Madness can be a dammed thing. Hard to make folk understand when they aren’t the ones stricken by it. But if I could offer an attempt, it’s sort of like that little kid that just keeps saying your name and never stops saying it and never lets up no matter how many times you ask him to stop. If you get louder he gets louder until the both of you are just shouting at each other and of course the kid wins. Because they have no reason to stop. And there ain’t a damn thing you can do to stop it.
The voices were like an unending wail of voices that were louder than anything I’d ever heard. I could feel the insides of my ears shaking and I wanted nothing more than to rip my hands from their bindings and thrust them hopelessly over my ears. But Angel had tied me up good. And I knew he wouldn’t take any bit of pity on me. So I would suffer this, as long as it was going to last.
I was suddenly useless. I couldn’t focus. If the Mayor or Angel was asking me a question I couldn’t hear it. I couldn’t even see straight I was being driven so far to madness by not having any control. I know I was struggling and at times I could feel the horse beneath me still trotting along, but that was about it. I was yelling, or screaming. I couldn’t say. As far as I knew there weren’t a thing coming out of my efforts.
He has come
He has come
They continued in a growing voice. I couldn’t even venture for how long. Eventually someone stuffed a rag over my mouth and tied me up. I could feel the dirty fabric against my tongue, course dirt and sand falling into my mouth. Just what I needed for the hot day.
I was wishing now that I was being drug along behind a horse. My head colliding with rock and brush once again to knock me unconscious. But I weren’t. And not a soul made any effort to put me out of this state. That’d be something else I’d owe Angel in the end. If I saw another day past this.
Time wore on, as did the unwavering voices of the gathering masses that just seemed to follow and grab at me as we continued along the path to the Lonely mountain. The voices continued as the sun began to set, a red glow starting to overtake the heat. And then, the voices halted, though murmurings continued. For like them, I had heard it too. One voice, a boom louder than the rest. Dark. Deep. And it stirred the contents of my stomach something fierce.
“Dark traveler.” Came a voice of a great being, shrouded in a dark mist that I’d almost swear was a cloak that now stood before me, the Sea of Souls now calm and waiting. “Why have you come?”
I didn’t know what to say. Was I done for? Had the heat finally gotten to me? Angel’s voice quickly broke me from my thoughts. He had halted the party and ridden up beside me where he cut the rag from my face. Somehow just missing my ear as he ripped through the fabric with the blade in his hand.
“What do you see, Jones?”
I took in some breaths finally allowed to do so. “I see, the dark.” I said. For it seemed as such to me. As if it would in one quick moment extend a great hand that would erupt from his cloud and extinguish the sun itself.
“Give him some water, Angel!” Came the voice of the Mayor. “He ain’t no use to us dead or delirious!”
“That’s not it!” Angel shouted back. “He can see a figure, for I have seen him as well. But I cannot hear him! What does it say, Jones?”
The figure waited after his first words. Angel seemed less patient. “He says….to untie me.”
Angels fist flew through my face and I felt it sting in my jaw. “What does it say, Jones?!”
“I ain’t answering you!” I would have spit at him if I’d had any fluid left in my mouth.
“You’ll answer me, Jones, or I pull that girl of yours up here and take her life now! Don’t forget exactly why I’m keeping her alive! To control you!” He slapped me again and pointed a finger at my remaining eye.
I stared beyond his outstretched finger that I had no doubt he wanted to stick into my eye and pull it out except that he needed me to see. For now.
I turned back to the black figure, and answered Angel. “It wants to know why I’ve come.”
“Then by all mean, answer it.” He said before pulling his pistol and holding the barrel to my head as he clicked the hammer back. “Appropriately.”
“We have seen the map. It has brought us here. We seek the Hand.”
The black figure held his place there, unmoving save for the dark cloud around it appearing like rising smoke that never dissipated. It said nothing.
“What does it say, Jones?!” Angel pushed the gun further into my head.
“he ain’t said nothing yet!” I said just as the darkness spoke.
“Come forward. And be judged worthy.”
“You have to let me down.” I said firmly to Angel.
He laughed aloud in one short joyless breath. “Don’t think so!”
“I mean it. It says for me to come to him and be judged.” I said looking into Angels white damned eyes. He stared by into my remaining eye, and must have found the truth I was saying because he agreed.
“Then go!” He said as he brandished a knife and quickly cut the rope that was leaving me upright on the horse before he kicked me off its back.
I hit the ground hard, and it knocked my breath out. I heard the Mayor getting onto Angel over the matter, and as much as I hated it I almost appreciated it. I tried to move my hands, but they were still bound. Only the rope to the horse had been cut. I struggled as I slipped over and pressed my chin from the dirt and rock to get my knees under me. They felt about dead, probably been asleep for hours now.
“Move it, Jones! I’ll be right behind you.” Angel yelled as he trained his pistol on my head.
I got to my feet, letting the barrel of his gun follow my face until I turned my back to it and walked to the dark form awaiting me.
The sea of vacant eyes parted before me as I moved towards the dark figure ahead. They’d gone quiet which was a relief. After the hours it’d kept on, I’d started to question my own sanity or if I’d ever again be allowed the quiet.
As I approached I felt more and more the presence of the dark figure ahead. A presence that filled me as if a void was opening in me, but not evil. Not the shadow pulling at me when monsters and evil was around. Just emptiness. I felt as nothing when I finally stood before the towering figure that resided beneath that shroud of dark vapors. It waited a moment, and I almost spoke, but sharply where his head was he turned to me. A face of faded white just beyond the veil of smoke. Death. I knew him as soon as I set eyes upon the emptiness of his own. As if his being was suddenly screamed to me, recalling something long forgotten. I knew it as certain as I knew anything else.
“Dark Rider.” He began in a voice that emanated from him, not his mouth, “You seek the hand. Yes?”
“I seem to be.” I said wondering if any part of me even wanted a part in this journey so much as others wanted me to be a part of it.
“You seek entrance then?”
He leaned down closer to me and I could almost feel the moving air sucked from around me. “You cannot enter as you are. No. None can. As you can see all around you. None may go where entrance is not offered.”
I stood confused for a moment. Wondering if this was the beginning of the trials. I was about to ask as such, but Death continued.
“This is not a trial, Dark Rider. This is simply a gate. A doorway. And all that is needed is the key.”
“I don’t have one.” I offered knowing I didn’t even have a hat to offer on my person.
“The words of a mortal. Yes. It can see me so it does not understand. See to your fellow mortals. They cannot see me, nor the souls left here on these plains. It is not a mortal key. Do you understand?”
“No.” I said.
Death moved back some, the great figure almost looking confused or possibly ready to laugh before he moved back in closer, that white face of his now staring right at mine, just an inch away. Massive. A face the size of my whole self. And eyes of deep unending pools. But eyes still that stared hard at me, and I felt the hard look. One that seemed to be searching for something. I didn’t even notice that I’d fallen to my knees and my body was shuddering until he’d backed off a little and let the air of my world once again fill my lungs. I gasped as if I’d stopped breathing, only I didn’t recall ever doing so. And then I saw it. Not physically, of course, but the whole of it in my head. The answer he was looking for. The key, it was him, and him alone. A soldier. One left of light and dark. A soldier left in the existence between every perceivable plane. I saw his life, as it was, in only seconds I saw the entirety of his life.
Images I couldn’t even begin to make sense of, let alone fathom. Things I forgot as soon as I took in a breath of this world. Away from his. And I felt it, for the first time since I could rightly remember. Pain. Not of my body, of which I felt often enough I was more accustomed to it than not, but of that hole in my chest. The pain of a life long ago. The pain of having a soul. I felt that pain, a lifetime and an eternity afterwards of it, all in the seconds he had peered into me. And then nothing but relief. Relief it was over. For me, anyway.
“Do you understand now?” He asked.
I looked at him, upon that figure beneath a shroud of smoke. As every vacant hole in the face of the lost souls around me stared and awaited the answer. I wanted nothing more than to say that I didn’t. That I was done. That this quest was over with. But it wasn’t. It was never going to be over. As much as I was pulled here against my will, every hollow spot in me were screaming at me to move further ahead. Despite my own thoughts.
“Yes.” I said, unable to contain the truth he already knew.
“Then speak your answer. Will you proceed?”
Death had looked into me, and in doing so, had passed his life for a moment into my own. A story of his life, and the life he was given after his mortal one had ended. The first Death from this world now master of the souls to join him since. A shepherd of the dead. And the key to the gateway beyond. Death was the key. A key for the time when he was to open the gates for the souls that had gathered here since the beginning. A time still far away, yet unknown. Death was the key. That was the answer. Whomever Death happened to be.
So there was only one choice. Or only one that he was offering. Take on his burdens. Become Death. Let his soul inhabit me. Then, and only then, could I travel through the gate which Death alone could open. I had been unaware of Angel’s demanding words that he was yelling at me and had been for some time I’d guess. I could hear the Mayor now yelling at him to calm down. I recalled my promise to Angel. That I was going to hurt him before all of this was over. I thought to wherever out there the Vampire was hiding and watching. The girl somewhere being held captive by the Mayor and his men. And myself at the mercy of all of them. I can’t say it was the best decision I ever made, but I was sick of relying on others. It simply wasn’t in my nature. So I agreed.
“Yes.” I said. “I will become Death, Shepherd of souls.”
And with that, the vapors surrounding his form left him, a white vacant eyed soul like any other around, and gathered around me. The air of the world was gone, and suddenly I could only breathe in the dark smoke. I felt it all again, this time as if it was going to rip me open. Into thousands of pieces. Every pain, every torment, every day left to tend the world. Alone. Waiting. The pain of his lost life. And as I took in the last vapor, I found his madness. The madness evolved of time, from pain, from torment, from waiting. So long, waiting.
I laughed. How couldn’t I? Wasn’t it funny? Certainly it seemed as such to me! I laughed and Angel finally shut up! His angry barking finally suffused from his lips. I turned to look at him, and I saw my eye staring back from that telescope of his. No doubt he could see the darkness surrounding me. I smiled and laughed aloud, a voice of my own, not of my own, one that echoed for the first time in millennia. One I was familiar with, yet unfamiliar with. Abacus Jones. Yes, the name. The body. One chosen, whatever it was before was gone now, yet still remained. No matter. I was as I was meant to be now. Abacus Jones, Soulless Cowboy. Death.
“Jones! Answer me now or this bullet tears through your skull!” Angel shouted.
I tried to move my hands, but they were still bound. That was unsettling. Had I forgotten that? Did I remember yet didn’t notice? No matter. All things come in time. I knew that. The man Angel wanted an answer. So I answered. That is the proper way to converse.
“Everything is fine.” I said then stood and looked to the foot of the mountain to their right. “Gentlemen! You have come to seek the entrance to the last treasure. The Hand. Please, I think it’s time to proceed! Don’t you?”
At that, there was a doorway in the mountain. A dark entrance that had not been there before. The doorway I had opened. Indeed, the rest of this day was promising to be rather fun it seemed!