Hedge Maze

The Man with No Soul 5: Hedged In

In this tale, a nameless sword slinger heads to kill a vicious Baron at the request of a little girl named Mel. In this installment, he finds himself fighting for his life while injured and

In this tale, a nameless sword slinger heads to kill a vicious Baron at the request of a little girl named Mel. In this installment, he finds himself fighting for his life while injured and trapped in the Baron’s hedge with a hitherto unseen beast. This is part 5 of the story. Read part 4 here, part 3 here, part 2 here, and part 1 here.

In moments like this, I try to remember that I’m effectively immortal. My dark pact ensures that I’ll continue to breathe until I’ve exacted vengeance on everyone responsible for the destruction of my nation. Still, it’s hard not to panic when you’ve got a broken arm and something gigantic is clambering toward you. If I’m eaten, I’ll spend eternity as a living pile of shit.

Ahead of me, the maze splits off in opposite directions. I struggle to my feet while trying not to focus on the incorrect bend of my arm. Off to my left, branches are being broken fast as the creature inhabiting this place hunts for me. I head right.

The Baron cries out from the broken tower above. “Wrong way.”

Glancing back up, I spot my sword. The crossguard managed to catch the edge of a rock, and it’s hanging from the tower near the Baron’s feet. Of course, it couldn’t have simply fallen with me. That would’ve been too easy, and nothing’s ever easy. The monstrous snout of a dragon shreds through the overgrown hedges behind me.

The maze splits again, and I take the path I believe will lead me farthest from the monster at my back. A horrible shriek fills the rainy night, and I am thankful for the first time in this maze. If the dragon is crying out in rage at my back instead of lighting it on fire, it means the Baron’s pet is a Forest Dragon, and that means it can’t breathe flame. Lightning illuminates the night, and I spot a shape ahead of me.

“What the hell are you doing here?” I yell while running toward her.

“Just follow me.” Mel turns and races around a twist in the greenery.

The Baron shouts down at us. “I’ll swallow your soul for this foolishness girl.”

After several quick turns, the exit back to the Baron’s courtyard is in sight. The dragon reaches it first as he smashes through the hedge ahead of us. Mel is nearly decapitated by one of the beast’s front talons. I race up to grab the girl by the shirt and drag her away. A second sharp claw scrapes the stone where she’d laid a heartbeat before. The monster’s mouth of serrated teeth snaps open in our direction.

The dragon’s jaws nip the tip of Mel’s shoe as I continue to drag her away. While the beast prepares for a follow-up strike, the girl regains her footing and scrambles behind me. Another crash of lightning gives me my first full look at the dragon. My fear turns to pity.

It’s emaciated and thin with scales missing all over. Where its wings had been there remained only two stumps. One of its eyes had been gouged from its skull, and the horns, a tell-tale sign it was male, had been filed down to nubs. The fact that he’s still breathing is a testament to his strength. He’s still the size of a horse though, with four legs ending in sharp claws and a long thin body starting at his tail and ending at his wolf-sized head. The dragon bares his teeth. His neck recoils and the next strike becomes imminent. I grab Mel and shove her toward the beast.

She trips and slides underneath the dragon as his teeth sink into my shoulder. I reach my good arm up to grasp the creature’s neck. The dragon panics and attempts to recoil, yanking me off my feet into the air.

Mel reaches the hedge maze exit behind us.

“Get my sword.”

As the dragon flails to rid itself of me, Mel runs toward the Baron’s tower. I lose my grip and sail over two shrubbery walls. The landing is hell, but the resulting crack turns out to be a stroke of luck. My injured arm is facing the right way again. Another horrible shriek fills the night. I look over to where my sword still hangs from the tower. The Baron is leaning over the edge, trying to grasp it. A rock smashes into his face, and he nearly falls off the ledge. Blood spurts out to mix with the falling rain. Another rock, thrown by Mel, sends my sword down to the ground. I hear it clang off the stones below. Mel’s done her job.

I race toward the edge of the maze, but I can’t find the sword. I hear multiple scrapes from the dragon’s talons as he frantically pursues me. The Baron must’ve fed the beast the soulless bodies of its victims. Based on the size of the village I came through; the meals probably grew slim a long time ago.

“Don’t just stand there,” says Mel. “Use this.”

The girl shoves my sword through the outer wall of the hedge maze, and I feel renewed vigor as I grip its handle. I spin to see the dragon bearing down on me like a crossbow bolt. His desperate, hungry jaws are open wide for a meal, and I want to give him one. Pivoting back toward the tower, I launch my sword at the Baron like a javelin. My strike, near the old sorcerer’s foot, causes him to slip forward. I do what Mel’s rock nearly managed. The Baron falls just in time to halt the dragon’s approach. I back away slowly as the beast bites into its former master. As far as I can tell, the old man died in the fall. It’s a pity he won’t suffer more for his crimes.

The greedy crunch of bones fills the suddenly quiet night as I exit the hedge maze to find Mel waiting for me, with my sword in hand. The rain has ceased, and the clouds above have parted to let the moonlight shine down on the ruined castle. My boots squish into the still muddy courtyard.

I extend my hand for the sword. “You’re a brave one.”

“I wanted to see if you’d actually stop him.” Mel hands the weapon back. “He would’ve ended you if I hadn’t been here to see you fall into the maze.”

“I’m in your debt, but the Baron is gone now. The only damage he’ll do after tonight is to that dragon’s digestion.” I survey the sword and return it to my sheath. “Unfortunately, I think the Baron might’ve made his last act his worst.” I look up toward the exposed room atop the tower, but I can’t see the doorway that held the gigantic, crimson eye before my fall. “Go wait for me outside the castle walls. If I’m not back before sunrise or if you hear the dragon approaching, I want you to run for home. I need to make sure the Baron didn’t let any outsiders into our world.”

To Be Continued…

In The Man With No Soul 6: Wight Night

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