Morpheus tipped the contents of his pipe out the window, watching the rain of ash fall like the fine sands of his eulclear, probably to settle on some unsuspecting passer-by. Hopefully, that passer-by would be Mortimer. And hopefully, the vexatious reaper would not—for once—be wearing his ridiculous bowler hat.
A smile tugged up a corner of Morpheus’s mouth. Bracing a hand on the smooth wood of the sill, he leaned out the large window to glance down at the street. His eulclear dangled before him, the crystal sandglass restrained only by the silver chain about his neck as it bobbed and shone in the late afternoon sunlight, reaching anxiously for the deserted cobblestones five floors below.
It had been a fool’s hope to expect some form of levity today. Even the usually-boisterous winds were still and silent, already in mourning. But Morpheus shrugged away his disappointment, and stuck his tongue out, not caring that he was in full view of anyone coming by the Courthouse. They could all go to hell. Seeing as he might be getting a head start today, he leaned further out, wagged his tongue, and threw in an obscene gesture—for good measure.
“I could push you if you’d like.”
Morpheus clutched the windowsill, the grating sound of amusement in Mortimer’s voice stirring bile in his gut. “Come to gloat, have you?” he asked, a forced note of glee underlining each word. He would not break. Not before the end. Not in front of Mortimer.
“Now, why would I do that?” Mortimer chuckled. “Finding joy in my little brother’s misfortune is a bit low, even for me, don’t you think?”
Morpheus spun to face his brother, his eulclear swinging in a wide arc. “They’ve decided?” He clutched the cold crystal sandglass to his chest, glancing down the empty corridor behind the black-clad reaper he was unfortunate enough to call his brother. The shadowy path betrayed no secrets.
“You could still run, you know,” Mortimer said with a smirk. “Though I would not suggest jumping out the window. Not with your eulclear in the black, anyway. Broken bones might make escape a little difficult.”
Morpheus glanced down at the small rectangular prism in his palm. Within it, black sands ran smoothly from the top bulb to the bottom one through the thin neck between them, only to be emptied into the prism itself to rise like a swirling mist and return to the top bulb as particles of sand once more.
“You should not wear your heart for all to see, Morpheus. It is unbecoming of a Son of Somnus.”
Morpheus growled, tucking his eulclear beneath his shirt. “The Sons of Somnus can all burn in hell, along with those farts you call Elders.”
Pinching the bridge of his nose, Mortimer sighed. “Just be grateful an eulclear cannot be taken, or someone would have snagged yours decades ago.” The reaper turned, black cloak bustling with the movement. “And those farts have reached a verdict.” Mortimer started down the corridor, leaving Morpheus no option but to follow.
It was not his first time walking this hallway. But, somewhere deep within him, Morpheus knew this time would be his last. This time, he had gone too far, and even his status as a Son of Somnus would do little for him. That is, if it wasn’t the very thing that condemned him to a fiery eternity.
His honorary membership to the Sons of Somnus had come with considerable benefits, Morpheus had to admit. But, as is the nature of power and prestige, the price for the privilege to walk among the living was a steep one. Morpheus had earned his eulclear in less than half the time it took other Karsha males. Instead of joining the reapers afterwards, Morpheus had chosen to become a Sandman for the travel benefits. And because he only had to work nights. And because he did not want to compete with his siblings.
Being Mor’s and Mort’s reckless little brother was bad enough.
With each step, each heartbeat, each carved wooden door they passed, anxiety swelled in Morpheus’s chest. He would lose it all: his privileges, his job… He glanced up at the reaper before him. He would lose their respect. Being a sandman, if nothing else, had earned him their respect.
Mortimer stopped before a large gilded door and turned to face him, and the disappointment in his brother’s gaze weighed Morpheus’s chin down. His eyes searched the ground, watched the thick shadow circling around his brother’s polished boots, a shadow that had loomed heavy over him for all of his existence.
“Don’t do anything stupid,” Mortimer said, then pushed the door open.
Orange light flooded the center of the pentagon-shaped chamber from the circular skylight, spotlighting the single red-cushioned chair that awaited him. Straightening his shoulders and tipping his head back, Morpheus marched up to it. He would receive his verdict with pride—something the seven enthroned cowards encircling him in the shadows could not afford.
Mortimer stood guard by the door.
“The Elders have reached a verdict,” a shrill voice sliced through the silent chamber, shrewd and unpleasant as the Elder it belonged to.
Morpheus had often indulged himself in pleasant thoughts of dousing the female with enough sleeping sand to knock her out for a century or two, but the fact that female Karsha did not need eulclears to walk among the living made it almost impossible to know the precise moment to strike.
That, and because Elder Raidne was his sister’s best friend. Mor would never forgive him for hurting her.
“With little deliberation,” Raidne continued, “the Council of Karsha Elders has decided—unanimously—that you are to be stripped of your post and all privileges.” She paused, hesitant, before adding, “And you are to be relieved of your eulclear.”
The world grew cold. Morpheus placed a hand over his chest, over the sandglass that was, in many ways, his heart and soul. His eulclear? They would take his eulclear? He could not imagine an existence without it.
Never again would he feel the warm sun on his face, or the gentle breeze kiss his cheeks, or the pleasant burn of tobacco in his throat. Never again would he feel the earth beneath his bare feet, or dance with the lovely girl behind her father’s market stall. The lovely girl that was the reason he was in this mess in the first place.
“Not my eulclear.” His whispered plea was met with silence. “You cannot take my—”
“You are a sandman, Morpheus,” Raidne hissed. “A Son of Somnus. One of our finest Karsha. Yet you recklessly exposed our world to the living. To a child! A child who can no longer sleep! A child who now thinks monsters lurk in his trunk because you shadow-walked right in front of him!”
Morpheus swallowed his retort. The charges were not entirely true. Yes, he had indeed exposed their world to a child, and yes, the child now suffered from insomnia after watching a sandman step into a shadow and disappear. But he hadn’t shadow-walked recklessly. In truth, he hadn’t shadow-walked at all.
After more than a few drinks (and a little too much tobacco), Morpheus had forgotten to switch his eulclear back from the black. As a result, he had lost control of his shadow, resulting in a wild chase that had led him to the child’s bedroom, where he had promptly fallen into his shadow—almost dragging the child completely through with him before having the good sense to let go—and landed back home.
But Morpheus couldn’t tell them that, because that would mean admitting he had left his shadow in the land of the living. And losing a doorway to the Afters earned Karsha clipped wings and a one-way trip to the fifth level of hell.
Morpheus had planned to return to the child’s bedroom in the little town of Tire, but without his eulclear… “You cannot take my eulclear,” he said, desperation raising the timbre of his voice.
“The elders have decided—”
“No!” Morpheus clutched the sandglass to his chest.
From beside the door, Mortimer clicked his tongue, and Morpheus bowed his head in shame. Had his brother not warned him against doing exactly this?
Taking a steadying breath, the sandman fought to comport himself. Keeping his head was key to keeping his eulclear. “There must be some other solution to this,” he said, “Some way to fix this, to undo the damage done—to set things right…” He floundered for ideas in the ensuing silence. “I mean, you said it yourself, I’m one of the best. Why hurt the Sons of Somnus by putting me out of commission when we could find a way to fix this?”
Fabric whispered from the shadows as more than one of the elders shifted in their seats.
Morpheus plowed on, clutching desperately to his beloved eulclear, praying silently to the One who claims all that he did not damn himself in the process. “What if I reverse the damage done?”
“You cannot make him forget,” Raidne said.
“But what if I can undo his insomnia? Make him sleep again?”
“He has been into the Afters, Morpheus. Sleeping sands will no longer work on him.”
“So what do you plan to do? Send Mort to drag his soul back here?”
Mortimer sighed from his post. Morpheus half-expected Raidne to have him chained and thrown in a pit. Instead, she said, “We are considering other alternatives.”
“That is not your concern, Morpheus.” Raidne’s tone had lost any sliver of warmth it might have held.
Morpheus knew he was treading dangerously, any leniency their shared history had afforded him was all but spent. He lowered his voice and his gaze, the portrait of humility, and said, “I am a sandman, Elder Raidne. For over twelve decades, I have dealt in sleep. I made this mess. Please, give me a chance to fix it.” He squeezed his eulclear and closed his eyes, offering one last plea. “Give me ten days. If I cannot cure the child’s insomnia in ten days, then I am not worth my sand.”
Ten days would never be enough. Without his shadow, it would take him seven days to get to the Western Gates. Then it would take three more to get to the land of the living—that is, if he could get a Ferryman to ferry him across the Lemosyne—before he even began the journey east, to Tire. It was a bold, desperate request, but Morpheus was all out of options. “If, after ten days, I cannot make the boy sleep soundly through even one night, then I deserve to be stripped of my post and privileges… and my eulclear.”
The moment’s rolled painfully by. Morpheus felt his hopes being dashed against the hard rocks of pride and obstinacy and prejudice that kept most of the elders quiet. Today, he would lose his eulclear. Today, he would lose everything.
“I must admit,” a raspy voice broke the tense silence, “it is an appealing alternative.” Morpheus did not recognise the voice.Raidne was the only Karsha on the council he actually knew. The male said, “Perhaps we should consider his proposal, Raidne.”
Morpheus held his breath, the flickering flame of hope blazing bright once more.
“I do not think it wise…” She paused, everyone in the room waiting expectantly for her decision. Finally, Raidne moaned, a sound Morpheus knew meant she was about to cede, albeit reluctantly. “Fine. Ten days, Morpheus.” She groaned, and fabric whispered once more, informing him that the svelt female had risen from her seat. “Don’t make me regret this.”
Even after the footfalls had died out and only his brother remained with him, Morpheus sat clutching his eulclear in both hands.
“Ten days.” Mortimer chuckled. Morpheus looked up at his approaching brother. “Not bad. I must confess, I am looking forward to seeing how you pull this one off.” The reaper stopped before him. “Your eulclear is still in the black, Morpheus.”
Sighing, Morpheus loosed his grip. He pinched the eulclear between his thumb and forefinger, its black contents filtering between mist and sand. It was beautiful. Even Mortimer had admitted that. His brother had once told him it was one of the finest eulclear seen in centuries. For a moment, Morpheus wondered if his mother had been right in professing that a Karsha’s eulclear reflected the true heart of the male.
With the eulclear steady in one hand, Morpheus snaked his index finger down the length of it, whispering the simple words in ancient Karsha to reverse the black. Almost instantly, the sands and mist faded from the deepest black to the purest gold.
“Good,” Mortimer said. “Now, I believe you’ll be needing this.” Mortimer waved a hand, and Morpheus watched, wide-eyed, as his shadow—his shadow—slid across the floor to settle comfortably beneath him. “Ten days, Morpheus,” Mortimer said, sinking into the shadow pooled at his feet and disappearing to only the Mother knew where.