Friday, July 11, 2014

Day Seven-Hundred-Forty: The Bandit


The former king's head remained bowed, touching the wall of the dimly-lit cellar. A trickle of sand fell into his hair as something pounded the ground in the distance. He ignored it.

"Did I... did I ever tell you 'bout how I got to your castle in the first place?"

No response.

"Guess not." 

Stretched on his back upon a heap of sand, Dragomir swallowed. His mouth was dry, his tongue as coarse as splintered wood. "I haven't really told anybody 'bout my trip from Villeinville to your castle. Hell, all I ever said to Libby was 'Didn't go too badly.'"

Jeffrey blinked. A tear leaked out of the corner of one eye and left a tiny wet mark on the ground. The sand promptly swallowed up the moisture.

"Truth is, it did go badly. But I never told anyone 'bout it. Always kept that story to myself."

The Baron handled new employees, Jeffrey thought. I was too busy running a dictatorship to bother with details.

"Most of it was okay," Dragomir admitted. He smiled. "I was overwhelmed. I'd never really left home, then one day, boom! Arranged wife, arranged job, arranged apartment... scary as hell, but also a dream come true. Problem was, my parents weren't about to come with me. They made me walk by myself. I hitched a few carriage rides, it's true. But mostly I walked."

I rode in a carriage once, Jeffrey mused. I rode it to my new castle. With my young wife. The one who got stuck in a tree when she decided to get out of the carriage and walk the rest of the way. How the hells did that ever happen...?

"Met a lot of pleasant people on the road." Dragomir sighed. "Made me think my fears 'bout the outside world were just stupid. 'Everyone out here is so happy,' I figured. 'Why bother with a wall 'round Villeinville? Just a waste of wood. These folks are grand.'"

Jeffrey waited for the turn in the conversation.

"Then I met the bandit." Dragomir swallowed, more loudly than he would have liked. His cheeks flushed. "The... yeah. The bandit."

Somewhere above them, a ways to Jeffrey's left, the Nothing fell over. The ground thundered, raining sand down into the cellar. Neither man flinched. They'd heard and felt the same thing too many times in the last week to care anymore.

"I was out for a walk." Dragomir bit his lip, forcing calm into his voice. He refused to waver, refused to cry. "I'd gotten a room at a little countryside inn, and I really liked the scenery. Plus the, uh, owner of the inn was a bit of an asshole. Kept tryin' to overcharge me. I might've been naive, but I wasn't stupid, you know? So I went for a walk."

Going for a walk by yourself in an unknown land is both naive and stupid, Jeffrey decided. I should never have trusted myself to this fool.

"Nice dirt roads nearby, lined with fences. Cow country. Lots of farms. I grew up on a farm, so I figured I'd fit in fine. I walked, I talked with the occasional farmer in his field, and eventually I got really hot. It being summertime and all. Sweaty days."

A phantom rat slipped out of the wall beside Jeffrey. It lingered by his face for a moment, not noticing him, seeming to stare intently at Dragomir. Abruptly, it turned and fled back through the wall. Jeffrey didn't care if it was an ill omen or not.

"I looked for shelter once I got hot, but I was a little too hot to tromp back to the inn. The farmsteads were all far off, and the farmers I saw were all too busy to help me out. So... I figured... why not sit under a tree? Or a whole bunch of trees?Like, say, a bunch of trees that you'd call a forest?"

I know where this is going. Jeffrey fought back a wince. I heard this tale plenty of times, back in my court. It always ended badly.

"So I found a forest," Dragomir continued. "As luck would have it, there was one on the side of the road. Guess it gave me the idea to shelter from the sun in the first place. It was thick and dark, yeah, but dark is what you look for when you wanna hide from the light. The greenery... it was so damned inviting."

But you went too deep, Jeffrey thought.

"But I went in too far," Dragomir admitted, the words 'too' and 'far' nearly obscured by a shudder. "I wanted to explore. I didn't think such a little forest could be dangerous. Pretty soon I was right in the middle, standing beneath a big poplar tree, and I couldn't figure out which direction I had to go to get out again. Not a big deal in such a small forest, but it kept me stationary for a minute."

And then...

"That's... that's where the bandit found me." Dragomir shifted uneasily to his side, staring at the far end of the cellar. Another ghostly rat swam in and out of the wall, so abrupt and fleeting that it could easily have been a trick of the eye. "He... must've... been hiding somewhere behind the poplar. Maybe in a bush."

The Baron once told me never to leave the castle, Jeffrey thought, because there are bad people outside. Bad people who would love to rob a king. Apparently bad people won't just rob kings.

"Poplars are really thin, you know, so he... kinda... wrapped his arms around the whole thing. Pinned me." The words began to tumble out of Dragomir. The telling became easier and easier the more he committed himself to the horror. "He had such huge arms. Thin, really thin, but long. And... a knife... maybe even a shortsword, I can't remember exactly... he held it to my throat..."

Jeffrey rubbed his adam's apple.

"At first I thought he wanted to rob me. I figured he would empty my pockets, maybe beat me up, then let me go." Clinching his eyes shut, Dragomir let out a breath. "And he did take a few things. But that wasn't the scary part."

No, of course it wasn't.

"The strength of his arms, the huge silhouette he cast on the ground in front of me... all those bits were scary. But the scariest part is what he said, because it didn't make a whole lot of sense."

What did he say?

"He said... 'Hiya, baby. You'll do just fine.'"

Baby? That's an odd thing to say.

"And... he moved his left arm from my chest... to my face... and for a minute he just lingered there, fondling... fondling my cheek... I wanted to puke from the fear... from his hot, rancid breath as he propped his chin on my shoulder..."

Oh. Jeffrey tensed. He suddenly had a terrible idea where this story was going. His view of Dragomir as a person twitched violently off-kilter, replaced by something sorrowful and grotesque. I want him to stop talking now.

"And... and he pushed me..." 

Shut up. Shup up. SHUT UP.

"And I hit the ground, belly in the mud - "

"Shut up," Jeffrey said at last, projecting venom into his tone. "Just shut up. I don't want to hear any more. Keep your bandit to yourself."

Dragomir didn't say anything for a long while. Gradually, the tension in Jeffrey's shoulders eased - or at least it did until Dragomir opened his mouth again.

"I know what you're thinking. He didn't do that." Dragomir coughed, sitting up. "I... I blacked out, at some point, but I know he didn't do that."

Jeffrey knocked his head against the wall, laughing. "How would you possibly know if you blacked out? He could've done anything."

"He didn't."

"How do you know?"

Dragomir hesitated, then spoke with surprising, authoritarian conviction. "I know."

Jeffrey let those words hover between them for a while. "... okay. Then what happened?"

The worst seemingly over, Dragomir shrugged. "Eventually... I woke up. Found a few things missing, my pockets empty. The bandit was gone. By then it was nighttime, and it was cool enough for me to go back to the inn. So... I did."

Jeffrey narrowed his eyes, skeptical. "And... that's it?"

Another shrug... but it faltered halfway through the motion. Dragomir propped his chin on his fist. "I... well, there was one other thing. I told you what he said didn't make much sense, right?"


"Well, it wasn't the 'baby' bit that confused me. Not as much, anyway. It was... what he said before I blacked out." Dragomir tilted his head to look at the ceiling. "I'm pretty sure he said 'I really like your hat. Mind if I take - '"

Dragomir's last word was drowned out by a sudden eruption of noise as the entrance to the cellar collapsed. Stones and sand tumbled down in a torrent, wrenched out of place by an enormous leg. Both men screamed, each realizing in those final moments that, somehow, in all the storytelling, not to mention their subconscious impatience to leave this hellish place, they'd forgotten about the Nothing.


Far above, looking down from the remains of a fallen tower, three other men watched the Nothing hurtle its massive body into the ground. Its leg, twisted and worn from lugging the entirety of the machine's bulk around for a week, flailed briefly into the air before smashing into the skeleton of a building.

"It's found them," said the first. "I suppose we've waited long enough. Go fetch him."

"What about my dad?" said another, his grimey face tight with anger. "Don't forget - "

"Yes, yes, your father too." The first man rolled his eyes. "Take him and get out of here. You'll find this city simple to navigate from now on. Hurry."

The second man glared, lip curling back in a snarl. "If you hurt him, you answer to me. Got it?"

"I understand."

Without another word, the second man vaulted off of the rubble. He landed far below with supernatural grace, pulled a sword from a scabbard, and dashed towards the Nothing's hindsection. Soon he was lost in an immense cloud of dust.

Blinking vapidly, the third man smiled and cracked his knuckles. "What is that thing, Iko? You never said."

The first man bowed his head. "A relic. A weapon. Many things. Now's not the time. Get going."

The third man persisted, scratching his chin stubble. "Is it a bowling ball? I love to bowl. Mom used to bowl with me back on the farm. Or was it pinochle? I can't remem- "

"Hurry, please." 

The first man shoved the third off of the stonework, watched him fall for a moment, and shook his head as the third man bounced off of a heap of stone like a ragdoll. He eventually collected himself and ran off towards the Nothing. 

"Silly idiot." The first man smiled a little. "That machine doesn't stand a chance."

The first man slid one drooping sleave into the other, his standard pose. His heart fluttered, excited and frightened, anticipating the coming climax. He enjoyed the sensation... at least until he thought of something else, something he yelled to the third man:


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