For Ryan Smith; how do you like that!? (and congratulations on your marriage!!)
And that’s how the story ended.
That’s how it always ended, no matter what Herod did. No matter how he wrote the equations, what principles or laws he pulled into play, what changes he made, what variables he substituted or how he manipulated them. Despite every ounce of his mental willpower and skill, the outcome was always the same.
“We’re doomed,” Herod whispered to himself.
He rubbed his aching eyes. The timepiece blurred in front of him, and it was a long time before he saw that it was almost 11 o’clock. His body thought longingly of his bed’s embrace, but he couldn’t sleep. Not yet. He had to figure out a solution to a problem that had no solution. And he had one hour.
Herod’s fingers were tired, his hand cramped in agonizing convulsions. Before him, the parchment was full of neat lines, Herod’s efficient handwriting laying out the looping problem that his mind could not unriddle. But the fate of the world depended on him or one of the other Stars solving it.
In the silence just before the new morning, a knock sounded at the door. Herod rose and walked to the door. The knock came again. Herod paused. That didn’t sound like any of his companions. He opened the door cautiously. The figure at the door kept to the shadows, his cloak drawn over his face.
“What happened to the Second Star?” Herod asked.
“He has fallen,” the figure said in a raspy voice. “And if you do not do exactly as I say, the other Stars will fall upon the stroke of midnight.”
The news knocked the breath from Herod’s lungs.
“How…what happened?” he asked.
“He was waylaid by the fey,” the Shadow said. “More are coming.”
“The ward has failed,” Herod whispered, his shoulders slumping. “All is lost.”
“Maybe not,” the Shadow said. “If you do exactly as I tell you, then perhaps your world will continue.”
Herod’s heart fluttered. This could be his one hope of changing the outcome. Messing with Fate is a bad idea, his mentor had always told him. She rarely changed her mind and was powerful enough to thwart most attempts to do so.
“What do I do?” he asked the Shadow.
He listened carefully as the Shadow explained what was going to happen and what he must do. Herod had never been so terrified in all his life. The Shadow departed. Herod stood frozen on the door step for several long moments before he sprang into frantic motion. He gathered everything the Shadow said he would need, the iron file, the silver rings, the holy water, and the thimble. He brought his grymoire, the jar of cream, and the piece of cake.
Then he waited beside the door, a handful of barley grain in his cupped and shaking hand. The clock chimed midnight, each stroke echoing like a shot in a canyon. As the Shadow predicted, the world went still. A moment later, rustles and mutters came, the sound crawling over Herod’s skin with prickles and chills.
The door inched open and a small, pale hand stretched into the room. With a cry, Herod flung the grain at the pixie’s feet. The sharp fey face fell and the creature glared at him as it bent down to count the grain, quickly gathering them into piles of ten.
Herod didn’t stop to watch and fled through the open door into the night, being careful to wade through the carefully collected piles of barley the pixie had already made.
Its howls of rage followed him as Herod ran through the darkness. Herod slipped into the house of the Second Star and laid the iron file between the door frame, trapping the fairy in the room. He grabbed the second piece of the new ward – the light of the moon – and ran.
His legs burned and his chest was heavy but he pushed himself on. He ensnared each of the fell and fey creatures as the Shadow had told him; the elf with the silver, the ghoul with the holy water, the vampire with the mirror, the unicorn with the lock of hair given by a maiden to her lover. He appeased the leprechaun with the cream and the brownie with the cake, and gathered all the pieces of the ward.
He borrowed the gnarled staff of the Seventh Star, who was at least a dozen years older than Herod himself, to help him on his way as he hobbled, aching and wheezing to the glen. He drew the seven pointed star in the ground with the chalk, then wiped the sweat from his brow. This was going to be an ordeal with only one of him, and his strength was rapidly fading.
Herod placed each piece of the ward at the proper corner, consulting his book for the other Stars’ pieces and the arcane symbols that bound them together. He saved his own for last. He had always thought he could do this part half dead. Now he was going to test it. This job would be taxing for a man in his prime and was not a job for an old man. He placed his piece – the light of the sun – and began to bind it to the others.
His hand was shaking and he had to keep rubbing out the marks with his thumb and re-drawing them.
“Nine thousand four hundred and sixteen,” an irate voice hollered at him from across the clearing.
Herod didn’t move his eyes from the lines, though his fingers tightened on the chalk.
“Are you sure?” he rasped out.
“Of course I’m sure,” the pixie said. “I counted. Twice.”
“That’s very thorough of you,” he said.
The pixie stalked towards him. Behind the pixie came the elf, the fairy, the ghoul, and the rest of the fey creatures he had trapped.
“I see you collected your friends,” Herod commented, and winced when the chalk slipped. He rubbed out the extraneous mark, and smudged one of the others. Taking a deep breath, trying to ignore the pounding of his heart, he put the lines in again.
The pixie finally noticed what he was doing. “Put the chalk down,” the fey creature ordered.
Herod scratched in more of the arcane symbols. Two more lines.
“Stop!” the pixie cried, moving towards him.
It reached the farthest point of the star and bent to blow out the magic chalk line. Herod drew in the final mark. The pixie and his ilk were blown back in the blast of a small hurricane. The white marks rose up in the air, shining silver in the moonlight. They grew and multiplied, weaving together into a huge web of white light. It hung above him, pulsing gently then flew out to all corners of the world.
Muffled thunder echoed from the horizon, lightening flickered, then all was still. All Herod heard was his own labored and his slowly calming heart. Someone stepped into the clearing. Herod turned, expecting the Shadow, or one of the other stars. It was someone he had never seen before, though he had some inkling of who she was.
“You ruined my plan,” Fate snapped. “Tonight was supposed to be a glorious night.”
“How can you be here?” Herod asked. “The ward is set.”
Fate sniffed. “Your magic spider’s web might banish and keep out a lesser creature, but not me.”
“Of course not,” Herod said, weariness making him feel twice as old. “Are you going to kill me then?”
“I really should,” Fate snapped, tossing her head. “I’ve never been so embarrassed in my existence. What am I going to tell everyone of those creatures I’d promised a fresh new world to?”
“You could say you made a mistake,” he suggested, not caring how he was going to pay for the irreverent remark. All he wanted was a steaming cup of tea and a nice long sleep, preferable until next Thursday.
Anger clouded her face and she raised her arms, fingers curled like claws.
“If you’re going to kill me, just get it over with,” Herod said. “I’m an old cranky man and I haven’t got time to play silly games.”
“Oh, leave him be, my darling Fate,” a familiar voice issued from the trees. The Shadow stepped into the clearing. “That’s not your job and you know it.”
“I don’t see why I shouldn’t,” she snipped. “After all, you were perfectly happy waltzing in and sticking your grubby fingers into my business.”
“I did no such thing,” the Shadow said mildly. “Everything I did was above board.”
“Loopholes!” Fate hissed.
“Perfectly legitimate interpretations,” the Shadow countered.
“I want him dead!”
“Well, I’m all booked up for the time being, but I assure you I will get around to it.” He looked at Herod. “Go home now, First Star. You have done your service to this world. Sleep well.”
Herod was happy to oblige.