Part 3 of 3 in Strongman

The following feature is rated TG-13 for gratuitous violence, adult situations,

and improbable profanity.

Titanic Guidance is suggested for units of thirteen turns or younger.

 

Know, oh reader,

That between the years of the fall of the 99 Royals and their gleaming cities,

And the rise of the Tools, there was an Age undreamed,

When warring Sides spread across the world like a quilt beneath the stars.

Hither came Strongman, the Shimmerian,

Black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand,

A thief, a razer, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth,

To tread the jeweled thrones of Erfworld under his sandaled feet.

These are the Tales of Strongman the Barbarian, and his days of high adventure!

 

1

 

Night had fallen for the independent City Side of Zappa, whose history was one of violence and tragedy ever before it was a proper side.  Situated at the hub of many nations, each fought and croaked for the place until all realized the blighted land was not worth holding at such cost, and a treaty by all sides had them leaving it forever razed, a treaty that forbade them from conquest even after the great and terrible mercenary Frank founded his side upon the capital site.  Thus being born from a mercenary it became the home of all mercenaries of the region, unconquerable by treaty, and willing to sell it’s swords to any with the Shmuckers to pay for it.

The corrupt, the unwanted, the greedy, selfish, uncouth, and above all, violent peoples of all sides and regions congregated in the city of Zappa, creating a melding of madness and desire that reached its greatest concentration inside the Supermaul.  A place where even the powerballs did little but cast more murky shadows inside the dens of plunderers, the warrens of slavers, the gatherings of carrion, and the breeding pens of beast dealers. The howls of Creature Units and Men alike filled the air, as well as the stink of defecation that had piled up despite daily Cleansing.  The shadowy alleys held the unlucky corpses of those who made fatal mistakes in this lawless place, where even the guard units were corrupted to the core, waiting to be cleaned out like trash by the Titanic Power of Start of Turn.

In one such filthy hole of a tavern with nothing but na’er-do-wells and not an undamaged piece of furniture, or a wooden frame that was not shattered or sagging, a particular mercenary of great size and Heavy status stood, towering over the other thieves and rogues who crowded the bar.  Again he downed his ale, paid for with Shmuckers from his advance payment for the job he would be completing that night, intoxicating himself on stale dregs of alcohol even as part of his drink sloshed onto his bare barrel chest and protruding stomach. The naked gleam of his broadsword sparkled in the dim light of the one neglected powerball in the shop; sharp, honed, and well cared for even though the rest of the man’s adornment was stained and piecemeal was enough deterrent that the rest of the customers gave him wide berth and enjoyed the harlots, bar wenches, and games of chance that were being played with in all the shadowy bent corners of the rotten den of scum and villainy.

And with the courage of alcohol and confidence of experience, the stranger in the tavern’s midsts did gloat and brag.

“Yes, tonight is when I take my prize, my little helpless beauty,” his deep and slightly slurred voice bellowed.  “And when the turn starts tomorrow, she’ll be in my hands and out of the city. The bribes are all in place and I merely need collect my prize tonight, and my purse a’morrow after the pretty package is delivered.  And all in this city of Mercs and Thieves will marvel at my prowess as a kidnapper.”

The half-drunk lout laughed loudly at the thought, of one upping the entire population of a city famed for its thievery and vice.  All in the bar heard the man’s prattling, but it entered into none of their minds, for minding the business of others was a fast way to be left in a back alley to be swept away at Start of Turn.  But one man, a man whose face was cast in even deeper shadow than any others at the bar asked, “An’ who’s this poor wench you target tha’ would impress the likes’a us, great kidnapper?”

Falling to the good natured provocation, the giant of a unit bragged even further.

“Oh, she’s not just any wench, but a royal one.  A Princess popped not as a Warlady, but as a Courtesan.  Easy to grab, easy to control, easy to train… and easy on the eyes.  Aye, her beauty is unfit for the declinin’ side she be popped by, and it’s just fine by me, as her misfortune will make me a fortune greater than any you lot would see in a hundred turn.  Nay, in ten-hundred turns!”

The giant’s booming laughter resounded in the tavern, rankling the hair of many a cut-throat and cutpurse, gambler and harlotmonger alike.  But one man, the shadowy man, asked further, jovially nudging the stranger on.

“An’ wha’ is it that ya plan ta’do with the heavy purse yew’ll have on the ‘morrow, great kidnapper?”

“Why, anything, anything at all!  Why, I dare say I could buy even the greatest secret of the Tower of the LFN should I choose!”

And at this did the tavern finally react to the bragging of what every unit inside considered the greatest of fools, and uttered hushed condemnations, for even in such a dilapidated drinking den it was unwise to make jokes of such a terrible subject.  But as the populace of that putrid place actively tried to ignore the swill besotted Heavy, one figure and one figure alone approached the man, and resting a great and muscular hand on the bicep of one arm, asked, “I have heard the whispers of this LFN Tower.  What is it, and what are it’s secrets you speak of?”

The young mercenary, nay, from the pauperish looks of the man, the newly popped barbarian, the giant kidnapper supposed, was broad chested and broad shouldered.  His dark black hair was tousled about his muscular neck and his ice blue eyes did not contain malice. And so, to show this youngster, this new and willing audience, his place, the giant’s alcohol addled mind thought to continue his mirth at the opportunity of the barbarian’s ignorance.

“What is the tower,” repeated the giant, “Why it is the grand structure of gold, silver, and Gems that dominates the spectacle of the southern gardens.  It’s master and owner be none other than the High Mage Got’Cha, who keeps his greatest treasure, the LFN’s Heart, the artifact Gem that is the source of his power, safely sealed inside.”

The barbarian digested the knowledge, his eyes squinting in careful rumination, before saying, “I had seen this tower on my entry into the city.  It’s walls are low and unguarded, easy to scale. How is it that none have stolen into the tower and stolen away such a great treasure?”

The kidnapper was stunned, mouth agape, before his features twisted into cruel mirth.  HIs spittle laced laughter erupted loud and cruelly enough to bring the other patrons of the bar into his malice, echoing off the walls and sagging ceiling.

“Focus upon this fool,” cried the intoxicated giant.  “I suppose ye be a barbarian from the north, now aren’t ya?”

The kidnapper’s tone of voice held no complement of the direction the barbarian had in fact come from, and so the unit answered in a voice that too contained no friendliness, “I am Shimmerian.”

“Well… Shimmerian,” said the giant rogue with patronizing words as thick as the fogs covering the Pix jungles, “Listen and learn.  In the city of Zappa, nay, in the City of Mercs, the City of Rogues, the City of Villains… there is no shortage of great rogues and burglars.  There is no greater concentration of them in all the known Erfworld. And if the heist were capable of being done by any mortal thief, then it would have been done already.  You say there are no guards at the wall? Ye be right. No Man guards there at least. And even if no Man guards the grounds, they guard the first level with the only entrance as thickly as the hide of a Raging Bore.  Even if a thief could navigate the murderous gardens, they must still fight through the guards of the gates to reach their prize, for the Heart is housed on the taller floors of the tower.”

“Why can a unit not just climb the tower, and thus avoid the guards inside and out of the tower, then steal away with the prize,” asked the Shimmerian, who having seen the tower could recognize the copious gems decorating it’s walls to act like handholds for his powerful fingers and arms.

The kidnapper bellowed in even greater laughter, crying, “Hear the Erfbound unit who thinks himself one of the legendary Transylvitans, that he can lift to the skies as the whimsy takes him, avoiding the eyes of guard and patrol alike, and float daintily to the rim on the tower’s balconies that rest at only the height of thirty Men, above walls slicker than polished glass!”

The roar of laughter his words had caused chagrined and humiliated the barbarian, as it was picked up and echoed all around him by the denizens of the place he found himself that night.  The Shimmerian found no humor in their subject of mirth, and was more angered and confused by their reactions. For Zappa was the first “civilized” city he had entered outside his violent employment of previous occasions, and the blatant discourtesies of his time here bewildered him.  For those of civilized lands knew they could show such vulgarities and mockeries without having their skulls split, and thus, the fools around him had no concept of holding back their contempt. But despite all that, the barbarian stranger in their midsts would have retreated from the venue, his anger only simmering, if the kidnapper had not chosen to pursue him further.

“Come, come,” the beer soaked giant called, “Teach these thieves who have only been at their business multiple times your turncount their business!  Tell them how you would steal the fantastic Gem!”

“There is always a way, if the desire be coupled with courage,” retorted the barbarian, harassed out of his meekness.

“You dare insinuate that I’m a coward?  You fresh popped pup! Out of my sight with you!”

The giant gave a mighty shove to the Shimmerian, who, stumbling backwards, shouted, “You would insult me and then lay hands upon me?  Sit back, cur!” Then backhanded the face of the giant Heavy hard enough for him to fall back, rear side landing upon the cheap barstool.  The great brute had his ale slosh all upon him, and after a moment of stunned disbelief, he howled in anger, one hand reaching for the sword over his shoulder and the other for the stool under his seat, “I’ll have your head for a codpiece!”

The stool went flying, striking the dim powerball at the center of the room, sending it ricocheting into a corner, the light knocked out of it.  The bar was plunged into darkness as screams of terror, the sounds of scuffling, the panicked hurrying of bodies to find shelter from the obvious sounds of rage and grunts, steel and motion.  Impacts filled the room and a howl of pain, repeated three times before there was stillness but for the pounding of feet fleeing out the misshapen door. Moments later, a Man with presence of mind felt the Powerball at his foot, and picked it back up.  Willing it’s activation, the orb floated back to the center of the room, casting it’s dim light. What it revealed was that all the occupants of the bar were standing, hugging the walls, but for three exceptions.

The first was the Heavy kidnapper, sprawled on the ground with dagger marks in his chest, near the heart, resting on top of his broken blade.  The second was the Shimmerian, who’d disappeared. And the third was the oddly unnoticed absence of the stranger who’d sat at the bar, whose face was never clearly seen for the shadows that had covered it.

 

2

 

The dim dens of vice and cruelty faded into the distance behind the Shimmerian as he padded silently through the streets of the City of Rogues, carrying all his remaining Erfly possessions on his person; amounting to his helm, bracers, a fuzzy girdle, and the long dagger he’d nearly wagered in the game of chance he’d discovered earlier that day.  Without even Shmuckers for the coming Upkeep, the barbarian ran through the dense night in the empty streets, coming into the Temple District of Zappa.

The range was deserted but for the low chantings and moans of worship to the graven images of Greater and Lesser Titans alike, with strange smells of burnt spices and offerings hanging in the air.  For it was here that the archaic and ritualistic honoring of the makers of all existence was performed, and holy men, and men of wisdom came from all over to meet and debate the desires of their Titans and prophets.  The Shimmerian had once spent an afternoon there, listening to their carefully woven interpretations of the holy books from the libraries of the world, and found that they were all great fools who accomplished nothing more that day than making the blue eyed barbarian’s head hurt.  But they were fools with power, and the temples were places of strange danger, for when criminals tried to make profit from them, then bizarre croakings were never far behind.

Meddling with the Titans, great or small, were of no interest to the Shimmerian, for he felt he was already serving in his own way, being true to his instincts and wants.  He lived proud as the only Son of the great Shim, the mountain peak that dominated the Shimmering Mountains, and the barbarian’s pride had driven him to seek out the Tower of the LFN that night.

As the temples faded behind him, the Shimmerian came upon the Garden District, where all the nobles, royals, Chief and High mages of the various sides kept residence.  And amongst all those great villas and mansions, one monument stood head and shoulders above them all. Even in the moonlight did the Tower gleam in a pale mourning glow that seemed unnatural even for the residence of a Mage.  And not just any mage, but a Changamancer of such strange abilities that he exceeds the limitations of his art.

As the Shimmerian padded silently on his bare feet ever closer to the soaring structure, he did recall the story he’d heard of the Dark Mage Got’Cha, from the Page with haunted eyes in a bar.  While drowning his horror, the Page did recount the tale of what he’d seen that day, of what had happened to an uncouth prince that had sought to hire Got’Cha for some purpose required by his side.  So brash was the young prince upon Got’Cha’s dismissal that he incurred either the wrath or the interest of the Dark Mage (the Page didn’t know which would be worse) and so Got’Cha used the power of his fantastic Gem.  The light of the object he held from his hand shone upon the whelpling prince, and the Unit fell to the ground, howling in pain that rose, octave after octave until it was a squealing and inhuman shriek. And before long the figure of the prince had changed, shrunk, and distorted into disgusting blackened features before reforming into that of a latrine rat, a Rattapooie Vermin unit.  The once-a-prince vermin scurried around before a lance of power from Got’Cha impaled and croaked the once-a-man dead, while the High Mage roared with laughter.

The Shimmerian shivered in unaccustomed fear as his back reached the marble walls surrounding the Tower’s outer garden, for he’d thoroughly believed the words of the Page who was stricken by the terror of magic that was completely impossible to be performed by any but a Titan himself.  The Page was not alone in his terror. The Overlord of Zappa was also held by the spell of fear that the Dark Mage Got’Cha seemed to cast on all that resided in the city, as there was no taxes levied on the Dark Mage who’d appeared one day from nowhere with a caravan of his own mercenaries, and built the tower he resides in within a night.  The Dark Mage made sport of whoever and whatever he wished in the city of Zappa utilizing the strange powers of his arcane Gem. But despite his long lifespan, having outlived five overlords of the city that people can remember at least, the Shimmerian considered Got’Cha to be a man. And if there was anything the Shimmerian knew about men, it was that a few inches of steel in the right place would end them, no matter their greatness and power.

Increasing his resolve, for the Shimmerian had nothing to lose for he’d disband at dawn if he did nothing, the barbarian looked upon the tower above him.  There were no lights shining from within, indeed, there were no marks to indicate windows or balconies on the body of the tower itself but for the one at the very top.  No watchmen positioned above. No watchmen pacing the top of the wall he’d pressed himself against either. But there was the sound of chainmail whispering under the thick cloak and tunic of a night guardsman that the Shimmerian could hear over the wall.  One Man by the sound of it. Easy to avoid, and so the Shimmerian waited for him to pass.

The sound of the guard did pass, and so it should have passed again on the guard’s return from his round, but silence pervaded.  Curiosity overreached the Shimmerian’s prudence, and so he lept to grab the edge of the wall. In a single graceful, lupine motion, the Shimmerian hauled himself up and onto the outer garden’s wall to press his belly against the marble like a snake.  The Shimmerian’s eyes could catch no hint of motion from where he had vantage over, and so slid in and over into the garden itself. Slinking into the bushes, the barbarian strained his pale blue eyes and feral hearing, but caught naught but the light tinkle of a fountain from somewhere in the distance.  Gathering his will to risk exposure, the Shimmerian moved forward, his knees bent and his back stooped low with his head held far out as a cat might do if it were cursed with a human frame.

As he proceeded in this fashion, the Shimmerian nearly stepped upon the body of the patrolling guard near the edge of the shrubbery next to the wall protecting the inner gardens.  With a quick check, the barbarian confirmed the exed eyes in the moonlight, with no visible marks to explain his demise. The mystery of how the guard had been slain so silently and in the few seconds it took for the Shimmerian to navigate the wall and the garden raked at the barbarian’s nerves, when his Spot Check let him see the faintest flicker of motion in the shrubs next to the wall to the inner gardens.

The Shimmerian strained his eyes and made out a stooped, thin, but tall figure (much relief the Shimmerian felt on realizing the figure was that of a Man) that seemed to realize eyes were on it in some primal fashion, as it released a slight gasp and surged towards the barbarian with his hands stretched out.  The Shimmerian’s dagger left the sheathe just as quick, and he held it in a defensive posture as it glinted, having caught the moonlight. The figure pulled back ever so slight, recategorizing it’s potential movements and it’s foe. Then, after a long moment of stillness and silence, there was the glint of a smile on the figure’s face as the Man said, “You are no guard.  You are a thief like myself.”

“And who are you,” asked the barbarian, working to keep suspicion and aggression out of his voice in this strange place.

“I am Costner, of the Holly Woods.”

The Shimmerian lowered his weapon, slightly starstruck as he whispered, “Men call you the Prince of Thieves.”

The clouds parted in that mysterious way and the Shimmerian caught better sight of this man who is part myth.  Standing tall with a lythe but muscular body and a number 8 tattooed on his upper arm, with unkempt sandy blond hair trickling past his ears and a ragged brown patchwork vest and pants.  The smug and self satisfied grin on his face was hidden once again with the shifting of the clouds like he’d never been there, but for his faint silhouette, as he said, “Aye, some Men call me that.  And what is it that Men call you?”

“I am Strongman, the Shimmerian, and I came to steal away the Gem known as the Heart of the LFN.”

“By the Blue Suede Shoes,” muttered Costner in amusement, but there was no hint of derisiveness in his tone.  “I thought there were no others in this supposed City of Rogues with the steel and fire to attempt this act, for a superstitious lot they all turned out to be.  I’ve taken a liking to you Strongman the Shimmerian. I usually don’t share top billing, but I’d be willing to have this adventure with you.”

“Then you too seek the heart?”

“Why else would I be in such a place?  I’d been prepping for this role for many a turn, laying plans and gathering props.  But I take it you are here as an improv act.”

“Then you croaked the guard?”

“Certainly I did.  I came up behind him as he passed me in the bushes, and in my grip did I whisper to him the tale of Ray Kinsella, causing him to swiftly croak of boredom.  The acting was simple, and I played it to perfection.”

To the man’s mild boast, Conan said, “You made one mistake though.”

“And that was,” Costner responded with veiled annoyance in his voice.

“Leaving the body in the open for other guardsmen to find.  It should have been hidden in the bushes like we were.”

Costner gave a single stiff chortle and said, “The body will be cleansed by morning if the guard is not missed, and the finding of him by a search party will raise audible alarm to give us the chance of escape in case he is missed.  We lose nothing by leaving him exposed, but potentially gain everything.  But come Strongman, we’re not being paid by the line, and this exposition will not yield any box office results.  Over the wall we go, silent, and then we do not move once we reach the other side. For the next set of guards we face will not be the race of Men.”

Strongman dipped his head slightly in assent, and over the wall the two went, landing lightly on their feet.  And as ordered, Strongman did not move, but did wait, dagger out and ready, his sinews taught for action. All around them the inner gardens were filled with lush bushes of exotic appeal and plants of flowering magnificence.  But it seemed to Strongman that there was another, deeper, more dangerous scent in the air than that of mature flowers. And as if answering his convictions, the shrubbery some twenty paces away gently moved. The Shimmerian’s sharp eyesight caught the silhouette and coloring of the lurker in the dark, and as other similar forms made themselves visible to him, spoke aloud in a barely audible whisper.

“Tigers.”

“Nay,” replied Costner.  “Tonies.”

And so Strongman made out the bowties the beasts wore, and that half seemed to be grimacing, and the others smiling, their fangs bare and ready to be used.  No less than five of the beasts were slowly advancing upon the duo, making absolutely no sound. If Strongman had advanced without Costner’s warning of their presence, he had no doubt he’d have been caught from behind.

“How are they so quiet,” breathed Strongman aloud in dread.

“No doubt it’s a part of the strange magics of this place.  It is they who confounded me the most. But I have just the tool to deal with them.  Stay by the wall Strongman, and be ready to leap back and over if the winds change.”

Costner slipped something from his pack and lightly stepped forward, putting it to his lips as he did so.  His chest expanded and with barely the sound of displaced air, a light yellow mist was breathed out of the tube and extended through the gardens, even as Costner hurried backward to place himself in direct contact with the cold marble of the inner wall.  The mist hung heavy and obscured the gardens. No sound came from it, and none from inside it. Strongman breathed the question, “What is this that you have unleashed?”

Costner spoke then, as though reciting a monologue.

“It is the powdered petals of a particularly nasty flower that was given to me as a gift by the Overlady held captive by her own side in a far away land.  Just the reaching of this place was a full length tale, as was my return. This is the whole stock, and I doubt I will ever see it’s kind again. Not lightly did I choose to use it here, and I do not regret it so, for see, how it has pacified the unhuman watchmen of this place?”

And so it did, for as Strongman looked, he could see the figures of the Tonies on the ground.  No longer were they dangerous, as they simple stared into the night, or played gently with phantoms of their own creation in their unfocused eyes before they all fell into deep, unfathomable slumber.

Once the cloud had dispersed completely, Costner turned and said, “Let’s move!  We only have sixteen hours before they wake up!”

The duo crept up to the side of the tower, where Strongman lightly felt the surface.  Smooth as glass, like the fool at the tavern said. And much to Strongman’s chagrin, the gems in the side were not exposed enough for him to use as handholds.  Nor could he exert Possession on them to dissolve them into his purse and make handholds of the openings they would have left behind.

“How will we enter the tower, Costner?”

Strongman’s question was met with a finger to lips shush.  Then Costner, in silent mimicry to pass information, put his extended index fingers on each side of his head and started bucking it upwards.  Strongman could make neither head nor tails of this act, until Coster pulled a knotted cord and grapnel from his pack. The man had meant they would be climbing upwards to the skyward balcony, thereby bypassing the guards at the Erfbound entrance.  It would have been much more clear if he’d been more skilled in emoting his intentions.

Costner took a long step out and away from the edge of the tower, and began swinging the grapnel at the end of his cord, gaining speed and power before tossing it high into the sky.  The grapnel came down without catching anything however, and Strongman was pressed to grab the iron instrument before it came thudding loudly into the ground. With a hint of embarrassment, Costner took the grapnel in hand and began to swing it again.  Prince of Thieves he may be, but it seemed that Costner was not known for his accurate casting.

As Costner built up speed and weight behind the motions of the grapnel, Strongman’s hackles stood on end.  His deep, dark, primal instincts as a Northman told him that something was wrong, and the took a slow breath through his nose as if confirming his suspicions.  Suddenly the Shimmerian wheeled about, his dagger flashing out to leap early into the outstretched arms of a pouncing Tony. To the ground the two forms fell and rolled over once before coming to a dead halt.  Costner aborted his throw and set aside his hook and cord and hurried to his companion.

Pulling the two delicately apart, Costner saw that Strongman’s dagger had caught the Tony, this one with a red bandanna around its neck, behind the jaw and had stabbed upwards into its brain.  In fascinated horror, the Prince of Thieves broke his own silence and asked, “Are you alright Strongman?”

“Yes, I am alright.  Thankfully I was able to react in time.”

“Indeed, friend.  I must admit, those reflexes of yours, they’re grrrreat.  But even so it was only by luck that we were able to survive the encounter.  The Tony must have been occupying a different part of the garden to have avoided my mists.  Doubtlessly we will face stranger dangers inside. Do you still have the mettle to enter with me, Strongman?  For I would not judge thee badly for wanting to quit the adventure after such a close call.”

“I will go as far as any man, even if that other man is you,” replied Strongman, pushing aside the vague thought that Costner had an accent that he gained and lost at random.

Costner affirmed Strongman’s conviction and the two shook hardy hands with each other before the Prince of Thieves took another attempt at throwing the grapnel.  This time it took hold, hard and fast, and Strongman had the thought before they started pulling themselves up the length of the cord that one good casting out of three was not that bad.

As they reached the top, Costner pulled himself over first and offered a hand to Strongman to bring him over the gemmed railing.  Regaining solid purchase beneath their feet, the two slowly skulked over to a single door of gold trimmed in silver that stood as the single entrance into the tower from the balconies.  Opening the door softly, the two thieves peered inside to see that all the surfaces were of the same pure gold with shining gems inlaid. The only light came from a decorative fireplace that shone with the light of powerballs on standby.  Extravagant furnitures decorated the room and sullen chests with heavy lids lay nearby the fluffy couches of fine silk. But there was not a soul to be seen inside.

Costner turned to Strongman and said, “Pull the line up so that it cannot be found, then check the grounds to be sure no alarm has been raised.  Take thine time, Strongman, and be sure of your scouting. I will await you inside before we move further in.”

The instruction seemed strange to Strongman, and a hint of suspicion flicked through the Shimmerian’s thoughts.  But no, this was an adventure that Costner had invited him upon. If the man thought this measure was required, then Strongman would oblige.  And so Costner stole inside the room, shutting the door behind him while Strongman returned to the opulent railing of the balcony. Strongman did not know the method to curling a climbing line of rope, and thus his method of pulling in the line, while silent, was quick and messy.  His circuit around the balcony rim, observing the ground for suspicious movement, was far more thorough. There were no movements from the grounds or any alerted patrols beyond. The night was as dead and still as a frozen lake. It was about when Strongman had finished returned to the point where the climbing cord was gracelessly dumped in a pile that Strongman heard the muffled scream from inside the tower.

Electricity surged through the Shimmerian’s veins as he dropped low and approached the door, blade bared and ready for use, when the door opened and out stumbled a deathly pale Costner, who’s obviously numb fingers had opened the opulent portal.  Outside, onto the balcony, Costner stumbled and fell. After striking the ground, the door he’d exited through swung to, being closed by some unseen force. Caution and alarm leaped through Strongman’s mind and instincts, but he mastered them both to swiftly approach his co-conspirator in this buddy-adventure he found himself in.

Turning Costner over, Strongman found his face and body to be as pale as a fresh sheet, and cold to the touch.  Ever so slightly did Costner shiver and his fingers lightly twitched, as though to try and grab some obstruction.  But for that the man was still, and his face emotionless. His eyes gazed lifelessly, and some few faint words escaped his throat.  They were meant to be imbued with agony and loss, the meaningful last impressions of a life lived on his own terms that had been brought to ruin, but with whatever strange manner of affliction, they sounded hollow, emotionless, and dull.

“My boat,” said Costner with a face as expressionless as wax, and then he breathed no more.

Strongman took a moment to mourn the passing legend, and then set about checking the man’s body.  The Shmucker contents of his purse were taken by Strongman, but no other property was present. Also, there were no visible signs of violence except for a couple of tiny puncture wounds at the base of the man’s neck, mostly covered by the fabric of the tattered vest.  Two tiny holes, blacked at the edges and smelling of putrefaction. A type of poison, no doubt. But how it was administered was a mystery. For whatever weapon had delivered the concoction of Costner’s demise had been removed, leaving only the clue that there was something of intelligence inside that sealed chamber.  And that it must have crept upon the Prince of Thieves unseen in order to deliver it’s lethal strike.

Strongman stood up from his inquiries with the cold body at his feet and looked back to the rim of the tower where his companion’s hook and line still lay.  Strongman now had a purse that would last him many turns, and provide many amusements in that time. There was no longer a need to steal the LFN’s Heart to secure his upkeep.  He could turn back, and evade any questions about this Titan’s forsaken place, pretend he’d never set foot inside. Only Strongman would know the truth, that it’s unseen dangers had turned him away.

Strongman took hold of his dagger and swiftly opened the door to the tower’s uppermost chamber, half expecting to be instantly confronted by Costner’s executiioner, and half expecting to be greeted by no visible dangers.  It was Strongman’s second expectation that was met, for the room was still standing empty of all but the furniture and the dim light of the fireplace. There was one change from when Costner had first entered the room, when Strongman had seen it through the doorway from the edge of the balconies outside.  That difference was that one of the chests had it’s lid open and some of the Gems inside were neatly piled next to it, as though it had been in the middle of being searched before there was an interruption. Strongman pushed any recrimination aside for the croaked man, and focused his mind to detecting the invisible dangers inside the room.  The silken couches held bizaar patterns that twisted the eyes that looked upon them. The floor was a single slab of marble. The curved dome of the ceiling held strange architecture to maintain its weight that created disturbing shadows from the dim powerballs in the fireplace. And at the far end of the chamber was another door of opulent splendor that was firmly shut.  Had whatever croaked Costner come from, and then retreated back through, that door?

Strongman slowly entered the chamber, closing the door he’d passed through behind him.  With the exit sealed behind him Strongman advanced forward on now bare feet, not trusting his sandals to keep from betraying him through some friction with the cold, bare floor.  Strongman stepped only on the balls of these bared feet, ready to lunge or leap as the need arose. Strongman’s long dagger was held out before him, ready to strike or parry. Strongman kept a vigilance on the far door, while still trying to keep his every sense aware of all that was around him.  Even the periphery of his vision was taking careful note of the shadow his own body cast on the side wall from the powerballs in the fireplace. Slowly Strongman moved with tiny steps, never making sound and never losing the apex of his wariness and balance.

The slight flicker of a shadow on the wall that was not his own caused strongman to push the ball of his right foot against the ground, flinging himself to the left, to roll his shoulder against the marble floor, ending in a predatory crouch.  The feeling of liquid fire stung Strongman’s right shoulder partway through the maneuver, and he saw the source of that pain as his’ eyes came up to behold the strange horror in front of him.

It was a Spidew, but not one that should have ever existed.  The normal arachnic unit would have been large enough to mount, but this monstrosity was only about the size of a hog on a farm.  It’s body had been perverted and misized, almost certainly by the magics of the dreadful Changamancer of this Tower, who could Change that which Could Not Be Changed.  But it was not just the creature’s size that seemed to have been altered, for when the creature hissed at Strongman, small drops of green liquid squirted from it’s maw, and sizzled on the marble floors.  It’s venoms had been made far more potent and now made it a far more dangerous close combat special. It was this beast unit that had lowered itself on the distracted Costner from it’s shadowy perch in the ceiling, and struck unseen before hiding itself away again.  It had very nearly claimed Strongman’s life in the very same sneak attack just now, but for Strongman’s overexerted senses. But now Strongman knew the form of his enemy, as horrible as it was, and moved to strike the beast with his blade.

The spidew also moved to strike, aiming for the Shimmerian’s bare leg.  Strongman made a clumsy leap to avoid the movement, for a single graze from this monster’s fangs would mean certain demise.  From his airborn posture, Strongman could not summon his full strength, and could only slice hard enough to cleave a single one of the spidew’s eight legs from it’s body.  The creature clicked and screeched in anger and pain as it’s charge turned into a retreat. The monster swiftly reached the wall and climbed to the ceiling, gaining the cover of the shadows before performing it’s next attack.  Swiftly, it swing out from the dark on a grey cord of spidew silk, another ability it should never have possessed. This grim swing brought the creature within a breath of nipping at Strongman’s body as the Shimmerian swerved to avoid the creature and its web alike.  For Strongman instinctively knew that the web would be sticky to the touch, and being caught by it would leave him open to being swiftly croaked by his inhuman opponent. This supposition was proven correct when the spidew attached the end of the silk it had swung on to the wall, creating an obstructing cord in the middle of the chamber, ever so slightly limiting Strongman’s ability to move freely inside.

Strongman’s gut went hollow as he realized this new tactic of the beast, and broke quickly for the door to the balcony.  Now that Strongman knew the identity of this previously unseen bringing of death, he would be able to prepare countermeasures on another night, instead of fighting a losing battle inside of its den.  Strongman needed only return later with jars of flaming oils to bypass this strange gatekeeper, such was the barbarian’s thought as he hastened to make his retreat. But this was obviously not the first time the creature had trapped an intruder in it’s nest, as it quickly scuttled and lept along the wall to reach the door to the balcony before Strongman, and laid a sticky silken cord across the door’s knob and jamb,  sealing it closed. Strongman could use his dagger to clear the webs away, but the blade would stick in the material and take extra time for clearing it away. It would leave Strongman open to attack, and without a weapon as well. Strongman was well and truly caught in the spidew’s trap as it scuttled back to the ceiling to swing it’s treacherous paths through the room. Sometimes swinging dangerously close to the Shimmerian, and sometimes moving only to leave grey cords of dense thread hanging precariously, closing off Strongman’s ability to move freely in the room, little by little.

Strongman would strike back at the devilish little monster every chance he could, and was able to sever another of the beast’s legs during one of it’s mortal swinging plunges.  But the room had quickly filled with spidew thread, hemming him in on all sides. Finally, Strongman stepped back to avoid one of the spidew’s swift swinging attacks, and felt something catch at the heel of his foot.  As Strongman tried to complete his dodge of the spidew’s attack, he felt that something tug at him, there was the sound of wood scraping, and he was brought down hard onto his back, with the wind knocked from his lungs.  Strongman instinctively looked towards his foot, and saw that at some unseen time the spidew had attached a silken cord to the legs of the couches, and left them there as a sticky tripwire. Strongman had fallen for the ploy as all of his attention had been kept watching for attacks from above, while the beast slowly sealed the room off, maneuvering Strongman into the snare.

There was the sensation of something striking the dagger in Strongman’s hand, and looking over he saw that another thread had been dropped onto the blade of the weapon, draping over it and adhering it to the marble floor.  Strongman was now snared and weaponless as the spidew took precise position above Strongman. The Shimmerian could see the beady red eyes shining in the dark, curled into menacing satisfaction as the creature sprung forth to deliver the final croaking blow!

In frustration, Strongman cried out and swung his only remaining possession at the beast, his calloused hand wrapped around one of the horns of his helm as the second horn connected with and penetrated the body of the spidew.  The enraged force behind the attack was enough to deflect the angle of the spidew’s plunge, causing it to land next to Strongman instead of atop him. Strongman immediately began to grapple with the beast, releasing his hold of his horned helm to press down and pin the body of the spidew against the marble.  Strongman’s left hand reached out, gripped something hard, and brought it crashing down against the fanged maw of the spidew. With a resounding crack, the large transparent white gem smashed the creature’s fangs. The second impact destroyed some of it’s eyes. And each of the remaining impacts distorted and flattened various parts of the creature’s black hairy features.  Even after Strongman felt his Experience leap from taking the creature’s life he continued to pound it, green venomous spittle attached to and being flung away from the precious gem that was used as a weapon, the point repeatedly penetrating the ruined creature’s head. For this was no longer about survival, but the venting of Strongman’s boiled over emotions.

After Strongman’s instincts had been satisfied, he looked closely at the priceless gemstone he’d used as a weapon, and with an oddly satisfied smirk on his face, let it dissolve into sparkles to be turned into shmuckers to be added to his personal, now overabundant, wallet.  Strongman also picked up a few of the more transportable and valuable gems for his pouch inventory from the ground before extricating his dagger from the threads that pinned it, and used it to remove the threads snaring his foot before then retrieving his horned helm. It was the same helmet he’d received as payment from Proude the Vainerhead far to the north.  How many times had it saved his life at this point?

Strongman was suddenly very grateful he’d not gambled it away, as he’d done with all his other property.  Perhaps gambling was not the best use of his Shmuckers after all? It was exciting, but women and wine gave much more satisfaction.  Yes. From now on, Strongman would no longer gamble too recklessly with his funds. He would only gamble such with his life.

Strongman carefully moved to the door that led further into the Tower, opened it, and moved inside.  Such horrors and treasures he’d already seen, already claimed. How much more strange and precious would this Heart of the LFN be?  Strongman could now only seek this answer out, as his sense of adventure would no longer let him turn back, even if it meant fighting through all the strange traps and powers of the Caster Got’cha.

 

3

 

Strongman cautiously descended the spiral staircase and pressed his ear to each door he came upon.  The first opened to a laboratory of such alien strangeness and murk that nothing of value to a sane man could possibly be kept within.  The second led to a store room of forgotten items, covered in forgotten leathers and burlaps that would be covered in dust despite daily cleansing, except some strange magic kept them all clean as though newly stored.  No precious item would be kept there. The third door opened upon a gleaming lavatory of opulent splendor that Strongman was bewildered at the wastefulness of such a chamber. Strongman had only a short business to be conducted there.  It was the fourth chamber that Strongman found that held his Fate that night.

As with the other gold and silver inlaid portals, Strongman gently pushed it open with nary a sound to disclose his passage.  Of all the rooms of the Tower Strongman had visited, this was the most lavish and opulent by far. Artworks carved from ivory decorated the walls and pedestals.  Great tapestries of mind bending design hung upon the walls. The pillars holding the great domed ceiling of inlaid arts forged from precious metals and gems were held by columns of jade.  Lush carpets laid out a path from the door to a great marble couch on the far end, with incense burning in braziers on either side of it. And seated atop the couch was an idol of such otherworldly nature that Strongman, who had seen many things tonight already, was stunned into silence.

Strongman crept forward to get a closer look at the enshrined statue, seemingly carved from alabaster so pure white that it could be chalk instead.  It was the lean figure of a man, naked and lythe, but it’s head was that of another creature entirely. The head was bulbous and oversized. It held great eyes that were closed in meditation or slumber, Strongman could not tell which.  There were enormous ears that draped down, spreading a cloak behind the idol’s back. There were two greats tusks on either side of a large, closed mouth, with a great jointless arm in between them instead of a regular nose. It was the same shape as the head of the LFN golem that Strongman had once seen a foreign prince ride into battle, crushing all under its path.

And so now Strongman knew the reason for the name of the Tower, for this LFN idol was Got’Cha’s strange Titan that he prayed to for his powers.  And since this was the chamber that housed that strange beings likeness, shouldn’t the receptacle that housed the wondrous Artifact be the idol itself?  For the Gem was named the Heart of the LFN. With such a conclusion, Strongman crept ever forward, to stand before the idol, studying it’s face for any latch or lever to release the hidden cache of treasure.  It was there, in such close proximity to the carvings, that the eyes of the idol opened fully, and focuses their bright pink gaze upon the eyes of Strongman.

Terror seized the Shimmerian, a terror so great that all other fears of the night had been miniscule in comparison and seized his body ridgid, for the feral instincts of Strongman told him such a thing, such a living being, was impossible by all designs of sane life.  It was not an idol that Strongman had crept up on, it was alive, a living Demon and he was now trapped in its lair.

Then the creature’s head moved, by mere fractions, searchingly.  And Strongman’s instincts told him the Demon’s eyes were without sight, providing him the chance of escape.  Strongman slowly stepped backwards, but the minute rustle of the carpet beneath his feet gave him away. And then the great mouth of the Demon moved, and civilized Language that should have been impossible for such a deformed maw to release were uttered.

“Who is here?  Have you come to torture me again, Got’Cha?  Will you never be done? Oh, Titans, is there no end to agony?”

Great tears then rolled from the corners of those sightless eyes, halting Strongman’s retreat, prompting him to look at the idol once again, looking at it as though it were a living being.  And then Strongman saw the signs of long term torture on the creature, of torture so long lasting that not even Cleansing could repair them. The ears that formed a cape were tattered with great rending tears.  The joints of the creature's hands and legs were twisted beyond use from repeated breaks and fractures. The body held no muscles by which to do more that just hold up the creature’s great head. There was no danger of this primordial Demon standing to attack Strongman.  And with that revelation of safety, all fear, all revulsion, all wariness left Strongman, and was replaced by a great pity. Strongman could only see before him a being that had once held great power, but was reduced by cruelty and horror he could not imagine into this fragile form that projected only suffering.  A suffering so great that Strongman himself felt ashamed of the Titanic tragedy that was before him, as though just by sharing the same species as Got’Cha meant he held some responsibility for the Demon’s torment.

“I am not Got’Cha,” said Strongman, when he’d struggled past the guilt of his presence before the once great beast.  “I am only a thief. I will not harm you.”

The creature was taken aback for a moment, and in a faltering voice, asked, “Come near that I may touch you.”  And Strongman walked before the blind creature without fear, and allowed the sensitive trunk that was the beast’s nose grope over his face and shoulders, seeking the way a Naturally Blind unit might in sensing minute details of another, but with a touch as gentle as a breeze.

“You are not one of Got’Cha’s enslaved spirits or summoned monstrosities, indeed.  Nor a Man tainted by his control. The purity of the northern snows resides in your soul, alongside the rugged strength of the mountains.”

“I was popped by Shim itself.”

“And yet, not only by Shim,” continued on the LFN man, its blind eyes seeming to see beyond this physical world.  “For I know this touch of Fate that rests upon you, whose nature I too once knew in the Editions long past. ...There is death upon your hands, Shimmerian.”

“A Tony in the gardens, and a Spidew in this Tower.”

“Yet you have also slain a Man this night, and there is death in the tower above as well.  I feel; I know.”

“Aye.  The career of the Prince of Thieves has come to an end.”

“One in the tavern; one on the path; the third will complete the magic,” said the LFN as though it were a chant, and then it’s voice took on a triumphant volume.  “I know; I feel. The magic of my deliverance that Got’Cha could never dream of; thanks be to the Titans!”

Tears of joy now flowed from the eyes of the man-beast, and it’s ruined ears flapped in celebration.  They moved almost as if they were a celebratory dance of great tradition and intricate design, leaving Strongman gazing upon them, bewildered.  After the celebrations of the LFN came to an end, it spoke again, low and confidential as the trunk beckoned Strongman to draw closer.

“Oh, Man, listen well.  I am certain my form is foul and monstrous to you, I feel; I know.  But it is the same for me. For in Editions past, Ages past, at the beginning of this Erf was the Alpha Age, when creations of great wonder and power were produced by the Titans to populate the Map of Erf.  My people were one of them. I am not a Titan, a Demon, or a monster. But one that pre-dates the species of Man. My tribe, the Elle’Effen, were amongst the first popped. We created many Sides, many great cities of such power and Level.  I myself was the king of my tribe, my true name lost to the Turns of the Tides and known only as the Titus, enthroned in the greatest of level 10 capitals, the shining city of Dumbeaux. So great were we, so powerful, that we thought we could not be touched by any power of Erf.

“And so then came the turning of the Age, when my peoples were cast down from our Status as punishment for our flagrant arrogance towards the Titans, our makers, to the role of Natural Allies.  Our great cities were razed, our peoples starved for Upkeep. Great landscapes we ruined in Destructive Foraging, but it was not enough to sustain us all. And then game the Great Retconflagration.

“My people survived it, barely.  Our numbers amounted to less than a score by the time the Current Edition began, and the 99 Kings and Queens of Man were enthroned.  We could have once again found a home, allied to a Side of power to fuel our repopulation. But the ability to pop more of my kind had long been stripped from my Race.  And so we sought out isolation, solitude, and peace. In the depths of mountainous jungle did we make our home, and the low-popped barbarian tribe of the region accepted us as their rulers, as their Titans made flesh, and worshipped us, and we in turn kept them safe and supplied with Upkeep from our wisdom and power.  But never were that tribe able to be uplifted by us, for that was how dark and brutish their ways were.

“The thousand turns wore on.  Though ageless my people were, immortal we were not.  Slowly my brethren were croaked by conflict, famine, or misadventure, until I was the sole remaining member of my people.  Eventually I found myself isolated and robbed of all company, for what could a worshipper offer me of companionship? Then came the young Got’Cha, the daring explorer who found his way to my magically closed off lands.  He was still young then, but well versed in the dark arts I had thought lost when the Beta Edition had ended. To my ruin, he piqued my interests, and I allowed him to study at my feet. But what I taught him did not satisfy his desires, for what I shared was beneficial magic, and what he wanted was magic to control, destroy, and dominate.

“Even then; even seeing that fiendish ambition in him, I did continue to keep him as a student.  But I did not see the depths of his wisdom. With great guile and trickery, he got me to divulge secrets I had not intended to bare; turning my own power against me and enslaving me to him.  Since then, my nightmare had started. Using my power he annihilated the Tribe I had been protecting all those thousand turns. He rode me as a beast of burden, lashing and burning me at all points of our travels.  He turned over thrones and left sides in ruin, collecting power and wealth as he did. All the while, he tormented me for more secrets, more knowledge of the ages past, sacrificing entire populations for his own empowerment.  Finally weary of travel, he set down this tower using the magic he carves from me, and by tortures foul beyond your imaginings pulled all the secrets from this broken and ruined form. Or rather, nearly all.

“The last of my gifts to Got’Cha will be given tonight, as the sorcery of the Blood and the Gem.  And it is you, noble Barbarian that will be the one to deliver my gift. For I feel the guidance of Fate upon you.  With your aid I will complete a Great Sorcery, not seen since Editions past, and shall never be seen again. By my life-blood, the Blood of the Titus, I conjure it, blood made by the Titans themselves in the primordial wastes of First Creation.  Shimmerian, take up yonder Gem you will find behind that tapestry.”

Just as he was bidden by the Elle’Effen Titus, Strongman brushed a heavy tapestry aside and found a heavy locked cabinet of metal and wood inlay so intricate that it in itself could be considered a treasure.  The lock of the panels clicked audibly, doubtlessly from the aid of the magic of the Titus, and Strongman pulled the doors open without need for a key. Inside lay a Gem of clarity and deep crimson color that he had never seen before, and likely would never see the like of again.  Picking it up, Strongman felt instinctively that it would be impossible to cash the Gem out for Shmuckers, as it’s value was far to great for any side’s treasury to hold.

“Now, bring it hither, Shimmerian.”

As he was commanded, Strongman brought the gem before the Titus.

“Set the Gem down, and take up your blade.”

Strongman set the Gem down, the largest side flat on the marble bench beside the Titus with the pointed end facing the domed ceiling.  Strongman pulled his long dagger from of it’s confining sheath.

“Take your weapon, Man, and cut out my heart; then squeeze it so that the blood will flow over the red stone.  Then go you down the stairs and enter the ebony chamber where Got’Cha sits wrapped in his Flower-Power induced dreams of domination and power.  Speak his name and he will awaken. Then lay this Gem before him, and say, ‘The Titus gives you one last gift and a last enchantment.’ Then get you from the tower quickly; fear not, for your way shall be made clear.  For I shall have been freed from this weakened, crippled form, and be renewed in ways unfathomable to man.”

It was fine to give such instructions, but they perplexed Strongman for the most part.  One of which was the act of carving out a heart for the substance called “blood.” Strongman had knowledge that such things existed, but the forms they took seemed different from what the Titus seemed to believe them to be.  Perhaps sensing the barbarian thief’s hesitation, the trunk of the Elle’Effen Titus indicated where the blade was to go, and he said, “Strike swiftly, Shimmerian, and set me free!”

Strongman punched his dagger into the chest of the beast, who released no cries of pain, but as the “blood” started to flow, it released a satisfied sigh, and quickly released it’s hold on life.  Strongman’s mind suddenly felt captive to his body, the cries of revulsion and disgust at coating his hands in the red, hot substance that flowed from the hole he carved went unheeded, and his hands worked by themselves.  The heart of the Titus was cut free, and Strongman laid his dagger aside as he pulled the organ from the lifeless form it had once resided in. And with the great strength of his hands did Strongman squeeze all the murky liquid from the Titus’ heart, spilling it over the surface of the Gem.

But the liquid did not spill over.  Each drop touched the deeply inclined side of the upward pointed Gem and runneled down the surface only to be absorbed into the solid form, as if it was drinking up the blood.  After exhausting the resources of the heart, Strongman gingerly laid it aside and picked up the Gem. All the blood that was on his hands were slowly pulled towards and into the Gem’s surface, much to Strongman’s horror.  But once more Strongman’s body did not obey him. As though in a dream he moved; walking from the domed chamber to the stairs, and down the stairs passing by doors he knew did not contain Got’Cha.

Finally, Strongman found himself standing before a door of ebony that he unhesitatingly pushed open.  Inside was a chamber of obsidian, ebony, brassworks, and darkened gems of intricate and sinister design.  And sitting upon a throne of disturbing make, showcasing the devilish power of the one atop it, was Got’Cha, with a used pipe resting on a tray to his right as he reclined back with eyes glazed over by visions only the Dark Mage himself could understand.

“Got’Cha,” said Strongman sharply.

The Dark Mage stirred from his slumbers, instantly sober and aware of his surroundings, and called, “Dog!  What do you here?!”

Strongman bowed courteously, his hands outstretched with the Heart of the LFN, and then rested it upon the ebony table that sat at the foot of the dais the Dark Mage’s throne rest upon, saying, “He who sent this Gem bade me to say, ‘The Titus gives you one last gift and a last enchantment.’”

The sun burnt features of Got’Cha showed revulsion and horror as he cringed away, deep into the seat of his throne, at the sight of the Gem.  It was no longer a clear, clean crimson. It’s depths had become a murky red the color of the Titus’ blood, wracked by waves and pulses of power.  The surface shone and shimmered with colors that were impossible to be found in any light source without. And Got’Cha’s face slowly moved from horror, to show the features of a man entranced.

Got’Cha slowly stood up from his throne, and Strongman finally got a good look at the man.  His countenance was sinister, of course. But he had a tall frame of imposing majesty despite the bald head and hairless face, devoid even of eyebrows.  The sun bronzed skin shone through the lavishly embroidered and decorated robe that covered most of his form. And his internal strength and cruelty were fascinating to see in person.  But something about the man diminished as he took each step down the stairs before him to reach the Gem. It took a few moments for Strongman to recognize what it was until the Dark Caster Got’Cha had reached the floor, and took his first step on even terrain.  For Got’Cha was shrinking in size with every step he took.

With a feeling of being detached from all reality, Strongman stood rigid, the impossible nature of the events playing out before him holding him hard and fast as he watched in fascinated horror.

Got’Cha continued forward until he leaned over the ebony table and took hold of the gem with his hands, not lifting it, but just holding it as he stared into its magma depth.  Got’Cha’s bent over pose shifted to keep his gaze locked on the gem even as his form dwindled, until he was no longer bent over to see it from so close, since his form had been reduced to the size of a marbit.  As his form was reduced more, he climbed onto the table to keep his gaze locked on the Gem. When Got’Cha was the size of a bird, he seemed to realize the trap he had been ensnared by, and pulled his hands away from the surface of the Gem.  But still did his form reduce in size.

The shrinking figure of Got’Cha shouted curses at the Gem, flailed it’s arms and sent its power at the surface of the LFN’s Heart.  But the resistance seemed to do nothing to prevent the diminishment of Got’Cha’s frame. Then the Caster began to run, he tried to reach the edge of the table, probably to leap off the ledge that was as steep for the man as a cliff was to the barbarian.  But some invisible force held Got’Cha back from advancing too far. The Dark Mage covered his eyes to block out the sight of the Gem. Then covered his ears to block out some sounds beyond Strongman’s ability to hear. Then Got’Cha tried to flee once more to no avail.

By this time the Gem towered over Got’Cha, and Strongman had to bend close to see the events as they unfolded. Perhaps sensing the crisis he was in, the insect sized Man gave a tiny, high pitched warcry as it charged the Gem.  Climbing up the glass smooth surface of the Gem like it was flat ground, Got’Cha stood at an impossible angle on the side of the upwards sloping point of the gem, and becan invoking all the vilest and darkest magics he could against the surface, striking it over and over with his hands.  Then Got’Cha fell into the Gem, as one might fall into an ocean, fully submerged in an instant.

Upon the ensnarement of Got’Cha, the Gem turned clear once more, and Strongman could see him inside the LFN’s Heart.  In the empty distance, Strongman saw a speck that expanded swiftly. It was the form of the Titus, once more strong of body, with eyes that could see and ears of great size that bore him sailing upon the winds in flight.  His body was a healthy grey and his limbs were once more strong and powerful. With a shriek of horror, the Dark Caster tried to outrun the skyborn avenger, but to no avail. The Titus bore down on his prey while calling out, “Got’Cha” that reverberated inside the Gem and shook the air around Strongman.  And then the Gem disappeared in a rainbow of sparkles that scattered away from Strongman and were borned through the walls on some Titanic wind. And Strongman knew the Gem was no more, just as the Titus’ body that had once resided upon the marble couch above him undoubtedly was no more.

Strongman’s instincts snapped, and cried out for flight.  And so Strongman, being freed from the sight of transcendent horrors turned and ran out the door and down the flights of stairs.  It did not occur to Strongman to use the abandoned rope on the balcony far above and avoid the guard rooms at the tower’s base, so amazed and bewildered was he from the events of the night.  And bursting into the guard room, he saw the men manning it in their finely decorated armors and their jeweled weaponry, laying on the floor and at benches with food on the tables and wine splashed from their goblets.

Strongman saw the still forms of the guards and knew they were all croaked.  Whether by the demise of Got’Cha, the power of the Heart, or the invisible hand of the flying Elle’Effen itself, Strongman knew not, but he knew the Titus had kept its promise of a clear path of escape.  And so Strongman dashed out through the great open gate of the tower into and through the gardens. Only once he was outside the grounds of the Tower did he stop and turn back, only to see the entire tower sparkle and dissolve in the first megre rays of sunlight as dawn threatened the horizon, still well before Start of Turn.  Within the minute, the tower was gone, along with all that had occupied its inside, leaving nothing more than bare ground and empty land.

 

4

 

Standing in the dark corner of a balcony of a manor that did not belong to him was the shadow covered customer of that dark tavern, who had disappeared into the same darkness that Strongman had after the demise of the kidnapper.  The figure smiled in satisfaction as the tattered tunic and soiled trousers of his dissolved and reformed into a dark suit and long coat, and the woolen cap atop his head became a dark hat with a broad brim.

The figure’s efforts of the night had gone better than he’d expected, but in just the direction he knew they’d take, set into motion with a few wrong words in the right place.  And so events of the future would also have fewer complications with Got’Cha dealt with and the princess remaining free of shackles that were not of the political variety.

And so the shadowy figure retired deeper into the receding darkness, unable to be tracked by even the keenest observer as his deep, satisfied laughter echoed in the empty corners of the City of Villains.

 

Afterword by the writer:

I thank you all for reading, even as I apologize for my absence.  My workplace assigned me to a location that was woefully undermanned and overly busy.  I’ve been struggling against the fate of ruin every single day for the past… well full year, since this is the 12th month of this fate of mine.  Somehow, I’m getting more days off from work now that we are in the off season. While I am currently in a position where the lack of income is not worrying, I am choosing not to worry about my fate as I will be transferring to a different city in the near future and am using these free days to get back into the dearly missed hobby I have of writing.  And my first goal, was to tackle the most challenging subject of all my writing projects. Strongman the Barbarian.

The challenges of writing Strongman come often from bewildering places.

I had tried to write Strongman chronologically, and utterly failed to do so.  Not because I did not know what I wanted to write, but that I was too impatient to get to the next big milestone of his adventures.  Every time I tried to write about the Fated Kings that lay in Strongman’s path, my mind turned to the Tower of the LFN. At last, I resolved myself to do what the original author, Robert E. Howard did, and write Strongman out of sequence.  I shall be hitting all the points of obsession for me for the barbarian in the order I choose, and shall be asking Rob to line them up chronologically in the Fan-fiction section later. It’s fine if he can not, as the original tales were all published out of sequence as well.

The next challenge came as I was writing the tavern, the challenge of fitting so much of the world into such a confined space.  For I could not use the world as Howard had arranged it, meaning I had to decide quirks and parodies that I would have to use in the future before they ever had any importance to these Tales of High Adventure.

And then the most bewildering problem of all.

As the kidnapper was mocking Strongman with the height of the tower, I wondered to myself, why has no thief ever used a gwiffon or another flying mount to infiltrate the tower in such a way?  It was integral to the story, the original and the mockery that was my own that Strongman had to climb the sheer face of the tower, and not leisurely fly up it’s sides. I wracked my brain for the longest time until I realized… I could never imagine Strongman riding a gwiffon.  I could see him eating one he’d slain with his own hands, but not riding one that was popped by a civilized side. And then I realized that the concept of flying units, an airborne army, was not one that existed in the Hypothermian Continent. Flight for this region was still an ability of wonder and bewilderment, even if, on the off chance, that such things were common in other regions of the world.  Hence, why Transylvitans, gifted with flight from their inception, were beings of legendary status.

After that revelation, so many more parts of the world of Strongman clicked into place, and I was able to write wildly.  As a character as wild as Strongman deserves to be written.  But even then, I have to admit that one of the bigger draws to this telling of the adventures of Strongman for me was the chance to kill off Kevin Costner.

I hope you have all enjoyed this fiction, and I hope it inspires more people to write with the aim of reaching the announcement pages once more.  You are all an endless source of joy for me, as I hope I am for you.

So bless you all, and beware the future as shadowy plots unfold.

 

 

(Note: User was awarded 50 Shmuckers for this post.)

Part 3 of 3 in Strongman

Comments

    • The Emperors Angel

      That was fairly epic. I've read the original, and I am impressed how well you managed to combine that and Erfworld so seamlessly. Great job, and welcome back. I hope to read more from you, soon.

      • aristotle2600

        > To the man’s mild boast, Conan said, “You made one mistake though.”

        Oh man.  Was that intentional?

        • ripple

          Sorry I missed this when you submitted it but glad it made the Front Page and I saw it.  Read it and enjoyed immensely - TIPPED!

          • Gyrate

            Excellent stuff as always - you merge Erfworld, Howard's world and horrible puns seamlessly.

            As always, I am amazed at the quality of the fan fiction on this site and the amount of effort obviously expended to produce it, and I thank you for sharing your work with us.

            One tiny nitpick: "To my ruin, he peaked my interests" - "piqued", not "peaked".

            • tadthornhill

              The tone was wonderful. I enjoyed this so much more than Strongman and Robin. Do you have much interest in Howard's "Phoenix on the Sword"?

              • HighJumper

                I'm absolutely unfamiliar with the source material, but you still manage to make a good story. Even if I don't know the names beyond culture references, I still enjoy some levels of the puns. Casting, heh. 

                • Salvage

                  Yay Strongman!

                  Yay Bakagrappler!

                  So excited to see you back again. Good luck with your move.

                   

                   

                   

                  • Bandaid

                    Well I am sorry to hear about your problems which kept you from writing. I am glad that they seem to be under control for now.

                    Now to the good parts: Awesome, more stories from BakaGrappler. I never thought we would get more Strongman and it was great. I really should read the original Conan stories (again) so that I get more of the references but from what I recall you got the theme(s) perfectly while having a nice Erfworldly influence. Strongmans biggest stat may be his arrogance or unwillingness to bow to anything but his "father" the mountain, depending on who you ask.

                    Lastly, I take it you dislike Kevin Costner?