.... run through the door, which slams shut behind me with a loud, resounding boom. Suddenly exhausted, I crouch in the shadows. Shoulders hunched forward, arms wrapped around my head, I wait for the horror on the other side of the door to find me. A slab of wood three inches thick will not slow it down for long. In my mind's eye I picture tendrils of darkness probing the door, seeking out a crack, a keyhole. Finding no easy entrance, the horror gathers its strength for one massive assault, sucking in air and exhaling with the force of a hurricane. The door is ripped from its hinges and I am revealed, small, defenseless, easy prey for the darkness which has haunted me all my...
All my what? The silence confuses me. I try to make sense of what has happened. Something was chasing me, something so terrifying that I ran until my heart seemed ready to explode in my chest and each breath I took was pure fire. I ran until it seemed that I could run no farther and then a door appeared up ahead and I opened it and rushed inside...
Inside of what? I lift my head and peer into the shadows, but it is impossible to make out any details in the darkness. My temporary sanctuary could be an immense cavern or a small broom closet.
Tentatively, I stretch out one hand. Nothing. By nothing I do not mean the mere absence of something solid. This Nothing is palpable, as if the shadows have a texture, softer than velvet but more substantial than smoke. Cautiously, I stand. I take one step, then two....
Before I realize it, I am lost. Instead of feeling panic, I am filled with relief. If I can not find my way out, then maybe the horror on the other side can not find its way in.
But what about food? the voice of reason says. What about water? You will die if you do not find another way out. But strangely, the thought of death does not frighten me, not the way that...
That what? I can no longer recall what it was that I was running from. I know that it must have been terrifying, but if it had a face or form I can not remember it. Maybe it spit fire. Maybe it had twelve inch razor sharp claws. Did it have a name? What did I do to incur its wrath? Was I guilty of some sin? Did I...?
I suddenly stop in my tracks. I can no longer remember my name. I try to picture my face in the mirror, but nothing comes to mind. I try to remember what it was like to run in terror, but even that memory is fading. All is silence and darkness except for the merest hint of dull, grey twilight in the distance.
I know that I should be afraid. The smallest child knows instinctively that the darkness is frightening, being lost is frightening, being alone is frightening. But though I remember that there is an emotion called fear, I can not remember what it feels like to be afraid. I can not remember anything before the door.
I begin walking towards the faint, grey light. I move aimlessly, not caring if I reach the light or not. I walk because it is pleasant to move through the shadows, feeling them caress my skin.
"We have been waiting for you."
Who spoke? I peer into the shadows before me. There are three---no, four figures silhouetted against the distant, faint light. Three are human, one woman, two men. The third resembles a dog except that it walks on two legs like a man and is dressed in a dark, loose fitting garment. Its ears are high and pointed, its snout long, its eyes black but so bright that they seem to burn in the darkness.
"Come, we have a long journey before us." It is the dog which speaks. Its human companions stand mute.
I open my mouth to ask a question and discover that I have become mute, too. The dog/man takes my hand in his. There is no fur on his skin, which is smooth and black as ebony. He has ordinary appearing human hands, but his touch is cold. I feel the chill all the way to my marrow and for a moment I am afraid.
Despite the darkness, the burning black eyes see everything. "Do not fear me. I am Anubis, Guardian of the Dead. I have come to guide you through the Midlands."
I try to ask a question, but no sound leaves my mouth.
Anubis reads my thoughts. "The Midlands are the desert between the world of the living and the world of the dead. No one may cross without a guide."
So that is it. I ought to feel something. Fear. Regret. Anger. But the knowledge that I am dead does not touch me. Instead, from some dark recess of my mind comes a stray memory--- it is a river not a desert which separates the living from the dead. And when the soul of a dead person reaches the riverbank, the ferryman demands a coin before he will allow the soul to pass. I reach into my pocket, searching fruitlessly for a coin or even paper currency.
"The River Styx is but another name for the Midlands," Anubis says. "And I am also known as Charon, though the toll I exact is no ordinary mortal coin. Follow me."
I do not hesitate. Though he is a freak, a dog headed man with skin as cold as ice and eyes like black fire, his voice is low, soft, soothing, like the velvety shadows.
We walk for hours, perhaps days. Though we do not stop for food or rest, I feel no hunger, no fatigue. I am mildly curious about my human companions, but since we are mute there is no way to ask questions and for all I know, they are suffering from amnesia like me.
Though we cover at least thirty or forty miles, the dull grey glow on the horizon grows no closer or brighter and I can detect no source for the light. Are we following the sun as it travels around the earth? Will we journey across this plain forever, in a state of perpetual twilight, always on the verge of night?
Why not? It is pleasant to walk without a goal, pleasant to be silent, pleasant to have nothing on my mind. And if I am really dead, then I have all eternity to enjoy it, and the terror (what ever it was) will never find me here though I stand exposed on an endless plain, with no shelter, no hiding place except the shadows.
But nothing is truly endless, not even our journey, and everyone has a destination, whether they know it or not.
At first it appears to be nothing more than a slight irregularity of the smooth plain, but as we move closer I make out a building. It is constructed of black marble and resembles a castle except that there are no turrets, no windows, no moat, no decoration of any sort. Nothing except a single semicircular opening, a doorway chiselled into the rock at ground level. There are no iron bars, no drawbridge, not even a wooden door. And there are no angels guarding the entrance, no words carved above the portal. This is neither heaven nor hell, I realize, but a synthesis of the two. I peer through the doorway, trying to make out what lies on the other side, but I see nothing---not darkness, darkness would be something. It is as if there is an invisible curtain stretched across the threshold, some barrier that my eyes can not penetrate.
"Under ordinary circumstances, we would enter Haven through this door. But none of you is ordinary." Anubis leads us to the right, to a second, smaller door even more shadowy than the first. "This entrance is reserved for those who, like you, did not die an ordinary death, struck down by old age or illness or violence. This portal is for those who embraced death, those who went willingly into the darkness." Anticipating our silent questions, he adds "All will be answered in time."
We enter the small door one by one. First the woman, little more than a girl with long black hair and wide, dark eyes, naked except for a strip of coarsely woven fabric around her waist and flowers in her hair. The white petals gleam dully in the darkness.
Next, a middle aged man, tall, vigorous, muscular, with a thick brown beard and laughing eyes. He seems inappropriately cheerful. Behind him, a younger man with skin almost as black as our guide's. His dark, kinky hair is cut close to his scalp and his face has been marked with a careful pattern of scars. He is completely naked but seems unconscious of this fact.
I enter last of all and find myself in a small courtyard surrounded by smooth, featureless black walls. The ground is bare, dark soil pressed firm. The sky overhead is black and starless. The courtyard is deserted except for our party and a solitary figure who stands in the shadows, cloaked in black, a hood obscuring his or her face.
I am curious about this shadowy figure. Though I can not see his eyes, I feel their gaze up us. More specifically, upon me. Why does he stare? Does he know me?
I tear my gaze from the hooded figure and follow Anubis to the center of the courtyard. He pauses beside a round pool filled with glowing water. The dull, silvery blue light casts shadows over his face giving it a strangely human quality despite its canine features.
"This is the Well of Remembering. Each of you will gaze into the water and when you see your face reflected in the pool you will remember your past. Next, you will drink and when the water touches your throat, you will regain your voice. You first." He indicates the young woman.
Hesitantly she kneels beside the glowing pool. She seems frightened of what she will see there, but after a single glance at her own reflection she is reassured.
"Drink," Anubis commands.
Her hands are as small as a child's and she can lift only a small sip to her mouth, but that is enough. In a voice that is almost birdlike, she tells her story.
"My name is Maulua. I was born on the Island. I remember it clearly now. The trees were green, the seas were blue, the fish were silver and so numerous that they seemed to leap onto our fishermen's spears." Her voice breaks. "But one summer, when I was thirteen, the seas turned red and the air over the Island became bitter. And the fish swam away.
"The elders met in the House of the Ancestors and there the spirits spoke to them . They said that the goddess of fire was angry because my people worshipped only water, her enemy, and therefore she had turned the seas red and deadly. In order to placate the goddess, our people would have to sacrifice a young woman, a virgin without physical defects. The sacrifice must be voluntary, the spirits said. The woman must give herself freely to the flames."
Maulua bows her head. "All the young women of the island were summoned. The elders explained what was required of us. One of us must die by fire so that the others could live. For a long while there was only silence, and then I stepped forward. 'Take me' I said.
"The elders rushed to prepare a pyre, afraid that if I had a chance for second thoughts I might change my mind. But I would never have taken back my offer. If the death of a single woman could save so many lives, I would die a hundred times." She shudders, remembering her final moments. "But it was so hot. Even with the potion they gave me to make me sleepy did not dull the pain. The flames were so hot. I felt the skin of my face blister and my hair caught fire---" Her voice breaks.
Anubis lays his hand upon her shoulder. "Enough, child." He regards her for a moment with bright black eyes before asking a question. "Before you gave your life to save your people, were you happy?"
Maulua lifts her chin. Her eyes burn almost as brightly as the dog-man's. "Joyously happy. I remember walking through the forest, snatching fruit from the trees. The sweet, sticky juice would run down my chin. I remember the sound of my mother's voice, singing me to sleep. I remember---"
"Enough," Anubis says again. He seems less than pleased with her story, though I can not imagine how he could find fault with her. Just think of the heroism of that woman, little more than a child. So beautiful, so in love with life. And yet she sacrificed it all for her people.
Our guide turns to the bearded man. "You next."
Without hesitation he kneels beside the pool. He seems pleased by what he sees there and needs no prompting to take a drink. His hands are so big that they form a goblet and some of the liquid trickles down his beard. The beads of water glow in the darkness. "They call me Prescott. Jackson Prescott. We were heading west." His voice is big and booming. "It was winter and just as we were going through the pass, a snow storm came out of nowhere, cutting us off from both sides. We dug and dug but there seemed to be no end to the snow, and before long our supplies ran out and it became clear that if the rest of us were to live, one or two of us would have to die.
"There was talk of drawing lots. 'But what is the sense in that?' I asked. 'What if Ned there draws the short straw? He is nothing but skin and bones. And Richard is so scrawny he wouldn't make a decent meal for a child. I am the biggest. Since one life is worth as much as any other, I should be the one to die.' And then, because I knew they wouldn't have to heart to kill me, I pulled out my own pistol and put the barrel in my mouth." Even as he describes the moment of his death, he continues to smile, as if he is telling an amusing anecdote. "I don't regret what I did. I had a good, long life."
It becomes clear to me that the members of our group have been chosen because of their heroism. The bearded man's story moves me almost to tears and I wonder what noble deed I did to merit being in his company.
I have to wait a little while longer to find out because Anubis points to the naked man next. His story is much like the first two. "My name is Nimwe. I was captured in battle. They tortured me with fire, thorns, shells and snakes, trying to make me reveal the cave where we had taken our women and children for safety. They scraped my skin from my flesh and plucked out one of my eyes and did other things too unspeakable to mention.
"Seeing that I would not talk, they brought in another soldier. They had taken in the same skirmish. He was little more than a boy and his knees were knocking as they lead him forward.
"'Don't waste your time with him,' I told them. 'He can tell you nothing. We are not stupid enough to share important secrets with a blabbermouth baby like him.' But they ignored me. They tied him to a post and prepared to torture him.
"Why were they doing this, I wondered? It was clear to everyone that the boy knew nothing. He was so frightened that he had shit himself. If he had known the location of the hiding place he would have told our captors immediately, as soon as he laid eyes on the tools of torture.
"I thought they were just being cruel, but then I realized that they were hoping that I would break my silence in order to spare the boy pain. Since I would never betray our women and children, the boy would die needlessly, in agony. I was filled with fury. Fury at my captors for their cruelty to this boy who was little more than a child. Fury at myself for being helpless to stop them
"But then a strange calmness descended upon me, and I realized that there was a way I could help the other captive. If I was not alive to tell them my secrets then they would have no reason to torture the boy who was big and strong and would make an excellent slave. And in war, a slave could always hope for rescue or escape.
"Since I knew that I was going to die anyway, I did what I could to save the boy. When the soldier who was guarding me looked away for a moment, I picked myself up from the ground and threw myself at him. Automatically, he pointed his spear at me, as I had hoped that he would, and I impaled myself upon his weapon. "
He lifts his eyes. He is frowning. "Did the boy survive?" he asks our guide. "His name is Sambu. Do you know what became of him?"
Anubis closes his eyes for a moment. "I see him. He is an old man. He is sitting outside, in the shade of a tree he planted himself, eating yams while one of his wives trims his hair. He wears coral beads and three colored cloth, and he watches as his children and grandchildren play nearby."
Nimwe sighs and his frown is replaced with a smile. "Three colored cloth, the sign of a great man. That is good. I knew Sambu's father. We had many adventures together when we were boys."
Why does Anubis frown? Nimwe is a hero. What more could our guide possibly expect from mere mortals like us?
As I kneel beside the glowing pond, I feel the unseen eyes of the black hooded figure upon me again. There is something familiar about him--no, her. Though I can not make out any details through the heavy black garment that envelops her from head to toe, I am certain that this is a woman and that I know her. From where? Perhaps the water of the Well of Remembering will tell me.
"Look into the water," Anubis commands.
For the first time, I feel fear. Will my story disappoint him as the first three have done? Glancing down at the smooth surface of the glowing pond, the first thing I see is a face---my face. I am young, though not as young as Maulua. My hair is dull, dark reddish brown, roughly the color of rust, my skin is milk white. Despite my youth, shadows encircle my eyes and frown lines are etched beside my mouth and between my eyebrows. It is a bitter face, a sad face. And the story it tells is a tragic one.
I look up at Anubis, imploring him silently for mercy. Surely there is some mistake. I am not supposed to be here, among these heroes. I should be with the others, the ordinary dead people. Or in hell. The last thing I want to do is share my shame with my companions. Better to be mute forever. Better to have never seen my reflection in the Well of Remembering. Please, I beg silently, please let me forget the life I left behind.
The dark eyes burn. "Drink."
I have no choice. As the cool liquid slides down my throat, the words pour from my lips. "My name is William Henry Patrick III but they call me Rusty. My mother died giving birth to me. My twin sister, who was still inside our mother's womb, died along with her so I guess I murdered her, too. I am not telling you this to make you feel sorry for me and I am not using it as an excuse for what I did later. It is just a part of the story of my life. My short, shitty life.
"I was raised by my father and his second wife. They were no better or worse than any of the other parents in our neighborhood, but I hated them. Twice, I tried to set fire to their home. I strangled my stepmother's cat. I used to fondle my half sister whenever we were alone together and afterwards I would threaten to kill her if she told anyone. It wasn't that I was sexually attracted to her or anything. I don't remember ever feeling attracted to anyone. I hated her. She was happy and carefree, and I wanted to make her suffer, the way I suffered every second of my life.
"No, I didn't hate her, not really. What I hated was myself, my life. I don't remember a single moment of happiness. The things that made most people happy---birthday parties, kittens, picnics, Christmas---made me miserable. I couldn't understand why no one else could see the...the..." I search for words. "...the horror, the chaos, the corruption of the world we lived in.
"And the pain wasn't just mental. Every time the wind touched my skin I felt as if someone had given me an electric shock. The smell of other people, even pretty girls, made me want to vomit. Any noise louder than a whisper made my head ache. The taste of food nauseated me.
"The only time I was happy when when I was alone or in the dark. Cemeteries were my favorite place. I envied the dead their cool, lonely tombs, their safe, snug coffins. I used to stretch out on the ground and pray that the worms would devour me.
"When I was fourteen I made my first suicide attempt. I drank gasoline. I was in the hospital for three days then in a mental institution for three months. The day I got out I took an overdose of aspirin. The next time I tried alcohol and pills, then a razor blade. I finally got it right when I was visiting a cousin and found the handgun hidden under his mother's pillow."
My story finished, I bow my head, waiting for our guide to denounce me as a fraud, a coward, a sinner. The seconds stretch to minutes. Nothing stirs. The black hooded figure continues to watch. The silence is so complete that I can not even hear my own heartbeat---
Silly me. The dead do not have a pulse. It occurs to me suddenly that the dead do not feel pain either. Though my memories of life are of suffering, fear and guilt, since stepping through the door I have been at peace, totally at peace.
And now, that peace is about to be snatched from me. I will be cast out of this sanctuary---what did Anubis call it? Haven? It must be another name for Heaven and Heaven has no place for a miserable sinner like me. As the minutes pass, I become increasingly nervous. Finally, I can bear the waiting no longer. I stand up and lift my chin so that I can look my guide in the eye.
To my surprise, he is smiling. "Wait here," he whispers so softly that only I can hear. He turns to my companions. "Thank you for sharing your stories. This is my assistant, Athos." He waves a dark hand and young person with cinnamon colored skin appears out of thin air . I say person, because it is impossible to tell whether Athos is male or female even though he/she is not wearing a stitch of clothing. "Athos will take you to the Well of Forgetting where your memories will be washed away and then you will join the other citizens of Haven in the Everlasting Fields. I hope that you will chose to stay here, in the Land of the Dead, but I suspect that it will not be long before each of you decides to make the dangerous journey back to the World of Sorrows, that which you call 'life'."
At this Maulua perks up. "You mean we can go back?"
Anubis frowns slightly. "You can be reborn, if you wish. But do not make a rash decision. Explore Haven first. You will find it much more kind than the world you left behind."
The bearded man looks skeptical. "The place could do with a bit of color if you ask me---"
Anubis waves his hand impatiently. "Enough. Take them away."
My human companions follow Athos. The hooded figure remains behind. She has not moved a muscle since our arrival. For all I know the robe covers a statue, but I sense a presence behind the cloth. What does she think of my story? Is she disappointed? Why the hell do I care about the opinion of a stranger?
"You must have questions," Anubis says.
"You're damned right I have questions." My fear gives way to anger. "How dare you judge me unworthy of heaven? I had a shitty life. I couldn't help it that I killed my mother being born and I couldn't help it that I suffered from depression. I know the priest said it was a sin to kill myself, but I couldn't bear it any longer. I hated my life. I hated all life. All I have ever wanted was to die the way my sister died, and now that I am dead and my suffering is over, you want to make me suffer again. Well go ahead." I spit on him. "Get out your pitchforks, your racks, your branding irons. Nothing you do here can hurt me. I have found my true home, and no matter what you do to me I will never go back. Do you hear me? I never ever want to be reborn."
By this time I am shouting and I expect the demon---for surely he must be a demon, with a head like that---to be offended. But he seems pleased.
"Excellent," he murmurs.
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"And such spirit. You will make a fine warrior."
Now I am really confused. "A fine what?"
"A fine warrior. Do you not understand why I brought you here? I am Anubis. It is my task to gather up the souls of those who have taken their own lives and I measure them. Despite their bravery, each of your companions shares the same flaw---they love life too much. They committed suicide for the sake of life. You, on the other hand, killed yourself because you hated life and wanted to embrace death. You are truly one of us, and with your fighting spirit you will make an excellent defender of our realm."
By this point I am so confused that all I can do is echo him. "Defender?"
"Even the dead have enemies," my guide explains patiently. "There are forces on the other side, living beings called sorcerers who would enslave us. Scientists who strive to discover the secret of immortality, thus bringing to a halt the process of dying and rebirth that is so important for maintaining the balance between the two worlds. Your task will be protect Haven from these villains. If necessary, you will even journey back into their world---"
"---not as a living being but as a Knight of Death. I promise you, Haven will cover you like a mantle, protecting you from the corruption of life. This is what you were created for William Henry Patrick III."
"I like to be called Rusty."
He seems amused rather than offended."Then Rusty it will be." He moves towards a wall which dissolves before him, revealing a long, dark, winding passage. "Will you come with me, Rusty? Will you forgo the simple pleasures of the Everlasting Fields and instead devote yourself to defending Haven from those who would tear down its walls and bring sunlight to corrupt our darkness?"
I hesitate. "You said in the Everlasting Fields people don't remember. If I go with you do I still get to forget my life?"
"Do you want to forget it?"
What a stupid question, I think. Then I realize it is not such a stupid question after all. If I forget how awful the other side is, what is to stop me from deciding to go back? I shudder at the thought. On the other hand, the job that Anubis is offering will take me back there, too. But at least it will only be temporary. The pain will be finite.
And then there is the other thing. If you have spent your whole life living in a place you hate being told what a shitty kid you are and suddenly you find yourself in paradise and some guy comes up to you and says I can make you a hero what do you do? How can anyone say no to an offer like that?
Anubis waits patiently for my answer, and I realize that for the first time in my life, I am in control. The decision is mine. Which will it be? Do I forget my past and throw myself upon the mercy (what a joke) of the living world once again? Or do I hold onto my fear, hold onto myself? Die completely in order to be reborn? Or keep a tiny part of me alive in order to remain dead?
I am still debating his offer when the girl in the black cape steps forward. She throws back her hood. Her face is pale and flawless, as only the skin of one who has never been exposed to sunshine can be. Her hair is auburn, a shade or two darker than mine. How old is she? She looks no older than me, except for her eyes. They are at once ageless and ancient.
"What's your name?" The question just kind of slips out by itself.
She blinks. Just once. "What did you used to call me?"
She moves a step closer. She has no scent. There is nothing animal about her, nothing corrupt, nothing to nauseate me. "In your daydreams? When you fantasized about you and me, what did you call me?"
Suddenly, I recognize her. This is the baby who shared the same womb with me for nine months, the baby who died as I was born. "Sister. I called you sister."
She smiles. A slight lift of the corner of the lips which does not disturb the somber beauty of her face. "Brother. I have been waiting for you."
"Are you one them?" I ask. " One of the knights?"
She shakes her head. Still no scent, just the subtle play of shadows and light on her hair, more dark than light. "Unlike you, I am not a suicide. You have to live in order to kill yourself and I died before I was born." She lays her hand on my arm. Except for a slight pressure, I feel nothing. No warmth, no sweat. She is as pure as night. "We who die before we are born are born into Death. We become Angels."
"Angels of Death?" I glance at Anubis. "Did you bring her here? To persuade me to become a knight?"
He shrugs. "She came here of her own volition. She has been looking forward to this reunion. Like you, she has always felt incomplete, as if something was missing from her death. It would have been cruel to deny her."
I look at her. I look at Anubis. I look down at my own reflection in the water. I see the boy I used to be, but from a distance now. I feel sorry for him. I try to imagine what it would be like for him if some scientist made it impossible for him to die, impossible for him ever to find peace. Impossible for him to find his sister.The thought fills me with rage. I clench my fists and lift my chin defiantly.
Anubis smiles. My sister takes my hand and unclenches the fist. Pressing her cool lips to my palm she murmurs "Welcome home."
As her breath touches my skin, as light and clean as a breath of night wind, I feel my anger dissolve, my pain dissolve, my fear dissolve. Death settles around my shoulders like armour, insulating me. I lift her hand and kiss her palm as she has kissed mine. "Welcome, Sister."
Hand in hand we follow Anubis into the long, dark winding passage.
Bio:McCamy writes speculative fiction with elements of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Besides Aphelion, she has published stories in Dragon's Lair and Little Read Writer's Hood.
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