This is the fourth round of the Title Writing Prompt Challenge. For them not familiar with the challenge, a quick summary: readers voted for their favorite title out of a list we provided, and we each wrote a story using the winning title.
The winning title for Round 4 was Cold Heart. For them interested, the Round 4 Title voting results are found HERE.
The writing challenge has no restrictions and the stories span a wide gamut of genres. The majority of the stories fall in the G and PG rating range with a few perhaps pushing into the soft R-rating. Those ratings are guidelines but they are subjective. If you find a story disturbing because of the topics, language, and/or plot points, stop reading and move on to the next one. The same thing goes if you find yourself not interested in finishing a story. It may seem like obvious advice, but these days many people go out of their way to experience outrage (and then complain about it).
This, then, is my submission. I wrote this yesterday, having wasted the allotted three weeks watching various anime offerings.
Oh, before we begin, I solicited blurbs from each writer. Here’s mine:
Is isekai tensei in your future? What is isekai tensei? Is it better than heaven? Well, I think so, but make sure you take control.
Copyright 2022 — E. J. D’Alise
(4, 040 words – approx. reading time: about 16 minutes based on 265 WPM)
Something strange happened when Damon died.
At least, he thought it was strange. Not that he expected anything specific, but he didn’t expect to wake up in a different world. Isekai tensei, as the Japanese call it, comprises a whole genre of manga and anime offerings he’d been enjoying lately.
He was laying on a simple cot, a rough sheet covering his naked body. Surveying the room and the objects within, it looked like a less technological world than the world he’d just left.
He noticed clothes neatly folded at the foot of the bed, and surmising they were for him, he got up and dressed. These were of finer materials than the sheet, tailored to his current shape but still simple. He stepped in front of the mirror in the corner of the room and looked at himself. A stranger looked back at him. Smaller in stature and much younger.
He remembered the few Isekai series he’d watched: most primary characters were early to late teens, sometimes drifting higher, but not often. In many of these other worlds, magic or supernatural abilities were, if not commonplace, at least present.
He looked at his hands and arms for items or sigils that would serve to activate or focus magic, but he saw none. He then examined the reflection of his face in the mirror. Both eyes were the same color, so there was no indication of magic ability. He then noticed his hair . . . bad news in what he saw.
The main protagonists in anime stories usually had stylish, interesting hair. You could identify important characters in the stories by their hair and how it moved.
— animated —
Strange that he hadn’t realized it before now, but like everything around him, he too was drawn. His movements were fluid and close to realistic, but definitely those of an animation, probably a mix of hand-drawn and computer-generated. Typical of Japanese animation, his head was disproportionally large for the size of his body, and the eyes were disproportionally large relative to the face.
The bedroom door opened, and he heard a female voice greeted him.
“Glad to see you up and about; we’ve been waiting for you to wake up.”
Damon looked at the person he saw in the reflection in the mirror. Female, teenager, and, true to the preference of Japanese manga, somewhat immodestly dressed — by his standards — and with slightly exaggerated assets complementing the lack of modest clothing. But not as exaggerated as characters in some anime that — in many cases — looked well outside physical possibility. Damon had often wondered what manga and anime offerings said about Japanese society and culture.
“And you are?” he asked as he turned to face her.
“My name is Maidel.”
“So, Maidel, care to fill me in?”
“The Controller didn’t brief you?”
“The Controller? No. I just woke up. The last thing I remember … well, I’d rather forget.”
Maidel looked at Damon and seemed to struggle briefly with some internal conflict. Damon knew this because anime characters were usually overly expressive in their facial and physical reactions, although those around them were oblivious to clues the audiences quickly picked up.
Apparently, despite being a character in an Isekai anime, he’d not been afflicted by the inability to read people’s emotions.
Maidel strode to the window, opened the shutters, and motioned for Damon to join her. Looking out, Damon saw what he imagined a Middle Age town might look like, or at least what Japanese animators envisioned a Middle Age town would look like. In the distance, a large castle dominated the skyline, a busy winding road leading from the outskirts of the town to, presumably, the foot of the castle.
“Cold Heart, the Demon King, lives there.”
“Sounds like an evil character,” Damon said as he looked back at Maidel.
“You really haven’t been told anything?” she asked.
“All I know is that I’m in some sort of Isekai anime, but beyond that, I’m clueless.”
“Ise…kai . . . anime?”
“Yes. You know, a story where a person is transported or reincarnated to a different world and has to adapt to new surroundings, norms, and mores while struggling to overcome existential threats to either himself or the people of this different world. It’s a prevalent theme in Japanese anime.”
Maidel looked at him with the typical overly-expressive anime face of someone in deep confusion. She recovered and stared intently at Damon as she spoke.
“I heard all the words, but I don’t know what they mean,” she said.
Damon saw the sincerity of her statement reflected on her face, but the expression also indicated suspicion.
“OK, look, let’s start over,” Damon hastily said, wanting to avoid confrontation. That, at least, conformed with anime tropes; most characters wanted to avoid unnecessary conflict. “Why don’t you tell me about the Controller and the briefing you received. And don’t leave anything out; assume I’m ignorant of what’s going on, who you are, and, most of all, what I’m doing here.”
~ 0 ~
Damon sat on a hillside below the town and across from the castle. He imagined looking pensive, but mostly, he was bored. Maidel had recounted all she knew. She described the Demon King as an evil tyrant, but other than him being called the Demon King, she couldn’t point to any examples of this Demon King being either evil or a tyrant. If anything, he’d set up a fair and healthy trade pact between humans and demons, arguably to the benefit of both. He seldom interfered in human affairs unless asked to act as arbitrator between opposing interests, usually dealing with financial matters. Even then, there was no record of him having forced anyone into doing anything against their will, and all agreed compromises resolving the disputes were just and fair.
As best as he could figure, The Controller was the only one unhappy with Cold Heart, and as best as Damon could gather, the reason rested on the fact that the Demon King was, well, a demon.
The Demon King was evil because he was supposed to be evil. Maidel said so when replying to his question about what made the Demon King evil.
“He’s a Demon!” she’d said. “You can’t trust demons! Although everything looks good now, I’m sure he’s plotting something. Something against humans.“
The crux of the argument was that demons had no place in the human world and should be cast from it, chased back to where they’d come from. No matter how many ways Damon had asked “why”, the answer was always the same: “Because they’re demons!” And demons were evil; The Controller said so!
What bothered Damon more was his supposed role in this world. He was the Hero who would vanquish the Demon King. Damon had asked if the Controller had said how he — the Hero — would do it; no.
Damon then asked about his abilities. Heroes in these series were typically overpowered. Sometimes inconsistently so, but overpowered. Meaning, that relative to everyone around them, no matter how strong others might be, the Hero has abilities dwarfing those of both friends and foe. Damon then asked about his abilities, but no abilities had been specified.
This wasn’t all that unusual. In many of these stories, the Hero had to get into serious scrapes and nearly die — or have someone close to him nearly die — before his innate ability manifested and he saved the day.
“I don’t want to nearly die,” Damon said aloud as he leaned back, resting his head on the soft grass.
He watched the slow drifting of clouds as he contemplated his supposed role in this world. He was the Hero with bad hair. He would depose the Demon King, take his place on the throne, and become the Human King.
Damon had no desire to be the Human King, or any king. His whole life, he’d tried to avoid responsibility. Sure, he shouldered a fair amount when he had to, but nothing in this world so far pushed him to fulfill what he considered a dubious destiny against a supposedly evil Demon King. A King who, by all account, was fair-minded, just, and promoted cooperation instead of forcing his will on others.
Lost in thought, it was a few seconds before he realized he’d been tracking a speck in the sky. A speck that was growing larger and now appeared vaguely humanoid in shape.
Of course! The Hero often encountered the heroine by accident, sometimes by her falling right out of the sky and onto the Hero’s lap. Many series found an excuse to thrust the protagonist at each other in such a way.
He could see her now, falling directly at him. He rolled hard and fast to his right, a reasonable distance from where he’d been.
“What the hell!?” is all he could say as she plowed right into him. Either she or someone else had adjusted her trajectory so she’d still slam into him.
Fortunately, as in all such anime events, neither of them was the worst for it.
“Thanks for saving me,” she said as she lay on top of him.
“Like I had any choice,” he replied.
“What did you say?”
“Uh… nothing. Say, would you mind getting off of me?”
“Oh, sorry,” she replied. Like most such scenes in anime series, she seemed flustered by the close and semi-compromising position of her straddling Damon’s torso.
She hastily got up, straitened her much too small outfit, and flicked her heroine hair which suddenly responded as if a slight breeze were present.
“So, who are you?” Damon said as he took a good look at her.
Like most heroines, in addition to the hair, she had an air of refinement. Probably a princess of some kind.
“I’m Princess Kelila,” she replied.
“Uh, nothing,” Damon replied and quickly changed the subject. “What I mean is, what are you doing here, and most of all, why were you falling out of the sky? And most, most of all, why on top of me?”
She straightened into a defiant pose before answering.
“I am the daughter of the last Human King, King Tavish the IV,” she replied. “As to why I was falling out of the sky, I was practicing transportation magic so that I could help the Hero infiltrate the Demon King’s castle. As for falling on top of you, I tried maneuvering away, but you rolled right into my path.”
She continued with an indignant tone. “And, who might you be to question me!?”
“I’m Damon,” he replied as he stood and brushed his clothes off.
“You’re the Hero?”
“About that,” Damon replied, “I’m not sure I want the job.”
“I’m sorry,” Damon answered in a louder voice. “Are you stunned from your fall? Maybe you should lie down and rest. Are your ears hurting from the change in pressure?”
He continued in an even louder voice, “I’m not sure if I’m going to take the job,” he said. “I don’t see any upside to it.”
Kelila stood frozen as if immobilized by some evil spell. Damon looked at her and then cautiously poked her shoulder with his finger.
“What are you doing?” she yelled, brushing his hand away. “And what do you mean you won’t take the job? It’s not a job offer; it’s your destiny. Our destiny, actually. After defeating the Demon King, we’ll rule together as benevolent Queen and King. So it has been prophesied!”
“Well,” Damon responded loudly, “it doesn’t feel like a prophecy, and even if it is, I have no compelling reason to follow it.”
“Why are you yelling?”
“I thought you couldn’t hear me.”
“You dolt,” Kelila yelled. “I hear you just fine! I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing!”
“Well, then, why are you yelling?” Damon asked.
Kelila closed her eyes, her fists balled up, and took a deep breath. Damon couldn’t quite hear her, but she seemed to be mumbling something.
“Are you talking to me?” he asked.
Kelila opened her eyes and spoke with a low voice that gradually increased in volume as she neared the end of her sentence.
“I was trying to remember an incineration spell so that I could turn you to ASH!”
“Look, this doesn’t look to be a promising relationship. Why don’t we just go our separate… WAIT! I know this trope! The two protagonists butt heads and dislike each other only to get to like each other in the end!”
“Why would I want to butt heads with you? As hard-headed as you are, it would probably knock me out… and, what’s a trope?”
“It’s a word describing a common theme in similar shows,” Damon replied but quickly changed the subject as Kelila showed the same confused/suspicious look Maidel had sported in response to him explaining stuff.
“Look, I’m really not interested, and our personal conflict, while eventually setting up a rewarding payoff, isn’t my style. Besides, I’m not all that taken with you,” Damon said as he started to walk away.
“What!? I’m a Princess! I’m everyone’s type!” Kelila said as she followed after him. “Why wouldn’t you want to be with me?”
Damon stopped and pinched the bridge of his nose between the thumb and index finger as he mentally counted to three.
“OK, look,” he said as he turned to face Kelila. “I just got dropped into this world. I’m just not invested in anything happening here. I had just died in my world, and I have no interest in risking my life in this world.” He paused, and then, as a non-sequitor, added, “Besides, you’re showing way too much skin, with your important bits practically on display for everyone to see.”
“What’s wrong with my bits?”
“What? … uh, nothing … wait; let me ask you this: why do you walk around in that outfit? Is it a cry for attention? Are you insecure? Conceited? I’m not saying it’s wrong, but it seems a peculiar choice of clothes for any woman, let alone a Princess. Unless, of course, you’re trying to cater to male fantasies.”
Kelila blushed and seemed to shrink onto herself.
“I … I didn’t choose this outfit. That’s how The Controller dressed me.”
They stood there for a few seconds.
“Jesus Christ!” Damon exclaimed. “I’m about to do something stupid.”
“Who?” Kelila asked. “And what are you going to do?”
“It’s nobody; just an expression,” Damon replied. “Come on; we’ll get you some regular clothes and talk about all this.”
They sat outside a tavern sharing a meal, Kelila now dressed in men’s clothing since The Controller apparently deemed female outfits should all be made with as little material as possible.
“Why do you want to oust the Demon King?”
“He has a Cold Heart,” Kelila replied.
“That’s his name, not his personality. But, per everything I see, and as far as rulers go, he’s a pretty good guy.”
“I don’t understand the question.”
“OK, let me rephrase it. If you were Queen, what would you do differently?”
“I… I don’t know.”
“Do you have any specific grievances you’re trying to address?”
“Well, he’s not human…”
Damon shook his head and hastened to chew and swallow his food before speaking.
“That’s not an excuse for anything. He’s also not female, younger than some, older than others, and so on,” he said. “Not being something isn’t a reason. A reason would be if he’s doing something wrong or evil. But, as far as I can see, he’s keeping the peace between the human and demon world, and everyone is happy. Is there anything else?”
Kelila thought for a moment before answering.
“Not specifically. The Controller said the Hero — you — would replace him at the end of a great struggle,” Kelila said.
“Have you spoken with this Controller? How do you know what he says?”
“The Postit visits me in my dreams and tells me what I should do?”
“Like a spirit of some kind?”
“No, more like words appearing on placards.”
Damon pondered for a moment and then made a decision.
“We’re going to see the Demon King.”
“WHAT? Are you mad? He’ll throw us in prison or, worse, have us killed and fed to his demon hounds!”
“He’s got demon hounds?”
“I don’t know! I just assume he might since he’s a demon!”
“Look,” Damon said, “he’s not acting like you and Maidel describe him. Let’s see first-hand what we’re dealing with.”
It took some convincing before Kelila finally relented but said they probably wouldn’t be able to get an audience with the King. It turned out to be super-easy, barely an inconvenience. They just showed up at the palace and were ushered right to the throne room, and they now stood in front of the Demon King himself. A few demon guards were relaxing on the attached balcony, and there were no signs of demon hounds.
“You’re the Demon King, Cold Heart?” Damon asked.
“Yup! … you look like the Hero, but your hair is all wrong.”
“Yeah, I know, but— look, we’re here because all I keep hearing is how evil you are, but I don’t see the evidence.”
The demon king was a lad not unlike Damon but had better hair and two tiny horns. One of his eyes was blue, the other red, probably indicating some magic ability. When he spoke, he sounded jovial.
“Ah, The Postit. Yes, that’s how I’m described, but I decided I didn’t like it,” Cold Heart said. Then winked and added, “The Controller was none-too-happy, I tell you what!”
“Everyone talks about The Postit and the Controller. Where can I see it, and meet him? Specifically, where can I see mine?” Damon asked.
“If you haven’t seen it, it probably means you don’t yet have one,” Cold Heart replied.
“Well, how is it that other people know about me being the Hero and what I’m supposed to do?”
“Well, there are mentions of the Hero in their Postit,” the King answered. He then turned to Kelila.
“By the way, you look like the Princess, but your clothes are all wrong,” he said.
Kelila pointed at Damon before answering.
“He made me change, something about the clothes being too skimpy.”
“How do you feel about them?”
“Truthfully? They’re on the skimpy side, but they’re much more comfortable than these.”
Just then, a girl entered the hall. Her hair was also nice, so an important character, but she dressed more moderately than Kelila.
“I see we have guests,” she said as she walked up to Damon. “You must be the Hero, although you don’t look like it; the hair is all off.”
As she spoke, Damon felt the hair change, becoming longer and more supple, and it moved as if a slight breeze was blowing on it even though the air was still. He couldn’t see what it looked like, but the new girl gave her assessment of the change.
“Oh, I like that! Nice hair!”
“I’m sorry,” Damon said. “And you are?
“Thana,” the King answered. “My magic and science adviser.”
“Magic and science?”
Thana smiled. “Yes, and the improved hair means The Controller is working on your Postit. You’ll probably be able to see it soon, although I assume you, like Cold Heart, will want to ignore it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Cold Heart was supposed to be a cruel tyrant but turned his back on it. You are supposed to be the Hero, but you don’t seem interested in the role.”
“I don’t understand.”
Thana smiled and looked over at Cold Heart and Kelila chatting.
“It looks like they found something of mutual interest. I predict they’ll be a couple, and the castle will finally have its Queen.”
“Really?” Damon asked. “How can you tell?”
Thana smiled and nodded to the exit.
“Walk with me, and I’ll fill you in.”
They sat on a bench in the garden in the shade of a great Oak tree.
“Cold Heart used to be a writer, and his actual name is Phil,” Thana explained. “Shortly after coming to this world, he was tasked with the role of villain.”
“I don’t understand,” Damon said. “What is this place? And am I really alive? I was dying… pretty sure I died, so what am I doing here?”
“Some of the science — or magic — is still unexplained, for instance, whether we’re real or not. As for you dying, your body indeed died. Your consciousness . . . Well, that’s the part that still needs explanation. Most of these world never explain the magic; it just is.
“The short answer is that you’re now a part of this world, just like Cold Heart and me.”
“You’re also . . .”
“Dead?” Thana smiled. “Yes, and so is Cold Heart.”
“So, where are we now?”
“You really can’t tell? You’re in an unfinished fantasy story.”
“You’ve heard of good writers being able to make characters come alive? Well, mediocre writers don’t have the skills to flesh out characters, or, for that matter, plots. Our Controller is, hmm . . . less than a mediocre writer.”
Damon tried to wrap his head around it.
“So, you’re saying my consciousness was looking for a place to go, and this story had an opening? It sounds . . . I mean, it’s . . .”
“Crazy? Yes,” Thana finished. “But, here’s the thing; Cold Heart figured out The Postit . . . it’s literally character descriptions on Post-It notes, or maybe 3×5 cards. The Controller is a writer trying to flesh out characters for the story. Our world exists as is because Cold Heart knew how to throw the Controller off balance. The fact we’re not automatons with no will of our own is all thanks to Cold Heart.”
“But, but . . . how could we, the characters, break from what the writer chooses? How can we do anything but what’s written for us?”
“You’ve heard about characters who write themselves, who depart from what the writer had intended? Well, it’s true … sort of. The more ill-defined a character is, the more freedom they have to direct their fate.”
Damon thought about it, reviewing his recent experiences.
“So, let me get this straight . . . Secondary characters, like Maidel, come in fully formed because their roles in the story are limited. They have no agency because they don’t have a part in the plot; they’re supporting characters. That means . . . Kelila is the main character of the story; it’s her journey the story follows, so she came in fully defined. But Cold Heart and I were place-holders. Characters that would be developed based on what Kelila’s character needed them to do.”
“Yes,” Thana confirmed. “But Cold Heart, as a writer, realized what The Postit was and hijacked the character development. So much so, the writer set the Cold Heart character aside, and he decided to work on The Hero.”
“. . . but the writer still had no idea on about the particulars of the plot, so I came in as a place-holder until The Hero could be better defined . . .” Damon concluded.
“Yes, and if you can control your character development, you, like Cold Heart, can control and disrupt the flow of the story,” Thana said.
Damon thought about it some more.
“When the story is finished, we’ll be forever locked in our roles . . . Will our lives end again?” he asked.
“You’re not a writer, so you don’t know . . . Stories are never finished; they go on even if the writer stops. But, more importantly, many, many stories stay unfinished, languishing in a forgotten drawer or folder, because the characters or plot got away from the writer.”
Damon looked at Thana and smiled.
“That’s our goal, then. Cold Heart showed us the way: disrupt the characters and plot enough that the writer sets the story aside and forgets about it as we live on, forging our own stories, just like we did in real life.”
Thana looked at Damon and smiled what he thought was a sad smile . . .
“Was it ‘real life’, or just another story?”
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