Regular Romp is an interactive fiction activity over on our Twitch stream where I ask a regular a series of questions before turning their answers and a corruption of their username into a short story. Stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade if you’d like to participate.
The scene opens on rolling hills on a windy day. (Stage hands off to the side have large cloth fans and are working quite hard on their simulation) Elizabeth Mary stands at the top with an arm full of dresses in various colors. One by one she throws them to the wind and they are blown off stage.
Her mother Gertrude enters from stage right. She is irate and wields a pair of large scissors.
Gertrude: What are you doing! Come down from there at once! (She stomps, but can’t climb the hill due to an old injury.)
Elizabeth Mary: I’m freeing these clothes. I know you want to destroy them, for the simple crime of being assembled by my inexperienced hand. (She tosses another dress flippantly.)
Gertrude: I could tolerate the making, but the wearing! You embarrassed us all at the festival. You’re lucky you aren’t cast out. You need to be trained. Your hand needs a guide.
Elizabeth Mary: I can’t stand your restrictions. I’d sooner die than obey. A grave would be far better than a corner of the courtyard and a blinded needle and thread. Shall I stitch my eyes shut mother, so they don’t dare imagine a pattern better than one of yours? (She tosses another dress.)
Gertrude: If you care about them so much why are you throwing them away?
Elizabeth Mary: I’m denying you the evidence of your stern hand. You will not return to the other elders with the tatters of my creations. I’d rather see the wilds have them. The raccoons and moose around here will look lovely adorned in my work. Not one single sock for your scissors! (She tosses the rest of the pile.)
Gertrude: That’s it! I’m coming up there!
She attempts to climb the hill, but ends up rolling back to the bottom. She winds up on her bottom at the lip of the stage. Her daughter descends in concern, but still much more gracefully. She tries to help her mother up, but the old woman refuses. She swings the scissors back and forth, accidentally cutting across Mary Elizabeth’s chest. (Mary Elizabeth punctures the squib)
“And that’s when I made my move,” Spite claimed. “It was the perfect time. They already expected blood, but not that it would come from my blade. I wasn’t even allowed to be a player.”
“I saw it, as I was on the stage the entire time,” Fame confirmed. “I was in the waist band of the Gertrude character. Oh how I wanted to be the scissors instead. The way they were waved about, so dramatic.”
“I need you to be more specific,” Wickediel said. She almost went to rub her brow in frustration, but that would’ve given one of the two talking daggers a chance to cut her and escape. She was stuck with them for the time being, so she pumped them for clues to their origin. They wouldn’t tell her what it was directly, but they loved bragging about their involvement with the stage.
The daggers, Fame with the fancy jeweled white hilt and Spite with the simple black leather one, had insisted on accompanying her on the adventure as her only weapons. They wouldn’t talk to anyone otherwise, and they were really the only clue. Poor Wickediel had no choice but to leave her trusty bow behind. She couldn’t even complain about it. Rare were her job offers these days. When the village of Meadmouth offered her ten silver pieces to find out where the daggers came from, it was the best offer she’d had since her failed pilgrimage.
“I’ll be more specific,” Spite crooned. The dagger’s voice made hair stand on end. It was predatory like a cat’s but also frustrated, more like a feline statue that could only insult the rodents passing by. “I was above the stage when the false blood was spilled, also in a waistband. The stagehand was walking through the rafters adjusting the sandbags. I slipped out. The wind from the offstage fans changed my course just enough. I struck poor Elizabeth Mary’s neck and spilled real blood. That’s proper theater.”
“Proper theater is scripted!” Fame insisted, pulling towards Spite. The two daggers lunged at each other and dueled in Wickediel’s hands. It took all her strength to pry them apart and hold each at arm’s length as she walked through the forest.
“That’s enough out of you two!” Wickediel hissed. She couldn’t shout, because there was something in the woods ahead of them. When she asked the daggers which way to go they had pointed her out of Meadmouth and into these dim trees. Meadmouth had a vibrant theater scene, with shows going nearly every night. Wickediel wasn’t there when the daggers were used as props, so she only got the account of the nearly-deadly assault secondhand. The young woman, who was definitely not named Elizabeth Mary, had sworn off of theater because of the incident. Her fresh scar probably would’ve prevented her getting cast much anyway.
Meadmouth had purchased their latest batch of props from a traveling troupe: a few backdrops, ropes, and a handful of weapons that were supposed to be dull so no overzealous actor would hurt themselves. That was how the daggers snuck in. They kept their voices to themselves until they were onstage. Everyone thought it an accident until Spite took credit for it. Fame, in its feminine voice like heavy wet snow, then accused the other weapon of upstaging it.
“I’m just amazed this wicked woman took the bait,” Spite giggled.
“My name is Wickediel Scriptorian. We’re not on stage now, so there’s no need for you to talk like some arch villain. You already got your dramatic pose back in Meadmouth.”
“I want more,” Spite said. “I could’ve savored it much longer if you hadn’t cleaned the blood off me. Now an encore is necessary.”
“What rude magic creates a thing such as you and passes it to innocent hands?” the young woman asked.
“We told you we’d show you. Don’t be short-tempered with us. I’ve been nothing but polite,” Fame said. The dagger bowed in her hand, pointing her deeper into the forest. Wickediel continued on, but she noticed the air changing. The trees were the same distance apart, but she suddenly felt surrounded. There was no breeze. Even with all the pine needles she smelled only rocks and mud, as if it had just rained. “Before we get there, I want to know more about you. You’re a beautiful young lady. Why are you out here adventuring? You should be on the stage. We could costar! Doesn’t that sound fun?”
“I’m not an actor,” she answered simply, but when the sound of her boots against all the pebbles grated on her she decided to keep talking. “I used to paint and carve.”
“I didn’t make it to the inn-spire.” Her grip tightened on the daggers. She didn’t realize the wound was still so fresh, but talking about it made her want to swing them wildly. It didn’t make sense, as there was nothing to attack. She had nobody to blame but herself. She had gotten lost on the pastel path. She had turned around.
“Oh, is that so,” Spite said in a mocking tone. It swung back and forth upside down, like the pendulum over the pit. Wickediel got the sense it pictured her tied to a table beneath it. “An artist who found the pastel path but turned back. I’ve never heard of such a failure before. You’re a very interesting loser. Would you like me to put you out of your misery?”
“I’m fine, thank you,” Wickediel spat. “Are we close to…” She stopped, because they were. It wasn’t quite a clearing; it wasn’t obvious how these three wagons had gotten this deep into the trees. One was clearly stuck between two conifers. The daggers hadn’t lied at least. She could tell from the colorful draped curtains and the carved masks on the sides that these were the wagons of the troupe that sold the cursed props. She was to find whoever was in charge, extract a refund, and perhaps get an apology for Elizabeth Mary’s scar, seeing as it would leave the stage even though the name stayed behind.
“Oh, who’s this?” a woman’s voice asked. She stepped out from behind one of the wagons, swaddling a big carved mask as if it were a child. The mask’s face was something between a bear and the devil, but Wickediel was more unsettled by the woman. Her smile, embedded in chubby cheeks, looked permanent. She was in full costume, a purple ball gown, and full make-up to boot. The rouge on her could’ve painted a sunset across a cathedral ceiling. “Can we help you dear?”
Five more people came out of the woodwork: a tall man with stilt-like legs, a young acrobat in a cream-colored leotard, a pair of lady twins in red robes, and a man with a frilly collar and a goatee that looked like a strong pickaxe. They surrounded her, but she kept the daggers down. No need to start a fight, not yet.
“Am I interrupting a performance?” she asked, given their attire.
“Are the performances ever over?” the man with the goatee asked. He bowed and extended his hand at the same time. She couldn’t take it, as she didn’t trust putting both daggers in one hand, so she merely said it was very pleasant to meet him. He rose slowly, his back cracking. His smile also looked permanent, but his brown eyes were sharp and alive, just as much as the daggers. She sensed a bubbling anger somewhere in his pomp, or perhaps drizzled over his circumstance. “Allow me to introduce us. My name is Propmaster Hambeth. These are my actors, performers, and prop makers. We travel, supplying stages and adorning them when we feel like it.”
“That’s lovely, but I come with a complaint.” She raised the daggers, but kept them held horizontally. Fame and Spite butted points while she spoke, clinking annoyingly, but the troupe didn’t seem to care. “You sold these daggers back in Meadmouth without telling anyone they were cursed. A woman nearly lost her life, and she has certainly lost her enthusiasm for the stage.”
“Oh!” the rotund woman with the mask said. “That is terrible. Nobody should ever lose that. We’d be happy to help in any way we can.”
“I’m afraid we can’t!” Propmaster Hambeth declared with a finger spiraling up to the sky. The rest of the troupe gasped and looked up at the overcast sky. Wicked did the same out of reflex, but she recoiled. The sky was there like always, but it seemed closer. Cloying. Like the air. “We can’t, because we have no idea where those daggers came from. All of our props are perfectly harmless. Come, see for yourself.” He held his arms wide and they seemed to almost stretch in the gesture, looking as long as the stilt-man’s legs.
“It’s true,” Fame tittered. “They don’t know us. We just snuck in.”
“I can’t trust anything you say,” Wickediel hissed. She followed the troupe as they swung around to the back of one of the wagons. It was open. They encouraged her to look inside: piles of sandbags, curtains, pancake make-up, costumes, and glass jewelry. There weren’t even any fake weapons.
“See?” Hambeth crooned. His big teeth clacked. He picked up a sandbag and dropped it. The wagon shook a little. “You’re an actor, so you can tell how high quality these are. Would you like me to paint an expression on you as proof? I do an excellent ‘grieving widow’.”
“I’m not an actor…” Wickediel answered dumbly. She accidentally lowered the daggers, and took a cut to the knee from Spite. She hopped into the wagon and buried both blades in a sand bag so she could free her hands and slow the bleeding. It shook far more, as if she weighed ten times as much as the sandbag.
“Let me help you,” the rotund woman said. She disappeared around the wagon and came back moments later with a colorful sash. “This will be a perfect bandage, and it suits your coloring so well. My, how I would like to costume you.” She leaned in, but Wickediel pushed her away and scrambled backward, further into the wagon. The woman’s arm felt strange. It was thinner than the sleeve implied. Was all her fat just costuming as well? How many layers would it take to look as round as her?
“No, no, no,” she said, holding a hand over her gash. “I’m fine, thank you. It’s a… a minor…” She turned back to Hambeth. “Why did you think I was an actor?”
“I sensed creativity,” he said with a shake of his head. “Don’t you have any?”
“I do,” she shot back. The daggers wiggled in the sandbag. They were going to break free and babble what she’d told them of her failure. It was better to beat them to it and spin the story in a more positive light. “I’m just not an actor. Painting and carving mostly, and now never. My parents were real geniuses. Sculptors both.”
“What parents let a creative little finch like you run off into the woods with talking knives?” Hambeth asked. He leaned into the wagon without supporting himself on its frame. With his white frilled collar he looked like a flower bending under the weight of its petals. “They should have you locked up in a nice cozy room with a chunk of heartwood. That’s how to get your work done. Immerse yourself. I sleep on the stage you know.”
“My parents are gone,” she said, voice dropping. It joined the dead bugs on the floor of the wagon. She pushed a desiccated moth with the tip of her boot, pushed it forward slowly, as if encouraging it to find the slat in the wood and fall to the real, bright, grassy world below. “They went to the inn-spire six years ago. I couldn’t go with them; I wasn’t ready yet. No magnum opus in my gallery…”
“Ahh, the inn-spire,” Hambeth mused. “Our troupe could get there, but we still have so much work to do. But…” He leaned in further, goatee brushing the sandbags without bending. He stuck his head right between the daggers. Wickediel wanted to warn him, but his expression was so confident. The daggers weren’t wiggling either. They didn’t seem to want his notoriety or his blood. “You said you’d stopping creating. Why haven’t you joined them in the inn-spire? I’m sure they miss you.”
“I couldn’t make it.” The moth fell through the boards and into the grass. She lost sight of it. Now there was nothing to look at but the wall of a smile on the satisfied thespian’s face. The memories flooded back. She saw the pastel path and all its soft pink and green flowers. Blooms too soft to touch. Mere thoughts of nature provided by the poets and playwrights who had walked it before. It was the way to the inn-spire: the heaven for all artists. Its bottom door only opened when your muse thanked you for your accomplishments.
“Tell us about your work dear,” the rotund woman suggested. She leaned in too, along with all the others. The acrobat’s pale cheeks and fingers peeked over the bottom of the wagon. “That will make you feel better.” They all nodded.
“My final statue,” Wickediel started, “was carved from driftwood. It was a procession of gulls marching across the sand. My mother always loved nautical themes. I wanted her to see it from the top of the spire. I even carved their wide footprints. One of them had a crab dangling by a claw from its beak. The detail… The hours it took…”
“Keep going,” Hambeth encouraged. The rotund woman crawled inside, rattled the wagon, and started applying the costume piece as a bandage.
“I picked the last splinter off and the pastel path opened up before me. My wall was gone. I practically jumped into it, but I soon lost my way. It just kept winding. I couldn’t see the spire anywhere on the horizon. What kind of artist can’t find the spire when they’re on the path? I’ve never even heard of another failure.” The acrobat was next to her, brushing pale make-up onto her neck. Hambeth clacked his teeth and preened his collar. “I was like a squirrel caught in the middle of the road. I thought one wrong step would have me kicked out. I was anxious, scared. I turned around, rather than have my parents see how long it took me to reach the spire. I returned to our world. I could never get it to open again.”
“There’s room for you here,” Hambeth offered. “Our stage is very creative. It can reignite your passions. Nobody will see your shame under one of our fine masks.”
“No,” Wickediel suddenly refused. If she couldn’t do it herself, then she couldn’t do it. All artists knew that. Advice only took you so far. Only inspiration unlocked the inn-spire. Hambeth didn’t seem to know that. How could he not?” She inched forward, trying to climb out of the wagon, but the troupe blocked her exit. Their costumes seemed to swell until there was no daylight under the canvas. “Let me go!
Fame and Spite rattled and shot out of the sandbag. The sand spewed like a geyser. The daggers tumbled this way and that, giggling and shrieking, slicing open more bags. Sand poured everywhere. The acrobat smeared make-up on the back of her neck. The rotund woman threw stacks of costuming on top of her, trying to drown her in colors and ribbons.
They were all lying. That much was clear. The daggers had come from the troupe, and the troupe was just as cursed as the daggers. They wanted her life for some reason. These false actors, who didn’t even knew the rules of inspiration, preyed upon those too excited to get the show going. They drank the blood of the starry-eyed.
Wickediel flailed, pulling the gold and red pantaloons off her face. Hambeth was in the wagon now, holding her down, sticking his dry bony fingers into the wound on her knee. The pain shot up her leg and made her scream.
“Yes, that’s it! Hahahahaha!” Hambeth cackled. “I almost believe you’re in agony. Keep going. You’re a star!” He peeled some of her skin back. Blood dripped between the slats and drenched the gray moth. She smacked the rotund woman away. She fell backward, rattling the wagon even worse than before. One of the wheels moaned. Something was wrong. The slap had cut Wickediel’s knuckle. That woman’s cheeks weren’t plump. They were nothing but bone.
They had no inspiration. Fame and Spite only wanted the things they associated with the stage, not the art itself. This was all a show, designed to fool Wickediel, to trap her. She turned her hand into a wicked claw and scratched at Hambeth’s face. Make-up and flesh peeled away and crumbled as one, like the filling of a chrysalis pie. Both eyes popped out and rolled away, clearly made of glass by their sound. Wicked clawed and clawed until there was nothing left under the costume but Hambeth’s true face. An open mouth. Taut brown gums. Hollow cheeks. This was a corpse.
Wickediel, spurred by the horrible sight, pushed forward. She used Hambeth’s body as a ram to shove the others out of the way. They only had half the strength they pretended to have. The rest was stage dressing. They were stage dressing! Once she was out of the wagon she saw Hambeth upon the ground. His face, a congealed glob of powder and rouge, flowed away like a slime mold. His body was now inert. It belonged to an innocent, another Elizabeth Mary who wasn’t so lucky on the stage.
“You’re props!” she shouted as she moved from body to body, tearing their artificial faces away. The man with the stilt-like legs grabbed her, hoisted her into the air, but when she clawed his cheeks off he collapsed. A body on wooden stilts. She tumbled with him. Fate and Spite tipped over the edge of the wagon, trying to stab into her. She snatched them both, held them tight even as they protested.
She’d taken down many a foe between her magnum opus and this assignment. Meadmouth had asked her to do it because they knew of her shame. The strange nature of the crime had an artistic bent, so why not pick a sellsword who used to work in the field? She was perfect for the job, and she proved it by slicing the last faces away. It was all so clear now. These were cursed props. All of them so near inspiration, but never capable of achieving it. Their life was false, petty, and thin. She took the unwilling daggers to the wagons themselves, and they collapsed quickly.
She moved to one of the trees. It was all fake. That was why the air was so unpleasant. She slashed and stabbed with Fame and Spite, seeking something past their juvenile desires. The forest was gone. The props sat there in a dark pile, the costumes wriggling weakly. The corpses of Hambeth’s troupe were close to a stone wall. She was in a cave. The fake forest, the smiles, the offers. They just wanted to comfort her so they could kill her. They wanted to dress up her body and parade it around so they could pretend to be artists some more.
Wickediel Scriptorian stared at the blank wall of stone. The props were proof. You couldn’t borrow inspiration. You had to find your own way. When she was in the pastel path she’d thought only of her parents, of their approving gaze. The daggers screamed into her palms, but she muffled them by gripping even tighter.
“Quiet you,” she told Fame and Spite. “This is about me. I’m making a creative decision. I’m done with you parasites. Are you the sharpest tools in your troupe? Is that why you’re sold to collect the bodies? I’m taking you with me. I’ll show you what you’ve been missing.”
Wickediel struck the stone wall, scored it. It wasn’t the canvas she was used to, but the daggers could serve as brushes. Slash served as stroke for hours. She made a scene in the cave that nobody but the corpses would ever see. It was an incredible landscape, with a tiny troupe and their wagons disappearing into the horizon, but these were real artists. That sunset was the light of their souls, their inspiration.
She took a step back. The white scratches bled with color. Her landscape turned into the pastel path, and she could see the inn-spire in the distance. Now she was certain. Art took inspiration, but it also took determination. Wickediel held the daggers tight and took her first step onto flawless bright color.