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Waiting in the Light

by Jonathan Barons

First Appeared in Burnt Toast#6, 1990

Orpheus stood at the gates and waited. The night had swallowed the sun, leaving only ghostly shadows for solace during his dark vigil. The silence of the camp numbed his mind, and an oppressive anticipation hung in the air like a thick fog. The events of less than an hour previous had whittled away at his consciousness, leaving him suspended in a strange dream as if in mid air with his feet softly scraping the cold earth beneath. The apparently meaningless hysteria that had gripped his partner had left Orpheus alone on the west face of the camp, but his commander had assured him they would not attack tonight, for their numbers too were decimated, and their spirit could be nothing but broken. Orpheus would have been calmed by that statement but for a low and driving hum of thunder far in the distance, with a hypnotic consistency that drove him further from the real world.

The moon had stolen half-way across the sky when Orpheus' feet abruptly hit the earth and he became aware of the full weight of his body. The thunder was now a vibration deep in his soul, yet he could see nothing. He concentrated on the emptiness and soon determined a new, distant sound. A sound of strong emotion, of anger, of torment and resentment. This new sound was fearful, but strongly compelling, and easily drove Orpheus' feet down the road that stretched in front of him.

The light of the moon had soon been smothered by thick black cloud, and the path now became a faint trace in the darkness. The dread feeling that spurred Orpheus on was getting stronger, and was concentrated in a point on the path ahead, bathed in a dense blue light. As he stepped into the light, a cold wave washed through his body and he immediately felt drained of all defences. The scene before him slowly unravelled. He was standing at a point were two roads crossed. Slowly, people began to emerge from the darkness and circle around him, figures with spiteful eyes that hosted the emotions that had driven Orpheus here. Although he could plainly see these people were real, Orpheus knew they were not of his world.

The blue haze soon revealed a table at which was seated a tall figure, robed in black. Orpheus seated himself across from the dark figure and felt he had reached the purpose of his compulsion. The figure raised its head to reveal a fleshless face that grinned from under its hood, and eyes that struck terror in Orpheus' soul.

The figure spoke. "You know me Orpheus. You have spoken to me often, begging me to let you go, begging me to grace you with release from the fate which must meet everyone."

As Orpheus listened, he became aware of the pain of several tiny red hands, wielding sharp claws, closing around his body. The hands were matched by several creatures grinning up at him with evil little faces.

"My price is not cheap", the figure continued, "but I am willing to bargain. You do know me, don't you?"

Orpheus was struck by the realisation that the eyes of the figure were his own.

"I am your death!" the figure hissed.

Death reached out a skeletal hand and placed a deck of cards on the table. He then produced two stacks of bone-white chips, placing one by Orpheus' side.

Death spoke once more. "We will play till one stack of chips has gone. If that stack be yours, then you shall remain with me here in my world. If that stack be mine, then you shall return to your world, never to see me again."

Orpheus shifted uneasily in his chair, the demon claws still scratching. "Why are you prepared to bargain with me?"

"There are greater prizes on this Earth than your life" said Death, his grin seeming to broaden.

With a dexterity that belied the fleshless reality of his hand, Death dealt the cards to Orpheus and himself. As Orpheus surveyed the hand he had been dealt, he heard a question cast across the table. "How much is your life worth, Orpheus?"

A shaking hand answered Death's question by placing a single chip in the centre of the table. Excited murmurs from the darkness heralded Death's reply of four chips. On this hand Orpheus folded. Then again on the next, and the next, but the fourth hand saw a confident Orpheus push five chips to the centre of the table. Squeals of disgust rang in the air as Death lost his first hand.

The game continued as such through the night, but Orpheus' confidence continued to grow as the two stacks of chips rose and fell. Many of the wandering ghouls congregated around the table, and after several hours Orpheus felt that the number of people watching the game was much larger than the original audience.

And eventually, Orpheus fingered his high stack of chips, and his heart began to flutter, as he watched Death place his last chip in the centre of the table. Orpheus ran his thumb over the four aces in his hand, and for the first time in many hours, looked up into Death's eyes.

Death and his demons realised the state of the game and seemed to shift to and fro in agitation. Death was the first to lay his cards down. A good hand, but not as good as those resting in Orpheus' sweaty grip. Too shocked at his luck to register any emotion, Orpheus lay his cards on the table and waited. For an agonizing moment there was complete silence, then Death rose from his seat in a fearful visage of anger and contempt, and slammed his bony fist through the table.

All was dark. Then Orpheus heard a soft but growing flutter of movement. He looked above him and saw the limb of an old tree, alive with the bustle of a thousand tiny birds busily gathering berries. He swivelled back to face the grim card game, but it was no more. Again the road stretched in front of him, but this time the camp was at the end of it, somewhere over the hill that was now awash with morning's golden light. His mind told him that he'd been asleep under the tree, enveloped in a dream of horrific realism, but the scars on his body from the razor-pricks of little demon claws proved his ordeal. He'd won. The dawning of that glorious thought crept through his brain. He'd challenged Death and won! He'd played on Death's terms, in Death's home, and returned alive.

Although it was the same road, the journey back to camp presented Orpheus' eyes with a completely different view. Where, last night, there was only shades of dark, this morning there was lush countryside bathed in light. The thought of his nocturnal triumph lifted and lifted his spirits -- until he saw the camp. Approaching from the west, the scene that affronted his eyes was one of complete devastation. They had attacked from the west, through Orpheus' guard post, and scored an utter victory. It was the work of more than mortal hands. Orpheus raised his face in anguish and cried to compassionless ears, "Death -- you cheat!"


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