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The Final Seal: Dante Collins Versus the End of the World
A Guest Quarters story
Erik Scott de Bie
It's a little unsettling, how red the barista's eyes glow as she stares at me across the glass counter loaded with baked goods. They burn in her freckled face like stoked coals, sucking up the oxygen from the air and leaving wisps of smoke to creep up along her eyebrows.
"Welcome to the Honey Comb!" she says with obvious enthusiasm. "What can I get you?"
I'm locked in her gaze and can't speak. Her eyebrows catch on fire and lick away into nothing, and the skin starts flaking off in the heat. Little black ashes slip from her face and waft down, and I recoil to avoid them.
It'll go away, I tell myself. It isn't real. It isn't there.
"Um, hi," she says again. "Did you want something?"
"Oh," I say, fully aware of how stupid I sound. "I'm still thinking." I have to pretend I didn't see anything. Have to avoid a scene. "Not sure what I want."
"OK." Her smile had slipped, but now it waxes to its full brilliance. "Let me know when you figure it out."
I give her an awkward, thankful look, as though I'm not watching her eyes melt her face all over the scones.
I'm crazy, if that wasn't immediately obvious: I see things that aren't there. Usually, my hallucinations take the form of horns or claws, wings and/or dancing flames, or swords and things that people carry. I long since stopped mentioning it: no one believes me, and at worst, I end up medicated and/or in therapy.
The barista is really cute, too, minus the facial flames. Her nametag says "Gwen," and she has hair dyed a metallic red. (This is both good and bad, as I'm all about the redheads.) She's probably a couple years older than me; maybe a junior or senior in high school? It'd be a shame to open my mouth and convince her I'm a weirdo.
I also realize I'm staring at her nametag (and where she wears it), so I look away. Anywhere other than her barbecue face is fine.
"Lots of, um, choices," I say.
"Yeah." She smiles past me at the next customer. "Welcome to the Honey Comb. What can I get ya?"
She's talking to a heavy-set man with more facial hair than head hair, who scrutinizes the list of prices in minute detail. He's also got a pair of scales made of bone in his hand, but that was just a hallucination. I've got pretty good at telling them apart from reality.
"I don't know," he says. "Should I go with the whole-grain wheat or the barley? Are they made with vegetable oil or something hydrogenated?"
"All our baked goods are 100% organic," Gwen says.
"Hmm," the big guy says.
There's another man standing next to him: a tall guy in a black leather jacket and jeans. Behind his glasses, his eyes look like black holes to my hallucination-addled vision. When he glances at me, I lose all resolve and head back to my table by the wall.
The Commons isn't particularly well attended today. Seattle's long-overdue earthquake finally came, and while it didn't do nearly as much damage as everyone thought it would, it disrupted transit enough that most people don't bother.
Now two big-time jocks from Virgil High (where I'm going to school next year) are hanging out at the Honey Comb: Rick Rogers and Lance Kerchief. (What kind of a name is "Lance," anyway?) Of course they start hitting on Gwen, and why not? Either one could have (and has had) whatever girl(s) he could want. Gwen's face isn't on fire anymore, though her cheeks are a little red as the two footballers with all their muscles and great hair go to work on her.
God, I hate them.
I hate this whole thing: seeing things that make me shy away from cute baristas, running from things that aren't there, being crazy. What's the point of this? The whole world doesn't make sense to me.
I hate my life so much.
"Come on you guys!" says a woman's voice from a couple tables over.
I look over. The two men at the counter are sitting with two women. They're particularly distinctive, as I get visions off all four of them. One woman has red hair and is dressed in black; she coughs frequently into a napkin. I see a gold crown floating over her head and (of all things) a bow and arrows slung across her back. The one who shouted is a shorter woman with thick glasses and a red patterned coat is tapping her foot impatiently and grinding her knife into a raspberry scone. I hallucinate her knife into a sword, and her eyes look fiery.
"We've got stuff to do!" she says. "We can't just sit here—"
"Hold your red horses," says the big guy. "I'm hungry."
"You're always hungry," the woman replies.
"It's—" The redhead coughs and hacks a little. "It's in the job description."
The tall man in black looks over at me, as though he saw me watching, and I look away. Too late.
"Yo, D," says the woman in red. "What's up?"
Silently, he slides out of his chair and glides toward me. I pretend not to notice, but it doesn't deter him.
I didn't notice at first how tall he was: at least six and a half feet, maybe even seven feet. He's also very thin, and maybe it's the lankiness that makes him seem taller, or the way he stoops slightly. He looms. His jacket isn't true black but rather a very dark green and it looks really old—the corners frayed and chipped open, as though he's been wearing it a long time or just puts it to really hard use. He smells like a dead person—like dust and mildew.
Maybe I'm just hallucinating him. It's happened before.
He sits across the table from me, regardless of my passive attempt to ward him off with non-attention. He's breaching the social contract in a number of ways here, and I don't really know what to do other than sit there and look mortified. He looks as though he's seen it all before and waits patiently for me to pay attention to him.
"Um, can I help you?" I ask when he doesn't go away after a minute or two.
"You certainly can," he says, "but I guess the question is whether you will."
Yeah, that isn't creepy.
"Dude," I say. "I'm sorry I was looking at you and your friends or whatever, but I don't really know what else you want."
"It's not about what I want and never has been," he says. "It's about what will happen, sooner or later. Something you'll need to do."
Double creepy, and more than a little bit threatening. Particularly when he starts reaching into the inner pocket of his leather jacket. I see he's got black leather gloves as well. Is he going to attack me?
Now I don't scare easily, as a general rule. Having seen monsters and horrors all my life, I can't be a chicken. But this guy? He scares me. My legs feel like rubber and my voice slurs. My heart thunders in my head.
"I have pepper spray," I say, which isn't really true. Note to self: get pepper spray. "And we're in a public place. So just back off—"
"Hold," he says. "I see... I see there's been a misunderstanding. Let me start over."
The vaguely human awkwardness in his voice and his apologetic expression go some way to soothing me, but I'm still freaking a little. I can feel my hands shaking under the table, and I unconsciously look for the nearest exit.
What I see is Gwen shooting down the jocks who came to flirt with her, so that reassures me a little. Whatever this guy is going to pull out of his jacket, I can deal.
He takes out what he was reaching for: a crumpled, rolled up piece of paper, yellow like old cigarettes. It has what looks like seven blobs of melted chocolate on it, each set with some kind of design. They're wax, I think: seals, as you might see on a letter in a period film. Also, six of the seven are already broken open: they bend off the paper when he turns it over.
This is definitely a hallucination. I keep trying to wake up, but nothing happens. I start searching my pockets for my medication. I haven't officially been on drugs for a year, but I've still got some stashed under my bed and carry it around for emergencies like this.
"Do you know what this is?" he asks.
"Your grocery list?" a cool guy like Lance Kierchner would say, or "a condom just for you?"
I just say: "No."
"Your father and his father have not told you of your destiny? The legacy you inherit from your forebears?"
"You can only have three pets in city limits," I say. "Certainly not four bears."
Honestly, for as freaked out as I am right now, that was a good one. I like bantering with my hallucinations.
He sighs. "Well, that's always worth a try. When you've been doing this as long as I have, the speech gets a little boring. Here."
Gingerly, he sets the little scroll on the table.
"I have a simple job," he says. "It's my task in this world to find the one person in every generation that is capable of opening this. Worthy of opening it."
"That, um," I say. "That sounds hard?"
"Not as hard as you'd think," he says. "The legacy clings to your family: your father, your grandfather, his father, all the way back to David. It's a whole patriarchal thing." He waves. "Don't ask, I didn't make the rules."
"There are rules?" I ask.
"There are always rules." He nods down to the little scroll. "Only you in your whole generation is worthy to open the scroll."
"Dude, how do you even know who I am?"
"I know you, Dante Collins, just as I have known your father and his father and back through the ages."
"So you've aged well," I say.
"We don't have time to discuss this," he says. "The window of opportunity narrows, and if you would do this, then it must be now."
"Do what? Open that scroll thingy?"
"What happens when I do? I win a million dollars or something?"
He fixes me with his grey eyes. "The world ends."
"Huh," I say. "So... no million dollars?"
He stares at me.
"And who are you, Death? Where's your pale horse?"
Again, no reply.
The sarcasm is really helping me deal with his obviously crazy and/or non-existent person, but I'm feeling less into it. The more he says, crazy as it is, the more believable he becomes. Or at least, he seems to believe what he's saying. He certainly looks the part: the black-green jacket that smells like dusty death, his skinny limbs that could just be bone under a worn layer of leather.
He is definitely a hallucination, but unfortunately it looks like I didn't bring my medication.
"So," I say, hardly believing I'm taking this guy seriously. "You're here to end the world, is that it?"
"No. That is for you to do. We"—he gestured back over his shoulder to his friends—"can only show you the way. It falls to you to take the final step."
"Final step," I say. The seventh seal is the one left unbroken. "And you're here to convince me to do it?"
"I do not have the freedom of will that you or any of your kind do." The man shakes his head. "The decision rests with you and you alone."
"Well—" I say. "This has been really interesting, but you're obviously in serious need of professional help—"
Then he reaches out and touches my arm, and I swear to God it feels like a glacier pins my wrist to the table. I can't breathe in the shock of his touch, and all my plans to stand and make a hasty retreat through the nearest exit. Possibly the fire door.
My hallucinations aren't real. They can't touch me.
This guy is real.
This is really happening.
"Tell me," he says. "Are you happy with this life? This world?"
I'm shaking. "Not really, but—"
"You have been harassed and bullied all your life," he says. "Your classmates relentlessly call you foul names and consistently block your efforts to better yourself. It will only get worse next year in high school."
"Hey," I say. "Leave me alone."
"Your grades are lackluster at best, but it does not matter, since your father lost his job in the recession and it is unlikely you will be going to college."
My heart beats faster. "How do you know that?"
"Your grandmother died of brain cancer last year, as did your favorite aunt six months ago. You fear they have passed that along to you," he says. "Your mother left you when you were a child. You have no girlfriend, few friends, and you hate your parents."
"You have visions," he says. "You see things others do not, and no one believes you that they are real. You have not spoken of them in years, because when you did, your mother and father sent you to therapy and drugged you out of your mind. It almost convinced you they were not real."
Oh my God.
I want to argue with him. I want to tell him that he's wrong. But he isn't. Everything he's saying about my life is true. My world is kind of pointless.
"You have nothing to tie you to this world," he says, "and so I ask you again: are you happy?"
I look down at the little scroll on the table. It's such a small thing. It can't possibly be that big a deal. And yet, I know that every word he's said has been true, and if I do this thing—open the seventh seal—then the world really is going to end.
And isn't that what I want?
The scroll feels cold to the touch, and the paper crinkles under my fingers. It's gone beyond old and straight to petrified.
I put my fingers on the last seal.
"Hey," says a voice at my shoulder.
The speaker stands so close that the word startles me and I teeter on my chair. It slides out from under me and goes bouncing across the food court. I end up on my butt, which protests the sudden impact.
"Spaz!" yells Lance Kiechner from across the way. Rick Rogers snickers.
"Ow," I say, "what—"
Then I see Gwen standing over me, peering down with a worried expression. Her eyes are completely normal. "Are you all right?" she asks.
"Um," I say because I can't think of anything to say.
I look over at the tall man in black, but he's nowhere to be seen. Gwen doesn't seem to have seen him either. Did I just imagine him? He seemed so real.
"I'm fine," I say. "You just startled me."
"Sorry about that," she says.
She offers her hand to help me up, and I take it without even thinking.
This must be the first time I've actually held a girl's hand. It's a different experience than what I expected: no soothing massage of her flesh on mine or Handel's Messiah or anything like that. Instead, her hand is just a hand, warm and unexpectedly strong. It feels good.
"Thanks," I say.
"Least I could do." Her fingers linger against mine, and her expression looks a little disappointed I let her go so easily. "Anyway, I just wanted to see if you had decided on anything, since I'm about to go off my shift."
"Oh," I say. "No, I don't... I don't think so."
"OK," she says. "Well, see ya."
She turns to leave, then stops and looks back.
"It's Dan, right?"
"Yeah," I say. "It is. But how did you know?"
She gives me a mysterious smile. "Great."
Gwen heads back behind the counter, trading some words and a laugh with the barista who's got the next shift. They glance over at me and the other woman asks a question. "Oh stop!" Gwen says, and they laugh more.
I don't know if I should, but I feel a little better. The feeling increases when I see Lance Kierchner and Rick Rogers glaring at me from across the commons. I give them a little wave, and think that the next time they bully me, it won't hurt as bad.
"You're not going to open it, are you?"
The tall man in black is sitting at the table, right where I'd seen him before. I want to ask if he's real—if any of this is—but I already know it doesn't matter.
"I don't think so," I say. "No."
"Because you think your life will get better?"
I think about it. "Because this way," I say, "I can hope that it will."
Slowly, he nods.
I see the other three standing outside the window, staring in as though my refusal had been a foregone conclusion. I shouldn't be able to hear them, but I can.
"I guess..." The redhead with the bow coughs. "Guess we'll have to wait... until next time." She gets in a mangy white convertible to drive away.
"Whatever!" The woman in red gets behind the wheel of a red Hummer the size and shape of a tank. She tosses her sword into the passenger seat and peels out.
"But I'm still hungry," complains the big guy with the scales. He takes off in a beat up gray pinto held together with duct tape.
Finally, it's just me and the tall man in black. He gives me a little smile, then takes a business card from his shirt pocket and sets it gingerly on the table. "You'll let me know," he says, "if you ever change your mind."
The card is black, with nothing on it but a thin trace of dust.
When I look back up, he's gone.
I hear a car radio start up in the parking lot: some singer crooning about the end of the world and feeling fine about it. The man in black drives off in a pale green mustang and I feel, for just a second, like I'm watching a man in a tattered cloak ride off into the sunset on the back of a dead man's horse.
Back by the register, Gwen gives me an awkward sort of smile.
Maybe life isn't so bad after all.
Erik Scott de Bie is the author of five fantasy novels in the Forgotten Realms world, including Shadowbane (September 2011) and its sequel, Eye of Justice (2012). He has contributed to many scifi/fantasy collections, such as the anthologies When the Hero Comes Home, Human for a Day, Close Encounters of the Urban Kind, and Beauty Has Her Way. He is also a known quantity in the hobby gaming industry, having contributed to such successful Dungeons and Dragons products as Plane Above: Secrets of the Astral Sea, Shadowfell: Gloomwrought and Beyond, and the popular Neverwinter Campaign Setting. He lives in Seattle, where he is married with pets.
Story by Erik Scott de Bie, Copyright 2011
Image by Amber Clark, Stopped Motion Photography, Copyright 2011