The red needle slipping past the white 100 was the last thing Jaran saw before the world went black. One second, he could feel the cool breeze through the open roof of his convertible riffling through his hair. The next, his ears were ringing. His head spinning. His body aching beyond measure. The edge of the world was becoming hazy, and he could feel a warm substance trickling down his temple. Eventually, all feeling left him, and Jaran slipped into a permanent slumber.
Sometime later, Jaran blinked his eyes open, heavily disoriented. Judging by how the dark was now streaked with wisps of light, it has been a few hours since he had lost touch with his senses. Dazed, and in a sort of trance, Jaran climbed out of the once-glorious BMW M4, rubbing his arm against the cut glass. Oddly though, his arm remained unbruised. The edges of his vision were now black, giving him a tunnel vision of sorts.
At the furthest point he could see, there stood a man dressed all in black, right down to the shoes. There wasn’t even a streak of any other colour. Seeing no other viable option, Jaran began to limp towards the figure, hoping he would offer some sort of explanation for this weird state of being he seemed to be trapped in.
After about a minute of advancing though, his limp vanished, and he could walk normally again. Eventually, he broke out into a run, now thoroughly desperate to get some answers.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” muttered the figure, once Jaran reached him.
Jaran panted heavily in reply.
“We must move quickly. There’s not much time.”
“Not much time for what?”
“I’ll explain everything in due time. First though, you must come with me.”
“No. I’m not going anywhere until I know what’s going on.”
“Jaran, you — ”
“How do you know my name?”
“You wanted answers, now listen. Don’t interrupt.”
Jaran let out a sigh of defeat in response.
“Good. Now, Jaran…you are dead.”
“I-I’m…dead? Oh shit, I’m dead. Fuckin’ hell, I’m dead, this is the end.” Jaran began to get hysterical now, storming around in circles with his hands pulling at this hair.
“Calm down, Jaran, don’t worry. I’m the Reaper, well, one of them at least. Call me Rip.”
“The Reaper? Doesn’t that mean you killed me? You’re the one who caused my car to crash? My super expensive car to crash! And there are more of you?” Jaran’s hysteria was climbing. Rip stayed calm — almost everyone had the exact same reaction.
“No, the Reapers protect souls from the horrors that lie between the location of their death and the Decision Portals. We do not cause death.”
“Literally every piece of literature ever written, or every movie ever produced, says otherwise.”
Rip scoffed and said, “Tell me, have you ever read or watched anything written by someone after they died?”
Jaran stood stupidly for a few seconds, then, regaining control of himself grudgingly said, “Fair point.”
Rip looked pleased.
“But why allow yourself — sorry, yourselves — to be portrayed in a bad light? Couldn’t you just change these notions? I mean, I presume you’ve got a lot of power, being the ones to protect people and stuff.”
“Oh god, always the same questions. I should really have a recording ready. Or maybe a sheet of FAQs. At this point, the effort that would go into making a fancy video doesn’t seem like it would be completely wasted either.”
Despite these snarky comments, he seemed to be mostly good-natured, slightly annoyed, rather than frustrated. “No, we can’t change literature. We’re not allowed to interfere with the physical world. Doing so would be catastrophic. Just imagine if a being, or beings, with powers like mine were allowed to influence the physical world. We’d take over within seconds.”
“Yeah? What’s so amazing about these powers of yours?”
Rip clicked his fingers, causing a red-hilted golden-bladed sword to materialise into his hands. He then thrust it upwards, and it erupted into flames.
Jaran ducked down to prevent being burned alive by them. “Alright, I see your point.”
Rip chuckled. Maybe this one won’t be so problematic. The last soul he had to ferry resulted in him being placed on probation from the ranks of the Reapers.
Like always, Rip waited at the end of a long road, waiting for this soul to come to him. He had anticipated that this was going to be a tough one — he knew he was going to be ferrying an outlawed soul — but did not imagine it would be anything like the events that followed.
When the soul arrived, Rip gave him the normal, textbook greeting, and was asked a lot of the same questions. When told that he was dead though, things began to get ugly. He did not take death with good grace. He took out the gun that he had holstered with him and shot Rip repeatedly while screaming “Goddamn that motherfucker! Knew I (pronouncing it ‘ah’) shouldn’t have trusted ‘im!”. Of course, being a Reaper, a bullet did nothing to him. However, as per protocol, he was required to seize any and all weapons the soul may have on them. Human weapons could, if a skilled Forger got their hands on them, be modified to damage beings of the Other world.
Rip took the gun, but this man had other weapons too. He got out a knife and proceeded to stab Rip, this time with more anger punctuating each thrust. Again, that did nothing to him, but all the unusual commotion caused the Council to take notice. Despite not being at fault, Rip was subsequently put on probation due to his “failure to quickly, and deftly deal with the problem as per protocol.”
Rip shook his head and re-oriented himself. He needed this one to go smoothly. His reputation and job were on the line.
“Sorry, lost in thought…good thing you ducked, Jaran. You may be dead, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be injured. This is practically another life, meaning injury, and possibly death, if appropriate weapons are used, are a very real, very harmful possibility.”
Just then, something grazed Jaran’s left arm. They both looked up to see a cloaked man with a bow drawn at full stretch on a hill not so far away.
“Shit, that was quicker than I expected.”
“You knew that was going to happen?” Jaran was screaming again.
“Yes, I did. I thought I made the fact that I’ve done this thing several times evident.”
“Yeah, well…ugh. Fair point, again.
“So, what’re we doi — ” Jaran stopped when he saw what Rip was doing.
The Reaper had conjured a bow and arrow of his own — no quiver, just one arrow nocked and drawn, his arms outstretched, testing the bow’s elasticity. He raised it steadily and took aim. If you could call squinting his eyes like he was in an Old West high noon taking aim, that is.
No way in a million fucking years is he going to be able to hit him from there. Not in just one shot, Jaran thought. What happened next though, was quite surprising. Satisfied, Rip lifted his two fingers from the serving and let the arrow fly. It hit the man squarely in the chest, knocking him off his point of vantage.
“Goddamn, wow. Good shot.”
“Like I said — been doing this for a while. Anyway, let’s go. More serious threats are bound to be on their way.” Rip began to move further down the road, leaving Jaran no option but to follow.
“So, where’re we going?”
“Down the road.”
“Until we have to.”
“Be a bit more specific, will you?”
“Until the Portals show up. It’s a messed-up system, and I’m pretty sure whoever came up with it was drunk when they did, but it stuck. Guys around here are big sticklers for tradition and heritage and all that.
“Basically, a reaper takes a soul, and they protect ’em until the Portals decide to grace you with their appearance. Only one of them will be open, but it will be impossible to tell where it leads until after you’ve stepped through it. My father made that last addition, he was a Reaper too. Too many souls simply refused to enter before it was implemented.”
“So, how long does it usually take?”
“No one can say. Sometimes a few minutes, sometimes a couple hours, could even be a day or two. The longest recorded wait time is a week. Drove ol’ Dan crazy. And then the next attack came onto them. A flock of ravens descended from the sky, determined to rip the two, limb from limb.
“Ugh, these guys.” Rip pushed his palms together and told Jaran to get behind him. When he released them, a wave of fire ran between the two. He waved his hands around like a bartender mixing a drink, the fire flowing in between them as he tested it to make sure he had a good hold over the flame. Once he was sure, Rip pushed his hands towards the killer ravens, causing the fire to fly toward them, burning some of them to a crisp. Most dived out of the way though, suffering slight burns at worst. Now rather aggravated, they bore down on the two faster than before.
Rip seemed more pissed than worried.
He summoned the same sword he had shown Jaran earlier and jumped into the midst of the flock. No longer protected, Jaran scurried off to the side of the road, and watched in awe from behind a boulder that seemed to be the remnants of an old avalanche. Raven after dead raven fell to the ground. It seemed that Rip could only float, not fly, though, since every now and then he descended, took a quick breather, then pushed back up.
He made quick work of them, and the fervent yelps died down in a few minutes. Rip whooshed down, sticking the standard superhero-landing-on-their-knee pose. Some of the limp raven bodies rose and fell back to the ground when he did this.
Rip laughed when he saw the look on Jaran’s face. “You know, not many souls show their admiration that openly.”
“Why hide it?”
Finally, a good soul, Rip thought, smiling slightly. Then, out loud, “Well, let’s get a move-on, shall we?” Jaran gave a nod and began to follow.
They chatted as they went down the road, with Jaran rather intrigued by the whole concept of the afterlife — he was a strong believer in death being the end during his time on earth and this had changed everything — and Rip curious about Jaran’s human life. Normally, Rip would have led the soul on in silence, not caring too much about them, but still fending for them, for it was his job. Every now and again though, much like this time, Rip took a particular affinity to the soul he was protecting, and talked a fair amount with them, made it feel as if this was just a morning walk in the park — complete with killer ravens, psychotic lava people, crumbling roads, and more! — instead of a solemn march where dropping your guard could lead to your death. Well, the death of your death. But that doesn’t mean you’ll go back alive. Jesus fucking Christ this thing is complicated the demise of your soul — the only thing about you that’s still you.
It seemed Jaran was something called a stock broker: blue chip exclusive clientele (Rip needed some background to the working of the economy before he could understand what that meant. Apparently, there was no concept of money in the afterlife — everyone is given a duty and position in society at the time of their birth and prepped for said work ever since they start their own, individual, specialised school.) — for the most part anyway. Briefly, when the company he was working at went bankrupt leaving Jaran at the mercy of mere unemployment benefits and the government who dished them out (which, once again, needed explaining — “How can someone be without a duty?”), Jaran dabbled in pink chips and some other areas of the stock market world that he didn’t bother explaining to Rip on account of them being too complicated, earning him a brush-in with the long arm of the law. He was clean for the rest of his life though.
Just as the whole death thing was beginning to recede into the back of Jaran’s mind, a gust of freezing cold air rustled around them, stirring up dry autumn leaves, dust, and loose gravel. It collected at a point some way in front of the two, a little bit off the road. An outward spiral formed as sparks began to fly.
“Shit, this is a new one.” Rip groped around in the air for a few seconds before seemingly pulling out a glowing bronze sword with a heavily engraved blade and a glistening turquoise jewel embedded in the pommel. “Here. I hope you won’t need to use it, but I’ve never seen this before, so you never know,” he said, handing the sword to Jaran.
“Can’t I get a gun or something? You know, long range.”
“The inner workings of the gun, the machinery, are compromised because of all the magic throbbing through every strand, every fibre, of this place’s existence. A gun would be like firing a water gun at a tsunami — trust me, I’ve tried.”
Jaran groaned in distaste but grabbed the hilt and got ready. Rip summoned a bow and arrow again, kept it ready, and advanced towards this strange new foe carefully. As the sparks began to slow and certain parts of the spiral started to hit the ground as if in defeat, a boot stepped through the portal, followed by a leg and then the rest of the body. Rip instantly released his arrow at the figure, piercing it through the chest — the arrow actually coming out the other end. Letting out a sigh of relief, Rip turned to Jaran and beamed.
Then he was struck to the ground by a club.
A creature was bubbling out from the cut corpse, already formed till the torso. It looked like a very pissed off troll, and Jaran didn’t want to go anywhere near it. He began to back away, but then he heard Rip groan and roll over. Jaran thought Rip was going to puke and moved a little further back in case the blast radius for Reapers is more than humans’.
And there he stood, confronted with a moral dilemma of sorts. Rip had had his back thus far, and would have continued to, if he hadn’t been beaten to the ground. He should definitely help him. But then again, this was Rip’s job, his duty, not his. Rip had been trained for this very thing since his birth, not him. And wasn’t the whole point to protect him? If he tried to save Rip, he might die. And that would mean Rip had failed.
Rip groaned again — this time clearly in more pain. “For fuck’s sake.” Jaran gave a maniacal yell and ran towards the troll-thing (which was now fully formed), sword raised, nerves shook. The behemoth, standing well over seven and a half, maybe eight, feet tall looked at the source of this commotion and registered Jaran’s charging figure with a look of mild annoyance. He stretched out his arm and gave it a wave in Jaran’s general direction. Its reptilian skin made contact with Jaran’s abdomen, flinging him back to past the point he started running from.
Jaran was lucky, though. If the troll had given a damn, it wouldn’t have shaken his arm as if dismissing a subordinate. It would have swept it across his path, giving Jaran a one-way ticket to assured, permanent death.
But then his luck wore off. The troll dipped its head to the side, its pupils widened then contracted. Its legs buckled, and the humongous lump around his torso that passed as a stomach swayed. The colossal mess began to fall towards Jaran, casting a huge shadow over him.
Seeing the sudden darkness, Jaran pushed himself off the ground, and stumbled to the side, hoping against hope that he would make it out of harm’s way. “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck!” The pain in his leg because of the hit he took worsened, causing him to fall to the ground right there. He couldn’t move anymore.
Just when he thought he was going to be squashed, at the edge of his peripheral, he saw a tiny figure — Rip! — zoom into the air with something that looked like a giant hammer in tow. He swung hard, and struck the troll on the head, pulled back then repeated. Having exhausted his float time, he dropped to the ground, but sprung back up almost instantly.
Rip tried the hammer again, but evidently it wasn’t working. He swore as he dropped back down again. He tried hurling himself at the troll, but that too only made minor adjustments to his path. Landing once again, this time with his body aching all over, Rip let out a sigh of defeat. If he didn’t think of something to save Jaran fast, Jaran would die, and he would lose his job.
There is one way, he thought. But it could very well lead to him dying. “Rip!” came Jaran’s estranged cry. “Now would be the perfect time to use some cool trick!”
“Goddamn it. This better work.” Rip stretched his arms out to the side, then clapped them together above his head. Keeping his palms together, he brought them to the centre of his chest, then sharply split them like the prongs of a tuning fork. His being began to ebb and pulsate, an outline of orange developed around the edges of his body. By and by, Rip grew in size, limbs crackling, bones popping as he did so. His head felt like it was going to burst. His eyes felt like they were going to pop out of their sockets. Finally, he grew to the size of the troll he was about to face and threw himself onto his opponent, putting Jaran out of harm’s way.
“Thank fuck,” Jaran muttered as a rolled onto his side, releasing a breath he hadn’t realised he was holding, still unable to move.
Rip, now upon the troll, stretched his arm out and summoned a giant hammer into his hand. It appeared in his fist amidst flames, but they didn’t seem to bother Rip. Rip gripped the hammer with both hands, raised it above his head, and brought it down vengefully on the troll, the hammer still ablaze, making contact right in the middle of his forehead. The whole ground shook with the power of the tremors the impact caused.
The troll was dead instantly.
Despite the victory, it didn’t seem like Rip was doing very well. He shook his head, as if trying to snap out of a daze, but didn’t seem to be doing to consciously. His body swayed from side to side. He had lost his sure-footed-ness and was tumbling around. His arms and legs began to simultaneously shrink, but his chest and torso took a while to follow suit. As a result, he was forced into a figure with a large body, but small limbs, dropping from the sky at an alarming pace.
Rip hit the ground with such an impact that he formed a crater, even though he was of normal size when he landed. His leg now a little bit better (Must be the magic, Jaran had thought), Jaran limped over to Rip, enduring the pain by grinding his teeth and pinching his palm with his fisted hand.
Rip appeared to be only semi-conscious, as if he was drifting in and out of death. With visible difficulty, he lifted his arm. His hand began to vibrate violently before bursting into flames, much like when he summoned the giant hammer. Only this time, he cried out in pain. He shrieked as if it was ripping him apart from the inside. Jaran fell back in surprise, but quickly regained posture and once again knelt by this side, this time putting a comforting hand on his chest. In his hand, Rip now clutched the strap of a shield. It had gold and red entwined branches on it — engraved, but oddly not breaking the surface. Weakly, Rip pushed it towards Jaran. He spoke in a wavering tone, his speech croaking and cracking, “Take this. Take this and keep the sword and bow and arrow with you too.
You must continue on your own, Jaran. And be careful, that was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.”
“Be careful, Jaran. Keep yourself safe. Get to the Portals and go through them as soon as they appear. I’m sure you’ll emerge into a favourable place.”
With that, Rip’s body became still as the life drained out of him.
This is part one of a larger series that I don’t really have a name for at the moment, but definitely intend to continue, so subscribe to be notified of future instalments!
For more short stories, check out Airborne Orange, where this was originally published
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