WHEN THE SUNLIGHT GRASPED THE AIR like a dying man and his final request, the freelanser understood the briefness of life.
He stood outside a cavern. The hole was jutted out from the side of a hill. It looked of hardened mud, perhaps even man-made. He feared what was inside of there, but he would never admit it. There raced uncertainties in his mind, decisions quicker than any man he ever fought in his life. His right foot dawdled toward the cave and then back again. Even when it took stance ahead, his left foot managed to stay behind. The young man stood there for an awkward while.
Over the high-pitched chimes of morning songbirds and cackle of insects, it was hard to imagine that the freelanser was this close to battle. In the woodland, purple hopeflower grew mighty and on the horizon, rusted weapons sprung up against the sunset and whispered of a long gone battle. The roots and vines about the weapons looked as if they would drag them deep into the depths of the soil. The freelanser had come here to set a new fight. He traveled far.
The wind, he hoped, was not strong enough to undo his cheap armor. He bought it days ago, from a beggar, a salesperson, and so far, it had lasted. His padding was leather with an under layer of mail, slightly better than his last set without the mail. Emblazoned on it was an obscure symbol devoid of credibility. It did not matter to him, and certainly meant nothing more to anyone else. Protection was all that mattered for now.
He wore boots that peeled at their outer soles. His toenails kicked at the earth, grubby and blackened, bedraggled from traveling leagues upon leagues by foot. His exposed shoulders were bruised and burned and some bloodied courses laid on parts of his skin. The pig leather and bronze gauntlets latched on his hands shined on bright days, but they hid dried bites and scratches from wild things he had encountered.
His glare was clean. He cared for himself. The freelanser was more handsome than any stolen mirror or woman could ever convince him. His hair was thin, cut short, and you could see past each dark and prickly strand on his scalp.
The freelanser lifted his chin toward the sky and stared into the deepest cloud. He reached for the crystalline and heart shaped stone draped around his neck, and he pressed it against his...