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Guest Chris Sirn

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Guest Chris Sirn

Dark fantasy.

My name’s Brutal Lethem, and this story happened many years ago—almost an entire lifetime. I’ve never told it to anyone, and you’ll understand why in a moment. It involves a terrible secret.

I loved Sophia with all my soul. She was a dark elf with a heart of gold who wanted to provide money for the people of our destitute village. She was also my best friend. So before we came of age that summer, she sought out a hermit named Melvin who lived in the forest on the outskirts of town. He had been shunned by our king for crimes unknown to the public, but he was a witch, and Sophia made a pact with him: She would sell her soul to him for cheap, in exchange for all eleven books of Raul. He made it clear he would sell her soul to the Angel of the Underworld once the deal was finished, but she agreed still. She knew what she was getting into.

Raul is an ancient form of black magic. Books on the subject were highly illegal, as the art was… well, dangerous, even to an expert witch. The subject was highly taboo. When someone claimed to have seen a copy of one of the books, it was always volume five, the Book of Transparency. Apparently the rest of the books were invisible and had become lost. Supposedly.   

So the day before her eighteenth birthday, Sophia disappeared into Clinkscales Forest to train in private. She returned hours later, starved out of her mind, as thirsty as a vampire after a long summer day. Her parents asked her what was wrong, but she wouldn’t answer. If they had known the side-effects of Raul, they would have recognized the warning signs of excessive use. Before she began training in Raul, she was the leader of our class, a beautiful girl who was especially promising in the subject of magical studies. Our elders, particularly our teachers, laughed and assured Sophia she would attend the kingdom’s finest university to become the High Sorceress of Healing. But Sophia had other plans.

“I can’t believe you did this,” I wept the day she broke the news to me. I’m an orc, you see, a red orc, which is extremely rare. To see an orc cry, even at a funeral, is a once in a lifetime event. “How could you do this to me, Sophia? You promised you wouldn’t!”  

Sophia was speechless. She was very quiet that school year, often peering at the world from behind her old-fashion glasses, her dress inoffensive. Not one you would suspect to study such a morbid subject on her nights off. Or maybe that was the point. “Someone has to do it,” she said later as she touched me on the shoulder—it was the only time I ever heard her explain her actions. “Somebody has to take one for the team.” Those words have haunted me ever since: Somebody has to take one for the team.    

So she gambled by straying from the path of higher education, devoting her mind to that obscure subject instead.  “The Devil’s Calling,” our sheriff called it. I saw less of Sophia after we graduated—or, at least for that summer. One day I became so curious that I decided to spy on her. This was mid-July. Our neighboring towns were celebrating Elric Fable's Day, the biggest event of the summer, and I was certain to have a few hours where no one would question my disappearance (we lived in a tight-fisted kingdom in those days, similar to your modern China, where martial law was constantly imposed). The time was an hour past noonday when the games and social gatherings in downtown Goodrich began. The main attraction, the Elric Fable's Day parade, would not start until that evening. I told my parents I would see them at the party, then I left home, heading the opposite way down the dirt road outside our farm. Little did I know that someone had witnessed my defiance.

When I arrived at Sophia’s an hour later, I crouched uncomfortably behind a small tree, knowing I was dead if someone caught me there. A screech came from the head of the driveway. I looked and saw the NO TRESPASSING sign rattling in the breeze. The front door burst open. It was the first time I had seen her since graduation. Back then she had looked as lovely as an angel in her white gown and tasseled cap. Now she was more nerdy-looking than ever, more like an austere librarian who wouldn’t dare talk to strangers—certainly not the renegade I knew and loved. She clutched a journal to her chest as if it were a shield. A small lock hung from it. She wore a backpack.

I followed her into the Great Woods like a fugitive, fighting the urge to run back to town as fast as possible. Above the trees, the clouds moved in, about to turn a sunny day into an overcast one. I didn’t notice it, not yet. 

I struggled to keep up—she was very athletic in those days. I began to worry about the time. Could I make it back to town fast enough to pull off this ill-conceived stunt? Some time later, when I felt certain I had lost my friend, I came to Nucifera Lake. The water sparkled, like a treasure of diamonds hid beneath her waves. The wind rustled my hair. I emerged from the bushes and almost blew the whole thing: Sophia sat on a fallen tree less than two feet from me, her backpack open and the books laid out before her, forming a half-circle around her feet. I froze (I had questioned Sophia’s sanity in those months, and I didn’t want to anger her while she was “in the zone”), then I smoothly stepped behind a tree. It was my one smart move that entire day.

The beautiful young woman stood up and sampled the water with her toe, as if she meant to go for a swim. Thunder echoed in the distance, making me uncomfortable. It never crossed my mind that if a storm hit, then the holiday events would be canceled. I just watched as she knelt by the lake and twirled her fingers in the water, Sophia staring at her reflection as if mesmerized, then she turned and walked to her right, disappearing into the brush.

I am not one who easily admits when I’ve done something wrong. It’s a hard thing for me to do. What I did next was so stupid that it pains me to write about it. I stepped forward from the bushes and looked at the water. It seemed to call out to me, as if from a heavenly world where problems would cease to matter. It looked so beautiful sparkling in the sunlight (although there was no sunlight at this point) that I had to get closer. I felt an urge to dive in and explore its lovely depths. I didn’t know the books were poisoning my head, making me think things that led me down the wrong path.

She’ll be back any minute, warned a voice inside my head. And when she finds out you’ve been following her…

Whispers came and went with the breeze. I trembled with anticipation. I didn’t know a sea monster slept in the depths of the lake. I stepped into the water without removing my boots, feeling silly and not caring. Were there mermaids in these waters? I had heard legends they existed in these woods, but I had never seen them. I stepped deeper. The water rose to my ankles. My feet sank in the mud. A hummingbird flew up to my face, looked me in the eye, then departed. I laughed. 

More thunder as petals from the cherry blossom trees landed on the water. I thought about my parents, and that broke the hypnosis: Oh gods, what if it rained? What if the party was canceled and my family went looking for me? What if they asked around if anyone had seen me? The rude awakening sent a jolt down my spine that made every hair on my hairy back stand up: Had I already been caught? This whole trip had taken a long time, and I would need at least an hour to get back to my house, and this time I had no Sophia to guide me. There was no path I could follow back to her house.

Behind me, I heard the pages of the books turning in the wind, like something in a haunted house. The sky darkened. I suddenly realized I couldn’t move my feet because a tentacle had wrapped itself around my ankles. 

Sophia emerged from the bushes, grabbing a nearby blanket from her backpack to cover herself with—she was naked except for her underwear and the black witch paint she had administered to the spots beneath her eyes like eyebrows, her eyes squinting and then bulging: “Brutal???” she said.

“Help!” I cried, then the tentacle tightened its grip around my waist and chest, choking off my air. Raindrops sprinkled down all around me, I could see them hitting the water, and then Sophia dived into the lake, standing up and raising her hand in the air as she screamed: “GO!”

A blue flash of light appeared at the top of the outstretched hand, Sophia up to her hips in water, the ball of light growing into something painful to watch. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before, and I suddenly felt certain she was going to get us both killed. I strangely didn’t care. My only concern was destroying the arm that wouldn’t release me from its grasp, and if a little risk was necessary, so be it.  A sound like crashing thunder echoed from over the hills, sending every bird in the trees flying to the south in a hurry. I didn’t know it at the time, but Sophia had attempted a very difficult spell, and she had done it wrong. A sound echoed from beneath the water. It sounded like a drowning man laughing, and then the creature pulled me into the murky depths. 

“NO!” Sophia cried, and suddenly a monstrous hand reached into the water and pulled me to the surface. 

I was suddenly in the air, looking down at the green tentacle of the faceless thing that had laughed at my scream, when suddenly the arm retreated, as if frightened. I looked up to see what had rescued me.

“Oops,” said Sophia. 

The giant had me in its hairy hand, looking at me with one eye: a Cyclopes. Its skin was orange, its muscles the size of boulders because the creature was a hundred feet high, and growing. Cyclopes were unheard of in our part of the world, but there were plenty of legends, all of them stating the same thing: They were crazy, violent, out-of-control. Below us, Sophia shouted things in a different language, but I barely heard her. I became vaguely aware that I—we—would have been better off if Sophia had never conjured the monster at all. At least I could swim to the lake’s surface. If this thing dropped me (by then it was carrying me far away, out of the water and into the forest) I would surely splatter. It held me high above its head for all the world to see, shouting “OOH-GAH, BOO-BOO-GAH-DAH!” as if I were a well-cherished prize it was showing off.

“Sophia!” I screamed. I looked down and was surprised to see she was actually keeping up with us: I had never seen her move so fast, she was running as fast as a flash, like a superhuman, and I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a trail of flames at her heels. “I recall my invitation!” she said, looking funny in only her underwear, but I was too busy not dying to see the humor in such things. She repeated the words, as if trying to shoo away a vampire, and it occurred to me that she was reciting the wrong phrase. I wanted to shout down to her, but that was a joke, too. We were just two young kids caught in a problem of our own making, and there were no adults to rescue us.

I noticed without much surprise that we were headed in the direction of town. That would fit in well with my luck of the day. It also occurred to me that Sophia’s shyness wouldn’t allow her to follow us into the public eye, so unless she came up with something fast—

The Cyclops emerged from the forest, still holding me high above its gnarled head, and onto the road screaming as if to draw as much attention as possible. I realized it was having fun… perhaps somehow instinctively knowing its time upon this earth would be very brief, and it wanted to live as much as possible. It heard the commotion coming from town where the party was going on, and it must have sensed the sounds of conversation and laugher, or at least sensed the atmosphere somehow, because it began to head in that direction. I looked down and was touched to see Sophia was still hot on our heels (pardon the pun). The giant stepped through a house (I mean literally stepped through it), tearing long bloody gashes in its skin. It appeared not to notice, only looked around as if someone had said its name, then went stomping along on its merry way. If the thing burst into a jog, let alone a run, there was no way the young spell caster could keep up with us, let alone recall the secret spell. 

The spell will expire soon, I tried to convice myself… but probably not until the beast had caused maximum damage, which was the point of its creation in the first place. I didn’t know at the time that the beast wasn’t heading for civilization to join the party, but because it was looking for a fight. 

Down the street we went,  in the direction of my house. Mercifully there was no one on the road to see this embarrassing/frightening display of mayhem, ( I bet Sophia was counting her blessings, my god she was going to kill me after this one).

We came to my house, and a trip that would have taken me over an hour was completeted in ten minutes. The giant went right past it , stopped, then turned around. “No!” I screamed.  “Sophia, do something!”  I tried to tell her, but the monster surprised us and went for the barn instead.

Boom! Boom! Boom!

The thing began to giggle like an idiot, then it headed for town. 

I looked down and saw Sophia had disappeared. For a horrible second I thought the Cyclops had stepped on her and killed her—I actually began to sob a little—but then I saw she was crawling up its leg like a tick. She was taking a massive gamble in doing this; if anyone saw her with that black paint on her face, then EVERYONE would see what she had been doing in the woods that day and her cover would be blown.  Her days of practicing the forbidden black magic would be over, but that would be the least of her worries.

“Alright, you asked for it!” Sophia said. Then she called out: “Aracha-bra!” 

I screamed for Sophia to just save herself, that this was all my fault and I would take the fall for  it. She had been my best friend since we were small chidren (although back then I was three times her size for our age, protecting her from the bullies that would make fun of her for being “an ugly blue elf"),  and I would have happily sacrificed myself for her… especially considereing the act of selflessness  she made when she sold her own immortal soul for her people). 

Another explosion of thunder echoed in my ears. A spear suddenly appeared out of nowhere, no bigger or longer than my arm, and struck the giant in its chest. It bounced off and fell to the ground, unnoticed by my new friend. “Sophia!” I screamed again, and she hollered back: “Hold on! I have a plan!”

We came to town, and I looked down and saw the villagers no bigger than pin heads, pointing up at us. My God, the streets were packed with women, children, the elderly, warriors.  A guard raised his hand up at us, as if telling us to halt—what the heck was HE thinking?—when wonder of wonders, the giant actually stopped. It looked down at the warrior dumbly, as if hypnotized by the simple gesture.  It struck me that the warrior had just given the correct spell order that Sophia had either didn’t know or had forgotten—likely didn’t know at all, assuming this monster’s conjuration was a mistake, but then the monster let out a violent scream, cocking its head back as if expressing its rage to the sky itself. It held me up in the air, shaking me in demonstration, as if I were a poorly conceived gift that had offended it somehow, then it stomped its way into town. The town  war tower began to ring its bell. Those who practiced dark magic in the town showed their true colors—it was illegal altogether here—by launching a wave of fireballs and electrical surges at the monster. Their collective efforts must have had impact on the Cyclops, unfortunately for me, considering how far the drop drop was. The monster staggered backwards, knocking over a grocery store as it went. I felt something small tap me on the shoulder, frightening me so bad that I actually let out a shriek—but then I saw it was Sophia with a huge grin on her face.

“You’re safe,” she said with a crazy look in her eyes…a look I would soon come to associate with the black magick she practiced.  The look scared me, as if she were now somehow worse than the monster she had brought into this world. Under normal circumstances I would have asked her if she was alright, but I was a bit out of my mind myself. I certainly didn’t think it was possible she had become possessed by the very black magic she was trying to use as an instrument for good. “Watch this,” she whispered in a breathy tone.

She began to chant softly, like she was singing a song meant only for my ears, and that was the start of the “even greater trouble.” I’ll never forget that moment as we looked into each other eyes, an expression on her face that I had never seen in the eighteen or so years I had known her. When I look back on that day, even after all these years, I still get chills up my spine and an uhealthy skip in my heartbeat.  What had become of my friend? Dear God, I was supposed to be her protector.  How could I have let this situation get so out of control?   I was supposed to be the warrior, I was the one who should have came up with that idea for protecting our land.

“He’s guided by your thoughts,” shouted Sophia. “You’re his muse. Just think of where you want to go—or where you don’t want to go--and he’ll head in that direction.” 

THE GROUND! I thought with all my heart, then suddenly wished I could call the thought back. The monster clutched me as if trying to make a fist, then he plunged his balled hand to the earth as if he were mad at the world. “Come back to me,” Sophia whispered sadly. Apparently it wasn’t simply saying the magic words, but saying them the right way. Just before I met my demise against the stony road, the monster dissolved into a tidal wave of lake water and whatever strange fish had been within it at the time of its creation. The water helped break my fall somehow, a peaceful feeling suddenly wrapping itself around me for a moment or two (artificial death I thought for no reason) as the life force escaped the Cyclops. 

I stood up, sopping wet but unharmed. “You there!” said a guard. “Stop!” 

“Don’t tell them a thing,” the dark elf whispered in my ear. “Meet me at my house later. I’ll be having a word with you.” I was looked around but Sophia had vanished like the final trick of the show. Where had she gone? Had anyone seen her? Later, I would discover she had managed to keep her presence a secret from the townspeople the whole time.

Apparently Sophia had read the Book of Transparency. 

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