The Wound-Up Heretic

This story was originally published at, as part of Contest #74 on January 1st 2021. The prompt that inspired this story was “Write about someone keeping track of time with tally marks on a wall — until one day they discover that all the marks are gone.”

The Wound-Up Heretic

By Jayde Holmes

Due to my status as a condemned sorcerer-turned-heretic, I’ve wasted thirty endless days bewitched atop the Tower of Purgatory. The barred window of my cell looks out over the tidy brick streets of Queensroost city, with the Colossus of the Goddess of Order looking over the clockwork markets and temples. Her gaze seems to pierce right into the window, meaning I have to endure her scrutiny if I want any view besides the dank room of stone and mould I am forced to wallow in.

The only comforts the court have granted me are a decaying sleeping blanket over a stone slab, a daily meal and bucket of water, a piece of chalk, and my blessed pocket watch. I remember how after the guilty verdict I’d stood in the stand frantically winding that watch. I was condemned to die in thirty-one days, and I managed to wind it thirty-one times before the bailiff ordered me to move on. I had looped the chain around my neck and no matter how disorientated I get I know I can’t take it off.

I wish I could remember why.

The sun sets, sparing me from the uppity face of the Colossus. Bored and tired, I go to bed. By the light of the half moon and the flickering torchlight seeping through the door, I can make out the tally marks I’ve drawn during my stay. Six groups of five loom over my head. Tomorrow will be my last day.

Despite that morbid thought, I end up sleeping quite well. It was as if some part of me – probably the piece of my soul dedicated to the glorious Chaos Goddess – is confident that this is not the end. If anything, the guards with their rowdy talk of Lady Sylvia’s upcoming party are more disturbing than any sense of impending doom.

I wake up with the sunrise and raise my hand to the morning glare. Then I remember what day it is, and my body shoots up. I sit stiff backed and panting, that strange confidence from last night gone. It is sunrise thirty-one days after my trial. Light reflects off the Colossus’s crown and bells ring in temples all over the city. Once dawn prayers are over, they’ll come for me. I grip my watch; it had been a gift from my mentor, the High Priest of Chaos, and it had always been such a great source of strength. I take deep breaths and feel the power of Chaos comfort me. I figure I should at least go about my regular daily routine, and yes, I know how that sounds coming from an agent of chaos. It’s not like I can do anything else with my wand and spell books confiscated. That wretched judge would have burnt them to ashes by now.

I lift the chalk to my tally. I rest it next to that last cluster of five. My hand shakes so bad. I close my eyes, move my hand, then open them to see one final line drawn on the wall. I’ve made it to dreaded day thirty-one.

Then my watch stops. I hadn’t even noticed how loud it ticked until that moment. It was a miracle of Chaos that those thirty-one turns had lasted so long.

Now the Chaos gives me one last miracle. As suddenly as the watch stopped, it starts again. The ticking fills the room once more, despite no mortal hand touching the watch. A reminder that I have chosen the right goddess to pledge myself to.

I close my eyes and move my hand again. When I open them, my hand shakes. I lower the chalk. I let out deep breaths and hold my watch as the temple bells ring through the city. Why am panting again? I lay back down, my back slamming into the bed with the force of the movement. I lift my hand once more to the sunlight retreating through the window, before falling asleep.

I stir a bit later, hearing the guards laugh about Sylvia’s upcoming party. Can’t those morons let a condemned sorcerer get one last sleep?

When I fully awake, my cell still has that orange glow of dawns and dusks. The wall above me is covered in chalk tally marks, arranged in six groups of five. Strange; I am sure I added a single mark for the thirty-first day. I try to recall that last sunrise, but in my mind’s eye the wall could have been either marked or unmarked before I went back to sleep. My thoughts cloud over again.

The next few days are a blur. I alternate between gazing slack-jawed and glassy-eyed out my window or tapping my chalk on the wall. I swear the stick is growing longer. Four days after my final sunrise, I am forced to admit the tally is off. There are only five groups of four and a single line. Despite my stupor, I know that’s wrong. I force myself to pay closer attention to the wall, and over the next few days I am convinced of the shrinking tally, despite the haze in my brain growing stronger when I think of the matter. When there are only twenty-one marks on the wall, I walk up to the marks intending to fill the wall. I black out, and next time I look up there are only twenty marks on the wall.

I stare with teary eyes at the wall once the tally drops to fourteen. I’m eating my daily ration of stale bread, chewing a maggot-filled piece as I ponder the vanishing tally to the best of my befuddled brain’s ability. I bring my empty hand to my mouth, tuck my fingertips between my lips, and pull out a shred of rock-hard bread. I stare down at the bread, my eyes wide. A couple of tears fly up from the bowl to my eyes as I watch the maggots squirm between my fingers. Why am I so relieved that both ends look the same?

By the time my hand lowers the bread and smooshes it seamlessly back into the loaf, I don’t feel anything.

I stop paying attention after that. To everything.

I stand at my window and glare at the Colossus of Order. I pace my room, I sleep, I squat over the filthy toilet hole, I eat, and I bring my chalk to the wall. I try not to notice the order I do things in. After so long fighting the confusion, I welcome it as a shield against my new reality. I go about my day, automatic and unaware.

Until I stand in the middle of the cell, feeling clean and full and without any of the back pain associated with the cell bed. I have not felt so good in a month. I have not felt such horrific nausea in my life.

The wall above my bed is empty; all the tally marks are gone.

I stand frozen like that for hours, until the guards come in and march me to the courtroom. The ticking of my watch sounds unreasonably loud in my ears, like a second heartbeat banging against my ribcage.

It stops once I am locked in the stand. The bailiff orders me to take it off. I comply, feeling my head clear and the world shift back into a comprehensible configuration as I place it on the tiny shelf in front of me. I notice the bailiff drop a key, and the sight of an object falling and not being picked up until it does actually fall makes me smile.

I look around the circular room, made of white brick walls layered in perfect lines. I was in the centre, on a wooden cage facing the judge’s lectern. Surrounding me are perfect wooden benches without a single splinter astray, dividing the impeccably dressed legal teams and nobility into their proper places. Behind the judge’s bench, a massive grandfather clock keeps time. I don’t look at the clock’s face; my eyes settle on the pendulum, forever swinging back and forth in perfect rhythm.  

The judge enters, her white robes swooshing behind her as the crowd rises. They sit as the judge does and go silent as she recites the charges against me. Heresy, destruction of temples and houses, perversion of the magical arts, magical assault, tampering with the natural order of the universe… I wish I was still bewitched because this was so painfully boring.

This type of trial could go on all day, since a mountain of evidence is required to condemn a person to death. I tell my lawyer to shut up and launch into the speech I prepared before my arrest. I condemn their miserable soulless civilisation. I laugh at the stupid constrains they put on magic. I call their Queen an idiot and the Goddess of Order a tyrant. The priestesses in attendance make a sign of protection as I rant. I can imagine how I look to the crowd; my hair wild and unkept, an eyebrow shaved to force asymmetry, my arms flailing about in wild, unpredictable ways. I must be terrifying the poor little automatons of Queensroost. I feel chaos magic gather within me as I unleash the outburst I have waited so long to perform.

Yet, I seem to run out of steam before I am done. The praise for my Chaos Goddess becomes a rote recital. I just can’t muster up the same excitement as I did last time I gave this speech.

Wait, last time? What last time?

Once done, the judge looks at me with sad, tired eyes. She alone was unmoved by my heresy.

Then she asks me how many times we have gone through this trial.

I scream at her. I tell her exactly what I think of her attempts to mess with my mind. I call out the hypocrisy of blindly worshipping her neat and orderly Goddess as she uses magic and trickery to turn prisoners insane. I call her a sociopath.

She continues to look at me with those sad eyes, shaking her head as I froth at the mouth. She has the gall to claim that the Queensroost justice system is merciful to prisoners, and then insults me further by claiming that my own chaos magic is the cause of my distress. Chaos magic does not cause insanity people! The condescending witch oh-so politely suggests that if I cease twisting the flow of time in ways humankind wasn’t meant to perceive, then I wouldn’t have any issues with my perception of reality.

I spit in her general direction.

She doesn’t even get angry. She beckons one of the priestesses forward, and the priestess presents me with a copy of the Goddess’s Lawbook. The judge tells me that if I renounce the Chaos Goddess and repledge myself to the path of Order and Justice, she’ll reduce my sentence to community service. I don’t even bother to look at the book. I know it has a truth enchantment; I remember trying to lie my way out of this the first time.

First time?

Once obvious I won’t repent, the judge dismisses the priestess and condemns me to hang at the end of the month. As the bailiff approaches, I grab my watch and wind it. I manage to turn the dial thirty-one times before I’m ordered out. I loop the chain around my neck, and feel the touch of my Goddess, promising me that as long as I keep the watch on me and keep faith with her, I won’t die. She’ll twist time and space to keep me from the gallows.

With the Goddess’s promise comes the confusion. Before my mind goes completely foggy, I start to wonder how many times I’ve gone through this trial and the following imprisonment.

How many more must I go through for the power of Chaos?

Should I go through it?

That last thought feels new. New like nothing else has in a long time. I think of maggots writhing on a piece of bread in unnatural ways – when have I ever seen maggots on my bread? – and try to imagine them just moving normally.

The guards come in, handcuff me, and march me to the Tower of Purgatory. The ticking of my watch sounds unreasonably loud in my ears, like a second heartbeat banging against my ribcage.

Once in my cell and unchained, I stand frozen before the bed slab, staring at the empty wall above it.

I stare at the wall for hours, until I see a long piece of chalk resting on the slab.

I pick up the chalk and draw a single tally mark on the wall. This is day one.