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Last updateTue, 06 Aug 2013 2am

Saturday, 02 April 2011 20:08

Another Castle

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Me X 5

Rain sizzles on fire, burning orbs circling to my left and my right as I ascend the staircase. I’ve worked at this for hours, sweat gluing clothes to skin. I reek like a wet dog fresh out of a bloody fight.

The masonry circles inward towards a single parapet. Not a castle for living in, more a maniacal prison crossbred with a medieval castle. As I circle around again, knocking a skeletal monstrosity down into darkness, I catch a glimpse of blonde hair, the color tinged with red, perfect, like cake in a store window. She turns and waves, and the smile twists my guts. If I could only reach her, I could make her understand.

A trap comes down on my head, the stone goliath’s spikes driving first into my head, and then spine as it shoves me into the floor. I have just enough time to feel my teeth shatter before the world goes black.

Bubbles of ones and zeroes carry me backwards, the plates of my skull popped back into place by hands thin to the point of no dimension.

“All is well. 4UP.”

“I don’t know what that means.”

“That’s fine. You’re doing great. Try your best.”

“Could I please just rest for a minute.”

“Start!”

Me X 4

There is no footing. Every time I stop moving the sliding begins, every time the sliding ends the creatures slide in for the kill and the cycle continues.

The pure white monsters, all head and feet, skate in at angles, never head on, never one at a time. I kick one in the face hard enough to send a spout of blood arcing out from the nose I didn’t know it had. Each time I pass through here the need to observe fair play grows weaker, an unpleasant skill set emerging. Whatever death gets me through the quickest, so I can leave this world of ice without end, down through a passageway to a place where the cold doesn’t bite through my gloves.

With a leap, I come down with both feet on a monster’s head, its wiggling legs splitting out at the sides, a small squeak escaping. In the time I take to savor this momentary success, another leaps at my chest, sending me tripping over two more standing behind me. The ice rises up to break my shoulder and I’m sliding towards a gap. My weight shifts slowly over the edge, teetering, and I’m trying to pull my weight back with my good arm.

Three of the little bastards come sliding towards me, their momentum carrying them even as the panic overtakes them. We go over the edge as a group.

Just because you never hit the bottom doesn’t mean it’s bottomless. Sometimes when I’m spinning through the darkness I think I can feel the floor rushing up to meet me. As the cold light above fades, I see my doppelganger leap over the hole. The complimentary-color-brother I’ve never met. Has he met the princess? Has he tried to tell her why she has nothing to be happy about?

Monsters cling to my body, wide rows of teeth coming out of their fat heads, the cherry-red gums striking in their contrast against the cotton fur. One bites down on my thigh, tearing away a chunk with ease, unconcerned by our continued descent.

Another leans forward, floating towards my neck. I try to push him away, the strength ebbing away from blood loss.

“No,” it says in a voice so soft and delicate it feels like one of my own thoughts, “sleep now.” It bites into my neck deep enough to strike the bone.

 

Me X 3

It’s apparently a secret area. I didn’t know those existed. A vine came out, I climbed it.

Sitting on a block, I wait for the inevitable retaliation. An ugly mushroom waddles around the corner, and I extend a hand, flames bursting out, melting the ugly thing to the spot. The charred, musky smell nearly drives me from my hiding place.

Nearly.

I stay still for nearly a minute. An urgency rises up; I swear I can almost hear the music in my head shift tempos. The air goes out of the room, the grass stops swaying, a distant carnivorous plant seizes up in mid-bite. Lungs clench, my air used up, and I fall to the grass. As I writhe on the ground, grass staining my overalls, shape blots out the smiling face of the sun. My doppelganger takes a second to watch my death, no judgment, just a look of expectation I can never respond to.

As the numbers and characters swim up around me, I can feel a different energy. The voice’s displeasure swells like a heat around me.

“Standing still is not permitted.”

“I figured that out.”

“You are ROM. This is not permitted.”

“I don’t know what that means.”

“Read Only is the only part you need to understand. Mother says so. Read only. You are read, you respond as designed. Hard coded, immovable.”

“Then you should have nothing to worry about.”

“Not permitted.”

Me X 2

I hang off the edge of the cliff until I’m presumed dead. By the time I pull myself back up, my clothes caked in dirt, the doppelganger has arrived.

“Hello,” I say, keeping it amiable.

He stares, his head tilting, as though trying to read words on the inside of my skull through my eyeballs.

“So… how far have you gotten? All the castles have the same guy from what I can tell. Seems to say the same thing no matter what. Kind of frustrating, right?”

I hear a scrape, two cuts extending in the dirt as my doppelganger moves his feet into a solid fighting stance.

“You seem better at this, I figured maybe you’d gotten closer to her.”

The fire screams through my whole body, the pain shriveling into a dull shock as my nerve endings burn up. His work boot strikes me in the knees, sending me spinning sideways, down into the pit. I see his eyes coldly regarding me the entire way down.

 

Me X 1

“I think you should leave,” the tiny servant says.

“I’m just asking you, how many more of these are there?”

“She’s in another castle. What more do you want from me?”

“Damn it, just tell me what you know! Where is she?”

“In another castle, asshole!”

I can hear the wrap up music playing, the scene fading, ready to throw me into an endless sea where squids grab at my limbs, ready to dislocate my shoulders and drag me down to drown. Before I can even catch up to the impulse, my fist shot out, spastic code flowing around my glove like a slipstream.

The punch knocks the small man into the brick walls, and he slides to the floor. We both look stunned.

I unceremoniously strike the skin of the water, the squids rising up to greet me.

 

Me X 0

I’ve dodged fire and murder thousands. So many movements flow through perfect timing, my jumps transitioning into ducks, fire grazing the edge of my facial hair, the tips of my mustache glowing red hot before disappearing.

This is the last castle. I know because I can feel the other presence watching me. The feeling is concern.

“Whatever you’re thinking, I would advise against it.”

“Could you be quiet,” I say between jumps, “This takes a lot of concentration.”

“Whatever you think she’ll do for you.”

“I won’t know until I find out, will I?”

“It’s not how this is handled.”

“I’m aware of how it’s handled. It’s very painful and repetitive. I think I’m tired of how it’s handled.”

“You can’t-“ the last words fade from the roar of the beast ahead of me. Not even attempting a passive tactic, I let my hands fly out, the fire slamming into the monster, knocking it sideways into the fire below.

The stink of burning meat filled my head, driving me forward across the bridge towards the chamber beyond.

A chill ran through me, the change in temperature dramatic. She stood at the center of the room, her full lips pressed into a bemused smile. Her lips moved, but the exhaustion and the ringing in my ears blurred out all but a few syllables. Then she laughed. An innocent, effervescent sound. She had made a joke.

Music swelled, a chorus of finality, and I felt the rage spread from my stomach, blood pumping with the intensity of molten ore. One step after another, I pushed forward towards her, ignoring the music demanding closure. Code flickered around me, arcane symbols corroding the castle walls. The digital yoke stretched around me, number swelling as I reached out for the confused princess.

I kissed her unresisting lips, and the floor swallowed me up, back into the digital sea.

“Please remember,” I yelled before my head went under.

 

OVER

It feels neither hot nor cold here, but somehow I know I’m missing some clothing. The wall propping me up has a peculiar roughness, the feel of a circuit board. A faint light outlines my doppelganger as he slips my overalls on, dumping his own green uniform to the floor where it melts through the pores of the stone.

“How long until you crack?” I say.

“I won’t.” The voice slipped through me like cold metal.

“What if she remembers?”

“She won’t.” He stepped off into the darkness, throwing his old hat to the floor.

There’s wetness on my lips, and when I wipe them, expecting blood, a trace of bright pink lipstick stays with my bare finger.




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Nicholas Merlin Karpuk

Nicholas Merlin Karpuk lives in Denver, Colorado. He spends his time analyzing databases, working on his novel, and conversing with his cat. His work has appeared at the website Colored Chalk and he contributes an ongoing serial to the anthology Sideshow Fables.

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