|Written by Frank R Sjodin / Artwork by Holly Eddy
A buckskin boot crunched upon a fallen guardian's helmet. To no audience but her pride, Zalma the Swift
recovered her arrow from the skull of her prey with the poise of an ingenue picking a flower. She was
pleased to have slain the man by surprise, since his order was known for deadly swordplay. Having
recently sold her chain-mail, Zalma had planned to avoid close combat rather than risk testing the
thickness of her leftover armor. Her skill with a longsword would protect her far better than thin, worn
leather. Still, Zalma was never one for unnecessary risks. Camouflaged with moss and soil, she had
watched the guards changing all morning, timing their rotation. In one hour, another would arrive to find
his companion slain. Zalma planned to be long gone by then.
The man had been guarding the entrance to a gigantic stone cube that had sunken into the forest floor
over many years. Zalma neither knew nor cared what the building's original purpose had been. Only her
goal inside concerned her. She forced herself to forget the great castles she had stormed in the past,
leading dozens of warriors to victory against hundreds. Now she was reduced to burglary. Alone. She
stepped over the body and entered.
Sunlight dimly lit the antechamber through crystal blocks in the ceiling. The transparent stone gave the
room's light a misty quality, while illuminating a stone door opposite the entrance. Embedded in the door
were three large greenstone rings. Two rings were inscribed with hieroglyphs, while the third displayed a
rune alphabet. To Zalma the symbols held only one meaning. The rings formed an arcane combination
lock, empowered to seal the door and cast doom upon those ignorant of the pass code.
From one of many pouches she drew a scrap of parchment. Unfolding it revealed a crude diagram
sketched in charcoal. The mummified hand of a long-dead priest, quickened by the necromancy of Balzag
the Cursed, had scribbled the drawing. She rotated the rings according to the symbols on the dead
man's instructions, put her shoulder to the door, and hesitated.
Balzag certainly could not be trusted. But what about the dead priest, Sakell? She hoped the dead were
more trustworthy than the living. At this point, she had no choice but to proceed.
Her magical contract with the wizard had been signed three times in her own blood, sealing the spell. Pay
was low and risk minimal, yet Balzag had seemed worried she wouldn't sign. She went along with the
farce, hoping he would adjust the price if he didn't know how desperate she was for work. All that was
required to complete her deal was that she recover at least one text from the vault. The hand itself had
sworn that many scriptures were stored within. The dead thing had scribbled two pages of warnings for
her, but Balzag was only able to translate a portion of Sakell's writings, so he claimed.
She spoke a cautionary prayer,
“Thank you, ancient Sakell, for your gift of knowledge. May Aurel guide you in peace through the realms
And may I drag you to hell myself if you have lied, she added to herself. With a hearty push as she
again put her should to the door, it opened inwards.
In truth, she was thankful to the ghost of Sakell, though not to any gods. She had promised the hand
she would utter a prayer to his dead god in his name, in remittance for his aid. Zalma had not prayed to
any gods, living or dead, since her childhood. Yet she had felt the ruin of sorceresses' curses and knew
magic wielded by priests or pagans was no less potent than the hexes of secular wizards.
Perceiving darkness ahead, she readied an oil lamp from her supplies and lit it with a sulfur twig. Securing
her bow and longsword on her back, she advanced.
The hall was lonesome and arid, stale with air not breathed for generations. Engravings on the wall
depicted angels and heroes in dire conflicts against arch fiends and corrupted gods. Zalma's mood
darkened as she took in the grotesque and primitive art. One scene brought her to a chilling halt.
A bronze-skinned goddess holding two demons at bay with twin spears glared accusingly at her. Zalma
met the goddess’s eyes as if scowling into a mirror. The goddess and both demons stood proudly upon
mounds of human dead. With horrid amazement, Zalma began to recognize the faces of the bodies.
Every friend or foe she had ever witnessed perish was depicted in those lifeless piles. Deliah, Sir
Torrence, Baron Delm and his honor guard. Her parents. Ayasha the duelist. She saw many mercenaries
she had served with and even lead. Celarth, who had trained her. Maccielli, whom she had slain to claim
her leadership, was posed in the same position their duel had left him. Romantic Nadrion, who had
worshiped her shamelessly yet never shared her bed, looked as pitiful as he had the day he died.
Glorious and heartbreaking memories filled her with pride and remorse for the mighty victories and petty
follies of her life.
Zalma saw faces of men and women living still heaped amongst the slain—Sister Claire, Squire Selador,
her lost love Sir Albert Laimé dit Zaulbag. A religious soul would have understood their corpses as a dark
omen. Zalma interpreted the images not as divine foreshadowing, but attributed them to her own
unrealized desires and fears, deeply hidden in the vilest chambers of her heart. She hoped her guess was
wrong, wishing she had as much faith in her own character as she did in her skills.
The goddess on the mural seemed to boast,
“Look upon those I have slain. All your foes, companions, and loved ones. Those you could not defeat or
defend lie skewered beneath me.”
Her mind silenced the voice, but thoughts of loss persisted. The demons depicted changed before
Zalma's gaze. One fiend took on the wrinkled likeness of her current employer.
“Marry a rich man like me, you'll never struggle again!” The necromancer taunted. The other demon
traded its fanged visage for the tender face of Dame Zalleria.
“You aught to accept, Zalma. No knight would wed a mercenary! Noblemen marry noble ladies.”
Zalma turned from the engraving and continued down the hallway, clearing her mind of daydreams. Yet
the mocking persisted, perfectly in character as Balzag and Zalleria.
“Finish your work, my pet. I'll give you the reward you deserve!”
“If she's sold her sword, she's doubtless sold her body. Now she's even working as a thief!”
Zalma spoke aloud against her own insane accusations.
“I am no thief. Sakell, by his own hand, gave me permission to enter here. I sell my sword, never my
Only pampered nobles like Zalleria seemed to equate her work to that of a courtesan. Glorious battle was
her true employment, which hardened lords and baronesses respected. She wondered why she had
taken this lowly grave-robbing contract, but the rumble of her stomach reminded her. Lengthy peace
following the end of the ducal feuds had left her without steady employment. Now she was stealing
books from the dead for nine gold crowns, with a bonus in silver for human remains. After witnessing
the ritual that had animated the hand of Sakell, Zalma had vowed never to sell bones to Balzag. Let the
coward face the tombs himself if he wished to disturb the dead.
Onwards she trudged, ignoring the murals at her sides. Her lamp flickered and dimmed. How long had
she lingered, facing the goddess? Zalma had measured out her lamp oil to burn for three quarters of an
hour so that its exhaustion would signal the next guard's arrival. She despised herself for wasting time
so foolishly, entrapped by her guilty emotions like a spoiled child.
Laughter echoed behind her, but she denied hearing it. Her pace held steady.
“You're only an artist's dream carved on a wall, a spirit if anything. I've waged war against corporeal
ghouls and survived. My feats are greater than anything some false goddess-”
Zalma stopped her speech like a child caught swearing in front of her mother. Talking to pictures of dead
gods, a sure sign of insanity.
“Gods are myths.”
Zalma understood little of magic, but if godless wizards could defy natural laws through spells and
summon spirits from aether, then surely the rituals of clergy were no more than misunderstood magic
under the guise of miracles. She had faced destructive hexes with sword and will before and emerged
The hallway emptied into a diamond shaped room with a central cubic altar on a dais. Each corner opened
to another hall, but her lamp was too dim to cast light down the passageways. Carefully stepping up to
inspect the altar, Zalma discovered that it was solid gold. A deep basin was scooped out of it and filled
with polished opals possessing more colors than her tiny flame could illuminate. For the first time in days,
she smiled. A handful would be worth twice what Balzag offered for two tomes and a knapsack full of
bones. Now she needed only find one text to fulfill her lecherous employer's spell-writ contract before
According to the lore Zalma knew, archaic gods only smote those who left their altars empty. So long as
most of the gems remained, she was safe from any ancient curses. Seizing four stones, she noticed her
lamp beginning to fade. She could grab another handful on the way out. Her time would be better spent
finding a book to fulfill her contract.
At the thought of not finding one, Zalma realized she hadn't completely read her contractual terms of
failure. Facing no resistance besides a small cult of guardsmen, she hadn't considered failure a possibility.
She had half a mind to read her copy of the contract that moment, but remembered her limited time.
Fear scathed her as she imagined returning to find the three-ringed door barred from outside. A slow
death underground was as terrifying as any perverse torture Balzag's contract might describe as
payment for failure.
Her own voice had spoken, but not from her lips.
Terror was replaced by loathing. Zalma thoughtlessly unbound her lengthy hair so that it now hung like
the goddess's flowing locks. She set her lamp on the altar and growled,
“I am no failure!”
Her echo became a spectral voice.
“I am a failure. I once was a goddess. Now I am the property of hideous, desperate men, to be
summoned, commanded, and used by wicked humans. Heed my warning, Zalma the Swift, do not
become as I have.”
Her brain ached as from a hammer blow. Zalma now knew the voice came from beyond her human
“You must not succumb to the will of the necromancer,” it wailed desperately. “Reject his terms and
bring him no scriptures! You cannot comprehend the heresy he commits, nor the torment he will bring to
departed souls. You would not serve him if you understood the horrors he commits!”
Zalma's imagination overwhelmed her with gruesome speculations. Balzag's stench filled her nose. One
hand clenched the pommel of her sword while the other balled into a fist. She remembered how she had
overcome his mystical attempts to ensnare her mind in their past feuds.
“Yes, sister! I feel your soul of flame and iron! With my blessing you will shatter his contractual curse!
Kneel and accept my spiritual embrace. Instead of his filthy coin, let these pure gems serve as my
payment for slaying that cur Balzag!”
Thoughts of strangling her employer filled Zalma with guilty joy. She could easily overpower him
unarmed. It would be simple to lure him away from his few guards. For all his arcane wisdom, he was a
pretty woman's fool. Why was she suffering the humiliation of stealing for him?
“Do not fetch him scriptures like a dog! Were I in your place, I would be no rich man's servant, I would
earn my way in battle! If you do his bidding, you are nothing but a slave for his gold—a common whore!”
Zalma spun, her brown hair fanning outward like a cape of ribbons. Her mind was set.
“Back to the wretched hell from which you crawled!” She spat on the altar. “You are no goddess, nor
were you ever! Do you think I cannot recognize the chattering of a filthy, jealous, self-loathing wretch? I
reject your blessings, heathen spirit! I'll defy you and Balzag both! I need nothing but my courage to
slay him, no foul embrace or payment of yours!”
Zalma cast the opals she had taken back into the altar's bowl and proceeded down an unknown hallway.
“Then go! Prove thyself, overcome his magic alone, if you are more a goddess than I, prideful slut! I'll
save my blessings for your companions in hell!”
In response to the last retort, Zalma rushed back to the altar. Thrusting her hands into the basin, she
began to empty it. She was not afraid to spite this pretending spirit. No truly divine being could be so
Pockets and pouches filled with gemstones. When her fingers reached the bottom, they wrapped around
something buried under the opals- a book.
Nails chiseled into her hands. Warrior's instinct guided her. Releasing the book, she twisted free of the
bloody nails to grip the wrists of her assailant. Leaning down with full strength, she ignored her pain and
wrenched forcefully. Bone splintered slowly as she bent the claws against their nature. Broken, they sank
back into the golden altar. Zalma reclaimed the tome violently, spilling jewels and dashing her lamp
asunder. Her prize erupted in flames.
Leaping from the dais, she knelt and beat the burning grimoire against the floor, killing the flames.
Stuffing it into a pouch, she found herself in utter blackness. An inhuman voice began spewing
consonants of anger. Remembering the way she had come, Zalma took a sprinter's pose. Something
groped her calves. She exploded down the hallway.
At full sprint she ran. An evil being of pure essence refined by centuries of dark emotions pursued her.
She never looked to learn what it was. Talons tickled her heels and the voice in her mind howled…
She ignored it. She had proven her courage countless times. Now it was time to prove her sweat-earned
title of Zalma the Swift.
The light from the open stone door was feint, a yellow sapling against a black wall. Her speed had
reached its peak, outpacing her heartbeats. Zalma burst free of the darkness, shooting through the
antechamber like an arrow through fog. Her pace diminished as she relished her freedom.
Bounding down the forest path, an obstacle appeared. The replacement for her earlier victim stood
awaiting, longsword at mid guard. Zalma drew her own and placed it over her shoulder, posing casually
like a haughty noble. His eyes fell upon her toned legs wrapped in leather.
“Surrender your sword and I'll kill you gently. Surrender your body and I'll leave you breathless, but
perhaps still breathing”
Zalma's face revealed none of her fury, only cool disdain. “You die today. Flee, and I'll murder you slowly
for making me chase you.”
There was no further parley. Advancing, he thrust and she snapped her sword forward, catching his
blade. As the steel met she drove his point into the ground. Twisting her hip and hands, she whipped
her weapon upward. His cross-guard raised in reaction to catch her strike- but the swiftness of her
longsword had earned her name as rightfully as her sprinting. Her blade's point penetrated his helm and
skull at the temple. When his movements ceased she sheathed her weapon.
Catching her breath, she looked down at her burnt and claw-scraped hands. Laughter overtook her. How
could these be the hands of a coward? The illusion of scratches vanished. A wave of realization and rage
poured through her. The spirit hadn't harmed her—it was not summoned to slay her! It had known
exactly how to insult her best and had almost convinced her to leave without the book. Emptying her
pockets and pouches she discovered rounded limestone instead of opals.
Finding her copy of the contract, she flushed with rage as she read the priceless fee required had she
failed. Lifelong enslavement, bound by enchantment. How unoriginal, yet unmistakably despicable. Balzag
had plotted for her failure all along. Doubtless he had summoned that dark thing to convince her to
return to him empty-handed by appealing to her pride. Even the wildest fury of her soul could never
overcome the terms of a promissory spell signed in her own blood. He had counted on exploiting the
mighty will his spells could never dominate, hoping her confidence would overpower her logic. Rather
than her abilities, it was her intellect he had underestimated this time. She vowed his mistake would be
Frank R Sjodin is a working actor and clown in Chicago, IL. In
his limited free time he also writes fantasy fiction and space opera
stories, often with re-occurring characters. His other published
works can be found in many of TWIT Publishing's PULP!
anthologies and in an upcoming ape-themed anthology from Big
Pulp later in 2013. Special thanks to his lovely wife and close
friends for taking the time to read and review his stories.