Nostalgia was a force too powerful to be ignored. Irrational and fleeting, it could be provoked in even the hardest of hearts. It made generals capable of sending thousands of family men to their deaths visit the grave of their childhood dog or a runaway orphan return to their abusive mother when she’s on her deathbed. Even monsters had a perverse sentimentality to them; it was a consequence of having a soul left to lose.
Cheegal the Clown couldn’t be certain whether his soul was still with him. In a way, he hoped it was; if the Dooms of the Storm existed for him after death, he most certainly deserved them. Going without a soul felt like cheating. Thankfully, he must have had some twisted remnants of personality within him, given he was once again returning to Deathsport.
His name was a euphemism at this point. To ‘pull a Cheegal’ was to snap from the drudgery of life; go to work in the morning and massacre one’s colleagues by the time the shift was over. Despite this, the clown himself was so invisible that he could get away with wearing his makeup in the middle of the city.
Deathsport was packed, as one would expect the capital of a kingdom to be. Though the layouts of the terraces and streets repeated themselves, Cheegal knew it like the back of his hand. As a goblin, he was both accustomed to being too short to rely on his vision in the middle of a crowd and climbing perches to plan one’s route.
There was no agenda for this visit; it was if his body had dragged him without a conscious effort. He kept his faded orange cloak around him and dabbed at his face. White paint smudged on his digit, and he very nearly bumped into a human.
“Watch it, freak!” the man snapped, and shoved him aside.
Cheegal scoffed and moved on. Tall people always bullied goblins and gnomes when they could. It must have been fun, being so superior in one’s mind that one viewed people as opportunities to abuse for kicks. As fun as their lives may have been, they were always short and sweet if Cheegal had his way.
How many people had he killed at this point? Counting missions for the Order of the Shade, it was well over a thousand. Many weren’t strictly his kills, but he’d led the raids, so it counted. The distinctive stink of Deathsport’s harbour district and the unwashed tall folks around him ironically drove Cheegal further into his thoughts.
Why was he here? It could only be nostalgia; a desperate pilgrimage to where it all began. He did it every month, but there was no rational reason to. If anything, it was insanity; he was a wanted criminal, after all. Perhaps after thirty years, most would forget a mass-murdering clown, but Deathsport had ensured they wouldn’t through their little monument.
A blind goblin woman tapped her cane as she made her way through the crowds, yelling in a shrill voice. “Outta my way! Outta my way! Blind woman here, watch your step! If you big idiots trip over me, it’s your own fault for not listening!”
Cheegal’s throat stung, and the voice thrust him out of his surroundings. His legs were taking him through Deathsport, but his mind was elsewhere. In the distant past, Cheegal wandered through the considerably less crowded streets of the Capital. A massive tent was pitched in the city square, and peasants lined up around the corner to get in.
The ticket girl was named Rina, wasn’t she? A dumpy-looking human girl with a qat-chewing problem, expertly miserable with her job. Whenever Cheegal entered the tent to get in some last-minute preparation, she’d always say something like-
“Have fun getting beaten up, clown-boy.”
The voice was clear as the day she said it; boredom verging on complete apathy. She knew her place in the world, and she wasn’t happy with it, like so many peasants before her. Just another innocent drained of hope by reality; she could hardly be blamed for her malaise.
That was why fantasy was so important, wasn’t it? The Cheegal of the past believed wholeheartedly that whimsy was the key to staying sane. In the early days of Rowyn the Ringmaster’s Circus, he was a solo act that juggled and honked his nose. He’d cartwheel for children and grown-ups, feign injury when people stepped on his massive clown shoes, and tell some of the worst puns in Arkheran history.
Then Rowyn hired Taskmaster, an orcish brute twice the size of the largest human Cheegal had seen. What was it the fat elven bastard had said?
“Now listen, Cheegal, it’s not that people don’t like your acts, ‘cause you’re a funny guy, but we can’t keep this performance up forever. The act’s gonna get stale. We need to punch it up a little!”
The younger Cheegal sounded like a child, so high-pitched, so pure. “But Rowyn, it’s not about being punchy. To me, clowning’s just about helping children keep their playfulness and giving adults some of their lost whimsy back.”
“See, this is what I’m talking about,” Rowyn said. “You have no vision. We’re here to entertain, and children have short attention spans. They’re going to get bored with your act sooner or later. But you know what isn’t boring? Slapstick!”
“Oh! I see, so you want more slapstick? I can work that out, I just-”
“I was thinking we could overhaul your entire act,” Rowyn said. “Instead of boring jokes and cartwheels, let’s have a little narrative. Like a tragic mime act, you know, the stuff that’s all the rage in Elarond? My wife’s Elarondian, and she always enjoys a good mime show.”
“I’m all for taking on a more complex act, but how does it involve that orc?” the young Cheegal asked, gesturing to the up-until-then silent behemoth.
“Taskmaster comes from the Flowerfields, worked for the Kazaros military as an instructor. Seems like he wasn’t getting what he wanted from military life, said he’s looking for something more fun. Then I heard his name and immediately knew what act I wanted him in!”
Cheegal remembered the way he deflated; all he could do was ask his boss what he had in mind. The elf’s jowls shook as he detailed the new act. Each step broke his heart a little more, if he recalled correctly.
He would be the clownish servant of a mean-spirited manager named Taskmaster. He’d be a kind-hearted but bumbling sort that would agree to the task with enthusiasm, but upon starting the task, would be distracted by various setbacks. Sometimes, a person who needed more urgent help would compel him to assist them. Other times, thanks to Taskmaster’s incompetence, a crucial facet of the job would be impossible, the humour being in Cheegal’s bungling attempts to complete the task regardless.
The recurring punchline of the act was all too literal. Taskmaster would return to find that Cheegal had not completed the task as expected and summarily beat the poor clown. He would indulge in audience participation, asking the children if his subordinate was lazy and if he should hit him harder.
Cheegal remembered his protestation like it was yesterday.
“Children would never relish in violence like that!”
Rowyn laughed it off. “I believe they would. Everyone’s a murderer in their hearts, Cheegal, that’s why tales of heroic valour and glorious war are told. Everyone wants to be a killer, so they regale themselves with tales where murder is shiny and justified.”
“That’s- all right, I get what you’re saying, but children are innocent! They’d never support this kind of act! It’d just make them cry and their parents would stop taking them to the circus. With all due respect, Rowyn, I think this is a bad decision.”
Taskmaster wasn’t much of a talker; throughout the exchange he just stared at Cheegal like he was a new toy. Rowyn the Ringmaster had a favourite food, didn’t he? It was either fried squid or prawns, but whatever it was, he stuffed his face with them while Cheegal made his point.
“How about this? We go through with the act for one night and see how audiences react. If they don’t like the new direction, you can stick with your old, stale act forever and ever until the audiences stop coming. If they enjoy it, however, you keep to the act and shut your mouth.”
For a moment, Cheegal returned to the real world; he overheard the sound of squealing. A pair of humans were kicking a gnomish man on the floor of an alleyway while a third inspected the contents of a sack. Some sort of magitech device. The clown checked his surroundings; the peasants that were around weren’t intervening, so they weren’t likely to report his existence either.
It was technically against Order regulations to partake in vigilante justice without clearance, but he was sure the Grand Witch would let an archmage off. He charged into the alley and threw his cloak off, revealing the clownish attire beneath.
The human checking the goods paused, then burst into laughter. “What the fuck are you doing? Do you think you’re Cheegal the Clown or something, dressed like that? Tell you what, just forget you saw this and I’ll let you off with just a laugh.”
“I’ll forget, but only because you’re the least memorable person I’ve killed.”
“You’re joking, right? That’s what clowns do, they-”
Cheegal leapt onto the man’s upper body, wrapping his short legs around his chest and clawing at his face. He couldn’t help laughing when things got this heated; the feeling of goblinese claws on soft, pink human meat was a sensation like no other. It was such a shame; the kid was handsome before his run-in with Cheegal-branded slapstick.
By the time the man stopped screaming, his fellow criminals had long since given up on beating a defenceless gnome. They weren’t backing down, but they hadn’t attacked yet.
“What’s the matter?” Cheegal asked. “Enjoying the show too much?”
“You twisted son-of-a-bitch!” one yelled, taking out a rusty dagger.
Cheegal’s heart jumped into his chest; it was that time again. Ever since the day it all went wrong, his hands had a hard time behaving. Once upon a time, he could summon fireballs in a quasi-controlled manner, but since joining the Order, his hands had only two settings; fire-free and useful for everyday life, or ceaselessly streaming fire until they could stream no more.
He didn’t always follow what happened when his flames leaked from him. Though he heard the screams of the two muggers as he cooked them alive, he couldn’t recall seeing them or whether they managed to get a slash in. Before he knew it, two crispy lumps of long pork rested next to their faceless comrade-in-crime.
The gnomish man stood and backed off from his terrifying saviour. “What are you?”
Despite the murder of three men coming as easily to Cheegal as breathing, he didn’t know how to take this. He awkwardly picked up the gnome’s strange device and put it back in its sack, then held it out.
“This is yours, take it and-”
“It’s fine, you have it!”
The gnome ran for his life, and Cheegal slumped his shoulders. What in the world was that? Why did he try to give it back? Every piece of magitech was an opportunity for the Order to plagiarise new developments in the field. He should have said ‘it’s mine now’ and left it at that. He was nothing more than a criminal that other criminals feared.
He groaned and pulled at his clothing. It was covered in human face-blood, the most pus-filled kind he knew. It was easily covered by his cloak for the time being, but he hated having to replace his clown ensemble.
He clambered up a nearby building using his claws as footholds and leaped from roof to roof until he was sufficiently far from his most recent witnesses. His surroundings once again became immaterial. It was the night he tried the double act with Taskmaster for the first time. He was so certain the show would flop and he’d be proven right.
Despite that, he still put his all into playing Cheegal. After all, at the time, he was a representation of hope in an otherwise dreary existence; even in this sadistic travesty of a show would only happen once, he’d put his own spin on it. In his mind, Cheegal the Clown saw good in everyone, and deemed every person worthy of helping even if they weren’t his employer.
He could still act as the whimsy the world needed this way; the alleged everyday sadists Rowyn talked about could get their kicks while those willing to see past the surface would find hope in Cheegal’s optimism despite the abuse he went through. He just hoped that Taskmaster knew how to convincingly fake his punches; so far, he hadn’t impressed Cheegal with his conversational skills.
He remembered talking to Jezza, the acrobat and a fellow goblin, before the show. Once upon a time, he’d wanted to be an acrobat too, before he discovered the value of clowning. She was beautiful in his eyes, and always offered a friendly ear to him.
“I heard your act got a revamp by the ringmaster,” Jezza remarked. “You looking forward to it?”
“I’m not sure what to think. It’s a lot more mean-spirited than before. I don’t know how to take it, but Rowyn’s the one who gives us the gold,” Cheegal said as he put on his makeup. “I’m going to go for a tear-streaked clown look this time. Black dots around the eyes that streak down into a fake smile.”
“Representing hope through sadness?”
Cheegal smiled. “Yeah. Do you think they’ll get it?”
“I don’t think children will, but I got it, didn’t I?”
Back then, he thought she was the smartest girl in the world. He didn’t know if the average audience member would get the things Jezza did; now he knew better. People got it, they just didn’t find it compelling. The show started, and soon enough, it was time for his act. Taskmaster roared and made his presence known.
“Cheegal! Cheegal, where are you?”
That was his cue. He cartwheeled in and hopped up to the orc to the cheers of the children. He was still the face of the act, after all. On the show went; Taskmaster told Cheegal to stack plates on an imaginary shelf. Whimsical soul he was, he did this by carrying as many plates as possible in a pile and walking them over to the shelf.
He wobbled and made the audience stand on their tip-toes in anticipation, and then the supporting cast came in. Cheegal would find a missing dog, fill in for a street cook, and dance for the amusement of a visiting noble, all while balancing a pile of plates in one hand. The children loved it, and if Cheegal was honest, it was a refreshing level of complexity that his act needed.
His hope shone through; perhaps this double act wouldn’t be so bad. He could finally tell a narrative through his character and more explicitly get across the ideas he wanted to instil in children. If he and Taskmaster worked together, they could keep whimsy alive in the hearts of Deathsport.
Taskmaster ‘returned to the scene’ just as he made to ‘stack the plates’ and bumped the goblin over. The plates fell and shattered around him, and the big man let loose a theatrical roar. Cheegal couldn’t remember how the confrontation went after that. His head was too rattled.
He constructed a scene from the piecemeal memories he had. He said something in his goofy clown voice as he was picked up by Taskmaster.
“Taskmaster, I’m so terribly sorry, see I was busy helping others, and I only just got back to stack the plates!”
“You dropped my plates!” Taskmaster said in mock anger. “Stupid Cheegal!”
After that, he threw the goblin to the floor. He remembered anticipating a near-stomp that would look close enough to the audience, then receiving a hard dose of reality. His leg very near splintered when the orc brought his massive foot onto it, and after that, the same happened to his other leg.
He was yanked up, then smacked back down again, thrown left and right like a ragdoll, and cuffed over the head. This wasn’t slapstick to Taskmaster; it was an outlet. The younger Cheegal stared at the children in the audience, expecting sympathy. He received none. They were aroar with laughter.
It was all a joke to them. A fantasy. When Cheegal struggled to stand and Taskmaster raised his hands, he couldn’t expect anyone to speak up or boo for him. The orc roared in false anger and addressed the audience once more.
“What do you think, children? Has Cheegal received enough punishment for slacking off?”
“No! No!” they called in unison.
“Should Taskmaster hit him harder?”
“Hit him harder! Hit him harder!”
Cheegal opened his mouth just once, but to no avail. He was once again beaten to the screaming laughter of children. His honking nose got knocked off and his real nose snapped at the bridge. Goblins were clambering sorts; they were hardy enough to take regular falls and nimble enough to recover over and over. For Cheegal, this meant that no matter how much abuse he took, he remained conscious for it all.
After the show, he wanted to cry, but that wasn’t a luxury he could afford. Whenever the circus ended, Rowyn the Ringmaster would stand with the performers and let the children go up to talk with them. He couldn’t be seen crying in front of his audience; he was the whimsy in their hearts. If his jolliness died, so did his purpose.
He cleaned off his blood and hid his injuries with makeup the best he could. Jezza approached him and put a hand on his shoulder.
“Good job out there. Your reactions to the beatings seemed real. Honestly, though, I’d try and make it seem more exaggerated, otherwise people are going to think you’re actually in pain.”
Cheegal paused. “Yeah. You’re right, thanks for the advice.”
“Are you all right?”
He finished painting over his smile, then turned his head to face her. “Just dandy, thanks for asking, doh ho ho ho!”
Jezza chuckled. “You don’t have to play clown all the time, Cheegs. Come on, let’s go see some kids.”
Memories faded away and reality crashed back into focus. He was so lost in his past that he’d messed up a leap between roofs in the present. He’d landed, but his ankle was twisted. The old clown grimaced. He’d had plenty of practice repairing himself thanks to Taskmaster. He sat down on the flat terrace roof and physically twisted his foot back into position.
He grunted, but nothing more. Monsters didn’t feel pain. He checked the magitech device he’d procured and frowned; it was damaged from the landing. He put his hood up and scanned Deathsport for his destination; it was easy from this vantage point.
It was the old city square. There wasn’t a big top there anymore, Cheegal had seen to that. In its place was an obelisk built of basalt, with flowers laid out around it. Most of the peasants avoided it, but a few stopped by to add bouquets of their own or have a moment to think. Cheegal’s eyes started to hurt.
Monsters didn’t cry either. It was simply force of habit. Killers like him had to resemble people most of the time, and he such a good actor that he could pretend to be upset. It was nothing that time wouldn’t fix. The creature that cried was just like the face he painted on every morning. The Orange Archmage of the Order of the Shade was his true self.
How did the Order get involved again? Cheegal’s ankle was fixed, and he could have leapt down to get this instinct-driven visit over and done with, but seeing the obelisk filled him with a pride so morbid that it could have been confused with shame.
The beating shows were an unprecedented success. While the children told him he was so funny and their favourite part of the show, they were all ignorant. Thanks to their cheering and encouragement, Rowyn kept Taskmaster on and the shows would only grow more violent.
Cheegal considered quitting, but it was not long after that his mother fell ill. Rowyn’s circus was the most lucrative in town, and as terrible as the job was, if he took the beatings, he’d have enough money to buy the medicine she needed. He was no wisdom; his mother was wasting away and he had no idea why, but she could at least be made comfortable with poppy milk.
On his day off, his mother told him about a visitor she received while he was working. She said he was a goblin that claimed to be Cheegal’s friend. He gave her a drug that made her feel much better than poppy milk ever could. The thing was, Cheegal had no friends outside of Jezza, and she wasn’t a wisdom either.
“What did he look like, mum?” Cheegal asked her.
“Well, it’s the strangest thing,” she said between coughs. “He was dressed in orange and wore this eight-pointed star necklace. I could have sworn I saw that symbol on a religious building. You’re not turning to the gods because of me, are you?”
“No, mum. Are you sure that medicine is safe? I don’t think I know this person.”
“Take it from me, I’m feeling better. I feel like I could go look for your father at the harbour again!”
Cheegal kissed his mother’s forehead. “Don’t worry yourself with that, mum. What you need is rest. I’ll get to the bottom of who this man is.”
He knew where his mother had seen the symbol before; it was plastered above the entrance of the Lodge of the Order of the Shade. There was one in every city. At the time, Cheegal knew nothing about it; he’d heard about their generosity to the homeless and their alleged connections to magical conspiracies, but he’d assumed they were little more than a harmless cult.
He remembered the moment he entered the lodge with perfect clarity; the building was windowless, lit by eight braziers with differently-coloured flames. The opening lobby was set out like a waiting room. There were tapestries depicting magical acts throughout the ages, Jaranese calligraphy painted in strips along the walls, and wands placed on stands so elevated that even an orc couldn’t reach them Though there were doors to other rooms, they were all marked as ‘Staff Only’.
Cheegal would have abandoned the building, however a door opened, revealing a blonde-haired human youth in indigo. She had an expression as colourless as her steely grey eyes.
“Cheegal the Clown, correct?”
“Yes? I’m here to ask about a goblinese man. You wouldn’t know if-”
“Come with me.”
Though Cheegal didn’t know it at the time, his decision to follow this girl was the last one he’d make as a person. From this point onwards, his destiny was monstrous. No, that wasn’t entirely true; Rowyn the Ringmaster had the right of it. Everyone was secretly a monster. This moment simply led to the circumstances that would reveal him as one.
Sitting at a desk was the goblin Cheegal would come to know as Chen’zygath. What did he look like, again? He recalled a squint in his left eye, but beyond that, it was a blur. The one thing he couldn’t forget was his voice; scratchy and low, as if ravaged by drinking something dangerous.
“Why did you seek us out?” he asked Cheegal.
“You visited my mother, didn’t you? Gave her some medicine for her illness. Why? How did you know about her and why did you help?”
“An idealist like you surely understands,” the goblin said. “We saw a hard-working son who loves his ill mother, and we wanted to help out. The Order of the Shade is a charitable organisation.”
“So you don’t want anything in return?”
“Nothing at all. We want to give you something too,” he said, opening his orange cloak to reveal a vial. “This is a special drug. If you ever feel like life’s too much, I want you to drink it.”
“What does it do?”
“Makes you happy again. You’re a clown, so you have to stay happy no matter what. I understand your plight, Cheegal. This should make it easier.”
Even as the whimsy of Deathsport, Cheegal knew better than to trust him, yet he left the lodge with the vial nonetheless. Work wore on and the beatings continued. He remembered Rowyn’s shit-eating grin at the next performance review.
“See, Cheegal? My wife was right, story-driven clowning is the new ‘in’ thing. I don’t know why you have to complain so much. Why defend such mediocre acts when you could be propelling your act to greatness! Taskmaster says he loves working with you too!”
“Yeah, I guess it makes sense. Sorry for questioning you,” Cheegal mumbled.
“It’s all right. It’s why I’m the ringmaster and you’re the clown. You’re not meant to be taken seriously. Now go on, off with you.”
What was it Cheegal did after that? Whatever it was, it made his current self red-hot with anger. That was it, he made another request of his ringmaster after everything. The last remnants of hope clawing at a wall before they fell from it. How did it go again?
“Rowyn, I was thinking that Taskmaster could be a great strongman. Perhaps I could be an acrobat and be a double act with Jezza while he gets a chance to be in the limelight. How about it?”
“I think that’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard,” Rowyn answered.
Even that didn’t kill Cheegal’s hope. What else did he do before he resorted to the vial? Even though he’d seen for himself that the innocence of children was a lie and his mother was dying, this wasn’t the day the whimsy of Deathsport died. Cheegal distantly beheld the memorial obelisk once more; there was no-one left in the area.
It was her. Jezza was the one to kill his hope. He’d approached her before a show, and while he didn’t hope to change the day’s act, there was a chance he could secure a better future. He walked into her dressing room and had a chat with her.
“Jezza, I had an idea. I wanted to be an acrobat with you. I know it seems abrupt, but I want Taskmaster to do his own thing. He’s really strong and taciturn, so I was thinking he could be a strongman!”
The woman looked at Cheegal’s broken face. At the time, he thought she was giving the offer some thought, but her laughter cast that notion aside.
“Good one, Cheegal! It’s really sweet of you to think about lending your popularity to my act, but it just wouldn’t work! You’re a brilliant clown, but I don’t think you suit acrobatics, and besides, why would you ever leave the good thing you’ve got going? You and Taskmaster are unstoppable! Honestly, it makes me jealous. Are you telling me you’d trade places with me and let me be the clown beloved by all?”
“I’d never let you do what I do,” Cheegal blurted with unexpected sincerity.
Jezza laughed. “There you are, I knew you loved the attention really. Sorry, Cheegs. Looks like you’re stuck being the kids’ favourite act! A fate worse than death, eh?”
It was here that Deathsport’s whimsy truly died. He wore his smile like always did. “Woe is poor old Cheegal, doh ho ho!”
“All right, Cheegs, stop showing off. Speak to you after the show.”
“Speak to you later.”
Cheegal didn’t stick around any longer than he had to. He talked to the children and listened to their half-coherent, rambling explanations of which parts they found funniest, then headed home. There was something missing from this memory, but it can’t have been important; then again, anything that was said in the after-show was insignificant compared to what came next.
As Cheegal had given up on hope, his mother had given up on life. When he returned to a silent house and saw his mother lying peacefully in her bed, he didn’t move for a good hour. She had a smile on her face, though looking back, Cheegal supposed it could have just been a rictus grin.
If anything should have set Cheegal off, it would have been this. That was how he knew he wasn’t a victim. Here, in his most vulnerable hour, he could be forgiven for going mad, but instead, he stayed calm. He didn’t cry, just like a monster wouldn’t. He took his mother’s corpse to an undertaker and left her behind.
Did he cry when he got back to his empty house? Perhaps. He wasn’t sure. All the liquid shade made his memories a tad mushy. He downed the vial Chen’zygath gave him; it tasted of ink, cream, and pistachios, and in moments, he felt unstoppable. Magical energy coursed through his body, and the flames in his hands became unquenchable. If he recalled correctly, all he wanted to do was keep them unquenched.
He burned his father’s clothing first. He’d only kept it around so his mother wouldn’t cry, after all. Then he burned his letters, and the bed his mother died on. It was a miracle he hadn’t burned the house down by the time he was through. Why did he stop himself? He was already a monster, so why was he so selective?
Whatever the reasoning, he wouldn’t be so careful next time he embraced his inner daemon. Cheegal pulled an all-nighter putting out his fires and returning to the Order Lodge for another vial of liquid shade. Sleep-deprived and morose, he dragged himself to the big top for his final day of work.
Cheegal’s sigh brought him back to the Deathsport of the present. He was wasting time; he should have taken the opportunity to visit the monument as soon as it became unoccupied. He hopped from the roof and landed in a hunched, primal stance. The magitech machine in his cloak was already broken; more breaking wouldn’t hurt. The boys in the Red Division would reverse engineer something from the parts.
Some of the people nearby recognised him. Not as Cheegal the mass-murderer, of course; simply the hooded clown that visited the memorial obelisk regularly. He walked through the tall folks and reached the shrine to his own atrocity. Gingerly, he stepped around the flowers that had been left, and inspected the placard.
So many names from one incident. It was no wonder people continued to leave flowers thirty years after. So many families torn apart, so many legacies snatched. Rowyn and Taskmaster were among the deceased; if people knew what Cheegal did, they wouldn’t be commemorated. The other names weren’t cause for celebration.
Despite that, Cheegal always read the list in its entirety. He couldn’t say for sure, but it was probably more of his twisted sentimentality. Tallying the names and putting a number on his first atrocity must have counted as some form of nostalgia. There was a name that echoed in his head; Lewys.
Cheegal ran through the names. Jakhal, James, Jormun, Kayle, Keeza, Kiran, Kregan, Lawrence, Lewyn, Liara. Where was Lewys? He should have been between Lewyn and Liara, but he never showed up. What was his significance? Why did it hurt so much to remember him?
He fell into a crouch and allowed tears to flow from his eyes. That must have been it; he was the one who got away. That’s the only reason why he’d genuinely cry. This was his masterpiece, the grand act he performed to celebrate the death of his old, naïve self, and this ‘Lewys’, whoever he was, got in the way.
The misery brought him back; perhaps his mind reverted to a moment of pride to offset the defeat he was subconsciously reliving. It was his final day as a proper clown, and it was as if Taskmaster knew it. When Cheegal put on his makeup, Taskmaster broke into his dressing room and leaned against the wall.
“Rowyn told me that you tried to abandon me. Make me become a strongman. You’re a fucking idiot, you know that, Cheegal?”
“I don’t want to hear it,” Cheegal replied.
“What’s the matter? Is little Cheegal sad that he couldn’t get away from big, mean Taskmaster? Come on, mate, you’re being stupid. The children love seeing you get beaten up. Can you imagine how hurt they’d be if we called off our show?”
“Don’t act like you care about the kids,” Cheegal muttered.
“Oh, but I do! That’s why I work hard to give our show that punchy realism that they scream and laugh over! It hurts that you’d want all that to end!”
“Swim in the Storm’s Dooms, Taskmaster. Let’s just get this over with.”
“You’d best have your smile ready by the time the show starts or you won’t remember your name by the time it’s over.”
Cheegal neglected to respond, and once left alone, he took a certain vial from his pocket. The dark blue sludge left a slick residue on the glass as he swilled it. In two swift motions, he uncorked and downed the horrid concoction. Though he wasn’t any happier, there was enough energy in him to force a smile and then some.
The show started, and as usual, Cheegal and Taskmaster were the crowning act, the humorous finale. The children cheered for him as he entered. This time, Taskmaster had him build a castle, but whenever he moved onto another area, the person supplying his bricks took them from the stack he’d just finished. By the time Taskmaster returned, no progress had been made.
As usual, the orc smacked him around, but this time, the pain made his vision more vivid. His hands grew warmer with every spike of fear, and as Taskmaster turned to the children, tiny flames jumped from his scaly fingers.
“All right, children! Tell me, what should I do with this good-for-nothing Cheegal? He’s slacked off again!”
“Hit him harder! Hit him harder!”
“What was that? Hit him harder?”
“Yes! Hit him harder!”
“Oh, well, you kids know best!” Taskmaster said, turning to the fallen clown. “Cheegal, you haven’t been punished enough!”
As the orc raised his fist and prepared to bear down, Cheegal went off-script.
“I have, though.”
The orc stammered. “Er, Cheegal, we’re on-stage, what are you-”
“I’ve been punished enough, you sadistic little brats!” Cheegal snapped, and without warning, his hands burnt with unstoppable heat.
He raised his hands towards his tormentor first. Flames streamed towards Taskmaster’s face, and though he tried to attack him, the pain must have been too much. He screamed as his eyes bubbled and burst, and his copper skin wrinkled into a crisp, hairless pink mess.
The audience fell silent as Taskmaster did. Finally, they would listen to Cheegal, even if he wasted half the opportunity laughing like a lunatic. The flames still burnt hot in his hands, and his outfit’s sleeves were singed.
“What’s the matter, kids? Don’t you love violence? Don’t you love it when you see your favourite clown getting beaten for your amusement? Doesn’t it give you your sick kicks? Why are you so afraid? Surely after seeing a man burn to death, you’ve got at least some laughter in you! What’s wrong with you? Laugh!”
The audience remained silent, and Rowyn lugged his fat arse onto the stage. “Cheegal, snap out of this right now, or-”
“Look, kids, another person to laugh at the suffering of! This one isn’t as meaty as Taskmaster, but he’s got more than enough lard on him!”
“Wait, Cheegal, stop! I’ll figure something out, I’ll-”
Whatever offer Rowyn had was immediately rejected. He shouldn’t have worn such fine Elarondian felts; they were far too flammable. The bubbling of his blubbery body was music to Cheegal’s ears. Cartwheeling about, the liberated clown screamed to the panicking onlookers.
“Oh, you know what this act’s missing? Audience participation! I find slapstick’s much more amusing when everyone understands how it feels!”
With his unquenchable hands hotter than ever, Cheegal sprinted around the edge of the stage and set fire to the stands. The flames spread swiftly, what with the abundance of heat, air, and fuel, so it wasn’t long before the entire big top was ablaze.
Cheegal finally understood his true nature. The screams of adults and children alike was what he was missing in his life. Rowyn was right after all; he just needed a way to be violent without feeling bad about it. It didn’t matter that he was a sadist; after all, he was just killing more sadists himself. The children would grow up to be monsters like him or Taskmaster anyway, and the adults had obviously raised their children to be that way.
No-one deserved to live; from this point onwards, Cheegal would burn them all. Once the world was free of the plague that was man, only then would sadism disappear.
That was when she appeared. While everyone else trampled over their fellow man in an effort to escape the flames, she ran towards Cheegal, jumping onto the stage. For some reason, his hands stopped leaking flames and his mad elation subsided.
“Cheegal, what is this? Why? How could you- you’re a monster!” Jezza said breathlessly. “I thought I knew you, I thought we were friends! I don’t understand.”
“I thought we were friends too,” Cheegal said, his playfulness abandoning him. “But you didn’t understand. I asked you to help me and you let me down.”
Jezza’s gaze hardened. “Whatever mistakes I made, you can’t put this on me. I didn’t make you burn those children to death. You did this. You’re a murderer, and I can’t believe I ever cared for you.”
“If you cared, you’d have let me be an acrobat with you! I knew if I didn’t get away from that sadistic bastard soon I’d snap, but you didn’t listen, you didn’t help me when I needed it!”
Pieces of burning fabric fell from the top of the tent, and the goblinese woman protracted her claws. “Well, Cheegal, I’m sorry. For the good of everyone, I’m going to subdue you.”
“Try all you like, Jezza. I won’t hold back.”
Cheegal should have laughed as he recalled her feeble efforts, but for some reason, he simply cried more. She may have been nimble, but ultimately, she didn’t take beatings as a day job. The result was inevitable.
The audience had either become charred corpses or left the big top, and the tent had fallen apart. Cheegal stood amid the blazing scraps of cotton and ever-present smoke, looming over Jezza’s quivering body. He’d clawed her eyes out, but for some reason, he couldn’t finish her off. It must have been to cheat her out of a quick death.
The smoke robbed him of vision beyond his own hands and another silhouette approached him. It wore a cloak and was around his height.
“Cheegal! Do not attack me, I come in peace!”
“Impossible. I’m a monster now. You’re here to put me down.”
“It’s Chen’zygath from the Order Lodge. I just want to talk. Please step down. I promise I won’t get you arrested.”
“How do I know you’ll stick to your word?”
“If the authorities find out I supplied you with the liquid shade necessary for this rampage, I’ll be in as much trouble as you. Come here, I promise I won’t hurt you.”
What was it Cheegal did after that? Whatever it was, it wasn’t aggressive. For some reason, he’d submitted, hadn’t he? Did he cry? Whatever the case, the cloaked man stood before the clown and offered his hand.
“There’s no other option for you now,” Chen’zygath said. “I’ll take you to our headquarters in Nightshade, where you’ll be free to train as an acolyte of the Order of the Shade without being pursued by the authorities.”
Cheegal remembered now. Mystifyingly, at the time, he’d lost his fight entirely, and blubbered before the Order member.
“I don’t want to keep going. I want to die. This isn’t something I deserve to walk away from. All those children, even if they did enjoy my suffering, this isn’t right! I should die and burn in the Storm’s Dooms. I misused what you gave me. I deserve to choke on this smoke and suffer for eternity.”
“If that’s what you want. Any last requests?”
“That girl on the floor, the goblinese one, can you take her out of the tent? Make sure she’s safe?”
Chen’zygath paused. “If you want her to be safe, save her. But that, whichever way you look at it, requires you to be alive. If you change your mind about dying, let me know. I’ll be waiting in the lodge.”
Jezza’s body faded away and the monument of the present replaced her. Why did he stick around to save her? Whatever the reason, thanks to her, he continued his monstrosity for thirty years after his grand unveiling. And what a debut it was. Rowyn and Taskmaster were handily flame-broiled, Jezza lost her eyes, and countless families died screaming.
How did Lewys fit into all this? He wasn’t a performer, but the name had significance somehow. Was he confusing him with one of his victims from when he was with the Order? No, he definitely knew him when he was a proper clown. His memories were clear one moment and fuzzy the next. And for the love of every god, why did he always cry when he visited this accursed memorial?
Ever since joining the Order, Cheegal had leaned into his true nature. It was all he could do. He was the twisted clown that burnt down his big top and massacred children. What was he, if not a mad dog? As he clawed more eyes from people’s skulls, the easier it became. Burnt corpses blurred together. If the Grand Witch wanted someone dead, Cheegal was the man for the job.
Cheegal the Clown shrivelled into a vestige and Acolyte Chen’razghul became stronger in his place. Yet still, he remained a paradox. His claws protracted, and he screeched as the tears continued to flow.
“Why? Why am I here? What am I doing? Who is Lewys? Why do I remember him? What use could I possibly have for feeling so sad?”
Feral instinct kicked in; someone had overheard his meltdown. He hunched and supported his weight with a hand along with his feet, then glared over his shoulder. A human man stood by the monument, hand in hand with his son.
“Go on, Damien, put the flowers down for your grandma and granddad,” the father said.
“Do you think they’re happy to get them?” the child asked.
“They’re up in the heavens and proud of you,” the man claimed. “It’s a shame they couldn’t be here for your birth, but I’m sure they wish they were.”
“Why did they have to go? I asked Hezzag and he said Cheegal the Clown was a very bad man.”
“He did a very bad thing, but I always liked him as a child,” the man said.
The goblinese clown turned from the pair and covered his eyes. For some reason, it was even worse than usual. They were leaking to the point where he could no longer say it was a form of method acting. He was in pain and didn’t want to accept why.
“Excuse me, mister, why are you crying?” the child asked as he put some flowers next to the monument.
Cheegal jumped, and desperately tried to wipe away his tears, but all this achieved was covering his cloak with makeup. “Stay away! You- you don’t want to talk to me, I’m- it doesn’t matter.”
“But why are you crying?”
“Please, you don’t understand, I’m a very bad man,” Cheegal begged, his hands sparking up. “You need to stay away from me, just go back to your father, there’s a good kid, you need to forget about people like me until you’re older, all right?”
Undeterred, the child hugged him. The boy’s humanity meant that their heights were comparable, and though Cheegal was stronger than him, he couldn’t push him away. His hands were still on fire, so all he could do was hold them as far from the boy as possible.
Why was he like this? He wasn’t a good person. He could have returned the hug and scorched the kid’s back to teach him a lesson about being kind to monsters or murdered him and his father in cold blood. It was what he was good at. Yet considering this at all just made him sting.
“Why? Why are you hugging me?”
“You’re not a bad man, because bad men don’t cry. My dad says that some people just have icy hearts, and the best cure for an icy heart is a warm smile.”
Cheegal’s hands put themselves out, and his eyes, wide with recognition, traced over to the boy’s father. The man’s dirty brown hair, his straight nose and bushy eyebrows, they were an older version of someone he knew. The missing name, the one that got away, Lewys. He was a child. He was the memory he kept pushing away.
When the other children screamed ‘hit him harder’, he was the one voice saying ‘stop hitting him’. As the big top cheered for Taskmaster, he would always boo, his parents along with him. After the show, most of the children told him how funny he looked when he was mercilessly thrown by Taskmaster, but not Lewys.
Why did he forget? How could he forget? He always talked to him about kindness and hope. The conversation from the show before he found his mother returned with full clarity.
“When will Cheegal win?” Lewys asked, his childish form almost as tall as Cheegal’s adult one.
“Cheegal doesn’t have to win to be happy,” he explained. “See, what makes Cheegal special isn’t his cartwheels, nor his laugh or his silly shoes. What keeps Cheegal going is his belief that all men, even Taskmaster, are worth helping.”
“But Taskmaster is mean! If I were Cheegal, I’d hit him!”
“Sometimes, Lewys, the iciest of hearts just need a warm smile. That’s the hope Cheegal holds closest to him.”
In the moment, the broken clown shook in the boy’s grasp. His hands dimmed and eventually, he returned the embrace, outright sobbing into the child’s shoulder. “I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry. You deserved to have grandparents. You deserved to be happy. You shouldn’t be here, visiting this memorial to my-”
“Damien?” the adult’s voice said. His father loomed above them.
Cheegal released the boy and scrambled so he was behind the monument. Lewys put a hand on the boy’s shoulder and smiled.
“Who was that man?”
“A goblin dressed like a clown. He wasn’t happy like one, though. He was crying, so I hugged him to make him better.”
“I think I know the clown you’re talking about,” the man said. “He comes here every moon. He never speaks to anyone, though, so well done. You did what I taught you to do, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, dad. I gave an icy heart a warm smile.”
Cheegal trembled and clawed at the ground. Why were his words coming out of Lewys’s mouth? Didn’t he know that he was the reason his parents died? He was the reason he was here, putting flowers at this monument with a son too young to understand grief. How could he have affected anyone in a good way? It wasn’t right, it didn’t make sense.
He groaned and clawed the ground some more, then hit his head against the monument. It was impossible; all his goodness and hope in man had to be a lie. It was the only way it made sense. It couldn’t be any other way.
The human man walked around the monument and crouched beside him. “Hey there. I know who you are, you know.”
“Then you should know to stay away! Why did you just leave your son to approach me like that? I killed three people an hour ago! How could you throw your son to something like me? Why? Why do it? It makes no sense!”
“Why do you care?” Lewys calmly asked.
Cheegal’s words caught in his throat. “What?”
“Well, if you’re the threat you think you are, you wouldn’t be angry about me letting my son into danger, would you? Why are you so upset about that?”
“Because you’re his father! You shouldn’t let your child near a beast like-”
The realisation hit Cheegal harder than Taskmaster’s fist. He wasn’t a beast. Why else would he care about the child’s wellbeing? If he was a monster, he’d have killed them both already. He wouldn’t have wasted time warning them. If he was heartless, there’d be nothing left to defrost, but Cheegal had clearly let something warm him up.
“I had a feeling it was you all along,” Lewys said. “They never found your body, and you visited so regularly that you either had family you’d lost or you had a connection to it. I still remember your performances with fondness. Despite everything.”
“How can you forgive me?” Cheegal spluttered. “Why aren’t you angry? Your parents probably burned to death or got trampled! You were made an orphan in Deathsport of all places because of me! Hit me! Kill me! Do something, you’re justified! Settle the debt! Settle it!”
“No,” Lewys insisted.
“I’ll go on to kill again! I’m with the Order now! I’m the Orange Archmage, and I’ve caused suffering on a scale you can’t imagine! If I die, how many live? See, it’s not just revenge if that’s what you’re worried about! I’m a menace to society, so just do it! Kill me!”
“I’m not going to kill you.”
“Oh! You’re afraid of getting caught, that’s fine, the Order has the technology and the magic for situations like this,” Cheegal stammered, preparing a smoke bomb from within his cloak. “We can go somewhere private, away from your son so the kid doesn’t see-”
“I’m not going to kill my favourite childhood clown.”
“I’m no-one’s favourite clown! If I was ever beloved, it was a lie! The good person I was, it was just a cover, don’t you get it? I was always this monster, I just covered it up until circumstances made me let loose! I’m a danger to Arkhera! Please! You just need to snap my neck or something, tell your kid whatever you need to!”
Damien pulled on his father’s trouser leg. “Why does he want to die, dad? Does he think he’ll go to the heavens?”
“No, he thinks that he’s going to the Dooms. He thinks he deserves that.”
“But he doesn’t, does he?”
“I don’t think so,” Lewys answered.
Cheegal couldn’t stand it. A weight pushed on his shoulders and forced him into a knuckle-walking stance. His claws couldn’t protract, and no matter what he thought, his flames weren’t stirring. His makeup had largely dripped onto the floor from all the pointless tears.
He wanted to say something, but if he did, there was no turning back. It would mean accepting that what he did wasn’t part of his nature. It was every bit a crime against himself as it was against society. He wouldn’t be able to stay in the Order. He probably wouldn’t be able to kill again.
“Lewys,” Cheegal muttered.
“What is it, Cheegal?”
“I’m sorry for everything. I did something horrible, and I haven’t stopped committing atrocities since. It’s not that I was always a monster. I remember you. I remember loving you. I remember wanting to keep hope in your heart. On my first night in the Order, I prayed that I hadn’t killed you.”
“When you first started burning Taskmaster, I thought it was part of the act at first. I was happy for you, until I realised that you wanted to burn everyone else.”
“I did something terrible. I wanted to tell myself that I was terrible too. It doesn’t feel so bad if you think that you’re only evil because it’s in your nature, you know?”
“I know,” Lewys said. “But that’s not who you are. You’re a decent person who did something awful. I don’t know what you’re going to do now, Cheegal, but I accept your apology. Oh, and one more thing.”
“Thank you for the laughs.”
Cheegal couldn’t help but chuckle at that. His gaze was fixed to the ground, but there was no way he’d let Lewys leave like that. He brought his head up and looked him in the eyes.
“Come on, Damien,” Lewys said, taking hold of his son’s hand. “You did a very good thing today.”
“Will he be all right?”
“I think so, Damien. I think so.”
They walked away, and Cheegal even gave them a small wave. This changed everything. He wasn’t an abomination that would only be stopped by death. He could have stopped any time he wanted, but instead, he’d spent thirty years playing pretend. The pain he felt after every killing wasn’t an act; it was the heart he refused to listen to.
He made up his mind. If he’d spent thirty years making the world suffer, he’d spend the rest of his days making the world happy, or at the very least atoning for his sins. He’d already seen the first person he’d make it up to; the blind goblinese woman from before.
There was so much he needed to tell Jezza.