Here, at long last, is the final installment of Flickering Lights.
I can hardly believe that we’ve finally come to the end (I know, neither can you).
So, without further chatter, here is Flickering Lights 10: El Roi.
Marcus couldn’t decide if “miserable” could even begin to describe the seven day voyage across the Western Darksea.
The medication that the beacons gave Hermes made him sleep almost the entire time, and Penelope was in and out of consciousness. Her meds made her a bit delirious, and when she was conscious, she was usually babbling incoherently. While Terry was busy running the ship, Marcus was alone with Winston and his seasickness. And Winston was not at all sympathetic.
He spent the voyage losing the contents of his stomach repeatedly, feeling terrible, or lying down feeling terrible. And his thoughts kept circling around to El Roi. Again and again. And again. And again. What Hermes said about El Roi, what Penelope said about El Roi, what anyone else had ever said about El Roi, what he’d seen of El Roi, and whether or not any of it made any sense at all. Every time he came back to the same thought, If El Roi is real, where does that leave you? And every time, he found himself skirting the answer. You aren’t with Him. He hardly managed to sleep on the voyage, between the hourly mutiny of his stomach and the El Roi conundrum. El Roi, if He was real, was a being that demanded change and could not be ignored.
Finally, on the morning of the seventh day when Marcus was taking food to Penelope, she demanded that someone sit her up and talk to her like she was an adult because it wasn’t like she had nearly died or anything like that. Marcus shrugged and handed over her tray of food. “I’ll go see if some of Hermes’s meds have worn off.”
She made some sort of protest, but he was out the door and gone before she could even hope to stop him. Hermes was half-conscious in the bottom bunk of their tiny pod, three steps down a tiny hall from Penelope’s. Marcus shook his shoulder. “Hermes. Do you want to come hang out with Penelope? Terry says we’re almost to Pollux, but a certain someone is getting a little demanding…”
Hermes shoved his hair out of his face. “Demanding? Penelope? Marcus, don’t be silly.”
Marcus grinned and helped Hermes stand. The beacon was still unsteady on his feet, and so Marcus supported the brunt of his weight as they staggered to Penelope’s pod. The boat dipped, and Marcus almost fell through the door. Hermes somehow caught him by that back of his jacket and plopped down on the bunk opposite of Penelope. “Whoa. Everything is spinning.”
Penelope rubbed her nose. “That’s what can happen with head injuries.”
Marcus could hear the eye roll in her voice. “You said you wanted to sit up?” He hung Winston up and braced himself between the two bunks.
“Yes.” Penelope held out her hands, and Marcus slowly pulled her up until her back rested against the wall of the pod. She let out a single hiss of pain, and then she cozied into the blankets.
Marcus sat down next to Hermes, trying to ignore the cold sweat that broke out on his forehead as the boat rocked. Theoretically, since he had already lost his breakfast, he wouldn’t be losing anything else for a while. But the boat rolled through a wave, and his hands went clammy. “So. What do you want to talk about?”
Penelope shrugged. “Oh, I don’t know. Just something besides being passed out on a bunk for days on end…. Have either of you been to Pollux?”
Marcus shook his head. “Nope. It’s the most remote of the three cities, and so I’d never have gone except for Hermes.”
Penelope turned to Hermes.“Why does this letter have to go to the Pollux highlights specifically, Hermes?”
Hermes shrugged, only half-conscious. “It’s just who Pierre wrote to first.” His eyes rolled shut, and his chin started to plunge towards his chest.
“How can you possibly want to sleep more, guiding light?” Penelope leaned forward and shook Hermes’s shoulder.
“What is this with the ‘guiding light’ thing, Pen?” Hermes rested his hand on his chin and looked from Marcus to Penelope with half-lidded eyes. “I’ve heard you use it, and I can’t figure out what you mean by it.”
Penelope shrugged again. “I don’t know. It’s just what I call you, like your name.” She twisted her blanket. “Marcus has one too.”
Marcus shined his nocturnals on his shirt. “Oh, really. And what is mine?”
“The fearless defender.”
“What?” Hermes’s voice was only half-awake. “I’m ‘the guiding light’ and Marcus gets ‘the fearless defender’? How did that happen?”
Penelope sniffed. “Oh, I don’t know. Probably because you’re the bright one and Marcus is the one who goes trekking across the murklands to save your neck, that’s probably why.”
“Hmm. And what are you?”
She rolled her eyes. “The voice of reason, of course?”
Marcus snorted and then regretted it when his stomach lurched. “The voice of reason? That’s what we’re going to call this?”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Penelope’s voice raised a pitch.
Hermes chuckled and rubbed his head. “It kind of means what it sounds like. Of the three of us, I just don’t know if…”
“Oh, don’t even go there.” Penelope drummed her fingers on her blanket.
Marcus glanced between them. It was hard to decide if she would go violent or not. True, the broken leg would slow her down, but she could probably get to Hermes before the pain registered. Probably best to move on. He cleared his throat. “And have you left Winston out of this?”
She huffed. “Of course not. What sort of lousy voice of reason do you think I am? Winston’s the bad attitude.”
Marcus glanced up at Winston who refused to look at them. “Yeah, that works.”
Hermes nodded. “I’d say that fits.”
“I know.” Penelope dug through her blankets and pulled out her broken nocturnals. “Can you fix these for me, Marcus? The sepios broke them, and I want them for Pollux.”
Marcus reached for the spectacles-style nocturnals, but Hermes cleared his throat. “Um, do you think you need them, Penelope?”
Penelope glanced at Hermes, eyebrows going up. “You think maybe I don’t?”
Hermes shrugged. “Your light has been steady, and it’s gotten stronger since we first met. I just think maybe it might be time to start going without.”
Marcus looked between them. “I’m confused.”
“If a beacon is bright enough, they don’t need nocturnals to see. El Roi’s light helps them see instead.” Hermes pointed to his own eyes. “I don’t wear nocturnals anymore, and I don’t think Penelope has to either.”
Penelope swallowed. “I never really thought I’d ever get to the point where I wouldn’t need nocturnals.”
Hermes leaned over and started retying his boots. “Well, you’ve changed.”
Marcus had to carry Penelope to land once they docked at Pollux, but Terry had found a set of crutches for her somewhere. Personally, Marcus didn’t feel like crutches were the best idea considering her explosive mood-swings (steady light or not), but he kept his comments to himself. He held her up as she straightened her hat, the one she hadn’t given back since the murklands. Her teeth chattered a little as she settled on her crutches and did a few practice hops with them.
Marcus straightened his jacket and zipped it up to his chin. Winter nipped at his ears, and he considered reclaiming his hat from Penelope. But she had crutches, and it was Penelope, and so he rubbed his ears and turned to Pollux.
His blinked. Pollux was radiant, like hope came down and walked in the streets. The buildings raced to the sky, and white lights illuminated the darkness. Darkfish rested in aqua-lanterns, and there weren’t many beacons, but the beacons that were there shone strong and steady.
Hermes came up beside him and gave contented sigh. “We’ve made it.”
“I’ll stay here with the ship. You all go ahead to one of the highlights. There’s at least one that meets today.” Terry set their packs on the ground behind the trio.
Marcus nodded and turned to Hermes.
Hermes took a breath and licked his lips. “Let’s go deliver this letter.”
It didn’t take them long to find a highlight in a small building not far from the river that ran through Pollux and down to the Western Darksea. Penelope shivered as she hopped through the door, and Marcus followed, happy to get in the warmth.
Hermes plunged into the group of beacons with laughter and excitement. Penelope hobbled over to a chair and sat down as a group of Pollux beacons huddled around her, strangers and family all at once.
Marcus drew back, blinking.
Family. El Roi offered family. Marcus looked around the small gathering. He looked at Winston and then set the darkfish on a chair. The beacons were settling as Hermes pulled out the letter.
“‘From Pierre Castillo to the Highlight at Pollux.’” Hermes cleared his throat, and his light flared with his excitement. “‘I am filled with such joy when I hear of how you’re shining in Pollux. El Roi’s light is bright in you, and through you, He is changing Pollux.’”
Marcus backed out, feeling like an intruder. This was personal, special, between these beacons and El Roi, and so long as he wasn’t one, he had no place. The cold invaded his body as he wandered away from the building. He stopped beside the river not far from the highlight. His chest constricted.
The journey was over.
No more Hermes. No more Penelope. No more El Roi.
They would part ways here. He rubbed his hands on his pants, his breath clouding in the air. No more family. No more light.
Do you want that?
He rubbed his head and pulled off his nocturnals. No, but what can I do?
Then there were Hermes’s greenish eyes. “All you have to do is ask.”
He licked his lips and glanced around. No one was there. He scratched his head with numb fingers. But I have no idea what to say…
Somehow, it seemed like a flimsy argument.
“El Roi?” It came out a little high. He cleared his throat. “El Roi? Um, after all that I’ve seen, I know that You are there.” He glanced around again. Still no one. “I don’t really know how to do this whole prayer thing.” His mouth felt sticky. “I don’t know how I’m supposed to talk to You, but I guess this is just going to have work.”
His hands were suddenly sweaty. “I don’t understand a lot of this… You, being a beacon, any of it. But I want to. I-I want to know You, like Hermes does. I want to be able to talk to You, like Hermes does. I want to know that You are always there.”
He rubbed his hands. “Darkwater, I’m really terrible at this. I don’t know—is it okay for me talk like this?” He closed his eyes and took a breath. Swearing at the God of Murk was probably not the best idea, but it was already out there. “I want to have hope—the kind that You give. I want to be a beacon for You, to know You for myself and to show You to others. I know I’ve got this darkness in me—I don’t quite understand what it is, but Hermes says that You can take that and give me Your light. Please give me Your light.”
He waited, hardly breathing.
Then a whisper wound through the air. “Do you believe?”
Chills scuttled down his spine. He closed his eyes. “After all this, yes. I believe.”
The wind tickled his cheeks, and a tingling started in his chest and spread out through his body like waves reaching for shore. His head filled with clarity, and something wholly Other met his heart.
A presence powerful and patient and different and altogether foreign and so old pressed close. It was not an emotion or a thought but everything pure and good.
Light dawned in his soul.
Marcus’s legs trembled, and his face was wet with tears.
So You are El Roi.
He opened his eyes and blinked. It was like looking through a lens of light. His chest heaved. The Great Hope, Murk’s True Light, El Roi. So this is what peace tastes like.
He went to rub his head and paused. White light shimmered over the surface of his skin, the mark of El Roi. “Thank you.”
He whipped around. Hermes and Penelope stood a few feet away, eyes wide.
“Marcus?” Hermes took a step closer, holding Winston’s aqua-lantern in one hand. “D-d-did you just…?”
“I met El Roi.” Marcus tingled from head to toe.
Penelope let out a screech and hobbled over, hardly staying on her crutches in her haste. The last step, she dropped her crutches and threw her arms around Marcus’s neck, squeezing hard. “I-I-I’m so hap-p-p-py, Marcus. You’re a beacon now!” She leaned back and held his face in her hands, eyes wide. “You’re a beacon now!”
He laughed and squinted. “Are you crying?”
She sniffed and hopped away, picking up her crutches and wiping her face with her sleeve. “Of course I’m crying. How can I not being crying at a time like this?”
And then Hermes was there. Also crying. Hermes hugged him so tight that Marcus was afraid his spine would snap. “I prayed for you so much, Marcus. I don’t know what to say, I’m just so happy. So happy.”
Hermes stepped back, grinning, and gripped Marcus’s shoulders. Penelope lost her balance. Marcus and Hermes both reached to catch her, and then they were all on the ground, laughing and crying. Finally, Marcus stood, and Hermes helped Penelope to her feet. Marcus dragged a hand over his eyes and took a deep breath. Happy and free and new.
The trio snapped around. Four sepios stood a few feet away with guns levelled. “Hermes Glass! You are being drafted to go to the Antigone communications station to aid in repairs.”
“What?” Penelope glanced between Hermes and the sepios. “But he doesn’t have technical training.”
“He won’t be working with the machines. He’s coming with us because of his light. Hermes Glass, come with us, quietly.”
Hermes hesitated and looked from Penelope to Marcus. “I–” His brow furrowed. “Make sure the letter gets read to every highlight here in Pollux.”
Hermes held up his hands and backed away from Marcus and Penelope. His face settled into his easy smile. “I’ll be praying for you both.”
Then the sepios were leading him away.
“What?” Penelope’s face crumpled. “But… why would they take him and not someone else?”
Marcus took her elbow and helped her move away from the river. “It’s probably because he has fewer rights as a criminal. Since he’s a criminal, they have the authority to just draft him like that, I guess.” Marcus watched as Hermes’s light disappear around a corner. How can he be gone already?
“But he’ll be all by himself.” Penelope’s voice was a whimper, her light dimming slightly.
Marcus swallowed. His chest constricted. “No, no he won’t. He’ll have El Roi.” He took a breath. “And he’ll have me.” He pulled his pack over his shoulders and clipped Winston’s aqua-lantern to one of Penelope’s crutches.
“I’ll go with him, Penelope. As a volunteer.”
She brightened. “I’ll volunteer too!”
“No, Pen. You have to stay here. Your leg needs to heal, and you have to make sure that letter spreads to all the highlights.”
She drooped. “You’re right.”
Marcus held both of her slim shoulders. “Don’t worry, Penelope. Hermes has me, and now we’ve both got El Roi. And I’m sure you’ll have every beacon here praying for us.”
She smiled, still sad. “Yes.”
“I’m leaving Winston with you because I don’t know how he’ll do in the murklands again.”
He straightened her hat, pulling it low over her ears. “Bye, Pen.” He released her and jogged away.
He paused and turned back. Penelope balanced between the two crutches, light flaring bright. “Let your light shine before men.”
He grinned and nodded before plunging after Hermes. Adventure drummed through his veins along with the light that pulsed around him. Sepios, pale ones, and darkwater knows what else would be in the murklands around the Antigone communications station. But Marcus found he wasn’t afraid anymore.
I once said that there are two necessities—oxygen and light.
I was wrong. There is only One, and He is El Roi.
So there it is.
And here is the character quiz I promised all two of you die-hard fans (be sure to share this masterpiece all over your social media using #flickeringlights and/or #penprints!).
What did you think of the end?
Do you think there will ever be more Flickering Lights?
Will you miss any of the characters (besides Winston)?
Will Penelope be all right on her own?
P.S. – if you would take five minutes to fill out this debrief, I shall love you forever and shower you with virtual confetti and hugs.