There once was a feller—lived right in this here parish—name of Hercules Smith. He got that name afore he was ten years old, on account of all the wrasslin he did. You never saw such a wrassler in all your life. He’d sneak out at night to wrassle bears, and when his pappy caught him, why, he’d wrassle him too.
Now, one day, when Hercules Smith was near growed up, his pappy up and keeled over at the plow. Dead afore he hit the ground. His family was mighty sad, but he had a passel of sons who could take good care of their mama and sisters. Still, young Hercules Smith was a mite worried.
A whisper, a stirring of leaves.
Eve bounced on her toes at the crown of a grass and heather-covered hill, smiled at the steep slope below her. What would happen if she were to fling herself down it? Oh, she might fetch up against the tree just below, but what fun to tumble down in a flash, end over end, the air rushing by her ears.
She poised herself.
Joseph Blackburn III hopped off his bike and leaned it against the iron fence. He didn’t bother to lock it.
He held his breath as he passed through the gate—some habits you never grow out of—and headed up the path. Hard to believe it had been a year already.
He passed a few trees, climbed a small hill.
A man stood at the grave. Tall, broad-shouldered, looking sharp in a newly-pressed suit. He looked up as Joseph approached, and tapped some ash from the end of a fat cigar.
“Thought you might come.”
Gregor Bock clasped his hands before him, held himself straight. The Ritual Room had felt small, when he snuck in on a dare one night last year. Now it seemed vast. Cavernous. The wizards who stood chanting at each point of the central pentagram were dwarfed by the Room, which seemed to expand even as it filled with the black smoke pouring off the brazier at the pentagram’s center. The brazier offered no warmth, and the chill of the bare stone floor seeped up Bock’s legs, through his thick winter boots and woolen socks.
He peered back at the high double doors, now shut. A choice, the man outside had said. A decision—through the double doors, and on to the path of the wizard, the path that led to solitude, to danger, to power. The path to the testing, that would take the lives of nearly half those who attempted it. Or the other path. The side path, the common path, the path that led away from the double doors and the testing, away from the chance of greatness, away from danger, to an ordinary life—Her Majesty’s Army, or the clergy, or the University. The path of his brothers.
No choice at all.
There was something brutal about him. He sat there across the desk from me, in a straight-backed plastic chair, and the frown on his face and the set of his shoulders just screamed primal. Vicious. Like at any second, he might up and knock your head off.
That was good. That was what I wanted to see in my boys. That was what I taught ‘em.
He slipped on wet stone, and cursed as the light flew from his hand. It bounced once on its padded side, then fell front-first with a shattering crash on a patch of sharp rocks.
The darkness was immediate and complete.
Colorful spots filled his eyes. He blinked hard, several times. Dropping the light had been stupid, but there was no need to panic. Rule one of cave exploration was to always bring a backup light. He reached to his belt, pulled light number two from its loop, and flipped the switch.
Dear Customer Service,
I was told when I first arrived that I would have the option to leave, and you know, have another go at everything. Is there someone in particular I need to talk to? What exactly do I need to do to take advantage of this option?
Thank you in advance for your help.
Subject: Re: Return?
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Old Ma Meg leaned on her hoe, swept damp hair from her eyes, and stared up, straight at the sun. Miserly it was, these days. Barely made her eyes water. Barely touched her little garden. She shook her head and got back to hoeing. That dull red light might be enough, might not. She would find out, was all.
The wind picked up, and a fine gray ash sifted down from the sky. Months, and still it came.
The Mysterious Man pulled down the brim of his Stetson and squinted back along the mesa, into the late afternoon sun. It had been a long day—too long, like a tie that goes down way past your belt buckle, and your wife wonders aloud just how stupid the other parents at the concert will think you are, and then you yell at each other until your daughter starts crying.
Mad Dog and his gang sauntered down the mesa behind him. They all wore holsters under their dusters, and they all carried six-shooters. One of them spat over the edge of the mesa.
Mad Dog. If ever a man was born already deserving to die, it was him.
Harsh light filled his eyes; stale, sweaty air his nostrils. The hum of voices, the jangling of slots, the rattle of a roulette wheel blended to batter his ears, a roaring wind. Focus was gone; cards in all suits and ranks scattered across his brain.
He fumbled for an inner calm that stayed just out of reach. Maybe the struggle itself kept calm away. Did it matter? It was time and past time for him to leave—he was losing his edge. Had lost his edge. That last hand, with the Kid sitting there smirking when a lucky card—no, push it aside.
Poker was no place for emotion.