Death Comes To Oz
And come he slow, or come he fast,
It is but Death who comes at last.
-Sir Walter Scott, “Marmion”
The heat of the blazing hearth did little to warm the old man’s bones. The cold had been so deep set in them for so long the sensation of warmth had become a forgotten memory. Claw-like hands wrapped in yellow parchment skin grasped a piece of paper indelibly marked with fated words. Scowling eyes pored over the words as a wasted finger traced the letters of names well remembered and once well loved.
The old man let out a raspy breath as a feeble tear trickled down his pockmarked face. What little humanity he still clung to was fading fast as the clock on the wall ticked mercilessly towards the witching hour. The firelight illuminated the gilt lettering of books popular and arcane. Juvenile books thought by most to be fairy tales lay in stacks by hand bound manuscripts from centuries past. It had been in the very pages of these ancient tomes that the wizened man had found the secrets to stave off the inevitable for all these long, long years.
Reaching down with his gnarled index finger, the old man delineated two prominent letters on the cover of a vintage copy of a children’s book. “Oz,” he whispered in a short breath as his worn digit circled over the famous insignia. If only he had appreciated …
The fire roared higher as the logs broke apart in a rage of sparks and ash. The sudden flash of light splashed through the room making all the dark corners bright as day. Eerie symbols carved inches deep into the walls shimmered while others dripped with fresh crimson-black seepage. The macabre scene was juxtaposed with vestiges of innocence lost. Above the granite mantle hung a portrait of a young boy dressed in overalls with a broad straw hat shading his smiling face, and standing by him was a big horse, tall and bony, with long legs and large knees and hooves. The horse’s ribs showed through the skin of his body and his head was long and seemed altogether too big for him, as if it did not fit. The horse’s short and scraggly tail hung limply to his side.
The old man looked up fondly at the aged picture as his milky white eyes curdled with hollow tears. “Ah, my dear friend,” he wheezed in a cough. “Please forgive me my foolishness. I was young…so very young. I did not understand the price we would have to pay. How could I have known?” The clock struck savagely on the hour alerting the elderly man to the fact he was no longer alone.
In the periphery of his vision fleeting sparks began to form. The chill that was forever in his bones became more acute, his breath crystallizing before him as he exhaled deeply. The clock chimed louder on the twelfth stroke then faded unnaturally into silence. The crackling of the fire ceased suddenly even as the flames burned brighter turning ice blue then fading into dark violet. The air became permeated with the smell of upturned sod and decaying leaves. The old man’s weak heart began to beat so frantically it felt as if it would rupture through his gaunt chest. The pounding echoed achingly in his ears, piercing his temples with the force of a migraine. The air became heavy and thick around him making it impossible to breath.
Slowly, patches of darkness began to swallow the room, absorbing all the natural light and heat. Then the pitch grew blacker still and began to take on form. Even against the gloom of the dark it was like a black hole pulling in all, a silhouette cut-out straight from the abyss. After decades of dread and fear, the moment had finally arrived.
-Did you think to avoid me forever? Our game of hide-and-seek has come to its inevitable conclusion.-
The words, not spoken aloud, reverberated in the poor man’s head making him clutch the paper in his shaking hand all the tighter. Fear turned to anger as the old man spoke in a gravelly voice. “You are not welcomed here. I have been cheated! I do not want to go with you.”
-Very few do. The fear of the Unknown can be most unsettling. I have my duty, my function in the greater scheme. It is appointed for each man born that he too must die, and that time has finally come for you. All your efforts to avoid your fate have ended in futility.-
The old man’s face peeled into a toothless grin reflecting the skeletal visage of his uninvited visitor. His pulse raced as he rasped his defiance, “Do you think I have nothing left to dissuade you, Mors? Have you forgotten that in all these long years I have seen and done much, uncovered many hidden truths? I may have never achieved my ultimate aim but I still have garnered much esoteric knowledge.
‘That is not dead which can eternal lie.
And with strange aeons even Death may die.’”
-Do not seek to sway me with empty boasts. Your knowledge is as naught to me and my patience is at an end with you. Come.-
The shadow extended a bony hand, gleaming and cold like marble, towards the decrepit man. With uncanny swiftness the old man pushed away from the specter and held up his withered hand in recalcitrance.
“No! Do not come near me! Heed my words!” An inhuman sound began to vibrate deep in his esophagus, a noise that mimicked a swarm of locusts, and out of his mouth words poured forth like bile.
“Teloch, zirdo tox casarmg gnay allar ilsi erm li ananael ol li cocasb! Ils casarmg bogpa aqlo li Siaion ol li Soboln toatar bi-en: il pu-im trian aziagiar li gah ol in cnila, casarmg brin blans aqlo laiad, bagle li piap mirc in dazis. Pugo in saisch im-va-mar il grosb od pambt ca lu-la zonrensg fafen il ciaofi. Ors od lonsa, amgedpha!”
The old man cowered in fear as he shut his glazed eyes waiting for the final touch. Yet to his amazement it did not come. He had gambled blindly in a game of high stakes and from the looks of it he had won. The Grim Reaper stood there, the hollow sockets of his eyes pulsing with ebon fire, his hand withdrawn beneath his night black sleeve.
-You dare to utter the Celestial Speech? You malign words that are meant only for the tongues of the Angels! You have no idea what you say or how to even say it!-
“Yet you stand there and tread no further. It would seem I have done something right. Why do you stand there impotent?”
-The only thing you have proven is the depth of your cowardice. You have only stayed my hand for a moment. You will still fall before my scythe as do all. A balance must be maintained. Give me the names.-
The names, the words he had scrawled out in desperation on the piece of paper he held in the sweaty palm of his left hand, the list he was using to barter for more time. After all, had they not had over a century of idyllic bliss while he had dried up and shriveled with age? Where was the fairness in that? The old man lifted the shred of paper to his mouth in a strange homage and kissed it. “Here, take it,” he said as he thrust the paper towards the Angel of Death. “I bid them to take my place in the halls of the dead.”
The rustle of cloth sounded as Death’s ragged cloak shuddered and shifted. With a sudden twist and snap, out flew two ominous birds with beaks of slate and eyes shining red with apocalyptic fire. The two ravens sailed around the room in circles cawing in unison. One broke from the other and swooped down at the old man with talons outstretched menacingly. The man, in fear of the looming avian, drew his arm to his face expecting the worse. The bird deftly snatched the crumpled paper from the arthritic hand and carried it at once to its master.
Hope mingled with shame surged in the old man’s heart as Death held the list up to his empty eye sockets and read the scribbling carefully. Then he reached down with his skeletal hand and grasped an hour glass that hung from a chain wrapped loosely around his emaciated waist. The timepiece began to glow with a phosphorescent green as the dark angel gazed into the depths of it.
-There has been a grave error. Somehow these names have slipped by me unnoticed. This will not do. A balance must be maintained, the cosmic order must not be thrown into chaos. This shall be dealt with in the preordained manner. All must drink from my cup. It has been so since man first walked the earth, and so it must be until the end of all there is.-
The Angel of Death turned his empty face towards the man cowering on the floor. Without malice or mercy the dark creature pointed a bony finger at the man and spoke in a wailing voice that did not come from his mouth but from all around him, -Do you see hope in this act of betrayal? Your hope is false, the denial of the reality staring you in the face. Your time on this earth is fleeting and almost at an end. You will not escape what has been allotted for you. Get your house in order, for I will return soon enough and there will be no more respite for you.-
The clock on the wall whirred and clicked back to life as the fire in the hearth illuminated the room in a bright orange glow. With great effort the old man pulled himself up into his chair and let out a heart-wrenching sigh. He knew he had only forestalled what he had been dreading all these long, lonely years. And what price was to be paid for just a few more hours, perhaps only minutes? What unknown horror had he unleashed on those he had professed to love, those who had only shown him kindness and good will? The full extent of what he had done began to wash over him making his flesh crawl and prickle.
“What in heaven’s name have I done? How could I have been so cruel and uncaring? Their blood is on my hands! I can’t undo what I’ve done! It’s too late.”
The old man screamed and railed, thrashing himself on the floor, pounding his fist on the blood stained walls with the agony of the damned. “Oh, what have I done to you all? How will you ever understand! It’s too late! Too late!” He pulled his fist to his mouth, spasms of grief coming unchecked. And in a small, small voice he whispered the name of the little girl he had loved like a sister.
|Continuity note: Zeb Hugson hasn't been in an Oz story since he made the ill-fated decision to go back to his uncle's ranch in California in Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz. This short prelude is a forerunner to the epic Death Comes to Oz, soon to be published by The Royal Publisher of Oz.|