Deep breaths, Seles. This is nothing new. Right now, my head feels like a balloon meandering about up in the clouds. At the same time, my stomach feels like a sack of sand plunging down towards the bottom of the ocean. My hands tremble, like the last leaf of autumn as it clings to its branch in a shrill winter wind. Keep breathing. We’ll settle in soon.
The feeling of free-falling fades away, replaced by the comfort of stable ground beneath my feet. My eyelids flutter open. Before me hangs a colossal dove gray sphere of stone, perfectly round, its surface mottled, scarred, and discolored. Silver luminescence radiates from the massive anomaly, wrapping it in a tight coat of shimmering effulgence to ward off the pervading gloom that seems to permeate this world of dreams.
“Athos, come to me.” My voice is smothered by a silence that hangs heavy and thick, like a wet blanket made of cotton.
The beating of wings overhead announces the arrival of Athos, the three. A single violet feather sails through time and space, but it doesn’t fall to the ground. Instead, it seems to hang in the air, as if suspended by some invisible thread. Little knives stab into my skin as Athos takes his perch upon my shoulder. My lips and eyes are still, like the face of a statue – totally unperturbed by the momentary discomfort. Looking down, I see the sky-blue floral patterns of my dress dance to life once again as the dreary grays are washed away and color returns to this world of dreams. With it, my surroundings sharpen.
“Is that what I think it is?” Athos asks. His beak clacks as he tilts his head to the side, staring at the floating hunk of stone.
“It’s the moon.” I whisper. The skirt of my sundress billows out as I turn, but like the feather, gravity doesn’t pull it down to the ground. It’s almost as if we are submerged underwater. I smooth it back down and as I do so, I notice what I’m standing on: a vast platform, smooth and pristine, with alternating squares of ebony and ivory laid across it in neat little rows, perfectly symmetrical. It reminds me of a playing field of sorts, or even…
“A chessboard…?” I think to myself.
“Your highness… is that…?” The voice of Athos catches my attention and I raise my gaze from the ground.
“Oh my…” The sight rips the words from my mouth. Another perfect circle, prodigious in size, vibrant and full of swirling colors; forest green mingled with flax and copper tones, surrounded by waves of royal blue and strokes of swirling pearl. The moon pales in comparison. This stunning vision of celestial beauty steals my breath away like a surprise sucker punch to the gut.
“It’s our world, Athos.” I reply softly as my head starts to spin, still transfixed by the magnificence of the sight. Athos and I both wait in silent awe for a few moments. Get it together, Seles. We’re not here to gawk, we’re here to hunt. A sobering realization washes over me; one look at our surroundings is enough to tell me that this demon has a vast imagination. This may not be an easy battle, but fortunately for us, we have another helping paw to assist us.
“Porthos, appear.” I command. Several paces away, a dark plume of smoke rises up from the ground, faint at first, then erupting into a billowing coal cloud. The smog condenses, wrapping around itself over and over before assuming a new form with four legs, a tail, and burning eyes of ruby: Porthos, the Goblin Cat.
“…You were bigger last time.” I remark in a matter-of-fact tone. It’s a true statement; when we fought and captured Porthos, he took the form of a monstrous force of nature, nearly triple my height while standing on all fours. In his current form, he resembled something like a tiger… that is, if tigers had black fur, burning stripes of fire, and glowing red eyes. Despite the discrepancy, he still seems every bit as lethal; as he turns to face me, I can see the sinews in his back bulge and undulate like waves of burning oil resting on choppy waters.
“Modesty is a virtue, you know.” He counters with a low growl. Ah, right. Athos can change size while in the dream world, so I suppose it’s only logical that Porthos can do so too. Fair enough. With that, we were ready to hunt… except… where should we begin? This dreamscape is gargantuan in comparison to the worlds where I met Athos and Porthos. Could it be that our prey is trying to hide from us?
“Welcome…” An unfamiliar voice greets us, impossibly deep, with enough bass to rumble the floating platform we stood upon. Porthos pulls his ears back and his tail begins whipping back and forth as his smoldering eyes flicker left and right like the hand of a metronome. Athos sinks his talons deeper into my shoulder and lets out a shrill screech.
“Show yourself, demon.” My own voice booms back, wrestling the oppressive silence and filling the empty space between the moon and the earth.
“My pleasure, mademoiselle…” The demon answers my challenge with a deafening thunderclap. Porthos roars back and my ears start ringing. The ground quakes again and this time, it doesn’t stop. At the center of the chessboard, a bilious olive liquid begins to bubble up from the tiles, converging into a gurgling puddle. The pool grows larger, now several paces wide, all the while continuing to boil, seethe, and expand. A lurid mist rises from the little pond and soon the smog begins to manifest a shape, vaguely humanoid in the sense that there is a discernable head, shoulders, and arms, but the similarities end there. Finally, the mist solidifies and our prey reveals itself.
“… Eww.” I crinkle my nose. Standing a stone’s throw away from us looms a hulking, horned behemoth with bulging biceps and lime green skin, rough like leather, and with patches of pale yellow around a bloated chest and a sagging gut. Below that, a ratty loincloth accompanied by two immense thighs stretching down towards webbed feet. As it turns to face us, it flashes me a toothless smile as its eyes shine harlequin green.
“It’s a toad.” Porthos growls, rearing back onto his hindquarters, ready to pounce.
“A demon toad.” Athos chirps, unfurling his wings and raising his beak.
“We can do this the easy way or the fun way. Your choice.” As I warn the demon, I can’t help but lower my eyebrows and wrinkle my face in disgust.
“Now, now, mon chère… surely we don’t have to resort to violence. After all, first impressions are important…” The demon’s twisted grin doesn’t falter for an instant, in fact, the toad even goes so far as to wiggle its ridged eyebrows. Is it… flirting with me!? I gulp down the taste of bile and shudder.
“If you don’t want to fight, then pledge yourself to me and get in the sword.” I tap the pommel of my katana with two fingers as I level an unblinking stare to meet the overgrown toad’s own gaze. The demon gurgles for a moment before guffawing and slapping his thigh.
“Ah, toi petite fille… why should I willingly submit to you? After all, you have yet to prove yourself worthy of a specimen such as myself.” The overgrown toad strokes his chin, as if there was once a beard there. A bell-like chime introduces Whisper, my katana, as I effortlessly draw the blade from its wooden sheath. The pommel pulsates in my fist as I point the blade at the parasite.
“You are welcome to test me, toad.” I still haven’t blinked.
“Looks like a meal to me…” Porthos continues to flick his tail back and forth, sending little smoke signals into the air.
“Such ferocity! Such poise! I like your style, mon chère.” The demon replies, once again wiggling his eyebrows at me. My eyes narrow into little slits as my scowl deepens.
“A duel to the death is not what I mind. Instead, I would like to play a game with you, petite fille… if you best me in a battle of wits, then I shall happily become your servant. The mind is greater than the blade, after all.” As the demon continues, the smile melts from his lips, replaced by a more serious expression.
“It’s a trap, my Queen.” Athos whispers in my ear. My chin dips as I nod in acknowledgement.
“It’s a trap, alright… but it remains to be seen who it has been set for.” I murmur in response. The demon’s cheeks perk back up into that stupid grin – it must have heard our exchange.
“Do you know the game of chess?” The demon asks, sweeping one of his arms out to gesture at our surroundings.
“Of course.” My tone is curt. At the mention of the word, ‘chess’, a deluge of memories floods my mind’s eye; the underground library and its cornucopia of books, pieces of paper filled with drawings and paintings, the makeshift chessboard with its whittled wooden playing pieces, as well as Trent’s smiling face. Where are you now, Trent?
“Very good!” The demon snaps his fingers and pulls me back to the present. An army of shadows appears on the far end of the platform. Next, the ground begins to shake once again as a succession of loud bangs and thuds resound from the space, each one accompanied by the appearance of a black statue. Each one is tall, perhaps a head higher in height than I. Many of the statues hold pitchforks and scythes, another two hold shields and swords, while the two in the corners hold maces. In the center of the back row, I see a single crown peaking up from behind the front line. Playing pieces, which means…
“Look out!” I cry out as I take a few hurried steps forward. Porthos leaps forward and spins around, fangs bared. Without warning, the other set of playing pieces populate themselves on the opposite end of the platform. When all is settled, I find myself staring at another set of statues, all pristine white, except…
“… Two of my pieces are missing.” I turn back towards the demon now.
“Not so, mademoiselle. I see one knight and one queen right here, but they’ve yet to assume their places…” The demon gurgles again, as if chuckling to himself. He’s referring to Athos, Porthos, and myself, isn’t he? Interesting twist.
“I see. So, if I beat you in this little game, you’ll willingly submit to me.” I throw the demon a confident smirk. I never kept count of all the times I played Trent in chess. There wasn’t much else to do in that underground sanctuary besides read, draw, and play chess. It must have been hundreds, no, thousands of games. Not once did I lose to him. He was no slouch either – Trent is the only person I’ve ever met that could keep up with me. This pathetic parasite is no match for his cunning.
“If you win, I will become your vassal… but if I win, you will become my pet and spend the rest of your days here, with me.” The demon’s cheeks perk up once again as he responds… I’ll enjoy wiping that ugly smirk right off of your face, you disgusting toad.
“Hah. Fine. Porthos, take that empty square and await my command.” I point my sword towards the vacant square reserved for the queen’s knight, then sheath it. Porthos hesitates, staring down the demon a little longer before he finally slinks over towards the designated tile. I join him, assuming the empty tile reserved for the queen. How appropriate! As I turn around, I see the parasite has also assumed his place, standing on the square reserved for the enemy king.
“All the pieces are in place, mon chère. Let us begin the game!” The demon’s voice booms once again from his side of the board. I clasp my hands and crack my knuckles out of habit. At the very least, this will provide me with some much-needed entertainment.
“Queen’s pawn to D4.” I calmly state my command. The ground rumbles again in response. The smooth marble surface of the statue directly in front of me begins to crack and split as the pitchfork-wielding pawn seemingly comes to life, taking several strides to move two spaces forward. Athos ruffles his feathers and cocks his head to the side.
“The statues are alive?” He whispers. I offer him a gentle pat of reassurance – nothing to fear, my loyal friend. The three-eyed raven clicks his beak together in appreciation.
“Queen’s pawn to D5!” The demon roars. One of the scythe-wielding black statues undergoes a similar transformation as it strides forward to meet the other pawn with a symmetrical response to my opening move. The two statues stand eye to eye in the center of the board, both standing perfectly still once more.
“Bishop’s pawn, C2 to C4.” I already knew my next move: the Queen’s Gambit, one of my favorite openings. The piece doesn’t move. My smirk melts away and I can feel my eyebrow twitch with annoyance.
“Bishop’s pawn, C2 to C4!” I say it louder this time. The stone statue trembles. Why won’t it move? I purse my lips together as I hear it gurgling from the opposite side of the board – that toad must have some kind of trick up his sleeve. What could it be though? Moving the pawn two spaces forward here is clearly within the rules. I feel my cheeks start to glow red with anger. This is an integral part of my opening – once the pawn moves forward, it will be threatened by the enemy pawn in the center, but I will be able to trade it out. As I work through the possibilities, I notice the statue continuing to tremble, almost as if…
“It’s afraid…” I mutter. The pawn is afraid to put itself in danger. It doesn’t want to be sacrificed. Aha! So that’s the twist. I knew this would be amusing. The corners of my lips curl back up into a smirk. One more move should confirm my theory.
“… Bishop’s pawn, C2 to C3.” I adjust my command. The pawn trembles again, but this time, it creaks to life and moves one space forward, confirming my hunch. Across the field, that wart-ridden bastard is still snickering away.
“Living chess pieces! Nice twist, slimeball!” My voice echoes across the playing field, clear as crystal. The snickering stops. What’s wrong, not the reaction you expected, toad? My lips part like curtains to reveal my bared teeth; my smirk has become a devious smile. It’ll take more than that to scare the Queen of Dreams.
“King’s knight to F6!” The toad demon’s voice falters for a moment as it shouts its next move. With a loud crash, the knight piece leaps over the pawn in front of it and assumes its designated position.
“Queen to D3.” In contrast, I calmly state my next move as I casually walk forward three paces, putting me between the two pawns I’d already moved. To my left, the pawn that refused my command continues to fidget nervously. Time for another experiment. Without leaving my square, I stretch out my arm to brush the pawn’s cheek with my hand.
“You are no longer afraid.” I whisper my command and remove my hand. The statue stops fidgeting.
“Bishop’s pawn, C7 to C5!” Without hesitation, his own piece slides forward two squares despite the threat from the pawn in front of me. Cheeky bastard, giving me a handicap and not himself? Oh well, he is a toad… what else should I have expected?
“… Pawn, C3 to C4.” I reply. This time, my piece moves forward despite the threat from the black queen’s pawn. Now the two pairs of pawns square off with one another in the center of the board. Glancing over at the demon, I can see that I have, in fact, wiped that stupid grin off of his bloated face.
“I’m not through with you yet, scum bucket.” As I taunt the parasite, I toss it a wink and stick my tongue out.
“Hmph! Queen’s pawn to C4!” The overgrown toad croaks his next command. With that, the black queen’s pawn slides forward diagonally and with one mighty stroke of its scythe, it cleaves the pawn I had just enchanted in half. The two pieces slide apart and fall to the ground before shattering into dust. With that, I am in danger of being attacked by the same pawn, but I do not feel afraid. No, I think it’s time for another test, and so I step forward to attack the pawn that’s threatening me.
“Crumble.” I whisper as I gently place a hand upon the statue’s shoulder. Without warning, fault lines appear all along the pawn before it shatters and falls to the ground in a pile of rubble. I kick a few of the larger pieces off of my new square and turn towards the demon, wagging my pointer finger the way a mother might scold her unruly child.
“Worried yet?” My taunt is met with an angry scowl and I savor the moment. Time for some more. I turn my attention to the remaining black pawn directly in front of me. I reach out and touch the enemy piece right on the tip of its nose, then whisper my command.
“You are frozen in place and cannot move.” After I finish my command, I can’t help but chuckle.
“My turn, petite fille! Bishop’s pawn, C5 to D4!” The demon orders his next move. The enemy pawn in front of me stands lifeless and unmoving, bound by my command. My pawn is spared. Only my innocent whistling cuts through the stunned silence.
“Looks like your soldier’s lost his nerve, toad! Say, what would you like me to call you once you become my pet? I was thinking maybe something like Mr. Buttface, seeing as your ugly mug looks like a horse’s ass. It has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?” My Cheshire cat grin cannot be contained as laughter begins welling up inside of me. The toad’s nostrils begin to flare in quite the dramatic fashion.
“ENOUGH!!” Once again, the arena shakes as the demon’s voice beats against my eardrums. All of the statues begin to shake again.
“About time, Mr. Buttface!” I call out over the din. It’s finally time to move on to the real game.
“YOU WILL NEVER ENSLAVE ME! I AM INFINITE!!” The demon screams, rattling my eardrums once again. Such an obnoxious parasite! A dark shape suddenly appears on my left – a side-eyed glance reveals that Porthos has returned to my side with his fangs bared. His burning eyes smolder like coals, alight with the feral excitement that only the hunt can offer.
“Can I eat it? I’m very hungry.” Porthos growls. I scoff, even as all of the statues begin to turn and face the three of us.
“Don’t be gross, Porthos. You can eat once we wrap this up.” I reply, noting that the statues have started to hover above the playing field. Once again, my opponent is too predictable. Stupid toad. My eyes close as I raise my hand and hold my open palm in front of my face.
“Diamond.” I silently mouth a single word. The space around us begins to distort. The light from the sun splits into a rainbow of colors.
“DIE, WORMS!” The demon howls just a moment later. With a single gesture, all of the statues rocket towards us like stones fired from a catapult, and one by one, they shatter into hundreds of pieces as they collide with the solid wall of diamond that just encased the three of us right before the impact.
“Diamond is unbreakable, you know.” I don’t speak this time, instead communicating directly with the demon’s mind. He spins about, bewildered, and the way his glowing green eyes are beginning to dart around suggests he is starting to recognize he bit off more than he can chew. Not surprising, given he has no teeth to speak of. Perhaps he thinks he can escape my clutches?
“Capture.” I clench my open hand into a tight fist. A second later, all of the rubble created from the barrage of statues begins to swirl around our protective enclosure like a whirlwind of stone. The hulking behemoth, once smug and arrogant, looks bewildered and scared now. Don’t fret, little frog. This will be over soon. With the snap of my fingers, the swirling debris flies towards the demon like iron shavings drawn towards a magnet. He howls in pain as the chunks of ebony and marble fall upon him like a rain of clubs and truncheons. I’m not done yet though.
“Crush.” My fist trembles and the pieces continue to constrict, squeezing tighter and tighter. The crunch of compound fractures is unmistakable. Warm blood leaks from the gauges my nails have dug into my palm. The demon has all but disappeared now, enclosed in a grotesque sculpture of agony. Muffled screams dance across my ears.
“I see you like to play with your food, too…” Porthos mumbles. His fierce expression has vanished, replaced by wide-eyed wonder and tinged with fear. Oh, Porthos, my furry friend… we’ve only scratched the surface.
“Shatter and pierce.” I flick my wrist towards the freshly erected patchwork coffin. With it, the massive diamond enclosure explodes outward into an uncountable number of shining shards, each sharper than a razor’s edge. A moment later, every single diamond dagger hurls itself towards the trapped demon, piercing the stone and burying themselves into the soft flesh of the poor toad that dared to cross me. Black blood leaks out of the diamond porcupine and pools on the smooth tile.
“Let’s finish this.” My blood is on fire now as I rip Whisper from its scabbard. Athos needs no command – his wings unfurl and grow, stretching several lengths longer than my arms. With each flap, they summon a deafening gust of wind that propels me forward, towards the makeshift iron maiden. A loud screech erupts from behind me as Porthos sinks his claws into the smooth tiles, tearing at them as the gale threatens to blow him away. The stone coffin looms large as we close the distance in an instant. Finally, a crystalline chime rings out as my outstretched blade pierces the mass of stone, bones, blood, and flesh. From up close, I can hear the demon’s anguished screams, shrill and unending.
“You belong to me now!” A single flap of Athos’ great violet wings propels us backwards as I rip my sword from free from the parasite. The same lurid ooze that appeared earlier now erupts from the mass of rubble like a geyser, flying into my open scabbard. Once it stops, I slam Whisper into its sheath and with that, the battle is won.
“Well? How does it feel to be on the winning side this time?” I glance over my shoulder and offer Porthos a sly wink as the dream world begins to fade away. The cozy interior of the cabin and a sleepy old man sitting upright in bed appear in front of me. Something warm brushes against my leg – it’s Porthos, once again a cute little black cat. Sometimes actions do speak louder than words. I offer him a firm pat on the head.
“You did it!” The old man exclaims. I’d like to return his excitement, but my eyelids feel heavy. My chin sinks as my frame slumps back against my chair. Sleep has come for me once again, but first…
“… Make sure there’s food when I wake up.” I mumble as I drift off once again.
A SAGE, A DEMON, AND A GAME: PART 2
Written by Jungle, (C) 2021, all rights reserved.