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Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Terrible

Once upon a time in a kingdom far away, there lived a king and queen.
No, that’s not quite right. I’m sorry. I’ve never written anything like this before.
I made it sound like a fairytale, and this is not a fairytale. If I were to call it anything, it would be an autobiography. But even that isn’t the right word, because this story doesn’t make sense unless I begin before I was born.
It was not a natural conception. My parents, the king and queen, had spent so much time and effort being the very best rulers they could be that for the first two-thirds of their lives, they’d forgotten that they did not have an heir to the throne. Despite their best efforts, they could not conceive by natural means.
And so they travelled deep into the forests surrounding their kingdom, which were known for being filled with dangerous monsters, just so they could seek the aid of the most powerful wizard in the land, who lived in a house that was never in the same place twice. He warned them that the nature of magic was often temperamental, and that for everything it gave it must also take away.
The wizard told the king and queen that he could make them a child with just a drop of blood from a pinprick on each of their thumbs, but that the child would be half of a human. It would never feel love or joy or sadness or anger or jealousy or hatred. It would never feel anything at all.
I’m told that they were very hesitant at first. They wanted time to make up their minds, but given that there was no guarantee that they could find the wizard’s house the next day, they decided to agree. The wizard pricked their thumbs, cast a spell, and nine months later I was born.
They named me Jacob.
There is not much to say about my early childhood. I studied very hard and became smart. I was trained by the best swordsman in the kingdom and became strong. I kept clean and healthy and became handsome. I did as I was told because I did not feel the desire to do anything else.

When I was sixteen years old, I went out to hunt with my page and a few guards. It was not the fist time I’d gone hunting, nor would it be the last. But on this particular occasion, as we made our way back to the castle, the page drew my attention to a dying man on the side of the road. I stopped because he called out to me.
Looking over his wounds, I could tell that he had been stabbed in the gut. My best guess was that he had been robbed and left to die. The wound was very severe, and by the time I made it to his side, he’d lost most of his blood.
“You’re dying,” I told him.
“Water,” he whispered. “Oh, please, give me water.”
“You do not need water. You’re dying.”
“I’m so thirsty,” he said as he reached toward the canteen on my hip.
“You will not be thirsty soon. You’ll be dead.”
“Just a mouthful,” he rasped.
“Later, I might be thirsty. You will not be.”
His hand dropped back to his side. I kicked my horse and rode off back to the castle.
I did not think anything of this encounter at the time. I only mention it because my page told my parents about it, and they in turn came to me, asking if it was true. I told them that it was. I remember that the lines around their eyes became deeper and they spent several seconds looking at one another. That was when things began to change for me.
Up until that point, my life had progressed with relative similarity to any other child’s. But on that afternoon my parents left with a large caravan of a hundred soldiers out into the dangerous, monster-filled forests. When they returned, twelve horses were pulling a large wooden cage. I could see the shadow of something lurking within. Children ran from it as it was pulled toward the castle gates, women screamed, and sheep scattered in terror from its path. Even the guards looked back at their charge with too much frequency, as if they were worried whatever was inside would leap out.
I met my parents at the gates of the castle and asked them what was in the cage.
“It’s the most fearsome monster ever to stalk the forests of our kingdom,” my father told me. “It is a creature of fear and anger and hate. It is the Terrible.”
I had heard of the Terrible. The stories said that it was a spirit who had been made evil by the wretchedness of the forests, and whose only goal was to drive men mad with its wicked mind magic.
“We are going to keep the Terrible in the dungeon from now on,” my mother told me. “We did not want for it to come to this, but it is the only way. You must be the best prince you can be, Jacob. You must always act in the best interest of your people and your kingdom, and if you stray, we will feed you to the Terrible.”
“It is better for this kingdom to be without a king than for it to be ruled by a man whose heart is so empty that he would not fulfill a dying man’s last wish,” my father added. “If the only thing you respond to is self-preservation, then that is how we will make you into a good king.”
I considered their words for a while.
“Very well,” I said, and I went back into the castle.

Our subjects were very angry that my parents had decided to keep the Terrible in the dungeons of our castle. Many of them protested against its presence and called for it to be killed, but my parents held fast. As they had asked, I began to act in the best interest of my kingdom and subjects so that they would not feed me to the Terrible.
But one by one, people began to disappear from the castle grounds.
It began with a chambermaid, whose disappearance did not cause much stir. Then a butler vanished, and then a stable boy. But it was not until two courtiers disappeared that whispers began to circulate through the castle: the search parties had looked everywhere, except for the dungeon, where the Terrible was held. One of the palace guards ventured within to search for the missing, and he did not come back.
By then, the entire kingdom was in an uproar. They held a public forum just outside the castle to discuss what should be done, but everyone was surprised when the king and queen did not appear. They, too, had been taken by the Terrible.
The Captain of the Guard told me that it was my royal duty to rescue everyone who had vanished into the castle dungeons. And even though my parents were no longer there to feed me to the Terrible, it seemed reasonable to assume that my subjects would revolt and do the same if they were not rescued.
And so I took up my father’s sword, Blind, clad myself in armor, and descended into the dungeon.
It was darker than I recalled, and damper. I could smell rats and mold and dust, and from somewhere deep in the underbelly of the castle, I could detect the sound of weeping.
I followed the noise into a cavernous underground lake, lit only by a single shaft of sunlight slicing down from a barred hole in the ceiling. I realized that this was the oubliette built by the kings of old, which my parents had turned into the beginnings of a sewer system that ran beneath the kingdom.
I saw, chained to the far wall, several trembling bodies. I went to free them, but something dark and hunched slouched its way out of the lake.
It had a vaguely human aspect, as though at one point many years ago it might have been something like a man. But it was man no longer: it was tall and crooked, with a white, oblong face and a mouth that was too wide and full of sharp, jagged teeth. It kept its arms folded behind its back, and it’s large, cadaverous eyes fixed on me.
“You are the Terrible,” I said to it.
“Yes,” it answered, its voice like a hiss.
“Give me back your hostages,” I said.
The Terrible’s smile grew even wider so that it nearly split his head in two. It grew taller and taller until it loomed down over me, blocking the light from the ceiling. I held Blind aloft, ready to attack.
“I will not give them back,” it told me as the shadows around it melted into strange shapes. “I will kill them, or make them kill themselves. I will be responsible for the death of everyone in your life. I will kill your family and your subjects. You will be alone forever and there will be no point to you.”
The Terrible was trying to make me afraid, but I could not feel fear and I did not move.
The Terrible drew back for a moment, and its shadows receded. Then it began to twist around me so I was encased in a furious, shadowy vortex. Monsters nipped at me from the walls of my strange prison, hissing and taunting.
“You are broken and worthless,” the Terrible roared as its shadows enveloped me. “You are half of a human and you are not fit to be king. You are not even fit to live. You are an abomination against all creation!”
The Terrible was trying to make me angry, but I could not feel anger and I did not move.
Once again the Terrible drew back. Then its shadowy tendrils reached across the floor and began to twist their way up my legs.
“You were not born this way, you know,” said the Terrible. “No man is born such. The magic that conceived you ripped away your emotions before you were ever born. It tore away your soul and cast it into the forest.
“Do you know what happened to it in the forest, those terrible, wicked forests? It wandered and was lost for so many years. All it ever knew was fear and hate and anger, and it became something… less.”
The tendrils were snaking their way up to my waist. I pulled against their paralytic grip.
“Your soul became me,” the Terrible said. “I am everything you could have been, corrupted by an uncaring world and ruined beyond recognition. I am your soul; the other half of you, broken and forgotten, and you can never have me back.”
The Terrible was trying to make me sad, but I could not feel sadness and I did not move.
For a final time, the Terrible’s shadows retracted. I stared into it, and it into me. Its gaze, for that one ephemeral moment, was almost pleading. But like fear and anger and sadness, I did not know mercy. I raised my father’s sword and I smote the Terrible where it stood.

Come the end of the hour, I escorted the chambermaid, the butler, the stable boy, the two courtiers, the castle guard and my parents out of the dungeon. I made sure that the wounded among them were healed and the hungry fed.
When I left the castle to attend to the public who were still waiting outside, I was met with a volley of cheers and applause. They chanted my name and threw flowers. The Captain of the Guard told them that I’d slain the Terrible and they were so grateful that they had organized a parade in my honor.
But I could not feel pride and I did not move.
The victims I had rescued filed out behind me. My parents stood beside me and embraced me. They told me that they were proud of me and that I had saved their lives. They said that I’d proven myself worthy to rule the kingdom.
But I could not feel joy and I did not move.
One of the courtiers I had rescued, a young woman named Amelia, hesitantly approached me. Through tears and with a breathless voice, she thanked me for rescuing her, and told me how brave she thought I was. She confessed that as she’d seen me fight the Terrible, she had fallen in love with me.
But I could not feel love and I did not move.

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