His name was Never Dead Ned, but it was only a nickname. He could die. He’d met his death forty-nine times, and forty-nine times he’d risen from the grave. Although, after his reputation spread, people stopped bothering to bury him. They’d just throw his corpse in a corner and wait for him to rise again. And he always did. But every death took a little bit away from him, put another ache in his joints, sapped a little more spring from his step. And Ned learned the hard way that there were worse things than dying.
There was dying over and over again.
Ned didn’t have much interest in living, but he did his damnedest to avoid perishing again. Not until he could do it right. Not until he knew with absolute certainty that he would stay dead. For a soldier, fearing death was usually a career ender, but Ned found a position in the bookkeeping department of Brute’s Legion. It wasn’t much. Just counting coins. It didn’t pay well, but it was relatively safe. As safe as it ever was when your supervisor had a strict policy of devouring anyone whose books were out of balance more than three times a month.
War was the Legion’s business, and business had been good until four hundred years earlier, when the various species of the world had finally managed to put aside their differences. The Legion’s accountants had predicted a swift and irreversible downward spiral in profits. And sure enough, the following three decades had been rough. But what everyone should’ve known was that paranoia doesn’t vanish with peace. Soon every kingdom, every country, every hamlet with two pieces of gold to rub together suddenly needed a military force. For protection, of course, and to deter the benevolent military forces of their neighbors from getting any ideas. Never mind that most had gotten along just fine without an army before. Never mind that most didn’t have anything worth taking. The Legion was only too happy to lease its armies to the world. War had been good for business. But peace was far more lucrative.
Gryphons never stopped growing, and Tate, well over three hundred years old, was a giant beast. His impressive black wings spanned twenty feet when spread, but he didn’t spread them often in the confines of his office, a literal nest of ledgers dating back to the very beginnings of the Legion. Back when it had been a handful of orcs, a few dozen mercenaries, and a pair of dragons with a vision. Back before it’d become the most successful freelance army on three continents.
Tate spoke. He rarely looked at who he was speaking to. This was a blessing, since his cold, black eyes focused with an unblinking, predatory stare. They always made Ned worry about becoming lunch, even when his books were perfect. He wasn’t interested in coming back from the dead after a trip through anyone’s digestive system.
Tate glanced through the ledger slowly, methodically. He turned the delicate pages with his long, black claws. He missed nothing, not the slightest detail. Especially since he was always hungry. His sharp beak bent in a frown. His great black wings flapped once.
“Very good, Ned. Impeccable as always.”
“Thank you, sir.” Ned adjusted his spectacles. He didn’t need them. In fact, they blurred his vision, but they made him look bookish, which was a look he very much wanted to cultivate.
Tate handed back the ledger. He swept the chamber with his gaze, never quite settling his eyes on Ned. “For a soldier, you make an extraordinary bookkeeper.”
“Thank you, sir.” Ned adjusted his spectacles again in an effort to look even more bookish, but his flesh wore the reminders of forty-nine grisly ends. The scars crossing his arms and face, particularly the long, nasty one across his right cheek down to a red slash around his throat, made a far greater impression than his eyeglasses. And of course, there was his missing eye, his cauliflower ear, and his bad arm. All the marks of a man who should’ve been dead long ago. For a bookkeeper, he’d made a barely adequate soldier.
The gryphon cleared his throat, and Ned took this as his dismissal. When he turned to leave, Tate spoke again.
“When you were first assigned to me, I assumed you would be my dinner within the week.” He ran a black tongue across his beak. “Instead, you’ve become one of the most trusted members of my staff.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Pity I have to lose you.”
Ned, taken aback, stared into those merciless eyes. Tate’s gray and black feathers ruffled, and he sneered.
“I’ve just gotten the news today. You’re being transferred.”
Tate nodded very slowly. He smoothed his feathers back with a talon. “I tried to talk them out of it, but this comes straight from the top. Upper, upper, upper management.” He rummaged through his nest of paperwork and pulled out a blue scroll.
Ned swore under his breath. Blue scrolls were irreversible, unstoppable. As inevitable as death or, in Ned’s case, even more inevitable than death. Tate handed over the blue scroll, but Ned refused to unroll it and take a look at his new orders just yet.
Tate cocked his head to one side, then another. His lion’s tail swished lazily. He cleared his throat again, and again. Before Ned could leave, the gryphon spoke up.
“It’s a promotion. You’ve earned it.”
Ned snapped his teeth together softly, as he often did when irritated. “Thank you, sir.”
“Congratulations. Upper management must have a great deal of faith in you.”
“Thank you, sir.”
He held the blue scroll tightly in his right hand, while his bad left arm tried to pry it free. In one of his more unpleasant demises, the left limb had been severed. The arm had come back to life without him, and though a medic had stitched it back on, it still had a mind of its own, with obnoxious tendencies in tense situations. Given a chance, he knew the bad arm would throw the scroll at Tate. That might get Ned eaten, and he had enough worries already.
He turned to leave once more. Tate cleared his throat, and Ned stopped.
“You’re dismissed. Send in Yip. Very sloppy work lately. I suspect disciplinary action is in order.” Tate clicked his beak with a grin. “And tell him to stop by the commissary and bring up some bread, cheese, a bottle of wine, and a dinner salad. Something zesty, but not too filling.”
Ned walked from the office, feeling very much like a condemned man. A blue scroll was supposed to be a good thing. It meant upper management had taken special notice of him. But it was like being noticed by the gods in the heavens. More often than not, it was a one-way ticket to a tragic fate. Up to now, he’d done a fine job of being unexceptional. Except for not staying dead, but that wasn’t his doing.
His fellow bookkeepers avoided looking at him as he walked through the halls. And everyone averted their eyes from the blue scroll clutched in his hand. Rumor had it that blue scrolls were enchanted to strike all but their intended reader blind. This was mere conjecture, since almost no one had actually ever seen a blue scroll. But no one was willing to take the chance of looking directly at it.
Ned returned to his office, a small chamber he shared with two others: Yip, a ratling, and Bog, the slime mold. Yip was counting a stack of gold coins. He’d shove one in his pocket once in a while. Ned and Bog always pretended not to notice. Neither liked the ratling, and they weren’t about to discourage anything that might get him eaten. Bog was busy weighing bars of silver. Yip glanced up from his work just long enough to grin and chuckle.
“Tough luck, Ned.”
“Have you read it yet?” asked Bog.
Ned shook his head.
“It could be good news,” offered the slime mold.
“Betcha it’s a transfer to the wyrm farm.” Yip clinked two coins together. “Up to your neck in dirt and manure all day. And those wyrms stink. Oh, boy, do they stink.”
Ned sat, laid his head on his desk, put his arms over his head. His bad arm yanked at his hair.
“Glad I’m not you,” said Yip.
“Tate wants to see you.” Ned didn’t have the energy to raise his eye to glimpse Yip’s face, but he heard the ratling swallow hard. That made Ned feel a little better.
Bog’s eyes bobbed in his transparent flesh, floating to look at Ned from slightly different angles. “You should read it before you start panicking.”
“I’m not panicking.”
“He’s moping,” said Yip.
“It’s probably not as bad as you’re imagining,” replied Bog.
“Probably worse.” Ned held the blue scroll down on his desk as if it might jump up and attack him. “I don’t have a very good imagination.”
“Give it to me.” Yip bounded from his desk and snatched the scroll. Ned held fast, and they commenced a brief tug-of-war.
“Just give me the damn thing already!” The ratling snapped at Ned’s hand, and he let go.
“You’ll be struck deaf,” said Bog.
“Blind,” corrected Ned.
Bog adjusted his eyes with his tentacles. “I suppose that makes more sense.”
With the same fearless stupidity that was soon to make him a gryphon’s dinner, Yip unfurled the ominous document. Both Ned and Bog lowered their heads (or head-like protrusion in the slime mold’s case), expecting something terrible. But there was no flash of lightning, no torrent of shrieking phantoms, no unholy blackness to fall upon the office. Not even a single cackling imp or cold snap.
“Well?” asked Bog. “Are you blind?”
Yip rolled up the scroll and set it back on the desk. “Sorry, Ned.”
Ned opened the scroll. “They’ve given me a command.”
“That’s not so bad,” said Bog with feigned enthusiasm.
“It’s Ogre Company.”
Quiet descended, a silence so consuming that even the drafty corridors ceased whistling. Bog wasn’t certain where to look, so he solved the problem by plucking out his eyes and sticking them in a drawer.
“Tough luck, Ned.” Yip strolled from the office with a frown, stopping in the door on his way to the belly of a monster. “Glad I’m not you.”
Copyright © 2006 by A. Lee Martinez