For most of his life, Kerrington had had the same nightmare every night.
It had started when he was a child, and even when he had it as a grown man, he'd still be a child in the nightmare. It always started with him hiding. In the shadows of an alley, under a thick cloak that made him look hunchbacked. But a hunchback was a harmless cripple, not a monster with wings and horns. So he crouched in the lee of a building, hood pulled up and the cloak lumpy around the horns that sprouted from his neck and shoulders. From there, he'd watch all the normal people. Little girls holding their mother's hands, begging for a sweet bun from the baker. For a smile and a "pretty please, ma'am", they'd always be rewarded with one. Boys watching their fathers ply their trade, learning to carve furniture or hawk cloth or set wagon wheels. Playing in groups in the streets, chase-the-ball or catch-the-runner or find-the-hidden.
That part wasn't so bad. If he watched really hard, he could pretend he was one of them. That he wasn't just watching someone else's life, but living it. He'd always thought that as a child, that the problem wasn't in his body but his mind, that he just needed to try harder. That if he smiled just right, and said "pretty please, ma'am", normal people would like him the same as the ordinary children. There was a code in the way they acted, he'd thought. A code he was missing, but he was sure he could learn it, if he just paid close enough attention.
So he'd watch in the nightmare, until it all clicked and he knew just what he needed to do to be accepted. Then he'd skip out into the light of the street, putting his hood back so it bunched over his horned shoulders as if he were hunched. He'd smile at the baker, and ask sweetly for the smallest taste of a bun. The baker would smile back and say "Oh, I oughtn't ... " and Kerrington would widen his eyes and tilt his head and give the most innocent pleading look. "... oh, you scamp, here you go." She'd give him a whole bun, and he'd thank her prettily, his heart bursting with gratitude.
That was the worst part, because then she'd say, "Such a good -- " as she reached out to pat his shoulder. Then her expression would turn puzzled at the hard point of a horn under her fingers. The cloak would tear over one point, then over all of them. The baker would put her hands over her mouth, screaming. "Monster!"
Everyone, up and down the street, would be staring at him, terrified, horrified, furious, as the cloak turned to tattered shreds about him. He'd lift his wings to fly away, but the remains of the cloak would tangle them. "No, no," he'd say, tears running down his cheeks, the untasted bun clutched to his chest. "I'm not a monster. I'm not!" Children would pelt him with stones, yelling, "Freak! Monster! Animal!" Townsmen and guards would cluster around him with drawn swords, hacking at his wings and his horns, screaming imprecations. The horns would break off beneath the swords, the wings came apart in clusters of feathers, each blow leaving him writhing in white-hot agony. But although they came off, they did not stay gone: as fast as the normal people could hack away at his deformities, they would grow back like hydras, two more springing up in their place. Until he was choking on feathers and covered in horn, smothering under the weight of his grotesque body.
Until he'd awaken, face buried against the ground or a blanket or dried leaves, body covered in sweat and sticky molted down.
That part of the nightmare was always worse than the reality.Kerrington had lost count of the stonings, beatings, mutilations and attempted executions he'd endured. In the real ones, he usually lost consciousness faster than in the nightmare, and when he came back to life, with regrown horns and wings and limbs, he was just the same as before, not worse.
Once, he'd thought the nightmares would stop after he gave up. Stopped trying to be like normal people. Stopped trying to fit in with them, to live with them, to watch them or understand them. He walked away from the people who would not, could not, ever accept him. He turned to the path of dark magic, consoled himself with monstrosities conjured from the fruits of stone circles. He was a monster, after all. He belonged with his own kind, and if those other monstrosities craved the blood and deaths of ordinary men -- well, why should he care more for their lives than they cared for his?
But even on the dark path, the nightmares did not stop. Every night, he still tried to belong, and every night he still failed. Nothing changed.
Until that drunken fool of a village boy stumbled into that stone circled and tried to save him. Him!
"You're a good man, Kerrington," Eric said, and when he patted one of those horned shoulders and cut his hand, he ... apologized. Not screamed, or fled, or fainted. Apologized. Like it was Eric's fault.
One moment should not be enough to change a lifetime of fear and revulsion.
But Kerrington never had that nightmare again.
For that alone, he owed the fool something.
I'm not a good man, Eric. It's three years too late for that, if indeed there was ever a time that it wasn't too late. But I think I finally know what a good man looks like, and by the eight Hells, I'll not let any harm come to you.
For three seasons, the Dark One had left Eric's province untouched, safe, for the memory of that one moment. But as his forces grew, in number and power and appetite, Kerrington wondered if he'd always be able to constrain them. And what if Eric left? What if he wasn't a local to that province at all?
So he'd given his minions the young man's scent from a stained handkerchief, and sent them to track him down and bring him back.
"Did the Dark One get you too, Kerrington?"
I suppose he did, after a fashion.
From the top of the Dark One's tower, Kerrington watched the storm clouds gather, seething with black tentacles that awaited but his command to fall upon his enemies.
In his study far below, Kerrington could still hear his prisoner crying. "Why are you doing this to us?"
Because I'm tired of being the one who is scared, impoverished, hunted. Because it's their turn now. Because I can. Because I'm a monster. Because there are no other choices any more.
Kerrington extended a hand to the sky. Lightning crackled. A tentacle thick as the neck of a dragon dipped to him, and Kerrington mounted it like a tame horse. He rode the storm sweeping away from his tower, to the scene of his next atrocity.
[Cards from the Tarot of the Silicon Dawn: The Tower (SFW), the Five of Swords (NSFW), The Chevalier of the Void (SFW). Prompt by ankewhener. And now I'm going to stop writing about Kerrington and Eric before this turns into a serial about Kerrington's redemption. :P ]