SHORT STORY SHARE
Welcome to a new monthly installment: Short Story Share. Every month I will be sharing either my own original work or work that inspires me from other authors.
As my first offering, I give you "The Lament of the Reaper," a dark supernatural fantasy I wrote a few months back. This is a departure for me. It's dark, it's grim. I hope you enjoy it!
The Lament of the Reaper
“It was your fault. If you had seen the smoke sooner, your baby sister might still be here,” a sugary voice hissed.
Screams that sounded just like the poor soul’s sister pierced her ears like a high-pitched siren.
Finally, an anguished cry of “No. No.” permeated the oppressive air.
Then, an ever so soft, “I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake I pray the Lord my soul to take. Amen.”
Octavia the demon sneered, “It’s not the Lord who will be the one taking your soul.”
Of course the soul who was the object of Octavia’s taunts for years couldn’t actually hear her. She felt her and heard Zahieel the reaper’s noises to mimic her sister’s cries, her mother’s wails at her sister’s funeral, and any other noises that would evoke her most painful memories. The fact that she couldn’t see where these sounds came from heightened her fear. Her old pain was reawakened to the point where every limb trembled, and her heart throbbed in torment, which was Octavia’s aim all along. She reveled in the hapless human’s pain.
Zahieel appeared to watch and participate in these scenes designed to engender madness with impassivity. Inwardly, he seethed. A reaper driving a person to madness was not part of the Natural Order he was created to maintain. Bound by his contract, he had no choice but to participate.
In hundreds of years as a reaper, Zahieel did his part in keeping the Natural Order intact. Until he didn’t. On the whole, he was neutral. He was neither demon nor angel. He guided newly departed souls to their contracted destination, heaven, hell, or purgatory. His job was to cut the silver cord that connected the soul to the body and deliver the soul to its final destination. Man, woman, child, he had no mercy. The Creator deliberately designed him and the other reapers without it, just like the Angel of Death, who was the source of all reapers and their master.
Zahieel had been assigned to collect thousands of souls. Some of those souls died whole and with light and others, in darkness. Neither of which was a concern of his. His job was to collect and deposit to the designated place at the designated time. None of which was ever a concern of his. Some of the dark souls he collected were dark as a result of intentional choices they made. They were murderers, rapists, or some other instrument of destruction. Others, had demons either in them or attached to them. Most dispersed at the sight of him. He found them vulgar for the most part and took very little note of them. However, when he encountered Octavia, she surprised him by standing her ground.
“Hello Zahieel,” she said in that sugary tone of hers.
He stopped, astonished at being addressed directly. Not only did Octavia stand her ground, she stood tall, contrary to the skulking, snivelling nature of most demons. Her form was a grotesque combination of sea creature, human, and horse. Her face resembled a human woman but the top of her head formed a webbed crown. She had webbed fingers and scaly wings jutting out from her arms. She had the torso of a woman and two legs that ended in hooves. Her skin was a deep, bluish green with texture like a snake. Only gifted humans could see her, and when they did many fell to their knees.
Zahieel, on the other hand, looked almost human, except he had a shadow of gloom hanging about him and his features were thin and almost blended into one another. His hair was long and tangled. The only thing that stood out about him was his pointed and stern chin, giving him a severe look, which worked to his advantage as a reaper. No human would ever think of negotiating with him or begging for his mercy.
“Who are you?” Reapers are cold and direct for the most part. Zahieel was no different.
“Octavia, a lieutenant of Lucifer.”
He stopped with his assigned soul at one of the gates of hell. The departed glanced at the scene in front of him, bewilderment etched in his face, as is common with most souls. The gate opened, and the soul entered, not looking back once. As Zahieel turned to go, Octavia barred his way.
“Octavia, lieutenant of Lucifer, what is it that you are trying to do?”
“Create a contract,” she said, matching his cool tone.
“This soul has already fulfilled his contract.”
“Do you fulfill your contracts, Zahieel?”
“I fulfill my contracts every day.”
“Good,” she said, arching an eyebrow and smirking.
Zahieel cocked his head to the side, bemused by Octavia’s statement. Each soul he brought to hell was another soldier in its army, which he was sure she delighted in. Zahieel had no interest in how she felt or what amused her, and he grew tired of her quickly.
“Is there anything else demon?” he said.
“You must make a contract with me, reaper,” she said, glancing at the ground by his feet.
Zahieel looked down. At first, all he noticed was the dark gravel he was used to seeing in his travels to this desolate place. Now, it glowed orange, illuminating a symbol. His mark resembled a triskelion: three spirals interconnected by leaves. He understood. She found a way to trap him with it.
“How did you find my symbol?”
“My tactics are no concern of yours. Your only concern from this moment forward is to do whatever it is I require of you.”
She extended her hand to seal their agreement. He shook it, and their pact was made. He said nothing else. He understood his precarious situation in an instant. Even though he was more powerful, her knowledge of his symbol made him powerless.
For the next few weeks, he helped Octavia torture various humans she entered into. She maintained her hold on each human through grief and rage. She was methodical, preying upon their worst memories to further their rage. Their inability to make peace with their past and still hold on to it was always their downfall. He had seen it thousands of times.
She allowed him to maintain his list of souls to collect. Even though he had a contract with her, it didn’t supersede his contract with the Creator. Nothing and no one can interfere with contracts to the Creator. They can only work around them, which Octavia did to great effect.
Zahieel bided his time and felt his way into the solution to free himself. He couldn’t sneak off to the Great Library to find clues as to how she could have procured his symbol. He knew the futility of trying when she knew who he was contracted to collect and when. An explicable absence had the potential to ruin him. She maintained a close watch on him whenever she knew he was going to heaven. She was no fool. Nor was she a lesser rival. She was far more cunning than Zahieel.
Thousands of years ago, she became another in the thousands of creations of Satan, almost his child. He infused his patience into her, his cunning, his quiet malice. She possessed a sophistication Zahieel had never seen in a demon. When she spoke, her words suffused her deliberation and calm while floating into the air, causing Zahieel to utterly underestimate her. His downfall.
One thing he knew he could count on was her greed. Most demons were rash and consumed by whatever insatiable desire they possessed at that moment. Not Octavia, she was patient and cunning, a true student of Satan. In spite of these strengths, she was still a demon, and her greed would surface at some point. When it did, it would give Zahieel the opportunity he needed. He just had to be patient. He had no choice. Twelve years into his contract, her greed finally surfaced.
Octavia coveted one human with a particular set of gifts, Kabira. She could move objects with her mind. She could harm just with a negative look or feeling. She was just beginning to understand her gifts and her power to harm. She had much darkness in her, deliberate black magic from family members who were threatened by her. Yet, the light that was in her from the moment she was born lingered, and she was naturally drawn to it. A true battle raged for her soul. It was a battle Octavia was determined to win. One way or another.
They came to Kabira when she attempted to meditate in her bedroom. The lights were off. As the room grew darker, the only light was the last rays of the setting sun seeping through the closed blinds on the windows. Since she lived by herself she had no one to immediately turn to when Octavia and Zahieel came to torture her. A steady stream of jabs over a period of years aimed right for her heart and mind. They went right to her sadness, which lingered at her core. It was the means in which Octavia came to inhabit her to begin with. The oppression in Kabira’s soul added to the darkness flooding in the room and Zahieel felt it. Octavia relished it. Zahieel observed the same human story that he had witnessed across time, across countries, across cultures. Parents who can’t handle their own lives can’t handle a child. Then, they leave that child either with others or to fend for themselves. Humans, ever inclined to place blame, often place blame on themselves. This was the case for Kabira. When they happened upon her, she was already in tears, which made their work easy for them.
“They didn’t love you because you weren’t worth loving,” Octavia hissed in her ear.
Kabira couldn’t see her, but her malice crept up her spine and weaved its way to the rest of her body, immobilizing her with fear. Each time it nearly suffocated her. It only exacerbated the pain in her heart, thrilling Octavia even more.
“I am a good person, whether they saw it or not,” Kabira said, through sobs.
“Are you? How many people have died from your very thoughts? Your curses?” Octavia said.
“I’ve never killed anyone!”
“Oh. But you have,” Octavia taunted.
Octavia showed Kabira a vision of herself. She was driving around her supermarket, angry. Some scruffy looking man saw her trying to park but took her spot anyway. She drove past him shooting her middle finger at him. Then, she said,”I hope his car gets fucked up.”
The next scene Octavia showed her was the man lying on the ground, blood on his clothes. His car tied to a tow truck totalled.
Then, she ran from her bed to the window. She put her hands along the sides, looking down, eyes closed, breathing very slowly. Both Zahieel and Octavia knew where her thoughts headed.
“You can end the pain, dear,” Octavia said in her softest most caring voice.
For the first time in his existence, Zahieel felt disgust. Feeling one way or another is understandable when you have the luxury of feeling anything. Pretending to feel something when you don’t is just reprehensible. Then, he remembered Octavia was a demon after all, a creature created to be reprehensible. His neutrality returned.
Kabira took a long breath and backed away from the window. Octavia became incensed. In a voice smoldering with hate and anger she said, “Push her Zahieel!”
“It’s not her time! I cannot!”
“You are bound, reaper!”
Although she heard the entire conversation, Kabira didn’t even turn around. She straightened herself. She understood her fate.
“May God forgive me,” she said, with all her heart.
Zahieel pushed her. As soon as her body hit the ground, he rushed to her soul and threw it to the reaper assigned to her. Her reaper, Arawn shot Zahieel a confused look and cut her silver cord. Then, they were gone.
“Follow them!” Octavia seethed.
Zahieel went to the gates of Heaven first. He saw Kabira.
“Thank you for giving me my freedom.” she said, bowing her head.
Zahieel turned away and sighed. He returned to Octavia.
“You cost me that soul!” she yelled.
“She was on Arawn’s list! She asked for forgiveness before her crossing! We are both powerless! You know this, Octavia!”
Her cry of rage shook the ethers. She grabbed him by his neck and threw him with such force that he landed in a dimension he didn’t recognize. He was alone in a vast, barren field. The star-plastered sky filled with varying hues of indigos and reds seemed to intertwine with several dimensions. He couldn’t tell where any of it began or ended. All of a sudden, he felt a presence. He rolled his eyes and turned around expecting more venom from Octavia. Instead of Octavia, his real master, the Angel of Death loomed before him.
“Zahieel, what have you done? You killed a human before their time! You know this is not our way!” The boom in his voice made the entire dimension shake and brought Zahieel to his knees.
“Master, Octavia has bound me by contract to do her bidding. How did you not know?”
“You fulfilled your duties. Your other activities with the exception of this infraction are no concern of mine.”
“Can you help me?”
“If she has bound you by contract, I cannot help you. I am not at liberty to break any contracts of any being, human or supernatural. Only an exorcist can free you.”
“Can’t you command an exorcist to free me?”
“No. The Natural Order must be maintained. If it is part of the Natural Order for you to be freed, you will be.”
And then he was gone. Zahieel, for the first time in centuries became angry. He cursed his fate, his master, and Octavia. Then, he cursed himself for being ensnared by her in the first place. After a short time, Octavia’s screeching voice penetrated the ethers, and she summoned him back.
“Enjoy your conversation with one of God’s lackeys?” she mocked.
“Our contract does not include disclosing what I discuss with my master.”
“You seem to forget that I am your master now.”
“And you seem to forget that my contract as a reaper forbids me to disclose anything I discuss with my master. Remember the limits, Octavia.”
“Remember yours, slave!”
Then, she knocked him to the ground. He bowed his head and said nothing.
For three more years, he did Octavia’s vile bidding. He tortured and killed. His rage tempered to sorrow. His role was to maintain the Natural Order, not to disrupt it, which he did over and over again. He rarely responded to Octavia, only enacted her commands.
Meanwhile, Octavia set her sights on another gifted human. David could tap into other dimensions easily. In his visions, her would see places that he knew he never saw before. These images confused him when he saw them. Sometimes, he saw a gray, empty expanse of barreness. He saw smatterings of colors but didn’t know where they came from. Other times, he saw a tan and yellowish scene folding in on itself. It looked like stairs vibrating and moving up and down, like an accordian endlessly moving. He never felt fear. He just didn’t know what he was seeing. Still, he knew something was out of place.
He was only just learning his power, but his trauma from suffering abuse from his father hindered him from realizing the extent of his gifts. It wasn’t physical abuse. It was mental. Even as a child, he was told he had to earn his food by completing household chores. When he became a successful, wealthy, adult who was a leader in business, his father still treated him coldly, not even offering one word of praise to him. Despite his father’s severity, David had an inner determination to prove him wrong. For all his success and gifts, David was already a tortured soul, making Octavia’s path to him easy
They enacted the hallmarks of their twisted partnership. Octavia’s menacing taunts combined with Zahieel’s physicality. Throwing objects. Making harsh noises. One day, David surprised them both. Zahieel tried to throw him, and David actually used his own will to throw him off. Zahieel had to steady himself, and his face contorted in confusion. Even Octavia was stunned, but she recovered quickly. She mimicked David’s father’s voice, which subdued him right away. Weeks later, they returned to David while he was in meditation. This time, Zahieel observed what was going on in David’s mind’s eye. He was looking at the Book of Solomon, at a page with a listing of the sacred symbols of other reapers. A smoldering calm overtook him. Now, he understood how Octavia retrieved his symbol. He broke David’s concentration before she could see what he was seeing. She looked at Zahieel suspiciously but said nothing. Zahieel’s quiet patience returned, but he still avoided interaction with Octavia if he could help it.
He continued to bide his time paying close attention to David, making sure he didn’t accidentally give Octavia anymore sacred symbols. He watched Octavia closely, too, making sure she didn’t procure any other symbols from elsewhere. But she trusted no one, especially not Zahieel, so he could never really be sure.
More weeks passed. Then, Zahieel witnessed a scene he never expected to see in his fifteen years with her. Octavia startled. They were in David’s home. It was beautiful with immaculately placed gray and black leather furniture against white walls. But always cold and with no emotion. Even the air was stifling and confining. On this night, the air was clear. First, Zahieel smelled sage. Then, frankincense. He heard Christian prayers. Next, he heard a voice commanding her to give him her name. She refused. At first, Zahieel only saw a human form, a young man with long hair and a booming voice. This presence confused him, and he didn’t know where his fate would lead him. When he looked deeper in the young man’s eyes, he saw compassion. Gazing deeper, he saw the man’s soul. Not an ordinary being, but an ancient. A soul similar in age to Octavia’s. One of the gatekeepers between worlds. Then, Zahieel realized this was the exorcist who would free him.
The gatekeeper commanded again and again in the name of many Gods. She went for his throat but he swatted her arms away like he was swatting a fly. She commanded Zahieel to attack. When he lunged at the gatekeeper, he didn’t even move. Zahieel bounced off of him like a ball. The exorcist’s spiritual power and will subdued her. She resisted but was overcome. Finally, she had no choice but to give him her name. He demanded that she leave David’s body. The battle was over. She had no choice but to comply. After that, the exorcist asked Zahieel what he was doing there. He told him of the contract. Then, the exorcist freed him. Zahieel bowed, said thank you, and disappeared into the reaper realm.
He summoned the other reapers. Millions assembled in the gray, desolate realm where nothing existed, only endless space. They were confused, at first because they rarely meet and converse. Zahieel told them of how he had been ensnared and to be on their guard. They bowed, nodded, and disappeared. Zahieel sighed deeply. His involuntary disruption of the Natural Order haunted him all the years of his contract with Octavia. Yet, with this act, he could help prevent others from disrupting it. Satisfied, he went back to work doing his part in maintaining the Natural Order.
After all, the Natural Order must always be maintained.
Until next time...look behind and beyond the veil...
Sameena K. Mughal, Author, Freelance Writer