1. Face in the Frost
Light from the full moon fell through the window, illuminating a young girl laying on her bed, a patchwork quilt spread over her body. Her face rested on the exposed page of the extremely large, extremely old book. Suddenly, she jerked awake, raised her head from the book and blinked. After a moment she returned her gaze to the yellowing page. While she was unable to remember what she had been reading, it felt very important that she continue. So she did.
The page she had been dozing on was filled with entries that fit together like puzzle pieces. Each had been written in a different hand and none too neatly. She scanned the page for something familiar, reading several short passages before one jogged her memory. It was about a young girl lost in a snowstorm. “I was very cold and confused,” the composed, slightly flowery cursive text began.
The room darkened and she looked from the book to the frost swirled window. As quickly as the light had vanished it reappeared. But it was not the same. Now it fell on her body and the open book, illuminating and setting them apart from the rest of the room. After a moment she realised the reason—two frostless patches on the glass with tall triangle and an oval directly below. They looked as if they had been made by a great mouth and nose pressing against the glass.
Turning again to the book she felt a wave of drowsiness engulf her. Her eyes drooped and her head sank closer to the exposed page. But still she kept reading. “I had no idea where I was, but then I saw a little house…” Her eyes closed, her head touched the book and she wasn’t in bed anymore. She was standing outside under a full moon.
She was very cold and confused. She had no idea where she was, but then she saw a little house with a single window facing her. It was very cold in the snow and it looked so warm inside. She went up to the window, put her face against the glass and saw, through the swirls of frost, a young girl lying in her bed reading a book. The girl in the bed looked up at the window but seemed to look right through her. As she watched, the warm, comfortable girl turned away and continued reading. But after a moment her head settled onto the open page of the old book.
She tried to wake the girl but her sleep was impenetrable. Soon the cold crept into her body and she couldn’t feel anything. Then her legs gave out and she fell into the snow. She had just enough strength left to cry out once before succumbing to the cold.
Suddenly she jerked awake, raised her head from the book and blinked slowly. After a moment she returned her gaze to the yellowing page. She was unable to remember what had been in the book, but it felt very important that she keep reading. So she did.
The table was loaded down with the annual Thanksgiving feast: turkey, salads, squash, potatoes and the large dish of stuffing. This was his favourite meal of the year, and stuffing was his favourite food. Thoughts of it filled his mind even as he prayed.
“Amen, and let’s eat!” He finished and with that each member of the family took a dish of food from the centre of the table, served themselves and passed it to the left. The fact that a daughter on his left started the stuffing didn’t bother him—just as long as there was enough left for him to fill the large empty space he’d left on his plate. Finally, the stuffing reached his wife and she held it out to him. But before he could grab it, it slipped, fell to the floor and exploded stuffing in every direction. The room went silent, all eyes on him.
He snapped. “I work ten hours a day to provide for this family and on the one day we’re all together you have to ruin everything!”
“I’m sorry,” his wife said. “You can have mine I…”
He stood and levelled an accusatory finger at her. “No, Goddamn it, I don’t want it!” The kitchen door slammed behind him.
He sat in silence on his bed, the Thanksgiving dinner muted by shock and two doors. His hands shook and his breath came in jerks. He needed to calm down before going back. On the floor sat a large package. He didn’t know who might have sent it but he reached down and opened the box.
Inside lay a large leather-bound book with a five pointed star on the cover. Something about the book seemed off, but he lifted it out and opened it anyway. The page he saw was half covered in hand written text and for a moment he thought it was a diary. But then a voice spoke and whisked the thought aside.
“Use me,” it whispered to him from every direction at once. “Your wife hates you and wants you to suffer.” The voice was low, firm, commanding. “She must be punished. Take up a pen and tell me what she deserves.” Before he knew why, he had snatched the pen from his pocket and was pouring his pent up anger onto the page.
“She must pay for her sins,” he wrote. “God will punish her but I am God’s servant and he acts through me.” He laughed. “I laughed and grabbed the ax.” He was still writing but he also felt he was moving, the pen heavy and wooden in his grasp. “When I opened the door they looked at me angrily and then fearfully.”
“Where did you get that?” My wife screamed.
For a moment he tried to stop writing, to stop raising the ax, but it felt so natural that he just kept on.
3. Magic Shop
“Unlike everything else in this wretched shop,” the proprietor said, his oily voice washing over my ears, “this piece is actually magical.” I set my anti-grav briefcase on the floor as he lifted a padded wooden box onto the bench and opened it, revealing the contents to me with a sweep of his hand. “Now mind you, don’t touch it without gloves.”
“Is it really so valuable as to worry about that?” To my surprise the squat old man laughed, his whole body moving up and down with the effort.
“It’s not the book that will suffer if you touch it. It’s you. This one is laced with old magic, dark spells that can’t be worked now because the air of this world is too civilised.”
He took my silence as an invitation to continue.
“Most artefacts of this kind have lost their magic. Would have happened to his one too if it hadn’t been for a group called the Nazis. Worked the spells in their concentration camps. They didn’t just fortify the book’s existing spells, they wove new spells, gave it even more power. Before you had to write in it to give it power over you, now it can trap you if you so much as touch it. It was so grateful to the Nazi’s that it let them inscribe their symbol on it, you can see it right there.”
And sure enough at one point of the five pointed star that took up the cover of the book was the Swastika of the Nazis. That was enough for me, I was convinced it was genuine. From my coat pocket I produced my holographic identification card. “I’m Detective First Class Rankin,” as I spoke his face went white. “You’ll find…”
“Please don’t kill me!” He cried, falling to his knees and grabbing my leg.
“Let go,” I growled. “Or I just might.” He stood and straightened his shirt.
“Now, as I was saying, you’ll find a payment in your account every month, in exchange for which you shall continue to run this shop until your death.”
“Why?” He asked, fingering a charm that hung around his neck.
“Because, you and your little shop are a great help to us in our war against the spiritual misconceptions that plague this world. You show the people what magic really is—a pathetic old man selling plastic rings and playing cards just to eat.” He looked horrified. I lifted the book from its box and tucked into my briefcase.
But when I turned to leave the shop instead of seeing the stairs my eyes met with only blackness. I turned back to the little old man, ready for trouble. But there was only darkness.
Then there was laughter. It came from everywhere at once, drowning out all sound as the darkness drowned out all light. “Greetings,” a voice said when the laughter finally subsided. The light came back as a loud cracking filled my ears. I had just enough time to realise that I was standing on ice before I fell through.
Deathly cold water surrounded me. I tried to swim up but couldn’t. A thick layer of ice separated me from the air. My lungs burned. I took a breath, gulped in water and choked. “Don’t be afraid,” the voice said. “In my kingdom there is no death. Just wait here, I’ll send for you when you are needed.” Then the voice was gone, and I was entirely alone. My ears pounded, my eyes bulged and I gulped water like air. My neck gave a spasm and then I saw them. There were hundreds of others around me, their fingers bloody from scratching at the ice. But I didn’t have time to think about them. I was too busy trying to claw my way out.
It was hot, the kind of hot that makes old women pass out and young men take off their shirts. The heat, however, was deadened in the patch of shade I shared with a toothless old man and a three legged dog. Street vendors lined each side of the ally, the scent of their food mixing haphazardly with the stench of waste and rot that rose from the street.
There was movement all around but to me it was a complex dance. I knew each movement: when it would begin, how long it would last, and where it would end. In about three seconds I would dart into the crowd, grab an expensive looking book from an old man, and a moment later get hit by car. After that I would fall, black out, die, and start the whole thing over. Again and again it happened and I could do nothing to change it. I long ago gave up trying to force my body to divert from the loop it was locked in. I had become a rock in a stream, numb to feeling, letting everything happen around me.
Then sure enough, it happened again and I was back in the shade.
And sure enough, it happened again and I was back in shade.
And soon enough it would happen again. But it didn’t.
The crowd stopped moving and in one action they dropped to their knees, foreheads pressed to the ground. Then I saw why. Walking over the crowd came a man—if he could be called that. Crimson robes that bordered on black flowed behind him even thought there was no wind. His face was long and angular, his black eyes looked at everything with ownership, and his mouth was twisted into a powerful, mirthless smile.
He stopped in front of me and faced me by spinning on one heel. Then he just stared at me, moving his eyes over every inch of my body like I was car he’d driven every day for the last ten years.
“Who the hell are you?” I snapped, unable to stand his gaze. If this was unexpected his face didn’t show it.
“I,” he said in voice that seemed to come from all around, “am king of this world. Do you not remember me?”
I shook my head.
“Perhaps you remember this,” he said reaching his hand toward the book—the book I had been stealing—and as he did it rose into the air. Seeing the book now I felt like I had been holding an exposed wire for so long that I forgotten what it was. But the power had just come back on.
“I see you remember” he said. “You died while in contact with my somatic manifestation. That makes you very special. Useful.”
“Let me go,” I said through a clenched jaw. He responded by throwing his head back and laughing a laugh that ripped through the air like an explosion.
“You know I can’t do that. You’re my top producer and your function is vital to the survival of my kingdom. I merely came to show my appreciation for your tireless effort.” Before I could respond he spun away from me and in three strides reached the place where the car hits me.
“Now, back to work!” he commanded and with the next step he disappeared. At his command everyone in the ally again stood and again began to move. A moment later I saw the man carrying the book. I didn’t have a choice about what came next.
5. Throne Room
The throne room was vast, perched upon great pillars of gold and located atop the peak of the tallest mountain in the land. From that platform rose a gleaming manmade mountain atop which sat the King’s throne. From here the King ruled the entirety of his world. Anyone wishing to grovel before him had scale the mountain, oppressed by an unfiltered sun, and then climb hundreds of stairs on their hands and knees. Only then could they touch their face to the ground and beg for the mercy that would never come.
Legs crossed, fingers laced together the king waited for his subjects. Each was seen in turn, their order decided by the order they emerged from the stairs and bowed before him. He didn’t have long to wait. He never had long to wait. “Please my lord, have mercy,” a man in an old suit who carried a shotgun said. “Let me go. Haven’t I suffered enough?”
The King laughed. “No, you cannot leave, not ever. This is your existence.”
“But you could let me out if you wanted to! This is your world! You can do anything here!”
The King stood tall and proud. “Yes, I can do whatever I wish and my wish is now as it has always been: that my subjects stay in my kingdom for eternity.” He walked from his throne to the bloody man. “Give me your gun,” he commanded.
The man raised the gun but not his eyes. The King took it absentmindedly while the man continued to grovel. “Oh please just kill me, I can’t stand it anymore!”
A sneer crept into one corner of the King’s mouth and he spoke. “You are already dead, you know that.” The King held the gun by the barrel and swung it like a baseball bat into the man. He screamed and tumbled backwards down the stairs. The King turned, the gun disappearing, and he sat down on his throne.
More of the same occupied the King until it was time for his daily talk with the Wise Man. In another world the Wise Man had really been wise, wiser even than the King. But in this realm all laws were made by the King and with a flick of his finger he could leave the Wise Man a babbling wreck. He loved doing that and expected to do so again today.
“What do you think,” the King said to the Wise Man who knelt before him, “of my judgments on this day?”
“I have seen, my Lord,” the Wise Man answered, his voice revealing nothing of his emotion, “on this day what I have been blind to until know.”
The King sat up and leaned forward. This was new. Normally the Wise Man would launch into an argument on virtue or right action. “Continue,” he said.
“Allow me, my Lord, to proceed with a story.” The King nodded. “There once was a man whose voice was without equal. When he spoke the birds alighted on his hand and the spirits of the wilds would become calm and gather around him. Because of this he was praised for his voice and took great pride in it. However, he fell from favour with the gods and as punishment they took his voice from him.”
“A fitting punishment for the impudent,” the King said. He waved his hand. “Continue.”
“The man was so devastated by his loss and such was his rage that he would not allow others to speak in his presence.”
A slight frown crossed the King’s face. “Your tale is as vague as always.”
“Allow me to finish, my Lord.”
“Go on, but be warned that I do not take kindly to those who waste my time.”
“But the man could not stop others from speaking and soon he grew to resent all who could. Such was his hatred of all speech that he gouged out his ears so he would not hear it. But still he saw their lips moving and so he put out his eyes as well. That, my lord, is the tale.”
“And what does this have to do with my judgments?” The King asked, noticing with irritation that the Wise Man was looking directly at him.
“You, my Lord, are like this man.”
The King’s frown deepened but he forced it into a proud grin and stood, arms outstretched as if to grab the entirety of his kingdom. “Have you forgotten, Wise Man, that I hold absolute power in my world? That I hold life and death in the palm of my hand? That nothing here is beyond my control?”
“True, my Lord, in this world. But perhaps it is not so in others?”
With a flick of the King’s finger the Wise Man was no longer wise. “Could you rephrase that?” The King asked. The Wise Man could only mumble something about forgetting before the King had the guards remove him. Exhaling deeply, he slumped back onto his throne, assumed a lordly pose and waited for the next subject to crawl before him.
L.R. School was born in winter on a day that brutalized both man and machine. He recently completed his undergraduate degree in English at the University of Wisconsin and is occupied with deciding what to do with his life. If you have any suggestions, please let him know.