“But still, every time, nobody was able to claim the Grand Prize and take over the role of the Magistrate. Why, you ask?
Nobody made it out alive from the final task.”
It was August 31st again.
But this year, what seemed like a normal day became the most important one of the year. It was the final day of the Tournament– a day both held up in honor, yet dreaded by all.
Nobody knew how the competition had been created, but it was a tradition of the community. Every other year, ten random teenagers were selected to compete. Every other year, the competitors tried their hardest. Some years, one participant would make it to the final task. But still, every time, nobody was able to claim the Grand Prize and take over the role of the Magistrate.
Why, you ask?
Nobody made it out alive from the final task.
Every year, the monster-like bird countered each challenger with success.
It was a horrible tradition, really, forcing adolescents into a nearly impossible tournament in which they would likely suffer a gruesome death. And for as long as the people knew, nobody had ever been able enough to take the crown from the monster’s head to deliver it to the Magistrate.
But tradition was tradition. The people respected tradition, perhaps even more than morality. And so, the cycle repeated, and every year, ten innocent children were killed.
This year was no different.
Dressed in ceremonial robes, the boy stared out at the vast crowd that lay in front of him, a massive sea of people that seemed impossibly large. How had he gotten here? He was one of thousands of teenagers in the community, yet he had been selected to die.
Of course, he had been reminded that this was not a selection for death, but rather a selection for eternal glory and honor. Yeah, sure. It wasn’t as if you were being selected for a competition in which none of the participants made it out alive.
He scanned the audience, looking for a familiar face. Perhaps his mother and father were watching. But he doubted it, remembering how his mother had fallen into hysteria after he had been chosen. His father would not look him in the eye.
He had not seen his family since.
Neither had he seen his friends. They’d simply gave him a pitying look, and moved on with their lives. As if he had never even existed.
And so, estranged from his family, he’d left his small village for the capital.
Isn’t it cruel, he’d thought. That this is the first and last time I will ever see something else than my tiny village?
At the orientation, the competition’s judges had told the Ten that they might be the first to succeed, but they all knew better. Faced with death, they solemnly told their tearful families goodbye, and faced their challenges.
One by one, their lives were taken, until one was left. The boy. He wasn’t even sure how he escaped himself. Perhaps it was luck? Maybe the judges had decided to create easier tasks for him. But a small, hopeful part of him thought that he was more skilled than the rest, that he took a different approach than the others, one that was better.
Yet he told himself that this wasn’t the case. He didn’t want to hope. It would just make his demise even worse.
The assembly was nearly over. He looked down as the Head Judge finished his speech, the people cheering him on. The sea of faces disappeared into the stadium as he watched, flanked by armed guards. There was no point in trying to escape. It would only prolong his suffering.
The judges said a few words to him, but he didn’t bother listening. What was the point, anyway? Death was only a few moments away. Mere words of encouragement made no difference.
Now, there was no more time to ponder. Death was coming, and there was no point avoiding it.
The boy knew what would happen. He was no fool. He had watched the task unfold seven times in his sixteen years. He had been chosen. He had faced countless tasks. He had come within an inch of death. He had watched all the others die before his eyes.
And now, it all came down to this.
It was all so simple and obvious. He was to be mauled to death by the monster, just as the many who had struggled before him. Yet a desperate glimmer of hope remained in him. He tried to push the feeling down, tears coming to his eyes for the very first time since the Tournament began.
He was brought to the side entrance of the arena as the Magistrate spoke to her people and listened quietly.
“Residents of our glorious nation, we are here to witness the final task of the Tournament!”
The crowd’s cheering was overwhelming.
“This last task is the most difficult, and it only sees fit that our last remaining competitor will see it finished!”
Again, tumultuous applause erupted from the audience.
“Our champion will face his foe, a great monster that has served as our obstacle for many centuries. Today, he will take the crown from its head and deliver it to me. Only then will he become the Champion of the Tournament. He will win our eternal respect!”
The people screamed their agreement.
“Now, we welcome our final competitor!”
The boy’s stomach dropped.
The doors opened.
And he stepped into the dry dirt of the arena.
In that moment, he couldn’t hear. He couldn’t smell. He couldn’t see. His senses seemed to be numbed, and his mind wandered in a panic.
I know that death is coming. I can see it. Taste it. Feel it. Smell it. I can even hear it. From the moment my feet touched the dirt of the arena, I knew it was the end. I guess I had it coming. I’m nothing but a useless teenager, ready to be fed to the monster.
Nobody has ever made it past the final task. Why did I ever think I was different? Why did I ever think I might be the only one to escape the grasps of death? I was always normal, at least I was until I was chosen to participate in this sadistic tournament.
I was so stupid. Stupid for not realizing how cruel this tournament is. Stupid for being proud of being selected. Stupid for only seeing the flaws of our tradition now, when I am about to die. For fifteen years I watched innocent children die in front of my eyes, and not once did I question the Tournament. Not even after I watched my fellow competitors die in front of my own eyes.
But I know it’s all too late now. Too late to turn back, to do what is right. To run away from this. Now, it’s only me and death.
It’s a strangely funny thing, death. What comes after? What does it feel like? Is it really the end? Hah. I used to wonder about these things, but I never imagined I would be in the situation I am in now.
I never thought I would say this, but…
I am ready to die.
Disbelief flooded his body as he realized what he had accepted.
But it was true, wasn’t it? He knew there was no turning back. He knew there was no way he could defeat the monster. And so, he’d accepted what was surely coming.
Suddenly, he could hear again. Smell, see, even taste the dirt that had swirled up in the air.
He was suddenly aware of the Magistrate speaking to him.
“Our champion– are you ready to face your enemy?”
He looked up, at the thousands of people who knew nothing.
They didn’t know how much he had suffered.
They didn’t realize how wrong the Tournament was.
They didn’t realize that the Magistrate’s rule was cruel, and wrong.
They couldn’t, and they would never.
The crowd held its breath.
He looked at the Magistrate, and nodded silently.
“Then let the final task commence.”
With the grinding of gears, the doors facing him opened.
At first, there was nothing. But then, a terrible, otherworldly scream came from the tunnel, and the monster hurtled into the arena.
It was a disturbing sight, to say the least. The monster stood forty feet tall, an unrealistic height for what looked like a normal black raven you might see on the streets.
But it wasn’t just an oversized raven. The boy could see the differences. It had talons and a beak of steel, as sharp as knives. Its eyes were alight in fiery rage. Its feathers were enough to slice a human’s skin.
And upon its head was a crown, made of gold and encrusted in jewels. It sparkled in the sunlight, entrancing everyone in the silent arena.
The boy did not move, but simply stared at the monster.
The monster stared back and slowly made its way over to the boy, towering over his figure, tiny in comparison.
The boy stared into the monster’s eyes, and saw more than fury. He saw pain. He could only imagine the cruelty it must have faced.
And he did something that no other finalist had ever done. He kneeled to the monster.
The audience were frozen in expressions of shock.
Surprised, it tracked back a few yards, and stared even harder at the boy.
The boy bowed its head in return.
The monster returned, as if interested to see what the boy would do next.
He raised his head, and spoke to the monster.
“I don’t want to kill you.”
The bird tilted its head. The boy wondered if it understood what he was saying.
“I just need that thing on your head,” he whispered, still unmoving. He didn’t know what was making him stay still, but the monster had not yet tried to hurt him. He hoped his plan was working. He might have been ready to die, but he wasn’t going down without at least one try.
The monster seemed to be considering the situation.
“Neither of us want this. If you let me take your crown, you will never have to kill another creature again. You won’t have to spend your whole life trapped inside the dungeons.
But if you refuse, I won’t resist. I’m ready to die.”
He gazed up, into the monster’s face, and looked it directly in the eye. It simply stared back. Neither could look away.
Abruptly, after what seemed like hours of breathless anticipation, the bird broke its gaze and stepped away. The audience groaned in disappointment– it had been very long since someone had come this close to becoming a champion– and the boy’s head dropped. Everyone was confident they knew what was coming next– surely, the boy would die.
Nobody expected the monster to do what it did. It lowered its head to the ground, as if beckoning the boy to take the crown.
At first, he did not move. Had it really been that easy to finish the task? He doubted that this would be the end of the Tournament. But, tentatively, he stood up, and slowly walked towards the monster. And so he lifted the crown from its head.
The audience roared in applause. The boy glanced up at the top box, where the Magistrate sat. She, too, was clapping, but seemed to be straining a smile. She stood.
“Now, if you succeed in delivering the crown to me,” she paused, struggling. “You will become… the Magistrate and the first known champion of the Tournament.” She gave a sour smile again and sat down.
The boy looked back at the monster– no, the bird. It seemed wrong to call it a monster now. It had understood his words and helped him– in many ways, it was no less a monster than the Magistrate…
Suddenly compelled to speak, the boy looked up at the audience. Little by little, the applause and shouting died down, leaving the stadium silent for him to speak.
“Brothers and sisters, the time is now. For so many centuries we have lived under the cruel rule of tradition. Our own Magistrate, who claims to only want the best for us, allows for these traditions to continue. Open your eyes. Every other year, ten innocent teenagers are killed for tradition. But what good is tradition if it only causes suffering and pain?”
Clearly, nobody had been expecting this. The people began to mumble and whisper amongst themselves. Many shook their heads in disapproval and some rose from their seats.
The Magistrate stood, clearly outraged. “You dare to criticize my rule? You are not fit to be our Magistrate.”
All around him, people shouted their agreement.
The boy took a deep breath and tried to remain calm. “Yes, I dare to criticize your rule. What proof do we have that you have helped our nation thrive or made it better in any way? Yes, you have stuck to tradition. But by doing so, you have permitted the deaths of innocent children.”
Fueled by anger, the Magistrate ran to the banister of her balcony box and began to shout down at the boy.
“Nobody can dare say that I have done anything wrong for as long as I have ruled. I have held up the rules of our ancestors. I have respected tradition– so much that I have let children die for it. I have fed the wants of our people.
“I have only done what they need.
“So here, in front of my very eyes, stands a boy who dares to take my place. He dares to steal my power. Who is he, to take this away from me? I can see the thirst in his eyes. I can see that he is another one– a revolutionary– who will dare to change our traditions. Dare to defy the rules of our ancestors. He will destroy our people. He will destroy our nation.
“I have respected tradition.
“But he values what his own ideals say are better above tradition.
“Maybe I killed a man destined for glory.
“But I did it for a greater cause –”
She stopped unexpectedly, as if suddenly realizing what she had said. A dark red flush began to rise up from her neck.
The people were frozen in their seats, as if unsure whether or not to believe what they had just heard. The boy was the first to act.
“Did I hear you right, Magistrate? You killed the rightful Magistrate?”
The Magistrate spluttered and tried to speak. “I, I–”
“Go on. I’m sure we would all be happy to hear what you want to say.” At this point, the boy had lost any sense of the respectful tone he had carefully used to speak to her.
The Magistrate’s mouth hung open like a gaping fish for a moment, but then, she closed it, swallowed, and began to speak, first in a wobbly tone.
“I — I am not the rightful Magistrate. But you have to understand.
“We all thirst for power. It is something we all want, whether you let it be known to everyone, or it resides in you subconsciously. Who can blame me for my own thirst for power?
“Traditionally, a Magistrate is a hereditary role. But I am not a descendant of the man who came before me. Yes, he did have a descendant. But he was cruel, ignorant, disobedient to tradition.
“So was I wrong to take him out? Was I wrong, to kill him? Was I wrong, to ensure that our nation would be safe, in better hands than a man insufficient to rule his people? Was I wrong, to kill a man who would dare to change our traditions? Was I wrong, to long for something that everyone thirsts for?
“Yes, I killed him. I pretended that I was the daughter of the Magistrate. I pretended that my ‘brother’ had died of secret illness. I hid my secret from everybody, even the people I claim to be so loyal to. But does it really matter now? The rightful Magistrate’s body lays decaying in his grave.
“If you were in my own place, would you not do the same?”
The boy countered her almost immediately. “No, I would not do the same. Why? Because I am not a murderer responsible for the deaths of children and the rightful Magistrate!”
The whole time this shouting match had been taking place, the people had been muttering among each other, unsure of whether to take the side of the Magistrate or the boy. But now, one girl spoke.
“I refuse,” she said. “To be ruled by a murderer,” she added boldly.
The boy jerked his head in her direction and recognized her as one of his friends– well, one of the friends who had abandoned him. But still, he was grateful to her for standing up to the Magistrate.
Sparked by her words, others began to stand up to speak.
“The boy is more fit to be our Magistrate!”
“She’s a murderer!”
“She should be put to death!”
The Magistrate was paling quickly. “I only did it for our good– we were a better people because of my actions–”
“Lies!” The boy was angry now. “You claim that you have made us a better people, yet you have changed nothing. You have blindly forced us all to follow the sadistic traditions of our society. You haven’t changed a thing. And you are trying to cover up the fact that you murdered a man with the fact that you have apparently made us a ‘better people?’ What a pathetic excuse.”
Nearly all the people had risen from their seats now, and were chanting loudly, obviously furious with the Magistrate. “Put her to death!” they screamed together.
The boy strode up to where the Magistrate was hanging over the balcony. She looked as if she was shivering slightly in fear.
“You can admit your defeat now, Magistrate, and we will see fit that you are punished with justice. But if you still refuse to admit that you are responsible for the deaths of countless innocent people, your own people– who are no longer so loyal to you– can decide your punishment,” he spoke confidently.
Everyone was unified against the Magistrate now, chanting and jeering. Even her guards had abandoned their duty. All seemed lost for her now.
Something strange seemed to flash behind the Magistrate’s eyes. Her mouth twitched. Her shoulders slumped. All emotion seemed to have left her body. “You will never take me,” she whispered, her voice trembling.
The boy knew what was coming. “Don’t do it,” he urged her. “It’s not worth it.”
The Magistrate stared into the boy’s eyes and wildly scanned the crowds of the people who had abandoned her.
What happened next seemed to be in slow motion. The Magistrate stepped over the railing and fell. She hit the ground, her body sprawled awkwardly in the dust. She no longer looked like a hero or a villain. She was no more than an old woman who had forgotten what it meant to truly live.
Just before her eyes glazed over, wispy words seemed to float from her mouth, into the air, so quiet that only the boy could hear.
And she breathed a last breath.
All was silent in the stunned stadium. Nobody dared to speak, to cheer, to mourn. The jeering crowds were silent, unable to jeer. The Magistrate had taken her own life just to escape the shame of her actions. It was all over, but not in the way that anybody had wished.
The boy bent down sadly and answered her, though he knew she could hear no longer.
“I forgive you.”