This story is by J.L. Wilson and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“You’ve captured me,” the oversized sleeves of his purple robe billowed as he spread his arms and presented himself to a waifish youth pacing the floor opposite. “What now?” he asked, bemused.
The youth muttered incoherently and upped the tempo of his pacing. His mind was a tempest of doubt and insecurity. What now The words bounced around the inside of the young man’s head, his head ached from all the intrigue.
“Oh, I see…” the robed man put up a long, grey finger. “…you didn’t expect to get this far.” The taut ashen skin on his face became a landscape of sharp hills and furrows as a sinister smile transformed his face. He risked a few chuckles; enough to patronize, but not incense his captors.
The youth abruptly halted. His head snapped to face the old man. “Even now, the Ramtha, the murderous tyrant, bane of the people, laughs? You laugh knowing that I can have you killed where you stand?” The deep, penetrating baritone voice belonged to an adolescent boy in the throes of puberty.
The old man cackled exuberantly.
At length, he composed himself and in a velvety smooth voice said, “If you were standing where I am standing, which someday, you probably will, you’d laugh too, dear boy.” His eyes flashed knowingly as he spoke.
The young man clenched a fist and lunged at the Ramtha. The moment his fist would have connected with the man’s greying temple, he pulled up short.
“Tell me why I shouldn’t order your death right now?” asked the lanky young man harshly.
The Ramtha, unfazed by the sudden maneuver, calmly replied “If you wish to take my place as ruler of Lemuria, you’ll need more tactful methods of enforcement than a gang of thugs.” he gestured to the cadre of soldiers around the room.
“Ruler of Lemuria?” muttered the youth, perplexed. “How…” he trailed off, stifled by another effervescent display.
The Ramtha recovered from his latest outburst. He placed his hands on the youth’s shoulders and bored an austere gaze into the young, naïve eyes.
“Kareb? May I call you Kareb?”
The man leaned into Kareb’s ear, causing a few of the soldiers present to produce pistols and lurch anxiously.
“I fear one of your men might make a grievous mistake, shaky as they are, and we have some high-minded talk they need not be privy to.” he whispered.
Kareb pulled back from the grey head and stared intently into its dark eyes, looking for deceit.
After a long moment, Kareb raised his arms, palms down and signaled the men to stand down and said they needn’t be concerned – the old man was harmless without a unit of his legion behind him.
Reluctantly, the men stowed their weapons and exited. All except one. Gerald, a childhood playmate of Kareb’s, still had his pistol leveled at the old man. Visibly shaking and breathing rapidly, he plainly was no warrior.
Still, he was gripped by a courage rooted in a life of downtrodden poverty and abject abuse at the hands of the Ramtha’s regime.
Kareb held out a hand gloved in the same hide leather of his tunic and kilt. “It’s fine, Gerald. I’ll be fine. Join the others.”
Gerald stood for a long moment, “You sure? Remember Olaf’s?” His voice trembled with a volatile mixture of fear, repressed fury, and teenage angst.
“Definitely, my friend. He will gain nothing by killing me, where will he go? We have this entire complex.”
The Ramtha faced Gerald, “Heed your friend, boy. You’ve done well to get him this far, but only he can continue…”
Gerald spat on the floor and left the office without lowering his weapon or looking away from the Ramtha.
The door shut, they were alone.
The Ramtha put his hands behind his back and started to amble around the room. “Well, here we are. Rather, here YOU are…”
“I don’t want a recap. I want answers.” Blurted Kareb forcefully.
The Ramtha stopped, “Answers? What questions?” he queried.
“What did you mean by I’d someday stand where you are standing?”
The Ramtha turned to face Kareb, his face scrunched with suspicious curiosity. “You really don’t know?”
Kareb stared blankly.
“YEE!” The Ramtha stomped a foot and clapped enthusiastically. “I had my doubts about the boys at the Bureau of History and Enli…”
“Know what?” asked Kareb.
“…ghtenment. But Heinrich’s Jugend Programm has…”
“KNOW WHAT, DAMMIT?” Kareb snapped, his furious eyes burned into the Ramtha.
A baleful smile returned to the Ramtha’s face.
He ambled back to Kareb.
“You’ve got a fire burning inside you, m’boy. It’s critical that you learn what I’m about to tell you at this point in your ascension…” he trailed off leadingly.
“You can’t be this clueless and be the leader the people need, lad.” said the Ramtha.
“I once stood where you now stand, having the same conversation with the then Ramtha…”
“… the then Ramtha? But you…”
“… are the eleventh Ramtha since Ramtha emerged 300 years ago.” the Ramtha interjected.
Incredulous, Kareb’s eyes narrowed at the Ramtha, trying to pierce the smokescreen of the old man’s body to his soul to find truth.
“I’m A Ramtha, THE Ramtha is a concept fed to the populous. The Ramtha is not a man, it’s an office; a grand part played on a rotting stage in a melancholy production.
“Don’t you see? Lemurians can’t rule themselves. The revolution occurs when a new Ramtha takes control – the people won’t know and they don’t need to. As far as they know, the Ramtha is divine, an immortal god king. They simply can’t know the truth.
“The results of past attempted coups were disastrous. Lemuria was a wasteland ravaged by war before the Ramtha.
“You have two choices. You can remain the proud messiah, free Lemuria from the tyranny of the Ramtha; then watch Lemuria destroy itself, or take up the mantle of the Ramtha and guide Lemuria into the future. Therefore, you’ll need me alive, to serve as an advisor.”
Kareb stared at the Ramtha in disbelief as he struggled to rebuild a shattered worldview. Kareb clamped his eyes shut and went to that horrible night at Olaf’s bistro. Five inquisitors from the Bureau of History and Enlightenment broke into the Olaf’s, a local haunt for the youth in Kareb’s small borough, to thwart a “rebel co-op”, it was really a welcome home party . Kareb knew this because Gerald’s sister was there, the gathering was for her and her newborn daughter, Gerald’s niece. All present were beaten and the women raped, then flayed and burned alive. Is that the price for our security? The thought made him shudder.
The Ramtha continued, “You are here to play your part in this production, now you must choose – be the savior who destroys the world or the tyrant who saves it.”
The office door creaked open. Gerald entered, “Excuse me, I left my…”. By this time, he was arm’s length from the Ramtha. In one fluid movement he halted. He withdrew his gun and shot the Ramtha in the head. The Ramtha’s body crumpled to the ground, the stump that was his head gushed blood.
Kareb lurched back, face twisted in shocked disbelief.
“Whuh…???” was all that Kareb could say.
He watched as Gerald scurried haphazardly across the room to the desk and snatch up a fountain pen. Then, without looking up, he hurled himself at Kareb and buried the pen in Kareb’s neck.
Attempting to speak, Kareb could only gurgle through the blood in his throat.
He fell to his knees, blood covered the left half of his body, pooled on the marble floor. “I heard everything.”
Gerald, his voice starting to crack, held his friend under the arms so he didn’t topple. He looked down at him, “I won’t live through another Ramtha, even if he is my closest friend.” His eyes welled up with tears. “You were wavering, so I’ve decided for you.” Gerald’s lower lip began to quiver. “Remember when we were kids? After weeks of planning we were going to get back at Sigurd and his thugs on the playground? One look at him and you turned white and walked away. Like then, you’re turning white. Take heart, friend. Your death will redeem us all.”
He put a finger on his com, and in a panicked voice yelled, “COME QUICKLY! BRING A MEDIC! The Ramtha stabbed Kareb with his fountain pen. PLEASE HURRY! HE’S FADING FAST!” —
Gerald looked upon the bloody mess that was his best friend; stared tearfully at his glassy, lifeless green eyes and closed them for the last time while What now? What now? What now? reverberated inside his head.