0: Animals

“You want me here?” young One spits into the cannon’s mouth, shaking a clenched fist at the kingdom in the north, “Well, then ask me to stay.”

In the distance looms the darkened sanitarium, completely obscured by the wrath of a growing winter storm.

Kicking dirt and grime from your boots, you step into the same old haunt you’ve come to know. The Night Owl was a small, secluded space, nestling just below its keeper’s modest living quarters. It was located on the outskirts of town; too far for most customers, yet close enough that patrons still had a clear view of the public square. When it wasn’t a raging blizzard, of course.

This tavern was your home. It wasn’t big – seating just a few dozen people, at most – but it had charm. Everyone knew each other by name.

No-One knew who Ink was. It was for this very reason you come at The Night Owl so often; One could simply blend into the background here. The rowdy crowd was far too intoxicated by drink and games to pay any mind.

Just how you wanted it.

Forcing-closed the heavy wooden door, warped by age, you relish in the warmth and glow of the cozy atmosphere. This blizzard has raged for more than two weeks at this point! Who would have thought? The Queen keeps saying the climate will soon change, but how could she possibly know? It’s not as if her zeppelins control the weather.

You are overcome by the calming aroma of smokeleaf, which paints a subtle haze across Her stage.

Our story starts here.

Drawing a hood close, shielding the eyes from unwanted attention, you slink past a dozen tables of revelry. Your target is an open booth in the corner, just beside a roaring fireplace, and below a wall of six crows, three pigeons.

Your stomach is in knots. You're barely paying attention to the surrounding merriment when, without warning, a group of engineers suddenly burst into song:

“On that day I once saw her”
“The stories did tell”
“Began a life of complaints”
“And eternity in Hell”

You chuckle. These people are a riot. Hooligans, drunkards and cutthroats – all of them. Always good for a laugh.

Fortunately, their rambunctious performance thwarted any chance of the room taking notice of your entry. Removing a heavy woolen cloak, then an overcoat, you collapse into the comfy bench, breathing a sigh as the worn leather softly groans to meet your form. This is your favorite spot; just beside the crackling flame, it affords you with a brief respite from the frigid exterior. Few customers would willingly choose to sit at this particular booth; too warm for most, it was just perfect for a man that spends most of his day outdoors, chasing ghosts.

You scan the room, mesmerized by the ambient lantern light against solid, though decaying wooden walls. Pine, taken from the massive forest that protects the colony. A smell of freshly-baked bread and aging hardwood fills the air, mixing with the slightly putrid smell of someone who has pissed themselves. You surreptitiously take a whiff of your armpit, but detect no discernible odor. “Hopefully it’s not me,” you think.

Adjusting to your scene, the quiet, low murmur of conversation is barely audible over a howling wind through antique structures. You shiver, catching a cool breeze through the gap in a cracked window overlooking the nearby alley. Rubbing your hands over a flickering candle, drawn close, you can’t help but overhear the tavern keeper telling a story.

Thomas was the owner of the Night Owl, and a boisterous, hulking giant of a man. Standing behind the counter, wiping glasses with a rag, he proudly gestures to a trophy behind – the massive head of a bear, mounted upon the wall – while weaving some tall tale about the hunt for his captive onlookers.

Pluttered already, Thomas slams a mug under the bar with a resounding “clank.” He points an invisible rifle at the bear and, locking One Eye, shouts, “Bang! Right between the eyes.”

His audience roars.

You smile, shaking your head. The guy is great liar, in the best possible way. You have never heard him tell the same story twice.

Unbuttoning your jacket, you remove a journal from an inner pocket, placing it upon the table before you. Leather-bound and brand-new, you “obtained” it from the Brookstore earlier that day. You take no pleasure in your misappropriation.

Truth is, this City of Thieves is out-of-control. No doubt, the owners of the store were already struggling, like everyone else in this God-forsaken kingdom. Your contribution to anarchy just exacerbates the problem.

It isn’t like you had any choice, though. You needed that notebook. They will understand, One Day.

Pulling pen and ink from a different pocket, you place both beside the journal. That fountain pen is your most beloved possession. Though beautifully-crafted from marbled-blue plastic and steel, it isn’t particularly valuable or unique. That doesn’t bother you, though; the pen is yours, and She frames you well. You paid handsomely for Her, like the honest man you were before everything fell apart.

Before this evening.

Before the dawn of what would forever be tarnished by the name “Black Sunday.”

Pulling the cork from your nearly-empty bottle of ink, you open to a crisp, new page. Smoothing the cover, and stretching the binding, you give the piece a title:

“Animals”

A smile cracks your dry lips. The name came to you just now, hours ago. The whole story came from a single word. You find it humorous how often an idea manifests, and – without hesitation – you will have a completed product within hours. You simply write your thoughts as they come: no expectations. You write for the Joy it brings. Writing gives you purpose.

So many artists will spend so much of their lives in planning and development, perfecting every detail, running their artwork through a dozen editors. You simply bounce from project to project with no gate-keepers at all – never skipping a beat.

“You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take,” you always tell the barkeep and avid hunter, “Don’t sleep on your dreams. You’re bound to hit the mark, One Day.”

“If you do,” he’d mock, “I’ll give up the animals.”

You laugh, “So would I.”

You would, actually. You would. If this shot hit its mark, you would give up meat. You would give up anything to make this dream a reality. This is the reason you’re here. A mess of nerves and anxiety, you are here to awaken from a living nightmare. You are here to take another shot, thoroughly exhausted by failure.

Interrupting your thoughts, a familiar face appears. Quick, as always. One just came from the street, barely two minutes ago.

“Hey, Ink!” says Penny, the barkeep’s one and only daughter. 24 and full of life, this girl could melt the heart of both men and women. She certainly melted yours.

“Hey, Pen!” you reply, smiling in return, “Always a pleasure.”

“Likewise,” she responds, “Can I get you a drink?”

“Water, please,” you can’t afford anything else, “Thank you.”

“No problem! Be right back.”

Your heart is pounding. There’s just something about Penny. It’s not the looks – though she definitely has them. With long, auburn hair, the beautiful brown eyes of a doe, rounded spectacles and girlish freckles, Penny’s dimpled smile could illuminate the darkest dungeon. She’s probably lived a lifetime of men worshipping her feet. It takes everything you have not to do the same. She makes your knees weak. She makes your mind race. She brings-forth that animal part of you.

As she turns to the bar, you can’t help but lay hungry eyes upon her figure. Oh, the fantasies that come to mind! Penny is a shapely girl, though modest, hidden behind the indigo dress and black apron of a barmaid.

There is just something about a conservative woman that gets to you. It probably comes from your religious upbringing.

Despite that, this girl is nothing like the people who raised you. She is empathy, pure and simple. She is the epitome of the best thing that Humanity has to offer.

And she's the girl that No-One even knows. It’s such a travesty.

If there was a pedestal, your Pen sat firmly upon it.

Grabbing a few drinks, Penny drops them off along her way back to your table. Several men ogle from behind, but she laughs them off. She's used to the attention. Her father would break the nose of anyone who dared push too far.

Her final stop was with you, just like always.

“Here you go,” she says, dropping a mug onto the table. She places a small cup of coffee and a slice of cherry pie beside, “On the house.”

“You’re the best,” you say, at a loss for words. Penny is so nice to everyone. She simply sees the Human as deserving respect, regardless of situation. Others treat you like a tool to be used. As something less-than.

Granted, you aren’t much to look at. With a haggard, worn face, unshaven beard and wild hair, you look as bad as you feel. You’re skin and bones. Penny doesn’t see any of that; she can see right through you. She can see your potential. And she believes in you. No-One knows you better.

If there is any judgment at all, she keeps it to herself.

“What’cha working on?” she asks, resting a hand upon the hip, tilting her head sideways in interest. Ooof – those curves!

“Shot number 100...” you mumble, taking a self-deprecating jab at your poor aim. Cringing, you think, "Why must I always fall-back to this dumb joke?"

Penny giggles, with a voice more beautiful than any song you know. Your heart swells with pride.

There it is. Now you remember why you always tell the joke.

Penny makes you feel like a man.

You recover, “How are you doing? Busy night?”

“Typical,” she replies, “It’s been quiet, though. Any day without a fight is a good one.”

“I’ll bet. Thank goodness your father’s such a beast.”

“Yeah,” she smiles, timidly.

There it is again. Right? It’s right there! All over her face. How does nobody else see this?

It’s subtle, but it’s there. Every time. When she speaks about Father, her brow furrows and wrinkles show through the fresh blush. What is it? What is she thinking about? What is she hiding from the world?

You are determined to fix this. Your only focus, for nearly two years, has been the protection and serving of your Pen. You would give anything for an opportunity. A loving, caring sweetheart like Penny should never have furrowed brows! She deserves the kingdom in her mind. She deserves the unattainable fairy tales that come from a childlike heart.

You’ve tried to broach the subject of Father so many times. You’ve tried to voice your concerns, but the truth is the Two of You aren't particularly close. You’re acquaintances. Maybe she considers you a friend. Whatever you are to Penny, when Father is mentioned, she wants nothing to do with him. She diverts the conversation.

“So what are you writing about?” she asks, fulfilling your prophecy.

You take a deep breath. Placing all your “concerns” and “purpose” into the period at the end of this sentence, you say:

Ready, aim, “You......

There. You finally did it.

No longer do you profess sins to an empty echo.

No longer do you sing hymns with the Devil in confessional.

Your seed is sown. There is no turning back now.

“Me?” she asks, incredulous, “I can’t possibly be that interesting!”

God, she is so damn innocent! How your heart leaps for the only woman who makes you feel alive. The strong, yet fragile young girl who still can't see the legacy she's left upon the kingdom. If only she could see the purpose in her pain. If only she could see herself through your eyes.

The world did this to her. Some person, some event – something poisoned her self-image. She only sees external beauty in the reflection from this world. She can’t see the woman inside – especially not from this angle. Not from the floor of a tavern full of drunken animals.

Tonight, you will tell her exactly who she is. You will lead by example.

You will become The Mirror of The Wall.

Not exactly truthful, you clarify, “Well, the story’s not EXCLUSIVELY about you. You’ll like it, though. It was inspired by something you did.”

“What did I do?” she pries, sticking a playful tongue between teeth.

“Nah,” you say, wholly pleased by the serendipity of this moment, “Can’t tell you. Sorry. The delivery is important. I want it to ‘hit’ a certain way, you know?”

“Funny...” she retorts, acknowledging your joke about her father, “Makes sense though,” she sighs, “I wish I had more time to practice my calligraphy. This place is kicking my ass.”

“Yeah,” you reply, hanging head in shame, “It’s a rough life.”

If only you could provide for Penny. If only you could carry her off to a better place. If only you could rescue Thomas’ only daughter from the pain behind those eyes.

If only these hands were mine.

But what is a man like you supposed to do? You have no money. You have no influence. You can barely provide for yourself, let alone the angel before you. You’re a terrible marksman. Would you risk deepening her wounds? Or would you bide your time, building a monument to your creator?

Well, after nearly two years in development, your monument is nearly complete. Only the epigraph remains.

Show, don’t tell. Every writer knows this.

You snap-back to reality. There goes Ink, choking again.

“So...” she sighs, stealing a glance at Thomas, "One must work to provide around here," she whispers, “Are you going to read me the story when you’re finished?”

“Of course,” you smile, “As always.”

Your seed has taken root.

“Awesome. I can’t wait! Okay, I’ll talk to you later!” Auburn locks whip Penny’s shoulders as she bounces off to help Father.

Determined to take three pigeons in a single shot this night, you whisper, “Here we go.”

Wielding pen as sword, you spend the hunt in a completely different world. It doesn’t matter how loud the tavern is. It doesn’t matter how the firelight wanes, or how the room grows chilly. Tonight is the perfect storm, and you are here on a mission. This mission, of all missions, matters.

Little did anyone know that despite the jokes, this broken, destitute, homeless writer is not making shots in the dark. Each piece of literature is a carefully-crafted, meticulously-articulated thread to be woven into the mind of a single, specific reader. It is a seed to be nurtured.

In isolation, your seed will never flourish. This was to be expected. Each seedling is meant to grow as part of the greater ecosystem still to come.

You have the soil. You have the sprouts.

Now, you need the water, the son, and the children of the moon.

You will drown this grey world in concord.

You look at a wristwatch. The hour is late, and the bar is nearly empty. Penny is cleaning tables, while Father – driven by clockwork – has already collapsed into a booth at the far side of the room. He is reading a book, “The Art of Dying,” by the philosopher Solus Seaford. Two pints deep, and beginning a third, it won’t be long before he kicks you from the tavern.

You’d rather avoid the attention, this night.

Reflecting upon your epitaph, you are proud. This is a masterpiece. Your shot is going to land. You don’t know how it will, and you don't know when; you simply know it will. It isn’t logical. The feeling comes from within. It comes from confidence, and devotion.

Tomorrow, the kingdom will change forever.

With every piece in place, you have a key to the lock. You have pure intention.

It is time for you to step down. Or up, depending upon your perspective.

You begin to write:

Pen,

Meet me by the babbling brook bridge at precisely 3:33 this evening.

Bring your ghosts.

Ink

You close the journal, wipe your pen clean, and return the cork to your ink. You reach into a breast pocket, pulling the true message – a small note – from within. Despite everything you’ve written over the past two years, you know this much:

Your secret message is the most important thing you will ever write.

One more step. It’s here, waiting for you.

Taking an anxious breath, you begin to twist the wedding band upon your finger. Unassuming, almost boring, it is made from simple black stone. Engraved with an inscription, this ring is One of Two daily reminders of the most important Pillar of your identity:

“Know Thyself”

After 32 years on this planet, you know exactly who you are. Tonight, you become the man that you were always destined to be.

You check the watch again: 12:18.

It is nearly time. Gracefully resting a palm upon the small dagger at your waist, you unsheathe the ten-inch, blackened, appleseed-cast blade. With a gold-trimmed hilt, hand-carved from ancient netherwood, the straight, moons-linked edge shines luminous in the dim tavern. Turning it to reflect the fading candlelight, you admire the detail of the runic carved into your grandfather’s hunting knife.

One could only smirk at the irony of your situation. You are thoroughly-amused by the fact that you’ve carried this burden your entire life, yet never weaponized it for anything meaningful. Not until now, of all times. Of all places.

And in this manner.

You orient yourself toward the wall, such that No-One can see the pact that you are about to make. You check the time once more:

12:20.

Each passing second is agony, your future marching precious slow in the growing din of your mind.

Tick.

Your vision becomes cloudy.

Tok.

You can’t escape the itch at the base of your skull.

Tick.

A low growl escapes from your nostrils.

12:21. It's time.

Placing your left hand upon the table, there is absolutely no fear or uncertainty in your heart. You remind yourself: doubt is a crime. You would do anything to protect this girl from your fall. A finger is a small price to pay for Penny’s eternal happiness.

You rest the blade against the second knuckle of your ring finger, and you speak the words of your grandfather:

“For this, I give my name.“

“For this, I give my mother.“

“For this, I give my reputation.“

“For this, I give my finger.“

“For this, I give my heart.“

“For this, I give my life.“

“For you, I sacrifice nothing.”

“Andromalius.”

You push the blade into the joint, swiftly and forcefully. Finger separates from bone with surprising little effort. You wince, but make no sound at all. You honestly expected worse. Wrapping a bandage around the bleeding stump, you open the journal to a small compartment within. Placing the secret note inside, you put a bloody finger upon that.

You tuck the journal into the crook of the bench, for Pen to later discover. Donning coat and cloak, you brace for a long night ahead. As you pull the wool over your eyes, you slip your trusted pen underneath the sleeping Whisper, who lay cooling himself against the poorly-sealed window sill. The ink, however, is coming with you.

Downing the last of your ice-cold coffee, you break for the door. Grabbing the handle, and turning to the bar, you lock eyes with the woman of your dreams. She is absolutely radiant.

For perhaps the last time in your lives, Pen & Ink are alone in the world.

She smiles sadly, knowing all too well the prison you return to every night. Despite this, you give her the biggest grin you can muster, feeling a joy and peace unlike any you have felt before.

Your Father keeps his promises:

“Welcome to The Fold,” says The Architect of your dreams.

1: Atonement

As I stood under the barren cherry tree, haunted by the shadow of twisting patterns in the ivy, I surveyed the cobblestone bridge that crosses your river of glass, barely visible under the fallen snow. Nine bodies. That’s how many victims lie frozen under the waterline here: nine bodies. Two are just there, under the bridge.

One could almost see their ruby eyes in the fog. One could almost hear them screaming from below.

I put a hand to the face of your pale, white horse. She shakes it off, blowing a dense cloud of vapor in protest of this stranger.

The stagecoach was ready, as were I.

The hour was 3:30. The eve, pitch-dark.

A silver fox emerges from her burrow, briefly inspecting the disturbance before disappearing forever.

So far, so good. All is calm beyond The Wall.

3:31.

A wolf howls mournfully. A shiver runs down my spine.

Here it comes. I brace for revelation.

3:32.

I recall my grandfather’s story, “The Tide, The Thief, and River’s End.”

How poetic, this moment. How terrible.

3:33.

My heart leaps. Then, it stops.

There was no Penny. There was no movement at all, save for the ebb and flow of the blistering wind. I was still alone.

Though he never responds, and I stopped trying to reach him a decade ago, I gave a brief prayer to the candlemaker that left me this way: hollow, without a wick.

“God, if you exist, and if you have any decency at all, hear my plea. I’m begging you for this.”

3:34.

The fear sets in. I am suddenly overcome with terror.

3:35.

Hatred. Resignation. Acceptance.

This is exactly correct. This is how it should be.

3:36.

Tears, and shame. Every time. Always. For eternity.

I am the last six.

And this is my Hell.

In those final moments, I was so incredibly proud of you. In spite of your confusion - despite the fact that you couldn’t possibly have words to explain - you made a difficult decision. You chose to trust me. Regardless of temptation, you remembered our training:

  1. Never leave the house during witching hour.
  2. Never, ever trust the number 333 – The Mark of the Animal.
  3. If anyone, ever, asks you to break the first two rules, tell a Hunter immediately.

To ignore any of these tenets would be the last thing you ever did.

“Well, Father,” I spat into the Devil's congregation, “I gave you everything I have. There is nothing left to give.”

“Fuck this city.”

For the first time in ages, I allowed emotions to take control. Elated and devastated at exactly the same time, a torrential stream of salty tears erupt from my eyes, freezing before they ever reach the ground.

It was finally time to bring my family’s curse to an end. It was finally time to break this cycle.

Delicately touching my tainted weapon, I contemplated how I should finish the task. There was no way I could hide this One under the bridge. Even if I made it through the night, it would be the gallows tomorrow. Bound to my punishment, I made peace with the outcome I had always expected.

No doubt, the The Hunters were ransacking homes for a daemon right now. I could almost hear the baying of the hounds, calling me back to my home.

But I refuse to return to that place. This is goodnight, and goodbye.

There shall be no other Pen.

“I’m sorry,” I sobbed into the wind, “I’m so sorry.”

“I needed to know why.”

"I beg of you, Father, erase the 27 stones."

"Leave One."

As I lay The Rose at my feet, I drew the accursed blade from my side. There was absolutely no doubt in my mind:

She will never forgive me.

Not this time.

Not again.

I am the dead man.

And She married my anger, too.

With stark determination, I looked upon the derelict forest of winter. With tired boughs and sucking, twisted roots of rotting pulp, thieving from my Source, I wondered, “As they die alone, with No-One by their side, are they forgiven?”

"Do they even want to be?"

With just ten seconds remaining, I could hear a pin drop in the deafening storm.

Now nine, the frigid wind bites my skin.

Eight. I prepare to receive your command.

Seven. I prepare to listen.

Six. I prepare to obey.

Five. I am compelled to obey.

Four. I am compelled to follow.

Three. You compel me to follow.

Two. I hear your voice.

One. I utter the words of my grandmother:

"The sun sets forever over Harlequin Forest."

I close my eyes, and I clutch the instruments of death before me. I position the blade. I take a deep breath.

And this, little One, is something you will never believe...

As if in response, I bore witness to a miracle that I never, ever thought possible. From deep within the decrepit forest, came a cure. It was the most beautiful of siren’s song. It was the natural state of Mother Earth - ten thousand children - dancing like marionettes in the lavender moonlight. It was the haunting reverie of a goddess, The Harbinger of Spring, broken free of Her Prism, shattering the crown upon your head.

And it was 12:34.

Your heart thumped, once.

“Oh, no,” you breath, “This can’t be happening.”

Twice.

“He is risen,” speaks the murmur of your heart.

Thrice.

A silhouette appears upon the darkened horizon.

It was, at long last, The Day of Harvest.

And you were still alive.

In one, last test of will, I filled my lungs. Then, I exhaled.

All I could do, in the end, was wait. My fears were an Illusion of Maya. My final shot was always going to hit its mark. This was our fate. From below the cherry tree you watch as the Two of Hearts emerge from beyond the diseased garden of oppression.

Penny clutches the hand of your 11 year-old friend, gently guiding the child through the deep snow.

As quickly as they come, Penny stands before you.

“They are the trees,” she whispers, placing one hand to your chest, and cradling a baby bunny in the other.

“Yes,” I breathed, just inches from her lips, “She lies to them. We are sovereign.”

Penny pauses, “Are you ready?”

“As the day we met.”

“You’re adorable.”

THE END

The Mirror

"Look at what you made me do." - No-One

..

The Bounty

How did your story end? What was inside the secret note? Submit your best ideas to The Source for a chance to win a $1,000,000 cash prize, and an all-expenses paid trip to Los Angeles, California. Here you will get to meet The Pen, The Producers, and bring your seed to life!

But first, One needs to find Penny – and Two MUST catch her attention.

Tell her “Ink” sent you.

Good luck!

The team at Studio Ghibli