Finality, by Bryan Nickelberry
I look down at the assemblage of mortals running below me, and not for the first time I wonder at their reasons for such desperation.
One group, led by a man claiming to hear the word of a God I do not know, is running across the mud of a freshly revealed sea bed. A being of divine light has come down, and is using it’s power to part the sea for this man and his people. Meanwhile the current pharaoh of my homeland’s living ignores a truth which must be plain even to his eyes; and pushes his soldiers not only to give chase, but to kill any who will not yield to his will. I shake my head. Each of these two men once considered the other to be his brother.
Tonight I arrived with every spirit under my command. They are assembled here, ready to swoop down and begin collecting souls from the carnage which will soon ensue. It was a surprise even to me, to see what form the mass death was to take this evening; but after receiving so many surprises of late, I was determined not to take undue chances with my duty.
Admittedly, I have yet to fail in my duty; but there have been close calls over these past few months. Recent events have had freshly dead souls springing up constantly; but in random locations ranging the entire length and breadth of the region. I’ve found myself so busy safe guarding mass harvests of souls traveling from fields, villages and cities to the halls of truth for proper judgment; that I very nearly missed a few lingering spirits wandering alleys, basements, and open desert.
When I first felt the call of mass death upon the city a few months ago, I was confused. After all, it has been quite some time since humanity needed such overt and blatant reminders of the power we Gods possess. But even once I understood that another’s hand was behind this; I did not expect the creativity of this new God, the length of it’s reach into our territory; nor the sheer level of damage it was both capable of bringing to bear, and willing to bring down upon the people of this land. My people.
When all of the water in the land turned to blood; I asked Hapi why he would do such a thing. What cause had he to deprive the living of both the water and the general fertility which he usually gave so freely? I did not know what to make of his silence.
When frogs took up residence in the houses of Egypt’s people, filled the streets, covered the desert, and invaded the tombs; I asked Heqet of the fertile frogs whether she had lost her mind by allowing this travesty; or whether she was simply punishing the people for a slight I didn’t know of. I was shocked into silence, and my anger was replaced by shame when she looked up with tears in her eyes. She explained nothing to me, but quietly asked me to take the souls of her charges home once all the creatures died. Then she walked away. The frogs all died as one a day later, and I have not seen Heqet since that night.
When the dust blew, getting into the eyes and noses of humans and animals alike, causing them much itching and misery; then later when insects began to assault the people, I was not forced into direct action as I had been with the other incidents; but acknowledging the pattern, I took the opportunity to quietly observe Geb of the earth, and Khepri, who’s sigil is the insect. What I saw shocked me. I saw them attempting to put a stop to the dust and the insects respectively; yet I saw that both were powerless to stop these assaults.
When the time came to reap aunt Bes’s diseased livestock, I gave her a gentle hug, then left her by the gate as I took her herds, a head at a time. Only a few weeks later, when both beast and man were covered in boils, I had already noticed that one tribe in all of Egypt; one tribe above all others stood unaffected by these earthly plagues. The tribe argued for by this robed, staff bearing man. The Israelites argued for by this… Moses.
Yes, I learned his name. And I too watched his actions with interest. I had begun to detect the power of another God here in my homeland, and my observation matched the words spoken by this Moses. But rather than continuing to run to my fellows so I could bear continued witness to their lack of power with regards to abating this tragedy; I began biding my time for an eventual direct confrontation with this upstart power. I will never know whether or not that was my mistake.
When it rained stone, lightning, and fire, I was moved back into action. I asked Ra, Horus, and Osiris how they; as rulers of Egypt could allow such a thing to occur. Surely as the greatest of our Gods, then they must have been able to do something to indirectly assist where direct action was prevented? Rather than waiting for an answer, I turned immediately to Queen Bast; demanding that she do her diligence and fulfill her function as Egypt’s protector. I made this demand even as I ran frantically through the streets and the fields, swooping up the souls of the fallen from amidst the cataclysm. I have never seen nor heard such strain in the Lady Bast’s voice; as she responded from so far away, “I am truly doing all that I can Anubis…”
When the locusts came, I was actually pleased to find the fertility Gods in closed-door consul. “Good.” I thought. “Finally, we launch an offensive against this invader, and the people of this land will not be forced to starve in the streets!” But as the days passed, and I continued to claim one starving soul after another, I failed to see action of any sort from my fellows. This lead me to one disturbing question above all others: Could there be any action worse than inaction, in a situation so dire as this?
When the darkness fell, I had an epiphany. I searched the entirety of the underworld until I found the Apophis, God of Evil, Nothingness, and Darkness himself. “And who should be with you Apophis,” I asked, “but Set, who has become so very much like you in the world above?”
“Be careful Death God.” Set warned. “Apophis was struck down by my hand specifically, because he forgot the natural order of things. I just arrived to question him about the palpable darkness which has befallen the land. Or should a third God arrive and accuse us both of conspiring Anubis, as you have done to me?”
“And yet Set; as a God of storms, the desert, violence, disorder, and everything foreign to our land; you could very easily be working with this new God to achieve a higher status… And that, is if you have not simply been posing as a new God, in order to take a throne you have always felt was truly yours.”
Set straightened up, and lost himself for a moment in genuine thought for a moment. Then he said, “I must admit Anubis, that both plans are quite ingenious. But each of your scenarios presents a fundamental flaw which cannot be ignored. First of all,” he said, turning to me, and holding up a finger to tick off his points, “there would be no point in unseating Horus, only to allow another onto the throne. Secondly,” he said, holding up another finger, as he moved to stand directly before me “and most importantly,” he said, looking deeply into my eyes, “Taking the throne under another name would defeat my own purpose. It has always been my claim that as Horus’s other half, I have just as much claim to the throne as he. No Anubis…” Set said turning back to Apophis, and shaking his head; then looking meaningfully down, “This is something beyond even myself.”
That’s when Apophis began to laugh. “Gentlemen… I am honored that the two of you thought of me, given the mayhem occurring in the mortal world. But while this amuses me to absolutely no end; I am afraid my laughter may be partial hysteria.” He said, as a tear floated upward and dissipated into the air. “This darkness is not of my doing. Palpable darkness…” Apophis said shaking his head, and smiling even wider as he looked up again. “Would that I had been clever enough to conceive of it during my time above. But alas,” He said looking down at the ground, “I am long since struck down, and contained here below… denied the opportunity to bring my gifts to the souls most in need of them; the ones above. The darkness which has settled upon Egypt is not my doing.” He said, shaking his head, and looking back down, as he settled back in his coils. “And if I am to confess anything, then I will tell you both a secret. I have tried…” the serpent said, clenching his mighty body, and looking upward with absolute malice; “With much effort… To tap into the power this darkness represents. Yet I am denied.” Set said with distaste, letting his massive body drop back to the underworld’s floor. “I am confined below where I cannot properly enjoy the chaos occurring just above me; nor draw strength from the darkness which is so fundamentally close to my own being. No, this is not my doing. Rather it is a truly unique form of torture visited upon me.” He said, before spitting venom at a building’s foundation.
With less than a thought, I sent a messenger to inform Osiris of the repairs to the building that would be needed. Then, seeing that there was nothing more to be gleaned, but not wanting to speak in front of Apophis, I made an appointment to see Set later, before he and I parted ways.
Over the coming days I spoke with a great many of my fellow Gods, trying to discern anything I could regarding this new power, making itself known in our homeland; trying to find a pattern, or perhaps even a weakness. The part that surprised me most, is how little information they gave me. Worse; rather than discussing observations and making plans, they seemed more intent to shut their doors, and do nothing.
It wasn’t long after the darkness dissipated that I felt something new. Something all too familiar; and yet of a nature and a scope that I was completely unfamiliar with. There was a pall of death over the entire region of Egypt like nothing I’d ever felt before. It was so strong that even the mortals seemed to feel it. They were nervous, and skittered in their daily activities. They spoke in worried, hushed tones to one another. They knew death was coming as I did; but I mistakenly thought my unease came from ignorance of this mass death’s form. How ironic that the mortals had already realized more of the truth than I had: That we were all helpless before this power.
As morning became day, and day became night, I found myself observing something I had no explanation for. The slaves were frantically running about putting lamb’s blood over their doorways; and with each door marked in this way, I felt the death that was promised for the evening growing in intensity.
The final slave door was painted, and closed just before the last ray of Ra’s divine light fell below the horizon. And as soon as Ra’s presence was no longer upon the land, I felt Her feet land in Cairo’s dust. She was simultaneously there on the streets of every city, upon the paths of every village, and by every campfire out in the desert; yet she also stood with her feet planted in the soil of a distant land, as she leaned over all the land of Egypt at once, looking down, and readying her scythe to reap the mortals under my care; as they reap the wheat of the fields.
Her form was that of a skeleton cloaked in the night sky itself, in which I saw the shapes of things which once were, things which had yet to be, and things which I had not known existed. From within her robes I heard the whispers of more souls than I could count, the screams of dying worlds, the death of entire portions of the night sky; and things which I could not identify. For just a moment, I thought I heard my own voice coming from her robes, and I chose not to look toward it.
She carried a scythe which might have been forged from Apophis himself; as it seemed to be nothingness given form. The weapon was engineered to terrify; yet it was almost elegant, and it stretched from one end of the horizon to the other along with it’s owner. Individual particles of moon and star light which fell upon the blade were rent in two. Behind her stretched a memory of wings, but I could not tell where they ended, and the night sky began; as the stars themselves seemed to mark the tips and edges of the feathers she’d once had.
I was there before her as soon as I felt her. I took in her mighty form, and extended my staff; barring her from the people of this land. So this was to be my personal test then? I felt as ready as I could be. We faced each other; each taking the other’s measure, but neither taking action, nor backing down; for a moment that lasted so long, it even began to register in minutes and hours in the mortal world.
Finally she began to move into action, and I swept my staff to stop her. Imagine my shock when she moved through me as if I were not there. Her great form drew it’s scythe across the entirety of the land; and in the time between seconds smaller manifestations of her flickered through the streets; running from door to door, from person to person; from creature to creature; and yet taking only those born first; from all of the unmarked doors of these disparate groups, just as the robed man had promised she would. She said nothing to me last night, and there was not a thing I did or said which made a single difference to her. I was powerless before her, as I have never been before. And now I understood the plight which my fellow Gods had been suffering under. The difference I discovered between myself and their-selves was this: by the time that night ended, my resolve was hardened rather than eroded.
Tonight I take no chances. I could not stop her from killing; but then again that is not my core function. She did not bar me from taking those she killed last night and escorting them to their final judgment. We will not fail in our duty escorting the souls of the freshly dead tonight either. But tonight I intend to let her know that she, the One she represents, the others like her, and the mortals they have chosen; are no longer welcome in this land. Too much unnecessary, and potentially permanent damage has been done to permit any further incursions.
Sure enough, there she is. She stretches into being before me from out of nowhere as if she were already present, and just waiting for the right time to show herself. She looks over the scene below, then looks back at me. Just as I am opening my mouth to pronounce the terms of her dismissal from this land, she bows quickly and elegantly; then straightens and speaks with a voice like rustling leaves, being carried on the wind of dying stars, “Apologies Divine Guardian and Guide of Egypt’s Newly Dead, for my behavior on the previous evening. My task was just as precise as it was specific, and I wanted to be perfect for Him. As such I could not afford to spare any of my attention for you. I am here tonight to take the lives of the men below, but I stand before you now as a courtesy, to inform you of the coming change in regime. This is the last stand for your Dogma. My Lord’s time has come.”
She spoke with a certainty that disquieted me. Worse, her power seemed both greater, far more ancient, and more overarching than my own. For a moment, I wished Osiris stood before her instead; but then I brushed those feelings away, and strengthened my will. “I am here tonight to inform you that the Gods of Egypt are being generous in allowing you to take these mortals and go; since the world is more than large enough to hold us all. Do not mistake our magnanimous gesture for weakness, nor test us any further; lest you, your compatriots, and your “Lord” find yourselves in a most uncomfortable position.”
Her face is not capable of smiling, yet I would swear in the halls of truth that there is a gentle grin upon her features, almost like a parent to a foolish child. “You mirror your mortals, minor “God” of death.” She said simply. “You have ruled with pride for many years; but now the God of the slaves shows His full power to you, and the rest of the world. You cannot ban Him from this place, for He has always been here, and He shall always be here; even as he is simultaneously everywhere else. He is a God who smiles most kindly on those who cannot do for themselves, specifically because those are the people who tend to trust themselves most fully in His divine hands. You have been more fair, caring, and dutiful than the majority of your fellows Anubis; and that is why I am extending you this courtesy. Take faith that there will be no war, nor bloodshed between your kind and mine; and that these are the last of the mortals to die in the transition. But your time to rule is over now whether you accept it or not.”
She flew down then like a hawk upon it’s prey, and drew her great scythe back in both hands as the water began to flood inward. She killed with precision, efficiency, and a distinct lack of either mercy or malice. She killed with finality. And I must admit, even as I take the last water-logged soul from that place, and put him on my boat; I cannot explain why it should be so; but I know her words to be true.
I follow the last soul into Ma’at’s Hall of Truth, and to my surprise I see the better majority of my entire pantheon waiting inside. The others are quiet as the 42 Gods of Egypt’s districts pass judgment on the mortal souls; but once they finish, the 42 judges arise and take their places among their fellows. Only then, does Osiris call me forward.
“Anubis.” He says, both as an acknowledgement and a greeting. I bow. “We have come to a conclusion tonight. Now that you have confronted a facet of this new power personally, we ask you what conclusions you have come to, regarding the future of Egypt and her Gods.”
I take a moment to gather the feeling within me, and then I speak. “When you became the King of the underworld, I did not weep, protest, or revolt. It was the natural order of things, and not only do I respect the natural order of things; I support it. I continue to this day to fulfill my duties to their fullest; though my duties have changed much. I adapted. Adaptation, evolution, and self-improvement are necessary for survival on all levels of existence. This is no different. A new God is making… His power felt for the first time in Egypt. But we will adapt. We will go on. Different from how we were, yes. But this is our home. We will not leave, and we will not be silent. Without Egypt, we are nothing, and without us, Egypt is nothing. Now and forever, may Ammit devour me whole if my words are not truth: We are the Gods of Egypt; and this is simply the beginning of a new cycle. Egypt shall persevere, thus we shall too.”
Bryan Nickelberry was born in the rain and much of the greater Seattle area almost thirty years ago. He’s been following his curiosity, and collecting stories for nearly as long as he’s been around; and he never fails to find adventure, chaos and mayhem, no matter how hard he seeks out mundania. If you like his work, then you can find other projects he’s completed on the websites “The Were-Traveler,” and “Planeswalker’s Library” or in the horror anthologies, “Amok: Vol 1,” “Haunted Traveler: Vol 1, Issue 2;” and the October 2014 issue of “Dead But Dreaming Magazine.”
Posted on May 6, 2015, in Contest, Issue 16: Shinigami Stories—Reaping the Harvest of Souls and tagged death, death reaper, e-zine, grim reaper, horror, shinigami, short stories, The Were-Traveler. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.