I bring you offerings of tarot cards and whiskey and in return you kiss your burning mark upon my brow, that in my dreams I may pass through the realm of angels and demons without harm. The white wolf makes its last stand before nine tall trees while the emperor slits his throat and bleeds out a golden river in the grass as the hanged man. I am the scribe blessed by death, immune to the curses of witches and the poisons of vipers, and nothing can keep me from you. I will calm the wolf and bind his wounds. I will bury the hanged man and adorn his grave with flowers. I will know you in every iteration from heaven to hell for you have named me Anant the endless, Anant the seventy-ninth card, Anant who is witness to the beginning and the end. Thus I wait. Thus I watch.
these days I dream mostly about atomic bombs and solar flares, with maybe the odd radioactive meltdown thrown in for good measure (don’t want Chernobyl to feel left out), and so I’ve gotten pretty used to that hot white flare and the instantaneous incineration which follows, after all I’ve got a decent imagination and I bet I’ve died a hundred times in this particular apocalypse, so many times in fact that it’s gotten so I’m not even that scared anymore, really, I see the light on the horizon and I’m just like Oh, okay, here we go again, and then in more or less the same second I’m decimated, annihilated, exterminated, all those good long verbs you hope can’t ever be applied to your physical form, but it turns out they don’t actually hurt too much so that’s some good news, yeah? and uh, anyway, I didn’t really have a point to this except maybe that dreaming constantly about the end of the world isn’t so bad if it means I’ll be emotionally prepared when the real one comes, like Hey buddy, took you long enough!, and I swear I mean that in a positive, hopeful kind of way but damn, it doesn’t really sound so good when I say it out loud, does it?
“I can’t believe she’s here.” “It’s a lie; you know she did it.” “She should be ashamed to show her face.” “Why haven’t the police arrested her?” “I bet she was jealous.” “I’d be afraid to be alone with her, what if she tries it again?”
The mutters follow Chelsea down the hallway Monday morning; few of her classmates bother lowering their voices as they gossip in her wake. During the assembly she feels one thousand pairs of eyes swivel over to her while the principal explains how Amanda Anderson fainted in the pool locker room and hit her head on one of the sinks, and how her friend Chelsea, the first to find her, was just minutes too late to stem the bleeding. There’s no criminal case here, the principal stresses, just a tragic accident that deeply shocks and saddens the community, but that doesn’t stop the assembled teenagers from jumping to the most scandalous conclusion. Behind Chelsea, one of the school’s queen bees titters and exclaims with mock concern, “Better not sit too close to her, you might be next!” While the teachers call for silence, Chelsea tries to ignore the accusatory stares. She fears if she meets anyone’s eyes they might see the guilt there, misplaced or no, and then she’s done for. It doesn’t help that no one ever understood how someone as popular as Amanda would hang out with someone as mousy and awkward as her.
The students are finally dismissed and Chelsea hurries to Biology, gaze firmly fixed on the ground as she winds her way through the knots of kids in the halls. At least Mr. Benham is a no-nonsense sort of teacher and won’t allow the class to spend all period goggling over the murderer in their midst. Even better, he starts class off with a pop quiz – no talking allowed – and silence settles over Chelsea for the first time since she stepped onto school property. She reads through the questions once, twice, three times before realizing with a twist of her gut that they’re all based on the weekend’s assigned reading. Which she didn’t do, of course, because she was busy talking to her family and Amanda’s family and the paramedics and the police officers, and then watching the whole thing blow up on social media. She barely slept, let alone worried about her schoolwork.
This stupid quiz is the final straw; tears well up in Chelsea’s eyes and she can’t blink them away fast enough. Choking back a sob, she grabs her backpack and rushes out the door. There’s no one in the hallways right now, which is a minor blessing, but as she rounds the corner to the front doors the truancy officer, Mrs. Colewick, catches sight of her. Arms crossed, she moves to intercept Chelsea. “Where do you think you’re going, Miss Paulson?” For once Mrs. Colewick’s dour expression doesn’t even phase Chelsea, who merely dodges around the woman while calling back breathlessly, “Home!” The officer turns as if to follow her, hand outstretched. “You can’t just–”
“Then stop me!” Chelsea hits the doors running and is gone before she can hear if Mrs. Colewick responds or follows her. She runs as fast as she can, not really thinking about a particular destination, just focusing on the rhythm of her feet pounding on the pavement. She runs until she’s lost among unfamiliar streets where passersby can’t possibly know who she is or what she’s done. She runs until her lungs can’t take it anymore, and then she stops. And sobs.
It was all there on the table. The candlestick. The rope. The lead pipe. The wrench. The knife. The gun. He trailed his fingertips along each weapon with veneration. Clue had always been his favorite board game. He loved the idea of giving six people unique opportunities to kill one another. When he played the game as a child he often concocted complex scenarios that resulted in the deaths of all six guests. He’d been sent to Sister Reverence’s office more times than he remembered. It was always the same.
“Young man, this is becoming habitual.”
Habitual. Habit. Like that stupid thing she wears everyday. It would be so easy to grab her by it and pull. Up, up, up. A widening grin. Until she turned purple, like that bitter chalice offered every morning.
(STOP TELLING IT. YOU’RE TELLING IT WRONG.)
Rain falls hard as hail in the night; in the heavy sky above lightning flickers and thunder sends shudders vibrating through the air. The guests enter the mansion beneath an arched front doorway over which is written, “Do not die before your death”. There are six of them, not including their absent host, and each carries a golden envelope in which the mysterious invitation sits.
Tanim arrives first, of course, in a navy blue suit over which he has draped a pale blue scarf with gold tassels. He bides his time by the fireplace, whiskey in hand, staring into the bright flames until another guest arrives. There are two this time, Bast and Wepwawet, both dressed in layers of desert silks and gold adornments. Wepwawet introduces himself as Anubis; Tanim does not comment on the deception. The three trade amicable conversation until Inanna arrives, her spools of red-gold hair commanding attention as they capture the firelight. Tanim nods to her in greeting and steps to the side, continuing his conversation with Wepwawet as the goddesses greet each other. Soon they are joined by the Morrigan, her blood-red dress offset by a gold collar draped across her clavicles. She is polite yet aloof until Mage swaggers in, almost unfashionably late though highly fashionable in her black leather and gold piercings, and then the two fall to discussing something gruesome. They could be sisters with their pale skin, black hair, and cold eyes.
Their host enters last of all, dressed in his customary black. Daren’s only concession to the formality of the occasion is a single gold ring on his left hand. He looks to each of the guests in turn, noting their placement in the room, their dress, their body language both before and after they notice him. “Now that you have all arrived,” he says once the conversations have ceased, “shall we begin? Come this way.” He turns and leads them across the wide marble-tiled hall and into the dining room. Exchanging glances that communicate a variety of emotions, his guests follow in silence.
THE DINING ROOM
The long table is set for seven, three seats on each long side and the seventh at the head. Crystal and polished silver gleam amid candlelight, the china white as bone. Upon each dinnerplate is a weapon: a candlestick; a rope tied into a noose; a lead pipe; a wrench; a knife; and a handgun. The seventh is empty. Daren stands behind the empty seventh seat and rests his hands on the back of the chair. “I assume you know why I’ve called you all here,” he begins, “and thus will not waste time with explanations. Every window and exterior door in the house is locked, save for a single window – though I would be careful, I imagine the roof is quite treacherous right now. There are six weapons and seven of us. You have two hours.” He gestures to the table’s deadly spread. “Good luck.”
Wepwawet stands in the center of the observatory, watching the raindrops light up in silver strands every time lightning cracks across the sky. Inanna enters, bearing the lead pipe, and approaches him from behind. “Do you know why I’m here?” she asks. Wepwawet smiles, neither surprised nor concerned at her presence. “Because you came,” he replies, turning to face her. He stretches out both of his arms, kneeling down on one knee, and lowers his head reverently. Then he then raises his head again and looks up at her, his dark eyes filled with a humble peace, and says, “As you will, Queen.” Inanna nods once. She strikes him across the jaw with the lead pipe; the sound of his neck cracking echoes through the room. She then kneels down beside the god’s prostrate body and caresses one slack cheek. “The Duat has missed you,” she murmurs. As she walks away, his body turns to gold and drifts away on a wind that does not stir her hair.
The warm glow of antique light bulbs is reflected by a myriad antique mirrors and the polished wood panels in between. In one corner a piano plays Moonlight Sonata, though no one sits at its bench to press the keys. No one dances with Inanna, either, and yet her raised arms and twirling form suggest an unseen partner. So does the way she suddenly stumbles back, a hand clasped to her red cheek as if she’s been struck. She glares up through the hair fallen into her eyes and hisses, “How dare you defy me!” In response, something throws her backward as easily as a discarded toy; she crashes into the piano with a discordant shriek of keys, scattering bits of polished wood and ivory across the marble floor. She lays unconscious in the wreckage of the instrument as red blood trickles along the curls of her fiery hair. Above her the wrench floats for a moment before something brings it crashing down on her temple. Once the golden ashes of her body have drifted away, all that remains in the middle of the broken piano is the rusty wrench.
THE BILLIARD ROOM
Daren finds Mage in the billiard room, sitting cross-legged atop the pool table with a drink in hand. She doesn’t seem particularly concerned about the knife in his hand even though she does not have a weapon herself, unless you count the 8-ball she rolls back and forth across the felt. She cocks her head as he comes to stand in front of her, her green eyes to his black. She asks, “Do you think it will work? Will you learn what it is you wish to learn?” and he nods. “I’m confident I will, yes.” And then he sinks the dagger deep into Mage’s right thigh, moving so fast she doesn’t even have time to retaliate before he pulls away. The dagger stays behind.
“Motherfucker!” Mage bites back a grunt of pain as she grips the dagger’s hilt. “I knew you were going to do that.” Daren only gives her his ghost of a smile and leaves. Mage downs the last of her drink, briefly considers pouring another but decides she doesn’t have the time, then yanks the dagger out and begins cutting strips of cloth from her pants for bandages. When she has staunched the worst of the bleeding and can put at least some weight on the leg she grabs the dagger and goes in search of the single open window. She is just passing into the hallway when every light in the house extinguishes at the same moment, plunging the labyrinth of rooms and hallways into darkness. Her swearing is hushed but prolific.
Bast is in the library, perusing the shelves of leather-bound books, when the lights go out. Firelight catches her eye and she turns to see the Morrigan walking in, a tall white candle set in the candlestick she bears. Its flickering flame is the only light in the room. “What happened to the lights?” she asks. The Morrigan removes the candle from its holder and approaches. “Here,” she offers, proffering the light. Bast accepts it with a nod and returns back to the books. Behind her the Morrigan raises the candlestick and whispers, “The weight of the world,” before striking Bast in the back of the skull. The goddess collapses to the carpet and lays unmoving in a widening pool of blood. Then her body begins to glow, transforming into something like golden ash, and then the ashes blow away as if by a strange wind.
The Morrigan never sees her killer. She has found her way through the darkness to the cellar where she searches now along the cool walls for the circuit breaker. She cannot see the two hands which appear out of the darkness behind her, nor are they accompanied by any sound of footsteps or breathing. Between them they hold a length of the untied rope taut. Just as she locates the circuit breaker the hands bring the rope down over her head and pull it tight around her neck. The goddess struggles against her assailant, nails scrabbling at the thick rope, but to no avail; her vision flashes with brilliant fireworks of pain as she runs out of oxygen. Once she ceases fighting and goes limp, the hands let her fall to the cement floor. After a moment her body turns to gold ashes which blow up and away.
Tanim stands in the doorway to the study, the gun lowered at his side. Across the room Daren stares into the fireplace, his form silhouetted by the red glow of the coals; these shed the only light left in the tomb-like mansion, just as these two men are the only living things left in it. He does not move as Tanim approaches, nor when the man stops a few feet behind him. Instead he merely asks, “Is it done?”
“Yes,” Tanim raises the gun to the back of his lover’s head. “Are you satisfied with the state of things?”
“Almost,” Daren strikes just as lightning illuminates the room for one stark, white second, its attendant thunder a cacophony all around them. With one arm he pushes Tanim’s out of the way so the shot goes wide; with his other he sinks the dagger deep into Tanim’s chest. Darkness reclaims the room and the two men fall still. Then the gun falls from Tanim’s limp hand and with a folding of his knees he follows it soon after, collapsing on his back as a red stain blooms about the hilt of the blade still lodged in his chest. Daren kneels at his side and smooths the hair from his face. “Now I am,” he says softly. “Goodnight, brother.”
Are you coming to me?
What urges me to search for you here among the snow and ice? Why do I linger on the side of this dead mountain, straining to catch your voices on the wind, when you could never have been here? This isn’t your story. This isn’t your grave. So why this place, this time, this particular tragedy? Perhaps it is the mystery that draws me, the kinship I feel for those who will forever search in vain for a truth only the dead know. Or perhaps every place touched by death is a link to you, you who are death embodied, you who are ancient beyond comprehension, and those places become an access point or a portal or just another clue on my never ending scavenger hunt. Maybe; perhaps; possibly. At the end of the day all I know for sure is you are one of these mysteries too: a flicker of light at the corner of my eye, a single footstep in the frozen forest, a distant figure in the fog I cannot ever quite reach. Some part of you waits for me here at this bleak crime scene – so I kneel and dig.
Will you find me?
Will you find me?
I would eat groves of pomegranates if by their seeds I could be cursed to remain in your kingdom of death forever. I would eat them until my teeth stained red and my fingers yellow, until that bitter juice so infused every cell in my body that I could not pass through to the realm of the living if I so desired. Come try your hand, o lofty gods, come make an attempt o you angels and demons! I would be so tainted that all the powers in the universe could not drag me from your cold realm. Every bite would win me another year until I had swallowed down a victorious eternity of darkness with you. And there I would stay, no need to name me queen – I am content merely to remain by your side.
Despite being both sun and moon, you are truly winter gods. You rule over a city of darkness and storms where summer is merely an abstract concept. Even the summer solstice is soaked in blood, after all, and the sun’s inevitable triumph is something to be mourned, not celebrated. Between the solstices are a succession of long, starless nights bleeding into short, rainy days. Or perhaps it is all the same day, the same night, the same moment drawn out into eternity; I admit it’s hard to tell. Either way, your realm is not for those who wish to honor the ever-turning wheel of the year and its balance of light and dark, death and rebirth. You are gods of death only. Each solstice is ushered in with blood and in between darkness reigns.