If you haven’t read the previous entries in the Strange Places series, you can find Part One: Strange Man here and the last entry, Part Three: A Sort of Safehouse, here.
Today’s story picks up right after Guidance has caught our protagonists trying to hideout in Harrison’s subconscious. He’s pulled them out of the world of the mind, and here we find them about to face their fate:
PART FOUR: COUNCIL OF THE AFTERLIFE
When Harrison came to, just moments after Misses Montgomery had been disguised as his father’s mistress and Avarellia as a dog inside his subconscious world, he was nowhere near the cave where he’d last remembered being. He was on his knees, chains around his wrists and ankles. On either side of him were the others–Mr. Strangeman, Averellia, Misses Montgomery, and Garth with axe still in hand–all in the same restraints as him. Their heads were hung and eyes closed, all except Garth. He was too proud to hang his head.
Harrison scanned his surroundings through hazy eyes; his vision was blurred as if he’d just woken up from a deep sleep. The ceiling seemed unreachable above them. Blue stained glass slabs let only starlight in, and a bell the size of a building hung heavy out of the darkness. In front of him were five massive stone chairs and a podium in place for each.
“Where are we?” Harrison whispered, nearly hissing through his teeth. No one answered at first, although Mr. Strangeman’s eyes opened and his head tilted toward Harrison just enough to see him but not look at him.
Garth finally broke the silence and said, “The Soul Tower. Home of the Council.”
“The Council?” Harrison tried to pull out of his chains while he spoke, failing to do so.
“The Council of the Afterlife,” Garth clarified. “Hades, Atropos, Hella, Guidance, and Death the Grimmest Reaper. We’re at the end of the road, kid. We’re done.”
The giant bell rung once; its sound was so loud that Harrison thought he saw the walls ripple. The ringing, for the seconds it was reverberating, overrode all of his senses. He closed his eyes and tried to tuck his ears into his shoulders, curling into himself. When the sound has passed and he looked up again, the stone chairs were filled.
Guidance, looking on Harrison with gentle eyes, sat in the middle seat. To his right was Hades, opaque-skinned, hair in a fiery ponytail, and blackened armor covering his body. Hades’ eyes narrowed, and his mouth tightened into a firm line. To Guidance’s left was Death, Grimmest of Reapers, with a scythe in hand and his robes moving as if always in a gentle breeze. His face was placid and aged with wrinkles. Mostly, he just looked tired.
On the far left was Atropos, a woman whose beauty was nearly blinding. Her skin was dark and she wore only a loosely draped toga. Hella, on the far right, was dressed in the armor of ancient Vikings—axe, sword, bow, and quiver all in tow. Her hair ran long in a braid and her hand was bearing a mug of dark brown fluid. She sipped her drink.
Harrison swore under his breath.
“Watch your language,” said Death, Grimmest of Reapers. He rolled his grey eyes. “This isn’t one of those frat parties your kind are famous for.”
“He’s only seventeen, old man,” said Hades in a rumbling growl. “He’s never been to a frat party.”
Atropos giggled and added, “He’s never even tasted alcohol.”
“Oh?” Hella extended her mug towards Harrison. “Want some?”
“Enough,” said Guidance. His voice filled the room like water and silence fell. The quiet remained for an uncomfortable length of time. Harrison felt smaller every second that passed until, at last, Guidance continued. “These four have stolen a soul, and the soul has cooperated with their scheme. Please, one of you,” he paused, scanned the prisoners, “enlighten the Council on your plan.”
“Let that one do it,” said Death, Grimmest of Reapers, and he pointed a bony finger at Mr. Strangeman. “It’s been a long time since I’ve heard his voice.” Guidance nodded in approval,
Mr. Strangeman gulped. He’d hoped his old commander wouldn’t care to remember the likes of him, a traitor, but Death doesn’t discriminate. “We had hoped to, uh….” Mr. Strangeman began, quietly. “We had hoped to leverage the boy in order to get our second chances.”
Hella scoffed. “Second chances,” she echoed Strangeman. “Reapers don’t get second chances.”
“Neither do angels,” interjected Hades. His gaze focused on Avarellia. “Especially not fallen angels.” Avarellia met his eyes without flinching.
“They aren’t the question,” said Atropos in the manner of one thinking out loud rather than one asserting her opinion. “Not really anyway. The humans are the ones in the balance.”
“Their names are Lucy Maud Montgomery and Garth of Bannockburn,” said Guidance. “And Harrison Sims, of course. Montgomery and Garth were judged in Limbo, by my own hand, and suffer their chosen fate, but Harrison was snatched from the mouth of the Great Abyss by Strangeman—which he did in his true reptilian form, for the record.”
Death, Grimmest of Reapers, shook his head and cast his eyes down. “Reckless,” he muttered.
The Council was quiet for a moment, its members considering their prisoners with heavy gazes. Atropos leaned on her podium, her chin rested easily in her palm, and she said, “Strangeman, Avarellia, your goal was to be reinstated? Reaper and angel again? Why would the boy care to help you willingly?”
“It wasn’t exactly willingly,” said Mr. Strangeman under his breath. “Not at first anyway.”
“He was doing it for information,” said Guidance. “Isn’t that right, Harrison?”
Harrison glanced at Mr. Strangeman for a hint of direction, but he wasn’t looking back. Harrison turned to Misses Montgomery instead. She gave him a soft, meaningful smile. “Be honest,” she whispered. “No use in deception now.”
The boy nodded. “I, uh,” he stammered, looking back at his frightful judges. He settled his eyes squarely on Guidance. “I wanted to know if my mom had died. If she’d survived the crash that killed me.”
“Do we know her fate?” asked Hella, looking to her cohorts. There was a shuffle of glances and mutters; only Guidance kept his tongue quiet and his attention on Harrison. The others waited for Guidance’s answer, all except Death, Grimmest of Reapers, for he knew firsthand Harrison’s mother’s fate, and his face was downcast.
“I understand you’re a poet, Harrison,” said Guidance.
Harrison bit his lip. He assumed the worst. “I want to be, but… If my mother…?”
“Read us something.”
The Council was quiet, curious that Guidance was avoiding the truth of the mother.“This is a waste of time,” shouted Garth. “Tell us our fate!”
Hades limply waved his hand. Out of thin air, chains appeared and wrapped around Garth’s mouth. The soldier of Bannockburn fell sideways and lay quiet. “The poem, child,” said Hades.
“I don’t have anything with me to read,” said Harrison, subtly looking over at Garth, afraid to stand up for him. Hades again waved his hand, placing before Harrison a crumpled sheet of paper. Harrison recognized it immediately; it was the poem he’d been writing at the riverside the day he died. He felt his wrist chains dissipate, allowing him to reach for the paper. “I don’t…. It’s not very good, I don’t think,” he said sheepishly.
“We’re the judges here,” said Guidance.
Death, Grimmest of Reapers, shrugged and said, “Yes, please read. I’m old. Ready to retire, I think. I could use some poetry in my life.”
“You wouldn’t really,” said Hella with a laugh. “Death can’t retire.”
“All things come to an end, even the end!”
“Enough,” said Guidance, firmer and louder than the last time. “Harrison, the poem.”
Harrison picked up the paper and took a deep breath.
“Why is someone lonely in a crowd,
Cold under the midday sun,
Quiet in the midst of conversation?
Who, like me, can see the light,
Can know the day is coming,
And wish to be asleep before sunrise?
Bravery is learned, he told me.
Bravery is earned, he would say.
‘Be brave,’ he said, when he went away.
Did I ever learn it?
Did I earn a thing?
Before I’m gone, I’ll have a say.
Before I’m gone, I’ll be brave.
Before I’m gone–”
Harrison lowered the paper, but didn’t look back up at the Council. “That’s all I have,” he said. “I never finished it.”
The Council of the Afterlife was wordless, and Harrison’s allied prisoners were just the same. Misses Montgomery had tears in her eyes.
“Let the boy go,” said Avarellia, her beautiful voice coming as an appreciated break in the quiet anticipation. “He did nothing wrong. If we don’t get our second chance, then he should.”
“He would have gone to your realm, Guidance,” said Death, Grimmest of Reapers. “You’re the Keeper of Limbo; it’s your call.”
Harrison finally raised his head to see Guidance’s expression. The giant being of white was studying the boy. “Harrison Sims,” said Guidance, letting the name hang in the air before he continued. “You, and your mother, deserve a second chance… I believe all of you do.”
Hades ponytail lit up in flames.“Even the traitors?” he spat.
“Yes, but on a condition.” Guidance pursed his lips and then nodded, confirming his own thought. “Before you’re gone, Harrison, you’ll have a say. You’ll be brave. You consider them four your friends, now?”
“I do,” said Harrison without hesitation. “Then you’ll save them. And if you save them, you save yourself.”
Harrison shook his head and tried to ask for clarification, but before he could, Guidance’s staff had hit the ground in a reverberating thud. Harrison’s stomach jumped into his throat and his mouth snapped shut. He had fallen, suddenly, and landed face first in tall, wet grass. Groaning, he pushed himself up onto his elbows and peered over the grass at the hillside beyond. The army of King Edward was barreling towards a mass of Scottish knights, and one battle cry was raised above the rest: Garth of Bannockburn’s. Harrison was in the year 1314, at the site of Garth’s death.
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