“How did they appear?”
There’s chaos in the banquet hall. The Blighted King is questioning the guard who raised the alarm. Other soldiers are rushing for the doors, creating blockades in the corridors. But most of the guards and people are staying put. Waiting. Listening.
Fear is in the air. My stomach is churning. What can I do? What should I do?
He was right. I was right. But how did the Demons get here?
“Teleportation magic. A scroll—possibly artifacts. To teleport so many, the Demon King must have used every magical item in his possession.”
Nereshal is conferring with a group of [Mages]. His eyes are on the projection. And then I see movement from the courtyard.
The Demons are streaming into the castle, most through the main gates. But they’re also moving along the battlements. One group is clustered around the left wall. I see an explosion, and a different group appears.
Humans. Two Humans, a man and an old woman. A Gnoll, and a Selphid. They cut down the Demons and charge into the courtyard, running along the battlements. The Blighted King’s champions.
A cheer goes up through the room as the people see the four champions charging the Demons. But the Blighted King and his advisors don’t cheer. They watch, intently, as the four warriors rush a group in the center of the courtyard.
“There. Their leader is a mage.”
Nereshal points. A female Demon wearing robes is standing in the courtyard, staff aloft. By her side is a male Demon, holding a bow taller than he is. It must be seven feet tall. He wears no armor. One of the champions raises his own bow, draws an arrows, looses it in a moment.
The arrow vanishes before it reaches the Demon with the bow. He puts an arrow to his bow, draws, fires. The Gnoll who fired tries to dodge, but the arrow curves in the air and strikes him in the chest. He falls.
Lady Xersia, a man with a shortsword, and the Selphid holding two greatswords are left. They charge into a group of Demons coming up the stairs. The Selphid impales two on each sword; the Demons run into the blades. He disappears, covered by the Demons who don’t flinch as Xersia and the man with the short sword cut them down one by one.
Nerershal speaks the word like a curse. More of the Demons are flooding towards the two champions. The man with the shortsword dodges left—an arrow slashes his leg. The Demon with the bow puts another arrow in the air, and I see it pierce through the man’s armor as if it weren’t there.
The Blighted Queen speaks. Silence reigns. Xersia is last. The old woman dashes towards the Demon with the bow like lightning across the ground. The Demon puts an arrow to his bow and looses it. She curves around the arrow like lightning. She lunges with her spear—
And vanishes. Everyone stares at the image of the courtyard. The Blighted King turns to Nereshal.
“The [Mage] is specialized in teleportation magic.”
The time mage speaks quietly. His eyes are fixed on the projection in the air. The Blighted Queen looks around the courtyard.
“Where was she sent?”
A shape, tumbling down through the air. Thousands of feet overhead, falling like a comet. Tiny, still clutching her spear.
She falls out of the sky. The Blighted King, the people in the banquet hall, everyone, watch in silence as Lady Xersia hits the ground. She threw her spear at the end—the Demon with the bow shoots it out of the sky.
The Blighted King watches it all, as the two, the teleportation [Mage] and the Demon [Archer] calmly turn back to their business. The [Mage] raises her staff and seems to chant. The [Archer] takes a position on the wall and begins shooting down towards the city.
The Blighted King’s voice is cold. Nereshal studies the projection, and I see more of the Demons, the Fearless, streaming into the castle. Hundreds of them. The time mage turns to his King, face grave.
“I know the archer, your Majesty. And the mage. They are both high-level, thought to be over Level 40 at the least. The Demon King has sent two of his best warriors to hold this ground. One to protect, the other to open a gate.”
“And let his army pour through. Nereshal, how long do we have?”
All eyes are on the [Chronomancer] as he thinks. He turns to confer with the Centaur [Mage], and then raises his voice.
“Teleportation spells are exceedingly complex. Assuming the mage knows where she wants to open a portal to, and her Skills are focused in that area…anywhere from two hours to forty minutes.”
“You are sure? Could they not speed up the spell if they were prepared? I have seen you teleport short distances within minutes.”
The Blighted Queen has a long mace, black like obsidian, in her hand. She rests the head on the ground as she looks at Nereshal. He nods.
“Any competent mage can teleport short distances relatively quickly, but a portal hundreds of miles or more away? Your Majesty, no [Mage] in the world could perform such calculations in ten minutes or less. Not even an Archmage. However, she should not be able to cast such spells at all! The anti-teleportation ward—”
“—Is clearly not working. We have less than an hour, then. We must repel the Fearless invading the palace. They surely seek the Blighted King’s head. And the [Mage] must die.”
The Blighted Queen is full of action, ready to move out. The King is deliberate. He looks at Nereshal.
“Why is the ward stone not working, Nereshal? Find me answers. Until then, if the teleportation spells is not working, is it possible to send a force to deal with the [Mage]? Ambush her?”
“We lack warriors on the level of the two in the courtyard, your majesty. Lady Xersia was the highest-level warrior present. I could attempt to battle myself with her Majesty, but—”
“If we lose you, we step one moment closer to the end. As for our consort—no.”
The Blighted Queen turns to her husband.
“With respect, my lord. If we fail to repel the Demons, all is lost.”
“Then we shall consider it a matter of last resort.”
He nods. The Blighted King rises, and turns to a [Strategist] at his side. They confer out loud.
“It seems we must push back the Demons instead. I will use my Skills, but it falls to you and the other warriors present in the palace to push back their line.”
“It will be difficult, my King.”
A Dullahan with a scar down her face grimaces, her face set. She brings out a map and spreads it out on the table.
“Defensively, we could hold these halls and wear down a superior force over the course of days, or barricade ourselves in for weeks. But with a second force on the way, we must retake the castle and the courtyard within the hour. And the soldiers flooding the castle are elites. The Fearless have been sent in numbers. We will fight them to the death.”
The Blighted King curses.
“They struck us at our weakest moment! How did the Demon King know? If we must take the courtyard, it will be numbers against those two. Their levels will create a slaughter. For the army we need, we must rally the guards. Where are they stationed? Who in this room can fight? Act quickly; we have little time.”
The Blighted King turns, and like that the spell of paralysis on the room breaks. Men and women rush towards the doors, some dashing out of them, others barricading entrances. Richard and Emily are on their feet, and they rush towards the Blighted King with the other people with combat classes. The rest of the people in the room, noncombatants, talk, afraid. Some are weeping; I can see the Fool standing with Erille and Isodore, their faces pale.
At my table, the [Lords] and [Ladies] are speaking urgently. Yebior rises to his feet, unsheathing a dagger from his belt.
“Time to fight, my friends. If we can put but a single body between the Demons and our King—”
He strides towards the gathering warriors with a few [Lords]. Zekyria turns to the others and pulls something off her finger. A ring, the gem glowing with an inner light.
“We have artifacts. Let us gather them for the warriors. Come now, hold nothing back.”
A flurry of motion breaks out. I look around the table and feel lost. Afraid.
What can I do? Fight? I’m no warrior, but—everyone’s needed. I should volunteer. Or I could stay, keep them safe if it comes to the worst. Richard’s there, face grim, and so is Emily, Eddy, Vincent—they’re all ready to fight and die. I should be too.
I go to stand up. I put my hands on the table and stand.
My legs don’t move. I stare. Blink. I try again. My legs don’t move.
I look down. Or try to. My head doesn’t move. I’m telling it to look, to move, but it doesn’t. I try to raise my hands. Nothing happens.
Nothing works. I can’t even blink. What’s going on? I can’t—I’ve lost control of my body.
My hand rises. I stare at it as I pick up a fork. And then my head does turn. It stares left, towards a silver pitcher filled with wine. The metal is clear and polished, it reflects my face. A clown stares back at me, face painted, dressed in a ludicrous costume stained with blood. And then, to my horror, he grins at me.
“Well, it seems like everything’s going wrong, doesn’t it? My turn to come out, I think.”
No. No. Oh, no, no, no, no, no—not now. This can’t be happening. Slowly, the hand with the fork raises. In the mirror, Tom twirls it, as the people around him panic and more screams begin to echo through the hall.
“We had a lot of fun, didn’t we, Tom? When you thought I wasn’t real, when you were so sure that you’d beaten me? As if you could beat yourself.”
This isn’t real. This isn’t happening. I can’t be going insane. Not now! I tried so hard! I didn’t let you out!
I can’t speak. I’m only a voice in his head. In my head. Tom laughs, and it’s not my laughter. It’s darker, wilder, with an edge of madness in it.
“Let me out? You can’t let me out, you idiot! There’s nothing to let out! You and I are the same. How can you stop yourself? See?”
He lifts the fork and begins to pick at his teeth with it, casually. I try to stop him, to seize control of my hand.
You’re not me! You’re something else! Give me back my body—
He raises his voice. I can sense Zekyria turning her head to stare at him. Me. Tom ignores the look. I ignore the look. I look into my reflection’s eyes, see the panicked look there. Hah. I hate him so much, that other me. I speak to him.
“It’s always been you, Tom. There’s no one in here but you. And me. Heh. Haha.”
I giggle. I hear his voice.
You can’t do this. The Demons are attacking. We need to help. We need—
I cut him off, harshly. I spin, pointing around the room. The Blighted King has lost control. His warriors are gathered around him as he, Nereshal, and a few advisors plot feverishly. The view of the courtyard has shifted. Now I see inside corridors of the castle. It’s a maze, but the Fearless are flooding down it, cutting down servants, fighting pockets of guards.
“Do you think they have a chance? Really, Tom? They’re doomed, unless someone helps them. And we both know you’re not the man for the job.”
Don’t. You can’t!
I raise my voice, lift the delicate fork up. People are shouting, asking their King what they should do. He’s trying to get them to shut up. What a poor [King]! Can’t he see the truth?
Stop! I won’t let you cause a massacre again! I won’t! I’d rather die!
“Sir Tom? What are you doing?”
Now Lady Zekyria is looking at me. I grin at her. She likes me. I wonder if she’ll like me after this?
Don’t hurt her!
“Sir Tom? Are you going to fight? I believe you are needed.”
Yebior is calling out to the Blighted King. Idiot.
“My King, what should I—”
Voices. So many voices! Too many. I raise the fork high overhead and bring it down. Onto my other hand.
The tines of the fork go through my hand and hit bone. The voice in my head shuts up. I hear it scream and fade. And the room goes silent. I stand, and yank the fork out of my hand. I stare at the bent tines and try to fix one. Disappointing.
“They don’t make them like they used to. Hey there!”
The Blighted King is looking at me! I stroll over, laughing as I see his guards raising their weapons and looking uncertainly at me. I raise my hands.
“Pardon me, your Majesty. Sorry for the interruption, but I needed your attention.”
“[Clown]. What do you want?”
He stares at me. I smile at him.
“Just a word, old man. By the way, I don’t think we’ve met. I’m Tom. Pleased to meet you.”
I stick my hand in his face. He recoils. What? Oh, that’s the bloody one. How rude. The Blighted Queen hisses.
“How dare you?”
The Blighted King raises a hand, staring at me uncertainly.
“I know who you are.”
“No, you don’t.”
I wag a finger at the King and point to my chest.
“You see, you met Tom. I’m Tom. The same, but different. Better. I tell jokes. He’s one big, fat joke. And he’s taking a break so I can come out.”
Richard. He pales as I swing around, grinning at him. Emily backs up.
“Richard! Hey, we never got a chance to talk. I’d love to chat, but I’m a bit busy. If you could just hold on—”
“We are wasting time. Remove him. Guards.”
Nereshal looks at me. Ooh, he’s not bothered by me at all, I can tell. I trip up the first guard who comes towards me and throw my arm around the time mage. He stiffens, but doesn’t throw me off. Maybe because of the dagger I have pressed against his throat? Now I have everyone’s attention.
“Good! I don’t want to be a bother, Mister Important Blighted Guy, but I just wanted to point something out. You’re all hot and bothered about this Demon army that appeared, but did anyone think to ask how they got here?”
Nereshal shifts. I push the dagger into his throat and he stops moving his hand oh-so-stealthily up.
“Yeah, yeah. We got that the first time, old man. What I mean is, how’d they get past your special teleportation blocker? You were talking about it all day.”
“I do not know. It is here, but it isn’t working.”
Nereshal turns his head and I stare at a younger [Mage] holding a stone in his hands. I grin. All the pieces are falling into place! Just like that.
“Well, well. That makes sense. Hey, your Majesty. Wanna know something funny?”
The Blighted King stares at me.
“Release Nereshal, [Clown].”
“No, no, that’s not the important bit. The knife is—whoops, sorry, scratched you there, didn’t I? Ignore me. Focus on the big picture. I know who let the Demons in.”
Everyone stares at me, an audience of suckers waiting for the punch line. I grin. The Blighted Queen leans forward.
I let go of Nereshal to point across the room. It’s obvious, of course. Everything pointed to him, but Tom was too stupid to put the pieces together. Good thing I’m as smart as he is. Just as ugly, though.
The Fool stops in his tracks, one hand on the door, the other holding Princess Erille’s hand. He turns. I laugh at him.
“Where are you going, Fool? Don’t you want to meet your buddies?”
He looks at me. I wink. The Fool looks around the room. What’s he going to do? He could probably pass it off, pretend he was trying to get Erille to safety, call me mad (which is totally fair), but—oh, no, he’s running!
He nearly makes it out of the door. I think he would have, and with Erille too, if good old Neres didn’t get up and point at the Fool. He freezes in place, one hand flinging the door wide. Time stopped.
“See? Only the guilty run. And idiots. And joggers. The worst of all.”
I laugh as soldiers charge at the Fool. The Blighted King stares at him as the Fool is dragged over.
“Aw, don’t look so surprised. It was bound to happen. Bad parenting, poor leadership, probably some evil crime the Fool found out about, maybe he thinks he’s her real father. You certainly do a bad job of it, don’t you?”
I sling an arm around the Blighted King and watch him tense up. Hah! I laugh and plant a kiss on his cheek, and spin away. Someone puts a sword to my throat. The Blighted King stares at me.
“How did you know?”
“I’m smart. Hey, nice sword.”
I grab it from the guard and watch as he recoils. Aha! The Blighted Queen lifts her mace. I toss the sword down.
“Oh hush, it was only a kiss. Don’t get all jealous on me now. Anyways, your Majesty, that explains it all. The Fool marked the spot in the courtyard for his buddies to come through, tried to abduct the [Princesses] beforehand—”
“But how did he disable the teleportation ward? It’s right here—”
Nereshal strides over to a glowing stone. I stare at it.
“Pretty. Also: fake.”
I kick him in the groin. What? He was asking for it and it’s funny. Nereshal goes white. I pick up the stone from where he dropped it and lift the glowing thing into the air. Sparkly. It’s like a glowing purple…stone. You know what? I’m not good with pictures. I drop the stone and stomp on it.
It breaks. Again, there’s the entire ‘bladed weapons raised’, but I decide to ignore it. The Blighted King stares down at the stone. The fragments disappear as he watches.
“What is this?”
“It’s fake. The [Fool] made it. It’s a Skill of his. Try to keep up. I don’t know how he got it, but I suppose that’s your fault, hmm?”
I glance at Nereshal as he bends over, clutching at his unmentionables. You would have thought his fancy robes would have been spelled to protect him against that. The [Mage] glares at me.
“I should kill you—”
“Nereshal. Enough. This—Tom has given us the answers. Restrain the Fool. I wish to question him afterwards. But we must repel the Demons. Now.”
The Blighted King whirls away from me. I laugh. He turns back. Oh, now he’s getting upset. I’d kiss him again, but he’s too far away.
I stroll towards him and a big mace blocks my way. I stare at the Blighted Queen and then lick her arm. She backhands me.
I think she knocked a tooth out! Wait—yes she did. I get up, laughing, and see the faces. Oh, the faces. They’re all staring at me. Some shocked, others horrified—the way I like it.
Who says I’m not a people person?
“Sorry. Pardon me, your Majesty. I just think it’s funny. That’s all. You people talk about war and ‘tactics’ when you’re missing the point. If you want these—heh—Demons gone, just ask me. I told you how they got in, didn’t I? I’ve got tons of good ideas on how to get rid of them, too.”
The Blighted King looks at me. I stand, clear my throat.
“Okay, have you thought about asking them nicely?”
He stares. The Blighted Queen raises her mace. I roll my eyes.
“Fine. It’s nighttime. They’re rushing through the corridors, probably right here if the Fool told you where they are.”
“So…make it harder? Your hallways are nice and bright. There’s too much light! I say…douse the lights. Make it dark.”
The Blighted King looks at Nereshal. The [Mage] hesitates, nods.
“That could slow their progress, confuse them. The palace is labyrinthian.”
I tap my foot on the ground. Wait a second, I forgot my big shoes! I’d better go get them—well, maybe later.
“Now might be nice.”
Nereshal stares at me, and then raises his hand. I see flashing symbols, bright lights as he commands the castle’s magic—I edge over to where Isodore is standing, pale-faced.
“Shove over a bit, will you? I never got a chance at the bread basket.”
She stares at me and flees. I munch down on a loaf as Nereshal does something magical. Bloody. And toothy. That’s going to hurt coming out.
“The lights have been extinguished. Now. [Heart of Darkness].”
He intones a spell or something and the other mages join in. Darkness spins from his fingertips, flooding out the corridors, turning the hallways pitch black. I grin.
Now the Demons are obscured from view. But I’ll just bet they’re having a bad time finding their way. The Blighted King stares at me. I grin.
“Well? Time to get a sword and start chopping.”
“We cannot see the enemy. Should we not barricade ourselves?”
I roll my eyes. He’s really not good at this, is he?
“If you want to wait for the Demon King to show up with an army, sure. Otherwise, I’d go corridor by corridor and cut up everything you see with those shiny swords you give out. By the way, where’s mine?”
He ignores that. Skinflint. The Blighted King looks at the projection of his palace in the air. Nereshal’s changed it to a map of the castle. I stare at it. Lots of corridors, rooms…hey, is that my room I see?
“There are servants in the halls. Guests of the crown. If we cannot see our enemy, we may cut them down by mistake.”
I look at him, tilting my head to one side and the other.
“So? They’re dead anyways. If you want, send in your pretty little [Knights] and have them die. But then you’ll lose valuable warriors as opposed to, well, people. If I were you, I’d just blast each corridor with magic. One by one.”
He stares at me. I grin. The Blighted King looks around and realizes he has an audience. He shakes his head.
“Nereshal. Go. Take six of the eight [Mages] here and every warrior that may be spared. Blast the corridors only as a last resort. My lady—”
“I will go.”
The Blighted Queen walks past me, mace in hand. I laugh. And turn.
“Ooh, you’re joining in on the fun? In that case, let’s have a competition, Queen lady. Who can kill more?”
She glares at me.
“I do not compete with peasants.”
“And I don’t compete with Queens. But I’ll make an exception for you.”
She doesn’t reply. She strides towards a door, and the warriors follow. I sigh. The Blighted King looks at me.
“That may not be enough. The mage attempting to create a portal is the real threat.”
“You think? And here I thought you were stupid. Leave the mage to me.”
I grin at him. The King looks uncertain.
“You think you can defeat two of the Demon King’s champions?”
“Eh…it looks like fun?”
I scratch my head and shrug. He stares at me.
“If you are able, I will shower you with wealth and whatever you desire.”
Blank look. No one else laughs either. Tough crowd. I turn. The little voice in my head is back. Oh no, what have you done, what are you doing, so on and so forth. I ignore him. Now, I had a good idea. What was it?
I snap my fingers. The Blighted King blinks. Nereshal raises a hand. Touchy. You’d think I nailed him in the balls or something.
“I’ve got it! I’ll take care of your mage. I just need a few things. Time, for one.”
“Whatever you need, within reason I will give it to you.”
“A map, a [Mage] who can cast a few spells for me, and a few shiny knives, your Majesty. Give me that and I’ll solve your problems for you. Oh, and I want your sword.”
He stares at me. I scratch my head.
“Oh, and some healing potions. I’m going to have to kill some people as well. You said those Demons are all fearless? Sounds like fun.”
I grin. And my smile is bloody. Missing tooth. The Blighted King looks at me as if I’m crazy.
Which I completely am.
The Demons run through the palace of the Blighted King in Rhir. They are armed for war, prepared for this day. Enchanted swords in hand, they slaughter anyone they come across. They have a target.
But they cannot find him. The darkness is all-consuming. The lights that had illuminated their way have vanished. Now a magical darkness steals through the castle, so that those without powerful Skills or magic are unable to see. And those who can see—
Humans, Drakes, Selphids, creatures of every species hold corridors, fighting. Some are [Lords], others [Merchants] or simple [Warriors]. Some aren’t even meant to fight. But they hold the line as the Blighted King’s orders fill them with strength. Their flesh is like iron, and they do not break.
But their enemies do not fall back. They are Fearless, elite. Chosen. And they push their way further and further into the palace, killing, searching.
A group of sixteen warriors runs down a narrow corridor, weapons at the ready. They are ready for an ambush. They are not ready to hear the sound echoing down the corridor ahead of them.
Humming. A voice in the darkness. The Fearless pause, and their leader holds up a hand. One of them has a shortbow and he fires it ahead. They hear a thunk, an impact.
The humming stops. The Demons move ahead, cautiously. Then they see him.
A Human. He’s large, heavy, shorter than average. His face is dead white, his nose and mouth red. An arrow sticks out of his shoulder. He’s standing in the hallway.
And he’s laughing.
Giggling, as if the arrow sticking out of his shoulder is funny. The Fearless stare at him for a second. They are without fear. Their leader points, they charge.
“Hi there. My name is Tom!”
Shadows in the night. The [Clown] laughs as he tears the sword away from the first Demon and runs the second through. The warriors stab into his stomach. One nearly cuts his arm off. The [Clown] laughs. He grabs one of the warriors, ignoring the blade in his stomach.
He vanishes along with the warrior he’s holding. The Demons turn. They search for their comrade as one of their number bleeds and dies on the ground. The Human is nowhere to be seen. They continue onwards. They go for ten feet when they hear a voice.
“Hey. Miss me?”
Someone steps out from the shadows behind them. The [Clown] grins. His wounds on his stomach are closed. His arm is intact. He raises two knives and throws them as the Fearless turn. One strikes just above an ear; the other Demon dodges.
“That’s one. Two, if you count the guy I killed. And the girl I grabbed. That was a girl, right?”
The Fearless are without fear. They charge at him, trying to maneuver in the tight corridor. The [Clown] laughs as he cuts into them. Without fear. They cut each other. He grabs another and vanishes. They turn and run.
“Do you want to know how I got these scars? Wait a second—”
He appears down the next corridor, laughing. His wounds are closed. He smiles at the Fearless.
“Have we met before?”
They pause. They stare at him. The Fearless feel no fear. They cannot. Unease, trepidation, terror—all are emotions they have forgotten. But they still feel. And what they feel is—
Disturbed. The [Clown] strolls towards them. They back up. This time they loose arrows at him. They burn his body with magic. He vanishes, laughing.
He appears again minutes later. The Fearless split up. They feel no fear. But they do not understand. He’s laughing. As they cut him, he laughs, as he bleeds, he laughs. And each time they grow fewer in number.
The next time the [Clown] appears, the Fearless retreat. They do not feel fear. But that means they do not understand it either. All they feel is confusion. Uncertainty. They break and run against an enemy they cannot kill. And the [Clown] laughs. He turns.
I love a good show. So when I appear in the banquet hall, I twirl. The [Mage] who teleported me steps back. I pat his cheek.
“Thanks for the pickup! Beam me up…uh, your name isn’t Scotty, is it?”
He’s panting too hard to speak. Nereshal walks towards me. He has a gash on a cheek. I saw him freeze a corridor full of Demons. All I had to do was walk up and stab them. He takes all the fun out of life.
“Are the Demons still present in that corridor?”
“Yeah. False advertising, I call that. Anyways, how are things?”
He ignores me and walks over to a map. The Blighted King is standing over it, plotting the Demon’s advance. Nereshal flicks his fingers, and a corridor clears. One corridor. Most are red, showing Demon-controlled territory, or contested. I lean on the [Mage] who teleported me until he falls down.
“Hey King, what’s up? Are we losing? I bet we are.”
The Blighted King stares at me as I bounce over. Isodore, standing at his side, stares at me. At my stomach.
“Am I? I barely noticed. Wait a second, how bad is it?”
I turn, and the people at the table gasp. I look at my back.
“Huh. I could have sworn I had flesh there. Is my spine supposed to look like that?”
There’s already one coming this way. I grab it. The [Healer] babbles something about using it slowly, not straining my body, and so on. I wrestle with her for the bottle.
“Come on, come on, I’m wasting time here. Give me that!”
Potion, meet back. Back…so that’s what it’s supposed to look like. I giggle and turn back to the Blighted King. And the map.
“Let me see. There’s a clear corridor here, an empty one here…and I just cleared that one.”
I trace a line down the map. The Blighted King stares at me.
“Do you have what is needed to complete this plan you refuse to speak of?”
“Just a minute, needy! I think…yes! Now I just need some things from you, my good pal Nereshal here, and…the Fool.”
I glance sideways. The banquet hall has been transformed. Tables have been upended, places made ready for people too wounded to fight to rest, and guards are standing at all the entrances. But hey, some things never change.
The Fool’s face has definitely changed. I think someone stepped on it. Or kicked it. Repeatedly. Princess Erille is standing in front of him, tears in her eyes, trying to defend him from further abuse. Touching. I grin and walk over to her.
Isodore pushes past me. She drags Erille away; the girl kicks at her, fighting, shouting for the Fool. I bend down. The Fool barely looks at me. He’s still under a spell. I think he can’t move.
“Hey buddy. Want to go for a walk?”
“I must know what you intend.”
The Blighted King stares at me as I drag the Fool with me. Nereshal has a wand in his hand. He looks so grim! I shrug.
“I’m going to do the hostage negotiations thing.”
“With the Fool?”
The Blighted King looks incredulous.
“Just wait and see! Nereshal thinks it’ll work, don’t you, buddy?”
The mage glares at me, but nods.
“I am aware of what he wants. I believe it may work, your majesty. I will teleport myself back in case of trouble. But we are running out of time.”
The King stares at me and his mage. He nods shortly.
He stares at the Fool. The Fool glares back. I sigh.
“Get a room, you two.”
They stare at me. I scowl.
“What? It’s hard to be funny. You want to make a better joke? You try coming up with it on the spot.”
“What do you call a King who slaughters his own people?”
The Fool mutters, spitting blood. Nereshal hits him. I grin.
“This way. Down this corridor, left here…you know, this would be a lot easier if I didn’t have to drag you.”
The Fool and I move down the corridors I’ve cleared, me pushing and carrying him. He seems determined not to move. Not that he can. Paralysis spell or something Nereshal used on him. I laugh.
“I wonder where Nereshal went? I guess he’s busy killing Demons. He’s cool like that.”
“There is nothing noble about it. There is nothing about this war that’s worth admiring.”
The Fool mumbles around swollen lips. I laugh at him. I do that a lot.
“What, you think the Demons are right? Is that why you did all this?”
The Fool is silent. I round a corridor. Now, was it left, or right? Wait a second, up. I drag him up the stairs. He speaks as I reach the top.
“The Demons are willing to kill for their survival. I don’t think they’re right. But they aren’t wrong either. They fight to live. While the Blighted King—do you know what he has done? All the horrors he has committed in the name of defeating the Demons?”
“Nope. Want to tell me? I could take notes.”
The Fool glares at me as I drag him by his feet down an empty corridor. You know, for variety.
“Why didn’t you walk away? If you had, I could have gotten Erille to safety, and Isodore! Now they’ll both die, more likely than not. You’re on the wrong side, Tom.”
I kick him. The Fool groans through gritted teeth. I pick him up by the feet and glare at his knees.
“You’re an idiot, Fool. The Demons, the Blighted King—they’re just sides. There’s no right or wrong! I didn’t choose to help these idiots because I thought they were right. I just thought both sides deserved a funny man helping them. It makes things more entertaining that way.”
He doesn’t respond. I drag on. Okay, now I’m up another flight of stairs. I go up, listening to the Fools’ face smack on every step.
He’s barely conscious by the time I get to the top. He mumbles and I have to lean down to listen.
“It could have ended all today. It could have. Why did you have to speak? Why…?”
I blink at him. Shrug.
“Because, Fool, it’s in my nature. It’s in yours as well. Why do you think people stare at us? We, the two sad idiots who dance around for them. It’s because this war is like a performance, Fool.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Of course you don’t. So I’ll make it simple for you, Fool. Here’s why.”
I pat him on the head and lean down. I whisper in his ear.
“I want to see what comes next.”
He looks up at me.
“So they say. But here I am. And here…we are.”
I drag him the rest of the way down the corridor. There’s a man waiting for us there. Nereshal’s got some cuts down one arm, but he looks pretty good considering he took an alternate route here.
I wave at him. Nereshal stares at me.
“Are you ready?”
“Sort of. Hold on—can I go to the bathroom first? No? Fine, I’ll just go off the edge.”
Nereshal drags the Fool upright. I push him towards the end of the corridor, and then out. Out, through a door, and into the battlements of a tower. High up. I stare down at the courtyard below. At the Demons standing down there, fighting with people at the gates, protecting the [Mage].
They haven’t spotted me. Oh wait. No, they have. One of them, the [Archer] with the big frickin’ bow, is pointing. The Demons look up. I wave.
Nereshal’s voice thunders down at them. He stands back, away from the battlements, hands raised as he concentrates on a spell. I edge over, using the Fool as a shield. My voice, made incredibly large by magic, echoes down at them.
“Hi! How are you all doing tonight? Good? May you drink from the blood of a thousand Human skulls and all that. Hey, what’s with all the soldiers these days? It’s like you can’t even assassinate a Blighted King without tripping over them.”
They stare up at me. I grumble.
“No one likes observational humor. Okay, see this guy? This is your friend. The Fool. Wait, what’s your real name?”
I stare at him. The Fool holds still. He’s staring down at the [Mage] specializing in teleportation magic, far below. Now I finally get a good look at her and…
“That’s a lot of tentacles.”
“That’s her hair.”
“What’s with her arms?”
“She was hurt in war.”
“She’s looking right at us. Hey you. Mage lady! Hi! Do you know this guy?”
I point to the Fool, balancing him on the edge of the battlements. The [Mage] does seem to know him. She’s staring up at him. And what a stare. I look at the Fool. He’s doing the same kind of stare back at her. Another piece of the puzzles snaps into place.
“Hey, wait a second…you like her! And she likes you! You said you were talking to your true love back in the courtyard—fancy that!”
I slap my hand to my forehead and nearly drop the Fool. Nereshal hisses at me and I grab him just in time before he goes over the edge and falls a few hundred feet below.
“Whoops. Sorry. Now, that makes me feel awful about what’s going to happen next.”
“Kill me. She won’t betray her mission for me.”
The Fool looks calmly at me. I shake my head.
“Don’t be so negative. I believe in true love. And you see—”
I call down at them. The Demon [Archer] is aiming at us, but the Fool’s in the way. I laugh down at them.
“Give up! Surrender or the Fool gets it!”
“You’re an idiot. Do you really think that they would all give up their lives for a single Human? For me?”
That really hurts, coming from the Fool himself. I glare at him.
“No? Maybe I should throw you off. Well? See, she doesn’t like that, does she?”
The [Mage] is pointing at me, arguing with the [Archer]. He’s aiming at us. I see her raising her mangled arms to strike at him, shoulders tensing up, and then sagging. She turns away, and then looks at the Fool. The Demon [Archer] draws back on his bow.
“Uh oh. I think she’s giving up on you. Don’t do it! Stop! In the naaaaaaaaaaaame of love!”
The Fool ignores me. So do the Demons below. The [Archer] looks like he’s lining up for a good shot. I scowl at him. He’s whispering to her.
“You suck. I came here for true love, and what do I get? Sacrifice. Heartbreak! Who ever heard of a love story like that?”
The Fool doesn’t answer. He closes his eyes, waiting. I turn to Nereshal. The [Mage]’s brow is creased in concentration. He nods at me. I scowl at him.
“You suck. I just wanted to say that to you. You suck, and your kingdom sucks, and you—”
I turn to the Fool.
“—Suck. And all you Demons suck. You hear me? I’m done with you all! Let’s end it now! Goodbye, cruel world! This is it!”
I see the Demon pulling back the arrow, ready to loose. I grab the Fool. He looks into my eyes, unafraid to die. I grin, push him—
This is what they see. The Demons, looking high overhead. The Blighted King, watching from the banquet hall. The people of Rhir, staring up at the palace below. They see a body falling from the tower, a laughing man. A fool.
But not the Fool. A [Clown] falls through the air, laughing, his voice echoing. He laughs and laughs as the ground rises to meet him, laughs at the disbelief on the Demon’s faces, laughs at the cry of surprise from the Fool.
And high above him in the tower, the great mage Nereshal casts his spell. As the ground rushes up to reach Tom, he blurs. He doesn’t stop falling, but a shield of magic appears around him, a bubble of energy. And he teleports.
Not far. Not to the ground, or vast distances like the [Mage] below him is attempting to do. Nereshal’s spell is simple. It teleports Tom a few hundred feet forwards and to the right. He falls and lands on top of the Demon with the bow.
“Oof. Hey, that actually hurt. I almost…oh, hi there buddy.”
The [Clown] bounds to his feet. The Demon beneath him twitches. His body is broken. Tom stabs him in the head and he stops moving. He turns to the escort of Demons surrounding the [Mage]. And grins.
“Hey there. Want to play catch?”
One runs at him. Tom throws something. A sword. It hums through the air and slashes through the Demon, and the one behind him. The other Demons move, a second sword slices into one’s chest, cutting through magical armor like paper. Tom flicks his hand, and a sword shining with bright light appears.
“They call this one Blightbane. Or something. I borrowed it from the Blighted King. And now you get it! Catch!”
He throws it. The sword whirls through the air, cuts through a Demon’s head and another’s arm without slowing. Tom pulls another artifact out of the air. Grins.
“It’s all in the wrist. Who wants a scimitar? You? Here!”
The Demons fall. The elite guard drop, and the [Mage] backs up. She raises her staff, points at Tom, cries out. One of his knives sticks from her shoulder, another in her arm. Tom kicks her before she can move.
“Ah, ah. I don’t want to learn how to fly today. Turns out I’m no good at it. Now, what shall we do with you?”
He grins at her. The [Mage] gasps. Tom raises a hand.
“Wanna see a magic trick?”
He reaches for her face, ignoring the scream from above. He touches her face, reaches behind her ear and pulls out…a gold coin. She stares at it.
“See? You should always wash! Now, let me see. Do I have a hat? No I do not. And a bunny? No I do not. But I can pull a knife out! How about a slightly rotten apple? No?”
She stares at him and utters a word. It sounds like despair. Her body vanishes underneath Tom and he sits down.
“No one’s a fan of my tricks. Oh well.”
He gets up, brushes himself off, and looks around. The Demons remaining in the courtyard stare at him. Tom looks up, and grins as Nereshal floats down. The [Chronomancer]’s eyes burn like fire, and magic crackles from his fingertips in the form of lightning.
“Well, it looks like I have an assistant for today. Ladies and gentlemen, Demons all.”
He bows as the soldiers of the Demon King ready their weapons, hearing their comrades falling from the palace. They rush towards him, and Tom straightens. A sword appears in his hand, a dagger in the other. He laughs.
“Let’s begin the show.”
This is how it ends. Boring. I sit on a Demon’s body and hum. Nereshal turns and stares at me. I raise my hands.
“If you don’t like the song, you pick a better one.”
“Do you enjoy acting insane, or is this madness genuine?”
I pause, stare at him. The [Mage] is pretty undamaged for a guy who just killed a few hundred Demons. I shrug.
“Wouldn’t you like to know?”
He grunts and turns away. I get up as I see people streaming out of the palace.
“Hey! I think I win!”
The Blighted Queen ignores me as she walks out of the courtyard, her beloved Blighted King by her side. Her mace is drenched with gore, and the soldiers around her look wounded and bloody. I see Richard helping Emily out.
“Aw. No one important died.”
“Hundreds lie dead within the castle and thousands more in the city!”
Nereshal snaps at me. I raise my hands.
“Yeah, but no one important died. Let’s be honest.”
He turns away from me. I whistle a tune as the Blighted King approaches. He stares at me.
“You let her go.”
“Correction: she didn’t like my magic tricks.”
I’m offended, really I am. The Blighted King stares at me, and looks at the crushed Demon archer guy I landed on. He looks satisfied as he stands over his corpse.
“One more of the Demon King’s limbs taken away. It will suffice.”
“We will claim vengeance for this.”
The Blighted Queen’s eyes blaze with battle fury. Nereshal nods. I yawn.
“Maybe. Or maybe we all let bygones be bygones?”
They stare at me. I raise my hands.
“Fine. Fine. I guess we do it your way.”
“We must begin to reconstruct. Find the wounded—and whatever Demon soldiers remain in hiding. It will not be safe in the palace, your Majesty. I recommend caution and staying under guard until—”
Nereshal is speaking to the Blighted King as the people stream into the courtyard, and the King is staring around when it happens. I hear the scream. Erille’s voice. She’s pointing. I look up.
“Huh. I didn’t see that coming.”
A body falls from the tower. The same tower Nereshal and I fell from. This time, it’s the Fool. He tumbles through the air, only there’s no magic to slow his fall or break it. He lands on the ground, headfirst.
Thump. The impact makes people run back. I see the Fool’s neck twist, and then his body spring upwards. He tumbles forwards, mows down two of the people closest to him, and then comes to a stop, legs comically dangling in the air. I blink as the Fool flips onto his feet. He looks unsteady, but grim. And he’s no longer held by magic.
I begin applauding.
“That was probably the best pratfall I’ve ever seen in my life. Bravo! Do it again!”
The Blighted King snarls. He points, and Nereshal moves, quick as lightning.
He never gets to finish the spell. The Fool flips backwards into the air, doing a double backflip and throws something. A ball bounces off Nereshal’s face and he staggers. I hear a crack and see his nose bend out of shape.
“Hail to the Blighted King, the murderer of innocents! Your Majesty, you and I have unfinished business. I am the world’s greatest [Fool], and a fool deserving of the title! And today I seek your life, my King. For your sins. And mine, for letting you continue. No more. I will put an end to it today.”
The Fool’s voice booms throughout the courtyard. He lands on his feet and points at the King. I sit back.
“Oh man, this is going to be so good.”
The Blighted King looks down at the Fool. His eyes are cold, distant. He turns his head.
“Kill the traitor.”
The soldiers rush at the Fool. And the Fool— fights. He cartwheels into the first man, sending the man in armor tumbling comically to the ground. He spins, and two blades appear in his hands. He slashes a [Knight] in armor across his helmetless face, bumps Emily over with his hip, and tosses the second dagger through the heart of a [Mage] fifty feet away.
“Ooh, he’s good.”
The Fool spins into the air, flicking daggers at people rushing at him. He rolls under Richard’s sword and trips him up. The [Knight] goes down and the Fool kicks Richard in the head. He bounces about, too fast to be caught.
The Blighted Queen rushes at him. The Fool dances away from her, tossing daggers. She blocks each one with her mace. He throws something. She trips.
A juggling ball. The Blighted Queen is on her feet in a moment, but too late. The Fool races towards the Blighted King. A fireball flies towards him from the left, too fast to dodge—
He turns, grabs for the fire. It disappears. He makes it vanish. I sit up.
“Whoa. Can I do that?”
I should take notes! Then I see an angry [Mage] standing in front of the Blighted King. Nereshal’s nose is bloody, but his hands crackle with magic. I carefully lean back.
Bolts of lightning blast from his fingertips, the same ones that emptied the courtyard of life minutes ago. The Fool stands in the center of the electrical storm.
Time slows as the lightning begins to strike the Fool. I see him twist. His hands rise. One bolt of lightning is stretching towards his chest. His hand blocks the bolt, and then the lightning collects in it. The Fool spins, tosses it, and then catches another bolt. He throws it back at Nereshal.
He juggles the lightning.
Explosions. I feel one blast me off my feet. I roll, and see the lightning storm reverse course. Countless bolts strike Nereshal. I see him throw up his hands, and then it’s over. In the blink of an eye. Nereshal collapses, a shield of magic disintegrating around him as his eyes roll up in his head.
The Fool stands in front of him, breathing heavily. His hands are blackened, the skin smoking. But he still moves. He races towards the Blighted King and before anyone can stop him, has a knife to his throat.
“Now we come to it, your Majesty! Now we put an end to this pathetic performance. I should have done this years ago!”
He shouts. The courtyard is still. There are a hundred bows trained on the Fool, [Mages] ready with spells, warriors with blades. None of them dare move. Because the knife at the Blighted King’s throat is faster than them all.
The Blighted King stands still. His voice is calm.
“Do it, then, traitor. But tell me why, first. You pledged your loyalty to me, to this nation. Why betray it?”
The Fool is trembling. His hands still smoke. There are tears in his voice, but none in his eyes. I can see Erille, standing with her hands on her mouth next to Isodore. The Fool can’t look at her. A tableau.
“Why do you think? All you’ve done, all the horrors you’ve committed, the crimes—I could understand. That, for war. But the ritual? The cost? Never.”
“What I do, I do for my people. So that they may live.”
The Fool shakes his head. His dagger presses into the King’s throat, drawing blood. I hear a sound from the Blighted Queen. Pain.
“You do not deserve to be a King. Tell them what you did. Tell them!”
“No. Kill me. But I will die first.”
The Fool hesitates. The Blighted King is ready to impale himself on the dagger before either one speaks. I can see him looking, staring at Erille, hand tensing on the hilt—
Everyone turns as I stand, brushing myself off. The Fool looks at me. I’m not sure if he hates me, even now.
“There’s nothing you can do, Tom. Step away. The Blighted King dies, and I die too. Let that be an end to it.”
“Oh, come on. It’s not over. You’re here, Fool, and so am I. We can’t let it end with you dying just like that. We need a final grudge match, a proper end. [Fool] vs [Clown]. A battle for the ages. What do you say?”
He stares at me. I grin at him. He looks away.
“You truly are mad, aren’t you? You…I’m sorry. Sorry you ever came here, Tom.”
“Don’t say that. Tell you what; I’ll make you an offer you can’t refuse.”
There are two knives in my hand. I have three left. The Fool stares at me.
“You can’t scare me with death. I’m ready for it.”
I roll my eyes.
“Not your death, obviously. I’m thinking more poetically.”
I look past the Blighted King, past the Fool. At a girl staring with wide eyes. The Fool’s mouth opens. He screams.
The knife flies past the Blighted King, through the air, towards Erille. Too fast for anyone to block. Anyone, but a Fool.
He lets the Blighted King go and dives for the knife. I’ve never seen a man move that fast. The Fool catches the blade in midair, right in front of Erille’s face. Of course, I knew he’d do that.
That’s why I threw three.
The Fool’s hands blur as he throws all three knives. Two fly towards the Blighted King, striking him in the chest, and in the shoulder. The next one strikes me in the stomach. It doesn’t slow me down as I tackle the [Fool]. We roll around on the ground, hands flashing, fighting for daggers, pulling them out of the air, out of each other’s trick spaces.
“You idiot! You mad monster!”
He screams at me as he slashes my face, my arms and front. I laugh, stabbing back. He dodges, even locked together as we are. He kicks me away and we stand. I throw a dagger, his dagger, and he throws it right back. I snatch it out of the air and we cut at each other, dodging, weaving, too close for anyone to interfere.
“Why do you do it? Why!?”
He’s shouting, stumbling. His hands don’t grasp the knives properly. I laugh.
“Do you want to know why? Do you know what separates the two of us? Clown and fool? It’s easy!”
I grab his arm. He stabs me, but I don’t let go. I draw him closer as he stabs, looking for my heart.
“You’re a fool. People laugh at you. You make them laugh. But I? I’m a clown. I laugh at the world.”
He stares at me. My free hand reaches out. I grin.
“And guess what I just found?”
His eyes widen. I pull the fireball out of the air, out of the space he kept it in. He tries to back away—
And there’s fire.
The Fool’s body lies on the ground, blackened. One of his eyelids is burnt away, exposing an eye. His right hand—gone. The rest of his body is destroyed.
But he is still alive. I walk towards him and pick him up in my arms. I don’t feel my body anymore.
“That’s funny. Are you…crying, Tom?”
He looks at me. I stare down at him. Me. The laughing man in my head is gone.
“I guess I am, Fool. I’m sorry. It was me. I did all this.”
“You don’t say?”
We stand alone in a blackened crater in the courtyard. Alone, but for all the witnesses. The Blighted King lies on the ground, breathing heavily. But he is alive. And the rest, the citizens of Rhir who pour through the gates, the battered Drake company led by Cirille, gather. To see a dying Fool, and the clown who killed him. One, a beloved face turned traitor. The other a monster. A hero.
“I’m so sorry, Fool. I don’t know what I would have done. But—I couldn’t let you. I knew that.”
“I suppose not. You’re not a funny fellow, Tom. Not funny. But you don’t want to be, I think. But do you know what’s funny?”
His voice is hoarse. A whisper. No one else can hear him. I have to put my ear to his lips.
“What? What is it?”
“The Blighted King. Why do you think I turned on him? It was the day after the ritual that I knew. When you were summoned, I learned the cost.”
“They wear it. Crimson for the lost. Miscarriages, they said. A curse. But it wasn’t. And the price was—high.”
I raise my head. Standing in a group across from me are the ladies of the Blighted King’s court. Lady Zekyria stares at me, her face pale. Her gown is torn and scorched. But light red, closer to pink, and white.
For her dead child.
The Fool’s whisper is pitiful. He looks up at me, pain in his eyes.
“Ten thousand unborn souls. For you sixty. Isn’t that—that—”
His remaining eyelid flickers. His other eye strays before snapping back on me. He’s dying.
“A funny joke, Tom. A terrible joke.”
“But it’s over, Fool. It’s over and done.”
The Fool reaches up. His hand—flakes away at the touch. But he looks me in the eye.
“A hundred thousand. He wants an army this time. An army. He’d sacrifice so many for any edge. And if a hundred thousand doesn’t work, he’ll sacrifice a million. Every unborn child, to kill Demons. To kill people just like you and me.”
I stare at him. Of course. I can’t be surprised. It makes sense, in the horrible way of this world. I’m almost…numb? But the Fool cares. He cares so much, and the pain in his eyes—he whispers his last words to me.
“I cannot stop him. I couldn’t end it. Or save her. But you can. Protect her. Take her away.”
I look up and see Erille. She stares at me. Me, the man who killed her beloved Fool. He grasps my arm.
“Please. I wished—”
I wait for the rest. It never comes. The Fool’s hand grips my arm, tight, stiff. He doesn’t let go. Even in death.
The foolish clown sits in the broken courtyard as the people gather on the balconies, flood through the gates. Royals, knights and mages and dignitaries, common folk and people from another world. He weeps, holding the body of the Fool in his hands.
No one else sheds a tear. No one. They wipe them away, hiding them, like shame. The [Princess] has to hide them. But the clown wears his tears on his face. And then, his sobs turn into laughter.
He laughs at them, at him, at this broken world. And he holds the broken Fool in his body, the hero who tried to put an end to a bad joke.
It should be raining. But the night is cool and still. Yet there is liquid of a kind. Blood flows through the courtyard, pooling. It reflects poorly, but someone watches in that crimson mirror. The devil himself laughs and bows to the audience only he can see. His voice can only be heard by the clown.
“Next time, dear Tom. Next time. They’ll be coming, the lost and afraid. From our world.”
He points, mockingly, to the Blighted King, whose eyes are on the clown, the [Hero] of the day. He laughs, as the clown levels up. As a [Clown] and [Hero] both.
“You can’t escape it. Not this. And now, more will come. More, to dance and laugh along with this joke. Can you stop it? You can’t. But I can. And I’ll be with you, each step of the way. Whenever you call—and when you don’t.”
He bows and fades. But his voice remains, echoing, reminding the clown of all he lost. And promising him, telling him of the future.
“I’ll be waiting.”