Monthly Archives: September 2008

“The Gilded Flame”

Note: This is a fantasy piece I wrote for Sword’s Edge in 2004. The magazine is now, sadly, defunct, so I’ve archived “The Gilded Flame” here at my web site. The story also appears in The Midnight Recollections anthology.

* * *

Four hundred turns, thought Alexander as Touchwood Inn came into view. It was a welcome sight amidst the winter landscape he’d been traversing on foot for the better part of a fortnight. So much has changed, and yet nothing at all.

He quickened his pace, for as much as he’d come to appreciate the natural beauty of snowfall in Kyrth, cold was cold, and he suddenly found himself longing to wind down the remainder of the evening beside a warm fire. He entered the inn and stood in place for a moment, savoring the warmth as tiny eddies of snow slithered across the shag carpeting of the parlor.

Home at last.

Behind him, a stout dwarf, serving as doorman, politely pushed the door shut and tapped his staff on the rug. A small sparkling cloud settled onto the fabric, dissolving the snow before it had a chance to melt.

“You be warming your garments during your stay?” he asked in sharply accented Human as he hobbled in front of Alexander and gestured at the complimentary hearth.

Alexander responded with a silent nod. He was not unkind; his extended journey had merely made him weary and not in the mood for small talk-at least not until he’d had a drink or two in him.

He slipped out of his clothing and descended down a shallow staircase, which brought him into the belly of the inn. Subdued lighting, provided by enchanted torches hung between delicate tapestries, illuminated cushioned, burgundy-colored wooden seats pulled around oaken tables. To the left, a walkway (carved out of the inn’s stone foundation) led up to the steaming bathhouse; to the right, another shallow staircase leading to a crescent-shaped pit of personal booths that had been carved as elaborate alcoves into the woodwork of the walls. Each booth was complimented by a decorative spray of flowering vines.

The furnace was apparently in good repair this evening, for there was an abundance of bare flesh amongst the patrons. Alexander nodded at several of the waitresses, who welcomed him with hugs and kisses as he made his way into the bathhouse. He bathed among familiar friends and shared many tales of his most recent journeys across Marrybird (as well as the rest of Kyrth). His audience was enraptured, not wanting to let him go until at last he rose from the water to dry himself off.

“As much as I have enjoyed regaling you with stories from the theatre,” he said, “I’m afraid I am quite tired.”

“Just one more story?” implored an appealing lass.

Alexander smiled gently, slicking back his long dark hair. “Another time, when the weariness of the flesh does not weigh so heavily upon the mind.”

He returned to the den, where Gregori waited. Gregori called out to him as Alexander descended into the pit.

Gregori was several turns older than Alexander, and as such had a certain heavyset look to his otherwise youthful face. It was sometimes referred to as ‘the weight of advanced calendar age,’ and it had crept into his bones ever so slightly as the seasons had passed. He was not old, for his skin was still smooth, his auburn hair still full, his posture straight…he had, as nearly all veteran Kyrthians did, the body of a youth who’d lived a long, long life.

Nevertheless, Alexander was pleased to see him once again. He offered the man a hug. “Wonderful to see you, Greg. And wonderful to see Touchwood is still going strong.”

Gregori chuckled. “When the place isn’t being repaired due to some outrageous accident or minor mishap. Never mind that, though. You must be weary after your long journey. Here, I have a table for you.” He led Alexander to a booth. A cinnamon-scented candle rested at the center of a modestly-sized table, illuminating the alcove, warming the woodwork.

“Very good, Gregori.” Alexander sighed as he slid onto the seat and rested his head against the wall.

“Can I get anything for you?”

“A bowl of soup, perhaps.”

Gregori bowed humbly. “Of course. Anything, old friend.”

He left the booth and Alexander was left alone to enjoy a quiet moment. He closed his eyes and stretched somewhat, feeling the warm stone beneath his bare feet, the silky cushioning against his buttocks and thighs. The pleasant smells of good food wafted through the air, blending with the sounds of peoples’ merriment as they conversed cheerfully with one another. Many, many seasons had passed since he’d first come to Touchwood (and to the city of Faire), but for a moment he was able to reach back across a sea of memories and touch the shoulder of the pouting adolescent he’d once been.

“A recipe from Helena.”

Alexander opened his eyes to find Gregori had placed a steaming bowl upon the table. He’d also brought cider.

“Tell me again,” said Alexander, sitting forward and calmly stirring his soup, “why you chose such a…questionable name for this place.”

Settling himself across from Alexander, Gregori uncorked the cider bottle and began pouring. “A bit of humor is all. Used to be called the Crystal Goblet back when I first opened as your average brawl house. However, in the past five or six hundred turns, the bloody place has been burned down on no less than fifteen separate occasions. In the beginning it was war with the elves, then, even when Marrybird was at peace, drunken Guardsmen would stumble in and find a way to misuse their royal mana—I finally wised up to my rotten luck and decided to take it with a chuckle rather than a curse. In fact, due to a rather unpleasant rogue curse I happened to receive before I had Touchwood properly enchanted, I actually called the place The Rotten Apple for nearly eight turns. But people seem to appreciate the humor, and business has always been astounding. There never ceases to be an abundance of amiable young men who are willing to give of their time and energy to make sure we’re running proper. I’d wager our bed maids have just a little something to do with that.”

“And Arin? Is she still around these days?”

“Of course. She’s, ah, with one of our patrons at the moment.”

“So she’s still…?”

“A bed maid? Why, yes. I can pass along the news of your arrival, if you like.”

“Yes, of course.”

Gregori nodded and rose to his feet. “Well, like I’ve always said, please stay as long as you like—I’ve reserved a room for you, naturally. If I’m not available when you’re ready to turn in, approach old Dale at the bar. He’ll give you the key.”

“Thank you,” Alexander said. “Give my regards to Helena and the laundry girls.”

“I surely will.”

Gregori left the booth, and Alexander ate his soup, sipped his cider. Soon he was tingling from head to toe and comfortable enough to nap right there at the table. He leaned back, bottle in hand, and gazed at the candle, allowing himself to become somewhat hypnotized by its flame.

“Alexander!”

He felt a soft hand on his shoulder, turned and found himself in the presence of a slender blond woman. She was somewhat flushed, her body glistening with a light sheen of scented bathwater.

“Arin, my dear,” said Alexander, making room for her in the booth. She bounced beside him, throwing her arms around him and pecking him on the cheek. He was not quite in the mood for such cheerful play just yet, but for her sake he acquiesced, replacing the cider bottle on the table and returning her embrace. She had the feel of a carefree youth despite the fact that she was a mere season younger than he. After a moment, tasting strawberry cider on her lips, he asked, “Have you been drinking?”

Arin giggled. “A little. I know I shouldn’t get carried away, but Goddess knows I can’t help myself sometimes. Especially when I think of you and how long it’s been since we were last together.” She sobered somewhat and ran her hands down his chest, traced the ridges of muscle with her fingers. “You’ve been hardened by your journey, but now that you’ve come home, things can be as they once were.”

“If only that were possible.” Alexander sighed. “I’m afraid there’s something on my mind at the moment.”

“Let the mind rest, then.” Arin snuggled closer.

“Not this time, my dear, my precious love.”

“What is it, then? Why has your mood become sullied?”

Alexander gazed into her eyes as he brushed her soft cheek with his hand. “I am four hundred seasons old this morning…I’ve become old these last few turns.”

She blinked, tilted her head to one side, for she did not understand. “But nobody becomes old in Kyrth, Alexander. Lifelong youth is a gift from the Goddess, given to those who have taken Her into their hearts.”

“Ah, but She did not promise immortality. Our youth is lifelong, but we still have not been granted long life. We still leave this realm once our precious time in the flesh has run its course.”

“You are half elf,” Arin said, as though to remind him.

True, his face was beardless—even his genital lacked adult hair—but his ears were rounded, and he had the height of a typical human adult. His mother had been human, after all; her blood was undoubtedly the dominant force flowing through his veins.

“Only half,” he said, contemplatively. “It is not enough to disregard my mortality. Only full-blooded elves know the secret to eternity. Perhaps that is why, when one gazes into their endless, crystalline eyes, one sees an entire history. Kingdoms built and destroyed; lovers lost long ago to war or time; thousands, tens of thousands of sunrises and sunsets, all blended into the gilded flame of remembrance.”

Arin rested her head against his chest. He felt the hot sting of her tears against his skin and he knew she was crying. Perhaps she was genuinely saddened, in her own childlike manner, to lose a lover who’d shared so many intimate nights with her. However, she would never understand. He would leave Touchwood for the last time tomorrow morning, and she would go about her business as a bed maid, sharing endless nights with endless men…and eventually she would forget him. She would find simple bliss, and he would be happy for her.

Arin whimpered. “Why do you speak of such things?”

“I did not want to leave before saying goodbye.”

“But you do not have to leave. You can stay here with me.”

“Do not be selfish, my dear.” Alexander made an effort to cool his emotions. “I would like nothing more than to spend an eternity beside the hearth, with you by my side. However, I have come to avenge Min.”

At this Arin stiffened, straightened in his arms. Her gaze met his.

“I am sorry,” he said.

“Do not be,” Arin replied, softly. “Perhaps you are right. Perhaps it is I who have been callow towards your love for her. She was yours, and you were hers.”

Alexander fell silent, allowing memories of Min to flow through him once again. She had been his soul mate, she had come after all his childhood infatuations, after his adolescent experimentation with Arin and other girls. She had been a mature passion, a lifelong promise that had failed to fulfill itself, for she had died many turns ago while training as a royal athlete at the Eternal Champion. At the time, Alexander had been devastated, unable to understand why the Goddess and her consorts had allowed such a thing to happen to someone so young, someone who’d endured immense challenges during her childhood as a Marrybird exile, only to have her life ended in a fit of godly passion during a Game of the Gods. Gods were not supposed to use their fleshed children for such deeds, but an exception had been made in Min’s case. An exception that had proven fatal.

Arin had become Alexander’s lover afterward, offering him solace as a familiar acquaintance who could share his despair and offer her affection. He shared love with her, though it was somewhat detached, and certainly not enough to stave off his thirst for the answers to questions a mere mortal was perhaps never meant to know. Subsequently, he’d left her here in Faire and gone to explore Kyrth. However, his life had quickly become, he now realized, an unsatisfying journey that had led him full circle without providing the answers he sought. As such, sitting here in the familiar warmth of the inn, he was ready to end the journey.

Presently, Gregori returned to the booth with more cider and a bowl of fruit. He immediately noticed Arin’s solemn disposition.

“Arin, my child, what’s the matter?”

She did not answer, but rather looked imploringly at Alexander.

“I shall go to the Shrine of Taurus tomorrow,” he said slowly, and finished off the last of his drink. “I will summon Taurus. We will discuss…retribution.”

Gregori went pale. He seated himself. “Vengeance? Against one of the gods?”

“I have waited long enough for an alternative to present itself to me.”

“And so you will fight a god?”

“If need be.”

“You’re only part elf. You are still mortal. I don’t suppose I can talk you out of this.”

“Alas, no. My mind is made up.”

Gregori sighed, poured himself a glass of cider. “Gods, I need a drink—and I’m not even the one whose life is at stake.”

Alexander smiled. “Do not worry yourself, my friend. Our many, many turns of friendship have engraved themselves into my memory. In life or in death, I will not forget.”

“Yes, of course.” Gregori shook his head and laughed. “Listen to you, all full of nymph talk. I remember when you were still just a cub, when you first came into Faire from the Cove. Ha, a human boy with elves’ blood raised by nymphs. Tell me that’s not the humor of the gods. You used to sneak in here constantly to see the ladies. Laurel finally gave up and instructed that if you were to come here, it would be to work. Whatever skirts you chased, you were to chase them on the clock.”

“Indeed.”

“You stuck to it, though. A good hard worker, I’ll give you that. Laurel raised her boys right.”

Silence fell over the booth as everyone entertained their own thoughts. Arin had separated herself from Alexander and was now brooding over a handful of figs.

Gregori eventually sighed, set down his glass, and paid Alexander a serious look. “You’re really going to do this? Tomorrow?”

Alexander nodded.

“Then you will need a flesh oracle, a human body Taurus can animate during battle.”

“Yes, but—”

“Then I will be yours.”

“Gregori, I cannot ask this of you—”

Gregori held up his hand. “Alex, if this is the manner by which you will leave Kyrth, then I will be at your side.”

Alexander studied his friend’s face, noted the unwavering gaze, the firm set of the jaw. Throughout his life, Gregori had been a friend and a father-in-name, and despite his instinctive objection, he could think of no one he would rather have at his side.

“You realize,” said Alexander slowly, “that if I win, you will most likely be dead or wounded beyond salvation.”

Gregori nodded. “Of course. And, if Taurus wins…”

“I would give no other man the honor.”

“Bloody right.”

Alexander smiled and clasped Gregori’s hand in his own. “Thank you, my friend.”

* * *

“Min is dead.”

“I thought you were asleep.”

“There is no changing that.”

“Perhaps not.”

“Then why go through with this madness?”

Arin lay with Alexander, her legs intertwined with his, her head resting atop his chest. She’d caught him quite off guard, feigning sleep after their lovemaking and then suddenly lifting her face to his and presenting her thoughts.

He twitched, ever so slightly, and gently ran his fingers through her golden locks, the edges of which had been set aglow by the faint candlelight. “The gods know all, while mortals must spend their lives seeking their own answers. I have journeyed far, and for a long, long time. I have found nothing. The only thing that has made it bearable is the promise that one day it will all pass, and I will find my answers. I have chosen tomorrow as that day.”

“But the Goddess gives us all the gift of free will. This is not a path you must follow in order to be reunited with Min.”

“Min’s free will was taken from her. Taurus exercised his own on the day he usurped my beloved and killed her. What free will has there been for me, separated from my mate and forced to wander this realm alone?”

Arin pouted, rose from the bed and cleaned the seasoned honey from between her legs. “There is still beauty in life, moments to cherish, moments of delight. Were you not in ecstasy when you made love to me tonight?”

Alexander did not answer, for he had no answer to give. Physical pleasure and spiritual pleasure were, for him, oftentimes very similar. He knew that he had been comforted by her presence, but to speak of their coupling in words would be to act as any average man did towards any average bed maid.

Such is not the case, he thought. I love Arin, but I also love Min.

“When you leave Touchwood in the morning,” Arin said, crossing the bedchamber, “you will be leaving me, again.”

With that she turned away and let herself out.

* * *

Arin did not offer her presence for the Calling. While a small part of Alexander was hurt by this, he did understand her motives. It is better this way, he thought, rising from his bed. The morning sunlight cascaded into the bedchamber, warming the woodwork, warming his body. At some point during the early morning, one of the laundry maids had brought his clothes, (cleaned and dried), and placed them atop the chiffonier. He pulled on his leggings. To imagine my absence as something intangible, like a dream, to know that I am gone, but not having to witness my death; it is perhaps not the ideal scenario, but it will have to do.

He pulled his hair back, bundled it at the nape of his neck, and examined himself briefly in the mirror. It had been a long while since he had seen himself as such. He was not surprised, however, to find that he still carried the appearance of a young man. It was as if his body had refused to take more than a few modest steps past adolescence, past the Games (and past Min’s death).

A knock at the door signaled Gregori’s arrival. Alexander left the bedchamber and greeted his friend with a meaningful embrace. They descended the staircase together, crossed the unoccupied den, and exited the inn. Outside, the sky was clear, the sunlight reflecting off the snow-covered ground, highlighting the web like wings of the morning fairies as they dashed between the tree branches.

Touchwood’s pantheon was located behind the inn, in a subterranean grotto. Polished stone steps led inside, where the many gods’ shrines were illuminated by enchanted torches hanging along the walls. A multitude of alcoves had been carved into the stone of the walls; each alcove held a meticulously-carved statue resembling one of Kyrth’s numerous minor gods and goddesses. The males were tall and muscular, with handsome faces. The females were lithe, with generous, well-shaped breasts and lush figures.

“Welcome,” greeted the caretaker, a slight, robed man who appeared out of the shadows as if he’d been conjured from the firelight itself. “Let those who pass into Her kingdom be pure of heart.” He rose his hand and, in a swift, efficient motion, sprinkled holy water on his guests.

Alexander bowed, offering his thanks and requesting an audience with Taurus.

“Ah, of course. His shrine is available at the moment. Please proceed.”

Taurus’ statue was perhaps the most provocative of all the male gods’. Being a god of the flesh, a god of the senses, he expected interpretations of his physical form to carry a certain degree of exaggeration. As such, his rendered body was exceedingly sensual, his large, acutely alert genital sculpted in great detail. Many human men came to him seeking manifestations of virility. Alexander, however, was uninterested in such affairs at the moment. He knelt on the cold stone floor before Taurus’ likeness and, with an affirming nod from Gregori, began the Calling.

Humans, having no inborn magical abilities, were required to use physical catalysts, such as enchanted water, in order to perform magic. Alexander, on the other hand, was half elf, and possessed his own reservoir of inborn mana, which he’d cultivated over the course of his life. He extended his mana now, cupping his hands together and working a receptacle spell as he called forth the essence of Taurus. The transference proceeded at Alexander’s discretion, for gods could not inhabit the bodies of human men or women unless they were granted the proper permissions.

Momentarily, the area surrounding Taurus’ alcove brightened as Alexander directed the receptacle at Gregori, who solemnly received the god into his body. The transfer was nearly instantaneous, and marked by a sudden straightening of Gregori’s shoulders, a narrowing of the eyes as human determination was replaced with godly assurance.

“Alexander,” Taurus greeted, now fully integrated within Gregori’s body. He flexed his limbs, adjusting to the strengths and sensations of a fleshed man. He smiled. “My subject, my child. Why have you called Taurus to the physical realm?”

The gods were all-knowing. Taurus did not have to ask a question that had an obvious answer. Still, it was appropriate that Alexander play along until the ultimatum presented itself.

He rose to his feet. “Many turns past, when I was a youth, my beloved Min and I trained at the Eternal Champion as royal athletes for your Games. While on display before the many gathered kingdoms, come to witness the splendor of the competition, a god let loose his wrath for the sake of his own passion.”

All cheer drained from Taurus’ face. “Speak with care, mortal child.”

Alexander continued, unflinching. “We are both minor creations forged by Lorianis’ benevolence. I speak as a mortal man to a minor god, to a long-ago human who has evolved over many lifetimes and achieved a state of grace beyond the confines of the flesh. You may have created Kyrth, but you are nevertheless bound by the Goddess’ rules. When you affected Min during the Games, you violated those rules.” He paused, sensing Taurus’ mounting rage. The minor gods were not infallible, and when this was sometimes pointed out…

“You place your life at risk for the wrong reasons,” Taurus warned. “Min was a beautiful child, a glorious flesh creation-but she had no power beyond the strength of her body. She would have lived out her life in mediocrity and eventually died, just as you will eventually die. As meaningful as your presence here in Kyrth may seem, you are all bound by the same fate.”

Alexander closed his eyes, and for the briefest of moments, Min was alive again: a radiant young woman, sound of body and of heart, though perhaps unalluring to other men, due to her plain facial features. On the afternoon of her death, he’d left the watercourse to watch her performance in the gymnasium. He was there now, working his way through the masses of other fellow athletes (and gathered citizens) milling about the floor. He caught sight of her on the podium, chalking up her bare hands and feet. She was preparing for her routine on the extended trainer, a culmination of Old Earth gymnastics apparatus arranged into three ascending tiers: uneven bars, dance floor, and balance beam.

The domed ceiling of the gymnasium, comprised of several levels of intricately intertwining arches, rose high into the otherworldly haze of Kyrth’s minor gods and goddesses. They observed the proceedings with much anticipation as their chosen human athletes competed for them. The kingdom with the most highly-decorated team would garner much godly favor, and would be rewarded handsomely with prosperous weather and seasonal safety from dangerous wildlife, rogue magic, and so forth.

Alexander watched with pride as Min, facing the apparatus, walked up the podium and stood poised. Her performance here would bring Marrybird to the forefront of the rankings. When the scorekeeper called her name, she presented herself before the judges and began the exercise. Her unclad body, a prime example of tempered musculature and graceful beauty, moved unhindered between the bars. For the first half of her routine, her form was fine: well-executed skills, impeccable lines, neat toe point. She advanced easily to the second tier. Her trainer, riding atop a rather large and colorful dragonfly, kept pace alongside the apparatus while calling out instructions. Min was almost ready to ascend to the third (and final) tier when the air around her suddenly humidified, causing large droplets of water to condense onto the springboard. It was during her attempted mounting of the balance beam that her feet slipped violently upward, as if tied together by invisible ropes.

A non-physical intervention.

The amassed spectators elicited a collective gasp, watching in horror as Min convulsed involuntarily. She fell headfirst onto the beam, her body instantly going limp as it collapsed awkwardly onto the podium.

“Min….” There were tears in Alexander’s eyes as he came out of his reverie. “You sacrificed her so your chosen kingdom would win. Marrybird lost the Games to Krey by a single head that season.”

“Sacrifices are made,” Taurus answered, “for the good of the whole. You forget how much you are given in this life, Alexander Day Tree. Long life, lasting youth, free will to roam this realm without the ravages of disease or age…there is always a price for such splendor.”

“But why her?” Alexander flared. “Why not a hardened criminal or an ungrateful heretic?”

Taurus’ patience was at its end. “The experienced storyteller does not ask why his story must be told. He merely knows that he must tell it, and that its characters must be created and destroyed in order to reach an acceptable ending. There is no malice in such an act-humans have created malice in demanding too much of their storytellers.”

“That is no challenge for you. You are the storyteller, while humankind has been relegated to playing meaningless characters.”

“Silence!”

With a powerful swoop of his arm, Taurus grabbed Alexander around the neck, hauling him off his feet. Somewhere nearby, the pantheon’s caretaker cried out in distress. Taurus glared at him, and the man promptly scurried back into the wavering shadows.

“Passion alone,” growled Alexander, now gathering his mana, “does not win the battle.” He grabbed Taurus’ arm with both hands and used it for leverage as he planted his feet in the god’s abdomen. That separated them, and gave Alexander a window of opportunity. He called his mana, forming his battle circle. A sapphire-hued sphere expanded from his solar plexus, enveloping himself and his opponent. The perimeter of his influence hissed and crackled as it came into contact with the various stone structures of the chamber.

Taurus’ expression turned lethal as he realized his mistake: He’d allowed himself to become ensnared in Alexander’s battle circle. Therefore, Alexander would be able to execute the first attack move, not Taurus, whose only options were self-protection at this point.

Alexander attacked. It was a cautionary blow that struck Taurus square in the chest and sent him sprawling into one of the pantheon’s many shadowy corners. Alexander followed, though not before deftly removing his boots so that his bare feet touched the stone floor. This allowed him to better maintain his protective shell, as energy was discharged outward through his hands, and reabsorbed through his feet in a continuous cycle.

“Even the gods must be held accountable for their actions,” he said, scanning the shadows. Taurus had evidently hidden himself. “The question is to whom.” He sent a burst of flame into one corner of the chamber, replacing shadow with light. Simultaneously, he was abruptly knocked off his feet by a blow to the head as Taurus appeared beside him. He stumbled forward onto his knees, his vision blurring, his mana wavering uncertainly (and matching his state of sudden semi-consciousness).

“Accountability,” said the god, extending his own mana, “can be interpreted in many different ways.”

Alexander stumbled to his feet. He was now caught in Taurus’ battle circle, though he noted that the mana used to construct it was crimson-hued, and therefore powered by passion, aggression. The blow of his opponent’s move would be powerful, but it would not have any of the precision that Alexander’s had had. Taurus may have been a minor god, with godly abilities, but working through the flesh circuit of Gregori’s body, he was prone to the same tendencies as any human being.

Still, it was powerful. Alexander could only block and brace himself as a bolt of energy the length of his own body sent him through the ceiling of the pantheon. He was blasted up into the snowy wilds in an explosion of crumbled stonework and fiery embers that sent the immediate wildlife scattering. Physically, his body was unbroken, for he had been blocking well-however, the mana he’d expended for such an effort would take some time to recharge. He stood, ignoring the intense cold pressing against his bare feet, and quickly retreated into the nearby forest growth.

Taurus’ voice mocked him as he scurried up the puckered trunk of an elderwood: “You see, Alexander? The forces that drive this realm and all living things within it are more powerful than you can ever imagine! Perhaps you are in need of a lesson concerning retribution!”

Alexander continued his ascent, finding handholds and toeholds where he could until he was well off the ground. Peering through the leafage, he spied Taurus making his way out of the hole in the ground and advancing into the woods.

“Oh, great tree spirit,” Alexander whispered (in the Elvish tongue) as he grasped the bark more firmly. “Allow me to partake of your abundant magical reserves so that I may protect myself from danger.”

The voice of the elderwood’s druid spirit sounded in his head: Bring no quarrel to these woods.

Indeed, Alexander felt no stream of energy in his feet. The druid sensed that its magic was wanted for personal gain—Alexander’s survival against an enemy he’d purposely provoked-and would have no part of it. He could filch the druid’s mana, thereby acquiring the energy he sought, but such an act of selfishness would likely tarnish his reputation amongst the other residents of the forest. If he defeated Taurus, he would have to live with such an encumbrance.

He looked down below, spotted Taurus making his way between the trees. He was calling out Alexander’s name as he would a lost child’s. “Alexander…where are you, Alexander? Come out and play. Isn’t that what you want?”

Alexander waited patiently until his opponent passed close to the tree—at which point he dropped down onto the god’s shoulders. Both men started rolling around on the snow, eliciting primal growls and using their fists (rather than their magic) to batter each other.

He has come for a fight, Alexander thought, noting the apparent absence of a battle circle. He slammed his fist into Taurus’ face. Blood splattered onto the snow. A simple game, a game of conflict—that’s all I am to him. That’s all Min was…. He dodged a blow, rolled onto his feet as he took the initiative and formed his second battle circle.

“A game, then,” he said, conjuring a pair of pseudo-swords. He tossed one to Taurus. “We shall fight to the death.”

Taurus seemed only too happy to oblige. He accepted the offered weapon, parrying Alexander’s subsequent thrusts, retaliating in kind. They continued in this manner for several bouts—the battle circle alternating between them both—until, at last, Alexander knocked the sword from Taurus’ hand. Battered and bloodied from the mêlée, he crouched over his opponent, the flickering blade of his sword pressed delicately against Taurus’ neck.

“Alexander…”

He froze, poised to kill, his eyes going wide as he spotted his beloved Min standing in the snow several feet away. Her translucent body was robed in bright white light. She was the same as she’d been those many seasons ago, except for her russet-brown hair, which had grown long and luxurious.

“Min!”

She smiled pleasantly at him. “Oh, Alex…”

“I have defeated Taurus, then! You have come back—”

“No, I am here of my own accord, for I could bear witness to your suffering no longer.” She stepped closer. Her feet left no prints. “Lorianis does not wish her children to quarrel so. It saddens her to see such things.”

Alexander removed himself from Taurus, collapsed in the snow at Min’s feet. He reached out to touch her, but his fingers passed through. She was unfleshed, an apparition-perhaps even an illusion. “Min,” he breathed. It was difficult to speak, for he had sought her presence for so long, and now to suddenly have her standing before him…

She sighed again. She spoke gently into his ear. “What is it you wish to achieve by slaying Taurus? You cannot reverse the events of the past, nor can you affect Taurus’ soul once it passes from this realm. The body is disposable; the soul is forever.”

“But I have missed you so very much,” Alexander replied, his entire body shivering from the cold, as well as from his own unbridled emotion. “Seeking the reason behind your demise, trying to convince myself life was worth living…for more than three-hundred turns I have lived in uncertainty.”

“I know, my love…but this is not how the Goddess wishes us to be reunited.”

“You cannot know,” Alexander continued, hearing her, knowing. “No one can possibly know what it is like for me. I am trapped here, my everlasting youth a curse, because I must endure it alone.” Somewhere behind him he knew Taurus was shifting, perhaps readying himself for another attack move. He felt the breath of Min’s angelic touch upon his neck, in his hair, and he did not move, did not even call the slightest spark of defensive magic.

“We are not children anymore,” Min said. “You must remove yourself from this place of anguish, or you will remain in a state of unrest forever. As the gods create him, Man creates his own Heaven, and he creates his own Hell. The time has come for you to choose between the two.”

Alexander said nothing. He turned slightly, half-hearing Taurus’ bloodcurdling cry, catching sight of his murderous expression as he rushed forward, pseudo-sword flaring crimson. His instinct was to block, to survive at all costs-but instead he did something else altogether. He lowered his arms, gazed at Taurus, and said:

“I forgive you.”

The blade speared him through the chest. The pain was at once terrible and liberating, and it caused him to cry out in agony as he fell forward onto the ground. The battle circle faded away as did his life force. Closing his eyes, he relegated himself to death’s steely grip and hoped for Heaven, hoped for Min. The cold stung him, mixed with the pain, until at last he could take no more.

Soul was separated from flesh.

* * *

It is a vision of tranquility, lasting an eternity and lasting no time at all. There is no way to differentiate between Heaven and hope, but it does not matter to him, for he is happy at last. Touchwood is his world, his tapestry of warm memories, his space of love. He spends a lifetime there with Min, with Arin and Gregori, and with a multitude of other friends. There is food and drink, music, games, and an abundance of good cheer throughout. In the mornings Alexander takes long walks with Min along Faire’s snowy borderlands; in the evenings, they retire together to his bedchamber and make love. Afterwards, they lay curled together and listen to the far-off echoes of anguish and longing rumbling in distant thunderclouds.

The storm may come again, but not for a long while.

Ascension

Note: This is a quick, thoughtful piece I did for an anthology a (long) while back. The notions of rebirth and resurrection have always fascinated me. I wonder if heaven’s waiting room might be anything like this.

* * *

I was ready to die. Laying in the hospital bed, a feverish aching clinging to every crevice of my being, I welcomed death’s escape. I closed my eyes, let go, let the pain wash over me like a tidal wave, separating soul from flesh, carrying me out of my diseased body and away from the perils of Earth forever.

I died.

And yet I could still hear myself thinking, still hear myself wondering if I’d truly passed on, or if I wasn’t just living out the madness of another bout of delirium.

I opened my eyes and found myself lying on a rounded, sandy rock a dozen or so yards across. At the center of the rock a single apple tree bore its fruit and provided adequate shade from an omnipotent sun that seemed to shine from all parts of the cloudless sky.

Heaven, I thought. Somehow not what I’d expected. A desert island floating in the center of a vast, motionless ocean. I got to my feet (noting that my body was bare) and walked to the edge of the rock, where I peered down into the water. It was so clear and so still that I could have seen all the way to the bottom had it not been so incredibly deep. Everything here was pristine, but incomplete—like a painting that hadn’t been finished.

Nevertheless, I was content, free of pain, free of worry. I spent many days happily being. I went swimming; I basked in the sun; I sat in the shade of my apple tree and feasted on its fruit; I drifted in solitude alongside my thoughts without a care in the world. For a while it was all I needed, this eternal now. Without the incessant battering of society, my mind became serene; without environmental pollution or overindulgence, my body became lean and wiry, devoid of disease, devoid of excess. I could have continued like this indefinitely had the wish truly been mine.

Boredom, however, found its way into my new world. It crept closer with each passing day, each passing lifetime. At long last I found myself beginning to wonder: Was this all there was? Lying here on my rock, passing days as if they were minutes? Speaking out loud to myself every so often just to be sure I still recognized the sound of my own voice? Masturbating in silence while trying to recall a woman’s touch? There were, of course, no women here. There was no one here but myself.

On one occasion it rained. Torrents of water droplets fell from invisible clouds. Despite the initial thrill of such a change in routine, I soon became wet and cold. There was little to cover myself with, so I merely crouched under the apple tree and waited it out. The storm continued for what seemed like days, drenching me to the bone. Then, just as I got used to the incessant moisture, the rain stopped and all was serene once again.

I was unexpectedly disappointed.

Another lifetime passed, and nothing changed. I eventually became frustrated and so proceeded to pick all the apples from my tree and hurl them into the ocean. Then I sat near the water and watched for days as the apples floated in a stationary fashion. There was no current, no past or future. Only absolute peace. Absolute solitude.

Perhaps the former was not possible without the latter.

The apples eventually rotted, and my hunger became unbearable. I soon began wasting away, laying prone beneath the stripped apple tree and watching as the muscles of my arms diminished, the skin became loose and papery.

Funny, I thought. To die in Heaven.

I should have been upset, apprehensive, afraid—instead I welcomed the transition. It was a change, a moving path…even if the end result was yet another unknown.

At long last, I faded away, succumbing to the proverbial white light, which surrounded me like a blanket as an unseen force lifted me upward, carrying me by my feet through a murky tunnel, up above Heaven, above the deep womb of the universe, out into a frigid, stark room where I was suddenly surrounded by people much larger than I was, much louder.

People! Giants!

As soon as the memory flashed in my mind, it began to fade away. I tried to talk, tried to open my eyes wider to see what was happening, but I’d forgotten how. Suddenly everything I knew was slipping away, fading into the recesses of my memory as a newness rushed in like air into a vacuum. I started crying, frustrated, saddened—elated.

“Congratulations, it’s a boy,” said someone standing above.

Alas, too late, for I could no longer understand the words.

“The Devil’s Cup”

Note: “The Devil’s Cup” is a rewrite of an earlier story I did called “Lucifer Works at Starbucks” (From Beyond, Aug. 1999). Both are satirical in nature, and somewhat absurd, though TDC, to me, is a bit more slick. The original version appears in The Midnight Recollections anthology.

* * *

Having made himself comfortable in the corner window seat of his favorite coffee shop, Donald Roeser was unfolding the business section of the Los Angeles Times when he noticed the devil serving espresso to an elderly woman two tables over. After a moment’s gawking in disbelief, Donald realized that he wasn’t imagining things—it was Satan, dressed in a vest and apron and serving drinks, of all things! Even more disturbing was the fact that the woman he was serving—as well as everyone else in the coffee shop—seemed absolutely unaware of the peculiarity of the situation.

“Good afternoon, Don.”

Donald jumped in his seat as Terrence Pitts, one of his more casual acquaintances, rested his briefcase beside the table and sat down.

“Lord almighty,” Donald breathed, clearing his throat and straightening his tie, which had somehow tossed itself sideways. “Don’t startle me like that.”

Terrence scowled. “Jumpy today, are we?”

I’m fine,” Donald replied, re-centering his coffeecup on its saucer. “But him…”

“Who?” asked Terrence, glancing around at the other tables.

“Look over my shoulder—be cool about it.” When Terrence shrugged and stared blankly, Donald let out an exasperated sigh and jerked his head several times in Satan’s direction. “Him. The guy with the horns. Don’t stare. He might notice you.”

“Oh, him. He’s the new guy, isn’t he?”

“I’ve never seen him before today.”

“Hmm, now that you mention it…”

Donald swiveled in his seat, paid the devil a nasty look. Are the horns some kind of blatant fashion statement? A joke amongst the staff? A genetic defect? Or is it really Lucifer himself, scheming to steal everyone’s soul when they least expect?

Terrence cleared his throat. “You’re staring, Donald.”

Donald faced forward. “Can you blame me?”

“Well, I suppose something like this is somewhat akin to spotting a celebrity in the flesh—”

“Celebrity? Bah!” Donald shook his head, wrung his hands. “What is he doing here?

“It looks,” said Terrence, “like he’s gotten himself a respectable day job.”

“Yes, and God is no doubt washing cars on the weekends.”

“Well, in these troubled times, with the economy a hair’s breadth from total collapse, I’m sure even the Prince of Darkness is feeling the squeeze.”

“But here? And at my favorite coffee shop?”

Terrence shrugged. “Modern times. Tolerance is the big thing now, haven’t you heard?”

“You’re nuts!” Donald hissed. “Aren’t you the least bit worried that society’s standards have become emaciated enough that the devil is allowed to work in a coffee shop?”

“If you ask me, having the devil work blue collar is a darned good thing. The less time he spends ruling his empire of damnation, the better. I’d prefer having Lucifer serve coffee any day.” Terrence lifted his hand—

—and Donald nearly swallowed his tongue when he saw Satan approaching the table. “Lord almighty, he’s coming this way—Terry, you fool! Put your hand down!”

Relax, Don. It’s your lunch break.”

“Like hell it is! Do you actually expect me to sit around twiddling my thumbs while the Master of All Evils is free to—” Donald cut himself short, straightened in his seat, for the devil had just reached the table. His name tag read, “Lucifer.”

“Good afternoon,” Terrence said, not batting an eyelash—as if ordering from waiters who had horns growing out of their heads was an everyday occurrence. “I’ll have a French roast.”

“Very good,” said Lucifer. Looking down at Donald, he asked, “Anything for you, sir?”

Donald lifted his cup shakily, inadvertently splashed coffee onto the tabletop. “I’ve already got mine, thanks.”

Lucifer nodded, started to leave—

“Waitaminute,” Donald blurted.

—and stopped, facing Donald again. “Yes?”

“Don’t take this the wrong way, but, er, shouldn’t you be burning souls in hell right now?”

(Underneath the table, Terrence kicked Donald in the shin.)

Lucifer took the question in good spirits, his laughter a deep baritone with a tinge of malice around the edges. “I see my reputation precedes me. True, my primary trade does involve a certain amount of ironic evils and merciless torture, but, well, the bills do have to get paid, don’t they?”

“But you’re Lucifer,” Donald insisted, furrowing his brow (and trying not to raise his voice too loudly). “You simply can’t go around serving coffee and pastries to people in your spare time—unless it involves some plot for world domination, that is.”

“Actually, I rather enjoy serving coffee,” Lucifer responded. “And as for world domination, I’d be far more concerned with the shenanigans of my local congressman, if I were you. Now, if there’s nothing else…?”

Donald shook his head.

“You’re making too much of this,” Terrence said, once Lucifer had left the table. “Really, you are—”

“I am not,” Donald snapped. He rose from his seat and straightened his tie. “I can get used to the fact that department stores across the country are selling fish-netting and dental floss to teenage girls as clothing. I’ve grown accustomed to the injustice of celebrities spending a weekend in jail for something that would get an honest nobody six years to life. I can even acknowledge the proliferation of office secretary blowjobs as standard currency for bureaucratic advancement—but allowing, nay, encouraging the general public to mingle with Lucifer himself, that’s simply too much! I’m going to see the manager right this minute.”

Terrence sighed, recovered the business section from Donald’s newspaper.

Harrumphing his way across the lounge, Donald approached the main counter and asked to speak with the manager. A tall gentleman wearing a slick ponytail promptly presented himself.

“Hello, Mr. Roeser,” he greeted, shaking Donald’s hand and smiling warmly. “I’m Stan Parker. I’ve been told you’re dissatisfied with an aspect of our service?”

Donald cleared his throat and glanced around quickly, hoping Lucifer wasn’t within earshot. “Well, er, yes. I’d like to discuss your hiring policies. You see, not five minutes ago the, er, devil came to my table and—”

“Ah, I see,” interrupted Stan. “Lucifer’s rubbed you the wrong way, has he?”

“Well, um, in a manner of speaking…” Donald trailed off, for a moment considering the implications of getting the devil fired from his day job. Making license plates in hell, he thought. That’s what happens to ornery humans who think it improper for the Prince of Darkness to work blue-collar. “I…I just don’t feel…as a faithful customer, that is, to be in the presence of the devil while trying to have my lunch…I’m uncomfortable, is all.”

Stan narrowed his eyes. “Wait a minute—Donald Roeser. You’re the one who complained about the jukebox playlist being too ‘loud,’ right?”

“This isn’t a dance club.”

“And just last week, you filed a complaint against the introduction of our new Wi-Fi service.”

Donald nodded. “I’m concerned that the congestion caused by the throngs of people coming here to check their MySpace accounts is spoiling the ambiance.”

“Throngs of people,” said Stan, “drinking our coffee while they check their MySpaces is hardly a blight.”

“Still, the devil is serving coffee.”

“Would you prefer Hitler?”

“I would prefer someone less…conspicuous.”

Stan waved his hand at the lounge. “Look around you. Two dozen patrons are quietly enjoying their lunch break, unaware that just a few feet away, an irate customer is seething with discrimination.”

“I am not irate,” said Donald, noticing that the elderly woman he’d seen earlier had been replaced by a lithe young girl of twenty. “And as for discrimination, why, you are the one discriminating against all of these…these college kids—you’re assuming their ignorance is reason enough to justify your wretched hiring practices.”

“You know, I do believe…” Stan paused for a moment and surveyed the various tables. “Yes, you’re most likely the oldest person here, Mr. Roeser. Even your lunch partner is several years your junior—and he’s blended right in, despite an abundance of white hairs.”

“He’s always been too unobtrusive for his own good.”

“Your thought modes are outdated, Mr. Roeser. You see no middle ground, no shade of gray between black and white, or, in this case, good or evil.”

“Ah! So you admit you have evil in your employ!”

Smiling, Stan folded his arms and said, “Evil, perhaps, but not doing evil in the present context.”

“Does it matter?”

“We’re all about public service here. Repeat business. And this is a business, Mr. Roeser.”

“Look,” said Donald, sighing. “My beef’s not with you, it’s with, well, You-Know-Who.”

“Then why don’t we let him in on our little discussion?” Stan waved Lucifer over.

Instinctively, Donald started to step away. “I, er, that’s quite all right. I’ll just finish my coffee and be on my way—”

“Nonsense,” said Stan, catching him by the arm. “These things are best dealt with out in the open, face to face, wouldn’t you agree?”

Lucifer sidled up beside Donald. “Everything all right, Mr. Roeser?” he asked.

Stan, putting on a somewhat stern expression, said, “This gentleman seems to think you have no business working here.”

Lucifer faced Donald. “Is that so?”

“No, no, no, not at all,” Donald babbled. Rivulets of sweat were coursing down his face and neck. He dabbed at his forehead with the back of his hand, over-adjusted his tie so that it chafed his skin. “Actually, considering your, ah, reputation, you seem to be doing quite well in this, er, line of work.”

Lucifer smiled and put his hand on Donald’s shoulder. “I appreciate your saying so, but, well, it’s the horns, isn’t it?”

“N-not at all—”

“You know, I considered having them removed surgically, but then I thought, ‘That’s somewhat unnecessary, isn’t it? Am I to treat my most distinctive physical attributes as a patch of unwanted moles, a pair of vestigial organs?’ Doctors, knives, insurance paperwork—needless complication. I show up for work every morning in the pursuit of equal opportunity, an exchange of money for services, and I do leave my pitchfork downstairs, if you know what I mean.” Lucifer laughed, Stan, too. (Donald couldn’t grasp the humor of the situation, for Lucifer’s fingers were singing the fabric of his suit.)

“Look, Mr. Roeser,” Stan said after a moment. “I’m sorry if you don’t agree with our hiring policy. If you like, I can have a formal complaint sent to the head office.”

Donald nodded, and would have protested further had he not suddenly become light-headed. With Lucifer’s help, he stumbled back to his table.

“Oh, Donald,” sighed Terrence, looking mildly concerned. “There you go again, getting yourself into a huff over the littlest things. You’ve made yourself sick, haven’t you?”

“I’ve done nothing of the sort,” Donald rasped, hastily brushing the devil’s hands from his shoulders as he rearranged himself in his chair. “Kindly let go of me. I’m fine.”

Lucifer complied. “Why don’t I fix you something special—a show of good faith.”

Donald nodded—if only to get the devil away from the table.

“You don’t look so good,” said Terrence. He pulled his chair beside Donald’s and helped loosen his tie. “Maybe we should go.”

“Oh, Terry,” Donald said, waving his hands in a flustered way. “I folded like a cocktail napkin. I never had a chance.”

“Ah, well, this is the new generation you’re dealing with,” said Terrence. “They laugh at war, they scoff at old age, they shun marriage. Their view of spirituality involves Spandex and Yoga mats and aggressive hip-hop beats. Religious hangups are for old fogies like you and me. Here, now, the devil has become nothing more than a civil servant. He has no power over those who don’t believe in him.”

“Maybe they should believe in him!” Donald snapped. “This is the devil we’re talking about! Lucifer, Satan, Set! Maker of Misery, Master of Ironies! It worries me to no end that not a single accursed soul in this joint is concerned about the possibility of an ulterior motive!” Donald looked around. There were more young people than there should have been, he was sure of it. They sat placidly at their tables, sipping, talking, completely unaware that they’d been brought in by the management as replacements for the old, the unsightly. A few offhand glances were sent his way; the faces were familiar and foreign, both at once—they were afterimages of regulars he’d come to know, pop art likenesses of actual people. Cardboard cutouts, thought Donald. Poster children. Unabashed youth. No concept of individuality. Components of their own social machine. They’re metric and I’m imperial—I don’t fit.

“You think,” he asked after a while, “I’m just losing touch?”

Terrence smiled one of his disarming smiles. “I think you lost touch years ago—I tell you what, though: You know where you stand, and that’s what matters, right?”

Lucifer returned to the table, a steaming cup in hand—literally. No saucer, no serving tray. “This one’s on the house, and so is everything else you’ve ordered today, just to make sure everything’s squared away between us.”

Donald’s first instinct was to refuse the coffee and to induce vomiting as soon as possible, but he held his composure—he needed to prove to himself that he could remain dignified while in the midst of a most asinine set of circumstances. He sipped the coffee, licked his lips, and—quite to his surprise—uttered a murmur of satisfaction as all his worries seemed to melt away.

“Do you like it?” asked Lucifer, clasping his hands expectantly.

Donald nodded, suddenly feeling much better about everything as a comfortable warmth spread throughout his body. “Why, yes, thank you. I’ll…I’ll be damned if you haven’t brightened my day.” A bashful look at Lucifer. “Er, no pun intended.”

“No worries. Now, if you need anything else, don’t hesitate to call on me, all right?” Lucifer patted Donald’s shoulder, then turned and left.

Donald took another sip of coffee as Terrence replaced his chair on the opposite end of the table.

“You see?” Terrance said. “And you were bracing for the apocalypse.”

“Perhaps I did overreact a bit—”

The PA system abruptly came to life.

“Your attention please, everyone,” said Stan (he had Lucifer standing beside him at the front of the restaurant, where a microphone and small podium had been set up). “This has been a terrific month for us. I’d like to personally thank each and every one of you for supporting our modest little coffee house.” A round of applause welled and ebbed appropriately; a few people whistled. “I would also like to recognize our newest Employee of the Month, Lucifer, without whom none of this would be possible.”

More applause, more cheers.

Lucifer removed his apron and, after shaking hands with Stan, stepped up to the microphone. “Thank you, everyone,” he said, grinning like a Cheshire cat. “It’s been an honor serving so many warm, devoted souls. Alas, I must return to my domain below, but before I do, I would like to remind you all to have a very nice day—don’t forget to pay.”

Another wash of applause from the coffee shop patrons, followed by a collective gasp as Lucifer stepped away from the podium and sank downward into the floor, scorching the tile work and leaving behind a puff of smoke.

“Wow,” Donald murmured. “That was surreal.”

“Indeed,” Terrence concurred. “Superb pyrotechnics.”

Standing, Donald shrugged into his coat. “Speaking of which, there are going to be some major pyrotechnics at the office if I’m not stuffed back into my cubicle on time.”

“Same here.”

Donald and Terrence sipped the last of their coffee; Donald was reaching for his wallet when he noticed several of the other patrons were also preparing to leave. One man calmly rose from his seat, took a long, luxurious breath of air, reached between the salt and pepper shakers for the butter knife—and proceeded to saw off the index finger of his left hand.

“My God!” Donald exclaimed. “What are you doing?”

“What does it look like I’m doing?” asked the man. “I’m paying the tab.”

Paying the tab?!?

Donald was unable to utter more than a series of half-swallowed gasps as he tore his gaze away from the sight of blood oozing across the man’s table. All around him, customers were carrying bits of their own bodies (hair clippings, nail filings, teeth, severed appendages) to the main counter—payment for coffee and croissants, illusion and vanity. He now realized his earlier disorientation had been due to the fact that everyone in the cafe had, over the course of the past half hour, been changed, transformed. He saw the elderly woman to whom Lucifer had been serving espresso; she was young and lithe now, though having trouble with depth perception as she carefully carried a freshly-gouged eyeball to the counter. A gentleman who’d earlier been dressed in a stained T-shirt and holey sweatpants now stood proud in his double-breasted suit as he took one last look at a wallet-sized portrait of his wife. In one corner, a fellow who’d entered the cafe wispy as a willow, but with a full, healthy head of hair, now made his way out, torso rippling with lean, hard muscle, pate as smooth as a cue ball.

Lucifer has served them all, Donald thought, and felt something crinkle in his hand.

A receipt.

“Shit,” he muttered, going limp and letting the receipt slip from his fingers.

“What is it, Don?” asked Terrence, his face weighted with dread.

“I drank from the devil’s cup,” Donald replied, “and it was the best I ever had.”

On the floor, the words on the receipt smoldered maliciously: Thank you for having lunch with us. TOTAL AMOUNT DUE: One soul.