A Fireside Dialogue

Embers

1. A Portent

Late on a wild and blustery autumn night, I was sitting in my study, sprawled out in a comfortable armchair, staring off into the middle distance.

The fireplace held a swirl of ashes and dying embers, glowing faintly. In their uncertain light, my shadow stretched out before me, long and distorted, and flowed formlessly up the wall like a clutching vine. Beyond the windows, clouds wafted across the moon, and a wood of black trees shivered and lashed in an unfelt wind. The candle lights of jack-o-lanterns in the garden outside were whipped into streamers.

A deep, solemn peal interrupted my reverie. The clock was striking midnight. It was Halloween.

I waited until the last chime had died away. Then I relaxed, just a little. I had been expecting the Tempter; it was the kind of night when things such as him were abroad. But if he hadn’t shown himself by now, it would be unlike him to arrive late.

From outside, there was a hiss and a snap, like the striking of a giant match. I was up and at the window just in time to glimpse a hot, silver-metal light flare in the sky, like a star falling to earth. For an instant, it turned every tree in the woods into a jagged paper cutout.

The noise died, but the light didn’t. From the window, I could see it, bobbing and approaching between the trunks.

I returned to my seat, contemplating what this portent might mean. I didn’t have long to wait before there was a booming knock from outside.

The door swung open. Standing in the portal was a strange figure; whether a man or a woman or neither, I wasn’t sure. The visitor wore a white, robelike garment and leather sandals and had pale hair tousled by the wind. Their hands were empty, but something in the set of their shoulders hinted at martial readiness. Their gaze had the implacable, measuring quality of a marble statue.

“You’re not the Tempter,” I said in surprise. “He changes his face, but I always know him. Who are you?”

The apparition’s voice held the echo of trumpets and brass. “You may call me the Guardian.”

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