Posted by: lordkyler | March 13, 2016

Kingmaker – Short Story

At the stroke of six o’clock, Marshall King’s precision clock sounded the alarm. His feet hit the floor before the first beep finished, his glasses found his face before the second was done, and the alarm was deactivated by the completion of the third.

Moving in a slow, deliberate manner, he carefully stretched, then gave a yawn, more out of tradition than actual tiredness. At precisely a quarter after six, he emerged from the bathroom freshly showered and shaved, his bare scalp gleaming like mahogany, aftershave clinging to him like a vaguely pleasant memory.

On went the crisply starched shirt. On went the green-striped Thursday tie with the ivory pin, snug around his neck. On went the perfectly synchronized watch with its comforting weight and reassuring tick like the beat of his own heart.

Low-carb bagels went into the toaster. One cup of Bran Flakes went into the bowl, followed by just the right amount of skim milk. The tea kettle went on the stove. It would be ready with just enough time to pour it into his thermos before beginning the commute to the University.

Marshall King sighed in contentment. Another perfect morning. In search of a calming view and his daily allotment of Vitamin D, he crossed to his apartment window and threw back the curtains.

He was greeted – not by the Florida sunrise – but by a great gleaming eye the size of a tractor tire that filled the entire window.

Marshall blinked. When his bagels popped up, he turned away and spread them with low-fat cream cheese. The eye followed him around the room as he sat down ate the table. The window steamed up as the thing outside huffed. Marshall did the crossword puzzle as he ate. His watch filled the silence with its soft tick tick tick.

When the kettle began to sing, he placed his dishes quietly in the sink, poured the steaming tea into his well-worn thermos, and put the crossword into his briefcase to finish over lunch. Lights off. Curtains closed. Door locked.

The elevator took only twenty seconds to reach him and thirty-three to descend, leaving him enough time to share a quick hello with the janitor at the bottom.

Unfortunately, when he approached his modest but well-maintained Malibu, there was a dragon perched atop it.

It fixed him with a fierce gaze, smoke spilling from its nostrils as it snorted. Scarlet scales coruscated in the morning light, and vast leather wings stretched overhead like a circus tent, rippling in the breeze like sails.  Somehow its weight did not crush the car.

Marshall drew his mouth into a thin, hard line, and he cleared his throat pointedly, avoiding eye contact with the creature. It coughed back at him, flames dancing behind its stalactite teeth. A blast of furnace heat warped the air, knocking Marshall’s tie askew.

At last he broke down. “Excuse me… sir. Would you mind moving? I’m running late for work.”

The dragon rumbled, a sound that was felt more than heard. When it spoke, it spoke without moving its mouth, a sound solely inside the mind, sibilant and seductive and strong.

You are forty years late, Lightbringer, the dragon said accusingly. And your true work is not yet begun.

“I am not in the business of arguing with hallucinations,” Marshall said curtly. “You don’t even exist.”

Then why do you wait for me to move? the dragon challenged. Marshall did not answer, though his finger began to twitch in time with his watch. You have shirked your destiny too long, Bridgemaker. You cannot hide behind this fantasy forever.

“Fantasy?” Marshall gritted his teeth in anger. “The mythical creature accuses me of living in delusion. You are a figment of my imagination, an old daydream that has overstepped its bounds. That is all.”

The dragon’s serpentine head snaked toward him, horned and bony face hovering a foot away, radiating enough heat to make Marshall sweat. Are you so certain?

“Occam’s Razor. The simplest explanation is the most likely to be correct. According to the square-cube law, you should be crushed under your own weight, much less capable of flight. I mean, look at you! People should be screaming in the streets. Far simpler to believe you are a mere hallucination necessitating an adjustment to my prescriptions.”

As if to prove his point, a jogger passed by, coming within an inch of the dragon’s twisting onyx horns without batting an eye. The dragon was unconvinced.

And what of Pascal’s Wager, Great Uniter? If what I say is true, you have everything to gain, and if it is false, you have nothing to lose.

“I have a great deal to lose, thank you,” Marshall said, glowering now. “And how do you even know about Pascal’s Wager anyway?”

You have shut yourself away from us, but we have always been with you, Starborn. We have waited for many long years, but now our need is dire. Hundreds have fallen before the Horde, and thousands more to Shadow’s Blight. We need you, Wise One. 

Marshall closed his eyes, focusing on the tick of the watch, holding to it like a lifeline. Blindly, he walked the last few steps to his car, using the sound of the lock to guide him. He met no resistance as he fumbled for the handle and slipped inside. Only when the door was shut and his seatbelt fastened did he open his eyes again.

The dragon was in his passenger seat, shrunk to a more fitting size but still giving the impression of a much larger creature. Its prehensile tail was curled around its legs like a cat’s, spadelike point tapping on the glove compartment, an erratic counterpoint to the watch’s relentless ticking.

Marshall’s eye twitched, like the fluttering of a dying bird. He was three minutes late. Unless traffic was remarkably light, he would have to jog to his class. Irritated, he turned on the radio, blasting Bach, and threw his briefcase into the passenger seat roughly. The dragon ducked out of the way effortlessly, staring with patient, unblinking eyes.

Marshall focused on driving, refusing to acknowledge the creature beside him. He hadn’t suffered an episode like this since that time with the unicorn, over ten years ago. The doctors had explained it as a mild form of schizophrenia, perhaps induced by stress. The apparitions explained themselves as shadows of another realm, sent to convince him to return and fulfill the ancient prophecies.

As he drove, he began to practice the techniques the doctors had taught him, anchoring himself to the world around him. He listed off the streets as he passed. He followed along with with the song in his head, knowing every strain by heart. And under his breath he repeated the mantra, “My name is Marshall King. I am fifty-five years old. I live in Florida. I teach history at the University of Florida. My name is Marshall King…”

Marshall THE King, the dragon whispered. The King that shall marshal nations and drive back the darkness. You are the Dawnbringer reborn, lord of the Hidden Realm, and it is your destiny to bring us to a new age…

Marshall slammed on the brakes, screeching to a halt in the middle of the street. The car behind him barely avoided rear-ending him. Horns blared as other cars halted. Breathing shallow and shaking, Marshall parked in the nearest available space, barely noticing as several consecutive drivers gave him the finger. He cut the engine, and the everything fell silent.

He turned to the dragon, which had flared its wings for balance, but appeared entirely unruffled. It said nothing.

The watch ticked, but no longer in sync with his heartbeat, strangely unsettling. Marshall focused to prevent himself from hyperventilating, and his eye twitched madly. With infinite care, he pulled his phone from his pocket and composed a brief message to the dean, excusing himself due to illness. He had to try three times to press the send button. The phone chimed, announcing the message had been sent. Duty fulfilled, Marshall was free to lose his mind.

“Get out of my head!” he screamed, digging his fingernails into his temples. His bald head was slick with sweat, and the blood pounded in his brain like a drum, an irregular rhythm that drowned out the watch completely. “I don’t want you. I don’t want this!  I never wanted this. All I ever wanted was to forget you altogether.”

Do you wish to forget her? asked the dragon quietly. She has not forgotten you, Greatheart. 

Marshall breathed heavily. “She’s not… She’s just a…” He couldn’t say it. Couldn’t dismiss her like he did the others. “… a dream from a long ago,” he finished lamely.

The dragon let out a long plume of smoke as it sighed, and Marshall rolled down the windows by instinct.

You were going to be a lawyer, the dragon said. But after your first visit, you studied history instead, learning of a bygone age more like our own. Even when you shut us from your every thought, you still dreamed of chivalry and valor.

The creature leaned over and rested its spiked chin on his shoulder. At its touch, Marshall felt all the tension flow from him, and he trembled from the release, feeling tears well up in his eyes. His watch fell quiet, and all he could hear was the chirp of the birds, and the dragon’s deep rumble, and his own slow, shuddering breath.

The dragon’s voice came into his mind once more, speaking almost with his own voice, or his voice as it might have been. Maybe you’re right, whispered the dragon. Maybe we are all imaginary, the fantastical product of your subconscious mind… but maybe that doesn’t matter. We are real to you, however much you try to deny it. You only end up denying yourself. You have sacrificed so much to become the man you were told to be, and it has left you stunted and sad, alone in your false little world.

Marshall stared blankly at the stores in front of him. An accountancy, a laundromat, a pharmacy. With one phone call, he could have his prescription refilled. He could banish the dragon like a bad dream, and still make it to work in time for his second class. Arthurian mythology.

Just try, the dragon said, and even though the voice was in his head, he could barely hear it over the breeze. All you have to do is make the attempt, and you’ll see how wonderful it can be, how great a change you can effect. Just try…

“How?” Marshall asked. He looked to his passenger seat, but the dragon had vanished, leaving not so much as an indent on the seat. Marshall reached over and felt the seat. It was warm, but that could have bee the sun. “How?” he whispered to the air.

Almost more of a memory than a voice, the echo sounded in his head. You know how.

Marshall took out his phone once more, dismissing the notification of the dean’s reply. After only a brief moment of hesitation, he opened his list on contacts and thumbed to the only unnamed number. He knew it by heart, but it was listed anyway, unchanged after forty years. Still feeling the presence of the dragon on his shoulder, he dialed the number. It only made it half a ring before being picked up.

An aged but still familiar voice answered.

Marshall had to swallow the lump in his throat before he replied. “Hello, Hannah? It’s me, Marshall. I’m sorry I didn’t call after the relapse. I’ve been… busy.”

The voice on the other end murmured that she understood. She was merely happy to hear from him once more.

“Well, I just wanted to let you know you’ve been in my thoughts lately,” Marshall stammered. “I’ve been thinking about the stories we used to tell. The adventures we had. Those were good times.”

Silence on the other end of the line. Marshall carried on, words long held spilling from him in a rush. “I feel like we never really finished that story before I moved, you know? Time kept moving on without us. I was thinking maybe… maybe we could meet sometime. Catch up. Start the story going again.”

After a long moment, filled only by the relentless ticking of the watch, the voice on the other end agreed.

Not long after, the dragon met him at the airport, soaring through the terminal and unleashing a fountain of flame into the air by way of celebration.

Marshall smiled at the sight, the tug on his lips unfamiliar but welcome.  He felt his heart beating in time with the dragon’s wings, no longer with the watch he had left behind. He wasn’t worried about being late. He was finished wasting time. Destiny, long deferred, was waiting for him.

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Responses

  1. Excellent story! At first I thought I was reading something written by Tempest, but I thought, “No way!” and checked again. I am truly impressed. There were a couple of typos and one place I would reword, but dang, son!


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