Cas gingerly opened and closed the doors to Luminous as he stepped out into cool evening air. The theater’s famously bright, variegated sign blinded him as he exited. For just a moment, his vision consumed by psychedelic light, it was as though the hill atop which Cas stood was all that existed, with only endless dark around him. Walking up toward the theater at night was a spectacle unlike anything in Skymoore. But to come out of it, alone, on a quiet summer evening, was an otherworldly and isolating phenomenon.
“Come to join us?”
The half-elf jumped. Leaning against the wall directly under the sign, made purple and yellow and green by its light, were Karessa Plunderton, who worked at the theater, and a human Cas didn’t recognize. They were sharing a pipe.
“Oh, no,” Cas said. “I didn’t even see you leave.”
Karessa exhaled, releasing a steady stream of smoke. It was almost loud in the eerie stillness. Skymoore was always asleep this time of night, but rarely quite so quiet. “I come from a long line of very sneaky people,” she said finally. “So what, you’re cutting out in the middle of our last rehearsal?”
“You did,” the human teased. Karessa punched him playfully on the arm.
“It’s not like I’m in the play,” Cas said. Then, involuntarily, he grinned. “Besides, I’ve got a date with Delia Findlesmith.” Karessa made a gagging sound. “She just looks so beautiful tonight…I need extra time to get ready, just to compare, you know?”
“Need us to walk you home?” the human asked. “It’s dark out there.”
“Oh, it’s only Skymoore,” Cas said. “Besides, I live in the market district. I’ll be fine.” The human nodded and put the pipe to his lips.
“See you at the premiere,” Karessa said. “Have a safe walk.”
“I intend to,” Cas said. “You two have a great night.” He whistled as he walked down the hill into town.
Now, Delia Findlesmith was an affectionate young woman. Attractive cast members were to her as townspeople to a dragon – helpless, delicious, and utterly temporary. But for her to ask someone on a proper date? Well, it was nearly unheard of.
And for Cas to be asked on a date was similarly rare. Half-elves weren’t hated by any means, but they were certainly uncommon and, because they were a hybrid rather than a species unto themselves, even amongst family they could feel unwelcome. Your average human lived for about a century and elves lived for seven or more, but half-elves lived for around two, placing their stages of life out of sync and making dating complicated.
So even though Delia and Cas were both in their forties, and Delia was actually a few years older, she was notably younger in many ways. But their mutual fascination in their ancestral roots as Dol elves and their devotion to meditation and mental wellness seemed to have drawn Delia to Cas regardless.
Delia was innately likable, and the most beautiful woman in all of Skymoore. There was a unique zest for life in her every laugh, and she became an actress so that she could live a hundred-thousand lives in one. The more Cas thought about her, the happier he got.
And so, he whistled.
It was a tune from a song his mother sang while she folded laundry back when Cas was very young. It was upbeat and catchy, though he remembered it being sad when paired with the words. Now the words were long forgotten, replaced by the memory of his mother challenging herself to finish folding by the song’s end, often cheating by dragging out the last note. “Pretend you didn’t hear that,” she would say, and young Cas would laugh and tell his father.
That’s what Cas was thinking about when he saw the glow.
It was there in his peripheral vision as he passed Dal Mo Café. At first he thought he imagined it. He was, after all, lost in thought. But sure enough it was there, at the end of the alley between Dal Mo and some closed pizzeria. A haunting red glow expanded and contracted from around the corner, like the silent, labored breathing of some unknown beast.
Cas felt compelled to walk down the alley the way sometimes, when staring over the edge of Skymoore, he felt compelled to jump. It was a primal notion he couldn’t understand, an urge locked deep within his brain for its own private reasons. A thirst for excitement, perhaps. Or maybe he just wondered what it felt like.
Cas never jumped off the edge of Skymoore, but Cas did walk down the alley.
He approached the glow with the kind of trepidation reserved for those necessary actions which one knows can only end in pain. Root canals, band-aids, ending intimate-and-meaningful-but-ultimately-toxic relationships. Unconsciously, his breath slowed to match the pulsation of the light, and clung to the chill, red air in a gentle mist. It was summer in Skymoore. So why was it so cold?
So cold. But the glow was red and warm.
Around the corner was a backlot shared by various businesses. The type of place they put their garbage and unwanted employees. But there was no trash here. Emblazoned onto the flat dirt lot was an intricate, arcane symbol the geometry of which Cas could hardly wrap his head around. Red light flooded out from it in all directions like insects escaping the bowels of the universe. Standing around it in reverent silence were perhaps a dozen figures of varying builds and heights wearing black robes.
The glyph was so bright. So warm and inviting. Cas wanted to approach it. To stare into its depths and contemplate its purpose. To crawl inside and replace the still and chilly evening with the burning cacophony of infinity.
But he had a date with Delia. And a play to premiere. And a cat to feed.
Cas came to his senses, and gasped. A robed figure with broad shoulders turned to face him, revealing a stained-glass face. It smiled menacingly, drinking in the glow. Cas ran.
The alley was longer now than it was moments ago, Cas was sure of it. Longer, and colder, and redder. By the time he’d reached the end his body was slowing. His breath came out in crimson, misty puffs.
Several hands grabbed hold of Cas and began dragging him back into the alley. He thrashed against them madly, wrenching an arm free and balling it into a fist, only to have it caught immediately. Cold, glassy hands clasped his own, and a shiver tore through Cas’s spine. He twisted and jerked away as though he’d touched a stove, landing flat on his back in the alley. Three sharp, fragmented faces hovered in the air, framed by red darkness. They grinned gleefully.
The glass creatures reached for his feet, so Cas untied his boots in haste. They were his only pair, but sore feet were a small price to pay for his life. He abandoned them to the grasping gleaming hands and pulled himself out of the alley at last.
Cas took a gulp of air so frigid it burned his lungs. The relief was worth it. Without thinking he darted into Dal Mo Café.
“Hello?” he called. No response, of course. There was no reason for a café to be open this time of night. (Or was it morning?)
So why was the door unlocked?
Across the café was a counter. Behind the counter was a kitchen. From within the kitchen emerged another robed figure. Its stained-glass face stared at Cas impassively like the world’s most terrifyingly stoic barista. Cas could feel the others creeping up behind him.
He charged, and he screamed a sudden war cry which dismissed the silence of the night. Before the world seemed to move in hauntingly slow motion, but suddenly everything was a whirl of chaos.
Cas tackled the figure behind the counter. Glass shattered. A stabbing pain in his shoulder. Cas punched the figure. A knife sunk into his abdomen. Cas screamed louder and tried to slam the figure’s head into the ground, but he lost his grip as he removed its stained-glass face.
The moment of shock as he looked into a human woman’s pale grey eyes gave her the advantage. She threw Cas off her and against the counter. He hissed in pain as he removed the knife from his stomach with a slick, wet sound. His vision blurred. He lunged forward, gripping the knife with both hands. He caught her in the chest. She collapsed.
Cas stood up. Three smiling glass faces hovered in the doorway. The once-empty tables littered throughout the café now contained darkly robed figures, their faces masked in shadow. They stood, creating a sea of darkness between Cas and the faces. Between Cas and freedom.
Across the small kitchen, the door to the backlot opened. The cold rushed in. Or rather, the heat rushed out, from both his body and the room, replaced by the glow. And with that came another figure. In many ways, it looked the same as the others. Black robe, glass face. This face looked angry. And its presence was so powerful, so dark, that Cas was unable to look directly at it. Like the ultimate contrast to the sun.
Cas pulled the knife out of the woman, and took his chances with the sea. He slid over the counter and flailed wildly, slashing at glass and cloth and flesh, but he didn’t even make it a fourth of the way across the room before they had piled atop him. One struck him in the head, and he grew dizzy.
When the dark mass parted, and his head cleared, Cas was on his knees. His head and his legs bled. Two smiling masked figures held his arms tightly. And he was staring up at a third. The angry one.
It said something, but Cas forgot it immediately. It was like losing a fond, formative memory.
“You don’t scare me!” he cried. “I know that’s just a mask! I know what you are underneath!”
The figure spoke again. Cas felt like less than he did moments ago. Smaller. It removed its mask.
Its face, composed entirely of flame, was so utterly abhorrent that angels and devils alike would weep to look upon it.
Cas did not scream. He did not move. He only stared. And stared. Until the red and the masks and the cloaks faded away. Until there was only him, the darkness, and the infinite fire of Sol.
He sat there on his knees, starring at his god as the world grew colder around him. As Sol grew larger, until it consumed nearly all his vision. Cas only shrank.
He became less and less as the flames became more and more. They consumed every inch of his reality. The colder he got, the larger Sol became. Cas grew less and less and less, until Sol was everything, and he was nothing but crimson darkness. And cold.