Matt Dovey

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How I Became Coruscating Queen of All the Realms, Pierced the Obsidian Night, Destroyed a Legendary Sword, and Saved My Heart's True Love

No shit, there I was, knee-deep in necromantic weasels in the lair of the mad wizard-king, when Korgar and Elutriel both decided it was time to win my affections once and for all.

Elutriel had summoned an aura of resistance, an iridescent bubble free of weasels. He struggled forwards, heaving against the weight of their wasted furry bodies.

"Push them into the flames!" I shouted, pointing with Hrrnngnngrrrndr, the Sword of a Hundred Thousand Agonies, at the fire-trap Korgar had triggered as we entered the room.

But Elutriel ignored me and waded toward Korgar instead. He used the aura to shove a wave of writhing, stinking flesh before him until it piled up and over the granite-slab shoulders of the Vhunken warrior.

Korgar burst out with a mountainous effort and grabbed a gnashing undead weasel with a hand like a boulder. His huge arms straining, he forced it through the aura and toward Elutriel. The weasel's rotted body twisted and deformed under the pressure, but its teeth still gnashed as Korgar bent it toward the healer's neck.


Now don't get me wrong, it wasn't that I hated the boys. I was really quite fond of them, and we'd gotten each other out of worse scrapes many times. But as fine as they were for adventuring, a girl's gotta have standards for anything more, and both my would-be wooers fell disappointingly short.

Take Korgar. He was built like some kind of god, with a chest so broad and muscular I'd seen men break swords on it, and he insisted on wearing only a bronzed loincloth and plenty of body oil. But he wasn't exactly the best conversationalist—"Korgar Smash Goblins. Korgar Think Essa Look Lovely Like Ax. Korgar Sexy In Loin Cloth." would never be enough to make a relationship last.

And Elutriel was fine in his own way, all milky skin and delicate features. His moon-pale hair shone in the barest glimmer of light, and even braided in the mystical shortening knot of the Gordian Order it reached past his knees. But he lamented endlessly, and I could never get a word in edgeways with all his monologues.

"Oh, most rare and pulchritudinous Essandra! If only this one were not dedicated to the Refulgent Glory, this one would most ebulliently seek to live in blissful union with your divine beauty. Oh! Cruel world, that so tests this one's resolve!"

And so on. His voice was easy on the ears, but eight incessant hours of it wore thin, and all he ever talked about was his own problems.

Still, sometimes a girl gets lonely on the road, and my fireside thoughts often wandered to the bulges of Korgar's arms and thighs and, uh, other body parts. Or to Elutriel revealing that soft, unweathered skin from beneath his robes, his scintillating silver hair falling onto my body. Or maybe both of them at once...

The worst of it was they'd each decided they were destined to be my eternal love, and they both obsessed over their perceived rival at the worst of occasions. Like now, when resurrected rodents were biting at my ankles and I had to dance like a drunkard on hot coals to avoid their yellowed fangs.

I was about to start screaming black torment at them both when a cool caress from Hrrnngnngrrrndr brushed against my palm, and the blade of the sword flashed blue. This happened from time to time, usually when we were in serious peril. A breath of sympathetic consciousness would arise from the mad maelstrom of the sword’s hundred thousand ensnared souls and solve whatever problem faced us before drifting away again.

Sure enough, a white light exploded into the room, extinguishing the fire trap and bursting every cursed weasel, pop, pop, pop, like potatoes on the fire when you hadn’t pierced their skins.

It would have been lovely had my eyes not been in agony from the light and my stomach not been churning from the smell of rotten, burning flesh.

Oh yeaaaaaaah! Hrrnngnngrrrndr screamed. Did you SEE that?! Its phantasmal voice stung my ears, shrill and strident.

I cringed. The sword was cursed to trap the souls of its victims in the moment of their dying agony. It was, therefore, fickle, fractious, loud, and—melding the accumulated personality of those hundred thousand mad souls—completely obnoxious. I tried not to think about what it must be like for that one sympathetic soul, subsumed into what must have been a very crowded and noisy Hell.

That beneficent soul had parried the Demon Axe of Abarasqa for me (inadvertently decapitating the exiled Prince Harren, Glory-bearer, kingdom-saver, and all-round hero), pierced the heart of a treacherous Tlallin escort (and the heart of their well-loved Minister of the Center, standing regrettably close behind), and now—with a burst of energy that must surely have consumed a dozen souls—it had burned away the necromantic basement weasels. Considering its previous rescues, the spots that danced before my eyes seemed a small price to pay.

Korgar, finding himself weasel-less, wrapped a single broad hand around Elutriel's delicate neck and pinned him to the ground. I kicked the hulking warrior in the head until he took the hint and let go.

"Korgar Sorry," he rumbled.

Elutriel lay there, hands at his neck, lustrous platinum hair soaking in the rank water. I considered helping him up, but, well... he kind of deserved it.

"Can we go now, please?" I asked, indicating the door. "Mad wizard-king? Terror of the Obsidian Night? Our actual enemy?"

"Korgar Only Defend Self," said Korgar.

Have you ever seen an eight-foot hill of a man sulk? It was as pathetic as Elutriel's mewling, which I suspected was exaggerated in a play for sympathy.

"I was... trying," he wheezed, "to get... to Korgar and... help clear the weasels... beloved of my soul."

That was it. Enough. I turned to the door, broke its hinges with one maybe-a-bit-too-hard kick, and stomped up the stairs.

I came out in a gloomy hallway of vaulted stone arches. The mad-wizard king had gone with 'sputtering torches' for his evil mood lighting, but their feeble flames were still enough to reveal five-score Blind Inquisitors. The undead magelings stood silent and still, their long, narrow arms tucked away beneath grey-white cloaks. A necrotic stench crawled up my nostrils and tickled the back of my throat.

Cryptstink. I pressed my dark velvet collar against my face and took shallow breaths. I'd read of the Inquisitors in the arcane tomes of the Recondite College of Esoteria, left on the bed by a careless lover I knew quite well before she turned herself into a hat-rack with a misspell. Their stench was designed to claw at the throat, causing the victim to hack and cough. The Blind Inquisitors would then glide toward the sound like monstrous ballerinas and gorge themselves on their quarry, consuming everything but the eyes. I couldn't see any eyeballs staring up from the floor, not in this dim light, but I stepped carefully nonetheless. They ruined soft leather soles if you trod on them.

I crept across the flagstones with Hrrnngnngrrrndr held out and forced myself to watch the Inquisitors' featureless faces. The flaking skin that stretched across their blank skulls was terrifying, but the twitch of a head would be the first sign I'd been—

"Korgar Is Favorite!"

A hundred heads turned as one at Korgar's booming voice, dead skin splitting to reveal fang-lined maws. The Inquisitors drifted inexorably down the hall.

I groaned—quietly. As frustrating as Korgar was, he was my companion. I couldn't stand the thought of him eaten down to his eyeballs. I had to stop them.

I reached out with my mind for the sympathetic soul in Hrrnngnngrrrndr, but it was lost in the swirling madness, probably exhausted from its earlier intervention. There'd be no miracle there. I could try to stab the Inquisitors as they swept toward him, but I'd crept past half of them already. I could call out for Elutriel and hope he got to the top of the stairs in time to banish the undead, but he had a habit of delaying his entrances for the sake of dramatic flair, and shouting loud enough to get his attention would see me as dead as Korgar.

Or I could just walk on as the Inquisitors feasted on Korgar's brainless bulk. He'd cleared my path, after all. But as irritating as he was, I had a certain fondness for him, like a puppy that kept pissing on your boot no matter how many times you scolded it.

My only option, much as I hated it, was the vial of timestop meant for the wizard-king himself. With a sigh, I pulled the blue luminescence from its pouch and threw it to the floor.

The vial shattered at my feet and a cloud of blue dust burst out, twinkling stars surrounding me like dandelion snow. Outside the cloud, time slowed to a halt. I dashed past the frozen Inquisitors and grabbed the boorish Vhunken by the arm, the cloud extending to surround him as well. Stars were already flickering out as the magic was consumed.

"Korgar Is—" he started, then looked down at me with his mouth open. "Essa Here?"

"Right," I told him, "this is what's going to happen. We are going to walk down that staircase and fetch Elutriel. Then we're going to wait while he banishes these Inquisitors.

"Then we are going to keep moving through this ridiculous lair until we find and kill the wizard-king. We are not going to fight with Elutriel over who is my favorite. We are not going to shout at inappropriate times and attract the undead.

"We are not going to do anything other than kill the wizard-king and make ourselves filthy, stinking rich on his treasures. Understand?"

Korgar stared at me, no doubt stunned by my hand on his arm. Usually our only contact was me kicking him until he stopped doing something stupid.

"Korgar," I said, shaking him none too gently. "Do. You. Understand?"

His giant eyes, big and blue as a glacial lake, focused slowly on me. His brow furrowed in concentration and sweat sprang from the crevices like mountain springs. His lips parted and his tongue emerged, working to form words.

"Hrrnngnngrrrndr," he said, naming the cursed blade as a hundred thousand had before him. Then he toppled to the ground, blood leaking from a razor-thin cut on his thigh. There was another flash of blinding light, and Hrrnngnngrrrndr began to scream in exultation.

Oh. Shit.

Hrrnngnngrrrndr was unsheathed. It must have brushed up against Korgar as I grabbed him. And because the hulking idiot insisted on showing off his bulges with that absurd loincloth, the mistake had been fatal. Hrrnngnngrrrndr had absorbed his soul in that glancing cut, leaving him as good as dead.

I did know, courtesy of my hatrack ex-lover, a method to remove a person's soul from the sword, but it required the person's body or—barring that—immense sorcerous power. Which was all well and good, but the Inquisitors were going to make short work of Korgar's body soon and I lacked the sorcery for the other method. My only option was to cut off a piece and carry it with me, in hopes that it would be enough to let me restore the Vhunken from the sword after Elutriel and I had defeated the wizard-king.

But Korgar was Korgar. He bulged with impenetrable muscle. No visible part was soft and small enough for me to slice off and stick in a pouch. My only choice was something I had daydreamed of doing under very different circumstances.

With a deep breath, I peeled his loincloth back.

"YeaaaaaaaaaaaaahOOOOOOOOOhhhhhhh!," the sword screamed as I cut, its myriad voices screeching ever higher.

Korgar's glazed eyes stared up at me accusingly, but I had more pressing concerns. In particular, Hrrnngnngrrrndr's ludicrous (and frankly embarrassing) display of ecstasy. The sword went through this every time it absorbed a soul, and while sometimes the screaming would only last a few seconds, at other times it stretched for hours. For all Korgar's shortcomings, the brute had a big soul, and I would be in serious trouble when time resumed.

I shoved the sword back into its sheath. The hardened leather made the noise more bearable, but it wasn't enough. Anything more than complete silence would be very, very messy once the Inquisitors were on the move again.

Most of the stars had flickered out in the timestop cloud. How long did that last cluster by my shoulder give me? It would have to be enough. I managed three steps towards the stairs before the stars all burst at once, and the cloud dissipated with a smell like singed bacon doused in mildew.


The Inquisitors paused, disoriented by the sudden (to them) caterwauling of Hrrnngnngrrrndr reverberating from the vaulted stone ceiling. But a moment later they turned to stare at the sword itself, and the idiot burdened by it.


I had resigned myself to go down fighting when Elutriel's delicate voice floated up the stairs behind me.

"I greatly fear, brutish companion mine, that the fair Essandra has ever shown a clear preference for my -- Oh, Essandra. What is that unhallowed noise? And where's..." He looked behind me at the Inquisitors, then down at Korgar, then back at me. "Oh."

I whirled and grabbed him by his silver robes, yanking him off the top step. The dirt that had scuffed the cloth after his poorly-chosen fight with Korgar had vanished, and his long braid had been refreshed with Glory-knew-what; it shone like a river of stars in the dim light. He had even, I noted with disbelief, added a touch of rouge to his lips.

"Blind Inquisitors," I shouted over Hrrnngnngrrrndr. "Deal with them. Now."

He blinked and tugged on his braid. "I—well—you see—that sort of thing requires preparation, and, ah..."

I screamed in frustration and pushed the gorgeous, useless man away. He almost pitched backward down the staircase before he spun on one heel and regained his balance. His long braid caught me across the face as it whipped past.

The braid!

It'd be a shame to lose so much beauty, for sure, but better that than dead. I grabbed the end and yanked him toward me, hard.

By the time he hit the ground I was already on him, sawing through the base of the braid with a serrated knife. Ignoring his whimpers, I fished the screaming Hrrnngnngrrrndr from its sheath, tossed it to the floor, and tied that lustrous lock of heaven in a knot around the crossguard. I grabbed Elutriel's ankle in one hand and the end of the braid in the other and dashed straight through the center of the Inquisitors.

The hair, free of its intricate knot, unspooled behind us, a glorious moonbeam thirty feet long. Hrrnngnngrrrndr was yanked along at the other end, screaming in orgiastic delight and drawing the undead like moths to a flame.

When a doorway flanked by two huge iron doors loomed out of the darkness ahead, I all but threw Elutriel onto the spiral staircase that climbed beyond them. I dropped the braid and strained against the heavy doors, but they didn't so much as budge.

With luck, though, Hrrnngnngrrrndr would distract the Inquisitors and give me time. I gripped one handle, braced my feet, and pulled, and the first door thudded into place.

Hrrnngnngrrrndr wailed louder, and the cryptstink grew thicker in the air. I glanced over my shoulder to check on Elutriel as I grabbed the second door.

The priest was reeling in his hair and gathering it to his chest, weeping. Hrrnngnngrrrndr bumped against my foot as Elutriel pulled it past. A hundred Inquisitors followed it, straight toward us.

I heaved harder on the handle.

The nearest of the undead mages had almost reached us as the door swung shut. Its rotten cryptstink prickled at my nose and it reached its jagged, ruined nails toward me, and for a moment all seemed lost. But the door closed with a BOOM, trapping its gray, twisted hand. I dropped the huge oaken beam atop the hand as its fingers twitched in a last futile effort, then I slid to the ground.

"Great plan," I said to Elutriel, who was cradling his shorn hair. "Couldn't have done it without you."

"But—" he sputtered. "My—It—"

"I'm sorry," I told him. "If that makes any difference."

The apology roused him from his stupor. "I've had that braid since I was born!" he screamed. "Without it, my powers are useless! I'll be kicked out of the Order, an exile, a—"

I understood how he felt, and while I might normally have indulged him in a debate over the relative drawbacks of exile versus death, there was no time for a monologue. With exaggerated nonchalance, I knelt down and freed Hrrnngnngrrrndr from the remains of the braid and then wiped the smear of Korgar's blood from its blade.

"Still," I said, "at least you didn't end up like Korgar."

Elutriel stopped mid-rant.

"Yet," I added.

He swallowed, stood up, and gestured up the spiral staircase. "Shall we?"

"Yes," I said wearily. "Let's."

We climbed the staircase for what seemed like hours, Hrrnngnngrrrndr's howls echoing all the way, until—at last—we emerged into a sumptuous chamber.

The mad wizard-king's throne room was, well, clichéd. I don't know if insane sorcerers all buy their decor at estate auctions after a hero kills the previous owners, but after a while the skulls and spikes and skin-bound tomes all start to look very familiar. Big stained glass windows recounted the secret history of Vessalia (so secret I could narrate the scenes in order), a high-backed throne at the end of the room was topped with darkflame braziers, and a skeletal abomination loomed in one corner. I recognised it. The skull was on backwards.

The wizard-king sat at his harpsichord, racing toward a minor-key crescendo that was utterly engulfed by Hrrnngnngrrrndr's loud moans. I waited until he finished; I knew from long experience that if I interrupted he'd only start over.

As the last string sang to stillness, the wizard-king turned to face us, his heavy red cloak stirring the dust. He wore a spired crown, two feet of Stygian Iron carved in the ornate patterns of the Arcana. His sneering lips moved in a gray beard that trailed to the floor, but the words—like his playing—were lost.

"Sorry," I shouted, indicating the sword. "You'll have to speak louder."

"I said, 'You have come at last.' I intoned it most dismally. Can't you do something about that awful noise?"

I shrugged.

The mad wizard-king, resplendent in his finery, forbidding in his arcane puissance, sagged a little.

I looked at Elutriel, but he was still fiddling with his hair. There were times I regretted having chosen my companions for their looks and revealing costumes.

"So," intoned the wizard-king, a little louder this time, "do you know why I have summoned you here?"

"Summoned? Excuse me? We defeated your weasels, escaped your Inquisitors, and climbed your stupid spiral staircase all by ourselves."

"Indeed! All as intended. And now you are here, in my innermost sanctum, my vile chancel, that I might steal your souls!" He rubbed his hands in glee, and—honest to Glory—an actual cackle escaped his lips.

"Very dirty thing, my soul," I said, edging toward one of the pillars at the side of the room. "Are you sure it's worth the trouble?"

"Through the careful and selective absorption of my sorcerous rivals," he continued, as though I hadn't spoken, "I have risen to mastery of the Obsidian Night. And yet, and yet! I find myself... unbalanced. Incomplete."

"That's very sad," I said. The pillar was twice as thick as my body; it would serve as decent cover when the spells started flying. "But I don't see what it has to do with me."

"Ah, Essandra," the wizard-king said. "You underestimate yourself! Did not you steal the jeweled horns of entropy from the head of the Wild Sorceress of Mudlat as she chanted orisons? Your audacity is unparalleled! And your companions—the Vhunken's determination is a force of nature, and your pretty priest has the finest grasp of the rhetorical arts I have ever seen.

"Alas, your cursèd blade escaped my scrying, hidden behind that dark cloud of a hundred thousand souls, and I did not foresee the barbarian's demise. But no matter! His soul is trapped within, and I shall pull it free once I have devoured yours!"

His hands leaped forward, but villainous monologues have a certain rhythm to them that you pick up after the second or third time. I was running toward him as he made his "surprise" attack, Hrrnngnngrrrndr swinging in an arc at his neck. The old man's skin flashed iridescent as the sword bounced off, and I realized he had an aura of resistance held close to his body.

"My sorcery makes me untouchable—and once I have absorbed your souls and abilities, I will be unstoppable!"

He emphasized the last word with a burst of obsidian lightning. I ducked behind the pillar, and my skin tingled as the magick burst against the stone, scattering dark scintillas of void around me.

That could have been my one chance, and I'd wasted it by not anticipating the aura. If only I still had the timestop, or—for that matter—the Vhunken I'd saved with it. Well, almost saved.

I looked for Elutriel in the vain hope of assistance, but he had gone full healer and was cowering on the floor on the opposite side of the room. There was nothing but shelves of old books and piles of gold coins near me, but I'd made do with worse in the past.

I grabbed a fistful of coins and spun out from the pillar, throwing them into the arcane magicks that flew from the wizard-king's hands. The falling gold disrupted the lightning and scattered it in a thousand directions, and I ran forward with Hrrnngnngrrrndr at the ready, praying that the magick would not hit me.

As it happened, I dodged its foul touch quite neatly, only to be knocked out by a chunk of falling masonry set loose by the reflected bolts.

When I awoke, dry heaving and dizzy, the mad wizard-king stood above me, brushing dark sparks of void from his cloak. I tried to lift Hrrnngnngrrrndr, but my arms were as soft as Elutriel's once flowing hair; I might as well have tried to lift Korgar. I looked from the blade—still crowing about Korgar's soul—to the wizened eyes of the wizard-king, now turned down upon me. I prepared to make my peace.

But I hadn't even time to remember the names of those who had wronged me when Elutriel barreled into the old man, nearly knocking him over and genuinely saving my life. The wizard-king stumbled, but caught the cleric in one clawed hand.

"Very well, Gordian," he said, lifting his free arm high. "I shall take your soul first!" Like a puppeteer drawing the threads tight, he closed his free hand into a fist, pinning the cleric's slight frame against his own with invisible force. The wizard-king’s shivered with ecstasy as they touched, and a glint of light flickered over him as the aura of resistance shimmered away; he must have needed contact with Elutriel to pull at his soul. I probed for a gap to get Hrrnngnngrrrndr past, but Elutriel shielded the wizard completely.

"Essandra, my love," quoth he, most floridly. "I have chosen! The Order has long denied me the pleasures of your embrace, but I will serve them no longer!"

I circled round to the side, seeking any opening for Hrrnngnngrrrndr, but Elutriel twisted to follow me, gesticulating and prostrating himself as far as his situation allowed. There was no way past except through him.

"I will cast them aside," he continued, "and pledge myself to you and your beauty! I will be your devoted servant forevermore, my beautiful, wondrous queen!"

I looked at him, his skin turning ever paler as the wizard-king sucked out his soul. Even in dying, he was devoting himself to me. Maybe I'd been unfair to think of Elutriel as a selfish, self-obsessed idiot.

"Just imagine," he continued, barely audible above the screaming of Hrrnngnngrrrndr. "Other women will weep to see my beauty elevate yours, knowing that I would die to save you—"

"Then I'll be sure to tell them of your sacrifice," I said, and ran the cleric through, stabbing Hrrnngnngrrrndr out his back and into the wizard-king. I could hear—just barely—Elutriel's whispered "Hrrnngnngrrrndr..."

The sword crowed even louder, but then its triumphant cries twisted to a keening note of agony. I felt the hundred thousand souls stream from the cursed sword, through Elutriel's sagging frame, and into the open receptacle of the mad wizard-king.

The sword shook violently, and I had to hold on with both hands as the tide of souls turned to a torrent. I focused on my palm where it gripped the sword, and searched for the single gentle soul which lay within, unwilling to face losing all my friends in one day. It brushed, fleetingly, against the very core of my being, but after a moment, it, too, was gone, washed away like a branch in a swollen river. The sword felt suddenly cheap and banal.

I slid it out of Elutriel's belly and stepped back. The priest slumped to the floor.

The wizard-king, though, still stood. The gash where Hrrnngnngrrrndr had pierced him was oozing blood, but otherwise he looked unharmed. I would have to face him alone, with nothing more than a disenchanted sword and my muddled wits.

"Ha!" he said, taking a step toward me. "Ha ha ha ha HA! You fool, do you know what you've done? With the hundred thousand souls of your silly little toy, you have made me immortal! Invincible! You have made me a GOD!"

I glanced over my shoulder at the doorway behind me, wondering if I could make it down the stairs, past the Inquisitors, and away. But the thought of the lonely road, without Korgar and Elutriel, seemed suddenly cold and unappealing. I'd make my stand here.

"Now," he continued, "you too will meet the fate of... The fate... The..." He stumbled to a stop, grabbing at his stomach with a grimace.

"Korrrrr," the wizard-king said. "Korrrrrr—garrrrr. Korgar. Happy... Essa. Okay."

"Korgar?" I squeaked. Minus the piece I’d collected, I’d thought him gone forever, and his reappearance stirred feelings I hadn’t known were there.

But he didn’t answer—it was as though the big lunk had broken a dam. The wizard-king staggered backwards, clawing at his stomach as he screamed in a hundred thousand tongues. "No!" he shouted. "I was so close, I—fifty pence a go, Miss, only—SUFFER UNDER MY—GGkkgggglrrraoouullk—You may take my soul, but you will never take my freedoooo—"

With a shudder that wracked his decrepit frame, the wizard-king stopped mid-sentence and looked at me, eyes lucid. "Most noble Essandra!" he said.

If Korgar’s reappearance had stirred me, Elutriel’s picked me up, spun me around, and threw me down again. His death, after all, had been my own work. I collapsed to the ground, drained of adrenalin.

"Elutriel," I managed. "Oh Elutriel, I'm sorry."

"Hush, love of my life," Elutriel said through the wizard-king's lips. "This one said he would die for you, and he does not regret a moment of the time spent in your glorious presence!" Then: "Korgar. Happy. Too."

"I'll find a way to free you, both of you," I said. "I won't stop searching until I do."

"No, oh beauteous Essandra! The idiotic muscle-boun—Korgar. Stop. Puny. Pri—Interrupt me not, you brawny buffoon! Ahem. Korgar and I will keep the wizard-king at bay, here in his lair. Merely tell all that we died heroically in slaying the fiend; that is all that we ask you."

"No... no. This is my fault, and it's my mess to deal with. I'm taking you with me when I leave, and I'll look after you. Somehow." And if my eyes ran wet as I said those words, I swear it was only because of the dust left by the ceiling's partial collapse.

"Korgar. Want." said the wizard-king. "Quick, lass, hand me that goblet of wine before—TENTACLES, twice the size of a man!—and then she stabbed me right in the—SKSRRSSSAAA!" He wandered off into a corner of the throne room, ranting to himself. Himselves.

The heaps of gold which littered the room had melted in the blast of energy as Hrrnngnngrrrndr's souls were ripped from its blade, and the books—no doubt priceless—were in tatters. Poor Elutriel's body lay before the throne, what was left of his hair smoking gently.

I'd meant to come out of this adventure rich and famous, renowned as the woman who rid the world of the mad wizard-king's obsidian night. I'd even promised myself not to waste all our money on oil for Korgar's muscles this time. Instead, I'd doomed my companions to eternity inside a madman's head, destroyed countless treasures, and even turned Hrrnngnngrrrndr, the Sword of a Hundred Thousand Agonies, into the sword of none.

I stroked the sword's handle, marveling at how ratty its leather wrapping felt. Always, before, it had throbbed at my touch, and even through the cacophony of its hellish screaming there had been that sympathetic presence, the one soul that had rescued me so many times.

I'd felt more kinship with that soul in a dozen brief touches than I ever had with any lover. I had imagined that, one day, I would free it from its prison and run off into the sunset with its owner. It would turn out to be a fabulously wealthy prince, or a long lost hero of myth, and we would live out the rest of our days in decadent bliss. But that soul, like Korgar's and Elutriel's, had been absorbed by the wizard-king. It was lost to me.

I let the sword drop to the floor. At least it would be quieter now.

Hrrnngnngrrrndr's blade flashed blue. There was a soft, shimmering light, and a woman appeared, standing over the fallen sword. Her hair fell in ringlets to her waist, her tattered robe doing nothing to hide a perfectly toned stomach in a delicious shade of brown.

"By the teats of the snake-god's billion blood-starved young," she said, "I thought I'd never get out of that thing."

My jaw dropped. "You're," I said, skittering backward on my hands and feet. "You're... Are you...?"

"My dear Essandra," the woman said, setting her hands on her hips. "You're usually so much more eloquent. Didn't you want me? All of us could see your thoughts, you know, from inside the sword. Your dreams. Your hopes. Your most private fantasies."

"Ah," I said. "Um."

The woman smiled, then sat cross-legged a few inches off the floor and waited for me to find my tongue.

"But," I finally managed, "you're dead. I mean. Deader. I mean... The wizard-king absorbed you along with all the other souls. I felt you disappear!"

"Souls," she said with a snort. "If you could call them that. 600 years I've been in there, and not a single decent companion amongst them. They fled the sword, yes, but when you reached for me, you opened yourself. As the others flooded away, I found safe harbor in your love. In your desire. You saved me."

"I did?" I stammered.

"You did," she purred. "Now tell me, how might I reward you?"

And that's how I first truly met the disembodied soul of the woman who would not only win my heart, but make me Coruscating Queen of the Western Isles and the Eastern Jungles and everything between, ruler of all the scattered realms of this world.

What's left of them, anyway.

But that is a story for another time...


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