Half-baked Hero

Reading Time: 16 minutes


Straightening the banner angling out the back of her saddle, Janza ul-Varoon guided her horse down a twisting trail and mused how she might scare up some coin. Though she’d just finished a job shepherding a caravan – and had earned a handsome bonus for leaving some bandits to rot in its wake – the pay once again flew from Janza’s fingers in a blur of milk-wine and ballads she’d had sung in her honor.

Lithe and cat-springy, she wore pantaloons tucked into tall clean boots, square klamak hat, and gorut knife and hatchet thrust into her sash. Bagpipes rested within a saddle scabbard.

As she rode through a canyon spotted with caves, she spied a brownish-white lump in the middle of the road: a steamed bun. A sack of them lay nearby. Still she burped last night’s feast, yet Janza knew the flavor of hunger; sniffing the sack, she grabbed it and rode on. Next, she found a pile of spilled dates swarming with bugs. Then a hacked-apart camel luring even more pests.

(Image created by Marie Ginga using Firefly.com and Picas.com)

Janza took up her bagpipes, filling them with air and pumping out a lackadaisical tune. As she passed the mouth of a cave, she swiveled suddenly and aimed the pipes into the darkness. “Plump for a highwayman, aren’t you?”

A Tangian huddled within the cave, a pile of bun crumbs at his feet.

“Come on out,” said Janza. “There’d be no fame in abusing you.”

“Pooth thath away.”


The Tangian swallowed his mouthful. “I don’t like the look of your instrument.”

“Then you are no fool.” Only after she holstered her pipes did the Tangian waddle into the light. He cradled a shabby leather case. A travel-worn robe stretched with all its might across his mammoth stomach. Despite his fifty years or more, his eyes shone youthfully.

“Good day. I am Kong Si, itinerant merchant.”

“And you’ve made a transaction with a bandit,” replied Janza.

As answer he gestured with tragic drama to the dead camel, torn silks, and other ruined merchandise strewn about. Her banner then caught his eye and he read, “‘Janza ul-Varoon.’” To Janza’s surprise, he followed with, “Chwen oppa tredo, Janza ul-Varoon.”

“Chwen oppo tredara, Kong Si. Hmm, you speak Gurkmani. I’ve never known a Tangian able to. Tell me: Who set upon you?”

“Muscle-bound fellow. Of my own race! Slaughtered my camel, stole my coins and the finest treasures I acquired in Parsta. Mirrors promising sight of moments yet to come, caged creatures who adopt the aspect of lost loved ones, sorcerous cookbooks and–”

“Yet he did not turn his scimitar on you.”

Kong lifted his nose in respect – or suspicion. “And how would you know it was a scimitar?”

“Such a blade leaves wounds deep at point of contact, slender and tapering at exit. I sport a couple myself.” Dismounting, Janza studied the ground for tracks. “I wonder. . . . Hear tell of the slaying in Shanian last week? The murder of Lang Hoo?”

“No. Who was he?”

Janza scoffed at the merchant’s ignorance. “The Triangle Stranglers, the Flame Lake Pirates, Xiao Yan the Relentless – all these scoundrels the brothers Lang Hoo and Lang Tsu laid low.” Her face wrinkled as if at a noxious odor. “And as Dukes of the Realm, they massacred many Gurkmani in the Spring Uprising.” She waited for her anger to drain. “Lang Hoo was found two days ago. They say there was only a small puncture wound at his heart, and barely a drop of blood left in him. Downing his killer would get a name sung in the taverns, that’s sure. Could you identify the man who attacked you? Perhaps it was him.”

“It was the stones at my feet I studied, not his face.” He picked through his scattered merchandise. “What is your trade that brings you chancing upon me?”

“Preventing what has befallen you.”

“Ah yes, I had heard Gurkmani women are as fierce as the men. Well, I should have hired you before I set out. May I correct my mistake now?”

“I will see you east, to Leng’koo.” She gazed at the worthless goods on the ground. “Beyond that. . . working for free only sows confusion.”

“Wise for one so young! Leng’koo is in fact my destination.” Kong reached into the folds of his robe and tossed Janza a pouch sagging with coins. “A man in my line always holds something in reserve. And I never trust what is freely given. Here’s half.”


Many times did Kong praise Janza’s skill and her nose for the best route as they made their way across the rolling dunes, the Revenant Ravines and the Great Salt Plain. Yet as he munched a bun, his sixth since they set out, he raised one troubling matter. “Surely discretion is part of the warrior’s trade?” he wondered, indicating Janza’s banner, her name brightly scrawled in six languages.

“Bandits spy two travelers. Think to themselves, they are two riders, we six, shall we try our luck? Or they see two travelers and this banner. They see my name,” she explained. “If they’ve more sense than they have courage, your ride will be a bland one.”

The day glided past, the two striking an easy rapport. The Duke of the Dusk’s murder still dominated Janza’s thoughts. “Some suspect the same killer slew the assassin Kugen Rast two moons ago.”

“Dangerous business,” said Kong between mouthful of bread he’d stashed away. “All that swordplay. Blood not staying where it’s meant to.”

“Remember, if we cross this man, tell me.”

“Have no fear. Tell me, how did you learn your Tangian?”

“As an outrider and scout. During the Impish Havoc.”

“Ah. You served in a mixed regiment. How are my Tangian brethren as fighters?”

“Artful. Cautious. Yet if an Imp legion or Grass Devil stomps your way, those are watchwords.”

“Then the friendship between our peoples will hold?”

“I would not call it friendship. Nor would you, if you lived as a Gurkmani.”

“I suppose not. Sometimes I wonder why you don’t simply butcher the Tangians. We colonized your land, hunted you like wild beasts. Those days can’t be so easily forgotten by your people.” Something daring gleamed in his eye. “When you found me, you could have struck me down without even slowing your horse.”

Janza grinned. “Poor sport in that.”

Kong roared with laughter so infectious Janza found herself joining it. As the last strains of light drained from the sky, they reached a cave, sheltered against the rising winds and sightlines from the plateau below, and soon were toasting their bodies by a fire. Janza opened a pouch on her belt and a tangy scent wafted. “Jerked tortoise?”

“I do not eat flesh.” Kong opened a sack of hard bread and munched.

After eating their fill, Janza dimmed the fire and they spread out beside it. The night passed without incident and the next day they traversed the unforgiving landscape and swapped dirty jokes. Cantering down the bed of a dead river, Janza asked of Kong’s journeying. “In and out, that’s the way of my business. Yes, I’ve witnessed happenings to doubt one’s wakefulness, heard enchanting tales and unearthly song in the great faraway. Once I met a sorceress in Parsta; for her all matter was but material to work her wonders. As if the laws of existence were written in sand and with a squiggle of her finger….”

Kong trailed off, confused by Janza’s low murmuring, and utterly bewildered by her forming an urn of her hands, which she then raised to the skies.

“What is it?” asked Kong.

“Riders have marked us.” She bound up her hair.

“What?! Where?”

“On the ridges. Two north, two south. Zevka thirsts for blood, and I have promised it.”

Janza heeled her horse to a gallop. Immediately the riders thundered down from the ridges. She and Kong reached a bluff just as the mounted men gained the riverbed. Three sat horses; one skittered along on a Sandsquid, its tentacles flailing up a gritty wake. The ‘squid’s rider glistened as he neared, the sun bouncing off his slimy, hairless gray skin – a half-breed Imp-man, one of the horrid fruit from the Impish Havoc. At his squeaking command the riders halted their advance.

“Bandits?” asked Kong.

“Nearly the same,” answered Janza. “Song Catchers.”

The Imp-man clucked his ‘squid forward and halted half a bowshot away. “Travo,” he squeaked, pointing at Kong, “he our man?”

Travo, a haggard desperado, set aside his war hammer, cleared his throat and sang the mnemonic warrant. “In Shanian a crime black and foul/ Duke Lang Hoo’s slayer will soon cry and howl/ Doom hounds him, whether he brags loud or makes mere rustle/ He is Tangian or Gurkmani, and nothing but muscle.”

“Bah! I’ve seen more muscle in a tub of bean curd,” grumbled the Imp-man. His countenance lifted, though, as his gaze tilted to Janza – and her hair. “Travo, that rancher Bordio – he still pay bounty on Gurkmani scalps?”

“Bordio’s of the old ways.”

At that the Song Catchers’ hands drifted toward weapons.

“Take cover behind yonder rock,” said Janza to Kong, drawing her bagpipes from their holster. She turned to the Song Catchers. “I have slain gaggles of your kind. No matter how high the corpses stack, there’s no fame in it. Ride on, until a lesser warrior deigns to kill you.” And she began piping a jaunty tune.

Four-Toed Djung and his men didn’t really care for such talk or to hear music now, and so they charged. One hurled a throwing-sword as the others drew their arms. Janza ducked as the projectile whooshed overhead. The thrower’s next sword slipped from his hand, for a dart sped out of Janza’s pipes right into his neck. Not a note of her tune strayed off-key.

She shot out the horse from under a blitzing lancer. So frantically did he writhe to escape its toppling bulk, he hardly noticed when Janza pumped a dart through his chest.

Travo came swinging his war hammer. Janza shot a dart but missed, so tossed the weapon, drawing her hatchet just in time to absorb the hammer blow with the haft. The force sent her scrambling from her saddle . . . so she let herself slide down her mount’s flank, hurling her hatchet into Travo’s temple as she did. She regained her saddle just as a crossbowman galloped up. She tugged her horse down, shielding herself as the bolt plunged through its neck, and launched herself off the yelping horse into her foe. As they fell together, he surprised her by knifing her arm, but this was his last act in life.

Janza glanced at her wound – for a moment too long. Scalding Squidmilk jetted at her eyes, and then Four-Toed Djung set his ‘squid at a leap. Its squishy mass pinned her to the ground. Crushed and slapped by tentacles, Janza’s fingers brushed her knife an arm span away, but she could not grasp it.

Janza readied herself for Zevka.

Then there was a wet plonk, followed by shrill whimpering: “No, please no!” The weight released from Janza’s chest as the Sandsquid leaped away and ran. She watched Kong Si busily freeing half-impish brains from their typical housing with a jagged rock.

When it was done, Kong Si tossed away the slick rock in disgust. Janza raised the shaking man to his feet.


The next dawn the twisted spires and pocked walls of Leng’koo began peeking over the dunes. By high noon Janza and Kong stood at the gate. Reaching into the folds of his robe, Kong produced a coin pouch and held it out to Janza. “Well, the other half.”

“No. Coin only profanes, after true bonds have been formed.”

Kong bowed solemnly. “You have a talent I’ve rarely seen. Like so very few in this life, your deeds and words square.” The intensity of his gaze was such that Janza had to fight her urge to turn away. “As a man collects years, desires float to the surface of his mind. To share the wisdom he’s gathered.” He squeezed her shoulder. “I ramble far and wide; let me show you the world. There will be adventures. Adventures, I promise, you have never known or imagined.”

“I reckon not.”

“Come, Janza! Roam the Tangian Empire, the vestiges of the Gurkmani domain, the ensorcelled lands of Parsta – or lands yet unmapped. You will find you belong nowhere. Yet perhaps you will find someone. Or have already.”

“You are kind, Kong Si. But it’s not kindness I seek.”

“There’s much more I can reveal . . . if I can only show you–”

“I’ve business now.” She spun and tramped off.

She followed the coiling stone lanes to a tavern. Gulping her sesame ale, Janza tried to ignore the men who groped the scantily-clad, sorrow-cast women around her. After Janza’s fourth mug, a Tangian, no longer amused by his fellows or by the woman he fondled, stumbled over. “How much for a throw?” he slurred at her.

She rested a hand on her gorut knife. “I could gut you before your fellows cried alarm. If I wished it. Or perhaps just tax you seven fingers.”

As the oaf retreated, motion at her left prompted Janza to draw her gorut. But it was only that strumpet the oaf had been pawing, and Janza sheathed her weapon.

“Go suck off a yak, you Gurkmani trash,” hissed the strumpet. “But how about a bath first.” And she flung Janza’s ale in her face.

Fierce smoldering kindled in Janza’s chestnut eyes. That fire was all the more unsettling for Janza’s silence and serpentine calm. Yet to the tavern’s surprise – and its considerable relief – she wiped her face, flung coins at the floor and strode out. Finding a tout at a nearby corner, she put a question to him.


There must have been a dearth of plump men in Leng’koo, for every watchman, cutpurse and tin-pot preacher she asked recalled the merchant passing through the square. Janza followed the trail past the Hall of Astute Judgment and the outer court of the Gallery of Majestic Distress. She ignored the glass case displaying the herb-preserved corpse of Duke of the Dusk Lang Hoo. She couldn’t ignore the collection of elaborate torture engines, Duke of the Dawn Lang’s Tsu’s prized inventions, which had once devoured the lives of countless Gurkmani.

A peddler of incantations escorted Janza to the last spot she’d seen the merchant, and then stood baffled. It was up this lane ending at the gate of the great stone manse. Where had he gone?

Over that gate, the ducal flag of Lang Tsu snapped in the wind.


She spotted footholds in the manse walls. Balancing atop the wall, she wondered why no guardsmen jabbed halberds at her. Dropping down into the courtyard, Janza skidded in still-warm slickness and discovered why: piled in the corner rested eight fresh corpses of the Duke’s bodyguard.

Inside, footmen lay strewn and mangled, their trays of chrysanthemum tea and pickled plums nearby. Janza brushed past them and past the Duke’s three wives and nine children and one mother, none of whom would ever again suffer thirst or hunger.

Janza heard whistling. Then came grunts and frenzied footsteps beneath the floorboards. She found stairs and descended to a torch-lit cellar. A few strides down a corridor and she stood at the threshold of a chamber, where she frowned and blinked three times.

Duke Lang Tsu, sallow as a steamed bun, took a swing with his saber. Though the duke’s last strike was ragged, still it had been dealt by a master, and it did the soft-bellied merchant credit that he nimbly rolled clear.

Springing up, Kong shot a whistling projectile out of his hand. Lang Tsu sank, slapping feebly at the dart pinned to his heart. Translucent tubing led out of the dart, terminating at a cylindrical glass handle Kong gripped. The cylinder filled with red as Lang Tsu drained from pink to beige to gray.

“You fell even quicker than your brother,” sighed Kong Si as the duke’s gurgling came to an end.

“Plump for a killer, aren’t you?”

Kong spun and cried out in glee at the sight of Janza. “Ah, you’ve come!” He began threading the cord into cylinder. “Splendid. But best we’re on our way now.”

For his first two steps Janza was divided, but at his third she swept out her knife.

“Oh, don’t tell me it will be justice!” jeered Kong. “Fight for a cause, young Gurkmani, or for pleasure, but do not fight for a man who’d have butchered every last of your kind.” Kong opened his leather case. Torchlight bounced crimson off its contents: numerous glass cylinders. A ribbon identified each: Lang Hoo, Xiao Yan the Relentless, Ollo rev Notchke, Kugen Rast, six other fabled warriors. “And with Lang Tsu, I am finished.”

“What have you finished?” Somewhere deep within, Janza recognized she ought to be horrified, or disturbed, or . . . something other than intrigued.

“I’ll say no more until you answer: What brought you here tonight?”

“Your words, back at the gate. I came here to stop their echo within me.”

“Do you know why they echo? Because you are hollow. Empty.”

“I came here, but . . . I didn’t know then . . . what you are.”

“Claptrap. Somewhere within, you knew I was no merchant. Speak now! What is our bond?”

“I must know more.”

First wiping his dirty hands, Kong settled himself on an overturned cask of sorghum brandy. “In the days when I would sell my killing hand, I thought little of my purpose. Bested every task given me. I grew rich, and never once was I bested. No worthy foes, you see. Two years ago, I was dispatched to Parsta, to slay a sorceress. Did she give fierce fight! What tricks! But I laid her low.

“Days she withstood what men I’ve put to such treatments could not tolerate for hours. At last I unburdened her of all secrets. From her I seized enlightenment, I seized her power, and I hatched a grand dream: to make the whole of the world my enemy. I would match my wits, my prowess – my imagination – against it.”

“So, the world becomes your ‘worthy foe,’” said Janza.

“I will fail, without doubt, but not soon. Not with my coming army. And oh, I shall leave my mark, and live on in the rubble of razed cities and in frightful dreams. Only when the blood spills and the heart quickens does this existence make a lick of sense to me – or perhaps it is only in that struggle I can find succor. Same as you.”

“I don’t know . . . why I fight.”

“You are still young. You think yourself a rogue, but you are bound still to how others judge you.” He pointed to Lang Tsu’s corpse, and then a sweep of his arm took in the whole of Leng’koo, of the world.

Revelation thundered in Janza’s brain. “You staged that bandit attack. To draw me in. I was meant as disguise for you?”

Guilt played across his face. “To better the masquerade of a fearful merchant. I could not risk mischance while traveling here, before I had claimed my last specimen. Yet I consider it wonderful fortune, for it has joined our paths. Let it be a single path we tread now. A path to doom and glory.”

A drunkenness filled Janza’s heart and her eyes blazed with dark possibility. She was a wanderer who no longer belonged to the Gurkmani, her tribe wiped out in the Spring Uprising against the Tangians. Certainly, she did not belong to the Tangian overlords. And here was another like her, a Tangian but one who cared not a whit for belonging, cared only for the bold and bloodstained road, dealing and courting death, the only road Janza had ever walked.

But the blaze died in her eyes, and they narrowed in readiness for what she knew was to come. “I work alone.”

Desolation flickered on Kong’s face . . . and then he rose to his feet. “You are beneficiary of knowledge no other has given living ear to. And I told you when we met: I do not trust what is freely given. So, now you will give to me, and not freely.” Reaching into his robe, he pulled out an empty glass vial, affixed it to the tubing of his dart and began spinning the dart in a whistling circle. “Sad, that you die a hero of a world that will never know you died fighting for it.”

“I will know,” said Janza, and she pitched her hatchet at Kong’s face. He bobbed, the weapon missing and clattering in a far corner. Coiling the dart’s cord around his leg, he suddenly “kicked” the dart at Janza’s neck. She plunged left and that metal wasp buzzed past, but Kong closed and punched her gut. As she slammed into the wall, she wondered why her thigh burned. She saw the dart had curved back into her hamstring and now filled the cylinder with her ruby color. She slashed at the cord, but Kong plucked the dart out and began spinning it again.

He dashed in with a furious array of blows. Blocking, dodging, Janza found a single chance to strike: driving a knee into his stomach, she felt a squish, something doughy wrap around her knee. And she felt Kong’s fingers jam into her neck. Ice coursed through her. The nerve strike had been expertly landed and she crashed down. Torpor splashed over her limbs before freezing them entirely.

Kong parted his robe.

Waist up was immense flab, the flesh of his belly coarse, grainy, gloppy. Incongruously, his legs rippled with muscle. Kong began massaging his stomach and chanting ancient words. Cruel, bestial words Janza had never heard, yet somehow, her blood recognized them, recognized and feared them. Janza could only lie there, frozen and terrified, until the sorcerous, blood-thieving assassin had his final say.

Yet with every bead of sweat wetting Kong’s brow, more disgusted heat blasted through her body. Rage warmed her. By inches her limbs began melting free.

Kong rubbed his paunch furiously . . . and he dug his fingers in and tore away bloodless wads of paunch. These he piled on the floor.

“You work sorcery,” wheezed Janza, as Kong knelt and sculpted a sphere from the dough pile. “Why not use your own blood?”

Gaze bouncing between Janza and the sphere, Kong kneaded a head, and sculpted facial features. “Why not my blood? Defeat has never found me in battle. Though perhaps myself might beat me.”

He formed a body, and Kong affixed the head to it. Uncorking the glass handle of his weapon, he tilted it over the dough. As Janza’s blood hit the dough-doppelgänger, it sizzled and steamed until soaking deep into the grainy flesh – and then the flesh jolted with life.

Its eyes, dun-colored disks, stared dumbly about. The doughppelgänger’s toothless mouth gaped as Kong fed it more blood. Instantly its body gained detail, hints of chestnut color entering its eyes, arms and legs gaining chiseled muscle. Then, like a newborn pony, legs and arms slow to discover their uses, the Janza doughppelgänger flailed and flopped until clambering itself upright at last.

A tongue lolled out of the doughppelgänger and lapped up the blood from Kong’s fingertip. Instantly the thing turned its bland, terrible gaze on Janza. Like giving a scent to a hound, Janza realized. Collecting her knife and hatchet from the floor, Kong presented them to the doughppelgänger. It advanced on the woman who inspired its image.

As Janza scrambled up, her opponent slashed at her face. Janza managed a sluggish block, but had her forearm sliced bloody in the doing.

The doughppelgänger worked a lightning-fast routine, one familiar to Janza from the years she spent perfecting it. Knowing how the last blow would fall, Janza positioned herself. At the right moment she seized its wrists and jerked the knife, driving the point deep within its left eye.

Confused, the doughppelgänger plucked the blade out its socket.

Kong scraped dough reserves from around his pelvis and patted it into the doughppelgänger’s empty socket. Instantly an eye baked into form. The doughppelgänger leaped back to battle, swinging, slashing, kicking. Janza’s every counterblow missed or struck without consequence.

So Janza, mouth wide, launched at the doughppelgänger’s face. She tasted something like a runny, undercooked meat-stuffed dumpling. Queasy, she made herself swallow, even as the swinging hatchet splintered her shoulder. Janza burrowed deeper, worked her way through the nose. She glimpsed that doughy tongue and closed her mouth around it. As she chewed and tasted the salt of her own blood, the body struggling against her slid lifelessly away.

Janza collapsed. She heard Kong say, “We shall just have to try again” and heard the whistle of his rope-dart spinning again. One more darting would be her last. She need merely feel a prick in her skin and every burden she carried would vanish. So empty did she feel, so weary and alone, that it was almost tempting.

But not too tempting.

Snatching up her hatchet, she grunted and threw.

The weapon met the weak matter hanging under Kong’s torso. He clutched down there, and his bawling sang Janza to sleep.


Waking, Janza groaned and forced her lungs to pump a little harder. She peeled open her eyes.

Whimpering at his every tiny movement, Kong scraped the last of the dough from his torso. He had sculpted a crude form, though it was only a laughable homunculus, barely waist high. With that last glob Kong completed the head. He scooped from a puddle of his own blood and sprinkled the forehead. The doughppelgänger half-roused, testing the motion of its stubby limbs.

Janza fought to her feet. Kong inched for the doughppelgänger’s outstretched tongue but convulsed as Janza dislodged her hatchet from him.

“Had you not returned to me,” gasped Kong, “someday . . . I’d have come for you.”

“I would have liked that,” she said.

Running a finger down the hatchet blade messy with Kong’s blood, she fed the doughppelgänger its purpose. The noises of its work and of Kong’s shrieks faded as Janza climbed her way to the dawn.


She stole the duke’s finest charger. As the twisted spires of Leng’koo drowned in the dunes behind, life trickled out of Janza. Yet she would not stanch her wounds. She would not slow her gallop. She would charge at the horizon until Zevka reached down and claimed her daughter.

But as the sun settled into its burn, she felt its rays knitting her wrecked flesh and, fixing her horse to a path unknown, Janza turned to pondering how she might become whole.

This story previously appeared in Sword & Sorcery Magazine, April 2019.
Edited by Marie Ginga


Scott Forbes Crawford is the author of the historical adventure novel Silk Road Centurion (“compulsive reading due to its many colorful characters and twisting plot points” – Taipei Times) and the forthcoming fantasy The Phoenix and the Firebird (“This romantic vision of a distant time and culture conjures up a tale of friendship, family, and magic … I was enchanted” – Gregory Maguire, author of Wicked). He has sold short stories - pulp, fantasy, horror, and mystery - to a range of magazines and anthologies. Crawford lives in Japan with his wife and daughter. Learn more at Scott Forbes Crawford.