Three men, a dog, and two cats sat around in a dark cave surrounded by candles. The oldest of them, born in the 14th century, and the only one currently still alive, pet the black cat resting on his shoulders. He had acquired this assistant recently, as his last one had passed on. The cat purred and played with his long blond hair that he always kept in a low braid. The next oldest one, born and died during the latter half of the 15th century, held his assistant in his arms, a cat who had worked with him since nearly as long as he'd been working. His blindfold covered his lack of eyes, a gesture meant more for the recently deceased than anyone standing near him now. The youngest of the three men, born at the end of the 15th century and died at the beginning of the 16th century, stood with his hairless dog, arms crossed and tapping his foot. They were waiting on their employer to return with a new apprentice. This one, they had been told was born near the end of the 20th century and died at the beginning of the 21st century. "Why is it taking so long?" The one with the dog said. "Perhaps they ran into some trouble. You took a while yourself." The blond man said. "I don't see why he needs any more apprentices. He already has us, and Thorn and I are certainly more than enough." The man with the dog said. The man with no eyes, Thorn, laughed. "Why do you always insist on insulting me, Ocelotl?" The blond man asked. "Why do you insist on taking time off to sleep around with living people, Conrí?" Ocelotl snapped back. "You're the laziest and the weakest. Or should we forget you're the only one here who revived someone you took pity on?" "Our master has stated since I have that ability naturally that I cannot be punished for it. I upset no order because I am part of that order." Conrí said, ignoring the first part of what Ocelotl said. "You're the one who's too cruel. You'd turn your blade toward any who so much as cowered in your presence. You have no tact and no bedside manner." "I am only tough when necessary, which is more often than you are. You treat every soul like a wilting flower." Ocelotl said. "You're too soft." Thorn didn't interrupt their argument. This petty feud between his two coworkers had been going on for centuries now. He didn't really care much about any of what they were talking about. They'd find something else to argue about soon enough anyway, he thought. He was more interested in what sort of person their master was bringing back. At present, there were only the three of them, and several centuries had passed since anyone new was brought in. The population was rapidly increasing though. Thorn wondered if that was part of it, but there was no way of knowing what their master's true reasons were. Their master could see millennia beyond anything they could. Whatever his plans were, they were likely beyond Thorn's comprehension. "We're not judges. It is our duty to be gentle." Conrí argued back with Ocelotl. "Too gentle with the wrong soul and you'll have a monster on your hands." Ocelotl said. While they argued, Thorn sensed three presences enter the room. It was that of his master, his master's faithful beast, and another he didn't recognize. The footsteps were much lighter than the others in the room, he noticed. Thorn greeted their master. "Master, welcome back." "Thorn, you have called the others already. Good." The Lord of Death spoke. Conrí and Ocelotl stopped their argument. They both bowed to him and spoke in unison. "Welcome home, Master." The two apprentices who could see stared at the stranger in their midst. They exchanged looks with each other, then looked back at the stranger. The stranger held tightly to a broke noose. Conrí spoke first. "Uh, Master, is this the new apprentice?" "Yes, this is Devon. He's wandered for three months now as a ghost and has finally settled enough to come here. I will have one of you do the training this time." Death said. "Master, are you sure you've gotten the right soul?" Conrí asked. "I think this one is a girl." "I am not a girl." The stranger said with a high pitched voice. The stranger's form was slender and curvy, even with the loose cloak Death had covered the stranger in. "You look like a girl to me." Conrí said. Death spoke. "Seems there was a mix up with this one. Your other half got the form wrong, but this one's mind is definitely that of a man. I can see what you cannot see, because I do not have eyes to be fooled by, nor ears." "Oh, so it is like that." Ocelotl said. He nudged Conrí. "It seems your soulmate is as incompetent as you are." "Don't speak ill of him. He gifted you life." Conrí rolled his eyes at Ocelotl. Then, he addressed the newcomer. "Regardless of what happened, you know now that you are dead, you can change your form if you want to." "What do you mean?" The stranger asked. "How would I do that?" "Just think of what you want, and you can become it." Ocelotl said. He shifted his own form to demonstrate, changing to that of a black jaguar. He laughed. "It's quite easy. Conrí can't because he's not dead and doesn't know much magic, but you can." The stranger closed his eyes. His form shifted to a taller, more masculine one. When the stranger spoke, his voice was deeper. "It worked?! It was that easy?" Ocelotl changed back. "Yes, very easy. The dead aren't bound by any physical limitations. Though if you remove your cloak, you will be even freer. But you won't be able to serve our master then." "Yeah, he told me if I served him I kept my physical body. I wasn't really looking forward to that part, but if I can just alter it..." The stranger, Devon, sighed. "This is bullshit. Why couldn't it be this easy when I was alive?" "Living is suffering. Being dead is easier." Ocelotl said. He shrugged. "So, that rope in your hand. Did you kill yourself?" Devon looked down at it. He sighed heavily. "Yeah, a few months ago." "Why'd you do it?" Thorn asked. "That body...my parents were making my life hell because of that." Devon let the rope hang at his side. "And then my girlfriend dumped me...and then I failed out of college. It was a shitty winter break at home. I had enough. How'd you guys die?" "Well, I'm not dead. I'm immortal." Conrí said. "One of my past lovers gifted me immortality." "Do you even remember her name?" Ocelotl joked. "Of course I do. I remember the name of everyone I have ever loved." Conrí said. "You must have an amazing memory then." Ocelotl said. "As for me, I was killed centuries ago in a place called Chololan. So much blood soaked the earth that day." "Really? Never heard of the place." Devon said. "Sounds about right." Ocelotl laughed, but his annoyance was clear on his face. "Well, that leaves you, Thorn." Thorn stepped closer to them, guiding himself along with his scythe, though he did not need to at this point. He was long accustomed to every part of this place, but he used his scythe like this out of habit wherever he was. "Ah, my death. That was many centuries ago. I fell in love with a princess, and her father discovered our secret. So, he had me executed." "You left out the part where you got her pregnant." Ocelotl said. Thorn laughed nervously. If he'd still been alive, his face would've flushed, but his pale, cold body hid his embarrassment for him. "Well, I didn't think that part was necessary to the story." "Was she cheating with you?" Devon asked. "Ah, no, she wasn't promised to anyone yet. That was actually the problem." Thorn said without explaining further. "But that's in the past now. I'm with my love every day now." "Really? Where is she?" Devon looked around. There were no women in the room, as far as Devon could see. "She's right here." Thorn held up the cat in his arms. "That's a cat." Devon said blankly. "Yes, she's in this form now. But we speak as we once did when I escort souls across the river of eternity. She can return to her human form then." Thorn explained. "But I thought you guys just said in death you can change your form whenever." Devon looked confused. "Not all may." Death walked over to one of the candles. He held his bony hand over the flame. "I told you before we came here that you will take on a servant some day to help you guide the spirits to the other side. Those who will assist you are bound to these forms by guilt or by choice, always canine or feline. Wandering and resting spirits, demons, and your kind can shift as you please. These spirits who will assist you are more limited by their own hearts. Most of these beasts you encounter are bound to their forms because of guilt, though a few are bound due to a strong desire to stay near someone. Thorn's lover and Ocelotl's daughter willingly chose to be their servants and bound themselves to these forms to stay near them. Conrí's servant is bound by his own guilt for the things he did in life, as is my servant." "I don't think I understand." Devon said. "Don't worry on it. You'll come to understand them more in time. Which brings us to why I called the three of you here. I am a busy man, and as the population of this planet has grown greatly in these past centuries, even with the three of you and all of my ghostly hounds and cats, I need more assistance. However, I have no time to train anyone. I will be leaving this task to one of you. This will serve as a test for the chosen one for future responsibilities, though you will all be tested eventually." Death moved away from the candles. "I haven't much time. Someone is already calling me. Now, to choose." "Master, the choice is obvious. I am your best apprentice. It should be me. I will ensure our newcomer has all the strength needed to take on the job." Ocelotl volunteered himself. "It can't be you. You're too hot-headed." Conrí objected. "Master, I can take him in. I am your oldest apprentice and have the most experience." "You'll lose him as soon as you get distracted by a pair of pretty eyes." Ocelotl said. "I will not! I've never lost track of anyone." Conrí snapped. "Oh, right, you just let them come back to life." Ocelotl said to get on his nerves. "That was only once." Conrí said. "It was more than once, wasn't it?" Ocelotl crossed his arms. "There are things you do not know about that I do not need to answer to you about." Conrí spoke vaguely rather than deny the accusation. "Our master knows why I had no choice in that matter." The Lord of Death walked past them both. Thorn felt his master's presence before him. "Yes, Master?" Thorn asked. "For this test, it shall be you." Death said. Thorn bowed his head. "As you wish, my master." "Thorn?" Conrí titled his head. "I suppose I should've expected you'd choose him." "Why Thorn?" Ocelotl asked. "You are much too rough at the moment. Though you have softened considerably since I first took you in and you could succeed at this task, I'd prefer your heart soften more first before I entrust a new apprentice to you." Death said. "What of Conrí?" Ocelotl asked him. "Conrí is not one I can guide nor control. As well as he may do the task at hand, for this first attempt, the best choice will be the most predictable." Death put his hand on Thorn's shoulder. "Thorn, you are best suited for this at present. Do you accept this task?" "Yes, Master. I am honored to be chosen." Thorn said. "Good, good. Now, the last part. Devon, come with me." Death walked back toward the candles. He pointed to the broken noose in Devon's hand. "The noose. Let me see it." Devon handed the skeletal figure the long rope. Death took the noose in his hands and transformed it into a giant scythe. He handed the scythe to Devon. "This blade is yours. Those who are irredeemable, who's souls cannot be consoled and turn into violent monsters, for them alone you will use this blade. For all other souls, you shall guide them across the river. Thorn will teach you how to read the flames and find a beast to assist you." Devon held up the scythe and looked at his own reflection. Pleased with what he saw, he smiled. "Yes, Master." "Thorn, I leave him in your care." Death said. "Now, I must go." The four men bowed to their master as he left. "So, we are now four." Ocelotl said. "But why did he choose you? He hasn't taken on a new apprentice in centuries." Devon stopped looking over his scythe. He stood up straight. "He said I had some qualities that made me different from his other apprentices, and that would make me useful. But he didn't say what those qualities were..." "Hmm, I can think of a few." Thorn said. "Really?" Conrí asked. "What are they?" "We've never had one that was born a different sex before, and none of us died by suicide either. Those are unique traits. That history could be useful in soothing very particular ghosts, much the same as some ghosts react well to my blindness." "Oh, that makes sense. I would think the master was most after the latter aspect. Those who died by suicide can be particularly difficult to help move on. Many of them have become our beasts here on the island, and others turned to demons or belligerent ghosts." Conrí said. "So, by demons, what do you mean? People become demons?" Devon asked. Thorn explained. "Ghosts who refuse to move on who become full of rage can turn into monsters. Once this happens, it cannot be undone. That's what our scythes are for. We have to destroy their souls. Part of our job is finding people before they get to that point, and making sure we don't have to use these. Though it's alright, if you're really certain they're about to turn into a demon, to go ahead and use your scythe." "What do they do? Can they hurt other people?" Devon asked Thorn. "The living and the dead. Unless one has spiritual powers or is near death, humans can't see demons anymore. Most humans in this era don't have any magic left in them and the beings who are quite magical avoid and hide from humans at every chance. But lack of spiritual sight doesn't mean you can't be hurt by them. A demon's favorite way to hurt a living person is with freak accidents and minor natural disasters. Think of a car crash that somehow involves ten cars and multiple pedestrians or an unexpected flood that destroys several houses. That is their level of power. They seek to kill those near them for their real goal." Thorn said. "We handle death all the time. Dying is normal, so killing doesn't upset the natural order. Every day, death must occur for life to continue and keep the balance of the planet. What makes a demon dangerous is that demons devour souls. If they devour them, we can't rescue the devoured spirits. They're gone." "Scary." Devon shuttered. "So even in death, we can still sort of die again?" "Yes, and if you don't act quick enough, your scythe won't be able to protect you." Thorn said. He raised his own scythe in the air. "If your gut tells you to strike, never hesitate." Devon stood beside Thorn. Thorn could sense Devon was staring at his blindhold. Ocelotl moved away from them and toward the candles. He put his hand over a dwindling flame. "I'll be on my way now. Best of luck, Thorn. Looks like I've got a nasty scene to attend to." "Nasty?" Conrí asked. "Train tracks." Ocelotl sighed. "Tracks and streets, always the worst." "At least we don't have to deal with as many serial killers as before." Conrí shrugged. "Was this one an accident or suicide?" Ocelotl shook his head and twirled his scythe around. "Neither. I'll be paying the other party a visit soon enough too." Ocelotl left with his dog companion at his side through a tunnel. "What does that mean?" Devon asked Thorn. "Murder." Thorn said. "Poor thing. Hopefully, it was instant. Some of the ones we've picked up from tracks before took so long to die." Conrí went over to the same candle. He put his hand over the flame just as the light flickered out. "Oh. Well, that's very unfortunate." "It was slow?" Devon asked. Conrí nodded. He made a motion across his stomach. "You'd be surprised how long you can live in two pieces." "So, um, I'm gonna have to see stuff like that up close and personal....right?" Devon asked, laughing nervously. Conrí nodded. "Unless you're dealing with a wandering spirit, like you yourself were, you'll usually retrieve spirits at their place of death." "No nice graveyards to go to where they're already buried?" Devon jokingly asked. "Unless they died there, you'll never find a ghost in a graveyard." Conrí shrugged. "You'll get used to it. Though I suppose it will be harder for you. You grew up in an era and place where seeing violent deaths was not so common. When I still lived among the living, I had a duty to kill." "To kill?!" Devon's eyes widened. "I was a knight a long time ago. I sent many people to our master. People were always fighting over things then. I suppose they still do now, but I doubt the fear of hunger or a bad winter is something you would know." Conrí said. Devon looked down. "No, I was never hungry. I've known people who were, at school and my town had a small group of homeless people we'd always see around. We still had food banks and other places to get food though. I never thought about what they do when it gets cold. We get a lot of snow." Conrí put his hand over one of the flames. "Even in your place of birth in this era, the least fortunate still freeze to death or die of illnesses. What's different is in your home, that should be mostly avoidable. At this point, the wealthiest places operate on cruelty. But I suppose my king also did. He hoarded most of the country's wealth for himself. Most rulers across time have been unjust." A shadowy dog approached Conrí. He kneeled down to it and patted it on the head. "This one is an easy case. Why don't you take it?" The beast looked up at him, and then sunk underneath the earth. Devon looked around for the creature. "Where'd it go?" "Off to do work. We prioritize the more difficult cases. The beasts can handle guiding most spirits on their own." Conrí stood back up. "An ill old woman who's finished every item on her bucket list and died surrounded by family isn't going to need us. She'll come willingly. She only needs to be lead." "So what do we respond to exactly?" Thorn answered Devon. "Pain that binds." "Pain?" Conrí checked another flame. "Suicides, murders, unexpected deaths, people holding deep regrets and self-hatred, and of course, people who enjoy harming others." "Wait, what do you mean enjoy harming...?" Devon asked. Thorn responded. "People who enjoy harming others are often rageful at death, because their game is over. Those that want to keep harming others turn into monsters and seek to torment the living and the dead. They're quicker transformations than those who die full of rage at their demise. You may be able to save a murder victim from becoming a hateful demon, but you can't do much for someone who enjoys harm for the sake of harm. Your scythe, that's who you will use it against most. Not every criminal you encounter is this though. Only a select few among humanity are that vile." "Murder seems pretty common to me." Devon said. "It is. I also told you I've taken life. My intentions were not out of enjoyment. I was protecting my kingdom, just the same as the men I killed were seeking to protect theirs. You'll encounter a myriad of circumstances. Most will not be that kind of person, I assure you. I've been doing this for centuries. Most of what you'll encounter are spirits who were like yourself. And yes, many of them will have unpleasant deaths." "You can always take out your eyes if you don't want to see them." Thorn suggested, smiling. "Did you do that?" Devon asked Thorn. "Oh, no, not because of that. Haha, my own death was quite gruesome anyway. I was blind for the last part of my life, but in death, I regained my sight. I didn't really want it. It got in the way of my judgment. So I got rid of them. Our master doesn't need them, so I don't see a need for them either." Thorn lifted his blindfold and opened his eyelids to reveal empty sockets. He could feel and hear Devon jump back. "Um, wow. You...you just took them out or...tranformed to not have them?" "I took them out and gave them to our master." Thorn grinned. He lowered the blindfold. "But this seems to scare some spirits, so I wear this for them. Others are quite happy to find I don't have eyes." Conrí stepped away from the candles. He leaned close in Thorn's face and said. "I certainly don't mind it, but it's a shame you can't see me. It would make seducing you much easier." Thorn playfully put his scythe between them, still smiling. "You have a lover. Don't you think you should attend to him if you're not going to get back to work?" "He doesn't mind." Conrí turned his attention to Thorn's cat companion. "Your lady can see eye to eye with me on the boat at least." The cat meowed at him and rubbed against Thorn. Thorn laughed. "Ocelotl is right. You really are too easily distracted. Perhaps you should die. That might calm you down some." "Mm...afraid I can't. I've seen my future in someone else's crossroads. I'll be alive when this world meets its end." Conrí looked over at Devon. "Devon, was it? You're pretty cute too." Thorn sensed Devon's embarrassment. He got between them. Thorn lightly tapped Conrí with his scythe, laughing again. "Get back to work, you devious, little wolf." "Alright, alright. I'll leave him be." Conrí stepped back and puts his hands in the air. "Actually, what time is it? I have a date with Osán today." "Good grief. You were so busy flirting you forgot about a date with your own soulmate?" Thorn sighed. Conrí laughed and scratched the back of his head. "I'm sure he probably got distracted too. Don't tell Ocelotl I went on a date today. He'll get onto me for not working hard." "You do work less hours than us already." Thorn reminded him. "I can't help it. I am alive. I need to sleep and eat and such, and my love is also alive." Conrí waved as he walked towards one of the caverns. "Good luck with everything." Thorn waved goodbye to him. Devon, face flushed, cleared his throat. "Um...he's um, something." "He's a flirt, you mean. Just tell him to stop it if he's bothering you." Thorn walked over to the flames. "But he is a very hard worker. He may work less hours than the rest of us, but he handles the cases even our master cannot." "Oh, is he that good at this?" Devon asked. "Yes." Thorn reached back and took hold of Devon's wrist. "Come. We have to get to work. I need your hand." "My hand?" "Place it over the flame and empty your mind. Let the images flow into you." Thorn instructed him. Devon did as he was told. He pulled his hand away quickly. "What is this?!" "This is a person's life. This young woman is about to die soon. The candles show us their past and their coming death. We read the candles before we attend to the person, so we know their circumstances in life." Thorn took Devon's hand again and held it in place over the flame. "Don't be afraid of what you see. Let their memories flow into you. We must console this person when we go to meet them." Devon's body shook. "Oh my god...they're...this can't be real! Are we really going to see that?!" Thorn let go of his hand. "Yes. I will do all the work today. You will watch and observe me. That's how we will do this until I think you're ready to give it a try. Prepare your mind and heart. This one is...especially awful. Most won't be this hard." "What if we can't help?" "We'll report back to our master. He'll go, or Conrí will." Thorn led him out of the cave. "Let's go now." The land shifted under their feet. Soon, they were in a basement. The spirit of a young woman cried in a corner over part of the remains of her body. A man, still living, was butchering her body, bit by bit, and grinding it up. Dogs barked loudly outside. The man's skill and apathy about the situation made it apparent he had done this before. The floor was covered in blood. Bottles of bleach were stored together next to a drain in the middle of the floor. Along the walls were chains and dangling knives. Devon thought to himself he would've fainted from shock if he were still alive, or vomited. This man had clearly customized the room for this very purpose. Devon raised his scythe. Thorn stopped him. "You cannot use that on the living. He'll be ours eventually." "But what if he goes on to kill more people?! Can't we stop him?" Devon asked. "That is not our role. We are not prosecutors nor judges of the living. Our purpose is to guide, and only use our weapons in defense against those within our realm. This is a matter for the living to solve." Thorn motioned at the woman. "We are here for her, and only her." Thorn approached the woman. Her fear and sadness was so intense, Thorn was overwhelmed by it. The woman had been trapped and tortured by this man for six months straight. She was barely eighteen at the time, having become homeless shortly after being thrown out by her parents over a petty argument. Thorn did not know if her parents searched for her or not, but she was caught by the man after being on the streets for only two nights. She fell asleep on a park bench and awoke in the man's basement, strapped to a table. Her six months of hell began that morning, with each day, the man coming up with new ways to torment her. Near the end, she wished for death and prayed for a miracle. No rescuers came. No one knew where she was except the strange man she had never seen before that morning. "I am sorry no one was able to rescue you. We have come to take you somewhere where you can't be hurt anymore." Thorn told the woman. The woman looked up at him. He couldn't see her face, but he sensed her fear grew at seeing him. "Who are you?" "I am a servant of Death. I've come to guide your spirit." Thorn put his hand on her shoulder. "Come. I promise you, where we are going is a safe place. Your grandparents are already there, and your pets who have passed on. They will be there with you." Her fear shifted to sadness. "But why did this happen to me? What did I do wrong?" "You didn't do anything wrong." Thorn hugged her. "This is a consequence of free will. We all have it, and this man chose to use his for evil. You were unfortunately at the wrong place at the wrong time. You didn't do anything wrong. He did. You didn't deserve this." "But if...if my parents hadn't've thrown me out that night, if we didn't get into a fight..." "Things might have turned out differently, yes. But neither of your parents, nor you could have known this is what would happen that day." Thorn said. "I bet they don't care. They probably didn't look for me. They don't care. They've never cared. Nobody cared about me..." The woman cried more. Thorn recalled the woman's life. She was at odds with her parents most of the time, but he didn't sense hatred from them. He doubted her parents really didn't care. He couldn't know without reading their candles or going to them personally, but from what he saw in her memory of that fateful night, he wagered the parents regreted their decision not long after casting her out. Both sides had thrown out especially cruel words at each other that night, for reasons that had nothing to do with each other. The woman was stressed she had received two more college rejection letters in the mail that morning. Layoffs were being discussed at her father's workplace. Her parents were on edge about the matter. Their words that night seemed, from what Thorn could tell, to be more about their own internal fears and frustrations than about each other. "They cared, but they weren't good at showing it." Thorn had an idea. It was risky. This could backfire on him and make the situation worse, but it may be what she needed to move on. He decided to take the risk. "Why don't we go see your parents?" The woman stopped crying for a moment. She agreed to go. Thorn called Devon over. "We're going somewhere else. Stay close to me." Devon rushed off, glad to be leaving the location. Thorn took them to the woman's old home. Her parents were at the dining table. The woman's father finished up a call and put the cordless phone down on the table. "Still nothing. They can't find her anywhere." Her father said. "Where could she have gone? How can it be months and they don't know anything?" The woman's mother had become very pale over those six months. Her hair had more grays. "I don't think she's here anymore." "You think she went out of country?" The father asked. The mother shook her head. "No, I don't think she's anywhere. Something, something's definitely happened to her. She wouldn't leave things like that." "We did throw her out. She's an adult now. She might've..." The mother closed her eyes. "No, that's not it. She hadn't contacted any of her old friends. She's not working anywhere. She's not anywhere. She's not here. When the police find her...she'll be..." "We don't know that. Maybe she got involved in something she can't get out of right now. Just because we can't find her doesn't mean..." "It's been six months. She's gone." The woman's mother got up from the table. "You already know. I know why you've been putting so much extra money into savings. It's for the coffin you know you'll see." The father went quiet. He got up and went outside. The mother stood in front of one of the cabinets. She opened it up and took out a mug with a high school's mascot on it. She filled the cup with her tears. The young woman went over to her mother and tried to hug her. She couldn't touch her mother. "She can't hear me or see me, can she?" "No. You might be able to get her to, if you try really hard, but you may end up scaring her." Thorn told her. He walked over to the older woman and touched her forehead. Devon watched him closely. A tiny galaxy appeared above her head. Thorn held his hands above them, reading them the same as he read the flames. What he saw gave him new things to weigh. There was no good end for the woman, but one option would make his work in the future easier and have a higher guarantee of ensuring she could be guided. "You can see your mother more easily in dreams. She won't be afraid there. If you come to the other side, you can always visit her in her dreams and you can tell her all the things you never got a chance to say. You can even tell her about what happened to you and how she might be able to find you." "Can I really?" The woman asked. "If you keep at it, there's a good chance that man will be caught." Thorn hid away the tiny stars. "I can't revive you, and I cannot undo what was been done to you. But there is a chance that you can stop it from happening to others by that man's hands. They will eventually find some of your remains, but whether they catch that man is not guaranteed. The choice is yours what you want to do. Even in death, you will always retain your free will." The woman looked at her mother again, then went to Thorn's side. "I will go." "Good. You will not regret coming. And that man, I can also assure you, will never get to where you are going." Thorn shifted the lands beneath his feet. They were now near a river of glowing blue. The shimmering blue lights sparkled like tiny stars. A boat floated down to them. Thorn's cat companion lept onto the boat and transformed into a woman with an ore, fully covered by a see-through black veil. Thorn helped the young woman onto the boat. Devon got on with them. Thorn's lover and companion controlled the boat. She led them to their destination. When they stopped, they reached a sunny place with beautiful flowers. Two elderly couples waited along the water's edge along with two dogs. The woman recognized them immediately. She jumped out of the boat and rushed over to them. The pain and fear that she had been carrying with her vanished. Thorn spoke to his beloved. "We can go back now." "What did you see in that old woman's mind? You seemed distressed about it." Thorn's lover asked him. "She has only one fork remaining in her fate. If her daughter does not act on seeing her in her dreams, she will die of a heart attack when the police give her the news about finding the remains. If her daughter sees her in her dreams, she will be more prepared when that day comes, but she will only live another year after that. Her husband is definitely going to lose his job, and they'll be on the streets themselves soon enough when neither of them can get new jobs in time. She'll die of pneumonia in a homeless shelter." Thorn said. "How sad." The woman in the black veil said. "How do you know all this?" Devon asked. "I read her crossroads." Thorn said. "That is something I will teach you eventually. Sometimes, when dealing with the dead, we must also deal with the living in some way. Fates don't break apart at death. You may sometimes encounter spirits whose crossroads enables them to return to life. That happens more often in this era. The doctors and scientists have gotten really good at finding ways to undo or push off death." "What do you mean by crossroads?" "You are born with free will, but so is everyone else. Because of this, while you can control a lot of trivial things in your life, there's only a few major events in your life you can actually significantly shift your fate over. We call these crossroads and they always greatly affect at least two people, if not more. Everyone is born with a different number of them, and as you age, you have less of them until there is only one fate left. Say you were to drown. For many, this is a crossroad. You may be revived by another person, or maybe they're too late to save you. Both people's decisions affect the outcome." Thorn explained to him. "Conrí accidentally saw several of his while attending to a spirit. One of many reasons a living person really shouldn't be doing this job, but our master must have a plan in mind for him. He is far wiser than we can comprehend." Devon listened along. "I wonder what my other fates were." "Since you've already died, we can't see that anymore. You still have crossroads if you are on the cusp of death, but once you're truly part of this realm, that isn't something you can see anymore. We have affects on fate, but more as actors in moving fates along. We are bound by a new order." Thorn said. Devon tilted his head. "But if we're making the decisions of our own will, why are we different?" "Our decisions should not be for our own will, but for the order of the earth. That's why I have to train you. Before you died, you served yourself. Once you accepted this role, you began serving the Lord of Death, who himself serves a greater purpose. There is a chaotic order to this world and the universe. We all serve that. You don't belong to you anymore." Thorn held the blade end of his scythe out toward Devon. "Of course, you have the choice to leave this and go where that woman went. We can turn the boat around and drop you off on the shore." "No, I want...I want to do this. I just...I don't think I understand everything." Devon put his own scythe in between himself and Thorn's blade. Thorn's companion laughed at Devon. "So demanding for answers. You're certainly from this era. So nosy." Devon looked back at her. He hadn't gotten a good look at her before. She was a very beautiful woman. It was strange to think she'd been a cat up until they got on the boat. Devon responded to her. "What's wrong with wanting to know the truth?" "It's not that you want the truth. It's that you demand it immediately without doing any work and think you are entitled to it." She directed the boat effortlessly with her large ore. Devon didn't know how to take her words. "I don't think I was told your name." "You weren't. And you didn't bother asking that." She pointed out. "Oh, I guess I didn't. Um, what is your name?" Devon asked. The woman in the black veil laughed loudly. "I don't have to tell you!" "What?!" Devon looked over at Thorn, confused. "I don't get what's happening." Thorn laughed with her. "Her name is Rampion. She's only playing with you." "Thorn, how could you? I wanted to see how long I could make him suffer without knowing." She grinned. "He's a fellow apprentice. We mustn't keep him in the dark on such things." Thorn let his scythe rest against his shoulder. "Though I suppose letting it go on for a couple of years could've been fun." "A couple of years?! Why are you being so mean to me?" Devon asked, clutching his scythe close to his chest. Thorn smirked. "Don't get so worked up. We're only joking. You mustn't get caught up in such silly games. Ocelotl's daughter will have your head spinning if you don't learn to play along. And she's quite kind. Pray that you do not meet some of the more tricky beings out there any time soon." "Beings? What other beings?" Devon asked. Thorn lightly tapped him on the head with his scythe. "I'm tired of answering your questions. If it's not about our job, I don't want to hear anymore for now." Devon sunk down. "Yes, sir." "We've returned to the island." Rampion said. "So, we have. Devon, you leave the boat first and then stay put." Thorn instructed. Devon opened his mouth to ask a question, then bit his lip. He got out of the boat and watched Thorn. Thorn stood up and carefully went to the other side of the boat. He used his scythe to lift up the front part of Rampion's black veil. He walked underneath it, sharing it with her. Thorn touched her cheek with his free hand and kissed her. She whispered to him. "How long will we have to watch over that child?" Thorn whispered back. "I hope not for long. I'll train him as quickly as I can." She kissed him again. "Do hurry. We already have to share this space half the time. I couldn't bare it if it was all of the time for too long." "Nor could I." Thorn slipped out from under the veil. He stepped out of the boat. Rampion followed behind him. As her feet touched the barren land, she transformed back into a cat. Thorn sensed Devon was tense. He assumed Devon wanted him to ask why, but Thorn already knew the answer to that. So, he said nothing. Thorn took Devon on five more trips over the next twelve hours. Devon stayed mostly quiet throughout the trips, observing and doing his best to hide his disgust at the places they went to. The first two were accidents. One fell from a ladder and one died in their car, hit by a drunk driver. Both were confused at their own quick deaths, but easy to lead away. The third one was a sick teenager full of regret for not doing enough while alive. Thorn managed to convince the boy eventually. His lack of eyes came in handy for that trip. "You can do anything you want now. You can become anything you want." Thorn offered the boy. He lifted his blindfold and opened his eyelids as wide as he could. "I got rid of my eyes. What do you want to do?" The boy gave himself fangs and blood red eyes. He floated above the bed and gave himself bat wings. Then, he changed back to his normal appearance. Pleased with what he was easily able to accomplish, the boy agreed to go. The fourth was younger than the boy, a five year old girl. She was too young to comprehend her own death. "Why can't I go back with Mommy?" The girl asked him. "You'll see her again. But now, you have to go live with your grandma. She'll be so happy to see you." Thorn told the child. "I can see Granny again?!" The girl smiled. Thorn held her hand as he took her to the boat. The fifth person was another murder victim. This one was shot, caught in the crossfire between two people she had nothing to do with. The person was full of confusion and rage. Her body had been left on the street unattended to for a long time. She was already dead before her body hit the ground, but no one came to check on her for nearly an hour. People hid, then passed by. The more the minutes passed, the more the person felt abandoned. "It's not that they didn't care. They were scared to be killed too, or afraid to get near your body. It wasn't because no one cared. They didn't know what to do." Thorn reassured her. "When people are terrified, they often can't act in the kindest of ways. Their bodies won't let them have control." She looked down at the symbol of a doe and buck inside a heart on the back of her pastel pink, camo jacket and nodded. "I didn't move in time either." After some time sitting in silence, she said goodbye to her form below and left with Thorn. Upon return to the cave on the barren, misty island, Devon lagged farther behind Thorn than before. His body could not be exhausted, but his spirit weighed heavily. Thorn stopped short of entering the hall of candles. "You need a break, don't you? I can leave you here for a while. You could explore the island while I'm away." Thorn said without turning around. "I don't want to be alone." Devon admitted. "You'll never be alone here. The island is covered in spirits. Go to one of the beasts for comfort. They will surround you." Devon clenched his fists. "I don't want that kind of company. I want to be near people." "They are people. You need to learn to use your heart instead of your eyes when you approach others." Thorn said. "I...I know they aren't really dogs and cats, but..." Devon childishly grabbed on to the back of Thorn's cloak. "Please don't leave me alone." "I have to work." Devon bit his lip again. Thorn could feel Devon's fear and pain rising. "I suppose I should appease you too. I would be letting my master down if I let my own apprentice turn into a demon or return to wandering aimlessly. We'll take a break for now." "Thank you." Devon let go and sat down on the cold ground. "I'm sorry...I've never seen so much death before. The only real dead bodies I've seen before were at funerals. And they didn't...they were all dressed up...they didn't look like that. My own body...was scary too." Thorn sat down beside Devon. "If it hurts you that much, I stand by what I said before. You can remove your eyes. You don't need them." "I can't do that!" "Why not? It won't hurt." Thorn smiled at him. "I know, but...that's kinda...scary too." Devon said. "Is it? What if I was born without them? Did our master scare you?" "No. he's only a skeleton. I was already expecting him to look like that. Skeletons aren't scary. Missing parts and having everything else is scary, being in parts is scary. That's why I hung myself. I couldn't jump in front of a train or shoot myself, and I couldn't cut my wrists up. I thought if I hung myself, my body would mostly still be..." "Beautiful?" "I guess, kinda. I wanted to look like those bodies at the funerals I went to." Devon pulled his legs in. "I didn't want it to be any scarier to find than it had to be. I didn't think I'd have to see it either. But it was horrible. I was so scared of it, I ran from my own body and kept running. I was so scared those months I wandered around." "Do you regret it?" Thorn asked. Devon thought on it. "I'm not sure. I wanted to die so bad at the time, but I dunno...I probably could've figured out something to do. Maybe there was something I could have done to get out of that mess and I would've thought of it if I didn't kill myself. But I can't undo it now. I'm dead. That's it. There's nothing else to do now." "You didn't have to take on this role though. You can go rest." Thorn reminded him. Devon looked up at the hazy, grey sky above them. "There's no one I want to see over there. Besides, I want to do this." "Why's that?" Devon lay back against the hard rock beneath them. He let the mist roll over him. "When the master finally found me, I was so afraid of everything...I was becoming something else..." "A bound ghost." "Yeah, that's what he told me. If I stayed like that, I would end up haunting somewhere." Devon looked at his hands. "When he came to me, I figured he was taking me straight to hell. I tried running from him, but he kept calling me over and telling me it was alright. He wore me down. When I went over to him, he hugged me and told me it was okay. No one's ever done that for me before." "No one?" Thorn asked. "No one." "What about your ex-girlfriend?" "She was pretty toxic too. I was upset when she broke up with me. Thinking about it now, I would've been better off not being with her. I was mostly with her out of desperation. She didn't love me, and I didn't love her. I wanted to believe someone loved me. That's all it was." Devon put his hands behind his head. "A lot of my life was hoping people who were hurting me would love me one day if I stayed around long enough, and then I gave up. I probably could have found people who'd love me, but this is permanent. When I was walking with him to the river, I asked him if I could do what he did for other people. I won't be the last person to give up too early, but maybe I can be the first person to make someone else feel safe and loved." Thorn patted him on the head. "I think that's a very good reason. The master is wiser than us all. You do offer something quite unique. You know a type of pain and regret that the rest of us have not experienced. In time, you will find certain flames among the candles will call strongest to you, because those people are longing for exactly what you wish to give." "Will they really?" Thorn nodded. "Yes. We are all called by specific types of souls more than others, though we all will go to any we can." "What does everyone else specialize in?" "Well, Ocelotl comes to two types. The most wicked and those most cruelly killed in a more community sense. People who've experienced wars and genocide. Victims of mass crimes and their perpetrators. When he guides over victims, he seeks out their killers at their own death as well. Ocelotl enjoys killing demons. But he can get a bit...overzealous at times." Thorn said. "Our master comes most to those with deep regrets and heavy guilt. Handling the most lost of souls is his specialty. We can have many companions. My beloved stays at my side simply to be with me, but most of the beasts on the island became that way through guilt or sorrow and doing this work cleanses them. It is a good thing if your chosen companion moves on to the other side eventually. Our master's companion has been with him since it became necessary to guide souls. His companion is the first person to ever kill another person." "The first...wow. But then...wait, what do you mean by since it became necessary to guide souls? Was there a time when death happened but that wasn't needed?" Devon asked. Thorn tilted his head back. "You always have more questions. Yes, there was a time early on earth. Those with lower levels of consciousness don't need as much guidance. They will go to the river on their own out of instinct. We don't guide ants. It's not necessary. For dogs, cats, cows, deer, animals with higher consciousness but lower than ours, the beasts only need show them the river. They don't carry regrets, but they can be confused. It was only when beings of much higher consciousnesses experienced death that it became necessary. The more you can think, the more the emotions, the more the ties that will bind one in place." "You keep saying beings. Are there people with high levels of consciousness that aren't human? Like aliens? Or I don't know...fairies?" Thorn nodded, but didn't give him a direct answer to either. "You're not as special as you think you are." "A-are you telling the truth?! Then what is..." "Did you want me to finish answering your earlier question or not?" "Oh, right. Sorry...I got carried away." Devon apologized. "I'll try to stay on topic." "It's alright. I've gotten used to current young people questioning me a lot. Seems to be part of your generation's way." Thorn said. "As I was saying, our specialities. Who was left? Oh, Conrí. He's a bit different. He tends to come to those who may come back, and typically directs them back. Those who are revived, survivors of drownings, shootings, and such who are saved by others. He pushes the will to return while those in the realm of the living work hard to bring the person back. The master has allowed him to come to suicidal people and direct them away from death even before they have technically experienced death. Only he is allowed to do that, because he is alive, but he is also of the realm of death." "That other guy...he said he brought some people back to life before, but it sounds like he does that all the time. What was the big deal about that?" Devon hadn't memorized everyone's names yet. "Oh, well, that was different. He gave a new body to one of his companions and gave him new life. We're not supposed to do that at all. That is within the Lord of Life's domain. But I suppose, those two are effectively the same, so that's why it's alright. The second one, he had no choice in the matter. It involved a higher power's will." Devon tried to process all of what he was being told, but there was too much information. He had so many questions he wanted to ask, and he knew he would forget most of them if he didn't ask them right away. He grit his teeth and let it go. "You want to ask me more, don't you?" "Yeah." "You need to practice moving slowly. You are dead now. You have all the time in the world. Whether tomorrow or next decade, you'll soon realize they are no different. Learn to forget. If it's really important, you'll ask me some other time." "But what if it's important and I forget anyway?" "If it's important, you'll remember when it matters." Devon sighed. "If you say so. What about you? You didn't say what your specialty was." "I have a few. Some who enjoy scary things are happy to see me. Those who had conditions in life that limit their abilities or had physical appearances different from the 'average' also are usually happy to meet me." Thorn tapped Devon lightly on the forehead. "You know, those of us you think look 'creepy' and 'scary'." "I didn't mean..." "Oh, but you did." Thorn removed his blindfold. He faced Devon. "This appearance of mine scares you. That's likely another reason our master chose me to be the one to train you. You must get over this. We offer compassion, and if that is what you seek to deliver to others, you cannot be afraid of someone's appearance. You will only hurt them more." Devon forced himself to look directly at where Thorn's eyes should have been. The empty spaces made him flinch. "I'm sorry. It's not like I'm trying to be scared of you..." Thorn took Devon's hand and put it to his own face. "You're afraid because the place you were born into doesn't show these kinds of faces to you except for the purpose of frightening you. You know I'm not a monster, so what is it you're actually afraid of?" Devon sat up. He put his other hand on Thorn's face and looked closely at him. "I'm sorry...it's...I know I don't need to be afraid." "Then, perhaps you would be better off without your eyes. Let me remove them for you." "Uh, no, you don't need to do that! I'll work on getting over it!" Devon fell back. "I can't help it. I was only ever shown things that like in horror movies and stuff. It's going to take me...some time to retrain my brain to not freak out. I'm still...freaked out by what we saw with that killer...that guy...we really can't do anything about that serial killer?" "No, we can't. That's not our purpose." Thorn held up his scythe. "If you step out of line too much, we'll have no choice but to cut you down. Order must be maintained, regardless of what you personally feel it should be. You are not the one who decides the order of the universe. We submit to that one." "Then...there is some god, right?" Devon protected himself with his own blade. "The master wouldn't answer me about that when I asked." "Define god. To many, you are now a god." "What?!" Devon thought about it. "I...I...that can't...wait...if we count, then...there must be..." "Many, many of us, depending on how you define 'god'. Or only one. Or none." Thorn said. "But you know what I mean. Who's the highest person in the hierarchy? Who made everything?" "Those are two different questions." Devon rolled his eyes. He rephrased his question. "Who does our master answer to?" "Meh. It doesn't matter." Thorn flippantly said. Devon sighed deeply. "So, I guess I'm not entitled to that answer yet, right?" "I gave you an answer." Thorn laughed under his breath. "Okay, who created our universe?" Devon tried again. "Meh." Thorn laughed again. He shrugged. "You're just screwing with me at this point." Devon tried one last time. "What was before the one who created this universe?" "No one knows that." Thorn answered him that time. "Then there is a creator...but no one knows who created the creator." Devon questioned him further. "Come on. You must know something. Do you know what the creator looks like? I guess you couldn't see them though..." "We've met." "You did?" Thorn put his hand over the center of his chest. "Since I cannot see, they didn't bother taking a physical form before me. They have no physical form. They are pure energy, but they can make a shell to show themselves with. They can be in anything. Normally, I can sense people, but this was different. It was the most intense feeling I've ever felt. They were everywhere." "Why did they come to you?" "They came to speak to our master, but decided to speak to me too. I am not afraid of anything, and I am not overwhelmed by anything anymore either. They could come to me in their ordinary state without having to worry about frightening me or not being noticed." Thorn recalled the memory. The cave filled with so much energy he felt like he was floating. The center of his chest was warm from where they had touched him, much the same way coming into contact with Conrí briefly warmed whatever part he touched. Once Thorn had felt that energy in such a concentrated form, he sensed that same energy everywhere he went since in smaller amounts. "They spoke with me briefly, and then left. It was as if they simply vanished." "Have the others met them?" "Yes. They appeared to Ocelotl as a kingsnake and spoke with him for a while. Ocelotl showed off his own transformation abilities. He talks about that day from time to time. It's one of his favorite stories to tell. Conrí met them several times, usually in human forms. When choosing to interact with humans, they often take a physical body and apparently, they will prefer one for a while, then switch to a new one after a hundred years or so. Last Conrí saw them, they were taking the form of a handsome young man with white hair and grey eyes." Devon closed his eyes and tried to picture what that form must look like. "Do you think I'll get to meet them one day?" "Perhaps. I can't know their will." "What do I call them? Do you know?" "Meh." Devon sighed again. "So are you not answering me or do you not know?" "Meh." "Well, that's the end of that." Devon got up. He unconsciously dusted himself off even though dirt could not cling to him. "I think I'm about ready to get back to work." Thorn stood up. "Good. We should be going soon. I can't be getting the kind of reputation Conrí has for playing around." "Could we, um...handle some of the less scary deaths for a while?" Devon asked. Thorn rubbed his chin. "Well...if one of the others is there, we can defer it to them, but we can't be too picky. We may all have specialties, but we must go to whoever needs guidance." "I figured you'd say that." Devon's shoulders dropped. He glanced over at Thorn's scythe. It looked somewhat different from his own. Devon made another connection. "Your scythe...is yours made from something related to your death?" He shook his head. "No. It's made from my eyes." "Your...your eyes?!" "Yes, when I presented our master with them when I became his apprentice, he turned them into my blade." Thorn pointed to his blindfold with his scythe. "He gave me this too. For people like you." "For someone who said they don't get bothered by much of anything, sounds like you actually do." "No, I've simply gotten a little more devious over time. I'm only playing with you." "The other two...are their scythes made out of creepy things too?" "Ocelotl's scythe is made from jaguar fur. Conrí's is made from a lock of his hair. Yours is certainly much creepier than both of theirs." He teased Devon. Devon held tight to his scythe. "Yeah, well...it's still less creepy than eyes." "If such lies calm you, then cling to them as you wish." Thorn said, grinning. "Is this what I'm going to be like in a few decades?" Devon narrowed his eyes at Thorn. "Oh, I'd say a century at least." Devon looked down at the cat that had been with them the entire time. He had forgotten while they were talking that she was a human too and had treated her like an actual cat by ignorning her. He wondered what thoughts were going on in the woman's mind. She was likely laughing at him too, he thought. The cat looked up at him. She had an impossible grin on her face. Devon nearly jumped back at the sight of it. The cat rubbed against his leg and then scurried on ahead of them. "She's devious too." Devon said. "Could a cat be anything else?" "When will I get my own companion?" "That doesn't matter. You've asked enough questions for the week." Thorn took him to the hall of candles once more. "The week?! That's not fair!" Devon complained. "Yes, well, of course." "Is that the creator's will?" "Meh." Thorn stepped in front of a flickering candle. "That doesn't matter. We have work to do." Devon grit his teeth and put his hand over the flame on his own.
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