“The Common Knight”

In a crowded market, the excellent, newish online magazine Persistent Visions is publishing innovative work on a weekly basis, at no charge to you, the voracious reader of short stories. Last year I had the privilege of having my story “Mayastray” appear there.

But did you know that story has a companion piece? (No, you didn’t, because I’m telling you only now.) A similar premise but a much different outcome—because it involves a very different sort of person. It didn’t know I was writing companion pieces at the time, I tend to find certain stories are linked only after I’ve finished them. At 1500 words, here it is.

Man before the darkness

Photo credit: rolffimages

The Common Knight

Matt never paid attention to other people on the bus. Anyone normal rarely did, and certainly not at this time of the commute. Not at 7:20 PM. At this time of the commute, some seats remained open. But not so many that weirdos had the opportunity to interfere with tired commuters or single one out. Sometimes Matt worked as late as ten, and then it became him and the weirdos on the bus. But now the bus held a happy medium: not too crowded, and not empty enough to cause anyone to pay him too much attention. Matt was a weirdo magnet.

If he happened, some summer evening, to be sitting in a group of four or six in an outside café, every wandering street schizophrenic would zero in on him. He always got the seat on the plane next to the man so uncomfortable in his own skin that not only did he want to chat non-stop, he needed to chat non-stop. The saloon crank with the solutions to everything wrong with this country always took the stool next to Matt’s. Every woman he dated turned out jealous and crazy, so his relationships proved short and distant—though not especially painful.

Healthy people, sane people, ordinary people stayed away from Matt. He just didn’t know why. And this night, this particular 7:20 PM commute, it happened again. He could not hide.

Matt chose a seat near the front and opened the ereader app on his phone. However, he had made a mistake. He’d taken a seat reserved for wheelchair access, so, at the very next stop, he had to rise and make way for a passenger who needed it.

Somehow the bus had filled up more than he’d thought it had, leaving him with two choices. Stand in the relatively spacious area by the rear-door exit, or take a seat in the back row. The back row had room for four to sit across, but only one person sat there now: a woman with a weathered face and matted hair, wearing what looked like an entire set of drapes (perhaps bluish or purple, they were too filthy to tell) wrapped around herself. She occupied the middle of the long seat row, staring straight ahead.

Matt elected to stand by the rear-door exit. It did no good. The robed woman turned her head slightly. Once she noticed Matt she continued to look at him. It had happened again.

He, at first, ignored her, swiping quickly through the pages of the novel he was reading but without retaining any of the words.

The bus hit the expressway and immediately slowed to a crawl. Traffic still hadn’t cleared, even at this relatively late hour. That meant the commute—which, in the mornings, took about half an hour from the moment he left home around six, might well stretch to at least three times that long. The woman appeared ready to stare at him the whole way.

Matt scrolled back about ten percent of the way in his novel. It was volume seven of the series, and it didn’t hold his interest like the others—especially now with the disturbing gaze of the weirdo upon him.

The first couple volumes had been great, and he’d heard that the series picked up life again around book ten, which was written from notes left after Donald Barger, author of this planned twelve-volume epic, The Autumn Land, had died. The first volume, Rogue’s Glory had been good enough, but the second, Lady, Crown, and Godspawns was spectacular.

None of the subsequent volumes had lived up to its promise though, and reading volume seven, Storm’s Sorcery, felt like as much of a job as his job, actually. Lady, Crown, and Godspawns had introduced a subplot (lasting several hundred pages) concerning two characters, Indigo Knight and The Common Knight, a matched pair that had warred in different guises for millennia. Indigo Knight—ruler of a country of shape-shifters—had killed The Common Knight many times. The Common Knight was an everyman, Lowborn, but rising to some illusory degree of prominence in each new incarnation. No matter how many times The Common Knight died, he rose again. To die again.

Every time The Common Knight rose, Indigo Knight sent shape-shifters and spies to seek him out—in the taverns, in the streets, on the highways—to tempt him into some cause, some service. The Common Knight always demurred. And, at the hand of Indigo Knight, died again. Though Indigo Knight never relented, both characters had been all but dropped in the later volumes.

When he learned that a new writer was taking over the series, Matt posted his wish on several Autumn Land forums that The Common Knight and Indigo Knight story arc be revisited. Rarely did anyone chime in to take up his cause. (Fake fans found The Common Knight arrogant and egotistical—and, at the same time, passive and ineffectual. The conventional wisdom maintained that his creation was a horrible misstep, a horrible failure at manufacturing a sympathetic character—but they were wrong; the Common Knight merely knew his own intrinsic worth and, as for being passive—there was simply nothing of significance given to him to do.)

But anyway, most readers were more interested in War of the Eleven Elven Princelings against the Dwarves of Forest Unfathomed. Or the promised Return of the Empress of the Solstice. All that would happen, of course, no matter who took up the series. The balance of harmony would be restored in the end and the wicked undone. That expectation was sure to be fulfilled. The extant ten volumes were fecund with dropped subplots and dead ends. It infuriated Matt, as it did many fans. If only he could have a conclusion to Common and Indigo however, Matt, at least, would forgive all the rest.

He realized he’d been tapping through pages again mindlessly. He moved the scroll bar on the app back the same ten percent with a sigh. He needed a new series.

Ebooks were a godsend to him. He could indulge his guilty pleasure. None of his work friends or other ordinary associates had any idea how many fantasy and science fiction novels he devoured. For all anyone knew he was texting or facebooking right now, like everyone else.

Since ebooks, no more shocked looks on those mornings when, after bringing a girl home from a bar, the girl—who had come home with Matt, the smooth, successful, young executive with the important-sounding title, Investor Brand Director, at Flippo.com—awoke to find herself in a bedroom imprisoned by walls stacked high with paperbacks, each one the thickness of a Scrabble dictionary—so thick many sported full portraits of characters or scenes from the novels, not only on the front and back covers, but on their spines.

That would be the girl’s first clue. She would then investigate deeper. The Atari classic console in the corner. The Ikea desk with a two-monitor setup and double-rowed surge protector which rested, not on the floor, but on the desktop, sprouting cables like Medusa’s head sprouted vipers.

There would be no need for her to look further. She was done, and she would escape quickly. She would never even find out that, at Flippo.com, Investor Brand Directors pulled down less than forty-six grand a year. But it all started with the disturbing number of paperbacks. So the phone app had helped with that. He’d put his dead-tree books in storage.

Matt exited Storm’s Sorcery and browsed through the title list in the app for something else. He had books on there he’d forgotten that he owned, let alone hadn’t read, but he wanted something new anyway.

Somewhere, somewhere, in all creation, something new had to exist.

Before he could shop for it, for some alternative, the crazy lady in the back of the bus stood up. She clanked. She threw back her folds of drapery. The drapery was not common purple, of course. Indigo. Beneath it, hence the clanking, she wore a suit of armor. It shined. She drew her broadsword. Passengers dived for the floor. Many screamed. She held the sword in both hands and rushed him.

The weathered face, the matted hair. She hadn’t bathed, certainly in days, and possibly in weeks. Indigo Knight was relentless and focused, after all. She never rested in her travels from realm to realm until she sighted The Common Knight again.

The Common Knight could run and run, but he could never escape Indigo in her many guises. Indigo sent out spies and minions to draw him in: the wandering panhandler, the chatty seatmate on a plane, the bar crank. But the spies, the minions, always failed. The Common Knight avoided, demurred, forced Indigo Knight again and again, in world after world, to appear in the flesh.

She swung her broadsword now. Tomorrow, Matt imagined, there would be a huge headline on local news sites: Sword Killer! Nightmare Commute! Something. But, of course, he could not say for sure, and he wouldn’t be around to find out. Not this time. Maybe someday. Maybe someday the story would come to an actual end. If someone invented a way to write it. Indigo Knight’s blade swept the air. Matt did not resist.

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