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The Rise of Skeleton King

a novella of unprecedented terror


Frick yeah! Debauchery! Disrespecting our parents! Abusing illicit substances!

These were the words shouted by the teenage boys as they climbed into their equally teenage van on that fateful July afternoon. There were four of them, and even if they were not entirely innocent, they were unquestionably nave, and arguably harmless. They were embarking on a road trip for reasons as varied as they were still-not-original. The driver was Adam Grodsass, owner of the van, de facto leader of the group, and almost-shameless LARP enthusiast. He did not advertise the fact that he was wearing a meticulously hand-painted foam breastplate under his shirt, but he would not deny it if asked. He yearned for adventure, and if he could not slay a dragon, hed settle for driving a rusty Chevy Astro from Michigan to Colorado. Riding shotgun was Roscoe Watson, whiny poet and owner of a sad, thin beard. He fancied himself an old soulhe was, to be fair, more mature than his peers in a handful of ways, but all of these were overshadowed by the delusions of grandeur that kept him from seeing the overwhelming number of ways that he was, in fact, a teenager. He had just come off a rather minor breakup that he had already described as apocalyptic on several occasions, and hoped the mountain air would help him clear his head, and the serene beauty of the American wild

would inspire him to write the perfect breakup poem, if he could ever find a suitable rhyme for friendzone. In the back left seat was Jared Jar Binks, a spastic and annoying-voiced sophomore whom the others had reluctantly agreed to bring along based on the even more reluctant admission that they were only marginally cooler than he was. When they had all been much younger, Jar had taken them all to see Star Wars Episode I for his birthday, and they had been stuck with him sincenot that that was entirely a bad thing. Jar had rich parents who were willing to part with large sums of money to get him out of their faces, and they had made a significant contribution to the gas funds of this particular road trip. The others gratefulness for this was tempered by a much larger way in which Jars presence complicated the trip, but this would be better in its own time. In the back passenger side was Nelson Wheatley, trying to ignore Jars presence by focusing harder on the manga he was reading than his interest in it warranted. Nelson was eighteen, the oldest member of the group by six months, and that fact was never far from his mind: in an ideal world, he thought, the others would all call him sensei. He was especially knowledgeable about pop culture for a high-schooler, and blogged about this fact daily; he was already mentally plotting a list of places from which he could update his blog on the road. Thinking, for some reason, that it was a necessity for any group of four young men, the others had repeatedly attempted to label Nelson their Token Black Friend. Nelson hated that honky crap. The Astro pulled out of Adams parents driveway in Midway, Michigan, and began the southward journey to the highway. Though the boys were thrilled by the freedom from the open road and their unprecedented total lack of supervision, three of the four actively dreaded this leg

of the trip. Jar had used his bargaining power as the primary source of gas money to add an otherwise unnecessary midway point: rural Arkansas. Jar, who had to their knowledge never spoken to a human female other than his mother, claimed to be in an intense internet relationship with an Arkansan girl, and had threatened to withdraw all funding unless they stopped there first. The others reluctantly agreed and made their reluctance known, mainly via creative additions in sharpie to the printed directions:

Jars road trip etiquette was not helping his case, either. Throughout the whole first season, he was telling Nelson, Patamon was like, the most pathetic Digimon. Like he was just totally worthless. Nelson glanced sideways at Jar. But in the season finale, when theyre fighting Devimon, he transforms into Angemon, whos like, the most powerful Digimon theyve seen yet, and he fires this big blast of Nelson replied without looking away from his manga. Fascinating. But after they kill Devimon, its still not over, because

Hey, listen to this, Adam interrupted. He took out a burned CD labeled Wyngspan from a case under the dashboard, and in a few moments the sound of roaring guitars and European men screaming something about dragons filled the car. There are those who would say that its uncool to listen to Dragon Metal while driving on the open road, and those people have never listened to Dragon Metal. The first hour of the trip was devoted mostly to air guitar and loud, off-key singing of the sort that can only happen among people that, however their personalities may prick one another, are really friends. After the Wyngspan CD ended, and it was put on repeat with the volume lowered, the rest of the first night of driving was largely uneventful. Nelson read, Adam and Roscoe bantered about ideas for fantasy novels, and Jar played his Nintendo DS and announced loudly and to no one in particular that he was giving his Pokemon nicknames like Fartbreath, Fartface, and Capt. Fart. They had left at 5:30 p.m., and they were hardly south of Chicago when, at 10:30, they decided to cut the night short and pull over in a Burger King parking lot to sleep. As they lay in the grungy trunk area of the van, sleeping uncomfortably if at all, Adam had a remarkably vivid dream. It was midnight, and he was sitting in his parents living room, for some reason wearing nothing but his boxers, and watching a cartoon he remembered from childhoodhe knew now that it was mediocre at best, but he forced himself to enjoy it because he wore nostalgia as a badge of honor. Either because it was a dream or because the only detail that mattered was its age, he was not exactly sure what he was watching. This ritual of remembrance was interrupted by a knock at the door.

He rose from his armchair as the visitor knocked a second time. He did not think to put on clothes. He opened the door and blinked to check his vision. A robed figure stood on the welcome mat, its head nothing more than a grinning skull, a jeweled crown resting on its bleach-white brow. Adam stammered a hello. Greetings, the figure said. I am Skeleton King, ruler and destroyer of all. Im Im Adam. Well met, Adam. May I come in? Skeleton King did not wait for an answer, but pushed past Adam nonchalantly through the doorway. Adam felt a chill of fear like he had never known as the Kings robes brushed against him, but it dissipated as the figure moved into the living room. Nice carpet, Skeleton King remarked as he shot a stream of fire from his skeletal fingers and began setting it aflame. Adam was awoken by a knock on the vans window.

Adam jerked himself upright against the protests of his neck and spine and rubbed his eyes. The knock on the window came again. A thirtysomething man in a worn green cap was fogging up the driver-seat window with his breath, staring past the seat at Adam. Hey, kid. Hey, he grumbled. Adams first attempt at speech came out as Dthwhat. His second attempt was an unenunciated who are you? Call me Herb, kid. Uh, hi, Herb, I guess. Top of the mornin to ya, friend. Ill get right to business. Ol Herb wants to know, you got any herb? Any what? You know, weed? Reefer? Chicago green? Bud? Bambalacha? Uh, I dont think I have any of that. You tellin me four kids sleepin in the dang ol Mystery Machine in the Burger King parking lot aint got any drugs? I guess not. You even got a token black dude! You tellin me your token dont toke? The flip did you just say?! Nelson blurted sleepily. Woah, woah, no worries, my brotha, Herb continued. Just lookin for some of that dank kush, aint lookin for a fight. Dont call me your brotha. Herb was taken aback. Well, why not? Im a white brotha, and youre

STOP. Herb went silent. His eyes were wide, and he let a deep breath out of his nose that left a thick steam circle on the window. Well, fine, I see how it is. Buncha punk brats. Aint got no respect for elders. Herb stepped away from the window and began walking past the van lengthwise. The boys heard him grumbling as he passed: Sure do miss the days when teens had the goldang common decency to share their bud. Then the back door of the Astro began to rattle violently. Herb banged against the metal, shouting I know youre bogartin! Let me in there, Ill teach you not to share with ol Herb, and pulling repeatedly on the handles so hard that the whole car shook. Roscoe and Jar awoke more confused than either could remember ever being. Before Roscoe could finish asking what was happening, Herb began banging again. Flippin rotten bunch of teenage buttholes, Herb said, because this is a family-friendly story. Ill smoke your ashes! Ill use your skull as a bong! Ill show you what happens to dern hecking brats like you! Hes got the weed rage, Jar sobbed, because he had no idea how marijuana works. Weed rage? Im chill as balls, motherflipper! Herb screamed through the door. Roscoe, remembering a number of brutal drug-related killings he had seen on Breaking Bad, maintained fearful silence. Adam stared at the shaking door, patted the foam armor under his shirt determinedly, and began to stand up. Nelson, seeing the resolve in Adams eyes, snatched the car keys dangling from his pocket and pulled himself over the back seat. Before Adam had reached the door, the key was in the ignition and turning.

Adam toppled over as the Astro lurched from its parking place and tripped over Jar, shoving him into the grungy carpet and slamming his own face against the door. The van circled out of the lot, chased by Herb, now screaming so loudly that all eyes in the parking lot were glued to him. Youre dead! Youre all dead! No one says no to Herb! I have a criminal record, motherflippers! None of the boys saw this, but Herb ran down the highway after them for a full mile before collapsing by the side of the road. It was not long before Nelson pulled over to relinquish the drivers seat to Adam, and it was not long after that before Nelson had gone back to sleep, exhausted from a terrible night and eager to put the episode with Herb behind him. Adam stared restlessly at the highway in front of him. Beside him, Roscoe was silently puzzling over The Epic of Gilgamesh, and in the backseat Nelson was fast asleep and Jar was listening to Korean pop music slightly too loudly in his earbuds. Stuck between his thoughts and the road, Adam felt as lonely as anyone can feel in a car full of people, and after half an hour of agitated boredom he nudged Roscoe to take his head out of his book. Hey, man, I had a really weird dream last night. I have weird dreams all the time. The other night, I dreamed that Hannah and I were still together, and Youve told me this one. Like, twice, at least. Roscoe sighed. Yeah, I know.

But listen, man. This was different. It was, in fact, different, but the only reason that Adam suspected so was because he read the sort of fiction in which bizarre, realistic dreams are nearly always prophetic. I was watching cartoons at midnight What cartoon? I dont remember. Just one of those from when cartoons were good. Anyway, it was midnight, and this guy came and knocked at my door. But when I opened it, he was like, a skeleton wizard or something, and he came into my house and set it on fire. Youre right, that is weird. Yeah. A couple of hours later, they stopped at a Wendys somewhere to the east of Springfield. Adam sat alone at the table with a cheeseburger; this was one of the first decent stops for miles, and the others were stuck behind two truckers and a large family in line for the restroom. The Wendys was full of the sort of people you normally see on the road: professional drivers, families on vacation, college students wasting their gas money, and alsoAdam looked twice to be surea man leaning alone in the back corner, covered completely by a black hooded cloak. He brushed it off with a murmured Illinois is weird, but when he looked down to unwrap his cheeseburger, he was greeted by a deep voice. Greetings, Adam. He looked up to see the man in the cloak towering above him. A clean-shaven face looked down from the shadows of the hood. H-how did you know my name? The mans mouth assumed a crooked and dishonest smile.

Maybe I heard the cashier call it out when your order was ready, he said. He leaned in closer and whispered energetically. Or maybe my dark lord and master told me. Adam stared under the hood, rigid with fear. The mans face seemed normal enoughhe was in his forties, and was neither handsome nor especially ugly. Who who are you? Someone who has been tasked to watch you. I am a Watcher, one of many, and I have waited my entire life for the day which is coming. I dont know what that means, but Id rather you didnt watch me. The man chuckled softly. As you wish. For the moment, anyway. I wont be the last. But please, take my card. He pulled his hand into his robe, and when it returned to his sleeve, there was a business card in it.

Chiropractor? Oh, sorry. Flip it over.

Bill waved with a calculated playfulness as he moved toward the door. Keep in touch, Adam, he crooned. So much is resting on you.

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