Arthur Ascending

📅 Published on December 1, 2020

“Arthur Ascending”

Written by Nick Carlson
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available

ESTIMATED READING TIME — 20 minutes

Rating: 10.00/10. From 1 vote.
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It was a bright, clear morning, but the ground below boiled and seethed with high-strung energy. The chapel on the hilltop was the epicenter of a tumultuous crowd, the largest gathering of churchgoers it had seen since its first service. This observation was not lost among Arthur Vaughn, as he emotionlessly surveyed the angry throngs before him. Tragedy and scandal brought people together more duly than the word of God.

Arthur knew it would have come to this eventually. It was the inevitable consequence of his burden, and the path he had chosen. Although, he had to admit he was nonplussed at the rather unorthodox methods they were employing to carry out his execution. He couldn’t see what was going on behind him, but it sounded elaborate. Premeditated, even. They were just waiting for the opportune moment, he realized.

A man stepped up onto the platform where Arthur was bound and unfolded a piece of parchment. “Arthur Vaughn,” he proclaimed. “The laypeople and clergy of this parish have come to unanimously condemn you for transgressions against God. These include, but are not limited to: blasphemy, heresy, apostasy, and insurrection. Do you deny these charges?”

Arthur tossed his long brown hair out of his face and glared cool daggers at the announcer. “I am bound to my word. And to God’s.”

The announcer glared back and returned to his paper. “So you admit that you have deliberately attempted to sow discord among this parish in an effort to form a self-described ‘splinter faction.’”

“God’s true children come forward in times of hardship and deceit,” said Arthur.

At this a gaggle of women broke through the front lines of the crowd and fell to their knees, beating the ground with their fists and wailing. “Brother, no!” “Don’t do this!” “You all have been led astray!”

“Silence down there!” the announcer barked. “Lest you meet the same fate!”

“Restrain yourselves, my Sisters,” Arthur commanded lovingly. “You all will know when your time is nigh. But for right now, let it go. Keep to your lives.”

The women, wiping tears from their eyes, retreated back into the crowd. All nearby threw them contemptuous looks. “Justice will fall upon your harem in time,” the announcer said, his voice shaking in anger.

“Justice comes for us all,” Arthur replied. “But that is in God’s hands alone.”

“Enough posturing,” the announcer spat, flourishing the paper. He turned to the crowd. “Does this congregation agree that it is an act of complete disrespect for this man to claim what he is? Would it be for any man?”

Arthur could make out his devotees in the crowd reacting in protest, but the vast majority of the gatherers raised their fists and shouted in condemnation. He sighed. “Forgive them, they know not what they do.”

“Now…we would be remiss not to offer forgiveness,” the announcer stated. The people fell silent. Arthur braced himself and stared into the man’s eyes. The announcer stepped up to him, his face earnest and grave. “Arthur Vaughn. This is your last opportunity for repentance. This community would welcome you back with open arms and all of God’s grace. But I will ask you once more. Do you renounce your claims that you are the Son of Man?”

Arthur gave a grim smile. “Get behind me, Satan.”

The announcer straightened and turned back to the crowd with the speed of a whip. “Arthur Vaughn has refused to repent!” The crowd erupted, and the announcer signaled to whatever was going on behind him. Arthur twisted his neck to finally catch a glimpse, but the arms of the cross he was tied to blocked his vision. There came the sound of a roaring fire. Arthur sucked in a breath through his teeth…they were going to burn him on the cross. Yet he looked down, confirming that they had neglected to build a pyre at his feet. So what exactly are they planning?

The sound of the fire seemed to rise…and settle above his head. He looked up. A billowing spherical mass hovered in the air directly above him. The ropes binding him to the cross trailed upward to a metal basket below it, where the sound of the flames emanated from. And, catching him off-guard, the cross lifted off the ground. Only a single rope tethered the hot-air balloon to the ground.

“If you truly believe you are like Jesus, God incarnate,” the announcer declared, “then we should give you the honor of reuniting with your Father in Heaven.” He addressed the crowd. “Pray tell, my friends…what is the Second Glorious Mystery?”

“The Ascension!” the crowd boomed.

The announcer jerked his head. There were the swing and thud of an ax. With a sudden thrust, as if eager to get off the ground, the balloon rose. Arthur Vaughn, tied to his cross, followed it up, swaying madly from the momentum. As he spun in a complete circle, he looked down to see the crowd surging around the launch point like a colony of ants. Some brandished accusatory gestures. A few sported tear-stricken faces that glistened in the late morning sun. Most, however, were only staring up, mesmerized. Arthur could barely read their expressions, but he thought they were displaying remorse…regret, even.

The balloon climbed higher, and they became faceless pegs in the ground. Then a grayish splotch. And finally, a gust of wind propelled the balloon over the chapel, and Arthur lost sight of them.

He passed over the river and an expansive grove of trees. Looking around he could see snowcapped mountains encompassing the area. The higher he rose, the more the unspoiled landscape melded into something like an old painting, something faded and fuzzy made of smearing brushstrokes.

Arthur closed his eyes, emboldened to his absurd fate. Would the balloon fail on a structural level and plummet before long? Or would he simply keep rising until hypoxia or exposure did him in?

He drew level with a layer of wispy clouds. He supposed he should be grateful. The Son of Man before him had suffered worse.

* * * * * *

The air around him was already beginning to feel cold.

Cramps flared in Arthur’s elbows and lower back. He reflected on how torturous real crucifixions had been in Jesus’s era. The splaying out on the cross and subsequent nailing through the palms and feet were not just agonizing, but they stretched the muscles from the limbs to the chest to the point where breathing became next to impossible. The unfortunate victim would have to raise himself up as much as he could to even draw in a puff of air. This was painful enough, but it became unfeasible when the centurions came around to break their knees with mallets. Death on the cross was almost always hideous and slow.

This was precisely why ancient Christians had adopted the crucifix as their universal symbol. Once a nefarious torture device, now a token of humility and perserverence, a tribute to the bravery of persecuted Christians and Jesus’s sacrifice to mankind.

Remembering all this, Arthur further wondered why they had chosen to do away with him in such a manner. Poetic justice, he assumed. It would certainly catch the attention of any passing angel. He could well imagine the conversation.

“I say, man, what are you doing up here in the clouds like this?”

“My brothers and sisters put me up here, divine messenger…they presumed this fate would be deliciously ironic.”

“How impertinent of them! They will have to answer for their cleverness.”

“Jesus before me was crucified, properly. I daresay this time around, the view is more grand.”

“Indubitably. It is unfortunate, however, that despite your liveliness and good health, you are already dead. If I may, I would like to guide you to the Kingdom of Heaven myself.”

“Nothing would make me happier to reunite with God the Father once more.”

Arthur smiled, bringing a surge of warmth to his cold lips. It would happen in time. He just had to be patient.

A cross-breeze rocked the balloon, and the vibrations caused him to sway precariously. The cross tipped, giving Arthur a full view of the ground below, which had melted into a featureless haze of bluish-gray, punctuated by the occasional watery glint. A swooping sensation overturned his stomach. Arthur closed his eyes, fighting off the nausea of vertigo. Something like fear squirmed inside him. But he ignored it. Soon there would be no more need for fear.

* * * * * *

After an hour a new problem presented itself. Before Arthur’s eyes, the skin on his arms and the tops of his bare feet reddened and stung, as if tiny pins were poking into his flesh. Sunburn, he realized. It was such a common and obvious condition that it never occurred to him that it might happen during his trials. He could feel his face singeing too. He twitched, giving a muffled groan. It irritated him especially on the soft skin beside his nose. He could feel it tightening like overcooked meat.

The only clouds in sight were at his level or below him. He was at the mercy of the sun. Yet despite its baking rays he could still feel the chill of high atmosphere underneath, seeping into his very bones. The hot-air balloon, meanwhile, showed no sign of slowing down. Arthur grimaced. This was something he would truly have to endure.

Something small and fast suddenly cut in front of his vision. He blinked, trying to save the image into his mind, but it faded away almost immediately. He tried to recollect. It could have been pale in color, long in shape…he simply couldn’t determine much else.

The balloon rose higher. Arthur breathed in, aware of a faint constriction in his lungs. The air was growing thin. The sensation was still scant, almost forgettable, like the memory of pain rather than the pain itself. Arthur exhaled and stared ahead into the eternal blue.

The same thing zipped by his ear with a psychotic buzz – but it flew out directly in front of him before veering off to the side, and Arthur managed to get a good look at it. Even then he still had no idea. The anomaly was indeed cylindrical, less than a foot long, and featureless save for two pairs of membranous wings running down its flank.

As Arthur pieced together the image, he realized the creature’s wings were not long and wide like an insect’s, nor did they seem to be flapping. Rather they appeared to undulate, like the tail of an eel, propelling it forward through sheer force alone.

What of God’s creatures are these? Arthur had extensively studied regional fauna during his ministry, and he had become adept at pointing out and naming every bird and animal, just like God had done in the Beginning. But mulling the newcomer in his head, not only did he not know what they were…he couldn’t imagine how they might even exist.

In the distance, the creature shot forth from a cloud like a bullet, swiftly joined by two others, rocketing in a sidesweeping arc like flocking birds. They made a wide circle around Arthur, disappearing from his line of sight, reappearing out of the corner of his left eye. They’re like rods, Arthur concluded. Flying rods…sheer speed and altitude are their modus operandi.

But what were they? Aliens? Undiscovered creatures? Supernatural entities? Did they exist solely to zip around and befuddle those fortunate enough to catch a fleeting glimpse?

The buzzing returned and a blurry bar of white encircled Arthur’s head. He felt himself buffeted from the wind generated by the rod’s wings, and the sound was piercing and low, like the clatter of a giant beetle. It bore through his ears like railroad spikes, and the distant inkling of fear inside him began to well up again. “Get away…get away!” he grunted, tossing his head like a horse warding off flies.

The rod flew off…then returned, and settled on Arthur’s left bicep.

Straining his neck to see, he became even more perplexed. The rod’s design was inexplicable; there was nothing he knew of he could even compare it to. Its wings folded into its flanks, and there was a sudden pressure under its stomach, like a suction. And before Arthur could even begin to fathom what it was doing, a piercing needle drove into the soft flesh on his arm.

“What! No! Get away!” Arthur flexed his arm, jerking it as much as the bindings would allow. The rod remained attached. A horrible draining sensation flared in Arthur’s shoulder as his reddened skin flushed deeper and his fingers went numb. The rod was sucking his blood.

“God! Get off me!” Arthur resorted to blowing on the creature, his powerful breaths laced with spittle. Each attempt burned his lungs and made him light-headed. His entire arm felt cold and detached. “What demon are you!” he cried, bucking harder, causing the cross to wobble. “Reveal your name! Foul creature! Leave me!”

But the creature remained indulgent, and before Arthur’s eyes its body swelled up and its beige coloration took on a crimson hue. A second rod suddenly plastered onto his throat, its long body wrapping up his jaw and settling on his cheek. “NO!” Arthur cried, giving his neck a hard twitch, and he managed to dislodge it; it tumbled through open air for a second before righting itself and attaching to the inside of his thigh.

“What is this?! Why are you doing this to me?!” Arthur pleaded, his vision swimming and darkening. The needle erupted in his leg again. The flesh around the first rod felt toxic and unraveled. Finally, ovular from Arthur’s blood, the rod spread its wings, deposited a trickle of feces on his skin, and flew off out of sight.

Arthur gazed in horror at his limp, discolored arm. A crusty bead of coagulated blood poked out from the wound. He could barely keep his head upright from blood loss. It dipped down, only to gaze at the second rod, fattening up with blood, its squirming body pushing up against his genitals. Satisfied, the rod took off too, leaving a squirt of blood down Arthur’s leg.

“Oh my God,” Arthur wheezed. He couldn’t tell if his deliriousness was from the blood loss, the terror, the thinning air, or a combination of all three. “My God…why have you subjected me to this?” Despair gripped his heart, and he took several calming breaths to overcome it. He reminded himself that Jesus before him had suffered forty days in the desert with only the marauding Devil for company. Jesus in the desert, myself in the sky. He remembered that the word “desert” didn’t mean just cactuses and sand; it could mean any barren, arid expanse.

Yes…this is my desert. My temptations. These demons will not break me. I will endure, and I will come out immaculate…

Arthur waited, resolute in his lazy ascent, daring the flying rods to come back and try him again.

He never saw them again.

* * * * * *

After another hour, Arthur felt a lick of relief when he passed underneath a high cloud, mercifully shielded from the harsh sunlight. All sensation in his limbs had been lost, and he was certain that he was beginning to feel the first effects of hypoxia. Each breath in brought a flurry of visual snow to the edge of his eyes; each breath out cast it away. He wondered when the lack of oxygen would induce hallucinations.

A massive cloud bank loomed below him, an ocean of fluffy white. Arthur peered down at it, admiring the frozen, rolling waves of vapor. The textural smoothness reminded him of mashed potatoes, and his stomach grumbled. No, he told himself. Do not become consumed by your own hunger.

In the distance below, something breached from the cloud bank. Arthur startled, fearing it might be some other monster arriving to torment him. The thing was dark and rounded, like the sloping back of a whale. But it kept rising, its roundness expanding more…then it curled back into a point, like an upside-down teardrop.

Arthur gaped at it. It was another hot-air balloon. And tethered underneath it, swaying in the wind, was another man on a cross.

“What?” Arthur gasped. Had the churchgoers sent up more of his own, damning them to the same fate? It was plausible…but unless freak weather had erupted in the air column below him, sending the next balloon well ahead of him before its own ascent, then it couldn’t have originated from the same place.

Most likely, it was someone he didn’t know.

“I have to get closer!” Arthur urged himself. But being tied to a cross and unable to feel his own limbs did not lend well to independent movement. He could only hope that God or natural forces would allow their paths to merge.

As he veered forward, the second balloon ascended faster, and Arthur’s heart swooped as he calculated they would indeed meet up. “Yes…yes,” he muttered, his eyes practically popping from the effort to look. Then Arthur realized that the newcomer’s cross was upside-down. A morbid chill froze him over. He could scarcely imagine the discomfort the man was in compared to himself.

They drew level. The newcomer spun around and they made eye contact. He was a short, balding man, naked except for an unflattering loincloth around his waist. He looked like he was having the time of his life.

“Hellooooo!” he called out. “Praise be! Another balloon man! Where are you off to?”

Arthur’s mouth hung open in disbelief. “Who…who are you?”

The man’s flabby chest expanded with pride. “My name is Retep. Pleased to make your acquaintance!”

Arthur’s brow furrowed. “That…hang on a minute…that’s just ‘Peter’ backwards!”

“Right you are!” Retep proclaimed. “I assumed that name when I began my ministry!”

“And, you…they crucified you, just like Peter the Apostle?” said Arthur.

“Right again!” said Retep. “I requested to be crucified upside-down because I felt unworthy to die in a manner similar to Christ before me. It’s a sign of my abject humility.”

“‘Christ before you?’” Arthur quoted. “Wait…what are you, then?”

Retep smiled. “Why, I’m the Second Coming of God! The true Son of Man!”

Dissonance spiked through Arthur’s chest. He sputtered stupidly before forming a coherent thought. “Why do you say such things? I alone am the Second Coming of God!”

Retep closed his eyes and shook his head. “Nope! Nope! Nope! That is I! I am the Son of Man!”

“Blasphemy!” Arthur heaved with anger, trying to collide with Retep. “And I assume they sent you up like this for such lies?”

“They said if I claimed to be the Son of Man then I should reunite with the Father in Heaven!” said Retep joyfully. “They knew not what they did. I’m sure they’ll see the error of their ways when Judgment Day comes.”

Arthur stammered again, forcing himself closer. “That’s what I said! What demon are you, then?”

“What demon are you?” Retep fired back. Their balloons struck, but they only bounced off with a comical thwump. They drifted apart from each other.

“Miserable wretch!” Arthur shouted. “How dare you claim what you are not! My Father will lock you in the depths of Hell Himself!”

“Such wrath!” Retep yelled, clearly enjoying himself. “So unbecoming of the ‘Son of Man!’ If you’re going to pretend, at least make it convincing!”

“I have heard God’s voice tell me what is true!” Arthur screamed, his cross slowly turning around. “I am who I am!”

Retep stuck out his tongue and blew a raspberry.

“Insolence!” Arthur cursed. Their balloons collided again, and Retep whooped with laughter. “The gall of you! Such arrogance to be crucified upside-down!”

“Such arrogance to be crucified right-side up!” Retep replied. “You must be proud of yourself, to have invoked Jesus Christ like so! There is only one place for the prideful! And it ain’t where you’re going, no sir!”

“Get back here!” Arthur spat, fully aware that neither of them could help whatever happened. Retep’s balloon was rising into an overhanging cloud. “I’m not finished with you! Get back here and enact penance!”

“Wheeeeee!” Retep cried. “Get over yourself, false prophet! You are nothing special! Wheeeeeee! Off to Heaven to be with my Father! Wheeeee…” His mocking face disappeared in the cloud.

“Retep!” Arthur yelled. “Retep! Where are you! Come back here! Come…” His rage suddenly fled from him, as he realized he was freezing cold and each breath only seemed to intake half the air it should have. Twisting around, Arthur managed to catch a glimpse of the cloud, expecting to see the balloon poke out from its top.

Nothing happened. Retep, it seemed, was gone.

“What devilry was that!” Arthur barked into the void. “God, what unholy designs have you mustered? What is your directive? Answer me! Please!”

The vast blue sky remained dead silent.

Arthur shivered, his sunburnt skin chafing against the wooden cross. The snow in his eyes had graduated to hailstorms of peppering blackness. His chest felt concentrated into one painful point. These trials are insidious and repugnant, he thought. I will overcome this…I will overcome this…

But as he rose into an approaching cloud, something nagged at the back of Arthur’s mind…the man’s jeering voice, bursting with confidence, striking him down as unspecial, delusional. Jesus was tormented in the desert for His divinity, Arthur realized. I was tormented for my humanity…

No. No. I cannot…the Devil succeeds at casting doubt…I must not give in to it…

Arthur rose entirely into the cloud, and all he saw was whiteness

* * * * * *

Condensation formed on Arthur’s lips, and he licked it off, his mouth suddenly parched. He hadn’t realized he had gone all day without water in the sun. He reaped the bounty around him, savoring the cool liquid running down his throat.

More than anything, though, he pined for warmth. The cold mist around him had drenched his clothes, seeming to creep through his skin. The metal basket above continued to blaze, but he couldn’t detect its heat. He sighed. The clouds have never appeared so big from the ground…but up close, right in the middle of one, it felt like an eternity.

Some warmth, please, some warmth, he willed, his lips trembling, his extremities turning blue.

The mist before him billowed into three separate plumes, taking on solid shapes. They morphed into columns, which molded limbs and heads. Wispy white hair sprouted from their scalps. There were three women in the clouds. Three women whom he recognized.

“My Sisters,” he whispered. “Morgan…Thalia…Sarah…”

“We’re here for you, Brother,” said Sarah, her voice a reverberating gust. “We’ll see you through this.” The three apparitions floated toward him, reaching out with their cloudy arms, their fingertips lying on his body. He felt warmth course through them.

“You have all been so loyal,” Arthur murmured, closing his eyes. “Are you…are you all dead? Did they do away with you too?”

“Shhh, don’t speak,” Thalia hushed, her voice a sensual tickle in his ear. “Don’t think about it…”

“We’ve always loved you,” said Sarah, pressing her bosom into Arthur’s ribs. “You inspired us…you made us see the light…”

“I’ve always loved you too,” said Arthur. “All my brothers and sisters…my crusaders against the darkness. But please, tell me, are you dead? Is this Heaven?”

“Heaven on Earth,” Thalia purred.

“You brought Heaven on Earth,” Sarah affirmed.

“You tilled the fields….”

“Sent out the masses…”

“Filled me with child…”

Arthur’s eyes snapped open; it had been Morgan’s voice who spoke. She was behind him, her arms around his shoulders. Arthur couldn’t look her in the face. “What! What did you say?”

“You loved me above all others,” Morgan moaned, pressing her lips against his neck. “You said I deserved to carry your holy bloodline…your legacy, in my womb…what an honor it is, Brother…”

“I…” Arthur torqued his body, and the apparitions were thrown off of him. “I never lay with you…I have never lain with any woman!”

“God knows the truth,” said Morgan with a foggy smile. “Indulging in drink, you professed your carnal lust for me…and you slaked it.” The other Sisters were staring mutinously at her, a gray blush forming in their cheeks. “Ignore those jealous wenches,” she simpered. “I know how highly you thought of yourself…and how you thought of me, the only one worthy to bear your seed! Even now I can feel your presence inside me…oh, I am honored. I am honored, Brother!”

Thalia and Sarah’s eyes darkened like storm clouds. Their fingers curled into claws. But Morgan merely floated away from them, her face lit up with mirth. “Do not be angry with me. Be angry with him! He may have loved you, but I was his beloved!”

“Harlot!” Arthur yelled, but the three apparitions dissipated into black mist, which showered him and brought the coldness back. “No,” Arthur wheezed, the frigid water seeming to squeeze his lungs tight. “Liar…she was lying…”

He had loved her more than the rest, and he had teased fantasies of giving her that love…yet he never recalled a night of drinking, or a woozy morning next to her in bed…

“She was lying…I don’t have a child…there is only me…I am God’s only leaving on this Earth…” The demon had to have reached in and plucked from the depths of his human imperfection, and fashioned a lie…

The clouds billowed again. Arthur threw his gaze to the new apparition. “Leave me, temptress! I want no more part of you!”

But the face that formed was more familiar, and yet more shocking. He stared. “M…Mother?”

His mother floated before him, a cloud-colored copy, garbed in the clothes they had buried her in. Her misty expression was muted and grave. Arthur nearly laughed for joy. “Mother…I’m finally with you…we’re in Heaven together, at last! My suffering is over! Please, take me!”

His mother pursed her lips. “You are not with me in Heaven.”

Arthur’s heart darkened. “What…what are you saying?”

She shook her head, sadness on her face. “You have come so far, my son…made so much of yourself…and yet, never have you been so far away.”

“Mother, I…” Tears threatened to leak from his eyes. “I don’t understand. I have always loved you…everything I’ve done, I’ve done for you…you are a holy woman, to have conceived the Son of Man! You will be venerated!”

“Let me tell you a bedtime story, my son,” his mother said. “Once, there were two bears. One was an old, seasoned bear, strong and willful. The other was but a cub, bursting with potential.”

“Mother, answer me, please,” Arthur interjected. “I am suffering! I need your assurance!”

“The old bear had heard legends of the mighty King of Salmon,” his mother continued. “It was due to head up the river that season. The old bear knew if he could capture and eat that fish, he’d have enough to last seventy winters…and bragging rights to boot.”

“Enough of this!” Arthur had heard this story many times in his youth. “I did not undergo this to be patronized by children’s tales!”

“The young cub laughed at the old bear, calling him crazy. The old bear laughed at the cub, thinking him foolish. As autumn went on, both bears stood by the riverside. The cub caught every salmon he could, gorging on them, growing fat. The old bear was patient. He watched endless streams of salmon swim by, waiting for the big one.

“As time went on, the schools thinned out, but the old bear had yet to see the King of Salmon. He was growing weak, and the weather was growing cold. The cub had long gone, off to find a place to hibernate. Despite his frailty, the old bear persisted. He knew it would come.

“Winter set in. Still no King of Salmon. The old bear had nearly wasted away, waiting. Then, he saw it…a beast the length of two bears and red as blood. The fish saw him too. The bear leaned back, ready to pounce…the fish inched closer, daring him to strike…and the bear’s legs failed him, and he tumbled down the icy river, barely making it to shore. By the time he retreated into the forest, half-frozen, the King of Salmon had swum too far upriver.

“That winter, the old bear struggled and died, unable to withstand the cold. The cub, meanwhile, emerged next spring, and went on to survive many more winters, outliving the old bear by many years.”

“Thank you, Mother,” Arthur sneered. “But I fail to see how that answers my questions.”

His mother’s lip quivered. “If you do not understand, my son…then you are beyond my help.”

“Beyond your help?!” Arthur blurted. “I am the Second Coming of God! I need no help! Veneration is beneath me! I am to be worshipped!”

But his mother was fading away too, breaking apart into a fine white haze. “Don’t you dare leave me!” Arthur scolded. “I need you! I need to see you in Heaven! I need your love!”

She had disappeared. Arthur emitted a pained bellow. He sobbed his way through the clouds, the tears freezing to his cheeks.

* * * * * *

Hours had passed. Arthur felt like a skeleton trapped in ice. He was only aware of his feebly beating heart and the rawness of his face. His fingers and toes had melted away, exposing muscle and bone. The rest of his skin was blotched and peeling. He smelled a nasty odor, the stink of rotting meat and human excrement. Ironically it was the only thing keeping him lucid.

His balloon had slowed, but it showed no signs of descending. In fact, he thought he was at a standstill. He looked down and nearly screamed. Below and all around him was the ocean, a solid mass of ink blue, stretching on forever out of sight. Before him was the setting sun, a huge disc of fire, hanging over the horizon.

The sun is setting on me, Arthur thought. How fitting.

As he watched, feeling himself die, the sky deepened from cerulean to an explosion of orange and yellow. The linear clouds near the horizon glowed bright red, reflecting off the surface of the water. “It’s beautiful,” Arthur whispered. “Soon enough, I’ll know what true beauty is…”

He looked again at his decaying limbs, wondering how his image would be preserved in Heaven. He certainly did not want to look like an unwrapped mummy when he reunited with God and his mother. God will see to it…or they’ll accept me for who I am…it’ll be okay…

Everything around him darkened. He knew it had nothing to do with the setting sun. He was more dead than alive, and his body was still refusing to accept it. In front of him, the sun began to warble, like a stone thrown into a pond. The hallucinations are back, he realized. One last vision to suffer, before I die…

Fiery ripples spread out from the sun. He forced himself to focus on them. Whatever his oxygen-starved brain was cooking up was truly ludicrous, beyond anything he could have imagined on his own. Wow, he observed. They’re even bouncing the sunlight off themselves…

A reflected glint suddenly pierced across his eye. He winced, blinking out the temporary blindness. Wait…they’re real…

The things he took for hallucinated ripples were in fact solid objects, rushing straight towards him.

“What in God’s name is -” Arthur tried shouting, but his voice died in his throat as the two entities materialized before him. They resembled gargantuan golden rings within rings the size of buildings, with miniature violet suns blazing in their centers. Their metallic surfaces were studded with hundreds of human eyes, all different colors like a field of jewels. Every eye was looking directly at Arthur.

YOU SHALL NOT TAKE THE LORD GOD’S NAME IN VAIN,” a disembodied voice thundered.

The sheer sonic wall struck Arthur like an orchestra in his face. His ears rang and his organs jostled from their sinews, but pure horror outweighed the agony. “Demons…more demons,” Arthur cried, averting his eyes.

The behemoths circled around him, searing themselves into his mind. “THIS MAN CALLS US DEMONS. IN ALL HIS ARROGANCE.”

MORTAL, WE ARE FAR FROM DEMONS,” the second entity roared. “WE ARE DIVINE MESSENGERS TO GOD THE ALMIGHTY.”

“What?!” Arthur’s eyes shot open. “But…no…I thought…I thought…”

One of them rocketed upward, directly in front of him, staring with an eye the size of a boulder. Arthur whimpered and looked away again. “FOOL. DID YOU BELIEVE US TO BE COMMON MEN WITH WHITE ROBES AND EAGLES’ WINGS?”

EMISSARIES TO HIS MAGNIFICENCE. AWFUL TO BEHOLD. WISE TO BE FEARED. OBLIGATORY TO BE WORSHIPPED.”

Both angels approached Arthur on either side. Metallic brassy whines boomed from their centers, buffeting him with such noise he couldn’t hear himself think. He spasmed on the cross, screaming for it to go away, but he sensed their terrible eyes upon him.

LOOK AT THIS MAN,” one scolded. “MAKING A CRUEL MOCKERY OF GOD THE SON. HE IS PROUD TO HAVE USURPED HIS IMAGE.”

“I didn’t ask for this!” Arthur shrieked, his voice a supreme nothingness.

YOU BROUGHT THIS ON YOURSELF WHEN YOU WALKED THE EARTH CLAIMING YOU WERE WHAT YOU WERE NOT,” the other boomed. “YOU WALLOW IN YOUR SELF-RIGHTEOUSNESS. ”

“You’re wrong!” Arthur retorted, summoning the last of his courage. “They unjustly sentenced me to death! These torments will cease! The Kingdom of Heaven awaits me!”

Cold, baritone laughter exploded from the angels, barreling through him like stampeding cattle; his insides bruised and his putrefied flesh flaked away. “FOOLISH MAN. AS THESE MOMENTS GO BY, YOU STRAY EVER FURTHER FROM THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN.”

Arthur burst into tears again, his shattered body trembling uncontrollably. The angels continued to laugh, their rings gyrating within each other. The very air around him seemed to shudder like glass. Past the angels he could see the sunset, halfway down the horizon. The sky had caught fire, blazing with gorgeous colors, almost yearning to consume him. He welcomed it. He wanted deliverance from the suffering. A better place. No more pain.

A veritable legion of angels had arrived now, filling the sky like stars, thousands of eyes lancing through him. Their laughter rose and rose until he could hear no more, only dimly aware of a bassy thumping in his guts and a warm trickle of blood oozing down his ears.

As the sun dipped lower and the sky darkened, the angels began to darken too. “Yes!” he shouted, now completely deaf. “Take me from this crooked world! Bring me back to the Father! Save me! Redeem me!”

The sunlight faded away, and the angels disappeared. Arthur cried with joy, mustering a final jolt of energy to take in what he knew would be his last sight of Earth.

He instead reeled with fresh horror. From his height, before night fell entirely, he could see entire continents, landlocked seas, scatterings of islands, the curvature of the planet. And all around him was the void of space. Clouds of dust, beaches of stars, the glowing mist of a galactic arm. And he knew more laid beyond. Things more terrifying than anything he had seen on Earth. Things he would never know, would never even boast the capacity to process.

For the first time in decades, Arthur Vaughn felt tiny and worthless and very, very fragile.

As his body simultaneously burned and froze away, Arthur screamed one last time to whom or whatever might have been listening.

“FOR THE LOVE OF GOD!”

But he knew in his soul that the love of God was no longer with him.

Rating: 10.00/10. From 1 vote.
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available


Written by Nick Carlson
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

🔔 More stories from author: Nick Carlson


Publisher's Notes: N/A

Author's Notes: N/A

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