There are 7 children, each with 7 candles. Each candle lasts for 7 hours. Each child takes their own turn with a candle. After the 13th hour, the sky will darken. After the 77th hour, the darkness becomes impenetrable. If the final candle burns out, the golden thread will snap and life will end. They are 22 miles away and the spirit who guides you is a cat with a limp. Calculate your final position when the world melts away.
When the end of the world came, Hector Amarillo was nursing his second cup of coffee at a nameless diner off of Interstate 80 in Wyoming.
Hector was a big man, a former college linebacker with broad shoulders that had become hunched and twisted from career-ending injuries followed by years of intense study. After flubbing his career in football and dropping out of a Ph.D. in urban folklore, he’d passed from job to job until he’d ended up here, a paranormal investigator in the empty plains of western America.
Work was hard for everyone to find these days, people were saying, and it was true for Hector. Every now and then he’d get a case from a wealthy tech CEO or the heiress of an “old money” family who’d pay extra to make sure all the evidence ‘disappeared’ after solving a case, but his last job had left him with a $500 medical bill from a werewolf bite and payment in the form of two chickens and a goat from a poor but gracious survival nut in the hills.
So it was with a heavy sigh that he contemplated the darkening sky and sounds of distant chanting that were starting outside.
“Hey, Tony!” he shouted as he pushed back the cup, leaving a $5 bill on the counter for good luck. “I’m headed out early today.”
“Be careful out there,” said Tony, coming out of the kitchen and wiping his thick hands on a stained apron. “Looks like a storm.”
“You’re not kidding,” Hector said and stepped outside.
The sky continued to darken as Hector pulled out and sped down the entrance ramp. There were no clouds at all, just a gradual but definite dimming of the sunlight. Hector called Ell on the speakerphone.
Ell was a fellow paranormal investigator who had managed to snag a cushy desk job as a professor of folklore and mythology at UW. The two of them had an understanding: she fed him facts and lore from her highly illegal collection of mystical texts while he passed on any interesting artifacts that needed to be kept from the public eye.
“Hey,” she said, her voice unusually crisp and serious. “I was just about to call you. Looks like someone’s enacting the Ritual of Weeks. It’s an older ritual. Late 1400’s. I had to look through fifteen tomes before I could identify it. Most of them had pages ripped out or burned.”
Hector pulled onto the road, accelerating as fast as his 10-year-old Dodge Ram could go, which unfortunately wasn’t anywhere close to the speed limit (not that there was much of a speed limit on I-80 in Wyoming).
“How dangerous is it?” he asked.
“Hard to say. Apparently; it was forbidden even to mention it for most of its existence. Among some practitioners of the dark arts, you can be killed just for writing its name. Only incomplete fragments exist, but what’s left seems bad. Expect some reality distortion, possibly an end of the world scenario.”
“Got it. I’m headed in,” said Hector. He planned the route in his head while passing a few moving trucks and a semi: take I-80 down to 287, then a right at Lander. With his innate talent for sniffing out the supernatural, he had no doubt where his target would be found.
“That’s it?” asked Ell archly. “No questions about the possible destruction of all life?”
“No, those are the best missions,” said Hector. “If I win, I win, and if not, well, it’s not like there’s anyone to get mad at me.” At least, not anymore, he thought.
Not with Stephen gone.
“Good luck. I’ll pray for you,” she said. “And I’ll try to contact you when you get closer. Expect things to get weird; the laws of reality will be breaking down.”
“Thanks, Ell,” said Hector, and he hit the gas.
The plan was simple: Head to the center of the distortion, identify the instigators and disrupt the ceremony by any means necessary. The distortions in reality caused by the ceremony would only increase as time went on and as he got closer to the center, but as long as he kept trucking and followed his senses, it should be fine.
Everything went wrong, though when the roads started to turn to spaghetti. He’d been driving fine for the last fifteen minutes but the roads had given out on him. No matter how fast his wheels spun, it felt more like the road stretching out than him moving forward. He’d had to stop.
Hector pulled off to the side and stared at the highway. It was wrong. Flowing, undulated, and stretched out towards a horizon that seemed like it was infinitely far away, an entire sunset shrunk to a dark but still horrifically visible point. The ground beneath him was completely devoid of light, too dangerous to walk on without stumbling or injuring himself.
So, it was time to go on foot. If the distance wouldn’t yield to a machine, maybe it would yield to the human mind.
Hector took out a small pocket knife and drew it carefully across his thumb, releasing a single drop of blood. He smeared it across his forehead and recited the Twenty-second Incantation of Alberich the Fearful.
The tension flowed from his body as the incantation took hold. It was a simple trick, nothing but a way to focus the attention. But it was all he needed.
He reached out with his newly-enhanced mind and grappled with the resistant landscape around him. He could feel the strength of the curse: it was overwhelming, dominating, and threatened to overwhelm his senses. But his newfound focus let him create his own little pocket of reality around him.
A small pool of light spread around his feet, illuminating some apparently normal-looking prairie dirt. He took a step to the edge of the light, and the pool followed him. Step by step, he made his way into the center of the storm.
Time was impossible to measure here. Hector had climbed a cliff that looked like it was made of teeth, forded through a river of blood, and now was crossing an endless rocky plain. His little pool of light followed him everywhere he went, but for some reason here he kept stubbing his toes against rocks that were just outside the light. When he hit his third rock, he stopped and sat down to massage his feet, cursing under his breath.
“I’m not quite sure, but I think human feet work better if you don’t throw them at rocks,” said a mocking voice from behind Hector. He sounded like a mid-20’s man, the kind that was ‘taking a year off of college’ for several years in a row and now worked at the local Gamestop since his parents wanted him to pay his part of the rent.
But it wasn’t. Instead, it was a black cat with a limp. He circled just outside the pool of light.
“You can talk,” said Hector, keeping his distance. “Interesting. I’d say you look like a familiar, but I’ve never seen one injured.”
“I’d say you look familiar, too,” said the cat, “but I’ve never seen you before. But yes, you’ve classified me correctly as one of the many magical creatures native to this part of the world. Unfortunately, the ritual is affecting us just as much as you, and the injury you see is a result of that. My name’s Felix,” he added.
“Isn’t that a cliche name for a cat?” asked Hector skeptically. Felix shrugged. Well, technically, cats couldn’t shrug, so it was mostly him awkwardly bobbing his head around while his front paws wiggled back and forth. “And where’s your master?”
Felix said, “The better question is, where are you? And where are you going?”
“It’s the Ritual of Weeks. You ever heard of it? Someone’s enacting it, here in Wyoming. I have to find them and stop them,” said Hector.
“So you’re not afraid to get your hands dirty. Didn’t expect that from someone like you,” said Felix.
“What are you talking about?” asked Hector.
“You don’t know? The ritual of weeks. It’s a children’s game. You get seven friends, each with 49 candles. Each kid burns their own candles, one at a time, lasting an hour. The only way to end it is to kill one of them. That’s what you’re headed to. I’m sorry Hector,” said Felix. “I know this will be hard for you since you lost your own son last year.”
“How could you possibly know that?” shouted Hector, reeling from the new information.
“I don’t, Hector. I’m not even real. In a few seconds, you’ll realize that.,” Felix said. “It’s the kids, Hector. You’ve got to stop them, even if it means their death. I’m sorry.”
But Felix wasn’t there. Hector realized he was leaning against the wall of an abandoned gas station made entirely of glass under a red sun. His pool of light had shrunk dangerously close around his feet. He was holding a cell phone.
“Hector!” said Ell loudly. “Did you hear what I said? The kids. You have to stop them.”
He shook his head. “Ell, how did you reach me out here?”
“Finally, you’re back!” Relief oozed from her voice. “I’ve been trying to get you for hours. When you picked up you kept calling me ‘Felix’–I’m worried for you, Hector. Things are getting bad out here. The rest of the world is starting to notice: darkened skies, fires not lighting. I can’t imagine what it’s like where you are,” she said.
“It’s bad,” he said. “But Ell…I don’t know if I can do this if kids are involved.”
“You’re going to have to finish the job, Hector. This is the big one. While you were out I found another manuscript talking about the ritual, and it means the end of all life. And it can only be enacted consciously and willingly. Whoever these kids are, they want an end to things.”
Hector’s phone, he noticed for the first time, seemed to be made of sand. The top few grains of it started blowing away.
“Ell, I think I’m going to have to go. My phone is…running out. I’ll do it, though. I can feel the center; I’m close. But I think this’ll be it for me. My last case.”
“Hector–” said Ell, but his phone blew away in a million fragments.
He was on his own, now.
Somehow, knowing what he was looking for now made finding where it was much easier. Hector crested a hill and saw a single suburban home at the bottom of a dry and desolate valley. Lights flickered from a basement window. This was it.
Hector picked his way down the edge of the cliff, and with every step, the world around him flickered. Here, at the center, time and space began to have no meaning. He saw copies of himself, some in the past, others in alternate presents, some in what seemed to be futures. Hectors talking to Felix, human-sized Felixes talking to little Hectors, a Hector in a puddle of blood with a knife in his back.
But all of the Hectors converged at once when he placed his hand on the door and knocked.
“Come in,” came a voice from far away. Hector opened the door and passed inside.
Everything was normal again. The anomalies in the fabric of reality were…gone.
The house was a split-level, with stairs going up and down from the entrance. Everything was covered in early 90’s faux wood paneling, but the cabinets looked like they’d been refurbished. Through lacy curtains covering the windows, Hector saw a pleasant suburban neighborhood and a gentle drizzle of rain.
There were sounds from the basement. Chatter, laughter. Hector walked down the short flight of steps from the entrance, then pushed open a light wooden basement door to reveal a longer, steeper set of stairs illuminated by flickering light from the room below.
Hector reached into his pocket and felt the switchblade he kept there. It was more reliable than a gun against beings and objects capable of bending physics.
When he reached the bottom, he saw them.
Six ordinary-looking teens sat around a table: a short girl with tight braids, a lanky boy with curly brown hair, two almost identical-seeming girls in letterman jackets with choppy bangs, a quiet and pale child, and a young man with a brazenly confident smile. Everyone was perfectly normal, perfectly pleasant when Hector looked at them straight-on, but whenever he caught someone’s face in the corner of his eye it was twisted in disgust or vicious mockery. There was conversation, but muted, just under the level of his hearing, a whisper of words that sounded like the same set of foreign syllables repeated over and over again.
An open doorway with the sound of water coming from inside meant the seventh was in the bathroom. It looked like a party: chips, soda (or maybe beer, from the smell?), leftover pizza. At the center was a pile of wax with a single, fingerlike taper set alight.
No one spoke to him or approached him. He might have been invisible, for all they cared. He pulled out the switchblade and flicked it open. But then the last kid came in from the bathroom.
It was Stephen.
“Dad? What are you doing here?”
All the kids looked at him now.
“Hey, Mr. Amarillo!” said the girl with braids, waving as she ate a slice of pizza. The siblings whispered to each other and laughed, clearly making some joke at Hector’s expense.
“Hey, Julian, Pedro, knock it off. My dad’s cool.”
“Stephen,” he said. “How–” He couldn’t finish the words.
Stephen stepped calmly across the room, tousling the hair of one friend and grabbing a stray potato chip. He approached Hector, smiled, and grabbed his hands. The impossible Stephen fixed his gaze on Hector. The only thing reflected in his eyes was the light of the candle.
“It’s the Ritual of Weeks, dad. It can fix everything. It can fix me. We can be together again. But only if the world changes. Help us finish. We only need to light one more candle.”
A part of Hector’s mind screamed at him that this wasn’t Stephen, that it couldn’t be Stephen. But that part was getting quieter and quieter. Warmth and comfort filled Hector. He could feel certainty pouring into him, telling him that finishing the ritual would bring back his son.
He embraced Stephen. As they parted, the candle on the table began to sag and dim. Stephen fished in his pocket and brought out a final candle, this one black as night. He pulled out a lighter.
“Here’s to a new world, dad.”
Stephen went to light the last candle but gasped. Hector was there, staring him in those dark, strange eyes, refusing to look at the rest of the face that looked so, so much like his real son. That wasn’t what stopped Stephen, though. He looked down in disbelief to see his father’s switchblade in his stomach.
But of course, it wasn’t his father’s switchblade, because he wasn’t Stephen. The illusion was gone, and Hector was holding an unknown blonde boy who sagged in his arms. He coughed and blood pooled from his lips.
“How?” he asked, pausing to give a deep, wet cough. “ Why? The spell worked. You thought I was him. You thought I was your own son and you stabbed me. You’re a–” more blood spilled from his lips “–a sick man. A real father would have let us finish the ritual.”
Hector pulled out the knife and the head of the ritual fell to the ground. His eyes reflected nothing now but fear and disbelief, both of which slowly faded into emptiness. Hector knelt down and closed them gently. He could hear scraping chairs and hurried shouting from the others as they scrambled up the stairs, but he couldn’t muster the energy to stop them.
“I would do anything to bring my son back,” said Hector to the would-be sorcerer’s corpse. “But not that.”
He walked up the stairs and out of the basement. Through the open door, he could see a world in chaos: timelines reversing, the black sky ripping itself open with brilliant bursts of light, the ground bubbling and seething as the world was reshaped.
But Hector wasn’t afraid. He knew that these disasters and struggles weren’t the death rattle of a doomed earth, but the cries of a world reborn and restored. He waited until the thunder stopped and the grass sprang back to life, until the last trace of magic was gone, before he walked out into the rain. The world had been renewed. And so had Hector.
Credit : Mathbrush
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