At the End of Justice

by Mystic


The sky was assembled of loose tufts of light grey cloud on the day of the final Judgment. The land seemed to lay flatter around the mountain, hushed and silent beneath it and the light shadow of the sky. The small peak stood apart from the rest of the range, commanding an otherwise level pass filled with short grasses and a few uninviting pieces of brush. The edifice built upon it was the first thing every traveler saw when turning the last bend in the road out of the mountains; but that was the only thing necessarily common to all perceptions.

The castle twisted around the narrow mountain like a blooming grapevine clinging to a skeletal tree. Blossoms of elegant white architecture studded the slopes in-between patches of the harsh, bare rock of its perch. The walls would dip and vanish into the jagged surface for short stretches, like threads in a weave, or worms in a corpse. It was a monolithic, albino octopus strangling its prey as shafts of sunlight pierced the clouds to fall upon its body in a striped halo. It was the Hall of Judgment.

A small party of individuals entering the pass shook off the sight and began the seemingly long approach to the structure. It was a grim group, consisting of three humans and a like number of horses, all but one bearing the trappings of travelers at the end of a journey. An average member of the civilized lands would have had no trouble guessing the identities of the three, arranged in a gradient line of decreasing light as they rode their animals slowly along a road that had been beaten into existence by the many feet of pilgrims, guards and criminals before them.

On the right, fair of hair and skin, dressed in a brilliant blue tabard with a golden starburst emblazoned on the front, was an individual easily recognizable as an Enforcer of the Law. Astride a well-groomed white stallion, his expression was that of one seeing the conclusion of a difficult task, with the added sense of well-being that could only be felt by one arriving home.

To his left, carried by a bark colored horse was a slightly more puzzling figure. The traveler was a woman, beautiful by most standards, but unkempt. Her light brown hair was a long, unbrushed tangle that fanned around her head, and down past her shoulders. The greatest share of the mystery came in the form of her attire. The remnants of a coarse brown tunic, little more than a sack cut to suit the purpose of warding off the elements, hung down the right side of her body. The left side had been ripped away, however, leaving her flesh exposed to the same forces of nature. The body revealed beneath was far too healthy for it to be poverty that had placed her in such a situation. The only conclusion to be drawn was that, whatever the motivation, it was a voluntary act, as the Enforcer would never have allowed someone to accost a woman in his presence, nor would any have likely dared make the attempt. Little sympathy was to be wasted on the half-dressed traveler, though. The fact that the Enforcer road next to her, and not the third individual, could mean only one thing to an observer. She was the Accused, a criminal being taken to answer for her crimes.

The last member of the party was carried grudgingly by a horse that also seemed to be of Hall stock, its coat a dark grey with just a hint of brown. A long black cloak hung around the man, though his height made it difficult for the cowl to do anything with regards to hiding his features, not that an observer would fault even the most feeble efforts toward that goal. The figure's role would have been hard to guess, but his identity was simple, unmistakable, and absolute. He was one of the Condemned.

Rubbery, pitted, green-brown skin was wrapped around the inner parts of the creature and the hands ended in crude, blunt fingers that seemed like they had never seen a clean day since they had first been formed. The only other visible part of the man was his face, and it was more than enough to make others wish the cloak could do its job better. The virtually hairless elliptical lump was cleaved open along the lower left curve in a ragged parody of a mouth. There were no ears or nose to speak of, the only other feature being three pairs of irisless red eyes with black pupils, that had been set into the muddy flesh in parallel, slanted rows.

The party made its way along the road to an entrance hewn from the mountain's base. On either side of a thick wooden door were two guards dressed in the same sunburst pattern of Justice, though not the colors of an Enforcer. They clung to their spears as if they were anchors of sanity in a turbulent sea of tedium. When the group came into view their spines stiffened and their eyes cleared as they were provided with the elixir of interest. The one on the right opened up a heavy tome inside a niche carved into the wall and prepared to log the names and businesses of the travelers.

"Eric Liras," the sunny warrior on the right said, announcing himself ritually. "Bringing Kayla-"

"I invoke my right to renaming," the woman interrupted irreverently. "From this day forth my name shall be 'God help us'," she announced almost mockingly to those around her.
The guard with the pen looked up in askance of the Enforcer. The blond man grit his teeth and then said, "Do it. It's the law. 'God help us' is being brought in for Judgment."
With a small shrug, the man scratched out where he had started to write woman's name and instead scribed the new appellation.

"This last is a pilgrim we met on the road."

"No need to introduce him, sir," the guard said, "You're a regular around here, aren't you, Durant?"

The deformed, cloaked figure made no true response. As the three dismounted the guard finished recording the party's arrival and then leaned in a little closer to the Enforcer. "He's a right dour bastard, but you can't blame him too much for that, can ya? He likes to ride out and meet up with the Accused."

"Why?" Eric asked, humoring the conversive watchman.

"He's never said, but I think he's trying to give them one last chance to see what fate awaits them, and reform. I don't know if I believe half a day's ride is a long enough to change what's inside of someone, but still he tries."

"I've seen more unlikely things," the blue-eyed man responded.

"Most of them made right here, eh?" the guard jested.

After the Enforcer cracked a half smile, and gave a nod in acknowledgement of the joke, the man closed the book and called loudly through the heavy door, "Three to enter the Hall!" Various bolts and locks were thrown back by his counterpart inside, and then the portal swung open on silent hinges.

"Sounds like the there's an interesting story behind this one," the guard said, gesturing with his head toward the half-naked woman.

"Not one you'd want to hear on a full stomach," the Enforcer said, suddenly grim. Visibly shaking off some haunted memory he offered, "If you want I'll tell you about it some other time. I have to go see to its ending right now."

The trio entered the structure, walking into the embrace of destiny and the crush of fate. Just inside they were able to behold the opulent decoration of the Hall's interior. Fine red carpets, expert paintings, gilded wood, and large tapestries seemed at odds only with the barred windows of the stout doors closing off one room from the next.

A page slipped out behind them to tend to the abandoned horses, and the three continued heedless up a grand staircase, the first of many that would carry them up the mountain's height. As they climbed, the woman looked over at her escort and said with a smirk. "No need to look so sour, Eric. I'll keep Kayla as a nickname for close friends like you."

It was the Condemned who answered her mockery. The tattered skin around the opening at the side of his face flapped open and closed as his deep reverberating voice asked, "Will you be as flippant when Judgment comes, Kayla?"

"That nickname is only for close friends, Durant," she said spitting his name out like a curse. "Even at the height of my flippancy, you may not consider yourself among them."

Gemmed chandeliers held sputtering torches over golden bowls to provide illumination as they climbed. The lighting had been designed to shine on the walls at the top of the staircases spaced throughout the hall. At the summit of the first they found a panoramic tapestry, still dark despite the light falling upon it. The various browns dominating the weave gave the impression of long dried blood, and depicted scenes of total savagery. Brutish men lashed out at each other with fists and clubs in some portions, while others took wailing women and possessions near the broken bodies of the vanquished. It looked like a battlefield, but a dull brass plaque above the cloth said otherwise. 'In the Beginning', it read.

Durant turned his head in shame, avoiding Kayla's mocking gaze as they passed the scene.
The march through the corridors was uneventful and seemingly endless, as even small mountain climbs tend to be whether indoors or out. Art portraying the progression of history continued to mark their journey as they walked. Eric crossed his chest respectively when they came upon another piece displayed in prominence at the top of a staircase. It was an oil painting set in a beveled frame. A serene night sky with its thousands of diamonds overlooked a quiet valley and in the foreground a pair of smooth orbs streaked into the grassy earth trailing sapphire blue tails of fire behind them. The argent plaque above read, 'The Coming of Justice'.

From that point on, the three were shown images of the founding of the Hall of Justice and the order that enforced its will. From humble beginnings to the wonder of the world it was that day, maintainer of the peace, punisher of the wicked, deliverer of oppressed. And all it had taken was a gift from the Heavens and the ingenuity of the magi.

At long last the journey was completed, and they stood in a hall on the southern slope somewhere near the summit. The corridor was lined with impressive plaster murals that flanked either side of two large wrought doors.

Durant stared longingly at the pictures on the door's left. The lame, the leprous, the hideous were shown placing their hands over a short pedestal and being transformed into beautiful, angelic figures, their true forms revealed, faces filled with tears of happiness. It was all he could do to avoid touching a part of the mural that depicted one of the Condemned receiving forgiveness, and spoiling it with his grimy fingers.

"Is that why you are doing these inane little tasks at the Hall, Durant? Are you hoping for Absolution some day?" a cruel, laughing voice asked from behind him. "After what you've done?" Kayla said, gesturing at the naked half of herself that she had uncovered as a reminder when he had first encountered her and Eric in the pass earlier.

The red-eyed monster turned and looked at the wall on the other side of the doors, covered with people being twisted into a thousand deformed shapes, all unique, all horrible; all Condemned. He lowered his eyes and replied simply, "Some day."

She laughed again and then gave him a fierce, hate-filled glare, "You will never find it. If you knew only a fraction of the things I have committed because of what you did to me, you would throw yourself down every last stair we had climbed. If ten times ten years were to have passed, you could not begin to make up for it."

"I am atoning for my sins," the large cloaked figure said. "And now you must answer for yours." Indeed, the Enforcer was just then pushing the doors inward. The woman cast a final defiant glare at the monster before marching into the chamber of her own accord.
"Do you intend to watch?" Eric inquired of the Condemned.

"If it is permitted. I had a hand in making this moment, I should share in its pain," Durant answered.

"Does the Accused object to a spectator?" Eric asked.

"Oh, I was going to insist on it," the addressed said with sinister purpose. That was all it took and both the men entered, Eric pulling the metallic doors shut behind him.

With the exception of the floor and the entrance, the entire room was a large dome. Its last use had surely been for an Absolution, for the contents were beautiful. The smooth walls were a brilliant white that somehow remained comfortable to look upon. The stone was the purest marble to be found anywhere in the land, and appeared to be without seam. It was almost as if one had been transported inside of an egg. A golden light filled the space, though its source was impossible to identify. It seemed to simply radiate from the room's central feature.

Covering the wall opposite the door and carved from the same saintly marble was the closest thing to perfection to be found upon the earth. It was a sculpture of a woman's head, beautiful beyond description, anchored to the wall at a point where the curve caused it to appear to be smiling down on the room's occupants in serene beneficence. Its eyes were closed in an expression of absolute peace as if it dwelled in a world untouched by evil. She was the Judge.

A short distance from its countenance was a low, fluted pillar capped by a large bowl. Within burned a smokeless fire of indigo flame. Kayla had already taken up her position between the statue and the pedestal, unbidden.

"Kayla, you stand accused of multiple counts of senseless torture and murder," Eric announced as serious as death itself. "For the safety all, you shall be Judged, that all may know your true nature simply by looking upon you. The good folk of this land, thus warned shall be able to be on guard and band together for safety in your presence. Place you hand above the flame and let it begin."

With a defiant smirk she extended her hand above the bowl. Instantly with the rapid sound of smooth stones grinding against each other, the eyes of the sculpture opened. The pupils and whites were of the same snow-colored stone, but the irises were crystalline in texture and glowed with a teal light.

For a moment that was all, just simple scrutiny, and then the Judgment was made. The walls rippled like a collection of millions of tiles being flipped by invisible hands. With the sound of pouring sand, corrupt, festering black stone spread across the room around to the Judge. The marble flesh melted away as the smiling angel was rapidly transformed into an angry death's head, large spikes erupting from between bone plates and cancerous roots spreading into the chamber wall around it. The eyes had vanished except for the now completely uncovered crystal balls, darker and bloodshot with blue-green energy, glaring at the figure they looked upon.

Eric passively watched a sight that he had almost become numb to, while Durant was battered by memories of the past. The strange flame leaped up higher to engulf the hand above it. The Accused appeared to jerk back instinctively only to find the appendage frozen in place by some unnatural force. Panic briefly crossed her face, but then she seemed to willfully calm herself, settling into a trancelike state as she focused inward.
Vapors began to roll out of the bowl and spread throughout the area, clinging to the woman's hair, clothes and body. Then with a brilliant pulse through the veins of the eyes and the transformation began. Sores began to gape open upon her flesh and her fingernails lengthened into sharp claws while the skin near them lost its smooth, soft texture in favor of thick weathered calluses.

Even now looking upon her as the change took place, Durant couldn't avoid picturing Kayla as she had been ten years ago. Barely a woman, and more beautiful than anyone his then two-eyes had ever seen. Irresistible. He looked down at his grimy hands remembering how they had ripped asunder the freshly washed dress. He remembered how his formerly human lips had left bruising kisses across the struggling girl's face. He remembered the things he had done to lay the groundwork for the monster being created in front of him.

Suddenly the air began to crackle, and, as he watched, the crawl of blighted features across her entranced form ceased and began to flow backwards. The Enforcer to his left was no longer watching with practiced detachment but instead devoted his full attention to the unusual occurrence. Both were chilled to the bone as the Judge's skeletal jaws opened into a silent scream and the eyes conveyed terror instead of anger. Eric began to rush forward only to find himself repelled by the same invisible force that had rooted the Accused in place.

She seemed to fade into shadow until she became one with it. Her eyes blossomed into pools of violet fire and the ears on either side elongated to elven sharpness. Two great swaths of darkness unfurled from behind her in the outline of bat-like wings. A muscular tail and sharp talons in place of fingers and toes completed the gargoyle image. The transformation ended as her breasts shrunk until there was just enough curve left to them to identify her as female, even while that which defined her gender smoothed over and disappeared.

With a final snap the energy of active magic vanished, and the demoness came out of her statuesque trance. She held her hands up in front of her face and looked down at herself, even giving her new tail an experimental swing. Then she turned to her audience and asked, "Well boys, what do you think? I thought long and hard about this design before letting you catch me, Eric."

"What have you done?" the blonde-haired warrior asked in shock.

"Ended an Age," she replied nonchalantly as she walked up to the man, tail whipping catlike behind her. He drew his sword, but she merely barked a single harsh word and the shining steel turned to rust and crumbled away, leaving only a hilt behind. She reached out and grabbed the front of his clothing and lifted him up off the ground. The man suddenly exclaimed in a terrified voice, "You're a magi! God help us!"

She smiled and said, "I told you before, as one of my friends you can call me Kayla." She hesitated just long enough for him to try and understand the comment and then smashed him forcefully against the wall with an audible crunch. She unclenched her fist and let the now limp form fall to the ground with a muffled thump.

Durant stood in shock as he watched her casually turn to him. Without any further warning, her tail shot out from behind her and impaled him through the chest. He moved his hands down in disbelief to where his inhuman green blood leaked in forceful pulses from the still plugged wound.

"Poor Durant, I told you that you would never see Absolution," she chided.

"Forgive me," was all he could manage to say.

"Forgive you? It's a little late to be asking for mercy, dear. You're already dead," she said, giving her tail a slight wiggle for emphasis.

In too much shock to try and correct her assumption he simply repeated, "Forgive me."

With a frown and a sigh of disgust that her toy was already too broken to have fun with, Kayla withdrew her tail violently in a gush of green fluid. The cloaked man slumped against the wall to be soaked in his own life fluids.

The gargoyle made her way back to the skull and plunged both hands into its sockets, wresting the orbs from their seating. "I have such big plans for you guys," she told the orbs with a deranged smile. She then tilted her head back and opened her mouth. A pillar of twisted gold and purple fire erupted from her throat and shattered the ceiling and the rock above.

The sky was still cloudy as evening approached. The new queen of terror took one last look around the broken, debris-filled room, at the body of the Enforcer, and the dying man who had created her. She shrugged once and then with a flap of her wings flew away with prizes in hand.

Had she waited around a moment longer, she would have seen a cloaked form begin to drag itself across the room. He had to stop her, Durant told himself. He couldn't let this be the legacy he left upon the world. He had to stop her. The thoughts repeated themselves in his head like a mantra urging him onward.

Durant's filth and blood slicked fingers scrawled for purchase on the edge of the bowl, not fearing the fire that he knew from experience caused no pain. Pulling himself up he looked at the blinded Judge and thought, "Help me, please, you have to help me. The things she will do…the people she will hurt…"

At first nothing happened, then a scintillation of light flashed through the still mist filled air around the pedestal. Pain ripped through Durant as the turquoise vapors mixed with his own blood and permeated the flesh. He clenched his eyes closed against the agony as extra pairs vanished beneath his skin and his mouth slid back down to the bottom of his face. Once again a human nose pushed out in the center of it all in a surge of cartilage.
After a seeming eternity, the torture ended and he was left breathing heavily and leaning against the bowl for support. He looked up into the polished metal of the doors to see a reflection staring back at him. It was not the one he had been born with. Brown hair covered his head, and a short beard was on his face. Still tall, more muscles than he had ever possessed were visible through his clothes. In place of the cloak were a brown cape, leggings, and a blue tunic like an Enforcer's, but with a balanced scale instead of a sunburst. Belted around his waste was a sword filled-scabbard. The reflection was the very image of a hero.

He drew the sword and looked upon it in wonder, the pommel was long enough for a two handed grip and the crosspiece bore the image of an angel and on the opposite side was the expected skull. Turning around he saw the suddenly lifeless stone of the Judge crack and collapse into purposeless rubble, never to serve again.

A chill wind blew in through the opened chamber and he was reminded of the world's peril. The Absolution he had been given was payment in advance for a task to be done. He looked into the grey skies bewildered at the change of fate wrought for him and for everyone in but a single day, unsure of how to begin confronting it.



Final Score: 47 out of 50

Raven's Comments:

I liked this story a *lot,* Mystic -- you've painted a beautifully rich
world here in remarkably few words. Your descriptions are top-notch --
from the first image of the Hall of Justice, through the three very
different travelers and the staircase illustrations, to the chambers of
the Judge Herself, your prose does a wonderful job of sucking us into
this other world. The back stories, both the broader tale of the Hall of
Justice and the more immediate story of Kayla and Durant, are
well-realized and conveyed to the audience with a minimum of exposition,
which is a *very* good thing that not many writers can do well. There are
maybe one or two places where the prose is a little overwrought -- "the
elixir of interest"? :) -- but, on the whole, it fits well with the mood
of the story.

There were a handful of technical flaws, but most were simple typos. It
would have been nice to have a little more background to understand why a
magus (singular form of "magi") would be able to single-handedly usurp
the godlike power of the Judge, or at least a good chunk of it. Eric
responds to the idea of Kayla being a magus with terror, but the only
prior mention of the magi is as a benevolent order. It might have helped
to understand earlier that there were both good and evil magi -- and if
the Judge is that vulnerable to them, one wonders why the Enforcers
didn't take precautions against allowing magi inside.

The transformation of Durant at the end was cool, but the final
paragraphs lacked punch -- there's sort of a lack of closure, and it's
missing the drama of the rest of the story. Heroic characters shouldn't
end stories looking lost and indecisive, at least not when the evil that
has to be confronted is so clearly identified. There should be a sense of
"striding off into the sunset", if you will, a sober and determined
acceptance of the task before him. He's beginning a great quest, and
that's the sort of thing that should be done forcefully and decisively.
You can wait until he gets "off camera" and has been riding through the
wilderness for a few hours before letting him start feeling lost. :)

On the whole, though, a very good and very enjoyable story. Fix the few
technical bobbles, maybe give us a little more background on how Kayla
pulled off her dastardly deed, and rework the ending, and this one will
be almost perfect.


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