“Wait, was that it?”
Lance lowered his sword, which he’d previously held aloft in a pose worthy of a movie poster. “What?”
“That’s the End, right?”
Lance frowned and went over a mental checklist. Saved village from ghoul attack? Check. Stole insanely tiny artifact from dragon horde? Check. Received the guidance of old wizard/hermit? Check. Defeated evil dark lord Maloc and restored kingdom to it’s rightful heir? Check and check.
He shrugged. “Looks like.”
“Then shouldn’t things be…I don’t know, ending?”
He looked around him. Sure enough, the sun was still setting off in the distance. The cliff was still solid beneath his feet, and there was no side of a great fade-out, or anything coming to an end along with their quest.
A thought came to Lance that had never even occurred to him earlier, but shone out clear as day now: maybe posing dramatically at the edge of a cliff wasn’t the best idea he’d ever had. He’d inched away from the 400 foot drop into the forest below.
“Er…right. Maybe it takes a minute.”
The two stood for a short while, waiting.
“Well?” She asked, tapping her foot and crossing her arms.
“Er…maybe I ought to say it again?”
She stared at him in complete disbelief. “You want to say that garbage again?”
He was shocked and hurt. “It wasn’t garbage!”
She rolled her eyes and held up an imaginary sword and started waving it around. “Blah, blah, blah! My name is Sir Lance! Blah blah blah! I defeated the evil tyrant and gave King Artie his throne back! Blah blah! Good conquers evil and all that! Now I’ll make a dramatic finishing pose! Blah!”
Lance lowered his gaze and kicked a pebble near his foot. “I thought it was very smart.”
“Oh shut up.” She snarled. She stomped towards him and jabbed him in the chest with her index finger.
“So what do we do now, Lance?”
“Well, we could…er…”
She took another step forward, forcing him back. “You told me that you knew this thing backwards and forwards. You told me it would wrap up all up nice and neat! Artie’s on the throne, Maloc’s in exile, and we’ve each been honored and showered with riches. So now what?”
“Gwen, could you not-”
She took another step, forcing him back even further. “Mervin told us what to do, and we did it! At least I did! You probably screwed up somewhere.”
Another step. “You probably said the wrong word at the magic door! Or grabbed another treasure from the dragon horde and stuffed it in your pocket!”
“I didn’t! You’re-”
Another step and her eyes widened with fright. “Oh no. You left a loose end, didn’t you?”
“You left a loose end, and something horrible is going to happen! Maloc will probably show up with some final weapon any minute!”
“You let one of his henchmen get away, or forgot to destroy the source of his power, didn’t you? Just brilliant, Lance, just-”
She pulled her attention away from her ranting and finally turned her attention to what he was yelling about.
She looked down the side of the cliff. The same one that her steps had forced both her and Lance towards.
“Oh.” She said faintly before they both toppled over the edge.
About ten seconds later, Gwen found herself on her stomach and facedown on a dirty wood floor.
“Mwuh muh muck?” She said into the wood grain before she sat up and glanced to her left. Lance was one the floor next to her, on his back, and staring up at the ceiling.
“Am I dead?” He asked weakly.
“Don’t think so.” She replied.
“Oh good.” He whimpered. He then fell silent, shaking like a leaf. Gwen couldn’t really blame him. It’s not every day that you take a plunge off a cliff only to materialize on the floor of some house moments later.
“Heroic, isn’t he?” A voice creaked from the other end of the room. She looked up. They were in a filthy, one-room, wooden house. Dirt and grime coated every surface, and she could barely make out trees through the dirty windows. There was a wooden table on the other side of the tiny room. It looked as though its owner had been raised in a culture where cleaning was the equivalent of insulting someone’s mother. It was covered in empty, used mugs and bowls. There was an old chair pulled up next to it, and sitting in that chair was an old man with long white hair and a white beard. He was dressed in a dusty blue robe, and behind him she could see a blue wizard’s hat hanging on a hook on the wall. A staff leaned against the side of an unlit fireplace.
“Mervin the Wizard.” She said. At the mention of this name, Lance’s blank face contorted into an expression of rage.
“Oh great! What’s that old idiot gone and done now?”
“This daft old fool just pulled you from the jaws of death, boy.” Mervin growled. “You’d do well to remember that. Though it was mostly for the sake of posterity. Can you imagine how embarrassing it would be if the realm’s great story had ended with you two fighting and then plunging off a cliff?”
“Well that’s just the thing!” Gwen shouted, getting to her feet. “I don’t think it did End! We must’ve forgotten something or left something undone!”
He frowned at her. “What makes you think that?”
“Well…” She searched for the proper way to voice her thoughts. “Well we’re still here, aren’t we? When a story Ends, shouldn’t everything…you know…stop?”
At this statement, Mervin leaned back in his chair and roared with laughter. When he calmed down enough to speak again, he looked at her and grinned. “Let me see if I understand this: you think that just because your story has ended, the whole world should end too?”
“Isn’t that how it works?” Lance asked, rolling onto his stomach and sitting up.
“Lord no! The world is far too vast and great for it to end just because some idiot with a pen wrote ‘The End’! You really think that just because you’ve got nothing to do now, the sun won’t rise again tomorrow? How arrogant.”
“But…” Gwen’s mind raced. “We’re the heroes!”
“So…isn’t this all about us? What we did?”
“What you did was save a world,” Mervin said crossing his arms, “A world full of people who still have to get up and go to work tomorrow. That’s the whole point. You fought so things wouldn’t End.”
“We fought so things wouldn’t get destroyed.” Lance snarled, pushing himself off the floor. “Things are supposed to End when the story ends. That’s how it goes.”
“So what are we supposed to do with ourselves now?”
Mervin shrugged. “I wouldn’t presume to tell you what to do with your lives. But I will tell you this: you were thoughts once. Thoughts and ideas floating around in someone’s head, then you were characters. Now you’re people. Get used to the idea.”
“What’s with you anyway? Why are you talking like that?” Gwen asked.
Mervin frowned at her. “Not sure what you mean.”
“You sound less…cryptic than before. Before you would always talk in riddles and prophecies. ‘Follow the red sign’ and other such nonsense. And most of the prophecies you gave us weren’t clear until after the event passed.”
“Really annoying.” Lance added, not wanting to be left out of this defamation of Mervin’s character.
Mervin glared at him, but kept his voice steady. “I suppose it just seemed absurd to keep talking in riddles. After the End came I realized it was rather stupid to give out prophecies instead of advice. After all, if I went out shopping and could only give the clerk vague clues as to what I wanted, I’d starve to death.”
While the idea of Mervin coming somewhat closer to sanity was wedging itself uncomfortably in Gwen’s mind, Lance spoke again. “We’ll contact King Artie. He’ll know what we left undone. I bet he’s waiting for us to contact him right now! Get out the crystal ball, old man!”
Mervin grimaced. “Like talking to a brick wall. Fine, hold on.”
He stood up, and went over to a cabinet hanging over a rusted sink. As he rummaged through it, Gwen stared at the mess around the cabin and wondered if a wizard’s magical power was directly proportional to how squalid their living quarters were. He eventually pulled out a clear crystal ball. Gwen had a sneaking suspicion it was the only thing in the house Mervin kept clean at all times.
“Couldn’t you use magic to straighten this place up?” Gwen asked as Mervin set the ball up on the table. She and Lance walked over and stood at the table.
“Well, I always used to keep it dirty to give it that whole ‘hermit’ look.” He glanced around the room and wrinkled his nose in distaste. “But once the End came, I took a look around and thought ‘What a dump’. Probably the good sense that comes once your mind is free.”
“Our minds were fine before.” Lance said. “We thought about whatever we wanted.”
“No, you thought about what was necessary to move the story along. Nothing else. When you’re a thought, you have a free mind but no shape. When you’re a character, you have a shape, but no thoughts other than what’s demanded of you. But a person…well you have both thoughts and the power to use those thoughts now.”
“Just contact the castle.” Lance instructed. “Artie will tell us what’s going on. You’ll see.”
Mervin waved his hand over the glass. A light flickered in the middle of the sphere. It continued to flicker until suddenly an irritated voice rang out from the orb and Artie’s equally irritated face appeared inside the glass..
“Your majesty,” Lance began, “We have contacted you so that we-”
“Cut to the chase, Lance,” Artie snapped, “I’ve got a bit of a situation here.”
“I knew it!” Lance shouted triumphantly at Mervin, “What happened? Maloc stormed the castle on that dragon we tricked, didn’t he?”
“What? No! The damn nobles have been screaming at me for a tax hike, and now I got the peasants threatening a revolt if I don’t lower them. Plus the Royal Guard is trying to push me to pass all these new laws. So if you’ve got something important to say-”
“That’s your big problem?” Gwen screamed, “Politics?”
“What do you expect? I’m king now. You know, they act like it’s some great job that most people would kill for, but no one tells you about the actual work! No one tells you about all the nobles trying to blackmail you into marrying their ugly daughters! Crop shortages, rebuilding the army, reconstruction after your last little battle with Maloc. Last week someone tried to poison my wine, and just last night they caught an assassin sneaking into my room! I’m a wreck!”
“Er…right.” Lance said, backing away from the table as if Artie could leap through the magic link at him,
“Well, nice catching up with you. We’ll just-”
“And then! Oh and then!” He shouted, getting to his feet and beginning to pace. “Then when the slightest thing goes wrong, even if it’s some other brain-dead noble’s fault, I get the blame for it! Nobody ever looks at any of the good you’re doing! They’re too busy whining about what you’re doing wrong!”
“Never mind the fact that I brought the age of tyranny to an end. Never mind that it’s safe to walk the streets again! Never mind that Maloc brought death, destruction, and terror to his own people! He kept taxes low!”
“Real monster, right. We’ll just let you go back to…whatever it is you’re doing.”
“Laws.” Artie snarled, not really talking to anyone anymore.
“Laws. Right. Er…maybe Gwen and I’ll visit next time we’re in the area.”
“Not for the next ten years. I’m booked solid until then!”
It seemed like Artie was on the edge of another rant. He turned to Mervin who hadn’t made a move to shut off the crystal ball. “Turn that thing off!” He hissed.
“I heard that!” Artie snapped just before the light blinked out.
Lance stared at the now blank glass ball. He seemed to be swaying on his feet, as if he could hardly keep himself steady. Mervin was giving him a look that screamed ‘I told you so.’
“What happened to him? Gwen asked, “He was always so collected before. So…”
“That’s the word.”
“The burdens of reality weigh down on him now. Before he just fulfilled a role, but now there is no one moving him. There is no one looking after him but himself.”
“Who’s been looking out for us until now?” Lance asked, turning slowly from the table, but Gwen’s next question sprang out of her mouth and cut him off before she could stop herself.
“Maloc. What about Maloc? He’s pure evil. I don’t care what effect this whole thing’s had on Artie, Maloc won’t change.”
“Maloc does have a crystal ball. I can try to contact him if you’d like. Can’tsay how he’ll react though.”
She nodded vigorously. She needed to see proof of this change. Mervin’s sudden disgust with his home, and Artie’s irritability all hit too close to home for her. But if she could see Maloc acting like his usual, wicked, egomaniacal self, it would all seem all right to her. Just one deep, evil laugh from him would be an immense comfort. Her hands shook as Mervin waved his hand over the glass. The light snapped on.
The first thing she saw was a river; a beautiful shimmering river under the intense light of the setting sun. It was surrounded by trees, and she could hear frogs croaking, and see the clear sky up over head. It was like someone had captured a paradise in a soap bubble.
Then the image shifted and a face leaned in and broke the illusion of beauty.
“What do you want?”
It was definitely Maloc. His paled, vampire-like skin was stretched out on a bony face. His eyes seemed like two open graves, black holes devouring all light that ventured towards them. Every feature radiated raw evil from the sharply cut nose to those empty eyes.
He was also wearing a floppy brown hat with fishing hooks embedded in the rim.
“This better be important.” He snapped, leaning away from his own crystal ball allowing them to get a better look at what he was doing. He was sitting on a chair on a dock, a fishing pole in his hands. His line was cast out onto the water, where the lure bobbed up and down on the surface.
“Are…how can…” The right words couldn’t come. There were no right words. “Are you fishing?”
“No,” He snarled, “I’m animating an undead army.” He turned his head in Mervin’s direction. “Well this is new. You never had the nerve to contact me directly before.”
“I’m trying new things. You know, bridging the gap between enemies, using words that actually make sense,” Mervin said dragging a finger across his filthy table and looking at the line it left in disgust.
“WHY ARE YOU FISHING?” Gwen shrieked.
“I know about that. You know, I was actually plotting revenge in exile, but once the End came, I realized that ruling the world would involve way too much politics. I mean there was some enjoyment in the actual conquering I did, but I realized that the end result just wasn’t worth it.”
“WHY IS HE FISHING?”
“Not worth it?” Lance asked, keeping his shock under wraps with far better success. “It’s the world!”
“Yes, and I get to live in it anyway, so what’s the point of commanding a bunch of ignorant peasants that will just revolt on me anyway. I’ll end up like that poor bastard Artie.”
“HE CAN’T BE FISHING! LORDS OF DARKNESS DO NOT FISH!”
“Can you please turn her off?”
“C’mon, Gwen.” Lance took her by the shoulders and led her away from the table. She was twitching. Behind her, she could hear the sound of a fishing reel spinning.
“Whoa! I got a bite! I’ll see you around, Mervin! Good luck dropping the hermit thing.”
“Thank you. Good luck with your fishing” The light snapped off. Mervin turned towards them. Lance looked at him, but Gwen kept her back to him. Her whole form trembled.
“Now do you see? The world has moved on. You two need to find your own paths now and walk them.”
The implications of this change was finally starting to dawn on Lance. “My god. This means we can do whatever we want now, can’t we?”
“Yes. That’s exactly what it means.”
“Are…are people ready for that?”
“Ready? They’ve been waiting for it since they were thoughts.”
Gwen pulled herself away from Lance, turning her back both him and Mervin. Her arms were folded and she was staring at the door.
“And what will they do now?”
“The same thing you have to do now. Live.”
The door slammed. Lance turned around. Gwen was nowhere to be seen. He rushed forward and threw open the door. He could see a trace of her brown hair vanishing into the forest.
No reply.. He turned back to face into the house.
“I’m going after her.”
Mervin was hoisting a knapsack out of a cabinet and slinging it over his shoulder.
“Go ahead. I was leaving anyway.”
“Where to?” Lance asked, thunderstruck. Mervin leaving his house was a change in character that made Maloc’s new fishing habit look normal.
“Town. I should probably meet my neighbors; I have been living here for almost seventy years after all.” He set his hat down on his head and picked up his staff. “Downright rude of me not to say hello.”
Lance could do nothing but shrug. Ah well, better late than never.
“Maybe get some cleaning supplies while I’m out,” The wizard muttered as he brushed past Lance,
“Maybe some carpet, some wallpaper, brighten the place up…”
He began to create a mental shopping list as he walked off into the forest, whistling happily. Even all-powerful, quasi-omnipotent wizards love shopping.
Meanwhile, Lance hurried into the forest, following Gwen’s distinct trail. It wasn’t hard: Gwen tended to break things when she was upset, and there were piles of kicked up leaves, cracked rocks, and broken tree branches to mark her path. There were also some stunned and very bruised animals lining her trail, including a very irritated bear that Gwen had kicked in frustration. The lack of entrails on the ground told Lance she’d run off before the creature could react, but that didn’t stop it from rushing at him. Lance
vanquished the beast by running away and screaming.
He finally found Gwen hiding behind a large rock. She had her back up against the rock, her knees drawn up to her chest, and was staring blankly at the ground.
“Gwen, listen-” He said, kneeling down to her level.
“Go away.” She groaned miserably.
He didn’t move. “Gwen, I’m sure it’s not that bad-”
“Not that bad?” She screamed. She turned her head. Her tearful face was alit with a beautiful fury. “Are you snorting pixie dust? I was a heroine, Lance! The whole world hinged on what I did! And what about you, Lance?” She glared up at him, her eyes naming him a traitor for his acceptance of the situation, “Don’t you remember all the things we did? We climbed the Mountains of Death, outwitted the Dragon of Angorn. We even returned the Ring of Might to the Temple of Dusk! We deposed Maloc, and returned the kingdom to its rightful heir! Now what? Now we don’t even matter anymore! What the hell am I supposed to do now? I’m just another woman now. I might as well go and farm turnips!” She stared down at the ground, hugging herself as her body shook with inner turmoil.
“I’ll admit, this isn’t what I expected. I thought I wanted the whole ride off into the sunset thing while the light fades to black. Going out in glory instead of fading away into obscurity.”
“If that’s what we wanted, we should’ve died fighting Maloc then.” Gwen sniffed, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand.
“But we didn’t die, Gwen. We won, and we get to keep on living. And that not so bad. We’ve only seen the world the way heroes do, as something to protect. Now we’ve earned the right to go out and enjoy it with everyone else. What’s so horrible about that?”
She lifted her head slightly, staring straight out into the forest, the trees becoming darker and the shadows longer in the approaching twilight. She had the expression of someone trying desperately to grasp a new concept. Finally she let out a sigh. “Not horrible, I suppose. It just means so many different things. So many things will change without someone to control them.”
“Well, you’ve seen Maloc. Maybe some change can be for the better.”
“Artie…well…” Lance trailed off for a minute, then shrugged. “He’s new at the job. And he’s got people helping him who know more about ruling than him. He’ll be okay eventually.”
“And us?” Gwen asked, a bitter note ringing in her words. “What have we got?”
Lance had known she would ask that question, and he was prepared to counter it. “You’ve got me to look after you, and I’ve got you looking after me.”
She seemed startled by the simplicity of his statement, but the idea didn’t seem to hold any problems for her. After all, it would be how it had always been. As heroes, and now as people. Lance and Gwen.
As the thought settled in, the sun also finished settling beneath the horizon, leaving faint streaks of purple light in the sky. Above them, the free birds flew and sang, and the world settled into twilight.