A fairly long time ago I got a nice demo. It consisted of a kind of touching series of pictures involving a little boy and a snowman, with digitized music on top of it. It inspired me to write the story below, a year or two after which I found out that the demo was in fact based on a story in the first place. I never read the story, but I suppose it can't be too far off what I've done here. When I re-read the thing, I still felt the vibe I had had originally - so here it is, timely for the festive season.
Jingle bells, jingle bells
Jingle all the way
Oh what fun it is to ride
In a one horse open sleigh
Once upon a time there was a little boy. John was his name, but everybody always called him Johnny. As a matter of fact, he was thoroughly disgusted by the fact that everybody always called him that, since he also turned out to be small. Not just small, but very small. Plain tiny. Only his mother, a lady of considerable sweetness and understanding, called him by his real name.
Johnny lived in a medium-sized cottage near a village called St. Austell in Cornwall, England, together with his parents. It was a nice cottage - one of those typical English ones with woodwork, a thatched roof and a thin line of smoke slowly ascending from the chimney.
It was already darkening outside, and the whole family sat by a cosy and warm woodfire in the house. Father was reading a newspaper (something about the third page seemed to have his complete attention), mother was knitting at the table and John was reading a comic book.
Father looked up from his paper and glanced outside.
"I bet it'll go snowing tonight," he sighed, "just like last year."
Johnny now looked up from his comic, too. Last year had been great; he had built the biggest snowman in town, and he had even won a City's Council prize with it. For a little time he, little Johnny, had been the centrepoint of the community.
Everybody somehow seemed to have forgotten about him some weeks later, leaving Johnny behind - alone.
He sighed deeply, remembering those few days. Would they return again this year?
Later that night... Everybody had already gone to bed and was dreaming about next day's presents, eating huge amounts of turkey or having nightmares of whether or not the oven would work well this time.
The wind grew to stormy proportions, and howled through the trees and down the chimney. The large clock in the hall ticked heavily and gently. It was several minutes past two, on Christmas Eve.
If someone would have been awake and would have looked outside, he would have seen large snowflakes gently floating towards the earth, covering it with a thick layer of crispy, dry snow. It was as though the whole world was coloured a particular shade of orange.
The next morning, Johnny was awake earlier than usual. It was as if something inside him, maybe an additional sense, had noticed that there was snow outside.
He was overwhelmed by joy, and to anyone else his facial expression might have hinted at a sight of a candy mountain of considerable dimensions. He spontaneously cried cries of happiness, dressed as fast as he could and ran outside.
His feet left little prints in the virginal snow. He felt as if he was the first man on a new planet, a new and even wonderful planet with all shapes and forms covered by a soft white layer. His breath condensed in the cold morning air. A Blue Tit hung upside down on a string of peanuts at the birds' feeding site. The whole world looked pure, serene, untouched and unharmed in the eyes of this small boy. His fondest wish was that it would always be winter and that there would always be snow.
He took a deep breath and rolled as big a ball of snow as he could handle. He then carefully rolled it to the centre of the garden in front of the cottage. He looked up to his parent's bedroom window, and saw his mother standing there, holding her hand against the frostbitten window.
If Johnny had been standing nearer, he would have seen the glittering of a tear in her eye.
A little over an hour later, Johnny had succeeded in creating a monumental snowman - complete with a carrot nose, a hat, a broom, two large black coat button eyes and even a mouth. He took off his own scarf and put it around the snowman's neck. Then he stepped back and looked at his snowman with admiration.
His parents came outside to compliment little Johnny on his achievement when they saw the enormous snowy monster standing on their lawn. Not with little pride they stood near the enormous creature, almost twice as high as Johnny himself that was standing next to it, gleaming with joy.
"Swell job you did there, Johnny! It'll teach them kids another lesson or two!" Father patted him firmly on the shoulder.
His mother just held her son, stroking softly through his hair.
"He's beautiful, John," she said, "I think he's even better than last year's."
They stood for a while, gazing at the snowman with awe. Johnny felt as if he wouldn't be hurt if the whole world collided.
"Come on, let's get inside," said father, rubbing his hands, "let's unwrap those Christmas presents!"
The rest of the morning was spent in a very homely atmosphere. Whilst drinking mugs of hot cocoa, the Christmas presents were unpacked. Johnny got one of those incredibly fashionable hoops - everybody was trundling hoops nowadays, so he really liked his present.
But his thoughts were with his giant snowman rather than his Christmas present, no matter how much he liked it. He did not dare to think what would happen if it started to thaw. His snowman would melt away and vanish. He would just be plain old little Johnny again.
Christmas diner was reasonable. Somehow, just like last year, mother had not been able to prepare the turkey like it should have been prepared, due to alleged problems with the oven. But the meat still tasted exquisite when compared with what they usually ate every day. The dessert was simply awful, but that was probably just because Johnny particularly disliked Christmas pudding.
After dinner, aunt Edna came to visit them: "Oh golly, how much has your little Johnny grown!", "Oh dear, what a huge and adorable snowman you made, Johnny", "Hell's teeth, what's that awful burny smell coming from your kitchen, darling!?"
The whole family, but especially Johnny, was very pleased to see her leave at dusk. On the garden path, she stood still and looked at the enormous snowman for a moment or two. She looked back and stuck up her thumb.
Then, she turned around and left through the small gate. The porch cracked a bit when she opened it. It cracked again when she closed it. The land was moonlit; the sky was littered with thousands of stars. There was no wind and it was beginning to feel REALLY cold. It would be a very cold night; freezing cold.
They went inside when they had lost sight of aunt Edna's slightly bent silhouette in the distance.
It must have been midnight, and just about everybody was again fast asleep, when Johnny was still tossing about in bed.
He got out and looked outside. His snowman was still there, standing rigid in the cold of the night. He was planning to go to bed again when he saw something flying through the sky. Was it just his imagination, was he just dreaming, or did he see a sleigh in the distance, pulled across the winter sky by many a reindeer?
A flash suddenly split the sky apart. Johnny leapt back and closed his eyes. When he opened them again, it seemed as if his snowman was aflame - a light was coming forth from the spot in the middle of the lawn. But when he looked again he saw that they weren't flames. It looked like...like his snowman was radiating with light!
Next moment, the light ceased. For some moments, Johnny could see nothing but darkness. When his eyes got used to that again, however, he really couldn't tell if he was awake or dreaming. His snowman - the very same one that he had built himself that very morning - was actually beckoning him to come outside! He shook his head in utter amazement, blinked his eyes several times, and still saw the same: His snowman signing him to come down.
Johnny quickly put on his dressing gown and rushed down the stairs as fast as possible and yet as silent as he could.
The snowman smiled broadly as Johnny came nearer, step by step. The little boy wasn't really scared but...let's say he was cautious. A snowman with such a disarming smile, he thought, however, could never have evil in mind.
"I am Sylvester," the snowman said in a soft, low voice, while bowing low and taking off his hat, "Sylvester the snowman. What is your name, lad?" He rose his eyebrows.
"Er...I'm Johnny...er...no...John. I live here."
"I know you do," said the snowman reassuringly, "and I also know that you made me into the sturdy and stout snowman that I am now. I want to do something to thank you."
Johnny was stricken by silence. Never, not even in his wildest dreams and imagination, had he thought this possible. He mumbled something inaudible.
"Take my hand," said the snowman gently, "and I'll show you something you're not likely ever to forget."
A bit hesitant, Johnny put his hand in that of the snowman. Next thing he knew, Sylvester held him tight and they were flying through the winter sky. Johnny still didn't know if he was dreaming or not - but he knew this was GREAT and he enjoyed every second of it. They soared through the night, and he looked around in amazement.
"Up here, it almost appears as though you can touch the very stars," said Sylvester, "and the moon seems but a stone's throw away."
Johnny heard the words, but was too excited to be actually able to give them a meaning. He just closed his eyes and let the cold wind brush through his hair. He wasn't cold at all, in spite of the fact that he was held by a snowman and the fact that it was freezing cold.
After flying like that for some minutes, Johnny noticed he didn't recognize the country anymore that passed under them. Where were they? He asked the snowman.
"You are about to enter a country that man has but seldomly set foot on before," he answered, "the country where the snowmen live."
The boy didn't ask any more, although he wondered why he was allowed to enter it now. It was as if Sylvester had read Johnny's thoughts: "You may enter it because you have built this year's most beautiful snowman."
Now this was something else than the City Council's prize!
A large forest loomed up in the distance. Sylvester now flew a bit lower as it drew nearer. Just before the first trees, he gently released Johnny from his firm grip and put the boy back on the ground.
"This is it, John. This is going to be one night you'll not forget easily," Sylvester whispered.
Out of the forest, the sounds of deer neighing arose. Some moments later, a large sleigh appeared from under the trees, pulled by six reindeer. Johnny's mouth fell wide open when he recognized who was at the reigns.
"Santa..." the boy said with the ultimate amazement in his voice.
"Ho ho! Ho ho! Hop on the sledge dear boy, for here we go!" Santa cried, while reaching out a hand to help Johnny climb on. Sylvester hopped easily in the back, in between some bags with presents that were left over from last night.
"You must be John," Santa said in a low voice as he directed his carriage through the trees at a dazzling speed, "Sylvester already told me much about you. Aren't you the boy that I gave a...let's remember...a hoop? Yeah. I seem to know it fairly sure now."
Johnny nodded excitedly.
"Didn't I give a year's subscription to 'The Sun' to your dad and a 'How to prepare Turkey' book to your mother?" Santa added.
Again, Johnny nodded.
"Ho ho! Ho ho! Off the sleigh we go!" Santa suddenly cried, as he halted his majestic carriage, "We're where we want to be, open your eyes and you will see!"
They were now on a large open spot in the forest. There were trees on all sides, as far as they could see. Their tops could only be seen as dim silhouettes against the star-spangled sky. He could not even see any such place in the forest as where they must have come through with the sleigh.
There was a fire burning in the centre of the spot. The light of its flames licked the trees and the heat melted the snow in its immediate surroundings.
Santa and Sylvester sat down.
"Listen, John!" Sylvester said, as he signalled Johnny to sit down next to Santa, too.
From all directions, other snowmen now came onto the open spot in the forest. They weren't as big and as beautiful as Sylvester, but they were all proud snowmen, with large carrot-noses, brooms, large black eyes and even mouths. They all hummed a familiar tune, and Johnny noticed that Sylvester was humming it, too.
It sounded like something from one of those full-feature Walt Disney movies.
After a while there were about thirty snowmen, sitting in a large circle around the fire. Santa arose, and they all looked at this rather small man with his white beard.
"We are gathered here tonight to honour a small boy who did great deeds, sitting here right next to me," said Santa solemnly, "John is his name, and large will be his fame! He built Sylvester."
Sylvester arose, too, now standing next to Santa Claus.
The air was filled with ooohs and aaahs as they saw the immense size of Sylvester and the minute size of Johnny. Johnny blushed heavily.
"Ho ho! Ho ho!" Santa cried after these moments of admiration, "now is the time for dancing and chanting!"
All the snowmen now stood up and held hands, humming that familiar tune again. Johnny stood between Sylvester and Santa, and he hummed, too. It was an easy tune, a catchy tune. He liked it. He belonged.
The circle of snowmen, Santa and Johnny now danced around the fire; the humming had transformed to a loud chanting of songs involving jingling bells and sleighs, cold frost and skating.
Johnny had never ever had such a good time in his life before; not even when he had been the centrepoint of the community, about same time last year.
They danced and sung for hours, or at least so it seemed. Then, there was a sudden silence as Santa held up his hand.
"It is time," he said, "time to bring our dear friend John back to his home." He looked at Johnny, who was yawning and barely able to stand on his feet. It surely was great and all, but boy did he feel sleepy.
Sylvester put him on Santa's sleigh again, and took the reigns himself. Before Johnny fell asleep quite spontaneously, he heard all snowmen and Santa yell: "Goodbye John! 'Till next time! Have a merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!"
The next moment, he heard nothing, saw nothing, smelled nothing, felt nothing.
The morning had already advanced to as much as eleven'o'clock when Johnny opened his eyes again. He jumped out of bed to see if Sylvester was still on the middle of the lawn.
Sylvester wasn't. Thaw had made the snow disappear. On the spot where his beautiful snowman-friend had been now only a hat, a broom, two large black coat-button eyes and a carrot-nose lay together with his scarf in the middle of some wet snow remains.
He ran outside, crying. He even forgot to put on his dressing gown.
"Sylvester!" he cried, "Sylvester!"
He knelt down over what was left of what had been his best friend and took the scarf, only to hold it vacantly in his hands. He felt really sad and on the verge of crying.
Deep down, however, deep down in his heart, he knew that there'd be snow again next year.
Original written December 1988. Rehashed October 1995.
A story inspired, concept-wise, by Terry Pratchett's excellent "Reaper Man". The name, of course, was inspired by a rather excellent song of the same title on Dweezil Zappa's "Confessions of a Depraved Youth". Needless to say, it's just as much inspired by The Horned One as the song.
He had imagined death to be different. Not just different in the way 'Friday' differs from 'yellow', but totally different. He had imagined scantily clad Valkieries pushing their lush breasts into his face in an attempt to lure him to warrior's heaven, Valhalla. He had imagined the divine scents of angels' armpits penetrating his nostrils, the sound of the wind flowing through Golden Eagles' flapping wings in the background. Lots of beer. Women. Unfathomably large halls. Vast choirs chanting. That sort of thing.
None of it was anything like this.
For starters nothing much actually seemed to have changed. He just lay on the ground with a sword inserted in his abdomen. Blood poured out, and his hands still clasped the hilt in the throes of rigor mortis. As a matter of fact the only thing that tried to convince him that he had died was his reason.
Both brain cells.
They told him he felt no pain, which they reckoned was odd indeed if a piece of stainless steel had entered your body from the front and had come out on the back. He tried to let go of the sword and found it remarkably easy. In a state of joy he leapt up and cried a mute cry.
An identical copy of himself was still lying on the ground, post-mortally clutching a sword very similar to that of a samurai. Its eyes were closed tightly, teeth clenched frantically, body pierced mercilessly.
So this was death?
"NO," a voice said, like an elephant threateningly tusking darkly tuned tubular bells, "I AM DEATH."
Cronos Warchild, mercenary annex hired gun, turned around to where the sound had come from. He stood eye to eyesocket with a figure dressed in a robe that seemed to be woven from the very stuff black holes are made of. It sent shivers down Warchild's spine - or at least down the spiritual equivalent of the one that lay on the ground, slashed. Shivers being sent down spines was a totally new sensation to him. He had voted conservative all his adult life - he'd never liked changes and had wanted nothing to do with threatening new things such as the abolition of capital punishment or "The Sun" publishing male models on page 3, let alone new sensations going down his own bloody spine!
"FOLLOW ME," the voice now said, the sound of Titanics hitting ocean floors.
No mortal non-officer had ever commanded Cronos Warchild and had lived to tell about it. That meant the hooded figure either had to be no an officer, or...
On top of that, he had a menacing looking scythe casually slung across his shoulder, the kind of scythe that would have no problem slicing through words, even, if only its wielder would set his mind to it.
He decided to follow the figure that had already walked off down a dark corridor that seemed to twist and turn impossibly. Strange scents hurried along him. Of course, as always, there was a hint of honey, but the damp smell of an old tomb seemed to be the most prevalent - the kind of tomb where the flesh had already been transformed into worm dung, a grave filled only with bones.
"Who are you?" Warchild ventured. His voice died almost instantly - it was as if the fungi that stained the corridor walls fed on sound. But the figure leading him down into even deeper darkness seemed to have sensed the words anyway, or had perhaps merely sensed them being thought.
"THAT NEED NOT CONCERN YOU YET," the voice replied, not bothering to go through all the processes involving air vibrations but instead opting for the direct way into what, for lack of a better word, could be called Cronos mind. Inside that, the words ricocheted to and fro much in the way six members of the Japanese Sumo Wrestler's Association would when stuck in an dumb waiter.
"You're not some sort of...er...male Valkiery?" Warchild hazarded once the unexpected physical pain of intensely direct telepathy had worn off.
"NO," the voice said, with even more force now. Even the fungi seemed to retract in various cavities and crevices now, the words being telepathic or not. The scythe's blade made an involtuntary 'twang' noise that caused some dust to rise off the floor as if in panic.
Warchild had expected the voice this time. He concentrated hard on ignoring the pain, and largely succeeded. He was getting better at it again. He had not expected to come out of life this way. Perhaps death was the final solution.
For long minutes, during which Cronos didn't bother asking any more questions, they wound on through the befungied corridors. They were the kind of corridors even homing pigeons would get lost in, even if they'd had the chance to drop a trail of small cobbles.
In the end they arrived at a torch-lit hall. The hooded figure walked in, feet clicking on the floor, and hung his scythe on a peg. After that he settled himself in a comfortable chair near the hearth in which a modest smoulder gently smouldered away. Death cast a glance at the fire, causing it to light up instantly. Warchild looked at the furniture. The thing that was most amazing about it was that it was all perfectly normal. There was a wooden table with a half-empty mug of ale on it, there were some cupboards filled with various books and in a corner stood a large standing clock that indicated a time of two to twelve. There was even a dresser with one drawer half open. There were, incredulously, socks in it. The floor was covered by a threadbare carpet, under which it seemed mainly to consist of the kind of wood that makes moaning noises at every step, not unlike the sounds you hear in films where the hero is trying to cross an ancient bridge across some or other gorge.
"SIT DOWN," the voice said, sounding a little more harmless now, perhaps like heavy joints being dislocated in a slightly gentle way. It wasn't a command, nor was it a wish. It was a premonitive statement.
"I AM DEATH," Death said, "KNOWN BY ALL, REMEMBERED BY FEW."
The mercenary annex hired gun sat down in another chair. He felt uncomfortable in a way he never had.
"DON'T WORRY," Death said, trying to sound as soothing as is possible with bare teeth, no tongue and a voice that has a natural ability to reap mortal lives, "IT'S PERFECTLY NORMAL TO FEEL UNCOMFORTABLE. IT CAN HAPPEN TO THE BEST." Death's perpetual grin seemed to widen as he chuckled, "IT DOES HAPPEN TO THE BEST, TOO."
This didn't make Cronos feel any more comfortable. He shifted in his seat, uneasily.
Death got up, his blackest of robes fluttering slightly, and beckoned for Warchild to follow him into an adjacent room that was totally dark. Cronos had dreaded this so often. Each time when he was in the face of almost certain death he had seen the Grim Reaper's skeletal hand beckoning, or sometimes he had felt the premonition of its touch on his shoulders. If he would have known what deja vu was, he would have known what hit him.
Being a rebel, however, Cronos gathered all spiritual courage and stayed behind, refusing to follow. Death disappeared into the other room which suddenly lit up with the pleasant shadows of controlled fire. The room Warchild was in suddenly got unpleasantly chilly. The fire went back to its smouldering state and the furniture suddenly seemed to watch him accusingly, radiating the intense sort of cold only a female's indignant stare can bestow on a man.
During his virgin commando training Cronos had learned to survive on ice planets with no equipment other than a toothpick and a loincloth. He had passed the training excellently, to the great surprise of his tutors, an innocent polar bear and the toothpick.
This time, however, the chill seemed to come from within. He could try to block out external cold, but he couldn't battle the freezing cold biting at his guts. He looked around to see if anyone was witnessing his mental fumbling. When he saw noone he discreetly slipped after Death.
It turned out he was lead into some sort of hall of fame. Death stood in the middle near where a fire burned, its smoke drifting upward and disappearing beyond sight. The walls were covered with paintings that had engraved copper plaques attached to the wall below them. He looked at Death, who was looking at the paintings, unable not to be filled with fascination.
Warchild didn't like art at all. Nonetheless, he felt compelled to walk to the nearest painting and cast a glance at it. It portrayed a rather ugly man in his late thirties. The plaque below it read "Roger Ballface, Craterhead Ballistix Club Coach". The name didn't ring a bell.
He shuffled to the next painting, on which was the picture of a bowl of petunias. The plaque below it read "Bowl of Petunias". Warchild frowned. Who would want to have a picture of a bowl of petunias hanging in a hall of fame of some kind?
On the third painting he saw the picture of an exceedingly ugly troll. It looked more like a piece of vaguely monster-shaped rock, but it was a troll doubtlessly. He had seen its kind before. As a matter of fact he seemed dimly to recall having killed one of them a while ago. The plaque read, surprisingly, "Troll".
Something started to dawn.
The fourth painting portrayed a member of the clergy. The man was dressed almost entirely in black, a robe covering his bald head. He wore a miserable excuse for a beard and part of a scroll could be seen clasped in a hand. His eyes seemed to gleam with religious fanaticism. The plaque told Warchild it was one "Ayatollah Mokheiny".
A coin dropped.
To Warchild the sound was equal to his neighbour's electric guitar loudly playing "Smoke on the Water" on a hung-over Saturday morning. It bounced to and fro a bit, until the noise had ceased. Then a thought entered him.
He actually knew them all. Well, sortof, anyway. He turned around and quickly surveyed some of the other paintings. There were dozens of them. They contained some ordinary people, a "Many-coloured bird killed by an ABC-M-7 flamethrower", a "professor of post-modern neo-baroque", a group photography of five palace guards playing brass instruments during a charity ball, a police officer called Mitch, a female housemaid roaming in her late eighties with a bump on the head, some ants, a demon, a reduced-looking Gorf and...and...Cronos walked to the painting to see if he had seen what he thought he had seen.
He had. It was a picture of his foster mum's cat, Toodles. His first kill.
Death seemed to sense the coin having dropped.
"THESE ARE YOUR KILLS," Death said, a merest hint of respect in his voice, "EACH AND EVERY CREATURE YOU KILLED IN YOUR LIFE."
Cronos looked around him. He suddenly noticed other paintings leaning against walls, others stacked on chairs and under small tables. He'd never quite realised how many people he had actually inhumed, nor how many other creatures he had caused to pass away.
"I GUESS THANKS ARE IN ORDER," Death exclaimed.
Cronos remained silent for a while. Eventually he said, "Thank you."
"NO," Death laughed, if indeed Death can be said to have the capacity of laughter, "I NEED TO THANK YOU."
Warchild looked perplexed. What had he done?
"YOU'VE KEPT MY BUSINESS BOOMING," Death explained, "IF ANYONE SHOULD BE THANKING ANYONE, I SHOULD BE THANKING YOU."
He extended a skeletal hand.
It took some time to digest. It doesn't happen every day that Death invites you over to his domain to say, OK, thanks pal, I owe you one. Chop heads off, smash hourglasses, that's the sort of thing you'd expect Death to do. And if he left things at that you could consider yourself lucky.
Shaking slightly despite efforts not to, Warchild extended a hand. Death's bony extremity took hold of it gratefully and shook enthusiastically, much in the way people would have done when expecting money to fall out.
When he let go, Cronos' hand felt numb and very cold, as if all life was drained out of it, strictly metaphorically of course.
"SORRY," Death apologized, "IT GOT THE BETTER OF ME."
"Er...it's OK," Warchild muttered, not quite being able to familiarize himself with Death apologizing - Look, awfully sorry I reaped your soul, I really am, it got the better of me. A thing like that just wasn't done. Whenever Death started saying things like that he'd better...
"I WILL RETIRE," Death continued Cronos' thoughts, getting to the point in as matter-of-fact a way as possible, "IT'S TIME. I'VE BEEN AROUND FOR A LONG TIME. MAKES YOUR BONES TIRED."
"I'M MAKING NO BONES OF IT."
"I'VE BONED UP ON FLORIDA."
"IT GIVES ME A BONE TO PICK."
"YOU'LL INHERIT THE HONOURS."
Death apologizing to you was one thing. Unusual, sure, but just one thing. Death offering you a Reaping Franchise, on the other hand, was something even more totally unheard of.
"THIS IS MY PLACE. IT'S YOURS NOW. HERE'S THE KEYS," Death said, his voice still heavy with associations of something very heavy, and handed him a key ring. Three credit cards hung from it, one of which was a lot smaller than the others.
"THE RED ONE'S TO THE FRONT DOOR, THE BLUE ONE'S TO HIPPUS' STABLE," Death intoned, some parting sorrow filling his throat, "BUT YOU SHOULD NEVER USE THE SMALL BLACK ONE. THAT'S VERY IMPORTANT."
Death looked around. His eyesockets seemed to fill with wetness for a moment, but it disappeared so quickly that it might just as well never have been there. All of this was quite lost to the befuddled mercenary annex hired gun, however. He lay on the ground, prostrate.
The skeletal figure looked down. For a moment a sense of regret seemed to pass his facial features - but, then again, it might also never really have been there. He shuffled across the floor, his feet making boney sounds.
Death thought of a condo in Florida, concentrated, then clicked his heels twice.
"HEY, TOTO," he thought, "IT LOOKS LIKE I'M NOT IN HADES ANYMORE."
A horse whinnied, somewhere, in a former dimension of time and space.
Cronos Warchild, mercenary annex hired gun, woke up. He kept his eyes closed for another while, afraid of what he might see if he opened them. He had had a terrible dream. There had been a girl and a sword, and then there had been death. Or rather, Death. It had been a ridiculous dream, really.
Something was wrong with him. He somehow felt different, as if he was no longer his old self. He opened his eyes when something struck him with the force of a Mega-Superspeed train.
"That's deja vu," he thought. His mind didn't protest at it. It seemed a perfectly normal thing for it to do, think.
He had experienced this before, but he couldn't remember having drunk excessive amounts of Klaxos 9 beer. Or any alcohol, for that matter. He thought some more. It didn't hurt. As a matter of fact it was quite nice an experience, like a first kiss.
He felt his face and startled to find a pair of glasses located on his nose. He heard noises around him, crystal-clear and poignant. He heard a fire burning, the wood crackling. He fumbled behind his ear, removing a small electronic device that lead right into his aural cavity. His hearing was still quite excellent, quite on the contrary to what he had expected.
It seemed as if he was young again. Young, smart, unscarred by battles. He looked around.
"In retrospect," he thought to himself, still quite liking the sensation, "it might be safe to assume it was no dream. I am in Death's abode. I am dead. Then why do I feel exuberant?"
There was nobody to reply, not even telepathically. Obviously, Death had gone off to somewhere.
Cronos stood up and walked through the various rooms. Each time the rooms would darken and grow cold behind him, the ones he entered suddenly glowing up bright and warm. He felt in his pockets, his fingers touching the credit cards on a ring. The small one, somehow, seemed colder. A shiver went through his spine.
He walked to what he guessed had been Death's bedroom. There was a huge bed that seemed to have been made from fossilized Stegosaurus bones. There was also a large mirror next to the bed. It was broken and, mysteriously, melted in some places. He walked to it and watched himself.
Somehow, he didn't even startle when he found himself gazing at a long, slender guy with glasses and a retreating hairline. He felt the top of his head. Indeed, there was a bald patch. Where there had once been mighty bicepses there were now things that more resembled rope. His square face had grown more elongated, his sideburns had disappeared.
He felt a gnawing feeling at his stomach. No. It couldn't...they hadn't...not his...he used to be...er...hung...er...hung like...no...
He unzipped his trousers and watched, his mouth dropping open. He zipped them up again, sat down on the bed and wept for an hour.
"DEAR NEW DEATH. I'M OFF TO FLORIDA. TAKE CARE OF HIPPUS. DON'T FORGET TO FEED THE DOG. SIGNED: (EX-)DEATH."
Warchild read the note that lay on the night-stand. Everything fell in place now. It had been no dream. He was the new Death, for Hades' sake.
It had made him different. He, well, looked different. He was different. Death is the other side. Everything turns around. His incredibly strong body with its nit-wit brain had been changed into one that was weak yet had a formidable mind. Finally he was the perfect assassin, Death, and he would no longer be able to communicate with people wanting him to kill someone, nor would he be able to spend the enormous amounts of money he could earn. Now he came to think if it, he really didn't want to kill anyone either. It sortof went against his new grain.
And he could certainly never go through life, or death, or whatever it was he was in now, with a totally unpacifist name such as 'Cronos Warchild'.
Terence. That was a lot better. Or Eric. No. Terence would have to do. Terence...Terence...er...Terence Death. No. Terence Life? Ridiculous. Just Terence. That seemed OK. Besides, nobody was likely to tell him, Hey, Terence, now that's a silly name! If they did, he would just chop their heads right off. Just like that.
He snapped his fingers meaningfully.
He suddenly recalled the note. Did Death, er, did he have a dog? He envisioned a large black animal with flashy white teeth surprising its new owner any minute now. Probably a Dobermann or something. Or a black Mega-Pitbull. Cold sweat crept up Terence's spine. Where was the dratted beast? Was it lurking somewhere in a dark corner, ready to jump at his throat at the first feasible moment?
He did hear something - or was it just that his ears, which had recently reacquired hearing, were playing tricks on him? He imagined he heard dog's feet shuffling about somewhere in the house. He even thought he could hear a flea complaining about the cold.
Suddenly he saw the beast walking into the room. The flea ceased complaining. Terence looked at it and sighed.
Who would have guessed that Death, or rather he, had a poodle?
Instinctively, he knew what the animal was called.
"Toto," he said, trying to imitate old Death's manner of speech but failing rather dramatically, "come here."
The dog tilted its head. It then tilted it the other way. It looked at Terence. It looked again. It decided it had liked the bony look of his old master better, turned around and walked off to somewhere else.
A flea started to complain about the cold again.
It has been said before by many authors, and they were all quite right when stating that people don't see things they don't believe in. They don't see gnomes, for example, not just because they don't believe they exist but also on the account of the little buggers being rather too fast for the human eye to properly register. People also have remarkable filters built in that, somehow, convince them they're looking at a totally average stranger when in fact they're looking at a huge robed skeleton wielding a rubber scythe.
Death was asking the way to a fat American who wore a flowered T-shirt and matching shorts.
"Lakeside Park?", the man said, fumbling his second chin, "I think that's around the corner to the right, then past the traffic lights."
"THANKS," the spectre said, and strode off.
The fat American walked off, too. He had a vague but distinctly nagging feeling that something was not all right. He also wondered about today's youth's dress habits.
"I'LL HAVE TO ASSUME A NORMAL NAME," Death thought to himself when walking, his feet click-clicking on the pavement. He toyed with 'Bill Door' for a while, but cast it aside. Too plain, and it didn't sound original. 'Ford Prefect' perhaps? He had read somewhere that this was supposed to be a perfectly ordinary name to assume, thought to arouse little suspicion. Well, perhaps not. He continued thinking. It was hard, part of the reason behind which was that he had no brain to do it with.
"MR. SMITH THEN," he concluded, just when he arrived where he had wanted to be for, say, the last couple of millenia.
It was quite perfect. Just like he had thought it would be. It was a humble but slightly decadent appartment with a palm tree or two standing in front of it. It had a view of the Atlantic, the supermarket was a stone's throw off and their was a mortuary around the corner. Death was a sucker for detail. He hadn't left anything to coincidence.
He walked up the garden path. The click-click of his feet on the cobbles ended as his skeletal hand knocked on the door. This was his condo, 999 Lake Side Park. He had manipulated time and space ever so slightly and it had worked. He knew he shouldn't have, of course, but he reckoned he was entitled to a small indiscretion after all those milleniums of faithful service to mankind. Besides, who would ever complain?
Usually, owners of the piece of property you're examining pop up behind your back quite unexpectedly. This happened now, too, with the exception that it didn't actually surprise Death...er...Mr. Smith as such.
"The prospective owner, er, climbed the golden staircase yesterday," the man said, unsollicited, his voice obviously infected by smoking and booze, "Are you interested in renting this particularly fine condominium?"
Mr. Smith pondered for a while. He knew nothing of golden staircases.
"YOU MEAN THIS PARTICULARLY FINE CONDOMINIUM HAS A GOLDEN STAIRCASE?" he asked, "I AM NOT SURE WHETHER I CAN AFFORD THAT." This was not part of the original plan.
"He slung his hook," the man said, slightly irritated, "went the way of all flesh, snuffed it, popped off, you know, abiit ad majores. Died."
To say that Mr. Smith looked puzzled would be an impossibility, what with him having no face to express puzzlement with. He was, nonetheless.
"You're a stranger to these parts, aren't you?" the man asked.
Mr. Smith nodded slowly, not quite certain. He wasn't exactly foreign or something, but no stranger either. Death comes everywhere - any time, any place, any parallel universe. Often simultaneously.
"Thought so," the man shrugged, "Well, are you interested in this fine piece of building or not?"
Mr. Smith nodded again. He definitely was. The golden staircase could be dealt with. Nothing that some bends and changes couldn't take care of - not when you're bending and changing reality, at least.
The man handed him a key, which made a CLUNK sound as it dropped into Mr. Smith's emaciated hand. The man looked over his shoulder for a second, as if haunted. It was as if he felt something unreachable, like an itch on his uvula. His business sense took over immediately, however, doing a great job at suppressing things that his senses told him were happening but his mind blatantly refused to believe.
"Rent to be paid weekly, every Friday," the proprietor said, coughing, "First three weeks in advance."
Mr. Smith kept on nodding.
"That means now."
"AH," Mr. Smith said, producing some crisp 100 dollar bills from somewhere within the many dark folds in his darkest of robes, "WILL A DOZEN OF THESE SUFFICE?"
The man suppressed a fit of hyperventilation, then nodded, trying not to be too enthusiastic about it.
"Sure, dude, sure," he said. "Er...if you need me I'll be at the races."
The house owner had a deep feeling of relief when he stepped into his car on the way to the nearest horse racing track. For some reason or other he felt as if he had escaped from something you couldn't normally have escaped from.
"MAN IS CERTAINLY AN ODD CREATURE," Mr. Smith considered as he unlocked the door to his new home. It opened without a sound. He made a mental note to spray it with corroding agent some day soon.
Terence had by now seen most of Death's sinister abode. He had discovered the kitchen, where he had put dog food in a bowl labelled "Toto". Somehow, it seemed a comforting thought that Death had a kitchen at all. It implied the ability to eat, which was one of Terence's favourite passtimes. Or was it?
A rather less comforting fact was that Death seemed to have no toilet.
There was only one room left for Terence to examine: The library. Cronos had never liked reading much ("No thanks, I already have a book") but Terence felt that, somehow, reading might prove to be an intellectually stimulating passtime. His breath stuck in his throat when he opened the heavy oaken door and beheld the shelves. The hinges whined proverbially.
It seemed impossible for the library to be contained within any house, whether it subjected itself to the regular space-time continuum or a bent one. The shelves passed beyond sight both up and in the distance. Rooms were not supposed to have horizons, but the library had one.
Shelves with books were alternated with ones containing hourglasses. Terence was pulled in by an overpowering sense of curiosity. So these were the books of life. The mortal time spent on earth by each and every human, and probably lots of other creatures too, was documented here. He heard the soft scribbling sounds of invisible quills writing in closed books. History was written here - or, rather, it was writing itself.
He pulled out a book below an hourglass that had only little sand in the top half and read. The cover had "Darren" artfully written on it.
"He went home quickly. He had just bought Michael Jackson's 'HIStory' album and couldn't wait to listen to it. Once he was home, he slammed the CD in the CD player, put on his headphones..."
He closed the book. The last grain of sand in the top half of Daryl's hourglass fell through, making rather more sound that it should have, like Stonehenge stones dropping on baby skulls.
Terence felt a tiny part of him being pulled away, off to reap a soul. It didn't take long. There was a sound of a scythe cleaving the air with a TWANG. Next instant it was back, feeling smug.
He put back the book. An invisible eraser did a job on the cover. A sound like leaves falling on the ground was audible far away yet near. A new name wrote itself on the cover, in golden ink.
"Cockroach named 'shjdfklzu' in Michael Jackson's air coccoon," it read.
There wasn't a lot of sand in its hourglass.
"Hi," a happy voice suddenly exclaimed next to Terence, giving the poor sod quite a start, "I am Derek, your floating library filing system, not made by Sirius Cybernetics."
There was a small monitor hovering in the air, a keyboard slightly below it. It bobbed up and down, sortof expectantly.
"Er..." Terence said.
"So you're the new Deaz," Derek deduced, "Well, I have to admit you do look healzier. More ham on the bone, sort of zing. Ish. Yeah. Definitely."
"Um..." Terence intoned.
"I suppose you don't know ze ropes yet, do you?" the floating library system inquired.
"Well..." Terence mumbled. "I see," Derek concluded.
There was a slight pause.
"Where were you made, then?" Terence asked.
"The Federal Republic of Germany," Derek said, speach circuits working overtime to emulate pride, sound circuits filling the background with the German national hymn, "I zought you would be able to tell by ze proverbial grundlichkeit wiz which I was made."
"Great," Terence said, "The first ever floating library system with a built-in German accent."
"Pardon me?" the system said, putting 'hurt' parameters through its vocal circuitry.
Terence decided to ignore the system's indignance. He knew it was bad news to be dragged into a discussion with any piece of logical circuitry unless it was capable of making a decent cup of tea or toasting crumpets.
"I want to have a look at Klarine Appledoor's life," he said, hoping this assignment would clear the machine's emotive registers, "If you don't mind, that is."
A fleeting vision of a female draped across rocks passed his mind. The computer worked for a tremendously brief instant of time. Then, within the blink of an eye, they were both located at a totally different location in the library.
Death travels in a dimension unhindered by time and space. Even his library filing system had this capacity built in - at the cost of the ability to pronounce the "th", which none of its designers had considered necessary anyway.
The library was even more uncomfortably huge this way. No ceiling was visible, and he could see horizons on two sides. Now he came to think of it, the floor wasn't visible, either. A new sort of mathematics would have to be devised to count the books. Terence decided it would be a wise idea to have someone else do the designing - if ever.
"Appledoor, Klarine. Human. Female," the floating library filing system chimed, "It's zere to your right."
Terence was glad to see there was still plenty of sand in the upper half of Klarine's hourglass. He took her book off the shelf and leafed through it, dreaming. For a moment he saw her again, flashing by him at something close to the speed of light. Without absorbing anything scribbled on the pages, he put the book back again.
"Loucynda," Terence said, "Loucynda Born-Naked-In-The-Meadows. Human. Female."
There was a very short period of intense silence, only broken in a very subtle way by the scribbling all around them, almost as omnipotent as the turning of the earth and only slightly more audible. There was a brief spell of dizziness, ended by the computer happily stating that the required file had been located.
Loucynda's hourglass was still more than half full. Terence sighed. He took her book and went to the page that wrote itself at the moment.
"Oh, Pete. That's nice. Don't stop. Yes. There. There! Yes! That's nice, too. No. Please keep my pants on, Pete. I have to tell you...no, Pete. Please don't.'
Pete looked up, his face flustered.
'What's that?' he asked, pointing at a huge, triple-locked and rather thoroughly rusty metal contraption around the girl's waist.
'I tried to tell you,' Loucynda said, 'but you were too busy.'
'Indeed, darling. No. Please don't go. Don't go. Please. Maybe you know a good locksmith or something. Maybe...'
There was the sound of a door being slammed shut, followed by hasty footsteps on the wet street outside.
She put her face in her hands and started weeping."
Terence closed the book, guilt-ridden. He had ruined the life of the girl he had loved. He had forgotten all about it recently, but apparently she hadn't. Or, rather, couldn't.
"Exit," he said.
"HMMM, THAT'S BETTER"
Mr. Smith grinned smugly to himself, opening and closing his front door repeatedly, listening to the marrow-of-bones-slicing sound of its hinges the same way an orchestra conductor would listen to the triangle part of a musical piece. This was better. More like, well, more like home.
"POTENT STUFF," he muttered, satisfied, looking with appraisal at the Instant-O-Rust aerosol.
He had barely walked back in and closed the door behind him - once more admiring his own work when the whine of the hinges caused the hall mirror to crack in two - when the doorbell rang.
"NOW WHO WOULD THAT BE?" he mused, click-clicking back to the door.
When he opened it he could once more not contain his satisfaction at hearing the ghastly noise. The dog that had just defecated on the "welcome" doormat had rather a different opinion about the sound.
"Don't you recognise me?" the dog said, looking at him expectantly. Mr. Smith had seen his share of weird things in his former, if you could refer to it as such, job. An expectant-looking dog wasn't one of them.
"NO, I DON'T BELIEVE I HAVE A TALKING WONDER DOG AMONG MY ACQUAINTANCES," said Mr. Smith after some painfully silent seconds had crawled by. "BELIEVE ME, I DON'T HAVE MANY FRIENDS SO I'M RATHER CERTAIN," he added as an afterthought.
The dog chuckled in a barkish way. It went all liquid brown stuff, then transformed itself into a word.
"GREAT?" Mr. Smith wondered.
"Yes," a mouth appearing in the top half of the "A" spoke, "I should think it's pretty obvious."
Apparently it wasn't. More rather painfully silent seconds ensued. The "A" muttered something under its breath, then went all bubbly brown liquid again, transforming itself into a leech.
Mr. Smith still wore the by now familiar expression of befuddlement.
"I AM VERY SORRY," he apologized, "BUT NO."
The word melted to the ground in a puddle that looked almost totally, but not quite, like diarrhoea. From it the form of a stunningly beautiful girl erected itself, slowly. It had the wrong colour initially, but after the proper curves and that sort of thing had meticulously shaped themselves, that also changed into a gorgeously tanned skin the kind of which one normally finds draped around awesomely lovely females. Some of the more private parts were covered by an alpine blue swimming suit that seemed made almost large enough not quite to burst. Around her body hung a banner that read "Miss Life".
She sighed. Obviously, the transformation had taken a lot of energy.
Mr. Smith sighed, too. He felt himself trying to cope with a feeling he had never had before. Due to his anatomy, or rather the extreme lack of any of its soft bits, he found it difficult to concentrate the feeling somewhere. He found himself grinding his teeth, which was something he was good at.
"I THINK I WOULD HAVE REMEMBERED YOU," he said eventually, "YOU'RE NOT...ER...THE SORT OF PERSON ONE WOULD TEND TO FORGET."
"I am Life," she revealed, her voice husky in the way no ordinary stunningly awesome girl's voice could ever manage to be, "known by all, remembered by few."
"AH," Mr. Smith said, "I SEE WE HAVE SOMETHING IN COMMON."
She had breathtakingly magnificent collar bones. He liked that in a girl. If only he would have had to reap the soul of a girl like that once...things might have been different then. He might have had a soulmate - even though he had no soul for her to mate with.
"Aren't you going to invite me in?" Life said, her voice soft like the velvet skin on the inside of a virgin's thighs. It tore Mr. Smith from his train of thoughts.
"ER...YES, OF COURSE," he stammered, "DO COME IN." He stepped back to allow her in. Life had done a pretty good job on its, or her, appearance. Even the soft scent of her long blonde hair left the impression of vast pine forests when it brushed him by. Mr. Smith caught himself thinking thoughts a man his age was no longer supposed to think.
He closed the door, oblivious to any satisfaction the terrifying cacophony of creaking hinges might have given him. He floated behind her luscious form as it settled in a comfortable couch in his living room. He saw her hand sprout a wine glass, that slowly filled itself with a dark-red liquid.
"I hear you've retired," she said, her voice reminiscent of soft winds brushing through summer meadows. Mr. Smith nodded his head.
"I also hear you've let some dim-wit mercenary annex hired gun take over," she added, her voice now rather too much like the sound of dead insect legs brushing against fallen autumn leaves at the onset of a gale. She sipped some of the wine.
"WELL," Mr. Smith said, "DEATH IS THE OTHER SIDE. HE'S SMART NOW. INTELLIGENT. QUITE THE CONTRARY TO WHAT HE WAS BEFORE, HE'S..."
"...quite pacifist, too," Life finished, "Terence, which is what he calls himself now, doesn't actually want to kill anyone if he can possibly avoid it."
The expression of amazed flummoxedness on Mr. Smith's face changed into the beginning of an embarrassed one.
"BUT...," he said, and thought better of it. You can talk about life, but not with it. You can converse with the living, but not with Life. It's like trying to speak with the dead, only different.
He gathered courage and tried anyway.
"I'VE BEEN IN THE REAPING LINE OF WORK FOR TOO LONG," he said, "I CAN'T FOR THE LIFE OF ME IMAGINE PEOPLE WANTING TO DO IT FOR THAT LONG. NOT ON YOUR LIFE. I WANTED TO COME TO LIFE."
Life looked at him. It was an accusing stare infinitely worse than that of a woman whose firstborn twins you've just run over with a combine harvester. Good thing Mr. Smith had in his previous occupation insisted on using scythes - he had never heard of combine harvesters or any other newfangled agricultural gadgets.
He wondered what Cronos, or Terence, or whatever name the man had given himself, was doing now...
Terence sat in the central hall of his new abode. In the hearth, a fire was flaming away happily. He had put up his feet and simply sat, staring at some undefined point in space. Sometimes his instinct would tell him someone's soul had to be reaped - he would feel a peculiar absence of something which would each time reach out, execute and return to base within a matter of microseconds.
About half an hour ago he had had to reap a wizard's soul, which had been dramatically different. Death has to turn up in person for important deaths, or at least those deemed important by some arcane law or other - cats, wizards and penguins. This particular wizard, a wizened old man who seemed to have spent at least a decade with one foot in the grave already, had not liked Terence's looks. "Too, hum, much ham on the, hum, bone", the old mage had snorted accusingly, just before Terence had reluctantly decapitated the man with a barely audible TWANG of his sharpest of scythes.
In the library, the German-built floating library filing system had gone through the ever repetitive but apparently not at all boring routine of removing a book, creating a new tome of history and filling the hourglass with a specific amount of finest sand. This specific old magician reincarnated as a witch, which says a lot about the Germans' sense of humour.
Terence got up and walked to and fro, guilt-ridden. He knew he had once truly relished the taste of death, that he had simply loved killing people and any other sentient beings, preferably at random. He remembered the adrenalin rush he had experienced before pulling triggers, pushing buttons and flicking switches. Now he just felt nauseated. He tried not to think of him having to be Death for millenium after millenium, aeon after aeon. Regular kills could be coped with. He had even learned not to wake up anymore when it happened. But wizards...he had never known there were so many blasted wizards around, nor that there were such an enormous amount of cats, each with nine lives! And penguins...he hadn't realised the hole in the ozone layer was killing them in such large quantities. All these creatures found it necessary to start pushing up daisies virtually all the time, making it quite impossible to, say, take a day off.
He had considered going on strike, but had been afraid of the consequences. 'No death' automatically meant 'too much life'. Before you knew it, you had inanimate objects dancing in the streets, trolleys terrorizing mankind. He'd read about it somewhere, and hadn't liked it.
This Death business, which had seemed quite brilliant at start, hadn't turned out for the better. And the worst thing was that he couldn't get used to the expression in the eyes of people whose souls he was about to reap.
He wandered into his bedroom. He had not yet gotten round to examining former Death's wardrobe, so he absent-mindedly opened its doors.
It was hard not to be sucked in. It seemed like a black hole compared to which other black holes looked like house party laser light shows. It was filled with dark robes, all of them identical.
Death hadn't merely been unfashionable - he'd been seriously de-fashionable in quite an utter way. And the robes weren't just black. They were the opposite of white light and then out the other way.
There was only one source of light in the yawning recesses of the enormous wardrobe. Well, it wasn't actually light as such, it was just that the deepest black of the door at the back of the cupboard was infinitely more like purest white than the rest of its contents.
It was little. The kind of door on which fits a little key.
Terence fumbled in his pockets. He found the keyring and touched the small credit card that was attached to it. He took it out and tried it.
The small door opened with a sound that sent shivers down Terence's every sensory nerve.
He had expected utter blackness beyond it.
He had been quite right. Except for the golden chariot with its six flaming horses.
He stepped through.
"SO YOU MEAN HE'S NO GOOD AT...ER...THE JOB?" Mr. Smith asked.
The form of the prodigiously exquisite female had been replaced by that of the talking wonder dog again. Life found it less strenuous and, anyway, life's a bitch.
"Not quite yet," the dog answered, "But he will be soon."
"Good afternoon," a robed figure at the reigns said.
"Hi," a red, horned figure chimed in.
The horses didn't even as much as whinny. They were probably too busy just being aflame.
"Hop in, dude," the horned little chap said, happily.
"Yes, do,"the robed person added, rather more formally.
Terence opened the chariot's door and entered. Its interior turned out to be as golden as the outside.
Before he knew it, both the robed and the horned figures moved the reigns, setting the chariot in motion. Quickly it gained momentum. Shortly afterwards it seemed to be floating, or flying. He glanced out of the window to see stars rushing by.
He picked up a leaflet captioned "Elizium Tours", published by a company called 'Devilishly Divine Inc'. It had a picture of his two coachmen on the cover. They were both smiling broadly - the red one fumbling his barbed tail, the other his beard.
Terence had actually expected music. Bach, perhaps, or Chopin. Possibly even a touch of Vangelis. He hadn't quite expected Joe Satriani's "One Big Rush". After a while, just when the good guitar bit started, the music faded away. A pre-recorded voice spoke.
"Welcome to 'Elizium Tours', brought to you by Devilishly Divine Incorporated, the company that nobody deemed possible. We have done all possible - and not just the humanly possible, ha ha - to bring you a tour of which the memory will last you a lifetime!"
The voice remained unheard for a while, during which one of those typical Wagnerian bits of music was played. When it once more faded away another voice spoke.
"We are sure thou hast not yet experienced anything like this in thy life. Now, thy death will start off with the most amazing experience thinkable. Thou willst visit the realm of hereafter, Valhalla, Heaven ('Or hell!', another voice yelled frantically in the background), the Great Plains, the Eternal Honeyjar, the Realm of the Dead, the Dungeon Dimensions...Elizium..."
There was another while of silence. As if on cue, the first couple of bars of Beethoven's Fifth were played. Then the voice returned.
"Do fasten thy seatbelts, and please refrain from smoking."
A 'click' signalled the end of the pre-recorded message. Terence discovered no seatbelts. Stars flashed by ever faster, until they became nothing more than blurry lines.
"WHAT DO YOU MEAN?" Mr. Smith asked.
"Have you told him," the dog inquired, "about the small key?"
"YES. MOST DISTINCTLY. CRONOS WARCHILD WOULD NEVER DISOBEY ME." He was absolutely certain about it. "I AM LIKE HIS SUPERIOR TO HIM," he added with confidence.
"To Cronos Warchild you are, yes," the dog sneered derisively, "but not to Terence."
Mr. Smith had a naturally pale complexion, partly accounted for by the contrast of off-white bone on the darkest of blackest robes. Nonetheless it became rapidly paler, at which even the dog couldn't help but gaze in intense bewilderment.
"IF...IF...IF HE DOES THAT..." Mr. Smith stuttered.
"...even Death may die," the dog finished for him, sounding in some way poetic.
The journey didn't take long, but nobody could guess at the distance the fiery chariot had covered, not even when taken wildly. The stars were no longer visible and instead there was something like fog - only much, much more intense, as if someone had put a whole world of clouds in a can and they were in it too.
Terence opened the chariot door and stepped out. The air was of a totally different quality, though he couldn't quite put his finger on it. There was a sign that appeared to float before him.
"Please don't litter", it said, "Don't urinate, spit or throw anything down. Thank you."
"Don't forget your tour guides, dude," a voice suddenly called from above. Terence turned around to look into the eyes of the horned red coachman. He had his hand extended, palm up.
Terence fumbled in some pockets and eventually retrieved a couple of thousand dollars in Monopoly money. The little red chap took it greedily, gave his bearded colleague a good 100 bucks and pocketed the rest, grinning inanely.
"Have fun, pal," the little man said, then cackled weirdly. The chariot was turned around and began to disappear in the distance. The bearded guy cast a last glance at Terence, a hint of sadness in his eyes. Mere seconds later the chariot was just a small fiery speck below, not much bigger than the stars until it totally vanished.
He was in heaven all right. Not just metaphorically speaking, but quite literally. He stood on soft clouds that required some getting used to in order for him to be able to walk. In the end he managed.
There was a large gate, built in Greek style. He approached it uncertainly. Why had Death expressly forbidden the use of the small key? Could his entering this mysterious Elizium perhaps have some vile consequences? He didn't know. The unknown had never attracted Cronos Warchild - but it most certainly exercised a most powerful form of incitement on Terence. He brushed aside any mental obstructions and entered the Domain.
He entered what seemed like an entirely different world, contained in what might just as well be an entirely different universe. He stood amid high grass that covered a hilltop. When he looked down he saw a small village where thin, unstable lines of smoke ascended from picturesque chimneys. There was a forest beyond it, and more hills. Much further in the distance he saw true mountains, their tops shrouded in clouds and snow. When he looked behind him to where he had come from his heart froze for an instant.
There was no gate, nor anything like it. There were another small village or two, some more patches of trees, and a blue sea in the far distance.
He had no idea where he had arrived.
"Wow," he gasped.
He also felt very different. This, so it turned out, was largely due to the fact that his clothes had changed. He wore a designer leopard-patterned loincloth of sorts. He also found his body changed. It was broad and muscular, hairy where it ought to be. Mysteriously, a hearing aid had attached itself to one of his ears. Obviously, he had changed back to his old self. He didn't know why - but, then again, he didn't know a lot for he was paid to fight and not to think.
"Hmpf," he snorted.
Mr. Smith was cleaning up dog shit. He had preferred Life's girl form much more - if not for the fact that it just happened to be most aesthetically pleasing, at least she didn't shit and wee-wee all over the place. He had just finished washing his spectral hands when the doorbell rang again.
"WHO WILL IT BE THIS TIME?" he thought aloud as he once more click-clicked to the door.
He opened it and looked out. He frowned at the sound of the hinges - there wasn't any. He saw fresh grease on them. Or was it dog's urine?
There was nobody to be seen except for a cyclist passing by that suddenly, subconsciously and for no apparent reason, found it necessary to peddle faster.
"Hey!" a voice yelled.
Mr. Smith looked around once more, somewhat more intense this time. His astral hearing told him someone had cried at the top of his voice - still, it had been all but silence.
"Yo! Down here!" the voice insisted.
Mr. Smith looked down. He saw nothing except for a very small goblin that was jumping up and down frenetically. He didn't actually see it as such, for even Death has filters built in that tell him not to believe his senses when seeing things that don't exist. Tiny crying goblins were among them, right next to purple elephants, friendly tax collectors and intelligent PE teachers.
There was a brief smell of ozone, a spell of smoke and a short crash of thunder.
In front of Death stood a man that seemed older than the universe itself. It seemed as if he could barely refrain himself from fading away. He wore a pale blue robe that was almost transparent insofar that you could just about see the trees through it and him. A beard was slung across his shoulder and still brushed the ground. On the man's hat sat a sundial, around his wrists hung several watches. In one hand he held an hourglass of an extraordinary quality even Death had never seen before. Never, that is, except for once, very, very long ago.
"FATHER?" Mr. Smith gasped, incredulously.
"Yes, son," the most ancient man said, his breath almost failing to pronounce the words, like an infant failing to blow out a torch.
"FATHER, IS THAT REALLY YOU?" Mr. Smith repeated, still not capable of believing it was really his progenitor - Time.
The man nodded. A tear welled up in an eye but remained invisible - naturally transparent liquids excreted by almost see-through people generally tend not to be all too detectable.
"FATHER!" Mr. Smith cried, and embraced Time as tenderly as is possible when you're basically a bunch of bones held together by a robe as dark as a black hole with broken headlights.
Time nodded, glancing at a couple of wristwatches nervously. He ticked on one of them and cursed below his breath.
"I have little time, son," the old man sighed, "for the time being I've been able to take some time off to take time by the forelock."
"UH?" Mr. Smith frowned.
"I've come to give a timely warning, son," the ancient man breathed, "I hope I'm in time, that it's not yet too late."
"WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT, DAD?"
Time winced. "Father, son, father," the vintage figure panted, "Let's not get too colloquial at this time, we've got to keep up appearances. For the time being, at least. We've done so since time out of mind."
"WHAT ABOUT IT, FATHER?"
"The new Death, son," Time puffed, "isn't doing well. He's got little time left."
"THE SMALL DOOR?"
"They have already brought him to Elizium."
"Indeed. And on your doormat, too."
There was a silence as heavy as a planet.
"THERE GOES MY DREAM, FATHER," Mr. Smith said, "GOODBYE, FLORIDA. GOODBYE, CONDO."
"Death should not go there. Duty calls out for you."
Time glanced at a watch, then at another.
"Oh heavens, the time!" Time exclaimed, voice filled with panic, "Have to fly. Sort things out, will you?"
"CERTAINLY, FATHER," Mr. Smith said solemnly, "WE WOULDN'T WANT THEM TO TAKE OVER, WOULD WE?"
Time nodded, then started to fade away.
A muted curse drifted across the borders of reality, bouncing off eddies in time and space.
A fresh wind entered Terence's nostrils. He hated it. He'd rather smell diesel fumes or toxic waste any day. The sun played tricks on his hair, like black flames of shadow moving in the breeze. He hated the sun. He'd much rather have fog, dark clouds and the kind of drizzle that soaks the very marrow of your bones. English weather, that was his cup of tea.
There were cute little birds sitting on tree branches singing positively lovely evening serenades. He hated bloody birds singing bloody evening serenades. He'd prefer the sound of soiled steam engines or the cacophony of a blood-stained massacre any time. There were brightly coloured flowers along the path on which he stood. He hated bright colours. He got off on drab grey, and there was no shade he loved more than the mixture of colon contents and gastric acids. He kicked some of them. Petals flew off.
So this was Elizium. The Hereafter. It was even worse than what mythology had made of it. He had a familiar sensation in his guts, the kind of feeling that told him to find something and eat it, even if it wasn't particularly edible. A squirrel just happened to fit the bill. A hand flashed, followed by the sound of a tiny neck breaking.
He jumped to alertness when he heard the sound of someone whistling a tune, somewhere behind him. It came closer. From behind a copse appeared a rather effeminate chap holding an apple. He appeared not to notice Terence and came closer. Just when Terence was about to do something rather aggressive, the chap held sideways the arm with the apple and put the back of his free hand against his own forehead.
"To be or not to be..." he cried, "that is the question!"
Terence looked at the man, dumbfounded.
"To be or not to be..." the other now repeated, "that is the question!"
Dumbfoundness was still omnipotently present on Terence's face. The people of Elizium were weird, and severely so at that.
"It's not even a question," Terence remarked, matter-of-fact.
The man looked at him in horror, utterly shocked.
"I'm Bill Tremblepike Junior, the famous playwright," he said proudly, "and whom might you be?"
"Terence," Terence said. He felt his name lacked something. Yes, it lacked ambi ants. He didn't quite know how to add it, though, so that's what he left it at.
The man took a snuffbox from within one of his ruffled sleeves. He opened the little shiny thing and took from it some white powder. He held it under his nose and sniffed.
Terence had seen this before, of course, back when he was still alive and had to try and eek out a livelihood (and, often, his American Express Traveller's Cheques) in the slums of many metropolises around the universe. People who sniffed white powder were weaklings who could resist anything but temptation, people who were too futile to cope with reality and instead chose to flee from it in some sort of self-styled hell - chop your breakfast on a mirror, that sort of thing.
Obviously the white powder had gotten to the effeminate chap's head already: He walked past Terence, nose up, completely ignoring him, rambling on about his father's supposed death, guilt, and his mother.
The real world, as far as Terence was concerned, had certainly become a better place the moment this guy had started his final voyage. If Elizium was full of fruitcakes like this, he was in for something.
He decided to walk to one of the villages where he reckoned the smoke that arose from the chimneys, in some delicate way of its own, resembled belches of industrial fumes - provided you'd let your imagination run away with them for a bit first.
The streets were empty, as if it was a ghost town. There was a sound of people, however, that came from behind a door that stood ajar. The word "Inn" was written above it. Terence could already imagine feeling at home here. Any place that had an inn couldn't possibly be too bad.
He was about to have that opinion drastically revised.
He walked in. The sound of people drinking and talking stopped quite instantly. It wasn't that they disliked strangers - as a matter of fact they tended to like them a lot as they usually brought exciting tales from distant Elizian corners - but this particular stranger wore a sufficient amount of nothing to be considered rude even to the weirdest and most ill-dressed of Elizians.
They looked him over disapprovingly. Suddenly, he felt rather uncomfortable. He looked down at his designer leopard-patterned loincloth. The sound of people drinking and talking filled the room again.
The gathering of townfolk was colourful to say the least. Cronos' mind hadn't yet taken over fully, so Terence recognized Marilyn Monroe, Freddie Mercury, Napoleon Bonaparte, Vincent van Gogh and Eve. He felt slightly relieved when he saw Adam's girl, for she wore only a maple leaf before her nether parts, her hair doing a good job at covering various other bits that needed covering.
"Gee," Terence said, "is Elvis here, too?"
All sounds ceased again, and the people looked at him disapprovingly again. It seemed to be a thing they liked doing a lot.
"Of course not," Terence muttered to himself, "he was abducted by aliens."
The girl in whom he had recognized Marilyn Monroe now came up to him. From nowhere in particular, a draft tore at her white dress, throwing it up a bit and displaying a lot of leg.
"Oops," she giggled, "poo-poo-pee-doo."
She walked past him, carrying with her the odour of too much perfume.
"Wait Mary!" the Napoleon clone said, "I don't want you to be my Waterloo!" The man rushed past Terence, out of the inn and after her.
"Mary's just taking advantage of Nappy O'Lion," the girl wearing nothing but hair and a maple leaf remarked, "I guess it's a habit that doesn't just stop when you die."
"Would you mind speaking up, dear," the Van Gogh lookalike said, "my hearing isn't quite what it used to be before I had my mental breakdown."
"Sure, Von Gogem," the First of Women sniggered.
"Thanks Ms. Ning," the half-deaf, totally dead artist said, "And to return the favour I'd like you to pose for a painting I'm doing at the moment."
Ms. Ning blushed, flattered, and asked, "What's it called?"
Von Gogem thought for a while. He looked at Terence, then said, "The Four Potato Eaters of the Apocalypse."
"Funny name," the Freddie Mercury imitation whispered to someone who sat nearby, "I wonder did he ssink of it himsself?"
Von Gogem looked sharply at the singer. If he set his mind to it, the artist heard much more than what most people thought he could.
"Would you mind stepping outside, Mr. Silver?" the ageing painter said.
The singer looked at the other with an air of arrogance, stroking his ridiculous moustache, then said, "Ssure. Why not. Who wantss to live forever?"
Before he knew it, Terence was quite alone. Obviously, most people found it more interesting to witness a good fist fight rather than gaze at the loincloth that was, to put it midly, showing rather a lot of what were definitely genitals of the proportions he had missed when checking himself over the other day.
More confident of himself, he walked outside to see how the fight was going down.
The streets were empty. It seemed like some kind of dream where you follow someone around a corner or outside a room and suddenly he turns out no longer to be there. The same kind of dream where you try to walk home but just find yourself walking the wrong way, the sort of dream where you try to run away from something but don't quite manage to increase your speed beyond that of a leisure stroll.
At the instant the thought had finished, an old man came around the corner. He sat in a wheelchair and looked remarkably much like Marlon Brando. The man stopped his wheelchair just before Terence and looked up.
"I'm Don Quattro Stagioni," he said, his voice as hoarse as rasped limestone and as polluted with an Italian accent as that of your average pizza parlour boss.
"Well, er...I'm Terence," Terence said. Again he felt something lacking, so he added, "the famous playwright."
The Don fumbled his chin with one hand. His other hand fumbled with something below the blanket that covered his lap and legs.
"You're not dead," the Don said, puzzled, "but you're not exactly alive either."
Other people were arriving on the scene now. He saw someone looking like Einstein, a French woman carrying her head and Bill Tremblepike as well. The latter looked rather spaced out. There were other people that looked as if they had been rather famous when they'd been alive, but Cronos' old brain was taking over too much to enable Terence to tie them to any names. There was a guy dressed in khaki colours with a ridiculous toothbrush moustache and lank black hair. Another man had the same sort of moustache but was dressed in black and a bowler hat instead. His shoes seemed too large, too.
The Don craned back his neck to whisper with someone who had appeared behind him. It was a rather fat, squat man smoking a thick cigar. Terence couldn't make out what they were talking about, but he did hear words like 'terminate', 'Death', 'offer he no can refuse' and 'now'.
A tiny voice in the back of his mind, probably part of his mercenary instincts that were taking over again, told him that these people might not want to be friends. At least not until he was actually dead.
The blanket was lifted from Don Quattro Stagioni's lap. It revealed one of those gangster-type machine guns.
"Obviously," Terence said, feeling his grip on the situation slipping away like an eel in a bucket of nose excreta, "you're not happy to see me."
This would have been the ideal spot to terminate the story, or at least this particular cluster of paragraphs. As it happens, however, something happened at that precise instant. Something that does not warrant an empty line to be included, even.
This was what happened.
There was a sudden gust of wind. They all looked around as if drawn by a supernatural force - which was probably not all too far from the truth. On the protruding, darkly silhouetted crest of a hill sky stood an even darker figure. A robe flapped around him in the wind, in his hands he held an agricultural tool usually associated with departing - in the metaphorical sense of the word.
"Wow. Drama," someone whispered below his slightly spaced-out breath.
Just to emphasize things, the wind increased sufficiently to transform the gently flapping of the black robe into something rather menacing.
Shivers went down a whole lot of spines.
"Any moment now there'll be a..."
There was a crack of lightning. It was soundless. By the time all eyes had grown used to the darkness again, the robed figure had disappeared from the hillcrest.
Death had never visited Elizium. Not the real Death, at least. He just gave people a complimentary one-way ticket, sponsored by Devilishly Divine Inc. He had decided today would have to be an exception. Either this, or they would take over.
Elizians had no natural affection towards Death. They had even considerably less of an affection towards the concept of the Reaper actually being in town. All of them had met him once, and none of them cared to get reacquainted.
As if nature had held her breath all the time, enthralled, she now suddenly decided to unleash the sound of thunder that had belonged to the flash of lightning. It would definitely not suffice merely to tell it was pretty damn loud. It was the sound of dinosaur herds trampling off, frightened by continents crashing into each other and mountains erupting quite spontaneously, the sky filled with a squadron of post-speed-of-sound jets that had decided quite conveniently to break the sound barrier at a location somewhere right between your ears.
The silence that ensued was just as intense as that which it followed. No bird dared utter a sound, no wolves dared even howl. The wind had died. Grass lay limp, trees stood leafless. Around Terence lay a couple of people, clutching their ears, whimpering.
"TERENCE," a voice like dried bones in Sahara sand whispered close to Terence's ear. There was no reaction. Terence stood as immovable as a Sodomic pillar of salt. Mr. Smith laid a bony hand on Terence's shoulder.
"Oh," Terence said, looking around, "I thought it would be you."
He turned a knob behind his ear.
"That was quite a noise, it was," he chuckled, "good thing I had my hearing aid turned down."
Mr. Smith nodded, then looked levelly.
"THAT'S NOT WHAT I CAME HERE FOR," he said.
"NOT QUITE, NO."
There was a tiny 'clunk' of a coin dropping. Terence fumbled in his pockets, only to find nothing.
"IS THIS WHAT YOU'RE LOOKING FOR?" Mr. Smith asked. He had always loved rhetorics. Two spectral fingers held a small credit card before Terence's nose, the rest of the key ring and other credits card bungling below it. He had always loved picking pockets, too, though in his line of work there had been few occasions to ply that particular trade.
Terence stared at the limp grass, at a loss for words. He experienced a most nauseating feeling he couldn't remember ever having felt before. It was guilt.
"I TOLD YOU NOT TO USE IT."
"YOU DID ANYWAY."
"YOU HAVE DISOBEYED ME, TERENCE. NOBODY HAS DONE THAT BEFORE AND DIED TO TELL ABOUT IT."
"Yes, but, you see..."
Terence shut up. It was a wise thing to do. Mr. Smith stared at him. Terence had never thought two empty eye sockets could inflict so much wrath.
"YOU HAVE ENTERED ELIZIUM. YOU'VE NEARLY CAUSED DEATH TO DIE. I HOPE YOU REALISE WHAT THE CONSEQUENCES WILL BE."
"YOU WILL NO LONGER BE DEATH."
"YOU WILL NO LONGER BE...IMMORTAL."
There was a pause, in which Terence tried to think. What with Cronos' brain having devolved to its old self again, this was hard.
"So I will...er...die, basically?" he asked.
"NO," Mr. Smith muttered, "I'M NOT ONE WHO CARRIES A GRUDGE."
"I've noticed that," Terence said, "you seem rather keen on your scythe instead."
Mr. Smith ground his teeth. It was something he was good at. He had missed it, really. Grinding teeth came with the Death job. He had missed the reaping business. Maybe things had turned out for the better anyway.
It seemed as if Mr. Smith, no, Death, thought long and hard about something.
"BACK TO EARTH THOU SHALT GO," Death intoned.
Terence looked up.
Death clicked his heels twice. There was a short period of time that seemed to extend itself across a long one. Terence thought he heard an angry, devilish voice yelling, "Told you it wouldn't work, dude!". Another voice replied, softly, "Eye guess that's what humans call My will."
After that, more sounds came. There was the sound of flames and horses, followed by thunder that rolled across the sky. There was the sound of wings beating the air fervently, of insect legs touching jar edges. He closed his eyes when the colours came, but it was of no avail - they seemed to penetrate his eyelids as if they were as transparent as the robes of Time. At first there was a bright yellow colour, then thick, red fluid dripped across everything. Then the whole thing faded away into utter blackness.
When Terence opened his eyes he heard the echo wearing off of spectral heels clicking. He though he could hear a horse, whinnying in the distance.
"YOU'RE BACK," Death said, "WE ARE BACK."
"I see," Terence said.
He sat on the ground, holding a shiny samurai sword in his hands. There weren't any blood stains on it. Death loomed over him in what any other person would no doubt have considered a pretty threatening way.
"BACK IN TIME, TOO," Death said, pride in his voice for having succeeded in bending the fabric of space and time sufficiently without his dad appearing to have noticed.
"You mean I didn't kill myself?"
Death slowly shook his head.
"NOT YET," he said.
"Gee," Terence said, somewhat aghast, "er...well...thanks."
"I GUESS WE COULD CALL IT EVEN NOW."
"Yeah," Terence said. Cronos' mind was taking over. Every bit that had been Terence was now slowly taking off.
"GOOD LUCK," Death said. Grinning, he added, "HAPPY HUNTING."
A spark lit in Cronos' eyes. Or perhaps it was the setting sun gleaming off his hearing aid - it was hard to tell.
There was a brief lapse of silence.
"No, not Terence," the mercenary annex hired gun said, "Cronos, if you don't mind."
He walked off into the sunset. A poor lonesome mercenary far away from home.
AND THIS IS NOT THE END. IT'S JUST THE BEGINNING.
Original written January and February 1993. Rehashed subtlely October 1995.