The time has come for the king to die.
I wrap my cloak around me, feeling chilled despite my burning thirst to be anywhere but here in this moment. I hate what I do, and my heart beats hollow in my ears as I step into the sunlight, bearing no shadow, leaving no sound. I glance at the doors of the golden hall, at the sacred crest of arms carved deep into the ancient wood.
“I am your greatest fear, mortals,” I whisper, laying a hand on the craftsmanship polished by unnumbered hands. When I touch the huge lock, the metal turns to dust and drifts away. Grunting under the weight of the doors, I heave them open. The king’s hall glows as gilded pillars bounce the sun’s rays back and forth.
The throne is directly opposite me, raised three steps above the rest of the hall. Reflections spring from the lacework of gemstones embedded in the wall behind it—like a rising sun, or a setting one. Guards shout and rush toward the door, but I am not visible to them; I am not of their world.
The old man on the throne makes eye contact with me. Already he is slipping between realms.
“Your time has come.” He moves as if to rise, but I clench my fist and he freezes in place. “I wish you had said farewell, but time does not tarry for the old.”
I raise one hand, palm toward the king. “From body unbind spirit free.”
The king slumps. As I turn away and walk out of the hall, tears sting my eyes. Voices cry. “The king is dead! We do not know how, but the king is dead!”
I am a wraith to them, whispering in the back of their minds, reminding them of mortality. I cannot bear listening to their grief, so I pull the grand doors closed. A swallow nested in the eaves of the hall flies away toward the setting sun.
Then the world blurs into a murky red.
I cannot recall the last time I slept while traveling in the Between. Once, before the daily horror of my purpose encased my soul, I believe I slept. Now I have not rested in so long that a ring of fire flares whenever I blink.
A clock face flashes behind my eyelids every time I shut my eyes, reminding me that with each passing second, I bring the end. To all things? I do not know. But I have done so since the beginning of my memory, and it will continue until the restoration. I yearn for that day far more in the Between than when I usher kings and peasants to the grave, for when I am waiting with nothing to do, I think.
But then the Between unwinds itself, revealing the lengthy shadows of an ancient city that is an immeasurable distance from the kingdom I visited minutes before. Houses rise on either side and a dim street stretches out before me. It may be a false comfort, but I like the darkness. I cannot see the dead as clearly.
A voice inside my mind assigns me my task. The first woman you meet. Her time has come.
I tug my hood up. It always falls off in the Between, but I cannot leave my head bare as if I loved my work. I stalk down the alley, eyes alert and burning.
As I cross the threshold of a small house, an old woman looks up from her chair. Usually people respond with fear. But she smiles.
“Do you not fear me?” I ask.
With deep sadness in her eyes, she shakes her head, eager for the battle to be over.
I put a hand on her shoulder. “Rest now, weary one.”
She goes limp without a word. She waited long for me. Perhaps my arrival sometimes relieves the hurting.
“Who are you?”
Terror flares in me, and I whirl. A small boy sits on the doorstep. He furrows an eyebrow. Not frightened. Curious.
We lock eyes, mine glowing yellow and his shining blue like a cloudless sky. How is he able to see me when others cannot?
“Did you just kill her?” he asks, but before I can answer, the dull red of the Between warps his face into oblivion.
He saw me end the woman’s life.
I stand on rolling hills, the last moments of sunset burning on the mountain ahead. Tears stream down my face. All day I remained in the Between, without a word from my master. When I was invisible, I could deny my own anguish by hiding under a hood. But now everything is different.
Never have I lingered so long in that dreadful place without being sent somewhere to end a poor man’s life, or to still the whimpering cries of a sick child. The scenery blurs as fresh tears fill my eyes, and I hang my head.
Do not fear. The words ring within me and I fall to my knees. Finally, he speaks to me. Do you see the city?
I squint at the mountain and make out a city sprawling on its shoulders, following each fold and cliff and towering face. The builders, masters of their craft, transformed the mountain itself into terraces, bridges, and spires of living stone.
Destroy it. The sun’s final rays fade away from the peak.
The end is at hand. I bow my head. The end?
The mountain is enormous. I have run for hours and the only change I notice is that it looms larger over me. In the city, cold spots of wrought light twinkle and cast shadows on the towers and terraced causeways. It is beautiful, and I must obliterate it.
I rest my hands on my knees, breathless. I have never been so close to mortality. I always emerge from the Between within a short breadth of my goal. But this time I did not, and I am winded easily. When I straighten, my back cracks. The noises in the forest around me pause at the sound. But I am an otherworldly being. I should not be heard.
Moonlight drapes over the grassy plains from which I came and gives everything its own night shadow, deeper dark against a silver-netted background. Stretched out behind me, too, is a shadow.
My moan echoes through the forest. Am I now a part of this world? Must I carry out my deeds in the sight of all? My surroundings are still hushed by my alien presence. The circle of silence expands. No life exists here anymore.
I am no longer a whispering wraith, but death unleashed upon the world. Tears gather in my eyes, but I dash them away to focus on the glimmers in the city. “This dawn shall be your last, jewel of the mountain peak. No more shall laughter break the spell of darkness within you. No more shall the dying sun set fire to your spires. Neither joy nor sadness shall walk your carven halls, for your time has come.”
With burning legs and a thundering heart, I reach the city’s west gate in the darkest hour of the night. Its steel spires lace down into the stone with grasping tendrils like a vine. A single gemstone lamp crowns the gate, and the massive iron doors are etched with wards and runes.
“Forgive me.” I push back my useless hood and step into the patch of lamplight, my palm raised toward the gate.
“Halt!” A tall sentry, silver-bearded and clutching a torch, leans over the ramparts. “One more step and they will skewer you.” The soldiers on either side aim their spears at me. High in the tower above, an arrowhead glints.
“Return at daybreak,” the man shouts, “when your cloak cannot hide you and the time is right.”
I unfasten my cloak. “I heed no mortal, but do the bidding of another according to his timing. Prepare yourselves. I am the end.”
Letting my cloak drift to the ground, I sprint toward the gate. A bow twangs and I twist, instinctively batting the shaft away. Spears fly around me, but I dive forward, tucking into a roll so I am safe beneath the overhanging ramparts.
Boiling oil washes over me. I scream. I was a fool to assume they had no further defenses. Then another liquid splashes down, and the oil bursts into flame.
I collapse, both hands pressed against the gate, as the metal becomes dust and ignites in little gouts of flame. The gate burns like paper held above a candle—slowly, and then all at once. I pitch forward through the gap, shrieking.
I tumble into the street, unable to distinguish more than light and shapes. The ground shakes as the ramparts crumble without the support of the frame underneath. Figures stumble in the ashes and smoke.
Oil drips from my arm as I lift my hand. “Die.”
The figures crumple and I crawl away from the stench of my own smoldering. Why can I not slip in and out like before? Then I was a shiver in the dark. Now there is no escape for me.
As if to prove it, a horn reverberates over the city. Then a mass of many torches and the clank of armor approaches. If I were an ordinary foe, they would have made a formidable force.
A silver gleam springs from the soldiers. I evade the spear and grab the shaft as it passes, breaking it over my knee. Even though I am healing more rapidly than any mortal ever could, countless blisters burst with my every movement.
I toss the weapon aside and raise both palms toward the oncoming men. “Die, you fools.”
Torches fall and spears clatter, followed by silence.
I stalk forward, and an arrow punctures my shoulder. I try to pull it free, but the tip is barbed. Cursing the city, I shove my finger into the wound until I reach the arrowhead. It molders at my touch, just like the gate. I hurl the arrow to the ground and force myself to run to the peak, the center. And then? A flicker of doubt worms through my pain. I cannot destroy this city just by killing its people. Another arrow whips past my head and shatters against the cobblestones. I duck down an alley.
My injuries are scabbing over, and my vision is clear, but the ground seems to incline toward me with every step. I did not come to fight, and although my powers provide an easy defense, I am still finite. Fighting only slows me down. My shoulder aches where the fragments of the arrowhead are buried in me.
I have never experienced this vulnerability and fear before. It is cold and hard. Suddenly I know why people kill in the rage of weakness. I understand murder, war, and hatred. It boils in my blood like the oil the sentries poured over me.
I slump against the sidewall of a bridge. Dawn is coming, and with it light to mock my fear. I feel the despair of the souls who begged me to take their lives. I feel the fury and terror of those who went unwillingly at my word. Both are mixed within me.
Do not fear. The voice booms.
I inhale deeply. I am no mortal. I am he who brings the end; fear cannot rule me. I look to the peak of the mountain. There I will triumph—or fail.
An open square with a sculpture at the center lies in my path. Beyond the intersection are torches and lines of soldiers. The torches are hardly needed now, for light filters into the city like mist before the sun breaks over the horizon.
They have found me.
Perhaps they are brave to challenge an enemy who wields death with his bare hands, but I cannot afford to care. If they did not resist, I would not have to kill them. They are fools to try to stop me.
Brave, honorable fools.
As I dart into the open square, the first blush of dawn illuminates the mountain’s peak. All is still for a moment, and then the soldiers charge.
I head for the sculpture, a tree carved out of stone. But my toe catches on a little curb and I slam into the trunk. For a moment I am distracted by the artistry. The sculpture is one seamless piece with the mountain, chiseled out of a single rocky spur.
Beneath my fingers, tiny cracks form in the rough bark and spread.
I jerk away, staring at my hand. I could always disintegrate iron, but now stone too? The soldiers advance, but I clench both fists, freezing them in place. I meet each pair of eyes with a glare. “Am I defeated? At my word, you die. Do you call that weakness?”
Stone ruptures behind me.
“Behold your tree. One touch from my hand, and it crumbles.”
I turn and watch with the crowd as branches crash to the ground. Dust billows around me, and I stand straighter. “I am not your enemy, dear mortals. I am your end.”
“No! How could you?” A young man weaves through the soldiers, tears streaking his face. He stops inside the ring of petrified men and stares at the rubble. “It was beautiful.”
He shifts his shimmering blue gaze to me. I stumble backward, catching myself with my hands. It is the boy who saw me. He is older. But his eyes are the same.
“Go!” I gasp for breath, for words.
“Your eyes,” he says. “They’re like—”
“A curse,” I choke. “They are a thousand years of torture, every moment scored by anguish.”
The soldiers stir, my hold on them severed. Strong hands guide the young man away. I hate him for impairing me again, for reminding me how to feel pain.
“Die!” I fall to my knees and squeeze my eyes shut, the circle of numbers searing into my eyelids as I hear the dull thud of the soldiers hitting the cobblestones.
Then a hand grasps my shoulder, firm and warm. I open my eyes and the young man smiles down at me, though his cheeks are still wet. “The end is near. Do not be afraid. I am coming back.”
He picks his way through the bodies. They almost appear to be sleeping. But I only wanted the boy dead.
I try to stand, but my legs wobble. A shout rings in my ears; more torches are nearing, pale in the golden dawn.
I raise a hand, palm out. “Die,” I whisper. Why can’t I just give up?
But they keep walking. The closest soldier has a beard that is trimmed and steely gray, like his eyes. He is strong but aging. I too am fading. What did the boy say?
The end is near.
The soldier poises the butt of his spear over me.
Do not be afraid.
I hurt everywhere. Chains dig into my wrists as I sag away from whatever wall or post I am fettered to. My power has deserted me.
“He said he was the end.” A voice echoes.
“What do you think he really is?” another questions.
I open my eyes. I am shackled to a spire of rock, and tiny shafts of light angle down from above, revealing deep chasms on either side like gashes in the fabric of space. The cavern glitters with specks of gold and white.
Two men stand before me. One is the gray-bearded soldier who knocked me out; the other wears a helmet shaped like a dragon’s head that shrouds his eyes. Wyrmsbane. Rumors tell that he killed a dragon and claimed its hoard. And a kingdom.
“Who are you?” Wyrmsbane takes the soldier’s spear and hovers the point inches from my face.
I look away from the darkness where his eyes should be. “I was sent to destroy your city.”
“And you failed.”
I bow my head, pinching one of the cold links circling my wrist. “There are many ways to destroy a kingdom. If I have failed one, I may yet succeed at another.”
Wyrmsbane laughs. “You are clever. Buying time with empty words to loosen your chains.” He grabs my hair and yanks me forward. “But I have not forgotten your handiwork at the west gate!”
The weakened link snaps. I catch myself with one free hand, but the other is still bound, and Wyrmsbane slashes at it. I scream. He cuts again, sending me reeling. Every moment demands a counterattack, but I can only kneel and sob, cradling my handless forearm.
“They said you heal quickly,” he hisses in my ear. Then he swivels to address the assembly of hooded priests. “He is no werebeast or shapeshifter. He bleeds red like any mortal. And if he can be wounded, he can be killed.”
And so can you. I stare at the abyss, pain and anger swirling.
Murmurs rise into the chamber from the priests. I cannot discern the words, but Wyrmsbane answers them. “No! He must die. This is no matter for dark studies.”
A thin voice pierces the whispers. “Remember wherefore thou art Wyrmsbane, O king.”
“I remember well that torture.”
“That agony, that research is the only reason—”
The king tears off his helmet. Scars ridge his head like scales, and his eyes are sunken, black. The snarl of his lips bare teeth that gleam like silver. “I wish I had not lived. And if another must pay the price I did, even if he gains this being’s powers, I will not have it. He must be cast down.”
So that is why they did not kill me—to harvest my powers. Ironic now that my potency is waning.
Silence settles upon the cavern. Then the thin voice interrupts again. “Your passion cuts two threads, methinks. But do not forget that what we did for you, we can do for another. Think not to hoard power as a dragon hoards gold, Wyrmsbane.”
The king growls, and the voice continues after a pause. “But, you have spoken, and this matter passes from our hands. So be it.”
As the priests retreat, I lunge at the king and hook my good hand in a chink of his armor. He roars and claws at me as I drag him toward the abyss. We are almost at the edge. Then he opens his mouth.
The heat scorches me before I see the flames bursting out of him. My foot misses the edge and I flail for a handhold. Blisters boil on my face.
“Die, fiend!” he screams.
The words are drowned out by my falling cry. The updraft increases, whistling. It is cold like leaves slapping against my face in a storm. I extend my hand. The cliff glides under my fingertips, straight and smooth. But somewhere it will end.
I will be crushed like the sculpture of the tree in the square. Helpless. At least I will endure no more pain. But I have failed.
The end is near. Destroy the city. Do not fear.
My body will spatter and rot in some deep pit, and I ought not to fear?
I reach out again so that my fingertips skim the stone for a second. My hand grows warm from the friction. As I retract my hand, an image flashes into my mind.
Fingers on stone, reducing it to dust. Cracks spreading. The tree in the square crumbling by my hand.
Hope kindles within me. I press the stone harder, and the skin on my fingers wears thin as a furrow forms in the rock. The pain comes in waves, beating upon me, adding to the throb of my other wrist.
As I begin to slow, the wind calms. Beneath me, a fissure in the earth emits a faint glow. My eyes swim. I’m a burning, crackling handhold away from instant death. I cling to the cliff as it scrapes away my flesh.
And then I hit bottom.
A ring of numbers tick, beckoning. But I am dying. I cannot struggle. I must lie still, for my time has come.
Tick. It’s not over yet. Tock.
I open my eyes. Orange light pulses on the cliff beside me, dark and smooth except for one small furrow that soars higher than I can see. My hand throbs, oozing blood, and bones protrude from the fingertips. By some miracle, I slowed down enough to survive.
Tick. Destroy the city. Tock.
I moan and try to move my legs, but nothing happens. I am a dying cripple in a chasm so deep that it is lit by the earth’s fiery core. Destroy the city? I laugh. With what?
I let my head fall back to the ground, glance at the furrow I created, and smile. Just one more time.
My fingers tremble and drip blood, but I splay my hand out, palm down. Tiny cracks spread through the rock like webs. I apply more pressure, cringing from the pain. A crack slithers under me, expanding with every second.
One last sorrow. And then I am done.
My eyelids drift open. How long since I closed them? I don’t know, but cracks wider than my arm are climbing the cliff. The ground shifts under me and the light intensifies. A crack races to awaken the ancient crevasse a hundred paces away.
I smile. Let the mountain collapse upon me and the molten deeps consume me. As long as the city is destroyed.
A massive stone shatters on the ground. I jump at the noise, and my hand jolts. At the sudden sharp pang, tears brim my eyes.
“Die!” I scream.
The ancient crevasse widens, booming like a dragon’s roar. The sound hangs in the air for a moment, then the earth shudders and hisses. A flood of magma spews upward, and I squint in the glare.
A forgotten voice speaks. Do not be afraid.
The world contorts around me, changing to a murky red. The Between.
Ashes flutter down like a gray snowfall, covering the terrain with the corpse of a giant of the earth. I cannot move, so I gaze at one last fierce sunset, painted brighter than ever on billowing clouds of destruction.
A face eclipses the sky above me.
I smile. Though pain lingers in every part of me, I know that I am no longer the bringer of the end. I am at peace, for at last the end has come to me.
“Who are you?” I ask. “Let me see the city.”
The man kneels and slides an arm behind my back, propping me against a fallen column. He sits down beside me.
The mountain has become a crater. No mighty peak invades the sky anymore. And I can see the sun, a deep red orb weeping over the ruins of a magnificent city.
“What troubles you?” the man asks.
“That they had to perish.”
“But is that not what it means to bring an end?”
I cannot wipe away my tears. “Yes.”
“Without an end there can be no beginning.”
I cock my head to study the man, and he gazes back at me with vivid blue eyes.
My heart stops.
“You are older.” He is no longer a curious boy with glowing eyes or a youth with tears flowing for the desolation of beautiful art, but fully grown—a man.
He nods. “As you waned, I grew older and learned much. But even now, I am still beginning.”
So he had done it all. His glance stripped me of otherness and fused me to this realm. His touch on my shoulder absorbed the power of death.
“Who are you?” I repeat, a strange light stirring in my heart.
“I think you know.” The numbers of a clock rim his irises. Just like me.
“Are you what I once was?” Sadness grips me.
The man stands and looks out over the city. “No,” he says, almost to himself. He turns and strides away from the sunset into the coming darkness.
The fear and sorrow bound up in my heart loosen at the calm strength in his step. He disappears around a broken shoulder of the mountain, and I stare after him until twilight descends and something white tickles my peripherals.
Where the man sat, a white flower blossoms.
I reach for the flower. Bloodied grit sticks to my skin, and each movement is a fresh burst of pain, but I pluck the little flower and cradle it in my broken, trembling hand. A single tear drops onto it.
No, Endbringer. I am not what you were, his voice whispers within me. I am the Restoration.
My fingers curl over the blossom, and I close my eyes.
Martin Detwiler is mostly normal. For a writer. He is, like most of us, a mess of paradoxes. Dreamer & cynic, philosopher & clown, hopeless romantic & grim realist—if there’s a contradiction, you’ll find it in him somewhere or another. But at the heart of it all, Martin is a man made new by Christ, the Author of that cosmic tale we call history. He has had a passion for stories from his earliest teen years, and the transition from reading others’ stories to writing his own seemed a foregone conclusion. His greatest inspirations are C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, both of whom stirred a passion for stories that combine the aesthetic and the true in such a way that the reader is given an experiential glimpse of God’s reality.
Martin lives with his wife in South Carolina, where she keeps his sky-high hopes and dreams firmly rooted in the humble yet beautiful soil of reality.