This story is by Dustin Walker and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I turn a corner and gasp as the breath leaves my lungs. I look down to find the butt of a spear sticking from my stomach. I don’t immediately register the pain, but as the next few seconds pass, my mind begins to comprehend what has happened, and the pain that wasn’t there before explodes in my abdomen.
I collapse to my knees. My eyes see a pair of small feet scurrying away from me before blurring and dimming. Whatever threw the spear disappears around a corner. I fall to my side and vomit blood. The last thought I have is one of relief. My mind finds the letter I left in my room before my eyes close, and I know no more.
My eyes open, and all I can see is darkness save for a dim light a few feet away from me. I squint at the light, but I can’t see whatever is creating it. I sit up and feel a straw bed beneath me. There’s a pounding in my head, and my stomach feels as if it had been torn open and then stitched up again.
I have no memory at all—not of this place nor of who I am. I feel disoriented at the thought, and my heart pounds as I realize that I’m not in a good place.
Slowly, I clamber to my feet, bracing myself against the wall. The fog that clouds my head begins to evaporate, and I see that I am in a square room composed mainly of stone blocks; the only exception is a heavy wooden door on the wall opposite me. The ceiling hangs low, and I find that I must stoop somewhat to avoid hitting my head.
I walk awkwardly toward the light which is coming from a lone candle resting atop a wooden table. On the table is a stack of parchment and a quill. The top piece is covered in hastily scrawled writing.
I pick up the page and read:
Your name is Arla Winters, and you’re a prisoner of a Lich named Ozcul. You won’t remember that of course because of the spell. Everyone here is compelled to fight each other to the death. Only when you die, you are resurrected and put back in your room with no memories of why you are here. Your death is not enough to free you from this purgatory. It was by sheer luck that I learned this information.
You have this letter because I need to communicate with myself between deaths, and because I believe I’ve found the key to Ozcul’s demise.
He uses a phylactery to contain his soul. If the phylactery were to be destroyed, then he’ll die, and everyone held prisoner here will be released. The second page contains everything I know about its whereabouts. I’ve finally discovered how to get to it. I’ve had to rush back here to update the page so that I don’t lose progress. I’ve been too scared to take the page with me in case it is lost, but that was only while I was looking for it. Now that I’ve found it, you can use it to finally destroy that monster and end this nightmare for all of us!
I glance at the second page, which is very tattered and covered with so many revisions and crossings-out that it’s possible to only just make out the instructions.
I return to the letter that I apparently wrote to myself. I’m in some sort of magic prison where I must die on a daily basis but am never able to leave? The thought alone borders on lunacy. Nevertheless, I try hard to remember the past few days, but I feel as though I’m stretching to grab something that is out of my reach. I’m grasping, but there’s only emptiness. My anxiety intensifies and I begin shaking. The walls suddenly feel a bit closer than they did a moment ago. Sweat begins forming on my forehead, and I start hyperventilating. My thoughts form images of being buried alive which drives the air completely from my lungs.
But before I completely break down, I manage a deep breath. Okay, let’s go through this slowly, I think. Only focus on the facts. My eyes find the name written on the first line. My name is Arla Winters. Well that at least gives me something to be sure of, because when I say the name in my mind, I instantly know that it is true.
I look through the letter again. If this letter is true, then it means that I died but have somehow been reborn. I wonder how many times this has happened and how long I have been here. I could have been here for years. Decades even. This cannot continue, I think.
The conviction pulses through me, and I find myself completely determined to find this phylactery. I read through the instructions quickly and mentally plan through the route that I’m going to take. There’s no map, so I must rely on my own written instructions. They say that the phylactery is perched on a stone dais in a large room somewhere close to the center of the dungeon.
I exit the room and walk quickly down the corridor. The walls resemble my room, and the ceiling out here is at the same height meaning that I can’t fully stand when I walk. I realize that this place is probably underground. Small torches line the walls, illuminating my path which is full of twists and turns. If I were trying to get back to the room, then I might be concerned about getting lost, but I am determined to get to the room and destroy the phylactery. If I can manage that, then there would be no reason for me for keep track of where I’m going, but I also realize that if I am killed, then I’ll just return to my cell with nothing to guide me. I push the thought aside. This is going to end right now. The instructions were clear, and I just need to get to get to the phylactery. After that…
I freeze. There were no instructions as to how to destroy it when I find it. This is starting to feel wrong. Why would’t I tell myself how to destroy it? Why couldn’t I see that huge flaw in the plan?
A loud roar sounds just down the hallway, and I can hear running footsteps echoing off the walls.
I run for my life. Dozens of doors fly by me as I sprint faster and faster toward a large opening at the end of the corridor. A white light shines through the opening, promising some form of relief. As I run through, I’m momentarily stunned to see the room before me. Unlike the corridors and my room, this room has a vast ceiling that towers up at least fifty feet. A staircase leads up to a stone dais that’s flanked on each side by round marble columns.
The footsteps get closer. I quickly ascend the stairs and approach the dais upon which rests a small jeweled-encrusted box. This must be it, I think. Something bursts into the room behind me. I’m out of time.
I grab the box and lift it over my head, ready to shatter it on the stone floor. But before I can slam it to the ground, the phylactery is wrenched from my hands, and I’m spun around.
The red eyes that bore into me pull the very breath from my soul. I want to look away, to scream, but my body seems to have forgotten how to work. The sound of my heart thrashes in my ears as I’m lifted into the air by two powerful arms. His putrid breath burrows into my face as though death itself was crawling down my throat to claim my soul.
“My prey,” the Lich growls. “You are mine forever.”
With one arm, he tears the pieces of parchment from me; with the other, he crushes my ribs, piercing my lungs and stomach.
My eyes follow the path of the crumpled parchments as they float to the ground. My hearts sinks. Then it stops completely.
My eyes open, and I find myself in a dark room with only a straw bed and wooden table. The room is lit only by a single candle that rests in a holder atop the table. My mind registers that I have no memory of myself or where I am. I get up and move over to the table to find a stack of blank parchment and a quill. There is nothing else.