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TODAY

Saturday, June 15

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Airbags

Dear Blagg,

My friends and I were having conversations about various battles and their probable outcomes. Could you please enlighten us on the following rhetorical battles:

-What would win in a chicken fight between a centaur and a unicorn?
-What would win in a fight between a velociraptor and a dragon?
-Who would win in a sword fight between a pirate of average ability and a low-level ninja?
-How many rounds could Mike Tyson go with a Chaotic Evil Dwarf?
-How much black pudding could Kobayashi eat in twenty minutes?
-Who would win in a game of "Mystery Date," a beholder, or an undead beholder? What I am asking is, who would have more wins on average. I realize that there are multiple factors that influence the outcome of this game, so just an average win percentage would suffice.

Thanks and godspeed,
Kenzo

Treading across the hangman's square with a sword in each hand, I lock eyes with Gort, the servant of the Dark Lord Kayne who controls this city and, until moments ago, presided over my hanging. Those of the Black Guard who still stand after a series of explosions thundered through the square now gather behind him, loosing their weapons and glancing around nervously. But my pace is steady and moments later Gort's mouth moves, murmurs, and the men charge.

My hands tighten on the grips of the swords I took from my would-be executioners and I bring them to bear as the Black Guard — perhaps twenty altogether — sprint across the packed earth of the square. They swarm me and I fall back into the old, old rhythm, thrusting and parrying and slashing. Even with one in each hand, the sword is not my preferred tool of battle (I feel it lacks the wholesale destruction and innate brutality afforded by an ax), but I am accustomed to its uses, and Kayne's men are sliced to the marrow even as they press in around me.

It strikes me that their lax training and shoddy weapon-work is a testament to the years the Dark Lord has held this port city of Rheidling, and my brow knits in displeasure as I skewer another man through the breadbasket. It is almost silly, how easy this is.

Cutting through them, stepping over bodies and manufacturing fresh ones, I cast about for Gort, the man who jailed me, beat me and ordered my execution — the one who can tell me where Eveleth is. If I am still alive, surely she must be as well. Yet her husband, when he exposed our affair that day in the barn... I saw murder in his eyes then, as I know he saw it in mine. Lancets of blood splash my face and another guardsman falls to my blade.

They are few now. Already some have run, and the rest won't last long. This next begins to curse me as I run him through; my other sword tears away his throat before he can finish. Untold legions have doubtless laid oaths upon my name, but I'll not suffer another if I can help it. One never can never know if it will be one curse too many.

And Gort is there — skulking away between two buildings. I turn back to the final duo of opponents and drive them down, blinking away stinging air laden with foul smoke. There is an unnatural aroma pervading this place and now the battle is done, the last man fleeing as his compatriot goes down, his shoulder cleaved beneath my sword. I turn to follow Gort but my foot slips on some debris, smooth and curved — ceramic... I stoop to take it and see that it resembles the thing I wrenched from the chest of the hangman after the first explosion, which I used to cut the noose from my neck. More pieces litter the ground here and there and I saw them for what they were: shards of thick pottery.

The hangman wasn't the only one hit. Here lay another of the Black Guard, slumped and gasping against a wall, red wetness blooming on his thigh and puddled beneath him on the ground. He looks up as I approach but his hands never stray from his leg, where they press at the wound. Soon he will die.

"What happened here?" I bark, waving the ceramic chunk.

He grimaces and bares his teeth at me.

"Speak, bondsman, lest I prolong your passing from this world in a most unsavory fashion." I position the tip of my sword over his wound, and his face goes gray.

"Pots," he croaks, never looking away from the blade. "The big ones with bushes in them. Exploded." His teeth begin to chatter, an odd thing, for the weather was balmy and mild.

"Why? Who would do this?"

At last he looks up at me. "Ought that you should tell me, Axman. You're free, are you not?"

I glare at him and lay the sword lightly upon his leg, and he screams. "Tell me where he's gone. Gort."

The guardsman shook his head. He doesn't know. I believe him. Between the smoke and fire and the rest of his men finding themselves manhandled by me, Gort wouldn't have stopped to detail his schedule for the evening. My brow furrows and beneath me the man's teeth are chattering again.

"Axman," he rasps, his face chalky and waxen. "Do me one service..."

I hold up my hand. "Which way to the city hall, the dungeons?"

"East."

"Very well." I nod to him, half-turn away, and deal him a terrific blow that sends his head rolling. I believe it is what he wanted, though I don't pause to contemplate this.

East lies the courthouse, and east is where Gort had disappeared. Outside of the square the streets cry in disarray, townspeople hurrying this way and that with fervent, haunted eyes, never looking in the same direction twice. Here too run men uniformed in the colors of the Black Guard, but none pay me heed as I make my way between the buildings and alleys toward the darkening horizon. As I go I hear boards nailed up over doors, supplies handed in through windows. A few nervous looks come my way as I pass, but little else — more than a botched execution weighs upon the minds of these city-dwellers and docksmen. Something else is happening.

Minutes pass, blocks and buildings, no sign of Gort or the city hall that was my prison for these past days. Behind me the sun nearly has sunk into the sea, and the pandemonium that rode free in the streets gives way to a kind of uneasy, panicked stillness, like the eyes of a wounded stag fixed upon the hunter who will deliver the deathblow. Like a man, innocent or no, set to stretch before a multitude of his sworn enemy. Anticipation.

Here rattles a hand-cart, wheeled down the street by a bony woman clad in a housedress and thick boots, hair done up in a wrap. Yet it is the contents of her cart rather than her outlandish garb that catch my notice and stop my heart for one wild, careening moment. She bears forth my ax, armor and satchel.

"Halt, crone," I growl as I step before her. One foot I set upon the hand-cart and immediately I toss away the sword, my fingers closing around the comforting wooden grip of my ax-handle. "Where then did you come upon these things?"

But she ignores this, her eyes shifting over my shoulder and widening. "Behind you!" she screeches, raising her hands. A sneer crosses my face and I lean forward. "Such base foolishness will be the —"

Something strikes the back of my head, driving me to my knees. One of the Black Guard stands over me, a pleased smile on his face as he raises the shovel for another blow. But my ax is swift and catches him about the waist, leaving him torn and bellowing in the dirt and me rubbing my head, which seems to have endured too much undue punishment as of late.

And still the old woman stands before me, wearing a crooked smile. "Tried to warn yeh, Axman..."

"My things."

"Ah, yes, apologies, apologies. Didn't hear that yeh survived yer execution. By all means." She dumps the remaining contents of the handcart into the street, where I collect them. I catch her arm as she attempts to slip past me.

"Surely yeh'll not harm an old lady, who only —"

"The city hall. Take me there."

She nods and we move off, her pushing the hand-cart (for she was loath to leave it to "scavengers and idle-grabs") and me arranging my things. In a few minutes I know we are near. I catch the scent of the dungeon's dank rot half a block away.

Here the chaos remains in full tilt — people running from the hall, out its wide, steelbound doors and down its steps, into the city without a look back. Before the building a small crowd huddles, and I look them over as I mount the steps two at a time, the thieving old woman forgotten behind me as my thoughts turn to Eveleth, whether she still languishes inside.

Nothing more than a quick look, but I stop halfway up the stairs, and look to the group again.

He sees me now, and turns. A moment later the rest of them are watching me.

"Axman?"

I nod. A moment passes as we gauge and measure one another, and then I descend the stairs and approach him. "Hullo, Alfie."

A tall, gaunt man with dark features and hollow eyes steps behind the boy and lays a hand on his shoulder. "It appears you were wrong, son," he says, eyes flicking toward my ax as I near them. "He lives."

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About the Author(s)

A former mercenary for hire, Blagg is an axman by trade and still carries the banner of King Mandrake, the once and true ruler of the realm. Gapers Block readers are invited to contact Blagg for advice, insight and recommendations at blagg@gapersblock.com. His column appears every other Saturday.

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