One Little Hitch

“Hello.  I see you are awake.”

“What?  Where am I?  The last thing I remember was being in a car crash.”

“Yes.  You died.  And now you are here.  Waking up is really just a metaphor.  It seems to smooth the transition.”

“So this is…?”

“Indeed.  As a new arrival, you will have an orientation session soon.  It is voluntary, of course, as is everything here.  Yet you may find it useful.”

“Oh.  Is there anything I should do?  What is expected of me?”

“The orientation session will serve to answer all of your questions, should you attend.  But in brief, nothing is expected of you.”

“So I could do anything I want?”

“Yes.”

“But aren’t there any rules?  You know, to keep people from behaving badly?”

A chuckle.  “We have no problems like that here.  Only those who already are well-behaved come here.  Any who might cause problems… do not.”

“Oh.  Of course.”  A brief pause.  “Oh!  What about my friends and family who died before me?  Can I see them?”

“Of course.”

“My grandmother?”

“Yes.  She should be nearby.  I believe she was notified of your arrival.”

“My father, too?”

“No.  He is not with us.”

“You mean, he’s in…”

“Yes.  He was refused admission.”

“So I can never see him again?”

“That is correct.  He was not suited for this realm.  Soon, you will forget all about him and will not miss him.”

“What?  That’s horrible!”

“It is simply the way of things.  Do not concern yourself with such things.  You have been admitted based on your life.  He has earned his end.”

“But he’s my father.”

“Your earthly father.  Now you live with your real father.  This was what you yearned for in life.  Here you are reunited.  He is all around us.”

“And all it cost me was being separated from my father for all eternity.”

“You were already separated, don’t you see?  This is just the culmination of the different choices you each made.”

“I don’t care.  I want to see my father.”

“Impossible.”

“Then I want to leave.”

“What?!  No one chooses to give up this realm.”

“I do.”

“But this is madness.  This is unprecedented.”

“I don’t care.  Let me out.”

Dreams of Winter

The room was dark: the only light came from a string of Christmas lights hung around the window.  Christmas had been more than a month ago, but he didn’t celebrate the holiday anyway.  He merely enjoyed the little points of color the lights provided.  They were… right, somehow, in the dark as the wind whistled past.

The top layer of snow swirled around across the yard.  It covered everything, but little was falling now.  The wind seemed determined to push the powder as far south as it could.  The whole scene – framed by the colored lights – was in constant motion as he looked on from his chair.

He had wrapped himself in a blanket and prepared a cup of hot tea.  The tea had cooled to room temperature, entirely forgotten on the end table.  The blanket was serviceably warm, though the sound of the wind made him shiver anyway.

How many winters had it been?  The obvious answer referred to his age, but that did not reflect reality.  Too many had gone by without snow or even cold spells.  Those had become more commonplace in recent years.  But this was a proper winter.  This took him back to the winters of his childhood.  Still, he preferred to observe rather than play in it.  How many more did he have?  Would this be the last?  If so, at least it was wild and chaotic.

He felt rather than heard some rumbling.  Perhaps it was a truck passing by.  Or maybe the bombs had begun to fall.  Either way was the same.  He stayed in his chair and watched out the window.  The lights were soothing, and the snow made the world perfect.  So he sat and watched until sleep finally took him.

Family Breakup

The scene opens in a room with several armchairs and a fireplace, but no windows.  N is sitting in one of the armchairs; she is fidgeting.  S is standing by the mantelpiece, swirling her drink.

N: Can we start?

S: Not yet.

N: Are we waiting for someone?

S: Who do you think?

N: Why is he coming?

S: This concerns him, too.

N: I suppose.  But should we worry about this at all?  Isn’t it too late to do anything?

S: That’s what I wanted to talk to you both about.  See if we can think of something.  Perhaps we can still do something to at least influence events.

W enters.

S: Ah.  There you are.

W: I am sorry for being late.  What did you want to talk about?

W takes a seat in another armchair opposite N.

S: E’s actions have upended the balance.  I wanted to discuss our options.

W: How has he done that?

N: By introducing a light into the world?  A light that sits over his realm.  And those bipedal creatures.  He has made vast changes without consulting us.

W (shifting uncomfortably): Is any of that bad?

N (looking at S): You talk to him.

S: These decisions change everything.  E should have consulted with us before moving ahead.

W: I still don’t see the problem.  The whole world revolves around the two of you.  E merely wanted to add some variety.

S: What do you mean?  Did he talk to you?

W: He proposed having the light travel from his realm to mine and then back again.

N: You supported this?  Without bringing it to us?  You helped him?

W: I still don’t understand why this is such a big deal.

S: Get out.  Just. Get. Out.

W: I’m sorry.  I didn’t know it would upset you.

W exits.

S: I cannot believe this.

N: I knew there was nothing we could do.  And W was in on it.

S: Your fatalism isn’t helpful.

N: It wasn’t meant to be.

S: What should we do?

N: I don’t know what you should do.  As for me, I’m going back home before it becomes impossible to do so.  And then I’m going to set about making my realm as inhospitable as possible.  At least I can keep his creatures away from me.  You might consider doing the same.

N stands to leave.

S: Is this the end of our family meetings?

N: I expect so.  I wish you well, sister.

S: But you will come back to visit.

N: I am not sure it will be possible.  E and W have divided us.  I am unlikely to be able to travel across their lands again.

S: Fare well, sister.

N nods without acknowledging the tears in either of their eyes and leaves.

The End of Cepheus

“I must object to this, your majesty.”

“You have made your feelings quite clear, Sur Tipan.”

“He is a Mage.  Not to be trusted.  You should execute him before he can do any harm.”

The king looked at his Sur.  The man showed no indication of humor or irony.  “You are a Mage, Tipan.  Should I not execute you as well?”

The Sur’s face paled.  “Surely I have proven myself loyal.  I do not plot against you as the others have.  I even revealed to you information that has helped you against them.”

The king waved his hand in dismissal.  “Yes, yes.  You serve me well.  But this mage was discovered near the castle.  I will discover his intent.”

Tipan bowed, obviously eager to maintain his good standing.  “As you will, your majesty.”  He turned to the soldiers near the entrance of the throne room.  “Bring in the prisoner.”

Two Terrgat came through the door, a rather disheveled man between them.  He appeared to be  in his middle years, but looks were rarely to be trusted when mages were involved.  King Cepheus looked at his Sur, and wondered how old he really was.

“Well, Tipan, do you know him?”

Tipan had been studying the mage closely, but shook his head.  “I do not, your majesty.  Just another mage.  To be dealt with like all of the others.”

Cepheus nodded.  Every since elevating the man to Sur, he had been loyal.  Justified or not, he could not help but feeling suspicious.  But that was something to be considered at another time.  At this moment, however, he needed to deal with this unknown.  “Where did you find him?”

“Your majesty,” the Terrgat on his left bowed, “he was just outside the gate.  He was waiting there.  Perhaps hoping to ambush…”  He cut himself off.

The king nodded.  “What is your name, mage.”

As the king addressed him, he looked up, a startled expression on his face.  “Me?  You are talking to me?”

“Yes.”  Cepheus was already bored.  “Who else?”

“Ah.  Well, those who know me call me Ice.”

“What sort of name is that?”

“The name others have given me.”

His ire rising, Cepheus struggled to keep his voice in check.  “What is your real name?”

“Ah.  True, true.  That is not the name I was given at birth.  But it is the only name you will get.”

Tipan took a step forward.  “Terrgat, kill this man!”

The king immediately held up his hand.  “Sur Tipan!  You do not give orders here.  Do not forget yourself!”

“But your majesty…!”

“Enough!  Why are you so intent on silencing this mage?”

“I am not…”

“If I may, King Cepheus.”  The mage Ice had stepped forward.  “What the traitor is trying to do is warn you.”

“Warn me?  About what?”  As he spoke the king watched his Sur slump to the ground.  The guards fell, too.  Only he and the Terrgat remained upright.  “What is this?”

“That is me.”  Ice took another step forward.  “You will feel the effect soon.  I believe your slaughter men already are.”  Both Terrgat seemed to be straining to stay upright.  One of them turned and ran out of the room.  “Whatever you use to protect yourselves from magic will not last long.  All life in this castle will soon be snuffed out, fed into the vortex I have created in this room.  Do you not feel it?”

Cepheus did.  The medallion around his neck acted as anchor, but he was being pulled at from all sides.  The magic of the medallion was already having trouble keeping up with the assault.  “Tipan was right.  I should have killed you.”

“It would not make any difference.  The runes are inscribed on the walls of your castle.  I am merely the trigger.  Alive or dead, your reign ended the moment I was brought inside.”

He felt heavier in his chair..  “You will die, too.”

“I never intended to live.  You and your Terrgat have already taken everything.  I will be content to watch you die.”

“My family… The servants…”  He struggled to find something to reach the mage before he slipped away.

“They should have killed you before I had to.  They accepted you as king.  They have earned their fate.”

“Children…!”  The remaining Terrgat had already fallen.

“What concern have you shown for the children your men have killed?  I bring you the harvest you have sown.  Goodbye, King Cepheus.  May you rot.”

The world went dark.

*     *     *

As the king slumped down and stopped moving, Ice just stared.  It had worked.  Yet he needed to be certain.  He searched the body, but the only thing unusual was a medallion around the king’s neck.  As soon as he touched the disk, the runes on his arms went silent.  He pulled the chain off of the king’s neck.  Then he searched the Terrgat and pulled off his chain as well.

The runes protected him, but they should be reaching their limit.  Still, he felt no effects from the ritual.  He had accepted his own death as the price for putting an end to Cepheus, but perhaps he had been spared after all.  Placing the medallions in a pouch, he left the throne room and began making his way to the front gate.

As he turned down a hallway, he found a maid on the floor, the linens she had been carrying were strewn about.  More of the price he knew had to be paid, though it was difficult to remember that when it lay in front of him.  On his way, he found several more scenes like the first.  Each one struck him.  Each time he reminded himself of the horrors he had sought to prevent.

Every step he took, he expected to feel the pull and succumb to the ritual, but it did not happen.  Finally he made it outside the castle.  In the courtyard, he saw others collapsed, including animals.  A mother sat against a wall holding her young son.  He forced himself to keep moving.

Outside the gates, the scene did not get less disturbing.  Bushes and trees were dying.  The effect was spreading.  This was far more than he had expected.  He had researched the ritual for months, and spent more than a year preparing it.  Nothing suggested it would spread beyond the boundary of the runic circle.

He felt for the magic, and it was not hard to find.  It was a tremendous storm centered in the castle and spreading outward.  There was no hope of stopping it.  He had a better chance of halting the sun.  All he could hope to do was get beyond it, assuming it would not envelope the whole world.

Over the next few days, as he moved further south, the blight seemed to slow.  It was still moving, he knew, but he got ahead of it.  It would eventually stop, though he did not know how long the storm might last, nor how much damage would be done in the end.  Damage he had caused.  Cepheus was dead.  That was the main thing.  Few mages remained, but they would be free from the tyranny of the king.

Ice had no idea what to do now.  He had not expected to live.  Perhaps he could find an apprentice and rebuild.  For now, he needed to put even more distance between himself and the horror he had brought about.

Dancing Partner

It was a very dull party.  The music was pleasant enough, and the ballroom was beautifully decorated.  Of course, that was to be expected at one of Duke Fenton’s balls.  Still, he had few prospects and none of them were in attendance.  He had been rejected by anyone here who may have been an appropriate match.  There was nothing left but to sit at his table sipping wine and watching the room.

He could hear his father scolding him for not making the most of the occasion.  Alcohol put people at ease, he would say, loosening their tongues.  His father would just have to be disappointed in him.  It was a common enough occurrence, after all.

“Are you still moping?”  Samuel appeared and sat next to him.  He was his best friend.  And the Duke’s son.

“I am not moping.  I am simply enjoying your father’s wine and his musicians.”

“The wine is cheap.  Father refused to open the cellar for this.  And the music is bland at best.  As you well know.”

He shrugged.  “Still.”

“Very well.  Why not dance?”

“You know why.  No one here would agree to take a turn with me.”

“So you are moping.”

“Not at all.”

They both fell silent and looked around the floor.  A face he did not recognize caught his eye.  Light colored eyes framed by brown hair.  Her black dress, elegant yet simple, stood in obvious contrast to the pastel gowns celebrating the spring that were common this night.

He nudged Samuel.  “Who is that?”

“Who?”

“In the black dress.”

Samuel peered intently.  “I do not know.  Which is reason enough for you to lose interest.”

“I suppose you are right,” he said, as he stood.

Samuel shook his head.  “Good luck.”

Trying to appear casual as he wandered, he made his way nearer to the unknown woman.  Even though he knew he should listen to Samuel, he was drawn to her in a way he had not felt before.  It did not take him long to make his way across the room.

“Excuse me.  I do not believe we have been introduced.  I am…”

She had looked at him with some initial confusion, but before he could finish introducing himself, she grabbed his arm.  She put her arms around him as she dragged him into the dance.  Habit took over, and his feet moved in step to the music as they moved across the floor.

“I do not…”  He started to object in spite of himself, but she stopped him.

“I apologize for being so abrupt.  I really wanted to dance.”

He found himself unable to respond.  She was mesmerizing.  With the heels of her shoes, she stood just a couple of inches shorter than he did.  Her gown was cut low in the back, and his right hand tingled where it touched her skin.  He could not take his eyes away from her, but she seemed to be staring over his shoulder.

Her grip tightened as he tried to turn around.  “No.  Do not look away.”  She smiled at him.  “Just dance with me.”  He could not refuse her.  While she looked past him, he looked at her and enjoyed the dance.

Before the music stopped, she broke off from him.  “Excuse me.  Thank you.”  She turned to walk away.

He stopped her.  “Who are you?”

Their eyes locked for a moment.  “No one important.”  She hurried off, apparently looking for someone.

He began to walk back to his table when Samuel walked up to him.  “Where is she?”

“She left.  Why?”

“My father does not know her.  He wanted to know who had come uninvited.  Or at least who might have brought her.”

“Oh.”  He stared at the door through which she had left.  “I had hoped he would be able to tell me who she was.”

Samuel scowled.  “Well, when he catches her, I will be sure to tell you.”

“Thank you,” he replied, oblivious to his friend’s irritation.