It didn’t hurt. Dying. I mean it did hurt. A lot, in fact. But once the magic was done literally ripping my body apart it didn’t hurt anymore. So, yes, dying did hurt, but once the actual death bit was done it was like the pain had never even happened in the first place.
Cedarstone disappeared behind a wall of shimmering red magic that erupted up all around me. It erupted from within me. As soon as that happened the pain was gone. Just like that. The click of a finger. For a second or two I was still there, somehow. Even though my body was destroyed, I remained there in that place. And then the place was gone. Redness was followed by darkness. Explosions were followed by silence. And then…
I was somewhere else. A room. It was still silent. I was sitting which meant I had a body again. I looked down at my legs. I definitely had a body. Was I still alive? No, I was some kind of spirit now. I’d passed over. I looked around for Ashley. She said she’d see me on the other side, but she was not here.
I was in what looked like a doctor’s waiting room. About thirty of those cheap-looking chairs that primary schools have lined three of the walls, with another ten placed in the middle of the room back to back. I was in one of the chairs in the middle. Almost every chair had somebody sitting in it. Nobody looked sick. They were all waiting in silence, and all of them looked apprehensive. I was pretty apprehensive myself. Being dead will do that.
The wall at the front of the room had five plain brown doors. I wondered what the hell was going on. As if to answer my question the number sixty-seven appeared in glowing red numbers above the third door. A lady in the corner of the room stood up nervously. She glanced at her palm and then up at the number above the door. She looked around the room as if looking for someone to tell her what to do. Nobody did. There was no staff. Only people waiting. With a look of resignation, she shuffled off and entered the room. I tried to catch a glimpse through the door but saw absolutely nothing. It looked like she’d walked into a plain white room. The door closed quietly behind her and she was gone.
I raised my own hand and stared at my palm. As I suspected there was a number that looked like it had been burned into my flesh. Sixty-nine. I sniggered. The tufty, grey-haired man to my right turned to look at me, eyebrows raised. I showed him my palm.
‘Ah,’ he said, and gave me a wink. Then he checked his own. ’73,’ he said with disappointment.
‘Do you know much about this place?’ I asked, hopefully. Silly really, it wasn’t like he could’ve been sitting here long enough to know much more than I did.
He shook his head. ‘Some kind of purgatory I guess. We sit and wait to go into those rooms where I assume we will be judged.’
‘Fun,’ I muttered. I did not relish the idea of being judged. I hadn’t liked it much when I was alive and I knew I wouldn’t like it any more in death. I’d probably like it less on account of the consequences being far more permanent and totally out of my control.
‘May I ask how you died?’ he said, leaning in closer.
‘Why not?’ I answered. ‘I absorbed so much magic that my body exploded. Well, I think it exploded. I couldn’t really see what happened and I died pretty much as soon as it did happen.’
He looked up at the ceiling. ‘I didn’t even know magic was real,’ he said sadly. ‘Imagine that. You were out living your young life, enjoying magic, knowing all the secrets of the world, and I had no idea any of that even existed. How boring my life must seem to you.’ He let out a small laugh. I was about to agree with him, but then I stopped. It was bad enough that he was dead without me making it seem like his life had been crap too.
‘Did you enjoy your life?’ I asked.
He considered the question for a moment, his head tilted to one side. ‘Yes, I suppose I did. I don’t have many regrets so I guess that’s a good thing.’
‘It doesn’t matter what you didn’t know then. You had a good life.’
Sixty-eight appeared on the wall and another person got up and went through one of the doors.
‘Did you enjoy your life?’ Now there was a complicated question. It had been easy for him to answer. Not so much for me.
‘Some of it,’ I told him. ‘I think maybe I would’ve enjoyed it more if I hadn’t known about magic. It would have been a lot simpler.’
‘Hindsight, eh?’ he chortled.
‘How did you die?’
‘I’m not entirely sure, you know. I was sitting in the conservatory reading the paper when the ground sort of… rumbled and then everything turned red. And then I was here.’
The small amount of pleasure I’d been getting out of the conversation dissipated in a heartbeat. ‘Where did you live?’ I asked him in a quiet voice. I knew what he was going to say.
‘Cedarstone. It’s in Kent,’ he said proudly. I looked around the room and wondered if all these people had been killed by me. Were they all from Cedarstone? How far had the magic spread if it had killed this old man in his home? It was supposed to have been just the high street that got hit. That’s why the high street had been evacuated.
My hand tingled and I saw my number appear above the first door. ‘I’m so sorry,’ I said to the old man. He looked at me in confusion and shook his head. I didn’t wait to hear his reply. I got up and strode through the first door without even thinking about what might lie waiting on the other side for me.
It was an office. A plain, somewhat shabby, office. The magnolia walls were plain. The only furniture was a large wooden desk that a had a chair behind it and a chair in front. The chair in front was the same as the crappy ones from the waiting room. The one behind was an executive, high-backed, leather chair. In the nice chair sat a small man who looked like he was severely over-worked. He looked up at me, his monobrow lifting slightly in greeting. He indicated the chair and then waited for me to sit down. I did as I was bid, noticing that the chair was very low so that I was looking up at him. I wasn’t going to have that. I pointed my fingers down at the chair legs, willing them to elongate, but nothing happened.
‘You don’t have magic here. Perhaps you will be granted magic again in your afterlife. That depends on how your judgement goes,’ he said in a weary voice. He was clearly not that interested in his job. Maybe an eternity of doing it dulled the experience.
‘I thought Saint Peter took care of judging people. I mean no offence, but you don’t strike me as Saint Peter. Or Saint anyone for that matter,’ I said. His eyebrow rose higher on his forehead.
‘Insulting your judgment officer?’ he said quizzically. ‘Foolhardy.’
‘I didn’t mean anything by it,’ I said quickly, hoping to salvage the conversation. ‘I’m just a bit nervous. You know, being dead and all can do that to a guy.’
He nodded. ‘I understand. Don’t worry, this will not affect your judgement. As for Saint Peter, he does not reside in this realm. Now, let us begin.’
I wanted to question him further on that but thought better of potentially irritating the man who was about to judge my deeds. If Saint Peter wasn’t in this realm then which realm was I in?
Before him on the desk was a manilla file that was absolutely bulging with papers of a variety of colours. I saw whites, oranges, reds, yellows and a couple of greens. He lifted open the cover and stared down at the first page. I could not see it on account of my chair being so low. I did see his brow furrow as he studied whatever was written there. ‘Two in one shift,’ he muttered to himself. Then he shook his head. He closed the file and then looked back at me. ‘It seems you have not been assigned to me after all.’ He stood up.
‘Who have I been assigned to?’ I knew it wasn’t Saint Peter.
‘Come,’ he said. I followed him through the door and we reentered the waiting room. The old man was gone now. The people that were there looked up eagerly, wondering what was going on. They probably weren’t used to people coming out of the rooms. The officer turned right and led me down a long plain looking corridor. I wondered why everything was so boring in this place. Had God put them on a tight budget or something? I know the Bible espoused modesty and humbleness but this was just depressing. I could not remain in surroundings like this for eternity. I’d take the fires of Hell any day. It occurred to me that I probably shouldn’t even think things like that. I mentally retracted the thought.
At the end of the corridor was an elevator. Shiny gold doors were fixed in the wall in complete juxtaposition with the shabbiness of the rest of the place. The elevator doors looked beautiful. I could see my reflection in them. I could really do with a haircut, I thought.
The officer pressed the button and the doors opened on a mirrored elevator cart with a beautiful marble floor. Now this was more like it. I stepped inside the elevator and turned to see the officer was not coming with me. He looked at me the way someone looks at his friend when he knows he’s in the shit.
‘What?’ I said, suddenly nervous. ‘Where am I going?’ He flashed me a nervous smile that did not comfort me in the least.
‘Good luck,’ he said. And then the doors slid shut.
I didn’t feel the elevator move whatsoever, and yet after a few seconds, the doors slid open onto the biggest hall I had ever seen. It was the throne room of a god. A white marble floor stretched out for about a hundred feet. Golden pillars soared up way above, holding up the ceiling which had been enchanted to resemble a beautiful blue sky complete with fluffy white clouds. It was the perfect picture of a summer’s sky. At the head of the room atop a high dais, stood a white glowing throne that looked like it was made of pure light. As enticing as it was, it looked like it would destroy anybody who sat in it. Anybody apart from the man who was already sitting in the throne.
He was tall even for a seated person. He sat straight, his chin slightly elevated. Both arms rested on the arms of the throne, his fingers draped over their fronts. Luscious golden locks hung down from his flawless face. Keen, bright eyes stared down at me as I shuffled into the room.
There was another figure standing behind the throne but I could only make out the shape of him as the throne was shining so brightly.
I turned back to the elevator, considering leaving again. Something about the man on the throne made me uneasy. I couldn’t tell if it was the unnatural perfection of his appearance or the cold silent exudation of power. To my dismay, the door was no longer there and only a golden wall stood behind me.
‘Come,’ the man said. His voice was gentle but commanding. I squared my shoulders in an attempt to look as confident as possible and strode determinedly across the hall. The man sat perfectly still, his eyes never leaving me, his expression never changing. My shoes clip-clopped on the marble, the sound rebounding around me.
As I passed the last set of pillars I saw a fourth person. There was a man chained to the back of the pillar on my right, so only those on the throne side of the room would be able to see him. My blood burned in my veins at the sight of my grandfather, Nickolas Blackwood. Despite being restrained against the pillar, he stood defiantly. His chin was raised, his jaw was set and his eyes had a look of cold hatred in them as he stared at the throned man. As I came into view he turned his head my way. His expression did not soften when he saw me. His top lip curled into a snarl and it was then that I saw the golden stitching that was holding his lips together. If Nickolas was here and he was clearly under duress then I guessed this was not Heaven. And if this was not Heaven then the man sitting in the throne was most likely…
‘He had a reputation for having a silver tongue when he was alive. He tried to use his gift on me. I found it less than effective. Tedious, if anything. I much prefer him now,’ the throned man said lyrically.
‘You can’t trust a word he says anyway. All he does is lie,’ I replied. I gave Nick a final gloating smile and then turned away.
‘His lies do not fool me. No lies do. After all, they do call me the father of lies. Not that I have ever told a single lie. Propaganda.
‘I will profess that I had not expected to meet Nickolas Blackwood for some time yet. I have you to thank for his early arrival, Edward Lancaster.’ He dipped his head ever so slightly at me.
‘You’re welcome, I suppose. Just a shame I had to follow him here,’ I said.
‘Indeed,’ the man said slowly, ponderously. ‘But that is enough about him. His judgement has been passed and it did not go in his favour. I have met many bad souls in my time ruling the Realm of the Dead, but there are very few whose bad deeds outweigh their good as Nickolas’ do. Very few indeed. I wonder how you shall fair, Eddie.’
‘If I’m in Hell and you’re going to judge me, I guess you must be Satan?’ I asked him. It was quite obvious I should not have said that. His eyes widened in repugnant disbelief. The entire room seemed to darken as if a storm cloud had fallen over it. A hideous howl filled the room and a force slammed into me from behind, forcing me down to my knees. Even though I was already dead I felt the pain as the marble floor slammed into my knees.
‘Satan is the name used to insult me. It is not now, nor has it ever been, my name. I am Lucifer the Light Bringer,’ he said his name with pride and the darkness evaporated from the room.
I remained on my knees, fearful that he would just force me back down again. I had to remind myself that things were different here. Lucifer was not an adversary like Rachel or Nickolas. There was no way to beat him. There was nowhere in his realm that I could run to, and I knew of no way to escape his realm. And here death was not the worst thing that he could inflict on me. Death, in fact, was the one thing I knew would not rescue me from any torture he sent my way. For once in my existence, I was going to have to be tactful.
‘I’m sorry I offended you, Lucifer,’ I said in my humblest tone.
‘You are forgiven,’ he said benevolently. I felt the power that had forced me down fade and slowly, I rose to my feet.
‘This is not Hell,’ he said. He began descending the steps towards me. I fought the urge to back away from him. ‘This is the Realm of the Dead. The Underworld. Hades. The Dead Realm. The Land of Souls. The list goes on.’
‘Ah, I always thought the Bible said you ruled in Hell,’ I told him, keeping my voice low as a sign of respect.
He made a scoffing sound. ‘That is not written anywhere in the Bible. The texts say I was cast down to Earth and on the day of judgement, I, like all other sinners, will be thrown into Hell. Needless to say, the Bible is a falsehood. There isn’t a religious text in the Living Realm which is accurate, though all of them have their merits in some form.’
I felt an info dump coming and longed for a chair. The last thing I wanted was to stand here for hours whilst he retold the Bible in its true form. But I dared not say anything through fear of offending him again.
‘I shall tell you the truth of the matter,’ he said as he stepped onto the same level as me. He was a good foot taller than I was. ‘The Bible is correct in that I did rebel against Yahweh.’
‘Yahweh being God?’ I asked. The room darkened once more and his eyes bore into me furiously.
‘That’s what he calls himself,’ he said through his teeth. ‘If he’s a god then my siblings and I are too. It is true that he is my father, but he is an archangel, the same as I am. He just has more supporters. That is how he defeated my rebellion. There was no battle, no fighting. It was a dignified vote.’
‘A vote?’ I said in disbelief. There was something very unbiblical about a vote taking place in Heaven.
‘Yes, a vote. All of the angels came together to vote for which of us should be their leader. Which of us should govern the Cosmos. Yahweh, or myself. He won. Barely. And as a punishment, I was exiled from Heaven. Myself and all my supporters were sent here, to the Dead Realm, to rule over the souls of the deceased. That is my part in the running of the Cosmos now. I reign only over the dead. Whilst Yahweh gets to lord it over everything else from his throne of splendour in Heaven. But, mark my words, my time shall come. I shall rise up from this place and I shall take my rightful throne in Heaven, and this time there shall be no vote. Only the sword.’
I opened my mouth to reply and then made one of the wisest decisions of my existence. I closed it again.
‘So, here I am. Reigning not over Hell, but over all the plains of the Dead. Good and bad, they all come through me.’ He turned and began climbing the stairs back to his throne.
‘So, if my judgement goes well I can get into Heaven?’ I asked hopefully. He paused halfway up the stairs. His shoulders rose and fell as he let out a tiny laugh. He looked over his shoulder at me, his eye glinting devilishly.
‘Heaven is not for humans, Eddie. Heaven is the home of the angels. The creatures of the Cosmos, brought to life by the Universe itself to ensure that everything within the Universe runs smoothly. You have no place there.’ He climbed the last few steps and turned back to face me. ‘But with a positive outcome, you can move on to a pleasant afterlife. Your own version of Heaven. So,’ he lowered himself gracefully back into his throne. ‘How do you predict your chances?’
‘Well,’ I said, inclining my head as I considered things. I had done my fair share of bad things in my life, but I’d also done plenty of good. I’d helped people. I’d saved people. I wasn’t exactly a hero, but I certainly wasn’t a villain. ‘I did give up my own life to save everybody from him.’ I jerked my thumb in Nick’s direction.
‘Oh.’ Lucifer’s eyebrows rose. ‘And do you believe that this one act of goodness cancels out all of the terrible things you did prior?’
‘I didn’t say that. I mean, I never did anything that bad,’ I argued, still trying to maintain a respectful tone.
‘How would you categorise the murder of three-hundred innocent people in the Hazlitt Theatre?’ he asked. He leaned forward in his throne, eager for my reply.
‘I wasn’t in control then,’ I said, barely containing my temper. If he was going to throw accusations at me then he could at least choose something I’d done when I wasn’t under the influence of a dark curse.
‘If I had another supporter for every time I’ve heard someone tell me that then I would be on the throne of Heaven right now. But very well, you were cursed. Explain to me your part in the death of Clara Winters. You weren’t cursed then, were you?’
‘She was hardly innocent!’ I exclaimed, throwing my hands up in the air. ‘She’d imprisoned me and was planning to use me against my will if she needed to.’
‘Her actions do not excuse yours. Murder is murder.’
‘I didn’t murder anybody.’
He leaned back, a cool smile on his lips. ‘I’m starting to see that famous temper. The one that results in people getting hurt. Even killed. The very temper you inherited from your grandfather,’ Lucifer said with mirth. He was enjoying this.
I closed my eyes and drew in a deep breath. If I lost my temper he would likely hurt me. I was a magicless mortal and he was an archangel. The only way to beat him was by defending myself with words. I had to treat this like a court case.
Once I’d calmed down enough, I opened my eyes and spoke in a steady, even tone.
‘I did a lot of things. I hurt people. I killed people. My actions got people killed even if I didn’t do the killing myself. But I was only ever reacting to situations I was forced into. I never intended to hurt anybody. I just wanted to protect the people I cared about. I made a lot of bad decisions in my life, but I did the best job I knew how to do. I made the best out of the circumstances given to me.’
Lucifer sat in silence, staring down at me. He contemplated my words with his eyes on my face. He wasn’t making eye contact, his gaze seemed to look through me… into me. It was unsettling to say the least. But judging from the calmness of his expression I’d say my words had had the desired effect.
‘Maybe you did do your best. And maybe your best just wasn’t good enough.’ Each word hit me like a fresh curse pounding into my soul. I glanced over at Nick who was staring off into space, his expression unreadable. If he couldn’t talk Lucifer round then what hope did I have?
Lucifer rose and let out a great sigh, shaking his head sadly as if he was greatly disappointed in me. ‘If we continue with this judgement I fear it will not go in your favour, Eddie.’
‘Please,’ I said in a whisper. ‘I just want to see Ashley again. If you’re going to send me to Hell, or whatever the bad place is called, then just let me see her one more time before you send me. Surely my sacrifice has earned me that much?’ It wasn’t in my nature to beg but when you’re dead and standing before the throne of the closest thing to a god there is, begging is a pretty good option. In my case, it was the only option.
‘I’ve never been in love,’ he said. Once again he began descending the steps. ‘I’m not even sure if it is possible for my kind to fall in love, though many have claimed to have done just that. So, you can understand that this desire you have to be reunited with Ashley is not something I can understand. Not fully.’ He reached the bottom and stared into my eyes. His eyes were so enchanting. The irises didn’t seem to be one colour, they were many all at once, constantly moving and swirling in the darkness around them. ‘I have never understood the purpose of humanity. Animals have a chain that keeps the world in motion. Remove one link in that chain and everything will start to fall apart unless that link can be replaced. Angels are here to ensure that the Universe runs smoothly. We are here to maintain the cosmological order. Without us, the Universe would quickly descend into anarchy. What purpose does your race have? Why are you here?’
I wasn’t sure if he was waiting for an answer but I knew that anything I said would likely anger him so I said nothing. After several moments of silence, he broke eye contact and began circling me slowly, like a parent lecturing their child.
‘For eons, I have struggled with this riddle. I often considered the notion that perhaps your very existence is entirely designed to frustrate me. But I cannot imagine the Cosmos would be so petty.
‘I take it God did not create us then?’ I said. I realised my mistake as soon as the words had left my mouth. My spine became ablaze with burning agony. I clamped my lips together and stopped the scream from coming out. My body shook as I fought against the pain. A low whimper squeezed through my lips like a fart.
‘There is no God. Only us, and the Cosmos.’ The pain vanished with his words. Then he resumed pacing around me. ‘Some races were created. Though none from scratch. Everything had a template to work from. I watched my father start the process of evolution in your race. He forced mankind to evolve from apes and to this day I wonder why. One of the only pleasures I have in my existence is knowing that eventually, you will all have to come to me and answer for your pointless existences.’
‘Without us, your existence would be pretty pointless unless you’d like to sit here and judge the pigs and cows,’ I snapped. I braced myself for pain but none came. Instead, a burst of snakelike hissing laughter slithered over my shoulder.
‘Without you, I would not be in this realm. The annihilation of your race was one of the key points in my manifesto. The Universe would be far easier to govern without you complicating things. All the things we have had to engineer to try and keep you in line. To try and stop you from destroying the very planet you need for your own survival. Climate change was a fantastic idea. My brothers in Heaven really thought it would scare your race into changing your ways. Even I was surprised to see its lack of results. You are a stubborn race.’
‘You guys caused climate change?’
‘We are behind everything that happens. We rule the Cosmos. We control it. That is our purpose. I would like to bestow upon you a new purpose.’
I raised an eyebrow and turned to face him. Whatever he wanted from me would not be good. People only ever preceded requests with long-winded speeches when they knew the request would be denied if asked for outright. The big speech was the distraction. ‘What purpose?’ I asked.
‘When people die they come to my realm. That is the law of the Cosmos. The Ambrotos Dagger makes a mockery of the Universe by stopping humans from dying. I have allowed this insult to go on for far too long. Go back to the Living Realm, retrieve the Ambrotos Dagger, and deliver it to me. Do this for me and I will allow you to bypass my judgement and rest peacefully with Ashley. Or however you choose to move on. Whatever Heaven looks like to Eddie Lancaster. Your record will be wiped clean.’
It was a good offer. An amazing offer. I was fairly sure that my judgement would not go favourably if I let him continue. But still… something didn’t add up.
‘Why don’t you go and get it yourself? You’re an archangel. Nobody would be able to stop you.’
His face soured. ‘There are rules. Rules set by Heaven. Exiled angels who reside in the Realm of the Dead can only enter the Realm of the Living if they forfeit their powers. When I set foot in the Living Realm I am at a greatly diminished capacity. But you are under no such restrictions. I can send you back and you can do this for me.’
‘But why me?’ I pushed. ‘Surely there are other people more suited to this task.’
‘If I fail I will bear that in mind,’ he said, his patience thinning. ‘Do you accept my gracious offer, or shall I continue with your judgement?’
It didn’t take long for me to think it through. ‘I accept on one condition.’ His eyebrows nearly took flight from his head. ‘I want to see Ashley before you send me back.’
‘Humans,’ he said with a shake of his angelic head. ‘Agreed.’
I returned to the elevator which had now reappeared and stepped inside. As the door slid shut I saw the figure at the back of the room emerge and approach Lucifer. In just a few seconds the doors opened on yet another place. I wondered if this elevator was the way everybody travelled around the Dead Realm. It wasn’t what I’d expected. I’d always thought it would be more magical. Instead, it was strangely corporate. I chuckled at the idea of the Universe being run by a load of toffs in suits.
The door opened on a street. It wasn’t any street I recognised. It was a pretty generic street. A neat row of houses, all built with boring, faded bricks. I expected better in the afterlife. Then again, it didn’t look like anybody lived in any of the houses. I stepped onto the street and looked up and down the road. No cars, no birds, no people. No lights were on in the houses, no curtains were moving. No sound came from anywhere. It was a ghost town. No pun intended.
I looked behind me. Once again the elevator had vanished. It obviously wasn’t for public use, only the angels could summon it. I started walking down the road, hoping I’d find somewhere or someone familiar soon. The sun was setting in this unfamiliar world, and a dusky orange glow filled the sky. It was quite beautiful to look at. Maybe it was like that here every night. I’d get bored of it if that was the case. If you have something every day it loses its splendour.
I reached the bottom of the road and saw a beach just before me. It was odd the way the urban street just blended into the sand. This must be somebody’s idea of a happy ever after. It certainly wasn’t mine. I hate beaches. All that sand stuck in between your toes, getting in your socks. The only solution was to wear sandals or the dreaded flip-flop. No thank you. One person’s paradise is another person’s hell.
‘Eddie!’ I knew Ashley’s voice straight away. I turned and saw her running down the road towards me. Her light hair flew behind her and I’m not ashamed to admit that I was drawn to the bouncing of her heavy chest.
God, I’d missed her.
She threw her arms out as she ran and I realised that we were about to reenact that scene that pops up in every single romance film in existence. The one where the separated lovers reunite and run towards each other for a massive embrace. Well, I’m not that guy. I stayed still and let her come to me. I extended my arms to return her embrace but I’d underestimated the force with which she was coming at me. She barrelled into me and we both tumbled to the floor. As I fell I realised why the guy also ran in the films. The mutual running cancelled out the momentum and stopped this kind of thing from happening.
We both lay on the ground laughing at the clumsiness of our “romantic” reunion. She buried her face in my neck and laughed beautifully. Her warm breath fell on my flesh and caused my heartbeat to pick up. We’d only been apart of a few weeks but it felt like a decade. She raised her head and looked down at me. Her hair fell over my face as I gazed up into her loving green eyes. Then our lips were locked together, never to be parted again. Well, until a few minutes later when they were parted.
‘I’ve missed you,’ she said, her voice breaking on the words. I looked away so she wouldn’t see the tears in my eyes. I’ve never understood why people cry when they’re happy. Even when experiencing the tears of joy myself I still didn’t understand it.
‘I’ve missed you too,’ I confessed. I kissed her again. And again. And again. I have no idea how much time went by. Minutes. Hours. By the time we stopped kissing the sun had almost set completely.
Ashley jumped up and then pulled me to my feet too. I didn’t object as she dragged me onto the sand and across the beach. The sound of the tide lapping against the shore was soothing as we walked along the sand. She turned back to me and then kicked her shoes off across the beach. She gestured for me to do the same.
‘Oh, no,’ I shook my head. ‘I don’t want sand in my toes.’
‘You’re dead, Eddie. You can risk a little sand in your toes.’ It was hard to argue with that logic, and it was impossible to deny her anything. If she wanted my shoes off, well I guess she could have it. I kicked my shoes off and then stripped my socks off too. The sand did not feel nice beneath my feet, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. The mind has a way of vilifying unpleasant memories so they’re even worse than the experience actually was. A mechanism to stop us from doing something unpleasant again I suppose.
Ashley didn’t stop at shoes and socks. She pulled off her top and then stood there in just a pair of denim shorts and a Lacey white bra. I was eager to see those come off too. But first I had to follow suit. Soon enough we were naked and back in each other's arms.
My nightmare of being on the beach was worse than I’d ever imagined now that I was naked and rolling around in the sand. Those devilish little grains could get in much worse places than between my toes. But I didn’t care. My hell had become my heaven. I entered Ashley and realised exactly what I’d been missing. I’m not exaggerating when I say that it was the best sex of my… No, it wasn’t the best of my life actually. And I couldn’t say it was the best of my death because it was the only sex of my death. It was the best sex I’d ever had. Period.
When it was over we lay in each other’s arms, enjoying the breeze from the sea, and staring up at the slowly darkening sky. I was fairly certain by this point that the sun set much slower than it did in the Living Realm.
‘Did you see everything going on with me after you…’ I asked without saying that she’d died, it seemed wrong to verbalise it. I wanted to know if she’d seen the atrocious things I’d done with Nick or if I was going to have to tell her now. I didn’t have to tell her, Lucifer had offered me the chance to bypass judgement which meant it was only my conscious that would suffer. For eternity.
‘No. Every now and then we can glimpse the other side but it’s a rare privilege. I know some of what you did, though. People have passed through here. Nobody I know, but people Mum knows,’ she spoke calmly, still staring up at the sky. Not a care in the world. Not a shred of judgement.
‘So you know I sided with Nickolas Blackwood?’
She nodded. ‘Yes. And I know that you stopped him in the end. That’s what matters.’
Not according to Lucifer, I thought. ‘You aren’t angry at me or anything?’ I pushed myself up on my forearms so I could see her properly. She looked up at me and smiled. It was one of those smiles reserved for people who were being silly.
‘Of course not. We’re both dead now. Nothing before matters. Not really. The fact that you’re here proves that you were a good man. You’ve come to a good place rather than being sent off for eternal torment.’
‘About that,’ I said, looking off into the distance. ‘I’m only here for tonight.’ Her happiness ebbed away and I told her the deal I’d made with Lucifer.
‘Oh, thank God,’ she said, letting out a heavy sigh of relief. I looked at her in confusion. ‘I thought you meant we had one night and then you were going to be tortured for the rest of time!’
I burst out laughing. It was a high and raucous sound. Ashley slapped me on the chest hard enough to sting a little.
‘Don’t do that to me!’ She scolded.
‘I’m sorry! I’m sorry!’ I fell back to the sand and we lay together in silence, watching the stars together. ‘So what do you do here?’ I asked.
‘Whatever I want. I live with Mum in the family home. Sometimes we see people. Others who’ve died, you know.’
I chewed on my lower lip as I listened to her talking. Living with her mum in her family home sounded nice. For her. Not for me.
‘We’ll get our own place when you’re here for good,’ she said, as though she’d been reading my mind.
‘Are there any people here? The whole street seemed empty,’ I said. I liked peace, but not this much. Although it was handy having no-one around when you were lying naked on the beach.
‘You can go to see other people, but most people stick with their loved ones in their own little pockets of the afterlife. I think it's only so quiet here because that’s how me and Mum like it. Other people might live with more people around,’ she explained. ‘There’s a train that takes you wherever you want to go if you want to see people.’
‘A train?’ I repeated. How strange a concept that was. A train that choo-chooed its way through the Underworld. The train would be a blessing for me. I like my solitude but a world with only three people was certainly not my idea of Heaven. Not at all.
We lay together under the stars, in that perfectly cliched fashion until we both fell asleep. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d slept so peacefully. Probably not since I was a little boy safe with my parents. I did not dream and I did not wake up once. I slept all night with Ashley in my arms. When I woke up in the morning she was gone.
I sat up and looked both ways up and down the beach. The sky was pink as the sun rose and the golden sands were clear in both directions.
‘Ashley?’ I called as if she might have been hiding behind a sand dune or something.
‘Your time with Ashley has ended. She has gone home.’ I turned to see a man standing a few feet away. He was a plain man, dressed in plain black robes. His face was young and angular, like a thin diamond. Thin black hair was combed back across his head. I don’t know how I knew it, but this was the figure who’d been lurking in the throne room.
‘Who are you?’ I asked. I realised I was still naked as I climbed to my feet. I covered my dangly bits and looked around for my clothes but I had no idea where they’d gone. We hadn’t stripped off that far from here, had we?
‘My name is Malek. I am the Lord of Death’s lieutenant.’
‘Lucifer sent you?’ I asked, abandoning the search for my garments.
‘I have been sent to return you to the Living Realm,’ he said, staring me down with distaste.
‘Okay. Have you seen my clothes?’
‘There will be time for clothing later. It hardly matters right now.’ He shook his head as if I were a nuisance. I couldn’t help but notice that he was not naked. There was plenty of time for him to be dressed.
‘It matters to me, mate.’
‘Mate?’ He took a long time pronouncing the word as if it was the first time he’d heard it. ‘I am not your mate. We are not equals. You ought to show me some respect, if not for the fact that I am an angel, then for the fact that had it not been for me you would not have been granted this gracious opportunity to forgo judgement.’
‘If not for you?’ I looked at him, eyes narrowed. He was up to something, that much was obvious.
‘Indeed. I recommended this idea to Lucifer. I am his oldest friend. I have his ear.’ He raised his chin with pride.
‘Why? Why me? Why not any one of the other dead guys you’ve got wandering through here?’
‘Wandering through here… The Dead Realm is not a market.’ He shook his head at me again.
‘But why me?’
Ignoring my question, he reached into his robes and pulled out a small phial of glowing white liquid. It looked like radioactive milk. Or something else…
‘Drink this,’ he commanded, offering it to me.
‘Uh… What is it?’ I asked. There was no way I was going to put some suspicious white liquid down my gullet. It could be anything. And I think we all know where my mind was wandering.
‘This is but a sample of Lord Lucifer’s grace. You will need this if you are to be returned to a full living state.’
‘I see.’ I took the phial and turned it over in my hands. The liquid moved like treacle. ‘And where did it come from?’
‘From within Lucifer’ I grimaced at that.
‘And, from which orifice was this extracted?’
Malek’s nose wrinkled in disgust. He glared at me the way a parent might look at a child who’d farted at the dinner table. ‘Grace is to an angel what blood is to a human. It was extracted via an incision to the forearm. Now drink it before I change my mind and choose a new candidate from the many hordes of deceased souls we have wandering around down here.’
I pulled off the lid and raised the phial to my lips. I closed my eyes as I tipped Lucifer’s grace into my mouth. I needn’t have worried. It was actually delicious. Kind of tasted like custard. I only wished there was more of it.
‘My God, that was good!’ I exclaimed and then smacked my lips with enthusiasm. My body warmed from within as the grace worked its way inside me. I felt like I was glowing even though I clearly was not.
‘How dare you say that word in my presence,’ growled Malek.
‘Malek, you are far too serious. Maybe you should come back to the Living Realm with me. We could have fun together.’
‘A combination of being rendered powerless and being in your company is enough to drive even an angel to suicide.’ He turned and beckoned for me to follow. I decided not to be offended by his blatant rudeness.
I followed him along the beach until we came to the trusty elevator. This was not the place I’d got off the night before which meant it could appear anywhere. That begged the question why didn’t he just summon it where we were already standing?
We stepped inside and the door slid shut behind us.
‘If you’re an angel like Lucifer why did I have to drink his grace, why not yours?’ I asked.
‘I am not like Lucifer. I am an angel whereas he is an archangel. Only his grace has the power to restore life,’ Malek told me. ‘Any angel could send a dead soul back to the Living Realm, but only an archangel can restore life fully.’
‘Sucks to be you then,’ I said without thinking.
‘It will suck a lot more to be you when you inevitably fail in your quest.’
We stepped out into a large white room. Lines of people stood sentry on either side of the room. They were dressed in white and their faces were covered by expressionless white masks. Or those were their faces. It was hard to tell. I guessed they were some sort of guards. I hadn’t seen guards anywhere else in the Realm so far which meant this room was important.
None of the sentries moved as we passed them. Malek led me up to the far wall which looked like a giant window covered in cellophane. Through the window, I could see a blurred street. It was dark but I could just about make out the shapes of parked cars beneath glowing streetlights. Silhouettes moved about on the street too.
‘Your town,’ Malek said, nodding at the window. ‘Maidstone.’
‘Is this the gateway then?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ he replied simply. ‘Do I need to remind you of your task?’
‘Find the Ambrotos Dagger and bring it back here,’ I said. As if I’d forget such a simple task. He really thought I was a moron.
‘You won’t be able to bring it back here. Once you have it I will send an envoy to bring you to me. The Dagger will be handed to Lucifer and you will be able to spend eternity rolling around on that beach.’
My cheeks blushed at the idea that Malek had been watching me and Ashley get busy. If that’s how things were here then I would be far more cautious about where we did it in the future. Angel or not, I did not want him watching me in action.
‘Before I go back, I don’t suppose you know where the Dagger is?’ I asked. I’d last seen it in Cedarstone but such a powerful artefact was unlikely to have been left there. The moment the debris had settled someone would’ve gone in to retrieve it. The question was who.
Malek stared at me in disbelief. ‘If I knew where it was I would hardly need you.’
‘I’m still not sure why you do need me. I mean anyone would do.’
‘Just consider yourself lucky it is you and stop worrying about the why. Curiosity will be the death of your race.’ He took hold of my wrist and turned it over in his hand. His touch was frosty and made my blood slow in my veins. He touched his index finger to my tattoo. An hourglass with green sand trickling through the funnel. I’d got it to remind me not to waste time.
‘How very fitting,’ he said. My tattoo glowed with faint purple light as whatever spell he was casting took hold of me. ‘We don’t want you getting any funny ideas and deciding to stay over there in the Living Realm. You were not given enough grace to make your resurrection permanent but that doesn’t mean you won’t find another way.’
‘This is all unnecessary,’ I told him. ‘I want to get back to Ashley.’
‘Perhaps. But if you come to realise you cannot complete your task your only alternative would be to avoid dying again. This makes that impossible.’
He released my wrist and I saw that my tattoo was no longer a static image. The sand, which was now purple, had all shifted into the top portion of the hourglass and was very slowly trickling through to the bottom. He’d made my tattoo a real timepiece. It looked pretty cool.
‘When the last of the sands fall to the bottom your time will be up and you will return here. If you do not have the Ambrotos Dagger then you will not enjoy your time here. Which will be forever.’
‘This wasn’t part of the deal,’ I protested, holding my wrist out for him to remove the spell.
‘Good luck, Eddie Lancaster. See you soon.’ He said and then shoved me through the window.
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