FFFF #10 Dangerous Thoughts 1.4

I’ve spent so much time working on the Dangerous Thoughts series that I have had zero time to come up with new stories for First Friday Free Fiction. Instead, I’m going spend the next five consecutive Fridays serializing the first volume of the series.

One chapter every Friday for five Fridays. Or if you get impatient you can go here and buy Volume 1 for all of 99 cents.

What follows is Chapter 4 of Volume 1: Hive from the series Dangerous Thoughts. If you haven’t read Chapters 1, 2 & 3 yet, go here and do so first or you’re going to be really confused.

As usual, all of this is my intellectual property so don’t reproduce this without attribution.

Text Copyright © 2015 Jake MacMillan

All Rights Reserved

1. He arrived at the village the Green Knight usually menaced, the one whose citizens he was supposed to have murdered in the haunted cemetery, and found nothing. Even the villagers were missing. He maneuvered Gringolet through the main street, little more than a wide spot in a dirt road, and in between the hovels that lined it. There was no sign of anyone. The breeze flitted through the empty spaces with a hollow sigh. Pigs rummaged in and out of the meager houses. Chickens clucked and pecked at the ground.

And then a scream.

He turned his mount toward the fallow fields outside of town just in time to see the Green Knight ride down an old man. The rest of the villagers appeared to be huddled in terror at the edge of the forest that lined the field. Paul stood in his stirrups and urged Gringolet into a full stretch gallop as he dropped his visor and raised his new flaming sword.

The Green Knight paused his play with the villagers and turned to face the lesser grail knight riding so strong on him. The peasants took this moment of respite to melt into the forest.

“Well, well,” the Green Knight said, his voice booming from behind his dogface visor, “look who has finally come to play.” Drawing his sword, he kicked his horse into a gallop and rode out to meet the attack.

Paul quickly ran the Green Knight’s stats and was dismayed to find that his armor was rated at 100 percent and his new sword was a full level more powerful than the one Paul had stolen from him on his last mission. Normally, the enemies he faced in the game didn’t heal between engagements. Sometimes attacking repeatedly over many engagements to wear down their defenses was the only way to defeat a particularly powerful boss. And they never leveled up their weapons.

What this meant to Paul – or more rightly, to Gawain – was that he was going to have to wear down the Green Knight’s armor and kill him all in one battle. Without dying. That last thing was really the most important part. He had to do violence on this monster long enough to wear down his plus armor without getting killed in the process.

It didn’t seem possible, but Paul was sick to tears of impossible problems that day. He decided to just go in there and sort it all out, the Green Knight be damned.

He lowered the tip of his sword so that it was pointed at the Green Knight’s heart and drove Gringolet straight for him, hooves crashing like thunder on dry soil that lifted blossoms of dust in his wake. The smell of turned earth eventually reached into his nostrils and mixed with the cracklings from his flaming sword in a way that stung his senses.

There was so much rage in him at that moment that he was nearly suicidal. His anger at his father and Thomas and the hive and life in general had boiled under pressure and exploded into this white hot piston of fury that blinded him to the consequences of his actions. In his mind, he was about to drive the flaming blade through the Green Knight’s armor and burn out his heart with all the righteous wrath of a lay preacher on Sunday morning.

But another voice in his head, one far less agitated, reminded him that the only success he had ever achieved against this enemy had come from doing the unexpected. He had never been – and would never be – able to defeat him in single combat. If he was going to get to that place where he would actually be able to drive the tip of his flaming blade through the Green Knight’s heart, he was going to have to do it with more cunning than brute force.

This voice also reminded him that the Green Knight wasn’t a real person and certainly wasn’t responsible for all the wrongs that were currently being piled up against him. So if he wanted to experience the glorious moment of victory that would come from slaying this particular dragon, he would have to fall back to what he knew worked best.

The unthinkable. The unpredictable. The crazy.

You want crazy? he thought to himself. I’ve got crazy in spades. As the two combatants closed on one another, Paul waited until they were almost within striking distance and then suddenly hauled back on the reins and turned Gringolet into the tightest turn he could manage without falling over.

The Green Knight ran past them and then had to fight his mount to get it turned around. And when he did, he found Paul was right there and bringing his flaming sword down on his green helm. Paul then rode off in a different direction and turned Gringolet just as the Green Knight was catching up to him. Once again, he struck out at the unawares knight who was still trying to get his reins in one hand and sword raised in the other. The flaming blade struck him across the body, weakening his armor by 10 percent.

Seeing the damage he had inflicted, Paul realized he didn’t have to weaken all of his opponent’s armor. The Green Knight was down 10 percent on the helmet and 10 percent on the body from two strikes. He just needed to work on one piece, the body, until he could get his flaming sword through and kill the bastard.

He turned Gringolet to the right, confounding his enemy by once again turning in the least predictable direction, and then turned back immediately with his sword of fire raised over his head. The Green Knight worked hard to get his horse turned around just in time to take another strike across his midsection. This one reduced the hit points on his placard by another 10 percent.

Paul kicked Gringolet into a gallop and rode away from the fight as if he were capitulating, but then, when he was twenty yards into his escape, turned back and made another charge. The Green Knight got his mount under control, raised his broadsword, and charged to meet him. But Paul confounded him again by turning away before they were even close to engaging and then galloped off toward the road. It looked very much like he was trying to escape again but he turned once more and charged at the Green Knight, instead.

By this time, his adversary had figured out what he was up to. He couldn’t predict exactly what Paul would do, but he knew better than to expect the standard maneuver. This made for a strange sort of battle with the combatants at times riding off in completely different directions and at other times crashing into one another. As the Green Knight gained more proficiency at dealing with these seemingly random tactics, he was finally able to erase Paul’s upper hand by landing an unexpected blow of his own.

Eventually, the tide began to turn and the early advantage Paul had gained by weakening the Green Knight’s defenses had been evened out by all the damage he had taken to his own armor. Paul had come to the conclusion that, with only 10 percent armor left on his head, he should disengage and immediately withdraw. Better to take what he had learned and use it for victory on another day than to let himself be killed even though his opponent was down to 5 percent on his placard.

He just had to figure out a way to turn and run without the Green Knight killing him in the process. In its weakened state, his helmet would not survive even a glancing blow from a thrown mace. He couldn’t turn his back on this fight but he needed to get away from it. Somehow.

He turned his mount in a tight circle and then again in the opposite direction and swung out blindly. He missed. The Green Knight did not.

 

2. The bastard sword caught him on the gardbrace that protected his shoulder, utterly destroying it. One more hit like that and Gawain would be going home in a pine box. He swung his flaming sword around in a large arc to push his adversary back while he tried to think of something.

The Green Knight was at the same reduced armor level as Paul. He just wasn’t as interested in saving his own life as he was in taking Paul’s. He pulled his mount back to dodge the sweep of the flaming sword and then charged in to try for the killing blow.

Nearly defenseless and mostly out of ideas, Paul saw the more powerful knight coming at him, the tip of his bastard sword gleaming green in the late evening light, and realized he had just a few seconds to live before he was run through and cast aside.

He offered up the only remaining defense he had, the pointed elbow guard called the couter to ward off the Green Knight’s thrust. The bastard sword’s strike destroyed it, leaving the flesh of his vector’s elbow visible where the armor had once been.

Panicked and out of options, Paul leaned flat against his saddle, ducking under a mortal swipe of the bastard sword, and drove the tip of his flaming sword of righteousness into the Green Knight’s horse, piercing its flank and killing it in mid-stride.

The horse reared and then collapsed to the ground, pinning his master beneath him. Paul watched this with dumbfounded, slack-jawed disbelief. Even he hadn’t known he was going to strike out at his opponent’s horse until he did it. Now he just had to decide if it was safe to dismount and bring down his sword one last time on the Green Knight’s depleted armor. He wanted it so badly, wanted to end this insurmountable struggle so intensely, that he found it hard to think rationally. Had there ever been a time when he wasn’t trying to outsmart the Green Knight?

Pinned under his dead horse and near death himself, the Green Knight laughed out loud. “Ha! We seem to end every encounter the same way: me on the ground and you running away. Not this time, my friend. I’ve seen to it.”

Paul looked across the field at the road behind him. The three evil knights he had first seen taking their orders from the Green Knight stood in a line blocking his access to escape. He abandoned the idea of finishing his opponent. As depleted as his armor was, he wouldn’t last ten seconds against the reinforcements.

As he watched, the three knights kicked their horses into a trot and drew their weapons. He looked around for some other escape route. Not the village. There was no cover there. He could go further into the landscape but Gringolet’s strength was as depleted from all the crazy maneuvers. He wouldn’t be able to outrun even the nags currently plodding toward him.

He spotted a narrow trail that led into the forest at the edge of the fallow field. He had seen the villagers disappear down that trail when the Green Knight had lost interest in them. It was in a direction that led away from escape and it would separate him from the three evil knights, but he wasn’t sure if he could even fit through such a tight opening on horseback. If he got to the edge of the woods and had to dismount, he would either be killed there or hunted down in the forest.

That was the nice thing about only having one option. It made decision making all the easier. He climbed into the saddle, turned Gringolet for the forest and spurred him into a run at whatever speed he could muster.

Seeing that he had chosen to flee, the three knights urged their mounts to go faster, attempting to close the distance before he could reach the cover of the woods. Gringolet gave all he had to give but wasn’t up to his usual standards. He had spent most of his energy in the battle and so now could barely manage to keep going at a clumsy, exhausted trot. It was a verifiable miracle that he didn’t just pitch over dead with Paul in the saddle.

Even as he heard the thunder approaching from behind, Paul kept Gringolet focused on that small opening where the trail broke through the thick brush at the edge of the forest. When they were within twenty yards, two of the three possessed knights managed to pull up alongside, just within reach of Gringolet’s flanks. Fortunately, they weren’t smart enough to have learned from Paul’s example and so didn’t think to kill the horse out from under him. Instead, they just kept inching forward, trying to get within range of him, figuring that one swipe from their broadswords would do it.

They were so focused on him that they didn’t see the trees rushing at them. Neither did Paul. One moment, there was a knight on either side of him and the next, there was a loud crashing sound and his vision was filled with the blur of branches racing by. It took a moment for him to regain his senses, but Gringolet was still strong enough to handle the sudden right angle turns in the trail, the second of which claimed the third knight who had piled in after them at full speed.

Paul eased back on the reins, finally bringing Gringolet to a full stop so he could turn in the saddle and look behind him. The last knight to go down was just lying there, still as death, and the other two didn’t seem to be getting up, either. He turned Gringolet and walked him back to where the possessed knight lay unconscious on the ground next to his dead horse. He dropped from the saddle, drew his flaming sword, and said, “In the name of Christ Our Savior, you are redeemed.” Then he drove the blade through the knight’s armor, through his heart, into the ground beneath him. Before he could even withdraw his sword, the contents of the suit of armor turned to smoke and flame.

He climbed back into the saddle, his vector moving slowly and erratically as the game simulated the effects of severe exhaustion. He couldn’t go back for the other two and especially not for the Green Knight. They would be waiting for him out there and his armor would be like tissue paper against their weapons.

But he was now technically out of danger which meant he could shortcut back to the great hall for repairs and rearming. He drew a map in the air in front of him and flicked his destination with the fingertip of his gauntlet to indicate he wanted to go there immediately.

“Shortcut Feature Not Available When Off The Main Grid,” flashed in front of his eyes. Off the main grid? If he wasn’t on the grid, where was he? And how did he get there? He supposed it didn’t matter. He couldn’t go back without getting killed so he decided to follow the trail deeper into the forest to see where it led. If he was lucky, he might come across the villagers who had escaped the Green Knight at the beginning of the battle. Maybe they could tell him where the trail went. For all he knew, it doubled back to “the main grid” somewhere down the line.

He nudged Gringolet into a walk and had him follow the trail while he looked for signs of life. He never found the villagers, but when he came around one blind corner, he did find a clearing around a small stone house. He pulled on the reins, surprised to find a dwelling so deep in the forest, and saw a woman in the front yard drawing water from a stone well.

He had never seen anyone like her. She was tall and slender and yet quite shapely. She wore a long green dress that looked like it might have been made of velvet. His vector moving extremely erratically now, he rode Gringolet over to the stone wall that encircled the garden around the house.

She noticed him then and turned her face up to smile at him. She was beautiful. Nearly magically so. She had high cheekbones and large green eyes and long straight hair that was the color of burnished cherry oak. Her smile was gentle and reassuring and her way was warm and welcoming. He felt suddenly at peace. Not his vector, he actually felt at ease in his real self just seeing her smile at him.

And then his vision went to black and, for just a moment, he had the sensation he was falling.

 

3. His visor detached from his face and rose to take its place on the ceiling. He blinked uncomfortably at the bright light in the tube and then puzzled over what had just happened. It was as if he had been knocked right out of the game, right out of the whole virtual world. Was this the game’s way of rendering him “unconscious” and therefore unable to participate? He had no idea. It had never happened before.

He thought about going back in but he was tired and a headache was brewing behind his eyes. He decided to go to the facilities and relieve himself. He withdrew from the tube and slid down the ladder to the catwalk, hoping to slip by his parents’ tube unseen but his father was waiting for him. By the time Paul got to the catwalk, James Corday was already coming down the ladder.

“You heard what happened to Thomas,” he said as his feet clanged against the metal slats.

“Yes, sir. I was there,” Paul said. As a child of an abusive father, he knew he was being tested. Telling the truth was never even a consideration. Answering in whatever way would spare him a beating was all that mattered. James Corday was well aware that Paul had been there when Thomas had been injured. If Paul had left out that detail, it would have been proof he had been involved.

“I understand you were arguing before he fell.”

“Yes, sir. I told him not to hit my sister anymore.”

James Corday’s eyes went white. “You what?”

“I warned him not to hit Mary anymore.”

“What gives you the right to tell a man what he can and can’t do with his own wife? Before you answer, try to remember that Thomas is worth ten of you to me.”

“She’s not his wife yet,” Paul said, ignoring the jibe about being worth less than Thomas as a son. “She’s still my sister until they do get married.”

“They’re betrothed,” his father said, his hands twisting around as if looking for a reason to reach out and strike him. “I’ve given my blessing. They are as good as married.”

“Yes, sir.”

His father watched him for a second and then a wry smile broke across his jagged features. “Just the thought of you trying to ‘defend’ your sister from Thomas is laughable. He would sort you out in two seconds.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Go on about your business, but remember this: You are not to interfere in your sister’s affairs anymore. If Thomas believes she needs to be corrected, he will correct her and you will do nothing about it.”

“Yes, sir.” Paul walked as slowly as possible down the catwalk and slid down the ladder to the ground floor. Once he was out of sight of his father, he bolted for the nearest stall and vomited into the toilet. The fear of dealing with his father had turned his stomach sour and the disgust he felt at his own inability to protect his sister had made him physically sick. The combination of the two had ended up splattered on the faux ceramic seat of a stained commode.

Leaning over that toilet with ropes of snot and bile hanging from his face only served to reinforce the realization that he was living in a broken world. He didn’t know how to rationalize it with his beliefs, but there was something terribly wrong with the hive. And there was something terribly wrong with a church that embraced the thinking of the Primitives who inhabited the hive. And there was something terribly wrong with a government that used the Primitives as its very own baseball bat studded with nails.

Had he stopped believing in God? No. Had he given up his Christianity? No. But it had finally come to him that he had to find some way to separate his beliefs from the church’s dogma. He had to separate God from the doctrine. And in order to do that, he was going to have to go somewhere where he could think clearly about things like this without the church and the hive and his father bearing down on him every second of every day. He was going to have to get off-world. He was going to pass that test, no matter how unfair, and muscle his way into the Intra-Galactic colonial corps.

He cleaned his face and relieved himself and then took a moment to drink hard, unfiltered water from a fountain before returning to his tube. He was not a Primitive. This was the thing he had to understand now. He wasn’t there by choice or by faith, only by accident of birth. And, while he had been taught all his life that to disagree with the Primitive dogma was to commit the greatest sin of all, he was now beginning to believe that couldn’t possibly be true. What about all the Christians out there who didn’t live in hives? Were they committing the ultimate sin? If so, the Congress of Churches was populated with people on their way to hell.

His heart sped up and his mind cleared a little. Why hadn’t he seen this before? There were other ways of believing that were sanctioned by the government. The Primitive doctrine was just one of many. If he could escape the hive, he could find one of these other churches and find his way to worship there. He didn’t have to trade his soul for freedom, and neither did Mary, not if they fled to a new church outside of America. Maybe one in Canada. And, after that, a spaceship headed for parts unknown.

 

4. He climbed into his tube and pulled his visor down. A moment later he was on Main Street and headed for the great hall. He blew through the gathered players and made his way to the stables where his squire appeared as expected, but without Gringolet, which was not expected.

“Where is my mount?” he demanded.

The squire smiled his toothless smile and bowed his head, “Six hours and fifteen minutes away, my Sir.”

“My horse is not here?”

“No, my good Sir. You will not be able to return for another six hours and fifteen minutes.”

“Return?”

“To the glade in the forest where the woman in green tends her garden.”

He was locked out of the game for another six hours and fifteen minutes? Why? He thought about asking his squire but that was pointless. The squire was an in-game NPC, nothing more than a mouthpiece for distributing the barest information.

He checked the digital clock in his peripheral vision. It was currently two o’clock in the morning. Why was he still awake? He tried to remember the last time he had slept… yesterday sometime or last night. He couldn’t remember. He had been so locked up with all the adventure in Demon Hunter and the challenges of the Intra-Galactic entrance exam that he had forgotten he would eventually get tired. A thorough check of his internal systems yielded no evidence that he might need to clock out just now so he returned to the great hall and took to one of the wingchairs to work on the second Intra-Galactic test.

Looking at the string of seemingly unrelated digits, he reminded himself that, while fighting the Green Knight was more thrilling and more rewarding, his real commitment was to besting this exam. Gaining the high score in Demon Hunter wouldn’t get him out of the hive or off the planet, but passing this test just might.

3151818211620

There were a lot of 1’s but just two 8’s and one 5 in that string of digits. The instructions had said he should complete the sequence without telling him how many digits were expected to be in the sequence. Operating under the assumption that he had enough information to solve the puzzle, that they weren’t just messing with his head, he had to believe that the answer was right there in the string of digits just as the previous test had contained all the information he had needed to solve it.

The first test had involved converting geometric shapes into letters. Was it possible that this test involved turning numbers into letters? He quickly translated the string of digits into a string of letters:

C A E A H A H B A A F B…

It was just gibberish. Once again, there was no 0th letter of the alphabet.

He leaned back and thought about what he had achieved. It didn’t seem like much but it felt like something important nonetheless. If he assumed that he had all the information he needed to solve the puzzle but was unable to solve it with just the string of digits he had been given, then he had to also assume that the other information he needed was available to him but not in the string of digits. The only other piece of information he had to draw on was the first test. The solution to that one had been “Absolute power.” What good did that do him? It certainly didn’t provide him with a 0th letter of the alphabet.

He stared at the string of digits but was finding it hard to concentrate. Now that even Mary was lost to him, he was so lonely that the simple desire for companionship overwhelmed his ability to think. He looked around at the knights gathered in groups around the great hall animatedly going over their most recent successes and failures. Even Primitives could laugh here – if they had someone to laugh with.

He tucked the message into his inventory and wandered out of the great hall and back to Main Street. He had been holding himself together for so many years that the strain had become a normal part of the background noise of his life, but now he was beginning to feel it. The Intra-Galactic tests seemed to be moving from the absurd to the impossible. His quest to defeat the Green Knight had become laughably ridiculous. His father was surely about to kill him, if for no other reason than to make space in the tube for Mary’s future husband.

He was a problem solver by nature. Practical and logical, he had learned to go after what he wanted and to overcome the obstacles others put in his way. This is what he had to do now. Clear out the static. Focus on what he wanted and isolate the obstacles.

Item number one on his list of desires: free himself and Mary from the hive. He stopped. That was not quite true. Item number one was to free himself from the hive. Item number two was to also free Mary. Item three was to join Intra-Galactic’s colonial forces. Item number four was all about beating Thomas so badly he had to walk with a cane and piss through a tube for the rest of his life, but that one was admittedly a stretch goal.

The obvious solution was to sell his vector to Bertilak and use the money to get himself and Mary out of the country, but he had a sneaking suspicion that $100,000 wasn’t enough to get two Primitives beyond the walls of Pax Americana. If that was true, then the next step was obvious: drive up the value of his vector until it was high enough to warrant the kind of money that would carry him and his sister to freedom.

And that brought him back to the Green Knight. Even if he abandoned his burning desire to leave the game as its high scorer, he still had to defeat the Green Knight in order to raise his rank, and therefore his price in Bertilak’s eyes.

He wanted to laugh. The Intra-Galactic brain games, though difficult, weren’t the most insurmountable object in his life at the moment. The Green Knight held that distinction.

Checking his watch, he saw that he still had four hours before he could return to the game. He was bored and it had been a while since he had last slept and the rest could only do him good in the coming trials. He dropped out of Main Street and rolled onto his stomach in the dark, sleep sneaking up on him at the corners of his eyes with tiny, sandy fingers.

 

5. His alarm went off thirty minutes before he would be allowed back into the game so he dropped out of his tube and made his way down to the facilities to relieve himself and get a drink of water. He mixed with the night shift as they moved in their sleep-deprived shamble into the men’s bathroom. There, he waited for a toilet to become free and went about his business while everyone went about theirs, none paying much interest to the others.

Once finished, he washed his hands and went to stand in line for a water fountain. By this time, most of the shift had moved out to the chow hall and the bathroom was nearly empty. The sound of water dripping from a faucet echoed against the tile walls as did the footsteps of someone coming up behind him.

He finished drinking, wiped his mouth on his sleeve, and turned to find an older boy, one about Thomas’s age, blocking his way. Paul didn’t recognize the boy but he’d stopped putting faces to names a long time ago.

The boy seemed nervous but eventually managed to say, “Time to set things right. An eye for eye.”

“Oh,” Paul said, nodding. “So that’s how it is?”

The boy nodded.

“Let me see if I get this straight: You think I picked up Thomas, a boy much larger than me and who happens to also be a much better fighter than me, and threw him off a third story catwalk. Is that right?”

The boy nodded.

“Okay, so you’re here to make things even?”

The boy nodded again.

“So, if you’re right about what I did, then you’re going to try the same thing that ended with Thomas having a broken arm and a really bad concussion and you’re going to try it on the person who broke his arm and gave him the concussion?”

The boy did not nod. He stared back blankly.

“On the other hand,” Paul said, “maybe it’s kind of ridiculous to think I could do those things to someone like Thomas.”

“Yeah, that’s right,” the boy said, eagerly leaping onto this bit of logic.

“In which case there’s no justice to be served here,” Paul said. “If I didn’t hurt Thomas then there’s no eye in your eye for an eye logic.”

The boy frowned.

Paul decided to try to help him out. “Look, you’ve got two options here: if you believe I hurt Thomas then you’re honor bound to try to hurt me. In which case, considering who my father is, you stand a good chance of waking up in the middle of a prayer circle. On the other hand, if you don’t believe I hurt Thomas, then we have nothing left to talk about.” He patted the boy on the arm as he went by and added, “Let me know when you figure it out.”

A few minutes later, when he was back online and heading to the Demon Hunter stables, his vision went black and he suffered that falling sensation again. When his vision returned, he found himself on the ground in front of a small cottage with a woman leaning over him, pressing a stone mug against his lips. Cool water dribbled down the side of his vector’s face.

It was her. The lady in the green velvet dress with the dark red hair and the emerald eyes. She was so beautiful he forgot for a moment that she was just a character in a virtual world. He could kiss her, something he wanted to do more than anything else in the world at that moment, and he would feel her lips on his but he would just be kissing a ghost.

She said, “You’re awake. I thought I had lost you.”

“I feel lost,” he said.

“Are you able to stand?”

He found that his vector was able to get to its feet, his armor clamoring like the loose shingles on a roof after a storm. She led him inside the cottage, leaving Gringolet to fend for himself, and began to remove his armor.

“No, I’m fine,” he said, resisting. “I need my armor. I’m being hunted.”

“You’re safe here,” she said. And with that, he let her remove his beaten and broken armor plating and drop the pieces in the front garden.

Watching the pieces fall into a useless heap he said, “I’ll never be safe now.” His armor wouldn’t regenerate until he got back to the castle which meant he would have to pass naked through the throng of knights waiting for him at the edge of the forest, the Green Knight most notable among them.

“Who hunts you?” the woman asked as she brought water and some sort of salve to treat his wounds. Where his armor had failed at the last of the battle the blows had begun to take away his hit points and his vector’s body had begun to take damage in the form of bloody spots beneath rips in the padded wool shirt and pants he wore under his armor.

“Three possessed knights and a very evil Green Knight,” he said. As she tended to him, his hit point counter began to slowly rise from its tremulous location near zero.

“And why?”

“They’re evil,” he repeated.

“Yes, but why you?”

“I’m on a quest to kill the Green Knight.”

“I see,” she said. “I need to remove your tunic now.”

“What? Why?”

“Your wounds need to be cleansed.” She pulled gently at his heavy woolen shirt but he drew back from her.

“I’m fine.”

She considered him for a moment and then said, “It’s not good for those dirty garments to be in contact with open wounds. It can cause festering.”

He looked away, unable to meet her gaze. “I’m fine.”

She nodded and her mouth turned up at the corners into the slightest bemused smile. “I see. How unfair of me to ask you to disrobe in front of me while I remain fully clothed.” She stood up and reached behind her for a moment, just long enough to undo a ribbon and pull it free of its eyelets. When she held out the long green sash, her dress fell to her ankles and she was completely naked in front of him.

Paul shielded his eyes and said, hurriedly, “That is not what I had in mind.”

She knelt next to him and rolled the sash into a ball and placed it gently into his right palm. “Hold this girdle, good sir knight. As long as you keep it with you, I can have no power over you.”

He crushed the fabric into his fist and closed his eyes. “I should go.”

But she was even then undoing the loops around the bone hasps that kept his padded shirt closed. He stopped resisting. The sight of her bare breasts, not large but firm and perfectly shaped, simply absconded with his desire to resist. Even though he had grown up in the hive where they pretty much dismissed sex as a nasty rumor, he was still a teenage boy who suffered through nightly torturous dream sessions in which he committed cardinal sins with various poorly constructed alternate versions of girls he had seen around the hive.

Not knowing anything about the actual act of sex – or what a naked girl looked like for that matter – his feverish imagination had been forced to construct cryptic and disingenuous presentations full of symbolism borne from ignorance. But here he was in the presence of an actual naked woman – or a virtual representation of one – and what he saw had a visceral effect on him.

At first, he was amazed that it affected him so deeply. How did his body even know it was supposed to react this way to the sight of a naked woman? It was as if it had known all along what to expect but had let him twist in his fever dreams instead of sharing that knowledge with him.

When she leaned down to tend a wound in his shoulder, her nipple quickly and discreetly skated across his bare chest. An electric bolt of discovery flashed through him and a moment later he broke out in a sweat. Had he ever perspired inside the Demon Hunter simulation before? He didn’t think so. This was all virgin territory.

The feeling of her breath on his skin inflamed his desire until he could think of nothing else but taking her by the shoulders and rolling on top of her and… He remembered the sash in his hand, the one she had said would protect him from her charms. He held it out in front of him and said, “Please stop.”

She put her hand on his fist and gently pushed it down until it was pressing against her breast. Then she leaned forward and, her naked body hovering over the bare skin of his exposed chest, whispered into his ear, “That’s not how it protects you.”

“Who are you?” he asked, eyes closed. It wasn’t that he was afraid of what she was going to do – he wanted her to do it more than anything — he was afraid of what he might do. Once you did something like this, once you gave in to the abyss, you became a part of the abyss.

“I am the Green Lady,” she whispered. “It is my husband you seek to kill.”

His eyes tightly closed, he pushed the balled up fabric at her and said, “I bid thee get behind me.”

She kissed his hand and then used it to stroke her own cheek. “The Green Knight will face you for the last time in his chapel where he is indestructible. If you go there to face him unprepared, you will die. There is no way to best the Green Knight in the Green Chapel – not without my help.”

Eyes still shut, he said, “You just said that he’s indestructible in his chapel.”

“He is, yes, but only because he is cursed,” the Green Lady said, her hand slipping down his chest toward his privates. “If you break the curse, he becomes a man again. A man who can be defeated like any other no matter where he is.”

“How… how do I break the curse?” he asked.

She wrapped her fingers around his erection and squeezed. “By cuckolding him.”

“I don’t know that word.”

Her hand still tightly gripping him, she leaned down to whisper breathily in his ear. “Bed me, break the curse, defeat the Green Knight.”

It was hard to concentrate. His whole body seemed to be on the precipice of some automatic action and the intensity scared him. “Please, let me go.”

“Bed me, break the curse, defeat him,” she repeated.

“Yes, I understand,” he said breathlessly. “Please let me think so I can make a decision.”

“No fair thinking,” she whispered with a light spray of giggles. “Just give in to your body. It knows what to do and what it doesn’t know, I will teach.”

He pictured himself rolling on top of her. He pictured himself riding into the Green Chapel with the smell of the Green Lady’s betrayal all over him. That was not the showdown he had been hoping for. He wanted to win with honor and this did not seem anywhere near being honorable. And, yes, he was terrified of committing a cardinal sin but he just couldn’t see himself telling his most potent adversary that it was all over because his wife had committed adultery.

She stopped wrestling with him and stood up, admiring him quizzically. “No? Really? You have a no in you for me?” She indicated her naked body with a sweep of her hands. “You have a no for this?”

He sat up and covered his eyes with his arm. “Please accept my apologies. I don’t want you to feel bad, it’s just that I can’t win this way.”

“Which way?”

“I can’t win by cheating,” he said. “If it’s going to mean anything, I have to win for real.”

“But you can’t win for real,” she said, still naked but now angry as well. “If you confront my husband in the chapel while he is still cursed, he will kill you. Gawain, you must break the curse or you’re done for.”

“Then I am done for,” he said, a wave of melancholy sweeping over him. It had been stupid to believe that he was the kind of boy who somehow managed to beat the system and get out. He was a Primitive. He was a part of the system. He was a small gear on a broken spindle in a machine that was spinning out of control. He wasn’t the kid who got out and became a colonist. That was just intense wishful thinking on his part. “My armor is broken. My sword is about as effective as a twig. There’s no way to defeat him in his chapel.”

“There is one other way,” the Green Lady said. “Let me explain what happened to my husband and maybe you can understand: A sorceress by the name of Morgan le Fay appeared to him as a beautiful woman and attempted to seduce him in order to betray our marriage. He refused her advances and, shamed and humiliated, she cursed him to become the Green Knight until that day came when he lost his true love. Me. My betrayal of our vows would be enough to break the spell and return my husband to the man he used to be.”

“But then your marriage would be destroyed,” Paul said.

“Exactly,” she said. “The beauty of Morgan’s curse is that no matter how you break it, our happy marriage is ruined. That’s all she really wants.”

Paul stood up and stretched. Having a few more hit points made his vector slightly more spry. “But isn’t it better to have your marriage in one piece even if you can’t be together?”

“No,” she said. “The torture of Morgan’s curse is that we can never be together until the curse is broken and once it’s broken we won’t want to be together.”

“I wish I could help you,” Paul said, “I really do, but I can’t do that. I mean, I won’t do that. I won’t win that way.”

She appraised him for a moment and then smiled a sad smile. “You haven’t heard the other way you could defeat my husband and free us from the curse.”

“What is it?” Paul asked. At this point, he was willing to accept any help that didn’t require him to commit a cardinal sin. His armor was depleted and his sword would probably shatter the first time he tried to use it, and the Green Knight was going to be in a place that made him invincible.

She took a dagger from the pile of clothes she had left on the floor and handed it to him handle first. “Drive this into my heart.”

“I’m sorry?” Paul said, pointedly not taking the offered weapon.

“Kill me. That will also break the curse. Plunge this dagger into my heart and you will turn my husband into a mortal man. He will be so bereft, he will beg you to kill him.”

Paul blinked and took a step back. “I won’t do that.”

She pressed the tip of the blade against the skin over her heart and moved toward him. “I would rather die than live under this curse any longer.”

Paul struggled to find a line of logic that would help him escape this trap. The Green Lady had presented him with two perfectly viable ways in which he could he help her out of the terrible mess that her life had become, neither of which were acceptable. “If I do either of those things, I will just end up killing your husband. How does that help you?”

“It ends my suffering,” she said. “Especially if you kill me. I will be dead and you will send him to greet me in the afterlife where we will finally be together again.” She moved toward him another step, now so close that if he just reached out and pressed one finger against the hilt of the dagger she would be dead and he would be just moments away from defeating the Green Knight. Then he could sell his vector to Bertilak for enough money to help him and his sister escape to Canada.

He backed through the cottage’s front door until his heels clanged against the pile of useless armor in the front garden. He bent down and picked up his depleted sword and slid into its scabbard. “I’m sorry that I can’t help you. I know you think I’m a coward but it’s just not in me to do those things.”

“You’ve killed before,” she said, pleading now.

“I killed those who deserved to be killed.”

“Don’t I deserve to be released from this curse?”

He shook his head. “If you’ll excuse me, I have to go meet your husband in the Green Chapel.”

“He will kill you. You don’t even have any armor.”

Paul nodded and tried to smile. “It wasn’t meant to work out for me. But I will pray that it works out for you.”

Tears beginning to shine on her cheeks, she dropped the dagger and put her face in her hands and soon her crying had turned to weeping. She was so bereft that Paul could only turn his back on her and climb into his saddle. He had never felt less heroic than he did when he spurred Gringolet back up the trail that led to the fallow field where he was sure the Green Knight and his ghouls were waiting for him.

“You’re going the wrong way,” the Green Lady called to him, her words wet with tears. “The Green Chapel lies deeper in the forest. It’s a cave not a real chapel. This path leads directly there.”

Paul tried to judge if she was being honest with him. It wasn’t beyond imagining that she had been manipulating him the whole time. From her forlorn expression, he was willing to gamble that she wasn’t trying to trick him. She had the look of someone who was just so tired of the suffering she would accept any end to it.

He kicked Gringolet into a trot. They passed by the stone cottage where the Green Lady, still naked and her face still streaked with tears, watched him go with an expression of profound sadness. Once upon a time, this game had been fun. It had routinely made him feel like a hero. But today, it officially began to feel like real life.

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