Today we are featuring Inklings Book Contest 2018 finalist, Claire Reiger! Claire finished 7th grade this past school year. The story she submitted is called “The Beast Within.” Claire said, “The element I like best about my story is the changing hope throughout the story. . . Things, as bad as they seem, always have a way out, they always have hope. Even if the hope is changing as the story changes, it never goes away.” Enjoy!
I plopped down on to a street corner, alone. This was the first time I had to spend the Remembrance Festival by myself. I watched as people bustled around with gifts of food and gold for the Champion as the workers set up the brightly decorated booths filled with food, games, toys, and vases. There was noticeably more than one type of booth than any other. The king was always trying to get more vases, so he personally requested that lots of vase sellers be at the festival. The late Queen would make them by hand for him all the time. I think he still gets so many to preserve her memory. My favorite thing is going straight to the food sellers, but the festival seemed darker since Mel became champion. The festival is held to honor the champions chosen to fight to protect us from the beast outside the kingdom’s wall. To remember the ones who died and to pray for the one who might live. It was just a week ago when my older sister was chosen. She thought it was a huge honor, but I didn’t. Fighting a monster until you die and never seeing your family again seems like a cruel punishment to me. But she went anyway. I thought about her coming home every day, hoping one day she’d be there. But every day I was sad to find that she wasn’t coming home. How can anyone be so happy here when so many people have died? Some Champions last days or weeks, but never more than two months. My thoughts pounded in my head so loudly that I almost didn’t hear the people talking behind me.
“Wow, this Champion is a lot harder to move from prison cell to prison cell. She put up so much of a fight she broke one of the king’s favorite vases, the purple one the queen made for his birthday or something. We had to get her back into her original cell to try later. And to make things worse, we now need to find a way of telling the king about the vase without getting locked up beside her,” a voice said. I poked my head around the corner to see who was talking. It was two castle guards.
“Let’s head back to the castle so we can move the presents into the king’s room before we have to prepare for his grand speech. We can find someone to tell him about the vase while we take a few days off,” the other guard agreed. They started to walk toward the castle not far from the plaza. My heart pounded loudly as I watched them walk away. They took the champion prisoner? They took my sister prisoner? Before I had time to make a plan I had already begun to follow the guards. I reached the side door just as it closed behind them. I pushed with all my might to get the heavy door to open just wide enough for me to slide in. I could hear the two guards already walking away up a flight of stairs. Looking around the room I could see that down one hallway was an overturned table with a few purple clay crumbs spilled around it. Oh Mel, what have they done to you? I hurried down the hall, following the trail of damaged items until I stopped at a big iron door. Well, that looks ominous enough to be a prison door, I thought hopefully. Using my hair clip and lots of patience I managed to unlock the door. As I crept inside and looked around the dark room, all I could see were prison cells.
“Pssst! Pssst! Hey! Over here! A certain big sister might need a little help,” someone called from the dark corner of the farthest prison cell. My heart skipped a beat. It was my sister. I would know her voice anywhere.
“Mel! I thought I would never see you again!” I couldn’t keep my voice from shaking with excitement, as a ran over to her cell and bent down to her. We tried to hug through the bars of the cell, but her handcuffs got in the way.
“I’m so sorry I left you and Mom. I’m so sorry I ever left home. I– I thought I was making a difference.” Mel’s voice wavered, her trust hurt more badly than any wound the beast could ever make.
“Mom and I were so worried when you left. Mom would fret every night that the next morning we would get a letter saying you were eaten alive,” I replied.
“You and Mom really put up a fight to try and make me stay no matter what I said.”
I remembered how hard Mel had tried to make me happy about her being champion. She promised that she was going to come home. I still cried for hours after she left.
“But wait,” I said, sitting back on my knees. “Why are you here? If you are here and not fighting the beast, does this mean the beast isn’t real?” I asked, trying to make sense of years’ worth of childhood nightmares. Mel nodded slowly.
“B-but, all we learned in school and everything we have been told, and the champions who fought it. It can’t be fake.” I still couldn’t believe what was happening.
“The king invented the beast to stay in power using fear. The beast had been based off a long-legged monster that lived long ago. The champion thing was just to make it seem like he was helping to protect everyone, but he was only protecting himself from possible rebellion leaders if people saw him do things out of line. He also used the Champions as a quick way to make money as people kept sending in gifts for them, he simply has the Champions killed during the Remembrance Festival. I only know this because the king could not stop bragging about his accomplishments as I was being locked away. It’s also pretty easy to tell that someone is trying to kill you when they come at you with an axe.” Mel did her best to explain everything, to correct every lie we had been told. She talked as I again used my hair clip to pick the lock to her cell. We heard a click and the door swung open with a long screech. Mel stumbled out of the cell and embraced me as best she could while wearing handcuffs. I missed her so much. This is like a dream come true. She pulled back and looked down at me with a big smile.
“Are you ready to get out of here? We don’t have much time before guards will come down to try and kill me again,” she asked jokingly.
“I don’t think that needs to be a question,” I responded. “Mom is going to be so happy to see you!” I giggled with delight. I could see her eyes soften as she smiled back. After Mel’s handcuffs refused to budge, we decided to try to get them off later. We slowly worked our way back the way I snuck in. Pushing open the outer door we both popped into the empty alley.
“That’s weird. Where are all the guards? There were so many when they put me in there,” Mel asked. Almost as if to answer her question, we heard the king’s voice booming from the plaza.
“Ladies and Gentlemen! We are gathered here today to honor the brave souls who went out to fight the beast outside to protect us! And as I speak a young girl is fighting for her life and for ours, so let us have a moment of silence.” The king sounded as happy as could be at such a formal speech. I looked over to Mel who was almost growling with rage.
“He has lied to and killed innocent people who were willing to fight for the safety of their people. I’m going to make that lying monster pay!” Mel fumed. She started toward the plaza where the king was making his speech up on the castle balcony.
“Mel, no! This won’t help anyone! No one knows about his lies, and blind vengeance will be more hurtful than helpful!” I shouted, running after her. She stopped and sighed.
“I hate how you are smarter than me sometimes,” she joked, smiling a little. But I could still see how angry her eyes were. “Well, we need to think of something quickly, or I go on to plan B.”
We both stood in silence as we thought about how we could do it. I finally thought of something that might just work.
“I have an idea, and it involves not killing anyone so it can’t go poorly!” I really hope this works, or people will get hurt. How is it possible that so many things could go so wrong without anyone noticing? I started to explain my plan to make the king’s lies crumble, and Mel nodded the whole time like she completely understood what I was saying even though I was so nervous I could barely get my words right.
“You know, this might actually work.” Mel smiled confidently.
“Let’s hope so. I don’t want to think about what would happen if we failed.” I smiled weakly. We finalized the plan and set it into motion. Together we marched back into the town plaza where the king was talking about the bravery of the champions.
“Risking life and limb to protect us from such a horrible and terrifying beast from decimating us all, truly that is bravery of the highest level!” He looked down upon his citizens, all of them mourning the loss of their friends, family members, and neighbors who had all fallen victim to the beast.
“Now all we can do is wait for our current champion to return.” The king turned a page and was about to speak again when Mel ran up in front of the crowd and jumped up onto a box for everyone to see. She raised her cuffed fists into the air as she addressed the crowd.
“My fellow citizens, I, like you all, grew up on horror stories about the beast outside the walls, and I too feared it. But I became the champion, sent to kill a beast that does not exist. I was imprisoned, tortured, and sent to be killed on this very day. I was supposed to kill a monster outside our walls, instead, I was supposed to be killed in silence to keep the lies of the monster living within the walls!” she shouted so the whole town could hear her speech. She looked to the king, and he was shaking like he was in an earthquake. There were confused murmurs in the crowd as people tried to understand what was happening.
“T-that doesn’t mean anything! I-I’m king and my word is law,” he growled, clearly bewildered.
“You dare try to challenge me? I’ll have you know that I, the mighty Champion, am powerful enough to decimate your royal purple vases that rest helplessly in hallways!” Mel smirked and held up a large piece of broken purple clay for all to see. “It flew right into my boot when it hit the ground. But here, you can have it back!” Mel shouted. She wound her arms back and launched the shard at the balcony.
“No!” the king shouted, reaching to catch it. But it was too late; the clay hurled through the air and knocked a small, brightly decorated vase off the railing of the balcony. It fell to the earth and splintered into a million pieces. “How dare you!” king screamed. “That was one of the last things she ever made me! If there was really a beast outside these walls I would have you fed to it at once!” he bellowed. Everyone was stunned, but they didn’t stay speechless for long.
“The champion was imprisoned the whole time? The Beast isn’t real? He just said it isn’t real?” The crowd erupted into a volcano of enraged and confused citizens. I watched as the elaborate lie the king had made came crashing down around him, like a vase falling from a large height. A few hours passed, and the king was finally removed from power and exiled now that the threat of the beast was learned to be nonexistent. It took days to correct all the old king’s lies and to have a new Queen placed into power. But the end turned out okay, especially because no one else had to die! Now, every day when I come home from school, Mel is there waiting for me with our mom, and it is all I could have asked for. And our little corner of the world is as positively perfect as it could be now that we are safe from the beast that was within.
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