Sam woke chained to a hospital bed. His entire body ached, but it was most acutely sore in his leg and stomach, where he had sustained grievous injury. Sam grunted, peeling up his gown to inspect the damage. The hole in his stomach was covered by a gauze bandage, and his leg was pink below the knee.
“You’ll make a complete recovery, if that’s what you’re concerned about,” a voice said from beside Sam.
Sam started, glancing over to see Theold, the man who’d foiled his first escape attempt. “Can’t say that it’s nice to see you again,” Sam said, his tone dry.
“I think you’ll appreciate this visit, actually,” Theold said. “Now cover up, you have a guest.” Theold motioned at Sam, who had peeled his hospital gown away.
“Why?” Sam asked.
“Why should you cover up or why do you have a guest?”
“Both,” Sam said.
“I’m too old to care about this shit if you don’t,” Theold said before leaning out the door. “He’s ready.”
The door swung open, and the woman from the truck walked in. Faera, Sam recalled. She had bandages over her ears, covering the distinctive features of elf-kind, but Sam knew that face. She entered the room and froze, staring at Sam.
“What do you want? Is this a conjugal visit or something?” Sam asked, his mood souring. He had no idea why these people were bothering him. Theold seemed to have some kind of academic interest in him, or perhaps an old grudge, but Faera? He had no clue.
Faera blushed and tore her eyes away from Sam’s body to focus on his face. “I’ve got an offer for you,” she said, meeting his eye. “I help you get out of here, and you help me get my town back.”
Sam winced as he sat up. “What makes you think I would help you? You killed my friend, I saved your life, and you reciprocate by leading me to this place.” Sam motioned at the city around them to the limits of the chains on his wrists.
“Would you have believed me if I’d warned you?” Faera asked.
“No, but you didn’t.”
“Look,” Faera said. “I’m sorry I killed your friend. I was scared. And ever since the moment we met, you’ve held yourself to a higher standard than me. I was just hoping… that some of that optimism and willingness to help people is still there.”
Sam’s eyes narrowed. “How many people in your town?”
Faera’s shoulders relaxed. “About fifteen hundred, give or take. I expect a large part of that number are dead.”
Sam stayed silent, watching her closely. When she began to fidget, he spoke. “Who took them?”
“Humans equipped with technology they shouldn’t have reinvented yet,” Faera said, wincing. Keywords: Humans, technology, reinvented.
Sam narrowed his eyes as the picture got a little bit clearer. “And what do you need from me, specifically?”
In response, Faera’s hands went to the bandages on her ears. “In elven society, it is taboo to alter your ears,” she said, peeling away the bandages. Beneath the white gauze, her ears looked like a human’s, albeit a bit pink at the tips. “No one else is willing to do what has to be done to find my family,” Faera said, her gaze resolute.
“But why do you need me, specifically?” Sam asked. “Why not just go alone, or take your elf pals?”
“I’ll field that one, Es Four Em,” Theold said.
“It’s Sam,” Sam said, fixing the old man with a dark look in a moment of hostility.
“I should have guessed,” Theold said quietly. “In any case, Sam, human society has become a bit… tribal in the time since you were created.”
“How so?” Sam asked.
“Statements from scouts and interviews with prisoners indicate that women are property in the human lands to the east,” Theold said, sounding bitter.
“You need me as a cover,” Sam realized.
“I can’t force you to do anything, and we are nowhere near on equal footing, but please,” Faera said, coming to kneel beside the bed, “help me.”
Looking down at her, Sam suddenly realized she was a girl. Not just a girl. A woman. A pretty one, one not taken by his best friend.
Attraction came out of nowhere and hit him with the force of an anti-tank round. With her body close to his, Sam struggled to maintain his senses. It seemed as though his body wanted to explore every inch of hers. She was begging him, something the women of his experience would never do, and he’d be lying if he said the act wasn’t compelling. Her green eyes were wet with suppressed tears, and her lips were soft and rounded, and…
“You’re making it hard,” Theold said offhand. “For him to think.”
Faera backed away, and Sam tried to cover himself, but the chain around his wrists complicated things. “I have one condition,” Sam said when he’d managed to shrug the gown back over himself.
“Name it,” Faera said, her eyes once again directed at the ceiling.
“If we succeed, I want both of you to tell everyone exactly who helped you,” Sam said. “I’m sick and tired of being treated like a monster.”
Faera looked him in the eye and nodded. “Easy.”
“All right,” Sam said, jangling his chains. “Get me out of here.”
Theold nodded, and with a wave of his hand, the handcuffs sprung open. Sam’s skin prickled slightly as an invisible force washed over him. He watched the mage’s hand closely, looking for the secret behind it, adding another bookmark to the Sierra folder.
“Convenient,” Sam said, his gaze lingering on Theold as he sat up and heaved his legs over the edge of the bed.
“We brought some clothes,” Faera said, handing Sam a linen bag. “Change into those, and then Theold will see to your disguise. We don’t have much time, so make it quick.”
Not needing any encouragement, Sam tore off the gown. Faera turned away as he began donning the elven clothes. Sam found himself admiring Faera’s silhouette, glancing up at her surreptitiously as he stooped over to slide on the pants. His eyes met those of her reflection in the hospital window, and he suddenly realized… had she been looking at him, too?
“Yes, yes, you’re both physically attracted to each other,” Theold said with a sigh. Faera and Sam stiffened, and Theold clapped his hands. “Hurry it up!”
Sam threw on the clothes, reddening as he realized he was suffering from the same distraction he’d often had to curb in Ann and Tom. He hadn’t understood how pervasive the influence of attraction was until he experienced it firsthand. It was impossible to shut out.
“All right, kid,” Theold said, reaching up to place his hands on either side of Sam’s face. “Close your eyes and hold still.”
Theold’s hands were rough but warm against Sam’s cheeks. Once again, Sam felt an invisible force that seemed to flow over him in waves, settling into his skin with pins and needles. It felt as if his face had somehow fallen asleep, like an appendage that had been slept on.
“Why’d you call me kid?” Sam asked, looking down at the aging elf as he stepped away. “Haven’t I been around for hundreds of years?”
“You may have been taught every method of kicking ass that humanity ever devised,” Theold said, appraising Sam with a critical eye. “But you’re as nervous around women as a teenage boy just starting to notice boobs.”
“Thanks,” Sam said, rolling his eyes.
“It might be a problem,” Theold said. “If you seem too sheltered for your stature.”
Sam tugged on the collar of his shirt. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Is the clothing okay?” Faera asked.
“It’s a little tight,” Sam said, popping threads in his collar to loosen it.
“Biggest we could find.” Faera handed Sam a mirror. “When we get to the east, we’ll have to change clothes again.”
Sam looked at himself in the mirror, and was astonished at his new face. His hair had lightened and his cheekbones had seemingly risen. His eyes had widened, and he had distinctive points on his ears. Sam reached up to feel his ears, but beneath his hand, they felt exactly the same.
“It’s an illusion, good for a couple days,” Faera said. “Can you walk?”
“Yeah, I’ll make it,” Sam said, putting the mirror down.
“Alright, you don’t have a lot of time,” Theold said, turning to leave. “Get out the gate before the alarm is raised or you’re screwed. I need to be somewhere else.”
“Thank you,” Sam said. “I thought you hated me.”
“It’s an old story,” Theold said, before vanishing in a gust of wind.
Theold teleported home and staggered to his recliner. The toll of the Nuetta he’d used today washed over him in a wave of exhaustion. Theold put his feet up and stared at his trophy, a single black smart-pistol mounted on the wall, still as deadly as the day he’d taken it.
He remembered the fear and sadness of the implacable killer that had stalked him for years. When Theold had finally defeated his hunter, as it lay dying, he’d taken a peek into its mind, curious about the thoughts of such a deadly machine. Instead of the evil he’d expected, he found the dissatisfaction of an empty life mingled with the fear of a dying man.
Theold sighed and closed his eyes, his frail body barely making a dent in his old chair. Maybe this one would achieve what all the others had wanted. A life of his own.
Sam’s gaze lingered on the spot where the elf had disappeared before he followed Faera from the room.
“Stay as relaxed as possible,” Faera said over her shoulder. “To everyone else, you look like an elf.”
“An enormous elf,” Sam said cynically. Despite his doubts, the two of them walked out of the hospital without anyone stopping them, although many people did double-takes on account of his size.
Faera took him to a truck parked on the street, and from the hospital it was a short drive to the gate.
At the gate, an elf eyed them critically, his gaze running across Faera’s bandages. “What happened to your ear?”
“What!?” Faera shouted.
The gate guard pointed to his ears with a quizzical look.
“Oh, this!” Faera said. “Factory accident with a hardhat! We got word about the land at Gentle Nights being up for grabs, and my husband and I decided to give the manager the finger!”
“Braver people than me,” the elf said, motioning them to proceed.
Faera nodded to the gateman and stepped on the gas.
Sam glanced over as the truck rumbled down the road. “Husband?”
“Gotta start the cover sometime,” Faera responded with a shrug. At the fork, Faera turned toward East Mountain.
Two and a half hours later, they reached the edge of the forest. Faera grabbed a bag of homespun clothes out of the back of the truck and tossed half of them to Sam.
Sam and Faera dressed and put the truck into neutral, hiding it in the woods.
“How do people walk in these?” Sam asked, wiggling his toes in the straw sandals.
“Same as everyone else,” Faera said, grabbing the rest of their supplies from the bed. She slipped a knife into her boot, then tossed Sam a shepherd’s crook.
The smooth wood felt good in Sam’s hand. “What’s this for?”
“Herding sheep,” Faera said. “And defending yourself,” she added when Sam gave her a look.
“Never seen a sheep before,” Sam mused, running his thumb along the wood.
Faera jumped down from the truck bed and handed Sam a roll of copper coins with square holes in the center, held together by a length of twine. “Money,” Faera said as Sam examined the coins.
He tied the string around his belt. “Alright, let’s head out,” Sam said. He turned away from the forest and began to march, before turning back. “Where, exactly?”
Faera shook her head. “You know as much as I do about the modern human world. We’ll just have to walk until we find a road or get some directions.”
“This was poorly planned,” Sam said, turning to the east and marching forward.
They walked out onto the plains with the noonday sun above them. Hours went by and they kept themselves occupied by telling stories.
“Assume I know nothing about the dangers of the world, because until a week ago I assumed zombies and humans were about the extent of it,” Sam said, glancing over at Faera.
“Zombies!” Faera said with a laugh. “They’re far too slow to be a threat to people. Plus, they have absolutely no higher brain function.”
“I assume they were dangerous because of population density,” Sam said.
“Not a problem anymore, I suppose,” Faera said, glancing at the top of the next hill. “What you really need to be careful of are mind stealers.”
“Like that short brain thing with tentacles?” Sam asked. “That make you want to come closer?”
“Yeah, they’ll eat your brain in a heartbeat.”
“What about demons?” Sam asked.
“You can go your whole life without meeting a demon,” Faera said.
“They’re pretty rare. A demon is a fragment of a dark god, usually sheared away in battle with another deity.”
“So gods are real?” Sam asked, his eyebrow raised.
“Where I come from,” Faera said with a shrug. “Anyway, demons aren’t the sort of thing that you come across on earth.” She tilted her head, looking at him quizzically. “What’s so funny?”
“I met one,” Sam said. “In the monster pens, when I first tried to escape, I met one that offered me anything if I let him out of his cage. I’m pretty sure he was supposed to be the main event. You got me out of there the day before I was scheduled to fight him.”
Faera stared at him, jaw dropping. “What was he like?” she asked, her eyes wide.
“He was taller than an ogre,” Sam said, raising his hand. “Furry upper body, naked lower, big old dong, and a horned wolf head. Threatened to kill me when I didn’t let him out.”
“Damn,” Faera said, shaking her head.
“Okay, keep going,” Sam said. “What else out there can kill me? I have a vested interest in this sort of thing.”
“Never camp next to a swamp at night without surrounding yourself with a ring of salt,” Faera said.
“There are slugs that can burrow directly into your brain…”
Torus Grant, the owner of the arena, had a problem.
“What the fuck am I supposed to do?” he moaned, clutching his head. The clone was missing, the mage refused to perform, and the demon was… well, a demon.
He had bought himself an extra day by claiming he was making sure that the clone was in the best of health, giving him an extra round of healing at great expense to Grant. But, the truth would come out in less than twenty hours.
The fights up until this point had whipped fans into a frenzy, and if he didn’t deliver the epic final bout, their wrath would fall directly on his head, and his pocketbook. And he couldn’t afford to keep the demon contained forever. The damn thing cost him an arm and a leg every phase of the moon, when a mage had to reapply its bindings.
Grant stopped pacing the floor of his office. The demon. The demon could be the solution to his problem. Grant strode across the room and picked up the phone, punching in the number for his go-to wizard.
Twenty hours later, Grant was standing in front of the assembled audience of the arena. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he boomed, enjoying the way his voice echoed through the stands. “Today you came to see the epic showdown between the scourge of the Ancient World and a demon straight from the other side of the Gate!”
Grant let the wave of cheers wash over him, reveling in the uplifting sensation. He turned the magical cameras, the Observers on himself, and donned a frown. “Unfortunately, that won’t happen today,” he said sorrowfully.
Scattered murmurs and catcalls spread through the arena like wildfire.
“The truth is,” Grant said, slumping his shoulders. “The Scourge escaped from the hospital last night, and is at this very moment plotting the downfall of elven civilization.”
Boos spattered like a scalding rain.
“And you’ve all seen what it can do!” he shouted, his voice echoing from nearby buildings. “It will stop at nothing, and no one man can hope to defeat it!”
The boos faltered, replaced with some murmurs of concern. Somewhere in the audience a child cried out.
“But I, dear viewers,” Grant said, his voice gentle. “I had a thought.”
“What is this arena, compared to the wildness of nature?” Grant asked. “The Scourge is smart, adaptable, and strong. It thrives on unpredictability. Why not… confront it on its home ground, for your viewing pleasure?”
Grant gave the signal, and the arena floor opened, revealing the demon at the center of a circle of enchanted iron. The audience gasped at the appearance of the monster, shying away from the Arena’s innermost wall.
“This demon will be the one to deliver our justice!” Grant said. “Make the pact!”
A red- robed mage walked out to the center of the arena, stopping just short of the iron circle. Kein’Maddal paced the interior of his prison, watching for any slip he could exploit. The mage set a brazier in front of the demon, and pulled an ogre-sized quarrel covered in dried blood from his robe.
“I bind you to these conditions,” the mage said, his voice amplified for the crowd. “Bring no harm to elves. Seek out the bearer of this blood and kill him. When you have done this, you will return to your home plane immediately. These are the terms.”
Kein’Maddal leaned forward, salivating. “Agreed.” His voice rumbled through the arena without need of a microphone.
The mage began chanting, scraping the dried blood into the brazier. He set aside the bolt and threw mystical ingredients into the brazier, then lit it with a flick of his wrist. The smoke curled around the demon before a resounding crack detonated through the arena. The thick iron circle penning in the demon fell away in two halves, and the monster launched itself into the sky. Sprouting wings from its back, it flew eastward, one of the arena’s magical Observers tailing close behind it.
“Looks like he went east, ladies and gentlemen,” Grant said. “We’ve partnered with our sister company, Strong Entertainment, to bring you 24/7 coverage, for free, on channel eight until the monster is dead.”
A rising cheer spread through the crowd, and Grant soaked it in. “Now, let’s take a look at that live feed…”