In The Playground Of The Fire Kings
(For every critique I get on my writing blog, up to a maximum of 50, I'll donate a dollar to the LAA (that's not just critiquing "In The Playground Of The Fire Kings", but any of my published writing). The final amount will be rounded up to the nearest $5. There's no time limit, apart from how long UnicornPegasusKitten.com and the PayPal link are available for.)
Schring! Schring! shrilled the blade as the whetstone ran along its length, the song of the steel filling the chamber. The cold, grey stone blocks and the high, almost fossilised oak rafters were a silent audience, watching the man hunched over his task, sweat beading on his bared back. His skin told a saga of savage skirmishes, criss-crossed with scars and welts, from old and healed to fresh and open. The rawest and angriest of these was a long, open gash in his side, which made him wince when he forgot and reached too far. He'd done that every day in the five days since he'd received the injury. Dark lines of decay radiated out from the wound, toxic tendrils spreading their creeping corruption.
He sat up, wiping his arm across his brow, sweat stinging in his eyes. Turning the spear in his hand, he inspected his work, testing the keenness of the blade with the pad of his thumb. A thin line of deep crimson swelled, a single tear-drop of blood trickling forth. He nodded. It would do. He stared, his jaw as firm as the steel. It would have to do.
Idle fingertips touched the throbbing wound and he was rewarded with the familiar sharp, stabbing pain. He knew he was in no danger of dying, at least not for another two days. If he fought every seven days, the Fire Kings would heal his wounds and cure the Curse's corruption for another week. That was the rule and the Fire Kings had never lied to him. As long as he played his part, he would survive, perhaps even leave this gods-forsaken place and return home to his family. His family...
Rolling waves of emotions crashing upon him, one after the other, bringing the memories with them. Butternut squash soup dripping from the kitchen cupboards while she gave him The Look. Sharing his favourite past-times with his sons, watching them enjoying themselves as much as he was, seeing himself reflected in their souls. A night of Rock Band, surrounded by a crowd of his people, throwing the goat as he sang loudly, leading the throng in a joyous celebration of self. The memories pounded him until he was on the floor, pain-wracked sobs filling the chamber, beating the flagstones with fists. He stayed there until there were no more tears in him.
He wiped his face and glanced up, seeing the face of the clown staring down at him from its vantage point on the chest of the red and white knitted sweater. It had been in as much danger as its owner and it was torn and tattered at the hems, frayed and pulled everywhere. Its threads had been embued with the strength of the Fire Kings, which they told him would make it impervious to any man-made weapon that was wielded against it. He had soon found that it was little help; only magical and supernatural weapons could survive in this place, against which the ensorcelled sweater was little better than the leather armour that lay scattered throughout the Playground. The clown sweater gave poor protection, but he was glad to have it.
A low purr rumbled through the stronghold and he stood, brushing dust and dirt from his distressed jeans. Fluffy was stirring and she'd be hungry for warm, blood-soaked flesh. She always was. He would be the first to admit that he was not a cat person, but any ally in the Playground was welcome, even if it was one that gazed at your neck with a unsettling, unswerving and, above all hungry, stare. He padded into the next room, where a make-shift stable filled half the space, Fluffy's immense, furry form curled up on the floor. He smiled. It had taken more food than he'd wanted to part with to lure her here, but it was worth it. She would swing the war in his favour. Finally.
Green, feline eyes flicked open and gazed at him, although he was sure she was watching his pulse pounding along his jugular. As if to confirm his fears, she yawned, revealing a fearsome set of sharp, shiny teeth. He reached into her pen, stroking her fur while avoiding the point of her horn. Fluffy stood, stretching out her wings, beating them twice to chase away the strain imposed by her sleep. He reached down and tossed a scrap of unnamed meat to her. She snatched it out of the air and swallowed it whole, the resulting purrs echoing from the walls. He stepped away as she curled into a ball and lay down. She needed to rest, for soon he had to face him. No, not him. It.
It wore his face, it spat hate-filled words with his voice, but it was not him. Not any more. Now it called itself the ScalzOrc and its one desire was to destroy him. The Fire Kings had made it clear to him; if he was to leave this place and return to his normal life, he had to defeat the ScalzOrc, every seven days, or he would perish from the Curse. If he was victorious enough times, they would free him. His task was mighty; the ScalzOrc was tough, born of the elements, with skin like steel. He had faced it fourteen times so far, every battle ending in a painful defeat, the ScalzOrc roaring with triumph as it stood above his battered, bleeding body. It would raise its axe high above its head, ready to deliver the final blow. The world would disappear in a blinding burst of light and he would be back in his fortress of solitude, safe for another seven days, though wracked with the agony of his latest injury and the dull, throbbing ache of the Curse as it turned his body against itself, a pain he was forced to relive week after week after week.
He stooped to pick up the spear, a steel-edged smile sliding across his lips as the light of the fire glinted on the metal. Why wait? Why not end this all, right now? He grabbed the clown sweater and strode to the stable.
Far away, along the deep, volcano-lined valley, a tall, stone tower stood on a precipice, overlooking a raging river of molten magma. From a lit, slit window at the very top, a fear-lined face looked out, watching, waiting. Within was a round, spartan bedroom, although it was almost deceptive to call the hay-filled sack a bed, even though it was covered by the torn, ragged blanket. He sat on a low stool, a sharp-bladed axe laid protectively across his knees. A sturdy, wooden shield with thick bands of steel stood against the wall, scored with strikes from the monster's spear. Gazing out of the window, he wondered when it would come again, whether he would have two full days before he would have to fight for his life or if it would come early this time. The screams and howls that floated on the stinking, sulfurous wind from the lair of the beast sent tremors of terror along his spine.
He sighed, knowing that he would soon have to see the face of his former friend, now worn by the monster that called itself the WheatonDrow. Skin as dark as the final, night-chased moments of the day, bright, white eyes that speared into the soul and a face twisted in hatred, as the cruel mouth spat violent, vicious invective. This would be the fifteenth time that he would have to defend himself from that evil entity, fighting for his life as the Fire Kings had told him he must. He had to hope that he would yet again find a weakness in the creature's defences and strike a crippling blow, as he had been fortunate enough to do so far. But he knew his luck couldn't, wouldn't hold.
He looked up, eyes wide, as the howling came on the wind. The WheatonDrow was on the move, but there was something new in the animal anguish that assaulted his ears; the cries of a ravenous, raging unicorn pegasus kitten.
He hefted the axe, preparing for the conflict that was coming ever closer. He prayed to whatever was listening to let his luck to hold out. If he fought and won one more time, he would be free of the Curse and free to leave the Playground, to return to his normal life. Those were the rules and the Fire Kings had never lied.