Category Archives: Contest

Issue #16: Shinigami Stories: Reaping the Harvest of Souls—CONTEST ISSUE

skull-220049_1280The stories are read. The judges have voted. And the scores have—FINALLY—been tallied. We received a lot of stories for the Death Reaper contest, but only ten made it past the first round of judging. After the second round, there were close results and the top three stories were only separated by a couple of points each.

THE TOP THREE STORIES OF THE CONTEST ARE (insert drumroll…):

  1. “The Calling Card,” by Eric Guignard
  2. “Death’s Goddaughter,” By Deanna Baran
  3. “Springing the Trap,” by Ray Dean

Congratulations to the winning authors and all the writers who contributed to the contest issue.

Stories are listed in the order they ranked in the competition. But keep in mind, all the stories that made it to the second round were excellent tales.

So, sit back and pass some time with some Shinigami…Don’t be afraid, dearies. That number they are holding up is probably not yours. But no matter. We’ll all meet Mr. Grim along our path sooner or later. Hopefully later. Much, much later.

Issue #16: Shinigami Stories: Reaping the Harvest of Souls

The Calling Card, by Eric Guignard

Death’s Goddaughter, by Deanna Baran

Springing the Trap, by Ray Dean

Out of Their Cages, by Rhonda Eikamp

Human Resources, by Luke Robert

Finality, by Bryan Nickelberry

No Reprieve, by Michael A. Kechula

Prepaid Funeral, by Aaron Runyon

Lachesis, by David R. Schulze

Buried in the Fine Print, by Kelly Shackelford

Shinigami StoriJudge’s Bios

The Calling Card, by Eric J. Guignard

Hand Inked Grim Reaper IllustrationThe calling card was black as midnight, and the message written across its face shimmered fire-gold. Letters and runes bowed together presenting a line of script which, when read, caused Old Man Popp to tremble.

 

Sorry I missed you. Will try back later.

G. Reaper

 

The card measured only a few inches long and half that in height. Popp might have overlooked it entirely as he came home that afternoon, but the faint smell of brimstone caused him to search for its source. At first he thought he’d left the coffee maker on again and the java was burning, but then he found the card on the kitchen table, leaning against a half-drunk bottle of gin.

This was the third card Popp had found on his table in the past month. He thought the first card was a joke. The second one caused him concern. And now number three…

“What do you want me to do, make an appointment?” Popp called out to the room. “I’m not going to sit here and wait for you, that’s for sure.”

He crinkled the card up and flicked it in the trash. Some guys just have poor timin’, he thought and lit a cigar.

Two days later, Popp came home late at night. He had spent the afternoon playing golf and drinking beer. This time, however, he was not alone when the card was discovered.

Sharon saw it first and shrieked. She worked at the local tavern as a cocktail waitress; a bit weathered and a bit used up, but Popp’s favorite date to keep him company. The card smoldered faintly in the dim light and, for a moment, she thought it was meant for her.

Popp just shook his head at the now-familiar sight of fire-gold script. “That bum. How many times is he going to let himself into my house? He may as well move in and help with the rent.”

“Honey, you got a date with death,” Sharon said.

“Yeah, but first I got a date with you!” He swatted her on the tush, and Sharon shrieked again, which turned into giggles.

Over the next month, Popp collected four more of G. Reaper’s calling cards. If it was time to pass from this mortal world, he decided he was ready. Popp had lived a good life and, truth be told, still did, even at his advanced age. He made the most of every opportunity and partook in all of life’s sweet delights. Unlike most folks he knew, he never suffered the lingering effects of regret. He wondered at the marvels of the afterlife and wished the ghostly visitor would get it over with; this routine with death was like a bad debt collector who calls repeatedly to leave the same message on voicemail: time to pay up, time to pay up.

Finally, one night the head of G. Reaper popped from the air in a cloud of sulfur and smoke, as if leaning casually through a window. Its skeletal face emanated chill—ivory white—and was cloaked under a cowl of darkness. It motioned to Popp with one bony finger.

Psst, hey, you got a moment?”

“I’m on your schedule,” Popp replied, perplexed.

“I’ve been trying to get ahold of you. I’m beginning to think you’re evading me.”

“I thought you were omnipresent. Can’t you find me whenever you want?”

“I’m not God, I’m just an employee. I’ve got rules to follow. You’re supposed to die at home so this is the only place I can meet you. Every time I come by though, you’re out somewhere else.”

“You got me now. Guess this is it, huh?”

“No, no, I’m too busy at present. I’ve got appointments booked all night. I just wanted to see if I could schedule something with you. It’s getting a little ridiculous, this back-and-forth business.”

“You’re telling me,” Popp said. He cocked a white eyebrow at the harbinger of doom. He certainly was not enthused to follow this bonehead into the yawning gates of eternity.

“How does tomorrow night sound, say ten-thirty?” the Reaper asked.

“How about next decade?”

“A real wise guy, aren’t ya? I’ll be back tomorrow night at ten-thirty. You’ve been warned.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’ve been warned. Doctors have been warning me for twenty years. Keep drinkin’, they said, the Reaper will come for you. Keep smokin’, they said, Death is watching. Well, we all gotta go sometime. May as well enjoy it while we can.”

“You’ve got one more day to enjoy, and then those doctors can say they’re right. Your choices have caught up with you.”

“So, what will do me in?”

“You’ll know soon enough,” the Reaper said and withdrew into its cloud of sulfur and smoke. A bitter, burnt scent remained like charred coal soaking in hog fat.

Popp shook his head. “My last day on Earth, and he stinks up the house.”

He lit a cigar and called Sharon, then swung open the doors on his liquor cabinet, telephoned his buddies, and lived those remaining hours as a carnal savage.

Ten-thirty arrived quicker than hoped and brought with it a billowing cloud of sulfur and smoke. The Grim Reaper stepped into Popp’s living room wrapped in a gossamer black frock and holding a hickory scythe with a flaming head. It reminded Popp of his childhood, hunting through the Ozarks in the middle of night holding a blazing torch in search of quarry.

Popp tried to remain composed and slowly stood to meet his fate. On the kitchen table lay his will and final wishes. He finished a glass of bourbon and set it next to his effects, wondering if he had time for a chaser.

The Reaper spoke, booming, as if announcing candidates for an election. “It is time for your departure. You, Old Man Pott, are hereby—”

“Eh? You mean Popp.”

“It’s just a courtesy to refer to you in familiarity. Makes the passing more comfortable. I know that’s not your full name.”

“I haven’t been called anything else in the past few decades.”

“Popp, Pott, whatever. John Ezekiel Pott. The time has come—”

“Who’s John Ezekiel Pott?”

The Reaper’s skull twitched, as if its bones were pliable, and one brow rose in agitation. “You! You’re John Ezekiel Pott. Don’t get cagey with me.”

Popp’s eyes squinted, and he looked deep into the Reaper’s orbital sockets. “Is there anything inside that death head of yours? A brain, maybe?”

“C’mon, you’re Old Man Pott… aren’t you?”

“No. Like I said, it’s Popp.”

“You’re telling me you’re not John Ezekiel Pott, also known as Old Man Pott?”

“My birth name is John William Popp.”

“Uh… Does Pott live around here?”

“How should I know!”

The Reaper fidgeted and opened its nebulous jaws to speak, then shut them with a snap. It looked around Popp’s room and ran its fingers along the razor edge of the burning scythe.

Popp watched it and clenched his fists in exasperation. “You bumbler!” he shouted. “All this time you’ve been harassing me? I outta whack you upside the head.”

“Don’t even think about it. You don’t know what I can do.”

“Like kill me?”

Death’s pale skull turned crimson. “I’ll be back. Just you wait.”

“Yeah, yeah, tell it to Pott.”

The Reaper pulled its black cowl further over its face and departed, head bowed, through the portal of sulfur and smoke.

Popp sighed. He got to have his chaser after all. He poured another glass of bourbon and dialed numbers on the phone.

“Hey, doll, I’ve got a new lease on life. Want to come over and celebrate?”

Two months later Popp walked into his house, snapping fingers and whistling a tune played from the local dance social. There had been dice, drinks, good music, and plenty of widows who were still easy on the eyes. He’d gotten the numbers for two of them, one of whom even retained natural color in her hair.

Inside though, he stopped and smelled the air. The now-familiar scent of roasting coal floated by, a hazel miasma that caused him to gag. The Grim Reaper, who had its back to him, suddenly turned as if caught doing something unexpectedly. It’s scythe burst into flame.

“Oh, wasn’t expecting you,” it said.

“I do live here,” Popp replied.

“I meant, I didn’t think I’d catch you on the first try. I was just leaving a card. Figured you’d be out again, boozing and womanizing at all hours.”

“It was a slow night.”

“Well, apparently, there’s been some sort of mix-up,” the Reaper said.

“You don’t say.”

“You were supposed to die twenty years ago.”

“Hm. Don’t feel like I’ve been dead for twenty years.” Popp crossed his arms.

“Yes, well, eh… apparently I took the wrong man back then.”

“So you bumbled again.”

“It’s not easy what I do. The population is skyrocketing. Every day, there’s more and more people to deal with. You try escorting the souls of over six thousand dead every hour, and see if you don’t mix someone up once in awhile.”

“So what do we do now?”

“It’s time to come with me.”

“I don’t get an advance appointment this time?”

The Reaper shook its head. “Sorry, you’re a special case now.”

“What does that mean?”

“Consider it a customer service issue. You were headed downstairs.

Popp’s eyes widened in dismay. He never believed there was actually eternal judgment of souls. He glanced down and imagined he could see through the linoleum floor far below to a flickering world of red-and-black. He realized the bitter sulfur smell that trailed the Grim Reaper must be a residual scent carried along from the charred souls of the damned, like barbecuing in front of an open grill. After doing that, you can’t help but smell like charcoal for the rest of the day.

“You said that last part in the past tense,” Popp whispered.

“You’ve been leading a pretty hedonistic life: gluttony, blasphemy, promiscuity.”

Popp imagined the burning sulfur smell growing stronger.

The Reaper continued. “But in light of the mix-up, management is willing to go easy on you. You’re going to wander in purgatory for a few millennia until your fate is decided.”

“Millennia?” Popp repeated. He felt the bourbon climbing back up his throat.

“You’re lucky at that. You’re not being judged on the last twenty years, since you were accidentally forced to live in a world of sin longer than scheduled. You have some good deeds in your earlier years that weigh in your favor, like the love you gave your children and the sacrifice you made for your late wife, Mabel.”

Popp’s jaw fell open like the trapdoor beneath a man set to hang. “A wife? Children? I’ve never been married or had any kids.”

The Reaper’s jaw dropped, following Popp’s lead. “Mother of Hannah… but you’re John William Popp!”

“Sure, that’s my name, but I’m telling you that ain’t my life.”

“Born in New York? Moved to the northwest after Mabel died?”

“No! I was born in Oklahoma and, like I said, I’ve never been married. What’s the problem now?”

The Reaper’s scythe extinguished, and he stammered as he spoke, more to himself than to Popp. “I, I don’t understand… the files said we took the wrong John Wallace Popp twenty years ago. Husband of Mabel, father of two.”

“You bumbler! You just said John Wallace Popp. Are you looking for John William or John Wallace? You’ve got the names and lives all mixed up.”

“No, no, I assure you this will all get sorted out.” The Reaper reached inside the ethereal shroud that surrounded it and rustled around until it pulled out a large papyrus scroll.

“How many other folks have you taken before their time or sent packing to the wrong afterlife?” Popp asked.

“Our margin of error is infinitesimal, really never happens. Believe me, um, you’re a rare exception.”

The Reaper fumbled with the scroll. “I, eh, just need to double-check something.”

The scroll slipped from its skeletal fingers and unraveled over the floor as Popp looked on.

“Ahem, my mistake.” It bent over to gather up the parchment, and a stack of brimstone-infused calling cards slipped out from the ethereal shroud, scattering across the linoleum in all directions.

“Whoops,” the Reaper mumbled.

Popp saw the familiar message shimmering on the black cards in fire-gold:

 

Sorry I missed you. Will try back later.

G. Reaper

 

Exasperation overcame him, and he shouted again, “You bumbler!”

“Show some respect,” the Reaper said. “I’m Death!” It stood to face Popp, and its scythe slipped from slippery skeletal fingers that gleamed with nervous perspiration.

The fiery blade dropped and impaled Popp in the chest. His eyes bulged out like a fish flopping on dry banks, and he sank to his knees. The Reaper gasped.

“I’m so sorry! Don’t die yet, I’ll fix this!”

The Reaper pulled its scythe back and the hickory bottom banged against a bottle of bourbon sending it crashing to the floor.

“Aw, geez,” it muttered.

Popp’s life faded fast. He rolled over onto the floor and chocked out one final word before his spirit set free.

Bumbler…

death-151527_640

~~

Eric J. Guignard writes dark and speculative fiction from the outskirts of Los Angeles. Assorted stories and articles that bear his byline may be found in the disreputable publications reserved for back alley bazaars. As an editor, Eric’s produced the anthologies, “Dark Tales of Lost Civilizations” and “After Death…”, the latter of which won the 2013 Bram Stoker Award®. Read his novella, “Baggage of Eternal Night” (a finalist for the 2014 International Thriller Writers Award), and watch for many more forthcoming books, including “Chestnut ‘Bo” (TBP 2016).

Death’s Goddaughter, by Deanna Baran

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There is no barrier between Here and There, as long as you have eyes to see.

I do.

When the Angel of Death stands at their feet, I can bring them back with just a drop of magic cordial. When the Angel of Death stands by their head, I can only serve as a midwife of sorts and provide comfort as their soul slowly labors to free itself from the body.

The Angel of Death is my godfather.

There’s not just one Angel of Death, of course. Animals are visited by the Angel Mashbir, and livestock by Ḥemah. Mashḥit helps children cross over; it’s a pleasure to watch her work, she’s always so warm and motherly. It helps me feel better when in the presence of their real mothers’ despair. Death levels the great and the humble alike, but kings have their own Angel of Death. Gabriel always has such gravity and dignity. I feel like I’m an intruder when I have the rare opportunity to watch him work. Ḳapẓiel is in charge of those who are too old to be children, but haven’t quite reached the maturity of adulthood. He shines so brightly, I’ve never seen anyone reluctant to follow him through the Door.

But the Angel Af is my godfather. The one who takes everybody else.

My father was fond of telling me the story. He needed to find a godfather for me. As I’m the youngest of a very large family in a very small village, all his friends had already committed to serving my other siblings as godparents. He met an angel, who offered to serve as godfather, but my father didn’t like the idea. “I want my girl to be successful in life,” he said. “I don’t want her to have to wait for heaven for her reward.” A demon heard this, and offered to be my godfather, offering him plenty of gold up-front. But my father didn’t like that idea, either. “No scoundrel like you will have such access to my daughter’s soul.” And then he came upon Death. Death was impartial. Death didn’t discriminate. He liked that. The Angel Af became my godfather the very next Sunday, and ever since then, I’ve had the Eyes to See Things Most People Can’t.

Getting to see both sides of so many deaths has been very educational. Who wants their first experience of death to be their own? I’ve seen really good deaths, so beautiful that I cried. Sometimes long-dead relatives are given permission to come through the Door as a welcoming escort, and it’s the most heartwarming family reunion you’ve ever seen. Other times, for those destined for the Choir, you hear the most amazing harmonies wafting through the Door. The soul instinctively knows the part it’s supposed to sing, for all Eternity, and it practically runs ahead of Death in its eagerness to get into position and join in. Money, power, property–you can’t take anything with you, except for your good deeds, and sometimes those materialize as flowers, with such a beautiful scent that everyone in the room can smell them, even if they don’t have gifts like mine.

I’ve seen really bad deaths, too. I cried then, too, in a different way. You don’t need Eyes to understand. If you’ve been there, you know what I mean.

But I spend most of my time helping people back from the brink of death. If it’s not someone’s time, Death stands at their feet and I have permission to administer the magic cordial that he once gifted to me. If their time is up, Death stands at their head, and I have to respect that, no matter how much pity I may feel for them. Af–or Mashḥit, or Ḳapẓiel, or Gabriel, or whoever is on duty for that particular case–doesn’t make the calls. He reports to a Higher Power. It’s not a good idea to interfere with the commands of those to whom even Death is but a servant.

I was traveling along the shores of the Adriatic and we had stopped in a small trading republic for provisions. Word of my presence had spread, and I had been summoned to the Rector’s palace. His grandson was very ill, and it was not certain he would survive the night.

When I arrived in the sick-chamber, his father, grandfather, and their attendants surrounded him. The boy’s body was ash-skinned and weak, but his soul sat upright, a vibrant glow of living light. Mashḥit sat on the bed at his feet, and together they sang a beautiful harmony. She smiled at me and vanished, alone, through the glowing Door nearby. The grandson’s soul cried. I ignored that. It wasn’t his time yet. A drop of magic cordial to his cracked lips brought a healthy flush to his cheeks, and with a sigh, his soul settled back into his body like a child settling down for a good nap.

The child’s father couldn’t restrain himself. He gave me a rib-cracking hug of joy. “Will the child live?”

“The child will live,” I squeaked, freeing myself.

“Name your price,” said the Rector. “Gold, jewels, land, anything. Nothing is as precious as that which you’ve saved.”

“Nonsense,” I said. “It wasn’t his time yet. I am happy to have served. If you wish to thank me, perform some act of kindness against the day of your own death.”

The child’s father seized my hands. “You must stay with us. We are not grand, like Regusa or Venice or the Ottoman Empire, but you must stay with us and help our people.”

I freed my hands. “Should I not serve the people of Regusa and Venice and the Ottoman Empire just as much as I serve you?” I asked. “Don’t be selfish. Death will return. It never allows itself to be stopped permanently.”

They were fine words, but his offer made my heart ache. I was tired of being an itinerant miracle-worker. I wanted to settle down, have a family, be comfortable. Not burn in the heat of summer, freeze in the spray of the winter sea, sleep under the stars with a rock for a pillow. I loved the fulfillment of helping people, but tired of the Spartan lifestyle that accompanied it.

“The child’s mother died two summers ago,” said the Rector’s son, looking at me steadily. “I offer you myself. You could live in the palace. Share our family. Everything you want–gold, jewels, beautiful clothes, horses and carriages–everything would be yours.”

“When Death comes for me, I’ll have no need of horses and carriages to follow him,” I told him sternly. “And Death won’t care what I wear. It’s all the same.” It wasn’t the first time I’ve had such an offer. But why was this time different? Why did I feel like actually considering his proposition?

“Traders come through here from everywhere. You could reach the whole world without moving a step.”

“As though the ill of the world are found on ships, and not on their sickbeds,” I said. “I don’t want pilgrims flocking to me for their cures. After all, I can’t guarantee results. I’m nothing special. But… I wouldn’t say no to staying for dinner. Just for tonight.”

He smiled at me.

The Angel Af did not smile at me when he visited me in my room a month later. Somehow I never got around to leaving, and felt guilty that Af had caught me in my weakness.

“Godfather!” I exclaimed. “Don’t tell me it’s time already. That would be rather inconvenient for my hosts.”

“Goddaughter. I speak as one who loves you. Do not marry Dzivo.”

You can’t lie to angels. Spirits don’t speak with words; they speak heart-to-heart. Rather than protesting that I’d never considered such a thing, I asked instead, “Why not?”

“He would not bring you happiness. He is a drunkard. He’s infamous for his scandals. Avoid him.”

“Surrounded by palace courtiers and palace intrigue, I’m not surprised,” I said. “Don’t you think I could bring some fresh air into this place? Bring some good to their souls…?”

Af wrapped his wings around me. I was plunged into darkness darker than any night. He released me a moment later. I found myself in a cavern of immense size. Countless candles floated in innumerable tiers, but somehow my eyes were not dazzled by the brilliant light. He reached out a hand, and two candles detached themselves from the ranks and floated towards him. One candle was a tall, elegant taper. The other was quite stubby in comparison.

Af did not have to tell me that the tall candle represented my remaining life, and the stubby candle represented the time on earth that Dzivo had left. I somehow knew it innately.

“There will be an earthquake,” said Af. “The palace will be ruined. The city will collapse. The port will be forgotten. Countless lives will be lost. Do not be among them.”

The fact that a whole city was to be destroyed didn’t shock me nearly as much as the thought of all those unprovided-for deaths. “Let me help them,” I begged him. “If it’s just for a short time, then please.”

Af didn’t respond. He didn’t need to. He had advised me. I had my free will. I was back in my room, just as I had left it, and I married Dzivo three months later.

I don’t know what I expected. There was no magic cordial to “fix” his drunkenness or selfishness. I warned everyone of the earthquake and was told earthquakes did not happen in this region. I said we must prepare–we must not be caught unawares–we must strengthen our buildings. We could establish farms on the outskirts, away from the shore. We could stockpile food and building materials, maybe even shift the population center inland. They metaphorically patted me on the head, and told me not to be so gloomy when business was so good. I heard the Rector ask Dzivo in passing one day what had gotten into his head to marry such an eccentric, and it was obvious it was not the first time the question had been asked. I bit my lip to hear Dzivo’s answer, but he only laughed and said at least little Marin loved me.

I couldn’t lose myself in my work anymore. I was isolated in the palace. I tried creating an outpost for myself by the wharf, although I now feared the sea. But it wasn’t appropriate for the future Rector’s wife to mingle unsupervised with the commoners. My plans came to naught. My bottle of magic cordial gathered dust and I was like a bird trapped in a cage.

I tried singing to little Marin the song that Mashḥit had once sung, although singing angelic songs in a human voice is a poor imitation. But he had forgotten the encounter and would run off to play in the garden.

Time and again, I was determined to flee, but hadn’t the courage to abandon the people I had defied my godfather’s will to save. My Eyes were useless.

Dzivo and I had a daughter. With my Eyes, I could see my place in history, a tiny cog in a great complicated machine that I could never comprehend. All the mothers who came before me, the mothers who would come after me, how existence and being flowed through us. For a few brief moments, I could feel Love, tangible, overpowering, like an ocean, and it was the same sort of Love I had sensed on the other side of the Door.

We named her Lujza.

I knew who to ask to stand as godfather.

When the earthquake came, it was not a surprise. I saw five of the Angels of Death–minus Gabriel–advancing on the city. I kissed Marin and Lujza and took them to the safest high place I could find.

But Af and Mashḥit found us. Mashḥit took Marin through the Door, and he followed her eagerly. I clutched Lujza in my arms, waiting for Mashḥit’s return, but Af held out his hand to me.

“It is not her time,” said Af. “But it is yours.”

“But I thought my candle was so tall…!” I said, kissing Lujza once more. Once more. Once more. Lujza was too busy trying to grab at Af’s beautiful wings and squirmed away from my kisses.

Af smiled. “Most of your candle was added to Lujza’s. You did not get a chance to finish all the work intended for you. You’ve caused quite a bit of trouble for your daughter.”

“I’m sorry. I should have listened.”

“Everything is taken into account,” said Af. “Come with me, and let us see the results of your work.”

I kissed Lujza one more time (twice more), and followed Af through the Door.

~~

Deanna Baran lives in Texas and is a librarian and former museum curator who had the honor of sitting with her grandmother as she passed, and was amazed at how similar it was to childbirth. She writes in between cups of tea, playing Go, and trading postcards with people around the world. Read more of her work in the 2015 Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide by Dreaming Robot Presshttp://dreamingrobotpress.com/

Springing the Trap, by Ray Dean

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Waiting just inside the great doors of the Bowles home, Asphodel watched both the parlor and the door. One of the last remaining servants in the home, she was used to covering multiple responsibilities at one time. With a quick look at the assembled personages gathered in the parlor, she was convinced her duty to the front door was nearly over. At her count, nearly the entire population of the village was clustered in the next room, their prying eyes flickering over the opulent furnishings and the still form laid out amongst the flowers Asphodel had so carefully cultivated over the years.

The cook approached, a subtle curtsy in her movement, a bowed head in the direction of their employer. “What’s it to be, Del? Make more cakes?”

But Asphodel was tired of the guests that had come. She longed to rid the house of the curious souls that had invaded their home. “Let the plates go empty. They will leave soon enough and we,” she took the cook’s hand in her own, “will finish the mistress’ list.”

Cook nodded, her eyes worried, her hands warming slightly. “Good. Then I’ll be off.” Without waiting for a response, she slipped off down the hall toward her own refuge.

Determined to hurry along the inevitable, Asphodel turned toward the parlor and gathered her remaining resolve to act in such manner as her mistress would have expected. She had but reached the parlor door when the front door shook with the wind, a heavy rattle that nearly concealed the knock that sounded a heartbeat later. The combined sounds echoed off the interior walls, shaking the beaded trim of a lamp beside the door.

She thought to leave it unanswered. Her head hurt, her hands quivered with cold and exhaustion, and she longed for peace.

Another knock.

Torn, she looked back at the door and the dark shadow visible through the frosted glass. Drawing herself up, her posture straightening into its customary rigid line, she turned back and opened the door.

The man on the step smiled at her, his hands folded over the top of his walking stick. He lifted a hand, a lazy movement full of grace, and touched the brim of his dark high hat. “Good day to you, young lady.”

She opened her mouth to echo the greeting, but she found her tongue leaden and unresponsive. She managed to nod as her eyes sought his features for some kind of recognition. There was none.

The man outside their home was indeed a-

“Stranger.” He finished her thought and stepped through the portal, moving around her toward the parlor, his walking stick tapping lightly on the hardwood beneath their feet. “Aren’t we all at some point,” he turned back and caught the searching confusion in her eyes, “strangers that is.”

A nod was all she could manage in response.

“But for now,” he continued, his steps marking an oddly familiar cadence in her ears, “let us visit with the dead. For they are the best of company, hmm?” He preceded her into the room, for she trailed a few steps behind him.

She followed, her own curiosity piqued.

The assembled mourners were busy in their own clutches, scattered about the room, nary more than an arm’s length from the tables of food provided as their reward for their attendance. They spoke in low-tones and hid behind fans or a gloved hand when their topics turned to less than civil subjects.

They had become quite comfortable in their visit and focused on their own pursuits, until he reached the center of the room.

Conversations stopped, some in mid-sentence, and one of the guests paused with a bit of cake against their lips.

“Good afternoon,” he greeted them with an indulgent nod, “I do believe that you have all outstayed your welcome. I am quite sure that if you stay, I shall find your presence tiresome. Perhaps,” he gestured toward the front door, “it would be best…”

Asphodel waited for someone to object. Certainly, some of the more prominent personages from the village would have a few choice words to offer him no matter how pleasant his tone.

Yet, none of the elegantly dressed mourners offered up a complaint. Murmuring their customary messages of condolence, they left the room and quit the home entirely with a vacant smile that matched their concern.

Following them to the door, Asphodel managed to grasp the door as it swung shut, closing it with a quiet and resounding click. She turned and watched the last guest lean toward the body, his gaze moving over the old woman from head to toe.

“You’ve done your duty well, so far.”

Asphodel felt her hand shift to the pocket of her apron, brushing aside the delicate pair of scissors dangling from her chatelaine to feel the subtle thickness of the paper shifting beneath her hand. Her list. The instructions her mistress had left for her.

“And now there’s one last duty for you to perform.”

He leaned toward the body and plucked a stem of flowers from one of the many pots surrounding Mrs. Bowles’ still form. Lifting the bloom to his nose he took a deep draw of the scent. “Vervain. Lovely.”

She couldn’t help but smell the scent, even from across the room. The older woman had shown her how to cultivate the blooms in their sunroom. Propagation took a sure hand and Mrs. Bowles’ advanced age had made things difficult. The blooms she displayed for the viewing had been grown with her own care and devoted attention, much in the same way that she had prepared the body.

He held the stem between two fingers and twirled the cluster of blossoms in a slow circle, his eyes fixed on the vibrant purple petals. “Prayers,” he nodded at the thought, “and the others?” His gaze traveled around the room, marking the blossoms and foliage that had been placed for the viewing. “Marigold and zinnia,” he looked at Asphodel with a measure of respect, “mourning… grief. The colors mix well in the room.” The dark green paper that lined the walls of the parlor did make an elegant contrast to the vibrant warm colors of the flowers, some tinged in yellow. The tall vases set aside from the large windows along the main wall held long stems of gladioli in pinks and white, their flowers tapering in size to the tips. “Surely,” he wondered, his eyes watching her movements carefully, “those blossoms were your choice, ‘piercing the heart.'” His chuckle of amusement left her cold. “You mourn her.”

Asphodel blinked back the tears that threatened to fall. The man was a stranger and she would not show him the true depth of her pain.

“Please, dear girl, do not take umbrage at my… indelicate nature. I have long since learned that speaking my mind, in plain terms, makes communication difficult at best when I do not bother to use pretty words.

“I have a rather delicate duty of my own,” he disclosed, “one prescribed to me in the strictest of terms.” He smiled and she felt a chill crackle up through her body from the floor. “However, I do from time to time, take requests.” He took a breath, pausing to gain her attention in a direct exchange between them. “And Mrs. Bowles had one when I saw her last.”

“You,” she gasped, “when did you see her?” Mrs. Bowles had not left her home in months and Asphodel knew each and every visitor that had stepped inside the house.

“Why, just the other day she asked me if you,” he paused, looking intently at her face, “would come with us when we leave.”

She felt the very air around her stir, as if a person had walked past her as she stood, stock still. The thick wool of her gown was no protection against the odd and prickly feeling that chilled the thin muslin of her chemise against her skin. “Go with you? Who-”

“My generosity is not entirely meant to make her happy, the old dear, she has quite a delightful way about her. I understand that she has come to dote upon you much like a daughter and that is worthy of consideration.” He moved toward the windows, but shied away from the direct light of the climbing morning sun. “What is worthy of note, however, is a more… pressing matter that has distracted me.”

Asphodel listened intently, much like she’d done years before when her mother had instructed her in the duties of a housekeeper, rapping her across the knuckles when she’d lost her focus or forgotten an important point. She listened because he inspired a dull fear within her breast that she had only tasted before, and it had left her changed. Vigilant.

“I’ve taken a fancy to you, my dear.” He reached out a hand and trailed it through the air beside her face, his palm less than an inch from her cheek. He didn’t touch her, but she felt it just the same. Cold, prickly frisson of sensation. “I would like to see if such a thing would last.” He lowered his hand, but the sensation on her cheek didn’t disappear, it was transfigured into a flare of heat that brought the pain of loss. “Come with us.”

Try as she could, she couldn’t move away from him or raise her arms to push his hand away. Her thoughts were clear, insisting that she refuse his offer, but when she thought to say the words she found she could not manage to form them through sound or movement.

“You could keep us company. That would suit me.”

He moved away and suddenly air filled her lungs like a bellows, expanding her ribs painfully against her corset. She watched as he walked across the room toward the body. The curved panes of glass in the front of the china cabinet distorted his image, elongating the skin at his temples and the point of his chin. It took his handsome face and twisted it into the shadows.

The floor beneath her feet shifted, the worn Persian rug bunched in the arch of her boot, stumbling her step. He reached for her, pushing a cold wave of air through her body.

It stole her breath away for a moment, chilling her to the bone, but she managed to move again, lifting her foot free of the wrinkle.

“You don’t need to run from me, child.”

Her eyes narrowed at him, suspicion darkening her gaze. “You frighten me.”

He stopped. A sudden cessation of movement that made her own feet stumble. “Frighten you?” His tone slowed, stretched tight like the strings in the pianoforte. “That is none of my concern, my dear. Bringing you along is a gift, an indulgence, if you will.” He turned, a half circle, as he looked about the room. “Hurry, now. Finish what you need to do and we shall be off.” He lifted his eyes and met her own in the distorted reflection of a crystal vase on the mantle. The flicker of demand she saw in them twisted within her chest.

She knew him now. She’d felt the same fearful shiver a few nights before when Mrs. Bowles had lain abed gasping for air, her hands clutched at her throat and chest, crushing the lace of her gown. She had known the cold touch of air that danced across her skin, stealing the warmth of life from her like a leech.

A window blew open, the curtains stirring from the floor, reaching toward them like greedy arms. He looked at the window, his eyes turning away.

Asphodel moved a step back, a step to the side, her feet as undecided as her mind. She lifted her hands, sliding them along the familiar starched fabric of her apron. The paper in her pocket. The folded square that crumpled slightly at her touch. The list of traditions that had seemed so odd before gave her new life.

He heard the scuff of her boot on the floor, turned his head to fix her with his gaze, and saw the intent in her eyes. “No.”

She felt the corners of her mouth lift at the hint of fear in his tone. “I will not go with you.” Asphodel took one step toward the foyer and then another. She looked as though she planned to escape.

“Stop.” He growled the word through his clenched teeth. She continued to move he reached out a hand. “Don’t.”

She reached her destination a moment later, her lungs filling with air over and over as her heart thundered in her chest. Grabbing fistfuls of the black crepe that she had draped over a tall gilt frame, she nodded as she gathered her courage. “I will not go with you.”

“Be reasonable,” he pleaded. “I should have said something else, perhaps I should have given you a promise or two. You will see,” he explained, “what fun it will be to travel by my side.”

“Lies. You mean none of it, and I,” her knuckles paled as her hands began to shake, “have something to offer you instead.”

He started, a quiver of confusion in his expression. Laughter scratched its path up his throat and scraped over his tongue. “What can you offer me?”

“You said you admired this house. You said how much you desired a place in the world like this to call your very own.”

There was a pause before he answered, as though he thought through every word as if it reminded him of the twists and turns in a labyrinth and he feared the outcome. “Yes, I did.”

“Then,” she sighed, sensing freedom a heartbeat away, “stay.”

She yanked the heavy fabric drape free from the carved frame and let the fabric pool at its base. He was frozen in place, the edge of the black drape tangling with the hem of his pants, covering the high polish of his shoes. He saw the mirror before him and sheer panic was etched into his features.

“No, please!”

His plea was too late.

Gone was the man that had commanded the room only a moment before. Gone from the tangle of black fabric and scented air.

He no longer stood a few feet away from Asphodel’s shivering frame. Yet, when she turned to look at the mirror, he stared back at her from its cold metallic surface. Reaching into her apron pocket she withdrew the list one more time and read through the entries her mistress had so carefully documented for her. The entry had struck her as hooey, an old tale passed on by women with much imagination and little to distract them from morbid rumination. But, one day she knew that she would write the same warning to those who would survive her. Tell them to cover the mirrors at her passing to save themselves from the trap that might be sprung open then. To save themselves.

~~

Ray Dean was born and raised in Hawaii where she spent many a quiet hour reading and writing stories. Performing in theater and working backstage lead her into the delights of Living History, creating her own worlds through writing seemed the next logical step. Historical settings are her first love, but there is something heady about twisting the threads of time into little knots and creating new timelines to explore. There are endless possibilities that she is just beginning to explore. She has a future publication in an Edgar Allan Poe Steampunk anthology. Links:  Ray Dean’s website can be found at www.raydean.net and you can friend her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/RayDeanAuthor

Out of Their Cages, by Rhonda Eikamp

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The sorceresses had wheeled the wooden cage into the village at dusk. Maheha could still sense its presence out there as she lay on her pallet at midnight. Burning, always burning in her peripheral vision. Her ma had told her to look away as the cage rolled in, but the ruddy glow of the imprisoned man’s skin (not a man, my daughter), the undulating body like a flame twisting behind the bloodwood bars of the cage (not a cage – a spell) had made her knock her mother’s protective fingers from her face and stare, while other villagers shook their heads at her impudence. Her da had come then and thrust her back into the hut, but the burning had not left her head or her limbs.

Quiet as a snake now. She rose, scurried on hands and knees past the pallets of sleeping family members until she could stand. How do you trap a death-god, she’d wanted to ask her parents. How did the sorceresses do it? She knew the real question was Why. She’d seen her mother arguing with a sorceress afterward, the blue leaf-pattern tattooed on the magic woman’s face quivering with anger, as though a wind blew through trees. The rejecting gestures her mother’s calloused hands made, that said, Leave us! Move on!

The terror in her ma’s eyes.

Through the hut’s slats Maheha could see the glow at the end of the village and it seemed to move red fingers across her arms down to her belly. She passed her little brother, innocent in sleep. Not impetuous like her, he’d looked away from the god when told. Not dreaming now of hot fingers. She was so different – frenendi, ‘screaming child’, her mother called her. As if it had been a dream, Maheha could recall being held down when she was little, or tied, probably for some childish sin long-forgotten, and – yes – in the memory she was screaming, but she was a woman now or on the bamboo threshold to womanhood. This was not a childish fit. It was desire devouring her. A woman must look at a man like that, she would have told her brother, even if it meant sneaking out at night.

Always always burning, with desires others didn’t have. Wanting to escape the cage of bones that held her. Wanting the impossible – wanting to fly, or put her hand in flame. Called to danger. Throwing off her ties.

Outside, the breeze cooled her, but only for a moment. The light of the chainmoons showed her the ground, Three and Seven larger than the rest. Their blue faces were turned to the world, washing the cage bars a dull gray, the veins of the bloodwood rendered invisible. He stood facing away at the far end of the cage, giant back muscles clenched, his glow dampened.

Maheha touched the bars and the death-god turned.

And exploded into fire.

A wall of flame rushed at her. Silent, all-enveloping. The devourer, Kalhar, the god of endings in man-form, transformed now into a cube of heat that filled the cage. It lunged for her face as she gasped – and then it stopped. The cube of flame flattened against the bars, raging. Held back from passing through by the spell of the bloodwood.

With a whoosh the flame became a glowing man again, improbably large and yet standing on two feet, his ember hands wildly probing the unseeable barrier between the bars, feeling for chinks in the spell that imprisoned him.

Hide your thumb in your hand and the death-gods cannot take you. It was what children said, advice they received from their parents when they were afraid of the dark. It will make you invisible. Maheha made fists around both thumbs and felt childish.

When she looked up, the god had stopped probing the cage and was grinning at her. So much for thumbs. “Maheha.” He knows your name. The deep voice held a crackle of fire, vast machinery tamped to the bursting point, like the firebergs in the east. “Little pigtailed thing.”

It was only for the night that she braided her hair. On impulse she reached up and undid the long plaits. Her hair was beautiful, many had told her. Burn this, god, if you can.

The death-god was still grinning, trapped behind his spell. His teeth were red. “You are four years old.”

It made no sense. “I’m fifteen,” she told him.

His eyes narrowed. “I see. You do not know.”

“Are you so blind in your realm?” She couldn’t help but glance down, toward the death world that the elders said lay beneath the soil.

“Our realm, child, is up there.” A finger like a dart of flame pointed to the sky. “A beautiful place. Call it a boat. And you belong there with us, Maheha.”

This was what Kalhar did. She’d expected it. A death-god tempted, lured, told of the wonders that awaited those who would go with him. Visions would follow now, the elders had taught the children when they were young. Beauty beyond belief. And all lies. She would have to be strong.

And yet it was tempting. Not the cold ground – the elders had it wrong, if Kalhar wasn’t lying about that – but rather that vast sparkling space above. What would it be to fly? It made her gaze up at the sky for a second where he still pointed, to that large point of light beyond the chainmoons. That one that alternated bright green and yellow, the name of which was never to be spoken. The desire almost ripped her chest open. The burning started up in her again.

Lies.

“I am not four,” she told him. “And I’m not a fool. You can’t tempt me. I came only to look at you.”

“You have no idea why you came.”

“I – ”

“He’s right, you know.”

Maheha spun. It was the sorceress with the leaf-tattooed face who spoke. In her palm the woman held the humming disk that her kind breathed their magic into, and as she kept her gaze on Maheha, she brought the disk to her lips, whispered something, and pressed the metal against the lower rung of the cage. The death-god began to paw at the space between the bars with his fingers, gouging as though fighting some sticky, melting mass.

One by one his fingers slid through.

“What have you done?” murmured Maheha.

The sorceress stepped back. “I am putting you where you should be.”

A godly hand punched through the bars, then an arm that swiped at Maheha as she swore and fell back, slipping in the mud. “Belongs to me!” hissed the god voice. He was fire again, in man-form. Like crusted lava, the skin of his lips broke open and tiny saliva flames erupted.

“No, Maheha, stop!” It was Maheha’s mother, running from the hut, still in her sleeping gown, holding an object that looked like a bent twig. As Maheha watched in wonder, her ma pointed the twig at the disk still stuck to the cage and a light shot out. The disk sparked and fell from the cage. Impossible, because her ma had no sorceress magic.

“Run, Maheha!” she yelled.

Too late. With the last barriers melted, the god shoved aside the bloodwood bars as if they were grainpaper and stepped through. Even as Maheha scrambled up from the mud and twisted away, a wall of heat in the shape of a massive hand slammed into her back, holding her in place. She squirmed and felt the bonds extrude throughout her, thick cables of molten gold in every limb. This is the ecstasy. The call one had to fight, the elders said, but why fight? What glory it was. Through a gold haze she saw her mother lift the twig again, terrified and resolute, before sorceresses swarmed from the shadows and took it from her, pinning her in their midst.

“Your magic is old, Niomha,” the lead sorceress said. “You should never have broken off your studies when you married.” The tattoo leaves of the leader’s face twisted into a grimace. “Just as you should never have used it to do what you did later.”

Fight for her. Through the haze Maheha found words and pressed them out past the god-gold in her lungs. “Don’t take her. You have me.”

“Oh, he cannot take another, Maheha,” the sorceress told her. “He is only here for you. Kalhar was right, you see. You don’t know why you left your bed tonight, what drew you. What has always drawn you, to rebel, to question. To throw yourself at danger as though you were trapped in a cage.”

“It’s all lies!” her mother screamed, and a sorceress cuffed her into silence.

The lead sorceress had turned to face Maheha, the face-leaves ablaze now in the light pouring from the death-god. “It is because you are already dead.”

Quietly, her mother began to sob.

No. I’m alive.

“You drowned in the shifting bogs when you were four, Maheha,” the sorceress continued. “Your parents found you and in the deep forest, while no one looked, your mother wielded spells she had no right to as an interrupted apprentice. Binding your spirit as it struggled to fly away. Making a cage for you.”

Memory boiled across her mind. She’d slipped and fallen. Murky water all around, the weight of herself – such a revelation for a toddler, this gravity that could not be fought, the darkness as she sank ever deeper – and then she’d gone to sleep. Only to awaken with life being blown into her, stretched out on the ground, a bent twig laid across her chest, hammered with fists. In the air above her a flaming man had hovered, calling, reaching for her. When she screamed, trying to go to him, her parents had tied her down with supple bloodwood bonds. Magic to hold her soul on earth. The memory became lost afterward, changed by her mind into something trivial, a child’s tantrum.

“We loved you so much,” her mother sobbed.

“But it was wrong,” said the sorceress. “The death-gods come for us when we die and take us to a new life in another realm. In return for this miracle, their rules may not be circumvented.” She waited, watching Maheha.

There it was: a life unravelling, woven together into a new pattern. Everything explained. Oh the ever-burning anger, the disinterest in this place, how the colors leached from things when she squinted. The sidelong stares of the villagers whenever she did not act as others did. The longing, long-forgotten, to go with that flaming man, a different man from this one and yet the same.

“Yes,” Maheha said to her mother. “It was wrong.”

As if a signal had been given, Kalhar stepped back from Maheha, the gold haze draining from her veins.

“You were hidden from him,” said the sorceress. “We had to capture him, bring him here in order to direct his attention to the blank space that is you, but it was you who had to come out tonight and approach him. You had to realize there is a cage around you, one that you can walk out of if you wish.”

“You are four,” came the lava voice again. It made sense. To the death-gods, she had never moved on. Maheha turned to face him.

“No,” her ma moaned, but it was a defeated moan, already acknowledging that her daughter was gone.

“You must make the decision yourself,” came the sorceress’s whisper. “Choose the right thing.”

Maheha opened her arms to Kalhar.

She had always heard that the death-gods wielded swords, but it was a smaller and more vicious-looking weapon that appeared now in his hand, wreathed in blue fire. It was an expander, such as the medics used to extract arrowheads from the injured after battle. A tong with two sharpened spoons at the end, able to slip into an open wound and stretch it until the spoons could close about the object and scoop it out. But her wound was not open. The spoons slipped into her chest like burning stones, expanding to create a hole that hadn’t been there before or had it, a pressure she could feel in her loins and fingers, and she wanted to scream Mercy, lord, but it was done. The spoons extracted her heart, a glowing-red mass that did not beat, while air rushed into her chest to take its place. Pain and yearning gone. Cage bars breaking.

Kalhar lifted the tong high into the air and the heart ignited and burned to ash.

He threw his arms wide and he was a wall of fire again. Trees burst into flames that leapt across the ground to eat at the huts. She could see her ma kneeling on the ground, sobbing, her da who had woken rushing from their hut door, crying out for her to stay.

“It’s all burning,” Maheha whispered.

“No it’s not,” the god told her. He hugged her to him. “You planet-bound thing. Let me show you what alive is.”

She had always been the hottest object she knew, a vortex of light on her hard bed at night, but he was fire itself. They shot into the sky, an arrow of flame. You’re flying. Looking down, she saw he hadn’t lied – the ground wasn’t burning, only an illusion. The village would be all right. Looking up, she saw their destination, that nameless point of light beyond the moons, all the wonders that awaited her in his realm, coming up fast now, a boat ringed in green light and slowly spinning, so beautiful it stopped her breath.

~~

I’m originally from Texas and live in Germany. Stories of mine have appeared in Daily Science Fiction and The Colored Lens, The Journal of Unlikely Cartography, the Fae anthology from World Weaver Press, and the Lightspeed special issue Women Destroy Science Fiction. When I’m not writing fiction, I translate German legal texts into English, which messes with my mind more than I’d like to admit.

Human Resources, by Luke Robert

“Hey you, look at me. I’m death. I know it’s odd; you must be thinking you’re insane. The god of death, a common housefly? You humans have this idea that I’m some sort of drama queen floating around in the same cloak I’ve had since the dawn of time, wearing a skull mask and carrying some outdated farming tool. But the truth is I’ve always been right here with you, with all of you, the whole time. So let me…”

“Oh, that’s cute, think you’re the first one to try that? No fool, that one is dead. You swatted it like so many others. I’m up here now, above you. As you now surely understand, that individual fly you just killed wasn’t death but merely a god of death, as is this one—so don’t bother killing it. Even if you do I have millions of replacements, five within one hundred feet, and more being produced as we speak. So don’t bother…”

“Ok, really. Don’t do that again or I’m going to bump you up on my schedule and go talk to another human. You’re all the same to me anyway. I came here to give you mutually beneficial information, not to have you waste both of our time.”

…………

“What?”

…………

“You don’t understand? Well I guess it comes with your evolutionary state. What’s the best way to put it…? Ah! I’m not a single individual organism. The common idea is that death exists like your Santa Claus, a single being that goes from place to place doing his job. But that’s not how it is. Think of me as a fungus, yes, like the mushrooms in your backyard. The mushrooms that appear among your grass after it rains are like these flies. But those mushrooms are just extensions of the whole fungus that spreads beneath your lawn. That whole fungus is death and this fly—all flies—are just nodes, or as you like to call them gods of death.”

…………

“No, absolutely not. I can’t just go around killing randomly. I have a schedule, I have time tables and rules. I have population size and a million other things to worry about. You know all this conservation and prudent use of the environment stuff that you humans are trying to figure out? Yeah, well I figured that out ages ago. I got too greedy awhile back and almost killed off everything on the planet.”

…………

“Yeah, that’s where dinosaurs went. So in a way, I guess you should thank me for your existence. Now, what I really came here to talk with you about, the reason I revealed myself to you, is this: I want to give you information on how your race can avoid extinction.”

…………

“Yes, it’s strange, death giving advice on how to avoid death. Go ahead, laugh. But listen, right now you humans are doing exactly what I did to the dinosaurs. Using your resources like there’s an endless supply, wasting them like they materialized out of thin air in the blink of an eye. Now, I’ll tell you how you can lead the rest of humans into a sustainable future but first…”

…………

“What?”

…………

“Oh, I’m not concerned. Imagine how you’d look if you told the other humans that death itself was an invisible fungus that extended throughout the world and that every fly in the world was a god of death. They would lock you up forever.”

…………

“Please, haven’t you learned anything? Even if you devoted your entire life to swatting flies you wouldn’t be able to kill me or be anything more than an annoyance.”

…………

“Sit down and drop the magazine.”

…………

“If you don’t settle down I’m going to move on to the next person.”

…………

“Thank you.”

…………

…………

“Oh, no special reason why I chose you except that you were alone and seemed to be in a good mood.”

…………

“No, I don’t care about the human race, I just care about my resources. A human or a cow, both grow flies the same way. You see, if you humans keep this up you’ll kill off all life on the planet. If that happens there won’t be any carcasses for me to grow new nodes in and I’ll just go back to being a non-physical being. I won’t die, I’ll just have wait a couple of million years before I can take a form again. And I don’t want that. Now listen up because this is how you all can avoid going extinct…”

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~~

 

Finality, by Bryan Nickelberry

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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.”

No Reprieve, by Michael A. Kechula

When Ron staggered from a bar and steadied himself against a building, his cell phone rang.

“Ron Higenlooper?” asked an ethereal-sounding voice.

“Yeah. Who wants to know?”

“Are the last four digits of your social security number 8999?”

“Yeah. What of it?”

“Greetings,” said the voice.

“Who is this?”

“She who is feared by all.”

“Up yours, Jerk-O,” Ron said, hanging up.

His phone rang again, as he staggered down one of Mid-Town Manhattan’s darkened side streets.

“I will not be insulted or ignored. Don’t hang up until I tell you. If you do, a taxi will jump the curb and cut you in half. Understand?”

“Screw you!” Ron hollered.

An out-of-service taxi appeared. Suddenly, it went out of control and swerved toward him. “I understand!” he screamed.

The driver gained control, missing Ron by a few feet.

“As you can see, I mean what I say,” the voice said.

“Damn that was close! What’s going on? Who the hell are you?”

“They call me Destroya. I called to advise you that you’re going to die tomorrow morning. Ten hours from now. Find a priest and make your last confession.”

“I’m not Catholic,” Ron said.

“My records show you are.”

“I was one a long time ago. But I don’t believe in anything, anymore. In fact, I don’t believe you exist. Damn whiskey’s messing up my brain and giving me weird thoughts.”

“Whether you believe I exist or not doesn’t matter. You now have 9 hours and 59 minutes left. Why don’t you ask a priest about me? Tell him Destroya sent you. Or don’t you dare?”

She hung up.

St. Michael’s Church, where Ron once attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, was a few blocks away. He arrived just as a meeting ended. Spotting a guy wearing a Roman collar, he called out, “Hey, Father.”

“Can I help you?”

“I was told to find a priest.”

“Who told you?”

“A female named Destroya.”

Ron heard a sharp intake of breath.

“Did you actually see her?” asked the priest, as he hastily blessed himself.

“Nope. She called me.”

“I can’t help you. Nobody can.”

“Can you at least tell me who Destroya is?”

“The Grim Reaper.”

“Aw, c’mon,” Ron said, “there’s no such thing.”

“You’re wrong. Once her sword is raised, nobody can evade her dastardly attack. The time, place, and method of your death were ordained before your birth. You must make peace with God and plead for a stay of execution. The Almighty is merciful to the godly. Have you kept the ten commandments?”

“I keep my own commandments: grab whatever you want before the other guy does.”

“Even if it means stealing and killing?”

“Yeah.”

“Have you done such things?” asked the priest.

“Many times.”

“Then you’ve lived an evil life.”

“What’s evil to you is ordinary for me.”

“There’s no reprieve. Make peace with God before it’s too late.”

“No!” Ron said. “I don’t believe any of that hokum.”

“Few have ever heard Destroya’s voice,” the priest said. “You’ve been unreasonably privileged. Perhaps she’ll grant the death of your choosing. Maybe you can plead for an end that’s not gruesome or painful.”

“How about this one? Suppose I ask to be whacked right between the eyes by a flying saucer, while I’m standing on top of the Empire State Building giving Destroya the finger. At least I’ll find out if flying saucers really exist.”

“Foolish sacrilege,” said the priest.

Ron called him a nasty name, and departed.

“You have nine hours left,” Destroya said over the phone, while Ron looked for a cab.

“Is that so? How’s it gonna happen?”

“It’s a surprise.”

“Yeah, sure. Hey, why not wipe me out in style? How about doing something spectacular that’ll give the newspapers big headlines: ‘DESTROYA STRIKES AGAIN!’ In fact, I’ll go right now to the New York Times and tell a reporter what’s gonna happen. I’ll say that tomorrow morning, a flying saucer’s gonna whack me between the eyes while I’m on top of the Empire State Building.”

“Is that how you’d like to be dispatched to Eternity at 8:46 tomorrow morning?”

“Yep. Might as well go out with a big bang. It’ll give people something to talk about for generations.”

“Granted.”

“How do I know for sure you’re real?” he asked.

“As a sign, I just ordered a seagull to soil you.”

A passing gull splattered Ron’s shoulder. He got so unnerved, he ran five city blocks to the New York Times Building, found a reporter, and told his story.

“Empire State Building?” asked the reporter. “Tomorrow morning at 8:46? A flying saucer?”

“Yeah. Tell your readers that Destroya, the Grim Reaper, is responsible. Make everybody aware she exists. And that she can control birds and taxis. Maybe the world can band together and find a way to stop her. Then everybody will be able to live forever.”

“You seem convinced that she’s for real.”

“She sure is. See this mess on my suit jacket? She made a bird do that.”

Noticing Ron’s boozy breath, the reporter said, “I hate to disappoint you, but your demise can’t happen on the Empire State Building. It’s closed to visitors. They’re sandblasting to remove decades of soot. Why not head for the World Trade Center? Go up to the observation tower. Let the flying saucer whomp you there.”

“Great idea,” Ron said.

The reporter had the whole night crew in stitches telling them about the wacky drunk and his impending death by flying saucer.

At 8:00 the next morning, Ron rode the subway to the World Trade Center and took the elevator to the observation tower.

As he stood on the 110thfloor scanning the skies for flying saucers, his phone rang.

“I see you decided to die somewhere else,” said Destroya. “You have 10 seconds left. Since flying saucers don’t exist, I found a wonderful alternative. Look to your right. See that airliner heading toward you?”

~~

Michael A. Kechula’s flash and micro-fiction tales have been published by 150 magazines and 50 anthologies in 8 countries. He’s won 1st prize in 12 writing contests and 2nd prize in 8 others. He’s authored 5 books of flash and micro-fiction tales, including a book that teaches how to write flash fiction. See his publisher’s site at: http://www.booksforabuck.com/ to read a free story or chapter in all of his books. 

Prepaid Funeral, by Aaron Runyon

hood-312585_1280

The first time I met him I realized the kid possessed that dark casual formality most often attributed to serial killers and career politicians. Not likability exactly, but the authoritative calm of someone in control. A reassurance that everything is fine, eyes that say: I’m taking care of you; how would you like to be eaten, with or without a marinade? So why hire him you may ask; because it’s hard to find a strong back to dig graves. I run a funeral home, and last year the bulldozer met its own fate, and I, with no money for repairs or replacement, had to return to the old morbid shovel. I am no young fit man, and in the name of full disclosure I will hide nothing from you. I’m an old fat drug addict who has surpassed any hope of rejuvenation or redemption. In the past two years I have sold prepaid funerals to about two dozen kind elderly folks who have no idea that their money is in my arm, and that when their time comes their stupid kids are still going to put their ass in an urn. I am an evil and worthless being; these are facts I have learned to accept. So it should not surprise you that hiring this creepy dark adolescent as my strong arm seemed like a good idea at the time.

He wanted insight into the business. I mean like hands on insight here. He wanted to hang out and observe every disgusting facet of my profession. He liked bodies; he liked death; and he made no attempt to hide his fascination. If ever there was a person borne for this job it would be Phineous, and by the God who hates me he could dig like a dirt throwing machine. He smoked a lot of weed, but it didn’t seem to hamper his breathing, and he had no complaints if he had to work after dark. He liked the cemetery, and he loved the mortuary. I swear he would have set up a cot in the coffin room had I let him. It was no surprise when he started sleeping on the couch in my office. What about good ole Phin’s parents you might ask? I’d wager they were just glad he was out of the house, and whatever dark little dungeon he called a room.

Now part of my job is sympathy. You have to at least fake some major compassion to get folks to shell out the big bucks for the service. This is my forte. I am a hell of liar, and I can shed a tear with the best of them. Phin? Well, let’s just say he was a bit lacking in this regard. I gave him a sheet with some lines written on it to practice in the mirror; I’m so sorry for your loss; finally their suffering has ended; at least we know he/she is in a better place…you know crap like that. Besides his lack of graveside manner he was doing great and business was booming. That is until last year when for some reason folks just weren’t dying. This was when Phin’s real talents started to show.

The kid was like a shadow; damn near invisible, and when I needed a few extra jobs he could deliver like a dream-or should I say a nightmare. I never asked for details. I never questioned how he was knocking them off without leaving a trace. I should have known it was something really dark and really weird. It wasn’t until I started catching him in the back room at night that I realized just how messed up my protégé was. Goddamn magic circle and candles lit in the corners of a God’s honest Key of Solomon style pentagram; old black book that looked like he conjured it from a Lovecraft story. Ya, that’s right; old Phineous was into the black magic pretty deep, and the whole deal was just a way to get access to his desired materials. But the little bastard had me by the balls, and when he asked me to give him the hearts of the corpses I was kind of in a jam. “What for?” I said as he stared back with that leering sarcastic smile of his.

“Food Willis, I’m gonna eat them.”

“Oh come on, Phin, that’s crazy. Whatta you think you’re going to get out of that?”

“Power Willis, the power over life and death. There’s a spirit on the other side in the darkness. It’s like a guardian at the gate of death, and if you do the right things, and make the right deals then he’ll give you things, Willis.”

“Oh my God, you are one sick little puppy Phin. You need a girlfriend.”

“I do this, and I can have any woman I want. I can have any thing I want. I could live forever, and no one will ever be able to tell me no. You do this and you’ll be set for life, Willis. You’ll have all the money and dope you could ever dream of.”

“Well, I was kind of looking to cut back.”

“You don’t have a choice, Willis. I can make you or break you. You’re working for me now so why don’t you just go with the flow, and enjoy the ride.”

I’d like to tell you that I proudly and defiantly threw his offer back in his pale bloodless little smirking face and then kicked his ass into the rain, but I promised that I wouldn’t lie. I jumped on that big black train and rode it all the way to the end of the line, folks. It was sweet ride while it lasted; that is if you can imagine a life of ghoulish acts, deception, and drug abuse as a sweet ride. Two years later I was lying in front of an enormous flat screen television on which played Tiny Toon Adventures with a syringe dangling like a Christmas ornament from my arm. Understand that an over dose is like a rainy day. You see the clouds rolling in; feel that cold damp breeze blowing all day long; and you know that eventually…at some point in that long bleak day the raindrops are gonna start falling. That night it was a downpour, and as the thunder rolled a single hit of super pure China White hit my heart and relaxed the little pumping muscles until they pumped no more. Willis Grickman, the respected town funeral home owner and mortician was dead as a doorknob. Story over.

But it wasn’t.

See, Phin was still too young to take over for me. He had two years left in high school, and still had to get his license after that. He still needed the job, and I’m real sorry to say he still needed me. So when I left my body and drifted off into the otherworld I was met by a great shadowy form who I could only guess was Phin’s horrific gatekeeper; the one he called the Cannibal Spirit, and do you know what? The thing was smiling when he sent me back. I woke up on that cold metal slab and there was good ole Phin, and boy was he proud of himself. He’d never made a Ju Ju before, and he was just as tickled as he could be when I sat up and felt the dreary ache of unlife creeping around me.

What’s it like to be a zombie? It’s a lot like being a drug addict, but there’s never any fix. It’s a lot like being tired, but never being able to sleep. It’s a lot like being hungry and never being able to eat. Perfectly preserved and just as fake as ever; except now even the movement of my chest is a lie. I still just stand there at the funeral in my suit. I’m so sorry for your loss. At least he/she is with the Lord now. His/her suffering is finally over. What kind of flowers did he/she prefer? Did she have a dress she wanted to wear? What faith was the deceased? Are you interested in a prepaid funeral for yourself? It could be a great blessing to your family in a time of loss and mourning.

~~

I am a thirty six year old writer, father, and husband living in Missouri. My work has appeared at Fiction Vortex, Burial Day Books, and Dark Eclipse. I will have an upcoming publication at Acidic Fiction titled “Unlocking Fantasy.”

Lachesis, by David R. Schulze

“What do you regret about your life?”  A tall thin man sat behind a paltry wooden desk, and stared with charcoal grey eyes at Mark.  Everything about him was clean, pressed, precise.  His diction was smooth, his words effective, his presence haunting.  In his current surroundings he seemed very out of place.  His sharp tailored suit contrasted the copious stains on the frayed carpet.  His clean manicured hands stood out against the wearing of the chairs and the splintering of the wood on the desk.  His posture gave him the air of an aristocrat, one not suited to sit in a dilapidated office building on the lower East side, just a few blocks from docks known for their nefarious nature.

These disparities did nothing to calm Mark, it just increased the misgivings he had been having about this whole thing.  He wrung his wrinkled hands together and looked at the thin man.

The lamp in the corner flickered, momentarily removing the ill yellow light from the room.  Mark jumped.  The thin man remained motionless as he waited for Mark’s response.

“Well.”  Mark began with a tired voice indicative of his years of smoking.  “At a certain point in a man’s life he gets to thinking.”  He took a long rattly breath.  “And he starts to look back at his life and wonder what he could have done differently.  You begin to look at the choices you made and if they were the right ones, maybe you could have done things better.  Maybe you could have been an astronaut.”  Mark smiled thinking of his boyhood dream.  One he had long since given up on to join the ranks of middle America, pushing papers, answering calls, filling out forms.

“One day you realize you messed up.  That  you were too scared to live the life you wanted.  You were too damn afraid to go after your dreams.  But then you look down at your tired hands and up at the wrinkles in your face and the grey in your hair and realize that those chances are gone.  You’ll never be what you wanted to be. You’ll die and in the end you won’t matter.  Nothing will be better for you having existed.”

The thin man said nothing as he watched the old man.

“And that is what I realized.  I realized that I did nothing.  I did nothing with my intelligence, I did nothing with my talents, I let them waste away behind stacks of bureaucracy.  It was supposed to be temporary.” Mark laughed to himself.  “It’s always supposed to be temporary.  But temporary becomes one year, then two, then before you know it I’m sitting in front of you wondering where my life went.  Wondering what I did wrong.”

Mark paused waiting for the thin man to speak.  The silence hung tense in the air.  The thin man did not move, he waited.  When the weight of the air became palpable Mark spoke.  “That’s when I heard about you and what your company can offer.  Something I thought was impossible.  Something I thought was resigned to Twilight Zone episodes and science fiction, but I had friends who had friends and I figured what else do I have to lose.  My wife’s divorced me years ago, my kids have their own lives and never see me.  Most of my real friends are dead and now I’m just waiting for the scythe to find it’s way to my room.  But then there was you.  You don’t know what I’ve given up just for this meeting.”

“I do.”  The thin man crossed his elongated fingers on the desk.  “But you must give up far more in order to proceed.”

“I will.  I just want that second chance, one more shot to make my mark.  One more go.”

“Many people want that, but most come to terms with their lives near the end and they meet death with dignity.  Death is a quiet reserved peace Mr. Allen.  Do you want to rob yourself of this peace?”

“Yes.  I want a do over.  I want to be young again, I want to run, I want to sing, I want to sleep with beautiful women, I want to drink, and I want to dance.  I want to take life by balls and do it right this time.  And you can give this to me?”

“I can, but it comes at a price.”

“I will give you anything.”

“I know.”  He paused.  “You will give me all of your innea.”

“What is that?”

“It is nothing that matters to you here.”

“Is it my soul?”

“Not exactly.  Think about it more as spiritual currency.  Something which means very little to you in this place, especially if you get a redo.”  The thin man smiled.

Mark furrowed his brow.  He’d thought about this, he figured he would be doing a deal with the devil or he’d be paying a lot of money, but he didn’t know what innea was and up until 30 seconds ago didn’t know he even had any.

Mark looked up at the thin man.  “Are you the devil?”

The thin man’s smile widened from ear to ear.  “Only that I were.  No he’s more into the whole temptation thing.  I just give people what they ask for, nothing more.  If you decline my offer then you will never see me again.  If you accept the same will be true.  He’s far more invasive, that is if he even exists at all.”  The thin man’s eyes sparkled.

“Who are you?”

“I will tell you, but only after our work is done.  In the moments before your life starts anew you will know who I am.”

Mark looked down at this hands.  The skin on them was paper thin and he could see every vein between brown spots.  They hurt and had for years, so long he’d forgotten what it was like not to hurt.  He closed his eyes.  “Yes.  Everything you want you can have.”  He let out a breath.  “Do I have to sign something?”

“Oh no, no, not at all.  Verbal agreements have been solid for eons.  All this silly paper matters in this place, but not where it counts.  Your word is your bond Mr. Allen.”

“What do I do now?”

“Nothing.”  The thin man stood up and from his jacket sleeve pulled a golden ruler.  “You won’t feel this Mr. Allen, but it will seem odd.”  He stepped around the desk and placed a cold hand upon his forehead and the other at the base of his head.  Then slowly he pulled out a shining string from the base of Mark’s skull.  The string was long with a small bead near the end.

“Well it looks like you came in at just the right time.”

“What is that?”  Mark looked at the thing with concern.

“You wanted to know who I am Mr. Allen.  I am Lachesis, I am the one who measures.  What I hold in my hands is your life.  Your thread of existence.  A small little component to the whole tapestry that makes up this wonderful world of ours.  My brother Clotho spins them and my brother Atropos cuts them.  I measure them.”

“Like the fates from children’s stories.”

“Yes rather a lot like the fates.”

“But I thought they were fiction and women for that matter.”

“Well I assure you we’re are not fiction, and your kind tend to picture us in whatever gender they find best suits the time period.  What I am going to do is remeasure your life.  You will start as a baby once more and you will remember nothing of this life, nothing of your children, nothing of your wife, nothing of me or of my brothers.  Only at the very end of life when you join the throngs of the dead will you remember your deal with me.  And at that moment you aren’t going to like me.  But that won’t matter, see I’ve been saving up.  I’m planning on buying something very nice, something even more powerful than this.”  He held up the ruler.

“What can be more powerful than measuring life?”

“Oh not many things Mr. Allen, not many things.  But it’s not in the measurement of life that the power lies, but in what is done with that tiny thread.  Few men get the chance you are about to have, spend  your time well for once it is spent there will be no more.  Without your innea you will have no currency to enter the afterlife.  This second shot is your afterlife.  You will be heavy once more with the weight of existence, but then there will be no more.”

Mark felt a shift in perception as the room started to rock back and forth, he felt as if he was between waking and asleep as the reality of what he just did was coming clear to him.  As he ebbed out of this life he longed to undo the deal.  “But I…, I want …”

“Everybody wants…”

But Mr. Allen was no longer there, nor was the thin man.  The room was quiet again, with only a small flicker of dull yellow light to fill her.

~~

David R. Schulze is a native South Texas writer, comedian, and scientist.  David also enjoys river dancing even though he cannot dance in the slightest and couldn’t carry a tune to save his life. Davidrschulze.com

 

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