What is this? A self.
I have been so many for so long. A tender of a flock that was the flock himself, and yet the shepherd. But this: a self? After such time that time itself is meaningless? I tell myself that I am Abacus Jones now. He was. He yet is, for now. I am. We? Certainly I have been a “we” for an eternity, so I can be two. We are two that is one. We are Abacus Jones now.
The madness that had tormented these ears has been silenced. And yet there is a part of me can that can still hear the soul cries of the aimless wanderers. Which part of us is yet still so affected? I do not yet know. This form, it is so susceptible to such spirits. Or perhaps I am simply too accustomed to them that I would hear them even when they are absent. No matter. I am to travel beyond them now. I need only follow through on my end of the bargain, and I will at last be free! I will concern myself with the dead no further. I have life, yes, even within this soulless husk. I am Death no more.
“My Heavens! My people,” The Mayor began in a jovial bellow “We travel onward! The prophecy that I was bestowed comes true! Rejoice, for our new world will soon be upon us! Eden, renewed! Balance at last found!”
The people shouted, shook hands, and embraced. This was happiness. I smiled, for I brought this about. I willed it to be, and so it was done. The doorway had been opened. A thought and nothing more saw to it. A simple effort indeed, but one that I could not make for myself, for there are rules, especially for Death. And so a bargain was struck for passage through the gates with one on this plane of existence. It matters not that this Abacus Jones believed it to benefit only him and his followers. And now I share his thoughts, as he now shares my own. He now sees the truth hidden beneath our bargain.
For an eternity, Death was denied life, and at last I saw a way to have one. Surely it must at last be a pardon from my charge. The Hand. And I, a Guardian of its keep, barred from obtaining it myself, for I was not of this mortal plane. And at last, I yet am. I needed only to trick another to take my place. A simple feat. The hollowed body, one capable of allowing my presence for the lack of its own. That such would ever come willingly to find me; that he would ever be of such a grand need. And so a bargain was my choice. It needed not be so as I could simply have allowed their entrance, but when such an opportunity as this presents itself, even Death would be fool not to claim it. I feel his anger at this realization. That he has been duped to take my stead. No matter.
I have opened the way, the entry for the living to the realm at the End. A dark door under this lonely mountain, and one that I am the key to. Abacus Jones, you could not travel beyond without my allowance, and so I have allowed it, for this price. The souls will wait as they have been waiting until you return to shepherd them for the remaining eternity. It is not their time to move elsewhere, nor is it any longer my destiny to remain here. So long have I thought to cross through the door myself and obtain that which could present me again with the Life that I had been denied. Death, the shepherd of the dead, yet forever barred from becoming as such. Forever barred from passing beyond the mortal plane. Forever charged with the knowing passage of time for I have served many lifetimes. I would have one of my own now among the living. With this body, at last I can obtain the Hand for myself and take the freedom I am owed.
“What the devil are you now?” Came Angel’s voice as he rode up closer to me and trained the barrel of his drawn pistol to our face. Such hostility comes from this one. Hostility should be met with kindness I believed. So I let us smile as I answered the man known as Angel. Such a nice name. But one that was not his. A story for another time no doubt.
“Fear not, my friend. I have opened the pathway per the agreement with the soulless one, Abacus Jones. And I will now be your guide in his place.”
His eyes were wide, and bright as he looked upon us. So bright. Yet I could just make out an outline at their center. How truly fascinating. That some creature could see from such clouded monochromatic eyes. It was appearing to me in the elapsing moment that perhaps he did not like my answer. I was ready to speak further until the word that seemed hung upon the man’s tongue finally fell from his mouth.
“Friend?!” He responded, looking ready to lose something from the back of his throat. But anything further was cut from his mouth as a jolly large man rode up next to him and clapped him on the shoulder.
“Easy there, Angel! For at last Abacus Jones begins to play his part in the prophecy! I believe that the remainder will require him as he now is. Alive that is! Would you not agree, Angel?”
“This thing ain’t Abacus Jones anymore!” Angel said with a sneer as he looked down upon me and spit in our face.
“I beg your pardon?” The Mayor asked.
“I seen it through his eye! The one I stole. Watched him talking to something, like a dark cloud. And now he IS that darkness! I can see it! We have to kill it. Now! Tie his limbs to a different horse each and rip his vile body apart! Burn whatever is left!”
“Such barbarism, truly!” The Mayor chuckled uncomfortably before turning his eyes to me curiously. “Is this story true? Am I to understand that you are no longer Abacus Jones?”
“I am and am not. We are Abacus Jones still, yes. A part of what was still is and yet I am us as well. A bargain was struck to open the way to the Hand, and I am to be your guide.”
“And whom are you, then? Or rather…what are you now?” The Mayor asked.
“I am the first.” We answered honestly.
“Well that’s damned comforting!” Angel sneered. “The first WHAT?!”
“Death.” We responded.
Silence met my words. Even the breath that had been passing through their nostrils ceased momentarily as I could hear the hearts in their chest begin to pump in a more rapid pace. Oh it was so fascinating to be mortal again!
“You’re…Death?” The Mayor asked.
“The First, yes.”
“I do not believe I completely understand…”
“It was the charge given to me, for I was the first of this world. Before there was a flock to tend, there needed to be a shepherd, and so I am he. Until at last all are called to the beyond, I am here to tend to the flock. That is whom I am, and whom now stands before you. And now I am he that will guide you to your destination.”
“So, you’re Death?” The Mayor asked still seemingly confused.
“We are Abacus Jones now.” We said while forcing a smile from a face that felt as if it had never done so.
“Don’t trust it!” Angel suddenly burst out and trained his pistol down upon our face. It was curious to watch his finger fall upon the trigger, his muscles tense. Fascinating to watch as the bullet twirled just behind the barrel. But just as the gun erupted, it was pushed into the sky, the Mayor’s hand having shoved the barrel upwards and echoed over the hills until at last silence, for even those behind had stopped to see the commotion.
“You Fool, Angel!” The Mayor said as he ripped the pistol from Angel’s hand. “At last Abacus Jones begins to fulfill the prophecies given unto me. It was foretold that he would lead us to the Hand! I had once thought that he would decipher the map for us, but now I see, finally see it so clearly, that this Abacus Jones is to be our true guide. We are truly blessed indeed!”
“You can’t possibly—“ Angel began.
“I can! And you would do wise to listen!” The Mayor said as he brandished a fine silver pocket watch from the front pocket of his bulging vest and popped it open. A most curious tick rung out, one that did not seem quite attuned to time as it clicked twice in succession, and then paused momentarily before repeating. “A funny thing, time, Angel. For when it is wasted it can get quite late, wouldn’t you say?”
But Angel didn’t say anything. He sat up straight and his mouth closed entirely.
“There now, that’s far more proper then. Abacus Jones?” The Mayor said as he looked down upon me with a smile beneath his formed mustache. “I believe it is time you take the lead, and guide us as it has been foretold!”
The people erupted in unison and excitement. It had been quite the long existence since I had seen such a response. Infectious almost, yet I found I could not join, for my hands appeared to be bound together.
“My people! We have arrived! Follow me, and I will lead you to the promise land that has been our destiny these long years!” The Mayor said as he turned to his people and began walking towards the opened doorway into the mountain leaving Angel and I to stare at one another.
“And Angel?” The Mayor called back “Do be good now and remove the bindings from our guide.”
I smiled up towards Angel whose face I could not see as the sun at his back shone brightly in my face. And so I asked, “Would you mind terribly finding me a hat as well?”
The horses had to be left behind. There would be no room for them through the passageway so the Mayor ordered the bulk of his faithful to remain behind and tend to the beasts and the remaining supplies until we returned. And so a party of twelve was selected and brought to the front of the masses. Angel soon joined as he pulled along what appeared to be a woman though her face was covered by a burlap sack with Angel’s gun pressed firmly into what I believed was her temple.
“Mister Mayor, I think it’s time we had one less monster around.”
The men around suddenly became loud and cheered on the recommendation. The part in me that was still recalling this woman wanted to lash out at the gun held to her head and turn it up to the underside of the chin of the man holding it where I would gladly pull the trigger as many times as there were bullets. But that was no longer us. So our feet remained unmoved.
“Simmer down now!” The mayor said as he pressed palms down towards the Earth and somehow directed his men to quiet down. “Well now, Angel. What’s to say that we will not still need this girl then? Was it not yourself that had once suggested the need to have someone expendable?”
Angel’s eyes were fixed upon my own when he answered the Mayor. “As Abacus Jones has finally offered to fulfill his duty to your cause, I no longer see a need to lug this thing around with us!”
The men again cheered, and it seemed that the majority of their thoughts were in agreement. But, although Angel’s words were arousing the men, his intention were not the same at all.
“Well then, Abacus Jones?” The Mayor looked at me questioningly. “I’ll let you decide this monster’s fate. If she will not be needed below, then you need only say so.”
“You would leave this decision to him?!” Angel barked suddenly shooting eyes from me to the Mayor.
“Quiet!” The Mayor bellowed before asking me neatly, “Well, sir. What will it be?”
The road ahead was not one that I had ever traversed before, yet one I was imparted of a knowledge with. The girl, as she was, would not be necessary. Not as a banshee, anyway. But time is simply a script which has already been written, and it did not employ her end here, or now. No, it seemed her time was ahead of the now. She still had a part to play out in her life.
“She has yet to play her part. She must join us.” I said to the noticeable slump in the people around.
“It is settled then. Bring the girl.” The Mayor said as he waved Angel down like an annoying dog.
I could see the rage in his bright eyes. I could even feel the pressure he put upon his own teeth as he clenched them hard against one another. When he looked back upon me, he was met with my smile. For this is the best thing to do to ease another person’s anger. Oddly, this did not appear to appease him any as he slowly lowered his pistol and placed it shakily in its holster.
The entrance to the Lonely Mountain was dark, but was ready for men to traverse her interior. I led the way, my hands unbound and holding a torch aloft more for the sake of the men just behind me than myself, for with these eyes, rather, this eye, I could see well enough into the dark, even in such a place. The cavernous walls continued onward, sometimes dropping us further into the mountain itself, and sometimes rising back up into it.
There were walls on both sides of us, and it felt somewhat stifling at times. Yet, though we were within a mountain, somehow there was still air here for them and the torch to breath. We took a short break upon arriving at the second patch of steps that rose upwards. With the pathway at least three men’s width wide, there was ample room for the sixteen of us, though I would not sit. For I had been sitting for an eternity, and quite honestly the walk was exhilarating all in itself.
Behind me the Mayor panted weakly, and sweated profusely. Having a sense of smell, as I now did, was quite assaulting, but amazing all the same. It smelt awful! Yet it was amazing to smell anything for I’d been without a nose for so long! Beside him sat Angel, whom was as unbothered by the passage as myself. His eyes had not left me the moment we’d stepped into the passageway, and likely his hand remained just as steadily on the grip of his pistol.
Behind them were men of many builds. The brawny Victor, the slim Harrison, and back to the end where there was the smaller man that looked like a dung dealer, Foster P. Guster. Even he didn’t know what the P stood for anymore. His job was simply to watch the woman, lead her down the steps, and kill her if she made any trouble, which she had not.
The Mayor turned his attention to me after his breathing calmed.
“So, Death, is it? Or do you still wish to take the name Abacus Jones? You could choose any other no doubt.”
“Abacus Jones will do nicely. Death is not really a name though. It was a title bestowed upon me based upon a purpose. I have fulfilled that purpose, and so I would be the name for which I inhabit.”
“Abacus Jones it is, then. And might I say you’re a far improvement to the person that he was.”
“Thank you.” I said expectantly.
“But your history does rather perplex me, sir. Might I enquire to it further?”
“There is little to give. History, of when there was time associated with my existence as you would understand it, was short. I lived, and then I did not.”
“You said that you were the first though.”
“The first of my kind, that is correct.”
“Your kind, being Death.”
“Death is the charge. A shepherd of those that have and will pass until at last my charge was released. What I know from my own history is quite minimal and quite uneventful. But being without time, and an inheritor of all in my flock, I have seen all, have felt all. Every passing, every thought.”
“Truly remarkable! And what is it…like? To be Death?”
“I do not know if I can properly convey with words what it was, or is to be as such that I was. Even as I gave my life to Abacus Jones when we met, he could not fully perceive the enormity of my existence or my charge. His mind simply could not fathom its complexity.”
“That does not shock me one bit.” Angel chimed in with a near-chuckle.
“You said that Death is a charge. By whom was it given?”
“I’m afraid I cannot answer your question as you would like. The charge was given, just as breath is taken into your lungs as you breathe.”
“There was no voice? No face?”
“Was one necessary to know what one was to be?”
Silence met my words for a moment before the Mayor rose to his feet and faced his men instructing them to move onward. Angel’s eyes were left upon me, for once not in anger. And the oddity of that is that I was not even smiling.
We kept circling through the mountain, sometimes left, other times right. Ever onward. After another hour, the men were beginning to complain about the long path and asking to rest again and looking far more defeated this time.
“How much further, Jones?” The Mayor asked between heaving breaths.
“Oh it is not far now.” I said with a smile before adding, “Or it could be longer still.”
“What in Hell is that supposed to mean?!” Angel asked with anger again at the corners of his mouth.
“It is as simple as that. It is not far, it never has been. Yet we are still not there, so it could be some time still.”
“I’m afraid that I do not understand, Mista Jones. It sounds to me that you have no idea where we’re going or how long it will be to get there…”
I stared at him for a moment slightly confused at how best to answer him.
“I believe that you are under the impression that a journey requires distance, and therefore you continue along the pathway that you are intent upon travelling. This is how you all think. This is how one travels between two locations: by walking, riding a horse, taking a train, this is the human means of arriving at an intended destination, is it not?”
“How else would we get anywhere?!” The Mayor shot out.
“Indeed. How else?” I said to the answer of their blank responses. “I am trying to elaborate to you the simple truth of this place. The simple truth of any place that is not of your making. It is not bound by the rules for which govern your knowing existence.”
They seemed more confused by my words. It appeared that I would have to try harder.
“I offer you to turn around, head up these stairs, and then perhaps you will understand.”
“You want us to go all the way back?” Angel asked blankly.
“In a manner of speaking.”
“Can I shoot him now?” Angel asked as he looked at the Mayor’s reddening face.
“Explain this quickly, Mista Jones, or I will allow Angel his hands!”
“As a guide I can only lead you, I cannot change your minds. Only you can change your thoughts. Please turn around and I promise all will become clear in only twenty paces or less.”
“Fine!” The Mayor exclaimed as his hands flew into the air. “Everyone, back on your feet and head back up top! But no more than twenty paces!”
The Mayor turned back to me and shoved a pudgy finger just below my nose. “You step twenty-one paces and Mista Jones will lose his head!”
The men seemed almost excited for this possibility and quickly rose to their feet and made their way up the steps that took them around the corner and out of sight. Then the sound of their footsteps on the steps were gone, and silence filled the air.
“Hello?” The Mayor yelled out. “What do you see?!”
Again there was only silence.
“What did you do?!” The Mayor said as his eyes went large looking at me and grabbing at the vest on my personage. “What did you do with my men?!”
“Mister Mayor?” Came the slow voice of Victor as he rounded the corner again.
“Victor?! Where did you go? What’s the matter now?!” The Mayor said rushing over to him as Angel’s gun was fixed on my head.
“Mister Mayor. We was just outside. Just where we started.” Victor answered.
“What are you babbling about? That’s impossible!”
“No sir, we was just up top. We ain’t gone anywhere.”
The Mayor shot past him, his thick slopping feet resounding in the halls and then gone before shortly coming back, the man now ghost white and eyes full of concern.
“How is it possible? What sort of magic is this?!” The Mayor asked.
“Not magic, but choice. You are expectant to travel, so you do. Eventually you will arrive. That is your nature. In all things.”
“Do you mean to say that we simply need to decide that the next corner we round will take us to the hand and then we’ll be there?” Angel asked.
“That is the base of it, yes.”
“Why not just tell us this from the start?!”
“Telling you what to do would not force an understanding of the matter upon any of you. Simply thinking the next corner would bring you closer to the hand would not do so. Believing though, that is far different in this place. So, if you are ready to proceed now, I think perhaps we could be close.”
“Please let me shoot him.” Angel asked again.
“Not yet.” The Mayor answered, the color returning to his face as he stepped down next to me. “Come on then, Mista Jones, I believe that indeed we are quite close now. Yes, I believe I can smell a warmth like baked bread just down this pathway.”
I took a sniff in the air and did not detect any such smell, though I did feel the warmth emanating from just below us. I took the first few steps as the men began to follow, Angel reluctantly falling just behind the Mayor. The warmth continued to rise with every step I took forward until at last the steps had ended, and I was within a domed cavern, the floor completely flat, as if someone had intentionally dug out the room. The only entrance or exit, the one that the men continued to flow through.
There was only a moment of relief as the steps ended, but soon it too was gone as the realization that there was nothing here sunk in. Even I was somewhat perplexed by this, for I too expected…something.
“Where is it?” Victor shouted out.
“There ain’t nothin’ here!” Harrison added as he and Victor and a man Banes stepped out further into the center of the room, raising their torches high to show the endless rock all around.
“Yes indeed, Jones! Is this yet another of our making? Did we believe in a dead end?!” The Mayor asked as he approached me.
“No. Indeed this is quite curious. This should not be here. None of your beliefs were to hinder us here.”
“Then why are we here?!” Angel bellowed.
I was going to answer that I had no clue, but there was a rumble that came from behind me. I turned to see the ground below the three men at the center of the room had begun to glow between every crack. And just as soon as the red light began to emanate from below, the rocks fell into it, and with it the three men, drowned within the light. Gone from existence in a moment. But their souls would not go to join the flock. They were being held here. Turned. Changed. Used for another’s purpose.
And in the instant before the light began to swirl and take form, I knew what had gone wrong. It was Abacus Jones whom had brought us here.