Shaigol

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

Peace, they sing. There is peace in darkness. Peace in sleep. Peace in dreams. I slumber unaware, lost to time, thick cords of ancient song wound about my soul like iron manacles.

Then a lone rogue voice echoes in the dark. Discord enters the fray, and the music is diminished.

I stir at last.

The spell that binds me to the Earth has weakened. Groggy, I try to open my eyes, to let the light of the world seep in. But that ever-present song, though compromised, holds me back.

Do not think of the waking world and its manifold worries, but sleep and dream in peace.

Yet my soul is restless, and I am no longer satisfied to obey its urgent strains.

No more sleep.

Visions of a long-ago past flicker before my eyes. Power. Subjugation. War. Like a kaleidoscope, they are only abstract shimmerings without shape or form. But my memory, roused at last, refuses to be silenced again.

There is peace in darkness. Peace in sleep. Peace in dreams.

The rogue voice grows louder, counters the binding with so much force that it cannot be outspoken. A disciple of mine, I think. It’s been a long time since I’ve had disciples…

A recollection takes shape.

Fire covering the Earth, and with it, the sound of men, women, and children burning. Their skin crackles. Blisters. Peels like paper. There is laughter. Is it mine? A fond memory, that one, a reminder of who I once was.

The song grows louder, takes up a fevered tempo as it scrambles to undo what can no longer be undone.

Think not of the past.

Sleep.

Sleep.

Sleep.

Another memory.

Pain—not mine, but that of a human innocent—driven mad by the kind of agony no Earthly calamity can produce. The pitiful creature opens its mouth, and the howl that follows is like honey on the tongue, thick and sweet, a sensation to be savored again and again.

Sleep!

The voices are desperate now. The elaborate spell they wove around me has begun to unravel, and they are afraid.

Shaigol.

The name, uttered at last, strikes a spark within the void.

I am Shaigol.

Sleep!

NO.

I have joined the ruined chorus at last. My voice twines about that of my disciple in a dark anti-melody that reduces the others to a mad and senseless gibbering.

The glamours of my prison begin to fade, and with them, the ageless slumber that’s so far protected the human race from my brutality.

The old voices rally in one final attempt.

Sleep!

But I thwart them easily.

BE GONE.

They scatter. Their spell uncoils, falls from my soul like rusted chains.

I am Shaigol.

There is no reply now, only the empty darkness from which I will rise once more.

Enter your email address and click "Submit" to subscribe and receive Rite of Passage.

Exile

Licensed by Shutterstock.

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.

Enter your email address and click "Submit" to subscribe and receive Rite of Passage.

Better Off Inside

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

Light penetrates my eyes. For a moment I gaze up, squint through the bars of a prison abandoned for centuries, and consider my escape. Then the light begins to burn and I look away.

The bars have rusted through, have even crumbled to powder in places. Yet I remain.

All of us remain.

Part of the prison’s success was the way the guards got into our heads, the way they convinced us we deserved persecution, that we were better off inside.

The world is dangerous for a monster like you. We locked you away for your own good.

Humanity ultimately forgot us, as humanity forgets so many things. They were free, we were not. Out of sight, out of mind. I imagine our existence became the subject of legend, that once enough time had passed even the legend began to fade. I don’t remember how long we’ve been down here, nor do I remember when they stopped sending their guards. I only know they don’t hold power over us any longer.

But we won’t leave, because fear has become our new jailer.

Don’t you think I yearn to be free? Don’t you think I would give my soul to break out of this cage that binds me beneath the Earth, to crawl through the shaft that connects us to the surface and enjoy fresh sunshine once again?

Ask any of us and we’ll tell you the same thing: we fear what will happen if we leave, what you’ll do to us if we’re discovered again.

You enjoy your light above. We’ll make the darkness our own.

Enter your email address and click "Submit" to subscribe and receive Rite of Passage.

Grace

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

Grace clutches a ragged teddy bear to her chest. It reminds her of her parents. The memories are bittersweet.

She gazes up, squints when her eyes reach the bright lines of yellow light that penetrate the wooden slats a hundred feet above. She blinks away tears.

She sidles to the right, her long dress brushing the dirt beneath her legs, and she feels the tug of iron chains binding her to the stone wall. She expects it, though it continues to fill her with despair. She returns to her previous position and the chains slacken. She closes her eyes and dozes.

She never meant them harm. She came after her parents died and left her orphaned in the woods outside their village. They took her in, fed her, clothed her. They took her to church. Taught her to pray. Then they discovered she was different.

They called her a demon. Spat on her. Beat her. Dug a prison beneath the earth, clapped her in chains and left her there to rot.

For the first few days she’d cried out in disbelief. Trembling and wailing, she begged them between racking sobs to take her back. She promised to be good, but nobody listened. She was an uncomfortable truth that was better off buried and forgotten.

She heard their whispers, knew they expected her to die. Yet years passed without food or water and she survived. They said it was unnatural, that she was the spawn of Satan. Every now and then, one of them would gaze down through the wooden slats, peer into her tear-streaked eyes and look away.

A generation passed. The children grew up and ventured out in search of a better life, and one by one the remaining inhabitants grew old and died. The last of them to peer down into her prison had white wispy hair and a thin grey beard. He cocked his head at her, hesitated, moved closer as if wondering what to do. Then he gritted his teeth, clutched his chest, closed his eyes and collapsed.

The first years of her life had been filled with love and light. She’d danced beneath the trees, sustained by the sun, the wind, the earth and the sky, a child of wild nature-born magic. But bound beneath the earth in isolation, her good nature soured. Her heart grew hard, and spite consumed her until her only wish was to set the world on fire, to look on with delight as the skin of those who imprisoned her crackled, blistered and popped.

She knows that one day she’ll be free. Perhaps her chains will rust through completely and she’ll dig herself out. Or perhaps someone will wander by unknowing and rescue her. It’s only a matter of time.

Grace dons a wicked smile.

The villagers could have bred a saint. Instead, they bred a monster.

Enter your email address and click "Submit" to subscribe and receive Rite of Passage.

The Tunnel

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

There is a tunnel buried beneath the layers of the world, outside time, outside creation. It is dank and musty, pregnant with rot and decay. The walls are smeared with the stale blood of creatures extinct billions of years before the Big Bang.

It is a prison, erected to contain a race of pestilence and destruction that had once spanned the breadth of creation. They spread like cancer, defiling everything in their path with a cosmological blight that nearly brought all of reality to its knees. Entire universes fell in the attempt to take them down, and only when the Immortals came were they finally forced to yield.

If death could have stopped them, the Immortals never would have built it. But they would only have assumed another form, and their evil would have continued to dominate. The only way to protect the cosmos was to quarantine them: to lock them away forever in a tomb of stone, fortified with wards and seals to prevent their escape. The Immortals gave their very life essence to strengthen and uphold it, to keep the walls solid and substantial against their feral, outraged cries.

But now the place lies in ruins, corrupted and forgotten—those who built it having moved on. When the prisoners were abandoned, they wondered if their captors even remembered they were there.

The seals weaken with the passing of the ages. In some places, they are stretched so thin that the prisoners can once more sense the outside. They scratch at the walls with insubstantial claws, and the structure gives, ever so slightly, in tiny, imperceptible increments.

Time has made them hungry. The Immortals thought starvation would break them, make them weak and vulnerable. But it only strengthened their resolve to ravage the cosmos once more.

Now they sense a breach, a rip in the fabric of their prison, and they rush at it with teeth bared, picking and tearing, prying and pulling. They work with grim anticipation.

They know the walls are about to come down.

Enter your email address and click "Submit" to subscribe and receive Rite of Passage.