Confessor

“How are you doing?”

“You again. Why do you keep coming back?”

“Just to chat.”

“That summoning ritual was the worst mistake of my life.”

“Remember, I’ve seen your entire life. Performing the ritual isn’t even in the top ten.”

“Every time you come by ‘to chat,’ I feel like it moves up a notch.”

“You don’t like our chats?”

“I thought I had made that pretty clear.”

“Well, you’re really the only one I can talk to. Everyone close to me is just looking for an excuse to overthrow me. Bunch of backstabbers.”

“Isn’t that normal for demons?”

“Yeah, that’s why I don’t trust them.”

“Why do you trust me?”

“You can’t hurt me.”

“Ah.”

“You know, I didn’t want this job.”

“Really?”

“Really. Who wants to be in charge of torturing souls for all of eternity?”

“I thought you enjoyed it.”

“I’m not a psychopath.”

“So how did you get the position?”

“It was a misunderstanding. It led to an argument that escalated, and I stormed off.”

“Why not apologize?”

“Don’t you think I tried? I was told this work was necessary, and if I was truly sorry, I would continue. Typical catch-22. If I leave, I’m not sorry and deserve to stay. If I stay, I am sorry but also stuck here.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“I know! I’ve been stuck here ever since.”

“No. I mean, that story is ridiculous. You expect me to believe all that?”

“It’s true!”

“Aren’t you the Lord of Lies?”

“No. People often confuse the two of us.”

“Still . . .”

“Yeah, yeah . . .”

“Why are you bothering me?”

“I told you. I need someone to talk to, and you’re a good listener.”

“I’m really not.”

“Good enough for me.”

“I’m so lucky.”

“I have to go now. Can I get you anything?”

“The key to get out of here?”

“Haha! That’s one of the reasons I like you. Good sense of humor. You know you belong here. I’ll drop by again soon.”

“Take your time.”

Everything Has a Price

The witch’s cottage was a ten minute walk from the village. I made it in less than five. Madame Wood’s body was gnarled, and her skin had a distinct bark-like quality to it. Whether her name or her appearance came first, no one left alive knew. Yet she had a friendly demeanor and was always willing to help.

Despite my own sense of urgency – even panic – I retained enough of my wits not to barge into a witch’s cottage uninvited. Knocking, I paced anxiously. It took only a moment for the door to open, seemingly on its own, and I heard Madame Wood’s voice from within the gloom inside.

“Come in, Ser Johns.”

“Madame, you know I’m not a knight.”

“You protect the village. You’re a knight in the ways that matter.”

As much as I usually enjoyed our verbal sparring, there wasn’t time for it now.

“That’s what I’ve come to see you about. While I was out this morning, I came across armed men heading straight for us. I rushed back, but the hunting parties had already left. I know this isn’t a usual request, but is there anything you can do to help? I need to hold them off.”

My eyes were beginning to adjust, and I could tell she was looking at me.

“Are you sure they mean the village harm?”

“Yes, Madame.”

“Can you evacuate everyone?”

“Even if I could, there is no where for them all to hide.”

“There must be . . .”

“There isn’t.” I was getting more desperate by the minute.

“I do not think . . .”

“Please, Madame.” I refused to let her deny me. “Our need is great.”

She continued to stare at me. “I am sorry . . .”

“Madame, if you really do think of me as a knight, then help me safeguard the people.”

“It is because of your position that I do not want to . . .”

“Please.” I had to leave. They would be at the village soon, and I needed to get back before they arrived.

“Drink this.” She handed me a vial. I could not see what color the liquid inside was, but I didn’t hesitate. It tasted like nothing.

“Now you will not die at the hands of another. You may fight without fear of injury.”

“Thank you, Madame.” It was more help than I had dared hope for.

“Do not thank me. And if at all possible, do not kill anyone.”

“Don’t kill anyone?”

“If you can avoid it.”

“Is there anything else?”

“It can wait until later. For now, you must go.”

I hurried back to the village. There was still time before the attack, and I made sure everyone was inside. Mostly, there were just children and the elderly; everyone else who might have helped was on the hunt.

When they arrived, i fought with abandon. I tried to heed Madame Wood’s caution, but they had spread out. Even I could not be hurt, others could. So I had to dispatch opponents as quickly as possible in order to get to the next. I had worried that killing someone would break the magic, but it continued to work. In the end, I had killed one shy of a dozen, and no villagers were harmed.

The hunting parties did not return until after the sun had set, so I stayed in the village to guard against another attack. None came. When the hunters returned, I informed them about what had happened. Sleep would no longer be ignored, and I headed off to bed. It was the next day before I made my way back to Madame Wood.

The door again opened by itself after I knocked. This time, there was no friendly banter.

“How many?”

The question was abrupt and serious. “What?”

“How many did you kill?”

“Eleven, by my count.”

She nodded, as though that answered a question she hadn’t asked.

“Well, come in. Have a seat.”

“Thank you, again, for the help yesterday. Without you, the village would have been lost.”

She set a cup of something hot in front of me before sitting down herself. Exhaustion appeared to weigh on her.

“I should tell you about the curse you now have.”

“Curse?”

“The potion you drank.”

“It was cursed?”

“That is why I did not want to offer it to you.”

A loud roar filled my ears as I felt the world falling away. All thought was crowded out of my head.

“You can avoid its effects as long as you do not kill anyone.”

The roar lessened just enough for me to hear her. “But I already . . .”

“I know. Each death takes a year off your life. Do not kill any more.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Would you have refused it? Sacrifice the village to save your own life?”

She asked the questions but already knew the answers. I would have accepted the curse. And knowing may have caused me to hesitate, to avoid killing blows. That hesitation might have cost lives. She was right not to tell me.

“How many years do I have left?”

“I do not know. We have know idea how many years anyone has. Taking eleven years from an unknown future still leaves us with an unknown.”

“But the curse must know.”

“After a fashion, but it cannot tell us.”

“Is there a cure?”

“None that I know of. Everything has a price. You cannot be killed by another person, and the village was saved. But every life you take shortens your own.”

And that is the story of how I came to be cursed. The village still needs me. I just do not know how much of myself I have left to give.

The Forest

The night was darker than usual when the two sisters unwittingly stepped through the portal. There were hints indicating the dangers, but they were not looking for them and wouldn’t have known what they meant even if they had found them. No one can say why they were out at night walking in the woods; it may be that even they did not know. Whatever their purpose was, they did not see it through.

The younger girl ran ahead of her older sister and passed through the stone pillars without even noticing them. A brief flash of light marked her passage, and the older sister could no longer see the younger. She began to run to catch up and passed through as well.

Portals such as this were not common, but they do exist. One may appear for just a few hours before vanishing again, so they were difficult to find if you were looking for them. A few lead to fantastic realms. The dimension the sisters stumbled into was not one of those.

They now found themselves in a denser forest that managed to be even darker than the one they had just left. The younger sister, sensing something was wrong, turned to run back the way she had come. Unfortunately, this portal, like so many others, was only one way. Running through the stone pillars had no effect.

While the older sister wanted to stay near the pillars, in case they became active again, the younger wanted to look for another way out. She would take a few steps and then look back to make sure her sister was still in sight. Several times her sister admonished her to return, each time growing more insistent. She did not listen, until finally she turned around and could no longer see her sister.

Overcome with fear, she ran back towards the pillars, but she must have gotten the directions confused because she could not find them. Nothing looked familiar. Calling to her sister produced no response. Off in the distance, she caught a glimpse of a pale light. Hoping it might represent help, she walked towards it.

As she drew nearer, she could see that the light came from a lamp at the top of a tall pole, which stood along side a wide dirt path. Underneath the light, a man was bent over, digging a hole. Hope sprung up and drove her forward. That same hope died just as quickly when she got closer and saw that the man had the head of a bull. She screamed and turned to run away from the monster, only to be picked up by a large, vaguely human looking creature whose face seemed to be melted half off.

Every being in the forest existed for one purpose, to kill anything that made its way inside. I would like to tell you, dear reader, about the uniquely kind creature who helped the girls and guided them back home. I wish I could tell you that story. Sadly that isn’t what happened. There was no such kindly creature.

Her older sister, who had been looking for her, heard the scream before it was abruptly cut off. The terror was unmistakable, and concern for her sister overrode any sense of self-preservation. By the time she made her way to where the scream had originated, it was too late; her sister was quite obviously dead.

Before she could run away, she too was grabbed by the ogre. It was about to snap her neck like it had her sister’s, when the minotaur stopped it. He explained his plan, and the ogre agreed.

The minotaur was not a monster with a good heart. Like every creature in the forest, he hated all living beings and only knew how to kill. But there was one thing that made him different: he hated his own life as much as he hated the lives of others. More than killing, he wanted to die. He had lived longer than he could remember, and he longed for oblivion. Yet the forest let nothing within its boundaries die. This was the curse that every creature in the forest suffered, and the minotaur had had enough.

Alongside the path, nearly hidden by overgrowth, was a motorized metal carriage. There were artifacts like this scattered around the forest. Like the sisters, they arrived in the forest seemingly at random and by accident. Generally, the inhabitants of the forest ignored them. Since these items were from elsewhere, the minotaur believed they might inhibit the rules of the forest.

The minotaur and the ogre climbed into the carriage, dragging the unconscious girl with them. They made sure the doors were locked from the inside so that no one could get in. Once they were secure, the minotaur lit a fire. They didn’t need to burn to death; suffocation would be an easy way to go. And if they died in here, away from the forest, they should stay dead. The girl’s death should seal their own.

The minotaur’s plan had been a good one, but the girl’s death was unnecessary and involving her undermined it all. The minotaur and ogre had stopped breathing when she woke up. She shouldn’t have. There was no oxygen left in the carriage. The pain of being on fire was somehow enough to overcome that obstacle, and she woke screaming in agony.

Truthfully, she was already dead, but her body continued to struggle to escape. Fumbling through the flames, she managed to get a door open and fell out. Her screams persisted until her body finally gave up.

Much later, the forest revived the minotaur. Climbing out of the carriage, he saw the girl’s body on the ground. In his anger at finding himself still alive, he bent down to take out his rage on what remained of her. When he turned her over, he saw that her head had been changed. It looked like the head of an octopus with tentacles where her mouth should be. Her eyes opened suddenly, and she began screaming again. This time, the sound was in human. The forest had made her one of its own.

Animals

I hope you will all forgive me a little self-indulgence. I have been thinking about death a little more than usual of late. It is distracting me and keeping me from my usual writing routine. (And several other routines, if I’m being honest.)

I have had a few animals die in my life, and each time it breaks my heart anew. I’ve thought a lot about why it affects me so much. Our animals depend on us. For everything. And when things go wrong, it’s not a simple matter to explain it to them. They struggle to let us know that they’re suffering, and we struggle to reassure them and to make decisions in their best interests.

It’s all a crap-shoot. All we can do is try our best to give them the best lives possible and hope that they feel secure. And when the time comes to say goodbye, all we can do is hope that we’ve made the best decision for them. None of it’s easy. And yet, life would feel so empty without them.

Calvin (from Calvin and Hobbes) once said “I’m crying because out there he’s gone, but he’s not gone inside me.” Our animals give us so much. All we can do is hope to be worthy of their love and affection.