Two statues flanked the only entrance into the pitch black tower of the dire mage Rathim. Three yards tall and crudely shaped from granite. A hand-written sign on one said “These are not golems!” in a manner indicating that someone might actually want you to believe they were not golems. Ten thousand runes glowed brightly across the surface of each one, implying they were more than just decoration. Coupled with the burning eyes that stared out into the forest surrounding the tower and pulsating two-handed swords of obsidian, the sign might be less than entirely honest. But, still, it was a sign. And no one would ever lie about that type of thing.
Except that Tima already knew that Rathim lied about those types of things. He was the type of man who would cheat on his taxes, steal candy from bureaucrats, and even use town roads for unnatural purposes involving sheep gods.
Tima hated the sheep gods. The whole herd of them.
She took a moment to adjust her armor. It had been custom made for her, but that had been twenty years ago, and now it had become tight in uncomfortable places; even the breastplate, shaped like two bronze helmets was starting to pinch. Still, she was in good shape for a forty year old. The only thing not be appropriate for Playfighter Magazine was the massive cannon strapped to her back. They really prefer a leg lustfully draped over some over-sized sword.
Playfighter hasn't really joined the new century.
She peered through the crystal eyepiece mounted on the side of her six foot, steam cannon. The cross-hairs centered on the chest of the right golem. Its glowing eyes stared blankly back; golems couldn't see more than a few yards.
Reaching up, she caressed the handle of the cannon. She braced herself and pulled it with all her might. Highly pressurized steam fired a lead shot with incredible speed; the pressure wave slammed into Tima's chest and she stumbled half a step back.
The right statue exploded in a shower of shrapnel and dust. The explosion continued into the wall, gouging out a chunk the size of a tall man. Energy crackled loudly, arcing along the dust motes and falling stones. It scorched fine lines into the obsidian surface of the dire tower. The sword hung in the air for a moment before falling to the ground and shattering into yet more shards of rock.
The remaining statue confirmed Rathim's lie by looking over to the remains of its companion. Without cracking its stony face, it stepped forward and brought its sword up in a guard position. Burning eyes stared out into the woods in search of an attacker.
Tima heard the rumble of her cannon shot rippling across the sky, but the golem didn't even twitch. Apparently Rathim didn't bother putting ears on the animated statue.
One reason why you shouldn't make door guards without the ability to hear.
She snatched up a large, two-handed sword from the ground near her picnic basket and ran toward the tower. Her curvy body struggled to remember how to sprint dramatically in the sunlight. Unfortunately, all it could remember was how to sweat profusely.
The golem stepped back into place and flipped the sword over. With a little shiver of something that could be a flicker of sentience, or boredom, the golem stopped moving and resumed its rather tedious task of staring out into the woods.
She was only two dozen feet from it when it finally noticed her. It stepped forward and lifted its weapon to attack. She raced low to the ground, then jumped high into the air. Moving as fast as ten tons of granite can, the golem tried to lift its sword but Tima's attack came down on the golem's head with a blow that could cut a full-grown man in two.
In a stunning lack of foresight, she remembered that golems weren't full-grown men. At least, she remembered when her sword snapped loudly and she bounced ungracefully off the chest of the statue,falling heavily on her ass.
Rolling backwards, Tima almost didn't get to her feet as the obsidian blade crashed down, slicing through the hard-packed earth like cliché butter. Jumping to her feet, her bronzed corset pinched her in the side and… other places. She swayed for a moment, squirming to free her body parts from the cruel outfit. Stepping back, she glared at the golem which really didn't have the ability to return the favor.
Springing backwards and jumping high enough to let the two-yard long muzzle clear the ground, she landed on the ground and winced as said armor pinched her painfully in the side. Her leather duster settled down around her feet as she hopped back a few steps. She wiped the sweat from her brow. Her frumpy skirt, the only thing out of place on her former “sword muffin” outfit, fluttered underneath the duster.
“Whoa, need to cut down on those pastries.”
The golem didn't make any comment on her figure. If he did, he would have admired how well she did keep her shape, or the little flip its stony heart made when she jumped over his head. But, golems don't have hearts nor would they be able to flip. Instead, they take big swords and attack statuesque women… probably out of jealousy.
Tima dodged the attacks and tried to slash out at the golem, but her shattered sword just missed by about half a yard. Disgusted, she threw it aside and patted herself for another weapon and stepped around the flashing black blade. She realized she had no other weapon and rolled her eyes. She left the other blade underneath a mattress at home. She let out a stream of swearing that would make a pirate king dress up as a woman and join a nunnery.
The golem glowed brightly and it attacked faster. She whimpered, biting her full lips as she desperately looked around for some other melee weapon. The cannon on her back wasn't quite ready to fire again.
She dodged around the golem's attacks, making the types of leaps and jumps that put her on the cover of Summer '05 of Swordarm Magazine. She panted for air, her curvy body no longer made the back flips with the same grace and endurance as ten years before. She groaned after one dramatic double jump over the obsidian sword and leaned on the side of the tower.
The cannon strapped to her back let out a high pitched whistle and steam hissed out of the coils. With a grin, she shoved away from the wall and past the golem. With a practiced movement, she yanked the cannon up and swung it down in front of her. Four legs shot out from the base of the weapon. They hit the ground and locked into place. At the foot of each leg, a foot-long screw spun shrilly and buried into the ground, bracing the entire cannon.
A deep rumbling noise shook the cannon and her body, irritating the pinches in her corset. The golem, still unable to hear anything, charged forward. She grinned, set her feet and yanked the massive handle on the side.
Like the statue in the beginning, the second golem's chest shattered in a cloud of dust and shrapnel. The heavy bullet continued through, slicing through four trees and a squirrel on the other side. A cloud of wood shot out in all directions, one of them leaving a tasteful score on Tima's cheek.
When the cloud settled, she tossed out her blond hair and tried not to think about the gray already coloring her roots. The rumble of the blast faded and she kicked a release lever near one leg. The four bolts spun around, removing themselves from the ground and releasing the cannon. With another snap of her foot, she kicked the legs out from underneath the cannon and slung it over her back. Striding forward to the door, she yanked it open and dove into the sanctum of the dire mage, knowing that she might not make it out alive.
... unlike the last twelve times Tima invaded the tower.
Inside, she inspected the circular stairs leading up into the tower. Pulling her long skirt up, she took the stairs two steps at a time. She passed through garbage-filled rooms, bedrooms that desperately needed some cleaning, and a room filled with treasures stolen… from…
She came to a skittering halt and stumbled forward. Slapping the stair, she stormed back to the treasure room. She shoved past priceless artwork stolen from kingdoms destroyed by the mage. She yanked a caged princess frozen in carbonite… um, ice. She tossed aside the Ancient Lost Artifact of the Elves and watched the delicate glass shatter on the Rather Grungy Shield of the Orcs. She stopped in front of the complete set of collectible miniatures of every ruler of the world in the last and next century.
Buried deep underneath a year's worth of unread philosophy magazines and evil porn—Devils Gone Good, Volume XIV, she yanked out a massive broadsword made of brass and cold iron. Coils ran down the length and she even spotted her initials scratched into the wooden hilt.
“Bastard stole my baby!”
Swearing again, she pulled off the cannon. She jammed the immense sword into a long-empty sheath below the holster for the cannon. The heavy blade, just as long as the muzzle of her weapon, pulled down on her. Taking a deep breath, she replaced the cannon on her back. The increased weight of the enchanted brass sword pulled down her corset, bringing her outfit dangerous close to escaping the PG-13 realm. With a desperate cinch of her belt, she managed to save her dignity and stalked out of the treasure room.
“Okay, Rathim is dead. D-E-D, damn it. He swore he didn't have my baby.”
She grumbled up the rest of the stairs. Near the top, she stopped in front of another massive, glowing door but she wasn't impressed—the tower was infested with them. All the doors glowed with pulsating runes and dire traps. Even the bathroom had a spell that stripped the flesh off bones on it; she didn't even have a clue how Rathim went to the bathroom in the middle of the night.
Tima yanked her attention back to the door in front of her. Annoyed, she kicked the door open. It swung open, bounced off the wall, and came back just as fast. It hit her in the face harder than she remembered. Falling back, she caught the railing of the stairs and flipped over it, landing face-down on the landing below. The weight of her cannon and recovered blade crushed her and she strained to get back into a standing position while rubbing her injured dignity and… chest.
One of the rivets in her breastplate/corset popped. It shot off and snapped a branch off a stone tree carved into the wall.
Hitching up her skirt, she stormed back up the stairs. Reaching the top, she flipped her cannon in front of her and kicked out its legs. As soon as the feet hit the ground, four massive bolts spun and dug into the granite like a drill into a chocolate cake. She yanked the handle and fired. The bullet slammed into the door, cracking it but not shattering it. The warrior grumbled and waited, tapping her fingers against the delicately carved brass fittings until the cannon recharged itself, pumping steam into the endless coils and letting out a high-pitched screech of the release valve. With an impatient yank, she fired again and this time the door cracked entirely in two, falling to the ground with a mighty rumble.
As the steam and dust cleared, she regarded the face of her sworn lifelong enemy: Rathim. He sat on a chair with his feet propped up on the skeleton of some unspeakable horror he created as a teenager. His moth-eaten robes covered in gravy stains look like they've seen better days.
He looked at her with dark shadowed eyes and a skin so taut that he could double as a skeleton with really good moisturizer. Blinking, he peered at her in the doorway, trying to focus through tiny glasses perched on his nose. They looked better than the huge horn-rimmed ones he used to wear, but Tima thought they weren't nearly as effective.
“Tima? Why the hell are you here? What did I do?”
Tima rolled her eyes and kicked the release lever. The screws released the cannon with a high-pitched whine. One screw shot out of its socket and shot through the air. It shattered some gaudy statue of a tentacle god being attacked by naked women. She swept her foot to fold the legs and slung the heavy cannon across her back. It clicked loudly and she braced herself before letting go of the handle.
“I heard you were doing something stupid,” she grumbled as she stalked into the room. She shoved past a towering stack of boxes and empty wrappers from delivered food. For a moment, she wondered who in the world would deliver to an evil tower in the middle of nowhere, then she spotted the Hey Dezes Pizza symbol. Clicking her tongue, she shoved the pile aside and kept her fingers away from the snapping demonic mouth they bound into every box.
He held out his hands. “What? I haven't done anything. I've been here for the last couple of months.”
Rathim grumbled and stuck a greasy napkin in his book before closing it. He turned around in his chair and Tima noticed he wasn't really wearing any pants. Shielding her eyes, she shoved her way past overdue library books and a pair of princesses, both in carb… ice. She stopped in front of him.
“Months? Try years. Last time we fought was close to a decade ago.”
He ran his fingers through his unkempt beard. He pulled out a handful of dust, grime, and a moldy hot wing.
“It can't be years, it was only last year that I held the city of Isori hostage.”
She arched an eyebrow and sat down on a sturdy-looking pile of books of illustrated evil. Now, they were whispering unspeakable things into her rear. “That was twelve years ago, Ram.”
“And when we had that battle over in Thorns?”
“Ten years ago. Our last battle.”
He smiled and chuckled, “Damn, that was a good fight. I remember when I almost got you on top of the clock tower.”
Tima rolled her eyes, “Yeah, yeah, and you had the Prince Gasol strapped to the hour hand.”
Rathim brightened and stretched. “I forgot about that! How is he?”
“Fat and stupid. They never tell you that princes aren't really capable of doing anything out of the palace.”
“Well, blowing up his father's home didn't help. I, um, I heard you had a child.”
“A boy. He's eight now. Gasol's son.”
“Really? I meant to send you something.”
Tima hesitated. “I was expecting you to. I had three mages, a witch, and even a pair of priests scanning every present that came into the place.”
Rathim froze and peered at her, rubbing his eyes. “Y-You did? For me?”
Tima looked away and fought with her own emotions. When she spoke, it was a soft, almost longing voice that neither could acknowledge.
“Yeah, a cursed doll, some bomb jammed in a cake, or even hellish weather to destroy the city. I was sure you would send something to ruin that day. Instead,” she frowned, “it was just a happy day.”
He sighed, “Sorry, I meant to. But, I got distracted.”
“I heard. I'm sorry about Esali.”
The mage smiled sadly and nodded.
“She was the best apprentice I had. Only stabbed me in the back twice and poisoned me a few times. I could never really tell if she was trying to kill me or just really, really bad at making dinner.”
His eyes started to burn with excitement and he turned away from the fighter to flip open the book. “But, I figured it out. Tonight, I can actually do this ritual that will pull her soul back from the Cauldron-”
“Don't do it, Ram.”
Rathim looked up at the sharp tone from the fighter. Tima felt a prickle rising up her back and leaned back, muffling the smart-ass comment from the book underneath her larger-than-she-was-happy-with rear.
The mage's eyes narrowed. “What?”
“Don't bring her back, it never works.”
His voice grew angry as he glared at her.
“Well, I will.”
“It didn't work for Franim.”
“Well, he was an idiot. I mean, using crystallized moonlight with a sub-”
“And look what happened to the Dread Witch of the Buttercups.”
“She was trying to bring her damn cats back! Who knew they would swarm into a massive cloud of hell kittens.”
Tima shrugged. “At least you figured out they were allergic to milk.”
Rathim chuckled, “Yeah, but you stole that little tidbit when I was trying to make my hell kitten blimp.”
Tima grinned back, “Well, nothing less than you deserve. But, it never works to bring people back. Look at Iolig the Necromancer? He was killed by his own daughter. Or that Glug guy, you know, the shaman? What did he try to raise? His wife?”
“She's still around.”
“But do you think he's happy? He brought her back as a banshee and she's been screaming solid for fifty years now.”
Rathim shuddered at the rumors of Glug and his undying wife.
Tima worried her bottom lip, thinking of an answer. “Yeah, how many necromancers actually survive bringing someone back? How many didn't create some abomination that required a good guy to kill it or whisper their regrets after being eaten by some demon, undead, or chimera pretending to be their cherished one? How many don't have their hearts ripped out as soon as they lower their guards?”
Rathim stood up, shoving her back. Tima flipped back, landing on her feet and planting the cannon in place. Steam hissed from the coils and she fingered the handle.
The mage screamed at her. “You don't understand! You never understood! I loved her and she would want to come back!”
“After eight years? Please, let's go back to the way it was, Ram. Let's go back to you and me trying to kill each other and you taking over cities.”
“No! I want her and there is nothing you can do.”
Tima felt tears burning in her eyes. “Please don't make me do this.”
His hand began to glow with a killing spell and she tightened her grip on the handle. He froze between two unspeakable words and the spell dissipated. With a tired sigh, he sat down heavily.
“Go away, Tima. Be happy I'm not being the evil mage.”
Tima frowned, unsure what to do. She stared at the mage, but Rathim didn't even look at her. He flipped open his book and pretended to take notes. “Just go… go away.”
Shaking, she let her hand slip from the cannon and turned her back. Without looking, she picked up her weapon and folded it. Kicking the unspeakable books and iced princess, she stormed out of his library and down the stairs.
Hours later, Tima sat at a campfire. Much more comfortable, she fried up a small squirrel on a pan and enjoyed her pinch-free cotton top. The horrid bronze breastplate sat in her tent, a testament of everything she didn't miss during her retirement. To her left, she could see arcane energies burning high up on the tower, the eldritch spell of her enemy lighting up the sky in a hellish brightness.
Flipping the pan, she reached down into her picnic basket and pulled out a few spices from her travel pack. Five years of being a cook to pay the bills did wonders for improving her adventuring meals, but she missed the sword and cannon. Even if they chafed her shoulder. Her eyes drifted back up to the tower, where a spear of light burst out of the top. It pierced stormy clouds, burning them away as a deep rumbling shook through the ground with incomprehensible energies forming into an unspeakable power. One misspoken word and the world would end in a flash.
Tima flipped her dinner in the pan.
The terrible spell exploded in light, blinding her briefly. She just let out a soft, sad sigh and flipped her meal again before sliding it on a plate. Watching the spell clawing at the sky, she slowly ate her squirrel, but it felt like a cold lump in her stomach.
By the time she finished the last of her plate, the light show was over and the world plunged into darkness. Off in the distance, she suddenly heard the anguished cry of Rathim and closed her eyes tightly, a tear rolling down her cheeks.
“Damn you, Ram.”
Fishing out a bottle of beer from her basket, she yanked off the wax-sealed top and saluted her life-long enemy. It took her long time before she finished it.
As she polished off the second bottle, she saw Rathim walking through the darkness to her. Feeling a strange emotion rising up inside her, she fished back in her travel pack and grabbed two more beers. He sat down across from her, she tossed him one.
Rathim sighed. “I couldn't do it.”
“Because, you're right, damn you. As I was doing the ritual, calling down the dark gods—don't even get me started on those bastards, I realized that there were thousand more things I could have missed. One stupid little mistake and I'll be a horror story for children.”
Tima shrugged, “I'm sorry. She was a great girl. I remember when she created all those zombies in Jadoin.”
“Yeah, but dead is dead. She won't be the same if I did bring her back. I mean, I was going to use demon's blood in the ritual. Yeah, it would give her larger breasts and the sex drive of a demon, but she would probably end up… biting something important off.”
“D-Did you, um, you know, with her?” Tima blushed at the personal question, it felt wrong asking her enemy about sex. The mage chuckled and drained half his bottle.
“Yeah, once. First time for me, actually,” he sighed, “Last time too. Being an evil mage doesn't really attract women. Most women are into cuddling, not someone who can harness the dark forces to do is cruel bidding. Or got voted ‘Most likely to take over the world’ three years running.”
An uncomfortable silence stretched out between them. Tima drank from her bottle and swirled the last few swallows in her mouth.
Rathim polished off the bottle. “It's been really ten years? You look pretty good.”
“Though, I don't remember the skirt. Did you use to wear a thong? I remember those brass chain links used to ride up your-”
“Didn't want to shave,” she muttered. When he opened his mouth to ask something, she interrupted with a snap, “And I don't want to talk about it!”
He chuckled and drank from his bottle. “What do you want to talk about?”
Tima sighed and stared at the empty glass.
“I don't know. Have any plans now?”
“I was thinking of checking out the Golden Pagoda. I heard they rebuilt it.”
“Yep, a thousand guards at all times, guaranteed safety for millions of bars of gold. I heard there are at least three royal treasuries in there.”
“Hrm, think I'll head over there tomorrow then. For old time's sake.”
Tima nodded with a smile. “Yeah, I think that would be fun. I'll meet you there.”
“What about your kid?”
“The prince is watching him, I have a few months to kill.”
Rathim set down his beer and his eyes glittered. “Really?”
“Yeah,” she said with a happy smile.
“It's a date,” he grunted and held up his beer, “to me killing you tomorrow.”