Friday, June 27, 2008

I Am My Pen: An Open Letter to Publishers from Charles Shaver

I had been planning on posting Act I of "The Elephant Crusade" -- the next tale in the on-going Children of Gods saga -- today, but my attention shifted to finishing the last bits of editing my novel Soar these last two weeks. As such, I simply didn't have the time to put forth on "The Elephant Crusade." Instead I'm posting today an essay, an open letter.

Act I of "The Elephant Crusade" will be posted next Friday, July 4th.


"I Am My Pen: An Open Letter to Publishers from Charles Shaver"

(C) 2008 by Charles Shaver. All rights reserved.


Hunger woke me this morning. I got out of bed and went to the kitchen. The fridge was bare save some condiments and a last bit of milk. I stood in the kitchen, looking out the window at a tree dying in my back yard from some sort of rot eating at it from the inside out. I drank half a coffee cupful of milk for breakfast. It’s all the breakfast I could afford.

Standing there, my mind wandered over to the Burton armory. Fights would be held there soon. I hoped to scrape up the ten bucks to go, to get out for a while and witness some other poor bastards get pounded for a change, to see some other nobody get their chance, to spill blood on cheap canvas, to fulfill his dreams or work out some anger or prove something to himself or someone else. The last time I saw a fight there was snow on the ground and I was a little less poor.

Writers like fighters. Papa Hem and Mailer were great fight fans. For some people there’s a mystery in that. A mystique. Those baffled by writers with a love for the fight hold literature to something exalted, something higher and finer. It’s not. Writing is fighting. To write is to take on the world sans kid’s gloves, with only bare knuckles and words.

To write is to get pounded, to take your shots, to fulfill dreams, to test yourself and spill ink all over cheap pulp. Each rejection is a new blow to the writer. Rejections rarely matter, though. A writer expects to get hit. I’ve taken quite a few lumps. I’ve been writing for five years and have as yet to publish anything professionally. I’ve got five years’ worth of lumps. I’m not afraid to take more.

My corner has prepared me well. I have all the skills needed to dance in the center of the ring. I have an idea where to take the fight, but am willing to break and flow with the pace of the game. I can shuffle and dance. I can bark like Ali. I can write for the knockout. Most of all, I’m hungry. All I need is my chance in the ring. The only thing threatening to hold me back is my own lack of throwing leather. But that won’t be an issue. I have the skills. And I’m hungry.

I am my pen, my destiny to spill oceans of ink.


Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Things are getting a bit iffy around here

On Friday, June 13th, I debuted a mascot for my ezine If - E - Zine: The Free Online Magazine of Thrilling Speculative Fiction!

His name is Iffy the IFreet, the Intergalactic Gin-Soaked Gypsy.

I've been wanting to create a mascot for the ezine for quite some time, something in the vein of The Crypt-Keeper from the TV series Tales from the Crypt and originally from the EC horror comics of the same name published in the 1940s and '50s. Every EC comic had a host or mascot of some sort and being that I claim EC as a source of inspiration for If - E - Zine, it seemed only natural that I should have a mascot or host, as well.

I'll have a more thorough write-up about Iffy in the August issue of If - E - Zine, which will be the fifth anniversary issue. I hope you'll click on over to my site and check out all the issues.

And, as always, enjoy!

For further Iffy enjoyment, you can add If - E - Zine as a friend on MySpace from the official If - E - Zine MySpace Profile.

And add the ezine as a friend on FaceBook on the official If - E - Zine FaceBook Profile.

Friday, June 20, 2008

"Comes Madly the Barking Dogs of Hell"

This week I present to you "Comes Madly the Barking Dogs of Hell", being notations of my original short story "The Ruby Bug" and the continuing saga "The Children of Gods".




I know what's coming in these stories. While I do not want to give anything away as yet, I also do not wish to talk down to my audience and assume you know nothing. With a small bit of mental ferreting, I'm sure my dear readers can determine some small coalition of heroes will band together in the end to fight the evils presenting themselves within this universe. And, again without giving away too much, I support that supposition. With that in mind, I knew not one but a like band of villains would be needed. As such, I introduced Neboshazzar the Ruiner, one of Yaska Selith's minions.

Neboshazzar is modeled after a harpy, though imagined with dark, dark skin. He gets his name from two people in Christian history, which makes him the first reference to Judaism and Christianity in these stories. His name is a conglomeration of Nabonidus and Belshazzar (coincidentally Rembrandt's depiction of Belshazzar's Feast is a favorite painting of mine), Nabondius being the last king of of Babylonia during the Chaldean Dynasty and Belshazzar was his son and last king of Babylon.

I had wanted to tie this collection of stories into the original "The Children of Gods" further than the eventual outcome, meaning that I wanted to cross over the characters from different stories and have them effect each other in new ways. We saw that in the appearance of Xiao-tep in "The Theft of Heaven". To that end I re-introduced a new generation (and some of the old) of imps to the tales. While their branch of "The Ruby Bug" may not completely influence the outcome, they did at least for a time have possession of the ruby bug.

I continue to mention Kalavata, Etain and Zingtai because the starless night plays a major part in the eventual climax to all the tales. The fallen stars, after all, affect everyone that lives under them.

A Rusalka, in Slavic mythology, is a water nymph or spirit. Here I use it as the name of Neboshazzar's mother and made her a more abstract creature, referring to her as the essence of a lake of quicksilver.

I first learned of quicksilver from, I believe, reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a child. In that novel, again if memory serves well, quicksilver is referenced as having been put into loaves of fresh bread and then set afloat down the Mississippi River so that the spirit of the recently deceased would have food on their journey to the land of the dead. Quicksilver is another name for mercury.

Though Neboshazzar's imagery and physical form was inspired by harpies, his actions were inspired by Lamia, a Greek woman who turned into a demon that would prey on the weak, namely infants, children, pregnant women and new brides, thus Neboshazzar's first real act after birth is to kidnap, foul and eat a bride.

I also use Neboshazzar as a form of omen for greater evil to come in future stories.

I've been watching the TV series Rome as of late and from that I was inspired to create a political drama with the imps. The imps were originally largely inspired by Greek traditions and folklore. I thought I would take from that Greek starting-point and have them evolve into something more Roman with a political senate. In the end what I wound up creating was a fractured, argumentative conglomeration (much like the portrayal of the Roman senate in the show Rome... and much like the republic of the United States), one that is soon replaced by a bloody despot. Of course, I meant to imply the ruby bug had its own role in the bloodletting. Not that the ruby bug was violent itself, but that this story concerning the imps was a set-up for rather wicked violence, a kind of violence that I knew I would write about everywhere the ruby bug went.


Apostolos the Wise = (Greek) "messenger" or "apostle"
Kyriakos the Elder = (Greek) means "of the lord"
Anargyros the Laborer = (Greek) Poor
Innocente the Fair = (English) My own derivation on "innocent"
Iason the Just = (Greek) A form of 'Jason', inspired by Jason and the Argonauts; means "to heal"
Lionidas the Brave = My own derivation of Leonidas; means "lion"

I felt, since the stereotype is that politicians are so fond of oration, a good many speeches were needed within the imps' story.

"The Theft of Heaven" had relatively little fighting in it, especially when compared to the original story "The Children of Gods". I wanted a good duel to start off the new stories and set the pace of violence, immediacy, and permanence that death of a character brings and reintroduce the emphasis on wuxia-style fighting. The duel between Iperitus and Prince Kleos is somewhat inspired by the duel between Yu Shu Lien (played by Michelle Yeoh) and Jen Yu (played by Ziyi Zhang) in the 2000 movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.




Doko's name, the merchant and friend to Garu the rat, was inspired by Daikoku, one of the Seven Gods of Fortune from Japanese tradition. Daikoku is the god of wealth.

Garu gets his name from two sources: 1.) the letters 'G' and 'A' in Ganesha's name, who is often depicted with rats and 2.) the sound of 'Garu' sounds similar to the French word 'loup-garou' which means "werewolf", an indicator of Garu's future transformation.

Zahir the Indomitable was somewhat inspired by the character Black Whirlwind from the classic Chinese wuxia novel "Water Margin" (aka "All Men Are Brothers" as translated by Pearl Buck; also known as "Outlaws of the Marsh"). Both characters are rather robust, overbearing, drunkards wanting things only their way and never really capable of cleaning themselves up to social standards. Black Whirlwind is also portrayed in the 2005 BioWare video game Jade Empire.

Zahir's name simply came to me, there was no particular inspiration behind it. However, according to, Zahir means 'helper', which adds a small layer to his transportation of the ruby bug from land to sea and back to land and into the hands of Ebi and eventually into the mouth of Pup.

Marcin is the Polish form of Martin, a name that references the god Mars.

The mercenary Macia Thrace's name is a combination of two warrior-dominant cultures from history: Macedonia and Thrace. I imagined him as a bigger man, perhaps carrying dual war hammers, but never made mention of it due to its lack of need.

The whole story of Zahir is largely inspired by Persian and Arabian tales, my largest exposure to which would be The 1,001 Arabian Nights.

The Baqir, the ship Zahir signs with, has an Arabic name meaning "to rip open", a reference to the violence within the story.

Captain Faraj's name means "remedy", referencing him as the one to deliver the ruby bug to Ebi and free his ship from the curse of illness and misfortune that has befallen his men.

Zahir's dying words were "Wherever that bug doth go, follows with it a trail of blood." This puts a very specific expression onto the ruby bug as a source of wickedness and foreshadows what's to come.

When I wrote of Zahir the Indomitable, I wanted him to live up to his name, yet in the end I knew he had to succumb to ruby bug to show the bug's power.

Sor was the last name of a Cambodian friend I once had when I was in grade school.

Xi-Wang's name is inspired by the Taoist goddess Xi Wang-mu, goddess of immortality that lives in the nine-stories Jade Palace in the Kun-Lun Mountains near the Lake of Jewels. Xi-Wang means "to hope", another reference of some things to come in future stories.

Xi-Wang was renamed Ebi, which was inspired by the Japanese god of fishermen Ebisu who is one of the Seven Gods of Fortune. Ebi is also the Japanese word for 'shrimp'.

Pup was inspired by two literary dogs, one being Argos, Odysseus' dog from The Odyssey and the other being Kojak from Stephen King's The Stand.

Lady Sor's death is taken from a one-time friend's experience. A family member was ill and dying and, just hours before my friend's plane landed so he could see his loved one a last time, they died.

The appearance of Black Tentacle (aka Zom Loa) ties "The Ruby Bug" back in with "The Theft of Heaven" and re-emphasizes him as a major character within the overall story. He is depicted here as having a similar origin as Ebi, but with quite different outcomes. Whereas Ebi became a simple fisherman, Zom Loa became an Immortal corrupted with want and on the run from King Aniabas. Zom Loa, feeling a connection with Ebi, struggles with his desires and his morals. This was added with the intent of showing different levels of drama within the story, keeping myself from relying on physical violence to create dramatic situations.




I subtitled Act III "A Wicked Knot is Formed". A knot can be a collection of some kind, in this case the band of villains, outlaws and outcasts surrounding and lead by the demon Yaska Selith. But it's also a reference to the Gordian Knot, a knot in a length of rope with no seeming ends. Without ends, it was said the Gordian Knot could not be untied, but anyone who could would be a future leader. Roman general Alexander the Great took his blade to the rope and cut it, untying the knot in that fashion.

The shadowy warriors that enter the ziggurat are modeled after ninjas. The ancient god they resurrect is modeled after Anubis, the Egytian god of mummification, death and afterlife.

I have an admission to make: the Brothers Jackal pull inspiration from characters from two cartoons popular during my childhood. The first being Jackalman from my beloved Thundercats, the other being the the brothers Zartan and Zandar from G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero.

Tavaras is the name of one of the Brothers Jackal and he gets his name from Tavara, nocturnal demons from Trebizond folklore. Trebizond is named for the culture and historic region from which the Tavara lore comes.

I wanted to give Trebizond and Tavaras the ability to make more of their own canid-kind simply to explain the continued swell of Yaska Selith's ranks. This ability is directly copied from werewolf lore.

'Yaska' in Yaska Selith's name is derived from yaksha, semi-divine nature spirits the protect the treasures of the earth, from Hindu, Jain and Buddhist beliefs. 'Selith' was inspired by the Shisa, the guardian dog spirits often depicted as statues in front of buildings.

I must admit that my love of kaiju came into play when creating Yaska Selith. One of his many inspirations was King Caesar, a giant dog-like kaiju first introduced to the world in 1974's Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla.

Yaska Selith is referred to as a barghest which is traditionally a hellhound-like creature that haunts the countryside in Yorkshire in northern England.

The true potency of the ruby bug was needing portrayal, so I decided to add it as a growing third eye in Yaska Selith's forehead that can produce a red beam that destroys or set on fire everything in its path. This is a reference to Shiva.

I wanted to show Garu coming into a village where he was not welcomed because, though this world is populated by mortals and immortals alike, I wanted to portray some people as fearing immortals and anthropomorphic creatures. It brings a bit of drama to the world and some small complexity, but mostly it simply makes sense that not everyone mortal would associate with immortals just as not every god would break bread with a mortal.

The Grand Bazaar of Tenhar gets its name from two sources: 1.) The Grand Bazaar of Istanbul and 2.) Tehran's Grand Bazaar.

Sinvergüenza's name means 'scoundrel' in Spanish.

Mihai's name is Romanian for Michael which, in Hebrew, means "Who is like God?".

Ioana's name is Romanian for John which, in Hebrew, means "Yahweh is gracious".

Ioana calls Garu a domovoi, a Slavic household guardian spirit traditionally a man-like creature, but often covered with fur and a beard and occasionally with horns or a tail.

Garu's new name, as given to him by Ioana, is Brat Stavrosslavakovich. Brat means "brother". Stavros is Greek for "cross", referencing the 'x' marking on his ear and the semi-Christian unspoken background of the Ruska Roma. Slava is Russian and Slovene for "glory". Kovich I added on as an homage of sorts to Shostakovich, the Russian composer. When Garu/Stavros first spawned in my head I kept thinking of the name Shostakovich for him.

The character Garu/Stavros was first spawned (as a drunken warrior rat) more than a year ago as I completed the original story "The Children of Gods". I wanted him as a possible new character to help expand the universe. He has definitely become a pet/favored character for me.

The Ruska Roma take their name from the gypsies that eventually settled in modern Russia and keep their culture alive to this day.

I really wanted to fill out Stavros' personality through his connection with the Ruska Roma. I made his learn their dances, enjoy their drinks and sing their songs.

Livia's name is the Slovak variant on Olivia, which was created by Shakespeare for a character in his play "Twelfth Night" possibly as a feminine variation of Oliver.

Stavros is minimally inspired by the Skaven from Games Workshops' Warhammer Fantasy universe.

I added the attack of the Baba Yaga to show Stavros was capable of and willing to fight for his new friends.

The Bone Warriors' act of stitching bones to their clothing as mock armor is somewhat inspired by Tony Jaa's 2006 movie The Protector, in which he ties elephant bones to his forearms as weapons.

The epilogue of "The Ruby Bug" is simple stage-setting for the stories to come.

The Plain of Adoration takes its name from Mag Slécht, a plain in Ireland also called The Plain of Adoration and Prostration where sacrifices were once made to the god Crom Cruaich.

Owl Bridge is a reference to the Plains Peoples' Owl Woman, keeper of the bridge that deceased persons must cross over into the afterlife.

Vitor's name is a Galician form of Victor, which means "victor".

King Aniabas speaks the last lines of "The Ruby Bug": “It cannot be done,” he answered, “lest we join with some other force.” This foreshadows the coming of the aforementioned banding together of heroes to fight the villainous Yaska Selith and his knot that have settled the Plain of Adoration.


Come back next week to read the very next story in the ongoing saga!

Friday, June 13, 2008

"The Ruby Bug" -- Act III

Here is the final, closing act of my original short story "The Ruby Bug". Act III picks up where Act II leaves off.

Next week I will be posting an essay of notations about "The Ruby Bug" as I have previously done for "The Children of Gods", "At the Peony Teahouse" and "The Theft of Heaven". Be sure to look for it.

I hope you enjoy today's offering.

Read Acts 1 and 2 here.


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


ACT III: Stavros of the Ruska Roma

A WICKED KNOT IS FORMED: Wherein the Brothers Jackal Are Born; A Gathering of Evil; Garu Becomes Stavros of the Ruska Roma; Yaska Selith and the Bone Warriors Settle Upon the Plain of Adoration



Deep within a multi-chambered ziggurat the thieves stole, leaving behind them a trail of blood and bowels of guardian soldiers. They entered the antechamber leading into the ziggurat’s center-most chamber and there were confronted by two soldiers bedecked with gold cowls, aprons and silver spears.

“Halt!” cried one of the antechamber guardians. “You’re not allowed access here!” He eyed the seven intruders clad in black, their eyes gleaming white in the antechamber’s torchlight. They crawled the walls unnaturally and one clung to the ceiling. They were as living shadows, shades of mortal men. “Find your treasures elsewhere!” the guardian told them.

“We have come not,” said one of the blackened intruders in a low, nearly inaudible hiss, “to take away from your precious palace of death. We have come instead to place something within. Whether it leaves, it would be of its own accord and not ours.”

The guardians raised their spears, advancing. “You will be allowed no farther. Turn and run or we will kill you,” spoke one.

“Too long has the new religion thumbed the ways of our ancestors,” said one of the dark figures. “Join us now or perish at the hands of the old gods.”

The guardians stood their ground.

The seven intruders jumped in unison, as if in one mind. They kicked and scratched with clawed fingers. The guardians stabbed and twirled their spears within the dank antechamber. In the end, two of the blackened intruders lay dying and the two guardians were dead, blood spilling from cuts at their throats and temples.

Fearing their dying comrades would be found and made to speak, the remaining five finished the lives of their two fallen comrades. The two dying gave no fight in this.

They entered the center chamber, taking torches to light their way. Within the chamber’s center stood a massive sarcophagus. Its surface glinted gold in the torchlight. The intruders struggled to push off the top, opening it and releasing ancient dust into the dank air. Lying inside were the mummified remains of an old deity.

The torches were placed in crevices in the walls, abstract items and bones produced, talismans and scrolls. As the torches flickered from some unseen breeze, the five began to chant in a long-forgotten language. As they chanted, the mummy moved. It awoke. And before they could finish the ritual it burst forth from the sarcophagus, flying through the hard stone of the ziggurat, flying straight and high. The stones ripped at the mummy’s wrappings, removing them, revealing a man beneath, emaciated and leather with a jackal’s dark head.

The old god exploded from the top of the ziggurat and flew away into the dark night sky. He hungered for flesh, for contact. Most of all, he lusted for companionship. He flew until he came to a mountain and, spying down, found an old woman there with iridescent wings like an insect. A witch. He did not know her to be a witch, he did not recognize the twisted ugliness of her face, nor did he care. He tackled her and raped her repeatedly. She screamed out into the night, using her powers to release herself from his grasp, but she was too weak to battle against his ancient strength. His vitality shot into her, some of it dribbling down her leg. He paused to rest, to look at the world and the starless night.

The Mountain Witch crawled away. He turned and saw her trying to make her escaped and attacked her once more, salivating, slather her with his tongue. He howled as he satisfied himself. She screamed. As he flew away into the night

Six days later the old Mountain Witch gave birth to two jackals, twins, that howled into the night. They tried to eat her, but they were yet too weak for effective attacks. She captured them together in a bag of hemp and took them to a nearby river that washed down the mountain and out into the sea and threw them into it. They drifted and she was happy knowing they would soon be battered and drowned.

But they did not drown. They grew quickly, chewing free of the burlap sack and found they could speak and stand as men. One had golden fur with three black stripes down its back, one large in the center of his spine and two smaller, thinner, on either side of the larger. The fur of the other was red. Where his brother had a thick black stripe down his back, so did this one, but on either side of the stripe he was speckled with black spots. They took names, the golden one Trebizond and the red one Tavaras, and set about to feed themselves.

Together they terrorized one countryside after another. They came to be known as The Brothers Jackal, as evil spirits and omen of greater doom.

While hunting mortal men in a village one day, Tavaras bit a villager but the villager escaped. By the time he found the villager, the mortal was about to die. Tavaras drew near to feast upon his kill, but the mortal convulsed three time consecutively, then, as the body was lying still, it began to grow a thin coat of fur much like Tavaras'. Soon the mortal was alive again, covered in fur, his face extending out into a canine muzzle. The mortal now looked more like Tavaras than anything else.

This new creature spoke, “Father, I am at your command, but I am hungry. Can I feed?”

Tavaras called over his brother and explained what had happened, showing the new creature off as though he were Tavaras' son.

“It would seem,” said Trebizond, “that we can make children with a single bite.”

On they went terrorizing mortals, eating them and occasionally turning them into one of their own for entertainment.



The demon-dog traveled some ways across the world, the dark harpy Neboshazzar always at his side or on his shoulder. Together they ruined settlements and towns, corrupting many to their roving and pillaging ways. Soon the demon-dog had a small following always at his heels comprised of thieves, pirates, murderers, misfits and scoundrels, outlaws and outcasts. They named the demon-dog Yaska Selith, The Barghest of Howling Madness and Murder. They loved him for, unlike many other Gifted Ones who kept to themselves, rarely consorting with mortals, Yaska Selith lived and roamed upon the lands of the mortal world. He made sure they were fat, happy and loyal. In the presence of such a demon many mortals felt incredible power and whatever they had ever lusted for they could have if only they would ask. If a murderer wanted to kill off an entire town’s population, the barghest would stand guard, his other companions creating a perimeter so escape was impossible while the murderer quenched his bloodlust. If a rapist wanted every woman in a brothel, the barghest would raise the building filled with woman in his clawed paw, allow the rapist to enter and send the women screaming while Yaska Selith peaked through the doors and watched.

The demon-dog was power to his mortal companions, a power such that it chased away fear of retribution.

Yet Yaska Selith, the demon that once was a fisherman’s Pup, was still forming into his demonic self. After a night’s pillaging, as his followers slept, Yaska Seltih awoke in great, agonizing pain. A small hole appear on his forehead. He cried out, howling. His followers awoke in time to see the hole appear, bleed a little, grow a small eyelid and close. A few of those that had heard the howl were given over to madness and ran off to pleasure and defecate themselves, to drool, losing knowledge of feeding themselves until, at last, they starved to death. So small was the hole that, if they had not seen it forming, they most likely would have missed it the next morning against Yaska Selith’s immensity. The demon-dog stood taller than twenty men while the hole was a mere crater, no more than a finger-width’s wide.

Yaska Selith grunted, panting. He placed two clawed fingers upon his forehead and drew away small dabs of blood. He felt again and found the small, new eye. Concentrating, he opened the small eyelid of the third eye and out shot a great beam of red light, setting all things aflame in its path – including two of his followers. Gravely laughter fell from the demon-dog, saying, “It would seem I have grown a new weapon.” The third eye closed. His followers cheered.

Yaska Selith did not comprehend this new eye, nor did he care to. It destroyed worldly things when he opened it and that was enough knowledge for him. He cared not how it worked, or why, nor did he care to know that buried deep behind the eye, close to the skull, his flesh had captured and mounted the tiny ruby bug, the source of the destructive beam.



Garu found a small village of tradesmen and farmers and there he entered, not knowing the local superstitions of Gifted Ones or even that he himself was a Gifted One. Everything was new to the rat-man that was once a simple rat foraging for food with his friend that fed him. When Doko was alive and his friend, Garu had a favored life. Never had he the need to hunt then for Doko had provided all. But now, with Doko dead, Garu on his own and in his new form with the power of speech and upright mobility, in a new country, he felt an alien in strange worlds.

He had found the village when he crested a large hill and looked down its steep rolling sides. The village sat along a thin river, a tributary of some larger river, and on either side of the river grew fields of wheat and whey that bent in the wind like small, soft roiling waves on the sea. "Surely," thought Garu, "A place with people so rich with grain could spare a meal in exchange for this jewel."

In his arms he still carried with him the massive Jewel of Zingtai, the emerald that had been stolen from the heavens, from the wing of Zingtai the Butterfly, the Nighttime Birdwing.

Garu descended the hill and entered the small village. When the people there saw him, they challenged him. "Leave!" they cried. "Leave us alone! Vermin bring disease and eat our crops!"

"I just want a meal!" Garu called back in fear, desperate with hunger and a desire to be understood. "Please! I'll trade you this stone for a meal!"

"Go!" they shouted. The people picked up their tools - hammers, scythes, forks and hoes - and brandished them at what they thought was an invading demon.

Garu turned to escape, to run away, but found he was surrounded. "How can I leave if you've surrounded me?" he asked. He realized then they meant to harm him, to kill him and not simply chase him away.

A villager charged, his pitchfork lurching out before him like a spear. Garu had to drop to the ground, losing hold of the jewel in the process, to dodge the oncoming farmer's makeshift weapon. When the farmer came to stand over him, adjusting the fork so he could stab downward at the prone rat-man, Garu remembered his fights in the hull of the ship when he and Doko had crossed to this new land. He turned on his back, reached up, grabbed hold of the farmer and pulled him down while kicking up with his hind legs.

The farmer tumbled away, blood spraying from his mouth as his chest caved and exploded within as bloody wounds.

Garu stood. The villagers eyed him warily. Their desire to fight had shrunk at seeing one of their own dying. Geru picked up the jewel and precariously stepped forward. The villagers backed away, their tools pointed at him. When he was sure they would let him, Garu ran and fled the village.

He struggled back up the nearby hill and looked back, spying it to discover if he was being followed. The village bustled with activity, some sort of ritual to spirit away evil was being performed and the wounded man was being tended to, but no one was coming after him.

"It would seem," said he to himself as he stood panting, gasping for air, "my new form is no more befriended than my old. Need I to take care." His stomach growled. "Need I some food!"

With the Jewel of Zingtai in his arms, he descended the other side of the hill, circled the village far from their sight, and carried on his quest for food.

The next time Garu spied a collection of people was at the Grand Bazaar of Tenhar, an open market the length of a massive city. He watched from a good, safe distance for a long time. Not only did he witness people like his old friend Doko entering and exiting the bazaar with ease, he was certain several animal creatures like himself had come and gone, as well. "This is like the places Doko would go," he thought aloud, "but far greater in size and number of people. It would seem safe, though, if not, it must end in my demise. I escaped that village because there were so few people and they were so full of fear. Here, however, there would likely be someone not quite so afraid and many willing to end me quickly."

He pondered entering the bazaar for a while. He could see all variety of people wandering through openly. Colorful tapestries filled the aisles of the bazaar. So colorful were they that Garu desired to see them up close. The sweet smells of fresh foods being cooked, of curry on the air, came to him. At long last, his growling stomach made the decision for him. He picked up his green rock and started cautiously towards the bazaar's entrance.

The bazaar stretched the entire length of the city. It was colorful with tapestries and silks and cloths and smelled of fine foods that made Garu’s stomach rumble. Curry and incense mixed on the air. Garu was in awe of the many merchant booths. “It would seem” said he to himself, “that one could buy anything here.”

And he was correct in this. Livestock and monkeys, pets and plants, jewelry and spices, foods and games and gambling and companionship and hookahs and pipes, slaves and wives, workmen and the finest things from all over the world could be purchased at the Grand Bazaar of Tenhar. As he walked down the middle of the bazaar he noticed few people stared at him, but those that did seemed more to train their eyes upon the giant jewel he carried.

“Friend!” called a nearby merchant. “How much are you asking for that jewel?”

“A meal, a good meal and nothing more,” Garu answered.

“A meal? A mere meal?” the merchant asked, realizing too late he had perhaps given away the value of the jewel. “I will give you a meal from our food court, anything you wish, in trade for that jewel you carry.”

“Bah!” scoffed a nearby merchant. “Food from the court here? Surely the chefs here are the finest, but nothing substitutes a home-cooked meal. Friend,” he said this to Garu, “I invite you into my home for such a meal, two days’ meals, in fact. My wife is a fine cook and, should you wish, I’ll even give you my wife during your stay. I ask in return only for that jewel.”

Garu was confused by this. He wanted a simple, single meal. The worth of the jewel slowly came to him. “This must be worth quite a bit for you to offer your woman,” said he to the second merchant.

A third merchant, from a booth behind Garu, called out, “His wife is ugly! I’ll let you have your way with any woman you wish at one of our fine brothels, two or three if you would like, plus meals in the courts here for three days. In exchange I ask for the jewel.”

On went the bidding until, frustrated with the attention more than anything, Garu made a deal with the fifth merchant to have joined in the bargaining. In trade for the jewel Garu received a week’s worth of pleasures at a nearby brothel, five days worth of meals free, plus a small purse filled with coins of the local region.

Garu ate and was pleasured by the women. He drank and found he liked alcohol, especially fruity wines. In five short days that seemed to go by quickly for the rat-man, he grew fat and tired of sex. He slept on the ground outside the bazaar if he did not fall asleep in the arms of a whore. After that it took him a mere two days to spend all his coins on food and women and wine. He returned the the merchant he had sold the jewel to and asked, “I am out of coins. How may I get more?”

The merchant looked at him, “Ah, the rat-man! You’ll be happy to know I sold your jewel already and I was actually able to make a small profit of it.” Little did Garu understand the merchant had made a sizeable profit on the jewel, nearly enough to retire on. “What’s this you say of coin? You need more? Well, I have a way for you to earn some. If you carry a package to me in the neighboring country I will in return give you more coins.”

Garu agreed to this, and so became a merchant’s delivery man and errand servant.



Yaska Selith and his band grew to be known far and wide. Many of his followers took up the practice of wearing their victim’s bones around their necks, through their ears or noses, on their heads or stitched to clothing on their shoulders, arms and legs and, as such, came to be known as the demon-dog’s Bone Warriors. They became legendary in their ability to be merciless. A few were skilled, trained warriors and they taught the others, but none could quite claim to be the best warriors in the world. Yaska Selith thought on this. “We must recruit fine fighters, strong fighters,” he consulted with Neboshazzar, which he often did despite Neboshazzar’s inability to respond. But Neboshazzar always listened. “We will recruit some excellent fighters to fill our ranks, to become captains of our army, to train all the rest to improve their skills. We will become unstoppable.”

One of Yaska Selith’s followers, a man named Sinvergüenza, overheard this and said, “Dear master, my demonic lord to whom I am most loyal, if you are serious about what you speak, no finer fighters can be found than at the Peony Teahouse. The world’s best gather there to prove and improve their skills. It is one of the few spots where Gifted Ones and mortals congregate mutually.”

“How know you this?” asked Yaska Selith.

“I have been there, master.”

“As a fighter?”

“No, I am much too inefficient a fighter to take my chances in the arena of the Peony. In my previous affairs before joining your ranks I was quite the gambler and betting upon the fights is encouraged there, as well as other forms of games.”

Yaska Selith considered this. “Know you your way to this teahouse?”

Sinvergüenza nodded. “That I do.”

“Then take three men and go, find me the greatest fighters in the world.”

The four men were sent to seek fighters at the Peony Teahouse while Yaska Selith and the rest of his followers continued their onslaught against the world, town after town.

Once they came into a small town that had already been ravaged, the people sent screaming into the hills. As he and his followers looked about, they discovered the Brothers Jackal, now with eight children and followers of their own, feasting upon the flesh of the dead and unlucky enough not to escape. Neboshazzar eyed them as they ate, salivating from his silvery teeth.

“Ho!” called Yaska Selith. “You there! The dogs! Who are you?”

The Brothers Jackal peered at one another, blood dripping from their muzzles, their fur matted with sweat and gore. Suspicion and excitement filled them at the sight of such an immense canine creature. “Tre,” said Tavaras, who had taking to calling his brother Trebizond ‘Tre’, “he is one of us, this creature, though far larger. He must be made our friend.”

Trebizond nodded, turning to answer the giant demon-dog. “We are Trebizond and Tavaras, the Brothers Jackal, and these are our minions and children. Who might you be?”

Yaska Selith’s followers scoffed at the familiar way Trebizond spoke to their master. “He is Yaska Selith, Barghest of Howling Madness and Murder!” cried one. “He is one of the Gifted Ones and master of the world over. We are his happy servants, the Bone Warriors.”

The Brothers Jackal looked over the collected followers of the demon-dog, eyed each other, and Tavaras said, “Well met, Yaska Selith and his Bone Warriors. We’ve not enough to share our feast with you as yet, but given time we could hunt more and we would be happy to share.”

Yaska Selith ignored the offer. “Tell me, Brothers Jackal, how is it that your small group of canine warriors came to raze this town? It is small, true, but you seem so few.”

“We may be few,” answered Tavaras, “but we are superior hunters and strong fighters. This is how we survive. If we do not succeed in assaulting towns, we would starve and die.”

Yaska Selith considered this. Growling laughter filled his gullet, streaming out his throat and shook the ground beneath them. “I say you, how many are there of you? Ten?”

Unsure if they should be insulted by the demon-dog's laughter, Trezibond answered, “There are indeed ten of us,” he then eyed the Bone Warriors, realizing they were outnumbered three-to-one, and added angrily, “but we can easily make more.”

“Make more?” asked the demon-dog.

Trebizond nodded, looking up at the tall Yaska Selith. “Indeed. Our bite, if not carried through to the killing blow, changes a mortal person into one of our children.”

The Bone Warriors shuffled nervously, murmuring among each other. Seeing this made the Brothers Jackal smile for they knew they could intimidate these soldiers.

“How many more could you make?” asked Yaska Selith.

“As many as needed,” answered Tavaras.

Yaska Selith nodded. “Good. I’ve a thought: we, being already cousins in the very least if not brothers canid, should join together. If you do, I will provide you with all the adventure, slaughters, rampagings and engorgements you desire. In return I ask only that you swell the ranks of my Bone Warriors with your kind, using your bite. And, of course, for your loyalty.”

Trebizond and Tavaras eyed one another. They need not speak for they often thought the same things. They merely judged each others’ facial expressions, reactions to gauge an answer. Together they agreed silently, together they smiled and turned their heads up to look at the towering demon-dog, together they spoke, “We would join you.”



Garu despised the work he did for the merchant. At last, when once he was given a satchel of coins to be delivered to another merchant in a nearby countryside for the purchase of some goods, Garu simply made off with the coins and disappeared into far lands.

Chased from town to town, always on the verge of hunger, Garu ran from one country to the next. At last, near death and so starved was he, when he came upon a band of nomads he made no effort to hide his presence. He followed their nighttime firelight and fell unconscious in their midst. These people – gypsies and musicians, fortunetellers and thieves – gasped and readied their weapons against the rat intruder.

One of their men, a man named Mihai, approached, pressing a wary foot against the fallen Garu. “What is this creature?” he asked.

“A beast! A demon sent to devour us!” someone cried.

“No! He is a Gifted One sent from the Heavens to bless us or charge us with a quest!”

Garu moaned, waking briefly.

The gathered gypsies scuttled backward, eying him.

Garu rose, fell.

“We must kill it!” called Mihai.

“No!” came the answer. From out of their numbers came an old woman, her eyes white with blindness, her skin golden brown and speaking of her past beauty. She wore on her head three silk scarves of gold, red and violet. Hanging from each were coins from different countries she had traveled through. At her waist was a massive, flowing sash of crimson edged with glittering gold. Her dress was blue, light, layered and flitted on the night wind. She was called Ioana and she was the elder of these people and their greatest seer of things to come. “Let me see him.”

Two men stepped forward, placing their arms under the rat-man and lifting him. Garu’s eyes opened a small ways to fall on her old face as she placed hands on his muzzle and head, feeling his features.

“What is your name?” she asked Garu.

“A friend,” his voice was weak with hunger, “An old friend once called me Garu, though lately I have also been called ‘vermin’ and ‘wretched’.”

She shook her head, feeling at his right ear. Her fingers outlined the odd white ‘x’ marking his fur made. “I know not what your name means.”

Garu further awoke. “Neither do I. I was but a stupid rat before he died. Then I swallowed a bit of green stone and now I am as a man, or closer to a man than I had ever been.”

Ioana listened carefully. She considered his tale.

Garu stood under his own strength, weak as he was, but did not fight to pull his arms away from the men as he knew he would not have been able to pull away.

Ioana breathed deep. “What is your purpose here?” she asked.

“Food,” Garu answered.

Many of the gypsies gasped at this, afraid he was sent to eat them.

“Do you mean to eat us?” asked Ioana.

Garu shook his head. “No. Never have I eaten the flesh of an intelligent being. Never will I. I am hungry and unable to eat. Though my old friend was kind to have fed me, my dependence upon him has made me stupid of the world and how to survive.”

She felt his form, imagining his looks. “You are a Gifted One.”

“I know nothing of that,” he admitted. “I am but a rat that now can walk and speak as a man.”

Ioana nodded. She addressed the gypsies. “He is not a demon sent to feast on us!” she assured. “He is rather a spirit, a domovoi, sent here to be our guardian.”

“Guardian from what?” asked Mihai.

Ioana shook her head. “We will know in due course,” was her answer. “Until then, Garu the Wretched will no longer be your name. It has no meaning here and a name without meaning lends no meaning to its bearer. Your name with us will be Brat Stavroslavakovich.” She felt the white mark on his ear again. “Our Brother of the Glorious Cross, Protector of the Ruska Roma.”

Garu squinted. “Protector? Ruska Roma?”

The old woman nodded. “That is what we call ourselves. We will call you Stavros.”

And so Garu became Stavros. Mihai trained him in ways of the sword to protect himself from bandits, in the ways of the bow so that he may hunt, in the ways of curing and preserving venison and rabbit. He introduced him to finer alcohols and Stavros found a love for sweet berry wines and brawny whiskeys. Ioana taught him to read palms while a beautiful woman named Livia taught him to play the kobza, the violin, and his favored musical instrument: the accordion. He learned to sing, though his voice was raspy but not without character. And he enjoyed, usually when he had several calabashes full of wine and whiskey, to dance the Sârba. He took to wearing a red silk tunic trimmed with gold, lacey filigree stitching. He wore upon his head a silk scarf as a bandana made of the same material. He wore short pants the length of his calves where they hung raggedly. Each of his ears was pierced thirteen times and he wore thirteen gold hoop earrings of varying sizes in each ear.

In a small town he purchased from a blacksmith there - using money he had earned with the gypsies while entertaining – a large, thick, fat bladed scimitar adorned with gold hoops on the blunt side of the blade matching the gold hoops he wore in his ears. He became wild, filled with the lust of life and good things and gave himself over completely to the nomads that had kindly adopted him.

Though many of the gypsies at first feared him, they all came to love him.

On a moonless night, after traveling the day through a hilly area of the world, the gypsies were attacked by a Baba Yaga, an ancient witch desiring the flesh of their young.

Stavros challenged the witch. He jumped into the air as she flew by on her mortar, knocking her to the ground. Once grounded, the two fought all night, the Baba Yaga scarring Stavros with claws and teeth. Stavros did his best to retreat, jumping backwards when he could so as not to succumb to her assaults. At last he spun, whipping his tail into the face of the ancient witch. She screamed in terror, more frightened by the odd attack than harmed, and her shock was enough to give Stavros the opportunity for the kill blow. He jumped, his tail twisting in the air as he brought his scimitar out and across, lopping off her head. He was hailed the hero of the Ruska Romas. He had lived up to his name as protector and his people loved him. Stavros thanked Mihai for training him the use of swords.

Many nights later, after a long day’s entertaining for coin in a large city, while resting about a fire with Mihai, Ioana and Livia and playing a soft tune on his accordian, Stavros said, “Never have I felt complete. Never have I felt accepted. But now, here with you good people, I have a place. I feel right. I feel whole.”

And so Stavros became fiercely loyal to his people and they, in turn, loved him for it and were just as loyal in return. To celebrate they filled the night air with enchanting songs of love, heroism, faith, family, songs that told tales of the gods. Their joy echoed under the starless sky.



On went Yaska Selith, Neboshazzar, Trebizond and Tavara and the Bone Warriors defiling the world. Neboshazzar engorged himself on the flesh of innocents. Trebizond and Tavara feasted at his side, occasionally turning a victim into one of their children and swelling the ranks of Yaska Selith’s following.

Dodona, the oak that Yaska Selith claimed as his club, wailed every time she was swung in an act of destruction. She wanted no part of the demon-dog’s dealings, but had no choice in the matter.

They moved from town to town, raping every living creature and eating others. They would set fire to stables and watched, laughing as the horses ran madly inside, seeking escape before finally dying from smoke, fire or falling timbers. The Bone Warriors became cannibals and shared mortal flesh with Yaska Selith, finding it an honor.

The wicked knot roamed did maraud from land to land, growing. They sought first villages, then towns and at last, when their size was large enough, cities. They ravaged everything as they went. Rarely did they encounter other nomads, until one day. One hot, humid day, a day filled with murderous heat, they came upon the Ruska Romas.

Yaska Slith and his followers attacked immediately. The Ruska Romas tried to defend, but most were overwhelmed.

While many of his people were in awe of the immense demon-dog, Stavros charged into the fray of the enemy. He swung his sword, cutting down two Bone Warriors at a time. He spilled the blood of many. The ground drank up their blood with the pleasure of seeing the end of their evil. He worked his way slowly towards the demon-dog.

As he drew near, Stavros cried out, “Demon-dog! Challenge me! I know not why you attack my people, but I will end your bloodlust here and now lest I quench it! Come! Challenge me!”

Yaska Selith laughed. He growled, “You are so puny, Gifted One. Think you could fell me? I laugh at your size alone, your strength and skill could not possibly match that of a demon’s. Run now, rat-man, lest you perish and be raped as the rest of these people.”

“No!” Stavros called up, craning his neck to look at the demon-dog. “Fight me! Fight me, demon! Fight me and die!”

Stavros ran, his scimitar held out like a spear, and he stabbed its tip into the foot of Yaska Selith who cried out in pain. His followers halted, unsure. They did not think their demonic master could be harmed, but this rat, this vermin they all now noticed in their midst had achieved such a task and had harmed their liege.

“Dogmen!” Yaska Selith called to Trebizond and Tavaras. “Kill him!”

Stavros backed away from Yaska Selith as the Brotehr Jackal approached. He squared himself against the two, bringing his scimitar up in a defensive posture. He spit on the ground. “Where I have spit,” spoke Stavros, “is where I shall bury the two of you.”

The jackals laughed wildly and attacked.

Trebizond jumped, spinning in a flying roundhouse kick. Stavros had to back away to reduce some of the oncoming force. He sidestepped as the jackal’s foot drew close and punched Trebizond in the stomach. Trebizond heaved, sucking in air as he landed next to Stavros. The Tavaras joined them.

Stavros spun his sword and his free hand in control circles, parrying the attacks that came at him from either side. He punched Tavara with his free handm knocking him back a bit and giving him a chance to turn enough to deliver a kick to Trebizond’s stomach. Trebizond wheeled backwards and fell to one knee.

Tavara attacked, a wild haymaker punch spinning in at Stavros who blocked it with his forearm, bringing his sword up between them in a slicing motion that Tavaras barely escaped from by jumping away.

Trebizond pounced Stavros from behind, latching his two clawed hands onto the Stavros’ shoulders and kicking the small of his back with both feet. As Stavros stumbled forward, Trebizond let go and fell backwards, pushing mightily with his legs.

Stavros stumbled towards Tavara who brought a keen elbow up into his sternum, pushing the air out of the rat. Stavros heaved, aching, gasping for air.

Tavara punched him on the side of his muzzle.

Weak, Stavros was turned by the force of the punch and saw Trebizond approaching for another attack. He fell to the ground to escape the incoming assault. Trebizond almst hit his own brother.

Stavros, both jackals above him, reached up with his sword as he sucked in air, slicing the air and trying to get his blade to bite the jackals. Sweeping the sword sideways, he opened a diagonal wound along Trebizond’s chest. Blood sprayed from it, spattering across Tavara’s chest and down onto Stavros’ face.

The Brothers Jackal descended upon Stavros with punches in unison, but were met with a foot each to the muzzle. They stumbled a bit. Stavros got to his feet, gulped a bit more air, and readied himself for attack.

The jackals pounced together, each grabbing an elbow of the rat. Struggling to get away, Stavros heard the odd, terrifying scream of Dodona. He turned his head, his back to Yaska Selith, in time to see the demon-dog bringing his makeshift club down. The massive oak smashed into the back of Stavros and flung him, ripping him free of the jackals’ grip, his scimitar falling from his hand and falling away to the ground before he landed far into the hills where Stavros crashed onto the ground.

Stavros lifted his head, looking out from the hill he had landed on. Snapping lights like nighttime fireflies buzzed in his vision, but not so much he could not make out the carnage taking place, the ungodly acts being carried out upon his people. Stavros struggled to get up, but found he could not move for his back had been broken in two by the wallop from Dodona that Yaska Selith had delivered unto him. He found all he could do was lie there, watching in horror. He tried to cry out in rage, but his voice was choked. His eyes filled with tears. He had been dubbed Protector of the Ruska Roma. Now he lay within sight of their demise, unable to protect them.

Before his vision slipped from him, before consciousness escaped him, he cried softly, almost inaudibly, “Jackal-men and demon-dog, I care not where you go. I care not where you settle. I will hunt you, rip your bowels from your belly and bathe myself in your blood.”



North of the kingdom now ruled by Aniabas, the young king that had claimed Zom Loa a thief and currently hunting him, was the massive, beautiful, flowing plain. Since the stars fell from the skies, Aniabas found his people suffering as their crops would not grow nor would their cattle be milked. He declared sacrifices to the gods be made and his declaration was carried out in the plain. Soon after the milk flowed and the crops grew in abundance. The plain was named the Plain of Adoration and the blood sacrifices continued.

The Plain of Adoration was bordered on the south by Castle Aniabas, to the west by the Black Mountains, to the east by an expansive sea and to the north by a hilly country carved twain by an incredible gorge with a small river at its bottom. The only passage from the north through the hilly country and into the Plain of Adoration was over Owl Bridge, so named for the many owls that live within this wooded hills surrounding it. It is said, on the right night, one could stand on Owl Bridge and look down into the misty hands of The Cosmos and receive all knowledge at once, but at all other times to look down one would see only the high descending cliffs disappearing into soft marine layer far below, the bottom of the gulch completely too far from sight.

Over the Black Mountains came Yaska Selith and his band of Bone Warriors. Over the Black Mountains followed the Brothers Jackal and their dog-men. Over the Black Mountains came the wickedness of demons walking upon the world of mortals. It when Yaska Selith and his followers looked around, tired of having roamed nearly every land across the world, they found the beauty of the Plain of Adoration inviting and, after small deliberation, settled there.

More people came over the mountains to join the demon-dog’s band. More came to participate in the nightly orgies of sex and blood. They took fish from the sea to eat and boars and goats to roast. They danced and played music at all hours.

It did not take King Aniabas long to notice the intrusion. “I now cannot make sacrifices within the Plain of Adoration,” said he considering things, “without consorting with a demon. I refuse to do such a thing, but without the sacrifices my people will grow hungry once more as their crops fail and their cattle dry.”

“What will we do?” asked Vitor, his younger brother and general of the army. “All we can do is, perhaps, take them to war.”

King Aniabas nodded slowly. “I fear that may be our only option. But how can our mortal army defeat a gang of bandits lead by a demon?”

“It must be done, brother,” urged Vitor.

Aniabas shook his head. “It cannot be done,” he answered, “lest we join with some other force.”


Thanks to everyone whose been reading along. Next week I'll be posting some notes about "The Ruby Bug" and then, the week after that, I'll return with an all new story picking up right where "The Ruby Bug" left off!

Friday, June 6, 2008

"The Ruby Bug" - Act II


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


ACT II: The Trek of the Ruby Bug

OLD FRIENDS IN NEW LANDS: Wherein Garu Finds the Jewel of Zingtai; Zahir the Indomitable Captures the Ruby Bug; The Friendship of Ebi and Pup



On a grand, large island lived Doko, a fat, happy man who sometimes was a beggar and sometimes a merchant. He would traverse the island, carrying bags of rice or millet or other grains for sale. He would smile at the people he would meet. He rarely ate his own merchandise but so amiable was he that rare was the day he would go without a free meal from some generous family happy to have him as a guest and supply their children with dreams about the adventures, some real and most imagined, as he traveled the island.

Occasionally he would find himself a companion to travel with. They would talk the day away, relieving themselves of their weighty merchandise or troubles as they walked with friendship. His most common companions, however, were rats and mice that desperately desired his grains. He would bend low when one came near and say, "If you be good to me, keep me company on my travels, then by day's end I will share some small portion of my goods with you or, should I find a kind family to house and feed me tonight, I shall stow away some of the food they provide me and feed you as we first head off in the morning." The mice and rats would often do as he said and came to be known as a friend amongst their kind.

Once, Doko found the same rat following him over the course of three travels. He could identify the rat easily by a small tuft of white fur on the back of his right ear that appeared as two crossed lines, making the letter 'x'. Doko named the rat Garu. They would eat and Doko would tell Garu tales, some heard and some experienced, some true and some imagined.

On one occasion a bandit attempted to rob Doko, but Garu attacked, biting at the ankles of the bandit. "Bite him!" Doko urged with laughter, finding the bandit's yelping funny.

The bandit heard Doko's cries as command, however, and escaped thinking Doko a sorcerer and Garu his familiar. Word soon spread that Doko was powerful with rats and never again was he assaulted or robbed. He also, however, found it harder to find a place to bed down for the night as most people were not as keen to have a guest who could command rats least of all witchery.

But Doko was fine with it. He remained fed well enough and happy as he had his friendship with Garu.

While bartering one day in a town, Doko had the opportunity to travel over seas to the mainland and make more money than he had ever heard of. "I could also start fresh there," he told Garu as he talked it out. "No one there will know me as a rat sorcerer. I could eat heartily again. While I will miss your friendship, little Garu, I know you will fend well for yourself. It is your nature. Be well, friend." And with that Doko boarded a ship to leave for the mainland.

Garu was heartbroken at the idea of losing his traveling companion and felt the urge of wanderlust in his heart. He did not wish to lose his friend and knew that he, too, could do well in the new lands. Without notice he climbed the rope staying the ship Doko had boarded to the dock and stole away with the cargo.

The journey was difficult as they were hit by three storms on the way to the new lands. Other rats had boarded, but as a group and they eyed Garu suspiciously and treated him poorly, making him fight them for bits of the cargo for food. He became quite the fighter, learning how to kick furiously with his hind legs while holding his opponents in his fore legs. Finally, Garu quietly challenged their leader and defeated him, spilling his blood and mercifully killing him. Garu became the new leader of the group of rats and they all ate well until they almost neared the new lands.

When the crew of the ship discovered holes chewed in the cargo they knew they had been boarded by rats. Several times a day men were sent into the hold to kill rats. Many of the rats died. In the end, only Garu and two others survived.

The ship docked and they ran for their lives. Garu hid in the port near the ship, eying the passengers as thy left the ship. When he saw Doko he ran to him.

Doko, wide-eyed and unbelieving, looked down at the rat. He recognized the tan fur and the way Garu sat up as he always had when begging for food. He also recognized the tuft of white fur on the back of the rat's right ear that appeared as two crossed lines, making the letter 'x' "Garu?" Doko asked. He bent low. "Is that really you?"

Garu squeaked happily. Doko smiled and laughed and pocketed his old friend so he would not be seen or chased off or worse.

They were together again, friends in a new land.

Time passed and Doko fell ill to an alien illness in the new land. While walking the wide new world they had entered, carrying grain from one country to another, Doko lay down to rest by the road as the starless night passed over. Garu remained by his side all night and in the early hours of morning, just as the fingers of dawn and the head of Etain washed the far horizon, Doko breathed his last breath. Garu cried small rat tears, squealed a soft goodbye and reluctantly left his old friend by the side of the road to be discovered a day later by another traveling merchant.

Garu wandered for a long time, unsure of things. Hunger finally came to him and he could find no food. He started eating the green mold growing on the rocks of this new land. he survived thusly for many days. then he came a large plain where he found a bit of stone completely covered in green, the Jewel of Zingtai buried there by Zom Loa, peeking from the ground. He tasted it, finding no nourishment and only hardness. He could not quite understand. It appeared to have the moss he had learned to eat, but he knew nothing of jewels or other stones. Deciding the green color was coming from inside the stone, he felt he must dig into it to get at the moss therein. he bit and gnawed until his teeth become sore and one of his long incisors broke. The pain of his teeth and of hunger drove him into a fury. He wanted so desperately to eat that he bit down hard on the stone. A small bit of it came away. He rolled it in his mouth, tasting it for flavor and angry that he found none. Hunger, however, was his driving force and he swallowed the small bit of jewel.

He screeched in agony as his body bulged, his muscles and bones grew longer, forming reforming, breaking and healing. He grew to about the height of a small man, found himself able to stand and walk on his hind legs. He grew hands like a man's. Blood and pain poured from him as the small rat transmogrified into an impossible large one. "What in the hells has happened to me!" he cried and jumped at his own voice. Never before had he been able to speak and the sound frightened him, thinking someone else was nearby saying things. He looked around and saw no one. He spoke again, testing his voice. "What is happening?" he asked no one in particular. He gazed down at himself. He grunted in his throat and heard his scratchy, gravely voice.

"I have been cursed!" He shook his head. "I do not know things and I especially donot know of green stones and witchery, but if this be a curse upon me, I wish I knew what I had done to deserve it so as to avoid doing it ever again!"

He examined the rock he had chewed. His new hands made it easier for him to uncover the thing to discover its truth. He found it to be the giant emerald it was. He thought of his friend Doko's love for jewels, though he had been rarely paid in such a way, and thought of the times he watched from behind a tree stump or bush as Doko had traded coins and jewels for supplies, including food he would feed Garu. "Perhaps," Garu said to himself, "I can trade such a jewel."

Hungrier now than ever, with a larger and therefore emptier belly, he dug the emerald out of the ground and carried it off in the hopes of trading it for a meal.



Zahir the Indomitable was a large man, ugly, hairy and with a nose so crooked as a knotty pines' branches. He was first and foremost a wanderer, pillaging wherever he roamed to attain his whims. He was tall, forearms like oaken roots, and a chest wide and thick. Many, when first spying him, assumed him an Immortal, a demon, a god, a Gifted One. But he was a mortal man.

He wore loose clothes, often a burgundy vest and red and white striped baggy pants with gold cuffs and lapels.

The hair on his head was untamed and greasy. His beard truly extended from his jowls and a thin goatee on his chin. Each was braided and them in turn, braided together.

Zahir rarely gave way to ale lest it be sweetened with honey, but his love of wine -- and especially plum wine -- was unmatched. He would drink the sweet liquors by the jug. As much as he loved wine, he loved fighting more. He lusted after that moment when he stood over a young whelp that moments before convinced completely of their martial abilities. He had lost only once, as a child, when beaten by his older brother.

But more than he loved wine and fighting, he loved women. He loved them not as a romancer, but as an alcoholic, like he, loved their spirits. He imbibed them. He took them in and drank deeply, haughtily, without remorse or thought of recourse. He frequented the brothels of every country he entered. He took the women there ravaged them. He would often combine his loves, appearing in the doorway of an establishment entirely drunk and as he had his way with one of their whores he would beat her senselessly. One such time he beat a poor whore so terribly that she almost bled to death, but when she recovered she gave up the oldest profession entirely for fear of having to pleasure Zahir again or more men like him.

Wherever he roamed he left a wake of damage and illegitimate children.

Zahir was a wanderer and when he drew close to the imp-filled boglands he did so on a walking path used by the fisherman of a nearby village when they took their excess catch to be sold. As he walked a small, glittering, glint of red sparkled in the path before him. He bent low and there he found a tiny bug made of ruby trekking across the path.

"What's this?" he asked, stupid with spirits. "Does wine spoil my sight? A bug? Made of ruby? A living bug of ruby! The gods be damned, I have been made rich!" He picked up the bug clumsily within his meaty hands, fumbling to capture the small thing. When at last he had the bug in his hand he tore from his vest a small scrap of cloth and wrapped the bug up neatly lest it escape. He carried the ruby bug with him for many months, bribing, relieving folks of their money for a chance to peer at the mystic bug.

Zahir brought the ruby bug to the silversmith Ko Fong and paid him to fashion for him a tooth. Ko Fong did so, removing Zahir's right upper incisor and replacing it with the silver tooth. The ruby bug was mounted on the outside of the tooth. And though Zahir could not be certain, he grew stronger and was able to withstand greater periods in which his stamina was tested. He also, Zahir found, grew ill more often than he ever had before in his life.

"Kindly sir," said Marcin to Zahir as they sat in an elaborate drinking house filled with plush pillows and tapestries. Marcin was an extravagant merchant, wearing gold on his fingers and in his ears and nose and carrying with him a stable of five stallions and three men that tended to all his wares. He was fat, another sign of his success and wealth, and rarely stood except to walk into a drinking house or inn. "I know fine collectors from all over the world. May I inquire as to a price that you have on the bug?"

"To see it? A mere coin of the realm, enough for a drink of wine," responded Zahir.

Marcin shook his head. "That is not what I intend. What I desire is to own your bug. Surely I can match any hefty price you could quote."

Zahir considered this, then shook his head, "Rarely do I need such elaborate frippery, but I've discovered I'll grow more money if I keep this bug, enough to get me free drink and whores the rest of my life at least and that is all I care for."

Marcin stared at Zahir. "I wish to have that bug, kindly sir, and I will pay any price. If it is wine and women you desire, perhaps I can set up a deal with the owner of this very drinking house to provide you both until the day you die."

Again Zahir considered Marcin's offer. Again he shook his head. "And what if I travel to another land? Would you follow me and negotiate such a deal with a drinking house there? No, I will keep my bug."

Angry, dejected, Marcin called for his servants to help him off the pillows and left Zahir alone. But a few hours later, after Zahir had drunk himself sleepy, Marcin and his men returned with a fourth man in tow.

"Kindly sir," Marcin said as his servants shook Zahir awake. "I wish to discuss the matter of the bug again."

"Huh? What? The bug?" Zahir blinked the wine from his eyes. "Oh," he said as he recognized Marcin. "The pestering merchant. If you've a coin, I'll et you see my bug. Nothing else can be discussed between us."

"I thought, perhaps, a man such as yourself occasionally enjoyed a good gambling game. I brought this man here," at this the fourth man, a massive taller and thicker than Zahir with a fat paunch, stepped forward. "to challenge you to a drinking game. If you can can hold more drink at the end, I will grant you your prize of choice. If he, however, consumes more than you, I get your ruby bug."

Zahir burped. "I've already been drinking. He looks sober as a newborn."

"That is the offer."

"Then I refuse the offer," Zahir lay back on the plush pillows behind him.

"Perhaps I should introduce the two of you first. This is Macia Thrace, a mercenary."

Zahir lifted his head and eyed the tall, rotund man. "Well met," he mocked and lay his head back down.

"Your name?" Macia grumbled, feeling the insult of not having the stranger with the bug introduce himself in return.

Zahir waved a hand, as if shooing a fly, and said nonchalantly, "I am Zahir the Indomitable, master of the fight, of wine and of women. Now let me sleep."

"Sit up and drink or stand and fight," said Macia.

"Go away, Macia. As a mercenary surely you know what it is to imbibe and need rest. I will play games with you later." Zahir rolled over on his side, his back to Macia and Marcin.

Further insulted, Macia approached, grabbed Zahir's arm and pulled to lift him up. Zahir spun lazily, kicking a leg out and sweeping the legs of Macia who fell with a mighty, muffled thud atop several pillows. Zahir readjusted his position as though about to sleep, opened one eye and peered at the fallen Macia, smiled and said, "Rest with me, friend. Then we will play."

Macia growled as he stood. "Stand, coward! Stand and fight!"

"I thought you wanted to drink?" Zahir kept his eyes closed.

"Either will do," Marcin interjected.

Zahir sighed. He sat up and called for more wine. "Very well. We will have both. First Macia the Mercenary and I will drink as carousing old friends. Then we will fight. But," Zahir caught Macia's attention as he sat near him and said, "be warned, friend, if we fight it will be to the death. I am no cleric, no man of mercy. I have learned better than that."

Macia nodded. They were brought wine. They toasted to one another's deaths and laughed hysterically as they told tales of past exploits. They caroused as old friends, as Zahir had said.

And though Zahir had been drinking long before Macia, though Zahir took two drinks to Macia's one, it was Macia who at last feel forward, face buried in a pillow, from too much drink.

Zahir looked to the nearby Marcin, who was stunned. "Your man is no man," Zahir told him.

Marcin's face grew red with rage. "Kill him!" he commanded his three servants.

The three men charged, bending to grab Zahir who hurriedly stood, his arms caught by them. One man grabbed each arm and the third fondled Zahir to find the hidden ruby bug.

Zahir shifted his weight and sent the servant holding his right arm toppling into a pile of pillows with a hip toss. He grabbed the neck of the man holding his left arm and so great was the squeeze he placed there that his thumb punctured the servant's throat and sent him reeling away, gasping for air.

The third servant, bent low, looked up. Zahir thrust his pelvis into the servant's face abd sent him falling backwards on his butt. Zahir was on top of him then, using both hands to strangle the servant. His face turned red with strain as the servant's turned purple.

Marcin struggled to stand from his seated position. Seeing this, Zahir quickly raised a hand and slammed a palm into the nose of the servant he was strangling, driving it upwards and breaking part of the servant's face. Zahir then stood and grabbed the fat Marcin. The people in the drinking house screamed, running, emptying out. Zahir was left alone to slowly choke the life out of the fat merchant.

Zahir searched the dead merchant's body, found a sack of coins and left the drinking house without paying for the wine he and Macia had been drinking. "Once again," he smiled, "I get free drinks."

Zahir walked into another country where he signed with an independently owned ship filled with scoundrels like himself and assigned as privateers on the seas. He sailed with them for many months, looting merchant ships from other countries and chasing wine and women in every port. He did not know how to swim, but had he known, he thought, that such a life was possible he would have learned to do so and taken to a ship long ago.

To his great surprise Macia Thrace, the mercenary he had once caroused with in a game of drink, signed on the same ship and they became partners in future exploits. They would often recount their first meeting and laugh hysterically and toast to one another's deaths.

Tragedy, however, seemed to follow them. The small ship, named Baqir, was twice caught in monsoons and four times boarded herself. On each such occasion the ship lost more than half her crew in bloody struggle for life.

At last the whole ship was taken ill, so ill that six of the crewmen died. The sickest of all, it seemed, was Zahir the Indomitable. He was allowed to lay in his hammock bed, unable to move or eat or drink, barely capable of speech. Rumors were started. Many of his fellows knew of the ruby bug he carried and it came to be known as the object that cursed them.

"Zahir," the men said, "you have brought onto our ship a thing so foul that we, too, are made foul by ill-fortune and illness. Give us the bug so we may throw it into the sea."

Zahir, soberly afraid for the first time in his life, accepted he would soon die. He asked to see the captain of the ship, a man named Faraj, who kindly granted the requested. Captain Faraj went to the dying Zahir's side.

"I fear," whispered Zahir, "the men may be right. I fear the bug is cursed. I do not know its origins, but I remember where I found it. It was on a path near the boglands and a small fishing village. I feel the best course is to rid this ship and my fellows of this bug and I feel it best to send the bug back to the lands in which I found it. I can only counsel. Had I the strength, I would gladly take a rowboat and return it alone, but I will die soon, Captain."

Captain Faraj nodded. He reached into the mouth of Zahir and, with a small spat of blood, removed the tooth. With a knife he extracted the ruby bug from the silver tooth and stored it in a small wooden box inlaid with abalone the color of green jade in his own quarters. He then told his men to set a course for the boglands, that they would return the bug and rid themselves of the curse.

Zahir's last words were heard by his old friend Macia. "Wherever that bug doth go, follows with it a trail of blood."

"So many time I've toasted your death," Macia told him, "and now that you near death, I wish I hadn't."

Zahir smiled weakly.

Zahir the Indomitable succumbed to illness en route to the boglands. He died sober, hungry, and without a woman at his side. He went without a fight. He merely slipped into a deep sleep and never awoke.



In a small country in a small part of the world lived the family Sor. They were a poor family of meager means and the local authority's taxes, which were exorbitant, took the last bit of wealth they could claim. They were starving, living sixteen to a hut and struggling to raise rice in a time of great drought. The Cosmos, it seemed, had destined them to a life of harshness for one day Lady Sor, a waif from starvation, approached her husband and said, "Dear husband, I fear what I must tell you. I am pregnant."

Husband Sor looked at her in astonishment. "Are you certain?"

Lady Sor nodded. "I've not menstruated and last night, as I lay sleepless in the heat of the summer's night, starving and angry with the way of things, I felt our child move."

The family gathered round her and the matter was discussed. "It's been so long," said Husband Sor, "since I've had any water except that which I suck from the soil that I cannot believe my body could make any fluid. Now my wife is with child and it will surely die as we've no food nor any means to care for it. When this cild is born, we must do the proper thing and bury it, alive, as a sacrifice to the gods in hopes of rain so that we may not all perish."

"No!" cried Lady Sor. "I cannot kill my child!"

"We are so poor, to bring a child into this home is to kill it," argued Husband Sor. "To bury it is to release it from the bondage in which we live."

But Lady Sor was adamant. It was her mother, an elderly woman lying next to her own grave, that suggested, "We must bundle the child and set it adrift. We must carry it to the sea over the hills and allow the gods there to guide the child as they see fit. If the child is to die, it is their will. If the child is to live, they will sail it to new lands and a new home."

"But, Grandmother Sor," Husband Sor called her this though they discussed the death of her grandchild, "we are all needed here to work so that we may earn what little we can for the food the local authority sells to us. Not a one of us can spare the time to carry the child over the hills to the sea and set it adrift.

"No. It cannot be done. We will bury the child when it is born."

"Perhaps," Grandmother Sor said, "I could take the child. I am near my own death. Every day I lie here while I watch my family toil to feed me us all, myself included. Age has stricken me nearly immobile."

"If you cannot work here," answered Lady Sor, "you cannot carry a child to the sea."

"I can," argued her mother. "And I will."

"You could not survive such a trip!" cried Husband Sor.

"Then you will have two less mouths to feed."

After much arguing it was decided Grandmother Sor's suggestion was the best. The child was born, a male child they named Xi-Wang. They bundled him and placed him in a basket that could float, kissed him, placed him in his grandmother's arms and given compassionate farewells. At dawn the day after his birth Grandmother Sor set out with the child, heading over the hills to the sea.

The trek was long for her as she was very old and more than once she almost dropped the child, but her love for the child and her family pushed her on. She stumbled here and there, but did not stop, not ever for water or shade, on her way over the hills.

At last, at dusk, she came to the sea and placed the child in the wet sand where the tides were slowly moving in. She fell prone on the beach. Her body absorbed the cool feeling of the water beneath the sand. She drew in her last breath and died beside the basket, the child within hungry and crying.

The tide came in and swept him away. Some time later the body of Grandmother Sor was also taken by the sea.

The child floated all the next day, sailing madly atop the currents, until a fisherman from the fishing village near the boglands spotted the basket heard the child and steered his small boat towards him. The fisherman plucked the child from the water, took him home and raised him as his own. The fisherman named the boy-child Ebi.

Ebi grew to be a strong man and learned the trade of his father. His origins were never hidden from him, but more than once his adoptive father expressed his love for Ebi as his own son.

His father died as Ebi was entering manhood, leaving his seaside cottage and boat to him.

Knowing the young Ebi must be lonely, a nearby neighbor and friend brought to Ebi the gift of a dog. "I know a dog is another mouth to feed," said the friend, "but perhaps you could find use in him. He is a small dog, the runt the litter. He was born to my brother's bitch. He is a farmer in the northern part of the country. The dog is already a good swimmer. Perhaps you could make of him a fisherman?"

They laughed at this, but Ebi happily accepter the dog. "Now I can have an ear to listen to me sing as I fish," Ebi joked.

The following day Ebi loaded his boat with his usual small meal, his cane pole and his new dog. As he fished that day he sang to the dog who nipped playfully at the fish that was brought aboard. Ebi laughed hysterically at this. "It would seem you'll make a fine fisherman indeed," he told the dog.

He spent the day singing and laughing, watching the dog rest when he grew weary with excitement, his head lying on the bottom of the boat. "Are you sleepy, pup?" he asked and laughed. "Is all this hard work too much for you, pup?"

Later in the day, as Ebi rowed his boat back into shore, he watched the dog wagging his tail when the cottage came into view. "Are you glad to be home, pup?" Ebi asked, but as he neared the shore the dog jumped from the boat, splashing frantically through the seafoam and nipping at the gnats collected in the air above the beach. Ebi found this funny and laughed so heartily that his boat slowly drifted back to sea. When his laughter slowed, never quite stopping, he rowed back into shore to teh awaiting dog. "Have you a fun day of play, pup?" he asked.

It was then Ebi realized he had yet to name his dog, that he had been calling the creature 'pup' all day long. "You'll need a good name, pup." said Ebi.

That night as they ate a meal of fish and warmed themselves by a fire, Ebi considered the dog. It was a white dog, a small spaniel with burgundy-colored ears and tail. the ears ended in long curls of fur. As they rested Ebi wondered at a name. At last he climbed into bed. The dog sniffed at his feet and lay beside him. Ebi smiled, laughed. "You're always welcome to share warmth here, pup," he told his dog.

Time passed. Ebi could think of no good name. He said at last, "Think that I must forever call you 'pup'. Is that fine with you, Pup?"

The dog jabbered and yapped, wagged its tail and nearly smiled.

"Pup it is then."

They lived happily for many years in peace wit the sea, helping the nearby imps of the bogs and growing old as friends.



A stranger came into the fishing village many years later. He was a traveling merchant and when he heard the tale of Ebi's discovery by his adoptive father, he paid Ebi a visit.

"Have you any knowledge of your life prior to arriving here in the village?" asked the stranger.

Ebi shook his head. "No, I have none. I was told I was much too young to be at sea, however, perhaps a mere few days old."

The stranger said, "I believe you to be Xi-Wang, son of the Lady Sor. For many years she has spoken of you with great sadness in her eyes. They set you at sea because they could not afford to feed you, to care for you. Most of your family is now dead and Lady Sor is dying."

"I've a family?" asked Ebi. He heard more of the stranger's tale and soon decided he must go to see this woman before she died, before he lost his chance to meet what was perhaps his mother.

"She is quite near death," said the stranger. "You would have to go this instant and ride madly to reach her side in time."

Ebi considered this. "I have no horse," said he.

"I do," claimed the stranger. "My business is done and I travel in the direction you need to go. I will ride with you."

Ebi, excited and rushed, went to his friend and neighbor who had given him Pup. "Dear friend," said Ebi, "would you kindly care for my Pup in my absence?"

The neighbor shook his head. "It is not desire that keeps me, but economy. I have a house filled with children and while surely they would love a dog to play with, I cannot feed another mouth. But fear not: all dogs are scavengers and survivors at heart. Leave him at your cottage and he will fare well enough on his own until your return."

Ebi thought on this. He returned to his cottage and knelt near Pup. "Pup, dear Pup. I must pursue the chance to meet my mother. I fear I must leave you here, but know I that you will fare well. The journey is long and will take some few days riding hard on horseback and I simply cannot take you with me. Stay here and I shall return to you." At this he kissed Pup's forehead, gathered a few things together, mounted the stranger's horse with the stranger and rode off in a hurry, leaving the small fishing village behind.

Pup sat watching, feeling the pull of his leaving master as Ebi quickly faded from sight. Pup did not eat or drink the rest of that day, nor did he sleep or play, nipping at the gnats flying over the beach. Instead, he sat watching the road his master had taken, waiting to see a sign of his return.

Kalavata flew overhead later that day. It occurred to Pup his master, his friend, Ebi may not return. Pup lay on the road watching, considering things.

At last Pup stood up and trotted lightly down the road, smelling for his master's scent, following the path he had taken.



For two days Pup followed the scent that grew weaker. He, too, grew weaker, finding it difficult to forage for food. He went gaunt, thin with starvation until his ribs could be seen through his flesh. He panted heavily, drinking when he could find water, fresh or stagnant.

Pup came to a small farm along the road. He went to the door. The cottage he had shared with Ebi had a doorway without a door and could not figure out the obstacle. He sniffed the air and could smell fresh death as the old couple of the farm, the eldest of a family, lay dead inside, taken in the night by terrors and coughing sickness.

Pup found the farm's well. It had attached a gravity-fed system that slowly renewed fresh water in the troughs of the animals on the farm. He drank from it. he sniffed the air and smelled chickens. Salivating hunger drove him to find the coop.

Pup invaded the coop with ferocity. He ate one chicken and was about to eat another when mad growls came to him. The farmers' dog, a wolfhound, had found Pup and was angry with his intrusion.

The wolfhound barked.

Pup back away until his butt touched the side of the house.

The wolfhound attacked, biting and clawing. His mouth grabbed hold of Pup's ear and he shook his head. Pup yelped in pain and fear as his right ear tore from his head. He bit again and gouged out Pup's left eye. The wolfhound pressed the attack, his teeth sank deep into the belly of Pup.

Pup, desperately, placed all four of his paws on the wolfhound's chest and kicked. The wolfhound backed away, the air rushing from his chest.

Knowing he had no choice, knowing he was weak with hunger though he had just eaten, knowing he hadn't the skills or knowledge to outrun or out-fight the wolfhound, Pup determined he must kill while he had the chance. He pounced. The wolfhound, stealing choking for air, collapsed beneath Pup. they roiled in the dirt, kicking up dust. Pup bite down on the wolfhound's neck. Tasting blood, his jaw clenched further and he whipped his head side to side, tearing the throat out of the wolfhound.

Pup sighed, spitting out the hunks of the hound in his mouth. He sniffed at the dying dog. He lay down for a moment, panting, afraid, jittering with nerves and watching the wolfhound's chest rise and fall quickly. He then rose and returned to the troughs to drink deeply. He licked his wounds, many of which were deep and bleeding profusely. He lay beside the cool well and slept for a while. When he awoke, he was afraid once more. He was hungry, but wanted to leave the farm behind. He licked his wounds some more before stepping back onto the trail, anxiously trotting with in the direction of Ebi's scent, his one ear flapping as he went.



Ebi did not make it in time to meet his mother. In fact, she died as he rode into the village. But he attended the funeral, a meager funeral it was, and visited with the people who had once called her friend. The stranger that had loaned himself and his horse excuse himself from Ebi, stating he had business to tend to. Ebi never saw him again.

After a few days' consoling, sharing tales and working with his dead mother's friends to thank them for their kindness as they fed him he gathered up his belongings to head home.

On the morning he left the village he was met on the road by Pup.

Astonished, Ebi stared. He could barely recognize the beast that ran up to him and sat, busily working its tail back and forth in happiness. "Pup?" asked Ebi as he knelt. "Is that you?"

Beaten, battered, missing an ear and an eye and with a hole in his belly, Pup barked softly, affectionately at his master. Ebi held Pup in his arms, crying. "Oh, Pup. Oh, Pup. Oh, Pup. What has happened to you? Did you truly follow me all this way?"

Pup answered with a simple wag of the tail.

Ebi returned to his mother's village and asked for herbs and food for Pup. The people there were poor and could do little to help the dog, but they made attempts. They spoke also of the wonderful friendship between Ebi and Pup.

With healing herbs and extra food, Ebi and Pup took to the road, heading back home. On the way Ebi stopped by the old farm. He discovered the kindly elderly couple that had made a meal for him and the stranger on their way to see his mother were now dead. He stopped for a day to let Pup rest as he buried the couple properly. Pup sniffed the air towards the dead wolfhound who had crawled up under a grove of nearby trees and died, but he remained far from him. He whimpered at Ebi throughout the day, wanting desperately to leave the farm. On the next day, after a night's rest, they did. And on that day, as they stopped to rest in the shade of an old oak, Ebi eyed his dear old friend. "you are the greatest friend. I love you," he told Pup as he hugged him.

As Ebi returned to the fishing village he was met by his neighbor. Ebi shared the experience of the journey and told how Pup had followed as the neighbor fed them, welcoming them home.

Ebi returned to his cottage that night and as he did he spied a large ship in the distance. Between it and the shore was a small rowboat with three men. They came ashore and hailed Ebi.

"Wll met," said one. "I am Captain Faraj of the ship Baqir. This is the boglands, is it not?"

Ebi nodded. "Close to. The bogs themselves are beyond the hills behind my cottage."

"Then we have a gift for you," said Faraj. One of the men with him produced the jade-colored box and handed it to Ebi. "Consider it a gift," said Faraj, then hurriedly boarded the small boat. His men started rowing, fighting the currents to return to their ship.

"What is it?" Ebi called.

"A gift!" cried Faraj.

One of the men with him, a conscious needling his mind, called out, "Take care for with it follows great harm!"

Faraj reprimanded him. The men drew hidden weapons and watched Ebi.

Ebi grew afraid. He watched as the men returned to their ship and under the curtain of Kalavata's wings set sail, fleeing from sight like a wraith in a dark cave.

Curious, Ebi entered his cottage and made a fire. Pup lay at his feet as he examined the box. He opened it. Inside was a small pouch and upon opening that out crawled a small bug made of pure ruby.

"How," Ebi wondered, "could a small bug, a bug of ruby, bring anyone harm?"



Black tentacles whipped out, one after the other, slowly pulling Zom Loa into the boglands. He came the next morning, the morning after Ebi had received the ruby bug from Captain Faraj, seeking shelter and food. Ebi, cautious for he had never witnessed so many people coming into the small village as he had in the last weeks, invited the odd man in. "Are you a Gifted One?" Ebi asked as he stared at the man's tentacles.

Zom Loa nodded, proudly stating, "That I am."

Ebi fixed for him a meal of dried fish. "I would have fresh fish if it were not that I returned from a journey yesterday," he explained.

"I am on a journey myself," replied Zom Loa. "What was the nature of your journey?"

"I went to visit my dying mother."

This startled Zom Loa as he recalled the deaths of his own parents. "I lost my mother many years ago," he said. "It was difficult for me. I am sorry for your loss."

"Thanks you. What would the business of your journey be?"

Zom Loa considered lying, but felt he had no reason to fear a simple fisherman. At the same instance, however, he felt he should not be completely open with his destination and purpose lest he be followed. "Adventure," Zom Loa settled. "All us Gifted Ones seek adventure."

Ebi laughed. "I've heard that."

They shared a meal and several stories, which Zom Loa ate up almost as voraciously as the dried fish. "You were set adrift as a child as well?" he asked Ebi.

Ebi nodded. "That I was, thought I never knew the purpose until recently. I believe it was due to the poverty my family lived in. Perhaps they felt I had a better chance surviving on my own at such a tender age rather than with them."

They chuckeled at this absurdity, but a pang of truth hit them both.

"I never knew my real family," said Zom Loa.

They shared more stories and discovered they liked one another, perhaps in that they shared so many similarities. Ebi invited his guest to stay the night and rest from his journeys. Zom Loa gladly accepted.

As they sat by a warming fire that night, their feet propped, Pup sleeping nearby, they chatted lightly. Ebi kept watching his guest's tentacles, venerating them.

"As a Gifted One," said Ebi, "perhaps you could aid me in some small matter."

"As repayment for your hospitality, I would," said Zom Loa.

Ebi left Zom Loa by the fire and returned the box Captain Faraj had given him in the beach the night before. He opened it, opened the pouch and produced the ruby bug. "Would you know anything of this?" Ebi asked and told the tale of how it came into his possession.

Zom Loa's eyes grew wide with greed. "With such a bug," he thought to himself, "I could repay that bastard king the money he claims I've stolen and cease my running." He said none of this to Ebi, however, stating, "It is indeed a marvel. What is it?"

Ebi shook his head and put the bug away. "I know nothing of it. I thought, since you are a Gifted One and your kind often is wealthy with knowledge, you might know something of it."

Zm Loa lied. "It is a mere bug, though it is made of ruby."

That night, as Ebi and Pup slept, Zom Loa lay awake thinking of the ruby bug. He wondered if he could, like a thief, steal away with it in the night. He kept his eyes wide, hoping to train them to the night so as to navigate the dark cottage. He went to the table near Ebi's bed and grabbed the box. He opened it quietly and took out the bug. A small whine near whine made Zom Loa jump, his fingers fumbling for the bug and finally dropping it.

Pup, who had come to his side, quickly snatched the ruby bug up in its mouth as a gnat and swallowed it.

"No!" Zom Loa cried hoarsely.

"What's that?" Ebi awoke.

Pup coughed spasmodically.

For a moment Zom Loa's tentacles shot out, some at Pup and some at Ebi. Those creeping towards Pup wanted to choke off the bug's passage so as to keep it from sliding further down his throat. Those reaching for Ebi wanted to kill him in fear. they finally slacked and Zom Loa spoke in the darkness, "It is your Pup. He seems to have taken ill."

Ebi, worried, set fire to a lantern and inspected his Pup who was coughing, choking wildly, the bug crawling all throughout his gullet.

Zom Loa grabbed up the box and showed it to Ebi who had yet to see it. He lied once more, "He must have gotten after your bug."

"Oh, Pup!" Ebi cried. "He has been known to nip at and eat the gnats. Now this."

Ebi tried to keep Pup calm, but could not. The dog, convulsive and frightened, ran outside onto the beach.



Neboshazzar flew through the cold night sky, descending on village after village to steal away with newborns and loved ones. Once in his possession, Neboshazzar would eat the hearts and bowels of his victims.

He came to a small beach near the boglands. Far below he could feel grave concern, the love of mortals, and it sickened him. He spied those on the beach. One was a mortal man, the very an from which he could feel love flowing. He thought of killing this man, but found instead his love for a dog was the source of the commotion being made.

the evil, dark harpy dived onto the beach, extending his silvery claws and snatching up the coughing dog.

"Pup!" cried out Ebi as he watched the horrid creature carry off his friend before running in the direction Neboshazzar flew.

Zom Loa grabbed Ebu by the arm. "That is a most wicked creature. Yo can do nothing for your dog," and though Zom Loa secretly desired teh ruby bug, he was willing to give up hope of owning it to avoid Neboshazzar.

"I have to! He is my friend!" and Ebi ran.

Zom Loa followed closely behind him.

Neboshazzar came to rest atop an old, dying oak named Dodona. Dodona shook in the wind with the intrusion, but was too weak to throw the vicious Neboshazzar from her limbs. As Neboshazzar was about to feast, the ruby bug slipped into Pup's stomach. He grew to incredible size, falling from the oak. Neboshazzar perched atop the tree and watched as the once dog turned into a massive, bipedal demon with canine features. It grew to a size taller than the old oak. Its head remained as Pup's had been except it grew four massive teeth like tusks, two upper and two lower. His forehead sprout spiked horns. His torso came to be as a man's with a thin layer of fur. His front legs grew into muscled arms with gigantic clawed hands. He remained missing and ear and an eye.

The new creature gurgled evil laughter as it swatted at Neboshazzar. "Think you could eat my soul?" the demon-dog spoke. It laughed some more. "Your ugliness amuses me. Come, bird, join my ranks. I've come to ruin the world, too. Together we can be quite powerful."

Neboshazzar screeched with horrible joy.

Ebi watched this all from a safe distance. He stepped forward. Again Zom Loa held him by the arm and said, "Don't. He is a powerful thing now, unlike your Pup."

Ebi turned on him, his eyes streaming with tears. "He's my Pup," was all he said.

He stepped towards the demon-dog and called, "Pup? Is that you? It is Ebi, your old friend. Pup?"

The demon and the harpy looked down on Ebi.

"Pup?" asked Ebi.

The demon, now far from the being that was once Ebi's Pup, did not recognize this small mortal that approached. It picked Ebi up in a clawed hand, brought him to its mouth and bit the fisherman in half. As he chewed, laughing, he threw the legs to Neboshazzar who bloodied himself feasting on them.

Zom Loa watched it all from underneath some brush. He watched as they spoke; as they ate; as the demon-dog grabbed Dodona and stripped it of it's dead branches, uprooting it and making it into a club for itself.

Neboshazzar landed on the demon-dog's shoulder. The demon wandered off.

Zom Loa, when he felt it was safe, ran off to find a path and carry on towards the Peony Teahouse.


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