Welcome to the last chapter in this short story series, Strange Places. Before getting right into the story, I wanted to take a second of your time to say Happy Holidays! The season of love is upon us. After this post there will be one more before the end of the year, my annual year in review rant. After that, I’ll be taking a slightly extended hiatus from blogging and writing because my wife is set to give birth to our baby girl in JUST WEEKS. I wrote an open letter to our future daughter here on the blog, too, if you want to give that a read. I still can’t believe I’m going to be a dad…
Anyway, 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 Four: Council of the Afterlife, here. All the parts in between can be found by clicking the Blog link at the top of this page.
If you’re all caught up, here’s a quick recap: In part one, Harrison’s step father got in a wreck, and Harrison and his mother, though he didn’t know at first, both died. Harrison was soul-snatched by a group of supernatural beings and lost souls alike (Mr. Strangeman, Avarellia, Misses Montgomery, and Garth of Bannockburn) in order to use him as leverage to get their second chances. Eventually Harrison befriended the group and came to sympathize with their cause. So when they were inevitably caught and brought before the Council of the Afterlife (Guidance, Hades, Atropos, Hella, and Death, Grimmest of Reapers), Harrison stood up for them. Guidance decided that instead of a standard Limbo trial for Harrison, the better option was for him to be given the opportunity to give his friends the second chances they wanted. With that, Guidance hit the ground with his staff, filling Harrison’s ears with the unbridled noise of power. When he opened his eyes, he was in the year 1314, at the Battle of Bannockburn.
I won’t write any closing words this week, but don’t forget to subscribe, like, and share this post and blog with anyone who will listen. Now, enjoy the final part of Strange Places…
PART FIVE: THE TALE OF THE FALLEN FIVE
Harrison rose out of the mud like a zombie from the grave, his eyes wide, his face pale, his breath short. He was sprinting toward the Battle of Bannockburn, his arms flailing in the air. He was yelling, “Garth,” but his voice was lost to the sounds of battle as the two armies crashed into each other. One moment Harrison was in a clearing, the next he was surrounded by soldiers. He ducked low, dipping and weaving between weapons and horses, calling as loud as he could for the soon-to-die Garth of Bannockburn.
To his right, a man was lanced from his horse; blood splashed to the ground at Harrison’s feet. Harrison fell back as the horseman hit the ground in front of him, his lifeless eyes still open, staring. Harrison rolled over and tried to vomit into the mud, but you can’t vomit when you’re dead. Nauseous and scrambling back onto his feet, he saw the soldiers ahead of him clear away to open a wide space between the two armies.
On the far side of the opening there was huge soldier, a knight, with the broadest shoulders Harrison had ever seen and breath smoky and hot like fire. The other warrior stepping forward to fight the larger knight was none other than Garth, the man that would never again let go of his hammer if he stepped into battle as he was.
“Garth,” Harrison called again, fighting through the crowd to reach his friend, but when Garth turned and raised his facemask there was no recognition in his eyes.
“What are you doing here unarmed?” he growled.
“Garth, listen to me,” said Harrison breathlessly. “If you fight him, you’ll die. You have to believe me.”
Garth’s eyes turned aflame. “Who are you to condemn me to this fate?”
Harrison closed his eyes, searching his mind for something, for anything that would convince Garth to stay his weapon. He didn’t know how, but he had a memory of this fight. He could see every moment from the eyes of Garth of Bannockburn. When he opened his eyes again, Garth was stepping forward to meet his challenger, his killer. All Harrison could say was, “Let him strike first!”
The rain clouds gathered and let their raindrops fall heavier and faster than any Harrison had known. Garth’s enemy raised his axe, already soaked in death. Garth hesitated for a moment, only a moment, and the other soldier attacked first. Garth leaned back, avoiding the swing, and the enemy was thrown off balance, unsteady. Garth’s hammer came down heavy onto his enemy’s leg, but the other knight wasn’t done in so quickly. He slid away, dodging Garth’s downswing. They clashed again, but the enemy slid his axe up the hilt of Garth’s hammer and ripped it from his hands.
The next thing Garth of Bannockburn knew, he had been elbowed in the face, socked in the gut with the hilt of his killer’s weapon, and brought to his knees. He closed his eyes knowingly, and said a prayer before his enemy slayed him with one final blow.
Even in the noise of battle, Garth’s death was seen and heard. His allies rose up his name as a martyr. Garth of Bannockburn was seen and remembered by all, but Harrison looked away, his eyes closed.
The sound of Guidance’s staff echoed in his head, and all the world faded into a bright, white light.
“I failed,” said Harrison. He was on his knees in a world of empty whiteness as far as he could see in every direction. Guidance stood in front of him, a gentle expression on his face.
“No, child, you did not fail,” he said.
“But Garth died anyway. I had no idea what to say, or do.”
“You gave him pause, you made him consider the weight of his actions.” Guidance walked around Harrison, slowly circling him. “It was always his fate to die where he did, but what you gave him was peace that he had done all he could. His weapon was lost from his hand; he was freed.”
Harrison looked up at Guidance with eyes like those of a child seeing stars for the first time. “Where is he now?”
“That’s not for you to know, Harrison,” said Guidance. He walked in front of the boy, his white robes sweeping behind, and when he had passed the emptiness had been replaced by a plush green lawn with tall trees. A little way ahead there was a home that Harrison vaguely recognized.
“Is this the day she…” Harrison trailed off.
Guidance nodded. “April 24th, 1942.”
Walking up to the house was a woman in her sixties with a face different but not unlike the Misses Montgomery that Harrison had come to know. Harrison took two steps forward. “What do I do?”he asked.
“There’s nothing to be done here,” said Guidance. “Not really, anyway. What’s coming is a moment in history, a set point in eternity. Just talk to her, child, and see what you can glean from her words.”
Harrison walked across the yard and, sheepishly, he said, “Misses Montgomery?”
Lucy Maud Montgomery turned with a start, putting her hand on her chest. “Oh my,” she said, “How did you—“
“I just got a little lost,” said Harrison quickly, “but, I wanted to say hi. I’m a fan. Not a crazy fan or anything, just…” He sighed. “Just a fan.”
“Lost, eh?” Misses Montgomery raised an eyebrow.
“I love your books, ma’am.”
A wave of emotions washed over Misses Montgomery’s face, from a smile, to great sorrow, and finally to a kind frown. “Thank you, my dear,” she said quietly.
“Oh, are you…” Harrison hesitated, took a breath. “Are you all right?”
“Just a difficult day, is all,” she said. “But I wouldn’t burden you with my troubles.”
“No, I understand.” Harrison matched her tone. “I really understand.”
Misses Montgomery eyed him carefully and then said, “Which book is your favorite?”
“Oh, Anne of Green Gables,” he said. “The first one.” He took his backpack off and dug his copy out, tattered and well-loved. “I’ve read it a dozen times.”
“And it’s helped you, in some way?”
“In a lot of ways.”
Montgomery chuckled. “Then you’ll know that even if today has been hard on us, tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet, hm?”
Harrison smiled, but a teardrop was running down his cheek. He wiped it away. “Chapter twenty-one. That’s my favorite quote.”
“It might be one of mine, too,” she said, looking off into the distance. Her eyes were wistful.
“I’ll leave you be now, Misses Montgomery,” said Harrison. “Thank you for taking a moment to talk to me. And sorry for trespassing.”
“Oh,” Montgomery waved her hand as if to brush his apology away. “There are worse things. What was your name, again?”
“Harrison,” he said. “Harrison Sims.”
“Well, Mr. Sims, I sense something great about you. Hold onto that fire. Hold on to it as tight as you can.” With that, she turned and walked calmly, quietly, towards her home.
Guidance tapped his staff into the grass. “This is your final destination on this journey,” Harrison heard Guidance say in the recesses of his mind. “Make it count.”
Harrison could see it all, from the moment Mr. Strangeman and Avarellia met to the moment they lost everything, including their love. It wasn’t a chance meeting, it was a routine. Strangeman was a reaper once upon a time, and Avarellia was one of the soul processors for On High. He would show up every day with his take, and she would sort the souls out. It was tedious work. When Avarellia was first assigned the job, Strangeman offered help, an offer that was unheard of if not strictly prohibited, but Avarellia allowed it. Eventually, it became standard practice for them.
Angels and reapers don’t typically have shop talk; they don’t share the tricks of their trades. But Strangeman and Avarellia didn’t operate according to typical rules. Every story was passed between them, like when Strangeman collected the soul of a naked man who had been dancing to I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll and making pancakes when he slipped on spilled butter, or when Avarellia had to chase a rogue soul all the way to Golden Gates before she caught it and wrestled it to Guidance for redeliberation. The angel and the reaper became friends, confidants, and finally, they fell in love.
When they actually admitted their affections to each other or how long they’d been carrying on before that is impossible to know, given that time doesn’t exist in the supernatural realm. But, in human terms, the terms Harrison was seeing it in, it was a shotgun engagement.
And Guidance caught them.
It was simple terms: Leave each other behind and never speak again, or be banished to the depths of the Great Abyss—the wasteland at the fringe of all things, always in sight and never seen. Avarellia and Strangeman were firm in their love, at first, and together they were cast out. But without the thrill, the daily banter, the idle talk, their love dwindled and stooped, and eventually burnt out completely. It was slow, sometimes painful, and then, at last, it was numb.
That’s when Garth and Misses Montgomery got left in the Great Abyss and when the plan was hatched to get their second chances. Soon after that, Mr. Strangeman was in his true form, a dragon, snatching Harrison Sims out of the darkness.
When the echo of Guidance’s power faded from Harrison’s head, he was standing in front of two massive stone doors; there was writing along the edges of the stone in a language older than man, older than time. Harrison spun around, trying to grasp his surroundings, but there was nothing but a hallway. He felt a touch of deja vu. His goal was to somehow help Mr. Strangeman and Avarellia, that he knew, but he’d have to find them first. He leaned on the doors and, inexplicably, they opened with ease.
“I’ve been expecting you,” said Guidance with a smile. He was sitting alone in the same judgement hall of the Soul Tower that Harrison had been tied up in and put before the Council of the Afterlife. In front of Guidance were only Mr. Strangeman and Avarellia, but they weren’t the same two soul thieves that Harrison had come to know. In fact, this Strangeman and Avarellia didn’t even know they were going to steal a soul yet. “Welcome to the past,” Guidance continued. “As I understand it, you’re here to speak with and on behalf of the angel and the reaper?”
Harrison took two steps forward and paused. Strangeman looked back over his shoulder at the boy. Avarellia appeared no different, but the sharp suit wearing, tea drinking, wise-eyed Mr. Strangeman was instead pale-skinned and draped in a hulking black robe, a scythe in his hand. “Who are you?” he asked, his voice low and weighty.
“I’m a friend of yours,” said Harrison. “Or, I mean, I will be. Or would be.”
“How concise,” said Avarellia with a chuckle.
“He knows you two,” said Guidance. “You just don’t know him. Come, Harrison, say what you will.”
Harrison walked around Mr. Strangeman and Avarellia to look them in the eyes. They both leaned away, uncomfortable with Harrison’s familiarity. “Can you answer one question?” he asked them. They nodded. “If you had to choose between staying together and forgetting your love, or remembering your love and being forced apart, which would you choose?”
Guidance cleared his throat. “What are you doing, Harrison?” he asked quietly. Harrison didn’t answer.
“We’d stay together,” said Mr. Strangeman.
Avarellia leaned shoulder to shoulder with him, straining against her chained wrists. “We’d stay together,” she agreed.
“They never would have lost the connection, Guidance,” said Harrison, turning to look at the massive Keeper of Limbo. “It was part of the punishment, wasn’t it? Forcing them to forget?”
Guidance watched him carefully but said nothing.
“Stay together, you two,” said Harrison. “Stay together no matter—”
Before he could finish his sentence, the world around Harrison shifted and turned, raising his stomach into his throat. The layers were pulled back and rearranged until, finally, he was before the full Council of the Afterlife again, in his present day. The chains where his kidnappers-turned-allies once were now laid empty. It was just him, and Guidance was looking on him with a gentle smile. “Well done,” said Guidance.
Harrison looked at each of the Council members’ faces. “What happened to them? Garth and Misses Montgomery? Where’s Strangeman and Avarellia?”
“You changed all of their fates, child. All except the angel’s and the reaper’s.”
“They’re still hopelessly out of love, for now,” said Atropos. “But they’re together. That was all the second chance they needed, in the end.”
“But what’s left after all this,” said Hades, “is you.”
Hella took a drink of ale and said, “We can’t send him back to the world of humankind. Not after all this.”
“No,” agreed Guidance. “But neither can we punish him. He’s shown his heart to be good, and he’s shown he has the ability to grow, to change. Would you want to go back, Harrison? Bearing in mind that your mother is out of reach now.”
“No,” said Harrison without hesitation. “I’ve accepted my fate… Do whatever you’ll do to me.”
Guidance was thoughtful for a moment and then, with uncharacteristic uncertainty, he looked at Death, Grimmest of Reapers. “Do you have anything to add?”
Death looked on Harrison with wonder. It was an expression the others on the Council had never seen cross the Reaper’s face. “Tell me, young Harrison,” said Death with a slow, heavy voice. “Would you bear the mantle of one who harvests and protects the souls of the fallen?”
The Council of the Afterlife was shuttered with a gasp. “What are you saying?” asked Hades, fire licking his hair.
“I’m nearly done here,” said Death, Grimmest of Reapers. He was…smiling? “I’m ready to retire, to return to the dust from whence I came. And Harrison could livin up my place here when I’m gone. Ever since the suns first broke the horizons, someone from the natural worlds as held this scythe. Even I walked on green fields once.” Death drew a breath of longing. “Long ago.”
Atropos’ eyes darted back and forth between Harrison and Guidance. “Can that be done now?” she asked. “Does that tradition still hold?”
Guidance leaned back, his shoulders bowed as if burdened with a heavy weight. “Well,” he said, and then he waited another long, silent moment. “Would you want to take on the mantle of Grimmest of Reapers, Harrison?”
A small, genuine smile spread slowly across Harrison’s face until he was grinning. He took a moment, considered the possibilities. A gentle peace washed over his body, though there were tears in his eyes. “Yes,” he said softly. “I’ll do it.”
Death, Grimmest of Reapers, floated off his seat and down to Harrison. “Remember, my child,” he said. “Remember the balance of love and sadness you feel now. It will be your true north when you lose sight of your purpose.” With that, Death held out the scythe, and Harrison claimed it as his own.
The stolen soul had found its peace in the strangest of places.