Her name was Im, which caused her some vexation. People always thought she’d introduced herself as “I’m,” or “Him,” or “Inn,” or “Em.” She was sometimes tempted to explain that really, her name was the symbol of power sometimes called “Im,” and sketch the rune for them. But then she would no doubt become known as “The Warrior Formerly Known as ‘Im’,” and that was no better.
Im visited the town of Mutt’s Gulch. Mutt’s Gulch, a dusty, dull sort of place, had nothing to recommend it except that it had a curious tendency to produce heroes. Mythic whatevers had grown into something of a cash export for the little burg. That alone made it worthy of Im’s attention.
She strolled onto the main street with her black umbrella in hand but closed, and proclaimed her customary announcement: “I am Im, and no man alive can defeat me.”
So of course the first to emerge from some stuccoed dive bar was the whirlblade Violet Rana. “No man, huh? What about a woman?”
As if no one had thought of that before.
Rana came at her, a little cyclone of jagged metal spinning around the haft of her weapon. Im snapped the umbrella open, orienting it toward the incoming blow. The whirlblade crashed against the umbrella, its myriad little knives pattering on the canvas like rain. Momentarily robbed of their animating force, they ricocheted in all directions in a chaotic spray. One bounced off Violet Rana’s forehead, leaving a nasty cut.
Im shut the umbrella again and swung it two-handed, aiming low. She struck Violet Rana at the ankles, taking her legs out from under her. The hero landed on her butt in the dust.
Violet Rana got to her feet and left without another word, which was probably the most dignified thing for a hero in her situation to do.
Im looked up and down the street. “Anyone else?”
When next she turned her head north, a figure stood facing her, just a few paces away. It was a tall, masculine shape clad in a black tailcoat complete with top hat, and terribly gaunt. Its skin clung shrunkenly to its fingers, and you could see every curve of the skull in the shape of its face. “So ‘woman’ is not enough to best you. But you said ‘no man alive.’ What then of a dead man?”
That, at least, was new. Im smiled. “What’s your name, dead man?”
He leaned his head to one side. “I cannot recall.”
Im shrugged, then shifted back into fighting stance with her umbrella at the ready like a broadsword. “Well, then, dead man. Come on!”
He tipped his hat, a quaint little gesture, then rushed forward with both hands outstretched and grasping. It would have been the look of a shambling brain-eater, if it weren’t for how incredibly fast he moved. Im sidestepped and swatted the dead man’s arms away, an instant before he collided with her.
That moment, Im realized her opponent was something special indeed. She would have expected her umbrella to peel away a bit of the necromantic magic keeping him upright and moving, but it had no such effect, as if there were no magic there to begin with. And she couldn’t feel the ripples of fate around him, either. He was a still pond. It was as if, from the Cosmos’s perspective, he were not there at all. Were it not for me recounting this tale to you, it would be as if the story went, “Then Im boxed with shadows and talked to the air for a while.”
Im was so taken aback at this strange situation, and at needing to fall back on her more mundane fighting skill against a far from mundane opponent, that she did not recover her balance before the dead man’s next attack came. The nonentity dueling with her halted his deflected movement, pivoted back, and lunged straight at Im with the heel of a withered palm. The blow landed hard, striking her in the sternum with a hammer’s force. She staggered backward and caught herself by leaning onto her umbrella like a cane, only barely avoiding the unglamorous pose she’d landed Violet Rana in.
Still the dead man pressed his advantage, implacable. Hardly a breath later, he was within striking distance again. Im tried to preempt him, swinging her umbrella full force into his advance. She struck him at the shoulder, which sent a shudder through that wasted body. She wound up again, swung, hit him sharp across the temple and ear. He wobbled; his hat nearly fell from his head. Hah! She swung again—
With a muted thump, the dead man caught the umbrella and held it fast. Im tugged, but could not wrench it free. With his free hand, the dead man reached toward her.
“All right! All right.” Im let go of her weapon, surrendering it into the dead man’s grasp, and put up her hands. She took a step backward, out of his immediate reach. “I yield. You’ve proven your point, my boast is undone.”
The dead man froze there, one hand holding the umbrella, the other stretched forth in a claw shape. He did not move at all for several seconds. A sign of indecision, of some conflicted process going on in his dessicated brain? Im remained still as well, though not so uncannily paused as the dead man. Finally, he straightened out of his lunge, his empty hand falling back to his side. He looked down at the umbrella as if puzzled by its purpose. Then he held it out to Im, raising his sunken eyes toward her.
With a little bow, Im accepted her weapon back, and looked the dead man over with thoughtful appreciation. “What do you do here in Mutt’s Gulch, dead man? You have something holding you down?”
He looked back and forth, taking in the buildings on either side of the quiet street. Then he shrugged. “Nothing.”
“Care to travel with me a while, then? I’ve been looking for someone like you to help me out.” She paused, then grinned. “Well, not exactly like you. You were too much of a surprise for that. But still.”
He took off his hat and ran a hand over his scalp. It was taut and papery, with little tufts of dusty hair like the scrub brush outside of town. He put his hat back on. “Sure.” As if I have anything better to do. I’m dead.
Im put her umbrella against her shoulder and waved the dead man to follow. He did so, and the two of them left Mutt’s Gulch together.