The following was a short story submission for a 2021 competition run by Free Private Cities. It didn’t win but it came close. I hope you enjoy!
Perebius Peddler is what one would normally call an inventor. Perhaps, if the word still existed, he would be called an entrepreneur. A mind of great discernment and energy. Both of which, sadly, were constrained by his living in a land that considered such energy bothersome.
Perebius’ homeland was not an overtly unpleasant place. There was generally enough food and, reportedly, a lack of poverty. Everyone was, officially, content. Everyone but Perebius Peddler. He wanted more. More wealth, of course. But this wasn’t baseless greed per se. Perebius wanted more wealth so he could do things. Invent more, see more, think more. Wealth was a means to an end, and Perebius wanted all the things.
But, in the Land of Plenty, wealth was anathema. Wanting what one did not have was sinful. And any sort of change that threatened the blissful stagnation of the society among the green fields was frowned upon with the most scornful of appraisals.
But Perebius wasn’t content and could not understand the apathy of his countrymen. And, as he looked over the green fields, speckled with the shanties and hovels of his fellows, he could not help but see more. To dream of more. Of white temples to progress itself, to markets stocked with the finest of exotic goods, and to live among people who desired more than just mediocrity.
And, as the years passed, Perebius’ desire for more increased. So much so that one day it was too much. And he had to show his dreams to the world…
“Come one and all, my fellows of the field!” Perebius called through cupped hands. He stood atop the stump of a tree he had felled. Its wood had since been used to craft his…well, not invention, but a schematic for something new. Something which had not been seen before in this land.
“Come!” he repeated. “And see what this field could be. What marvels we could construct.”
“Aye, Peddler,” Old Man Rickets greeted. He had a slight shake in his left-hand, as it clutched a crooked walking stick. “What is all this then?”
Perebius grinned his best salesman grin.
“This, Mr Rickets, is the City of Plenty.”
Old Man Rickets looked dubiously from Perebius towards what lay behind him. He squinted.
“It’s only a model.”
“Yes, yes! For now. But, this is what we could have if we worked together to build it. I just need a slight investment of lumber and stone and we could develop this field of flax and hovels into a city to challenge the Duchy!”
Perebius’ performance had attracted a few more bystanders, including the cantankerous Ms Gourd.
“Why would we want to do that?” Ms Gourd challenged. “We have our crops and the Duke treats us well enough.”
Perebius almost dropped his diplomatic smile. In his very learned opinion, the treatment of the duke over the people of the Land of Plenty was anything but “well-enough”.
“Mr Rickets,” Perebius deflected, turning to the old man. “Don’t you still have that leak in your hut?”
“Aye. The damp has been giving me the shivers.”
Perebius nodded, concerned. “And how have the repairs gone?”
Old Man Rickets scowled. “It doesn’t matter if I patch it up. Every rain, it breaks through.”
“And that’s because our roofs are merely twig and straw,” Perebius replied. “But, look at this.”
He stepped down off his stump and pointed at his creation. As Rickets had said, it was a model. A little wooden model of a town. Perebius had been doing the necessary surveying and research for months. He had been testing construction techniques and had even spoken to some masons and carpenters. He was confident that the Land of Plenty had more than enough resources to make this city a reality.
The only thing he needed was willpower and for the serfs of this land to agree to his plan and participate. And then he’d have the city he’d always wanted to live in. A city where things could get done.
“The roofs of this city are pitched, and covered in tar, so the water runs off.”
“And where does the water go?” a farmer asked.
“Into gutters, which will lead to the well. We can then boil it and turn it into drinking water.”
“Who?” Ms Gourd asked. “I don’t feel like slaving over a pot of boiling water all day. Might as well just go to the river.”
“You don’t have to. That’s the beauty of the ideology of this city! Those who want to do work that others can’t, can be paid by the others to do it. You, Ferius, would you boil the well water?”
Ferius, a youth with hands in his pockets, and looking thoroughly bored, shrugged.
“It sounds like work.”
“It is work! Glorious work. We work anyway. But with this, some of us can plough the fields, while others boil water, hunt, build and invent things.”
“But we could just farm. Like we’ve always done,” Rickets replied, still sceptical.
Perebius resisted sighing.
“Farming can only get us so far,” he argued, in a measured tone, but his exasperation was reaching its peak. “If we want to develop, if we want things to get better, we must grow to the next stage of civilisation…”
“If you want a city so badly, why not go to the Duke’s city?” Ferius suggested.
Perebius did scowl then. He had spent a time in the Duke’s city. But it wasn’t his vision of one. He had tried to sell some of his inventions, gizmos to help with navigation and cleaning, but the city guards confiscated his goods because he didn’t have the right permits. When he had tried to get the permits, he was charged a meeting fee (all of the money he had saved) and then rejected on the grounds that he didn’t have a permit-receiving license. He had not had the money to apply for a permit-receiving license, and he had fortunately discovered previously that a permit-receiving license required one to have specific connections. Connections which, of course, required a networking certificate from the University.
No, there was no future for him in the Duke’s City.
Perebius shook his head.
“This is a different type of city, my countrymen…”
“Country-people!” Ms Gourd corrected.
Perebius ignored her.
“The Duke’s City serves only a few people, not everyone. And definitely not the people who built it and live in it…”
“The Duke is our lord!” Rickets explained, sounding taken aback.
“And?” Perebius replied, his face warming up. He was no longer smiling. “What has the Duke done for us? He taxes our crops, levies our men for his wars. And we don’t even get walls, roads or a pat on the back. We need to do things for ourselves! We need to build our own city.”
“You missed out one thing the Duke does do,” a gruff voice sounded from behind Perebius.
“What?!” Perebius responded, loudly. His exasperation had reached breaking point.
But, before he could say another word, he recognised the crimson red of the Ducal guard, being worn by two armoured men with confused and irritable expressions.
Just his luck that the only time guards were sent to his village, it would be to hear him being treasonous.
“So, what is this?” the guard with the gruff voice asked, indicating the model of the City of Plenty.
“A…a plan,” Perebius stammered. “For a city.”
“Private,” the guard said to his companion. “Is this fief zoned for a city?”
“Nah, sarge. It ain’t.”
“That’s it then,” the sergeant continued, hiding a smirk behind a feigned look of concern. “Which means you won’t need this…”
Perebius’ body froze with shock as the sarge turned on his model city and began crushing it under his steel-shod boot. The crunch of wood sounded like bone, and Perebius winced. As he took a step forward, Ferius and Old Man Rickets held him still so he couldn’t intervene.
Perhaps, it was for his own good. He was just a serf, after all. A serf in a land that hated good ideas.
It began to rain.
“Darn, more leaks,” Rickets muttered. Perebius didn’t have the heart to suggest he pitch and tar his roof. Even an innovation as simple as that was too much for the people of his village.
Finally, the guards ended their destruction. Perebius was released, just to fall to his knees, his hands limp by his side.
The guards trod towards him and stopped. He felt spittle on the back of his head.
“You should be content, peasant. This is the Land of Plenty. You have everything you need.”
“I need more,” Perebius whispered. He felt the muddy soil before the the sharp pain on his head as he was slapped down.
“You don’t belong here!” the sarge spat. “Leave this place. And if you are so in love with cities, go to that sinful slum across the mountains.”
The guards, content with their cruelty, left. Perebius remained in the mud, next to the remnants of his dream. The crowd of onlookers soon left too. None helped Perebius up. He lay there, under the soft rain, for what seemed hours.
Until he heard footsteps in the mud, approaching.
“The guards are right,” an old voice said. It wasn’t like the bumpkin accent of Rickets. It was confident. Learned.
“Let me guess. More lectures about how I should be content? How I should be thankful to the Duke? How everything I have should be at his behest?”
Perebius felt the urge to finally sit up from his wallowing. He didn’t know the owner of this voice. But the voice knew him.
He looked up to see an old man, wearing a light blue hood. It was finely woven, of a material he had never seen before.
“Who are you?” Perebius asked, hesitant.
“Me?” the old man asked. “That does not matter. What matters is you. Are you happy here, Perebius Peddler?”
A simple question with a simple answer.
“But you are told you should be?”
He’d taken the words out of Perebius’ mouth. He nodded.
“The guard was right,” the old man repeated. “You don’t belong here. It is an important thing to be happy. And if you find no joy in the stasis of this bureaucratic, stifled realm, then you should go over the mountains.”
“To the abyss? There’s nothing to the east. Just stories to scare peasant children.”
“Oh, there’s something. I should know. I came from it.”
“Wait, what? But…”
The old man raised his hand to stop Perebius. The young inventor immediately went silent. Not because of the gesture, but more because the man suddenly looked sad. Like he was remembering something he had long lost. Perebius didn’t see it as appropriate to interrupt this sage’s reminiscing.
“Past the mountains,” he finally said. “Is the free city of Paragon. My city. A city I left in a vain search for a structure and authority I now detest.”
“Why don’t you go back?”
The old man shook his head.
“The Duke knows about Paragon. And he does not want to lose his subjects to it. He has set up three trials. And, for all my desire to see home again, I fear to attempt them. Alas, when one chooses authority, it is hard to return to freedom.”
“Three trials?” Perebius asked, a bit of spark coming to his voice. A glint appeared in his eye.
The old man nodded. “The Duke does not expressly forbid leaving his realm, but he doesn’t want people to know what life is like outside of his servitude. If you wish to leave, you will need to start the trials at the gate in the mountains. If you pass all three trials, you shall be allowed to exit this realm.”
Perebius slowly stood, rubbing the mud off his face.
“Which way is east?” he asked, simply.
“Are you sure, Perebius? The trials are not meant to be won.”
“If there is a chance to leave this place, to find a city where I can be truly free, then I will risk the machinations of the Duke. Please, where should I go?”
The old man frowned but pointed limply to the horizon.
“Follow the overgrown road until you reach the ancient gate. Past it will be a clerk. They will give you the first trial.”
Perebius nodded his thanks and turned immediately towards the east.
“And Peddler…” the Old Man said. Perebius turned.
“Freedom comes with a cost. Good luck.”
Perebius thanked him and continued on his way, only packing a small bag of his inventions, illegal books and lunch.
He did not expect to return to his unnamed village in the Land of Plenty. And nobody expected him to return. But freedom had risks, and Perebius was ready for them. At least, he hoped so…
*The 1st Trial*
It was the following morning when Perebius awoke from his outdoor slumber near the grey stone archway at the foot of the mountains.
He was pleased to find the structure at the foot of the mountain as, when he had bedded down in the darkness of the previous evening, he had not seen it. But, it seemed that fortune was favouring him, as he stepped forward towards the overgrown ruin, carved out of the rock itself.
Perebius approached the stone archway that marked the gate, staring upwards. Past the cracked, grey structure, the cliff-face rose up into the sky, disappearing into the clouds. This wasn’t so much a mountain as a wall. A titanic wall to keep him locked away from the world.
But, he had now heard of Paragon. And the destruction of his model city was the last straw.
Taking a deep breath, he passed through the archway, entering the darkness of a cavern. When the blackness made traversal too treacherous, Perebius stopped and retrieved one of his many creations from his backpack. It was a simple gizmo. Some hard wood, lacquered to resist the heat, shaped into a small box with a hole on one side and a handle on the top. Inside was a piece of metal he had shined to glisten when struck with firelight. With his tinderbox, he slowly lit a candle and placed it firmly in a slot on the box. The puny candle, amplified by the metal, shone gloriously ahead, lighting his path.
Perebius called this invention a lightbox. The peasants of his village had rejected it.
“Why try make light when it is meant to be dark?” they said.
They only lit fires to cook meat. They saw burning wood, wax or grease at night to be a waste. But Perebius saw a second in darkness as even more of a waste. He sought the light, and he would fight for it.
The cavern stretched on for minutes, and then an hour. Perebius began to think that the old sage had been wrong about the trials. Perhaps, the Duke had forgotten to pay the clerks and they had abandoned their posts? Wouldn’t be the first time that he had missed a payday. You would think that paying clerks and guards would be important to the Duke, seeing that it was literally his only job.
But, as Perebius began to think that this would be an easy ride, he saw a light in the tunnel. Closer, and he now saw the source. A candle, illuminating a desk. And, sitting at the desk was a man so wrinkled and gnarled that his skin looked like wood. His beard scraped along the floor and had collected plenty of dirt. Perebius had seen his uniform before. Pointed red hat. Brown robes. And the undeviating expression of confusion, apathy and barely hidden irritation.
“You come for the trials?” the clerk wheezed, his voice sounding like a dead tree screeching in the wind. He didn’t look up from his paperwork. Perebius noted that his inkwell was empty, and the remnants of the last ink it contained had long since dried.
Perebius pushed out his chest, steeling himself.
The clerk still didn’t look up. He dipped his quill in the empty inkwell and then scraped something into his parchment, ripping through the material. He barely acknowledged the damage he was causing.
Finally, he stopped.
“Please line up on the other side of this gate.”
“What?” Perebius asked, shocked. He had expected a grandiose challenge. A duel, a marathon, a trap laden hall. Not…a queue.
The clerk sighed. The first sign that he was human.
“Line up on the other side of this gate…Please.”
The clerk dipped his quill in the empty inkwell again, as Perebius turned to the gate to the clerk’s side. A simple wooden door, with a simple metal handle.
He doubted that he’d have to wait long. Everyone in the Land of Plenty was apathetic. Very few desired more. If lining up was the first trial then this would…
A putrid stench washed over Perebius as he opened the gate. He could practically see the foul scent in the air. But that wasn’t anything compared to the sight before him.
Shoulder to shoulder, as far as he could see, stood rows and rows of people. Peasants, nobles, merchants, guards. All their outfits had greyed and tattered. Their flesh had gone pallid. Yet, they stood straight, all facing towards the far end of an expansive cavern.
It seems that Perebius wasn’t the only person to seek Paragon.
Perebius took a deep breath of fresher cave air in anticipation of the stench within, and then took a step forward. None of the people before him showed any indication of registering his presence. In fact, besides the fact that they were standing, they didn’t seem alive at all.
Perebius raised a sceptical eyebrow. Could this be a trick? A fake horde of statues or magical machinations to make people turn back? No sane person would stand in such a queue! And these people looked like they had been waiting here for a long time. Long before he had arrived.
Tentatively, he took a step forward, and tapped one of the people on the shoulder, pulling his hand back fast just in case.
But there was no reaction. Not even a twitch.
“Ah, you crafty Duke,” he said aloud. “But you won’t trick me with mannequins.”
He pushed between two of the lifelike mannequins, the multitude of them not letting his light go far. Pushing through the throng was harder than wading through muddy water, but he was making headway, until…
Something caught his arm. Cold flesh. Goosebumps covered his skin as he suddenly felt a chilly sweat. Whatever had caught his wrist was pulling him. Pulling him backwards. He tried to resist, but the mob before him seemed to tighten their ranks. He kept pushing, and pushing, until he couldn’t any longer.
He was pulled back, right into the arms of what he had thought was a mannequin. The man, bearded and pale with milky-white eyes, stared at him irritably.
“No cutting…” it rasped, and then flung him with an almost inhuman strength to the back of the queue.
Perebius felt an ache in his back as he hit the stone floor. His light box went out, leaving him in darkness.
What was he going to do now? A horde before him, but a world of stagnation and ignorance behind him. He couldn’t go back. But he couldn’t think of how to go forward.
Perebius was so busy pondering, bordering on brooding, that he barely noticed that, in the now almost pitch-black cavern, the ceiling was glowing faintly.
He had seen glowing moss before. It formed in porous rock. Some of the villagers used the mossy rocks as night lights. He didn’t like them. Not bright enough for reading or tinkering. And the rocks were much too soft for masonry. The only good they were for was…
Perebius shot up, his grin shining in the dark.
He felt around the floor and found his lightbox again. It still had a faintly glowing wick. He re-lit it and used it to delve into his backpack, where he retrieved his climbing picks. They had been liberated from the quarry, where he had adjusted and reshaped them to make it easier to scale cliff-walls. Walls made out of rock very similar to this.
He hooked his lightbox to his backpack and then moved to the wall of the cavern. With a hefty swing, he pierced the stone, locked it and then pulled himself up. Then another swing, and another. He carried himself upwards and then to the side, until he was high above the unmoving horde. With a satisfied grin, he pulled himself along the cave wall, towards the other end of the cavern. His arms ached, but his heart kept him going. His heart, and the anticipation of what he was heading towards.
Perebius had no family left. His father and brother had died in one of the Duke’s wars. His mother had been a camp follower, leaving him with an oft overly strict Ms Gourd. She had perished when his father and brother’s positions were overrun.
Perebius had nothing left to love in the Duchy.
For him, the climb was all that was left. And after that, the light…
The climb took him further and further. The closer he got to the end, the older and more tattered the mob below him became. Some had beards trailing behind them, tripping up some of the mob. At the very front, he could see glimpses of what seemed to be mummified people.
And, just in front of them, a gateway, guarded by a single rope barring the way. A skeleton sat on a stool; his rusted spear discarded to the side. It seemed that the people had queued for so long that they had forgotten what was stopping them from going forward. But Perebius was different. He wanted freedom. And, he was willing to disobey any rules to get it. Even if it meant jumping over or under a rope.
With that thought, Perebius dug his pick into the cliff wall once again, just to have the metal snap.
Like a thousand bones cracking, the horde craned their necks up to stare at him. Hastily, Perebius tried to find a handhold to grab onto. Too late. The rock underneath his other pick gave way.
He fell, wondering what Paragon looked like. His feet hit flesh, knocking him back to his senses. He was standing. Standing atop a roiling mass of people. People now reaching out towards him. Their undead flesh and bones were slow, but not completely dead yet. And neither was he.
Before they could grab him, he jumped onto the shoulders of a mummified man, and then another. He kicked outward, catching a queuer in the face and sending him reeling.
“Wait your turn!” they rasped, collectively.
“No cutting…” more moaned.
Perebius ignored them, smacked at their hands as he sprinted over their heads. The gateway and the dead guard were just before him! So close. Close enough to jump…
As the mob collectively tried to grasp him, Perebius leapt, landing with an oomph onto the stone steps. Letting the force propel him, he rolled onto his feet and kept sprinting. The mummies, filled with renewed vigour, gave chase, tearing up the stairway towards him. He kept running. Fortunately, the skeleton didn’t reanimate.
“Get to the back!” the mummies rasped. “We’ve been waiting here for ages.”
“Then you can wait a little while longer!” Perebius yelled back, kicking the mummy closest to him. Before it fell back, it caught onto his lightbox, tearing it from his backpack. Darkness engulfed him and, by memory alone, he rushed towards the rope. As he felt its fibres in his hand, he crawled under it and then kept running.
But then…there was silence.
Cautious, but curious, Perebius turned and lit his tinderbox, letting the sparks give some temporary light to his surroundings.
Like a wall of pallid, decaying flesh, the queuers waited just on the other side of the rope. They stared, wordlessly.
Perebius couldn’t help but frown. Perhaps, these were people once. But not anymore. Cursed by bureaucracy, they were destined to never be free.
Perebius turned down the tunnel and continued his journey into the blackness, hoping that it wouldn’t be too far until the light.
*The 2nd Trial*
Perebius heard the scratching of quill on parchment long before he saw the warm glow of candlelight at the end of the tunnel. As he grew closer, the light became brighter. And brighter. Until he stood in a large hall, illuminated fully by candles in iron sconces, and piled ceiling high with papers.
And, at the end of the hall, sitting atop a very high podium, was a bony clerk with skin seemingly older and more gnarled than the clerk at the front desk.
The ancient clerk’s beard cascaded down the dark wooden podium like a waterfall. Perebius wondered how he was writing on anything with that beard blocking the way.
Perebius took a step forward. The clerk still didn’t acknowledge him. He cleared his throat, loudly. The clerk kept on scratching away at his parchment.
“Excuse me!” Perebius finally called.
The clerk looked up, lazily.
“Oh…it’s one of you. Pile 32A.”
“What do you mean hmmm?! Are you deaf?” the clerk snapped. “If you want to pass through this trial, you must fill in the paperwork to receive a Trial Attempting License. Once you have finished signing all the papers in 32A, you can then proceed to register for your Trial Certification. After that, you can attempt the examination to become a Trial Participant.”
“And then what?”
“Are you daft? That part is classified! You have to have a full doctorate in Trial Assessment Protocols to have that revealed to you! Now get to signing. And don’t disturb me. I’m really busy.”
The scratching of the quill on parchment became even louder, as if to drown out any more questions. Perebius slowly turned towards the stacks of papers. They really did touch the ceiling! He approached the closest pile. A plaque at the foot of the pile listed its name: 11C-A. Not his, fortunately.
Slowly, at first, he read the plaques, patrolling the piles and going deeper and deeper into the hall. Part of him was looking for 32A (or was it 33-A?) but he was also looking for the exit. Perebius had no respect for the Duke’s authority. He would play his games, but only when it let him keep moving forward.
But, Perebius found no exit. Even the entrance he had come through seemed to have been engulfed by even more piles of paperwork. He stopped to rest a few times, drinking the last of his water and eating the last of his snacks. Eventually, he rounded his way to the start, once again standing at the foot of the beard-covered podium.
“Um,” Perebius stuttered.
“Where is 32A?”
The clerk let out an exasperated sigh and, with audibly creaky bones, stood up to point at a pile to his side. A pile that contained three piles.
“Wait…you said it was just a pile. This is three!”
“Yes. And don’t talk to me again until there is nothing left!”
With that hint of finality, the clerk sat down again and continued his scratchings.
With palpable horror, Perebius examined the work before him. He didn’t even have a quill or ink! But he had to think of something. At this point, there really was no going back.
He pulled a sheet from the pile, having to put his back into it as the heaviness of the papers weighted it down. As was to be expected, the sheet was a form scrawled with all manner of legalese. He couldn’t just sign every paper. He had to answer questions ranging from his eye colour, date of birth of his mother’s grandmother on her fraternal side and the data of the Battle of Blonghuey, an event he had never heard of before.
Perebius sighed. They really didn’t want him passing through. How would he even make a dent in these piles?!
And then it struck him.
The clerk had said nothing left. Not that he had to actually fill them in. And without anything to write with, he could be forgiven for being a little ingenious.
He looked up, ensuring that the clerk wasn’t looking as he shifted his tinderbox towards the pile.
Before he could think about the risk of smoke inhalation, not to mention being scorched, he struck the tinderbox, sending sparks flying towards the papers. One strike, two strikes, a third…
And the paper caught light.
He backed away, watching with satisfaction as the fire slowly spread, speeding up as it ate more and more of the paperwork.
“What…what is that smell?” the clerk finally snapped, standing to look over the podium. A look of intense horror broke through his bark-like skin.
“What have you done?!”
“There’ll be no paper left. Just like you requested,” Perebius replied, acting innocent.
“You fool! You’re burning it all. My precious papers! My forms, my documents! My life-blood of bureaucracy.”
“I can help you stop the fire, but you have to show me the way through first.”
The clerk shook his head. He looked on the verge of tears.
“I can’t do that! You don’t have your accreditation as a 2nd Trial Procession Graduate…”
He coughed as the smoke started to form clouds near the ceiling.
“It’s getting a little too big to handle,” Perebius chided. “If you want my help, show me the way out.”
The clerk didn’t respond, as he coughed and coughed. Perebius’ eyes were also starting to water. He wasn’t sure the clerk would give in. And even if he did, he was under no illusion that he could actually put the fire out now.
“There is no way you’ll escape!” the clerk rasped. “The exit is up here with me. We’ll both die before I let someone without an Exit License pass behind me!”
Like the mummies in the 1st Trial, it seemed this clerk was willing to die for his bureaucracy.
But Perebius wasn’t. Hastily, he looked for a way out. But the fire was surrounding him now. It had spread to the piles behind him and was hastily burning up all his escape routes. It wouldn’t be long until the smoke choked him to death. But, how could he climb up such a sheer podium? If only he had his picks!
The clerk let out some more coughs, before falling silent. With every cough, his beard had swayed. The fire was creeping towards it. Slowly. Perebius hated the smell of burnt hair…
“Eureka!” Perebius cried, coming up with an idea.
Just as a flaming pile collapsed behind him, he darted towards the beard and pulled.
“Ow!” the clerk cried, but the hair didn’t give way. Perebius climbed up the cascading white facial hair, just as flames caught below him.
The clerk continued to rasp out his protestations, as the fire raced towards Perebius. He climbed faster than he had ever climbed before, until he came face to face with the shocked clerk.
Before he could be pelted with any more bureaucratic nonsense, he pulled himself onto the podium and pulled off the clerk’s pointed hat. He patted out the encroaching fire hastily, extinguishing it before handing the now scorched hat back to its owner.
“Sorry,” Perebius muttered, before gently pushing past the ancient clerk and making his way through the wooden door behind him.
The clerk didn’t follow him into the blessedly candle-lit tunnel. While the clerk was a fool, and someone who would have been willing to let him starve to death while filling in paperwork, he still hoped the man didn’t die.
Well, that was in the past now. Perebius felt Paragon edging closer. He could practically taste the freedom in the air…
*The 3rd Trial*
The candle-lit tunnel gave way into a tunnel, exiting out into a deep canyon. He had barely noticed that he had left the tunnel, until he had looked up to see dark clouds. Ominous clouds. It was as if they screamed for him to turn back. But Perebius wasn’t one for turning.
The canyon continued for a long while, winding like a serpent. Up, down, up, and then down, down, down. He felt a rush of exhilaration as he realised what this meant. He was hiking down the mountain. Which meant he had crossed it. He was closer now to Paragon than he was to the Land of Plenty, the Duke and his facile servants.
But, there was one trial that remained.
The canyon soon reached an archway. Very similar to the one he had entered before the 1st Trial. And, at the foot of the arch, sat a man in black heavy armour, wielding a massive sword.
Perebius stopped just before him and stood.
Slowly, the armoured man looked up at him. And said nothing.
“I have come for the 3rd Trial,” Perebius said, brimming with confidence. He had triumphed over the first two. He would triumph over this.
“Um…really?” the armoured man replied, nervously. Voice full of disbelief.
The man brought his gauntleted hand to his head, scratching it.
“Uh, this has never happened before.”
“Has no one ever completed the first two trials?”
“They aren’t meant to. I’m just here to stop the clerks from getting through.”
“But…what about the 3rd trial?”
The armoured man shrugged. “There is none. No one is meant to leave. I’d turn back if I were you.”
“I can’t!” Perebius snapped, defiantly. “I have triumphed over the first and second trial. If there is no third trial, then I demand to be let through. There is no going back for me!”
“This isn’t a choice,” the armoured man said, his previously confused and hesitant tone taking a dark, intimidating turn. “There is no going down this road. Not for you, not for me, nor anyone else.”
The man shrugged. “Because that is the way. The way it has always been. And the way it will always be.”
“But…what about choice, progress, freedom?”
The man shrugged. “Turn back, son. There is no future but that which the Duke gives us. No past or present unless he decrees it so.”
Perebius sighed. “So, there is no choice?”
“Oh, there is. There’s one choice. To serve the Duke.”
The man shrugged again, his armour creaking. “I don’t understand.”
Perebius stood silently, staring past the armoured man. The clouds and canyon wall blocked him from seeing any further. He couldn’t even see Paragon.
But Perebius wasn’t a fool. He did understand what the armoured man did not. There was a choice. To serve…or die.
Defeated, he turned. To go back to the Land of Plenty, to make do with mediocrity. That is, until he came face to face with a scorched clerk, his cap on fire, and a horde of angry, pallid queuers.
“That’s him!” the clerk from the front-desk yelled from the back. “He cut to the front of the queue!”
Perebius took an involuntary step back, colliding gently into the armoured chest of the guard.
“It seems you really do not have any choices,” the guard said, sounding almost disappointed.
He hefted his sword.
Perebius flinched, for just a moment. Just a moment, before he saw the clouds break. Just a bit. But it was enough.
He swung his backpack off his shoulders and into the armoured man’s face. The blow threw him off balance, for just long enough so that Perebius could dart past him.
“After him!” the 2nd clerk screamed. A deafening roar followed as the horde gave chase.
Perebius didn’t look back. He tore past the gateway at full sprint, passing the last bit of the canyon wall.
And then he saw it.
A shining white city, close enough that he could smell its lawns and flowers.
A sword cleaved the air next to him, missing him by a hair. Somehow, he sped up. But the mob kept pace, following him down the rest of the mountain as he finally hit the grassy plains.
Paragon came closer and closer with every rapid step. But the horde was just behind him. His lungs stung. But he couldn’t give up. Not now. Not ever.
A group of queuers lunged towards him, but he ducked just in time, as they collided into the ground. Before him, the white walls of the city loomed ever closer. And, at their base, a closed gate.
With nowhere left to run, Perebius kept running towards the city, managing to put some distance between himself and the horde.
But, if the gate didn’t open, that would mean nothing. Even so, Perebius didn’t stop. He pumped his arms and legs, even as they burned, aching to stop.
“There is nowhere left to run!” the armoured man yelled, his voice calm.
The gate, his final obstacle remained closed. The horde was gaining. Closer. Closer.
Perebius closed his eyes. He didn’t want to see his end. But he wanted to touch Paragon. At least once, before the end.
The whirl of mechanics made Perebius open his eyes. A man in white armour looked at him through a crack in the gates.
“Keep running!” the man yelled.
With renewed vigour, Perebius sped the final distance, bursting through the opening in the gate as it shut behind him. Bangs echoed on the other side, followed by cries as more bangs sounded. Paragon had survived the Duke’s wrath before. Perebius now had an idea of how.
A guard offered Perebius a cup of water. He drank greedily, before thanking him. Still panting, he stood up straight, and took it all in.
A city. A city of white. With every house, a kingdom, every man and woman, a king…
“We need one thing from you,” the guard said, offering a piece of paper and a quill.
Perebius’ heart almost sank.
“Please…no more bureaucracy.”
The guard looked taken aback, but then laughed.
“This is different. We just need you to declare your citizenship.”
Dubious, Perebius accepted the document.
It was short. To the point. And everything it stipulated made absolute sense. To live in this white city, he was perfectly willing to agree to it all.
Signing his name at the bottom, he read aloud:
“I, Perebius Peddler, a sovereign individual, hereby declare myself a client, citizen and resident of the Free City of Paragon.”
The guard thanked him and then directed him to where he could find work and a place to live. Inventors were in high demand, apparently. The engineers were looking for apprentices.
As Perebius strode down the tiled streets, he smiled.
Finally, he was free.