He Who Guides the Lost [Short Story]

I expected dying to hurt…

I watched my crumpled body mournfully, the gash in my neck still leaking blood that stained my white fur pink. The Traxian responsible frozen halfway through a running step. It only hurt when the knife got to my throat… Then it was like falling into a deep sleep.

I started to sob, mom was probably waiting for me at home with dinner… A dinner that would grow cold with my body.

A soft hand lighted upon my shoulder and I looked up with puffy eyes into a hood filled with darkness. A soft, sympathetic voice echoing from within.

“I am sorry… But it’s your time… Do not be afraid to mourn those you leave behind.”

My voice cracked as I spoke.

“Are you Death?”

The figure’s hood dipped in a solemn nod.

“Yes… I am Death.”

I couldn’t hold back as I burst into tears yet again, clutching at the helm of the figure’s robe as I did. I cursed the unfair world I lived in, cursed the Traxian responsible… But mostly, I cried.

A pair of gentle arms wrapped around me as Death knelt down and hugged me. My face pressed against a chest covered in a graphic T-shirt. Death’s soft voice consoled me.

“There there, let it out… Death is hard on the soul, but it’s harder on the living. Have you led a good life, Samuel?”

I nodded, eyes puffy with dry tears as I pushed away from the cloaked figure. Wiping my nose as I came to grips with my new reality.

“I tried to… But I always seemed to just make things worse…”

Death nodded slowly, sitting next to me. The hem of the cloak lifted revealing a pair of scuffed, white sneakers. Death offered me a strange black cigarette that was already lit. I accepted it graciously and smoking it seemed to help lift my fear and grief of death. Death himself didn’t smoke one, instead, he spoke.

“I remember my death very well… My planet was ravaged by a plague, by the time you showed symptoms it was already too late. But I didn’t die to the plague… No, I was brought down by the hand of my fellow man… Much like yourself…”

Death paused, as if in a memory.

“Me, a doctor and an engineer were holed up in my parent’s old grocery store. A gang of cannibals had surrounded us, only held off by our small amount of arms and ammunition. I remember a dream, of a cottage on a grassy hillside with the doctor and engineer living happily inside. No cannibals, no disease… Just happiness.”

Death’s hand had reflexively covered a part of their chest under the cloak. Then, with a sigh and a fluid motion, Death lowered his hood.

A young, human boy, no older than myself at sixteen gazed at my body with me, a melancholic look on his face.

“I’d been gutshot, at the time I had the dream I was pretty much already dead… But for a few minutes, I had clarity. I knew my life was worthless if I just laid there…”

Tears came to Death’s eyes to my immediate surprise.

“So, I told them to take the sewers and go, leave me behind to cover their retreat…”

A smile broke through the tears.

“I killed every last one of those bastards that tried to eat us. I died in the process, as you can no doubt see…”

Standing, Death offered me a hand, a sympathetic, sad smile gracing his lips.

“We’ve got a long journey ahead of us, we’d better get started.”

I took Death’s hand and stood, letting him lead me from the alleyway and into the sun-soaked street. I relished the feeling of the sun on my fur one last time as we stepped into the immaterium. The only indicator that we were still moving was a simple cobblestone path stretching off into the darkness and disappearing. A question burned in my mouth as I finally gathered the courage to ask.

“If you’re walking this path with me… Then who walked it with you?”

Death’s face drooped slightly. His voice coming out as barely a whisper.

“I walked this path alone, laying the cobbles as I went. It took me a very long time to find where it ended, but when I reached that burning staircase at the end…”

Death gestured off into the darkness.

“I couldn’t bring myself to walk up it… I turned around and walked all the way back where I met the soul of a little boy… The age of my brother before he passed…”

Death wiped his eyes.

“I couldn’t make him walk this long, winding path on his own… So I walked with him… And when he walked up that staircase, I turned back yet again. Ever since… I’ve led lost souls to the stairs, helped them pass on before turning back for another…”

As we rounded a bend, I was almost blinded by the brilliant, bright, burning staircase that reached off into the dark sky. Death smiled and gestured me forward.

Heart racing, I placed a foot on the first step. I looked back as Death turned to walk back. He stopped when I called out.

“What happens when I reach the top?”

Death didn’t respond for a moment, then, turning around, he smiled gently at me.

“I don’t know… I never walked up them.”

Then, with a swish of his cloak, Death had gone.

Looking up at the point where the ladder cut off, I gulped. Then I started climbing. With each step I felt lighter and lighter, until I started to float, no longer needing the stairs. I proceeded to float upwards at an ever-increasing pace. Blinding white light surrounding me as I rocketed upwards. Then I hit something that shattered like glass beneath my momentum…

And suddenly, my throat hurt. Like it really hurt. I opened my eyes, looking at the ceiling of the hospital room. Slowly I sat up and my mother threw her arms around me, sobbing into my shoulder.

“Mom? I thought I died…”

My voice was croaky and hoarse.

She shushed me, quietly but happily sobbing.

“You were dead! But you came back, don’t ever scare me like that again!”

My eyes slowly fell on the corner of the room, a young, teenage human in a cloak smiled at me, holding a freshly turned hourglass. I blinked and he was gone.

Republished with permission from the author, Reddit user u/teller_of_tall_tales. Image created with Stable Diffusion.

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