His limbs were his once more and he strained against his bonds. “Do something! Release me, please. I’ll do anything—”
“Acolyte Pspew … it seems a position in the Wracolation of the Craven Lord shall been open … nigh imminent,” the High Wrackolyte said. “Dost thou wish to fulfill that position and become a full Wrackolyte of Grimnir, or dost thou wish to maintain thy present station at the Obsidian Gates … accosting drunks?”
“I worship none other than Grimnir,” replied Madam Pspew, bowing as was proper, “I serve none other than he … I shall kill for he … shall die for he … shall rise for he … I shall crawl the earth in death and die again if need be … I accept the…”
“Excellent. Thou shalt complete thy vows at midnight on the morrow,” the High Wrackolyte said. “But … as of now, I rename thou, Madam Pspew, the MiseryWhip. I believe thou have been using the title of Madam for some time.” A frown twitched at her lips, but it passed like a storm. “No matter … a small thing. Remember tomorrow to bring a tonsure to the ceremony. Perhaps Lorgex the Eyes can spare his…”
“Please, Madam!” whispered Lorgex into Madam Pspew’s eardrum. “Save me! Ask a boon of her. It is ritual—she shan’t refuse you on your naming day. Please, I will owe you my life—anything—anything you want you shall have! I-I would be your slave!”
“You are too old to be of any use,” Madam Pspew sneered. Her face split in half in a grin, though.
“I would endure any defamation, Pspew—“
Madam Pspew spoke out suddenly, “High Wrackolyte, might I spare Lorgex the Eyes?”
The High Wrackolyte fixed Madam Pspew with her glare. “Do what thou will with him, Madam, so long as Abzgorn the Ribspreader agrees,” the High Wrackolyte said. “Lorgex the Eyes and all of his innards is his property now. Though I might rethink thy appointment should thy first act as Wrackolyte be an act of mercy.”
Madam Pspew nodded and then looked to Abzgorn. Lorgex’s pupils strained to see.
Abzgorn watched Pspew intently. “What do you intend?” asked Abzgorn, chewing slowly … thoughtfully.
“I wish simply to rename him,” Madam Pspew said.
“And to let him live?” Abzgorn asked … he chewed.
“Yes, rename him and let him live,” Madam Pspew said. “Would those terms be agreeable, Lorgex the Eyes?”
“Yes! Yes, those terms—I will be grateful, Madam Pspew, eternally grateful!” Lorgex blurted. “Demons shall sing your praises in the caverns of my soul! Thank you. I accept, I accept!”
“And I accept the debt I will incur for him, Teacher, in addition to that of the boy,” Madam Pspew said to Abzgorn.
Abzgorn shrugged. “He is nothing to me, a poor specimen at best,” he said, then raised an eyebrow, “What … do you intent to rename him?”
“I intent to give him back his old position as Alms Acolyte,” Madam Pspew croaked, petting Lorgex.
Lorgex stifled a sneer of hatred—a gag of rage— “What?! No!”
“You do him two acts of kindness?” Abzgorn asked glancing down at the furiously struggling Lorgex. “You would grant him his life and you would grant him some modicum of status, however slight an alms collector’s might be? It promises food and shelter. That is more than most expect of Cesstern.” Abzgorn regarded Madam Pspew. “They will call you soft. Such a white mark might follow you all your days. It may be then end of them as well.” Abzgorn looked down at Lorgex the Eyes. “Is this worth it? Despite his numerous patheticisms, as well as advanced oldness, he was yet a failure at the one position suited to cripples and dotards.” Abzgorn raised a finger. “And alms collecting is a repositioning, Madam, not a renaming.”
“Release me, she-demon!”
“I am aware of all of those things, Teacher,” Madam Pspew croaked, reaching into her torture bag. “I understand that those with physical ailments are more adept at chiseling alms from the weak of heart and loose of pocket.”
“What?! What do you intend?!” Lorgex screamed.
“Yes, and Lorgex was ever a failure in that, as I have just stated,” Abzgorn said.
“Perhaps his physical ailments are at present, inadequate to the task?” Madam Pspew said. “Perhaps he needs aid … Grimnir’s aid … perhaps some … Hmmmm … modification might aid…” She rifled around shoulder deep in her torture bag. “Ah … here it is…”
“Release me, Pspew!” Lorgex the Eyes screamed, struggling, tearing his flesh in the process. “Release me, Pspew! I don’t want your help—you stunted wartback! Fly-eater—we had a deal! We had a deal! Pspew!”
“It is Madam Pspew, and our deal is I get to rename you,” Madam Pspew said, poking him in the forehead with a finger. “Tsk … Tsk … Tsk, Lorgex … Lorgex the Eyes … what ever shall we rename you?” From within the claustrophobic confines of her torture bag she pulled a wicked pair of eye gougers. She brandished them before Lorgex’s rage-twisted sputtering face. “Were you looking for these?”
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