Harvard Yale had everything. He had a plush job that he had earned through merit at his father's financial firm, a winter and summer home, and even a rare gun (but no bullets). He even had the hottest girl in town, Yammara Capri, heiress to the Capri media empire. But one of those things was about to change.
"Harvard," announced Yammara, "I just don't think it's working out."
"What's not working out?" he asked, carelessly tossing his perfectly coiffed hair, which didn't move, because it was perfectly coiffed.
"Us," she said.
"Wait," he said, "you don't mean to say you're leaving me?"
"I'm afraid so," she said with a sigh.
"Well, hold on a second," he said. "Where did this come from? Am I not rich enough? Am I not good-looking enough? Do I not flaunt enough status?"
"The first one," said Yammara. "I'm not saying you don't have money, but look at me! Financially, I'd be taking a hit if I married you."
"Well, babe, come on," said Harvard. "I can get richer."
"No," said Yammara, looking him straight in the eyes and delivering the most devastating line he had ever heard. "I don't think you can."
He just stared at her, stunned.
"I think you've peaked, honestly," she said.
He continued to stare at her. His shriveled dry heart shattered into a million microscopic pieces.
"That's why I'm marrying my boss, Lanley Pinkerton." Lanley Pinkerton was the man who ran Ironspire's two major newspapers for Yammara's father, one of which had so much reach it was effectively a global paper. Yammara was nominally the editor-in-chief of the Ironspire Herald, the less far-reaching one, but she only ever did work she felt like doing, which happened to be the daily box scores for various sports, and obituaries.
"I guess he is richer than me," said Harvard resignedly.
"He definitely is," said Yammara. "Well, so long, have a nice life." And with that she strolled out of the office.
"Uh..." said Grant Vandergrink, one of Harvard's financeman underlings, "so should we take a break or..."
"No, everything's fine!" said Harvard, bursting into tears. "Let's continue this meeting."
"Are you sure, Harv?" asked Radley Frant, another financeman.
"Yes, let's go over the next chart! And close the door so no one else comes in!"
"All right," said Radley, hesitantly, and flipped the page on the easel at the front of the room to reveal a pie chart describing how much of different kinds of money they had.
Harvard burst into tears anew. "She loved pies!" he cried, and opened the door again to run out sobbing.
A few hours later, Harvard was out on the town with his financemen and some other college buddies for a rousing night of drinking and treating women badly.
"He took it pretty hard, honestly," Grant was saying.
"No I didn't," said Harvard. "I couldn't care less. Who needs her?"
"Get real," said Chadley, who was Radley's twin brother who worked at a different financial firm. "You are never gonna find a catch like Yammara ever again. You've peaked, man, face it."
Harvard bit his quivering lip. "I... have... not... peaked," he said. "I am only getting STRONGER and STRONGER!"
"Yeah, no," said Grant. "She was right, I mean, I respect how rich you are, man, but, compared to her... you really were dragging her down."
"She might have been super rich, and hot, and popular," said Harvard, "but it was all because of me! She's going to fall apart now that I'm gone!"
"Hmm," said Chadley.
"I don't see it," said Radley.
"Yeah, no," said Grant again.
"I will prove it!" said Harvard, downing another shot. "I will find another girl, one who sucks, and I will make her into something even better than Yammara!"
"Okay, great, great," said Chadley. "But how are you going to find one that isn't rich? Everyone we know is rich."
"We can go to the slums," said Grant.
"Oh, I can't go there," said Radley, "they know me. That's where I hunt people."
"Besides, some of them are hot," said Chadley.
"Wait wait wait," said Radley. "I know. I got it. Okay, Harv, come on, what girl around here sucks the most?"
Harvard frowned. "Well, like Chadley said, I don't know the names of any poor people."
"Yeah, but I'm talking outside the city," said Radley. "Maybe like... in the swamp?"
"Oh!" said Chadley, slapping his knee. "Ohhh!"
"You don't mean the swamp witch?" asked Harvard.
"Yesss! The swamp witch!" said Grant, cracking up.
"The one that lives in the tower of thorns and turns trespassers to stone?" asked Harvard.
"Yes! You should do the swamp witch!" said Chadley.
"I mean," said Radley, "some people say she's not really a witch, she's just having a bad time. Got a curse or something, and if you can get past the trials, you can lift it. I'm sure she'd do whatever you want then." He waggled his eyebrows meaningfully.
"Yeah, I mean, maybe she wasn't even originally a witch to begin with," said Grant. "Maybe she was rich. Then you'd be pretty set."
"I don't know," said Harvard with some disgust. "I don't really want to bone a swamp witch."
"May I remind you," said Chadley grandly, "you said you could fix any girl and make her better than Yammara?"
"I don't think I said any girl," said Harvard. "Can't I just find a flower vendor or a dental hygeinist?"
Radley shook his head sadly and mock-whispered to the other guys, "Peaked."
"How dare you!" roared Harvard.
"Back in college, I really think you could have done it," said Grant, throwing up his hands apologetically. "You could have turned a trash can into Parkmont Capri's daughter and made him adopt it. But my man, you gotta admit, the magic's gone."
"All right, I'm going to do it," said Harvard. "I'm going to make the swamp witch hotter and richer than Yammara and if I do, you're all going to have to give me your eternal souls!"
"Our what?" said Grant.
"He always gets like this when he's wasted," whispered Chadley. "Just go along with it, we'll talk him down to drinks or cash later."
"All right, sure," said Grant.
"You're on!" said Radley.
"Right, and when... I mean if... you lose," said Chadley, tauntingly, "what do we get?"
"What do you want?" asked Harvard, glassy eyed.
Radley grinned craftily. "How about... your gun?"
Harvard's eyes flashed briefly, and then he waved dismissively. "Sure. I'm not going to lose."
"All right, I'm drawing up a pact," said Grant, scribbling on some parchment. A few moments later, he pulled out a miniature dagger. "Hands?"
The other men held their hands out. Grant stabbed each of them lightly and then himself, and drew a rune on the paper, which smoldered for a brief moment and then dried into a burnt mark. "No going back now!" he said.
The next morning, after Harvard had finished throwing up, they showed him the contract, upon which he burst into tears anew and tried to get out of it, but a deal was a deal. After he stopped crying, threw up a few more times and took a shower, he packed up and headed out to the swamp.
It wasn't long before he started seeing the stone statues. They all clearly used to be people, because they were frozen in poses that, while clearly showing a good amount of agony, were very uninteresting from an artistic standpoint. Most of them were men, which made sense to Harvard, because only men would have enough of the courage, entrepreneurial spirit and willingness to break boundaries that would lead them to walk into a swamp where trespassers were turned to stone.
They did all look like they were in considerable torment, however, leading Harvard to conclude that the process of turning to stone probably wasn't instantaneous. It wasn't long before he was gratified to find his conjecture was correct.
He reached the base of the ivory tower, a pile of tangled tusks of thousands of once-majestic giant creatures that reached high into the sky. Sharp ends jutted out in all directions and there seemed no rhyme or reason to the stacking, yet it all came together somehow to form a crude narrow cylinder that loomed high above the swamp. There was a simple wooden door at the base.
He knocked. A small device emerged from a panel on the door and stabbed him with a needle.
"Ow!" he said.
As he was nursing his hand, a window slid open high overhead and a woman looked down at him. She looked annoyed.
"You've been injected with a slow-acting petrification formula," she said with resigned exasperation, as if reciting something she had recited many times before. "This formula will act over the course of 45 minutes to 2 hours to turn your body completely to stone. The process is extremely painful. You can choose to write some letters and get your affairs in order, or, if you want to take your chances, you can try to pass a set of trials to reach the top of the tower. The cure is yours, if you manage to succeed. No one ever has." She slammed the window shut.
"Um, excuse me!" he shouted.
She opened the window, yelled, "No questions!" and slammed the window again.
"I don't have questions!" he shouted again. "More of a comment!"
There was no answer.
In a fury, he kicked down the front door. A spiral staircase led up into darkness. He ran up it, heart pounding with fear and wrath. The first obstacle was a solid metal door that did not open and did not budge despite all his kicks and bashes.
He looked closer and saw a row of dials with numbers on them. Preceding the dials were numbers etched into the metal: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13. His anger burned even brighter as he flashed back to his math tutor, an older man, severe in form and attitude, who had forced him to learn the Fibonacci sequence.
"When will I need to know this?" he had sneered at the old man.
"This sequence is found in all of nature," said the old man, "and seeing the patterns in nature helps us make sense of a chaotic world."
"I don't care about nature," Harvard had said. "This is stupid."
He could still feel the crack of the ruler on his knuckles. "You will respect your teachers." A second blow, drawing blood. "And you will respect the material."
He had learned his Fibonaccis, all right. Of course, his father had the tutor executed later, for daring to lay a hand on his betters. And he'd given Harvard a minor caning for tolerating such behavior. But the knowledge, impractical as it was, remained.
Harvard spun the dials without hesitation. 21, 34, 55. A mechanism clicked and the door swung slowly open. He pushed it impatiently and continued in a rush up the stairs.
The next flight of stairs made three rotations around the tower and emerged into a windowless room with a single table in the center of the room. It was more of a solid block than a table and the top surface had a metal chess board set into it, with metal pieces neatly arranged in starting positions. A steady humming came from within the table.
Harvard approached the chessboard. The pieces closest to him were green, so without a moment's pause, he moved a green pawn forward.
The humming sound inside the table grew louder, and a red pawn from the opposite side moved on its own, sliding one square forward. The humming died back down to its baseline level.
Harvard made another move. The apparently autonomous device made another. The game continued until the red cavalier (the piece shaped like a horse) slid horizontally all the way across the board and captured Harvard's green pawn.
The floor rumbled under Harvard's feet and he jumped back just in time as a tile dropped away, leaving a gaping hole beneath. There wasn't enough light to see how far the hole went but he saw a faint gleam of what seemed like they might be spikes. He stepped carefully to the side of the hole, now having to lean somewhat awkwardly to the side to reach the middle of the chess board. He pondered his next move more carefully.
It had been a long time since he had played. At the time he had never wanted to see another chess board again. It was easier said than done, since the rich liked to decorate their homes and offices with unused chess boards and chess-related art pieces, so that they looked sophisticated. But he just made a habit of looking away very quickly in disgust.
He still could see his father bringing him the news that he was going to be admitted to Wellington on a chess scholarship, and laughing at his confusion. "Well, your grades are atrocious, we had to pull some strings. But it's all been worked out. The head of the admissions committee has managed to find an additional spot for an outstanding chess prodigy."
"Well I guess I better start learning chess," said Harvard.
His father roared with laughter. "I'd like to see that!" he said. "No, we've paid off a chess organization to sign off that you're highly ranked in, well, however those people rank things. You just continue doing whatever worthless things you do and try to avoid any more scandals."
Harvard clenched his fist. "I don't need a pity admission. If we have to finesse the grade situation, fine, but I'll do this chess thing for real."
"You!" said his father. "Do you even know what chess is? It's not a drinking game."
"You don't think I can do anything, do you?"
"Why would I? What have you ever done?" He laughed again. "Got nothing have you? Listen, we've got it all taken care of. There's a lot of moving parts here and a lot of delicate communication between us and the head of admissions and the chess league. Stay well clear of it, do you hear me?"
"Yes, sir," said Harvard between gritted teeth.
He had not stayed well clear of it. He had immediately sought out the local chess club, challenged the first person he saw to a match, and lost. He lost again and again until one day he won. The next day, he lost again. He stopped berating every opponent he played and began to ask them questions, about what he had done wrong, about how he could beat that tactic next time. They stopped mocking him behind his back and playing just to humiliate him and began to give him tips and show him strategies. He began to respect them. They began to respect him. He began to win more, and lose less.
And then came the tournament.
"Are you going to enter?" asked Archie, one of the club members, as he saw Harvard looking at the poster.
"I have to," said Harvard, who was already calculating in his head what ranking he could expect if he won. "I have to win."
"Ohhh..." said Archie dubiously.
"You don't think I'm at that level yet?" Harvard asked. There was none of the defensiveness he had when he responded to his father, or his school friends. He wanted an honest assessment from someone he trusted to give it.
"Not yet," said Archie. "Maybe in a year."
"I don't have a year," said Harvard.
"I mean, I think you can do pretty well," said Archie. "You've improved really fast. Like crazy fast. For a trust fu- er, well, I think you can get pretty high up but I don't think you can take it all."
"You don't know until you try," said Harvard.
And he had exceeded expectations. He was driven, on fire, blazing past opponent after opponent, sharper than he'd ever been, avoiding all of his old mistakes, until the final match. His opponent was Raiment Winfrey, a prodigy from the renowned Helvetic Academy who was rumored to be going professional next season.
They matched each other, stratagem for stratagem, and move for move, neither gaining an advantage over the other, until Harvard made his fatal mistake. He moved his clergyman four spaces left and one space back, the standard move for that piece, but neglected to notice that he was leaving his president open.
"That's an assassination, I'm afraid," said Raiment politely, almost apologetically.
Harvard hardly remembered going through the motions, shaking hands, murmuring whatever needed to be said, but he managed to exit safely without any outbursts of his famously violent temper. Archie had tried to tell him he had done very well, but Harvard wanted to escape that as much as from everything else.
His father was waiting for him. "A little bird has told me," he said quietly - too quietly, "that you have been dabbling in chess tournaments. Despite my express injunction not to."
"I wanted to prove," said Harvard, mechanically, "that I could do it."
"Did you?" sneered his father.
"I almost won the tournament."
"Almost doesn't put you in the global rankings does it?" said his father. "Do you want to know what 'almost' is? 'Almost' is nothing! YOU... are nothing! Say it again! What did you do?"
Harvard glared back at him with hatred in his eyes.
"You lost!" spat his father. "You're a loser! You've ruined our entire plan. There is now a public record of your chess wins and losses that anyone can see, and it doesn't match up to the requirements of our little fake scholarship. The payoffs are all down the drain now. We've had to go with the brute force option of bribing the entire admissions committee. All your records will have to be redacted, of course, and it will look very suspicious if any nosy journalists go digging around and then we'll have to handle them too! All because your little pride was hurt! Do you even think for a moment - do you even think at all - before you do these things? Do you know how much hard work and meticulous planning you've blown up all in an instant?"
Harvard lost it. He took a swing at him, a hard right hook.
His father dodged easily, and struck him back across the side of the head with his oak cane, a furious blow that knocked Harvard to the ground and stunned him.
"Get up!" he heard through the ringing in his ears. "Get up and get out of my sight."
And that's when he decided to avoid looking at chess boards as best he could.
He moved cautiously again. Another mistake. Too rusty. The automaton opponent now took his spiky boy (the piece that looked like a castle tower). He jumped back again as another tile fell away. He now had to lean precariously over a chasm to reach the board. If he lost more tiles, he might not be able to reach the board at all, and would presumably forfeit, either in some immediate gruesome way, or just by being trapped until he completed petrifying.
But he had an opening now. He could move the clergyman into position for... no. That would leave the prime minister open. He could pull the Bateman's Switcheroo to substitute the cavalier for the prime minister. But then he'd still be done in two moves. He clenched his hand, or tried to, but it wouldn't close. The joints were already beginning to stiffen.
He tried to summon up that moment again, the hate he felt for his father. The humiliation. He tried to let it drive him, to give him the adrenaline he needed. But all he saw was possibility after possibility leading to a dead end. Then he tried to remember his loss. That bonehead move he made. How much he hated himself for it. Archie had taught him that move. Of course he'd warned him not to use it if the president was in play. But he remembered the first time he'd used that move, against another chess club member, putting him in assassination, and Archie laughing as Harvard's opponent had thrown up his hands in a shrug. It was the first time he felt like he really could do this. Like there was something he could really do on his own, that he didn't need his dad to buy for him.
And then he saw it. He moved a pawn to sacrifice, stepping deftly away from the next falling floor tile, and on the next move, moved his green president to take the red president. "Assassination," he whispered, to the empty room.
The wall on the other side of the room began to rumble and a hidden door slid open, revealing more stairs.
He stumbled up the stairs. His legs were getting heavier now. He was running out of time.
The next room was completely empty with a door on one wall. He opened it cautiously, which was good, because it opened to the outside and what looked like a hundred foot drop. He peeked out cautiously, scanning around. There was no ledge or ladder but this was a tower of tangled bones and tusks, so it was effectively one very large, albeit not very ergonomic, ladder.
He took a deep breath and climbed out onto the tower exterior, gripping a thin tusk that was as close to horizontal as he could find. He could see an opening not far above him, but his limbs were quickly losing strength and it took everything he had to pull himself up one foothold at a time. The wind was picking up. There hadn't been the slightest sign of a breeze at ground level but obviously things were going to be different a hundred feet up. He tried not to look down at first but he felt like he was spending more effort avoiding it than it was worth, and ended up just looking down, being disconcerted for a moment, then becoming angry instead and spitting hatefully down at gravity and the abstract concept of height. Having got that out of the way, he returned to climbing with renewed determination, rising inch by inch and finally throwing himself exhausted over the threshold of the higher door.
He took a moment to catch his breath and then rose laboriously to his feet. Another flight of stairs awaited him. He stumbled up as quickly as he could, and emerged into yet another room, similar to the ones before, only this one had a minotaur in it. The minotaur turned its baleful eye on him, snorted, and charged, its hooves thundering on the stone floor.
"Ah fuck!" he yelped, and shot it in the face with his gun.
The minotaur's momentum carried it forward and he rolled out of the way as it crashed harmlessly into the wall and slid slowly down to the ground.
"Wh-why," it said, and died.
He checked very carefully to make sure it was in fact dead, and stabbed the body a couple of times with his dagger just to be sure. Satisfied, he cleaned the dagger on the minotaur's fur and moved to continue up the stairs, but stopped. A woman was standing there, wearing a stained lab coat. Her hair was up in a ponytail and her eyes were covered with goggles.
"Oh," she said. She turned around and went back up the stairs.
Harvard stormed after her, or tried to, but his legs felt like they were moving through molasses. It was all he could do to make it up the final flight of stairs, arriving well after her in the tower laboratory, a crowded but well-organized room filled with all kinds of books and glass containers of every shape and size which in turn contained every color and viscosity of liquid. There were specimens in jars and drawers filled with a variety of supplies and reagents.
She was rooting around in one of the drawers and turned around abruptly as he came in, holding a vial out toward him. "The antidote," she said, " as promised."
He snatched the vial and downed it, and almost immediately, the heaviness in his limbs began to subside. He pulled out his gun once more and put it to her head.
"The antidote only lasts 24 hours," she said calmly. "You'll petrify in a day if I don't make you up another one."
He snarled and lowered the gun, opening the chamber to show her it was unloaded. "I only had one bullet," he said. "I just wanted to see the fear in your eyes."
"Get used to disappointment," she said, and turned back to one of the lab benches to pour something from a test tube into another test tube.
Harvard couldn't think of anything to say so he put the gun away and looked around the room. The ceiling was very high and a set of wooden stairs led up to an open second story, equally crowded with equipment and books.
"Good job, I guess, on being the first person to make it," she said. "What do you want?"
He sighed deeply. What he wanted was to go back in time and to never have taken this bet. He never wanted to see this woman again, and the thought of wooing her made him want to vomit. But the thought of going back to his friends in failure made him want to double vomit.
"I just want to talk," he said flatly. He wasn't in the mood to turn on the charm. This was good, because he was actually very off-putting when he turned on the charm, something nobody had ever told him. At least nobody he respected. Many women had told him this but he had assumed they were just playing hard to get. He sighed again. "I'm Harvard Yale. And you?"
She shot a curious glance at him. "I've heard the name. Founder of Hamstar Financial. I thought you'd be much older."
"You're thinking of my father."
"So you're Harvard Yale, Jr."
"No, he didn't think that an inferior copy should have a title. When I was born he changed his name officially to Harvard Yale Prime. I'm just Harvard Yale."
"Hm," she said, and returned to her work. "I'm Lucrezia Hatless."
"Is that your real name?"
"Does it matter?" she asked, as she set the test tube in a stand. "It's what I am. No family, no past, no hat. What you see is what I am." She looked at him again. "You seem to have lost yours as well."
Flustered, he grasped at his head and realized in horror she was correct. His hat was gone.
"You probably lost it when climbing the tower exterior. It gets a little windy out there. I suppose you'll just replace it, though."
"Do you do all that every time you go up and down the tower, or are you just stuck here forever?" asked Harvard.
"I usually take the elevator," said Lucrezia, motioning carelessly behind her toward a small steel door.
Harvard stared at it for a good minute.
"The entrance is underground and locked very securely," said Lucrezia. "It would have been a waste of time for you."
"So," said Harvard, deciding to not think about that anymore, "what do you do up here?"
"Work," said Lucrezia.
"You're a scientist?"
"So all of this, turning people to stone, deadly traps and obstacles, letting people think you're a swamp witch, is to keep you from being disturbed at your... important work?"
"That's certainly what all the security is for. As for rumors, I can't control what people think about me, but if it keeps them away, all the better."
"All right, so before we get any further, I have to ask, what's the deal with the antidote? Do you have a permanent one, or do you expect me to come back every day for another dose?"
"Come back?" she asked, turning to look at him. "I suppose, if you want to climb the tower every day."
"I was assuming you'd let me use the elevator."
"You assumed wrong."
"You little -"
"Aside from the fact I'm not inclined to do you any favors, once I tell you how to get in, who's to say you won't pass that on to anyone and everyone else. It would be stupid for me to trust you with that knowledge."
"You're saying I'm a prisoner."
"For now. Either that or you've accepted a new full-time job as an obstacle tester."
"And what do you want from me?"
"That depends on how useful you make yourself. If you're no good to me alive, I can always use more material." She gestured toward the specimen jars.
Harvard gritted his teeth. The only thing keeping him from snapping was that there was no one here to witness this humiliation. He paced back and forth a couple of times in the small amount of open space there was near the door, and finally turned upon her fiercely. "Fine!" he said. "What do you need?"
"Well," she said, "first up, there's a dead minotaur one floor down that needs to be disposed of."