“You stand defeated, Voradni Voon!” Melika shouted, brandishing her tin sword at Elophos. The older actor bellowed, throwing his hands up in a defiant gesture meant to cover a quick tightening of the straps holding on his minotaur horns, which had begun to slide dangerously sideways.
“Never!” Elophos cried, trotting back a few showy steps as he finished steadying his headgear. Horns secured, he charged forward again, thrusting his sword at Melika. “So long as he stands, Voradni Voon is not defeated!”
“The earth has swallowed your army. Your centaurs are dead, your harpies scattered like frightened pigeons. Surrender!” Melika jabbed at Elophos’s midsection. The thrust was absurdly slow and clumsy—old Halvorash would have boxed her ears for signaling the lunge with her eyes and feet so long before she struck—but the flaws that would have doomed her in an alley fight were virtues on the stage. An audience wasn’t a footpad with a shank; you were supposed to help them see what was coming.
“Voradni Voon will devour your heart and claim your godhood, puny human!” Elophos roared, swinging his stubby sword in broad arcs. Both actors’ weapons were shortened, letting them maximize the number of swings they could make before reaching each other onstage. Melika was impressed that Elophos managed to fit six full arcs in before he closed on her. He must have tweaked his pacing; he’d only ever managed five before.
She dropped to one knee, exaggerating the height difference between them, and thrust upward, gripping her abbreviated sword’s hilt with both hands like a spear. Another absurdity for the stage, but it roused an anticipatory cheer from the audience, and then an expectant hush.
Elophos didn’t disappoint them. Menacingly he stalked forward, having backed away in mock apprehension as Melika crouched. He charged straight onto the up-thrust point, then staggered back with a thunderous gasp, his sword arm pinwheeling in feigned death agonies. “Nooo!”
“You would not stand defeated, Voradni Voon, so you must fall,” Melika intoned, striking a heroic pose, as Elophos crumpled slowly to the stage boards, clutching the blade “impaled” into his chest to keep it from falling.
Illustration by Mirco Paganessi from Pathfinder Lost Omens Absalom, City of Lost Omens
The audience burst into cheers. Elophos skipped back to his feet, handed Melika her sword, and shared a bow as the curtains came down. No sooner had the gold-fringed cloth dropped over them than they hopped down the back stairs, moving aside so the stage crew could clear their painted scenery and set up the next troupe’s props.
Already, the painted wooden harpies and centaurs from The Defeat of Voradni Voon were being loaded onto wagons to be carted away for storage. They’d performed the act six times today, moving from stage to stage across Absalom, and now they were done. The sun was sinking westward, and night was soon to drop a final curtain on Foundation Day.
It had been glorious—but now, already, Melika felt the warmth of the crowds and her own joy stealing away from her as swiftly as the fading light.
Melika sighed. She pulled off the papier-mache crown and false mustache she’d worn as Aroden, unhooked the gaudy, gold-lined cape that she’d swirled through six victories over Voradni Voon, and folded them up, along with her dreams, inside the box that Elophos’s troupe would soon pack away.
She wasn’t an actor, not really, not like the rest of them. Melika was just a serving girl. That morning, she’d been carrying a pitcher of wash water through the commons, just as the visiting troupe learned that their original Aroden was chained to her chamber pot following an encounter with a bad eel pie.
As the actors were absorbing the bad news, one of the inn’s cats ran under Melika’s feet. She’d jumped, side-stepped, and recovered without spilling a drop. This impromptu demonstration led Elophos to conclude that she was strong and nimble enough to handle the fight choreography, about the right size to fit into Aroden’s costume, and therefore an adequate substitute for the show that they were contractually obligated to put onstage in two hours.
“You’ll have ten lines,” he’d told her as he buckled the green-gold cape around her shoulders and pasted the horsehair mustache onto her face. “You can do it. Ten lines, and it doesn’t even matter if you get them wrong.”
She hadn’t gotten them wrong. Six times she’d performed, each better than the last, as she learned to draw out the crowd and channel its energy into joy.
And now it was over. Playing at the actor’s life had been fun, but Melika had siblings to feed and a sickly mother to tend. That painted crown wasn’t real gold, and it wouldn’t keep her family clothed.
Heroism seemed so simple on stage. Maybe that was what people really liked to cheer, more than Aroden: the uncomplicated surety of right and wrong. The odds were stacked, the lines were scripted, and the heroes of legend never had anyone but themselves to think about. Their families were always conveniently faraway or dead—or at the very least, dependent on the same dramatic acts that the hero was already poised to commit.
Heroes on a stage didn’t have to be quietly reliable for those they loved. Their bravado was just like their fighting: showy and false, with none of the dirt or desperation that grimed real struggle.
Melika sighed. Though false, the dream was tempting. It surely was a pretty crown. And she’d probably never again touch cloth as fine as that cloak’s, stained and threadbare though it was.
“You alright?” Elophos asked, vigorously toweling his sweat-matted hair. Six mock fights under the heavy, horned pelt of Voradni Voon had left him soaked.
“I need to get back to work,” Melika told him.
He counted out the money, then paused. “It’s Foundation Day. You don’t have the day off to celebrate?”
“Someone has to work for other people to celebrate,” Melika pointed out, dryly, but only after she’d pocketed the coin. You didn’t talk back before you got their money. “You didn’t think all those mugs of beer poured or washed themselves, did you?” It occurred to her that maybe he did think that. Nobody had ever said that actors were overburdened with good sense.
Elophos just shrugged. “But it’s Foundation Day.”
“It is. So I should get back. They’ll need me.”
“You could stay with us. Be an actor. You’re a natural on stage.”
“For less than what I earn now?” Melika snorted. She’d worked hard for that inn job. Decent pay, extra food, sometimes clothes or even boots that drunk patrons left behind. If Elophos had ever been half as cold and hungry as she’d been before the inn, he would know what it meant to give that up.
“It might not be less. Not for long.” His speculative look was greedy enough that she almost believed him. “You’ve got talent.”
“Talent and a houseful of hungry siblings. Guess which one yells louder.”
“Well, think about it.” Elophos tossed the towel over his shoulder. “A lot of us will be headed to the Wounded Wisp after sundown, if you think you can get away from washing those beer mugs for a bit. Talk to some people. Make some friends. Perhaps you’ll see that the stage pays well enough to keep a houseful of hungry siblings fed.”
“Maybe.” Melika walked away, through the thronging crowds of revelers, other people’s joy and laughter scattered around her like flower petals. She didn’t begrudge their happiness. It meant good tips.
And as she walked, she turned Elophos’s suggestion around and around, like a coin in her pocket she was debating how to spend. Maybe she did have talent. Maybe she could feed her family that way. Maybe it wasn’t stupid to spend an hour finding out.
The Wounded Wisp...
About The Author
Liane Merciel is the author of the Pathfinder Tales novels Nightglass, Nightblade, and Hellknight, and a contributor to other books including Nidal: Land of Shadows, Faiths of Golarion, and the Lost Omens World Guide. She has also written for Dungeons & Dragons, Warhammer: Age of Sigmar, and Bioware’s Dragon Age franchise. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband, two dogs, and a small child who is extremely into baking projects.
About Tales of Lost Omens
The Tales of Lost Omens series of web-based flash fiction provides an exciting glimpse into Pathfinder’s Age of Lost Omens setting. Written by some of the most celebrated authors in tie-in gaming fiction and including Paizo’s Pathfinder Tales line of novels and short fiction, the Tales of Lost Omens series promises to explore the characters, deities, history, locations, and organizations of the Pathfinder setting with engaging stories to inspire Game Masters and players alike.