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The Blighted King has a presence. It weighs down on me as I walk forwards. The silent feasting hall is too long, and the few of us have to walk past the watching guests, hearts pounding.

And as we approach the front of the room, I feel it. The King sits at his table, next to a tall woman who dwarfs him with her stature. But he is like a rock, too heavy. His very existence weighs us down, makes me feel—

Gassy?

I can remember the first time I stood in front of him. Then it was like being crushed as he looked at us. Now, it is different.

Around me, the others shudder. I see Emily’s face go pale, Keith start sweating, Cynthia’s eyes roll wildly in her head, and Richard clench his jaw. They are being crushed. I walk, feeling my shoulders ache. It’s…heavy.

That’s all.

We stop, in a ragged line in the steps leading up to the raised area where he is seated. The King looks down at us. We meet again.

There is no love in his gaze, no sense of familiarity. He weighs us with eyes that seem like scales, measuring our worth. Most of us stare at our feet, or at some other part of the room. Some are shaking. I look at the Blighted King. I can’t be afraid of him. Not like I was.

Does that make me strange? I’m certainly alone from the others. I can feel it, but I can’t help it. Fear’s another one of those things I lost. I’m not afraid of people with swords. I’m not happy about being stabbed, but they can’t scare me.

I scare me.

“So. The heroes of prophecy return. Diminished.”

The Blighted King speaks at last. His voice echoes through the chamber. It’s not grand. It’s not particularly wise. It’s just an old man’s voice, tired. I stare at him and see few grey hairs in his beard. But he is old. He sounds like it. I wonder how long Nereshal has been keeping him young.

Here sits a monster. Ageless. And here stands a monster. Can he see it in you, Tom? Or is this King as worthless as the land he rules?

The King’s eyes flick towards me for a second, and then towards Richard and Emily.

“We have been told that two of your number have reached Level 30. A commendable achievement in such a short time.”

“Miraculous.”

The whisper comes from the Blighted Queen. She’s younger than the King, but her towering height makes her seem older. I stare at her. She can’t be more than thirty, while he…

“But so many have been lost. We sent over sixty of you to do battle against the Demons. Now less than a third remain.”

“That wasn’t our fault! We told you, we’re not warriors. We—”

Emily raises her voice and chokes as the Blighted King’s gaze falls on her. He nods, once.

“So you have said. But some of you are warriors. The rest have seen the threat which imperils our nation. Nay, the very world itself. Would you hide behind walls my people have died for, deny your purpose still?”

“Not me. I’ll fight. But we can’t all be held to the same standard, your Majesty.”

This time it’s Richard who speaks. The Blighted King weighs his words and nods.

“One has reached Level 30 in three months. A [Knight] he stands, sworn against darkness. Yet no [Lord] or [Lady] has given him a title. Another, a [Mage] of water has taught herself. Miraculous feats, as our lady says.”

The Blighted King looks across our group, at frightened faces. He pauses.

“You will have a place in our halls, and your companions food and my protection so long as you hold back the scourge of darkness. But we have heard of one more. A champion who defended our people. A warrior who slew a Demon raiding party single-handed.”

His eyes move to me. I feel a chill.

“You. Step forwards.”

I can see Richard and Emily both staring at me, worried, out of the corners of their eyes. I take a step forwards and sense the eyes of everyone in the hall on me. Oh boy.

Want me to tell them a joke? How about a magic trick?

My lips twitch. I try not to smile. I don’t feel afraid. Rather, in this moment as the Blighted King stares at me, some strange, perverse side of me wants to fart, or laugh. He’s so serious. Everyone is. They hang on his words. Whereas I—

Get the joke.

The hilarity vanishes. I feel cold. No, it’s not funny. The Blighted King certainly doesn’t find me amusing. He frowns.

“We recall thee from before. Who art thou? What is your class? [Warrior]? [Mage]? [Rogue]?”

“None of those, your Majesty. I’m—I’m a [Clown]. Not a fighter, actually.”

He stares at me. I hear Cynthia begin to giggle, a mad, hysterical cackle which cuts off quickly. The King looks confused.

“What class is this?”

“One from our world, your Highness. Tom is an—an entertainer. Someone who makes people laugh. Clowns aren’t fighters. They’re…”

Emily trails off, unable to explain what I am. The King exchanges a slow glance with his Queen. I can sense people’s eyes fixed on my back. I know I look ordinary. I don’t have my face paint on, or a rubber nose or the oversized shoes I made. I’m not juggling or wearing a silly grin. I have nothing to prove I have a funny class in any way.

You have me. You always have me.

“An entertainer? How did you slay a war band of Demons, then? Speak.”

He looks at me and I feel heavier. That’s all. And perhaps it’s the devil in my chest, but I don’t want to answer. So I shrug.

“Luck, I guess. Your Majesty. I don’t know how exactly. But that’s what us summoned heroes are supposed to do, right? I got…lucky. But I am no warrior. Sorry about that.”

I hear a hiss and see Richard wince. The Blighted King fixes me with a look that tells me he’s annoyed.

“So you claim. But if thou art an entertainer, prove it.”

“What?”

He leans back in his chair that’s like and unlike a throne and gestures.

“Perform, [Clown]. Show the court the tricks of your profession. Make us laugh.”

Oh boy. Now everyone’s staring at me, and I suddenly find myself on the spot. I glance around uncertainly and see Richard giving me a pale-faced look. Emily’s standing back and half of the others are trying to pretend they don’t know me.

I don’t have my makeup, my props—but I can tell there’s no point protesting or making excuses. So I sigh and flick my wrist. A bright red ball, stuffed with dried beans to make it round, appears in my hand. I hear a murmur and someone at the head table sits up.

My heart isn’t pounding. I feel embarrassed and sure I’m about to make an idiot out of myself, but I’m not afraid. Why? Why not?

No, this is normal. It’s because I’ve seen worse than this. Far worse. What’s a few minutes of humiliation?

I hold the red ball up, and I sense a thousand pairs of eyes on me. Now I do smile, at the ludicrous nature of this. I’m no famous performer. I’m self-taught, and badly at that! I couldn’t make a bunch of village kids laugh. But here I am, about to perform before the Blighted King. Okay, that is funny.

Wilen, this is for you. Red ball in hand, I flick my other hand and a blue one appears. I hear a soft gasp, from the Blighted King’s table, but nowhere else.

That’s right. I can make things appear and disappear at will. I can also make objects vanish, pull the old ‘coin behind the ear’ trick with objects too large to hide. Because I have a pocket space.

It’s two Skills, actually. [Sleight of Hand] and [Trick Space]. One allows me to do stupid tricks like you’d see card magicians do if I had a deck of cards, and the other gives me an invisible space around my body I can pull objects out of and put into. I keep three balls there. The third comes out, yellow and worn.

A second gasp. Who’s making that sound? For the first time I wrench my gaze away from the Blighted King and to his left. I see a young woman, not more than…sixteen perhaps, sitting tall at his side, wearing a sparkling circlet made of dark metal. And sitting next to her, on a cushion to let her actually reach her plate on the table—

A young girl. A [Princess], no doubt. Her dress is bright green and white, and she’s very pretty in that way kids are. Her eyes are wide as they fix on the balls in my hand. A child. I saw her laughing at the guy doing pratfalls earlier. I give her a small bow. Hope this entertains you at least, kid.

It’s not. You suck.

Shut up. I begin tossing the balls up in the air, juggling them quickly. It’s hard to do three balls at once. I know that tells you how much I suck, but I had to practice a long time to get to that level. [Sleight of Hand] doesn’t work with juggling and I don’t have a Skill.

I really need one. At least [Unerring Throw] lets me decide where the balls come down. Hey, I might be able to do four balls this way! Too bad I don’t have four balls.

The room watches me juggle, and I see the young [Princess] brighten and nearly clap her hands as I start juggling the balls high into the air. The older girl, another [Princess] probably, stops her. Everyone watches as I juggle.

And watches.

And watches…

After a few seconds they realize that’s all I’m going to do. Yes, that’s right. I can feel the Blighted King’s gaze boring into me. What? Do you want me to do pins? I can juggle pins too, but my act has been pratfalls, juggling, and terrible jokes. And I think that if I tried to trip over his table, I’d be skewered.

So I’m giving him a terrible performance. I was planning on just juggling until he stopped me, but then it happens. I hear a sound.

♪Doo doo doodle do do doo doo doot~♫

Oh god. The music. It’s been too long since I heard it play. I could live for the rest of my life without it. I sense a shift when it goes off, and hear a muffled sound from the others standing around me. The rest of the room just stares, uncomprehending.

Clown music. Silly, stupid. It fills the grand room, playing stupidly. Only with a twist. There’s laughter, too. Someone’s laughing.

And it’s not anyone in this room. I nearly drop a ball, making it vanish before tossing it back up in the air as the laughter plays with the music. There’s a spectral audience now, laughing voices, as if I really am at a circus.

That’s not what scares me, though. I hear one of the voices laughing. And it’s my own. It laughs and laughs, until I stop juggling.

This time, the silence is different. I make all three balls vanish and bow silently. The [Princess] looks vaguely entertained. Everyone else does not. But the music. Ah, the music. I look sideways and see Richard staring at me with a pale face.

Everyone, all of the other young men and women from my world are giving me the same look. They remember. And the music scares them.

That doesn’t escape the attention of the Blighted King. He stares at me, and then at the others. How much does he actually know about what I did? He waits, until he realizes I’m not doing anything else.

“Continue, [Clown].”

“Sorry. That’s all I’ve got.”

“That?”

His eyebrows raise. He looks incredulous. I nod, waiting for him to tell me I’m a fraud or whatever. I don’t want to hear that sound ever again. But then someone else bellows into the silence.

Ridiculous!

The word makes me jump. I see Richard jump, Emily turn white—Cynthia screams, predictably. A flash of color brushes against me to my left, and someone pushes me out of the way.

Not roughly, not hard, but with force, so I go sprawling onto the floor. I look up and see a face full of outrage, a splash of yellow and red, and…blue?

A man wearing a silly costume is staring at me. A small man, so a small costume, but one decorated with so many eye-catching colors it’s almost painful to look at. I say almost, because the effect makes him ridiculous, rather than completely annoying. And his face is screwed up with a look of comical outrage.

Buffoon! Imbecile! You think a poor performance like that is worthy of the Blighted King, ruler of all he surveys, terror of the royal banquet, especially the poultry pies? How dare you, sir. Poor performances are my business!”

I try to get up, and he kicks my legs out from under me. I roll, and he throws himself on me with a cry of rage.

“What? Get off. Who are—”

There’s a chuckle, a current of mirth through the room. The man stops beating me gently with his fists and gets up, looking indignant. He bows to the Blighted King.

“Sire, I beg to show this interloper the true meaning of comedy! A hero’s one thing, but a [Clown]? I’d let a warrior take my place any day with thanks, but there can be only one fool here, and that is I, the Fool!”

He strikes an arrogant pose, managing somehow to bump me over a third time with a hip. For such a small guy, he’s got so much force behind him! And it doesn’t hurt when he hit me. Not at all.

The Blighted King doesn’t exactly smile, but his lips do twitch.

“Fool. You wish to perform?”

“Absolutely, your Majesty! A [Fool] is ten times, nay a thousand times more pitiful than a [Clown], yet twice his equal, as I shall now prove! Observe my juggling, if you would, dear guests of the court!”

His voice is like a stage announcer’s, only he doesn’t need a microphone. The Fool turns, all eyes on him, and flourishes. He produces a colorful ball from somewhere like I did, only this one’s higher quality and shines in the light. He tosses it up—and six more follow it.

Six. So seven are in the air at once. I hear a gasp, and then the Fool juggles them into a double weave, his hands moving so quickly I can barely see them. He bumps me again as I try to step back to give him room, and then seems to concentrate.

“Lords and ladies, men and women, little girls who are up past their bedtime, this is what a [Fool] does! He juggles, he dances—”

The Fool spins around, catching the balls and juggling them as he twirls. He glares at me as he stops, his voice ringing.

“And he is the font of dignity, not like some sad [Clown]! How dare you, sir!”

He turns away, and then farts with a noise that can’t be real. I hear a peal of laughter from the [Princess] and surprised laughs from around the room. But I’m not in a position to laugh myself. The smell is real. I stumble backwards, coughing.

“Oh god. It stinks.”

And now there’s more laughter. I gag a bit as the Fool who’s also a [Fool] continues juggling, and then turns to me again, full of more fake wrath.

“You’re clearly trying to seek my job! My job! What will I do if my King casts me out? I should duel you right now for the dishonor of it! Have at thee!

And then he starts bouncing the balls off my face as he juggles. The entire hall roars with laughter. I hold still. Contrary to what I’d hoped, the balls are made of rough leather and they hurt quite a bit, since he has to throw them hard enough to bounce back.

“Ow. Ow. Ow. Ow. Hey, that was my nose.”

It’s easy to play along with him. He’s an expert. My deadpan commentary makes the young [Princess] nearly fall over in a fit of giggles. The Fool grins widely at me and then turns, catching the last of the balls.

“A [Fool]’s master to none and ridiculed by all, but a [Clown]!? There’s no room for two idiots in Rhir! I challenge you for the top position on the bottom, sir! En garde!”

He catches all the balls, bounces the last one off his left hip into my face, and then charges. Halfway towards me, he stumbles on nothing, slips, and crashes into both of us, sending me to the ground again.

“Ow.”

The Fool groans loudly, and then gets up, swinging at me and missing. He’s a master. A serious master of comedic timing, and he manages to move about me and take advantage of my presence to make everything funnier. In a few moments I’m lying on top of him, and he’s gasping for life, pulling himself away, and then charging at me with a goblet of wine that he somehow manages to get all over me before slipping in a puddle and knocking himself out on the floor.

The hall roars with laughter by the time he’s done. I’m drenched in wine, bits of food, and the shreds of my dignity. Not that I had any left to begin with.

I wipe a few stinging drops of wine out of my eyes as the [Fool] retreats, still making fists at me. At the head table, the youngest [Princess] is red-faced and nearly in tears with laughter. Even the Blighted King seems happier—although he never laughed once. He gestures towards the Fool with a nod.

“Clearly amusing. Fool, you are as always diverting in times of crisis. Thomas the [Clown]…we offer you thanks for the entertainment as well.”

His face says that I’m a freshly squeezed turd that he found on his dinner plate. The Blighted King looks away from me and at Richard and the others. He seems to sigh.

“Very well. We shall ask for a demonstration of your Skills later, Sir Richard, and of you, Lady Emily. Be welcome in our palace until then. We hope you will not betray the hopes we place on you, brave heroes from another world.”

And like that it’s over. The Blighted King motions and I trudge back to my seat with the rest of my group. Conversation resumes, mostly laughter at my expense or speculation as people eye us. The Blighted King turns to his wife and they exchange a few quiet words in their seats.

I sit down, conscious of every eye on me. Cirille gives me an odd look, and then offers me a cloth to wipe my face with. I accept it, get most of the wine off, and notice Richard and the others looking at me. I smile crookedly.

“Yeah, they’re going to kick us out tomorrow. Maybe tonight.”

—-

I’m wrong about that. I usually am, which is a relief in this case. Especially to the others. Nereshal doesn’t guide us back to our rooms after the banquet himself; rather, the [Chamberlain] provides us with a few servants to show us the way.

Everyone’s relieved to know we have a roof over our heads for the night. Indeed, separate rooms for all of us, no matter how small, is a luxury we’ve missed the entire winter. Some of the girls look so relieved to have a private space I think they could cry. We guys are obviously too stoic for that, of course.

There’s a lot of chatter about what the Blighted King wants, as well. Richard’s room and Emily’s are the largest, so over ten of us end up crammed into there. I listen as they begin talking, arguing, really.

“Do you think we can stay here forever?”

“Maybe you guys can if you get other classes, but I bet he’ll make those of us with combat classes go fight soon enough.”

“I’m fine with that. I just want a break.”

“I think we can get at least a week or two.”

Richard says that firmly, as he sits next to Emily. She’s fiddling with a laptop. It’s not hers. It belonged to a girl who died. I think her name was Rachel?

Reyanne. You don’t remember her face, do you?

Anyways. The laptop glows with power. Emily’s got it playing a song in the background. I don’t recognize the lyrics—it’s some kind of Spanish song, I think. Rachel—Reyanne had different tastes.

The laptop’s one of our treasures. We don’t have that many electronics between us all. Some were lost when we were attacked. Others were stolen, lost…and we didn’t realize we could [Repair] them until later. Now everyone shares electronics, except for Emily who gets the laptop at all times.

Music, movies…I’ve watched the entire fifth season Red vs Blue that Eddy had on his Android phone at least sixteen times by now. We all cling to what we have left.

But it’s the iPhone that Richard carries that really matters. He stares at it, speaking out loud.

“I’d rather talk to the others again if I can, no matter how risky it is. But I haven’t gotten a call from [BlackMage] again, and I have no idea how to call him back.”

“Can we ask one of the mages here for help? They might know the people at Wistram.”

Cynthia looks desperate. Richard pauses before shaking his head.

“Too risky.”

“But—”

“We can’t necessarily trust them. What if they take away the iPhone? No, we’ve got to keep this secret, especially since the Blighted King doesn’t seem to know about the others. If we can get in contact with them, meet up or get help—”

“A way off this continent, you mean?”

Everyone looks at Vincent. Richard nods.

“I think this is our best opportunity. I was talking with Cirille—”

“She’s freakish. Unnatural.”

“Shut up, Cynthia. She’s a Drake, not a monster.”

“Keith—listen, she told me we can pay to send [Message] spells, or send letters. I’m not saying we should do that, because we’ll probably be spied on. But if Emily can learn to use the spell, or we can find a way to locate some of the others…”

“You think we can? What if the Blighted King…”

“He doesn’t need us. Richard and Emily are the only Level 30 people here.”

“Yeah, but they hit that in three months. It takes decades for normal people to do the same. No way he’ll let any of us go now he knows we can level like that.”

“So we’re prisoners?”

“Not if we cooperate. We’re more like allies, but we need to be cautious—”

I sigh. It’s always like this. I can’t be here. I brush at my sticky hair and decide I need a bath, and time alone. I get up and go to the door.

“You okay, Tom?”

The voices stop. Richards’s looking at me. I smile.

“Just fine.”

“That performance back there—”

“Hey, it was a one time thing. I don’t think the Blighted King cares about me. And I’m done with clowning about.”

No one laughs. Some of them still look afraid of me. I turn.

“I’m going to take a bath. Let me know if you decide anything tomorrow.”

I leave the room, hearing the buzz of conversation spring up as I shut the door. My friends.

Are they really? Or do you think they’re talking about you? Hah. You know they are. How much do they trust you, Tom? How many more times will they let you wonder before they decide to kill the scary clown before he snaps?

The voice. I stumble away towards my room. There’s nothing like a private bath there of course, but there’s a water pitcher, and I’m not willing to go looking around at night. My room is small, but on the level of a hotel in some respects. There’s no window, no balcony, but there is a chamber pot, and a bed that’s worthy of any four-star hotel. That alone makes up for the rest.

I could have done without the mirror, though. There’s a large one above a dresser, another sign that this world has its form of riches. Fabrics are as high-quality as any you’d find in our world, and usually made of real materials rather than fake ones. Okay, plumbing isn’t always consistent, but I know for a fact there are actual toilets elsewhere in the castle, and you can’t beat the craftsmanship on the dressers.

But the mirror. It’s not perfect; there are some flaws in the glass, tiny bubbles, but it reflects too much. I stare at myself. I look thin. I would have killed to lose this much weight before.

You did!

It shows too much of me. It reminds me of too much. I stare at my reflection. At my eyes.

“Are you real?”

No one answers. This mirror…slowly, I pull things out of thin air and put them on the dresser. I might as well. I pull out a greasy tin, another, smaller one, two huge shoes, and a colorful costume.

My props.

I stare at them. Oversized shoes, unfunny costume, and the face paint, white and red and black. Actually, for the black around my eyes I just use ground up charcoal. My tools of the trade.

I leave them there. I won’t touch them again. Ever. I turn away, and then notice something. My costume’s torn.

“Oh, right. I never got it fixed. Not since…”

Since the night. I gently unfold bits of the bright, clumsily stitched material. Cynthia made that for me, back before I scared her so much she couldn’t sleep with me around. I pull at the sleeves and get a horrible surprise.

Blood. A huge splash of it across the front of the costume, and more dried and soaked into the legs. I drop the costume in horror and back away.

“No.”

I never washed it either. And now the voice in my head taunts me.

Afraid of a little blood? Why? You bathed in it when you got angry at those poor Demons. Remember how the lieutenant screamed when the horses were stampeding all over her? Remember the pain?

My breath comes quicker. I turn.

I can’t stay here. Not in this room. I hurry out the door, but the voice follows me.

—-

It’s worst at night. At night, I can’t escape it. In the daytime, I can distract myself, or tell myself that it’s just me, just a mental disorder rearing its ugly head.

But at night, the shadows creep in, and I find sleep elusive, peace impossible. So I prowl through the castle, silent, taunted by my own thoughts.

I walk the brightly lit corridors, staring at the lights, trying not to meet the eyes of the occasional patrolling guards I meet down the empty corridors. They stare at me without much fondness.

They know who I am, at least. Hell, they probably saw me the first time when I was being escorted out with the others. Yup, here’s your [Hero], guys and gals. Me. Tom the unfunny [Clown].

Only, you know you can be funny if you try.

Never. I shake my head as I enter one of the rooms Nereshal showed us earlier. It caught my eye—a room full of mirrors.

Perhaps there is some masochistic part of me, some part that loves to torture myself. But this room is where I come to. Huge, wall-to-wall mirrors cover all but the doorway, reflecting my image a thousand times. I stare around.

“Alright. Here I am. Here you are. Come on. If you’re real…come out.”

I have to do this. I can’t live in uncertainty forever. The voice in my head—I keep telling myself it’s just me. Just me, trying to rationalize my insanity, what I went through.

But what if it’s not?

These are the dark thoughts I have at night, the suspicions I can’t push away without daylight. My fears.

I went insane. I went crazy and killed people. That much the others believe. That I know happened. And I’m sure it was me. Mostly sure. But, the thought whispers, what if it wasn’t me?

What if the [Lesser Insanity] condition isn’t some part of me, but something else? The madness—I can remember laughing as I stabbed the Demon lieutenant. I can remember the pain. Gods, the pain. But I also remember how I felt.

It wasn’t me.

But it was.

But it wasn’t. In the darkness, I feel certain. In that moment, when I held Wilen, I didn’t care. I reached out, and let something in. Something dark. Did I open the door somehow?

Did you? Or is it just you? Are you holding me back? Or am I just an excuse, Tom?

“Go away.”

I stare at the mirror ahead of me. There’s a feeling in my head, a bit of madness. I can feel it worming its way around. I know the mirror is just a reflection of me. It shows my clothing, stained, and my face, tired, my eyes a bit bloodshot. Me in perfect detail. I know that’s all it is.

But something tells me that’s not all. Something tells me there’s something else staring back behind the glass. What?

“Who are you?”

Who are you?

“I know you’re there. I can feel you. Hear you. My shadows move when I don’t look. My eyes—”

Normal eyes. But if I look away, do they keep staring? I try it. Turning my head and looking back quickly. But the mirror me reflects perfectly each time. I grit my teeth.

“Move, damn you. If you’re going to play tricks on me—”

I reach out and touch the glass. I stare into my reflection’s eyes, daring it to move, to twitch even a second. Tom stares back, pallid, sleep-deprived, wide-eyed. He grins at me.

I stop smiling. So does my reflection. Damn it, it’s all in my head.

All? Are you sure?

It has to be. I take my hand away, noting with guilt that I’ve smudged the mirror. I try to polish it, but just spread the oils from my palm around.

“I hate you. If you’re there, I’ll kill you. I swear it.”

You? You and what madness?

Laughter. The voice isn’t the worst. The voice sounds like me at times, a bit crazy, darker, but still what I’d think. The voice only scares me at times. But it’s when I feel like laughing, like punching the glass until my hand is full of shards that I’m afraid.

It would be so easy. So easy to push the glass deep. What would it feel like if it hit bone? I make a fist, staring at my stupid expression. My eyes.

“Well, I expected to be alone, but I suppose I was a fool for thinking that. More proof that I’m good at my job, then.”

A voice. I whirl, and see a short man in colorful clothing. The Fool. He walks into the room with a brisk step. He’s got a bottle in hand and a cup. He nods at me, not smiling, but not frowning, either.

“Mister [Clown]. I didn’t think to see you tonight.”

“Ah. You’re…”

He puts the bottle and cup in the ground and gives me a dramatic bow.

“A [Fool], at your service, sir. And you may call me Fool—everyone else does. I perform at the Blighted King’s court. I hope you didn’t take too much offense at my little performance?”

“What? No. I—it bailed me out. Thanks.”

“We funny men should stick together. Only, you’re fairly unfunny as such people go. Are you truly a [Clown], Mister…?”

“Oh. Sorry. I’m Tom. Thomas, but you can call me Tom.”

The Fool takes my hand and shakes it with a surprisingly firm grip. He’s not nearly as dramatic as he was in the banquet hall earlier, but there’s still a sense of performing as he indicates the mirror behind me.

“Come to admire yourself in the room of mirrors? It’s a rare person who likes to spend time here. I confess, that’s why I came alone.”

“Sorry about that. I can leave if you want—”

“Nonsense. There’s more than enough space for two idiots, or at least one [Fool] and a [Clown]. Besides, company is pleasant, and if you’ve a mind to share it, I wouldn’t take it amiss. I’m never alone here as you can tell.”

He nods to his reflections. I smile a bit.

“Sure. What are you doing here?”

“Drinking. Of course! A bottle of wine, a cup…would you like one?”

“A cup? Sure, but if there’s only one—”

He hands me a second cup, already filled with wine. I stare at it and blink at him. The Fool grins.

“Well?”

Gingerly I sip at the cup. Then I frown. I tilt the cup towards my lips, but no liquid comes out. I can see it, red and deep in the cup! I tilt it further, and then on a hunch, upend the cup. Nothing comes out. I stare at the Fool and he grins.

“A little trick. I apologize, but the joke’s only good once, so I do it to everyone I meet. That’s a fake cup, you see?”

“I do. But how do you get the liquid…?”

“Oh, I copied this cup, of course.”

The Fool hands me a second cup, identical to the first, only the wine sloshes about in this one. He takes the first cup back and tosses it to the ground. It breaks into pieces which dissolve into nothing.

“It’s a Skill of mine, to copy things. They last a while too, if handled gently. Good for pranks and trickery. Not for much else. But then, you’d know about such Skills, wouldn’t you?”

“I suppose I would. I am a [Clown], by the way. Just a bad one. I’m only Level 28.”

The Fool’s eyebrows rise.

“And yet you had no levels when you first came here. I’d say that’s astonishing by any standards. A shame you can’t perform as well. Your juggling act was painful to watch.”

“Sorry.”

He claps me on the back. I slosh some of the wine.

“Nonsense! Again, nonsense, so I suppose it must be tomfoolery! Stop apologizing and don’t mind the spill. Servants will catch it. If not, bugs. What you need is practice. A week or so and you’ll have the court rolling at your feet. Who knows, you might get his dour Majesty to smile!”

“You mean the Blighted King? I’ll pass. I’m done with being a [Clown].”

“Ah. Not much of a warrior you said?”

“Not much. Sorry. I—I guess you know all about us.”

The Fool shrugs. He takes a sip from the wine bottle, letting it slosh into his mouth from high above. He doesn’t spill a drop, which is impressive.

“The whole court knows I daresay, and much of the kingdom. We had such hopes. Alas, prophecy is not what it’s rumored to be.”

“About that. Are we really the destined heroes that are supposed to save Rhir from the blight and the Demon King? No one’s really mentioned that.”

“Well, that’s what the spells says. Summons heroes destined to glory and all that. I don’t know much about it, but the Blighted King and his advisers seemed to think that meant you were fairly competent.”

“Hah.”

“That’s what I thought! But I was wise enough not to make a joke about it. How his Majesty raged when he heard of what happened to you.”

Somehow, I find myself sitting with the Fool, drinking from my cup as he fills it and drinks himself. He tells me about the Blighted King and his role at court.

“One must have a [Fool]. Actually, I lie. One mustn’t at all, even if one is a [King]. My class is rare enough, and there’s scant work for a [Fool] in hungry villages. I was lucky enough to catch his Majesty’s eye one day, and I have served here for over a decade.”

“A decade? Really? Wow. I thought [Fools] were supposed to be part of a court. Like it was a hereditary thing, or something.”

“Hah! Fools breeding more fools! What a world that would be! I’m afraid that Rhir at least doesn’t see the need for a line of my ilk. Although if I met a lovely lady…alas, they go for heroes of the realm, not idiots juggling balls.”

“You’d think the more balls the merrier, right?”

He chokes on his wine, coughs, and laughs.

“So Tom the [Clown] has a joke in him after all! A bit crass, though. I wouldn’t dare repeat it at court.”

“Oh come on. It’s funny.”

The Fool grows serious.

“Yes, but it wouldn’t be appropriate for the young [Princess]. You noted her at the table, I hope. Her and the other [Princess], of course. They are our King’s daughters.”

“I saw. She looks young.”

“She’s the daughter of the current Blighted Queen. Alas, her sister, whom we call her Highness Isodore, is the daughter of the previous Blighted Queen.”

“So there’s been more than one?”

“You hadn’t heard? Of course not. Yes, there have been two Blighted Queens. Three, if you count the one who died before marriage. The Blighted King has seen his wives die one by one during his reign.”

“That…sucks.”

“An understatement, which is why I am so sorely needed at his court. Not that the Blighted King laughs, mind you. But I keep the [Princess] and others amused, so I earn my keep. I also endeavor to stay away from lewd jokes or more intimate comedy unless I know she’s asleep.”

“That’s nice of you.”

The Fool shakes his head. He smiles sadly.

“The [Princess] has a hard life without me adding to it, Mister Tom.”

“Just Tom, please.”

“Very well. I’m surprised, to be honest that you took a class so odd as a [Clown]. What do you do, exactly, if it’s not make people laugh?”

“Make them feel uncomfortable, I suppose. And laugh at how weird I am.”

“Like a [Fool]! But surely there’s more of a difference. What makes a [Clown] different from a [Fool]?”

“I dunno. Face paint? I wear oversized shoes, have a big red nose, use balloons…”

“What?”

“Uh—it’s a round floaty thing.”

He stares at me. I shrug. I’m pleasantly sloshed by now and feeling…decent for once. I try describing it to him and he shakes his head.

“Loud, noisy, and can fly? I’d use one myself if I had such a thing. I make do with throwing squirrels and cats in the meantime. But surely there’s more to it than that.”

I sigh.

“I don’t know. Clowns come in all different shapes and sizes. I guess [Fools] are like that too. For instance, I don’t see you wearing a jingling cap with bells on.”

“That’s a requirement for being a [Fool]?”

“I mean, that’s what I think of. Why don’t you have one of those?”

He gives me a look.

“I’m a [Fool], not an idiot. There are times when a Fool should be seen and not heard, or not seen or heard at all. Were I to go around dinging like some bell, I’d be evicted from the royal presence within the hour.”

He paused.

“Perhaps the day if the youngest [Princess] were to object.”

“She really likes you, huh?”

“I’m her sole form of entertainment on some days, and it can be dreary being locked up in the palace. She never enters the city without an escort and seldom at that.”

“Why? Is it so dangerous here? I thought the capital—”

He waves a hand and refills my goblet.

“Oh, it’s safer than any other part of Rhir and safe for all but royalty I imagine. Yet the [Princess] must be careful, or she’ll end up like her brothers and sisters.”

“I thought she only had a sister. Or—”

“She had others.”

Like an idiot, I stare at the Fool blankly.

“What happened to them, then? Where are they?”

His voice is flat.

“Dead.”

I sober up a bit.

“Oh. I’m s—I thought it was a family of four—”

“The majesties royal had a household of seven, once, unfunny Tom. Two older sons and another daughter three years older than the young [Princess]. All of them died. The brothers in battle, and the daughter in bed. A plague, sent by the Demons it was thought. Assassins killed the last Queen, and the one before that.”

“Oh.”

The Fool nods. He isn’t smiling now. He stares at his reflection in one of the mirrors.

“Now the [Princess] and her young highness Isodore are watched like sheep by lions, while their father and mother strive to make their kingdom safe for all but their enemies. A touching tale, isn’t it?”

I nod and sip from his wine flask. Did one of the mirror images of me just wink? Nope. Just my imagination. Again.

“For a [Fool], you’re awfully well-informed. And you seem important.”

“Shouldn’t I be? I am a royal jester, a prince of laughter. Shouldn’t I be known and heard, but never minded in court? I can walk around and people talk as if I don’t exist. Which I don’t mind, incidentally.”

The Fool gets up and does a cartwheel, laughing, half in mirth, half in a kind of despair I recognize. He turns to me.

“You’re no [Clown] you say, but if you’re not that, what are you? In denial, I should imagine.”

“No, no—you wouldn’t like to see me when I’m a [Clown]. Really.”

“How should I see you, then?”

“Just as Tom. Tom, the unfunny, who could use a refill of your wine, if you’ve got any left, Fool. I don’t suppose you can copy the wine bottle? Or do you have access to more wine we could find?”

He stares at me, a smile tugging at his lips.

“I don’t believe I’ve ever met a person who wanted to befriend me, Tom. Are you that bored, or am I that good company?”

“Neither. But us unfunny people should stick together, right?”

I grin at him, and feel happy for a tiny bit. The Fool blinks at me, and then laughs. Of all the people I’ve met today, his laughter is the only one I’ve needed. And it heals something. That night I pass out in my room, drunk, but sane.

And a bit happy.

—-

The next day, I’m too hung over to have breakfast, and barely have a lunch with the others. I keep rubbing my head and groaning, and when they decide to go out to explore the city, I beg off.

“God, Tom. How much did you drink last night?”

“And where can I get some?”

Emily glares at me while Eddy edges over. I shake my head.

“Ask the Fool.”

“Him? Where’d you meet him?”

“We raided the kitchens. There’s a lot. Good…ow, my head hurts.”

“I think Tom’s going to rest. Alright, let’s go the rest of you. We have a budget, remember, but we’ll make sure everyone has some coin. Tom, can you give us the money if you’re staying behind?”

“Sure. Here.”

I toss the pouch at Richard and stumble away to my rooms. After two more hours, I feel able to function normally, so I finally get up and stumble out of the palace.

I get lost six times along the way. The corridors are a complete maze to me, and they’re apparently meant to be that way. No invading army can enter that easily. Unfortunately, that means I have to bother person after person to find my way out.

I get all the way to the courtyard when I realize I have no money, no real desire to see the sights, and no idea why I’m here. I stare glumly around the huge open area leading up to the castle.

“Man, this place is big.”

You could march an army through here. Heck, that’s probably the point. There are three gates leading into the courtyard, which head up to the double doors up a flight of steps. The wall around the courtyard is high, but the space itself is so big that it doesn’t feel enclosed at all.

It’s quite nice, actually. There’s a fountain and lots of water over there, some greenery over there, very nice stonework underfoot…and that’s all I’ve got.

You really need a hobby. Like stabbing people.

“Shush. I was in a good mood before you showed up.”

You should turn around. Someone’s standing behind you.

“I said shush.”

“Can you really not do anything but juggle? Father says you have hidden depths.”

That voice is real. I nearly jump out of my skin as I whirl around. A young girl wearing a violet dress takes a step back. She stares up at me. I blink down at the youngest [Princess] of the Blighted Kingdom.

“Uh. What?”

She stares at me. I stare back. She points at my chest.

“Can you do a backflip? The Fool can.”

“What? I—probably not , your majesty.”

I probably can, actually. If it’s part of my [Flawless Dodge] routine or…heck, I learned how to do an okay cartwheel. But I’m not certain why the [Princess] is here, and I’m busy looking around for the guards that should be around her.

There’s no one in the courtyard. The [Princess] stares at me and speaks matter-of-factly.

“If you don’t know how, the Fool can teach you. He wouldn’t teach me, but he could teach you and I could watch.”

“Okay? If I see him, I’ll ask.”

“He’s over there. You can ask now.”

She points. I turn around. Now how did I miss the Fool? Oh, right. He’s not wearing his eye-catching costume.

A little man wearing nondescript clothing is standing about sixty feet away, walking about the courtyard absentmindedly. He has something in his hands. It looks like…a scroll.

He’s speaking to the air with the scroll unfurled. The [Princess] and I stare at him. Then she looks at me.

“Are you going to ask or not?”

She’s pushy. I step over to the Fool, more because I have nothing else to do than any desire to do backflips. He spots us as we approach and rolls up his scroll. He stares at me and then the [Princess] with a furrowed brow.

“I knew we had fun last night, but this much? And what are you doing in the company of the Princess, Mister Tom?”

“She appeared out of nowhere. She wants me to ask you to teach her how to do backflips?”

What?

The Fool’s eyes widen and he does a standing backflip, pretending to be aghast. The [Princess] claps her hands together, laughing. The Fool obliges her, and then peers at me.

“I’m surprised she spoke to you. Our little Princess speaks to few people.”

“He’s funny. So are you.”

The Princess informs the Fool in the same decisive voice. He raises his eyebrows at her, and then turns to me.

“Well, that’s interesting. I suppose you’d better entertain her yourself, Mister Tom. Go on, do a backflip.”

“What? No! I’ve never done one before.”

“It’s not hard. Go on. If you break your neck, it’ll be twice as amusing, I promise.”

I back up and raise my hands as the two pester me. In desperation, I point to the scroll the Fool tucked into his belt.

“What was that about? Were you talking to someone?”

“That’s a magic scroll. For talking to people.”

The [Princess] peeks at the Fool’s belt. He dances back, and wags a finger at her.

“Ah, ah! That’s mine, [Princess]. And as for who I was talking to…would you believe the love of my heart?”

He looks at us hopefully. I stare at him. The Fool scowls and bounces one of his juggling balls off my head. The [Princess] giggles. Then the Fool looks at her. There’s something parental about the way he does it.

“As delighted as I am to see you, you and I both know you shouldn’t be out here alone, young Miss. Why have you wandered off?”

The young girl immediately loses her smile. She scuffs at the ground with a shoe.

“Father sent the soldiers away. All of them. I don’t like that.”

The Fool stiffens. I look at him, confused.

“What?”

He looks gravely at me.

“That was a secret, my inquisitive friend. A state secret, so pretend you didn’t hear it if you know what’s best. Your Highness, you know you shouldn’t speak of such things. I understand you’re worried, but all will be well.”

She doesn’t look convinced. I don’t know what the hell’s going on, so I draw the Fool away. He tosses her one of his juggling balls to keep her company as he whispers in my ear.

“What the young Princess is referring to is a strategic decision the [King] came up with two days ago. With the exception of a few foreign regiments and the king’s own guard, every soldier has been deployed to the Fourth Wall. In preparation for an upcoming battle.”

“Sounds serious.”

He grimaces.

“No more than any battle is in Rhir. But it is a tactical decision. And one that cannot be shared, you understand? No one knows about this, save for the King and his advisors. And me, of course.”

“You?”

“Because of her.”

He nods at the Princess.

“Oh.”

The Fool’s eyes are sad as he looks at the young girl. She’s dropped the ball and bends down to get it. Then she catches herself and does some kind of curtsey instead. She snatches the ball back up, and begins tossing it up again.

“If she says something, Mister Tom, it’s because she’s worried. The [Princess] understands war, I’m afraid. And his Majesty, the wise and tragic King of the Blighted Kingdom…does not understand how much his children hear, I am afraid.”

“Oh.”

“Quite. Now, do help me get her back to the castle.”

He leads me back, pretending to scold me out loud.

“I keep telling you, broken bones are a sign of comedy, young Tom. We’ll make a proper [Fool] of you yet. If not that, I’m sure you’ll be a fine [Idiot]. And you should not be wandering around unattended, your royal highness.”

He pretends to be stern. The [Princess] frowns and stamps a foot.

“I don’t like my guards. I left them.”

“And it is a fine joke to leave an escort of trained warriors behind by yourself. But I see someone’s not amused by your tricks.”

He turns and points. I turn. How do I not see people coming up from behind? Now I see another young woman, the same one who was sitting by the Blighted King yesterday.

“Your Highness.”

The Fool bows to Princess Isodore. I do too, clumsily. She stares at me and the Fool, giving me a frown, the Fool an exasperated look, and the young Princess a stern one.

“Where have you been? Your guards are searching for you in a panic. Nereshal was about to scry around for you!”

“He can’t scry me if I’m wearing this!”

The young Princess raises a ring triumphantly. She’s wearing two. Isodore glares at her half-sister.

“He can comb the area, and he will if you don’t come back. And if he does, he’ll be angry and Father will know about it.”

“I don’t want to go back! I want to learn to backflip!”

The [Princess] hides behind the Fool and me like any kid her age. Only she’s royalty and Isodore’s not alone. A group of men and women in armor rush out of the open palace doors after Isodore. I gulp, and Isodore glares at her sister.

“Come on. You have to go back.”

“I will go with her Highness, if she wishes.”

The Fool interjects, and the [Princess] brightens. But Isodore holds up a hand.

“I’m sorry, Fool, but my sister can’t be hand-held the entire time. Nor will your presence calm Nereshal. I think it would make things worse, to be honest. Come, Erille. Do you want to get the Fool in trouble?”

“No.”

Reluctantly, Princess Erille comes out from behind the Fool. She stares longingly at me and him, and Isodore gives us another look. She stares at me for a second with a look I recognize.

“You will excuse me, Sir Thomas. And you, Fool. Come, Erille.”

The two Princesses turn and meet up with their escort who surround them in a second. I watch them walk slowly back to the palace and turn to the Fool. He’s still staring at Erille’s back. Sadly. At last he shakes himself and looks at me.

“Isodore doesn’t seem to like you, Sir Thomas.”

He says the name mockingly. I sigh.

“She saw us when we were first here, I bet. She probably thinks I’m a fraud.”

The Fool nods.

“Oh, the whole kingdom did. I daresay that my role was made useless for a fortnight after you arrived. So many jokes were told—one merely had to wave around a Goblin’s head for the courtiers to roll around laughing!”

Then he pauses.

“But I suppose there might be more to it than disappointment.”

“How do you mean?”

He looks at me, cocking his head to one side, standing on one leg, seemingly back to his good spirits or pretending to be at least.

“You were abed and I was out and about, performing at breakfast, so you must have missed today’s gossip. It was about you. You claim to be naught but a former [Clown], but there have been rumors this morning about you, Tom.”

“Oh no. Really?”

I can’t imagine who started the rumors. But maybe Emily, or Cynthia, or Eddy, that bastard? It’s possible…the Fool nods.

“The court and his Majesty have heard you’re more than you seemed, Mister Unfunny Tom. I hear you can be quite amusing. And deadly. Her Highness may have heard the same.”

He turns back to look at Isodore and Erille. They’re still walking across the courtyard. Man is it big. And they can’t exactly move fast in their ballroom style dresses.

“Don’t mind her. She fears so many; one more is hardly her fault. As for Erille…”

He trails as he stares at the young Princess. She’s happily occupied as she tosses the ball the Fool gave her up and tries to catch it before it lands. She never gave it back, and I don’t think the Fool would ever ask.

It’s not hard to imagine what’s there. A Fool who’s more friend and father than her actual father, and a kid trapped in a castle. And the other Princess—Isodore looks back and then turns instantly when she sees me staring at her.

I look away.

“I’m no one, Fool. No one special.”

“So you say, Tom.”

He leaves me there, and I wander back towards the palace, feeling disconsolate. But I realize something as I walk through the corridors. Something interesting. And maybe hopeful.

Whenever I’m with the Fool, I can’t hear the voice in my head. I don’t know why that is. Maybe he’s just that entertaining, or just that nice a guy that I don’t want to kill him. Or maybe it’s something else?

—-

That night we have another banquet. And for once, I’m feeling good enough to eat a lot. We sit with the Drakes again, but there’s more of a sense of inclusion this time. We are at least in some respects now guests, and aside from a lot of bad jokes aimed at me, everything’s great.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t more tests. This time, it’s Richard and Emily’s turn, but they at least seem up to the task. Emily performs several spells in front of the court, raising a wave of water out of the ground, creating a perfect sphere that she rolls across the floor. I can tell Princess Erille would love to chase after it, but she’s stuck at the high table.

Then it’s Richard’s turn. Today, I get more of a sense of who sits in the Blighted King’s castle. Among the more important guests who sit closer to the head of the hall are groups of what I can only call the Blighted King’s champions. Rugged men, women, and representatives of other species, most wearing shining armor, magical equipment, and holding an air of power around them.

There’s a Minotaur with black fur, a half-Elf man with a staff that stands on its own when he’s not holding it, a pale Selphid with two greatswords resting by his table, and a whole bevy of [Knights] and warriors who look like they’d fit in any grand story of knights and honor.

They’re all high-level, and as the feast begins, several of them get up to engage in duels. They use real armor, but wooden weapons, and they strike, parry, block and dodge like the coolest movie action scene I’ve ever seen.

Cooler, because they move faster than an actor does with choreographed moves. I see one warrior wearing chainmail leap over a man with a wooden spear and slash at his head. Too bad that the instant his feet touch the ground, the spear warrior vaults over to him with the spear as a pole and kicks his lights out.

Richard is called to spar the spear wielder after that. I hear my friends cheering as he gets up, wiping his hands and taking the practice sword offered to him. The spear wielder touches his blunt spear tip against the wooden sword and then begins dashing at Richard, spear jabbing at him in a blur. He whirls his spear and it lashes Richard from all sides, a hail of lightning-fast blows.

“Holy crap.”

I can’t believe Richard can defend against any of that, but he actually manages to parry several strikes and attack back. He ends up defeated, but he does so well apparently that there’s a round of applause for him afterwards.

I see Richard stagger back as the spear wielder offers him a hand up. The old woman claps him on the shoulders and leads him towards the table with the other champions to cheers from my table. I watch Richard talking with the others with a familiar camaraderie.

Jealous?

“No. Richard deserves that. He fought hard and earned it.”

I hear a mocking laugh in my head, but someone replies out loud as well.

“Sir Richard is a skilled warrior, worthy of his [Knight] class. Since he has reached Level 30, he is considered a peer of the realm in many respects. All those with a level higher than 30 are honored in various ways by the crown.”

I find a man standing at my side, holding a goblet of wine and looking politely at me. He looks…familiar. He has dark skin, a scar over his temple, and the look of someone who knows how to use a weapon. He nods at me.

“Sir Thomas. I am pleased to meet you. I missed the chance this morning.”

“Um. Hi.”

He speaks as if we should know each other. He looks towards the next duel, between a [Mage] and a man with a bow who keeps shooting at the shimmering field around the mage as he dodges.

“Such displays are common. Rhir has a number of tournaments hosted year round, and offers coin to anyone willing to teach or display their skills from around the world. Martial prowess is prized here above all else.”

“When you’re at war, I guess that’s how it has to be, huh?”

I look toward the Blighted King.

“Can he fight? The King?”

The man shakes his head.

“His Majesty is not known for his abilities on the field of battle, which is not to say he does not appear there if the need is dire. On the other hand, her Majesty is at least as skilled a warrior as they are. She was known for her prowess with a mace before she married the King.”

“I can believe that.”

She looks like someone who knows how to fight. On cue, I hear a voice.

I wonder if she could block you if you stabbed her up close. What if you held her daughter hostage?

I shake my head slightly. The man notices.

“She is quite a fine warrior, as is your friend. He deserves his spot among the King’s champions. However, I deem your skills as equal to theirs in at least some respects, Sir Thomas.”

I stare at him.

“I’m sorry, but have we met? I don’t recall.”

He smiles slightly.

“I would not begrudge you that. I had the honor of meeting you in the village of Rastfad, shortly after your defeat of—”

Of the Demons. He was one of the people who saw me after I slaughtered them. I remember. I stare at the man.

“Are you—were you—”

He bows slightly.

“Captain Kirust, at your service. I returned to the capital last night but was too late to participate in the feast. I attended this morning and was delighted to find your company well, sir.”

“Hang on, you’re the one who’s been spreading rumors about me? Stop it. Please. I’m not a warrior.”

“I would beg to disagree, sir. I saw what you did to defend the villagers, and I cannot believe such a man would be lesser to any [Knight] of the realm.”

“I—no. That was one thing. I went crazy back then. You saw me laughing, covered in blood.”

He stares at me. I feel the ground breaking away under my feet. Unsteady. Someone’s laughing in my head.

They love you for what you are, Tom. Embrace it. They love you. You, the slaughterer. They cheered you after you laughed amid the dead.

“Sir Thomas, I spoke to his Majesty today and spoke highly of your abilities. I do not mean to force you to fight, but you should at least be awarded the accolades of your true merits.”

“I don’t want that. I don’t want that at all.”

He looks confused.

“But Sir Thomas—”

“Stop calling me that. Just call me—Tom. I’m no warrior, get it? I don’t ever want to do that again.”

“Not even if there are more innocents at risk?”

His eyes are steady on mine. I hear a buzzing in my ears.

“I arrived too late to save the people. From what I understand, your comrades fled. But you stayed and fought, and defeated over thirty trained Demon warriors and a Troll—”

“I didn’t want to! I’m not proud of it! Don’t celebrate me for being a murderer!”

My voice is raised. I turn to leave, but Kirust’s eyes are on me. His voice is in my ears, and the laughter.

“Sir Thomas, the kingdom has warriors, but it has few heroes. A man such as yourself—”

A hero. I turn and grab Kirust and lift him up. I’ve always been strong. The [Captain] stares at me, alarmed, fear in his eyes as I draw him close with a snarl. That’s right. That’s the fear. That’s honest.

“I’m not a warrior! I told you that! I didn’t want to kill them! I’d rather die than do it again! I won’t lose control, I won’t give in! Not now, not ever, no matter what the cost! I’m not a hero, do you understand?

I realize I’m shouting too late. I let go of Kirust and look around. Everyone’s staring at me. I stumble away from the [Captain] and hurry out of the feast hall.

Madness.

—-

I stay in my room for hours after that, staring into the mirror. I throw the bloody clown suit to the floor, and begin pulling everything out of the trick space. My juggling balls, juggling pins, a dead flower, a few coins, and—knives.

I stare at them. I picked up one or two after that night. For self-defense. I had a bunch of swords, but I couldn’t keep them there. Swords, knives, arrows—I can remember pulling them out of the hands of the other soldiers, stabbing them with them, laughing.

Good times.

One of the knives is sharp, the other one sharper, but that’s a kitchen knife. It’s not meant for combat, although it can certainly be used as one. I pick up one of the knives and feel it. Perfectly weighted, great for throwing. Another one’s unbalanced, because it’s not meant for that.

But if I throw it—I toss the knife gingerly towards a wall. It rotates through the air and strikes the wall. Hilt-first.

“Of course, [Unerring Throw] doesn’t mean everything.”

I pick the knife up, and flip it in my hands. I catch it by the hilt easily. I’m not worried about cutting myself. The first Skill, the only Skill I got from my [Hero] class was [Weapon Proficiency: Knives].

“So why can’t I throw them correctly? Not enough rotation? Enough force?”

I guess proficiency with knives doesn’t mean I can throw them like a master. Still, I can do a lot of tricks with them. [Sleight of Hand] combined with my proficiency means I can practically walk my knife across my hand.

And flip it into the air and catch it without getting cut. I do it with my eyes closed, and then play the knife game. I tap the tip between my fingers on the dresser rapidly, then spin it up again. Catch it.

It would be so easy to just let it fall and cut my hand off. Or stand in front of the blade. I grab the knife out of the air when I think that and stare at it. Then the door opens.

“Tom? We wanted to see if you were okay—”

A voice. I turn. Chloe pushes open the door to my room. She stops when she sees me, holding the knife, staring at her. I realize what it looks like too late. I take a step towards her and make the mistake of gesturing with the blade.

“Uh, look. I know—”

She screams and runs. I curse and put the knife up my sleeve, making it vanish. Why do I have such bad timing?

In seconds, other people appear around the door. I hold up a hand.

“Nothing crazy. Just practicing knife throwing, guys.”

“Right. Right.”

They nod and grin at me. Sick, pale excuses for grins. I look at them. They shut the door. I stand in the darkness.

—-

I’m going crazy. I am. I walk down the corridors of the palace, feeling it in my veins. It’s getting worse. I can’t control it anymore.

And worse, at the moment I can’t hear the voice. Normally that would be a good sign. Now I’m afraid.

Why was I playing with a knife? Why did I want to stand under the blade? Why did I shout at Kirust? Why, why, why—

I’m losing it. I turn down another brightly lid corridor, scowling at the mage lights. I hate the brightness. But maybe it’s a good thing it’s bright. At least I can’t imagine things in the—

Shadows.

I stop. I don’t know where I am, but I suddenly see something at odds with the brightly lit passageways behind me. Ahead, there are no mage lights. Only blackness. Thick and consuming.

“What? What’s…?”

I look over my shoulder. A shining light hangs in the hallway behind me. Ahead of me…darkness. No light.

I feel a chill. What’s this? This is like a bad—bad horror movie. Or something else. I look at the light behind me again. And then ahead.

“Hello?”

The darkness…calls to me. I take a step forwards. Where are the mage lights? They have to be here. They said—

This is it. I’ve gone insane. Or this is real. I reach out and my hand is suddenly grasping a knife.

Darkness. It can’t be a coincidence. In a castle where the light is supposed to be on all the time? I feel a presence. And I know.

“This is it, isn’t it? You’re here. You’re messing with me. It isn’t just me. Is it?”

No response. I take a step forwards, hesitate. Every instinct tells me I should back away from the darkness. But why? I have nothing to lose. And if I turn away, I’ll always wonder if I was going crazy or not.

If I die, at least I’ll know. I walk forwards, knife at the ready.

“I won’t run. Not this time. I’m coming for you, do you hear me?”

My voice is loud, but still sucked up by some kind of unnatural silence. I walk forwards. Now I can barely see anything. But I can hear…something.

Whispering. Footfalls. I turn my head. Nothing’s there. The voice in my head is gone.

I feel something is nearby.

“I know you’re there. Come on.”

A movement. I spin. Just the darkness. I really am losing it.

It’s in my head. It’s right here. I’m going insane. This is reality. The darkness closes in, and then I think I see a light. I feel my way down a corridor. Yes, there’s something ahead of me.

Is this it? Suddenly, I see a bright light and realize I’m an idiot. One of the mage lights just went out! And I thought…I thought…

I’m losing it. But then I walk forwards a bit more and realize it’s not a mage light ahead. Instead, I see advancing ghostly blue flame. A…lantern’s light. Yes, ahead of me. Moving.

Dark. A flicker of movement. My heart races. There is something here. Something—

Him. Me.

Then I step closer, and see what’s holding the light. The figure turns, and the lantern swings. I see a face like leather, two horns curving downwards, bright green eyes—

A Demon soldier stands with lantern in hand, a bloody sword in the other. I stop, staring. He stares back. And behind him, I see a man with his back against the wall, next to an ornate door. He sees me at the same time I see him.

Fool?

He half turns towards me and I see his eyes widening. He shouts.

“Get away, Tom! Warn the others! There are Demons—

The Demon soldier whirls around. He raises his sword with a snarl and the Fool raises his hands. The Demon strikes low.

He slashes the Fool’s belly open, pulling out a chunk of his insides. The Fool gasps, grips onto the Demon as if to hold him there. The masked Demon lowers him almost gently to the floor, and turns towards me. His horns flash in the light of the lantern he’s holding.

I back away. This is a nightmare. Only, it’s not one I thought would be here. My hand raises, it shakes as I hold the knife in front of me. And now I hear the voice.

Kill him. You know you want to.

“Stay back!”

The Demon advances on me. Then he stops. A hand grasps his cloven feet. The Fool. He whispers something up at the Demon. The soldier turns and kicks the Fool in the face. I hear a crack and the Fool goes still.

The Demon turns back towards me, sword in hand. I back up again. The voice is whispering, shouting.

Kill him! Slash him, leap at him and take his sword! You’re too afraid to do it? Let me out! Give in! LET ME OUT AND I’LL DEAL WITH ALL OF IT.

No, no! I shake my head, trembling. I can’t—I won’t! But the Demon is approaching, sword bloody. It drips to the ground. I back up again.

I have to run. I have to fight. I have to—

GIVE IN.

Madness. I want to laugh. I want to cry. I want to scream—the Demon looks at me, and whirls. He runs towards the door the Fool was standing in front of and picks something up. A key. Only now do I see another body, next to the Fool’s. A man in armor, gutted. There’s blood on the ground. And the key—

The Demon turns it in the lock. He throws the door open and rushes inside. I freeze. Then I hear a high-pitched scream. It’s a voice I recognize.

Erille’s. I don’t recall running to the door, but now I stand inside it. The Demon is inside, and so is Erille. The room is huge, beautiful. She’s sitting in a four-poster bed, eyes wide. The Demon towers over her, one clawed hand reaching for her, grabbing.

Her eyes are wide. The Demon’s pulling at her, the bloody sword in his hands. He’ll kill her.

LET ME OUT.

No!

I scream the word, and throw. The Demon twists, eyes staring at me, and freezes. Emile shrieks in horror and I hear a sound I’ll remember forever.

Thunk.

The blade stops, embedded in the Demon’s forehead. He blinks, reaches up to feel at the piece of metal in his head. He never completes the motion, but slumps onto the bed, half over Emille. She screams again.

“Are you alright?”

I run over to her. She screams at me. I pull the Demon off her, and the girl is screaming, pulling the covers over her face. I reach for her, hesitate. There’s someone laughing in my head. But I did that! I—

“Behind!”

Her voice makes me whirl. I turn, and there’s a second shape in the doorway. Another Demon, with two knives in his hands. He stares at the fallen Demon on the ground and roars at me.

GIVE—

This time I push the voice down. I stare at the Demon and he stares back. Now my blood is on fire. And I know what I have to do.

I charge the second Demon. He might be tall, but I’m heavy. We crash into each other and I feel him stabbing, quick as lightning. His knife goes into my stomach, one, two, three, four—

The blade vanishes. I yank it away from him and now it’s in my hands. He stabs towards my face before jerking away, realizing his hand is now empty. I slash at him, but we’re too locked together.

We roll on the floor as the [Princess] flees her bed. All I can see is the Demon’s face. His eyes are wide, green—he has no whites, just green sclera and yellow pupils shaped like diamonds, locked on me.

I can hear laughter, I can feel the madness taking over. But I fight it down as I stab back at the Demon. I’m in control! In this eternal moment of death and violence I realize it. It’s just me. I scream it at him.

“It’s me! I’m in control! Me! This is my choice!

I’ll kill. I stab the knife and feel it enter something. The Demon stabs me with his other knife, twisting the blades. I’ve felt pain before. I push mine deeper, deeper.

He stops moving. The lance of metal tears into me again. It’s just his hands and mine, seeking each other’s lives. I look at the Demon, straight into his eyes, and he looks at me.

“You and I—are both monsters.”

His eyes widen. His grip on the dagger loosens. I feel his claws tearing at my belly, and then relax. He stiffens, and I push myself off him.

The dagger—his dagger—is shoved hilt-deep into his chest, right where his heart would be if he’s like a Human. He’s covered in blood.

My blood.

I stagger upright, feeling a gaping…emptiness in my chest. I hear a sound. I turn, and Erille flinches away from me. I look down and see only blood and torn flesh where my chest should be.

“Oh. Sorry.”

I’m scaring her. I look at the Demon at the foot of her bed, and then the one at my feet.

Two Demons. Both dead. I did that. I did.

I should be angry, or sad. Or shocked. But I just stare at them. Dead. That’s all.

I killed them. I did it. But that doesn’t matter. I don’t care. What’s important is—is—

Blood drips to the floor. I turn to Erille. She huddles in her blankets, eyes wide, staring. But it’s important she knows. There’s no danger anymore. None.

“Just me. I did it. I’m—”

I stare down at my bloody hands and feel the deep cuts on my belly bleeding. The pain—I’ve felt worse. I clench my fingers tightly around the dagger still buried in my side. It hurts. But I’m me.

There’s no one else in here. Just Tom. Tom the [Clown].

Tom the Murderer.

“You should probably scream for help. Or something.”

I tell Erille that as I slowly sink to the ground. She looks at me and then turns, grabbing for something on her dresser. I hear her voice—very distant.

It’s all fading away. I stare towards one wall. Hey, Erille has a dresser like mine. I see the blood spattered room reflected in it, and a young man lying on top of a Demon’s body, covered in blood.

He’s me, but he’s not me. The other Tom looks up.

He grins at me. A white devil dancing in a pool of crimson. He stares at me, and I think he winks for a second. His smile is like blood. But it’s just in my head. I turn from the mirror.

“It’s all in my head. All.”

Just me. Then throughout the castle I hear a ringing noise, like bells, and hear shouting, bells and shouting and a horn now, like a siren. I listen to the sounds, and hear him whispering in my head.

It’s not over Tom. Not over. Not yet.

“You’re just…just…”

Someone’s bent over me. Erille? She has a bottle in her hands and she’s pouring it over my chest. The world goes dark. But I can still hear him.

I’m real as you are, Tom. I’m waiting for you to let me out. This was only the beginning.

And the devil laughs, and I smile. Because he’s not real.

He’s just in my head.

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A note from pirateaba

When I first started writing this chapter, I knew it had to be longer, better than the last one. I reread my old Tom chapters and thought that it wasn’t great. I mean, some parts were good, but I thought that to turn it from a one-off short story into what it needs to be, it needed this kind of setup.

Mind you, I still thought I could do it in 2 chapters, but I’m always off with my estimates. But what I found most interesting was this: I didn’t understand Tom until very late in the writing process.

To prepare for this chapter, I did more prep work than any other chapter save for perhaps the [Doctor] stuff. I watched three movies. The 2017 IT movie, Silence of the Lambs, and I rewatched The Dark Knight. And you know what I found?

First, the IT movie sucks, Silence of the Lambs is a classic, but not very gripping since so many horror movies and other pieces took inspiration from it (copied), which made the classic less novel, and The Dark Knight’s cool, although they talk too much. Also, Batman’s costume looks bad and I don’t like his voice. But I digress. I found that I was doing the wrong thing.

I was looking for horror, where Tom isn’t all that scary. I’d somehow forgotten that. Tom isn’t Pennywise, and let’s be honest, Pennywise isn’t scary. The Joker’s only disturbing once, and Tom…Tom’s a [Clown]. I realized I didn’t know what that meant.

So many clowns are done poorly. I won’t go into details, but if Pennywise is a bad clown in the new IT movie, a good clown would be someone like Puddles. I won’t spoil things, but here’s the link. Puddles is very unlike Tom, but he’s a good example of what a Clown can be.

And what is Tom? Well, we’re not done yet. Let’s see how it ends. Thanks for reading! Also, vote in the Patreon poll. Pisces and Olesm are winning, and I’m not sure if that’s good or bad.


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Fallen-S36 @Fallen-S36 ago

Another disappointing chapter.

It seems like more and more of Erin's story is put on the back burner. Coming from nearly every chapter being about her to hardly any chapters now. Like 3 in 10.

Its becoming less of a story about the Wondering Inn and more and more of a story about the Earthlings that came with Erin.

I dont like it.

My second favorite character is Rags. But I only care about Rags because of Erin. The same thing with Toren and other characters like Relc and Ryoka.

If Rags was the same character but had no ties with Erin, I probably wouldn't care about her. The same with the others.

Pawns story is a bid different and it actually keeps me interested. But his character develops is linked to Erin. So it's really Erin

My point is that Erin makes up everything that is good in this story.

These side stories are a distraction and aren't interesting. Probably because they have nothing to do with Erin or her story.

It would be different if you had like 2 side stories every 10 chapters. But I feel like the side stories have been the bulk of the story recently.

    bond674 @bond674 ago

    You don't like the clown... well that's okay, but it's not like you need to read the side stories right?

    maelos61 @maelos61 ago

    'These side stories are a distraction and aren't interesting. Probably because they have nothing to do with Erin or her story.' Hope you understand that you're speaking purely for yourself right? I didn't like Ryoka that much at the start and Rags could also be a bit meh, but now that both have had more development I absolutely love them. I loved the Docter story and am loving this Clown story too. In case the author reads this: You've been doing just fine.

      Moist Nugget @Moist Nugget ago

      Completely agree with you. Erin plot is the best plot. The early Ryoka chaps were just about developing her and her character while trying to bring her closer to Erin. Basically skipped all of that and just got the good Ryoka/Erin chaps once it gets past the +100 mark

    zarper @zarper ago

    Well, i dont agree with everything you said, but I can see your point. I think it's a symptom of a larger problem.

    Erin isn't important enough for the world.

    Yeah, Magnolia, the antinium, and the necromancer have an eye on them, but she is a bystander in a larger conflict. It looks like pirateaba is trying to slowly expand the focus is the story into an amazing world-changing epic, and I love it. We get to continuously meet new factions, and get to know more unexplored parts of the world.

    At this point you might just want to make this into a universe, and not a story, because there is so much to tell, from so many different points of view, that there is now way someone is going to like everyone

    By this same reason Daybreak on Hyperion was dropped, because it's protagonist wast realistically going to be able to impact the fate of the world.

    I don't want this novel to be dropped, as I didn't want Daybreak to be. So maybe some changes have to be done

    The most problematic part is that at the beginning, it really is the story of the wandering inn. But now? Now it's the story of the world, and sometimes we take a break from the important stuff to go to inn.

    I don't think that Erin should be the main character, even if she is my favorite. I'm not even sure that there should be one. What I'm sure is that, even if Erin doesn't appear as much, or even if she died (which I can't see in the near future), this story will still rock.

      bond674 @bond674 ago

      And meanwhile I sit here and Wonder why the inn hasn't grown a pair of legs so it could actually wander...

      Tallywort @Tallywort ago

      I can see how people can get that feeling, although I don't share it.

      To me it feels more like the story slowly weaves in connections to the inn, Ryoka got to know Erin and now regularly interacts with her, Magnolia knows of the existence of Erin (I think) but not really what her place is in this all. The Horns of Hammerad are now pretty much regulars of the inn. Even the blind emperor has connections to the inn, even if those haven't developed too much in the story so far.

      And Erin? she is in the middle of it all, maybe not the most important, but she's there and she influences it all by her presence.

      Lanfear @Lanfear ago

      OMG the Wandering Inn! I never even considered that pun on the name, that would be amazing. Very Ghibli-esque!

    Eladar @Eladar ago

    Hey, I know Erin is who roped us into this story and I know I disliked the Ryoka chapters at first, I skipped them. However, all the side stories matter. Ryoka became important, she helps out in times when Erin is too stupid to notice something and she refuses to get a class. Someone living without a class and the fairy magic she can use is interesting too. The [Doctor] is interesting, someone who combines healing potions with modern medicine to do crazy things. The Emperor is also cool. He just did something that nobody thought of doing and succeeded. The clown... The [Lesser Insanity] is an interesting concept and it shows that even non-combat classes can be powerful. The others also matter, too many for me to list.

    Elrhat @Elrhat ago

    I completly disagree. This comment of yours is only a rant, and a poor one at that. Erin is the protagonist of the story, yes , but having the criteria that a chapter is bad/dissapointing just because she is not closely related to the chapter in it self is laughable and childish.. What you have is a really bad case of lack of imagination. IF you where to read between the lines and connect the dots, you would realize the following .

    There are (as of this chapter) 4 MAYOR PLOTS that may o may not converge later (though 2 are currently doing so)

    1. The GOD plotline, Rhir: yes the one about the centinium. I put this instead of the Eternal War because, in my opinion, it will cause the end of the war. This plot is fleshed out thanks to Tom and later, I guess, by Klbkch (once he travels here in search of the old antinium). Tom lets us have a look of Rhir in preparation of later plot

    2. The KING OF DESTRUCTION plotline, Chandrar: the (almost) conqueror of the world. Facilitated by the Twins side story

    3.The NECROMANCER plotline, Issrysil: enemy of all living things. At we get this through Ryoka, Venitra , The goblin Lord , etc. This is due to the fact that this plotline is about to hit the fan

    4. The GOBLIN UPRISING plotline, Issrysil: the first plot of them all. Started due to Rags, yes the little goblin we all new was meant for grater things.

    This explain plots are WHY we need side storys to develop this continents. Think about it, we have almost no information about Terandria (a whole continent!!) because NOTHING is going on over there . And Baleros side chapters are more about the characters than anything else, besides this "Earthlings" ,in baleros, are currently affecting The Titan (as of now is just merely an impresion but this might be develop further down the line).We know that this is important due to Niers being a central figure of the story that will have a more active role sooner rather than later, you know because of him being the greatest strategist there is.

    All this things are or will be related to Erin, so they MUST be adressed in due time hence the side chapters.

      Moist Nugget @Moist Nugget ago

      I think the main point of his criticism was that Erin is slowly losing importance in the story. Can't really correlate awakening gods and marching armies with the girl in a tavern.

      Some of the side chaps are interesting, but this is still called "The Wandering Inn" and Erin has slowly been slowed down/surpassed in terms of 'action' (as in interest is waning when compared to the side chaps)

      I personally Enjoyed the chaps were the Doc met up with another group in the warzone and the clown chapters, they're good enough to be stories on their own. That's where the problem lies, the side chapters have become more interesting than the 'main cast'.

      Even Ryoka (who I admitted to skipping to on chaps below 100) is more interesting than Erin because of the frost fairies and dragon/necro shenanigans.

      Elrhat @Elrhat ago

      First of all, thank you for the cordial response.

      Now then, I can see where you are coming from and I agree, though your comment is worlds apart from op's one as you DO give a constructive comment. There is, as you mention, a slowing down on Erin chapters. The thing is we cannot know if this is a preparation for more plot on the "main story",a change of direction on the fiction (from Erin to a multicharacter focus) or even a result of the premise itself (Erin produces a domino effect on other characters ).

      Changing topic, and after reading my own comment, I think I come out too strongly on it and I apologize. That said I still think that saying (as op said) that all chapters without Erin are uninteresting/bad or that "These side stories are a distraction and aren't interesting" is just hurtfull, unhelpfull and a diservice to the author. Its better to explain why you think so and try to help the author make a better story , rather throwing the statement a leave.

      Moist Nugget @Moist Nugget ago

      It's alright, I just hope that Ryoka is the stone that rolls things along for Erin. Something big needs to happen to her for her importance in the world to reach the same level as what the side chaps are showing us.

      maelos61 @maelos61 ago

      Maybe Erin will be the one to defeat the goblin lord? That would be awsome and quite important Tongue. 'Minotaur Punch!'

    Genisyn69 @Genisyn69 ago

    I think you are wrong, we would know very little of the wide world if not for these 'side chapters'. We would know nothing of Teriarch rather than a loose unused plot of Erin seeing a dragon as she first arrived. We would not know of Lady Magnolia, prior to her meeting Erin.

    What I see is another set of eyes in the World to give me a perspective that it isn't only goblins, and things that might have a cause and effect on the Inn later. Even if it doesn't, I like learning about how this World works.

    If the story was just boiled down to Erin it would still be enjoyable, she is my favorite, but she is my favorite because thats where the Author spent the most time. She is my favorite because the Author is my favorite. With you becoming frustrated to this extent about it shows but one thing, they have caught your attention with a superbly crafted character.

Daybreak @Daybreak ago

I clicked on to the next page, took one look at the scrollbar, and said "oh! That's what you meant by 'wordy'."

God bless your soul, and thanks for the chapter.

    Retr0Spekt @Retr0Spekt ago

    Personally I can't help but like all these sad stories in chapters because it seems like they're inching closer in closer to Erin's story so far they've been great world-building and great stories on their own honestly I can't help but like it so so I don't keep up the good work please I look forward to the next chapter

Adelaide @Adelaide ago

I love Tom and I've waited for a new Tom Chapter for quite a while. AND THEN I GOT TWO!

Keep it up.

j03man @j03man ago

This is my favorite side story! I know it can't be easy writing an insane character but I'll always look forward to the clown chapters!

Qanelin @Qanelin ago

I enjoyed this chapter. Seeing Tom struggle with his growing insanity is interesting.

mrel @mrel ago

It was perfect, I loved his thoughts and was just waiting for him to vent which he finally did xD

Love your chapters and looking forward to the next Very Happy

CedNed @CedNed ago

Well, f%ck em' if they can't take a joke! I like your story, and side stories just fine! I always look forward to it every week! Thanks!

Eladar @Eladar ago

More huge chapters! Yas!

ShadeMage @ShadeMage ago

If somone shanks tom out of hand i would cheer them on, fear of clowns makes him not fun for me

nerdneck @nerdneck ago

Liking the crazy clown even though clowns creep me out. These side chapters are always enjoyable since they help flesh out the world and help to remind that even though this is Erins story the world is much broader than her inns four walls. Thanks again as always