Torrents of rain. Purely bucketfuls.
Renard had always been a modest man. He stood here, in the doorway of the Chez Caisse, an unmistakably French inn, breathing in the sweet, subtle smell of pouring water. His meeting would undoubtedly be delayed now. There was no chance of anyone making it through such a heavy downpour.
The thought did not please him in the least. And above all Renard saw the fulfillment of his own pleasure as the sole purpose of the entire universe. Anyone acting to the contrary was an enemy, and anything standing in his way was to be destroyed.
Always ruthlessly successful, and always miraculously efficient, Renard would make sure this time was not any different. Nature, like everything else, would not delay his plans any more than he could stand, and after five minutes of waiting Renard’s patience was thoroughly trashed.
The rain must cease—he commanded it.
And it did.
James Beck ran, and he ran, and he ran like hell. He figured it was as good a way to run as any, and since he had no particular place to go it seemed the most straightforward.
Days had passed since he had eaten. At this point it was wishful thinking alone that kept him going. Thoughts of love filled his head. They pulsed and they flowed, and they jittered and danced. James had never been able to direct them towards any single person—he fancied himself not quite singular enough.
He stopped, and shook the thoughts away. It would not do for them to be here now, he thought. Right now he had to concentrate on the present, on rebuilding his life. Falsely convicted of murder at twenty-one, the justice system had taken twelve years out of the prime of his life.
But he held no ill will towards them. If he had it would have likely translated into further violent action, resulting in more imprisonment. Resentment and a thirst for vengeance were the only cause of the so-called cyclical prisoners that made the majority of the population, and after having seen the abrupt changes they went through James had no desire to become one of them.
He had finally been released with the admission of new evidence. No one had decided to dash his expectations by apologizing. Legally, he was free. Practically, he had no money, no food, and most importantly no convictions. He had run off in search of them, run off in search of something to do, and all he had found so far was a passion for running and an unfixable love of someone purely theoretical.
It had been hours since he had seen anyone else. The last was a sleeping farmer, hat tilted over his eyes, emitting strangely soothing snoring sounds through distorted nostrils. They reminded James of a story one of his fellow convicts—he hesitated to call them friends—had told him. Like all stories they told each other, it was criminal in nature. The man in question was thoroughly annoyed by the sounds his wife made in her sleep. He had called them cries of the children of Satan, and one night, taken beyond the point of control (which in this man was not a very distant journey, this being his seventh distinct crime) he took the nearest sharp object—a pencil—and stabbed out her tongue.
The thrilling tale was interrupted by someone’s sudden cry.
“Hey! You there! The man with the ghastly scowl!” James must have been far too absorbed in his recollection to notice whoever it was that had just called to him. He looked up, only to see a small girl, of perhaps thirteen or fourteen. His immediate thought was that she was his daughter, thus demonstrating the importance of a protracted period of thought when dealing with matters of importance.
“How are you doing? My name is Amelia.” She held out her hand to him.
It took him a minute to recollect himself. Of course she wasn’t his daughter. He had never had one. He wasn’t quite sure how the thought had even entered his mind, or what eccentric-ities were to follow. While he sorted out these thoughts she grabbed his hand and shook it.
“What is your name?” she said, her voice like vanilla ice cream.
“James,” he said firmly, sure of at least this one thing, “but where did you come from?”
“Does it really matter? What’s important is that I am here, with you.”
“Yes. You look lonely.”
“In want of company. Needing someone to talk to. Someone like me.”
“But you are just a girl.”
“Oh you don’t have to treat me like an equal. Just think of me as a daughter—” she giggled, “a surrogate daughter, that is.”
Amelia took his hand and started to lead him on. They walked for while, in silence, and slowly James came to the realization that she knew exactly where she was going. It took him yet more time to realize that he may wish to be privileged to this information as well. He asked her.
She giggled and said nothing more. Apparently this response was sufficient for her. They walked further. Finally James saw a sign on the road, perhaps an indication of where they were going. He thought he could make out the words, but as they approached it he realized that it was in fact burned beyond all recognition.
Looking around, he found no other evidence of fire. Not one twig on the ground was singed, and not one speck of ash had fallen. The air did have a crisp smell to it, as if a thunderstorm had just passed, although there was no evidence of that either.
Amelia looked at the sign too, but to James it seemed as if she gleaned much more from it than possible given its condition, although he may have just been envious of her youthful eyes.
“We’re almost there. Another hour and you can finally eat,” she suggested.
“You haven’t in quite a while, you know. I can tell just by looking at your face. You can learn a lot from looking at people’s faces. Like what kind of person they are. I could tell right away that you were a good person.”
“I don’t believe that I have ever done anything that one might call ‘good’.”
“No, of course you haven’t. You are, after all mortal, and no one cursed with such a handicap can be expected to do anything purely good. Yet inside of you is some inner—something.” She stopped.
James either didn’t need any further explanation or was so thrilled by the apparent compliment that he feared it being undone. They walked further.
“When we get there, I want you to do me a favor,” Amelia asked, her expression unusually somber.
“Remember me as your daughter.”
And they arrived. A sign stood in front of a peaceful, wooden building. It had a thatched roof and smoke rising out of a chimney. Two round windows were the only adornments on the front, and the door stood slightly ajar. James noticed small pools of water around a large wooden sign.
“Chez Caisse,” it proclaimed.
As the travelers entered the building, James noticed a strange absence of the owners of the establishment. In fact, had he bothered to check, he would have found absolutely no one else alive in the entire inn. He would have also found a large pile of festering corpses in the basement. Fortunately for him, precautions had been taken to prevent the stench from overwhelming him, and he was saved the trouble of knowing any of this.
“Why are we here?” he wondered, unintentionally voicing himself.
“You have to meet someone here.”
“What? I have no such meeting planned.”
“You couldn’t be expected to. You had nowhere to go, and so were destined to be picked up by the first person that did.”
“Then don’t you mean that it is you who has someone to meet with?”
“I am just a little girl.”
And further response was quieted by the sound of footsteps. James turned around to meet them, for them came from what he had originally thought was a completely empty room. It was dark inside, and he could not see who was walking towards him. A chill started running down his back as all his fears came back to haunt him. Now James did not fear as much as most men, for he had seen prison life first hand, but this only insured that those he held fast to were that much more gruesome.
With this in mind, James could only be surprised when he saw an eminent gentleman, aged considerably. He posed no apparent threat, although his eye held the glint of something silently sinister. It made James uneasy, standing there before this anachronism.
He turned to look at Amelia, muttering something about whether this was the man he was supposed to meet. She was gone. To be sure, James had not the keenest of senses, but he at least felt himself capable of noticing when someone walked out through a closed door—one that likely would have had to have been opened. Before he could contemplate this further, the man decided to introduce himself.
He threw James an apple. Engrossed in thought, James still managed to catch it, and found it slightly heavier than one might expect. It was gorgeously red, shining amidst the pale darkness of the room as a sign from heaven. In his present condition it took all of James’s composure to avoid devouring it immediately; he slowly raised it towards his mouth.
“Take something like an ordinary apple,” the man intoned, “One might not expect it to pose any considerable threat. Indeed one, one such as yourself, one who has not eaten for days, and one who perhaps would wish only to thrust its globular whole into one’s mouth as a snake might devour its prey. But unlike the snake one has not captured the apple; one has merely passively benefited from another’s generosity.” He trailed on.
James was on the verge of biting a sweet, delicious piece of this heavenly fruit.
“What one does not realize, and perhaps has no reason to do so, is that someone else, someone such as me, was unmistakably evil enough to have put a dose of cyanide in this apple. A small dose, to be sure, but one large enough to kill a man of any considerable size.”
“What? You’re kidding!” James was shocked, apple still in hand, mouth still open, saliva still dripping from it.”
He dropped the apple abruptly.
“Who are you anyway?”
“The devil is in the details,” he winked, and picked up the apple, starting to throw it from hand to hand.
Then he stopped, gradually brought it to his lips, and took a bite out of it. A large bite. He chewed through it slowly, savoring the flavor. From the expression on his face James could not doubt the veracity of all the thoughts he had had of the apple’s exquisite taste and velvet texture.
“Then again, one can never trust everything one is told. Especially from such a disreputable source as myself.”
Crunch. He bit into the apple again, this time savoring it even more than before. The rapturous show his face put on must have been done with the sole intent of demoralizing James, as no one could have receive such joy from a mere cyanide-laced apple.
“So you lied to me?” James expressed, verifiably apprehensive.
“Now, now, one must never assume, especially in such matters as these,” he paused for effect, “matters concerning life and death.” He tossed James the apple.
James had never been brave to any appreciable extent, and he didn’t have the courage to decide to change his ways on such short notice. Thus he stood there, mouth agape, watching the apple arc through the air, perhaps prepared to say something, or perhaps pontificating catching the juicy fruit in his mouth and devouring it whole.
Sadly, it must be reported that no one will ever know. For the old man, who, had he introduced himself, may very well have said something along the lines of Renard, decided to do something exceedingly sneaky. While James stood stupefied at the sight of the apple, the man pulled out a dagger from some hideous inner recess and plunged it forcefully into James’s chest, in a distinctly stab-like motion.
He turned the dagger quickly, relishing the swooshing sound the various entrails made as they were cut clean through. Then, just as suddenly, he removed the dagger—all of this took but a few seconds.
James’s lips moved only enough to emit a loud squeak, as a mouse just smashed in half by an unexpected trap. A distinct thud was emitted as his frail body hit the ground, blood splashing throughout the floor. Two heavy breaths later, and the world faded to black. Renard was not lucky enough to see him die; by this point he had gone, having muttered a single phrase.
“If nothing else, he now has the requisite stigmata.”
Darkness. His unconscious state precluded him from seeing much else. Although, as James discovered, there are many forms that darkness is liable to take. It is hardly a constant quantity—rather it shifts, ebbs, flows, and worms its way through everything. When there is light then these movements are not readily apparent, but when darkness is the only thing present, then one sees each one of these shifts, sees every little detail in the darkness. The darkness becomes a sea, and James was now swimming in it, its tiny undulations massaging and caressing him.
Out of this immeasurable dark, a point of light emerged. At first James thought it was a star, a star appearing in the night sky, to lead him back home (although he wasn’t exactly sure where home was or whether he wanted to be there). He then realized that it was the most beautiful point that he had every seen. It shined like the sun, like a million lamps all lit at once, a million sunflowers illuminated, all glowing, all their light and all their beauty combined to form one beautiful spot, one exquisite specimen, one pinprick of perfection. Its light started to spread, slowly at first, then faster, pounding against the darkness, thrusting, and then it broke through and it spread, it spread its life and its beauty and its fantastic splendor, and the darkness was gone. It was gone, and James woke up, and as he did so he came upon an incredible realization.
James was in love. Not with anyone in particular, but with the light, the amazing, orgasmic light, wonderfully, no—spectacularly brilliant. He had never been in love before, and the feeling was delightful, he was wrapped up in it completely and utterly, and all he wanted to do was remain. Yet something was tearing him from it, pulling him away from the light, from all that he ever wanted. What was it? He must stop it! Never had he been so determined; he had lost all his convictions, but they had now returned. He was now focused entirely on his love, and yet he was getting farther, and he could do nothing to stop it.
Someone was shaking him.
An old face, with a beard, of moderate length. No ordinary beard, though, a white, ruffled one, with bits of food stuck among the intricate strands. James tried to identify the food; he failed. The best guess he could make was an omelet made not with eggs but with carrots, beef, and some incalculably strange purple goop. He wanted to vomit.
“Ah… it is you! For once my prayers have been answered! I knew it!” the strange man muttered, almost to himself.
“Who are you?”
“They call me Marek, the Mad Monk. but of course, you are tired and yes, yes, of course, you need rest.” Come with me.
James finally decided to check his wound, that horrible incision that had led to all this strangeness. It was notoriously absent. There wasn’t a speck of blood on his clothing or any other evidence of the incision. Thoroughly confused, James erroneously decided that he had dreamt it. He found that he was well rested and not at all tired, and after conveying the fact to the strange man, he was invited inside nonetheless.
Inside proved to be a quiet sort of hovel, such as might be used by a hermit, librarian, or—James reeled in fear!—both. It was quaint and cozy, which is to say that it had no positive characteristics, apart from its smallness, which no doubt minimized cleaning time. The lighting was dim, and inside were stacks of books and papers, along with a very, very cluttered writing desk, which had evidently received frequent use.
“Welcome to my humble abode.”
“Look, I don’t know who you are, but I want to know one thing—how did I get here?”
“Is this a test? You came here, as I prophesized.”
“Came here? No, no, this is all wrong. I woke up here.”
Marek rushed over to his desk, and flung an enormous bunch of papers into the air, immediately obstructing James’s view. As they settled to the ground, the monk cried out, “Ahah!”
James looked bemused, which was not at all the look Marek was going for.
“Here it is! I told you, didn’t I?” He showed James the paper. On it was a table, neatly drawn and labeled, with a plethora of scribbled dates and notes below it. The only thing James made out distinctly enough was the title, which read, in block letters, “Abyssus Abyssum Invocat”.
“Yes. it means something. important.”
“That doesn’t really matter.”
“What’s the rest of it, then?”
“Ah! That is what is most important. You see, of all my faults the greatest is that I am a prophet, and a loquacious one at that. This is a summary of major events that will pass.”
James examined the paper more thoroughly and noticed, at the top, in conspicuously-red highlighting, the present date. To the right of it was written simply, “he comes.”
“You see. I have predicted your coming.”
“This could refer to anyone.”
“Ah, but no, for you see it refers to the messiah, and the fact that you have arrived necessarily means that he and you are one and the same.”
“What? You must be crazy!”
“So everyone says. but I don’t let their negative opinions bring me down. I am the One True Prophet, and though sometimes I detest this curse I still must spread the word of the future to the people.”
“Well then, Mr. Prophet—”
“What does the future hold?”
“Unimaginable evil, destruction, ruin. the typical apocalyptic fair.”
“Where does the messiah fit in?”
“Ah. you have the interesting role of being able to either stop this destruction or amplify its effects a million times. It all depends on your actions.”
“I’m not the messiah,” James was adamantly unimpressed.
“Yes you are! I have yet to have a prediction proven wrong!” he neglected to mention that this was his first, although that was but trivial.
“Fine, we’ll have it your way. I was looking for a new career anyway. What do I do now, to save the world and all?”
“Well, there is of course the necessary paperwork.”
Marek went over to one of the enormous piles of papers, and leisurely rifled through them. About halfway down he exclaimed one of his now-anticipated ahas and pulled out a gorgeously-typecast form. He took a cheap ballpoint pen from his desk and handed the two to James.
“Fill out items one through twelve and sign on the dotted line.”
The paper described itself as a Messianic Application Form and asked for very detailed information. James filled out his name, preferred title (Our Lord), favorite sacrificial animal (porcupine), some unimportant biographical trivia, his top excuse for murder (he did it first), and signed his name in what he felt was a calligraphic style worthy of the Messiah. He handed it to the monk.
“That was easier than a job application, and there’s the added perk of being the only applicant.”
He smiled. Somewhere deep inside of him something was stirring. It was the goliath that formed his core values, his baseline morality, and the source of his lack of ethical conviction. It was stirring because it had started to be subjected to something new, something radical, and yet something oh so beautiful. It had grown stale and at this time it wanted to believe so much, it wanted to change and shift and adopt, and it would not let James dictate to it what it would change to. No! It would act by itself, and it was ready to adopt any idea that came its way, be it sound, brilliant, or absolutely foolish, and it would take this idea and nurture it, let it grow and bloom until it filled every little bit of James’s mind, becoming part of him—no—becoming him, his very essence.
The timing was perfect. Marek had determined at that precise moment to tell James the exact particulars of his religion, and found him surprisingly ready to accept them. He did not worry about the particular cause, instead chalking it up to the mysterious hand of fate and mentally noting to himself to make sure to add a backdated prophecy about it.
Marek began with his own life. How he, as a young monk, fresh out of self-education, had stumbled upon cryptic writing encoded in the shapes of rocks. How he had gathered these rocks, had studied them, taking copious notes, paged upon pages of which were now stacked in this very room. How he had realized that within these rocks hide the prophecies of the future, how he decoded them and wrote them down, until one day, exactly a month before, he had realized that he would play an integral role in the world’s future. He would meet the messiah, would educate him, teach him about the true path, and eventually explain to him how to save the world. In short, it was everything a monk could dream of, even one as ambitious as Marek.
Marek knew he didn’t have much time (he was, after all, a prophet) and so he briefly summarized the major tenets of his religion, the one that was to take hold over the entire world and be responsible for global salvation. There was a brief synopsis of the history of the world, with a gross amount of artistic license taken, followed by an even briefer morality—killing and disbelieving were verboten, but everything else was up for grabs. The majority of it was a history. He hesitated to call it that, because it was a history of the future, a history of the end of the world. There wasn’t time to see it now, he insisted to James, although as the messiah he would of course be able to see it soon enough. More important things were to be done now.
“You must go to the village.” Marek explained resolutely.
“The village? Why?” even a messiah needs guidance.
“There are a number of disbelievers. and you must convince them that ours is the one true faith.”
“Convince them? How?”
“Perform some miracles. It is the best sort of proof, I have found.”
In fact, the town held a number of disbelievers equal exactly to its population, although James did not suspect this. Their number was only bolstered by his arrival—James was not at all used to believing in himself. Along with the things he did not suspect came a certain sinister figure, whose sinister effects would become apparent all too soon.
Miracles. He must create some miracles. Something like the healing of a leper or the turning of water to wine would work, James thought. More importantly, however, he was not assured by Marek’s resolve to stay behind. There had to be a reason that he lived several miles away from anybody else, and it surely was not only his lack of proper hygiene. No, something much more sinister had to be at work, and James was on the verge of discovering it. He teetered over the edge, about to make the final jump to some conclusion deep below.
And was interrupted. By a child, no less. At first James wanted to yell out in fury at the poor boy, but then realized that he now represented an entire religion, and had to act with some degree of civility. At least he was not one to take a job lightly.
The boy looked up at James with round blue eyes which screamed for help. Come follow me, they said, to my village, and save my people. They are dying without you, oh holy one, they need your help. It’s just over the hill, that one over there, not far off from here. Please, you are our only hope, we are lost and trouble masses, trampled by misery, and it is only you who will be able to give us hope.
Or so it seemed to the messiah. And he heeded their words; he followed the boy back to his village, which happened to be the same the monk had mentioned.
It was not at all in need of help. Peaceful house after peaceful house were all lined in rows inside a lush valley. It was an idyllic paradise, with the requisite laughter, smells of cooking food, and bustling children. James set out to improve the village by providing it with the blessed gift of religion.
He spied what looked like a guard standing at the edge of the village.
“Hello, kind sir,” he said, “I come to bring peace and hope.”
“We have plenty of those as it is,” the guard responded without the slightest touch of annoyance.
“Your lives cannot be perfect; there must be some problems.”
“Who is to say that? Our lives as happy as we make them, and if we do not wish to be troubled by anything then why should we be?”
James struggled to explain. “I bring you religion—”
“Religion? There was a monk, many months ago, who tried to bring us religion. He claimed that the end of the world was coming, and that we had best prepare. He told us all we had to do was believe and we would be saved. Marek was his name.
“Now you come to do the same. Whether or not you are of the same religion as the monk is of no concern, and I will tell you exactly the same thing I told him. Our lives here are perfect. We have no war, no crime, and no strife. Anything you try to bring to us, especially in the guise of a gift, must necessarily worsen our situation.
“We welcome all strangers. You may stay and revel in our beautiful society, but know this: if you attempt to spread the lies you claim are your religion you will be exiled. We cannot tolerate such an imbalance in our society.”
James was not yet so full of faith in himself to argue the point. He acquiesced, and promised not to preach. The guard then told him that in the evening they would be having a celebration—the year’s fertility festival. All the villagers would revel in the beautiful bounty of life. James was of course invited, and he promised to attend.
For he was not one to renounce his messianic status so easily, and the festival provided the perfect event for a miracle. He had never performed one before, but was certain he would be able to. Who could doubt him once they had seen what he was able to do? Renown would be his, and he may even save the world while at it. Not once did he consider what effect this would have on the town.
But messiahs are infallible, right?
The ceremony proved highly symbolic. It began after sunset, when the village was surrounded by a thick darkness. All the lights had been put out to create the proper atmosphere; no one dared move for fear of knocking over someone else.
Then, a light appeared. A single candle, shining through the dark, all the world’s hopes focused in this shining speck. It was far too faint to illuminate more than its bearer, an aged woman wearing a black shawl. As the oldest woman, she had the honor of lighting the first candle.
Another light appeared, opposite the other. The third followed soon after, and it was not long before yet more candles were lit. It was a meteor shower.
The guard had explained to James that these candles represented children being born into the world. Without the hopes represented by the new generation there was no point to living, and each additional candle eradicated more and more of the darkness. The villagers did not believe that the ceremony actually helped the births of any children. It was simply a reason to celebrate, to be merry and revel in one of the beauties of life.
Now all the candles burned, and their combined light was enough to illuminate the entire square on which the villagers stood. There were two hundred and four of the candles, one for each woman in the village. Of course not each of them as physically able to give birth, but then there was no harm in trying, they thought.
The second part of the celebration began. The candles were placed in holders forming a giant ring around the people. Inside what occurred could best be described as revelry. A band played music as the villagers danced their hearts out; food and drink was served all around.
Throughout all this James had been standing to the side, waiting for the perfect opportunity to display his messianic prowess. He decided it was now. Standing on a table, he raised his arms out wide and shouted out in a booming voice which he had been never known to possess.
“Listen, my brothers! I have come to reveal the truth to all of you. Do not show me scorn before I have had a chance to prove myself. Watch,” he paused to consider what he would do, “watch me turn the water you are drinking into wine!”
It was hardly original, but then there were no sick to heal, no sea to part, and no demons to cast out. So he settled for something he could do, under the circumstances. He only hoped that the miracle would work—he’d never known exactly how it was they were done. He now stood silently, waiting to see what reaction he had produced.
At first, the only discernable look on the faces of the villagers was bemusement. They had never seen a spectacle quite like this, and verily none of them, save perhaps the guard, understood its importance. Then one of them chanced to look at the cup he was drinking from.
It had been filled with water. Now it was filled with wine. This was unusual because alcohol had never been seen before in the village. Indeed no one had ever heard of it. Undoubtedly this contributed the villagers. confusion.
At least, until they started to try it. The effects of alcohol being very well known, it need only be said that none of the villagers had been able to obtain a tolerance to it, having been secluded from it for the entirety of their lives.
So its effect was rather pronounced. All of them started drinking more and more, and quickly the whole congregation became decisively drunk. The guard, being the only one of the lot to have decided to stop James, started to chase him. And James, not wanting to be crucified so early in the game, ran away.
Meanwhile, the revelry became more and more boisterous. Alcohol tends to have that effect on people. The cries became louder, and the dancing wilder. It wasn’t long before the ring of candles was broken, via several people falling into them.
The candles fell. Onto a bed of straw, flammable straw.
As the guard chased James around the village, and as people jumped and cheered with celebration, a flame erupted, and quickly started spreading to nearby houses.
The houses, of course, were made of wood and yet more flammable straw. The whole place was a giant powder keg, albeit one that slowly burns more than exploding all at once. House after house burst into flames, and every sign of the village’s prosperity burnt with them.
James finally stopped running for long enough to realize what was happening. He knew that the inebriation presently preventing anyone from realizing that this was all his doing would not last very long, and that in any case he would soon be caught by the guard. James couldn’t ever recall having won a race. He had to get out now, and he conveniently spied an exit from the village to the east. He ran towards it, and found himself approaching an ominous forest.
He stopped to consider his options. In front of him was a deep, dark, definitely deadly, and doggedly dangerous forest. Behind him was an apocalyptic firestorm. He didn’t like either of the two, and a third was nowhere in sight. He decided that he may as well take a new path, not to mention the cries of “Lynch him!” echoing closer and closer.
Into the forest he fled.
Despite his prior fears, James did not find the forest dangerous at all. Naturally, when he first started running through it, he was petrified. Yet he was soon saved—James quickly took on the assumption that the villagers would not follow him into the forest, for whatever reason messiahs make these kinds of assumptions. After twenty minutes of this mildly-hectic pace, James was weary. He slowed down to a slight saunter, and took in the breathtaking beauty of the pines surrounding him, and, incidentally, blocking off any sunlight. He soon realized that the pines were not at all spectacular, and that their main purpose must have been to annoy him with a dull darkness. He sat down to rest, and closed his eyes.
Fire! It came in a flash, engulfing the entirety of his vision. James opened his eyes. Around him was a calm forest, full of pines and devoid of any movement. He chalked it up to stress, and tried to nap again.
Screams! They filled his ears, causing him to bolt up. He was by now visibly worried. Yet around him was naught but peaceful forestry. James wondered what was happening to him. Was it a vision of the future? Of the end of the world? It was too sudden for that, and yet deep inside of him there was something that made him sure that this was it.
The trees burst into flames. Each one reminded him of a specific home in the village he had just fled from, equally peaceful, and now equally ablaze. He hoped, at least, that these fires were only in his imagination, and that he was not actually surrounded by a massive conflagration. But the fire seemed eerily warm for something so imaginary.
He closed his eyes, trying to hide from the searing air now lashing against his face. Immediately visions filled his mind. He saw famous cities aflame with the same roaring heat as was attacking him now. Huge masses of people were surrounded by the fire; buildings that had stood for hundreds of years were being burnt to the ground.
He found that he could traverse this dying world; he could fly from place to place to see the varying carnages occurring. Everywhere the picture was the same. Fire, smoke, screams, destruction, and death, death, and more death. If there was any continuity it was in the common experience of having skin burnt off of bone, of having hair turned into a small pile of dust, and of having the spark of life extinguished, ironically, forever.
Footsteps threw him away from this fantasy.
In front of James stood the love of his life. She was a woman in her mid-twenties, very attractive, and clad in very strange attire for an arboreal traveler—it was something resembling a Victorian dress. He was not at all sure who she was, nor was he sure whether or not he had seen her before—he had the distinct impression that they had met in a dream, but he couldn’t be certain.
Nonetheless he was in love. It was clear to him now what those prior visions of light amidst darkness had represented. He had been in love with her ever since being released from prison, yet it was only now that he had met her. A lesser man may have found it unbelievably strange, but James, recently empowered by his career change, took it in stride, and decided to introduce himself.
“Hi,” he said, “I’m James. The messiah.”
She didn’t look impressed.
“You are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen, and I must tell you that I am impossibly in love with you. I have waited my whole life just to meet you. Now that I have I don’t care where it is you come from or how it is you chanced to appear in the middle of the forest.
“It is clear that you have come to save me from all the terrible worries I have been bearing, and you could not have chosen a more opportune time. Never before have I needed you more than now. Please, stay with me.”
She looked at him, a smile starting to appear on her face. James, not a doubt in his mind that she would accept his advances, was even more reassured. As she started to speak, the wonderful words were like a sweet siren’s song, without the nasty crashing against the rocks and drowning.
“My name is Amelia.”
Suddenly, memories of a past acquaintance, which had been made very recently but of whom James had completely forgotten flooded his mind. She was, of course, a young girl—his daughter.
“Do I know you?”
“No. We have never met. You say you are the messiah—how can you be so sure?”
“I was told by a very notable prophet. He has foreseen the end of the world, and it is up to me to save everyone, by having them accept and believe in me. I have yet to succeed, however.”
“I believe in you,” she said, almost reluctantly, “I can tell that you are being honest.”
James was unfazed by this initial success. “That is all very good, but I want more from you than your belief.”
“You want my love?”
“Then you shall have it. There is but one condition that I always must operate under. Anyone who is to receive my true love must be able to prove himself. I cannot truly love someone who simply lives in the world of probability. I require more than a specter; I require someone tangible.”
“How can I prove myself?”
“You are the messiah. You were born to save the world. I can feel the end coming soon, and it is up to you to stop it. When you have succeeded—and only then—you will have my love, and the gratitude of millions.”
“But what must I do? And when?”
“It is as the monk said. You must have believers; you must gather and nurture them like saplings. When they have grown into full-fledged disciples they will gather more and more. Your influence will spread and soon thousands will heed your word.
“If done properly this need not take more than a few months, and if you have enough followers by the time the final judgment arrives you will be able to succeed, making the ultimate sacrifice.”
“Do you mean that I will die?”
“There is a chance. The monk has written out events as he has seen them, but it is important for you not to know the future. Only the blind can truly lead.”
“And you. are you here simply to give me advice and some incentive to continue?”
“I am here of my own will as well. No matter what happens, we will always have been meant for each other. And even if you fail, you will have had this.”
She moved in closer, and they embraced.
James awoke next to a pile of trash, his head resting on a worn book.
He was disoriented. All he could remember was the beautiful woman, her soft, silken lips—was it a dream? It couldn’t have been, it was too real. He grabbed the book he was laying on. It was filled with flowing handwriting. The cover said “Dies Irae” and was signed “Marek”.
Evidence! He hadn’t been dreaming.
James looked around; the setting seemed dreamily familiar. It reminded him of a region of his peaceful hometown, which he hadn’t been to in years. He stood up and noticed that there was some commotion coming from down the street. Perhaps they had heard of his arrival; had been waiting to see and hear the messiah.
He walked past dilapidated houses and closed-down stores. Surely this was not how he remembered the town of his youth, with its bustling streets and lively neighborhoods. Yet it is unmistakably the same place. He even remembered how to get to his home—all he had to do was turn at the next intersection.
He saw the crowd, a large one for this small town, gathering around a podium. A man was speaking—James assumed he was the mayor. He was saying something about a recently-arrived treasure, someone whom everyone would want to speak to and meet. In short, James decided, it was him.
Assuming that he would be shortly announced to speak, he started to walk towards the podium. As he reached the short steps leading up to it, he heard the mayor announce his name. James Beck had never sounded better.
Brushing off his dusty shirt, he nonchalantly walked up, introduced himself, and started to speak. The public looked bewildered.
A particularly eminent, old man, looking rather anachronistic in his attire, and having the inimitable glint in his eye of an old friend long forgotten walked out from the crowd.
“The man is clearly insane!” he cried, “Who does he think he is, claiming to be the messiah and spouting this blasphemous nonsense? Someone, take him away!”
“Speak of the devil!” James was shocked
The two police officers nearby were not. They promptly rushed up to the platform, grabbed the stunned messiah, handcuffed him, and dragged him off the stage.
And peace was restored.
James was taken to a mental institution without delay. Who could argue that he was insane, when he claimed to be the messiah at every request? Psychiatrists tried to help him, but he refused to disavow his status. Treatment after treatment was tried, but even the strongest drugs proved ineffective.
He was marked clinically insane and relegated to spend the rest of his lives in a room with white, padded walls. Doctors gave up trying to help him, and the only person he had to comfort him was an elderly nurse, nearing retirement, who had specifically requested to take care of this particular patient. She fed him and talked him, and he saw no one else.
James spent all his free time reading the book he had woken up with. The two were inseparable, and it got to the point where James could recite passages of it from memory.
Yet each time he read it he would get the same tingling in his bones, and he would remember the sight of the burning cities, the screaming people. He would know that he had failed them, that he could no longer save the world. This thought tormented him daily even more than the thought of the deaths—it represented his failure to achieve anything. Nevertheless, it was bearable.
Then one day James chanced to read the name tag that his nurse wore. It read: “Amelia”.
For the first time in his life, James cried.
And the world ended exactly as James well knew it would, having memorized it from so many readings.
With a loud pop.