Friday, June 16, 2017

Story 238: Save Point

The pine door swings shut silently, and vanishes. The scene is as I remember it, a frozen tableau in the woods outside the ruins - the only difference being my absence. I don't ask where the body goes, I trust that there's a system and it's all neatly taken care of - that there's no mass grave full of identical clerics in identical blue cloaks. I step up to the spot where I had been standing and the world seems to exhale. Jane and August go from still-life to full motion and if I blur slightly, if I'm standing in a different position than I should have been, they don't notice. I want to get this over with, so I step between them and motion them to silence.

"You're both wrong," I say. "If we head back it will catch us at the pass, and if we go into the ruins it will corner us. A direct assault won't gain us anything, and we don't have time to set up a proper trap. We can sit here and discuss for about five minutes before it gets our scent again, at which point we'll have no choice but to fight it and die."
August looks like he's going to argue, but as always he thinks better of it. "So then what? What do we need to do?" he asks.
And I don't know. I'm out of ideas, and exhausted, and these two will only be able to suggest the same losing strategies that I've already heard and attempted. This all has to be me.

I went insane, for a while. Somewhere around attempt twelve hundred, I just snapped. I slapped August for no reason or stripped naked and ran through the woods laughing. I killed myself, I killed Jane, I told my companions that I had a plan and then when they leaned close to listen I belched as loud as I could into their faces. A month later - or no time at all, depending on how you want to look at it - I was just as suddenly sane again. Jane and August were both being torn to shreds, which didn't bother me because I've long ago become accustomed to that sound, and I saw clear as day how I could escape.

It took me another thousand tries to get it right, but I did eventually get away. Covered in blood, missing most of my left foot, and probably still being tracked by the beast - but out of those cursed woods. It was so tempting to meditate again, to connect with the Goddess of Fate and renew my energy... but then I would be locking that timeline in. The death of my friends, and in all likelihood my own death as well - just slightly deferred. And so I crawled to the edge of the cliff and tipped myself over. Since then, I've been back to my original plan. Try everything, and get all three of us out alive. I've got to be getting close to eight thousand cycles by now, I think the record is twelve thousand and fifty-seven by Archbishop Boulan.

"...then I'll stab it from behind," Jane is saying. Right on schedule. I've wasted the last few tries saying variations on 'no' or 'I don't know' and it's time to do something stupid instead. I tell August and Jane to climb two separate trees, and they scramble up just as the beast gets close enough for me to hear. It sees me and I start to run, avoiding every hidden rock and log in the drifts of leaves. I know just where to weave through the trees to make my path as short as possible while making the beast go around. I've tried this before, of course, but there are always tiny differences. I started running later, so it didn't shake the others out of their trees before coming at me. The beast tried to smash through a branch that turned out to be a tad too large, so it was slowed down. Everyone thinks that those who worship the Goddess of Fate don't believe in luck, but they misunderstand how the world works. Of course there is luck. It is through luck, through those tiny differences and variables, that Fate can be changed or fulfilled.

And so, somehow, I make it to the ruins. It's very rare for me to make it this far unless I start running before it sees me. That means I almost never get here while my friends are alive except when we all come together. Maybe, just maybe, if they run the opposite direction they'll get away. Maybe they'll make it to the pass, and once they're beyond that the beast will have a harder time catching them. That is, if they run at all. No matter how many times I've begged them to abandon me they've never done it.

It's right behind me. I can nearly feel its breath. I dodge to the side at the last second, and feel an enormous claw tear the edge of my cloak. Scrambling through a window, I climb upwards. I'm in a large stone building - a church, maybe - half of which is collapsed and open to the sky. The beast doesn't fit through the window but it is enraged at being so close to me and missing, so rather than circle around through the missing wall it just tears the stones in front of it away. There's nowhere else for me to go, I'm dangling from the rotted rafters of a bell tower. The bell itself is down below, slowly being absorbed by the forest that is retaking this ancient town. The beast leaps, and barely misses my leg.

I can see August and Jane. Those fools have followed me, want to save me. I might as well let myself die now and try again; once they make it to this building the beast will kill us all anyway. If only I had known there was no way out I wouldn't have stopped to pray. I wouldn't have sealed my Fate, and I could have stepped back to the camp we made before entering the thing's tomb. August has his sword out, Jane her twin daggers. They've seen me through the holes in the walls, and they're approaching cautiously. Unlike me, they haven't truly seen what this creature is capable of. They'll know soon enough.

Snorting and hacking, I build up a reserve of mucus and spit it downwards onto the monster. Not very cleric-like, certainly, but if I'm about to die I might as well. The shot is perfect, and hits an open eye. The beast roars, enraged. Good. If I can't kill you making you angry will have to suffice. The thing lunges again, and when it fails once more to grab my leg it starts to climb the wall just as I did. The stones shift as its huge frame moves closer to me. Oh, Goddess. It's too heavy. I look upwards and can see the remains of the bell tower swaying like a grass in a storm - and then, in an instant, thousands of pounds of building collapses on both of us.

The pine door swings open. August is frozen, pulling Jane away from the still-falling rubble. Their eyes are wide, and bits of stone are hanging in the air around them - one looks like it's about to give August a nasty cut on his cheek. I step through the ruins, looking for the beast. I find my own corpse, or at least my hand sticking out of the debris. Finally I see the thing, see a heavy stone has partially collapsed its head. Looking up, I can see several more that will probably hit it as well. Is it dead? Probably not. But it's badly injured, and it's trapped, and my friends are alive and armed... this is what I've been waiting for.

I lean down close to the beast. "I wish I could see what happens next," I whisper. Heading back to August and Jane I kiss them both on the cheek and pray to the Goddess that they'll feel it somehow. I step through into darkness for the final time, and the pine door swings shut silently.