J. Zachary Pike

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Book 1 of the Dark Profit Saga

Copyright © 2014, 2018 J. Zachary Pike
Version 2.2.5


Johan was the kind of physical specimen that inspires sculptors, clad in the kind of cutting-edge gear that inspires bankruptcy. Faint, sorcerous lights flickered in the runic etchings of magical armor that would cost a king’s ransom. A magical flame danced along the edge of a blade that would cost a king’s fortune. The torchlight gleamed from a perfect smile that would win it all back again.

Chapter 1

A good charge is a hard thing to appreciate. Most people assume anyone can grab a weapon and run straight at an enemy, pointy-end forward, and for the most part, they’re correct. The tricky part of a frontal assault, Gorm knew, was surviving it. But if you had the finesse, timing, and skill, a good charge could be unexpectedly effective.

A sloppy charge, on the other hand, is easily countered.



“This sculpture will apparently summon a celestial war cat from the metaphysical planes,” Scroot read from a card.

“What can you make the cat do?” asked the party’s warrior, a burly man in a horned helm.

“Let me see ...” said Scroot, checking a scrawled note in the margin. “Ah, nothing. It is, after all, a cat.”



Chapter 2

Of course, no one could even venture near a sewer grate for fear of giant spiders or Venomous Scargs or any of the other monstrous denizens that had never fully been expunged from the city.

Ironically, these ancient threats were key to Andarun’s rapid gentrification. Dangerous monsters and abundant treasure attract heroes. Wealthy heroes in need of gear attract merchants. Well-to-do merchants attract industry. Industry needs workers, who need developers for housing, who need builders and laborers, who need services. The ancient ruins beneath Mount Wynspar fertilized a blooming economy on its surface. Within an age, Andarun was again the greatest city on Arth, this time built atop the most deadly dungeon on Arth.

The streets were surprisingly clean, save for a few bleached skeletons lying in the gutters. Nothing edible lasted a night on the Underdim’s gravel roads.

“And we have a choice?”

“Oh, there’s always a choice. Choice is a constant.” Flinn grinned, a cold glint in his eye. “It’s consequences that vary.”

Chapter 3

The guild made a very clear distinction between common mercenaries and professional heroes. While a mercenary’s loyalties were based on current market prices, a licensed hero on a quest was guaranteed to either complete the task or die trying. Whether the hero was trying to finish the quest or trying to evade guild enforcers when he or she died was totally irrelevant.

Everybody seemed to love buying up and bundling together the rights to shares of different hoards, creating a new financial product to invest in. The Heroes’ Guild encouraged upfront investment, as it could be used to pay off professional heroes, regardless of the loot a foe had. Investors were keen on spreading the risk over multiple foes’ hoards. Goldson Baggs and its competitors could make a profit selling shares of monstrous hoards before the monsters were slain, and eliminate the risk altogether.

Arth’s pantheon was essentially a celestial administration that the Creator had left in charge once He decided that His work was good, or at least good enough. Like middle management everywhere, the gods seemed to be mostly concerned with petty conflicts and power struggles. They fought endlessly over believers, and money, and status, and the best temples, and anything else that gods typically want.



“You know, saying ‘no offense’ doesn’t count for much after saying something really offensive.”



Chapter 4

The Academy of Mages recognized sorcerous duels as a valid method of establishing social standing, or settling personal disagreements, or figuring out whose turn it was to do the dishes.

“People always say that we must stand up for what we believe in.”

“They’re not talkin’ to you!” barked Gorm. “They’re talkin’ to people who don’t believe in stupid things! They’re talkin’ to people who think the same way everyone else does, or something close enough!”



He was a firm believer that the best meals were made by holding dead things over a fire until they smelled good.



An indefinite lifespan is not the same thing as an infinite memory. Time erodes events into stories, stories into recollections, recollections into impressions, impressions into vague sensations that eventually dim altogether. An Elf’s old life was always trickling away, being replaced by new memories, new ideas, and eventually, for all intents and purposes, a new Elf.



Chapter 5 [...] in Gorm’s experience, the other races of men did and said things that would make a decent Dwarf blush without a second thought: they talked of love in public; they wore their emotions like clothes, and they wore clothes that hid nothing; and they held huge harvest festivals with flowers everywhere. Living among such wanton debauchery had been a culture shock, as it was for any young Dwarf leaving the mines, but Gorm liked to think he had grown fairly well accustomed to living among non-Dwarves.



As far as Gorm was concerned, a ceremony was the most efficient way to expunge the joy and excitement from any event, refining it into the purest tedium. It was like watching a play that he already knew the ending to, only with more dialogue and usually less swordplay.

“The people in the streets claim their freedom or their virtue binds our kingdom together, but in a famine you’re only free to starve, and in a drought there is no virtue but survival. No, liberty and piety are well and good, but a kingdom needs stability to survive; a healthy stalemate wherein every people, every faction, every city finds the status quo preferable to the price of change.”
Chapter 6 And since there were so many magic-using foes out in the field, warrior heroes came in only two varieties: those who knew how to fight mages, and extra crispy.



“I mean, of course there’s some anger. You’re fightin’ after all. But anger ain’t what makes ye berserk.” [...]

“It’s purpose. Ye find something in the battle to fight for, something ye’d die for. Your brothers back in the clanhome, the honor of your Da’s name, the lives of innocents. A reason to fight, if nothing else, like a tiny fire, and ye reach out and grab it. And ye hold it no matter how it burns. And soon ye can’t separate yourself from your purpose, any more than ye could take the light from a candle flame. Ye live to win. Ye can’t lose; ye can only die.”

“Whoa,” said Laruna.

“And later, they’ll say ye looked crazed, or ye howled like a beast, or ye seemed possessed, but their words are nothing but a vapor in a breeze. ’Cause ye can still feel a flicker of the fire ye held inside, and ye know now what ye knew then, and ye’ll never be the same. That’s what it is to be a berserker, and I’d never trade it for anything.”

Chapter 7 “We ain’t like you Lightlings, waking up every morning and wondering what you want to do, where you think you should go. I wake up every morning and wonder what they’ll let me do, what I can get away with.”
Chapter 8

“You’re still thinking like it’s a story, lad,” he said. “This ain’t a legend. It’s a job. A career. Ye need to set aside your ideas about what should be and start thinking about it like a professional. Quests succeed and fail now, lad. Right now, before the heroes are on the road. Because a party of heroes is like a Gnomish flame cannon: give it the right chemistry, point it in the right direction, and it’ll do wonders. Do any one part wrong, and the whole thing blows up in your face.”

Gorm waved a hand out at the retail armory. “This here is the chemistry part. This is where ye get the right team filling the right roles and wearing the right gear; it’s all got to come together in this strange alchemy that fuses a small mob of sell-swords into a company of heroes.”



Chapter 11

“Bandits,” snarled Kaitha.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” said the first man. “What’s with the hostility and the labeling?”



Chapter 12 Individually, a walking skeleton or a zombie was a nuisance on par with a door-to-door missionary from the Temple of Oppo; both had unnatural persistence, an unnerving grin, and a single-minded focus on making converts.

“What’s the best way to deal with a necromancer?” said Niln.

“You have to wait for the right moment to approach him,” said Heraldin.

“How do you know the right moment?”

“It’s any time after someone else has chopped the morbid bastard’s head off,” said Heraldin.

Lots of heroes started out like Niln, wide-eyed children who thought they knew the end to their story and just assumed that the middle would sort itself out. They all learned one way or another that life’s tale doesn’t work that way; many only learned as much when they met their end in an unfortunate plot twist.
The problem with the professional heroics industry, he had often said over one-too-many beers, was the title. The fame and the glory and even the very word ‘hero’ had a way of going straight to people’s heads and convincing them there was more to their job than violence and wealth retrieval. Overconfident heroes often tried to act as army commanders or diplomats or, as in this case, detectives.
Chapter 13 They traditionally lived in an honor society, and as is often the case with honor societies, their tradition had less to do with noble codes of chivalry and more to do with chopping people’s body parts off for perceived insults.



Chapter 14

“I always assumed they were crafted by that smith who’s pictured on the crates they come in.”

“Right, the one with the picturesque mountain village behind him,” said Kaitha. “Everyone wants a sword crafted by an old master.”

“Marketing is its own kind of magic, is it not?” said Zurthraka. “An illusion that men pay to be fooled by.”

Chapter 15

“The truth is that mankind needs to be defended from monsters, and doing as much takes stone-hearted killers. There ain’t no honor in it. It’s a job. Sometimes, the ones who are best at it ain’t much better than the monsters themselves.”

“I knew we were hired swords. I just thought we could still be something more. I thought we had purpose.”

“If the common folk didn’t believe in the cause, how could they stand to have us among them? And if professional heroes didn’t believe in it, how much worse off would we be? The stories of good and noble heroes may be a facade, but when we believe it, it gets a little closer to becoming reality. It’s the lie we need to believe.”



Chapter 16

“Well, a lot of it depends on how the public sees us. Image and all that. It’s the third-biggest part of heroics, after the killing and the looting.”

Chapter 18

“I am authorized to try you as enemies of the city-states and carry out your sentence.”

“What kind of corrupt institution makes the same man prosecutor, judge, and executioner?” exclaimed Jynn.

“The efficient kind,” shouted Mr. Flinn.



Glossary Griffin: It is said that a griffin is a lion with the head, talons, and wings of an eagle, but the Zoological Society of Monchester has determined that a griffin is, in actuality, a giant eagle with a lion’s butt.
Gremlins: [...] Gremlins are known for their inquisitive nature, their mastery of bioengineering, and their tenuous grasp of ethics.

text checked (see note) Nov 2022

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