Thursday, April 23, 2009

Slay the Princess, Rescue the Dragon, And--

This is my entry in the Friday Challenge. The text in italics is the opening provided by Bruce Bethke. The challenge is to finish the story.

Icehawk the Barbarian would never admit to feeling fear, but his mood as he traced the ancient, rock-strewn path through the barren wilderness was...unsettled. Once again, his wanderings had brought him back to this place: to the domain of the Seer, the Prophetess, the Mad Spinner of Fate. And once again he would rather be walking this path as a warrior, with a sword in one hand and an ax in the other, than like a peddler, with a large black box under one arm and a small white sack thrown over the other shoulder.

Dusk had fallen by the time he crested the last ridge. The rock-strewn valley below was already in deep shadow, but a weird, flickering light emanated from within the ruins of the Temple of Otogu. The unearthly light was as nothing, though, compared to the stench that assailed his nostrils as his footsteps drew him closer. It was a complex, many-layered, ever-shifting reek composed of a great many foul and unspeakable things: of rot, and corruption; of scorched flesh, and burnt offerings; of bitter potions, and vile philters; and of many, many, cats, badly housebroken.

Icehawk paused a moment, at the foot of the great ruined stone staircase—

But it was already too late. She stood there, at the top of the stairs, in tattered rags and long, greasy, tangled gray hair, smiling at him with blackened stubs of teeth. "Welcome, Icehawk, great warrior of the north!"

"You—you knew I was coming?"

"Of course. I'm a Seer. And you have brought my price?"

"I thought you were a Seer."

"It's more fun this way. Have you brought my price?"

Icehawk juggled the black box and the white sack awkwardly, then held forth the black box. "Oh Great Priestess of Otogu!" he cried. "Behold, I bring you a flawless black kitten, without a single white hair, sealed for seven days within a black box without a single hole!"

The Seer nodded, smiling. "I see. And is the kitten alive or dead?"

Icehawk considered the box nervously. "I, er—"

"Is the kitten alive or dead?"

Icehawk grimmaced. "Well, it stopped yowling about four days ago, but without air holes—"

The Seer grinned that ghastly, gummy, black-stubbed grin again. "The point is, you don't know for certain, do you?"

"Well, not as such..."

"Perfect!" She pointed to the sack. "And in the sack?"

Icehawk juggled the black box and white sack again, and then held forth the white sack. "Oh Great Priestess of Otogu!" he cried again. "Behold, I bring you a flawless white dove, without a single dark feather, whose feet have never touched the ground!"

"Perfect!" She darted down the stairs, snatched the sack from Icehawk's hand, and started back up. "Come along!" Halfway up the stairs she paused, to turn and look back at Icehawk, who still stood at the foot of the stairs with the black box in his hands and a puzzled expression on his face. "Oh, just dump it over there with the other ones." She pointed to the stack of reeking black boxes that Icehawk hadn't noticed before off to the side of the stairs. He tossed the box on the heap and followed her.

The interior of the ruined temple was thick with smoke and stink, lit by many guttering candles and a small fireplace, and crawling with cats. The Seer set the white sack on the altar, thrust her hand inside, and pulled out the white dove. "Ooh, how beautiful!" she exclaimed, as she examined the struggling, blinking bird. "Not a flaw, not a mark on it!" She held the bird high before the fire, as if reenacting some ancient and forgotten ritual.

"Look, my pretties! Mommy's got dinner!" And in one swift motion she twisted the dove's head off, slapped the carcass down on the altar, and disemboweled it with a small stone knife. With no further regard for the bird she cast the small feathered corpse aside, where it was immediately seized upon and fought over by a gathering crowd of cats.

Icehawk was dumbfounded. "I went through all that just to feed your cats? What about my destiny?"

"Oh, that's clear enough," said the Seer, as she prodded the entrails on the altar with a grimy finger. "You must slay the princess, rescue the dragon, and—"

Icehawk found an expression beyond dumbfounded. "Excuse me?"

The Seer looked up. "What?"

"Don't you mean, 'slay the dragon, rescue the princess?'"

"If I'd meant that, I'd have said it. No, it's all right here." She turned back to the entrails. "Slay the princess, rescue the dragon, and—"

"Are you sure you're reading that right?"

"Read it yourself. Plain as day." The seer tapped the pancreas. "Slay the princess." She batted a cat away from the liver. "Rescue the dragon." She stirred the intestines with her finger. "And—"

"Oh, now that is interesting," muttered the Seer. She stirred the intestines again. "But there's no doubt about it!"

"No doubt about what, old woman," Icehawk asked.

"You must slay the princess, rescue the dragon and..." the Seer paused.

"And what?" Icehawk shouted.

"Don't you recognize a dramatic pause when you hear one? Gah, you barbarians are all alike!" the Seer muttered. "All blood and boinking and no sense of drama or culture."

Rolling her eyes upward, she cried out, "Great Otogu, why do I even bother?"

"Gods," said Icehawk, "you sound like my mother!"

"Sensible woman, your mother," the Seer said. "We both agree your life went straight to the crapper after she died."

"You spoke to my Mommy?" Icehawk asked.

The Seer looked imperiously at the barbarian, "The veil between life and death is no barrier for one who wields the power Otogu!"

"Is she doing okay?" he asked. "Besides being dead, I mean?"

"Your mother is quite happy," the Seer replied. "Beyond the veil, she has been reunited with your father!"

"Strange," said Icehawk, "Daddy isn't dead."

"Oh, er, ahem, where were we?" stammered the Seer. "Oh, yes. You must slay the princess, rescue the dragon and-"

Once again the Seer paused. This time Icehawk was silent.

"-marry the dragon, lie with her and be fruitful!" finished the Seer.

"Wait just a minute!" Icehawk said. "I'm supposed to marry the dragon?"


"And lie with her?"


"And be fruitful with her?"


"And that means we... You know. And then the dragon has children. Right?"



"Come now, an experienced barbarian warrior such as yourself must know-"

"With a human woman, yes! But a dragon?" Icehawk asked. "But she'll be so big and-"

"Oh ho!" laughed the Seer. "You fear your organ is too small to play in her divine temple?"

"Huh?" asked a clearly puzzled Icehawk.

"Performance anxiety?" asked the Seer.

"With human women..." Icehawk's face reddened. "Let's just say they've never had cause to complain! But a dragon?"

"You don't have to follow the prophesy, Icehawk," the Seer said.

"I don't?"

"Of course not!" the Seer replied. "If you don't, you'll die within the year and your wild country will be conquered, tamed and civilized within a generation. But it's your choice."

Icehawk's shoulders slumped. "Where do I find this princess to slay and dragon to rescue?"

The Seer smiled, "That's a different question, Icehawk. You know the price of an answer."

One flawless black kitten, without a single white hair, sealed for seven days within a black box without a single hole and one flawless white dove, without a single dark feather, whose feet have never touched the ground later...

"...And that's where you'll find the Depths of Doom, along with the princess and the dragon," the seer said.

Without another word, Icehawk turned and walked away.

And so Icehawk journeyed onward, ever onward toward his goal. Icehawk trekked through the Forest of Fear, forded the River of Rage, slogged through the Bog of Bones, crossed the Pit of Peril, scaled the Cliffs of Catastrophe, swam the Lake of Leeches and ascended the Mountains of Madness before finally reaching the Depths of Doom! During his journey, Icehawk had many adventures and bested many foes. Later, this would be put into song and Icehawk's Epic Journey Through the Forest of Fear, the River of Rage, the Bog of Bones, the Pit of Peril, the Cliffs of Catastrophe, the Lake of Leeches and the Mountains of Madness Before Descending Into the Depths of Doom would be sung in the taverns, inns and mead halls of Icehawk's land.

Though a small part of Icehawk's mind was already composing verses for the epic song, most of his cunning, warrior's brain concentrated on the task at hand. Gripping his trusty sword in one hand and his mighty axe in the other, Icehawk strode into the Depths of Doom! Icehawk was barely thirty feet inside the Depths of Doom when he stubbed his toe on a rock.

"Blast it all!" Icehawk said. "How can I stride forth to battle in such Stygian darkness? I must needs light a torch! But which weapon shall I sheath?"

Icehawk looked to his sword, then to his axe, then back again. And again. And again. Forty minutes passed and still Icehawk looked back and forth between his sword and axe. Then, inspiration! Minutes later Icehawk, gripping his sword in one hand and his axe in the other, strode in the Depths of Doom, his way lit by flickering torchlight.

Down, down, down strode Icehawk Though the way was long, never once did Icehawk pause. Though the cave walls around him were laced with gold and precious gens, never once did Icehawk's steely gaze stray from the path. Though the descent was boring, never once did his razor sharp mind wander from the task ahead. Except for the time he spent wondering whether it was acceptable to use "throwed" to rhyme with "toad" and what the bards would say if he did. Okay, rarely did his razor sharp mind wander from the task ahead. As the descent ended, the mighty Icehawk had composed the first thirty-eight verses of the epic song about his adventures. So, really, his razor sharp mind rarely considered the task ahead.

At last, Icehawk stepped out of the cave into a vast cavern. The floor of the cavern was littered with the bones and broken armor of many men. Running toward him was a beautiful young woman in a diaphanous white gown, her ample chest heaving. Behind the young woman loomed a great wurm!

"Oh, mighty warrior!" called the young woman in a sweet, pure voice. "Why do you have a torch stuck into your helmet?" Without waiting for a reply, she continued, "You have come to rescue me! Once we are free from this foul wurm, I will shower my thanks upon you in-"

With one swing of his axe, Icehawk lopped off the young woman's head. Stepping past the body, Icehawk strode toward the dragon, who seemed taken aback by the turn of events. Only when he gave the dragon his full concentration did Icehawk notice the shimmering metal muzzle over the dragon's snout, the solid metal collar around the dragon's throat with a sturdy chain connecting it to the cavern wall. Icehawk was relieved to see the dragon was a prisoner. Perhaps the Seer had been right all along!

But, as Icehawk drew close to the dragon, she raised a mighty claw as if to strike! With reflexes born of battle, Icehawk dove and rolled clear of the dragon's strike. A strike that never came. As Icehawk rose to his feet poised to lay into the dragon, he realised her claw wasn't raised to attack. It was raise to point behind Icehawk!

Icehawk spun about just in time to deflect a descending dagger held by the beautiful young woman who he had so recently decapitated. The lovely head was back atop the lithesome body!

"How dare you strike a lady with your axe!" snarled the young woman. "That is no way to treat a princess, you moro-"

Icehawk's sword thrust deep, piercing the princess's heart. Turning back to the dragon, Icehawk examined the muzzle. Finding the mechanism too intricate, he smashed it with his axe.

As the muzzle slid off the dragon's mouth, she roared, "Duck!"

As he ducked, Icehawk felt a blade pass just where his neck had been. Turning, he found the princess alive again, now with a sword in hand.

"Powerful magic protects her," the dragon called. "The same magic which forces me to do her bidding!"

"Indeed!" cackled the princess, pressing her attack. "You're about to be dragon bait, buddy boy!"

"Is there no way to end her power?" Icehawk called to the dragon, desperately parrying the princess's slashing blade. "No way to free you?"

"As she has not known a man," the dragon called, "she knows great power! But there's no time-"

Icehawk blocked another attack. "Well why didn't you say so earlier!"

There came the ripping of clothing, an outraged cry from the princess and a satisfied grunt from Icehawk.

The dragon cocked her head to one side and commented, "That"

"Time was of the essence," Icehawk said. "Are you hungry?"

"Ravenous," the dragon replied. "She barely fed me enough to keep me alive!"

Icehawk pushed the still dazed princess toward the dragon. "Enjoy."

Moments later, Icehawk had removed the collar, freeing the dragon. Now he stood before her rather uncomfortably.

"I, uh, came here because of this prophesy," he said. "It, um, instructed me to kill the princess. You think it's okay that you handled that end of it?"

"That depends on the rest of the prophesy," the dragon replied.

"Ah, right. Then I was supposed to rescue the dragon," he continued. "Which I've done."

"Quite nicely, I might add," the dragon said.

"And, um, then I am supposed to, uh... To, um, marry the dragon, lie with her and be fruitful with her," Icehawk said quickly.

"Oh, that prophesy," said the dragon. "That's a relief. I was afraid there was some other prophesy involved."

"So," said Icehawk, "you're prepared to marry me, lie with me and be fruitful with me?"

"Most definitely, my warrior," the dragon replied. "If I do not, my people will be enslaved for all time."

"Good. That's good! The, uh, marriage part should be pretty easy. But the part about lying together and being fruitful..." Icehawk looked along the entire length of the dragon. "Well, I hope you've got some ideas!"

The dragon laughed, "You are not familiar with my kind, are you warrior?"

"You're the first dragon I've ever seen," Icehawk told her.

"Well..." There was a bright flash of light. "Does this help?"

The dragon had vanished. In her place stood a stunningly beautiful human woman. And she was naked.

"Oh yes," Icehawk said. "That will do nicely!"

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Writing What You Know

Writers are always told, "Write what you know." Here's what you'd get to read if we really did that.

The Battle

The chiming clock woke me from my restless slumber. Wrapping myself against the chill morn, I busied myself with typical morning tasks. It did not work. The more I tried to direct my thoughts away from the coming battle, the more the battle came to dominate those thoughts.

As I bathed, the warm water did not have its normal soothing effect. My mind continued to dwell on the fight that lay before me.

I dressed slowly, pretending to consider various garments before selecting my clothing for the day. All too soon, I was clothed and could delay no longer.

I went to where my wife sat, kissed her and said, "Once more into the breach, my dear."

With that, I set forth to do battle. Shortly, the darkened threshold lay before me. Pausing briefly, I took a deep breath and then entered. Though it was dark beyond the portal, I could make out the form of my adversary laying before me. I could delay no longer.

"Time to get up, son!" I said.

"Five more minutes, Dad!" my son murmured from beneath the covers.

And so the battle was joined.

The Journey

As was my wont in those days, I frequently journeyed away from hearth and home, away from kith and kin. These trips were fraught with peril as my very life was in the hands of others. Just as, briefly, their lives were in my hands. It was for that reason I always kept my head clear and my hands free as I traveled.

The roaring beasts that conveyed us all on our journeys were fickle creatures. Left unattended for but a scant few seconds, our beasts would turn upon one another, biting deeply into another beast's flanks or rear haunches; sometimes even challenging other beasts head on. Those last were the worst as many beasts died in the challenges, maiming or even killing their riders in the process.

Today was no different. I guided my aging beast in and among younger, larger, stronger beasts as best I could. Hemmed in on all sides, I kept careful control of my beast while hoping the riders around me would do the same. At times, smaller, faster, more agile beasts darted in and out among those who towered above them. I knew not whether to admire those riders for the daring and curse them for fear their sudden movements might spook the larger beasts into attacking me.

By the grace of the gods, once again I reached my destination unscathed. Tethering my beast, I stood on my own two feet. I was pleased. Once again I had arrived at work early enough to get one of the good parking spaces.

The Escape

I sat hunched in my cubicell, pretending full concentration on a menial task. In truth, my attention lay elsewhere. Furtive glances confirmed that the other inmates in my cubicell block had been been summoned before the warden. I would not have to deal with pleas of "Take me with you!" or fear one of them might alert the authorities. I was determined not to serve my full sentence. Unlike my fellow inmates, I would break out rather than wait for the authorities to release me!

With the first part of my escape path clear, I stood. Pretending to stretch, my gaze swept over the tops of the cubicell walls to the rest of the facility. The way was clear! It was time to go.

Slipping out of my cubicell, I stole from the cubicell block towards an unguarded exit. The last few feet were the most dangerous as I was forced to pass the guards' primary place of gathering. The door was closed, which was good, but voices issued from the room beyond the door. Feigning nonchalance, I attempted to slip past the door.

Suddenly, the door was flung open wide, a guard silhouetted in the doorway.

"Henry, just the man I was looking for!" he said. "We need you in here to explain some of these bugs you reported. You can work late tonight, right?

A Trip To the Library

After a fruitless search for interesting reading material, I approached the librarian for suggestions.

"Can I help you?" she asked, smiling.

I refrained from correcting her grammar. After all, I was the one requesting help.

"Yes, please," I replied. "I'm looking for something good to read, preferably something epic."

"Ah, I have just the thing!" she said. "Have you read anything by J. R. R. Tolkien?"

"Never heard of him," I replied.

"Then let me recommend his
Professor of English Literature trilogy," she said. "It's all about the fourteen years Tolkien spent teaching English Literature at Oxford!"

"That sounds...boring," I said.

"Boring?" she asked. "You think a trilogy filled with battles to bring knowledge to undisciplined youth, duels of wit at tea time with the rest of the faculty and the ultimate quest for tenure sounds boring?"


"You're right," she signed. "It's deadly dull. So, something exciting, you say. Hm... How about a biography? Stephen Decatur led quite an exciting military life."

"I've read it," I said. "I've read all the biographies that are interesting. Don't you have anything different?"

"Different how?" she asked.

"I don't know," I replied. "Something...made up, perhaps?"

"What an appalling thought!" she exclaimed. "Writers can't just make things up! They must write what they know!"

As I turned away, I heard her muttering, "Make things up? The very
idea is ridiculous!"

The End

Okay, I made that last up. Librarians the world over are appalled.