Somewhere in the distance was the sound of a violin playing, though it was softer and less impressionable than before. My spirits were immediately lifted as all of the mesmerising feelings from last time flooded into my body, though there was a note of pathos that tainted the place. As I walked among the roses I felt a powerful need to make right what had happened here, even though I couldn’t offer a rational explanation, but my thoughts soon turned to Molly who was sitting a few paces away.
When I took in her appearance for a second time it struck me how different she looked and I wondered how I’d even recognised her in the first place. There was a healthy glow to her face and her wavy hair clambered down onto her shoulders. Unlike her pale, sickly complexion from before she had olive skin and looked truly radiant among the roses.
While I moved tentatively towards Molly she sprung up from the ground and shouted my name. She was formal in her manner, smiling only slightly, but I was overwhelmed with relief to see that she was alright. How, I didn’t know, but that wasn’t my first question.
“What do you think to this place?” I asked, surprised by my own abruptness. She paused for a moment and fixed her attention on the world around her, before changing her focus to the royal blue sky above. Last time I had been too enchanted by the roses, but as I followed her gaze I let out a long, exaggerated sigh, perhaps knowing that I’d never see such a pure setting ever again.
“I’ve been here many times,” Molly said with surprising nonchalance. She sounded matter-of-fact, though the emotion in her eyes gave away her inner-feelings. “Sometimes I see others here, too. I don’t know them, but they always come here in need of something, like lost ships in the night. You look a little like that, too. Like me.”
I nodded, not knowing whether to be offended or amused. Her expression never changed – she looked tired, almost – and that made me think she wasn’t fully healed after all. I found it hard to believe that it was possible to still carry burdens in this sacred place.
“I didn’t think you’d ever come, Pisces. You are always so late. This time I thought you’d fallen into your dream world forever.”
“Jack, call me Jack,” I said. “What do you mean, always? Have we met before?”
“You say that every time, it’s really insulting…” Molly said, her voice never changing, though her mouth curled into a wry smile. “I don’t think I have any time to explain, Jack. Can you sense the vibrations here have changed? That’s the Magician. He lives here, for now. He watches. We have no choice but to face him, this time.”
“Who is he?” I asked, hearing the fear in my own voice. There was an inexplicable knotted feeling in my stomach that lingered, though there wasn’t any reason for it. Molly looked expressionlessly and pointed at the sky overhead. There were clouds forming in isolation that gathered above a small island of trees in the distance. I hadn’t noticed such a dark presence at the meadow before, only serving to increase my physical anxieties.
“The hour is already late, and we must play the Magician’s games,” Molly said sadly. She began to move through the roses without looking back and I had to take longer strides to not be left behind. It had been some time since I’d felt that abject sense of foreboding but the closer we walked towards the forest, the more powerful the feeling itched away at my mind, like a cancer in its early stages. When I asked for a second time about the Magician, Molly gave me an angry side look, before finally choosing to relent and answer my question.
“He is your greatest antagonist – an evil man who knows all of your weaknesses, and never loses. He comes to this place because of the gamble you made with him long ago; the one that you lost. You forget him, but he never forgets you...and reminds you of that fact, every time.”
“Then why are we even going?” I said, with no recollection of ever meeting the Magician. “If I lose, what’s the point? I’m better off staying here among the roses.”
“Usually you don’t have me with you, that’s the difference. Sometimes you have the Taurus girl, but she has no power over him, not in this place. He knows that I’m with you this time, he senses it, and that’s why he’s hiding. We are heading into the Aquarian age, Jack; we might even be in it already. He has no choice but to listen to me, the karmic cycle demands his obedience.”
Once the forest was within our reach there were moans and cries coming from the land. It was a deep, despairing sound that travelled through the air with such alarming intensity that I wanted with every fibre of my body to find and rip out the poison infecting this one place that was so authentic and sacred. Suddenly I remembered years ago out at sea when I’d heard the sound of a whale crying, its tortured and unanswered calls stretching for miles into the uncaring night, drowning out all other noises with its high-pitched whines.
Molly must’ve noticed the anger written on my face as she held her arm out and came to a stop. There were still roses but they were beginning to wither and bend. I looked ahead and saw the trees, which were gnarled and black, their branches curling up like humans with arthritis, and wanted more than anything to turn back.
“You must promise me this, Pisces,” Molly said, the change in my name not going unnoticed. “Promise me you won’t do anything stupid. Leave the talking to me, at first, and don’t get any funny ideas.”
“Whoever this Magician is, I won’t let him get away with what he’s done to this place,” I said, lowering my voice with some effort. My hands balled into fists. “I will win his game, Molly. Tell me what your plan is.”
“To stay alive long enough,” Molly said. “We will find out the rest soon enough. Don’t trust everything you see, he will trick your mind if he has an opening, you mustn’t let him!”
I nodded and smiled to try and appease her, but this caused her to fix me with a long, enquiring look. We stood there between the roses and the shadows, like silhouettes preparing to descend from this purgatory into the unknown, until Molly finally withdrew her arm and gestured for us both to keep moving. We passed into the forest and coldness crept into my bones, with nothing but the cries echoing loudly overhead. All of the beauty of the meadow had been snatched away by the hand of death.
Upon entering the forest I looked over towards the sound of screeching crows circling in the distance. There were some that nestled themselves on the branches; eyeing us hungrily and piercing my ears with their horrible caws. At first I thought they might swoop down like arrows to attack until I heard tittering escape from somewhere within the entanglement of trees. It was a sound that I would never forget.
There seemed to be no end to the laughter, which carried such mirth that I might’ve joined in myself under different circumstances. The crows twisted their necks enquiringly at the sound until they were joined by one of their own flying into view. I braced myself for an attack but relaxed my guard as the crow dropped a number of cards from its beak, scattering into the air without prejudice over where they might land. Instinctively I jumped and caught one, turning it over in my hand to show a man hanging by one leg from a wooden beam.
Molly stood by my shoulder and held another card in her hand. “Tarot cards. The Wheel of Fortune and the Hanged Man. He’s not played this trick before.” she said, studying them both with weary eyes. I moved forwards and picked up the last card lying face down on the ground – to reveal the body of a Magician.
“He’s the Magician, and I am the Hanged Man,” I said, more to myself than Molly. “We are two of the same pack, and wherever I go, he follows.”
“You aren’t the Hanged Man,” Molly said, smiling, suddenly holding my cheek with the palm of her hand. It wasn’t the touch of romance but instead an empathetic link between two lost souls ensnared by duty. When she spoke to me next it was as if we’d known each other for many years, and I supposed by some estimates we had. “He will tell you that you are, to mislead you, but the real you is the Charioteer – the one who will bring harmony to the realms.”
“Truly touching!” the laughter had stopped, to reveal a commanding and deep voice that sliced thickly through the air. I looked around, moving my head from side to side, but the Magician remained hidden. “A charioteer is useless without a steed – isn’t that so, Pisces? You drift into my garden, directionless and blind. Tell me, why shouldn’t I turn you into embers where you stand?”
“You may have domain over this place, trickster, but you are bound to the Aquarian Age. You can’t do anything to us until we’ve played your game!” Molly said. “Come out and face us!”
“He marks your grave, woman, and you hand him the spade. Do you remember me, Pisces? You and I go way back, oh, like two old friends! I know all about what you are willing to sacrifice, I’ve seen it! You let them all die, one by one, to serve the realms. Do you think anything will change with the turning of an age?”
“What does he mean?” I asked, my voice faltering while flashes from memories I’d long forgotten poured into my consciousness. They were riddled with meaning, but I watched them flicker past without recognition. It was like trying to read another language and not knowing where to begin.
“No time,” Molly said firmly in a low voice, before challenging the Magician directly. “Stay in the shadows, if you must, but name your stakes! My time has come, and I command you to listen!”
“All dead!” the voice roared with such venom that the crows leapt from their perch into safer territory. “Your life for theirs, Pisces, that’s the choice you made. As the last in the cycle all you can bring is death! Give in to me, and I may spare the others.”
“He will do no such thing.” Molly said, seeing the faraway look in my eyes and taking control before I could do otherwise. There were more images that were projected into my mind at that moment, blurred and distant, but disarming in their implications. The exchange between the Magician and Molly suddenly became irrelevant while I descended further and further into my visions, with the old Pisces suddenly coming brightly into view. He wore a callous expression that was accompanied by the same coldness from our last encounter that thawed its way into my bones.
“See what you become, again and again! At first I regretted my selfishness at wanting to live, while seeing the others fall victim, one by one. But then…you go on. You live. And you find that you will do anything to keep your place. I live, still, and you will become me!” the old man said, his voice hoarse and devoid of compassion. I drew backwards, feeling physically sick near his presence, before Molly grabbed my shoulder and shook me roughly.
“Whatever it is, ignore it! It’s just a trick. He plays with your fears, it’s not real!” she said, her voice suddenly comforting and reassuring. More than anything I wanted her to keep talking, to listen to her soothing words, so that I could convince myself that she was the reality while the old man – the me from the future – was nothing but an evil conjuration from within the darkest corners of my mind.
Only I knew I couldn’t persuade myself of that, because it wasn’t the truth.
To my surprise the older Pisces vanished. There was no end to my relief until the voice tittered once again, filled with bitter malignity, but when it spoke it was finally in answer to Molly’s command.
“I am a fair man, so I’ll name the stakes,” the voice said with no sense of irony. “If you can persuade my daughter to join you, then you win the game. If, however, she chooses my unconditional love for her – which has nurtured her all this time – then I am free to end this game of ours once and for all.”
When I looked over at Molly her usual masked expression was marked with open-eyed surprise. She hadn’t been challenged like this before, and likely didn’t even know the Magician had a daughter. My emotions were more hidden, largely because confusion battled its way onto my face, so I was more prepared when a woman with dark skin jumped from her perch and landed in front of us.
“Meet Aries!” the Magician said with delight. He didn’t need to see us to know that we were stunned by his revelation.
She stepped out into the open with a sagged posture, her eyes dejected and cast downwards. A protective feeling surged through me to cradle my arms around her and revive her spirits, knowing that she was one of our own. When I took a step forwards, however, she lurched back with snakelike quickness, the black beads in her dreadlocks swinging backwards, jingling noisily with hidden threat.
Instead I tried to calmly meet her gaze and said softly: “Whatever it is, Aries, you’re safe with us. We’re on the same side.”
I wasn’t prepared for her reaction. “You are monsters!” she said, filled with hate. “My father says so, and he speaks the truth.”
“Easy, child,” the voice said, creeping up on us from behind. I twisted my body instinctively and caught sight of a man with pallid skin moving towards us, his mouth curled into a devil’s grin. His hands were in his pockets, his shoulders relaxed, facing us both with the arrogance of a contestant who thought he had already won the game. “We meet again – a pivotal moment in the history of the universe, don’t you think?”
My initial shock at seeing the Magician finally show up was swiftly replaced by the disappointment of his everyday appearance. In his looks, at least, there was no mystery or allure. He wore mossy green trousers, an open blue-collared shirt, and a dull brown cloak that flapped loosely with the wind. It was only his dark, malignant eyes that hinted at his supernatural being, which was perhaps entombed within his evil heart. Most surprising of all, however, was his youthful complexion. He didn’t look any older than thirty, though I knew this man had existed for thousands of years.
“How about it, then?” the Magician said, moving his hands into an open palm gesture. His tone was friendly, charming even; but I wasn’t fooled by his light manner. I followed his eyes and saw in them a burning hatred that was reserved especially for me. “Will you fold into my arms, and die?”
“You aren’t what I expected.” Molly said. Despite her knowledge of the Magician it looked like this was her first meeting with him in person, and a small smile found its way onto my lips at her reaction. I stepped forwards towards Aries while Molly protected my back, facing the Magician. All four of us formed a tight circle among the patch of trees and I had a feeling all living creatures were watching us.
“Make no mistake, I am the most dangerous man you’ve ever met,” the Magician said matter-of-factly. I believed him. “There is only one other who can read tarot cards like I can, and I am responsible for distorting his pretty face. He was lucky to escape with his life – chance is a fine thing, isn’t it? I have a card for you, dear.”
From his sleeve another card rolled between his fingertips, a quick movement that I caught after a sidelong glance. Keeping my attention fixed on the two of them was a challenge, but I was able to see the immortal image of a grim reaper on the front of the card. There was a look of triumph on the Magician’s face, which made me hate him even more.
“Only I can change your fate, girl. You must join me. That card you hold in your hand, the wheel of fortune, serves as proof. All four fixed signs – you, Leo, Scorpio and Taurus – will die. Pisces will outlive you, if he is lucky. I have seen it happen again and again. Look at my sweet daughter; look at how beautiful she is! I will treat you well if you abandon this foolish quest.”
“Death is nothing to be feared,” Molly said defiantly. I couldn’t see her expression, but I had a feeling she was smiling. “Aries is not your daughter, and we will win her back. I don’t care how we do it, but there’s no way I’ll ever join you.”
“Ah,” the Magician cooed, his voice surprisingly tender and soft. Inside, though, I imagined he was plotting our deaths as he spoke. “Out of all the signs, you were always the most self-righteous, the most frustrating and foolish. Do you want to know why I chose Aries? She is the first of the cycle, the bringer of life, the only one capable of helping me to achieve my vision.”
“We will break the cycle,” Aries chanted in agreement. At that moment, staring into her large eyes, I was reminded of myself when I had been isolated on the ship from the rest of the world. She was close to my age, but I could tell that she truly believed in the Magician and was blind to his true nature. I listened intently, knowing that I had to somehow save her and break the illusion. “With each passing sign there is death hanging silently in the distance, coming in the form of Pisces. You are the worst of them all!”
“No, that’s not true,” Molly said calmly. She didn’t turn to face Aries but her voice resonated with feeling. “That’s a lie. You need us like we need you, we are all part of the collective, or we are nothing at all. Use your senses, girl! This man has brainwashed you, and now you do his bidding!”
“Oh, you will have to try harder than that!” the Magician taunted. Somewhere, while he spoke, the sound of leaves rustled along the ground. We were being watched, but the others hadn’t seemed to notice, and I doubted that there was another person more menacing than the opponent we faced. I was drawn out of my reflections at the calling of my name.
“Pisces!” Aries said. Her eyes were wild and feral-like, forcing me into a defensive position. “I challenge you to a fight. I will never join you, so you will have to kill me!” She walked towards a den of grassland and picked up two weapons resembling scimitars, throwing one in my direction. I grabbed it instinctively, buckling slightly from its surprising weight, and changed my position so that I could see all three of them. I looked over pleadingly to Molly for help, to try and convince the girl to change her mind.
“There are no words you have that can convince her otherwise,” the Magician said, folding his arms. He showed no weariness over leaving himself wide open, and clearly didn’t see Molly as a threat. “She is a passionate one, my daughter, with a hero’s heart. If you fight, you lose. If you try and back out of it, you lose. I don’t even have to lift a finger.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” a new arrival said with a gentle laugh that rumbled noisily through the air. A wry smile found its way onto my lips as I saw the Magician’s face fall flat, his confidence shaken. Then my eyes travelled towards the sound of the voice and were met with a slender man with tousled dark hair coming into view, one hand in his pocket while the other scratched nervously at his neck. His glasses shimmered and brought with them a new light to the place. “Hello, Dylan. That was your name once, wasn’t it? You won’t mind me breaking through formalities a bit, as we have a lot to get through.”
“Moon! You are alive…how?”
“I’m offended. You wrote me off so easily?”
“You were in the lower realm, I know, I saw!” the Magician said, his voice husky and unbelieving. I couldn’t quite bring myself to call him Dylan yet, even though that was his name. It was so common, like his dress, that I thought it didn’t belong to such an evil entity. “And even if you are still alive, what business do you have here?”
“Moving on doesn’t mean giving up. Quite the opposite, really. I was given a chance, another go, if you like, to help weave the threads of the future. And in this moment, in this place, there is only one thing getting in the way of all that, and I’m here to put an end to it.”
For a moment the Magician’s nerves were written all over his face, his forehead lined into a frown, before a torrent of laughter escaped loudly from his lips. He flicked his wrist and a knife fell from his long sleeve, its silver projecting a polished look, but Moon’s expression remained nonchalant. He sighed loudly and stepped closer into our small circle.
“Never mind the details,” the Magician said icily. “I’ll cut you into pieces where you stand. You’re a washed out old fool. You’ve stayed in the background your whole life. Tell me, Moon, why show your face now?”
“You know more than anyone, that a gambler should only reveal his aces at the opportune moment,” Moon said, his eyes moving across all of us until finally meeting my own. He gave me a considering look, as if measuring me up, and his gaze never wavered while he spoke. “The trouble with winning all the time is that the champion grows complacent, and stops learning new tricks. Isn’t that so, Dylan?”
“Stop calling me that!” the Magician whined. He looked visibly ruffled by the slight and moved reluctantly forwards, looking at Moon expectantly as if waiting for a trap. “Jupiter’s put you up to this, has he? You can’t stop fate, no matter what. I will destroy your precious Pisces.”
“Aren’t you missing something?” Moon said, smiling. His eyes burned with triumph as he met the Magician’s stare levelly. “You’ve been here dozens of times, in this fixed moment, and you’ve always won. So what’s changed? What happens next?”
There was a searching look on the Magician’s face until the penny dropped and his eyes widened, alight with terror. “My memory…I’ve forgotten…what I do next. I can’t remember how I beat him!”
“Sometimes Pisces has a companion with him, and sometimes he’s alone, but the method you use is always the same. I took the opportunity, some time ago, to take away that memory of yours. It was my final gift to the world, as a keeper of memories, to lift your curse and bring about a new beginning,” he looked over at me again and grinned brightly. “You can thank me later, eh!”
I smiled back, not fully comprehending the weight of his involvement, as the Magician reacted with almost pantomime rage. He didn’t move an inch, though, and looked increasingly unsure of his chances. He called out to Aries, who moved forwards to help him, though her eyes had changed. I saw a flicker of recognition in them, as if she was recovering from a major head injury.
“There’s something else, too,” Moon said, his tight-pressed lips twitching now to fight back his enjoyment. “Now that you’ve forgotten your usual trick, your curse has broken too. A few minutes ago, actually, when I walked in here, the final effects were lifted. This means that Aries here, and eventually Pisces, will have all of their memories restored. Molly over there especially might be glad to know that with these few changes made, the Age of Aquarius has truly begun.”
As promised, the ripples of Moon’s actions began to appear, starting with Aries. She suddenly stopped moving while her eyes darted around with new life in them, perhaps truly seeing for the very first time. The emotion she felt was etched all over her face as tears slowly fell down her cheek. At that moment, despite not knowing her, I wanted to lunge forward and give her a hearty embrace, knowing that she was free once again.
“Game’s over. Pisces, go forward,” Moon said, nodding towards where the Magician stood. I looked between them as the man moved fast on his feet and tried to run away. He had taken a few steps when suddenly he fell to his knees, his body seizing up, while Moon held him with a psychic energy that I couldn’t comprehend. Without a word I moved forward, the scimitar still firmly in my hand, and towered over the Magician as instructed. Molly moved close to my side.
“You think this is it?” the Magician said, his eyes wild with desperation. He looked to be fighting against the strain of having his body wrestled to the ground, with mud slithering all the way up to his waist. “You think I won’t come back? There are other ways to return, I know.”
Moon arrived at my side and lightly touched my shoulder. He motioned at my scimitar, encouraging me to place the blade above the Magician’s neck. I followed his meaning while venomous sounds, a mixture of scorn and fear, fell from the man’s lips.
“It’s your choice, Pisces,” Moon said comfortingly. There was no smile on his face now as he looked at the Magician gravely. “There are no bounds to the evil this man is capable of. You’ve suffered much because of him. This is your free will at work. Do what you feel is necessary.”
I considered his words and clutched the handle of the sword with trembling hands, the burden of responsibility moving through my being. All it would take was one final swing to end it all and avenge myself and others forever. There was no more fighting talk from the Magician, who looked up at me with pleading eyes, the violence in his heart having finally left. Now there was only terror and a plea for forgiveness, an invitation to completely cleanse his poisonous soul.
Somewhere there was a voice that I recognised within me, a darkness that lay dormant within the depths of every man that howled for blood. It even wrestled for control and very nearly succeeded, bringing the scimitar upwards into the air and hanging threateningly in the air. Then, at that moment, I realised that I couldn’t do it. My body reacted violently and rejected the idea completely, forcing me to drop the sword onto the ground. I was lucky that Moon’s spell had practically starved the Magician of any movement.
At first I expected to see disappointment in Moon’s eyes, but when I looked into them I saw what I thought might even be admiration in them shining like a beacon. He seemed relieved, and shook my hand firmly, never losing his hold over the Magician.
Our happiness was short-lived. As Moon and I stepped a few paces away and began to talk with the Magician, there was a loud rumble of movement until I was thrown completely off balance by a powerful force. I rolled over on my side and pushed myself up with my arms just in time to see Aries descend upon the Magician with brutal intent. His cries were drowned out by her war-like roar as the scimitar rushed down on him like a boulder rolling down a vertical slope.
I watched, powerless, while the Magician’s head departed from his shoulders and thudded onto the ground.
Whatever happened to his soul after that attack I would never know, but I imagined that it would mark his tormented thoughts forever. By all accounts it didn’t leave my dreams for a long time, and as I stood up and walked over to Aries I shook her shoulders furiously.
“What on earth are you playing at?” I said as the girl suddenly locked up and became limp, with all of the anger taking flight from her body. “We let him go. It was over. Nothing, nothing excuses murder!”
“No, Pisces,” Moon said, moving in between us and forcing me to let go of her with his steady hand. “You made your choice and that was it. She had her free will, too. After all the evil the Magician had done to her, she couldn’t find the forgiveness in her heart. Each of us must act as we think right.”
“He took everything from me,” Aries said, her face stricken with guilt. I wondered if she ever might recover from her ordeals. “I couldn’t let him get away with it. He deserved to die.”
There was too much sadness in her eyes for me to react for a second time, so instead I held her close to my chest and let her cry for a time, her tears wetting the outside of my shirt. It wasn’t often that I felt so strongly against something, but in that moment I knew I was intensely opposed to murder on all accounts, no matter the circumstances. It was, I realised, the unveiling of my true nature, and what defined the origins of my sign. For Aries, I believed she followed a different philosophy, despite the fact that she was a passionate and brave descendant.
Moon studied us for a moment and then said: “Your memories will take some time to come back, Pisces. There is so much for you to remember, it wouldn’t be wise for them all to come back at once. Here where we stand marks a turning point for us all. You were the Hanged Man, a prisoner held in chains by the Magician’s curse. At that time, Pisces, you were weightless and suspended from a great height, with little control. You could do nothing but watch and absorb everything around you, until the time came to take action. Now you are The Hermit, and must go through one more stage, before you finally fulfil the prophecy.”
“What next, Moon?” Molly said, having been silent throughout the whole exchange. She was standing upright and held herself proudly, but there was an unmistakable sorrow in her eyes. “The Magician would never have faced us if I hadn’t been present, but the laws of nature commanded his presence. Now we’ve defeated him, what do I do?”
“I don’t know,” Moon said simply, and with grave honesty. He stepped backwards and dipped his hands back into his pockets. I thought he might be keeping a bit back from us. “We’ve won ourselves a great victory, but there’s still Mercury left to fight. Once every descendant gathers together, the final confrontation will begin. Ah, Mercury…he gave in to the blackness in his heart, when he could’ve been so much more.”
“Moon…there’s something else. The Magician said something about the fixed signs, about them dying, is that spell broken?” Molly asked hopefully.
Moon’s eyes lowered away from her gaze and studied the ground instead. “Not all evil dies with just one man, Molly. In this place, at least, the land we stand on will eventually wither away and allow for resurgence, for the roses to bloom once more. That’s all I know, and all I can say. We must all leave now. Perhaps we’ll meet again, when the time is right. Ah…yes. I think we just might.”
He smiled and I offered one back, still cradling Aries in my arms. Then, to my surprise, Molly moved towards us and hugged me, squeezing firmly. Despite her rough manner, there was at that moment such warmth in her eyes that I was speechless, and truly happy that we had been able to meet. I was just about to open my mouth to speak when the world around us changed once more, the trees unravelling and becoming dream-like, and the smell of the hospital fighting its way back into my nostrils. When I woke up, Molly was still in her bed, as unchanged from her condition as in the first time we had met.