First published in Penultiman #2 by Ahoy Comics | November 2020
The witch’s face was covered with moss and filth and her dress had the workings of a large clock sewn into it. “What?” she said, picking at one of the gears.
“It’s a little much, don’t you think?” I was drunk, zigzagging home from the pub.
“Quiet. Here.” She held out the sword: it caught a streetlight’s glow. “This is for you. You’ll know what to do with it.”
I took the sword from her with exaggerated occasion. The streetlight popped and she vanished. I slept in my clothes, the sword by my side.
The sword was silver, with a ruby studding its hilt, and no one could remember it but me. I showed dozens of friends, sometimes dozens of times, and after the initial shock it would vanish from their memories.
(I showed it to Dave too many times, and he forgot his own name. “Do?” he said, or “Da?”, hoping I’d finish it for him.)
The sword also couldn’t be given away. I supported myself by selling it to pawn shops and waiting for it to appear, at dawn, in my bedroom again. When I held it up in the sunlight it made a clear keening sound.
“Frankly,” I said to the witch, “it’s a lot of responsibility.”
For nights, I’d waited under the dead streetlight for her to appear, the sword wrapped in an old blanket. I was sober now and determined to give it back.
“No,” she said. Looking closer, I saw scuffed digital watches tied into her hair. “That’s not how it works.”
“Then tell me what it’s for. Give me a hint. Should I be practicing or something?”
“You’ll be fine. It’s magic. But time’s ticking.” Her long fingers made a mysterious gesture. I waited for something to happen, but nothing did. She added: “Got a cigarette?”
I practiced, just in case. I watched fencing footage and mimicked the moves. It cost me a couple of lamps and a nasty gash in the kitchen door but slowly the sword and I came to an understanding.
It wanted to strike, to cleave and smite. It knew what to do. I wasn’t its knight; I was its caddy. I’d brandish it at the appropriate moment and the rest would play out like a cutscene in a video game. All I needed to know was when.
Months passed. I’d sold the sword to all the local pawn shops, and had to travel to find new marks. Dave, gradually, recovered from the sword’s thrall, and I was careful to hide it under the bed whenever he came around.
I thought about running away – but how could I get on a plane knowing the sword might appear in my carry-on luggage? It felt like an anchor, and I started sleeping until noon.
I staked out the streetlight again, but the witch never appeared. I’d brought her cigarettes so smoked until I was sick. “Go to hell,” I said, spitting on the concrete.
Every light on the street stuttered and died, so I know she heard me.
And I heard the roar in my sleep. The alchemy of dreams turned it into a fire, and I woke up sheet-tangled and soaked in sweat. The sword, buried under worn clothes, sang an alarm: a pulsing C sharp.
Another roar, closer now. I wanted to turn on the news, see what was out there, but the sword called to my hand; once I took it, it dragged me out the door.
“Here we go,” I said to it, confidently as I could.
Outside the street was empty except for a dragon. It saw me and paused, foot hanging ominously over a midsize car.
“Hey,” it said. Flames licked the inside of its nostrils, and it was missing one eye.
“Hi,” I said.
“So you met the witch.”
“Yeah.” I was now shouting over the noise of news helicopters and occasional disbelieving yells.
The dragon lowered its foot. The car compacted, inch by inch, windows shattering like a spit-take. “How’d she get you to take it?”
“I was drunk.”
The sword yanked at my grip, pulling us closer. The dragon gave off heat like an open kiln, but the sword’s hilt remained cool and its song remained pure.
This dragon, this sword. This moment. I struck a pose, hoping the news cameras caught it.
The sword generated its own glow: a noon-day sun, casting thin, tall shadows. It was singing a note never heard before as I swung it down…
“Hold on,” said the dragon, surprised. “There’s been a mistake.”
It took all my strength not to let the blow land. The sword squirmed, eager to test itself on the dragon’s scales. I held on tight. “What is it?”
The dragon unfurled a tiny arm and beckoned with a claw. “That’s my sword,” it said. “The ruby in the hilt? It’s my left eye.”
“Oh,” I said. “Yeah. That makes sense.”
It plucked the sword from my hand. “Thanks,” it said.
I walked home and watched its rampage on TV, then went to bed around midnight. I lay there, listening to faint sirens and screams, and hummed the sword’s song in the dark.