I test the heft of the small leather purse: light, much lighter than my hope.
“This is all the gold dust left in Four Willows,” Elder Anselm says. “We’ve already hired a party of knights, a trio of wizards, even a band of monks. None could rid us of the grendel. Please, you’re our last hope.”
And the cheapest, I add silently.
But beggars can’t be choosers. King Rémy, a Puritan, has banned shadow plays and shuttered the theatres. I and my apprentice Élise watched our savings dwindle until I had no choice but to swallow my pride and turn to bounty-hunting.
It’s difficult enough to kill monsters, doubly so when you’re only an illusionist.
“Tell me everything about the grendel,” I say. “An illusionist does his best work when he knows his audience.”
• • •
The grendel is as tall as three men stacked foot to shoulder.
We’re trudging through the dark woods. I turn over Anselm’s words in my mind, preparing for the task ahead.
“Master, how can we defeat the monster with illusions?” Élise asks, fear and doubt making her beautiful voice, the voice that can imitate the roar of a lion as well as the song of a nightingale, tremble. “I’ve only ever learned to make sounds that delight.”
It’s the issue of the Devil, conceived in horror and sorrow. Its head is misshapen, its spine crooked, its teeth as foul as rusty daggers, its three arms all of differing lengths. It comes at night to snatch our children, and it leaves behind nightmares.
“Swords and fiery magic missiles are not the only things that can kill,” I tell her. “Men and monsters also die when the darkest fears in their hearts are made real.”
She nods, her jaw taut. At thirteen, no longer a child, she can tell when my words are meant to comfort her and my heart isn’t in them.
I point to the side of the path, where a cottage suddenly appears. The window glows warmly, and against the fogged up pane you can see the silhouettes of a couple cooing over their baby. We stand still to gaze, silent before the perfect sight.
I am, after all, the world’s greatest illusionist.
“Thank you, Master,” she says after a while. I wave my hand and the cottage disappears.
“Hold onto your dreams, which never die,” I tell her. “Now let’s move on.”
Years ago, the piercing cries of a baby pulled me out of an ale-haze in a warm tavern. Following that powerful voice, I found Élise wrapped in a blanket abandoned on the steps of a church. I knew then that she was special, had a gift.
I’m glad that I can still impress her, even if I’m no longer omnipotent in her eyes. Someday, she may exceed my skill, but today she is still just my student.
God will forgive me for my vanity. It’s all I have left.
The forest thins, ends. We’re at the bog where the grendel makes its lair.
• • •
“Come,” I shout into the foggy air, full of the stench of rotting vegetation. “Come fight!”
The grendel’s answering howl is like that of a wounded bear, full of rage and blood lust. But as it lumbers closer, the howls grow semi-articulate. I can almost make out words: curses, moans, maledictions.
The grendel emerges out of the fog fifty feet away. Amidst the writhing mass of wrinkles and oozing sores that cover its face, its eyes, as bright red as the eyes of a caged tiger I once saw at a zoo, lock onto me. I shudder.
It rears up on its legs, pounds its chest with its three arms, opens its bloody maw wide, and charges at me.
I wave my hands and a hundred knights step out of the woods, their lances lined up behind me, a solid wall of spikes.
The grendel digs its feet into the mud and stops, its mouth silently gaping. The knights are as convincing as anything I’ve ever conjured in Lyon and Tours.
It continues to lift its gaze higher, above the lances, until it’s staring at my masterpiece.
The dragon is a hundred feet long and shimmering emerald. It circles overhead slowly, eyes fixed menacingly on the grendel below. Lower and lower it glides so that the grendel can feel the heat from its open mouth, ready to spew forth flames, and the gusts of wind from its slow-beating wings.
I smile at the grendel. Its only choice is to run.
Desperation dims its eyes, but they light up again with defiance and rage.
It begins to charge again.
Sometimes illusions are not enough.
“I’m sorry, Élise.” I whisper.
Her face is drained of blood, her eyes shut tight.
Suddenly, another howl emerges from far away, deep in the bog. It sounds like the grendel, but older, and … even more blood-curdling.
The grendel stands still, barely ten feet away. I can see the mud caking each tuft of fur, smell its nauseating breath. It turns to look in the direction of the howl.
A figure coalesces out of the mist: twisted spine, wasted limbs, aged face full of scars, a head dripping with thick hair like strands of Spanish moss.
The grendel howls at the distant figure, a question.
The figure replies, and I can almost hear words in her cries — regret, sorrow, the joy of finding that which has been lost.
The grendel begins to run towards it, just as the figure again fades into the fog. The pair of howls, one ancient and maternal, the other young and yearning, fade into the distance.
And then, abruptly, the howls cease.
Élise breathes hard, her face flushed with the effort of throwing her voice for so long. “A cliff.”
Élise smiles a tired smile. “Sometimes dreams can also kill. He is an orphan too.”
I’m glad because my Élise is brilliant and strong. And I’m sorrowful because I’m no longer the greatest illusionist.
Ken Liu is an author and translator of speculative fiction, as well as a lawyer and programmer. His fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Strange Horizons, among other places. He lives with his family near Boston, Massachusetts.