Author’s Notes: Readers are welcome (and encouraged) to tell me what they think in the comment section below.
The Fool 0.1
I had always liked train rides.
On one hand, they were long, uneventful, and more importantly, dull. On the other hand, they were the perfect time to read in peace.
I took a look at my watch. Twelve O’clock. The train was scheduled to stop at London in four hours, although I doubted I would notice when we entered the city with the mist outside. After a year studying here, I had grown accustomed to England’s more than not terrible weather, but today took the cake. A thick white fog covered the world beyond the Plexiglas; I couldn’t even distinguish forms.
I sincerely hoped the driver saw better than I did.
“You’re reading a book again?” my friend Isaac noted, sitting next to me. A boy with blond hair about my age with sharp, amber eyes and a heart-shaped face, the ladies would have found him handsome were it not for his disastrous fashion sense. Clad all in brown, he looked like a reject from a Victorian-era novel. “Why don’t you want to become a librarian again?”
“Because it pays less than competitive intelligence?” I mused. Honestly I’d have rather become a medical examiner, but I was an utter failure at medicine. I dunno. The idea of cutting corpses open exerted on me some kind of morbid fascination.
I blamed too many procedurals.
“Meh, too much work,” Isaac replied, “I’d have thought you would call Jeanne instead.”
I had sent her messages before boarding the train. Two of them. “I’m waiting for her to manifest again,” I admitted, “First time a girl says ‘yes’. I ain’t sure what to do.”
“That’s one more time than me, so I can’t help,” he laughed, before rising from his seat, “I’m getting restless.”
“We’re not even halfway through.”
“And I already need to go on a walk. Wanna come? I heard the wagon restaurant’s cheap.”
“Maybe later,” I replied, “I need to read my sorcery manual first.”
He laughed. “Careful, you might end up burned at the stake,” he declared before leaving the wagon, “See you around.”
Before returning to my book, I briefly glanced at the rest of the wagon. It was eerily deserted, save for one person taking the seat right in front of me, hidden behind a large newspaper. I barely spared him a look before returning to my lecture. The lack of people didn’t bother me; if anything it allowed me to read undisturbed. I promptly opened my edition of Salem: a history of the witch hunts and started reading the forewords.
“Tell me, do you believe in magic?”
I glanced at the man in front of me, nearly entirely hidden behind his Scottish newspaper. “Excuse me?”
“Do you believe in magic?” he repeated with a clear, mirthful voice. I didn’t know why, but something in his tone bothered me. He sounded so… so fake.
“You mean stage tricks?” I asked.
“No, magic. Like in the book you’re reading.”
I scoffed. “I haven’t seen anyone flying on broomsticks yet.”
“Ah, yes, skepticism.” The last word dripped with condescension. “Oh, how common it is nowadays… I long for the time when your kind burned women alive for witchcraft. Do you know why?”
I didn’t know who that person was, but the more he talked, the more irritating I found him. I almost answered, but he didn’t let me. “Because magic used to be feared. It used to be the Devil’s bread and butter, the stuff of nightmares. Now magic is either a superstition or a trick to amuse children.”
At this point, I realized the man wasn’t talking to me, but at me, and I focused back on my book. It was rude yes, but if this guy loved hearing himself talk so much I would happily oblige him. I just wouldn’t listen.
However, when I reached what should have been the first chapter, I found the page blank.
There was nothing after the forewords. I checked the next page, and the next after it. Blanks, both of them. I quickly browsed through the entire book, frantically looking for text of any kind, to no avail. Past the forewords, the entire book lacked… anything. It was just empty.
It shouldn’t have been possible. I’d bought that book myself, even briefly glanced at some extracts before making my decision. Was this some kind of joke? Did someone replace my edition with this one when I wasn’t looking?
“What’s wrong?” the man asked with a playful tone, “Surely this book must be an entertaining read.”
I focused back on the passenger, my eyes wide with astonishment. “How did you do this?” I asked. “I didn’t let my belongings out of my sight since I boarded this train.”
Smugness radiated off him. “I can do magic,” he simply replied, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.
I let out a sardonic laugh. “Yeah, right, really funny. You got me. Now give me back my book.”
“Give back what? You have a book in hands have you not?”
God, that tone of his was starting to get on my nerves. “Look, alright, I admit it you’re a good stage magician. Now can you please give me my book back?”
“Stage magician?” I noticed his hands’ grasp on the newspaper tighten. “I see. Well, I can do something more spectacular if you wish, mister…”
I shrugged, and stated my name… except no sound came out of my mouth as I uttered it.
For a second, I didn’t compute what had happened. “My name is…”
A mental block stopped me. I knew my name, but my voice turned silent the second I tried saying it. The sound died in my throat, my sentence left stillborn.
“What’s wrong? You cannot say it?” the mysterious man taunted, “I am afraid you might have been a victim of name theft. Tragic thing, happens to all sorts of people, I would fill a complaint as soon as possible if I were you.”
My name was… I frowned. My name was…
I had one hell of an headache anytime I tried remembering my name. My birth name. The very first word I had learned, and I couldn’t remember it. It was gone; erased, burnt away. My brain was filled with a profound sensation of loss, as if there was a name shaped hole among my neurons.
“There it is! I was waiting for that instant…” I glanced at him, and for the first time I noticed his fingers weren’t fingers, but scribbled paper shaped like hands. “That face never gets old,” the paper thing in front of me chuckled, as the headache worsened, “Do you know what it means to be nameless?
The temperature seemingly dropped around me. “It means,” he said, lowering his journal and revealing his face, “That I own you.”
My world flashed red.
I regained consciousness restrained and within an inch from death.
My body was held above a gaping stone pit, kept upside down by strong, silver chains restraining my hands and feet. I felt like a pig’s carcass in a butcher’s cold chamber. My eyes flickered around me, but all I could see outside the pit was a thick white mist.
The abyss beneath me was large enough to swallow an elephant, the bottom so far away I couldn’t distinguish anything but darkness. My head felt heavy, blood flowing to it and saturating my veins. I tried to call for help, but no voice left my throat.
Yet, as if to answer my silent call, I noticed movement in the mist. A figure approached, a humanoid shape that soon became visible as it walked to the pit’s edge; I heard sounds of invisible trumpets resonating in the background, announcing its coming. “I told you, didn’t I? Magic is fear,” that person declared.
Except it wasn’t a person at all.
The creature in front of me certainly seemed humanoid, but a closer look as the monster emerged from the mist disabused the idea. The entity lacked skin: its exposed hands and face were composed of blasphemous pages, old scrolls and torn sheets, a patchwork of paper and parchment loosely shaped in the form of a human.
Scribbled words covered its body, their crimson color reminding me of blood, and shifted, changed at random. On the upper left of its face, the words’ dense, circular pattern reminded me of an open, bloody eye; otherwise, the face lacked any features such as a nose or a mouth.
The creature was clad in ample golden robes of silk, covered with bright purple peacocks motifs; the robes’ colors, while imperial, lacked harmony. A thin crown of solid gold, nothing more than a circle with ten thorny horns, regally throned upon its paper head. That dress was outrageous, and it almost diverted my attention from its alien wearer.
For all the cheery colors, that… that thing just felt wrong.
“Oh? I know what I said about fear, but why so much? Did my words turn your world upside-down?” the monster let out a cheerful laugh, amused by its own joke…
The laugh itself sounded like crumpling paper. He, no, it hovered above the pit, walking on the air as if stepping on an invisible floor.
It was a nightmare. It had to be some kind of dream…
“Oh, I am all too real, my pet.” The creature made a mock reverence. “You face Lazarus, god of all magic and supreme ruler of everything; the slave driver of souls, the despoiler of flesh; the one feared by Heaven and Hell, the gate and the key; the great and powerful, the Lord of Chaos!”
I didn’t know if it was the blood rushing to my head messing with my ears, but I noticed a background, faint noise coming from the thing. I couldn’t properly distinguish it, but it seemed to be hushed whispers, a cacophony of thousands of voices muttering random crap in perfect disharmony.
At this point, I was too terrified to care.
“I know my brilliance must have silenced you, and certainly you must be asking yourself, ‘Why? Why is an insect like me worthy of his presence?’ Not out of any outstanding quality, certainly, for you most certainly lack one.”
The entity chuckled. “Truth to be told, I chose you at random! I was going to pick the man in the next wagon, but a teen reading a book on witches, on an English train? I just couldn’t resist. A spur of the moment thing really. Don’t blame yourself; blame Rowling.”
I frantically tried to get away, to free myself from my chains – the fall didn’t scare me more than this thing.
“Don’t bother, those chains have bound creatures that can lay waste to entire worlds,” the monster dismissed my efforts. It approached me, its terrible mask within an inch of my face. I tried to avert his gaze by focusing on the crown… only to watch the curves and indents morph into the shape of screaming human faces.
“You know the why, but as for the what…” It raised its right hand, grabbed my mouth, and forced me to look straight at its face, a deep, disturbing chill filled my body upon contact. “Tell me, have you ever considered becoming immortal?”
He faked waiting for an answer, before continuing with only a short pause. “Immortality is a really nice thing. I mean, dying is also nice but after the first time it loses some of its appeal. When you are immortal, you have enough time to do everything. And I did.” His paper face twisted into something that resembled a smile, “I have laid waste to hell and heaven, turned the sky asunder, unlocked the secrets of the cosmos, and shaped worlds; I have seen empires rise and fall, sometimes by my hand, and watched stars be born and die.”
It shook its head, as if disappointed. “But for all its perks, immortality has a serious drawback. It’s boring. I’ve seen it all, so to speak, and now the entire universe feels dull.” He marked a short pause. “Except pain. Watching you humans squirm never lost its appeal. You understand what I mean, yes?”
It childishly forced my head to nod. “Why, thank you for your support! But, I digress… where was I? Ah, right, boredom. I am bored, bored, bored.” Its head wildly twitched, reminding me of a stringless doll. “Bored to death, except I have died so many times death itself bores me now!”
The words on its papery skin lit up, pulsating with fiery light.
“So… to pass time, I have invented a new game all of my own making. It’s really interactive, and I never had any shortage of candidates! Not that they have any choice in the matter, but still!”
It raised its left hand and gave me a gentle tap on the left cheek. “And you my good friend, are the newest of the lot!” The trumpets sounded once more in the mist; it would have been funny if I wasn’t at the mercy of a madman. “Congratulations!”
Suddenly, his left index started piercing my left cheek, drawing blood. A surge of pain raced through my skin and I tried to free myself, but the sorcerer’s grasp was supernaturally strong. He kept me still, as his finger slashed a symbol on my skin, like a pig marked by its owner.
“Now you have my mark,” Lazarus declared, “And I have your true name. You know what that means? It means you have no future.”
The sorcerer released his grasp, and I sensed the chains’ hold weaken, my body balancing above the chasm with increased momentum.
“The rules are very simple: if you find an exit, I give you back your name and I leave you alone permanently. Since I am a fair player, I might grant you a wish or two as compensation for your troubles.” Lazarus let out a small chuckle. “But if you die before leaving… you’ll really wish you had escaped.”
With a loud snap, the chains broke and I fell. “Oh, and remember, it’s not about winning,” I heard Lazarus taunt me, “It’s about participation!”
I suddenly realized I had regained my voice, when I screamed the entire way through.
The fall seemed to go on forever, until I noticed light beneath me. One second I was descending through a bottomless pit, and the next I pierced the clouds. The ground beneath me started taking shape. I began to notice colors, blue, brown, black, assembled into vague shapes. The earth called me and I was approaching fast.
I closed my eyes and instinctively put my arms in front me, bracing myself for an impact that would never come. Instead, I suddenly slowed down. My neck should have snapped or something, but I lived. My descent grew imperceptible until I landed almost comfortably… or as comfortably as landing headfirst in burning sand could feel.
Too afraid and too shocked to do anything, I lost track of know long I laid motionless. I just knew I was trembling. A dampness between my legs told me that I had pissed myself some time during the fall. I’d zoned out, my heart beating like mad in my chest and my breath growing louder than a trunk on the road. Maybe I stayed like that for minutes. Maybe I stayed for hours.
I heard that sound of footsteps and a male voice call to me repeatedly. I raised my head of the sand, slowly opening my eyes, my vision was blurred by the sunlight. I could only notice a shadow standing above me, and metal gauntlets gently but firmly seize me by the shoulders, helping me get back to my feet. I stood up, washed the sand off my face, and glanced at my savior.
He was a knight. And I don’t mean the kind of knight I was used to seeing on different TV series or films, but a knight all the same. He wore chain mail with a red flame painted on it and a metal helmet covering his face save for his brown eyes. His limbs were covered in protection, but not a single piece matched in design.
It made him look ridiculous and asymmetrical. Most of his equipment was partially rusted, as if he’d robbed a museum to get his attire. He tried to communicate, to no avail. The man sounded French, but I didn’t understand half a word he said.
“Do you speak English?” I asked, the man’s eyes narrowing in incomprehension. I tried to call upon what little I remembered from my French classes. “Je parle mal français. Je parle anglais.”
The knight seemed even more confused than before, and proceeded to join his hands in a prayer sign. He recited a few words I couldn’t understand, then made a cross movement with his hand.
“Do you understand me?” he asked in perfect English.
“Y-Yeah, I do,” I said slightly confused. If he could speak English, why didn’t he do it first?
“Wonderful,” he replied, “I was not certain I could cast the translation spell right. The Lord smiled on me.”
I had no idea what he meant, but I had too many questions on my mind to care. What the hell had happened? Was it a hallucination? Was I still on the train dreaming? Did that thing catch others beside me? And most importantly, where was I?
My eyes darted around me. I could see a beach of black sand facing a crystalline blue sea. Beyond them stood large constructions. A forest of stone and metal towers, tall or small; tiny houses of wood and archways of marble. I was facing the fringes of a coastal city, but I had never seen such chaotic architecture. The shapes of some metal towers seemed bent in ways that didn’t look physically possible with twists and knots. It was downright non-Euclidean.
When I looked at the sea, I noticed colossal, white walls standing proudly. They enclosed the entire ocean. In fact, the structures were so tall I couldn’t see their height; they pierced the clouds themselves and in spite of my sharp vision I couldn’t see where they ended. But one thing was sure: no human structure could have ever rivaled them in grandeur.
“My name is Sol,” the knight declared, oblivious to my confusion and awe, “Or at least such is how I call myself. Lazarus took my true name long ago… He took yours as well, did he not? He always does before putting his mark on us. In this way, he owns our soul.”
“I… I don’t understand,” I said, “What are you talking about?”
“Oh, my apologies,” he excused himself, “Not many Claimed have arrived lately, so I am out of practice. You must feel confused, and I assure you all of us were when we first arrived. I will try to answer your questions the best I can.”
I began with the most pressing in my mind. “Where are we?”
The knight stayed silent for a moment, struggling to find his words. I knew that kind of hesitation: when you have terrible news to announce, and you have no idea how to sugarcoat it.
“I would have said Hell,” Sol replied grimly, “But you are not so fortunate.”