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Dead Prophecies

by Ferrett Steinmetz


You can’t give people too much free will,” says the Chosen One, his long, gray hair hanging down over his ruined face, the split ends soaking up the foam in his mug of beer. “I’m living proof of that.”

He looks blearily through the cracked windows of his bar, pointedly not making eye contact with the kid standing in the doorway. The sky is its usual blood-red, but today a hail of gouged eyeballs tumbles from the tumor-clouds above, bursting open on the clay soil like popped cherries. Black lightning booms.

“Oh, that’s gonna be hell to clean up,” the Chosen One grumbles.

The kid cranes his head in, his own desperate attempt at making eye contact.

The ramshackle bar’s desolate location, tucked between the Strangle-Caves and the immense shadow of the Night-Soaked Emperor, ought to be enough to dissuade most visitors. But it never does. Lit only by sputtering lights powered by an emergency generator, the bottles on the sagging shelves are filled high.

The Chosen One tries to ignore the kid’s request for a room, half-uttered before he realized the owner’s identity. The kid looks tough, thickly-muscled, clad in a clanking depleted uranium jacket likely stolen from a dead tank elemental. He’s strapped with full bandoliers. The Chosen One pretends not to notice the way the kid stares at the gleam of the legendary Godkiller knives mounted behind the counter.

“You want a beer?” he asks.

The kid nods eagerly. He’s likely never had a beer; never seen a living stalk of wheat. The Chosen One draws a sludgy stream from the tap and pushes the mug across the counter. The kid looks at him with that sickeningly familiar fanboyish air.

He tips the mug towards the kid affably, young enough to have been in diapers when the shit went down.

“Anyway, I had this great prophecy — told me when I’d be born, when my mother would die spiriting me away from the Chancellor, when I’d meet the love of my life. You could set your watch by it. In retrospect, it was fuckin’ awesome.

“But no, I had to start extemporizing. ‘I want to live my own life,’ I told Ardena. ‘I feel like I’m just reciting lines in someone else’s script.’ So when the time came to defeat Grixai, the Night-Soaked Emperor of All Worlds, I didn’t sneak off, empty-handed, to meet him in his courtyard at the stroke of midnight . ‘That’s crazy,’ said I. ‘That shit will get me killed.’ Instead, I raised a mighty army to face him down on the battlefield.”

He nods his head at the imposing horizon, hoping the kid will get the hint. The horizon is miles away, across the wriggling Desert of Salted Whips, but the squatting Emperor is as big as a mountain. The bat-shaped form of his synaptic wings blots out the decayed husk of the sun.

“You can see how well that turned out,” he sighs.

The kid swallows the beer, grimacing at the taste. “But it’s not too late,” he says. “You can—”

The Chosen One cuts him off with a wave of a calloused hand.

“I’m not gonna lie,” he says. “It was depressing, having my true love’s veins knotted into the Weeping Tapestry. Nobody wants his wife to be a shrieking rug. But I wandered for a while, trudging through the ash of the few cities that rebelled, seeing the knife-toothed ghosts of my dead friends—

“And you know? Really, it’s for the best.”

The kid flinches. The Chosen One shrugs.

“Listen, kid. Nobody likes to hear it, but it’s true. The Night-Soaked Emperor’s goal was to bring humanity to heel, amiright? And frankly, if humanity — at least in the form of me — had been smart enough and not so goddamned willful when it came to carrying out the prophecies, we’d be sitting in clover right now. What’d free will get us? The eradication of all hope. So maybe we need someone to keep us in line. We’re not so special.”

The kid’s eyes narrow, his lips purse in sullen anger. The Chosen One holds up his hands, hoping to avoid a fight.

“I’m not trying to offend, kid. It’s just that I’ve been where you are. You’re all, ‘Oh, humanity is the shining star of the universe, we should be free from the stabbing bone yokes and the colon plagues.’ I dig that. Who wants their lower intestine turned into a black, carnivorous snake? But you have to be philosophical about these things. It’ll pass, see?

“The revised prophecy foretells that the reign of the Night-Soaked Emperor’s will last another ten thousand years. That’s not even an ice age, really. It’ll pass, and we’ll dig out, and it’ll be our turn again. Another hundred thousand years, and Grix’ll be another footnote in some dusty tome. You gotta take the long-term view, see?”

The kid looks into his beer with too-obvious suspicion, searching for signs of poison, and the Chosen One groans.

Then the kid’s eyes flicker to the window, scanning the long row of graves flanking the dirt road. Each crude slate headstone jammed into the mounds of soil, the named ones written in hasty chalk.

The kid takes a step toward him. “Why didn’t the Emperor destroy you when he slaughtered your allies?”

“Well, it’s not like I could do anything to him now,” the Chosen One says, stepping away from the bar to interpose himself between the kid and the knife rack. “No one can. Not even you.”

And what the Chosen One doesn’t add, because no one but Grixai and him could ever understand, is that at the end of the day, the two of them were just punching in for their shift at the factory. Their whole lives had been arranged for them to fight each other. Once the Earth had been drained of essence, the Emperor had felt that weird pang of empathy; it could have just as easily been him. And so he’d let the Chosen One free.

“Easy to say,” the kid mutters. His fingers twitch, dipping unconsciously towards the holster on his hip.

“I’m not working for him,” the Chosen One says, nakedly honest.

“You speak in his defense,” the kid roars, and the Chosen One hears the echo of all his old arrogance booming back to him in the kid’s cracking, adolescent voice. “You were supposed to defeat him, and yet all you do is talk about how grand his victory is. Do you know why I think you put your bar on the only road between the last of civilization and the Night-Soaked Emperor?”

“Because I wanted to stop you idiots!” the Chosen One hollers back. “He’s the size of a fucking continent, for God’s sake! The last chance to stop him was a decade ago! You go there, he’s just going to turn you into another rape zombie.”

“I think,” says the kid, removing his gun from the holster, “That you are his thrall. A final test.”

The Chosen One squeezes his eyes shut, tiny tears trickling down his weathered, wrinkled cheeks.

“Don’t,” he whispers. “Please don’t.”

The kid, keeping the gun on him, goes for the Godkiller knives. But the Chosen One was chosen for a reason. There’s a blur of motion, and a small crunching noise; the kid never gets to pull the trigger before he falls, skull shattered like a vase. His blood pools in the piles of sawdust.

The Chosen One cries, low and long.

“I told you,” he weeps. “I told you.”

He hauls the kid’s broken body out through the glop, freshly-rained eyeballs popping underfoot, and digs another grave. He wishes he’d gotten the kid’s name. He wishes he could die. He wishes one of these stupid kids, just one, would understand what he was trying to say and go back home to live as good a life as they could expect under the cancerous reign of the Night-Soaked Emperor.

Above all, he wishes he could just hand his old Godkiller knives to one of his challengers, saying, Here, take ’em, I’m done. But the tatters of the prophecy are clear; the boy who will take the knives from him won’t show up for another ten thousand years. The wrong kid could make the Emperor’s reign last for all eternity.

He finishes the kid’s drink and returns to his alcoholic haze, thinking of the script the prophecy had written for him, once upon a time. It was a good script.

He should have just read his lines.



Ferrett Steinmetz lives in Ohio with his wife and a lovable ghost. He’s a proud graduate of both the Clarion and Viable Paradise Writing workshops, and has been published in such varied places as Asimov's, Shimmer, GUD Magazine, and Andromeda Spaceways InFlight Magazine, among others. He plays far too much Rock Band, and chronicles details of his life that you probably don’t want to know about at http://theferrett.livejournal.com.


May 2010