Friday, May 30, 2008

"The Ruby Bug" - Act I

After a two week hiatus, the Xiao-tep universe is back with this week's post, "The Ruby Bug". This story picks up where "The Theft of Heaven" left off. I hope you enjoy.


"The Ruby Bug"
(c) 2008 by Charles Shaver. All rights reserved.


ACT I: The Ruby Bug Begins Its Journey

FALLING FROM GRACE: Wherein Neboshazzar is Born; The Ruby Bug is Brought to the Imps of the Bogs; Prince Kleos Challenges Iperitus to a Duel



As night swept over the world, a single feather slipped from Kalavata's wing, unnoticed by the Night Swan, gliding gently, twist-twirling away to the world far below. It floated in a dark part of the land where volcanoes belched ash into the air and lava erased and reformed the landscape, coming to rest neatly in a pool of molten quicksilver eternally bubbling with ferocity and heat. Rusalka, the spirit of the lake, found pleasure in her feathery find. She pulled the dark feather deep within the quicksilver, bending, shaping, molding it into an ugly form of man and bird. A torso and head was made like a muscular man's with deep, dark skin that glowed with a sheen. Legs were made like that of a bird of prey, rough of skin at the knee and below with feathered thighs. Quicksilver was cooled and placed upon the creature's feet as long, sharp talons. Smaller spikes of cooled quicksilver were formed and thrust deeply into his gums until they bled profusely before healing over and accepting the silvery, shining dagger-teeth. Where arms would be on a man grew out two massive, black be-feathered wings. The creature's form was hairless, including the head, and its eyes were as tiny pools of molten mercury between eyelids, constantly churning with hidden tides.

Rusalka released her son, for that is what she called him, from her thick viscous womb and named him Neboshazzar. As he took to the air he screamed out as an animal whose den was beset by fire. He looked briefly at the lake shuddering beneath him.

"Go," Rasulka said to her son, "and ruin the world."

Neboshazzar twisted mid-air and flew from his birthplace filled with the fury of consuming fire, with the anger of rumbling quakes.

He flew across the world and first came upon a a group of mortals in a small field conducting a union ceremony. The crowd, observed Neboshazzar, was filled with calm happiness which disturbed him greatly. While watching as a woman's hands were bound to a man's he reasoned the woman was the source of all their happiness and he must destroy her.

He dived swiftly, folding his long black wings into his body. his talons reached out, glinting with noonday sun. He lifted her from the ground, almost ripping her right from her dress and chased by feeble cries of the mortals cursing and feinting at the ugly beast carrying off the bride. He flew far away with her, pleased with the shouts of anger that had been flung at him. He felt powerful.

At last the wicked Neboshazzar neared a mountain and rested his prize along a sharp cliff. He watched her as she screamed, scrambling to get away. She screamed at his form, his actions, and most of all at his rolling, silvery, beastly, hungry eyes. He turned her on her back with his talons, placed a heavy foot upon each of her knees, bent low and spoiled her womanhood. The woman screamed until her voice was lost. She at last found solace in feinting unconsciousness.

When Neboshazzar was finished with her, he watched her silently lying on the cliff's edge. He hated her for her inactivity, for her sudden calmness. he thrust his head down, bending low, working his carnivorous teeth into her form, eating out her heart and stomach for that is where her love for the people she had been surrounded by came from. When he had finished engorging himself, he grabbed her leg with his long talons and pulled her effortlessly, almost flicking her over the side of the mountain where she she for many minutes until her dead body came to rest atop a tall boulder.

The ugly, dark creature looked out at the world, his body shivering, covered with chicken skin, his feathers rustling with nervous energy and adrenaline. He breathed deep. He screamed his high-pitched, almost feminine animal cry in primeval victory.

The world shuddered, knowing the wicked Neboshazzar the Ruiner had been born and blooded.



King Kleos and his people returned to their bogland soon after their escape from the Cottonwood Chamber. Their return was greeted with awe and Kleos was accepted once more as the King of Imps.

Time passed and King Kleos grew prematurely old with illness. His features wrinkled, his stomach thin despite his wealth. His people loved him and grew wary of his coming demise. An ad hoc committee was formed by Iperitus the Seneschal. The committee consisted of Iperitus himself, Apostolos the Wise, Kyriakos the Elder, Anargyros the Laborer, Innocente the Fair, Iason the Just and Lionidas the Brave. They put it to the people as a vote to make the new political body permanent. The people, fearful they would be left to the rule of King Kleos the Second, then small of age and yet still in training as a soldier, agreed nearly uniformly to make this committee their First Council, not replacing their king but wresting some power from him.

Fearful of defying his own people and weak with the illness, King Kleos conceded.
Iperitus went to Apostolos the Wise and said, “O friend, may I lay a burden of confession at your feet?”

“Please do,” said Apostolos.

“My heart is heavy for our poor king. I fear for our people, our common laborers and women. Our children must grow under the safety of a strong arm, but our king’s arm grows weaker each day. I fear we are left unprotected.”

Apostolos considered this. “It is wise you think of such things though they are disturbing. It is wise. We must do something.”

Iperitus nodded and smiled. “Indeed. But what to do? I am the king’s seneschal and though it appears I am a politician, I am more a friend and an unclogged ear for our king. I am stupid in such ways.”

Iperitus waited, watching thoughts boil within the cauldron of Apostolos’ head. “Perhaps,” said he, “the First Council should form a strong army?”

Iperitus, knowing he had planted the seed well, smiled as a farmer smiles at his blossoming harvest. “Are you saying,” he acted as though he did not know otherwise, as though he were surprised by Apostolos’ suggestion, “the first true act of the First Council should concern security of our boglands lest we be invaded once more by demons or men?”

Apostolos thought a moment. He began to slowly nod. “Yes, I suppose that is what I said.”

“And here you call me ‘wise’ while you are the one rich in thought. Perhaps you should suggest this to the full council, at least to consider. I would second your motion.”

“Thank you,” Apostolos said appreciatively. “But this new army, surely it should grow larger than it is now we would need new generals?”

Iperitus knew then he had Apostolos in his course. “That is true. Or, at least, one in power over the whole of the army. A strong man. One we all trust and call friend.” Iperitus leaned closer, straightening his back to appear larger.

“You are correct. We should nominate Kleos the Second for this new role.”
Agast, Iperitus stammered. “B-but… he is so young! And not yet finished with his apprenticeship! No, he would never do. What we need is someone who has acted in war already; someone who has helped, say, in the course of our escape to from the Cottonwood Chamber.”

Apostolos shook his head. “Kleos the Second is the best choice. He not only would be the future king, but he is a soldier. He has the name the people trust and soon he will have the skills. His apprenticeship will soon be done. He is the best choice.”
Felling defeated, frustrated, Iperitus said, “I doubt anyone would nominate him.”
“I would, of course.”

Angrily, Iperitus glared at Apostolos.

Apostolos smiled back. “Good Iperitus, Kleos is the best choice. You will see that,” he said, “and when you do you will take your first step towards becoming a good politician like I.”

Apostolos laughed as Iperitus walked away.

Iperitus had wanted the position of general of the whole army, of course. Unknowing what to do next, he thought a long time on the matter before finally settling on confronting Kleos the Second with Apostolos’ intentions for, he knew, though the young Kleos was a strong warrior, he was fearful of marring his father’s good name and unsure of his abilities.

Iperitus visited him that same night in the small mud hit barracks. He found the young Kleos quietly praying to some god. “You speak to the Gifted Ones often?” Iperitus interrupted.

Kleos faked a small jump of fright, making it seem he did not have the great ability to sense the presence of others, something he had learned from his training so as to guess enemies’ moves before they were taken. He smiled at the former seneschal, a man he had grown up around, a man he considered as an uncle. “As often as I can.”

“Do they answer?

“In some ways,” he said.

Iperitus cocked his head. “Are you certain? How would they communicate with you? They always seem so busy with whatever it is they do.”
Kleos smiled and invited Iperitus to sit with him upon his bed. “They show me signs. Omens. Wonderful things sometimes.”

Iperitus considered him.

“You think me mad?”

“No,” Iperitus smiled. “If the Gifted Ones talk to creatures so small as we, I think they are the mad ones.”

They shared a laugh at this.

“Young Kleos,” said Iperitus, “I must speak with you. Our friend Apostolos plots to nominate you in a new role governing all the imp army. He will most likely have his way.”

“What? No! I am not even finished with my apprenticeship!”

“Neither have you ever seen any true combat,” Iperitus added.

“Why would he want me?”

“I fear he has designs to wrest the final part of power from your family and the throne.”

“But how? Why?”

Iperitus watched him, the young imp’s hands beginning to shake visibly with nervousness. “One of the great fears the people had about the First Council as it was forming was that their king would be ousted completely from his throne, that the traditions of our people would be ignored. Their fears were not unfounded. There are those, so goes the rumor, desiring new government. We have one already, to some degree. I agreed to be part of it only because I have been concerned with your father’s interests for so long. If a new body was to be formed, said I to myself, then the king’s will must be represented. I joined the near blasphemous body so to become the body’s hands. And now, I fear, I have become the eyes instead staring at the hands coming nearer the throat to choke out the air from our dear king, your father. They seek new power, untrusting of your family’s lineage, fearful of your father’s weak condition, hateful of your future power.”

“That’s atrocious!’” cried the young Kleos.

“Indeed,” agreed Iperitus.

“Why would they place me into such a powerful position if they do not trust me?”
“To see you fail and, in turn, for all of impdom to watch you taint your father’s legacy, thereby fouling any trust in you they may have.”

“What if I did not fail?”

Iperitus breathed deep. “They would make sure of it. They would sabotage you.”

“What am I to do? What would you suggest?”

Iperitus paused, forging thought falsely. “Perhaps if you deny the nomination and make a suggestion of your own. If they people still trust you and our good liege they would pressure the First Council to follow.”

“Yes, a denial of the nomination is best. But who would I suggest?”

“I would say someone you could trust. A friend. A member of the family, perhaps… or someone close. Someone concerned with your interests as much as I have been with your father’s.”

“What about you?” Kleos asked.

Iperitus smiled. “That is much too kind.”

“But you were there for the battle in the Cottonwood Chamber. You have been blooded and proven. You are trustworthy and like an uncle. Please, Iperitus, please take the nomination when I make the suggestion. I would, of course, have to consult with the gods before I could make such a suggestion.”

Iperitus frowned. He did not wish his future to be molded by chance. Immediately his mind worked with ways to manipulate Prince Kleos’ feelings on the matter. He said, “If that is your wish, young Prince Kleos.” He faked a smile.

With that they left the barracks together, standing under the night sky. The stars shone brightly overhead. They gazed upon them for some time. Then the stars shifted, streaking, tearing from the sky like so many scratches against dark velvet. They felt sick, unbalanced by the sudden movement of the heavens. The stars stretched and were pulled from the sky, falling out of sight.

The entire bog, indeed the world, stood in awe and fear.

Iperitus thought fortune had graced him. He said, “There is your sign. I suppose the gods favor me.”

Kleos the Second shook his head. “No, this is ill fortune. This is an omen.”
Iperitus frowned. “I should check on your father.” He parted from Kleos’ company but did not tend to his liege, instead visiting Iason to persuade him to put forth the prince’s coming suggestion as motion.

Some of Prince Kleos’ comrades gathered round him. They trusted him as he was not only a member of royalty, but one of their own and was well-grounded in their eyes. He was a fine soldier and leader, though he was yet to finish his apprenticeship. He may have yet to blood himself, but he had proven himself to them in training and dedication and camaraderie. He was a soldier and they were devoutly loyal to him for it. They knew, also, that he consulted the gods and studied all things beyond the mortal realm. In that, he was deemed wise.

“What is it?” they asked. “What does it mean?”

He breathed deep. “It means there is a great imbalance in the universe. The world will soon change, moreso than it has already with the loss of the stars.” He was careful to choose his next words. “There will be much blood spilled before things are made right.”

The next day Prince Kleos, after the day’s training and work, visited his mother and sickly father. King Kleos lay in a soft bed of loam, his face pale and sunken, his mouth open to breathe. He slept soundly.

“Don’t wake him,” said Kleos the Second.

His mother, a beautiful, full-bodied imp with flowing red hair, said, “He would be pleased to see you.”

Kleos nodded. “I would like to speak with him… but not now. Many matters weigh heavily upon me.”

“Is it your training? Or is it this new foolish council?”

“Iperitus came to see me last night.”

“About what?” his mother daubed her husband’s forehead with a cold, moist cloth, feeling the heat from a fever there.

“There are plots within the council. I doubt they serve the imps as they say. Iperitus says Apostolos will call for me to be made general of all the army. I do not know I want such a position. I want nothing to do with this new council.”

“What did he say when you told him you did not wish to be general?”

“He said I should decline and he would be willing to accept the nomination should I suggest him in my place.”

His mother scoffed. “Of course he would. He has wanted your father’s throne since Kleos first took the throne. Did you know he attempted to usurp your father during the Battle in the Cottonwood Chamber? He came close to succeeding, if it were not for the love the people have for your people winning out Iperitus would now be king.”

Kleos the Second nodded. “I have heard the tales. What has that to do with Iperitus and this new role as a general?”

“I suspect he plots to take control, for once and for all, with military might should he become this new general. His entire life has been a crime against the throne. I’ll never know why your father ever kept that dastardly imp at his side.”

“What should I do, mother?” asked the young prince.

Considering it, she put the damp cloth down on the bed and looked at her son. “Say that you will do as he says, then accept the nomination when it is offered.”

“But me? As a general?”

“If Iperitus is certain he can win the throne with the generalship, then so can you.”

Prince Kleos kissed his father upon his heated forehead, hugged his mother and returned to his barracks to pray to the gods and ask for their guidance.



Iperitus set about finding a way to falsify a good omen for the young Kleos. He called to his side Demetrios the Younger, a stealthy imp of great many skills in being unseen. He said, “Demetrios, once I knew your father. You follow in his footsteps in many ways. Now I ask you to do so for my sake.”

“How may I aid you, seneschal?” Demetrios the Younger asked.

“First, I am no more the seneschal, though I may still carry out my duties as such. I am now a member of the First Council.

“Second, I need to plant an omen for our good prince so that he may grow wise as a politician and further some of the Council’s wishes.

“I do, of course, have your complete privacy on these matters?”

“What passes between us,” said Demetrios the Younger in his slow, drawn out scrawling voice, a voice that seemed as though wickedness were given a voice to whisper, “passes between us and no one else.”

“Good. Now I fear I need some manner of omen.”

“You speak of sorcery. I have many abilities, but omens are not one of them.”

“Sorcery… that’s a good idea. Perhaps not sorcery itself, but the appearance thereof. But the last time our boglands saw any sorcery was from that alchemist that turned into the demon Ketsueki Sato and ensnared our good people.

Iperitus considered this for a moment, then with a slow dawning realization he said, “Perhaps there is some small artifact, some modicum of witchery left within the Cottonwood Chamber.

“Go forth you to the Cottonwood Chamber and search for such an item, anything at all will do as long as it out of the ordinary and looks mystical, though it need not necessarily be.”

“And what shall my payment in return for this service be?” asked Demetrios.

“Some of the king’s own prime land to call your own and my favor on all matters. A single mound will be yours.”

Demetrius the Younger did as he was told and returned with a tiny bug.

“’Tis a ruby that lives!” cried Iperitus upon seeing it. “You have done quite well, Demetrius. Now go plant this ruby bug within the barracks of our dear, fair prince.”

Again Demetrius did as he was asked, but this time he was caught by the ever watchful eye of Kleos the Second who, even though he slept, heard and felt every presence near. Kleos awoke, grabbed his sword, a straight-edge and long thing, and challenged intruder, waking the other soldiers in the barracks.

Afraid and with many weapons pointed at him, Demetrius froze. Never before had he been caught and he knew nothing of escape.

“Demetrius the Younger, son of Demetrius the Quiet,” Kleos said as he recognized him. “What would such an outlaw be doing sneaking around our barracks at night?”

“I am no outlaw,” claimed Demetrius.

“You are in the barracks without permission. You are a criminal. Why are you here?”

Demetrius fumbled with the truth. It came flushing forth like water from a broken damn. “Iperitus sent me. He sent me to find a ruby bug within the Cottonwood Chamber and plant it here within your barracks so as to falsify an omen so you may do the bidding of the First Council.”

“Treason!” cried one of the soldiers.

Kleos waved him to be quiet as he considered Demetrius. “How much has he paid you?”

“Some of your father’s land.”

“And how could the former seneschal, not of royal blood, promise you royal land?”

“I assumed he plots an overthrow. I am not involved in that. I am a mere servant.”

“Shut your foul mouth!” Kleos’ voice took on a deep command few of his own fellow soldiers had heard. They were excited by its power and willing to serve such an imp with such a tone. They closed in on Demetrius as Kleos drew nearer to him.

“I, however, have rights to all the lands all over the bogs.”

Demetrius nodded at this, feeling it only proper to be agreeable with his captors.

“How were you to subject me to this false omen?”

Demetrius produced a small leather pouch and opened it, tipping it over so the ruby bug within fell out into his free palm. He showed it to the prince who stared in awe.

“And what is this?”

“A ruby bug I found within the chamber. I know nothing of it, if it is bewitched or an ordinary creature exotic to my knowledge, but it appeared omen-worthy. Iperitus felt the same.”

“He has seen it then?”

Demetrisu nodded. “I took it to him first for his approval.”

Kleos smiled, “Then we should not disappoint him. Go to him and declare that you have successfully done as you were told. Tell him nothing of being discovered. If you do so, I will give you twice what he has promised.”

Demetrius’ eyes lit up with delight and greed, knowing well that he would be the richest commoner amongst the imps with such a promise. “Anything for you, my liege.”

“And when you have finished reporting to Iperitus, return to me and let me know how pleased his face appeared.”

“That I will do.” And Demetrius did.

He returned that same night, before dawn, to the barracks. All the soldiers were still awake and waiting for him. They greeted him well. Kleos sat on the edge of his bed, his sword now sheathed and lying next to him.

“How was Iperitus?” asked Kleos.

“Delighted, sire. He graced me with many compliments. He suspects nothing.”

Kleos nodded. He drew his sword with such sudden swiftness and deftness he barely appeared strained, barely moving. The blade’s point depressed the skin at the base of Demetrius’ neck.

“Wha-What are you doing?” asked Demetrius, frightened and throwing up his hands unconsciously as though to say he was unarmed.

“I find you guilty in the name of our liege, King Kleos. The crime: conspiracy against the throne. The punishment: immediate execution.”

With a quick swipe of the blade Demetrius was beheaded, his body falling, slumping to the floor of the barracks.

Some of the other soldiers were shocked, one gasped, but all felt a stronger loyalty to their comrade and future king. He had shown he was a man of action and they appreciated him for it.

Prince Kleos ordered, “Remove the body and clean the barracks. Dump the remains in the bog so that no one will soon find it.”

His orders were followed without question.

After the mess had been cleaned, Prince Kleos found a small amber-colored ball with a hollow center that opened up and he put the ruby bug inside. He stood outside the barracks at sunrise, watching the rising light glint off the ball and the bug within. He thought of the disappearing stars. He gave no thought to the beheading. He planned his lies carefully for Iperitus.

Later that day he ran to the former seneschal’s side, simulating excitement combined with exultations of joy over the omen of the ruby bug. He agreed he would suggest Iperitus in his place as general over the army.



Iperitus found no struggle in convincing Iason to his side as they were old friends. The time came when the First Council gathered. As it was such a matter of import to the community, it seemed nearly every imp for mounds all around came to hear history made. They were instructed to remain pleasant and quiet as the council members had many greats tasks at hand to discuss. Few felt the need for catcalls or disorderly behavior. The First Council then called forth Prince Kleos to attend. The prince arrived with a small squadron of loyal soldiers in tow. “They are friends and comrades,” he explained their presence at the meeting, “and, perhaps moreso, they are citizens represented by this council. They will remain silent as you wish.” Few disagreed with such a military presence, at least not formally or audibly.

The meeting was begin and through its course Apostolos did as he had promised Iperitus and, given the floor, gave forth the following speech:

“Dear Imps of the Boglands, I stand before you your humble servant, elected by general open vote to represent your voice fully in times of dire stress. And these, I fear, are such times. Our beloved king is spoiled with illness. We all fear the future. Surely his son, Kleos the Second who graciously honors us with his presence, is training to become a strong and smart warrior. There is no doubt in my mind and, as such, the minds of the people since my mind is theirs that our good prince will one day make a fine liege. we will all most assuredly love him as we love his father, if we do not as yet. But this fine young imp is yet to finish his apprenticeship. With respect to King Kleos and his family, his son is unblooded, untried, lacking wisdom in politics. It is true youth is no sin, but should the lives of the people be placed within one – again with respects – his young lord – untested?”

At this Kleos the Second made no attempt to hide his ugly grimace, his horrid stare with which he followed Apostolos.

“The people cried out for stability,” Apostolos turned to address the citizen-imps, “and stability came in the form of the First Council. Unlike the king’s seat upon the throne, when I and my colleagues have long passed, the First Council will remain. Should our dear king pass on soon – and let us hope he is with us for many more years – his will shall perish with him and then we are subjected to new and unknown wills. The First Council, however, will forever remain as the will of all the imps of all the bogs.

“Now we are formed, united. We wish not to wrest control of the throne from our king, but rather to maintain that stability of society, of the will of the common imp. And the will of our people says we must first protect ourselves. The first, most important matter is our might. We must first concentrate on strengthen the arm of the kingdom, to increase and masterfully organize our army. It is true our army is united as I stand before you now,” at this he strolled towards Prince Kleos and his men and gestured to them with a flourish of the hand, “and none could argue these fine men are greatly skilled warriors. But without a stronger head the arms cannot but wield their weapons feebly.

Ladies and gentleimps, we must issue forth a new ruler of the army; we must flex our arms; we must appoint a general to wisely organize and increase our security so that we may never be invaded by wicked outsiders again, so that we may never fall under the spell of others again, so that we as a kingdom remains united!”

At this many of the imps cautiously clapped, wanting to applaud Apostolos’ oration but afraid to interrupt as they had been instructed to remain silent.

“Dear fellow council members,” Apostolos added, “I move to appoint a new general of the army and, if I may at the same time suggest one for the appointment, I suggest none other than our dear Prince Kleos the Second. We have all heard he is a strong soldier and that we do not doubt despite our feelings for him as our future king. But in the capacity of the general of our army we have nothing short of full confidence.”

Again a few imps applauded as Apostolos gave away the floor to the council.

Innocente seconded the motion.

Prince Kleos asked for the floor and he was given it.

“Dear council and fellow imps,” he began. “I am honored to be asked to go from apprentice to general immediately though some of you – it would seem – would not trust your politics with me. But–” at this he turned to glance at Iperitus who smiled a small smile at him, “I do not know if that is wise.”

Iperitus’ smile grew wider.

“However, if it is the will of my fellows to first prove myself, then I will do as they ask. I most humbly accept the nomination for General of the Imp Army.”

Iperitus almost stood in horror.

A general round of applause was given as young Prince Kleos returned the floor to the council.

The motion and the nomination were both seconded. Further discussion or general disagreement was called for. Iason asked for the floor at this.

“Good citizens, surely our young prince is well loved and honored. He is a fine young imp in every respect, but his lack of experience screams at me from across the room and, should I not be allowed to speak my peace here and now, would wake me in the night with dreaming horrors.

“I love our fair prince as anyone, but we need a commander blooded, tried and true. I nominate Iperitus, a man once trusted with the safety of our people best-loved king.”

Iperitus smiled and nodded his thanks to Iason. He asked for the floor. “If it is the wish of the people, I will fill the position.” He glowered at Prince Kleos.

“Iperitus is a poor choice,” said Kyrakos. “He cannot possibly bear the weight of both council member and general.”

“I would vacate my seat on the council and someone would be elected to replace me,” Iperitus said.

The nomination for Iperitus as general was seconded.

“All fine and well,” Prince Kleos interrupted, “but this man, this former seneschal and aid to my father…” he addressed Iperitus, “did you not once attempt a coup against my father, our king? A failed overthrow within the Cottonwood Chamber?”

Soft voices rumbled with whispers as many of the assembled imps confirmed with one another this accusation.

“He has no desire to fulfill the wishes of the people!” challenged Kleos. “He has only ever desired the throne!”

Order was called and Kleos kindly reprimanded for speaking out of order.

“As you can see,” Iperitus was allowed to respond, “our fair prince, though respected, shows his youth in his hostility and outburst. He shows himself as a nothing more than a whelp, unworthy of trust and unready for command.”

Again the gathered imps rumbled with soft talk.

Order was called again.

“I move,” said Apostolos, “that a general election be held, the command of the army put to the people through vote.”

“No!” cried Kleos.

“Prince Kleos, you speak out of order.”

“Then give me the floor.”

“The council recognizes the honored Prince Kleos.”

Kleos stepped forward, slowly approaching Iperitus in dramatic fashion. “The trust of a warrior is not shown throw a vote. Votes are for politicians and citizens. Soldiers gain the trust of the people by proving their skills at soldiery. I propose such a test.

“I put to this council that the two nominated for general of our army – being myself and the treacherous Iperitus – prove our skills through battle. I propose a duel.”

The collected people rumbled again.

Prince Kleos raised a finger to command silence from the crowd. They did as he quietly asked. He stared deep into the eyes of Iperitus but addressed the audience, his finger still raised to emphasize the importance of the next words he spoke. “And this duel must end as any warrior’s fight, with one of us being blooded. And not blooded by draing first blood, but blooded properly with the death of his enemy.”

A single, loud gasp echoed from the entire collected audience.

“That is ludicrous,” Iperitus said.

“Why is that?” asked Kleos. “Because you fear an apprentice soldier yet to finish his training? A boy? A whelp, did you call me? Do you fear my untrained blade?”

“I fear nothing,” answered Iperitus.

“The council will not allow this,” said Apostolos.

“Back down, seneschal,” growled Kleos. “Show your cowardice to the people and prove your ineptitude for the position as general of our army.”

“Prince Kleos, please. Concede the floor.”

“Prove your worth now, Iperitus, or be hounded the rest of your days with rumor and suspicion.”

Iperitus considered the prince. He had played his hand well. He was a better politician than Iperitus had suspected. He did not fear his skill. “I accept the challenge.”

“No!” cried Apostolos. “The council will not sanction this!”

“This will be done with or without the council’s will,” said Kleos. “In the end, the nomination for general will be decided with the elimination of one of those nominated.”

“The council will not have this!” Apostolos cried again.

“What will you do?” Iperitus asked. “Imprison the prince or a fellow council member? Is there yet such a law to grant you this power?”

Apostolos looked from Prince Kleos to Iperitus in cold silence as the gathered imps whispered wildly around him.



Torchlight danced on the soft loam growing slowly over the mound. It was night and stars were still absent from the sky. The sweet smells of water and night mixed. Imps gathered from all over the bog to watch, to bear witness to the future of their body politic decided in a fight. Rumors spread wildly, excitement stirred but the finality of what was to occur kept them hushed.

The members of the First Council were placed at the front in the small half circle that formed before the kingdom’s small keep where, inside, their king rested comfortably, unconscious, oblivious to the state of his people.

Prince Kleos appeared in the entrance to the keep, his straight sword in hand. He wore a dark suit of armor that illumined in the torchlight, flowing in dark, iridescent blues as though he wore a suit of oil. He was greeted by his loyal fellow soldiers. They stood nearby, dressed in similar military finery. Prince Kleos did a routine with his sword, stretching his muscles and awing the crowd into stunned silence at his skill as he flipped, dived, spun and brandishing the sword with exacting swiftness.

Iperitus climbed the mound. He was enveloped in a massive golden cape that sparkled as the stars had once done in the night sky. He came to stand across from Kleos who had stopped his routine to welcome his adversary in silence. They stood watching one another, their eyes locked, and all the imps quietly swore they appeared as actors entering a grand stage upon which a great tragedy confessing the spirit of all creatures everyone would play. With some flair, Iperitus flung the golden cape from his form and it fell slowly, fluttering to the mound. An imp nearby had the presence of mind to gather it up and fold it. Iperitus stood, his eyes still on Kleos’, in thick armor of deep yellow gold with incredibly intricate carved frill. The shoulders swooped high as fins. His helmet was pointed. A plume exploded out of the point with great black mule hair. From his scabbard he drew a beautiful gladius with gold inlay.
The fight was begun. Though none could see it. None but the players on the stage.
They stood, eyeing each other still. Neither one moved. They waited.

Prince Kleos stepped forward.

Iperitus stepped back.

The crowd held their breath.

Prince Kleos stepped backwards once.

Iperitus hesitated, then charged. His blade bit the air, aiming for Kleos’ heart.
Kleos brought up his sword and parried the offending blade aside. He flicked the tip of his own sword towards Iperitus who dodged low, bending back , pushing off with his left foot and sliding across the soft loam on his right, putting distance between himself and Kleos. He shifted his weight, his left foot slanting back behind him and planted it to stop his retreat. He charged again.

They exchanged sword blow against sword blow, their blades skidding off one another and sparking with life. Those gathered, watching, gasped in awe.
Iperitus struck again, aiming at a small opening in Kleos’ armor below the breastplate. Again Kleos raised his sword for a block, but this time Iperitus moved his wrist, shifted his arm’s weight and momentum back towards its goal. Kleos lifted his free hand and slapped the back of his sword hand, applying greater pressure and force and pushed the blade of Iperitus away.

With Kleos’ concentration on the swords, Iperitus brought up his own free hand in a palm attack, pressing the air from Kleos’ lungs.

Kleos stumbled backwards and heaved.

Iperitus gave him no leave. He pressed the fight and once more their swords danced against one another. Kleos this time shifted his wrist and used the flat part of his blade to slap the wrist of Iperitus.

Iperitus backed away, his sword vibrating.

Kleos watched this. “Your sword trembles.”

“The greatest sword is not only strong, but supple,” retorted Iperitus.

“It is not your sword’s make that causes its quiver, but its wielder. You cannot hold it still. Your martial skills are no good. I will defeat you.”

“And I will laugh when my gladius parts your flesh to drink your blood.”

“Bring your mosquito to me,” challenged Kleos.

Iperitus gave a strong warcry and charged. They two imps spun and flipped, striking again and again, exchanging attacks and parries.

On went the fight for the rest of the night and into the next dawning day. They rested twice throughout the day, taking time for a drink and to cleanse wounds. When Kalavata next soared overhead both imps had been bludgeoned and sliced. Prince Kleos had received thirteen cuts and three stab wounds, including one to the hamstring that impaired his ground attacks. Iperitus had taken seventeen cuts and four stabs, including a long bit of carving on his face that went from his temple to his cheek just at the corner of the nose. The wound had been quickly dressed, but it still occasionally bled.

The pace of the fight had slowed, but the spectacle of it had not subsided. The imps of the bogs, exhausted and capturing short, quick naps, remained near and watchful.
Kleos jumped with his good foot, his body spinning, building momentum in the air as his sword came crashing down on Iperitus’ blade. Iperitus fell beneath the force , his foot reaching up and kicking the wounded leg of Kleos.

Kleos cried out in pain and stumbled backwards in pain.

Iperitus kicked up, his armor seemingly of no weight. He pressed the fight and spun wildly. Kleos, yet recovering from the pained leg, rolled sideways, splitting apart his legs in acrobatic tumbles to escape the advances of Iperitus.

Iperitus swund his gladius over his head and down at Kleos. Kleos bent backwards, falling to the ground below the small sword. He kicked Iperitus’ knee, shifting his weight and causing him to fall on one knee. With another kick, this time to the face, Kleos was back on his feet and pressing the fight his way.

They skidded and tore at the loam growing on the mound. The fight increased in speed, desperation and anger.

Iperitus lunged.

Kleos kicked off the mound and flew high, above the oncoming sword. His own sword slapped down on Iperitus’ head with its flat side. Kleos, as he returned to the ground, kicked at the arm of Iperitus, knocking it aside so as to land before him unimpeded.

With a swift, exacting flex of his muscles, Kleos’ sword found its target below Iperitus’ armor in the one small spot left exposed. Iperitus’ intestines struggled forth from under the armor and spilled onto the soft loam that soaked the blood as a sponge.

The gathered imps gasped in horror as Iperitus dropped his gladius, staring at himself spilling onto the mound. He fell to his knees.

Prince Kleos, ignoring Iperitus, approached Apostolos.

Apostolos faked a smile, but his stunned fear showed through. “Congratulations,” he said, “it would seem you have one.”

With another quick jerk of the wrist, Kleos brought his sword across and through Apostolos’ neck, his head falling away to make a small thudding sound in the loam at his feet.

The imps screamed in horror, uncertain of what was occurring.

Prince Kleos then approached the nearby Iason who pulled his arms up, his hands clasped, pleading for mercy. The young prince brought his sword down upon Iason’s left shoulder and sliced him clean through to the bottom of his right ribcage. The top half of the council member fell away from his lower half, a look of terror frozen upon his dead face.

The crowd screamed. Many of the imps turned to run, but most were too stunned to moved. They were forced by their own fear to watch the tragic play carry on before them.

The remaining members turned to run but were caught by the soldiers loyal to the prince. Once by one he quickly murdered them.

Prince Kleos then returned to stand before Iperitus who was yet alive. He had seen it all, too far gone in shock to react, to even scream. He spoke, “I find you guilty in the name of our liege, King Kleos. The crime: conspiracy against the throne. The punishment: immediate execution.”
Prince Kleos lopped off his head.

The prince then turned to address the remaining imps. “I and I alone am the will of the people. My father will soon be dead. I am your new king. Though I am open to criticism, I will not tolerate actions against me. To do so you will end in your death.”

He turned to his loyal soldiers. “Impale the bodies and heads separately. Stick the impaling stakes into the ground and at their base light fires to burn away the filth. Let the imps of all our boglands smell the taint of conspiracy.”

A shrill shriek filled the air, almost inaudible with distance. Soon after the ground beneath the imps trembled. Kleos eyed the dark night sky. The tremor broke the spell for the imps and they ran in fear back to their homes.

Later that night, still covered in the blood of his enemies, King Kleos the Second sat on his throne in the keep. The amber-colored sphere rolled in his hands as he considered the trapped bug within. “The Gifted Ones have many powers over this world, but I alone brought about these ends, not you,” he told the ruby bug. He stared at it curiously before smashing the globe against the ground. The ruby bug slid on its back across the floor. It struggled to right itself. When it did, it scurried away through the doors of the keep and faded from sight.

As Kleos watched it go, he wondered after it. He wondered at the darkened night sky. He wondered at the shriek and tremor. He spoke softly to himself, “There will be much blood spilled before things are made right.”


I hope you enjoyed Act I of "The Ruby Bug". Check back next Friday for Act II!

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