"Mark of the Champion" is the first in a multi-volume fantasy book series about the adventures of Sheila Berenger, age 25, an asexual, plus-size graphic artist from Orange County, California. When her friends are kidnapped at a Renaissance Faire by mysterious veiled soldiers, Sheila is pulled to the forefront of a magical war threatening scores of worlds, including Earth, due to a loophole in an ancient prophesy. To save the cosmos, Sheila must overcome major insecurities, squeamishness, and fear, to become the warrior she never thought she could be.
The first title in The Champion Tales, "Mark of the Champion," is scheduled for release in Fall of 2022.
Read the Prologue and Chapters 1-3
MARK OF THE CHAMPION
Candy Glynn Wilder
From the desk of Nyle Beri
I am proud to share with you some curated script excerpts from my ongoing documentary series, “The Champion: A History of Destiny.”
It is my hope that this series will stand as the definitive record of the history of the Elemental War, the founding of the Unified Realms, and the quest to find the Champion to defeat the demon Kildare.
Everyone involved in this endeavor, from the set crew to the actors to the post-production team, has gone above and beyond to deliver an outstanding representation of our past. I couldn't ask for a more talented group of creators and re-enactors.
Enjoy these peeks into the process of bringing the past to life.
(P.S. All previous episodes are available to stream for free on the Beriglen Studios channel.)
PROPERTY OF BERIGLEN PRODUCTIONS
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
A History of Destiny
by Nyle Beri
Episode III (excerpt)
The Elemental Wand: The Wand is Lost
INT. PALACE OF QUEEN IZURIE, VALWYNE DIMENSION - GREAT HALL - DAY
SUPER: YEAR 1595, EARTH COMMON ERA
The DEMON OF THE SHADOW MAGES, a human-appearing fiend in a black overcoat, leans on a cane beside the throne of his Fae wife, QUEEN IZURIE. He has long blond hair and a heavy-lidded left eye. His body shakes with small tremors.
Dragonfly wings twitch from Izurie’s back. She is adorned in a once-glamourous but now shabby black gown. Her pale, gaunt face – a mix of beautiful, wicked, and mad – is framed by silver waves.
Before them stands EMOYENI THE AETERNAM, a dark-skinned man in robes of white and blue. He holds the ELEMENTAL WAND in his hands. The purple crystal set in its star is CHARGED with energy. A platoon of human troops waits behind him.
Queen Izurie! Demon of the Shadow Mages! Your reign of terror is at its end! Surrender peacefully or suffer the consequences!
A moment of stunned silence.
Then, a shimmering FORCE FIELD manifests between Emoyeni and the throne dais.
The Demon and Izurie laugh like mutant parrots.
Look, dear, Emoyeni thinks he can conquer us with his little toy wand! How charming.
Foolish Aeternam. This shield is impenetrable! Hundreds of mages and sorceresses have tried to break it. And not one at a time, but all together! They were exterminated by my guards, and this great hall became a pool of their blood. It was delightful to watch.
Izurie stands from her throne, giggling.
Your threat means nothing.
Emoyeni stares at her for a long moment.
Then he raises the WAND, and BLASTS A HOLE through the force field and into Izurie's heart.
With the force field disabled, Emoyeni points the wand at the Demon. The crystal GLOWS again.
The Demon THROWS him back with a blast of magical energy. Emoyeni hits the floor. The human troops open fire. The Demon hides behind the throne. Faeries large and small, guards, and court members, suddenly consumed by rage and bloodlust, attack the humans.
They also attack the Demon.
(pointing to Emoyeni)
Not me, you fools, HIM! HE is the enemy!
The small faeries don’t listen - in their madness, they can’t even hear him.
Scratching, clawing, biting pixies cover Emoyeni and his troops, fighting them and each other. They grab at the wand, trying to pull it away.
The Demon, swatting away tiny imps like horseflies, leaps down from the dais.
The faeries attacking Emoyeni pull the wand free.
YES! Now bring it here!
The pixies are too busy fighting over the wand themselves. The Demon moves to grab it, but a SWARM of rabid sprites stops him. Immediately they cover the wand and battle each other for it, pulling it back and forth all over the Hall.
The air is so thick with clawing, biting menaces that the Demon realizes he’s in danger. He fingers the MEDALLION around his neck and is transported away in a FLASH of energy.
INT. ENGLAND, PLANET EARTH - TAVERN - NIGHT
A dark tavern in Shoreditch, England. WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE sits at a table with a tankard and a bottle, getting massively drunk. He looks depressed.
The door opens, and in walks the Demon with his cane. His body shakes as he walks toward the table, then takes a seat.
Will drains his tankard and fills it again.
‘Tis a splendid night out. What say we go on a little adventure, you and I?
Will stares at him with bleary eyes.
Now why in hell would I do that, fine shir, when I have a play to finish and my well’s run dry?
You cannot fill that well with drink, my young friend, but with experience! Escapades! Thrills!
You expect me to heed the - the words of a man who hasht known me for three days, and yet not told me hish name?
The Demon leans back. He glances at the window, and sees a SIGN illuminated by a street lamp: Crawford and Kildare, Haberdashers.
Very well...you may call me Kildare.
Kildare...Would that be your Chrishtian name, or s-surname?
It is the only name I require. I quite like the sound of it...kill-dare!
Will stares at him.
KILDARE stands, grabs Will by the arm, and pulls him to his feet.
Now that introductions are over, on with our adventure!
Kildare drags the inebriated Will toward the door, flipping a coin to the proprietor as they exit.
EXT. TAVERN ALLEY - NIGHT
Kildare hauls Will to the dark alley behind the tavern.
Kildare, wait! We can’t be out av-ad- adventuring at thish hour. Tis snot safe!
Not to worry, I brought these!
He opens his coat to reveal TWO SWORDS fastened to the lining.
SWORDS? Are you MAD?
Not at all...no more than usual. Come come, Will, I’ve seen the way you wield a blade. It’s magnificent.
That was - was rehearshal for a PLAY! It was all pretend!
Ah, how modest you are. You may wish to be a little bolder where we’re going.
Wait, what? Where are you taking me?
Kildare holds his silver MEDALLION in his left hand, while his right hand grabs Will’S shoulder.
Beyond your wildest dreams.
The two are engulfed in a FLASH of light.
INT. DIMENSION OF VALWYNE - CAPITAL CITY - STABLE - DAY
Kildare and Will stand on an obliterated hay bale in a livery stable. Flying, running, crawling faeries swarm them, fighting one another in a collective fit of madness. Horses and other beasts stampede through the stable.
Will is terrified. Kildare is annoyed. He pulls the two SWORDS from his jacket and shoves one into Will’s hand.
Don’t just stand there, you imbecile, FIGHT THEM!
Will swings his sword to bat away the sprites and clear his field of view. Kildare goes a step further, cleaving the smaller creatures in two.
A panicked LIZARD MOUNT scurries on the ground, its tail thrashing side-to-side to rid it of sharp-toothed pixies gnawing on its hide.
Will thrusts his sword downward - too late to avoid the beast’s massive tail. It clocks Will on the side of his head and sends him flying into more hay bales, knocked out cold.
You are USELESS!
Kildare, fighting rabid Fae at every turn, storms out of the stable.
EXT. CITY STREET - DAY
Kildare beholds a city in chaos. FLAMES belch from ancient buildings. Multi-colored pools of blood are everywhere. In the distance, smoke streams from Queen Izurie’s palace.
INT. PALACE - GREAT HALL - DAY
Bodies litter the floor of the Great Hall. Faerie guards, human soldiers, and members of the Court stain the white marble with their blood.
The body of Queen Izurie lies in front of the throne.
Kildare stands before the throne, remembering.
He scans the floor of the Great Hall for the body of Emoyeni, and finds nothing but the near-skeletal corpses of his troops.
WHERE ARE YOU, EMOYENI? Did you run away? Did you flee like a frightened rat, after you set the spell of madness in motion by MURDERING MY QUEEN?
He spies a cluster of faeries, still alive, trying to tear each other apart.
Where is the wand?...WHERE is the WAND?!
EXT. STABLE - DAY
Will stumbles out of the now-burning stable, bloodied, missing a boot and nursing a bump on his head. The crazed imps continue their struggle against one another. Will limps toward an empty field to hide.
He sees the capital of Izurie’s realm for the first time, its ancient buildings in ruins, the beautiful palace on fire.
Will turns and runs in the opposite direction, deeper into the field.
In his panic, he TRIPS and falls to the ground.
Pushing himself to his knees, he sees the object that laid him low - it is the ELEMENTAL WAND.
Mesmerized despite his fear, Will stands and retrieves the wand from the grasses. The purple crystal still GLOWS with energy.
Will gazes again at the capital, with its mad faerie folk devouring each other while the city burns.
I want to go home!
The crystal shines a BLINDING LIGHT. Will and the wand VANISH.
EXT. EARTH - TAVERN - ALLEY - DAY
Will finds himself back in the alley. He stares at the wand in wonder before passing out.
INT. IZURIE’S REALM, CAPITAL CITY - STABLE - DAY
Kildare searches for Will in the wreckage of the livery stable.
Will...? WILL! Where are you?
He digs through the thrashed piles of hay.
I apologize for calling you useless...WHERE ARE YOU HIDING, YOU COWARD?
His search finally yields a result - Will’s missing boot, with large holes bitten out of the leather, covered in blood. Some punctures have teeth embedded in them.
...They ate him!
We had to be up by seven to get Roman ready for the tournament.
I am not a morning person.
Roman pulled down our tent zipper, stuck in a plastic horn, and blew a Reveille that sounded like a moose with stomach flu. After we recovered from our heart attacks, we threw everything in the tent at him.
“Come on, ladies, time’s a’wasting! Let’s move!”
“Fuck off, Roman!” Tinny shouted, hurling a unicorn plushie at his head.
“That’s not very ladylike!” he protested. “Sheila, can’t you keep your friends under control?”
“Hey, we gotta do something to stop you bugging us about the time!” I griped.
“You could try waking up earlier.”
I threw a pair of socks at Roman’s forehead. And missed. He flashed a wide, perfect grin before ducking out.
“Airmen,” I grumbled. “Note to Future Sheila: Do not go camping with my co-worker again!”
Outside, Nick and Roman laughed like hyenas.
“There better be coffee!” Sarah grabbed a hoodie. Her tight curls bounced when she popped her head through. She rolled the sleeves down her deep brown arms. If she didn’t have her morning joe soon, it would not be pretty.
“It’s gonna be gone if you don’t get your ass out here!” Roman shouted back.
Every inch of my body protesting, I hauled myself out and headed to the privy. The breeze bit my cheeks as I shivered in the cold. I wondered again why I’d subject myself to donning large amounts of fabric over my plus-size frame, risking heatstroke by wandering in direct sunlight.
Because it’s fun, duh!
Back in the tent, I applied sunscreen over every inch of my light skin, then slipped on my peasant garb. Boots were next, raising my height to five-foot-six. I bound the dress with a corset and belt, then pinned a bonnet over my bobbed brown hair. A nosegay rested in my bosom, under my pentacle.
By the time we’d finished eating and dressing, we had half an hour to claim Roman’s setup spot. Sarah emerged in the bright yellow noblewoman’s gown and glittering regalia she made herself. Fair-skinned Tinny sported a short green sleeveless dress with fabric leaves, sparkly pink wings that matched her hair, and even more sunscreen than I wore. The five of us set off toward the Western Gathering Faire.
The Gathering’s tournaments were smaller, but more intense than similar events held by groups like the SCA. While Roman filled out paperwork, the rest of us carried his armor to his assigned place. Nick was acting cheeky in his getup - a loose tan shirt, brown trousers and vest. He started a bawdy song:
If all of the girls were bells in a tower
And I was a clapper, I’d bang one each hour
We joined in on the chorus:
Go roll your leg over, roll your leg over
Roll your leg over the man in the moon...
Nick plucked a leaf from the blond locks atop his short dark hair, still warbling the ribald lyrics with his gorgeous voice. We opened the cases and laid out the armor. Roman arrived a few minutes later.
I don’t know why people spoil a beautiful morning by cramming it full of activity. You can’t look at lovely clouds floating over mountaintops while wearing a corset and straining to put armor on your buddy. Roman had it easy - all he had to do was stand there.
But first, we demanded that he go to the privy. He insisted there was no need.
“Park Jin-Seung,” I called out his formal name, “you get in that porta-potty now!”
“You’re not my mom!” he laughed. “I can hold it, don’t worry about me.” Typical Roman, always insisting he had everything under control. Just like at City Hall.
“It’s not you I’m worried about, it’s the armor!”
“Okay, okay, I’m going!” He removed his T-shirt, and several faire-goers let out a “Wooo!” at the sight of Roman’s muscular chest as he walked to the privy. A large tattoo of a blue Yong, a Korean dragon, adorned his left shoulder and pectoral muscle. Roman even had a name for it - Yam Boy, from a legend his grandmother told him.
“Show-off!” Tinny shouted. His new groupies aimed their phone cameras and binoculars at the privy. He wasn’t that tall, but he was so toned a javelin would probably bounce off his body.
When he returned, Roman scratched at the mark on his forearm.
“Birthmark bothering you?” I asked.
“Yeah.” He withdrew some cortisone cream from his pack and rubbed it on the spot. “Perfect timing.” He ran a hand through his close-cut black hair before slipping a long red tunic over his head.
We pulled his gambeson over the tunic. Sarah fastened the cuirass together. Her gown prohibited her from doing much else, so I buckled the vambraces and arm guards while Tinny secured the greaves and sabatons. Nick draped the surcoat over the plate armor, then the mail coif on Roman’s head. Finally he handed Roman a polished helm. They shared a fist-bump.
“So when does the jousting start?” I asked Roman.
“What time is it now?” Sarah finished off her coffee.
I checked my phone. “Nine-thirty a.m.”
“The equestrian contest begins in thirty minutes,” Roman added.
“Actually, the three of us are going questing,” I announced. “I’m certain you will be magnificent at the ring tilting, the quintain, and the mounted archery, but we’re holding out for the main event.”
Roman held a hand to his forehead, like a wilting Southern debutante. “Oh, I’m crushed! What ever shall I do without my personal cheerleaders?”
“You still have me!” Nick reminded him. Nicholas Awitan was the biggest supporter of our endeavors, even when his own singing career went nowhere. We all agreed he was the one most deserving of success.
Roman looked at Nick, then at us. “No worries, we’re good.”
He mounted his horse to warm up on the pitch, and we turned toward the Faire. “All righty!” I called out. “We’ll be back at twelve.”
I linked arms with Tinny and Sarah. “Onward! Forward! Backward! Awkward!” we hollered together, laughing and skipping toward our adventure.
We were quite the sight - Sarah Jardine, Her Grace the Duchess of Kenhall, wearing her bejeweled yellow gown; Brittany Liddell, the sprite in her leaf dress and wings, purple contacts, pink hair and glitter; and myself, Sheila Berenger, whose getup could best be described as ‘comely publick house wench.’
The day was sunny and bright, the breeze cool, the green fields vibrant. We capered down the vendors’ rows until we found an agreeable proprietor.
“Goode Morgen, madame!” Sarah addressed the tailor in an aristocratic dialect, with a hint of her parents’ South African accent. “I wonder if thou might assist us.”
The tailor was game. “Of course, Your Grace! How may I be of service to thee?”
“We wish to go on a quest!” Tinny blurted, being her usual no-filter self. “Do you have one for us?”
“Ah, a quest thou seekest, eh?” She sorted through some index cards on her table and pulled one. “Fortune smiles upon thee and thy company today - I have one left!”
“Goody!” Tinny hopped up and down. The tailor beckoned us closer, and we huddled together and leaned in.
“Thy quest... is to find for me... the world’s... tiniest... BEER STEIN!”
All of us squealed with joy. This would be ridiculous fun. “Thank you, thank you!” we shouted, prancing toward our new crusade.
We began at the archery range. First we annoyed the instructors by babbling about our quest. I couldn’t resist taking some shots. My first arrow flew between targets, the second landed a foot too short, and the third buried itself on the edge. Tinny hit the blue circle on her first try, but Sarah was the real star, firing all three arrows into the center. She was competitive with everything. You did not want to get on her bad side.
“Yeah!” she shouted, “that’s how you do it!”
The archery instructor gave her an achievement ribbon, which she fastened to her neckline. Something occurred to me. “Hey, Sarah, why didn’t you enter the masquerade this year?”
“My parents needed help with the shop, so I couldn’t finish my gown in time,” she sighed. “They’re pushing for me to take over the store, but I pushed back; I’m going forward with my cosplay business. It’s my life.”
“I feel that,” I nodded. “My parents needle me about getting a better job. But Fountain Falls City Hall is awesome. It pays me enough to get by, has good insurance, and I can work on my comics in my free time - which is another thing Mom thinks is frivolous. Every other week she says, ‘why don’t you work for that agency in Newport Beach?’ As if I had that level of skill.”
“How about you, Tinny?”
“I’m in a rut,” she confessed. “Being a webmaster for a healthcare firm really limits me creatively.”
Tinny and I have been besties since grade school. In college, we both realized we were Pagan. I’d had some introduction to magic and ritual from my Aunt Renata, while Tinny discovered her magical path on her own. She was that rarest of creatures, the techno-savvy human faerie. Everything she wore had a Fae aesthetic, even when she was at work.
“So why do it?”
“Too scared to strike out on my own, I guess.”
Sarah chuckled. “Y’all need motivation!”
“I think we need better authority figures,” I said.
We searched the vendors, spied on the Queen’s court, and talked with fairegoers at the Beer Garden, all in our search for the tiniest tankard of ale. But every hunch led to a dead end, so we moved on, ready to concede defeat.
Then, Tinny pointed to a faerie diorama by the children’s area. We had to visit her itty bitty homeland.
The display was a miniature town, with colorful mushroom buildings. There was a cobbler, a baker, a wing repair office, a shop full of trinkets, and a tavern. Outside the tavern were little tables, at which sat plastic-and-gauze members of the Good Folk. In their hands were the tiniest beer steins in the world.
Tinny spied a loose stein on a table, nabbed it and put it in a pouch. “It’s allowed,” she declared, “I’m a faerie too!” Delighted, we headed to the tailor and claimed our prizes before returning to the arena.
“Nick’s gonna tease the crap out of me for this,” Sarah grumbled.
“Because when we were together, I was the successful one. Every project I worked on paid off, while he struggled to catch a break. So now he’ll crow about how I couldn’t find a miniature beer mug.”
I shook my head. “Nick wouldn’t do that. He’s a sweetheart.” Sure, Nick could be a smartass, just like Roman, but he looked out for us.
“He is,” Sarah agreed. “I mean, I get it, show business is tough, and nobody hustles harder than him. But still...sometimes he just has to be a wiseacre!”
The three of us nodded and talked shit about the guys’ prank with the horn. On the way, we saw Roman spear some hanging rings with his lance.
Off to the side, Nick spoke with another armored knight - the strangest we’d seen at any Faire. His regalia wasn’t Medieval, but it was certainly from fantasy. Dark fabrics, black tooled leather, blood-red vest. Brushed steel greaves and gauntlets covered the boots and sleeves. He wore no other armor we could see. A large hood covered his head, his face hidden by a pitch-black veil. The bizarre knight’s manner seemed friendly though, and Nick appeared to get along with him.
He was still chatting with the stranger when we arrived. “Hi, ladies!” he said. “Were you successful in your quest?”
“Indeed, we were!” Sarah beamed, holding forth a small medallion. “We persevered through all manner of peril and toil to find the world’s tiniest beer stein!”
“Fantastic!” Nick smiled and pointed to the mysterious man beside him. “This is Gordon, his group arrived today.”
“Gortan,” the stranger corrected him.
“Gorton. Anyhow, we’ve been watching Roman win everything... say, any of you remember the library where my brother saw Shakespeare’s wand?”
“The one they used for Midsummer Night?” Tinny asked.
“Yeah, that’s it. He told me about his class field trip there, but I forgot which library.”
“I don’t think you ever mentioned the name,” I said.
“You sure?” Nick scratched his head. “I could’ve sworn I did...”
“Maybe I can look it up.” I retrieved my phone. “Why the sudden interest?”
“Gorton wanted to check it out.”
“Gortan,” the man barked through his veil.
“Did your brother see it before or after the Somerset museum fire?” asked Sarah.
“After. That’s what was so strange. I thought they sent it all back to England.”
I studied my phone and frowned. “Hm, Google says ‘no internet connection.’ This place has crap reception.”
“Guess that makes it more Medieval,” Sarah mused.
“Not to worry,” Gortan replied, “I will find out soon enough.”
A wild commotion on the far side of the pitch interrupted us. A tan gelding had become agitated. He thrashed about, nipping at the steeds and kicking at handlers and marshals trying to calm him.
When a trainer attempted to loop a rope around his neck, the charger bucked and blasted down the tiltyard - straight toward where we stood.
Roman jumped off his own mount and ran to us. “Get back!” he shouted. “Out of the way!”
The crazed warhorse reared on his hind legs and neighed. His front legs flailed, hooves clopping against one another. He landed, spun, and bashed against the fence while marshals and squires ran toward him. The mad beast kicked a trainer and butted a marshal’s head with his own.
The poor creature’s bucks and spins were so frenetic, he lost his balance and crashed hard into the rail by us, falling on his side.
Handlers, marshals, and the tournament veterinarian swarmed around the horse, fitting a halter on his head and injecting a tranquilizer.
A figure approached behind them - at least six foot four, broad shoulders and solid muscles. His armor was thick as fortress walls. The herald on his breastplate was deep gray, with a red, imposing castle on it. His face and head, like Gortan’s, was hooded and veiled.
“Perhaps I can be of assistance?” he suggested in a slippery tone I instantly hated.
“Thank you, sir, but no need,” replied a marshal. “We have him under control.”
As the staff moved the gelding into a truck, Roman searched through the pikes, swords, and armor thrown into disarray from the horse’s fall. “Hey, Nick,” he called out, “have you seen my sword?”
Nick pointed to a nearby white canopy. “I propped it up by that tent.”
“I looked there, but I don’t see it.” Roman searched around and inside the tent, along with others reclaiming their gear. “Are you sure you didn’t leave it at the camp?”
“Well, shit.” Roman rubbed his face.
“What do we do now?” Tinny wondered aloud.
He turned to us. “Nick, go back to camp and look in my car. My dress sword’s in there. Hang on, I’ll get you the key -”
“There’s no need for that.” The taller veiled man placed a large hand on Roman’s shoulder. “Gortan, fetch my backup sword for my worthy opponent, here.”
“Right away, Lord Agmor.”
My hair bristled on my neck. My friends grimaced. Roman's brow furrowed as he pulled Agmor's hand away. He removed his gauntlet and vambrace, then pushed the gambeson up his forearm and scratched his birthmark again. Agmor leaned over to inspect it. "Something the matter, young knight?"
"It's nothing." Roman grabbed the tube of cortisone cream from Nick. He squeezed a long bead on the mark and rubbed it in.
Gortan returned with a scabbard.
“Oh, no,” said Roman, “I couldn’t ask you to -”
“Nonsense,” Agmor interrupted. “It’s no trouble at all. Try it. See how it feels.”
Roman grasped the grip of the sword and drew it from its sheath.
It was amazing. The polished steel looked like glass. The blade had elegant scrollwork that had to be laser engraved. Unfamiliar runes ran down the fuller. The cross-guard and grip shined with a solid layer of the richest sun-drenched gold.
“It’s gorgeous,” I couldn’t help saying.
“Yes, but it’s not mine.”
Roman tested the feel of the weapon, the heft of its swing, its balance in his hand. He twirled it in his fingers with remarkable ease, then inspected its unblemished edge, blunted to meet tournament regulations.
“Perhaps you were meant to have this sword instead,” said Gortan. Something about him made me uneasy too.
“Well, the jousts are about to start, and I have no other options.” Roman tried some thrusts and slashes into the empty air. He looked incredible. “This better not shatter on the first hit.”
“I assure you,” Agmor oozed, “there is no finer blade in existence.”
“You probably won’t even need it,” Nick said to Roman. “The way you ride, you’ll knock your opponents off just looking at them!”
Agmor pivoted to intimidate Nick, but that ludicrous veil had no impact.
Roman stared at the reflective blade.
“One can only hope,” he said.
“Good Lords and Ladies, vile serfs and rapscallions!” trumpeted the announcer.
“Huzzah, Rapscallions!” The four of us, Ren Faire Squad, shouted together.
“It is my deepest honor to welcome you to the Most Grand Tournament that ever was and ever will be: The Western Gathering’s Jousting Championship Finals!”
“Huzzah!” roared the audience.
“There could not be a more fitting occasion to honor our gracious Queen! All Hail the Queen!”
“All Hail the Queen!” the crowd shouted.
Once the Queen of the Tournament gave her blessing, the crowd settled on the bleachers. We watched several valiant jousters compete for an hour and a half, cheering at the splintered lances and applauding knights who’d been thrown from their mounts.
“Up next on the tilt, Duke Wembly of the Realm of Mission Viejo, vs. Lord Roman of the Kingdom of Fountain Falls!”
The Squad went berserk. We weren’t the only ones. Roman had apparently developed a following, because the crowd roared when he took to the tiltyard.
“Go get’em, Roman!” Nick shouted.
Roman didn’t feel right using a European crest to represent ‘Park.’ His solution was the coat of arms for South Korea; a red-and-blue circular wave on a golden flower, framed with a ribbon. He bore the heraldry on his surcoat, his shield, and the red caparison covering his horse.
Helm in place on his head, he cantered his mount to the far left end of the tilt. The handler pulled a tapered lance from the rack and handed it to him.
When Wembly received his lance at the other end, the two warriors positioned their poles upright, ready to ride.
The flag dropped, and the horses took off.
My stomach tightened as Roman started his levée - no matter how often I’d seen him joust, I grew fearful for him at each pass. The lances continued their slow, steady lowering, until Roman and Wembly reached the center of the tilt. They aimed their long poles dead center at one another’s heater shields.
Roman dispatched Wembly with a decisive, lance-shattering blow to his shield, knocking the Duke of Mission Viejo off his mount and flat on his behind.
The crowd cheered, and I exhaled with relief. Roman took a small victory lap around the counter tilt before riding to the right of the tiltyard to await his next turn. Two more matches followed, and I let myself relax a little.
Then the announcer said, “The next match is Lord Agmor, Grand Knight of the Order of Kildare, from the Fortress of Emory...”
Sarah rolled her eyes. “Oh, that doesn’t sound pretentious at all.”
“...vs. Baron Von Friedrich, of the Empire of Azusa!”
Agmor, mounted on a terrifying black horse, bore a black, shaped lance, carved to a point. The herald on his shield was the same as on his breastplate. The veil still covered his face.
A marshal approached, holding a smaller, black-and-white striped lance and a helm. We saw him say something to the imposing man. The veiled warrior gazed at him, threw down his lance, and yanked the striped one from the marshal. He grabbed the helm and slammed it on his head, hood and all.
“What’s with that guy?” Sarah wondered.
“I don’t know,” I replied, “Gortan, why is he–”
Gortan was gone.
The marshal got out of Agmor’s way before his mount trampled him. Agmor spurred the horse to run to the right of the tilt. The hesitant Baron Von Friedrich trotted his dappled colt to the left.
The two took their positions. A second knot formed in my belly.
The knight marshal dropped the flag.
Both horses exploded forward, but it was clear who had the advantage. Agmor’s steed covered two-thirds of the tilt’s distance before meeting Von Friedrich. The lance in Agmor’s arm appeared aimed at his opponent’s head rather than his shield.
At the last second, Von Friedrich moved his heater to protect his head, and Agmor’s lance hit square in its center and cracked in two, knocking the shield and Von Friedrich’s thick-armored forearm against his helm, hard.
Baron Von Friedrich fell from the horse. His armor snagged on the tack and he hung, limp and unconscious, from the horse’s side. The marshals swarmed the tilt to calm his mount and rescue him.
All our jaws dropped. “What the fuck?!” Tinny gasped.
A stretcher came out, and the medics whisked Von Friedrich away. Even from the bleachers, we saw blood trickle from his helm. The audience gave its supportive applause, while me and my pals felt uneasy.
“My Lords and Ladies!” The announcer crowed. “Many tales will be told and songs written about this day, for today, the two greatest knights, having defeated their challengers, shall race with blazing speed, each striving to conquer the other. Whether by lance or by sword, there will be one victor - and that victor shall be Champion of the Tournament, and of all the Realms!”
The crowd’s cheers were boisterous - they’d already forgotten about the poor Baron.
“At the left side of the tilt, Lord Agmor, from the Fortress of Emory!”
“Boooo!” We belted out jeers, raspberries and Monty Python insults, punctuated by eight thumbs down. Some in the audience heckled with us, some cheered for Agmor.
“At the right side of the tilt, Lord Roman, from the Kingdom of Fountain Falls!”
We reverted to our screaming-lunatic behavior. If Roman was nervous, he didn’t show it. Air Force training, no doubt. He adjusted the shield on his arm and spoke to the squire about the new sword. He rubbed his horse’s neck to calm it.
“You better get this guy, Roman,” I murmured, “and you damn well better not get hurt!”
He removed his helm, dug into his breastplate, and withdrew the gold crucifix he wore. Roman bowed his head, uttered a short prayer, kissed the crucifix and tucked it back into his armor. Turning toward us, he showed his signature grin, replaced the helm on his head and guided the horse into position.
Both riders and horses were ready. Their new lances stood straight and tall in their arms, declarations of power.
The start flag dropped.
Like cannonballs, the mounts bolted down the straightaway. The levée was much faster than on their previous jousts. When the lances were level, Agmor and Roman almost stood in their stirrups as the moment of contact approached. The poles steadied, the speed increased.
I wanted to scream.
Splintered wood and flying bodies were all we saw. Both lances hit the dead center of their targets’ shields and exploded, knocking the jousters off their horses, onto the hard ground. Agmor’s monster beast jumped the tilt rail and chased Roman’s steed, prompting the marshals to swarm on the tiltyard again to restore control.
Neither Roman nor Agmor moved.
Then, we saw signs of life - in wavering heads, heaving shoulders, arms that pushed their bodies to sitting. The impact totally shook them.
Where the hell are the medics?
Roman raised himself to his feet. Agmor did the same. Still wobbly, the Knight of Fountain Falls took the pristine sword from the squire, and started toward the veiled giant.
Agmor stood before Roman reached him and grabbed his own sword. As Roman lunged with the new blade, Agmor pivoted and parried the blow. He responded with a diagonal cut down, which Roman blocked with his heater. Then he swung his weapon overhand to catch Agmor’s upward thrust. Before he could move in closer, Agmor punched Roman with his shield and planted a boot in his chest that made him stagger back and land hard on the pitch.
Roman pushed himself back up, charged forward and let loose - thrusting, blocking, parrying, feinting, throwing a punch himself - and Agmor matched him beat for beat. The crowd grew wild at the battle.
The four of us gasped. This was getting too real. Where are the marshals??
Agmor’s steel hurtled toward Roman’s head, smacking his helm and knocking Roman to his knees. For a second it looked like he would collapse. Agmor took a swing at his shoulder, but Roman rolled away in time and sprang back on his feet, brandishing his gleaming sword.
He was pissed.
Roman thrust the shiny blade down as if pounding a railroad spike. Agmor blocked with the power of a geyser. The thug kicked out, but Roman was ready this time. He revolved and moved behind Agmor, then hurled the sword at a section of exposed gambeson under his backplate. Agmor arched in sudden pain.
Roman slammed the blade on his helm, one, two, three times, and the brute fell to his knees. He used his weapon to twist Agmor’s out of his hand, then held the blade an inch away from the sight in the helm.
“Yield!” Roman shouted.
The crowd went nuts. All of us were too stunned to speak. Both men held their positions, unmoving.
“Of course,” Agmor finally said, loud enough for all to hear. “You are the champion.”
Agmor made the hand signal for surrender, ending the contest. The field marshals finally appeared after subduing their mounts.
“Lord Agmor yields!” trumpeted the announcer. “Lord Roman of Fountain Falls is the Champion of the Western Gathering’s Tournament of All the Realms! God Save the Queen!”
The entire audience cheered and applauded with gusto. Roman’s groupies hopped with glee.
Tinny, Sarah, Nick and I all exhaled, holding on to each other to steady ourselves.
Roman removed his helm, then offered to help Agmor rise from the ground. Agmor refused, straightening to his full height. He gave a nod to Roman, and walked away without a word.
When Agmor reached the far side of the tiltyard, Gortan joined him - at least it looked like Gortan. With those veils, there was no way to know.
“That was too scary,” said Tinny, voicing the thoughts of us all.
“Yeah,” Nick agreed. “Thank God it’s over.”
The Sword Lesson
After the tournament, we returned to our campsite. When we emerged from our tents in casual clothes, Roman rocked a ginormous medallion:
Champion of the Western Gathering Tournament, 2018
The sun’s waning rays shone through the bare trees as Sarah fired up the Coleman stove. The pines were sparse on needles, which covered the forest floor in a dead carpet of ashen brown. Bark beetles had wreaked havoc on the entire grove.
Intrigued by the sword he was forced to use in the tournament, Roman brought it back, promising he’d deliver it to “Lost and Found” the next day. He pulled the gleaming blade from its scabbard and inspected it for several minutes, then put it away.
Sarah dropped a package of what looked like Styrofoam with meat sauce into the cooking pot. Roman finally removed his hubcap of a medallion, and we all chowed down on our boil-in-bag lasagna.
“Roman,” I asked between bites, “did you think Agmor was trying to hurt you?”
“Agmor?” He raised an eyebrow. “That guy was intense. I think he forgot it was pretend-fighting.”
“He nearly took your arm off.”
“Yeah, he was hardcore. But he wouldn’t have gone that far. You saw all the marshals there.”
“But none came to help you,” I pressed, “ ‘cause they were chasing your horses while you were fighting.”
“He did yield,” Roman pointed out.
“Well, he still scared me. And I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.”
“I was fine. I am fine. Don’t worry, Sheila. I can take care of myself.”
“Yeah, have some faith in Roman,” added Sarah. “He’s an Air Force pilot. A trained professional.”
I nodded. If Roman knew he was in danger, he had the skills to save himself. The key phrase was ‘knew he was in danger.’ That tournament had the gloss of make-believe, but Roman’s battle with Agmor crossed the line. Realistic combat made me uneasy. I couldn’t get the bleeding, unconscious Von Friedrich out of my mind.
And yet, I enjoyed the tournament, before it got perilous. When it was all pretend and no blood was spilt, clashing deadly weapons seemed okay.
Maybe that was because I secretly wished I was the one holding the sword.
‘Secretly’ nothing - I did wish I was holding the sword.
Yeah, like that’ll happen. Large, squeamish, pacifist witches don’t make good knights.
After dinner, the mystery sword on the table beckoned to me. I pulled it out part-way, and marveled at the mirror-sheen of the steel, so refined it looked like solid mercury. It showed my brown eyes so clearly I could see the fibers in the irises.
I imagined myself brandishing the weapon.
Then I caught sight of my lower chin reflected in the blade, and I shoved it back in the sheath.
“You can take it out if you want.”
Holy Crap! I didn’t even know Roman was watching! “I don’t want to mess it up,” I lied.
“Mess it up?” He laughed as he removed the sword. “You did watch the battle today, right? Do you see any marks on this at all?”
The weapon looked new, fresh from the blacksmith’s quenching barrel. “There’s not one scratch,” I observed. “Not a nick! It doesn’t even look blunted now.”
“Yeah, I noticed that too. This thing is really strange. Must be made out of something from NASA.” He smiled at me. “Wanna hold it?”
“No, that squirrel behind you. Of course, you! You’ve been staring at this thing since we got back. Try it out!”
I took a breath, and the gold grip passed from Roman’s fingers to my own. When he let go, the weapon seemed almost too light. I raised it aloft without discomfort. “If I can hold this, it must be super light for you, huh?” I took a couple mini-swings with the sword. There was a slight whoosh like a harmonic vibration as the blade passed through the air.
“Actually, it felt fine. Just the right weight.”
I thought about twirling the sword with my wrist, but decided against it.
“Hey, I’ve got an idea,” Roman said. “It’s still light out. Let’s go over to that empty patch. I’ll show you some moves.”
“Uuuuh…” His offer caught me off-guard. A cluster of nerves formed in my stomach. “...okay!”
He retrieved his dress sword from his SUV, smiled, and strode toward the patch. “Come on!”
No one else was watching.
I twirled the miracle sword in my hand.
I followed Roman into the clearing, where he ran through some forms that already made me feel inadequate.
“What’s wrong?” He must have seen my reaction.
“I don’t think I should use this sword.” I said. “I’m going back to the camp.”
Roman held out an arm to stop me. “Now, Sheila, I’ve never known you to be a quitter.”
“Yeah, but when I hold it, I feel...It’s like I’m...not worthy.”
“Worthy?” he laughed. “Why wouldn’t you be?”
“Well, look at me. I’m in questionable shape and I’m afraid I’ll hurt you or myself. Not really swordswoman material.”
“You don’t think you’re a fighter?” He rubbed his chin. “I seem to remember a young lady at the Fountain Falls Museum, risking her life to save a little girl from a kidnapper.”
“That was different.” It wasn’t the most pleasant memory. “All I did was bash into him from the side.”
“And if you hadn’t done that,” he pointed out, “he might have escaped with her.”
“Doesn’t mean I’m qualified to go swinging this giant Ginsu knife around.”
“That isn’t your assessment to make. It’s your teacher’s. You are my apprentice, are you not?”
“Apprentice?! I don’t remember signing a contract with you!” I protested. “I mean, not that I’d mind, but…”
“All right, let’s make it official. Sheila Teresa Berenger, do you consent to be my apprentice in the art of swordsmanship?”
I gazed at the amazing, shiny blade. Despite my misgivings, the answer was obvious.
“Roman Park, I consent to be your apprentice in the art of swordsmanship. May the Gods have mercy on your soul!”
This got a big laugh from him. “Great! Let’s start with the basics. First: Stance. Hold the sword with your dominant hand on the grip, right under the crossguard, like this.” He demonstrated on his own sword. “Your other hand will grasp the grip underneath the first, like so. If you need a stronger grip, you can grasp the pommel with your lower hand. But for attack, you’ll want more flexibility and leverage when you strike, so you’ll keep both hands on the grip...observe.”
He made a quick downward strike that could cleave a head like a melon, and returned up. “Now, stand with your right foot forward, keep your left behind, not too far back, because you want that firm stance. Hold the sword before you, low enough that the tip points at your opponent’s throat. Don’t turn sideways and never turn your back to them.”
Already this was a lot to take in. “Okay, but how do I move around?”
“Like a crab.” He demonstrated with his feet. “To move right, you lift your right foot and step a few inches, then the left foot follows. Your knees will be bent, to increase your stability. The key is to maintain your stance, even while travelling. Try it.”
I assumed the stance, took a second to see where the throat would be, and did some awkward scuttling.
“Good, but remember not to take your eyes from your opponent.”
“What’s the matter?”
“Nothing, I just felt a chill go up my back. I’m fine.”
Roman grasped my shoulder. “Are you uncomfortable with this? Having second thoughts?”
“Maybe...I don’t know. I want to continue, but you know how I feel about combat. The thought of harming an opponent makes me queasy. Why would I want to train for that?”
“Okay, number one: You’re not required to fight anyone. You don't have to enter tournaments, or join the military, or any of that. Most people who learn swordfighting do it for enjoyment and discipline. It’s not all about hurting the other guy. If anything, you try to prevent that as much as possible.
“Number two: This world, despite our best efforts, is not safe. That’s why I taught all of you those self-defense techniques, remember? Like crashing sideways into your opponent? If someone, God forbid, were to attack you, I think your feelings about fighting would change real quick.”
“In short,” he added, “you don’t have to like the nasty stuff, but it’s good to know.”
I nodded and got back into stance. “All right, I’m ready.”
For the next hour, Roman instructed me in the elements of swordfighting: stances, guards, strikes, parries, counterstrikes, feints, and basic strategy. My head spun with the information, but eventually I parried two of Roman’s strikes, and added a counterstrike, before it got too dark.
My arms and back, especially my right shoulder, were sore as hell. Despite that, I felt good. I couldn’t have defeated a five-year-old with a plastic sword at a birthday party, but I had fun.
Roman helped me hobble to camp. I placed the sheathed Miracle Sword in the ladies’ tent, then withdrew a hoodie from my bag and slipped it on.
“Hey, you were looking good, Sheila!” said Nick as he lit the campfire kindling. “You almost kicked Roman’s ass a couple times!”
“Hardly,” Roman smirked.
“Wait a minute,” I said, “you were watching us?”
“Yeah! You know, you’ve got a lot of potential!” Nick smiled and dropped some more twigs on the blaze. “Sarah and Tinny watched for a bit, but I stuck it out to the end.”
“Oh, great.” I shot a look to Roman. “Now there are witnesses!”
“Don’t worry, they’ll be dealt with,” he winked back.
Later at the card table, we played a board game, using the coolers to hold the cards and game pieces. When we managed to get utterly routed by the enemy, we consoled ourselves with a wild round of Cards Against Humanity. (Tinny won.)
Afterward we clustered around the fire, Tinny with her ukulele, me with my djembe, and Nick with his star voice. Awitan was Filipino for “singing,” and he certainly lived up to his name. We played mellow takes on our favorite songs for about an hour.
It was ten p.m., and very cold, but none of us were sleepy. So we huddled closer to the flames, and I retrieved my sketchpad. Nick and Roman, illuminated by the campfire between them, were the ideal subjects. My muscles creaked like a shipwrecked galleon rotting in the sun, but the Muse demanded tribute. I sketched until my arm dropped in protest.
“I thought Jerry was competing for the Salamanders, not the Sun Kings,” said Sarah.
“He was,” replied Roman, “but he got kidnapped.”
“Yeah,” he grimaced. “A star knight is snatched by an opposing clan, and made to fight for that clan.”
“Have you ever been kidnapped?” asked Nick.
Roman stared into the fire. “Once,” he replied, “Behind enemy lines.”
We all knew the Taliban shot down his jet and held him captive for three days before he escaped. Tinny attempted to pivot the conversation away from that memory. “Good thing the tournament’s over.”
“Yes, but they can still take a knight prisoner and pull him around in chains during the Queen’s parade tomorrow. It’s humiliating. I knew a couple guys who dropped out for good because of it.”
“Wow,” I shook my head. “The drama never ends.”
“The drama stops here,” Roman asserted. “No kidnapping on my watch!”
No one spoke for a long while. The silence weighed on us like a hydraulic crusher.
Finally, Nick spoke up. “How are things at City Hall, Roman? Still want to be Fountain Falls’ City Manager?”
Roman poked at the campfire. “I did a year ago. I’m not sure now. Some things came up, and I’m questioning my whole path.”
“What?” I piped in. “This is new. What sort of things?”
“I’d rather not say.”
We all had a nightcap to wind down, and at last my shoulder loosened up. As the fire from the last camp went out, Ren Faire Squad decided to call it a night. We gathered our trash while Nick retrieved the water jug to douse the flame.
That was when they arrived.
Sarah, Tinny and I were in our tent, searching for trash bags, when we heard voices. There were two, and they were familiar. We watched through the tent’s mesh windows as a veiled man approached Nick.
“Gortan? What are you doing here? It’s almost midnight!”
“You have something of ours.”
“What, you mean that sword?” Nick was confused, and so were we. Why is Gortan wearing his full veil at midnight?
“You can have it,” Roman told Gortan. “We were going to return it tomorrow anyhow.”
“We have no interest in the sword,” said the more pompous voice. My stomach sank; it was unmistakably Agmor. He stepped into the plot, followed by four more men, all in the same garb, their faces veiled.
Sarah held a finger to her lips. Tinny and I nodded. While they opened bags and supply boxes to withdraw anything sharp, I pulled Miracle Sword from its scabbard, praying I wouldn’t need to use it.
Roman was on guard, his fist clenched, ready to spring like a leopard.
“I have a proposition for you, Champion,” declared Agmor. “Come with me, and fight for the Order of Kildare, and I guarantee the rewards will be worth your time.”
“What the fuck?!” Roman looked angry, and scared. “Is this a kidnapping? Nick, did you set this up?!”
“No!! I’d never do that! I don’t even know how they found our spot!”
Gortan stepped closer to Agmor, and the other four followed. “Nick, old boy, don’t you remember?” he cooed. “Earlier today you told me how you were stuck in the ugliest plot at the edge of the campground.”
Nick’s face fell. “Oh, shit.”
“Agmor, you’re taking this fantasy too far.” Roman’s voice grew stronger. “The tournament is over. Even if you kidnapped me, I’d never fight for you!”
“I assure you, what I propose is far more significant than a ridiculous festival prank.”
“What are you tal -” Roman’s jaw dropped when Agmor removed his veil. When we looked through the windows, our mouths fell open too.
“- what are you?!” he gasped.
Agmor’s face, to put it simply, changed. Constantly. One moment it was human, seconds later, a pompous meerkat, then a conceited vulture. Each face retained his overweening sneer.
“Your greatest admirer,” said Agmor, artificially reverent, “and the agent of your destiny.”
Gortan revealed his own morphing face. The other men remained veiled.
“What the fuck is going on?” Sarah whispered. Our eyes were wide, unable to look away.
“It must be magic,” Tinny gasped. “Real magic. I can tell!”
The chill passed through me again. I grasped my pentacle and prayed to every warrior deity I knew: Morrigan. Athena. Ares. Kali. Lugh. Scathach. Help us!
Roman backed away from Agmor. “Nick, go for help!”
Nick took off at a sprint toward the nearest camp. We saw Agmor press a red stone on his belt. There was a shimmering hiss, then a constant, unnerving hum.
A violet force field covered our plot. Nick slammed into it face first and fell to the dirt.
“I regret I cannot allow that to happen,” sighed Agmor. “Actually, I take that back. I don’t regret it at all.”
“Help!” Nick screamed at the camp next to ours. “We’re being attacked! For real! Please, someone HELP US!”
“You’re wasting your breath, Nick my boy,” said Gortan. “That force field dampens any sound from inside its barrier.”
“I’m not your ‘boy!’” Nick scrambled up and snarled at him.
“Could’ve fooled me with that fancy hair.”
Inside the tent, we were terrified. The three of us filled our trembling hands and pockets with scissors, sewing needles, utility knives, and ropes. We tried to recall all the self-defense Roman taught us. Everything I learned mere hours ago had evaporated from memory.
Roman backed up to the table and grabbed the scabbard holding his sword. “I will never be taken again!” he declared. “Never!”
Agmor sounded disappointed. “You don’t want to do that, Champion.”
“My name is Roman, you walking freak show.”
Nick started toward Agmor. Gortan pushed him back. He and the lackeys surrounded Nick, drawing short blades from their belts.
Agmor stepped in the center of our plot, studying the tents. We ducked before he could see us.
“This is quite a large camp for two men,” he observed. “By chance, are there others with you?”
“Back off, Agmor!”
“I think not,” he said, striding toward Roman. “Gortan, you and your troopers search the tents and gut whoever’s inside.”
We watched Roman draw his sword and brandish it at the hulking boor. Agmor unsheathed his own blade and parried Roman’s attack.
Nick dropped to one knee and punched Gortan in the crotch. When he doubled over, the others halted their strikes. Nick shoved him against one of the troopers, scrambled out of their circle and ran toward the men’s tent, diving inside.
Seconds later, he emerged with two long bamboo Kali sticks and ran toward a soldier heading for us. Nick’s arms became a whirlwind as he used his Escrima training to rain blow after blow on the intruder’s head. The thug collapsed – but another one had reached our tent.
He slashed through the tent flap and parted the fabric. We all screamed. Terrified, I raised Miracle Sword. When the assassin jumped inside, he impaled himself on it.
The blade slid through organs and muscles and ran him through. I was about to scream again, but the sight of gore made me gag. A steady stream of blood poured from the wound and trailed from his mouth as the light drained from his eyes.
Sarah pointed at another approaching henchman. I grimaced and pulled the sword out. The scent of his blood filled my nose with its acrid tang.
We couldn’t stay in the tent. All of us had to fight. I scrambled out and assumed a ready stance while shaking like an earthquake fault.
As he clashed with Agmor, Roman saw me. “Sheila! Remember your lesson!”
All I could remember from my sword lesson was that I’d had one.
The soldier ran toward me. He brought down his blade. I barely blocked it.
“You have an edge over them!” Roman yelled as he and Agmor scraped swords.
I tried desperately to remember his words. Edge, edge, what edge?! Lesson, sword, inexp - “I got it!”
Your inexperience makes you unpredictable, he’d told me. Use that to your advantage.
Sarah and Tinny burst from the tent with piercing shrieks. I pivoted right and thrust up, stopping the steel an inch from my head. I had to use all my strength to keep it from my scalp. The soldier jerked his weapon back and had a clear shot at my left side - until Tinny stabbed his arm with her utility knife. He cried out and backed away -
“Right side!” shouted Sarah.
- and I ducked a swing meant for my neck. His sword cut through the ropes, collapsing the tent. With teeth clenched, I slashed his thigh.
Blood spurted over me like a busted faucet, making me wail in horror and revulsion, trying my damndest to keep it together. He doubled over to stanch the cut. I raised Miracle Sword...and backed off with a wave of nausea. Another of the veiled freaks was headed my way.
In the barren grove, Roman and Agmor’s battle grew more fierce by the second.
No time to think about that. A long pine branch lay on the dirt, clustered with dead needles. The latest goon drew closer. He raised his blade. I leaped right and powered Miracle Sword down on his shin - and hit leather and plastic. He wore a prosthetic leg. The unexpected impact sent the sword sailing from my hands. Oh shit oh shit oh shit...Branch!
I rammed him in the back with my head. It was enough to throw him on the ground. I seized the branch, ran to the fire pit and set it ablaze.
Tinny and Sarah stood side-by-side with their improvised weapons. The trooper had tied a rope around his bloody wound and grabbed his sword, clomping toward them.
Sarah landed a roundhouse kick to the soldier’s abdomen and punched him in the chest. Stunned, he dropped the steel. Tinny kneed him in the crotch. They both jammed needles, safety pins, and anything sharp into his arms and face. Sarah pummeled the henchman with her kickboxing as Tinny struck him with the moves we learned from Roman. Nick leaped in with his Kali sticks, pounding the goon’s skull and sticking him in the solar plexus. He slammed the sticks on the ears to knock him out.
Three down. Fourth on the ground, still kicking. The ones left are Gortan and this fucker.
My assailant popped up and came after me again, swinging like mad while I held him back with the flame. If I could set those robes on fire...
He bolted toward me. My only weapon was a rotting branch.
He jumped in front, sticks spinning like helicopter blades, raining blows on the lackey’s arms. But this one was tough, like he‘d had all his limbs replaced. Nick attempted a gut jab with the sticks. The heavy sword struck them, carving out huge chunks.
I sprinted around Nick and shoved the burning branch into the henchman’s face, igniting his veil and hood. He dropped the sword and pawed at his head, trying to tear away the burning raiments.
Nick threw the sticks aside and grabbed the sword from the ground. I dropped the branch and sprinted toward the tent to reclaim mine.
Once Miracle Sword was back in my hand, I saw the first soldier stalking my besties.
“Nick! The others need help!”
He abandoned the flaming thug and ran to them. The trooper pointed his sword at Nick. But before he could strike, Tinny jammed a needle through the veil, where his eye would be. Sarah punched the trooper on the chin and belly, Tinny slammed his head on her knee, and both kicked him onto the ground.
Nick, sword in hand, smiled at them. “What do you need me for?”
“What, indeed?” said Gortan.
Nick raised the sword to strike, and Gortan moved to parry, but I couldn’t watch the outcome. I had my own problems. My burned attacker extinguished the flames on his robes and grasped the flaming branch. His ever-changing face was almost as ugly as Agmor’s.
I dodged to the left, backward and to the right, trying to get past him to reach Roman. He stopped me at each turn, swinging the branch so close my skin wrinkled from the heat.
Roman and Agmor wove through the trees behind the tents, their swords cutting branches and hacking off chunks of bark as they fought. I could not get past Agmor’s warrior to reach them.
Nick had disarmed Gortan, but he was a tough adversary. Tinny and Sarah tried to pin him to a tree so Nick could finish him off. They shoved multiple sharp objects into Gortan’s face, arms, and chest - and still he fought, kicking at the women, swinging his arms at Nick.
He punched both Tinny and Sarah and grabbed his fallen sword as they staggered back. Nick came after him with the other henchman’s sword. He did the best he could, but his skill was stick fighting, not sword dueling. Gortan easily disarmed Nick and sent the sword flying into the forest.
Nick was done for, unless I did something.
So I did the stupidest thing possible.
I threw the Miracle Sword at Gortan.
The second the blade left my hand, I knew what an asinine move that was. I watched, fearing Gortan would bat the flying blade away, or worse, grab it in midair and be doubly armed.
Instead, Miracle Sword spun through the air across the camp, and Gortan’s arm, raised to kill Nick, was sliced off at the elbow.
Gortan wailed and staggered to the side. Nick, eyes full of fury, grabbed his weapon and stabbed him through the heart.
The shining sword continued spinning in an arc, back toward me.
The soldier with the flaming branch jumped in front and got clocked in the head by the twirling blade’s grip. He fell to the ground, and Miracle Sword landed in the dirt beside him.
No time to waste. I bent to claim it...and his giant boot kicked me hard in the chest. I flew backward over the ground and landed hard on a pile of stones and logs.
Hot logs! It was the fire! I was BURNING!
Flames ate into my right shoulder. The avalanche of pain made me panic. The searing fire climbed up the hoodie and singed my hair. I tried to sit up, stamping my feet to gain momentum. The flames spread from my shoulder, down my back. Smoke mixed with the scent of my burning skin as I thrashed on the pit.
“Sheila!” Roman shouted. “Roll it out! Roll the fire out!”
I wrenched myself out of the fire and rolled on the ground. It hurt like fucking hell, like my right side was being barbecued and devoured by wolves at once. I smelled the burnt fabric and flesh and kept rolling. Five seconds, ten, each roll more painful than the last. “Is it out?” I yelled. “Is the fire OUT?”
“Yes, it’s out!” Nick shouted back. “There’s just two of them left! We can do this!”
My flying blade clobbered my opponent so hard that after his kick, he was too disoriented to grab it. Screeching through gritted teeth at the pain, I stood and hobbled back to Miracle Sword. I reclaimed it as my friends surrounded the lackey to put him down for good.
“Ah, such optimism,” Agmor taunted between strikes and parries. “What a pity.”
We watched him press a purple gem on his belt. A swirling vortex opened, and ten more henchmen emerged.
Our jaws dropped. We were so close to winning, to surviving. So close.
Roman, his face scratched with cuts and grazes from Agmor’s sword, wasn’t giving any quarter. Ever the military man, he commanded, “Keep fighting! Don’t stop!”
The new troops stood at attention, awaiting orders. We were exhausted, and I was in tremendous pain. None of us could help Roman. Our eyes were riveted on the clash.
“We are at your command, My Lord,” a new soldier called to Agmor.
“Hold!” the ever-changing brute called. He thrust his sword toward Roman, who ducked to the side as the blade edge landed on a tree. “I wish to take them alive!”
Nick, Sarah, Tinny and I stared at one another. Bleeding, bruised and sore, we wanted to collapse. I could barely move my shoulder without crying out.
There was only one thing we could do.
“Fuck that!” the Ren Faire Squad shouted in unison.
We ran to attack the nearest of the ten. I paired up with Sarah, while Nick and Tinny joined forces. We all tried to set the troopers on fire, stab them with barbecue skewers and Miracle Sword, or bash them with sticks, flashlights, and the frying pan. We landed some hits, but the soldiers deflected our improvised weapons with ease.
There was no surviving this round. Even if by some miracle we defeated these ten, Agmor would summon ten more. We had to fight until the end and not give that shifty-faced bastard any satisfaction.
But all of us were depleted. Though we managed to fell three troopers, the rest separated us.
“Sheila, don’t turn your back to the enemy!” Roman called out.
“The enemy is all around me!”
“Back to back!” Tinny shouted. “All of us!”
I broke off from my skirmish and hobbled to her. Nick and Sarah did the same, and we formed a cluster, our four faces looking outward.
“Stop your attack, you clumsy serfs!” Agmor roared at his new troops. “It’s not helping us get what we came for!”
“You will get nothing from us, Agmor!” bellowed a furious Roman, once more on the attack. None of us could resist turning to watch. I had to prop myself up on Miracle Sword.
“The battle is mine, Champion,” Agmor proclaimed between collisions of steel. “Surrender now and agree to fight for me, under Lord Kildare, and no harm will come to you or your companions.”
Once more they threw themselves toward each other and clashed swords. Roman grabbed Agmor’s blade with his bare hand, and Agmor seized Roman’s with his gloved one. Each fought with their remaining might to push the other back. Roman screamed as the sword edge cut into his fingers and palm. The four of us stared in horror, as if we could feel his wounds on our own hands. Blood ran down the weapon, but he didn’t let go.
Finally Roman kicked Agmor on the knee and released the blade. The giant brute shoved him off, and Roman slashed deep into his outer thigh.
Screaming with rage, Agmor bent over, down to the ground. Roman moved in for the kill.
Agmor turned, stood upright, and threw dirt into Roman’s eyes.
Roman screamed, blinking and squinting while trying to defend himself.
Agmor whirled round again, swung his sword backhanded, and cut off Roman’s head.
The first second was surreal.
It was so ridiculous that Roman could lose a battle.
Something didn’t fit - his head wasn’t supposed to fly away, bouncing off the trees - so it couldn’t have been real.
Roman’s body fell backward to the ground, facing us. We saw the grisly results of the cruel reality that slammed into our brains.
First came the gasps, then the screams.
Nick was the first to wail, “No!!”
“ROMAN!!” I shrieked.
Tinny and Sarah cried, “Oh my God, OH, MY GOD!!”
Roman was dead. Decapitated.
Everything turned upside-down. The ground disappeared beneath our feet and the sky came crashing down on us. Our bones dissolved and we struggled to hold each other up. Roman’s blood washed over us like an ocean. There was no future. He’s dead, he’s dead, he’s dead.
The weeping Nick broke away to grab two loose poles from the collapsed tent.
“Nick, don’t! -”
He rushed Agmor. “You killed him! You evil bastard, YOU KILLED HIM!!”
Nick tried wielding the poles like his Kali sticks, but they were thin and too flexible. Agmor whacked the poles from Nick’s hands with his sword. He rabbit-punched Nick in the face, dropping him on his back.
“How observant,” Agmor near-smiled. “You don’t know how fortunate you are that you have something I need. Were it not for one location hidden in your memory, I would have killed you.”
“You’ll get nothing!” Nick growled through his tears. “I’ll die first!”
“Oh, you will?” Agmor took giant strides around him. “We’ll see about that. Sergeant, take the short girl and slit her throat.”
“No!” Nick and I both screamed.
“Listen,” sobbed Nick, “When Gortan asked me about that Shakespeare thing, I - “
“The Elemental Wand.”
“Whatever! I can’t remember where my brother said he saw it. I’ve been wracking my brains all day, and the mobile data’s offline so we couldn’t look it up - “
“Yes, that’s fascinating. Sergeant, proceed.”
The sergeant headed straight for Tinny.
I whispered Roman’s command to us all.
I whirled to my right, brought Miracle Sword out of hiding, thrust the tip past Tinny’s head, and ran the sergeant through his own throat.
“Keep Fighting!” I called, and we sprang back into action. They wouldn’t take us without a struggle - we would kick and scream and punch and slice and hurt them however we could.
Nick regained enough sense not to fight Agmor. He grabbed the poles and ran to join us.
Roman’s violent death cycled over and over in my mind - in all our minds. I had scratches and cuts all over my arms, legs and face. A club hit Sarah in the side. One thug cut Tinny’s thigh. Nick had a black eye and a bloody nose - and none of this hurt as much as losing Roman. So we kept fighting, ignoring the pain that wrenched us each moment.
The soldiers drew us apart from each other. Miracle Sword grew heavier by the second. I stumbled into the dead grove behind the tents to muster my remaining strength. Already another hoodlum chased me. I was too depleted to escape, and the sword fell from my hand as I staggered backward.
In a split-second, a soldier threw two knives, one after the other. The first knife landed in my pursuer’s windpipe as he crashed into my left side. The second pierced me in the breast, near my heart. Or maybe in it, I couldn’t tell. The sight of the handle sticking out, the pain radiating from the puncture, combined with the constant agony from my injuries, made me even dizzier. I fell to my knees.
My three friends were on the verge of dying. I could do nothing.
Agmor raised his hand. “Halt.”
The five remaining henchmen stopped short of killing them.
I slumped to the ground, trying to keep my eyes open.
“Remarkable,” he marveled. “Four callow youths took down ten of my finest soldiers.”
He addressed my friends, still standing, still defiant. “You need not worry about death anymore. I have a glorious plan for all of you. Sergeant!” he called to his new next-in-command. “I hereby promote you to Lieutenant! We will take these fine, raw warriors with us, as our guests. It will please Kildare to make their acquaintance.”
“Yes, Lord! Thank you, Lord!” the lieutenant said. “What about this one?” he added, pointing to me.
Agmor gazed at me with palpable disgust. “Leave the fat one. She’s nearly dead already.”
“No!” Tinny cried out.
“Please, bring her with us!” Sarah begged.
“Sheila!” Nick shouted, his voice cracking.
“Unless you wish to join her, you will be silent!” the lieutenant yelled.
“WHAT did I SAY??” Agmor reprimanded him. “These are our guests, and you will treat them well.”
“Yes, Lord. Thank you, Lord.”
The sergeant and his goons gathered Nick, Sarah, and Tinny together and surrounded them. Agmor joined his troops, his fingers poised over the purple stone on his belt.
He glanced toward Roman’s body.
“Farewell, Champion,” he jeered.
Agmor pressed the stone. Another vortex opened before them. He and the troopers prodded my friends to step through the portal. When the last thug entered the vortex, it vanished.
The force field dissipated.
All I saw, faded from my eyes.
I didn’t feel my head hit the dirt.
The first sound I heard was cussing.
“Holy fuck! Sweet Jesus, what a shitstorm!”
I was in a space between empty, cold dreams and a harsh awakening. I didn’t remember what happened, or how much time had passed. An unpleasant, dense soup filled my mind.
A sigh reached my ears, followed by boots on dirt and twigs. “At least somebody fought back.” The voice was a male baritone that sounded like its owner ate gravel for breakfast. “Tried to, anyway.”
My eyelids cracked open a sliver. Midnight gave way to the fading indigo of early dawn.
He spoke again, off to the left. “Oh, my Gods! This poor fucker…where’s your head, buddy?”
Something poked at my mind about what was there.
“Oh, no...no! You gotta be shittin’ me! Oh, sweet Mother Papa, no!”
Still only half-awake, I strained to hear. I could swear he was crying. I tried to focus on the figure whose language put sailors to shame, and saw what looked like a wiry old biker, crouching by Roman’s body. “Fuck, Tor,” he said to the sky, “why aren’t you here when I need you?”
He sniffed and sighed again. A metal cap unscrewed, followed by a long, loud gulp. I suspected it wasn’t water.
I was incredibly cold. Unable to move, even breathing was a task to negotiate.
I tried to shift my shoulder. Huge mistake. The movement woke the nerves by my burn and aggravated the knife in my chest, and I yelped.
The man turned my way. “Holy shit!” He ran toward me. “I thought you were dead!” His legs were shod in black leather motorcycle boots, and the hem of a kilt brushed below his knees. “You looked like you weren’t breathing,” he said. “Forgive me.”
The strange man knelt down. Two weathered hands on thin arms pulled something from a belt pouch. A full sleeve, Pasifika-motif tattoo covered his right arm. The remaining darkness muted his coloring.
“Whoops, almost forgot the procedure. My name is Keoki Kapono. I’m trained in first aid. Can I help you?”
Internally, the answer was ‘yes,’ but I stayed on guard, like Roman taught me. “How do I know you’re not lying? You have any ID?”
He looked taken aback, but then said, “You can talk! Good!”
Keoki removed two cards from the pouch. One was a laminated Red Cross card. The other was a driver’s license with his photo. I still couldn’t see clearly.
“Would you like some help?”
He’d withdrawn a small flashlight. He stood, switched it on and gave me a once-over with the beam, which hit me in the eyes.
“Sheila,” I said through clenched teeth. “Sheila Berenger.”
“Pleased to meet you, Ms. Berenger – oh, fuck, how did that knife get in you?”
“One of the attackers threw it at me.”
He crouched and examined the embedded knife. “You’re lucky to be alive, Miss Sheila. Those assassins rarely miss their mark.”
“Another man ran into me right when he threw it,” I groaned. “I was burned already, and this was...just…too much, I...”
“You were in shock,” said Keoki. He looked a little in shock himself. “It’s a fucking miracle you survived!”
He stood again and stared at the knife, then at my shoulder. “Are you alright with me patching you up?” Already I had questions about this stranger who’d appeared from nowhere, but he seemed friendly. I agreed, having no other options.
“Okay, hold still, Miss.” He pulled on a pair of exam gloves. “I’m gonna check the damage, here.” He felt around the edges of my burn, and I winced. My throat was parched, and I had to cough, which made things worse.
“Easy, easy.” Keoki placed a hand on the back of my neck.The darkness evaporated enough for me to see his face. It was even more weathered than his hands, a mass of wrinkles and tiny scars, set in maplewood tan skin framed by a scraggly salt-and-pepper beard and moustache. His eyes were an unusual blue-green, and a leather holder bound his white hair into a ponytail. He wore a black tank and matching leather vest with Harley-Davidson embossed on it, and a sword was strapped to his back. His head sported a solid black Scottish Glengarry, underneath which he was balding. I guessed him to be at least sixty-five.
“Anybody else get hit with one of these?” He pointed at the knife.
“The henchman who smashed into me. He’s behind me somewhere.”
Keoki stood and searched the area. “Here he is! Got it right in the throat.”
He returned with the small, bloody blade in his hand. “Needed something for comparison!” He sounded almost cheerful as he held the second knife by the first, examining the length of the blade, studying the angle of penetration.
Keoki set the knife down and withdrew a bottle of saline solution. “Okay, Miss Sheila, I need to cut away the fabric from the wound so I can get the knife out…”
“Wait!...Aren’t you supposed to leave it in ‘til I get to a doctor?”
“Normally, yes. But I’m concerned about the knife. It missed all the vital stuff, but if you’re jostled around now, it could pierce the lung or a blood vessel, and then you’d be in deep shit.”
“Are you qualified to take the blade out?” Whatever confidence I had in him was evaporating.
“Well, I’m not certified, but I am an acting field medic.”
“You were in the military?”
“Yes and no. Not any military you’ve heard of.”
“Yeah, that’s a good term. I’ve had plenty of experience with injuries, my own and others. You learn a lot in prison whether you want to or not. Plus my wife was head nurse at The Queen’s Medical Center on O’ahu, and she gave me some pointers.”
The words not certified, prison, and pointers raised huge red flags, but the word that stood out was O’ahu.
“So you are from Hawai’i.”
He grinned. His teeth looked good for someone so weathered. “What gave it away, my name, or my arm?”
“Both...but I got thrown off by the whole Scottish thing.”
That made him chuckle. “Scottish thing,” he echoed. “I’m half of each. Don’t feel bad, you’re not the only one confused by my appearance. Now let’s see about that knife.”
He cut away the fabric and rinsed the wound with saline. It stung like hell. “This part won’t be pleasant. Wanna bite on something?”
I nodded. Keoki produced a small rubber block from the pouch, rinsed it with the saline, then inserted it in my mouth. “I’ll make this as quick as possible.” He moved a large gauze patch that smelled of herbs into position beside the blade. “On three, bite down. One, two, three!”
I bit down. The blade slid out. I bit harder. My breast throbbed with the pain. “Almost done, gotta rinse it out!” He showered the cut with saline, and I cried while biting still harder. His left hand flipped the patch over the wound and pressed on it, hard. I screamed through my bite.
“Hang in there, Sheila, home stretch!”
I wanted his hand off the cut. I wanted it to stay on the cut so I wouldn’t die. I wanted the pain to stop. I wanted the pain to stop.
Keoki closed his eyes in intense concentration, then placed his right hand over his left. ”KALA!” he shouted, loud and forceful. I felt a jolt around the puncture. It startled me, but didn’t increase the pain.
He began a low, quiet chant in Hawaiian. The injury still hurt, but I loosened my bite on the rubber block.
Five minutes passed, then he checked the wound. “The bleeding’s stopped.” He withdrew strips of medical tape and used them to close the cut before taping a fresh patch over it. “You ok?”
I nodded. “Hank hoo.”
“You can thank me after I patch up your shoulder. Don’t spit out that rubber block.”
More cutting of fabric, more rinsing, more biting. My head hurt from all the tension.
“Looks like your burns are mostly first degree, with some crispyness. There’s some second degree right at your shoulder joint. How did this happen?”
I removed the block from my mouth. “I got kicked into the fire.”
“Kicked into the - Holy fuck! Did you roll on it to put it out?”
“Yeah...it hurt like hell.”
“I’ll bet.” Keoki rummaged through his pouch. His face scrunched like a dessicated apple. “Aaah, crap, I’m out of medical tape.”
“There was a first aid kit in our blue tent. It might still be there.”
“Stay put, I’ll have a look.”
It was light enough to see the campground. Corpses of soldiers littered the plot, some in one piece, a couple in more. Blood was everywhere; the scent, mixed with the soil, filled my nostrils. It seeped into the ground and stained it. Especially the blood from—
The whole, horrible night crashed into me. Roman was dead, my friends were gone...
I shut my eyes and sobbed, the first mourning I allowed myself.
Why the hell isn’t this mountain swarming with cops? Why is Roman dead and I’m alive? And why is this strange man, with his Scottish kilt and Hawaiian tattoos and Harley-Davidson vest and a SWORD on his back, here with me?
Keoki returned, first aid kit in hand. He must have guessed why I was crying.
“Friend of yours?”
“No,” I sniffed, “just a good friend. Co-worker.”
“What was his name?” His tone was gentle.
“Roman. That’s a good name.”
“He was the best,” I went on as Keoki opened the kit. “Roman was good at jousting, swordfighting…” I cried again. “He was the champion of the tournament.”
“Bite down on the block, I’m putting the dressing on your shoulder.”
I inserted the block, then cringed when he pressed the patch on me and taped it down. After a minute, the sharp pain subsided to a dull ache. The knife wound, while sore, was now bearable.
Keoki closed the kit. “He was the Champion, all right,” he muttered under his breath. That hit me wrong. “Why do you say that? Are you making fun of him because he’s dead?”
He looked mortified. “No, no, Miss Sheila, that’s not what I meant at all. I’m sorry. I have the deepest respect for your friend. Trust me.”
I remembered his crying from earlier. Before I could ask about it, Keoki saw me wince. “What’s wrong?”
“I have to use the little girl’s tree. I don’t think I’ll make it to the privy.”
“Hmm...can you move your feet? Wiggle your toes?”
With a little effort, I rolled my feet around to my strange savior’s satisfaction.
“Okay. Shoulder feeling better yet?”
“Yes, thank you.”
He grunted acknowledgement, then opened another belt pouch and pulled out some thin paper made from pressed leaves. “Here, use these. They’re softer than they look.”
I took the paper, and he helped me up from the dirt. My Gods, he’s strong! “Keep your eyes closed,” he said, “until I turn you around.”
Keoki wrapped my left arm around his shoulders while he grasped my waist and braced himself against me. “Here we go...left, right, left…” Once we faced away, he guided me to an out-of-the-way tree. He offered assistance, but I declined.
“All right,” he said, “holler if you need me.”
As I took care of business, he rustled through the camp and surrounding trees. “Oh, fuck on a stick,” he muttered. “Don’t turn around, Sheila. Lemme take care of this first.”
I guessed he’d found Roman’s head. I felt sick again.
“Looks like you guys put up a good fight. One’a these freaks got a painful navel piercing.”
“That one was mine,” I called out through my tears.
“You did that?” He sounded impressed. “Good job!”
“I took another one’s arm off, too.” I couldn’t believe what I said, like I was proud of it or something! The horror of what I’d done replayed in my squirming mind. I would have thrown up if there was anything in my belly.
“Okay, it’s safe to come back,” he said. “Need help?”
“No, I can walk now.”
I shuffled into the plot. Keoki had placed Roman’s head on his body and wrapped him in tent fabric, bound with a cord. He’d covered the other bodies with tarps, tablecloths, and sleeping bags.
Keoki eased me onto a log and let me grieve. It was all so hopeless. What was the point of Roman being wrapped up? He was still dead!
Something itched, and when I reached in my collar, my fingers touched the chain that held my pentacle. I pulled it out and stared at it.
“You Pagan?” Keoki asked.
“Got a problem with that?”
“Not at all. I work with Hawaiian and Celtic gods. Mostly Hawaiian. Still a little pissed at the Celts.”
I ran my fingers over the five points in the circle, the symbol of balance between all things. “I prayed to every deity I could remember, and look what happened.”
“Yeah, well,” he opened his clenched hand, “I don’t think anyone’s faith could’ve prepared them for this.” In his palm was Roman’s gold crucifix, stained with his blood. “This belong to Roman?”
“You should hold on to it. I wouldn’t want grave robbers to nab it.”
“What do you mean, grave robbers?” I demanded. “Where is everybody? Where are the cops? And who the hell are you, anyway?”
“I’ll explain in a minute -”
“No, you’ll explain now!”
“After I ask my question!” He raised his voice to an annoyed, don’t-fuck-with-me pitch. “The people who attacked you last night...did they have a leader?”
“Was his name Agmor?”
My eyes grew wide. “Yes.”
“Let me guess, he and his crew came in, about four or five soldiers, trapped you all in a force field, but you fought ‘em anyway. Right when you had the upper hand, ten more goons appeared. Am I right?”
“Mother Papa,” he sighed.
“They mentioned a Lord Kildare. Like he was their supreme commander or something.”
“He is. But these days he sends thugs like Vilsifer Agmor to do his dirty work.”
“Is there help on the way? Doesn’t anyone know what happened?”
“Nope, it’s just me.” Keoki sounded sad. “And 9-1-1 still won’t work. Maybe you found that out last night.”
“We did.” It still made no sense. “Okay, you’ve asked your question. Will you please answer mine? Who are you? Besides your name. Why is it only you here?”
Keoki shut his eyes and inhaled deeply. “I was assigned to find the Champion before Agmor did.”
“You mean Roman.”
“Why are you, and whoever sent you, so concerned about a re-enactment tournament winner?”
“Because he was more than that.” His voice was soft. “Much more...and he never knew.”
“Why are you so certain it was Roman?”
“He had the mark on his arm.”
“His birthmark?” If I hadn’t seen my friends disappear into thin air, I would have thought Keoki was crazy. “I heard you crying after you saw it.”
“I’ll be honest, Sheila…finding you alive is the only thing keeping me going right now.”
I didn’t know how to respond.
“Don’t worry, I don’t expect you to understand.”
“Well, don’t write me off that quick.” I spoke with an edge. “I’ve just been through Hell, after all.”
He stared at me, blue-green irises like lasers, trying to determine how much Hell I’d been through.
“You really want to know what’s happening.”
“Yes.” To me it was blindingly obvious. “I owe it to Roman to find out why he died.”
He didn’t respond - instead he retrieved a chunk of sheared obsidian from another pouch, ruminated over it, and grasped my arm.
“Remember,” he said, “you asked for this.”
Everything went dark.
We were in a place I couldn’t begin to comprehend.
Keoki gripped my arm, but he wasn’t visible. I was surrounded in black. Streaks of light like pieces of a shattered mirror spun around me. A whirlwind of sights, voices, and roars assaulted my senses. This was a place of broken, jagged chaos.
A fragment revealed a circle of mages around an enormous cauldron. A spectre arose from it, jittery and twitching with rage, made of dozens of smaller entities. It focused on a man tied to a table as the mages chanted their incantation, drawing the demon into the body of the man.
With demented glee the mages smiled and untied their new servant. One pointed his mace at the demon - the Archmage, a ghoulish man with a drooping eye, hollow cheeks, and hair of ash.
The demon lunged and ripped the mace from his hands, then sent a surge of power from it, smashing through the wizards’ chests in an eruption of gore. The shocked Archmage drew a dagger and stabbed the prisoner in the heart. The dying man smiled as he collapsed, and the wizard realized his mistake. His terrified face melted into a fierce, wicked smile. The images faded away...
Now the demon commanded armies that wreaked havoc on scores of worlds. Bones broke, heads rolled, bodies were slashed and eaten alive. The carnage made me retch, and even with eyes closed I still saw it.
The carousel of shadows broke apart, and the visions careened into madness. A bolt of golden fire blasted an unhinged faerie queen through the abdomen. Bloodthirsty fae fought with irrational hatred over some hidden object. Ecosystems of entire worlds were destroyed.
“What is going on?” I whimpered.
Another shard revealed a blazing icon. It was Roman’s birthmark.
The armies returned, with hordes of giant insects, spiders, rodents, and other nightmare creatures. They attacked gaseous planets, ice worlds, agrarian moons, and tropical islands that looked a lot like Hawai’i. An army of fierce natives fought the mammoth spiders, using spears, stones, and arrows.
A tall, fit man joined them. He was fair-skinned, with long black hair in a ponytail, and round thin-rimmed glasses over brown eyes. He wore an Aloha shirt and wielded a katana. The man charged into the thick of the spider herd and sent limbs flying everywhere with his sword. The native warriors sprinted in behind him.
The scene shifted and the tall man appeared in a forest, with Keoki beside him, their swords drawn. Four figures joined them; an even taller man with dark skin, long black hair, and a bright red circle beard; a tan woman with dark blond ringlets and leather armor; a shorter, middle-aged black man with a longsword; and a senior lilac-hued woman in ebony velvet. The squad attacked...and the scene repeated, in many different locations. The six fought valiantly wherever innocents were threatened.
The fragments joined, all around me.
They were in a monastery, separated from each other, fighting soldiers dressed like Agmor’s men.
At the end of a hallway, Keoki came face-to-face with the demon in the Archmage’s skin. The imp drew a sword from his cane while tremors hit like shocks throughout his body. Keoki lunged to pierce his shoulder - but the demon twisted his body so he was stabbed in the heart instead.
Keoki’s face showed absolute horror. “OH, FUCK!”
“It won’t be long now,” the fiend crowed as he sank to his knees. Keoki was distressed and confused. He shook his head and repeatedly slapped himself.
It is too late. The demon’s unspoken words purred in the void. I am here. I am YOU.
Keoki yanked the sword from the mage’s heart, pushed him to the ground, clamped his hands on the wound, and shouted, “KALA!!“
Don’t fight it. We are one. We are Kildare!
“Fuck you, shitface! KALA!!“
As he blasted magic through his hands, the shards floated away, reflecting dusk.
Voices in Korean. A baby‘s cry. Transmissions in English between Air Force pilots and their base...
Another man’s face appeared - middle-aged, handsome, careworn. He faded away, to the sound of clashing swords pierced by a scream, that turned to giddy laughter…
...and I was surrounded by a swarm of demons, pawing and prodding, as if trying to enter my body. I froze in terror as the largest demon faced me, with eyes of fire, sharp teeth and long, clawed hands.
The fragments locked together again. Explosions surrounded me. A tiger ran through the gates of a palace on fire. Five of the squad members chased it on foot. The surrounding city burned, and some towers had collapsed.
“Give up, Kildare!” the tall squad leader demanded. “You’re surrounded, and so are your troops! You will never escape!”
“Why not simply kill me?” the tiger growled.
“Not falling for that. You’ll be in stasis until the Champion takes care of you!”
A strange expression crossed the beast’s face. “I think not.”
Kildare burst from the tiger’s hide, sending the bloody pelt flying, and transformed into a large, theropod creature with huge claws. He brought those claws down on the man’s left shoulder, nearly severing his arm. The tall man shrieked with pain and collapsed.
“TOR!“ Keoki screamed.
“Stay back,” Tor tried to shout, “don’t let him escape...!”
The monster swung his giant tail and knocked down the entire squad. He ran through fences and crashed through force fields unhindered. His soldiers followed him out and away from the city, while the squad ran to the injured Tor. All four put their hands over his wound, pouring magic into it.
“Stay with us, Tor,” Keoki shouted. “Don’t you leave now! Come on!”
The world faded to blackness; the shards dissolving into dust.
Roman’s birthmark still hovered in my mind.
The vision faded from my eyes, replaced by the rays of dawn.
I trembled, rocked to my core by the bloody carnage I’d seen. Keoki’s grasp was soft. He still held the large nugget of obsidian in his other hand. While fending off vertigo, I pointed to it. “What exactly is that thing?”
“A shard from a mirror in an abandoned temple, on a world called Oqa. Long story short, the bad guys were gonna use the mirror for time travel.”
This stretched credulity for me. “No. There’s no way. You cannot travel through time.”
“That’s right, you can’t.” Keoki held up the shard. “We made sure of that.”
Once more I stared at Roman’s makeshift shroud.
“Did Tor survive?”
“He did.” Keoki patted my back. “That battle was eight years ago. His arm’s been mostly paralyzed ever since. He left last year to get better therapy.”
“The baby - that was Roman.”
“Kildare’s the demon.”
“He almost overtook you.”
“That’s correct.” He looked at the ground. “There’s still a thread that connects us. The Champion was my last hope for freedom.” There was a catch in his voice. “And now he’s dead, because I didn’t get here in time...and the thread’s getting stronger.”
It was too much. “I’m sorry.” I buried my head in my hands, trying to will everything away.
Keoki replaced his hand on my back, moving it up and down to soothe me.
“Sheila, listen...this is not your fight. I still have hope that a miracle will save us all. In the meantime, I can arrange it so you don’t remember any of this. You’ll be safe, and you can live your life while we figure out how to rescue the Universe - “
“Agmor has my friends.”
Keoki blinked. “He didn’t kill them?”
“Three. Two women, one man. He said he would take them to Kildare.”
“I don’t…wait. I do know. Agmor was searching for some prop magic wand owned by Shakespeare. Nick said his brother saw it at a museum, but he couldn’t recall the name.”
Keoki looked puzzled. “The wand? Why would they want that? The thing’s got no juice, it’s a fake!”
“I have no idea, but they were ready to kill us to get the name out of Nick’s head.” A tear leaked from my eye. “Before he died, Roman shouted at us to keep fighting. And we did...but all of us were exhausted. Then the knife hit me and I fell down. Agmor took my friends as his ‘guests.’ Kept talking about what good fighters we were. Only he didn’t take me because I was ‘fat’ and ‘dying.’”
“Only you didn’t die.”
“Yeah, good on me,” I sniffed. “You know I only had a single hour’s training with Roman? He let me use this fancy sword Agmor gave him at the tournament –”
“The sword?” Keoki looked me in the eye. “Do you still have it?”
“I dropped it a few feet from where the knife hit me. I’m surprised they didn’t take it.”
“There would have been no need if the Champion was dead. All the magic would have evaporated.”
There was a glint in the dirt by a collapsed tent. I walked to it and gave the gleaming sliver a kick. Miracle Sword showed itself again. “Here it is. I think the scabbard’s still in our tent.”
Keoki rushed over, lifted the weapon and examined it. “Yeah, this is Aronsha. She’s the Champion’s sword.”
“Mm-hm. Her smith was adamant about that.” He let out a heavy sigh as he retrieved Aronsha’s sheath and eased her inside. “I gotta get back to Queen Toria. That’s who I work for. I’m one of her ambassadors.”
“A queen?” I couldn’t fathom this foul-mouthed throttle jockey being employed by royalty. “What country is she queen of?”
A sad little smile grew on his weathered face. “Her full title is Her Royal Majesty, Toria Partellan, Queen of the Unified Realms and the Dimensions of the Crossroads. Most of the time, we just call her Toria. Tor’s her brother.”
“But where is she from?”
“Not here. You know all those places you saw? Just one of them was Earth. The capital of the U.R. is Fae City, on a planet called Trisiin.”
After all I’d seen, I knew he told the truth. “So my friends aren’t on Earth either.”
One item stood out in the ransacked camp: my sketchbook. I lifted the cover and saw my drawing of Nick and Roman, still intact. Keoki glanced at the page. “That Roman?”
“Yeah. The other guy is Nick.”
“Nice sketch. Ya got talent.”
“Thanks.” I closed the sketchbook and took several deep breaths.
I turned to face him, feeling sick to my stomach.
“I need to come with you.”
Keoki raised his hands. “NO. Sheila, you do not want to do that. All that horrible stuff I showed ya? It’s the tip of the iceberg. You need to stay here.”
“Stay here? With no memory of last night? Constantly wondering how and why my good friend died and my other friends went missing? Tearing myself apart every goddamn day, wondering if there was something I could have done, trying to recall even a shred of what happened? Are you fucking insane??”
“Listen to me. You have no idea what my job is like. It’s dangerous as fuck. I HAVE to put an amnesia spell on you - “
“That’s not your decision to make!”
“The hell it isn’t! Ms. Berenger, if you come with me, you could end up dead within the day!”
“I don’t care. I’m going with you.”
“What about your family?”
“My family and I don’t talk.”
Keoki moved in close. “Are you telling me you’d rather die on some God-forsaken world trying to save your friends, than have a full life?”
“Yes! I’d rather die! I don’t care how scared I am.” In truth, I was terrified. But I was also pissed off. “I don’t care if I die on the first day. I don’t care if you’re one of the bad guys and you kill me ten minutes into the trip! I will not abandon my friends for my own safety!”
He rolled his eyes. “And what if you are killed, huh? How do you think your parents will react? Constantly wondering why their daughter and her friends went missing? Tearing themselves apart every goddamn day, wondering if there was something they could have done?”
“How dare you use my words against me!” I growled. “I doubt my parents would care at all.”
“What about your siblings?”
“Gina and Derrick are too self-absorbed. Wilton is the only one who cares, and he’d totally support my decision.”
Keoki stared in my eyes for a long time. I didn’t back down. I didn’t even blink.
He gave a small nod, then handed Miracle Sword - Aronsha - back to me. “You’ll want to hang on to this too.”
I took the sheathed blade, and he pulled a smooth, palm-sized stone from the pouch. He dragged his fingers across it like a smartphone. The stone lit up, and a voice spoke from it. “Yes, Ambassador Kapono?”
“I’ve got a Code Jasper, repeat, Code Jasper,” he said in a low, ragged tone. ”Cleanup on Aisle Five, and relocation of one body.” Keoki turned to me. “Where’d Roman go to church?”
“St. Thomas Korean Catholic Center in Anaheim.”
“Got all that?” he said into the stone.
“Good. Get here quick, ‘cause the rest of the campground will wake up any moment. And let Tor know what’s going on.”
“We will, Ambassador. Signing off.”
Keoki turned back to me. “Okay, let’s get packin’.”