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The Purple Man

I smell the smoke first, pungent and sweet. It seeps in beneath the door and creeps closer, slithering like a snake across the floor, encircling me in its coils. Promising me relief.

Death's prelude.

How often have I dreamed of such release? How long have I disgraced myself with such selfish hopes? Mama would be ashamed if she knew how easily I'd turn myself over…

Then I remind myself, your mama's dead.

There is no mother to encourage me on this cold, marble floor. Only smoke. It settles over me like a blanket. I lie here as I have for innumerable days, my body immobile and slumped in the hollow it has worn in the filthy rush mat. I have lived so long in this loneliness that death now seems a gentle reprieve.

Why, then, do I wish to stand?

A single light holds my gaze, a sliver of milky haze spilling in from beneath the door. I've always watched it, waiting for it to open, but never has it seemed so far away. Ten feet away—a daunting expanse.

I shift tenderly upon my sores and, with quivering fingers, brush aside the greasy hair hanging across my face. The tiny room comes into focus, the darkness so complete that I barely make out the outline of the table in the corner.

Memories: hands pinning my arm to the table, searing my flesh, sticking me with barbs and stingers, snapping my bones like dry twigs.

My stomach curdles. I fix my gaze back upon the smoke and the light.

I hear the faint treading of feet from beyond the locked door—I see it, in the flickering of the glow. They must not know—maybe they just don't care—that I'm a prisoner in this tiny room, that I have been a prisoner here for months.

Eater be merciful, could it have already been a year?

I feel loss, distinct and nauseating, as I consider what that black, seamless passage of time has stolen from me. No, it hasn't been a year; it just can't have been.

I'm determined now. I want to get up. I will get up.

I slide my swollen knees up beneath me. My stiff ankles ache as I lean back upon my thighs. My head rests like a leaden weight on my chest. My back pops, vertebra by vertebra. Every muscle, from my fingers to my spastic toes, screams.

I will not relent to my agony; I rise like a corpse upon fine puppet strings.

I will face Death the Eater this night. When He comes to claim me, He shall find me waiting.

I've managed to push myself up into a crouch, and I pause. My good arm props me up on splayed fingers, my knees numb and knocking together.

The smoke is a low lying fog around my calves. The faint pattering of feet I'd heard before has dissipated into unsettling silence.

I'm wasting time. I need get up.

My left arm is broken, but my right cannot do it alone. I place both hands upon the stone and grind my teeth together. Squeezing my eyes shut against the excruciating pain, I push myself up.

I'm standing. I feel the sweat pouring down my face, but I'm standing.

"Good, you're already up."

I had been too absorbed in my exertions to hear the door. Cautiously for the sake of my wobbling knees, I pivot myself to look into the glare of the bright doorway.

The Purple Man stands there in silhouette. The light spills in around him, cloaking his face in shadow, but I need not see his face to know it. I have, after all, had months to memorize it. I already know its every wrinkle, scar, and liver spot. It is a face that stalks me through my restless nights.

The light might have blinded me, but my memory fills in the blanks with exacting detail.

"Strip," he says.

I look down at what had once been a green linen robe, reduced now to brown rags. I do as he tells me, for he no longer needs the stick to invoke my obeisance. I pull the decaying dress up and over my shoulders, quaking with the effort. Then the dress is gone, and I see for the first time the festering lesions it had concealed. Lamp light from the hall streams through the smoky film and bathes me in its luminance. My skin, my hands, my swollen knuckles… I'm hardly human.

The Purple Man stands before me, the light now striking his face. He's panicked; I see it in the thin purse of his lips and the glimmering sheen upon his brow.

A man stumbles by the open doorway, and, starting, the Purple Man whirls to watch the straggler pass.

Alone again, he turns back and hands me the woolen blanket he carries. "Put this on."

I drape it across my shoulders, hiding my nakedness. He's given me a blanket, could he mean to take me with him? To where?

The Great Abyss?

No, I won't allow it, not when I have cause to hope. Only minutes ago I had been lying on the floor with nothing but a smoky halo swirling over my head, and now the door stands open, my putrid rags are gone, and—by the Eater!—I'm standing.

If I cannot hope now, then when can I? I had thought myself long ago broken, but deep within my empty belly my stubbornness reawakens.

"We're leaving."

"Is there a…fire?" They are my first words in what's surely been weeks. They claw their way up my dry throat and come out as a fragile rasp.

"Be quiet."

My body moves slowly, but my mind spins. I try to estimate how far I'll be able to walk before I will inevitably collapse.

My first step is easier than anticipated, but, despite the adrenaline pumping through me, I'm still not fast enough. The Purple Man wraps his large, sweaty fingers around the nape of my neck and forces me forward.

Together we leave my cell, staggering out into the hall. The smoke chokes my senses: stings my eyes, clouds my nose, and dries my mouth. I hold a corner of the blanket to my face to block out the worst of it, and next to me the Purple Man hacks.

A young man in white robes sprints towards us. In his hurry he knocks shoulders with the Purple Man. We stumble away, and I catch only a fleeting glimpse of the man's face in the fog of smoke. Tears stream from his closed eyes, carving rivulets down his ashen cheeks. He sprints away from us, back the way we've come.

If the Purple Man means to save us from the fire, then we are going the wrong way.

Could this be my end after all?

He shoves me onward and I fabricate wild scenarios: the Great Abyss bubbles up through the floor, churning with the cold, dead souls it's already claimed. It spreads out across the marble tiles, alighting all it touches with its ferocious heat. The Purple Man pushes me to the edge of its gaping maw and tips me into the chasm. I fall and fall and fall until Death the Eater finally catches me and I am devoured.

No! He shall not lead me passively to Death!

I drop the blanket and surge ahead. His surprise allows me to tear myself from his grasp. I lurch forward, my arms wheeling as I fight to reclaim my balance.

I'm free!

His hands lash out for me but capture only smoke. The blanket lies discarded at his feet; he kicks it out of his way with a howl of frustration.

I have only seconds before he'll find me again. I cannot hesitate. Wild with desperation, I turn on him, propelling myself face first into his purple-clothed chest. I latch onto his collarbone with my teeth, clamping down on him through the thin robes.

He bellows and strikes my shoulder, but I am like a starving leech and his blows cannot dislodge me. With my right hand I reach up and tear at the first thing I touch, his left ear. I dig my nails into his flesh until my fingers are coated in the sticky warmth of his blood. I grind my teeth into bone and the man screams and screams.

He strikes me again, but to no avail. He cannot—

A new, torturous sensation paralyzes me.

The intensity of the pain is both icy cold and flaming hot. My body begins to slacken…

My hold is failing. No! Don't let go! This will be your only chance! But no amount of urging will make my body obey. I'm emptying of my strength like a burlap sack of its grain. Soon I'll be on the floor, useless.

The Purple Man brings his fist down upon my shoulder a final time, and I cannot withstand it. My teeth lose their hold and I crumble at his feet. My left arm falls across my face, and I see it: the gory tip of an arrowhead protruding from my left bicep. My new attacker comes from behind, from the smoke, armed with a bow.

Dumbstruck upon the floor, I watch as the Purple Man turns to flee. Not from me, I know, but from the owner of the brown-fletched arrow embedded in my arm.

The smoke conceals the newcomer, but his bow twangs as he lets loose a second arrow. Fast and true, the projectile buries itself in the Purple Man's back.

The man tumbles. He lands flat upon his round face.

I cry, "Not—!"

I do not know what I had wanted to say, but I yank myself onto my knees as though possessed. Naked, bloodied, and thoroughly muddleheaded, I crawl to my kidnapper's pierced body…

…to find that the arrow has struck him dead.


I bash the corpse with my bony hands, forcing the last of the air from his lungs in an agonized moan. I beat him again and again, I, the butcher and he, the haunch.

With a brusque voice, a man at my back demands, "Hands where I can see them."

But I ignore the order, feeling deliriously invincible. For weeks, months even, I had been waiting for Death, thinking that He should visit me through His avatar, the Purple Man. Now that man is dead, and with him dies my mortality. I'm emboldened with this belief of invulnerability. I am a poison to which even Death the Eater knows no antidote.


I see it from the corner of my eye: a sandaled foot swinging in at my ribs. I twist, catching it just in time. With my good arm, I force the foot up, thrusting it high above my head.

The man—sandals, bow, and all—spills backwards across the floor.

I've knocked the air clean out of him. He sputters, but he's rallying quicker than I had hoped. He's left me with only a small window in which to act. I won't squander it.

I draw back my chapped lips and sink my teeth into his sooty, naked calf. I puncture flesh, and my mouth floods with the familiar, metallic taste of blood.

He acts quickly, sitting up with a hiss and slapping me across the face with a broad palm. His blow, though anticipated, knocks me away as though I were nothing more than a mosquito.

This stranger is far stronger than the Purple Man, far stronger than anyone I have ever met.

My stinging cheek reconciles me with the truth of my situation: hardly immortal, I'm more vulnerable than ever.

My eyes burn with tears and I cannot shake the heavy daze holding me powerless. I watch the man through the fog. He's on his feet, shuffling about in the smoke for the bow lost in the fall. He sees me watching him and stops, drawing a bronze sickle-sword from his waist. The khepesh is larger than any I've ever seen, a handbreadth wide and nearly four feet in length.

He lifts the sword's point to my constricted throat.

I blink away the tears, and I drag my eyes up to meet his.

His features are coarse and sharp: a tall nose, a square jaw, and deep, dark eyes. It is the face of a nobleman, clean and hairless. He scowls and his nose wrinkles like the muzzle of a rabid dog. His thick eyebrows hang low beneath a forehead creased in fury.

He carries himself differently than the Purple Man, tense, towering, intimidating. Nor does he wear the usual purple or white robes I've come to associate with my prison's wardens. His knee-length trousers are black, and the gray, sleeveless tappa he wears only half covers a scarred chest. If I didn't still taste his blood on my lips, I would have thought him made of smoke.

I barely form my words for the adrenaline coursing through my veins. "Kill him…!"

The man edges closer. "Do you work for him?" The tip of his khepesh hangs inches away.

I'm shamed by the tears that spill hot and angry upon my cheeks. I stare at the Purple Man's battered body.

My voice floods back upon a tide of rage and remorse. "I was supposed to kill him!"

Another question: "What are you to him?"

By now I'm crumbling into sobs. What a wretched, wretched creature I've become. I'm monstrous! I will never be able to kill the Purple Man. Why does this realization devastate me? Why do I regret that someone else has completed the gruesome task? Maybe it had been the Purple Man's plan all along—take a naive girl and, through the careful administration of terror and pain, twist her into a murderess.

I know I need to pull myself together. I need to put a stop to these thoughts. Where is my rationality when I need it? I'm not an idiot; I entertain no illusions of receiving mercy from this strange, aristocratic man, not after seeing how unhesitatingly he had struck down my kidnapper.

To my horror, I find that my voice has fled me once more. I try to explain, "Kidnapped…me…"

He shakes his khepesh to hurry me. "Kidnapped why?"

Fear forces my answer out in a jumbled mess, "I-I don't know… A weapon? Something to do with a weapon. Something about me finding it, or… Please, I don't know!"

The man goes stiff, distrust twisting his already fearsome features. But how could anyone be suspicious of me? I'm a weeping girl lying on the floor. To me, he is a mountainous obstacle, and I, little more than an ant to be crushed.

He doesn't ask me to elaborate, but I see from his glowering expression that he expects me to.

"He wanted to kill men…but I can't remember. Strange names…"

"Remember. Your life depends on it."

I rack my memories, hoping to find at least one name I can provide. Surely there had been one memorable enough to stick.

I struggle, "La…Lafeek…?"

"Lateef," the man corrects me. I had not thought it possible, but he looks even angrier than he had before.

I nod. He pronounces it the way I remember hearing it all those days ago.

For a long while, the gray man says nothing. The smoke billows in around us and in the distance I hear something that might be screaming. How does he ignore it?

"Are you armed?" he asks at last.

Armed? The man sees all that I possess—absolutely nothing. I want to laugh, but I can manage only a scoff.

"Some assassin you'd make," he sneers.

"I'm not an assassin!" I snap with a flare of outrage. A muscle in my left bicep spasms around the arrow still lodged there, and the pain drives me to new levels of hysteria. "I was taken from my home and imprisoned here. I don't know why! Ask him!" I point at the dead man.

Yet still the stranger won't trust me.

Below the hem of his trousers is the bite mark I've left on his shin. I hope it infects.

"What did Chike tell you?"


Is he referring to the Purple Man? I had convinced myself that such a monster couldn't possess a mother-given name. Now that I know it—

"Answer me!"

I'm crying again, gingerly touching the bloodied arrowhead. "I-I don't… He jabbered occasionally, but never… Please! Can't you see the prison's on fire?"

Surprise penetrates through the man's scowl. "Prison? You think this is a prison?"

How do I respond? In truth, I have nothing but my assumptions to rely upon. I arrived here blindfolded and have never been permitted out of that single room.

Convinced at last of my ignorance, he drops the khepesh's point. My confusion proves answer enough. "Do you have clothes?"

I'm too overwhelmed to speak. I shake my head.

He hooks the corner of the abandoned blanket with the tip of his sword, dragging it within reach.

I retrieve it hastily, suddenly ashamed by my nakedness. "What do you want from me?"

"You're coming with me."

"No I'm not."

A glint of fiery bronze and then the curve of the khepesh is pressing against my chin. With a strangled cry, I shrink against the wall.

"Do you really think"—the man's lips curl into a snarl—"that I would just let you go after learning you're Lateef's intended assassin?"

"I know nothing! Just let me go!"

"Go?" he repeats, with a sickening leer. "Go where? The compound is sealed. The doors are barred from the outside. If you don't burn in here, then you'll be killed out there."

I gape at him. "What is this place? What's going on?"

"Get up. I don't have time for this."

I'm without argument. I'm so completely lost, so completely removed from my home, that there is no hope of escape. Inch by inch I pull myself to my feet, but I've lost my earlier determination. I'm no freer than I had—

The man strikes without warning.

If his blow had landed where he had intended I would be unconscious, but his fist misses its mark and strikes my cheekbone instead. The back of my head slaps against the limestone wall and I bite my tongue.

I am weak, but I retaliate immediately. I pull back my right fist and throw a jab of my own. My aim is awful, and he is extremely tall. I punch his throat.

He stumbles back, massaging his bruised windpipe. Wheezing a curse, he throws a second punch.

This time, I'm out cold.