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At the Old Folks' Home at the End of the World
    by John P. Murphy

  Listen to the audio version

At the Old Folks' Home at the End of the World
Artwork by M. Wayne Miller

There is an old folks' home at the end of the world, a modest-sized white clapboard building perched at the top of a hill overlooking the sea. A single scraggly rose bush still grows by the front porch. The rose bush is an item of discord: every month or so, Percimandias the Timeless and Enyo the Undying get to arguing over whether the bush ought to be fed with aspirin water or the blood of unicorns.

It's a moot point, of course: they have no aspirin, and the last unicorn -- along with the last maiden who could lure it -- died centuries ago. But they enjoy the argument, and each secretly suspects that the other is right. All they know for sure is that the flowers were more vibrant yesterday, smelled more lovely. They could be right; there are a lot of yesterdays in an old folks' home.

At the old folks' home at the end of the world, Rama the Terrible takes a walk every morning along the seawall. He rolls up the bottoms of his trousers, wades into the water, and uses his foul magic to patch up spots that look iffy. It's the same spell he used to use to maintain his impregnable Skull Fortress. He hadn't really ever intended to leave his fortress, only to visit the codgers for a couple days.

Days became weeks, months, and years. Decades. He went back one day and found his Fortress growing ivy out of its giant marble nostrils and covered in bird shit. He told everyone that a hero blew it up, and they were very sympathetic about the nuisance.

At the old folks' home at the end of the world, anyone who starts a sentence, "Back when I still had minions . . ." has to put a quarter in the jar.

At the old folks' home at the end of the world, Amarahotep the Terrible (who was Terrible long before Rama was Terrible) keeps a secret stash of chocolate under the floorboards. By shaving it once a week with a diamond-encrusted starsteel dagger (scrupulously cleaned of the blood and ichor from its previous use, which earned her the title "Terrible"), this stash has been made to last over two hundred years, and may last another hundred. Amarahotep the Terrible (etc.) has been considering for some time a moonlit sharpening ritual to see about stretching the stash another century still, but is a little uncomfortable with the nudity, and unsure where to find cockatrice feathers anymore.

At the old folks' home at the end of the world, Rama the Terrible has breakfast every day in the cove with the shingle beach, in view of the seawall. Sometimes Enyo the Undying sits on a threadbare blue towel on the pebbles, looking out at the tide and cradling a skull: the last of her serious enemies, whose last-ditch effort to put a halt to her diabolical schemes proved not entirely sufficient. It is still wine-stained inside. Now she mostly just talks to it. Apologizes. The other residents speculate quietly and seriously about whether it ever responds, or forgave.

She's not at the cove this morning. Rama the Terrible peels two hard-boiled eggs and dips them into the water to salt them. As he eats he looks out on the thousands of thousands of black and gray pebbles on the beach, now half-buried in a fine calcium sand, and he thinks about large numbers. "Million" is not a friendly word in the old folks' home.

At the old folks' home at the end of the world, the staff have long since grown old and expired, leaving the residents to divvy up chores like cleaning and cooking. The residents tend to think of themselves as management, not labor. Over the years they have formed Committees, Commissions, and Boards to address issues as they arise, such as mold, demonic incursions, chicken coop repairs, leaking pipes, demonic incursions that turned out to be leaking pipes, and dry rot. Were it not for sorcerous runes inside the walls and other nefarious protections, these meetings would have resulted in the fiery destruction of the home many times over. Were it not for Amarahotep the Terrible (etc.) being inexplicably keen on keeping the basement dry, the pipes would still leak.

The residents are even less adept at coming to a consensus about chores and cleaning, but after much wailing and gnashing of teeth there is The Schedule: the longest-lasting constitutional document of its type in history. The Schedule may not be fair, but damn it, it works.

At the old folks' home at the end of the world, everyone feels a little bad about the way they treated Krom the Only-Nigh-Invulnerable. It's too late now, of course.

At the old folks' home at the end of the world, Rama the Terrible finishes his inspection of the seawall and casually pokes his stick into the rabbit hole by the path. The King of Rabbits once surrendered to him the secret of undoing dark rituals and revoking immortality, but the King of Rabbits is long since gone. It's a small thing, really -- a wonder the others haven't discovered it for themselves. Rama thinks about maybe telling them all today. But things aren't so bad at the old folks' home, not really, even with bickering and boredom and running out of chocolate. He looks out at the sea and watches the wind blow the water white and black, and thinks about being alone.

It can wait until tomorrow. There are a lot of tomorrows at the end of the world.

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