For those of you in the dark, "NPC' stands for "non-player character" and is a term originating in Dungeons and
Dragons, used to describe the background players, the non-heros, who compose the majority of the fantasy
world populace, but who aren't generally that interesting. Our task here was to fill in the story of a NPC, but to
make it worth reading.
The well-oiled wooden sign swung slightly on the iron pole that projected horizontally above the mud and cobblestone street. The sign was made of a pale honey-colored wood, maybe pine, maybe alder, and it didn’t have any words on it because this was the kind of shop where at least three quarters of the patrons couldn’t read. The only thing on the sign was an icon, a simple figure etched, or maybe burned, into the wood. At first glance it might have been a box, but was really a chest, the big iron bound kind, open wide and overfilled with coins. Maybe the meaning of the sign seemed a little inscrutable, but if you were looking for somewhere to pick up or drop off the various kinds of goods you could gather from combing through caves, or raiding savage tribes, or just pawing through the big house on the hill when the owners were out, you knew that this was the place for you.
The small door (dark heavy wood, cross-barred with iron and almost obscured by carefully and precisely painted rusty red symbols) swung open easily. The door was well taken care of, just like the sign, and a quick glimpse inside could confirm that there was real love in the maintenance of this place. The room was lit by a clean white glow that left no shadows and had no obvious source. The variety of goods inside was overwhelming; there was no system of cataloguing or categorization that could have possibly given this cornucopia a run for its money. There were rows of books and volumes of volumes. There were cupboards of arcane chalices, hanging strands of faintly glowing necklaces, carefully laid out shelves of weaponry and armor, some of them moving, whispering and stirring under their own power. There were drawers of rare ingredients, like troll’s baby teeth, and fairies’ shadows. There was almost anything and everything that you could imagine, and more than a few things you rather wouldn’t. It seemed almost random, almost haphazard. But still, everything was neat, everything was…tidy. There was no dust on anything, no disarray. No mess.
A long straight counter ran parallel to the back wall, facing the entrance, and barring the only other apparent portal out of the room. Two men were standing at the counter, one behind it, one in front, with his back turned. The man with his back turned was wearing an elaborate robe, tailored from black silk, embroidered with astronomical and astrological symbols, the hem barely high enough to show the curly tips of his pointed shoes. He wore a wide brimmed and rather floppy hat, speckled in glass diamonds and false gems of several improbable colors. It sat unevenly on his head, and greasy brown hair spilled from his shoulders to half way down his back. A large black leather bag, the kind that can be shut with a pull cord, was open on the counter in front of him, and his arm was in it almost up to the shoulder. This was odd because it looked as if his arm should have been coming well out the other side, but it wasn’t. He was fishing around in the bag with desperate animation, and jabbering at the man on the other side of the counter.
“Look, see, when I sticks my hand in it like so, right, are you paying attention? When I wiggle my fingers three times counter clockwise like you said to do, middle finger held to ringfinger, and I says the name of the object I want the bag to disgorge, like…EYE OF NEWT!! See! See! I gets nuffin! I been tryin to get my eye of newt outta there all day! This bag is utterly defective, and I wants a complete refund!”
The shopkeeper, because that’s what the man behind the counter was, a shopkeeper, raised his eyebrows and took a long, slow, deep breath. He was a short man, and he had a blandly expressive face. No chin worth speaking of, slightly hang dog cheeks on a blobby head that balanced like a dandelion over a set of thin stooped shoulders. He was soft in the middle, though his forearms were strong and his hands were calloused from the regular work of maintenance and money counting. His blondish red hair was cropped close to his head and thinning. The only thing worth noting about the man, other than an unusually wide gap between his two front teeth, were his eyes. His eyes were almost strange. Of course, in a town like this one you might run into a boy with cat’s pupils, or an old man whose eyes shown like pearl gray smoke, or a girl with hollow green balls of fire in her face. The shopkeeper’s eyes weren’t that exotic or that interesting. They were violet. Bright, purple-indigo, like spring’s first flowers, or an echo of the fading sun on mountain snow. They were pretty. The shopkeeper blinked twice, and opened his mouth slightly. His voice, when he spoke, was perfectly flat.
“Are you sure the eye of newt was in there in the first place?”
“Wha..? Of course it is! Do you think I’d have come all the way here, and be talking to you now if I didn’t know they was in the bag in the first place?! What kinda stupid sod do you think I am?”
“Would you mind checking your pockets for me, sir?”
“Fine, my friend, if that’ll make you happy, if that’ll get me my denars back, then I will prove to you beyond a shadow of a doubt that I’ve got nuffin’ in my…oh. Shit.”
The wizard (at least one could assume he wanted to be thought of as a wizard) stood there holding a small jar of greenish (and rather surprised looking) goo in his right hand. He scratched his head slowly and blushed bright carmine.
“I, uh. Well, I’m…sorry…to, er…huh.”
At that exact moment, the door slammed open under the foot of a large, hairy and disturbingly sweaty man. He was clothed only in an extremely dirty fur-lined loin cloth, and his muscles would have shown with sweat, had they not been invisible under a relatively thick layer of furry flab. He was holding an extraordinarily large sword half over his head, as if he were striking the kind of pose immortalized in bad murals. Three other men hurried in behind him. The last one of them, who was carrying a falcon, shut the door behind him.
“Awright you sorry bastards! This is a robry! Nobody moves, and nobody gets cleaved in twain, right? Either of you two…hey! There is only two of you’s right? Anybody else back there? I swear my friends and I are bloody deadly and I won’t so much as flinch to put someone’s head on a pigpole!”
His friends fanned out behind him, eyes darting quickly from side to side, from greed, not nervous apprehension. They looked dangerous. One had a scar that went from his hairline down to his jaw, straight through his shriveled and glassy left eye. He wore a lot of black. A LOT of black. And he brandished two knives that seemed more ornate than was absolutely necessary for…sticking people. He was smiling, but it looked more like a snarl. To his right was a young man absolutely covered in pimples. He seemed to be burning up from the inside and the shock of flame red hair added to the effect. He was dressed in a somewhat more practical version of a wizard’s robe, a relatively plain linen thing, sewn over with symbols and runes, and hung about with bandoliers and belts. He radiated power; light wavered around him, and he was almost fizzing. His hand was cramped around a dark mahogany wand, and orange green light danced on its surface like electric fire. The final man stood quietly in front of the shut door. He held a large falcon, almost an eagle, on his arm, and his face was as expressionless as the bird’s. His eyes were just as cruel too. He had a thick beard, and his clothing was a quilt of skin and fur. At least one section appeared to have been tattooed. He carried two swords over his shoulder, and unlike the other men, he had yet to draw those weapons.
The wizard at the counter dropped his jar of newt eyes. A small puddle of pee was spreading from beneath that fancy robe. The shopkeeper took another deep breath. This time when he spoke, his voice was slightly louder. Not loud, mind you, but louder.
“You fellows have made a mistake. It’s Saturday night, and I’m tired, so I’m gonna give you a few seconds to change your minds and walk out. Everybody makes mistakes. I understand that. But if you aren’t gone by the time I finish this very sentence, I’m going to kill all four of you.”
The big man (or man-bear, or bear-man, or whatever you call a sweaty man with a pelt for skin) looked confused. He was about to say “Wuh?” when the shopkeeper stepped onto and over the counter, past the wizard (who seemed to have turned himself into stone), and stood relaxed and calm in front of him. The barbarian began to smile and his arms bulged greasily as he brought the huge sword down. Then the small man in front of him slid to the right and curved his hands around the hilt of the sword. The big man’s weight was on it, and the inertia was too strong to stop as the shopkeeper gently guided and spun the sword around and through the fellow’s own prodigious gut. The only sound the great lout made was a very small “urp” and a wet sloshing as his innards fell on the floor.
The shopkeeper let the new-made corpse drop to the ground and turned his attention on the scarred man and the burning boy. The first was drawing a knife, the second was writing something made of fire in the air. Then, before motion or breath was possible the knife was flying through the air and a corona of fire was gathering around the shopkeeper’s feet. The small, plain shopkeeper flew straight up into the air, flipped and stuck to the ceiling. He hung there, as if gravity had been reversed, as if it was everyone else that was upside down. He reached out, almost casually, and caught the knife that had been spinning towards his chest, in his right hand. By the blade. When he sent it back, it wasn’t spinning, just flying true. And it wasn’t headed toward the scarred man, but towards the young sorcerer. And it didn’t stop until it buried itself hilt-deep in his right eye. The aim was so dead-on that it didn’t even pop a pimple.
Before the boy’s body hit the floor, before the scarred man could throw his other overly fancy knife, the shopkeeper dropped to the floor with the casual ease of a lazy cat, and when his hand hit the floorboards, they groaned and shook. A tremor ran from his finger tips (slightly curled, thumb over right knuckle, pinky over index finger) across the wooden planks to the foot of the knifeman. And when the thing, the hidden summoned thing, that the shopkeeper had called up, burst through the floor and sunk itself into the rogue’s leg, he almost had time to scream. All the pee-stained customer saw was a flash of silky fur and dark black skin as the knifeman came apart at the seams like a banana bursting its peel from the inside. Then there were just shreds falling gently to the floor. Just pieces of a man and nothing to indicate what had taken him apart.
During this time the grizzly, wild man, had taken his swords down. The two swords were flipping and spinning so fast that they seemed invisible; a whizzing wall of half-seen metal. And the big hawk was screaming with malice as it flew at the shopkeepers head. The shopkeeper plucked the bird out of the air with one hand, his eyes never leaving the eyes of the bird’s owner. He broke its back like a man snapping a wishbone, and dropped it, almost gently, onto a nearby shelf. The ranger screamed and ran at him, powered by rage and sadism and loss. The shopkeeper put his head to one side, and the first attack whistled inches by his ear. He lifted his right leg, and the second blow missed his knee by a hair’s breadth. He caught the third strike in his bare hand, blade on. The ranger roared and swung the other blade in low. The shopkeeper caught it too. And he held them both while head butting the living hell of the ranger. The blow was hard and sudden enough to break all the bones in the fellow’s face and he dropped his swords as he slumped to the floor. The shopkeeper sighed again, and stuck the swords into their owner’s chest.
He walked back to the bird, half alive and fluttering weakly on the shelf. His hands when he picked it up were as gentle as a father, as careful as a master glassblower, as kind as a priest. He held the bird close to his mouth and whispered something in its ear. And then he breathed on its beak. The bones eased back together, the flesh mended itself. The bird was calm, quiescent. It sat and stared at him, and he stared back at it. Then he walked to the door, opened it silently, and held the bird up to the late afternoon sky. It flew and never once looked back.
The shopkeeper closed the door behind him and walked back across the room. He shook his head and pursed his lips when he stepped over the bodies. He made a “tsk, tsk” sound, and seemed, if anything, disgusted with himself. He walked around the counter, and stepped in front of the stock-still wizard frozen there.
“Is there anything else I can help you with sir?”
Later that night, after the shop had been closed and cleaned (the bodies were disturbingly, very disturbingly, easy to dispose of), after the door had been locked in all of seventeen dimensions, after the living weapons had been polished and had their lullabies, the shopkeeper walked out the back door and into the small apartment where he kept house. He took his shoes off at the door and put a kettle of tea on a fire that hadn’t been there a moment ago. He was thinking of having stew for dinner. He rubbed his face with his hand, stretched and walked over to the small cot where he slept. He kneeled and pulled something out of the empty air beneath the bed. It was a book. A large and indescribably heavy book. A book that made the sturdy oak table groan and creak when the shopkeeper set it there. On the front cover of the book there were words, but then there weren’t words, but then there were words. It seemed like a trick of light and angles, but it wasn’t. The words faded and danced and shimmered, and for a split moment, for a tenth of a second they were legible, and they read: The Tome of Possible Lives.
The shopkeeper pulled up his favorite chair, the he had made himself, with the comfortable back and the thick cushions. It was stitched all over with lavendar butterflies, and they looked almost real. He settled into it, letting out all of his cares and aches. Then he setthe book in his lap and opened the first page. There were no words in the book. Only images. Incredibly clear images, so vivid and real that they were almost tangible, as if the book was a window cut into space. The shopkeeper stared into that book ans watched the images shift and play out. They were images of him. Him as a hero, him as a villian. Him as a king, him as a beggar. Him as a wolf, him as a worm. Him as a dressmaker, a poet, a priest, a thief, a father. Every night was something new. Every night was something real. Every night was a new life to live, a new him, another thing that he could have been. He kept them all with him. Inside his violet eyes.