“Hot sand stung my feet as I ran across the Plain of the Dead,” said Torak in an ominous voice, half his face lit by firelight. “The Hell-Wolves were still at my heels. I had slain three in the temple, but they still numbered over a dozen. Even without my sword I might have been able to best a few more, but they would make short work of me. All around me lay the charred skeletons of many that had fallen beneath the smoldering fangs and searing claws of the infernal beasts.” “You told us this one already, Father,” said Anina. “Yeah,” cried Ulgar, “you found an axe near one of the skeletons and used it to cleave the wolves.” “That axe!” yelped Jilthar, the youngest, as he pointed to a spot high on the wall above the fireplace. All the weapons Torak had ever wielded hung there. Torak turned toward the wall and gazed up at it with an arched eyebrow. “Hmmm,” he said, rubbing the graying stubble on his chin. “Did I ever tell you about the Spear of Souls?” “You used it to slay the Faceless Shadows,” said Ulgar. “The Dragon-Fang Dagger?” “Yes,” the children chimed in unison, sounding slightly annoyed. “I know one you haven’t told them,” said a sweet voice. His wife stood in the doorway with a devilish smile on her lips. He gave her a puzzled look until her head tipped towards the far side of the room, where he saw his old wooden chest against the wall. The children rose from their cushions around the fireplace as Torak walked across the room and opened the chest. It held scrolls, boxes, and other keepsakes of his ancestors. Near the bottom was a large shape wrapped in oilskin. He lifted it easily; he'd forgotten how light it was. “My old friend,” he whispered. He carefully unwrapped it. The children watched in silent astonishment.
It was not quite as long as an axe. Its square head curved slightly like a shallow scoop. Its wooden handle ended in a single-hand grip.
“This,” he said in a low voice, “is Snowbane, and with its help I achieved my greatest victory…”d text. “Your reign is ended, tyrant!” Torak shouted, raising the mace above his head. The Warlock King turned up his horned head and laughed, then held the amulet out before him. The Portal hummed, and a violet nimbus began to pulsate around it. Torak ignored the pain of his wounds and aimed carefully, then threw the mace with a fluid motion. It struck the Warlock King’s hands squarely, knocking the amulet onto the stone floor where it shattered upon impact. The Warlock King shrieked in rage. “What have you done?” A low rumbling filled the fortress. Energy sparked from the scattered fragments of the amulet, then coalesced. Within moments blinding tendrils of white blasted outward, striking the walls and domed ceiling. A fierce wind began to roar through the Portal. Without the amulet the Dark Legions could not come through to do the Warlock King’s bidding, though the Portal remained open. The Warlock King turned to Torak and drew his blade. “You will suffer for that!” Torak spread his arms wide and smiled. “Do your worst, villain.” A huge block of marble dropped from the vaulted heights of the fortress and smashed through the floor beside the King. A blast of white-hot fire snaked from the fragments of the amulet and set much of the floor ablaze. “By the Lords of —” shouted Torak, before the section of wall behind him broke away and tumbled toward him. He leapt forward, rolled as he landed, and was swiftly back on his feet at the foot of the Portal. The savage gale threatened to knock him over. He looked for an escape route, but flames raged on all sides of him. “At least you’ll die with me!” shouted the Warlock King a moment before vanishing beneath a mass of crushing stones and iron beams. He was right, thought Torak. He had battled dozens of monsters to gain entry to this fortress and thwart the Warlock King’s plan, and now his undoing would come in the form of collapsing masonry. It didn’t matter; at least his people were free once more. The tendrils of energy were still lashing outward, reducing all they touched to ash. There was a thunderous crack as the remainder of the dome broke loose and raced downward toward him. Instinctively, he leaped for the portal. Absolute chaos enveloped him. Hot and cold struck him in alternating waves. Light and darkness swirled past him rapidly. “Torak of the Valley Clan,” a voice cut through the maelstrom. “I am the Portal of Worlds!” Torak tumbled through the madness unable to respond. “You have slain the Warlock King who enslaved me,” it continued, “and for that I thank you. However, the Amulet was my power source. Without it I am weakened, and cannot return you to your home. I must deposit you far away. When I have rebuilt my strength, I shall return for you.” He awakened slowly, aware that he was laying on something softer than any mattress he had ever felt. Soft light surrounded him. For a moment he thought he must be in the afterlife, but the afterlife was a place where great warriors did eternal battle. There was no such battle here. There was a sound. A door opened, and through it came a young woman with brown hair pinned behind her head. She held a tray with a steaming bowl on it. “You’re awake!” she said with a hint of surprise. “Hungry?” “Yes,” he replied, voice croaking. He sat up as she put the tray of fragrant broth on his lap. “I’m Jessica. I found you outside. You looked pretty beaten up.” Torak lifted the spoon, looked at his arm, and saw that his wounds were bandaged. “You gotta name?” she asked. “Torak. Of the Valley Clan.” “Oh, you’re in a band?” “I was in the band of warriors that defended Oceangard from the dreaded Sea Hordes, but that was many years ago.” “Hmm,” she said, looking puzzled. “I thought the gaming convention was last weekend?” “Are there others here?” “This neighborhood is pretty empty this time of year. Everyone goes to Florida for the holidays.” “Have you no Master or Lord?” “Keep talking to me like that and I’ll kick you back into the cold. Now eat your soup.” He did, and it was delicious. The woman left. A few minutes later she reappeared wearing a heavy coat. “Listen, I’ve got to go to work but I’ll be back about midnight. If you need me I'm only four blocks away. I wrote the number down by the phone. It’s a customer service center, so ask my supervisor for me. There’s leftovers in the fridge if you’re still hungry.” Torak didn’t know what any of that meant. She left. He tried to get up and follow her but the pain shot through him, and he fell back into oblivion. He awoke to faint daylight streaming though a window. This time he got up slowly, still sore but functional. He opened the door and walked out into a room where he saw the woman, Jessica, atop a stepladder. She was stringing a cord around the frame of another door. The cord radiated bright colored lights at regular intervals. Such lights were draped all over the room, casting colors on everything. He marveled at the sight of it. “Are you a sorceress?” he said. She smiled down at him. “Hey! You certainly got some sleep, didn’t you?” He didn’t know how to respond. Jessica descended the ladder and turned to him. “I don’t usually take in transients, but when I see a guy your size in such rough shape laying in front of my pad, I figure there’s got to be a reason, you know? I’m a softie for hard- luck cases. Besides, it’s the holidays.” She looked him over. “You need some clothes.” There was an unkempt room near the back of the abode. Boxed were stacked high, and there were spools of wire and sets of tools scattered about. She opened a door where a number of garments hung. “Left behind by old boyfriends,” she said, smiling. “Let’s see if anything fits you.” Torak was trying to imagine how a boy could be old when Jessica pulled out a set of gray soft-looking clothes. “These were Tony’s. He was a body builder.” “He…built bodies?” She laughed. “Try those on.” A few minutes later he re-entered the room of lights wearing the outfit. “You look good in sweats,” said Jessica. “Do you have a place to stay in town? “I have no lodgings.” “You can keep that bedroom if you need to. I haven’t had a roommate since Annie moved out last spring.” “Did you carry me to that room?” “More like dragged.” Torak looked at her. She was much shorter than he. She noticed and scowled at him. “I’m stronger than I look.” “Before,” Torak said, “you said you had to go to…work?” “Yeah. I answer phone calls about electronics problems. It’s steady work. Most people are incompetent when it comes to their gear. The money’s not great, but it’s nearby, I can walk. And I can do freelance work on the side. I had a sweet job awhile back, but it got outsourced. I’ve got the talent. Hell, I rigged this whole block with cable, and I also wired some generators through the neighborhood for when the power goes out. I have yet to meet the engineering problem that I can't fix.” Torak found her voice soothing, though he had no idea what she saying, “There’s pizza over there, help yourself. Then you can help me finish decorating.” Torak decided that he liked pizza. The next day Jessica told him she had to run some errands, and could use his help with the heavy lifting. She led him around the neighborhood. They visited many strange and exciting places with exotic names like Deli, Laundromat and the Drug Store of All Night. He learned, but had difficulty believing, that one did not need to hunt for game since the local market, larger than his liege’s palace back home, was stocked with more foods than he had ever seen. By the time they returned to her abode, Torak was burdened with many bags and packages. Jessica rewarded him with a fabulous meal. He quickly took a liking to curry, bread and butter pickles, and a steaming brew called “espresso.” “I thought about getting into the restaurant business out of school,” Jessica explained, “but I went into engineering instead. It seemed like a good idea at the time.” “Why was that?” Torak asked. “I don’t know. I was young, naïve, and still operating under the illusion that I could change the world.” “My formidable lady, I have no doubt that you could change the world if you set about the task.” She smiled. Torak decided that he liked her smile. Jessica’s dwelling place hosted its own set of wonders. Strangely shaped things carried voices, while screens and windows showed images. Several times he tried to pass his hand through these screens, thinking they might be portals. Jessica showed him how to use the “tee vee” and “dee vee dee,” and he spent hours watching images from her world. The people here talked quite a bit, but without ever really saying anything. Then there was the “pee see,” which by itself made this world much different from his. Messages were dispatched between people without the use of riders. If one required arcane information, a months-long quest was not necessary; all such knowledge could be obtained “online” from the bright windows. Similarly, if one needed an artifact, it could also be summoned online and would appear in a box on your doorstep in a few days, all without the need to enter dangerous caverns or undergo tests of courage. Torak was uncertain how he felt about this, for what was life without adventure and challenge? Jessica sat at the “pee see.” Upon it, Torak saw a warrior with a broadsword making short work of a mighty lizard-beast, only to have two appear and take its place. Jessica seemed to be controlling the motions of the warrior. “What is this?” Torak asked excitedly. “Thunderverse 3: Red Sword Rising.” Torak fell to his knees beside her and watched the combat unfold. She looked at him, and saw what appeared to be a single tear on his face. Her face shifted thoughtfully. “C’mere,” she said as she took his hand and led him to the bookcase. She pulled down some volumes and explained that they recorded epic adventures, and Torak gazed at the colorful covers showing men doing battle with monsters and wizards. “Any of this look familiar?” she asked. “Yes. All of it.” The next few books held fanciful tales of children whisked away to other worlds through mirrors or cabinets, or swept away by storms. “Yes,” he said. “This happened.” Jessica squinted at him. “Tell me about your home.” “The Valley of my clan is a glorious place. By day noble dragon steeds fill the skies. At night the streets are aglow with torchlight. Many invaders have tried to conquer us, but we have fought them all back.” He continued, telling of great quests and heroic battles against mighty forces. When he finished, Jessica was staring at him. “Wow,” she said, then looked at the clock. “Listen, I’ve got work in the morning, and we’re expecting snow. We’ll talk more when I get home.” As he went to bed that night a melancholy encroached on his soul. He missed his home. He awoke to screams, and found Jessica in a panic. “The weatherman said six inches, tops. There’s over four feet out there! And it’s still coming down!” Torak looked out the window. It was nearly solid white outside. “I’ve got to get to work! This is our busiest day! The plows won’t get here for hours! I can’t shovel all that! Ohgodohgodohgod.” The sight of a maiden in distress triggered a familiar sensation in Torak. “What is this ‘shovel’ you speak of?” She frantically rummaged through a closet and pulled out a strange instrument. He held it in wonder, amazed at its lightness. “Where did you obtain such a magnificent weapon?” “The clearance rack at Target.” Before he went outside, she dressed him in strange materials she called “thermals” and a “ski outfit.” They fit him well. “Tony’s?” Torak asked. “Billy’s,” Jessica replied. He looked at her quizzically. “What can I say?” she asked sheepishly. “I like big men.” He stepped into the opalescent winter rage, black hair snapping in the wind and sullen eyes widening at the thick white drifts that blanketed the sidewalk. He imagined the freshly slain corpse of an ice serpent in need of skinning. With both hands he held the shovel aloft to the sky, as if offering what he was about to do to some unseen spirit. He could feel the scooped blade's thirst. Then he attacked the sidewalk with unmatched fury. He became a dazzling explosion of movement, accompanied by a wet cacophony with each plunge of the shovel. He roared at the storm, and swiftly sliced a swath through the chest-deep snow for the four blocks to Jessica’s workplace. She scurried along behind him. “Thank you,” she said when they arrived, “you’re a lifesaver.” Once she was safely inside, Torak walked back to her abode. He held the shovel ahead of him as he walked. “You, my friend, shall be known as Snowbane.”
Jessica returned in a joyful mood. Her boss had given her a bonus for being one of the few who made it to work. She gave Torak a long hug. And kissed him.
And she didn’t stop.
Torak decided he liked it.
It was New Year’s Eve. Torak gathered that this was a festive night, but Jessica told him she never went out. “It’s too crazy out there,” she said. The two of them were taking down the lights when there was a bright flash, and the Portal appeared awash in its nimbus. “I have returned,” said the Portal. “What the hell’s that?” cried Jessica. Torak was silent for a moment. “The passage that brought me here, and my way home.” “What? You can’t just leave!” she said. He looked at her trembling face. “We got a good thing here!” she continued, “and I am not going to let you walk out on me without a fight!” Torak didn’t doubt her words for a moment. He considered this, then turned to the Portal. “Can she come with me?” “I owe you a great debt, Torak of the Valley Clan. I would do this for you. But I am still weak without the amulet. Already my power fades.” Jessica turned to the Portal. “What do you mean by that?” “I destroyed the source of its power,” said Torak. Jessica walked around the portal, tapping her fingers to her chin and looking at the device from all sides. She vanished into the back room, then reappeared a few moments later carrying a spool of wire and a box of tools, which she set down in front of the Portal. “Gimme a few hours,” she said, rolling up her sleeves.
The children slept on their cushions. Torak looked down at them. Jessica came up beside him and slipped her
arm in his.
“Aren’t you going to finish?” she asked. “You left out all my cunning feats of engineering.”
“Some other time, maybe,” he said, kissing her atop the head. “My greatest victory.”
“Did you notice? It’s snowing out.”
Torak went to the window and looked out. Snow indeed fell on the valley of his Clan, where the street glowed with electric lights and icicles formed on the wires strung between them.
“You succeeded, you know,” he said. “Oh?” she asked
He turned back to her. “You changed the world.”
Jessica put the children to bed. Torak held Snowbane as he gazed out at the valley. If the snow continued at this rate it would be piled high and deep by morning. “Look’s like we’ll have work to do, old friend,” Torak said, smiling.
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Copyright 2006 Bad Day Studio