Ritosh was being chased by sword-wielding thugs through the streets of Old Delhi. ‘No, not Old Delhi. Not anymore. It’s New Constantinople now,’ he told himself, quelling his treacherous thoughts. Even mentioning that name was an offense worthy of beheading. The world had changed more than he had thought possible in the last few decades, becoming a pale mockery of what it once was, ruled by Daemons – and some humans more vicious than any Daemon could ever hope to be. Not that he cared anymore, he’d long since lost everyone he cared about, and he looked forward to the warm embrace of Death. No, not like this. I won’t give these thugs the satisfaction of beating me, he thought and continued to run.
Ritosh was being chased not because of any crime he’d committed, but for sport. New Constantinople was a cruel, cruel place. But he was a stubborn man, even after all these years. And if the only thing he could take away from the King’s thugs – for he wouldn’t call them Guardians, they did no guarding – was the satisfaction of beating him to a pulp, then so be it. So, he ran, even though he was tired and his frail legs ached with shooting pains, even though his lungs screamed for mercy with every breath he took, even though his willpower was floundering, and all he wished for was the agony to end, for the endless abyss to take him.
Yet, he persisted.
Times were, Ritosh could have taken on the thugs without breaking a sweat. Times were, he wouldn’t have contemplated Death, except for penning poems to her mysteries. Times were, he was immortal, dancing to his own tunes – and at times, those of his lady love – singing, drinking and waltzing through Delhi with a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his eye. Dilwalo ki Dilli. Not anymore though, not anymore.
“We’ve got him cornered now, lads,” shouted one of the thugs. “He’s headed towards the River.”
That is when Ritosh realized his folly. In his haste to escape, he had missed a turn, and now he was heading towards the frothing, icy waters of the Yamuna. He knew it had been a risk, playing the fiddle in the streets of New Constantinople, especially in his bleary state, but age had not quelled his rebellious spirit. He wanted to show his dissatisfaction and contempt for the King, even if all he could do was spread some mirth to the broken and downtrodden through his music.
And look where that has got you, idiot, he scolded himself. But there was no heat in his words. He would do it again and again, just to spite the King and his regime. Wiping strands of silver hair from his face, he turned and faced his pursuers. To his back, the waters of the Yamuna churned and roiled mercilessly, carving through earth and stone. One more step, and even his once-immortal body would be crushed by the frigid currents, propelling him to a cold death.
“You’ve been rebelling against the good King for too long, old man. Didn’t the last lesson stick? Your petty machinations are useless,” sneered the leader of the thugs. He was clad in all white, like the rest of them, but with a red ribbon tied around his arm signifying his rank.
“I was only playing music to uplift the people’s spirit,” said Ritosh, appealing to their humanity, hoping that he wouldn’t have to endure another beating. But it was for naught.
“Music is forbidden for the common folk; the Royal Decree clearly states so. They’re supposed to be working for the betterment of the good King and his empire, not dancing in the streets, or singing with their filthy voices. Those pleasures are reserved for Royalty, and those they deem worthy. Commoners must only do their jobs and make sure the empire continues to flourish. They do not deserve pleasures,” said the thug, running one finger over the
blade of his sword.
“Fuck you,” spat Ritosh, eyes blazing with rage. He was shivering, but whether it was from the cold or from fear, he did not know.
“Insulting the Royal Guards, that’s a capital offence. Looks like we’ll have to beat the sedition out of you,” a wicked smile graced the thug’s lips. “Now, I would say that I won’t enjoy this, that it would hurt me more than you, but that would be a lie.”
Ritosh closed his eyes tight and grimaced. How could humans turn on one another?
How could they be so willing to subjugate their fellows on the whims of another? How could they preach loyalty to a Daemon who cared naught for them?
But then, it wasn’t about loyalty, was it? It was about power. It was about dominance.
About stepping on those below them, and revelling in the glory of broken lives. Humans; even after living as one of them for close to a century, he couldn’t understand them. Or maybe he could, maybe with every little bit of immortality that was stripped from him, he was becoming human, like one of them, and that terrified him.
Times were, he wouldn’t even have contemplated what he was about to do next.
“Get him,” shouted the leader, and the white-clad thugs fell on him from all directions, vicious in their savagery.
Ritosh opened his eyes, and spoke a small prayer. Then, he removed a munition from the pocket of his jacket, his last one, and just as he was surrounded, he dropped it in the midst of the thugs and jumped from the cliff, propelled high by the force of the explosion, before falling straight into the glacial waters of the Yamuna, heralded by chunks of flesh and bloody rain.
Times were, Ritosh was immortal, happy.
As he submerged in the waters of the Yamuna and lost his flimsy hold on immortality,
as Death’s warm embrace engulfed him, he felt happy once again, for the first time in a long,
Ritosh awoke on a sandy shore, buffeted by stormwinds and pelting hailstones. Waves crashed against the shore, and he barely managed to roll out of their way and avoid being smashed to smithereens by stranger tides. Huge, undulating waves rose and blanketed the horizon, roiling, churning and attacking the shore with all their menace, scaring Ritosh deep down to his bones. He raised an arm to cover his eyes and peer in the distance as he ran away
from the violent waters, only to discover that he wasn’t old anymore. His hand wasn’t frail, there weren’t any scars on it, and he didn’t feel the pain of living a hundred years with every step he took.
Perhaps he had died, he reckoned. But what happens to a god when he dies, he wondered.
“Questions later, must escape the raging storm first,” he said out loud, happy to break the sounds of silence, even if it was only with his own voice. He turned away from the violent shores and began running only to crash against a solid form and tumble to the ground. He immediately dusted himself off and scampered to his feet. He fumbled, and took a few wary steps away from the figure standing in front of him.
The woman – if she could be called one – was clad in unassuming grey robes, but there was a hidden strength, a purpose to her. This is no ordinary woman, Ritosh thought as he tried to take a measure of her. She gave him a warm smile, but it only served to make him more wary as he looked askance at her. His behaviour did nothing to dampen her smile, instead, it only made her grin widen.
“Do not worry, godling. You are safe here,” she replied cheerfully.
“And where is here,” Ritosh asked, unsure how she knew who he was – or had been – a god. Could he still be one even if he had died?
“The Last Inn,” she replied, pointing to a shadowy shape in the distance, illuminated by the moon’s light and a lone lantern hanging in the night air. “Also known as the Tavern at the End of the World. The last house of refuge for the weary and the lost, those who have been lost to life, or those whom life has lost.”
“What am I doing here? How did I get here?” asked a befuddled Ritosh, scratching his head.
“You are here, dear boy, because we aren’t done with you yet. Your story isn’t over. You will await the end of the world while manning the inn, and when your time comes, we will send you back, to right past wrongs and do your duty to your city.” She put a strong hand on Ritosh’s back and made him walk with her with gentle but firm pats to keep him moving towards the inn.
“And who are ‘we’ exactly?” he asked nonchalantly, or tried to anyway, but the words came out sharp and wheezing. Her pats weren’t helping.
“Why, me and my sisters, of course,” she said, chuckling as if he had just made a great joke. “I’m Atropos, but today, I do the work of my dear sister, Clotho. We have met before, young one, though then I was known by another name.” Her silver eyes gleamed under the moonbeams as she spoke, shimmering much like her inviting yet deadly silver lips.
She just chuckled at his grim expression and kissed him on the cheeks. “You do not have to be afraid of us, young godling. Your thread lives on…for now,” she finished with a wink.
Ritosh’s eyes widened. He had just been kissed by Fate. “This isn’t going to end well,” he muttered.
“Nonsense, you worry too much, godling,” Atropos answered, her lustrous raven black gleaming in the starlight. That is when he realized the rain was parting before her, and despite the tempest raging around them and the wild gales dancing to wild tunes, she was not only untouched by the elements, they were bowing to her will, parting before. She was a princess – nay, a queen – and they her subjects.
They reached the inn, the lone lantern flickering at the doorstep, keeping the gloom at bay, and like Atropos, unaffected by the elements. She opened the door and bade him to enter, which he did, grateful to be out of the rain. It was lit by candlelight and by the glow of a fire blazing in the hearth. There was a coziness to the surrounding, and for the first time in a long time, Ritosh felt unafraid. Inside the room, there were many tables, full of people from a variety of places, from a myriad of worlds, all drawn to the Tavern at the End of the World, all with a tale to tell. A bard played a grand medley from besides the fireplace, holding a different instrument in all four pairs of his arms, and the atmosphere of the room changed with each note played by the musician. Some of the folks danced on tabletops, others clinked glasses together and drank deeply the ale, while a large group was gathered at the centre, engrossed in telling each other stories, in living a hundred different lives through the tales they heard.
All of them stopped whatever they were doing and bowed deeply when Atropos entered the room. She curtsied in return, “Please do not stop on my behalf. Enjoy yourselves. The storm continues to rage unabated, but we within the confines of the inn remain safe.”
They all gave a hearty cheer at her words and returned to their actions, dismissing her as easily as they had been awed by her. Who knew you could get used to being around Fate, Ritosh wondered. His bemused thoughts must have been visible on his face, because Atropos looked at him and gave him an amused wink. Ritosh could only blush in response, unsure how to respond to the living embodiment of Fate.
“Where am I? What is my role here?” Ritosh asked Atropos, as they sat at a table, watching the Bard sing and dance as three dragons barely larger than two palms put together circled around him, breathing small puffs of fire and smoke to keep him on his toes.
“Never thought I’d use the words cute and dragons in the same sentence,” Ritosh said staring at them.
“The last dragons of Middle-Earth, they found refuge here at the end of the age and the breaking of the world,” Atropos said. A haze came over her argent eyes as she got lost reminiscing.
She pointed to a couple of men, one of whom was playing a violin and staring out of the room, while his companion sat on a comfortable couch, sipping from a glass of amber liquid. “Sherlock and Watson,” she said. “They came here only a century ago, when the world started unravelling. When they came into the world and broke all order. When Chaos was unleashed.”
Atropos glanced towards another weird assortment seated in a corner. Three of them appeared to be humans, one woman, two men. Both the men had towels draped over their shoulders. They were being regaled by a man with two heads. Another was an android with a large head staring at the two-headed man and listening to his anecdotes with a despondent expression. “They came here just before the Vogons zapped their planet,” she said.
A large orangutan was jumping on the shoulders of three guards, while a wizard dressed in purple was being chased by a many-legged trunk between the tables. “Furniture should not be capable of running,” he was yelling. A skeleton dressed in dark robes with a scythe in one arm sat looking at their antics. He was palming his skull-like face.
Atropos gave Ritosh a tight smile. “Denizens of Ankh-Morpork. Not the most tidy folk.”
He saw sitting near the bar, a scruffy-looking man with brown hair and a pilot-jacket sitting with a woman in modest white robes, looking upon each other with the quiet assurance of a love that was deep and had survived much. A robot that resembled a garbage can beep-ed and boop-ed, and Atropos, with a soft smile, muttered, “Those two came here a long time ago, from a Galaxy far, far away.”
A group of three students clad in black robes with a lion emblazoned on their chests stared at the bard and dragons in wonder. The girl with busy hair was trying to take it all in, while the red-haired lad was gulping down flagon upon flagon of the ale. The bespectacled boy was trying to restrain a gigantic man from rushing towards the dragons, trying to talk the man out of wanting to cuddle with those little cuties as he called them. Ritosh stared at her in wonder. All he had read, all he had imagined, it was real. All those books, all those worlds, they existed! Even as a god, he had not known of this. It had been beyond his ken.
“This is Heaven,” Ritosh said awestruck. “How did I get here?”
Sipping from her glass of whisky, Atropos smiled at him. “Not heaven, dear godling. Merely an inn, albeit a special one. And you got here because the Lord of Dreams does not wish your story to end so soon. You got here because the Fates do not want the world to be lost. You got here because you still have a role to play. Death relinquished her claim on you, for the greater good.”
“What can I do?” said Ritosh in a voice laced with bitterness. “I lost to them. I fucked everything up. In my arrogance, I caused the death of a million people. I am no god, merely a fraud. A pretender.”
“Do not take the weight of the world on your shoulders, godling. Powers greater than you have fallen to their madness. Worlds, dimensions and entire universes have been lost to their rot, to the corruption and decay they have been causing. No more. It is time we took a stand. Battle-lines have been redrawn, young godling. There are great forces at play, and there will be a final reckoning. A time when you will have to do your deed, when you will have a
role to play, and play it you must,” Atropos spoke in a sombre voice, and even the Bard’s song had changed to match her deep tones. The very air was thrumming with power, as the music reached a crescendo, and Atropos’ eyes blazed with light.
“There will come a time when all of us will have to play our parts. To face those who want to bring the universe and time itself to its knees. Fell deeds await.” Suddenly her face cleared, and the music picked up in tempo, the sadness gone. “But that day is not today. That time is not yet come. For now, you rest. For now, you heal and prepare for the end times, even as you run the inn and prepare for the end-times, gathering all those forces here that you can. In the meanwhile, I will be changing the course of Destiny.”
Ritosh was torn. He was happy here, happier than he had ever been in ages, but he wanted to play a role in battling them. He yearned for blood. He yearned for a chance to right his mistakes. To gain the right to look at people in the eye again without feeling ashamed. But a part of him also wanted to stay here, to feel happy for a while, to drink in the mirth of the tavern, and leave his worries at bay. To rest.
“What do I have to do?” Ritosh asked.
Atropos laid a pale finger on the god’s cheeks and smiled. “Nothing yet, young godling,” she said, allaying his fears. “For now, you take care of the inn. You meet your fellows and mingle with them. You rest. You enjoy the hospitality of the Tavern, and take in guests, sheltering them from the coming storm. You take on the mantle of the Innkeeper,” she said, her words blazing with power.
“Is that all?” Ritosh inquired, unsure of where this was going. He would gladly become the innkeeper of such a warm establishment. It felt like home, and deep down in his bones, it felt right. It felt like he was finally complete, after not knowing what he had been missing all these years. But there had to be more to it, it was too good to be true. Watch over a gathering of powers and forces and indulge in revelry with them? He hadn’t been so lucky in all his lives. The Fates had never been so kind to him.
That is when it struck him. The Fates…
Only now was he able to fathom the depth of Atropos’ request. This was their barracks, their castle, their keep and their home, all rolled into one. This is where the army of the lost, the despairing, the defeated and the hopeless would assemble. This was from where they would launch their final volley in a bid to bring down the agents of Chaos. And he would be instrumental in it. The Innkeeper of the Tavern at the End of the World. It had a nice ring
“What do you mean?” he asked, unsure if he had understood her correctly.
She lifted her glass of whisky and toasted it to him deftly, her lips curved upwards in a smile equal parts warm and inviting, full of the promise of magic and dreams.
“It means you have come home.”
(Or is it just the beginning?)
Image Source (Fair Use): https://goo.gl/caeJXo