The following is a short excerpt from my as-yet unpublished novel “Reaper.” I realize the short vignette begins and ends in an odd place, but this small section was one of my favorite scenes from the book. But that’s enough exposition from me. Enjoy.
When they arrived at the funeral home, Aibell was waiting outside for them, playing with the fireflies. They parked the car and walked over to Aibell. She smiled at them, and continued to watch the fireflies for a moment.
“They are the only supernatural creature your kind still accepts without reservation.”
Puzzled, the other two glanced at each other, and in unison said, “Huh?”
Aibell caught a firefly, cupped it in her palm, and whispered to it. When she reopened her hand, a small, glowing light engulfed the creature for several seconds. When the light faded, the boys gasped; the firefly had transformed into a two-inch tall woman, clothed in dark cloth, with fierce red hair on her head and a slight yellow glow about her.
Aibell motioned for it to fly, and it produced a pair of wings and flew over to inspect Aaron and Kyle up close.
“You call them fireflies and lightning bugs; in my young days, we called them adze. They are peaceful little fairies. The Celts saw them in this form and called them will-o-the-wisps; often, they would find hunters lost in the woods and lead them back to the road. The adze are still here, but the other races either returned to their own realms or live in hiding. It is a wonder that they stayed in the human realm, even after the humans have worked so hard to destroy everything here, including themselves; some of us believe they wish to watch out for you. They are not civilized creatures, but they are compassionate and empathetic nonetheless.”
The adze flew to Aibell’s shoulder before returning to its previous form and flying away into the night. Aibell watched for a second, and then looked up at the two men.
“Come, we have spent too much time here already; we should be returning to Asphodel.”
The three of them walked inside and to the Gate, which was in a hidden room behind Aaron’s office. At first blush, it looked like a large mirror, with an outer frame made of pure obsidian, and an etched silver lining marking the inner and outer edges. In the middle, it was jet black, swirling and turning, with the occasional streak of what looked like far-off lightning. Aaron set his watch timer, knowing he only had three days before he had to be back in the land of the living. Aibell stepped up to the Gateway and turned to the two of them.
“I know you’ve never done this before, but there is no need to be nervous; it is as simple as falling asleep. Just step through and let the Gate take you to the other side.”
With that, she stepped through the Gate, disappearing into the inky darkness with grace and ease. Aaron and Kyle paused a second. Kyle laughed nervously.
“See you on the other side, bro,” he said.
The two of them bumped fists and stepped into the darkness. It was nothing like they were expecting; it felt like a heavy, cool sheet was being drawn across their faces. They stepped through it, and suddenly, they were in the Underworld. The Underworld was not quite what they expected, either. It was not colder, nor was it warmer. It was…pleasant. The Underworld appeared well lit, though no source of light could be identified, with red and purple clouds floating in the sky above them.
They had passed through the Gateway, and found themselves outside, a stone’s throw away from a busy street. Behind them was a Gateway identical to the one in the funeral home. Aibell stood several feet ahead of them with her hands on her hips and a slight smirk on her face. The Gateway was backed up against the city wall, which rose fifteen feet above them and seemed to wind all the way around the city. Ahead of them, across the street, was the city proper. The buildings were inches apart from each other, with shops and stores lining the street, banners hanging from second story windows informing the public of the goods and services provided. After giving the boys a moment to gawk at their new surroundings, Aibell turned around and began walking towards the city ahead of them.
“Welcome to Asphodel, the City of the Dead and the heart of the ever-expanding Valley of Kings.”
Aibell, along with several members of the Pale Guard, escorted Aaron and Kyle through the streets, towards the towering palace in the center of town.
“There are many shops around town; as there is no currency in the Underworld, they all provide their goods and services for free. The dead do not need to eat, they really are in need of nothing, but here in the city, they provide each other with every luxury. Fancy clothes, extravagant jewelry, fine food and drink; they provide it to each other for no price whatsoever. Everything and anything their hearts can imagine is made available to them. They build, craft, cook, and design anything they wish; the only law here is that they make it available to the public as well.”
The group continued to walk down the street, with Aaron and Kyle admiring the buildings and the architecture around them. It was reminiscent of Victorian England in design, but was somehow…different. Metal, wood, and stone were blended together seamlessly.
Turning to Aaron, Kyle remarked, “It’s like a steampunk paradise in this place.”
Aaron laughed and nodded in agreement. “Yeah, no kidding; this city is beautiful. I actually wouldn’t mind dying if this is where I came to.”
Kyle, never one to miss out on an opportunity to throw a jab at his friend, replied, “No worries, dude. All dogs go to heaven, remember?”
As they made their way through the market district and into the residential areas, the buildings remained close together, but there were parks and playgrounds scattered all over the district. The streets were bustling with people strolling from place to place, children running all over playing games, and various unearthly vehicles being driven over and around all the pedestrians.
Aaron looked around in amazement. “I never expected there to be so many kids here.”
Kyle shrugged. “Where did you THINK they went when they died?”
Aaron shook his head slightly. “I guess I never really thought about it, honestly.”
Kyle snorted. “I’m glad; if you spent a bunch of time thinking about dead kids, we might need to get you checked out for potential psychopathy.”
Aaron shoved Kyle jokingly, and the two of them rushed to catch up to Aibell.
“How does someone with such short legs walk so fast?” Kyle asked.
Over her shoulder, Aibell responded, “It’s the effect of the Underworld on those from the land of the living. It’s not that I am moving more quickly, but that you are moving more slowly. Aaron should be feeling it more than you, Kyle; that’s not to say that you aren’t affected, you simply have more of a connection here.”
The pack weaved their way through the streets, slowly making their way to the palace. Aaron and Kyle flinched every time a flying vehicle came close to hitting them, but the contraptions always turned or elevated at the last second, avoiding any collisions. The vehicles themselves were rather peculiar; they looked like modified Rolls-Royces, with the long, elegant body styles, yet they…flew. They had wheels, but they rarely, if ever, touched the ground. They zipped around above, some flying down near street level, bobbing and weaving through the foot traffic on the ground. It was all incredibly remarkable; everywhere the boys looked, they saw something that, while similar to something back home, was also entirely unique. They continued their walk through the City of the Dead, drawing ever closer to the palace. The city, Aaron realized, was set up like a wagon wheel; the palace was the hub at the center, and, for the most part, the buildings and structures stretched out like spokes in the wheel, almost all the way to the city walls. It was a rather ingenious design – this made it so that every road led back to the palace, which was quite obviously the main attraction in Asphodel. After a while, they arrived at the gates, which were wide open. Vines grew on the black-iron gates and crawled lazily up the stone walls that surrounded the palace. They walked unhindered onto the property and followed the winding pathway to the gigantic front doors. As they walked up, the doors opened by themselves, and a tall, dark-haired woman with large, round eyes stood in the doorway. She wore a flowing white dress, and a glittering circlet on her head. She beckoned for them to enter, and as soon as they all had crossed the threshold, Aibell and the guards who had joined them dropped to one knee and bowed their heads. Seeing this happen, Aaron and Kyle followed suit, which caused the woman to laugh softly.