Monthly Archives: October 2012

Random Writing Prompt 7: End of the Line

The website io9.com posts a piece of concept art every Saturday challenging its viewers to write a piece of flash fiction based on that art. Stories must be less than eight hundred words. As of the time of this blog posting, there are forty-three images online. There may be more and I failed to uncover them by searching for the wrong terms, but eh. I think forty-three’s a plenty big pool to draw from. I’ve assigned each a number, with the newest being 43 and the oldest being 1. Through the end of the month, I’m going to generate a random number within that range (updated as they add more art, of course) and write a piece of flash fiction inspired by that piece of art (generating a new number should I pick an already used image.) Exciting, no?

This piece is entitled “End of the Line,” inspired by the illustration “The Night Train” by Ryan Mauskopf. I don’t own this image, I claim no rights to this image, and should Ryan stumble across this post and demand that the image be removed, I will gladly do so. Also, you should go check out Ryan’s deviantART page at: http://rye-bread.deviantart.com/.

Alsoalso, November will bring with it something completely different. Devilish laugh…

Anyway, let’s begin!

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Random Writing Prompt 6: Beneath the Waters of Holland Swamp

The website io9.com posts a piece of concept art every Saturday challenging its viewers to write a piece of flash fiction based on that art. Stories must be less than eight hundred words. As of the time of this blog posting, there are forty-two images online. There may be more and I failed to uncover them by searching for the wrong terms, but eh. I think forty-two’s a plenty big pool to draw from. I’ve assigned each a number, with the newest being 42 and the oldest being 1. Through the end of the month, I’m going to generate a random number within that range (updated as they add more art, of course) and write a piece of flash fiction inspired by that piece of art (generating a new number should I pick an already used image.) Exciting, no?

This piece is entitled “Beneath the Waters of Holland Swamp,” inspired by the illustration “Go Fish” by Monica Langlois. I don’t own this image, I claim no rights to this image, and should Monica stumble across this post and demand that the image be removed, I will gladly do so. Also, you should go check out Monica’s website at: http://monicalanglois.com//.

Anyway, let’s begin!

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Random Writing Prompt 5: The City

The website io9.com posts a piece of concept art every Saturday challenging its viewers to write a piece of flash fiction based on that art. Stories must be less than eight hundred words. As of the time of this blog posting, there are forty-two images online. There may be more and I failed to uncover them by searching for the wrong terms, but eh. I think forty-two’s a plenty big pool to draw from. I’ve assigned each a number, with the newest being 42 and the oldest being 1. Through the end of the month, I’m going to generate a random number within that range (updated as they add more art, of course) and write a piece of flash fiction inspired by that piece of art (generating a new number should I pick an already used image.) Exciting, no?

This piece is entitled “The City,” inspired by the illustration “Desert Stars” by Lorenz Hideyoshi Ruwwe. I don’t own this image, I claim no rights to this image, and should Lorenz stumble across this post and demand that the image be removed, I will gladly do so. Also, you should go check out Lorenz’s deviantART page at: http://hideyoshi.deviantart.com/.

Anyway, let’s begin!

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Random Writing Prompt 4: I Unmake Her

The website io9.com posts a piece of concept art every Saturday challenging its viewers to write a piece of flash fiction based on that art. Stories must be less than eight hundred words. As of the time of this blog posting, there are forty-one images online. There may be more and I failed to uncover them by searching for the wrong terms, but eh. I think forty-one’s a plenty big pool to draw from. I’ve assigned each a number, with the newest being 41 and the oldest being 1. Through the end of the month, I’m going to generate a random number within that range (updated as they add more art, of course) and write a piece of flash fiction inspired by that piece of art (generating a new number should I pick an already used image.) Exciting, no?

This piece is entitled “I Unmake Her,” inspired by the illustration “Incubation” by Kyme Chan. I don’t own this image, I claim no rights to this image, and should Kyme Chan stumble across this post and demand that the image be removed, I will gladly do so. Also, you should go check out Kyme’s website at: http://www.kmye-chan.com/.

Anyway, let’s begin!

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The Strongest Feller Around, Pt. 9

Maya left me to the inquisitors. They visited a thousand horrors upon me, scribbling their ideas and observations and notes on my reactions in great books. Whenever I seemed to be on the verge of passing out, or else fading completely into oblivion, they revitalized me with their magic. A few gestures and chanted phrases, an invocation to the Many, and a laying on of hands, and my bones and skin and sinew healed as if they had never been injured. All my wounds were gone, save for the scars left from the embers Inquisitor Obadiah had used on me. I don’t know why. I didn’t care. I ask you, what kind of gods grant healing magic to those who would use it only to torture more efficiently? I asked this question aloud when I could muster the breath, but the inquisitors ignored me. Unlike Maya, they could not be goaded into anger. Eventually they left.

Time passed. There were no windows in my cell, and so I do not know for how long I was there, alone with my thoughts and my memories of pain. I wondered what had become of Enrico and his family and their friends. Were they too trapped and chained to the walls, helpless before the whims of the High Prelate and her bloodthirsty minions? A sick sensation crept into my stomach. Were they dead know just because they’d known me and accepted me? Sir Perceval had threatened to kill every last inhabitant of Quail’s Leap, just because he suspected them of having been tainted by my presence.

My heart sank even lower. Was Maya right about my origins? Was I truly a demon bound to a corpse given unnatural life by the necromancer? In the darkness of my cell and the depths of my despair, anything seemed possible.

Time passed. No one came for me, and my fantasies of rescue became fantasies of revenge, revenge against the nameless, faceless inquisitors and Maya. I would see their own devices turned against them. I would break free at the moment of my execution and slay them in front of the people of Glimmerton. I would escape from my cell and reveal Maya for the monster that she is. These thoughts kept me warm, warmer than the brazier.

Time passed. I fell asleep, and when I awoke, Maya stood before me in her robe and her veil.

“This is your last chance for freedom, demon. Tell me what your master did to me and how to undo it, and I will release you. You have my word.”

I studied Maya carefully. Behind her veil, she was a monster every bit as strange and unnatural as me. Moreso, even. I’d never seen a human that had looked the way she had. I didn’t even think it was possible. “I’m not a demon and I don’t know a damn thing about what the wizard did to you, or even if he did do anything to you.” I snorted. “And even if I did, what good is the word of someone who would consort with demons?”

Maya’s frame stiffened, and her hands glowed with dark magic as they had before. I braced myself for the blow that was sure to come, but surprisingly, it did not. She took a slow, deep breath and spoke in a voice heavy with barely contained rage.

“I have agents all over this land. I have heard stories about Perceval and Alonsisus and Quinara. I know that none of us have been the same since we slew the necromancer. And I know that he is behind it all.”

“Do you know that Sir Perceval is dead?” I asked.

Maya’s breath caught in her chest. “That’s… that…”

“I killed him months ago. I was staying in a little village, and he and his men came and found me and–”

“You murdered him!”

I shook my head. “I didn’t murder him. I killed him. He was going to kill me and he was going to kill the villagers, so I killed him first.” I thought of Perceval so proud and certain of himself, and how he had been ready to murder a village full of innocents in his delusion. Was Maya any different? Here she was, some kind of priest, and at her will, her faith was torturing and executing and perverting the magical gifts their gods had given them. “I killed him and I’ll kill you, too,” I growled.

Maya shook her head. “You lie. Perceval was the kindest, most upright man I ever knew. You lie, demon!”

I leaned forward as best as I could and grinned. “Why don’t you ask your gods about it, if they will even speak to you.”

At last the blow came. Like before, it burned like fire. No, worse than fire. The pain cut to my bones, to my soul. Maya turned to leave without saying another word, and I was once again alone.

* * *

They came for me in the early morning. They dressed me in breeches that were too small and a shirt that was too tight, bound my feet and my hands with rope, and at spear point, they took me out of my cell and forced me into the hallway. The walls were lined with sconces and I saw that there were other doors, heavy wooden doors that probably hid away other prisoners like me. Or maybe I was alone. If the inquisitors had been torturing other people, I’m sure I would have heard the screams.

They were stairs and a door at the end of the hallway. A guard opened it and daylight shined through. I winced. The White Guards at my back pushed me onward. “Ready to face your doom, abomination?” one of them said. They laughed. I grunted and shook my head. Whatever fate awaited me outside had to be better than spending another day as the plaything for my captors.

The White Guard escorted me through the streets of Glimmerton. I didn’t recognize the area I was in and I had no idea where they were leading me; I just went where the humans prodding me along with spears told me to go. As we marched along, I slowly realized what was happening. My execution was meant to be a spectacle. I was being paraded through the streets, an enemy for the crowd to spit upon and jeer at. The people of Glimmerton looked at me from windows, from doorways, from alleys. The citizens in their finery threw trash and shouted curses. The poorer ones wore expressions of fear, of pity.

I was led through the city for what felt like an hour, until at last the neighborhoods began to look familiar to me and I realized we were nearing the city square. A considerable crowd had gathered behind me, and by the sound of it, there was an even larger one already awaiting me at the place of my execution. We turned the last corner separating me from my final fate, and I gasped. A huge wooden platform had been built while I was imprisoned, twenty-some feet tall, a stage greater than any other. There was a large wooden block atop the platform, and one of the inquisitors stood there motionless with a large axe. As I was led up to the platform, the crowd greeted me with cries of hatred. I noticed that there were members of the White Guard intermingled with the crowd and that they seemed to be leading them in the howls of anger.

The White Guard surrounded me and led me up the steps. They took up their places behind me, ready to cut me down should I attempt to run. The inquisitor watched and when he was certain that they were all in position, he produced a scroll and began reading from it.

“By order of the High Prelate, the 32nd Edict requires that all enemies of the city of Glimmerton be publicly executed, that their deaths may serve as a lesson to would-be criminals and a reminder of the Many’s justice. Tusk Willvic, you stand accused of demonology, of corrupting Brother Zechariah of the White Guard with dark magic, and of sowing discord amongst the people of Glimmerton. Have you anything to say for yourself?”

“Hurry up and kill me, you bastard. I don’t have anything to say to you or your High Prelate or anyone else in your damn city,” I said, loud enough for the people closest in the crowd. I heard a few cries of assent, and then I heard the White Guards down in the crowd moving to silence the people.

“So be it,” the inquisitor said. “May the Many swiftly guide your soul to whatever hell awaits you.”

The guards forced me to my knees, and pinned my chest against the block. I looked out on the city of Glimmerton, looking for Maya, and I did not see her. I looked at the people, at the city walls, and beyond them the road and the trees. And what was beyond the trees? I supposed I would never know.

If only I could have died fighting, I thought. If only I could have taken a few of these inquisitors or maybe even the High Prelate herself with me. Behind me, there was the sound of footsteps, of murmurs. The crowd was silent. I watched the inquisitor’s shadow, watched the axe rise, and I shut my eyes.

The crowd screamed. Something heavy hit the ground. All around me there was the sound of shouting and fighting. I opened my eyes and dared to look over my shoulder. The White Guards were fighting amongst themselves, striking each other with spears and shoving each other off of the platform and onto the ground below. One of the guards called out to me, “Free yourself and grab a weapon! If you die today, at least die on your feet!”

The voice stirred a memory in me. “Enrico?” I asked, but none of the guards responded. I shook my head. There was no time for confusion. I found the inquisitor’s axe next to his limp body and used it to cut through the ropes at my hands, I freed my feet, I grabbed a spear, and I swore that I would die fighting.

Down below, the gathered crowd panicked. The White Guards who had been below us tried to push past the surging mass to join the fight. The few White Guards who remained on the platform spoke quickly in the language of the Fierans, and one of them reached into a satchel that hung on their hip and produced some glass vials. They threw the vials into the crowd, and a thick, noxious smoke sprang up. There were more words in Fieran exchanged, and then one of the guards, thicker than the others, ran up to me and put his hand on my shoulder. He pulled up the visor on his helm, and I was greeted by Enrico’s grinning face, his dark eyes twinkling. “We have never left one of our company in the hands of an overzealous authority yet, and we will not do so now! Now run!” We rushed down the steps of the platform and into the crowd. Enrico’s men threw more of their horrible concoction into the crowd, and we bashed our way to the city gates amidst cries of, “Many save us!” and “He’s a demon! Run!” and “Someone stop them!”

* * *

The escape was a blur. A few of the White Guards confronted us, and some of our number fell, but somehow we made it outside of the city gate. The guards who had been stationed there were helpless to stop us as we barreled past them and into the woods, shedding our armor and our weapons and anything that would slow us down as we ran.

We ran until our lungs ached for air, and at last we came upon a clearing where the rest of Enrico’s company awaited us. What men and women hadn’t been part of our rescue were busy packing their things, carefully cutting their hair and altering their clothes so as to suggest new identities. The next time they stopped at a city or a village, they wouldn’t be Fierans at all.

Even though we were deep in the woods outside Glimmerton and we were tired from the escape, there was little time to waste. I had no doubt that Maya and the inquisitors would be leading a search for us. I looked for the tent that had been my own, and finally realized that it was gone. Maya and her inquisitors must have confiscated it when they’d arrested me. So there I was, with nothing.

Enrico was somewhere behind me, speaking with one of his cohorts in their native tongue, cursing and spitting. Finally he turned to walk over to me.“We have to split up,” he said. “For the good of all of us, my people and yourself. They will be hunting all of us now. Here, take this. My people have prepared it for you.”

He offered me a pack with some food and a knife in it. It wasn’t much, but it was more than I’d had a few minutes before. “Thank you, Enrico.” I frowned. No human had ever done so much to save my life. I didn’t know what to say. “Thank you for everything,” I offered, but it didn’t feel like it was enough.

“Where will you go, Tusk?”

I shook my head. “I don’t know. Somewhere far away. But I’ll come back to Glimmerton some day, and when I do, the High Prelate is going to pay.” Despite myself, I could feel my lips drawing back in a grimace, my sharp teeth exposed for all to see. “They’ll all pay.”

Enrico said nothing. We stood there in silence, and after a few moments, Francesco walked up to us.

“Are you okay, Mr. Willvic?” he asked. “I wanted to come save you, but Papa told me it was too dangerous.”

I thought about everything that had happened to me since I’d left Quail’s Leap, and even before then. Given life by a madman who used me as a tool, left for dead by “heroes” who cared nothing for the innocent and the helpless, hunted and betrayed everywhere I went.

Willem and Victoria had been decent to me, that is true. Enrico and the others had saved me from execution. But they were the only decent humans I had met, and the world was full of humans, humans who wanted to control me, to kill me, to name me and use me for their own ends. I had the scars to prove it, scars etched into my skin with fire and steel.

“No, Francesco. I am not.” The child looked sad at this. That bothered me. I forced a smile. “But I will be soon. I wouldn’t be strong, otherwise.” He smiled. In his innocence, he reminded me of Victoria, but how long did innocence last in these humans? How many years, how many bad experiences before they became like Sir Perceval, like High Prelate Maya? I frowned. I didn’t want to think about it. “Perhaps we will meet again some day.”

I said one last goodbye to my friends, and then we all departed. I took my gear, and set forth along the dirt path before me. I thought about the name Willvic, how I had made it up in honor of the two people who were first decent to me. The inquisitors would be looking for that name, and if I used it in the wrong place, it would mean my doom. It was time for a new name, then.

I thought about this as I walked along. I scratched my chest, feeling the sting of pain where the wounds the inquisitors had inflicted on me still hurt. They had healed me, it was true, and the pain I felt from the devices and implements they had used was probably just my memory playing tricks on me, but the burns from the embers lingered, and every scratch stoked the anger I felt deep in my chest like a flame.

Coalheart, I thought. Coalheart would be a good name.

Thank you for reading! So, for the rest of the month, I’ll be publishing more short little art-inspired pieces. Why? Because I’m working on something secret and sneaky for November and I need extra time to devote to it. I’d say more, but then it wouldn’t be very secret and sneaky, would it? Anyway, be here on Saturday for the next installment of “Random Writing Prompt!”


The Strongest Feller Around, Pt. 8

I passed out then. I don’t know what happened, but my next memory was coming to in a grey room, my hands chained up above my head, stone cold and damp against my back, although the air in front of me was actually warm. My body hurt. Everything hurt.

Maya stood at the edge of the room, and right in front of me stood a small thin man, dressed in a white robe just like hers but with a red hood where she wore a red veil. I groaned.

“Is the prisoner awake, Inquisitor Obadiah?”

The man nodded. “Yes, High Prelate.”

There was a moment of silence as Maya thought about some thing or another and this inquisitor awaited his orders. “It would be a shame to waste the coals after you spent so much time stoking the fire,” she said. “Put one to his chest.”

“Yes, High Prelate.” The inquisitor turned, picked up some heavy metal tongs, and pulled a glowing ember out of a nearby brazier. Pain erupted across my chest, every other ache going dull as my skin sizzled and cooked. I screamed. I couldn’t even think of any insults or threats to hurl at the inquisitor, at Maya. I just screamed. The inquisitor pulled the coal ember away, and the whole thing couldn’t have lasted more than a few seconds, but it felt like an eternity. Even with the coal gone, my chest felt like it was on fire. I’d never been in so much pain. I’d never been so helpless.

I’d never been so angry.

Even with the wizard goading me, egging me on to ever greater acts of savagery against his enemies, there’d been no anger or hatred in it. It was a game, then. A violent, bloody game, but still just a game. Fighting was something I enjoyed and winning was something I enjoyed even more. But I didn’t want to fight Maya and the inquisitor. I wanted to tear them limb from limb. I wanted to pull their still beating hearts out of their chests. I wanted to break my chains and crush the inquisitor’s head between my hands, take the glowing ember from him, and feed it to Maya. I thought back to the magic she’d used when her and the other adventurers had been fighting the wizard, and I didn’t care; let her gods protect her from me if they could. Let them try.

Panting through clenched teeth, I stared the inquisitor in the face. I could only see his eyes through the hood he wore, but that was enough. The longer I stared at him, the more fear I saw there. He backed away a step, brandishing the coal in front of him like a weapon.

“By the Many! Such… evil,” he mumbled. “High Prelate, you know of this abomination?”

“No questions, Inquisitor Obadiah. Please, stand back and let me deal with the fiend.”

Without another word, the inquisitor did as Maya asked. She stepped forward and stared into my face. Silence lingered in the space between us like an unspoken threat. “Will you talk, demon?” She leaned in until we were separated by only inches, just inches and the veil. “Will you tell me what you have done to me?” she whispered.

I spat in her face.

Maya didn’t react at all. The inquisitor surged forward, coal at the ready, and pressed it into my chest. A different spot than the first time, but I could barely tell. My entire chest felt like it was on fire.

“Enough, Inquisitor,” Maya said after a few moments. “I wish to speak with the beast alone.”

I gasped for breath, tears streaming down my face and the smell of cooked flesh filling my nostrils. The inquisitor stood there in silence for a moment before bowing and leaving. I tried to make my eyes focus, to take in my captor, but I couldn’t. It all just hurt too much.

“The Many guided me to you, demon,” Maya said. “Every week, more parasites move into our city to leech off the populace, but the gods told me to pay attention to the Fierans. Voices whispered to me at night that your companions harbored a dark secret, but I could never have imagined that it would be you.” She snorted. “I would have thought you would have banished back to whatever pit spawned you when the necromancer died.”

“You talk too much, human,” I said. If she were closer, I would have spit on her again.

Her face was obscured by the veil, but I could see her hands clench into fists, her body tense up with anger. She raised her open, outstretched hand to my face and barked a single harsh word of some kind. There was a flash of light.

I winced, blinked, snorted. “Very pretty.”

Maya looked at her hand, and though I could not see her face, I could tell she was puzzled. She looked up at me, and then back at her hand once more, and then she shook her head. Her voice was soft, soft and low. “By the Many, what kind of evil spirit are you?” I said nothing. Partially to frustrate her, and mostly because I didn’t know a damn thing she was talking about. “That invocation should have had some kind of affect on you.” She backed away, her hands slowly coming up before her, as if she would have to defend herself somehow from someone helpless and chained to a wall. “What kind of demon doesn’t react to holy energy?”

“What in the hell are you going on about, human?”

“The tomes,” she mumbled. “I need the tomes.” And with that she left the room, leaving me to hang there by the dim light of the brazier.

* * *

I don’t know how long she was gone for. The brazier was still burning, so it couldn’t have been too long. Maya returned with a stack of huge books cradled in her arms. Behind her came three more of the inquisitors in their red hoods, two of them carrying a table and the third a chair. They set up the furniture for her, she put her books on them, and then the inquisitors left.

Maya didn’t even really look at me at all. She pored over her books, flipping through them, comparing passages in them, and occasionally sparing me a glance. Every so often she’d stand up, read a passage from one of the books in some strange, nonsense language, and make gestures with her hands and arms. Every time she did this, nothing happened.

After a while, the pain had subsided enough that I was actually beginning to get bored watching her. “Are you going to ask me anything,” I growled, “or are you just going to sit there making noises and wriggling your fingers?”

“Be silent, demon!” she said without looking up from her books. “I will not consort with your kind any more than absolutely necessary.”

“Was it necessary for you and your boys to come and threaten Enrici’s people just so you could fight me?”

She ignored that. I frowned. There wasn’t a thing I could do to her physically so long as I was bound up the way I was, but if I could hurt her with my words, then I was going to.

“So you consort with demons, then?”

No response.

“Only when it’s necessary, right? Only when you want to know if it’ll be cold enough at night that you’ll need a coat, or when you’re wondering what you should have your servants make you for dinner, or when you want to know what the inquisitors are saying about you behind your back?”

Nothing.

I knew there had to be something I could say to Maya that would cut through her cold detachment. I thought hard about what little I knew about her. She knew magic, but not the same kind of magic the wizard had. The wizard had never talked about gods and spirits. To him, magic had been something to be studied and learned. To Maya, magic seemed to be a gift from the gods she worshipped.

The gods or something else.

A cruel smile crept across my lips. Maya looked up from her books to cast another spell, but she hesitated when she saw my expression. “Only when you’re desperate, then? Only when your men can’t beat their enemies in a fair fight? When you’re weak? When your gods and your faith have failed you?” I smiled even wider, reveling in the tremble that wracked Maya’s frame. “Or is it that you have failed your gods?”

With a strangled cry, she leapt across the table, knocking her books to the ground. She walked up to me, grim and determined, speaking in some incomprehensible tongue, fists clenched and looking for all the world like they were dripping with liquid shadows and smoke themselves. She struck me across the face, and that hurt nearly as bad as the inquisitor’s coal had. It felt like a cold fire was consuming my skin. I couldn’t even scream, I was so shocked. With one hand, she grabbed me by the throat, and though her grip was weak, there was nothing I could do to fight back. Her other hand pulled back her veil. I choked and gasped.

Her eyes were a single shade of bright red, bright even than her veil had been, and without pupils. Her front teeth were longer and sharper than any other humans’ I’d ever seen. Almost like a dog or a wolf. Her skin was pale and tight, her cheeks hollow and her eyes sunken. She reminded me almost of some of the dead guys the wizard used as servants, the ones that still had meat on them but were all dried up and leathery.

“Look at what your master did to me, demon,” she hissed through her clenched, fang-like teeth. “Look at what you have done to me. I know what you are: a foul spirit the necromancer bound to an enchanted corpse. Your very presence corrupts this land just as your master’s magic corrupts my flesh. But my spirit, my people’s spirit remains strong. And I will not suffer a demon to tell me lies and falsehoods about having failed my gods.”

At that, the inquisitors came running through the door. Maya fumbled with her veil, readjusted it to obscure her features from them. “High Prelate!” one of them said. “We heard you scream. Is everything alright?”

Maya stared at me in silence. Even through her veil, I could feel her eyes upon me, feel the hate she had for me there. “This aberration is useless to me,” she said still looking at me. She turned to leave, but stopped halfway between me and the door. She turned to look at me one last time and said, “We will execute it in the streets tomorrow. The people of Glimmerton will know that they are safe, that the Many will protect them from whatever evils try to hide in plain sight.”


The Strongest Feller Around, Pt. 7

Just a reminder, the blog’s operating on a new schedule. Posts will now be made on Tuesday evening and Saturday afternoons, just in time for you to enjoy when come home from work and when you’re relaxing on the weekend!

The next day drew an even bigger crowd, but no one would fight me. I was a little disappointed by that, but with Enrico’s help, I’d prepared a right proper spectacle just to be safe. I bent iron bars with my hands. I lifted a blacksmith’s anvil overhead and threw it across the stage and onto the ground where it embedded itself into the dirt. I put a plank across my back and pushed myself up off the ground while a family of three balanced on me. The people cheered and gasped, and behind my mask, I’d grinned like I’d never grinned before.

Eaton Kenneth never stepped onto the stage to fight me again, although sometimes I’d see his face in the crowd, alternating between a bitter glower and wide-eyed awe at my feats of strength. But even though he and I never fought after our second round, most nights someone was willing to challenge me to some kind of a contest of strength. Enrico played up how I was unbeatable and spun wild tales about what horrors and oddities and wonders lurked beneath my mask, and it seemed like it was enough to fire the imagination of everyone in the city who thought they were the best at something or another. I out drank Glimmerton’s drunkards, out ate her gluttons, wrestled and fought her finest warriors.

After a week or two I got my first real challenge. The white soldiers and the person in the red veil returned, this time in greater numbers. A whole squad of ten soldiers approached the stage in the middle of Francesco and Syvlia’s fire act, and said, “In the name of the High Prelate, the White Guard issues a challenge to the Mad Monk of Willvic. Bring him forth.”

The act ground to a halt and the children looked back and forth and confusion. A murmur ran through the crowd, but no one tried to interfere in any way. No one even shouted their disapproval. A thought went through my head that the crowd must have been very frightened indeed of these white guards and their High Prelate.

Enrico stepped forward to address the armed men assembled at the foot of the stage. “Certainly, friends, certainly. We have but a few more acts to go, and then it will be time for the Mad Monk’s performance.”

“We will challenge him now,” their leader said.

Enrico frowned and opened his mouth to speak, but the guard cut him off before he could even get a word out.

“Enrico Enrici, you and your troupe are in violation of the High Prelate’s 24th Edict, specifically the clauses governing the use of public space. You are not Glimmertonians, and you have never filed for permission to utilize the city square to stage your performances. If you wish to all be taken to jail, by all means, continue. If you would rather we look the other way in the face of this flagrant violation of Glimmerton law, then I suggest you get the Mad Monk out here now.”

Enrico’s eyes went wide. He knew that there would be talking his way out of this and he turned to look at me, the desperation in his eyes plain to see.

There was nothing else to do, and nothing else I would have done. Without a word, I climbed onto the stage and strode forward to face my would-be challengers. “Which one of you is it going to be, then? You can’t think you’re all going to fight me, are you?” I chuckled. “At least not all at once.”

“Brother Zechariah will fight you, heathen,” the leader said. This Brother Zechariah stepped forward, and for a moment, I wasn’t so sure about my chances.

Zechariah was big, as big as me. But where I was dressed in rags and robes, he had armor, gauntlets, boots. He had a sword. “You’re going to fight me with all of that then, are you?” I said. “Me in a robe and you with all your steel?”

“Do you decline the challenge?” the White Guard leader asked. “Do you concede defeat? Are you prepared to reveal your identity to the people of Glimmerton, as you have said you would?”

I snorted. “I don’t concede nothing. But I’m not going to let him cleave me in half and I can’t even defend myself.”

“The heathen is right,” the person in the red veil said. I frowned. It was a woman. I hadn’t been expecting a woman, and on top of that, there was something familiar about her voice. “There is no honor in cutting down an unarmed man. Brother Zechariah, you will fight him hand-to-hand.”

“Yes, High Prelate!” Zechariah said without hesitation. His voice was deep and strong. If he weren’t part of a group armed with swords that seemed to have it in for me, I would have been looking forward to fighting him. As it was, I figured that even if I won, the other White Guards would just jump on stage and kill me then and there.

I didn’t have time to think about it for too long, though. Zechariah threw down his sword and climbed up to face me. He raised his hands just like Eaton Kenneth had, and I couldn’t help but notice how he was bigger than Eaton Kenneth, faster, younger. He bounced on his feet but stayed in place, as if he were eagerly waiting for someone to officially start the fight, and then he came at me. He rushed at me and threw a left. I dodged, and he swung with his right, catching me in the ribs.

I coughed. I backed away. His gauntlets hurt a hell of a lot more than Eaton Kenneth’s little studded gloves had. If he hits me hard enough in the head, I realized, he’ll kill me just as sure as if he had that sword of his.

I’d have to do the same to him, I realized. I could punch and kick that metal armor of his all day, and he’d never feel it. But if I could get his brain rattling inside his helmet, then I could win this. I let him punch again, but instead of dodging to the side and opening myself up to another hook, I went back. His jab missed, and he threw the hook out of habit, and that missed, too. I could see his eyes go wide through his helmet’s visor, and then I threw a cross as hard as I could. I hit him hard and low on the side of his helmet, and while he stood his ground, the helmet jerked sideways on his head. He panicked, dropped his guard to fix it, and I had him.

I got low, wrapped my arms around his legs, and pulled him off his feat. He landed on the stage with a dull clang, and I knew from my fight with Sir Perceval that there was no way he could get up quickly enough to get away from me. I leapt on him, grabbed his helmet and twisted it even farther out of place, and then I really laid into him. I was punching and punching, his helmet ringing out flat notes against the stage, and I didn’t stop until my knuckles hurt too much to go on. But he wasn’t dead. Brother Zechariah groaned and moaned and writhed there flat on his back. I stood up, and then I saw her, the High Prelate’s head bowed, and her veil dancing as if she were whispering secrets furiously behind it. The crowd cheered just like it always did, but then a roar echoed out from behind me, and everyone went silent.

I turned around to see Brother Zechariah leap to his feet, his hands clawing frantically at his helmet before finally tearing it off his head. He looked a wild animal, eyes wide and glassy, spittle dripping from his mouth. He roared an angry, wordless curse at the sky, and then he charged.

As savagely as I’d beaten him, I couldn’t have hoped to match him then. He pummeled my stomach and chest, and when I tried to protect myself, too overwhelmed to even think about fighting back, he hit me in the face.

The world spun and darkness crept in from the edges of my vision. I dropped to one knee, and he grabbed me and pulled me up. The next thing I knew, I was moving through the air, Brother Zechariah holding me over his head, and then he threw me. I landed with a thud on the stage, too beaten and hurting too much to move. I couldn’t do anything but moan, and I could barely even do that. The rest of the White Guards rushed to contain Zechariah, their hands on their weapons. The High Prelate walked over to me. She stood over me, staring down in silence, and then she called for two of the White Guards to join her, to pick me up, and to carry me forward so all the crowd could see me.

I was helpless to stop them. The crowd was silent. Everything was silent, save for Zechariah’s frenzied struggles. I thought I could hear someone from the troupe weeping, but I might have been wrong.

“The Mad Monk of Willvic has been beaten,” the High Prelate said, “and in accordance with the rules of the contest, I will reveal his identity to all of Glimmerton.” She pulled back my hood, reveal green skin and a bald head. She undid the wrappings on my arms, revealing thick and heavy hands topped with claws. She pulled down my mask, and the crowd gasped, women and children screamed, babies cried. It was all coming through to me in bits and pieces, my head still swimming from the fight. I felt like every time I closed my eyes, I might pass out and never wake up again.

The High Prelate leaned in close, and I felt her veil brush against my ear. “Hello, demon,” she whispered. “It is a pleasure to see you again.” And then I realized where I’d heard her voice before.

The wizard’s throne room. Maya. Her name had been Maya.


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