This is my second round competing in NYCMidnight’s Short Story competition and this one was tough. My last story A Pot of Trouble took 4th in my group, which advanced me to the semi-final round. The assignment for this story nearly drove me insane:
Subject: Body Dismorphic Disorder
Character: A Chocolatier
I had fits trying to get this all together. As it is, I think I did a decent job, though I am worried I may have tried to cram in too much. Let me know what you think.
Ambrose fled over the alley’s rough cobblestones in front of me, the tattered remnants of his shirt dripping blood across the stones. I covered our escape, running a few steps behind him and watching for the beast. Most of my weapons were gone and my armor was smashed, all I had left was my silver dagger and the flickering silver aura of my powers.
My heart thundered in my chest and I gasped for breath as much from fear as exertion. I drew power from the surrounding moonlight to strengthen my legs and lungs, but something tugged at my awareness instead. I spun, raising my dagger to strike, but the alley behind me was empty. When he saw I’d stopped, Ambrose’ ragged voice filled the alley. “Thomas!”
I jerked back around, freezing as I saw the massive beast loping along the rooftops lining the alley. I tried to scream, but my breath caught in my throat and my heart froze in my chest. The beast flew off the rooftop like a striking falcon, knocking Ambrose to the ground in a spray of blood.
I screamed then. The werewolf rolled to its feet in a blur and lashed out. The protective magic of my aura shattered like cheap glass and my head snapped to the side. I staggered backward. My neck had almost broken with the force of the blow.
I raised my blade, half blind from the blood running free down my chest. The beast leapt as I struck, impaling himself on my dagger as his massive jaws clamped around my throat.
I woke screaming. I had the same dream every night. It never got better. The web of scars covering my face and throat burned with remembered pain. I stumbled to the wash basin, splashing my face with the frigid water. The sky outside was black and dusted with distant stars. I pushed the shutters open further. It was still several hours before the first of the roosters would wake. No one would see me.
The moon pulsed behind the clouds, filling the streets with the soft silver light that used to bring me such peace. My scars throbbed and I slammed the shutters closed.
I stalked across the small room and sat at the dressing table with my back to the closed window. I scooped a handful of creamy paste out of a jar and slathered the chalky substance over my skin. The ragged lines of horror faded beneath the onslaught of makeup until my flesh was almost smooth to the touch.
The shop below the room was cold and empty, but I moved through the dark with ease, lighting the ovens and setting out the molds for today’s orders. This shop had been my home for five years. My magic was gone and my face was disfigured, this was all I had left.
I moved through the shop, filling displays with chocolate treats and cleaning as I went. The chime above the front door tinkled and I turned, plastering a smile on my face.
My heart stopped. The man in the doorway was tall and broad. His one remaining eye was ice blue, but the rest of his face was a jagged mass of scars. Only his size stopped me from wondering if I was looking in a mirror. Ambrose smiled with the half of his mouth that still worked and raised a hand that was missing several fingers. “Hello, Thomas.”
I couldn’t breathe. My scars flared, pulsing through the layers of makeup like living embroidery. I staggered away, knocking into shelves and displays. His twisted face was a mockery of mine. It was a moving reminder of everything I’d lost, a billboard of my greatest failures. I clapped a hand to my face, covering my throbbing scars. “Out,” I gasped. “Get out!”
He said something I couldn’t hear over the roaring of the blood in my ears and walked toward me. I dove around the counter at the back of the store and tore a dagger from its hiding place. The blade cut at the air and Ambrose finally stopped walking. His deformed face twisted to let his lips form words. “We need to talk, Thomas.”
“No!” I gasped. “I can’t! You have to leave. I can’t have you here.”
Ambrose’ one working eye squinted at my face and my scars burned. My dagger fell from my fingers and I threw my hands up, covering my face. “Please go,” I moaned. “I don’t want to talk to you. I can’t go back.”
“Two nights ago,” he growled, “a man was found butchered in Bishop’s square. Last night there was another. It’s the moon, Thomas, it’s our beast.”
Panic thundered through my chest. “Please… I don’t hunt werewolves anymore. Let the guards do it.”
“Damn your eyes, man! It’s not just a beast! It’s our beast! The one that gave me these scars.” He gestured at his own face, despite how much worse my scars were than his. “We have to kill it!”
My heart felt like it would burst. “No!” I roared, pushing him back. “Never again! I can’t face that again. I can’t. The goddess doesn’t speak to me. Her magic doesn’t fill me. I have nothing to offer to a hunt.”
Ambrose snarled. “You’ve got what I need. You’ve got rage and pain and a hunger for revenge, if you’re still the man I knew. Damn your goddess, and damn the beast!”
I shook my head, smoothing my makeup with the tips of my fingers. “You don’t understand, Ambrose. The moon goddess chose her champion that night and it wasn’t me. I wasn’t good enough. My soul was ugly and now I must live with my ugliness in plain view.”
Ambrose’ eye narrowed. He studied me for several moments and shrugged as he turned away. “Then you don’t wish to be healed.”
The small cup I’d just picked up shattered on the floor. “What did you say?”
“I said ‘healed’. I said the scars could fade. I said you could be redeemed by your goddess.”
Ambrose turned back, his face earnest. “Why haven’t the scars healed, Thomas? Surely, with scars as bad as you think yours are, you’ve tried to heal them. It doesn’t work, does it?”
“No.” My voice was so meek I could barely hear it. “No,” I said louder.
“And why not?” Ambrose asked. “Because the beast is still alive. Because your goddess is telling you the job isn’t done yet. She’s not punishing you for failure, she’s telling you to finish.”
I stared past him at the closed door. It was a door I barely went out anymore. A door that led to a world I was slowly losing track of. My scars kept me locked inside. I was too afraid to go out. Every child that saw me cried. Strong men turned away from me. I’d spent half my pension on so called cures, but none of them had worked. Nothing had done a thing. Ambrose was a sculpture of beauty compared to me. He was lying to get me involved. He had to be. There was no way it was that simple, but… could it work that way? Could I afford not to try? What if he was right? “I’m in.”
The weapons I had left were silver and sharp, but they were too few. Ambrose supplied the rest, including crossbows and silver-tipped spears. I left my small shop for the first time in months, and without makeup for the first time in years. My scars would heal or I would die trying.
We left my shop at dusk and rode to the central square. You can’t track a werewolf during the day. They become just another man, but when they change, the screams begin. It’s the one sure way to find them without magic and, if we’re lucky, we get there in time. We sat astride massive chargers from Ambrose’ personal stock. They were the finest horses I’d ever seen and Ambrose swore they could outpace the wind. I fingered the edge of my silver dagger and hoped he was right. A dozen guardsmen waited with us, but they kept their distance. We were the experts here.
The first scream rang through the city just after moonrise. Several guards raced toward the sound, but Ambrose and I sat unmoving. By now, the people in town knew there was a beast on the loose. They were edgy, scared, and would jump at shadows. We waited for the screaming that wouldn’t stop.
It came an hour later, terror-filled and unstopping. The horses beneath us leapt into the wind at the touch of our heels and flew through the city. Ambrose threw his head back and howled, long and loud. A second later, I joined him. It was one part battle-cry, one part warning to the town, and one part challenge to the beast.
The screaming finally ended, for good or for ill, I couldn’t tell. We howled again, driving our voices higher to imitate the challenging howl of wolves. This time it worked. The beast responded with a challenge of his own. We kicked our horses faster, their shod hooves scattering sparks across the cobblestones.
We fled down increasingly narrow streets, following the howls of the beast. Ambrose’ charger pushed past me, racing ahead. My heart raced. This was how it happened before. I felt something stir within me, something that was almost magic. “Ambrose!” I roared. “Above us!”
Ambrose turned, lifting his spear as the beast sprang from the shadows above. I watched the beast slam into Ambrose horse, knocking them all to the ground. I tore the dagger from my belt as the beast rolled to his feet, roaring his challenge. I bore down on him in full charge. At the last moment, my horse tried to shy away, but I swung my dagger backward, stabbing the majestic beast in the flank.
The horse screamed and tried to rear at a full gallop. The hard metal horseshoes skid over the slick stone and we slammed into the werewolf at full speed, driving it to the ground beneath nearly a thousand pounds of rippling muscle.
I slammed into the cobblestones, barely managing to roll clear of the tangled mass of screaming flesh. The beast’s claws and fangs tore into the thrashing horse, trying to free itself. My spear skidded toward me over the ground. I looked up. Ambrose’ face was a bloody mass, but he nodded at me, jabbing his spear into the tangled mass. I snatched up my spear and joined him pinning the silver head through the wolf’s thigh with my first strike.
The beast’s screaming howl filled the night. I left my spear in his leg and pulled the small silver axe from my belt. The horse’s legs flailed frantically, but I threw myself onto the exposed body of the beast, swinging again and again, hacking at any patch of soft fur I could see. The beast’s blood flowed faster with each swing of my axe. My scars throbbed and burned, the heat cascading over my face and neck like a strangling web of self-hatred. With each swing of my axe a strand of that web snapped.
I swung my axe until long after the horse stopped flailing. I hacked at the corpse of the beast until what was left of him began to become the man he had been pretending to be. I cut him until his face was the ruined mass mine used to be. I hacked until Ambrose mighty hand fell on my arm.
I looked up, suddenly aware I was crying. I’d been crying for what seemed like hours. We were surrounded by guardsmen, but most of them either looked sick or looked away. I stared into Ambrose’ single blue eye. “Is it over, Ambrose? Am I healed?”
“You’ve been healed for a while, Thomas,” he said at last. “But I think now the scars can fade.”