I have a confession to make. When I first came to this world, I was excited. I thought I could be someone else. They told me I could be a hero. But it turned out that people don’t change that easily. Cowards are still cowards. And I was a coward.
But then I was afraid when I learned that people could change. People could change entirely, and that scared me as much as not changing. Then, I was frightened of what I might become.
Now I know the truth. People don’t change so easily. They can, but what this world does isn’t change us. Rather, it shows us who we are. Heroes. Cowards.
And monsters. And I am all three. They call me a hero, I know I am a coward, and I have a monster in my soul. The devil dances in the mirror and laughs. I call his name.
“Tom? Hey Tom, you’ve got snow in your hair.”
A tentative voice wakes me up from my thoughts. I pull myself up on my horse and brush at my head. I don’t feel any wet. And when I find what’s stuck there, I realize it isn’t snow. It’s a flower petal. White, beautiful, fallen from high overhead.
White petals. They float down softly among the sounds of people cheering from the rooftops of houses. I look to my left, the little petal in my hands. Richard grins at me and tugs the hat on his head a bit higher. It should be silly to wear a cowboy hat over armor, but I have to admit, Richard pulls the Stetson off quite well. Maybe it’s because he’s also mounted.
Nothing like a cowboy [Knight] to get the crowds going. I flick the petal towards him as my own horse plods along the paved street.
“You should smile and wave at them. They’re cheering for you as well.”
“Mm. That’s because they don’t know me.”
Richard shakes his head. I sigh, but obligingly wave a hand upwards. A few more people add their voices to the cheering. It’s a small crowd, really. A thousand people in a city built to hold far more than that. But they gather, and around me, the others are waving, blowing kisses. They’re glad to be here. And as the petals float down, I admit, so am I.
Petals. They’re whiter than snow. In Rhir, snowfall is cold and wet. And often—tainted. Grey, or sometimes black, by whatever curse lies upon the land. It’s said the black snow is a product of the blighted lands themselves, and the people avoid touching it where it falls.
Not that that’s a problem here. I look up, and up, my eyes travelling across sky bridges, made of wood and stone, buildings which reach up like small skyscrapers, layers of houses, shops, and more packed into one place. It’s like and unlike a city from my world in so many ways. The height is there, yes, but the aerial walkways and ramparts? No.
“New York City looked like this, once, you know.”
I look back at Richard. He nods.
“Keith told me. He’s into architecture.”
“Engineering major. Right.”
It’s funny, I’d forgotten. But of course, Keith would have been a freshman in Pennsylvania. Lehigh University. It’s so strange. I never went to college, but I can’t imagine being that certain about what I’d want to do with my life that early. I didn’t know what I wanted when I was taken, that’s for sure.
“So New York looked like this a while back? Why’d they stop?”
“I don’t know. Construction costs? People falling? You should ask him.”
I glance back down the line of people on horseback, catch sight of Keith. I hesitate, shake my head.
“Nah. I’m not that curious.”
“Come on, Tom.”
“Nah. But I will go for a walk up there sometime. Looks like fun. So long as you don’t slip.”
“Yeah. Emily’s going to hate it, though.”
“She gets vertigo something fierce. Maybe we can get a room on the ground floor, do you think?”
“Not sure. I guess that depends on the impression we make. Hey, I’m going to ride ahead, okay?”
I gently nudge the horse I’m riding on with my heels. The brown creature grudgingly accelerates a bit while Richard slows his to hang back with the others. He makes it look so easy. He sits on his stallion like they’ve known each other for years. I can barely get my mare to stop.
Alone again. I know Richard’s trying to be nice and talk to me, but I don’t need it. I keep my horse more or less between the group from my world, the twenty or so Americans who were summoned to this world, and our escort. Soldiers ride ahead and behind me, armor gleaming, but showing evidence of battle. The people cheer us all the harder because of it.
We are heroes. And some of us are [Heroes]. I’m not.
Not anymore. I gave that up with everything else months ago. Now I’m just Tom. Thomas, if you’re my mom. And I’m riding through the city as petals fall onto my shoulders and get caught in my hair. I look up again.
And the city takes my breath away.
So beautiful. The tangle of buildings and pathways through the sky really are a sight unique to this world. There are bridges large enough for horses to ride across, and for wagons to roll through! A city climbing to the sky. And why not? The people live close together, behind walls. Why not build a city like this, in this continent of ceaseless war?
This is Rhir. And this is the heart of the kingdom, the shield city known as Paranfer, whose walls have stood for thousands of years. But even here, behind the four great walls built by generations of the inhabitants, safety is not always guaranteed. As I look up, I see evidence of that in the form of watch towers, manned even in the capital city.
And of course, we passed through the six successive outer walls of the city and the seventh, being built as we rode in. Each wall is taller than the last, and of course, patrolled by guards. I’m told that with each new wall, a new layer of housing is added to the ones beneath. I wonder how the architecture can handle it? The foundations of each building must be hundreds of feet deep. Or enchanted.
In this sprawling, tightly-knit overgrowth of civilization, it’s possible to walk up six stories and walk with the covered roofs of the city shielding you from the corrupted rain or snow that might pour down without warning, or venture far, far beneath, to the streets and gutters where the sewers run black, depositing their contents into the sea.
Apparently people live down there, in the sewers. The magical pollution does something to them. But whatever dangers the contamination might pose, it still runs into the sea. And there it flows west and north. Towards the edge of the world.
Beyond Rhir, there is no world. A few islands perhaps, and oceanic depths no one has explored. But beyond that? The end of the world. A great abyss from which no one returns. The world is flat, and you can sail right off it. Rhir sits at the edge of the world—so do the islanders, a group of strange foreigners who clash with Minotaurs and sometimes sail towards civilization.
Or so I’ve been told. I know only what other people tell me about this world. I have never left this continent, not in the months I’ve been here. And I’ve only ever seen this city once before.
My heart stirs as I watch the petals floating down. The people are still cheering above, waiting along the route of our procession. Not a lot of them, but some. They’re shouting, crying out the rallying call of Rhir.
“The Walls stand!”
“The Blighted King sits upon his throne!”
“To the ends of the world and back! Rhir! The last war! The endless war!”
Fierce shouts, from men, women, and children alike. There’s no doubt in their voices, no sense of embarrassment for what they say. Each one is filled with burning pride in who they are, love for their country.
Patriots. It’s an odd thought. I feel a chill and look towards the palace rising above the rest of the city. It is gigantic, apparently taller than any other such building in the world. It was designed by Dwarfs, added to year after year, and made to never be taken. Yes. Rhir might be blighted, afflicted by dark magic and attacked by strange new monsters year after year. Yes, the Demon King waits and sends his armies forth to bring down the walls.
But it is great for that reason. Because Rhir will not fall. It alone boasts the most skilled and deadly warriors from all races. The kingdom has ancient treasures, unyielding protectors, and its [King] is known throughout the world. All nations know of Rhir, and if the horns call, they send their armies. For if Rhir falls, the world is next.
…Or so I’m told. It sounds to me like Rhir is isolated, cut off from the rest of the world by the battle only the people here will fight. But to the people, their struggle is pride and purpose.
Another petal floats down. It’s truly beautiful, and I’m glad to see it. I’ve had enough of grey and black snow, or worse, red snow. I reach up as it flutters towards my face.
This petal is soft and cool, chilled by the air, but warming, like the weather. I catch it and sniff at it. The smell is sweet, vanishingly faint, and melancholy. Just as soon as I sniff, I sneeze. I wipe at my nose and feel my skin itching. I quickly brush the petal off and note that my skin is already turning red.
“Great. I think I’m allergic to that.”
Why can’t I have nice things? I sigh. I ride on, and hear a little voice.
Maybe because you’re not a nice person. Or maybe it’s genetics. Either way, you’d better hope you don’t inhale one of those or you might die of anaphylactic shock. Now, how funny would that be? There’s no EpiPen in this world. Go on, sniff another and see how fast your throat closes up.
It’s not a nice thought. I ignore it and sigh.
Come on, you can’t ignore me. Or rather, you. Is it me or you? Both? It’s like a thought you can’t ignore. Or a song. Remember the one about badgers?
The voice is back. I’m afraid it’ll plague me all day this time. My voice, to be exact. No one else’s. Nothing to be worried about. It’s just a voice. In my head. Everyone has a little voice in their head, right?
It doesn’t make me crazy. Even though I am insane. But [Lesser Insanity] isn’t…isn’t…
Fun? Entertaining? Totally batshit crazy? Where were you going with that one?
Let’s try this again.
Hi. My name is Tom. I’m a Level 28 [Clown]. Only, I’m retired. You’d never know it to look at me, as I ride through the streets of Rhir with an escort of soldiers and my friends. I look normal. Just a guy in slightly worn clothing, slightly overweight, but not as heavy as I used to be—I lost weight. I have scars you can’t see, and a funny walk. But that’s all. I’m white, American, and as bland as you can be.
I don’t wear the face paint any longer. I don’t color my nose red, or paint my face whiter than it usually is. I don’t juggle, do tricks, or anything remotely funny if I can help it. I’ve given up being a [Clown]. I really have.
And I’m not insane. I’m not. Not entirely. Not yet.
Keep telling yourself that.
“Okay, maybe Richard was right.”
I gently pull on the reins of my horse. She freezes, and I nearly topple off her. I groan, turn her around, and walk her back. Towards the others.
There they are, twenty of them. Not all clustered up at once of course; they’re riding in a procession, so it’s two to four abreast, all moving slowly down the street. Not the widest of streets, either, and not one lined by cheering people, you’ll note. This is one of the entry streets to Paranfer, and as such it’s meant to be kept empty of all traffic except those going this way. The general citizenry stays above.
I was riding at the head of our little procession, but now I head back. There are four people there. Richard, our own southern cowboy [Knight], the leader of our ragtag group. Emily, another leader, beloved, a [Hydromancer]. And next to them Keith, a [Blacksmith] who wants to find out if there is an [Engineer] class, and Chole. Chole’s a [Nurse].
Richard breaks off from talking with Chole and the others at once. They all fall silent as I awkwardly guide my horse over to them. I see Emily actually pull her horse back a bit. That’s fine. Understandable, even.
“Hey Richard, guess what? Turns out I’m allergic to the pretty flowers.”
“Well, that ain’t good. At least we’re not being showered by the stuff, then.”
Richard shakes his head. I turn my horse and fall in with him. Emily hesitates, but it’s Chole who backs up until she’s behind us. I ride next to Richard, pretending not to notice the way Keith stares at me. Of course, Richard acts like nothing’s amiss. He’s considerate like that.
“Reckon we’ll be in the main part of the city soon. It’s a big place, isn’t it? I didn’t see much of it the first time we were here, but we’ll be going through a bigger section soon, with a larger escort.”
“Are they actually going to throw a parade for us? I thought all of this was what we were going to get.”
Emily waves a hand up at the balconies overhead. A girl cheers down at her, which doesn’t in turn cheer her up. She wanted a parade, and we barely got that. I don’t care. Keith looks as skeptical as Richard and I feel.
“I don’t know. We’re not exactly in favor, are we? It’s only ‘cause you and Richard are over Level 30 that we’re getting acknowledged at all, right? For fighting Demons and monsters. Well, that and…”
He glances sideways at me. I ignore the look and hunch my shoulders.
How can you ignore a look and respond to it? Just say it out loud, Tom. We’re getting invited back to the capital because you killed a bunch of innocent people. Wait, I mean, the Demons killed the innocent people and you killed them. That makes you a hero! Right?
Richard clears his throat.
“So long as we can get behind some actual walls for a spell, I’m grateful. And if the Blighted King wants to see us, that’s fine. So long as we can impress his majesty, that is.”
He’s looking at me now, too. I look up and meet his eyes.
“I’m done, Richard. I told you that.”
He nods. Emily doesn’t look convinced. Keith opens his mouth and Richard speaks.
“Look, we’re here.”
Our street opens and takes us into a grand plaza. One of many, but grand nonetheless. It’s large enough to hold thousands of people, or at least, make us feel tiny as we enter it on horseback.
“Alright, we’re here! Off the horses!”
As we enter the square, our leader calls out and I gladly slide from my saddle. I hear one of our number, Eddy, grumbling as we do.
“Why can’t we ride to the palace? I can see it from here!”
“If you can see it, you can walk to it. Besides, some roads are foot traffic only. Stop complaining.”
Vincent calls out as he helps Chole off her horse. Eddy mutters, but doesn’t respond outright. He grumbled when we had to ride as well, since he wasn’t used to riding in the first place. I guess he got used to it.
Now we’re in the plaza, I look around. There are many roads entering here, and the ground has some kind of spiral pattern to it. The colored bricks make me feel as though I’m being drawn to the center.
I say it to no one. Unfortunately, someone responds.
As lovely as a whirlpool. Do you think it’s a spell? It might be. Anger the wrong person and you’ll be sucked into the ground in the center, there. Right by the man selling daggers with the stall.
Why do I think like this? I sigh, take my mind off the idea of magical traps, and loiter with the rest of my group in the absent-minded sort of way crowds do when they’re waiting for someone to tell them what to do next.
“Oh, look. Beggars!”
A soft cry comes up from one of the other girls. I look and see Cynthia pointing with dismay at a girl with a bowl sitting around the edge of the plaza. She’s young. Can’t be more then eight, perhaps. The attention of my group is drawn instantly to her, and her situation.
“We should give her something.”
“Why? Look, she’s probably fed—”
“You don’t know that!”
“Yeah, but if you give her money, what about everyone else? Look how many there are.”
“Tom, toss me a coin, would you?”
Richard settles the matter before it can turn into another argument. He raises a hand as he walks over to the girl, who looks up hopefully. I sigh and dig around in a pouch at my waist.
There’s a good twenty feet of distance between me and Richard, and it’s growing each time he takes a step. Still, that doesn’t matter.
I have a Skill.
You’ve got lots of skills, Tommy boy. You just don’t use them.
Ignore that. I have a good Skill. Not like the—others. The ones I received that night.
Oh, happy memories.
[Lesser Insanity]. [Horrific Laughter]. [Devil’s Luck]. [Greater Pain Tolerance]. And…[Weapon Proficiency: Knives]. Those are the skills I received on the day when I went crazy. When I had a breakdown and slaughtered a group of Demon soldiers.
Correction: when you acted heroically. That’s why you leveled, right? You were a hero! Sorry, I mean, [Hero]!
Ignore it. Ignore…since then I’ve leveled up four more times. I learned a few cool skills. The first is [Unerring Throw], which allows me to hit any target I aim at, so long as what I’m aiming at doesn’t dodge or block, or if the throw’s physically impossible for me.
Cue me tossing the silver coin to Richard, over the heads of everyone else. He catches it in one gauntleted hand and offers it to the kid. He kneels down with her and Cynthia and a few others go over. I stand back, counting up the coins we have now.
Some gold, some silver…one less. Not a lot; not if we’re buying all the gear everyone wants. But why don’t I think that’ll stop Cynthia from demanding more coins for every child beggar we have? I sigh.
You don’t really care.
I don’t. It’s true. But it is my job to manage the coin. I guess I can be okay with handing it out whenever anyone asks. Because that’s my job in this group. Some people are leaders, like Richard and Emily, others have opinions like Eddy who knows a lot about games, and others…why do I feel like this is the student council and I’m back in High School? Maybe because I have a position very similar to that here.
Treasurer. Actually, I’m more like a glorified purse. I keep the money Richard and the others are given, and give it out only when everyone votes we use it. Or when Richard says. I also help make sure everyone gets food for the night, manage our supplies of potions and so on…it’s not an important job. I do it because I won’t fight. I refuse to fight.
I had enough of it after the night when Wilen died.
Squashy, squashy. Troll goes stompy. And little Tom goes crazy.
For a second I debate stabbing myself. Right in the eye, or the side. Would that make the voice go away?
Try it and find out! One stab and everyone’ll believe there’s a voice in your head! Why not?
I hate you so much. Hate me. I know you’re not real.
“…Tom! Tom! Get out of the way!”
A voice calls out. I look up, and realize someone’s right on top of me. A scaly, orange face, glinting chainmail, a spear grasped by a claw-like hand—a lizard-guy is bearing down on top of me! Scratch that, a lot of lizard guys, marching in tight formation!
He’s about to walk into me. I twist out of the way, gracefully for a guy my size. One step, and the huge lizard man misses me by a fraction of a millimeter. His buddies march past as well as I step away.
That’s the second skill I learned. [Flawless Dodge]. It only works when I’m ready for what’s coming at me, and I can’t do it every time. But I feel pretty spry whenever it works.
“Company, halt! Stop running over civilians, you thick-scaled idiots!”
A voice shouts, and the lizard people stop instantly. They turn like a single unit, and I see another one striding towards me. She has black scales, a narked expression on her face, and a plumed helmet. Clearly an officer.
Or an enthusiastic cosplayer.
“Sorry about that. This lot is trained to walk over anyone in the way, nevermind that we’re guests here. In a Human city.”
She addresses me and her soldiers with a glare probably meant for them. Then she turns as Richard strides over. She glances at me, and then nods at him. Yeah, that’s a fair assessment. He is wearing armor and he looks in charge.
“Are you the group known as the, uh…‘Americans’? Sorry we’re late.”
She pronounces the word oddly. Richard nods, extends a hand to shake. It’s odd being called Americans, especially since America’s a big place. Two continents, rather than one country. But hell, I guess America means the United States, not anywhere else.
And I mean, what else were we supposed to call ourselves when we were asked who we were? Anyways, Richard is used to the awkwardness.
“Yes Ma’am. We’re the Americans. And you are?”
She grasps his hand firmly. I note her claws, although Richard is wearing a gauntlet. She’s a lizard! A giant lizard person! With a tail! And she’s clearly a she. There’s just something about her size, voice, and physique that tells me definitely that she’s female while the soldier who nearly ran into me is male. She’s humanoid enough in that respect.
“Cirille Bitterclaw, at your service. I’m the sorry [Commander] of this lot.”
“Richard Davenport, Ma’am. A pleasure.”
Cirille blinks a bit at being called ‘Ma’am’. It’s customary to call people ‘Miss’ or ‘Mister’ in this world unless they have a formal title, but Richard just can’t get over calling people Sir or Ma’am no matter how many times he’s corrected.
“You’re our escort today?”
Emily comes over, Cirille nods briskly and indicates a large road her and the other lizards just walked down.
“That’s right, Miss. We’re your honorary guard. We’ll be walking you about two miles to the palace.”
“What? All of you?”
The lizard woman smiles wryly.
“That’s right. We’re dressed up for a little celebration, as you can see. There will be flowers, cheering—even if no one says who you are. There’s people in this city who’ll cheer a rolling barrel if it has an escort.”
I snort quietly. So much for our heroic return. What did Emily expect? We got kicked out of here the first time we arrived.
When we first came to Rhir, when we came to this world, we were welcomed with celebrations by the King himself and all the court. We were feasted, given parades…until they realized we weren’t actual heroes, but lost kids who couldn’t swing a sword properly. Then they shipped us out to die.
They brought us back because some of us proved we could fight.
And some of us slaughtered a bunch of Demons. Let’s not forget that.
…But I guess they’re not rolling out the red carpet for us this time, unless these lizards are meant to be more important than Rhir’s soldiers? Nah.
Cirille says pretty much the same thing to Richard as her soldiers line up on either side of us, looking bored and disinterested.
“Us? We’re not locals, Miss. We’re one of the foreign companies sent here on duty to assist the Blighted King. Sometimes that means escorting people around. Every day. Not the bigwigs, though. Us being here means you’re important enough for an escort, but not enough for a full parade. They’d give you an escort of their own [Knights] and so on if you were. We get stuck marching for the lesser dignitaries and officials. Shall we?”
Richard nods. Our group forms up more or less in a line, and I see Cynthia and some of the others staring nervously at the lizard soldiers on either side. Oh no. My stomach clenches. This better not be like the incident with the Selphid soldier.
Aaah! Zombie! Burn the unholy thing! Don’t let it touch me! And then there was Emily washing her hands after shaking the soldier’s hand in plain view. Good times. Who says racism is dead? Or is it speciesism?
Richard must be thinking the same thing. He coughs and addresses Cirille before she gives the order to march.
“Pardon me for bringing this up, Ma’am, but we’ve never actually met someone from your…species before. Are you a, uh, liz—”
The entire group of soldiers seems to freeze for a second. Cirille cuts Richard off before he can continue.
“We’re Drakes, sir. Drakes. Different from Lizardfolk. Very different. If you haven’t seen any of those b—those other soldiers from Baleros, I imagine it’s an easy mistake to make. But we’re different.”
He nods, gingerly.
“My apologies, Miss Cirille.”
“Taken. Let’s move out, you lot! Slowly!”
And so we do. I linger near Richard, letting him do the talking as we march down out of the plaza and down one of the big roads leading to the palace ahead. Sure enough, there are people waving and cheering as we go by. I’m more interested in the conversation, though.
“That’s right. I was assigned to Rhir with my company. We got the short straw, depending on how you look at it. All the other parts of our army were assigned to the front or to patrol various spots, but they needed someone to look shiny and didn’t want to waste their own soldiers on the job.”
“Oh? Is that normal?”
“Pretty much. Every nation has to send an army to support Rhir. If it were all-out war, I’d be under the command of an actual [General] and there would be at least two Drake armies here. But it’s not, so our lot gets to patrol and go claw-to-claw with those Demon bastards on the front for fun. It’s part of the old treaties, you know.”
Richard nods. He knows, and I do too. Rhir is at war. It has been for thousands of years, apparently. Right now the Blighted King, the sole ruler of the continent, is battling the Demon King, who is the leader of…the continent. But of Demons and monsters, so apparently he’s not acknowledged as an actual king.
Bit weird, that. Why call him a king, then?
Anyways, the Demons and monsters that come from the corrupted part of the continent are so dangerous that four walls were built to hold them back, and there’s almost always fighting somewhere or other. The Blighted Kingdom gets aid from the rest of the world to hold the Demons back, apparently in the form of soldiers as well.
I eye Cirille. She’s a Drake? Does that mean she’s related to Dragons as opposed to…well, whatever a Lizardperson is related to? Unlike the rest of her soldiers, her armor is open at the back to let two vestigial wings out. They’re folded up neatly and rather small. She notices me looking and smiles. Toothily.
“Oldblood. Don’t mind the wings; they’re for show. I can’t get off the ground, but apparently that means I’m special enough to get chosen for a year’s service in this hellhole.”
“Oh. Uh. I’m Tom.”
“Pleased. I don’t get to talk to the people I’m marching with that often. Usually they’re too important. You a warrior?”
“Nope. Not me. I—no.”
She blinks at me.
Smooth, Tom. Nice going. The one person who thinks you’re not crazy and you tip her off in five seconds. Is that a Skill, too?
I hate the voice in my head.
Talking to voices, Tom. First sign of madness.
But I’m not insane. I’m not. The voice is…a voice. A figment of my imagination. Nothing more.
Only an insane person would have to tell himself he’s sane.
“Or a really sane person would say that. Because only sane people check to make sure they’re not insane.”
“What did you say, Tom?”
Ahead of me, Emily stops waving, looking slightly—I stop muttering under my breath and try to smile at her. Not hugely, not creepily wide or anything else like that. A small, slight smile.
“Nothing. Just talking to myself.”
Aha. Look at her face. She doesn’t think that’s normal!
Everyone talks to themselves. Introverts probably do it more than extroverts, and Emily’s definitely the latter. But everyone does do it. That doesn’t make me any crazier for acknowledging that.
So you say. Keep telling yourself that.
Shut up, me.
Time to explain again. Hi, I’m Tom.
You did that already.
Shut up, shut up! I’m Tom. And I’m not insane. I can’t be. I just…it’s not a voice in my head. Or rather, it’s just another part of me. That’s the trick, you see? I have to understand that. If I don’t, I’m schizophrenic, or paranoid.
But the voice is me. It’s a bad joke, as if I’m playing devil’s advocate with everything I do. It’s overthinking things, putting words to an imaginary personality. But there’s only me in here.
Keep telling yourself that. Did I say that already?
Isn’t it fun? I sigh and slap myself, which makes one of the Drake [Soldiers] walking with me eye me oddly. I ignore him.
If it’s not a voice in my head, then what? I think about that every day. If it’s not a voice…
It started the day after the others found me surrounded by Demon corpses, drenched in blood, laughing my head off and nearly dying of blood loss. I swore I’d never be a [Clown] again, never fight. Not when I saw and remembered what I’d done. I let the crazy out. I went insane. And it’s been my choice to not do it again. Because it is me that did all those terrible things, that slaughtered those soldiers. Not anyone else.
Not a monster, you mean.
Exactly. It’s me. Not anything else. And because I know that, I won’t go crazy.
Unless you already are. Keep telling yourself I’m just a voice, Tom. But we both know the truth. You’re crazy. And the smile you show everyone else, the little act? It’s wearing thin, day after day. You lost it the day Wilen died. And all your ‘friends’ are waiting for the day you snap again.
I don’t see much of the city during the march. I’m busy humming loudly in my head. But I do catch up with Cirille as she tells Richard about some of the capital’s highlights.
“If you’ve got time, head down towards the port area. That’s where most of us foreigners hang out off-duty. The Baleros and Chandrar companies are already headed towards the Fourth Wall, and I don’t envy them, but the Terandrians still have a detachment hanging about.”
“Humans like you. Sorry, I assumed—are you from Baleros or Chandrar, then?”
“No, we’re from further away than that.”
“Really? Where, if you don’t mind me asking?”
I don’t get to hear how Richard talks his way out of this one. I hear a shout as we pass through another set of gates, from up ahead. Cirille, Richard, and I step forwards quickly and see Cynthia running backwards, face white and pale.
Richard and I instantly freeze. My heart begins to pound. A Demon? Here? In the city? It can’t be. But Richard’s hand is already on his sword and my own demon begins whispering in my head. Yet it’s Cirille who doesn’t panic. She grips Richard before he can draw his blade.
“Hold up. I think I know what the problem is.”
She leads quickly past the suddenly wary Drakes, and we pass by a stretch of…what I can only call displays of enemy prisoners. There are cages, small, cramped, and hung from massive chains or put on platforms for passersby to stare at. And they hold something to remind the people living in the city who to hate.
They have horns, dark skin which is purple in many cases, but their appearances can be as mutated and different depending on which Demon it is. Some might pass for Human…if you ignore a third eye or extra limb. But they are Demons, sworn to kill all the people of Rhir.
And one is sitting in an iron cage ahead of us. He’s the only one; the other cages are empty, although I can see bloodstains dried in several. Not many Demons get captured alive, apparently. And this one’s just sitting there, a good distance away from our procession. Only Cynthia would freak out that much over seeing one, but then, no one in our group is happy to see them.
They slaughtered us. Over two thirds of our groups died in one night when we were sent to the front lines. Even seeing one now makes me afraid. But he is behind bars.
“It’s just one Demon, Cynthia. Don’t scream.”
Richard admonishes Cynthia, who’s gone into hysterics. Behind us, one of the Drakes mutters something uncomplimentary about Humans. Cirille shuts him up. I keep staring.
This Demon has bright yellow eyes, two curved horns like a ram, and fur. Normal, human feet, though, which is odd. Four toes, four fingers. He’s…weird.
“Stay back. That’s one of the captives they just brought in. A Fearless.”
Cirille orders her soldiers and the rest of us on, but she stays, eying the Demon in the cage. I look at her. Some of the crowd that was cheering our passing has broken away and is jeering and shouting at him. They look angry. Some have rocks.
“What’s a Fearless? Why is he here?”
The Drake shrugs.
“Search me. It’s one of the things you Humans do. Sorry, I mean, the people of the Blighted Kingdom do. They like reminding themselves what the enemy looks like, I guess. Drakes, we just kill our enemies. But it’s worth memorizing these guys. Know what a Fearless is?”
One of the people in front, a young woman, hurls a stone. It glances off the bars of the cage. A bad throw. But more start throwing stones. The Fearless sits there, not moving an inch. A rock strikes his shoulder, drawing a bit of blood. The crowd cheers. But the Demon doesn’t look afraid. Not at all. A look of irritation flashes over his face and he covers his face with one hand.
“Fearless are a type of Demon. They have a class. Well, I say class, but it’s more like an addition to their normal class. [Fearless Warrior], [Fearless Mage], get it? And the class does exactly what you’d think. They can’t feel fear. Not at all.”
I stare at the Demon. He’s got scars all over his body, beneath the fur. From the look of it, he’s been stoned before. Badly. But when the hail of rocks subsides a bit, he lowers his hand and stares around, and his eyes do indeed contain no fear.
That makes the crowd lose some of their rage. If the Demon was defiant, or raging at them, they might have kept going. But this Fearless…it’s one thing to master your fear. But another to have none. It’s…unnatural.
I can see it in the way the Demon moves, the way he looks around. He’s wary of the rocks, of being blinded or hurt. He doesn’t like the pain. But he doesn’t fear it either. And he doesn’t fear death. The Fearless stares around, watchful, calculating.
Then he looks at me. He stares at me and Cirille. She glares at him. I shudder and look away. We walk away as the Fearless sits in his cage, rejoining the procession.
You and he are the same. Don’t deny it.
Ignore the voice. I turn to Cirille as we catch up with the others. Richard’s ahead, trying to get Cynthia to calm down before she has a panic attack.
“So that’s a type of Demon? There are lots of them like him?”
“Dead gods, I hope not.”
Cirille shudders, her tail twitching as she walks briskly ahead of me.
“They’re more like shock troopers. Each one’s a dangerous fighter who’s not afraid to die, and they’ll charge through killing grounds if they have to. They’re not idiots, but they’re willing to die to take you with them. The Demon King uses them when he wants to win. I don’t know how many people that one killed, but I’d rather see him dead than in a cage.”
We pass by a street that looks like it leads to some kind of fantastical bazaar, and then one devoted entirely to food. I stare at a cut of dark grey meat and point it out to Cirille. She looks sideways at it and one of the soldiers at the back of the parade mutters. She shakes her head.
I break off, not wanting to startle my companions ahead of me. Cirille looks uneasy and shakes her head before lowering her voice.
“They eat Demons here. I don’t like it, but that’s how it works. See the fellow buying? That’s one of the [Flesh Reapers]. Don’t bother them.”
I see a hooded figure with long, long arms reaching for a dripping package from the stony-faced [Butcher].
Mm. Tasty. Try some. I’m sure you could get a sample.
I shudder and hurry on.
In the end, our parade reaches the gates of the palace without more incident. I pretty much tune out the cheering. It might be meant for me, but I can’t find any pleasure in it.
Would it help if they were screaming?
And I’m—distracted. I always am. Cirille sees us off at the gates as the Drake [Soldiers] stand at attention. One of them yawns widely until the guy next to her elbows her in the side.
“Here we are. I might see you inside at the banquet tonight. Anyone with any kind of nobility or a title gets invited. Look for the Drakes if you want to find me.”
She nods, and Richard shakes her hand again. She walks past me, and the Drakes depart. The rest of us stare up at the gate. It’s massive, and beyond it, a huge courtyard leads up to the palace of the Blighted King. A staircase stretches from the courtyard to the palace gates, and the citadel rises higher, so high it feels like it’s touching the clouds.
We stayed here, once. We will again. This time, I wonder if we’re wiser, or if the Blighted King will see more of what he wants in us. I don’t know. And I am afraid.
He scares me. Being here scares me. But what scares me most is the little voice I can’t get rid of. It whispers as we walk through the gates.
His name is Nereshal. With a name like that, he should be tall, lean, with a strong face, perhaps an Egyptian-style nose, long and sharp, and piercing features. He’s not. Instead, he’s rather short, slightly overweight, although not as heavy as I am, and his nose isn’t nearly that pronounced.
But his eyes are piercing. They have the cold, detached look I’ve seen before, in the eyes of the soldiers escorting us. The eyes of someone who’s seen war. And he wears dark grey robes lined with silver that don’t quite hide the scars on his arms and left hand.
He lectures us as he leads us through the palace on a tour.
“You may recall the rules for staying here from your previous visits, but it is my duty to remind you of the laws of the Kingdom. Specifically, about magic.”
We pass by countless rooms, meant for sleeping, eating, training, planning battle, or just as diversions. Rooms filled with treasures, a room full of huge, floor-to-wall mirrors without a single flaw, a room filled with bright lights that hover around randomly—countless wonders, treasures of the Blighted King. His palace is rich, even if the people who live on the edges of his Kingdom can barely eat.
We pass all of it by as Nereshal lectures us. He points to a glowing light the size of my head, placed just above head height in the corridor we’re walking down. Without it, the enclosed palace would be dark as night. There are few windows, and the passageways throughout the place are a labyrinth unto themselves, especially given how large the palace is. It could hold several lesser castles easily.
“Mage lights. By law, no outdoor area in Paranfer may be dark at night. To prevent assassins and spies from entering the city as well as crime. That goes for within the palace as well. They are impossible to disrupt by accident, but note that tampering with them is a crime.”
“Like failing to present arms when ordered, obeying a guard, yeah, yeah, what’s not a crime around here?”
Nereshal stops abruptly and turns to Eddy. I groan and Richard glares at him. Eddy raises his hands.
“What? I’m just saying.”
He never knows when to shut up. Now Nereshal stares at him, and Eddy’s grin slips a bit.
“Okay, it’s serious.”
“You do not seem to understand that. You are guests of his majesty, not arrogant [Princes]. You do not have the authority to order around servants. And I am no servant.”
Nereshal’s hand reaches out. He doesn’t tap Eddy, but whatever Eddy was about to say is cut off. His mouth gapes open and his eyes widen. He tries to speak, I know he does. His mouth begins to close, incredibly slowly. Panicked, Eddy’s hands feel at his mouth, quickly searching around his face.
“What did you do to him?”
Richard interposes himself between Nereshal and Eddy, looking concerned and angry. The [Mage] glances at Richard.
“I slowed the passage of time around his mouth. It will wear off. And he will learn to mind his manners here.”
There’s a pause as everyone stares at him. Vincent’s voice raises in disbelief.
“You’re a time mage?”
“I thought time magic was impossible!”
Emily, our highest-level [Mage], stares at Nereshal. So do I. I don’t remember him from our first time here, but then, it was a blur to me. Nereshal nods coldly.
“Lesser [Mages] may believe so. But the magic of time is another form of power, and the Blighted Kingdom demands all forms of magic in its defense.”
“What can you do, if you don’t mind me asking?”
Richard looks at Nereshal, once it becomes clear that Eddy’s mouth is the only thing affected. The [Mage] strides onwards, speaking quickly and precisely.
“I can speed up a flight of arrows or slow an enemy’s charge. I can hasten a weather front moving in, or slow the collapse of a wall. But I remain here for my most important duty.”
He glances over his shoulder with those cold eyes.
“Preventing the aging of the Blighted King. So he may rule a month, a year, a decade longer. Until I am released from my duties here, I also act as his steward. Take heed of my warnings. If you are found violating any of the laws, the guards who patrol may not wait for explanations. And if you survive that, I will administer a fitting punishment.”
No one has much to say about that. I glance around the group. I’m at the back, since everyone else gets nervous when they stand next to me. We’re definitely not getting treated like we did before. Which might be a good thing.
“Are there any other rules we might break by accident, Sir?”
Richard speaks to Nereshal as he leads us to our rooms, a series of individual bedrooms in a far wing of the palace. The [Mage] considers this.
“I note that two of you seem to have become to be decent [Mages] in the time since your last stay here. Do any of you know any form of teleportation spell? I caution you not to try casting the spell while staying here.”
“No. No one knows the spell. Why?”
Nereshal gestures to one of the walls. In parts of the castle, the stones are rough and thick, and the corridors narrow. In others, they’re wide open and sweeping, a sign of polished craftsmanship. But everywhere I can feel a faint tingle that makes me feel as though there’s serious magic here.
Or it’s just in your head.
“Teleportation magic is strictly prohibited around the castle. It is also impossible. An enchantment prohibits teleportation magic of any kind around the castle and city itself. I doubt there are many rules you will break by accident, but remember what I have said.”
He eyes Eddy and his fingers twitch. Eddy gasps as his jaw finally closes, and he keeps his mouth shut, looking pale. The [Mage] turns towards Richard.
“Your presence is requested at tonight’s feast. Clothing will be sent to your rooms. There will be a selection. Shortly thereafter, servants will appear to guide you to the banquet hall.”
Richard hesitates. He looks at Nereshal.
“Should we…prepare? Will we be expected to bow, or…?”
“Deference is expected. Etiquette is not. Your last visit made that clear. However, you may be expected to stand before his majesty, in which case you will speak with respect.”
“What does he—what does his majesty want with us?”
“To appraise your worth.”
A single line, cold and indelicate as the winter we lived through. The [Mage] looks at Richard, and then at Emily.
“I am told two of your number reached Level 30. That is a marker of respect in our kingdom, and you will be accorded its due so long as you protect the realm. You have changed since you were ordered to the front. That is good. As for the other reason why his majesty ordered your return…”
His eyes linger on me. I feel a pang of fear in my chest.
“His majesty is interested in confirming the rumors of your success for his own eyes. I trust he will not be disappointed.”
His eyes stare right through me. I look away, as the whispering in my head grows louder. The Blighted King knows about me? Of course he does. And he’s expecting a hero. Or maybe just a warrior.
I think he’ll be disappointed. I hope he will be.
The banquet is the kind of thing you’d see in a fantasy movie. Big. Magical. And in a room so large and ornate, it can hold a thousand or more diners. Thousands? I’m no good with counting.
And there’s so much to see! Rich nobles sit at long tables, talking with foreign dignitaries of various species. I can see Drakes, the similar yet very different Lizardfolk, strange armored people whose heads seemed to detach like the Headless Horseman…creatures I recognize, like Centaurs and Minotaurs. There’s a Minotaur in a suit, chatting with some huge, furry creature that reminds me a bit of Chewbacca crossed with a dog. A Gnoll, apparently.
Some sit, others stand and talk, like they’re at a cocktail party for the rich and powerful. Wait, that’s what this is, isn’t it? There’s music, entertainment for the kids from mages and more conventional sources—even a guy in a bright outfit, doing pratfalls to amuse a cluster of children. They’re all dressed like royalty.
Especially the royalty. The Blighted King and his Queen sit at one end of the room, at a table with a chair that’s practically a throne in itself. But it isn’t the throne; I’ve seen the throne and that thing is scary. This chair is merely ornate and golden.
The room hums with energy, and projects the kind of richness and power that makes me tremble in my boots. I don’t belong here. Not me, a kid born of a working class family. But I tremble for other reasons when I look at the Blighted King from afar.
“You may conduct your affairs for the feast as you wish. His majesty only requests that you stay within his presence until you are summoned or given leave to go.”
One of the lesser [Chamberlains] serving underneath Nereshal speaks to our stunned group. We, the children from another world, stare at him, and then hesitantly step into the room. We’ve been here before. We were feasted at the Blighted King’s own table, once. But that was a lifetime ago, when the world was still magical.
When we were still all [Heroes]. I’m not. I gave it up and lost the class when I refused to fight, to answer the people’s calls. Richard still has it. So does Emily and a few others. But they’re not real heroes.
Some of the warriors sitting at the table look like heroes, though. They wear shining armor, and those who are dressed for pleasure rather than war still move with unnatural grace. The Blighted King has [Knights] and champions of countless classes of his own. I see Richard looking nervous. He was allowed to keep his sword—a mark of respect, I guess, but I doubt he’d draw it under any situation.
There are guards at the Blighted King’s table, watchful figures, not all of whom carry swords. Several of them glanced at us when we were announced. Several of them glanced at me.
So did the King. It was just a flick of the eyes before he turned away, but it confirmed what we all knew. He’ll want to speak with us. The thought makes some, like Cynthia, afraid to join the feast. Others, like Richard, are made of sterner stuff.
“Come on, let’s join the feast.”
He says it, but no one moves. The [Chamberlain] coughs gently. But no one wants to walk out into that magnificent display and attract any attention for themselves.
I could. Perhaps. But the urging in my mind might make that a bad idea. Part of me wants to stride out there, shout, laugh and cartwheel if I can even pull that off, and make a spectacle. To clown in short. To lose control.
Make them laugh, Tom. Let go for a second. You know you want to.
Nope. I’m not making the first move. But someone has to. A woman dressed all in red sweeps by our group, glass in hand. She looks…melancholy. And determined to hide it. She has a presence that makes half the guys and girls in our group go weak at the knees. Mine are fine.
You’d go weak at the knees if she stabbed you. Or you stabbed her.
You’d never see the blood, as bright as her gown is. I bite the inside of my lip. Emily squeaks.
“Who is that?”
The [Chamberlain], looking put upon, gently prods Vincent forwards a bit and speaks softly.
“That is [Lady] Theras. If you would like to enter and speak with her, please understand she is in mourning, hence the red dress.”
“Red? Why, what does that mean?”
Everyone looks at the [Chamberlain]. He pauses awkwardly, clearly not wanting to say, and then realizes he has to. He clears his throat again.
“Miscarriage. [Lady] Theras and her sister, the [Lady] Zekryia, both lost their children unexpectedly three months ago. They have been in mourning ever since.”
Instantly, most of us shuffled our feet and look at our dress shoes. Eddy chooses this moment to speak. He’d been doing great after meeting Nereshal.
“So they wear red if they’re in mourning. After three months?”
“This is correct. Sir.”
“What’s weird about that, Eddy?”
Emily and a few girls turn to stare at Eddy. He grimaces.
“It’s just that I didn’t think they’d be so open about it, you know? And it’s been three months…”
“So? What’s wrong with that? Why can’t she be open about it?”
Chole glares at him. Eddy shrugs helplessly. He seems to realize he’s put his foot in it again.
“I dunno. It’s weird, right?”
He looks around. I try not to meet his eye.
“It’s not her fault.”
He shrinks back a bit from Chole’s glare.
“Well, yeah, but…”
He doesn’t have more than that. Uncomfortable, he looks away. I mentally shake my head. Where were you going with that one, Eddy?
He must not like dead babies. At least they’re quieter than live ones, right?
After another second, Chole turns away from Eddy and walks over to [Lady] Theras. She starts talking to the woman, and the surprised older lady sets down her drink to talk with her. That’s the cue for our group to break up.
We enter the banquet. And it swallows us. In a few minutes, I find myself at a table. We’re sitting with Cirille, since she’s the only one we recognized. She and a couple of Drakes seem only too happy to have company to talk to. And there’s quite a bit of food for me to distract myself by eating.
Jellied fruits, sweet breads, cuts of meat dripping with blood and finely grilled, vegetables of every shape and color…the wrong thing for anyone on a diet. Since I’ve lost at least thirty pounds from not wanting to eat, I don’t care and dig in anyways. Beside me, Cirille is talking to Keith about something called the Walled Cities, and a problem with some species called the Antinium. And apparently there’s a problem with a…Goblin Lord?
I’m only half listening. Food is one of the things that usually grants me a reprieve, but I’m—struggling. With myself. I have a selection of spoons to use, and one of them, one with an edged front, like a spork, has caught my eye.
Go on. Pick up the spoon.
I stare at it. I want to. I can see myself picking up the spoon, and then gouging Keith’s eye out. Or my own. A spoon. What a convenient weapon. But everything’s convenient when you use it right.
Wrong. Use it wrong. It’s just a thought.
I stare at my right hand. It doesn’t move. I deliberately raise it, take the spoon, and dip it into my soup. I chose soup to start with. It’s delicious. I barely taste it.
You are insane.
Keith looks over. He sat himself so that Cirille was between him and me. I shake my head and he looks…nervous. That annoys me.
All of the guys and girls can’t stand to be around me anymore. Not after the village. I know what they saw. Of course I do! But can’t they pretend? Can’t they—at least Richard tries. The rest jump if I so much as sneeze. Cynthia won’t be in the same room with me.
A [Clown]. I chose the class on a lark, because I thought—
I thought this might happen. But I didn’t expect it to happen like this. I thought I might be able to get powers.
You wanted to be an insane clown and didn’t want the insanity? Hah! That is a good joke. Now stab Keith in his treacherous little eye. Go on. You picked up the spoon, didn’t you?
God, maybe I am insane. I keep having the same thoughts, over and over in my head. Isn’t that the first sign of insanity?
That’s not insanity, you idiot.
Yes it is. Einstein said that. I think.
Across the table, Richard is talking with Emily. She’s flirting. I think he might be as well. Or perhaps he’s oblivious. They’re a couple, at least in some sense of the word, but it’s not official. If there is an official. I don’t think they’ve had sex yet. News would spread quickly in our tight knit circle.
Lonely Tom. Why don’t you try your luck? I’m sure Emily would get to love you. If you held a knife to her throat. Why bother with that? Just kill her. Throw the spoon.
[Unerring Throw]. How hard could I toss it?
Just a thought. They’re just…thoughts. They pass by, and it doesn’t mean I’ll act on them. But does everyone have these murderous ideas? I have to distract myself. I push the bowl back and put the spoon in it, probably committing a major breach of etiquette.
“Hey, so what’s this I’m hearing about a war with the Goblins?”
Cirille turns towards me. Across from her, a Drake with red scales slams his fist onto the table, making my bowl of soup jump.
“It’s a crime, that’s what! Garusa Weatherfur and Thrissiam Blackwing are dead! Two of our finest [Generals] and over twenty thousand good Gnolls and Drakes, gone, and for what? Because those bickering bastards couldn’t field a larger army? We could have sent three times that number! And I heard that vital intelligence wasn’t even passed on to them! The Goblin Lord uses undead, and no one thought to pass off that tidbit to either [General]! Some [Mage] bastard or low-level [Scribe] thought it wasn’t important information when it came from Zel Shivertail himself!”
He grabs a goblet and drains it, ignoring the looks he was getting from further up and down the table. The Drake raises his voice, cutting above the local babble of voices.
“It’s bloody infighting that’s killing us, when we should be cutting the Goblin Lord off at the knees and then banding together against those blasted Humans—not you lot, the ones from the north—or the Antinium! We don’t have time to spend infighting. Hah, I’m beginning to see why Shivertail doesn’t spend his time in politics if all the eggheads back home can’t defeat a damn Goblin!”
His companions try to placate the angry Drake. I’m pleased. This is a good distraction.
“It sounds like they’re not that competent.”
“You’re telling me?”
The Drake turns one bloodshot eye to me. I can sense his tail lashing the ground angrily underneath the table.
“Every year we send an army to pound the Humans, and every year they send one down to the Blood Fields. We tear each other apart, killing thousands like clockwork, then march on back and say what a glorious victory we had! On both sides! Either invade and start tearing down cities or make peace already! Don’t waste our soldiers’ lives when there’s real wars to be fought!”
His speech got voices of approval from some of the other Drakes at the table. Cirille rolled her eyes and twitched her wings as if she’d heard the same griping many times before. I nod, trying to keep the Drake talking. It slips out before I can help it.
“Yeah, exactly. That’s insane. Insanity’s doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, right? That’s the definition of it, anyways.”
I freeze. I didn’t mean to ask. It was just a thought in my head! I sense every head, every person from my world, stop talking and turn to look at me. They stare. There’s fear in some eyes.
“Yeah, well you’d know, right Tom?”
Eddy says that. Good old Eddy, breaking the sudden silence. The others laugh, a bit too loudly. Cirille rolls her eyes and flicks her tail.
“Tell that to my superiors. They’re happy enough to send a few thousand soldiers over here to get combat experience, never mind the losses.”
“That’s different. That’s…that’s important. This war has to be won. Can’t expect to make peace with Demons. Not those bastards. Lost a detachment to the Fearless the other day. Crazy bastards ran right onto my [Pikemen].”
The Drake who’d been so angry slumps into his chair morosely. Talk turns elsewhere. I relax a bit, only to shoot up when I sense Keith poking me. I turn.
“Tom, that’s just a myth. Einstein never said that.”
“Said? Said what?”
“Insanity. You know, doing the same thing over and over? That’s not the actual definition, you know.”
My blood runs cold.
“What? No it is.”
He shakes his head.
“People assume Einstein said it, but that’s just a myth. Trust me, my professor loved to talk about laws. Insanity isn’t a real medical condition. It’s a legal term. It means…well, it’s a defense people used. If you’re insane you can’t be held responsible for breaking the law. Medically, it doesn’t really exist anymore. It doesn’t make sense.”
That’s not the definition. I was wrong. And he—I—
I was wrong.
Keith nods towards me, helpful, oblivious. I stare at him with a grin frozen on my face until I realize what I’m doing. I turn back, staring at my cooled bowl of soup and not seeing it. Inside my chest, my heart’s suddenly beating all too fast.
How did he know? No—I must have known. It’s a coincidence, that’s all. I must have known and subconsciously—
It’s me in here. Just me. And the voice is just a voice.
Are you crazy? Or am I real? Am I something else? How would I know that, Tom? Who am I?
Who are you?
I sit in my chair, sit, as the world greys out around me. It must be me. It has to be me. I went crazy back then and I might be crazy now. But I can’t let it be anyone else. Even if it is. Because if I don’t take responsibility for my actions, I really will go crazy. I’ll use that as an excuse. It’s always been me. If it’s not—
Then who’s in here with me?
Someone’s hissing at me, shaking me. I look up. I was sitting for so long that I didn’t notice the room go silent. I didn’t hear, and I didn’t realize everyone around me was standing up. I look around and see Richard shaking my shoulder, face pale.
I look up, and at the head of the room, the Blighted King is on his feet. He is staring towards our table, towards us. And his eyes are locked on me.
Slowly, I rise. By his side, the [Chronomancer], the mage Nereshal beckons. We slowly leave our table and file towards the Blighted King. I stare at him.
I am afraid. But not of him. I break out into a cold sweat as I approach him, one of the most powerful men in the world, the one who summoned us here. Not because of his presence, not because of the armed guards who stand next to him, or his stare that weighs us like ants. I do not fear him.
But there is someone laughing in my head. And I am terribly afraid that person isn’t me.