Regular Romp is an interactive fiction activity over on our Twitch stream where I ask a regular a series of questions before turning their answers and a corruption of their username into a short story. Stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade if you’d like to participate.
Many empires had risen and fallen throughout history, leaving behind helpful case studies for the newly-crowned Goss Panavah. He had designs on being one of those emperors that never fell except for the moment his heart stopped beating. When that happened he would be in his luxurious four poster bed surrounded by wives, lovers, children all as legitimate as his reign, and his loyal subjects of a nation that used to be several.
In order to do that he would have to look at the conquerors of the past and see where they went wrong. The first lesson was to never extend your military beyond the supply chain. He could name at least ten men who could’ve owned the world if they’d just slowed down and let their agriculture catch up. Goss would be patient. It already took patience to rise into his palace. He didn’t do it with a military coup, but with the slow conversion of many powerful people to his cause, with the help of his collars of course.
Then there was his private life to consider. The women would be all over him from his first week, and they wouldn’t even have to see him. One look at his cinnabar palace up in the mountains, flying his golden flag, would be enough to have them begging to be at his side, even as party guests. His love life would have to be measured. He remembered the fall of Terricus the third, fomented by his people’s love of his wife. When she was displeased, all other heads had to roll in acquiescence.
Last but not least was the most specific lesson: the one Goss thought easiest to learn. Don’t underestimate the wall thief. He was a thing designed to fell empires, and he did his work effectively. Goss spent many hours in his new expansive library, time perhaps better spent visiting his newly shackled people, studying the woodcuts and illustrations of the wall thief in action.
It had to be the same man, as there were consistent features across every account. He had to be mortal, because he was sometimes shown with injuries and bloody stains upon his simple clothes. Once he’d memorized everything form the historical accounts, he moved on to combat training, preparing himself for what he viewed as an inevitable confrontation. He sparred with his generals and finest warriors in the echoing chambers of the cinnabar palace, making himself lethal with his staff and his collars.
The day didn’t come for nearly two years of rule. Goss never forgot about the wall thief, he even had a tusked pictogram of the man stamped on the end of every calendar, but he was still strangely surprised when he woke up one morning feeling a draft. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes and shuffled across his marble floor to look out his window and see the peaceful center of his growing empire.
A servant handed him a glass of orange juice and shuffled away wordlessly. Goss tried to set it on his windowsill, but he heard it tumbling down the cliff side a moment later. The last of the sleep burst from his eyes and he saw the truth. His bedroom was missing one of its walls, the one overlooking the public square. Anyone with a spyglass might’ve spotted him standing there in his colorful pajamas and trailing silk robe.
“So, you’ve finally come,” he told the cold mountain air. No wonder his servant had scurried off so quickly. He likely thought the emperor would be enraged and embarrassed by this breach of his security. Goss wasn’t worried; he already had a full understanding of the wall thief. He thought perhaps he would write the man’s biography one day.
The tactics were brilliant. He was no general or wizard. All he did was appear in the dead of night at the home of the mightiest men and women in the world and remove one wall. No trace of it was ever found and no sounds of explosives or saw were ever heard. It was a statement that no emperor could ever be more powerful than a single dedicated citizen. He tore open the palaces, exposed their mysterious contents as nothing more than quarreling humans, and thus started the downfall of each empire.
If anyone could look up and see inside the most private business of the state, then there was no reason to have any confidence in that state. They couldn’t keep secrets. They couldn’t keep the wind out. They couldn’t stop the wall thief or any revolution that walked through the hole he created days or weeks later.
Even as he watched the crowd gather below, clearly pointing and gasping as he stood there on the edge, Goss was not afraid. He ordered another glass of juice. He would need all those vitamins for his trek out into the lowlands. The emperor would be reclaim his wall and become the first to ever have one reinstalled. He almost wanted to thank the thief. A visit from him made Goss a genuine historical figure, and restoring his wall would serve as a warning to all opposing him. He succeeded where all others failed.
Goss was adorned in thick gold-plated armor and given his staff. He rode out on a horse with his banner flying, following the obvious trail of drag marks left by the wall. He went alone, to further prove that he was the mightiest in the land. His collars had brought a nation low, and swallowed two more after that, so they would have no problem with the neck of the wall thief, no matter how slippery.
Goss rode for half a day, finding his way into a great rolling field of long grass under a blanket of dripping bluish clouds. There was just enough rain to hear it plink on his armor every minute or so, but not so much that the ground turned to mud. Still, the drag marks and bent grass from the journey of his wall were obvious. He spotted his property in the distance, trudging along at an aged donkey’s pace. He could see nothing of the man, who must’ve been hauling it with his arms over his shoulders, like trying to pull a tarp over your resting head.
The emperor’s horse caught up and circled around the front. It was definitely his wall, complete with the glittering golden branches and pine cones of his wallpaper. The window was still there, the glass intact. The curtains were full of fat grasshoppers, disturbed by the thief’s long drag across the field. There was a lamp fixture as well, and some of the oil had dripped out of it. He almost laughed. The thief was so so mortal that he needed light; he had used the lamp to find his way in the dark.
The man himself did not look at all that frightening, though it clearly took incredible strength to drag a wall those many miles. His hair was just down to his ears, with much of it hanging in front of his eyes. There was a drip of exertion at the end of his nose as he breathed through his open mouth with the effort. His boots squeaked in protest with every step, but he seemed not to hear them. The most unusual thing was an injury to his left shoulder. A trail of dried blood moved all the way down his shirt. The injury appeared to be ongoing, as there was a metallic shine to something lodged in his flesh. It looked like the tip of a knife had snapped off and been allowed to remain. The wall thief paid it no mind.
“Greetings,” Goss said when the thief didn’t spare a glance for him or slow down. “We’ve never met, but I feel like we know each other so well already. I know of your work and you no doubt know of mine.”
“I wouldn’t call it work,” the thief said, keeping his pace. The emperor decided to try a different tactic.
“I would’ve pictured you carrying an axe for this. If not an axe a saw or some other tool. How do you remove these walls without anyone taking notice?”
“The axe is figurative,” the thief grunted. “Leave me be.”
“Figurative? That doesn’t… Look, you and I both know that we’re about to battle, so mightn’t we do it as gentlemen? How about a proper introduction? My name is Emperor Goss Panavah. You have damaged my palace and taken my property. I will be reclaiming it. I may also take your head depending on how much you resist me.”
“I am Lothian Wallthief,” the man said sourly from under his prize. “You’re not going to do any of that shite you just said.”
It was up to Goss to get things started, for the thief wouldn’t change course even when his opponent dismounted and drew his weapons. He unhooked one of the cinnabar collars from his belt and tapped the latch. That activated the magic, the most valuable tool in Goss’s arsenal. He was charismatic, he was intelligent, and he was skilled, but sometimes you just needed a niece piece of treasure to move things along.
He had renamed the artifacts ‘Goss collars’ and used them to start his forces. Placing one around the neck forced the wearer to obey him, and to do so enthusiastically, with wild eyes and much praise of the emperor. Goss put an open collar at the end of his staff and extended it toward Lothian, ready to snare him like a feral dog in the streets. The collar clicked into place with no resistance. Goss hopped back, delighted at the magic blazing within.
“Halt!” Goss ordered. Lothian continued. “I said, halt!” Another step. “It’s magic you fool; you can’t choose to disobey it!”
“Your stuff’s no good on me,” the thief grumbled. “You sure you did your homework?”
“Absolutely! I am fully prepared for this contingency! I know I’m not the one first one to attempt taking their wall back. Whatever magic allows you to do this strengthens you. That’s how you carry it. I also know that it wears off when you reach your destination. That’s when the fool emperors of old inflicted those scars on you. Though that one looks fresh. Still, you will forgive me for trying.”
Goss rushed in with his staff, swinging at Lothian’s temple, hoping to knock him out and have the wall crush him. The blow couldn’t land, as there was a wall in the way. Lothian had somehow spun the massive bulky object in front of him and used it as a shield. Goss was stunned by the raw speed of it, like the hop of one of the grasshoppers that was still clinging to his curtains. He broke his own window in the attempt, cutting his wrist on a shard of glass.
Goss tried twice more, running circles around Lothian and jabbing at his sides and back. The cursed thief didn’t miss a step, manipulating his prize like a piece of paper. He spun it, tossed it, and even slapped Goss with it, sending him ten feet in the air and forcing him to collide with the side of his horse, which ran off, taking his wobbling banner with it.
The emperor wiped the blood from his lip as he struggled to his feet. Lothian dragged the wall past him without another word. Fine then. They would do it his way. Goss would follow, no matter the distance, to Lothian’s home, where he stashed his prizes, and strike when the strengthening magic wore off.
The walk proved arduous, as it turned into a climb near the end. Lothian’s home was nestled into rocky terrain at the base of a misty mountain, without civilization or even its smoke trails anywhere to be seen. Yet there was no mistaking their arrival, for Lothian had a palace of his own. Goss had never seen anything so strange.
It had only one floor, but that floor twisted and turned as far as the eye could see. The ceiling was different slabs of stone peeled right from the skin of the mountain and just laid atop the labyrinth of hallways and empty chambers. No two walls matched. Brick ones attached to stone ones attached to wood ones attached to canvas ones… Windows in a thousand style and paint in every shade. This place was built from his prizes, but Goss got the sense that Lothian didn’t need to live anywhere. Keeping the walls there was just to keep them from going back.
He watched the strange man grunt and set his wall down near the entrance, extending a hallway on one side. He stretched to his full height, hands on his lower back, his body making all sorts of strange sounds in place of bone-cracking. Goss thought he heard metal things falling against each other and a drum being beaten. The thief flicked Goss’s lamp; it lit on its own, powered by whatever magic Lothian had access to.
Lothian took a deep breath and sighed. He started walking into his thousand walls, mumbling about his chores that evening. He didn’t even acknowledge that the emperor was still there. Goss thought it a tactic, one that he easily saw through. The thief was weak within the walls once they were claimed. Now was his chance for a fair fight.
He rushed up behind the man, staff at the ready. His first thought was to give an order and see if his Goss collar had regained its effectiveness, but when he looked at the man’s neck he saw that the collar was not there. He couldn’t remember Lothian taking it off or hearing it the rocks outside. It was no matter; he would just have to win in battle instead.
He brought the staff down on the crown of Lothian’s head, and was surprised to feel it impact. Lothian grabbed his skull and hissed, a sound that echoed all around them, a little differently from each wall. Goss had to swallow a ball of fear, for his instincts told him the man was about to whirl around, grab him by the shoulders, and rip him in two.
The fear subsided when he saw blood trickling down the back of Lothian’s neck. Mortal, just as his research suggested. Lothian ran deeper into his halls, fleeing the emperor. Goss pursued. He might’ve been immune to the collars, but not to the conquering will they represented.
“You’re nothing but a thief!” Goss shouted after him. The chase took so much energy that he could hardly get the words out. Every time he rounded a corner he only caught sight of the heel on Lothian’s boots. They turned this way and that, sometimes going in circles. Goss even recognized some of the paintings on the stolen walls. He knew one portrait as Lady Zybrank: the witch of the Black Shore. She lost to Lothian, but she’d never even dared to pursue. She simply let him have it, let her empire fall like a tower of garbage.
“I’m no thief,” Lothian answered, the reply telling Goss which corridor to take. He found Lothian, bleeding down his nose as well, standing in a ballroom made up of twenty different walls. The floor was moss and dirt. The sunlight came through the stone overhead through a few cracks.
“We’re standing in the midst of a hoard; please, do tell as to why you don’t qualify for the label,” Goss said with a roll of his eyes and a shake of his staff.
“I earn things,” Lothian said. His arms hung at his sides despite his glistening injury. “I am made of the things that I earn. You’re made of everybody else’s things. It’s not possible to steal from you.”
“Made of the things you earn? You speak of experience? I have plenty of that. I’ve won battles. I’ve clawed my way out from under the people who thought they could wield this power. I have proven myself just as much as you. I take the same liberties with property that you do.”
“You don’t look made of earned things,” Lothian said, squinting. He reached up to his left shoulder with both hands and pulled on the knife tip lodged there. It grew and changed shape. Goss stared in horror as he saw something moving under the skin of Lothian’s arm. There was a lot more than just the end of a knife in there. He realized it wasn’t an injury at all; it was just something poking through. Lothian Wallthief was an overstuffed sack of experiences. Every bloody spot on the pages of his research was just the fiend’s strength breaking through his skin. “Remember I said the axe was figurative? Not so much actually.”
The skin on his shoulder hung open as he pulled out the last of a two-handed axe with a wooden handle. Every inch of it was covered in a skin of blood. Lothian looked like he was in great pain. He was bearing his soul to Goss. The emperor tightened his grip on his staff. This was it. This was vulnerability. Nobody had seen the man this exposed. He charged, shouting, and met the man in the middle of the dirt circle.
This fight was very different to their battle in the field. Lothian had only a regular man’s strength, and it seemed to sap from him with every blow. Staff locked with axe five times, but then Goss pulled in a surprising direction, hooking under the axe’s blade and ripping to from Lothian’s quivering hands. It lodged in one of the walls: the mutilated mummy of a different empire.
Lothian reached into his wound again and pulled out a different object: a bucket. He used the bloody rusty thing just as aggressively as he had the axe, swinging it on its simple handle. Goss dented it with one strike and knocked it out of his hands with another.
This went on so long that Goss lost all track of time. Lothian pulled out planks of wood, pitchforks, scientific instruments, and even the bones of large livestock. If each and every thing was something truly earned, then the emperor could only guess at what his life had been like when he was a regular man. The ending he did not have to guess, for the wall thief weakened under his assault. Every lost item deflated the man, made him look a little more like the empty sack he was.
Eventually Goss realized his war cry was the only sound left. He stopped, staff held above his head. Lothian’s head, just a twist of skin and empty eye sockets, collapsed against the dirt. The foul creature was finally emptied of experience. Bloody objects were strewn all about; Goss didn’t see a single thing of value among them. No gold. No deeds. No ivory. Lothian Wallthief was just bits of the world bound together with an oddly strong twine of will. Nothing the great and noble Emperor Goss could not handle.
“Don’t worry Wallthief,” he panted to his fallen foe. “This will make it into the history books as well.” He wiped the sweat from his forehead and turned to leave. Now there was just the matter of reclaiming his wall. He couldn’t drag it himself of course, but it was just a day or two’s walk back to his home and his subjects who would surely double their efforts to help him now.
He worked out every detail of the reclamation plan and the following parade before he even made it out of Lothian’s home. He took a turn and found that he didn’t recognize the wall on the right. Nor the one on the left. He turned around and retraced his steps, finding nothing but new walls.
The emperor started to panic. He took up his staff and bashed through one, only to find another just past it. He ran. He walked. Nothing but walls. Windows leading to more paint and splintered wood. Doors that opened up into caves with waterfalls but nothing else. Goss eventually found another wandering soul. Her fine dress was in tatters. She was toothless and on the edge of starvation.
“Please, be my servant,” she begged, clawing at him. Goss ran from her. What was this curse Lothian had put on all these walls? Surely it would wear off now that he was dead. That was the hope that kept Goss going, kept his legs pumping even though his ankles felt like they would crack any time now.
At last he found his wall, complete with lit lamp and broken window. He cried out in joy, caressing the wallpaper and sniffling the snot back into his nose. He followed it with his hands and found the end. There was another wall on the other side. The corridor stretched and stretched, lit by the glows of various lamps.
Goss kept going, for he had slain the wall thief. The walls led him back to the ballroom and its mossy floor. There was no skin, and no pile of bloody experience. Goss collapsed right where the empty man had fallen.
“What is it like to earn a thing?” he asked the gaudy silent walls.