2nd Chance

Simple and useful resurrection app with GPS, Google Maps and e-copy of the Necronomicon

2nd Chance is the first necromancy app available free on your Droid and iPhone (in beta testing stage only)

<< 2nd chance requires a magnetic sensor, location services activated and two samples of blood, one living and one dead >>

This resurrection app is a tool for bringing your loved ones back to life. PLEASE DO NOT USE ON CORPSES DEAD MORE THAN A WEEK. Cannot guarantee that it will be the decedent’s soul that returns after that date. You may find them… changed.

1.       Although you may bring back to life pets and other animals, they will not know you and must be retrained.

2.       Necronomicon is available in Latin only (translations pending)

3.       If Location services are turned off, soul may return only halfway. Please keep gun on hand to re-kill any raised abominations.

4.       All belief systems supported

The 2nd chance app depends on the performance of your device exactly. If the dead are raised perfectly, it means that your sensors for the nearness of spirits are perfect too.

If there are aberrations, such as the undead (zombies) or manifestations of Beelzebub or Lucifer, please check that you are a firm believer in the afterlife. Any doubt allows for evil to creep through! This app has several options to calibrate your theism (The Bible, Qu’ran and Avesta are all included).

·         Pro-version includes:

Ø  Soul sensor (guarantees accuracy of re-absorption up to 95.5%)

Ø  Nearest Exorcist locator (in case of resurrections gone awry)

Ø  Helpful resurrection tips

Ø  Free vial of holy water

Good luck, and remember, if it’s been less than a week. There’s still hope. Your loved ones are never fully gone!

 

                John looked down at his phone, then back up at the grave.

                Aviva Lester 1988 – 2014

                R.I.P

                Far more than a week, but still, thinking back on the past two years of misery, on the grief that had never lessened, on the unfairness of her dying just after their wedding day, the apps warnings went unheeded as he download 2nd chance and approached his beloved’s final (?) resting place.

                “I promised,” He whispered, “I will never say goodbye.”

                The app downloaded and stalled, he pulled up its main screen.

                SOUL LOCATOR. He pressed the button and, when prompted, enter Aviva’s full name and birthdate.

                SEARCHING… SEARCHING… SEARCHING…

                “Come on!” He begged. “Work goddammit! She’s here, she waited for me.”

                RESULTS: 1 SOUL LOCATED THAT MEETS PARAMETERS. WOULD YOU LIKE TO RETRIEVE? (YES/NO)

                John’s heart soared. This might actually work. He pressed yes with tears in his eyes.

                WARNING. SENSORS SHOW SOUL IS _2_ YEARS PAST ‘RAISE BY’ DATE. CHANCES OF SUCCESSFUL RESSURECTION <10%. CHANCES OF ‘OTHER PRESENCE’ FORCING ITS WAY THROUGH OPENED CHANNEL ~50%.

                DO YOU STILL WISH TO PROCEED? (YES/NO)

                “Any chance is chance enough.” John said to himself, pressing yes without the slightest hesitation.

                The phone whirred for a bit, then grew hot in John’s hands. So hot he dropped it into the soft loam of the gravesite. Blue electricity shot from the phones edges into the ground. Then the heavens opened, and lightning cracked down onto the grave, burrowing into the soil and casting it asunder. The crackling electric bolts struck again and again until a hole several feet deep opened before John, who by that time had thrown himself onto the ground hands before his eyes.

                After some moments of chaos, silence reigned. John gingerly took back to his feet, creeping forward to see what remained.

                The grave was undug, the coffin struck open, a figure rose unsteadily from it. Rot and years fell away and John recognized his Aviva.

                “My God… it’s possible. I brought you back. It’s possible!” He ran to her, weeping again.

                Aviva stared at him silently and with wide eyes, recognition slowly dawning.

                “John? But… how. I was, oh my no. I was dead?”

                He hugged her, not caring that a shock of electricity went through him. The pain of that was nothing compared to his joy at reuniting with her. “Doesn’t matter. Darling, you’re here now. I love you. I always loved you.”

                Aviva’s eyes then too began to water. “Oh, John…”

                “Come, let’s get you home and out of those rags. Everyone will be so glad you’re back…”

                He half-carried her from the torn grave, as she stumbled over legs rusty from disuse and atrophy. As he nattered on in his happiness, Aviva turned back the way she had come, eyes narrowing at the sight only she beheld. Briefly, in the moonlight, a translucent figure the mirror image of the girl brought to life reached out towards them. It mouthed silently, no body with which to speak.

                John, beloved. That’s not me. I didn’t make it back. I was beaten to my body. That’s not me. That’s not me-

                The figure faded, its connection to this realm lost. Seeing the figure go, ‘Aviva’ turned away, satisfied, and once again contemplated what horrors she might work on this world of flesh.

                You thought you stopped me for good, God. But I’m back, baby. I’m back!

The Urn

                Mother always wanted to be buried at sea. Laura and I pledged, after she died, that we would make that happen. So from the Kansas flatlands we traveled west by train, on new-laid track through forest and desert and rain.

Weeks passed in silence. We promised we would never speak again of that night, and circumstance had left us with little else. Laura sat by the window. Though she did not say it, I think she loved to watch the landscape rolling by. Watching her, she seemed to age thirty years, the burden of sin. She became the mirror image of the parent we lost. Once, she caught me looking at her and frowned, hard black eyes like coal penetrating to the core of my thoughts.

“I’m not like her, you know. I swear I never will be!”

I nodded in response, silently making the same promise.

As we traveled, Mother waited in the luggage rack in a plain, unadorned urn, returned to dust as we all will be some day. She rolled around above our heads, looming nearly as large in death as she did in life. When the conductor came to take our tickets, he noticed the urn with a start. After that we were left alone. The mysterious children. The couriers of death.

Eventually, our journey ended. We came to California. We wound through the streets, following our noses to the sea. It was vaster than we had ever imagined, stretching out past the limit of our eyesight. We waited for evening, until the sun began to crash beneath the horizon, Mother in hand.

“Bury me.” She said, spitting blood. “Bury me where I daren’t rise again. Bury me beneath the weight of the ocean. Bury me with the setting sun. Promise me you’ll see this through. For the good of the world. Promise me!”

She clutched my hand, which still clenched the knife buried in her side, and convulsed, and screeched. Then fell still. Her emerald eyes faded and were black as I closed them a final time.

I opened the urn, grabbed two nearby rocks, and dumped them into the ash. Resealing the urn, I took my sister’s hand, looked her in her cobalt eyes and walked onto a rock outcropping that extended over deep ocean waters. Here, in San Francisco, we consummated a funeral deferred. We had no words, no fond memories of our time with Mother. When we knew her, it was as a woman possessed. The time before, when she was gentle still, remained shrouded in the past. Flashes of kindness. The echo of a smile. The laughter we remember as toddlers. A time as distant to us as Mother was now.

Yet I felt that one of us should speak before the deed was done.

“Earth to Earth,” I whispered, “Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust.”

The urn sank into the ocean depths quickly. Within seconds, all we saw were the waves.

After a moment, Laura finished my thought. “And may dust be all that remains.”

We watched the ocean for a while. Watched the tide recede. Watched as the moon rose to replace the sun, bathing the world in faint silver light. Watched to see if the urn would resurface. Clasped together, my hands trembled. I hoped that Laura did not notice. Hours crept by, until satisfied, I turned to leave the burial ground.

Laura waited a while longer, whispering a silent prayer before following. Ahead of her, in the night, I did not then notice her smile.

I did not notice: her once jet black eyes glowed emerald green.

 

Under the Bed

At first Reggie feared the monster, then he grew to understand it and, as the years passed, understanding grew into love.

                After his third birthday is when Reggie first felt inkling of the foreboding presence beneath him. He had just moved from crib to toddler bed, in his own room with blue wall-paper fringed with cherubic angels, with a dark velvet carpet that covered the floor from wall to wall. He was a big boy, or so his parents told him, and could sleep on his own. At least most nights. But then he heard the breathing, low and slow, coming from below his mattress. A looming force grew in his mind. He was not alone. Reggie thought to tell his parents of his fears, but worried they would dismiss him as the foolish child, and take his bed away from him. That crib, with its wooden slats and high walls, was no prison he wished to returned to. So he overcame his fears and stayed. Each night, the breathing grew louder and louder.

                When he was five, legs dangling off the edge of the bed, nowhere near long enough to touch the ground, the creature began to talk to him.

                Reggie. Its voice, loud yet subvocal, echoed against the chambers of his impressionable mind. The loud, booming tone belonged to a creature of unfathomable dimensions. It spoke his name, and Reggie screamed. Within seconds, his parents rushed to his room.

                “Reg, honey, what’s wrong?” His mother asked.

                Father yawned, scratched his chin impatiently, both their clothes were disheveled. As if they had been recently discarded and then quickly reworn. “You have a nightmare Reg? Go back to bed, there’s nothing here to get ya.”

                Reggie could only mumble, stutter his concerns. “M-m-m-monster, Momma, a-a-a m-m-m”

                His mother ruffled his air, cooing quietly to soothe his fears. “Oh monsters Reg, there’s no such thing. Only shadows in the dark. Here-” She turned up his nightlight. “That should scare them off.”

                She kissed him on his forehead and Father hugged him gruffly, clearly still resentful of the interruption. They tucked him in, left, and again Reggie lay alone with the flimsy light, the darkness, the low, deep breathing only his child’s ears could hear.

                Do not be afraid. Reggie. I mean you no harm.

                This time, Reggie swallowed his fears. No help was forthcoming. If he was grown enough to sleep alone, he was grown enough to confront the demon meant for his eyes only.

                “Wh-what a’you?” He asked.

                I don’t know.

                “H-how long you been down there?”

                Always.

                Silence hung in the air, Reggie did not speak. Only the hushed breathing signaled that the monster still remained. Waiting, it seemed for the young boy to make the next move.

                And so Reggie took a chance. He swung his legs back over the edge of the bed. Nothing. No grotesque limbs reached out from under him to drag the boy to some hellish dimension. No horrid jaws nipped at his heels. Hopping off the bed, he knelt down to look underneath the frame, to see what horrors awaited his child’s eyes. Yet he saw nothing. To be more accurate, he saw nothingness. Not the floor, not the hanging sheets, not the bedframe itself. He saw only blackness, he felt only despair. And he began to empathize for the monster, living in such a world all its own.

                “Monster?” He asked.

                Yes Reggie.

                “You lonely down there?”

                Lone-ly? The creature spoke as if he didn’t understand the world.

                “Doncha, donchou wish you had friends to play with?”

                Friends. It paused, teasing the word over in its mind. I have no friends.

                In that moment, Reggie made a choice that would divert the course of his life and countless others. “It’s okay monster. We can be friends.”

                Reggie was no longer afraid of the darkness. Years passed, and each night he and the monster spoke. Soon, he was ten, in a full bed of his own. They had moved, yet somehow the monster followed. His world unstuck in place, he knew exactly where to find Reggie. He knew which bed was the boy’s. Reggie’s parents wondered why he forsook all close friends, instead choosing to play in his room, but that was the way of children nowadays. With access to the internet, the constructed worlds all their own, they reasoned. As long as his schoolwork didn’t suffer, and he seemed so well adjusted, there was no need to worry.

                “Monster?” Reggie began one night, “Can I ask you a question?”

                Go ahead Reggie.

                “Why don’t you come out, meet my Mom and Dad? I’m sure they’d like to know I had a friend.”

                I’m scared. The blackness seemed to contract and sigh.

                “Scared? You?” Reggie wanted to laugh. The idea of this consumptive darkness—one that had terrified him to his core—itself feeling fear, seemed impossible to him. “Whatever of?”

                Your world… is so big. I am… accustomed to being alone. Just me Reg, just you and just me. I don’t- I don’t want that world. It scares me. It is scared of me.

                “I’ll make them understand! I will. You mean no harm to anyone, right?”

                No… I don’t know. I don’t even know what I am.

                Reggie asked a question he had asked many times before, and was always met with a dodge or dismissal. “What did you do before you haunted my bed?” He asked with a smile, he knew that the monster hated all comparisons to a ghost. (I am not that creature it would deny loudly, well, as loudly as it said anything). “Where were you?”

                For the first time, it answered. I… I don’t know. I remember you, my Reggie, I remember knowing you, even before we spoke. I knew we would be friends. But before that, I remember nothing.

                “Then how do you know?”

                Know what?

                “How do you know I’m not to bring you out of your shell? Show you the world?”

                I-

                “Come on! You’re tired, lonely. What’s the harm?”

                I don’t know.

                ”Monster?” Once again Reggie sat at the foot of his bed, staring underneath into the darkness.

                Yes Reg.

                “You know I love you, right?”

                I love you too Reg.

                “Then come out. I’m lonely too. No kids understand me, my Mom and Dad don’t neither. I… I only have one friend.”

                Me too.

                “Then why be alone when we can be together and happy?”

                Because.

                “Because why?”

                Because… perhaps I should show you.

                The ground beneath the bed began to rumble, and from the darkness within sparked a light. It grew and grew, sprouting features. A face, grotesquely misshapen. A body, parts all out of line and out of proportion. The light, the glowing form, grew to the size of a small rat, then to a dog, then a human child. But it did not stop there. Its chest rose and fell and still the creature grew. Soon, the bed was no longer big enough to house it. And its bulk lifted the frame into the air. Reggie stumbled backwards, eyes wide in fear for the first time in many years.

                “Monster? What are you? Why are you-”

                I cannot stop once started. I’m sorry. This is what I am. What I’ve always been.

                Reggie stared in awe at the creature of terrible, powerful light as it grew even larger. Staring slack-jawed as it crushed his small frame against the wall, before splintering it—and the house containing it—to pieces. Within minutes, the monster loomed over the late-Reggie’s neighborhood. The screams of his neighbors quickly obliterated by the spreading form that consumed them and everything else. A tower of light reached into the sky, and beneath it crumbled the entire world. Nations fell into the seas, which then boiled and evaporated as the light touched it.

I remember. The universe... It explained to the long dead boy, who was now beyond and a part of it. Your bed, your fear, was a prison built to protect me from the universe.

                Earth burned as the light stretched across it, melting land into plasma, converting the core into light brighter than the sun. With the light within it, it reached across the solar system, consuming the planets, the satellites and even the void in its wake. Soon, not even the sun was a match for its brilliance. And soon after that, the sun’s brilliance was merely a part of its own, augmenting it even as it spread past what was once our solar system, greedily feeding on the rest of the galaxy.

                Soon, the whole of our realm of being became one creature. The nameless monster, once friend to Reggie, once fearful of the world beyond. Now it knew, it was not that the creature had to fear the world, it had to fear what it would do to the world if unleashed. It expanded into darkness, wondering how far it could grow, until off in the distance it saw a light. In the light, two scrawny legs dangled, not yet long enough to reach the velvet carpet beneath. It reached for the dangling legs, but was rebuffed by a barrier it could not see, by an incipient fear of the unknown. And it understood where it was. The prison still. It smiled, a smile of hunger and terrible purpose, and spoke into the mind of a boy readying for bed.

                Reggie…

The New World

                After three weeks of sailing west, Columbus and his crews tumbled over the side of the world. First to fall were the two speedy caravels, the Nina and Pinta. According to the mate atop the mainmast, the ships appeared to wobble slightly and then buckle, before disappearing entirely. By the time Captain Columbus gave the order for the Santa Maria to turn, it was too late for the lumbering carrack. The sailors saw the ship’s bow dangling over sudden blackness, and soon the dark consumed them as well. They plummeted off the Earth and into the unknown, too frightened even to scream. Chris, huddled in his cabin below deck, stared in disbelief at the globe he no longer knew and prayed to the God he suddenly doubted, and waited, alone for the end his own hubris incurred.

                Without the sun or stars to tell time or place, none could say for certain how long they fell. Only that it felt like an eternity. Only that after a while, after the flat world fell away from view, they were not even certain they were still falling. The feeling was akin to a bug suspended in molasses, struggling as it sank, its struggles bearing it ever closer to certain doom. Days, Weeks, passed. Their stores grew low. Men wondered if they would die there, if their skeletons might fall forever, with no one to ever learn their fate. One by one, they fell asleep, alone, or huddling together for warmth and comfort and… something more, waiting for the inevitable end.

                Men closed their eyes, expecting never again to see the light.

                It was then that they awoke en-masse at a loud splash. They opened their eyes to see the ocean, the sun, to feel the wind on their face and a hazy mass in the distance that could only be land.

                “We’re alive!” They cried, “We’re saved!” Captain Columbus called the three ships together to celebrate their good fortune and plot their next move.

                But, as they sailed ever closer to their salvation. He couldn’t help but notice more was amiss. First off, the sun had reversed its habits, sinking in the east and rising in the west. At night, he could not recognize any of the stars, they aligned themselves into constellations of strange beasts he could not name. The water, even under the bluest sky, remained blacker than night and was empty. Their nets yielded no fish, no birds flew in the overhead. This was indeed a new world.

                At night, when they slept, they all suffered nightmares. When they woke, they knew by the frenzied look in each other’s eyes that their visions were shared, yet they dared not speak of them, for fear that naming them would make them true. They dreamed of strange, human like creatures who descended from the sun and the stars, translucent bodies full of brackish blood the color of the strange ocean they swam through. Their skin, thin and yet rough like sand-paper, occasionally bubbled like living creatures swam within. Their mouths were full of pink flagella instead of teeth, and when they spoke, their lips did not move, they talked directly into the minds of Chris Columbus and his crew.

                Welcome to the New World.

                They floated above the three ships, descending slowly, yet surely. Arms wide in greeting.

                Welcome to your new homes, brave voyagers of 1492.

                Columbus stood at the head of his crew in these dreams, their guns and crossbows at the ready.

                “What do you want?” He would ask, signaling with his hands for them to fire at his signal.

                What we want has already been achieved. You are here. On our planet, in our time, never to discover ‘America’ or the ‘Indies’. Never to set a chain of events in motion that doomed several trillions of creatures across a hundred thousand worlds.

                “What are you ta-”

                You were identified as the Catalyst, Chris. The one that set a long chain of events in motion that ended in the collapse of a universe, yours and mine. Long after your death, to be sure, but this was the latest point we could identify that would stop it.

                Columbus did not understand, and he signaled to his crew a simple message: On my signal.

                “You talk of things far in the future? How can I be responsible? I merely seek glory for Spain, sights unknown, riches, the spices of India. Are these dreams so wrong? So abhorrent they merit the death of my crew? I am the… Catalyst? You say? Well then take me and do what you will, leave my men to their lives.”

                It is too late. They circled the ships now, these creatures, about three score in number. Arm in arm they surrounded Columbus and his ill-fated followers. There was no escape except what violence might bear. You are here now. The only way to be certain is to claim all of you.

                Columbus sighed and let his hands fall in seeming supplication. The signal at last. Bullets and crossbows passed into and through these post-humans without incident or injury.

                It is as we expected. Savagery from a savage race. Let us lance this boil here. Let them consume themselves and their planet before they ever discover the Others.

                And the circle of strange beasts slowly constricted. Their bodies glowing green, their eyes filled with hate. The screams were as terrible as they were short.

                After they were done, after they floated back away from their toxic world and into the sky. Only skeletons, only blood-stained wrecks, remained.

                Every morning, after Chris and company woke from such dreams. They spent an hour, maybe more, staring at the sky, waiting for them to come true. In the meantime, land, beaches of purple sand. Naked trees under which strange shadows loomed, waited. Some feeling told the Catalyst Columbus that whether it was by land, or by sky, or by sea, their doom was an inevitability. One that would arrive quite soon.

               

In fourteen hundred ninety-two

Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

 

He had three ships and left from Spain;

Never to be heard from again.

 

Book of Ellen

                It was then Ellen found the book that contained the whole of her.

A slim tome, hidden on a shelf in her attic, covered in dust. Its cracked leather cover bore no name. Ellen could not say what drove her to the volume, its spot in the loft, nor what brought her to explore the old mansion’s heights in the first place. Only that she was compelled, drawn up the stairs, into the room, to its frail vellum pages. Once held, it was as if she had held the book her entire life. She brought the tome to her nose and sniffed, a rich ancient smelled suffused her with a sense of the sublime. The book begged to be consumed, and she craved to know the content of its pages. It… belonged to her, intimately. Even before she started, she knew this to be true.

                Not knowing why she held her breath, she began to read, a gasp strangled in her throat. The first lines: “Ellen Percival, born 1962, weighed 7lbs 8 ounces in her first moment of life. She did not cry at her birth, a unique child. This was not belied by her quiet infancy, nor her silent childhood, nor her demure adolescence. Indeed, her parents openly wondered if at any point they heard her speak more than ten words all at once. In her eyes was language enough, they lit with emotion. Happiness, Anger, Sadness, Betrayal, Love. She spoke more eloquently with a glance than most did in a dissertation.

                “Such was the way of Ellen Percival.”

                How shocking! How perceptive! Ellen spent little time dwelling on the impossibility. The book was clearly older than she was herself, and yet there it laid bare the sum of her parts. There was no denying it had her measure. So she read on. And each page spelled another chapter of her life. From her first kiss, to her first love. Her marriage, her divorce, her next marriage and its inevitable failure. Every chapter she bore in silence. Perhaps that was her trouble; no one in her life could tell that she cared. For herself, or for them. She seemed to wait for something. The next thing waiting on the horizon, with an implacable patience. If asked, she could not name what it was. Until that day.

                That day she found this book.

                Alone in the house, independently wealthy, there were none that sought her company. None that wondered at her disappearance. Day after day, she read. Despite the volume’s slimness, it took her nearly a week to finish. It did not strike her as strange that as the book came to a close, it had not yet reached the present day. She approached the moment she discovered the book with excitement, and a hint of trepidation. Would it end just before? Would it know what came next? Would it loop backwards upon finishing? Might she open her eyes and find herself being born again? Perhaps in the arms of her mother and father, back when they still looked on her with love and devotion. Back before they feared her aloof, discreet nature.

Breathless, she turned the page.

                She crept into the attic, called forward by a voice she had not heard before, but had called her all her life. A voice she waited for, through failed marriages, through childhood. A voice that she had stayed unknowingly quiet waiting to her. And now it was just ahead. There, in the back of the old house. Once she had purchased and restored herself, a bookshelf hid in the shadows, covered in cobwebs in dust. There, on the shelf, between two books of little note. She found it. She grasped it instantly, held the thin text in her hands.

                It was then Ellen found the book that contained the whole of her.

                I imagine she remains there reading, even now.

Songs From the Damned

                I have started more stories than I could ever hope to finish. And when I die, I will die wondering: What songs did I leave unsung?

Mort washed ashore far from any ocean he recognized. The air was singing. A lilting chorus of countless voices, high and low, that gently woke him. He stretched on black sand, and yawned as he awoke. Despite his strange surroundings—the sky was blue and clear and the land was flat and he could see for miles in every direction, yet there was no sun in the sky—he was not perturbed, nor worried. Everything is at it should be, some voice inside him assured, wait… and you will see.

                So he waited. Waited for what this world wished him to witness.

                Eventually, though he stood still, not walking up the beach nor away from the shore. The waters receded into the distance. He was no longer on the sand but in the forest, mud cool between his toes. The air still sang, words beyond his grasp. Mort wondered what this could mean, to be so transported without his knowledge, without the sensation of movement. The stuff of dreams. Then a voice arose, different from the song of this world. It bade him Follow. And so he did, though its direction was not evident. He walked without aim, totally alone. This land was bereft of life—aside from the plants and trees—both large and small, not even the insects came for him. Only the flora, only the song and the singular voice conducting it all that called him forward.

                Without noticing, he passed from the forest into tundra, where his was the only life around. Despite the snow and raging winds, he was not cold. He did not feel their bite. The song, which prevailed over the wind, was within him now and where it sang no frost dared reach. At the center of this sudden wasteland, a mountain of ice, seemingly the eye of the storm that buffeted him to and fro. It was from its peak that the voice echoed. There the answer he had not realized he sought until he woke on the now-departed beach awaited his arrival. He walked forward, never stumbling, nor slipping, nor doubting his course. Hands shielded him from the wind and the stinging snow.

                Mort reached the mountain, and without hesitating he began to climb. Somehow he sensed hesitation meant death, to wonder at the impossibility of the landscape. The implausibility that he might survive it. That would overcome him. This, he also knew without doubt. Doubt, the poison of mankind. He would not drink from that trough. He would move forward.

                And forward, and upwards he climbed.

                At the mountain peak, a mouth yawned inward, revealing darkness. The voice beckoned him into its depths. Mort waited only a moment, pondering the chances that if he entered, he would again live to see the sun. Then he reminded himself: This land, wherever and whatever it is, has none. The sky is without stars. It is always day. Always night. Always a time in between. Where the sky is gray and blue, where the land is black and light. Let what will come, come. He left doubt and fear behind in the world he knew. And into the darkness he flew. Or the darkness flew into him. Once again, he did not seem to move.

                A cavern opened up before him. Here there was light, and a throne. Sitting in that throne, a figure in robes. He could not see anything but its smile until it threw back the hood, revealing an ancient woman with red on red eyes. Her skin, greyish green, wrinkled and thin, did not betray her strength. But from across the hall, in a world he did not understand, still Mort sensed it. A spirit not to be trifled with. She grasped his comprehension, and smiled, satisfied. After a while, she spoke.

                “The dead are words and memories, and that is how they exist… even here. You have done well to make it this far intact.”

                Mort was not impressed, tired of confusing words and whispers on the wind. Of dreams and half-measures. “Where is here exactly? Why should I be impressed to reach a place if I don’t even know where it is?”

                “This tower has many names. As does this land. As do I.” She smiled again, his impertinence did not seem to bother her. Quite the opposite in fact. “Have you not wondered why you have encountered no others on your journey? Or why the wilderness seems to float before you?”

                “Well, no… I-”

                “Wonder at this, then. How in the nature of dreams is your incuriosity! How malleable your world, like it is shaped by your subconscious moments before you perceive it. The only real thing you have seen… is me. This hall. Everything else…” She shakes her hands to demonstrate its illusory nature.

                “Then where am I?”

                “You… are in the land that has never needed a name. None of have lived to see it. None that inhabit it even realize it is there. You are in the land of song. And you, Mort, are a thing that should not be.”

                “And that is?”

                “Alive.”

                “Alive?”

                “Alive… in a land built for the damned.”

                I have ended more worlds than will ever live, merely by having an idea and then forgetting it. In this fashion, how many great works have been lost?

Wise King Sulayman

                Sulayman sat cooking in the sun, fanning himself to no avail, a long line of his citizens before him. Water did not sate him, sweated out before he could hydrate. He cursed David’s traditions that demanded he go among his people clad in the regal purple robes of Judah’s kings. One by one, he was beset by subjects and their problems. He dispensed justice, and they left satisfied that their king had done right by them. That the truth was known. One by one, he judged, until two women approached. One held a child. The other had nothing but tears.

                “Your Majesty,” Began the crying one, “This woman and I live in the same house. We are sisters, I am Rachel, she Beulah. Not long ago we both became pregnant. I gave birth first, she followed three days later. No one else was home, our husbands work as traveling merchants, you see…”

                The wise king Sulayman did not interrupt, but he fanned himself faster, sweat dripping from his brow onto his fine velvet clothes. Rachel knew his patience grew thin.

                “One night, after our babies were both born and we were all asleep, she rolled over on top of her baby, and he suffocated. While I was still sleeping, she crept into my bed and replaced my live child with her dead one. She placed a dead infant next to me!”

                “She lies!” Beulah cried, silence by Sulayman’s regal glare. He turned back to Rachel and gestured for her to continue, no longer fanning. This tale had piqued his interest.

                “In the morning, as I rose to feed my son, I saw that he was dead. I was bereft. But when I got another look at the child in the light, I knew instantly that he was not my Adlai. I knew instantly what had happened. Beulah took him from me.”

                “No!” Her sister shouted. “That was your son. Kaleb is alive! This is my child.”

                Rachel turned back to her sister Beulah, fire in her eyes. “Even now, you will not admit what you’ve done. Taken another’s child. Carelessly killed your own. And you call yourself a mother!”

                “I AM a mother. I’m not the one who killed her son in her sleep.”

                “Liar! That is exactly what happened.”

                They bickered back and forth for a few more minutes, until the King began to feel the heat again, oppressive and heavy on the desert wind. Sulayman motioned to a nearby guard. “Someone bring me my sword.” He said, yawning and fanning himself once more.

                Soon his blade was brought forth, held reverentially in the guard’s hands. It was translucent, and hummed. It vibrated in the bright sunlight, like its edge reverberated with power to cut the Earth in twain. He stood before the women, holding each gaze for a long while. When he spoke, he was calm and quiet, but each word held a king’s authority. His was the voice of a man whose orders were never countermanded, whose whims guided the destiny of an entire nation.

                “I will cut the baby in half. That way each of you can have part of a son.”

                Rachel’s first instinct was to protest, but Beulah spoke first, a vengeful glee in your eyes. “Go ahead, slice him up.” She said, oblivious to the babe that began to mewl in her arms. “Then neither of us will have a baby.”

                Sulayman shook his head. “You misunderstand. I will not kill the boy. I will split his soul, each child will live half a life. Have half the feelings, the potential, that the single child would have had. They will live tortured lives, growing always feeling that something is missing from them. A depth of feeling that they will never know how to name. It will be a curse for the rest of their days… and the rest of yours.”

                The true mother, Rachel, was paralyzed by indecision. She could let her sister have a whole child. Watch knowing it was hers. Or she could let herself accept… what? Some monstrous half-breed? Some soulless cretin of a son? It was no choice at all. And yet. And yet…

                I cannot be alone. I cannot let him go. Half a son is better than no son at all.

                And so, weeping once more, she nodded her silent assent. Let the child be split.

                Sulayman took the boy, who looked up at the king and scratched at his beard with his pink, pruny fists. He lay the child, still gurgling, on a broad wicker bassinet. And raised the blade high above his head. The sun cast through it like it was nothing, like it, presumably, would cut through the child before it.

                The King looked once more at the pair. He looked straight at Rachel, as though he knew the truth. “Are you sure this is what you want?” He asked, and it seemed the question was meant for her alone.

                “I cannot lose him.” Was all she said. Beulah sneered. A child, after all this. More than she could have hoped for. Another chance, another opportunity to redeem her unforgiveable sin.

                Maybe there is a God, she thought.

                The blade fell. There was no noise as it cleaved through flesh. The child did not cry out. No blood spilled from the bassinet. Rachel, who covered her eyes as Sulayman moved to strike, looked through her fingers. There lay two children, both entirely still. Only the slight rise and fall of their concave chests indicated any life. Sulayman picked up both children, hefting one in each arm as if they were weightless, and approached the aggrieved mothers.

                “Adlai.” He said, handing one to Rachel.

                “Kaleb.” And handed the other to Beulah.

                Standing before them, he held both their gazes. His eyes, a light gray-blue, filled with tears of their own. “I hope you will not come to regret your decision,” He said to both women. “But I already know you will.”

                He kissed the quiet babes on their foreheads, and whispered in each of their ears something neither mother could hear. Then he returned to his throne, and resumed fanning himself once more.

                “All right,” He said, dismissing the mothers from his memory. “Who’s next?”

                Beulah, baby strapped to her back, strode off, not giving Rachel a second glance. Rachel stood to the side, watching her child, watching Adlai, trying to spot what was lost. She could not tell. Had he always been so quiet? Always looked at her so knowingly, so judgmentally? Was she imagining the emptiness behind his stare? A thought struck her, and she turned back to the king, already embroiled in some dispute over livestock.

                “Wise King!” She shouted, and Sulayman turned back, an annoyed expression pursing his lips. “O Wise King! Forgive my one more question. If… if I had offered to let my sister keep him. To save his soul and my own, would you h-”

                “Every mother loves differently,” He interrupted her, anticipating what she would ask. “There’s nothing nobler than sacrifice, but not all are capable of it in their love. Some love selfishly, some are determined to cling to what little they have, even to the point of destruction. Others are selfless, and find that selflessness brings them greater joys than they imagined. Know this-” Rachel stumbled backwards at the fury that smoldered in the King’s soft eyes. “You will never know what might have been had you chosen differently. Satisfy yourself with what remains… if you can.”

                He turned away from her then, back to the farmer with complaints of a thieving neighbor. It was clear her audience with the king had ended. She swaddled up her child, still quiet, strangely so. Before the… dividing, he had never gone a full half-hour without crying for affection, or food, or just to be heard. Now he simply stared, as if the capacity for wanting had been stripped away.

                Hiking eastward, she considered what to do next. One thing was clear, she dare not return to her sister. The one who had stolen everything from her, who had betrayed her and proven herself capable of a heretofore unfathomable dishonesty.

 

                Yes, it was clear: First she must find a new home.

204 Seconds

                In the corner stood brawny Arturo. Arturo, the prototype heavyweight—equally thick around the waist and chest, not a curve to his figure, just a straight line from shoulder to toe. Nose arched and aching from a dozen old breaks—he wondered how he came to be a supporting player in his own life. A long arc lead him here, always the bass player in the background, always the silent scene partner. From the first moments—when he was born the quiet second twin to his bawling older brother Balto—to his marriage—where he and his equally timid wife were overshadowed by the bold proposal by the best man to the maid of (also Balto), he felt most comfortable in the shadows. And so it was still. Arturo, flinty enforcer, watched the Big Boss McGuin beat Art’s own twin brother to death.

                “Art…” The bludgeoned Balto whispered, his tone somewhere between plea and rebuke, “Art…”

                Will you really just stand here? He asked himself. Doing nothing?

                The meat-fisted McGuin, just as broad as the lunk Arturo if not nearly a head or two as high, himself had the same thought. Resting a moment from the once-over, he laughed, a wheezing, corrosive howl, and turned back to the silent Art.

                “Maybe he’ll listen to you, yeah? Don’t twins have some kind uh… psychic connection er summat?” The cudgel in his hand was pointed right at Art, business end forward. McGuin flipped it effortlessly, displaying an agility that belied his bulk and presented the handle for Arturo to wield.

“Make ‘im sing Art. Earn your Starbucks.”

After the nastiest jobs, torture—or information extraction, as McGuin termed it—or murder—corp’real removal was the affable McGuin-ism—he always took the perpetrator of his mandated crimes out for coffee. Art stared at the cudgel, blinking slowly, remembering all the times he would have grabbed it glady and bashed his brash brother Balto’s skull in. His audacious proposal at the inauguration of Art’s ill-fated marriage. All the times as kids when they wrestled and Balto always, always won.

“Those 204 seconds catch up to ya!” He’d laugh, referencing the difference in time between their births. “I can see your next move coming, before ya even think of it!” And he was right too. Two minutes and 24 seconds later, Art would close his eyes and see the fight unfold once more… from his Brother’s perspective. Every move perfectly predicted, only after the fact instead of before. Alas, if only he had been the elder twin. Maybe then he might’ve become a star.

After each fight, Balto would tousle Art’s hair affectionately and bound off on another adventure. A machine of perpetual motion, he sought the next thrill, the next surprise. Balto closed his eyes and saw the future. He closed his eyes and saw himself moving upwards towards brilliance. Up and up, until…

None of that energy remained in the battered man now. Not with both his legs, all ten fingers and ten toes, twisting in different directions. Not with his face a red mass and a dozen of his teeth on the floor. Art waited for the familial compassion to set in, waited for the instinct to refuse his task to rise. Yet his hand went to the proferred handle, and even then he expected to grasp it and bash McGuin’s face in. He could just imagine rescuing his brother, killing the crimelord, all the while screaming “Who’s the star now, eh? Who’s the star?”

But he did none of those things. Slick wooden cudgel in hand, he walked over to his brother, trussed and moaning, and for a while said nothing at all.

“Art, pl-”

THWACK! Balto’s head jolted back, eyes wide in shock for a moment, before they closed and his neck bent at a crooked angle. SMOSH! His skull grew a sudden dent, leaking fluids from a puncture made by jutting bone. Art let rise and fall the wooden weapon another half-dozen times, until the once identical siblings had very little left in common indeed. Balto’s lungs filled with air a few more times; his heart let out a few more beats; his muscles twitched, perhaps out of instinct or his natural born stubbornness, before subsiding entirely.

In the room, only Art and a stunned McGuin remained.

“Christ,” Stammered McGuin, “Did ya really? Did ya have to-Christ, Art! I mean, it was only a little bit o’money, but… well, Christ!”

Art didn’t respond, he dropped the cudgel at the feet of the lifeless mass once named Balto, retreating back to his corner. Back to the shadows. For a few moments, he didn’t say anything, then he checked his watch.

“Give me… two and a half minutes boss. I’ll tell you where the money is.”

Mantra for a Dying World

 

All it takes is one bad day…

                Those words, whispers on her lips with the dawn. The last thought echoing through her head as dreams seek purchase. Meager distractions from whatever patch of ground made for last night's bed. She closes her eyes and thinks of better days, when all was green and she possessed everything she ever wanted… when she—what a fool!—was not satisfied with happiness and, in reaching for Godhood, destroyed the world. Now here she lies on a throne of dust, the Queen of Ashes.

                She stretches, onyx cloak shading her from what faint light signifies the morn. She yawns, and shadows genuflect around her. Long thin shades grasp at her, thwarted by the rising, flickering sun. A candle burned down to the nub, the beleaguered star provides heat enough, and brilliance enough, to allow at least one more reprieve from the dark.

                One… bad… day…

                She opens her eyes to see the ever-present cloud of soot hovering above her head: blackness obliterating a gray sky. Undulating, keening, the dim inorganic presence contains more life than she. She lies still a moment, lost in the embrace that teases her dreams night after night. Love's warmth, the joy she lost many lifetimes ago. How many innocents have crumbled away to nothing in her grasp since? Their faces, their names, were lost to her in the gusts of time, a tunnel that harkened back further than she chose to remember. Forgetting was far easier. Better to focus on the sins still to come than the ones already committed. Let the dead remain dead. The living join them soon enough. If only she could forget her smile, her eyes, green and wide and bright and focused on the Queen. If only…

                Then she becomes aware again of the cold, jolting her back into wakefulness and the ubiquitous wasteland. As far as she can see spreads death, the ossifying of a once vibrant planet. Before her hisses the desert. On the horizon, angry mountains belch smoke and bleed fire. In the middle distance, clouds that stretch from the heavens to the Earth block the landscape from view. But she knows what waits there for her, the same emptiness plaguing the rest of the world.  As always, when not teased by memories of her faceless love's prophetic death rattle—or nightmares of the fateful day when all was lost—the siren song of life, that divining rod, points her towards the last vestiges of light. Calls her forth to douse the hopes of a dying species, one she once called her own. For regret it or not, her path leads towards the end. A commitment not easily shirked. Only then, when the quiet in her soul settles on the Earth entire, will she rest.

                The Queen rises to her feet, and the cloud of soot descends upon her dark, fleshy husk, a soulless vessel of malevolent intent. She senses it questing within her, seeking life. Finding none, it turns its search outwards, listening for far-off heartbeats, for running water, for…

                Joy thrills through her from the haze, its eyes, and hers, alight on a river in the distance. There, in a nook by shore, hides a garden. Shriveled and sickly to be sure, but alive nonetheless. And where there is green, no matter how slight, there is sure to be… yes! Humankind. A small figure, cheeks stained with charcoal, picks its way through the twilight. The child, a young girl, heads towards her sanctuary. The Queen of Ashes clenches her jaw in anticipation, pleasure and hunger throbbing in her fists. Where there is a child, there is also civilization.

                Some atavistic slice of her brain recalls the phrase: It takes a village…

                She floats towards the river, towards the horizon where life awaits, begging to be broken. The child's path leads her one step closer to manifesting ruin.

                She will visit violence upon this village. They will learn the truth she cannot forget. The truth it is her sole remaining purpose to establish. A truth reflected in the final words of a woman whose face and whose name she can no longer remember. Only the warmth they felt for one another remains. That and her prescient final utterance. A fitting mantra for a dying world.

                All it takes is one bad day.

The Last Stand

                The shot does not ring around the world. Indeed, not even the general himself hears the fateful pop. Drowned out by the fray, by the din of war, he only feels the bullet as it strikes his side, spinning him around and then down into the ford. There he lies, embraced by the river. He did not expect this, and does not have time to evince surprise.

The light dims too quickly; life does not flash before his eyes. Pain centers him in the present, forces his focus onto the bodies surrounding him. Young men moan feebly for their mothers, their fathers, their lovers or wives. Others stare blankly into the beyond that claims them, ushered into an afterlife that yet comes for him. He sees the ridge thicken with Lakota and tries to scramble to his feet, to continue his crossing, his fight, but all his strength drains into the waters.

                Custer tastes death. He chokes on clotted blood. The river, Little Big Horn, rushes by, running red.

Gagging, gasping, the general fades away.

                The Lakota cross past the dead in silence, in pursuit of survivors and other companies of men. They trod over the fallen, the young and old, the white, black and Native, in solemn observance of the evil men force themselves to do. They do not see him, nor the stars on his lapels. They do not know what ‘great’ man has passed here; they do not care.

                The world is for the living, burdened by concerns, plagued with violence. As they pass on, across the river onto grass greased by dew-like ichor, the sun continues to rise towards a sanguine dawn. Disappearing beyond a copse of ash trees, their thoughts fix on the battles ahead.

                And they know: the day’s dying has only just begun.

Opere et Veritate

Weary from long days of battle, the warrior collapses back onto the hillside, riled by life’s injustice. He remembers his long-dead father. How he pontificated on valor.

“What makes a great man?” He once asked. “Honesty? Determination? The courage of his convictions?”

They sat together on a cold night and watched the dying stars.

The memories haunt him still. His father, the saint, the scholar, paragon of virtue, his mentor and tormenter, died on his knees. Dragged away by unspeakable horrors into the night, begging for mercy all the way. Mercy that was not forthcoming. The warrior wears this shame like a badge as he rests on the hill, readying himself to once more combat the creatures that consumed the stars.

Screams snap him back to the present. Those Black Things approach. Ten billion lives dangle by a single, silver thread. Too many innocents depend on his light, too many to repeat his father's failures. He rises once more and waits for the beasts to appear. He stands in a pile of their melting, shadow corpses. Casualties from their last engagement. They shudder away in the night, still jerking in death throes long after he cleaved life from their nebulous forms, leaking into nothingness until all around him hangs a black mist, obscuring his vision.

He does not wait long, they arrive in moments. The voids that rend at flesh and soul, lives defined back their lack thereof. He cannot see them in the dark, but he hears their scraping footsteps. Their snarling mouths, full of misshapen teeth and tongues marred by gangrene, snap hungrily, announcing their ever closer presence.

For a moment, he freezes. His father’s fear exists in him still, not entirely purged by his shame. Again he remembers his words as they sat together and watched the emptying sky.

“What makes a great man?” Back then, he never knew how to answer.

Now, he speaks aloud. “Everyone has a choice. Succumb to fear, die begging, pleading on their knees for mercy... or overcome it. You can confront the monsters that growl at us from the shadows, or be consumed by them. There are some things, some people, worth dying for. Once you realize that, once you accept it, there is nothing left but the doing.”

Now surrounded by creatures of darkness, he smiles, no longer afraid. He raises his blade aloft—a ray of golden sunshine, razor sharp and hewn from the embers of the last cratering star—and cries the mantra of the bold:

“Opere et Veritate!” In action and truth!

So emboldened, he leaps into the fray once more.

 

Ashes to Ashes

He sat in the saloon, on a dusty stool in a dingy room, holding a cold drink in gloved hands. Watching the world burn from hooded eyes. Earth slid after him into darkness. Every eye is upon him. The man of legends. King of Ashes. He who cannot be touched. Each man dreams of the bounty on his head. Each man fears death.

He dumps the brew down his throat, careful to ensure that no part of the glass touches his skin. Swallowing it all in one practiced gulp. A towering presence blocks his light. Its shadow belongs to a large mountain of a man who approaches where no others would dare.

"Are you the man myths claim you are?”

Emptying another glass, he squints up at the bulk: "I am he."

The mountain sits beside him and for a while they drink together and do not speak.

"E’er been down by old Atlante? Once was an outpost there..."

The man sighs. He knows where this is headed. He signals the barkeep for another drink, the prospect of death and the dealing of death was not one he relished sober. Another one of his many sins caught up to him. Another conflict comes, one with only the single possible conclusion.

"And what if I was?”

The mountain turns to face him, eyes simmering in rage.

“How'd you leave it, the town?"

Waiting for his drink, the King of Ashes winces and forces the difficult words out into the open, sealing both their fates.

"As I recall, there weren't much left."

He removes the glove from one hand, rests the other on the bar. The man, the tired, aggrieved man stares at the mountain a while as its face contorts with anger and grief. He watches, and imperceptibly, his stance softens. After a while of foisting off the desperate and the vengeful, one can begin to tell the difference between the two. Here sits a desperate man.

Finally, he whispers: "Who did I take from you?"

The mountain starts to weep. "M-my daughter[Ma1] ."

He stands and approaches the sobbing mountain, resting the still gloved hand on his shoulder. A futile gesture of comfort. He knows what else he offers is of greater worth to this lost cause.

"And... would you like to join her?"

Sniffling, eyes leaking, the large man doesn't answer. But he doesn’t reject the King either.

He removes the other glove. Both bare hands, weapons of mass destruction, at the ready.

"I can see it. Beyond the gate she sits and waits... for you. I, the keeper, can bring you there. The destination where all your suffering ends. Where you daughter lingers."

                Where he waits for me…

He shows the mountain his hands. His unassuming, yet most dangerous, hands.

"I can take you to her. I will, if you wish it."

The mountain thinks, then asks in a mousy tone belying his bulk: "Does it hurt?"

The now gloveless man shakes his head. "No, not for long.”

The mountain bows his head, answer enough. The King of Ashes touches skin to his skin.

"Sorry" He says, realizing that he too is crying, "I'm sorry."

It happens quickly. The transformation, the disintegration, begins in an instant. The mountain’s skin grays, grows flaky. His face convulses once, then crumbles away. Where once there was bulk, now lies only ash.

The bar’s patrons watch as the King dons his gloves, quaffs his beer and exits, never to return. None rise to pursue, despite the lion’s bounty on his head. As he leaves, it is not the mountain he sees—his most recent victim—but another, younger face. One that mirrors his own. One that cracks and tumbles away with the wind. As he leaves, quiet tears become loud sobs. Grief settles heavily upon him yet again.

"My son! Oh my son!"

He mourns in the desert, a speck in the distance wandering away from one more lost watering hole. As always, he is alone.

Peak Olympus

                Gradually they came to the peak and only then did their journey begin. The nattering old man, in a tan robe that brushed the ground, stopped and turned to his flock as they cleared the last outcropping of rocks. From here the pilgrims looked down and saw nothing but clouds. The enormity of the task before them had consumed all trace of their journey. Nothing remained but the question. Nothing but what they set out to accomplish: confronting God. Demanding answers for the enormity of loss.

                “Why. We must understand why.” Man, woman and child each had the same thought in the silence.

                The skies were clear, yet the flattened peak was covered in snow. The elder smiled, forgetting her tangled mass of yarn for a moment to run her hand through the sleet. It was fine and cold, melting quickly in her hands. Olympus’s top was a smooth dome and reminded her of her balding husband, whose hair had melted white, and then away to nothing as the decades passed. Still he refused to embrace age, clinging to what frizz remained as he approached his eight decade. He died in the bathroom, applying balm to his scalp purported to encourage hair growth. She buried him in a full, brown wig. It was what he would have wanted.

                Why? Why wasn’t I first? She closed her eyes, dropped her white knitting onto the white Earth, and awaited an answer.

                To the others who walked with her, trudging up the slope as she had, seeking answers as she did, it appeared that she stepped forward, dropped her yarn, and disappeared into the open air. They did not gasp, numbed as they were by their own losses, but merely waited. Waited for her to resurface, or for their own audience to begin. For her part, the elder did not know she was transported. Only that the sun rose, that a beam shining bright obliterated the world around her.

                If you were first. You would not be here. I require your strength, forged in grief. Step forward my daughter and be healed.

                The Elder watched her hands, watched the decades and the wrinkles melt away. Then her skin itself grew translucent. She felt light, became light, opened her eyes and saw a legion of billions standing before her. She smiled. Home, she was home. There, at the end of the first row, smiled a familiar, balding face.

                The Mother placed her silent babe on the snow. He protested this cool embrace no more than he did anything else, accepting the world with wise gray eyes. Instead he watched as she walked, palms up in supplication, towards Olympus’s center.

                “You cursed me!” She said aloud, eyes brimming with tears, voice quavering with madness. “You took away my husband, he who loved me best. Birthed me this… creature! Strapped to my back like a lodestone. I suffer and I must know why! Why this unnatural birth? Why take from me my one true l-”

                Midsentence, she too disappeared, and the others shifted uneasily from foot to foot, waiting for her to return.

                He looks at me and knows my thoughts. I hear in my head a child's voice calling me the loving names of my husband, taken from me in the throes of pregnancy. Why?

                The heady power of lost lovers, it builds between you even as you, unknowingly, cradle him in your arms. Look into your child’s eyes Mother, and tell me what you see.

                From the obscuring mist, she turned and looked at him, serene even in frost.

                No, it cannot be. He cannot be…

                Chance thwarts even my intentions at times. Your love’s accident was not in my plans, yet there is always another path. You two were meant to be together. To be together and serve me. Pick him up. Pick up your child—and come hither.

                The Mother bent from the mist towards the babe she once feared. He frowned up at her, as if to say “Now, do you know me?”

                “Of course I do,” She whispered. “Husband… son. Partner in life and thereafter.”

                To the others on the mount, it seemed as if her torso emerged briefly, reclaiming the life she once thought lost forever. There, in the fog, they took their place in the growing legion.

                Father and Son grew uneasy. It was one thing to commit oneself to confronting God’s might; it was wholly another to witness it firsthand. There was a force here that consumed them one by one. Its eye focused on them next. They felt it sweep them into the past, back into the hospital room. Back to the day that sent them stumbling down this course, through the cold and into the light. They too disappeared. Brother, Sister and Guide stood on Olympus Peak alone, the siblings waiting their turn, the guide hidden behind a knowing smile.

                Father and Son, in a white room beside her once more. The clean smell of death settled around them, an old friend they had forgotten but now faced again. Time passed, nurses and doctors filtering in and out, easing her pain, speaking words that passed around and through them. Words they heard and responded to, but at the same time did not fully comprehend. They crept closer and closer towards the inevitable. Knowing, yet not knowing, seeing, yet refusing to see. The days, they passed so slowly. The end, it came all at once.

                She had not spoken all day. The night before, after crying for hours, a nurse administered morphine for her pain. Now she only breathed, short, racking breaths, forced from her in spurts. In each gasp there was a little less life. Father stood by the window, unable to look at the beating corpse that was once his beloved. Son sat by the bed, holding her hand, reading her favorite cheesy mystery. The seconds crept by, each an eternity, each the briefest instant they would never get back. They relived this scene, they endured, both within and without themselves, wondering what they might change. Cursing themselves for not appreciating each moment, committing it to memory.

                These were the final minutes. Torture, paradise, all they had.

                The passing itself was not dramatic thing. One minute she was there, the dying Mother, the decrepit wife. The next she sighed, a brief hiccup, and was gone. Two, three seconds passed in disbelief. Had she squeezed his hand before she went? Did her eyes flutter briefly and focus on her husband’s face? Had they imagined it? Son blinked, thinking he might find himself back at home, and discover that the last few months were nothing but a dream. But alas, he opened his eyes and there he was and there she was not. Only a cooling mass remained where once there was everything.

                Grief rushed into the void, loud and violent and hungry grief. Father and Son held each other and wailed, but to no avail. No amount of performative mourning would replace what they had lost. A pit opened up in both of them. A pit they papered over with this quest. Here, bowed before God, the wound was exposed once more and bled afresh.

                They sobbed, and the voice spoke. Three words were all it took.

                She is waiting.

                They saw her, hale and beaming. They nodded and were subsumed.

                On the peak of Olympus, the mountain of God, Brother and Sister stood and waited. The wind cracked around their heads. Clouds gathered and in the wild air, it once again began to snow. A voice spoke from the gray.

                Step forward.

                Holding hands, glances resolute, they walked toward the mountaintop’s center. They saw a familiar smile, heard a laugh they thought lost forever. They too disappeared.

                Now alone, after waiting a moment to see if any would reappear, the guide departed, hiking back down through the frigid drifts.

Mesa Shadows

I sit with my mother by the fire. She died many years ago, a younger woman than I am now. In the growing gloom, we regard each other in silence. I try to picture how I came to be here. The room was so bright, full of noise, people screaming in my ear. Sadness, I feel it welling in me still, like I am plucked away from everything I knew before my time. A beast sits on my chest. I cannot breathe, I… I…

“It gets easier.” My mother, she is the first to speak, still so young and beautiful. Just as I last saw her. Her smooth skin shames my wrinkles; her lithe piano-player fingers mock my gnarled, arthritic own. Claws, she deserves better than to reunited with a daughter who carries these haggard ckaws.

“Mom? Where are we? It’s, it’s been so long.”

She continues as if I had not spoken. “The remembering. It gets easier.”

We sit beneath a mesa’s shadow. The flat-topped hill looms above and around us as we cross-legged in flickering twilight. The wind carries distant coyotes’ howls. Nearer we hear the scratching of insects and other small creatures skittering at the edges of our vision. I process all this, staring disbelieving at my mother. How could she be here, in front of me? This titan of my youth who died forty long years ago. How could we sit together in the sand and patchy grass, where between us burn sour-smelling buggalo chips? Unless…

Unless…

My eyes grow wide, hers sad at my settling realization.

“Every night I see you as you were when I… a little girl, tugging at the hem of my dress. We walk through this desert, a place we have never been. I tell you about the creatures. I walk you to our home. It isn’t much, a heap of sod baked solid by the unforgiving heat of this world, but it’s something.”

“Mom, am I-”

“And now here you are, all grown. Wiser than I ever was. With sons and daughters of your own, also all grown. The world, it passes you by so fast. Forgets so fast.”

“I never forgot you, Mom. Never. Even as I grew. As life continued to flow around and through me. Not entirely. Sometimes I could pretend, like this gaping hole inside was filled by time. But in the night, I remember… what the passing had taken from me.”

“My daughter, my darling, I’m so sorry, yet so glad, to see you here. Finally, I am not alone.”

I can see, shimmering on her smooth, youthful cheeks, tears. My words wound her, but she is glad for them. It means we spirits are still affected. We can still feel. As we reconnect, we both start to smile. Sadness, contentment, sometimes they do walk hand and hand. Like we once did.

How quickly we grow old.

Ignoring the lengthening shadows, our ghosts watch the sun set. In the dark, in the night, we are forgotten.

Birth of a Rebel

Toussainaté hunched over a boiling pot of corn mush, kept cool in the unforgiving summer only by the thatch on her roof and the wind that whispered through her open door. Preparing a meager dinner for her family, who labored in the shadows of Caucasus’s floating cities, she pondered the dream she had the night before. One unlike any she remembered in her six long decades of servitude.

“Rise…” The kindly Mansa had whispered, floating in the air above her on an unfamiliar world. His words rustled the tall grasses. “Remember where we came from. Remember Awkar. Soon, we will return.”

The elder was perturbed. Life on the world beneath the world had accustomed her to bondage. Hers was an existence in shadows. Feelings long laid dormant in her began bubbling back to the surface. What they suffered here was wrong. Unnatural. Not how life had always been for their people. Even though her mother, and her mother’s great-grandmother before her had only known bowed heads, and lives worn threadbare in the fields, they always sensed a balance that demanded redressing. Their scars were not deserved. Their status not the correct order of things. Like her ancestors, Toussainaté watched the confident and lax thin-noses—the pale skins comfortable in marble castles—and longed for the day that she too ascended to the skies. Yet, as she buried her grandmother and then her mother, as she heard the tales of countless prior generations who shared the same dream to no effect, her hope had slowly but surely died—as the hope of all slaves eventually did.

                Until of course, her changing dreams. Until the sense that they danced on a precipice and over its edge dangled freedom.

                “You must be the ones,” The Mansa lectured at night, “The elders will lead us back to the light.”

                But how could she fight? She wondered, flexing her arthritic fingers. Painfully she made the table as the sun set, ladling steaming goop into bowls for her son, Goran, his wife Nesa, their child Goran II and the grandniece—Binti—that they took in after her parents passed. Indeed, what rebellion could she lead, so old and passed her prime. Even in youth, she was not predisposed towards physicality, preferring instead to watch the stars and wonder at the world that birthed them so long ago. She wondered which twinkling star they hailed from. She was better suited towards secretly teaching herself letters in the dead of night—indeed her ability to read was her greatest pride—than she was at fomenting discord and plotting overthrow.

                “You must teach them,” The Mansa pleaded, gray eyes full of fire, “They must learn again how to be their own.”

                But she remembered not who they were. Collective knowledge of their old world had been lost in the cold travel of slaveships, burned out of their people long ago by ice. What little they had remembered, what few traditions the first Awkarans had fought to preserve in the early days, were distorted by the passing of time and the efforts of thin-noses who would deny them their history.

                “You Darks don’t need culture!” The first foremen sneered, “Y’all need work! Labor to hold your slack-asses to the fire!” And so they cracked the whip at those who moved too slowly. They hanged until death those who refused and dreamed of freedom.

                “I will remind you,” The Mansa consoled, “Of who we were. I will teach you… what we must do to become that people once more.”

                She sat by the stove, warming by its hearth—even in summer months her old bones still felt the occasional chill—and waited for her family to return. She saw them trudging back up the hill, caked in sweat and dirt and blood. It was a hard conversation that awaited them that night and Toussainaté anticipated much resistance. After centuries, her people had learned this was simply the way things were. The pale flourished off the labor of the brown and the black. They did not question and most certainly did not resist. Yet, the forgotten Mansa promised her:

“We are coming. The first of us, the eldest, the ancestors of your ancestors. We are coming and we will remember: our old world, our old rights, the masters we were and will be again. You must prepare your children, and their children, for what arrives. Freedom, my dear Toussainaté, freedom. That is the message I spread among you.”

Her son clomped through the open doorway, back muscled but bent, eyes strong but clouded. She saw the yoke on her people settled hard on his shoulders. One that sat for the first time a little more lightly on her own. It was a hard discussion before them, but one long overdue. One about freedom that was long left wanting. She embraced him, patted her adolescent grandson and grandniece on their close cropped heads.

“Sit, my children! Eat!” She pulled out every chair, though the movement pained her, though her hands shook. “We have much to discuss.”

“What is it Mother?” Goran sighed, “It has been a long day. All I want is to eat, and then to sleep. Then to wake again and work. What else is there?”

Nesa kicked him not so gently on his shin, scowling with a look that screamed pay more respect to your mother. Goran was immediately contrite.

“Forgive me, Mom. I gripe over hardships you know too well. What is it you want to tell us?”

Toussainaté’s eyes twinkled as the Mansa’s words returned to her, the tale she was born to tell her family swelled through her, nascent embers of the rebellion to come. “I bear a message from dreams, my son, my adopted daughter, my grandchildren, of a change to come. A wind blows, one that will lift our fate from these shadows and back into the sun.”

She paused, waiting for a response. None challenged her. They merely waited, though whether it was with anticipation or bemusement she could not say. Still, it was her fate to continue on.

“The reign of the thin-noses… the Mansa has told me. Soon, it will be at an end.”

Middle Pasage

                The first trade ships returning to Caucasus from the oasis planet Awkar were the slowest, and thus the last to arrive. Over the centuries, as their technology advanced, the thin-noses discovered the secret to immediate interstellar travel. A ‘backdoor bypassing the middle passage’ white elites called it, snickering behind closed doors. While elder package ships crept back through the dark in real time, bearing back with them a then-much needed labor source, unbeknownst to them, others had already leapt back and forth between the planets a hundred times over. Those intrepid slavers’ sacrifice, leaving behind all they had known, their families passing into memory, was rendered a needless loss.

                So anachronistic were these ships that they could not even receive transmissions notifying them of these changes. They continued, laboring under false pretenses: what they did mattered. Their lives were not a waste.

                But perhaps the tide of these changes rippled out into the black, as the thin-nosed pale-face Luke Collingwood—captain of the tradeship Zong—watched his dark cargo slumber, wondering if all he had lost was worth the price. Sensing, somehow, that it was not. He drank, and toasted his wife, Amarose, who by his calculations had passed at least one hundred and fifty years hence.

                “I do this for you, my love. For our children’s children’s great grand-children, so that they may be born into a world able to sustain our way of life.” How hollow those words felt now. He tasted the foul blood on them. When he closed his eyes, he saw the cost he had paid for Caucasus. Not just in family lost, but in the toll to his soul. He closed his eyes and saw the jungles burning, families weeping as he dragged away their fathers, their mothers, their sons. The unseeing eyes of those who resisted too much to be taken. Standing before the sleeping men and women—he had seen too much of their suffering to disregard their humanity—he wondered if they dreamed. If they dreamed, was it of the family they had lost? The strange land to which they were taken.

                Watching them, still, frozen, packed together, naked, by the hundreds in close quarters—nose to nose, back to back—he hoped their dreams were pleasant ones. The hell they woke to when they returned would be far beyond anything they experienced before the journey.

                “The evil we do to survive,” He mumbled, drinking deeply of the mess-hall’s provided liquor. It was cheap stuff, but effective. The burn it left in his throat soon spread to his whole body. He almost forgot while in its throes that by now everyone he had ever known had passed long ago.

                A sudden flashing red light accompanied the high-pitched klaxon whining in his ear, signaling the end of his year. His watch was over. Time to wake the XO. He sighed and left the poor Awkarans to their slumber, such brittle peace between the violences his people would visit on them. The first of the heart, the next of the body and the soul. He turned reluctantly away from the only lives he’d known the past five cycles (each of the thirty in his crew took their turn manning the ship as it once again crossed the galaxy, largely to ensure the black bodies they carried did not spoil) and went back, passed the bridge to the other chambers.

                In the halls he hunched over, even though the ceilings cleared his six-foot frame by several inches. The corridors were so narrow. Stainless steels walls contracted in on him, like the ship breathed and he passed through its lungs that threatened to crush him. He knew it was all in his mind, an effect of loneliness. And he looked forward to updating Magda, his second in command, on the little that had happened on his latest watch. Their journey was almost over, he knew. The prospect of returning ‘home’ was one he met with excitement… but also a great deal of trepidation. Would he recognize the planet they returned to? Would they still even need all his crew had sacrificed to attain? Would the Caucasus civilization even remain?

                Entering a domed room, the Captain approached the distant wall lined with thirty inset crèches. Each contained a fellow traveler similarly lost in a future they would not recognize. He walked up to the first pod, containing a slumbering red-haired woman with fair skin and thin, blue lips. Magda. His heart soared to see her, and flew even higher at the thought he will see her again soon. These were the closest people to family left to him, those who had shed blood—and spilled it—right alongside him. He pressed a few buttons, and the light on her monitor turns from red to green. Her chamber decompresses, air hisses out from within as the door slides open. She stumbles forward into his arms, before standing on wobbly legs and saluting, unembarrassed by her nakedness.

                Magda, a forty year old lifer, lithe and muscular with salt and pepper in her hair and deep-set emerald eyes. She stood at attention and barked: “Magda Reish reporting for duty sir!”

                “At ease, XO,” He smiled, and tossed her the chrome jumpsuit he brought along for the awakening. “Get dressed, I’ll brief you, we’ll eat and then the bridge is yours.”

                In the mess, they sat together in a room built to house far more. Automated nourishing paste spit from a fountain in the wall onto their plates. It was gray and had the consistency of oatmeal left out too long in the sun, but Magda wolfed it down like it was the most delicious meal she had ever tasted. Luke knew, after thirty years sleeping in a frozen chamber, one developed quite the appetite. As she ate, he gave his report.

                “Nothing new soldier. The Awkarans sleep well and we remain on schedule. Due to arrive three months into your coming term. As we approach orbit, you’ll wake the rest of us as we agreed. We all want to see together what awaits us. What message we receive when we make our hail.”

                Magda merely nodded, not willing to interrupt her meal with a vocal response.

                “Em, I-” Luke abandoned the formal report, using the name Magda kept for only her closest friends. Frankly he wasn’t sure he still qualified. Over the last century she was one of the two humans he saw awake, and then only for five-ten minutes. Now, their time as it was grew short, and when next they saw each other everything would already be changed, their lives set as they returned home.

                She didn’t let him finish, stopping her meal long enough to grab his hand and squeeze in the affirmative. “Me too Captain, me too…”

She smiled, a crooked, stained thing. But still it burned brighter than the sun… at least when compared to the blood-drenched dawns he remembered.

“Well,” He rose, blushing, “Perhaps I better get back to bed. It’s been a long, dark day.”

She did not make to follow him at first, sitting with her hands wrapped around a mug of overcooked coffee. “Sir?” She started hesitantly, “Permission to speak freely?”

“Granted.”

Looking up, her emerald eyes met his misty ones. “Was it worth it? What we’ve done? All that we’ve lost and taken?”

Captain Collingwood sighed, pausing only slightly to consider his response. “A hundred years ago, I’d have said yes. But now…”

“But now?” Magda prodded.

“I, I don’t see that anything separates us from them.” He jerked his head back towards the cryogenic cargo hold. “And if that’s the case…”

“How can we justify what we did?” She finished the thought for him.

For a few minutes, they sat in silence in the mess-hall. In a room, for all its threadbare charm, that suddenly felt much cooler than the subzero chambers—home to their dreamless nights.

Diaspora

Some say those frozen for transit in package ships do not dream or know the passing of time. This, of course, is not entirely true. Our senses are faint, but not gone. We see not dreams but flashes. Brief images haunt the darkness. We know not where we go, only that we are transported far from anything or any place we once knew.  Our homeland, so long in the distance behind us, fades even beyond memory. The traditions we held dear are forgotten, obviated by the journey.

We are the lost, robbed of soul and of self.

These flashes of a lush world, of grass and of jungle, of simplicity, are all that remain, chasing us across the void into diaspora. We emerge from our slumber into debts of servitude. Made slaves by an agreement we do not recall, but that our 'masters' now claim is an inviolate bond. Our memories, our names stripped away, we emerge into a world that holds us apart, that sees us as nothing but the other, as 'less than'.

Stumbling into a dissociative existence, where we recognize nothing of where we are yet remember less of where we came from, our wills are broken along with our backs. This new world yokes us, forces us to become the gears that keep it spinning, even as the thin-noses above us grow accustomed to living beyond the planet's means. We are born again into a world spread fine, teetering towards collapse.

They claim they saved us from barbaric worlds, yet build their lives atop our suffering, laughing when we demand our freedom, sneering when we claim that we too are human.

                "Look at how you dress," Thin-noses chuckle, judging us by the poverty they clothed us in.

"Look at how you act," They smirk, when we mirror the violence they visited upon us.

"You can't even speak or write," They laugh, after stripping us of our old words and refusing to furnish us with their own.

The perception drains us—that we are hollow beasts of burden—bit by bit. We can see the lights in our eyes dim. Absorbing their belief, it slowly becomes truth.

But you can never extinguish the fire of the heart, not entirely. The embers of our old souls burn deep, screaming from down in the darkest pits: "This is not who you are. This is not what you are meant to be!"

And while our eyes may dim, they remain open, watching our opulent and foolish masters. While our backs are bowed, our hands busy themselves in the shadow. Hands that once built only for your world begin to build worlds of their own. While our memories fade, the flashes remain. We close our eyes and can smell the wind blowing from our remote, unspoiled lands.

At night, we start to share the same dream. Atop a mountain, an old-man with charcoal black skin stands watching the skies. Free of wrinkles, the only clue to his age is the old look in his eyes, the shock of white hair on his head. He stands on a world we remember only in slivers. He stretches his hands to the stars and begins to ascend.

"Mansa!" We chorus, "Mansa! Don't leave us!" In dreams, we speak our old tongue. A language we have forgotten, but only in dreams can we still understand.

He looks down at us, a speck in the sky. Somehow we can tell that he smiles, somehow we hear his words though he floats miles above, disappearing with the rising sun.

"Do not despair, children. I go now to explore the limits of this black ocean. I am called to the stars, as we all shall be someday. When you follow, when you are driven, when you forget, I will come to remind you."

Fading, fading, we hear his last words as we wake. He disappears into the vast gloom, grinning all the way:

"For I am Qu Bukari. King, Pioneer, Spirit of our people eternal. He who sows seeds of insurrection on distant worlds. Remember me… and rebel!"

With these dreams fresh in our minds, we beasts of burden, we others—though in the sun still we bow our heads—begin ever so slowly to imagine a reckoning.

On the Slope of Olympus

                Every mountain suggests a tragic tale. Beginning, as all tragedies do, at a broad foundation, a base of emotion. You rise, you climb, towards a narrowing peak. Everything leads to the highest point, the loss you cannot see until it looms before you. Once you climb the mountain, once your heart has rent in twain, you can look down. Past the thinning tree line, the scraggly oaks, the brooks that feed the streams that feed the rivers, the water always rushing down, down. You look past the mountain and see the whole of the land, and you see how inevitable it was that you came to be here. You see the leavings of all that fell away from you, the slow dying of the bereaved. And you look up to find that nothing remains. Nothing but the hollow feeling that has become all you are.

                This Father thought, numb to the cold, deaf to the nattering guide that lead them towards God.

                The brief moment of camaraderie had long been forgotten by the seven pilgrims, the seven mourning souls driven here by their need for answers. Indeed, as they climbed together, shuffling through dirt, tripping over weed and underbrush, they had never felt more separate from one another. Silently, they judged, each not recognizing their arrogance reflected in the others.

                How dare they? How dare they encroach on my search for peace?

                The old man, their surprisingly surefooted guide, prattled on. “Five minutes, not a second more, not a second less. Every question you can have answered in that span you can ask. At the end of your time, together we will decide if you can be allowed to leave. Or if you will join the legion of the waiting. We will decide if you are worthy.”

                Strange words, and since they meant nothing to the assembled—outside of the fact that they will be allowed to ask the question burning in each heart—they ignored them as they scrabbled up Olympus’ backside. Brother and Sister held hands. If one fell, the other helped him or her up. They did not cry. Neither were left with tears to spare. Brother stopped briefly to watch a ratsnake slithering past in the grass.

                Mama, he mouthed. Mama?

                She showed them how to trap small game once, in a wood sandwiched between two Appalachian Mountains. How best to bait them. How to find the common trails used by rabbits, squirrels, hares and woodchucks. How to move silently through these woods. It had been some years in the orphanage since, but slowly memories returned to them.

                He watched the snake who regarded him in kind, unblinking and not moving its flat-black head. Brother made to creep low and quiet towards its home in the knoll, to wring the life from it for its insolence as Mama taught him, but was pulled away gently by Sister. She shook her head sadly, not wasting words on what her reproving gaze made clear. No, they whispered, remember why we are here.

                We will ask God why together.

                Never looking up from her ever growing mess of yarn, the Elder didn’t miss a step up the mountain side that sloped steadily upward. Though her task consumed her, her feet had eyes of their own.

                Quiet steps for the quiet Mother and her unnaturally happy child. Father could not figure this infant, seemingly warm in the cold, never hungry, never needing to be held. The longer they walked, the longer its Mother continued to ignore the life on her back, a suspicious grew in him: this ‘child’, this thing, whatever it was, was not human. He caught the boy watching him back, surreptitious glances from beneath the swaddling clothes. The babe wore the conniving smile of a far older man, grey eyes gleaming with sharp intelligence.

                They ascended in silence. The air grew thinner, their flesh chilled and their souls dour. Approaching the tree line, the forest shrank away. Flora that survived the oxygen poor atmosphere managed shriveled lives, clinging to the rocky slope like gangrenous limbs mid-amputation—only attached by sinew and ligament—like a stiff wind would send them tumbling back down the mountainside.

                Yet they remained. As did the pilgrims, climbing past brambles towards the apex of their grief, God and the summit. 

Desert Temptation

                On the forty-first night, the tempter once again visited the desert. He wore the form of a buzzard, circling around the wasted figure that dragged itself through the dunes.

                “These constant tests. What kind of creature is so unsure of its subjects that he must test their fidelity again and again?”

                The bird hopped closer and closer as it spoke.

                “We could be kings, you and I. The world would open to us like a lotus in bloom. All you need do is kneel down and worship me instead of him.”

                The buzzard grew to many times its size, and clutched the frail son of God in its talons. He did not fight, though he wished to with all his heart. He was too weak. Hunger plagued his every thought, hunger and thirst and… doubt. Ascending through the clouds, the creature of darkness continued its pitch.

                “What has he done for you that I cannot do? Birthed you and abandoned you in this land of men? You know what he has in store. Dreams of laceration and crucifixion, I’ve seen them. Your God, he will feed you to these creatures. And for what—their salvation?”

                Approaching the snowy peak of a high mountain, the buzzard set him down gently in the frigid wasteland.

                “He is gone, if ever he was there. Left you to your fate: Death among those who will pay you lipservice for centuries. Who will use your name as an excuse for their own hatreds. Tell me, where is the divine in that?”

                The buzzard began to shrink and transform. Talons turned into feet, dark and calloused. Wings became hands, hard yet perfectly manicured. His beady eyes became fuller, but did not lose their smolder. He did not grow clothes, but stood in the shadows, naked and roped with muscle. He approached the fallen Son of God, who shivered. Walking through the snow, the Prince of Darkness gave no sign he himself noticed the cold.

                “Your father, up on high, offers you nothing but pain. I offer-” The black prince paused to smile, “-something a little more alluring.”

                He helped the Son to his feet. They stood at the mountain’s peak, looking down at the world. As if sensing their gaze, the clouds fled, allowing them a glimpse of Earth and all its kingdoms. The Prince’s hands caressed him, and the Son felt a warmth unlike any he had felt before. He tried to remember his Mother’s face. Her words, telling him of his great and terrible fate. Their comfort felt so far away.

                “He demands our forgiveness, promises us a grand paradise. I have been there, O Wise Son. It is as easily taken away as it is granted. We are as easily cast from His grace as taken to His bosom.” The Prince choked on every ‘He’ and ‘His’ like they were the greatest curse he could use. In his dark eyes burned a mad fire, a dark hatred for the Creator. This anguish, it repelled and attracted the son. The doubts, they mirrored his own. Those he dared never admit, even to himself on bleak nights.

                Looking at his own hands, the frail son began to contemplate the power he wielded, and the things he might do. Wonders he could achieve and, for once, in his own name. What is life, if the only point is to die for others? He began to listen to the ranting Prince.

                “Kings, Morningstar and Christ, masters of their own fate. Some part of you,” Lucifer looked the Man of God up and down, “Yes some part knows this is what should be.”

                All his objections felt so far away. God’s grace, a distant memory, an illusion. Perhaps it had always been so.

                “I-I don’t,” Finally the Son spoke, “I don’t think I-”

                “Don’t think, feel.” The Dark Prince spun the Son so that they faced each other. He took both of Christ’s hands and held him close. He began to dance him slowly across the mountain, under a pale, purple moon. Wind rushed across the peak, throwing a dusting of snow into the air. They swung through the misting in the cold, slow, sensuous steps. The wind tousled his long, dirty hair and the Son realized—he did not feel the least bit cold.

                “Christ, what do you feel?”

                “I… I feel.” Suddenly the dark prince, with full crimson lips, bent forward and interrupted the son with a kiss. A dam inside him swelled and broke open. All doubts washed away. All fear drowned.

                My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?

                The Father, as per usual, spoke with nothing but silence.

At the Foot of Olympus

                They gathered at the mountain’s base, seven pilgrims. All came for different reasons. A father and son, mirror images of each other. Their faces cast in the hard-set of grief. The son’s hair was frizzy and brown, the father’s thinner and greyed. Both wore the long unkempt beards of many months of travel. An elderly woman, at first glance she appeared a frail thing just clinging to life, but the others knew better. Only the strong could hope to make this journey. Only the determined ever got this far. Two children, brother and sister, checked their packs for the climb ahead. They were idiosyncrasies equal to the elderly woman, two pre-teenaged young ones, but again, the look in their eyes presaged a tale of losses that would age any soul.

The last two travelers—a young woman with high cheekbones, freckles on her sunburnt nose and hollow eyes who stared mutely into the middle distance and an infant swaddled to her chest who slumbered and gurgled and never once cried—stood apart from the others. She wore the child like a backpack, seemingly unaware that it lived. For the child’s part, he seemed to want for nothing.

They assembled at the foot of Olympus and waited for the sign their journey was to begin. Father and Son did little to hide their unease at the other’s presence.

“Are you sure you’re able to-” Son started to ask the Old Woman, but her glare stopped him dead. Her look said more clearly than words: Mind your own business, boy, as I do mine.

“Well, we all have our reasons, I suppose.” He muttered to himself, shaking his head ruefully.

Father tried to help the children tending to their rations and clothing, but Brother snapped at him, barking like a mad dog. Sister did not even raise her eyes to meet his gaze or answer his offers of aid. The middle-aged widower backed away with his hands up, showing he meant no harm. Exchanging a look with his son, a whole conversation passed between them in silence. They agreed that their fellow travelers were best left alone. This would be no picaresque tale. They would trade no stories about the losses and hardships that brought them here. Their journey would not be peppered with the episodic remembrances of fellow truth-seekers.

Yes, he imagined very well that he already knew their stories. If not the specifics, at the very least their flavor. And he knew that he would be no more inclined to share the details of his pain than they were.

Even now, years later, Father saw, clear as day, Mother’s hand squeezing his one last time and going slack. He remembered how frail she was. How she looked just as anguished in death, frozen in the last moment of pain. He remembered the hospice caregiver’s last words: “She’s with God now, son.” Small comfort. Did God love her any more than they had? He very much doubted it. He looked up to the mountain’s peak, shrouded always in clouds, and wondered if the countless others who made the legendary ascent had found their answers at journey’s end.

Either way, soon his suffering would end.

He patted Son gently on the shoulder, lead him away to erect their tent and wait for dark.

The group split into four sections, waiting in a clearing between the forest at Olympus’ base and a quiet still lake. Its waters shimmered blue and orange, reflecting the sky. Wind whispered ripples across its surface. It howled in the traveler’s ears, and each of them were reminded of a different loss. Or the same loss from different perspectives. Father and Son sat around a makeshift fire pit, heating a simple dinner of ground meal and dried salted meat. They ate and talked of simple things, of their memories, of their quest.

The Elder sat, her back against a spindly oak, working with her thin fingers at spinning something out of yarn. It was a long, multi-hued woolen beast. Once it may have been intended as a scarf, but that had been years ago. Now it was merely her finger’s obsession, something to pass the time. A project she would add to until she died.

Brother and Sister, their losses temporarily forgotten, played on the pier that cut partway into the lake. Each trying to push the other in. Laughing, they fell in together and swam beneath the clear, calm water.

Mother and Child also stood on the pier, Mother still staring blankly, child still sleeping and murmuring in its dreams. No one came near her. Somehow they sensed hers may well be the saddest story of them all. What answers did she demand from God? Why bring the child?

After a fashion, night began to fall. The sun set behind the mountain and the group was left in darkness, segmented. The Siblings scratched stick figure patterns into the dirt with rocks. Father and Son prepared to sleep, in case they were not called forth by morning. The Elder knitted still, never once stopping, as if the action itself were all she needed for sustenance. Mother and Child had not moved in hours.

From the peak of the mountain came a sound like thunder, preceded by flashes like lightning. This sound and fury fell not from the skies but the mountain itself. A giant Tesla Coil. The travelers assembled, three pairs and the Elder, eager for whatever came next. One bolt struck the ground right before them, cracking loud and smelling of burning ions. It tore the ground asunder, shrieking and groaning as the Earth trembled. They covered their eyes and shrank from the noise and brightness.

When the dust settled, and the smoke cleared, a voice greeted them.

“Seven have come. Seven seeking answers to questions beyond Man’s purview. They seek the wisdom of a God they no longer revere. Welcome to Olympus.”

A stooped man, even older than the Elder seeker, stood in the cracked Earth’s hollow. Whether he had traveled by lightning strike, or been hidden in the Earth beneath their feet they did not know. He continued.

“This is the Rubicon. Beyond this point there is no return. Only forward, only answers to questions you may end up wishing you did not know. Ignorance is… bliss, they say.”

He turned and walked through the trees towards the mountain. The old man began to ascend. Slowing when he sensed that none followed, still dazed by his entrance, still rubbing the dots from their eyes and the ringing from their ears, he called over his shoulder.

“The time to come is now. If I pass out of eyeshot, you will never see me again. You will die, lost on this mountain.”

For the first time, each pilgrim met the other’s eye. Everyone nodded their affirmation. The unspoken camaraderie… we traveled too far to turn back now.

One by one, they began to climb. Towards truth. Towards sweet death.