For SPFBO 9 I’m returning to my old tradition, where I offer to the authors in our batch a spotlight on Queen’s Book Asylum. While in previous years I created a new feature, this year I let them choose between all of my available ones: What the Hungarian?!, Tales from the Asylum, Stuck in the Pages, Party with the Stars, To Be Continued…, as well as the regular author spotlight options of an interview, and a guest post.
To my delight, several of the authors wanted to take part in To Be Continued… So much so, that we won’t have one, but two stories for you, each consisting of 4 parts! Story 1 is titled Something Twisted This Way Comes. It’s time for part 2, written by L. James Rice, the author of The Contessa of Mostul Ûbar.
Want to read the story from the beginning? Read PART 1!
If you are new to the To Be Continued… feature, here is how it works:
- the authors taking part have to write a short story based on my prompt, which for this SPFBO 9 Special Edition is illusion and dream in a carnival setting
- the authors taking part don’t know about each other
- each author has 2 weeks to write their part (after receiving the previous one(s))
- each part is somewhere around 1500 words, although some tend to be longer
Fun fact: I based this prompt on two Poets of the Fall songs, Illusion and Dream and Carnival of Rust (which happens to be one of my favorite songs). I was super curious about what the authors will make of this prompt. Something Twisted This Way Comes went in a wildly different direction than I expected, but that is what makes this feature fun. So, let the story to be continued!
L. James Rice studied English Literature at UNI, Screenwriting at UCLA, and is a proud member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. His debut novel, Eve of Snows, took a grand prize in the prestigious 2020 Next Gen Indie Book Awards while winning the fantasy category, was the Grand Champion in the 2019 Epic Fantasy Fanatics Readers Choice Award, and medaled in the 2020 Independent Publisher Awards.
L. James Rice resides in southwest Iowa with his lovely wife and two beautiful daughters, the names and birthdays of whom he remembers most of the time. Plus, two dogs, an unknown number of chickens (always in flux with predators and other natural causes), and a gosling he assumes will someday be a goose who lays non-golden eggs… stupid goose anyhow.
Connect with L. James Rice
The story so far…
Branches clacked off his mask as he ducked and weaved through the woods, eyes pinned on the Jackal’s hunched back until he disappeared behind a tree or bush, then his vision flicked ahead in search of the beast’s prey. The Jackal had picked up a trail, his loping gait and yipping to mimic coyotes after the kill spoke this truth.
But the hunter always reemerged before Trisfan found the quarry.
It didn’t matter. After hundreds of chases, he knew the truth: the quick and lucky might escape, but children were never quick or lucky enough, and there was only one game animal less likely to escape than the young, the hunter who didn’t know they were hunted.
He leaped a fallen tree, feet skidding on rain-soaked leaves and loam, knee rutting the ground of a steep slope before he let go the crossbow and snagged a young tree, righting his stride and swinging himself back up the hill with the maple’s flexing strength. Frantic eyes as he crowned the hill, but the Jackal’s howl made him damned near impossible to lose.
Trisfan sprinted now, knowing the man’s canine language. The chase would end, and the games begun. The blur of a big man running, and he steadied his breaths and pace; this was no time for haste, no time for foolishness, no time to give a dangerous bastard a chance.
“Where you goin’ knickers!” A chilling and melodic cackle, “Knick, knick, knickers!”
The man dove and disappeared, and a child’s grunting scream arose. Flailing arms and legs throwing leaves, sticks, and mud, but the Jackal rose to the top, back arching as he pinned his prey, head cocking to the sky to howl.
Trisfan slowed to a crouching jog, eyes level like a leopard on the prowl even as his body rose and fell in the rhythm of his striding steps over branches and bushes. Whether the boy lived or died didn’t matter. His own life, irrelevant. His singular goal this day was to make certain the Jackal would never see another sunset. Surprise guaranteed it.
The squealing boy struggled beneath the cackling man; desperate fists and feet thrashed at a man tearing at clothes. Until a rapier’s pommel cracked the Jackal in the back of the head at a dead sprint, sending him splaying into soggy leaves a full stride from the scrambling boy.
Trisfan slid to a stop on the greasy turf and stared, rapier at the ready. The Jackal was a big man, a veteran of half a hundred battles or more, and a braggart who boasted his scars and countless kills, but no matter how hardened and determined a killer, steel to the skull could take the fight from a man quicker than a dozen stabs of a rapier’s sharp.
The man rose on wobbly elbows, head swaying as he fumbled for the haft of his ax on the ground. Trisfan stepped to put a toe beneath its blade and lofted it into a bush, and the Jackal snarled, slinging mud. The man’s desperation spattered Trisfan’s mask, and he licked loamy muck that reached his lips as he strode to tower over the man.
Groggy words as he struggled to his knees. “Grinner, what the f—”
The rapier’s guard split the Jackal’s mask and brought blood. The second blow shattered his cheek, and the third put a quillon through his right eye to send him sprawling to the turf.
Trisfan knelt, leaning to pluck the broken mask from the forest floor. He smiled as the other man spit blood. “The mighty Jackal, not so mighty at all, eh?” He stood and raised his boot over the dazed and cowering man, a glint of steel on the curve of the heel. “Remember when you taught me to shod my kickers for occasions like this? I broke your illusion.” He slung the mask into the woods. “Now I break your dreams.”
The Jackal’s head pounded into the dirt with a grunt; bone surrendered next, the body going limp. Trisfan raised his bloodied heel a third time, for a flicker determined to send the man to hell without a face, but a whimper caught his ear and he turned to the forgotten boy.
The soft, horrified eyes of a rabbit too afraid to run. Panting. Gaping jaw. Would I have looked the same? Instead of the crushing blow intended, he shoved the Jackal’s shoulder, and he rolled to his back with a dead man’s flop. No need to make a mess. He huffed, returning his gaze to the boy in time to see him heft a stone and plunk it against the Jackal’s opened head.
Trisfan snorted with a nod. “There’s a good lad. Keep that spunk. You’ll need it.” He offered a hand and pulled the boy to his feet. “Now, you run like hell.”
No introduction. No thank you. No nod. Just a backside darting into the woods as he’d been told. “The boy’s got more of a chance than I ever did.” The dull jingle of bells on the rise behind him brought a twitch of bunching muscle to his shoulders. Trisfan sucked grit from his teeth and spat. “More of a chance than I got now.”
Trisfan reckoned more than a dozen men wore bells in the troupe, but the flat rattle of dented bells lacking lively chimes alerted him to who watched. When he turned, the orange, blue, and red tri-pointed fool’s cap stood out on the rise, brass bells with a heavy green patina.
The Mad Master folded his arms and leaned against a tree. He was the only man in the troupe to not wear a mask, his face painted in never-washed layers of crackling white paste so thick men joked it’d stop an arrow. “Whatcha gone and done, my boy?”
Trisfan glanced at the Jackal’s corpse. If he’d murdered the man over a woman, a game of dice, or a debt owed, the Master might slap him on the back in forgiveness but killing him on the job brought undeniable trouble. He shrugged. “He didn’t laugh at my joke.”
“You jest the jester? The Mad Master? You’ve pluck in spades, I’ll give you that.” The splintering cracks of his face rose in what might be a smile. “You’re so certain your joke was funny? I’d love a good laugh.”
“It was a head splitter.”
The Mad Master waggled his finger with a chuckle. Straightened and sauntered a stride down the hill. “I’ve one for you. What goes bump in the night?”
Trisfan cleared his throat but didn’t say a word as he took a step back. The Master enjoyed a laugh with his kills, and his jokes only got laughs from drunks and those who feared him. “I don’t know.”
“My lover’s head when I’m done with her.” Three strides closer, and the arming sword at his side slipped from its sheath. “You aren’t laughing. Shall I kill you for the offense?”
Some men in the troupe were strong, some were fast, but Trisfan had watched this man best them all on every occasion. He’d awakened every day for the past ten years ready for it to be the day he died, but now, of a sudden, this wasn’t one of those days. It’d take luck to win this fight; more luck than to win a race. “Humor is an illusion.”
The Mad Master stopped in his tracks, painted face impossible to read. “You don’t say.”
“It is.” A moment’s delay. Time to further catch his breath. Time to consider his route and in which direction luck awaited him. “What’s funny to one dumb bastard…” A deep breath. Exhalation. Knees coiling before he leaned and bolted, feet slipping then gripping, throwing him toward a deer trail winding and climbing through briars that scratched at his armor. He wouldn’t stop until far from the Mad Master. As far from death’s circus as he could run.
“Now you make me laugh, Trisfan! Thinking you can outrun me!”
His heart thundered, and his breaths ached his chest by the time he reached the top of the hill; still, he didn’t look back.
A howl from behind. The Jackal. No. Dead. A hundred more strides, and he stumbled to bounce off a tree. A hundred more, and he slowed by choice of his exhausted legs and struggling breaths.
Smoke in the distance; the high trails of fireplaces and chimneys. My luck. Weak legs carried him, and hope kept his heart from exploding.
A cackle and yipping in the distance. Can’t be. But no footsteps nor dulled jingles, and he thanked the gods as the smoke ahead grew closer, until the odor of wood fire burned his nostrils, until he stumbled into an empty hamlet. A bright red caravan on its road. Impossible. He buckled with exhaustion, hands collapsing to his knees, fighting the urge to retch.
Sucked loamy grit and spat.
The Mad Master sauntered from the shadows of the town square, the cracks of his pasted face bent in a clear and hungry smile. “Whatcha gone and done, my boy?”
To Be Continued…
L. James Rice‘s SPFBO 9 entry is The Contessa of Mostul Ûbar. Make sure to check it out!
For more To Be Continued… stories, check out this page!
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