despair

Exile

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The road Jeremy traveled crested a steep, sandy hill, and he stopped for a moment to look around. Not that there was anything to see. The landscape had remained unchanged since his arrival some five hundred years ago.

He didn’t know where the road began, only that it was long, that as far as he knew, it had no end. It stretched toward a horizon that never got any closer, surrounded by dry, desolate desert.

A hot convection oven breeze kicked sand into his blistered, sunburned face, and he slitted his eyes, praying it wasn’t the start of yet another sandstorm, from which he’d never enjoyed any protection.

He was immortal now. He hadn’t always been, but his captors had made him so before exiling him. An unexpected gift, he’d thought at the time, a miscalculation on the part of his enemies. Now, centuries later, he knew better.

The wind died down, and with it the momentary blast of sand. The world came gradually into focus.

Jeremy recoiled.

In the distance, perhaps a thousand feet ahead, perhaps two, a lone figure stood, feet planted in the middle of the road. This far away, he couldn’t make out much, only a dark speck against the blinding backdrop of the desert.

Hadn’t they said the never-ending journey was his alone? Then why would they come to him now, after so many years? It had to be one of them. Nobody else could have found him.

Cautiously he continued, a thousand possible scenarios streaming through his head like film. An assassin? A messenger? Maybe they just wanted to taunt him. He wouldn’t have thought them capable of such cruelty, but he didn’t put it past them either.

Each step forward, each rise and fall of the sandy terrain, brought the two closer to whatever inevitable interaction awaited. Jeremy could make out more details now, the ink black robes that covered the figure from head to toe, the canteen that hung from a strap at the figure’s side.

A canteen. That meant water.

If Jeremy had been allowed a drink, his mouth would have watered. But there was no water in this place, nor had there ever been, as far as he could tell. With a single spell, they’d given his body all it needed to survive the unrelenting heat, but not an iota more. Part of his punishment, they’d said. It was a wonder he hadn’t gone mad.

If they’d decided to kill him, it would be a mercy. Clinging to sanity was a daily struggle, and with each passing year he could feel himself slip a little further, feel himself succumb to despair a little more completely.

Another step. Then another. The figure was close now, but whether they were a man or a woman it was impossible for Jeremy to say, the black robes obscuring their face and hair.

A second blast of wind took him by surprise, and a spray of sand zapped him in the eyes before he could turn away. The burning was enough to make him stagger.

“What do you want?” he growled. “Have you come to delight in my suffering?”

No reply.

Slowly he opened his eyes. Tears welled at the corners, blurring his vision.

They stood face to face now. The figure, untouched by the sand, stared at him with bright electric blue eyes.

Didn’t he know those eyes from someplace? The ghost of a memory danced at the periphery of his mind’s vision, but he couldn’t bring it into focus.

“Hello.”

At last, the figure spoke. Their voice was deep, husky, like gravel sliding across the sand, but the sound was unmistakably female. More memories, sharp now, but disjointed and inconsistent, like shards of glass, sparkling haphazardly beneath the sun.

“You’ll remember.”

And sure enough, the pieces realigned, fused, formed a cohesive whole. At last, he saw the vision his mind had tried so hard to reveal.

Six robed figures, silent, still as marble statues. Three men, three women, representatives of humanity, as they called themselves, though their function was judicial rather than diplomatic.

“How do you plead?” they asked in unison, breaking the silence. The sound rolled through the vast underground court, and the torches in the stone walls wavered, as if their words had the power to summon wind.

Jeremy looked up, beaten, broken, feeling as if the wind had been knocked from his lungs.

The six nodded, as if they hadn’t expected him to say anything else.

“You condemned millions to a life without hope. We sentence you to the same.”

And they had exiled him, sent him to this hell of endless sun and sand. The woman with the electric blue eyes, she’d been there too, hadn’t she? Looking him up and down, appraising him, sizing him up.

“You will wander alone,” she’d said in the same gravely voice. “On and on, without respite or reprieve. The horizon’s end will be forever out of reach. You will know despair, as your victims knew despair.”

She and two others carried him, kicking and screaming, through a gate, depositing him in the world he cursed today with every exhalation of breath.

Only here she was again.

“You,” Jeremy croaked, rubbing red, swollen eyes. “You were the one who sent me here. Is this part of my punishment, to taunt me at my lowest point? Then do it, and be on your way!”

The woman’s eyes sparkled. Stunned, Jeremy realized after a moment she was crying.

“Your sentence,” she said, voice lowered almost to a whisper, “has been commuted. You’re free to go.”

Free to go. He knew the meaning of the words, could understand how they fit together in a sentence. But he couldn’t understand what they meant in relation to himself.

“What do you mean, free to go?”

“I mean, your exile is over and I’ve come to take you home.”

“But—” He sunk to his knees, salty, bitter tears cascading down cracked, sun baked cheeks.

“Your punishment was to taste the despair of your victims, to understand on a visceral level what you did to them. But it was never truly a life sentence. Our function is to rehabilitate, not to destroy.”

She said this with such unexpected care, like a mother opening her arms to a wayward child.

“You had to know what your victims went through in order to understand the gravity of your crime. Now that you’ve been broken, we can make you into something new.”

Anger. Incredulity. Absurdity. These emotions and more flashed through his heart, one after the other, chasing each other around in his head until all he could feel was numb.

The woman stepped forward, took him by the shoulder.

“Come,” she said, and at her touch, the desert around them faded to black.

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Labyrinth

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A thick fog surrounded Gerald, billowing like smoke. The world beyond the Labyrinth lay bare before him, pale and insubstantial, faded like an old photograph. He’d navigated the Labyrinth’s perilous depths for centuries, a towering ancient structure of stone, iron, and magic. All the while he’d labored under the promise that someday, when he’d reached the end, he would be released.

Now he knew the truth.

He could see the world outside, only it was a mute shadow of the place he’d known before he was captured. It would be forever out of reach.

His conquerors had said the Labyrinth was a Purgatory, that at the end he would find pardon and peace. But the Labyrinth was not a Purgatory, it was a Hell. Its purpose had not been to redeem him but to break him.

Head hung low, shoulders hunched in defeat, he turned to go back the way he’d come.

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His Domain

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A gust of frigid night air blew past James as he wound through the park, making him shiver. Like a dream, only he knew he wasn’t asleep. The world was unnaturally quiet and still. There was only the wind, sighing like a mournful spirit.

Orange lamps lit the edges of an asphalt path, but the dim illumination only seemed to hint at all the things it refused to reveal. So many dark corners and hidden shadows. Anything could be out there, watching, waiting, hunting.

The most distressing thing was that he couldn’t remember why he was here. Memory was a vague thing, a thin mist that parted and evaporated whenever he reached for it.

James’s eyes flitted from one shadow to the next. He licked his lips. They felt cold and dry. The wind was blowing harder now, trees swaying back and forth in a harsh rhythm. Leaves and branches played a haunting tune, a dry rasping sound.

James caught movement on his right. He whirled, strained to hear. But there was nothing. More movement to his left, the slightest flicker on the edge of vision. Again he whirled, and again there was nothing.

James ran. Lamps and trees streaked by in a blur until his side ached and his breath started to come in ragged puffs. He had no idea where he was going, no idea what he was running from, only that he couldn’t stop, that stopping meant dying.

It seemed the trees and asphalt went on forever. He could make out buildings on the horizon, a smattering of yellow-orange windows like distant stars, but running never seemed to bring him any closer.

James’s heart pounded, until it had become a high frequency beat that made him feel lightheaded. Eventually he stopped, and when he couldn’t catch his breath he fell to his knees, gulping for air. He wanted to keep running, but when he tried to scramble to his feet he only succeeded in falling to his hands and knees once again.

“Why do you run from me?”

James froze. He tried to discern the source of the voice, but it moaned and whistled with the wind so that it seemed to come from everywhere at once.

“They all do, you know. They all believe they can escape. They think that if they run fast enough, that if they run long enough, they can get away, that they can cheat me out of what’s always been mine.”

The wind was now whipping at James’s hair and clothes in a violent gale.

A figure emerged from the shadows, not from a place of hiding but from the shadows themselves. It loomed over him, wearing the blackness like a cloak.

James wanted to scream, to summon anyone who might be close enough to help. But whatever sound he’d wanted to make had gotten caught in his throat. Finally, in a hoarse whisper, he croaked, “Who are you?”

“Yes,” the figure mused in that same elemental voice, “and they always ask me the same thing. Who am I? Why have I come? And you know, they all know the answer before they even ask. Deep down, they’ve always known the answer.”

The figure knelt before him, and as he leaned in with a face that was shrouded in darkness, the air grew colder. “Have you figured out who I am yet?”

James had lost most of his body’s warmth. He shuddered, hugged himself with shaking arms. “Death.”

“Yes.”

James’s vision blurred around the edges.

“You’ve come to take me,” said James. “Because I’m yours.”

“Yes, you are.”

The blackness enfolded him, blinded him.

A breeze grazed the surface of his left ear like a kiss. “Death is my domain.”

A flicker of consciousness, like a sputtering flame, and then James went to join Death in the dark.

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