The real Timothy von Strauften of Hoth flew away from the brightness, leaving behind what could only be Hell. He was shocked that they let him go. He figured there would be more security buzzing around, probably fuzzy little winged guys with pitchforks, as the tradition went. But there wasn’t another being in sight. Well, either way, he was happy nobody stopped him, happy to be away from that place. Or at least, less unhappy. Who knew how long he would have stayed in that line? As long as that crumpling, miserable creature who had greeted him? No thanks. He’d rather spend his eternity somewhere a little more familiar.
Eventually, the brightness around him faded to darkness and he flew through cold blackness for what could have just as easily been years or seconds. Time didn’t matter. Directions didn’t matter. There was nothing to navigate by or around. He wondered what was to stop him from becoming horribly eternally lost, and then decided that it probably didn’t matter that much anyway. And then slowly the world began to lighten again. He paused, something familiar about the light. Then he saw a horizon before him. He waited a long, long time as the world around him brightened and took shape. Eventually the blazing rim of the red dawn peeked tentatively over the mountaintop and Timmy whispered to himself, ‘There… that’s more like it.’ He sighed to himself and the world Forever rolled uneasily through his mind.
At that very same moment, it was also rattling its way rather briskly through the mind of Timmy’s impersonator. Although the cheery caseworker had surely heard the startled thought, he asked directly to be sure, ‘But- but… forever?’
She laughed a little. New haunters were always so skittish. “No, no, not forever.” She glanced again at the paper, mostly to look official. “It’s only a Class Three Haunting.”
He leaned forward into her desk, doing his best to ignore her obnoxious “Hang In There, Kitty!” poster and flower pot of photo spatulas. ‘But what does that mean?’
She leaned back a little, straightening in her seat as she explained, “It’s also called a Vengeance. You only haunt until you’re avenged. Don’t worry; you’ll figure out who did it pretty quick. I’m kind of surprised you don’t remember, actually. Most of our clients do. But once you figure it out, then you just slip into a relative’s dreams and pester them until they take care of it. Simple.”
He demanded sulkily, ‘Why a relative? Why not just the Captain of the Guard or whatever?’
“Because you can only communicated with direct relatives, at most third or fourth cousins. Nobody else could hear you.”
The sulk drained out of his demeanor, as would the color if he had had any.
He whimpered, but kept his thoughts clamped silent.
If he had had a tongue to bite, it would have been bleeding by then, but he knew some sort of response was necessary and he was silently scrambling to think of something intelligible. Before he could say anything, there was a delicate ding! from her watch and she practically shrieked, “Gah! I’m falling behind schedule! Time to leave!” She quickly prepared for the official send-off, straightening a glowing halo over her head, muttering terse apologies and tiny pleas for another moment, and then she clicked off the lights, cleared her throat, and levitated above the desk, pointing dramatically. Her eyes were shadowed, as was half of her face. Her skirts and hair billowed around her as she flicked her enormous wings behind her for more loft. The halo was blinding in the sudden darkness and her voice filled the office as she commanded in a portentous voice, “Go, ye restless spirit, and be avenged.”
He hesitated a moment and then asked pitifully, ‘Do I have to?’
She also paused. “Um, yes.” She turned the lights back on and sank back to the floor, completely deflated.
‘Couldn’t I just-’
“Begone,” she interrupted. “Shoo.”
He sighed. ‘Okay.’
The glorious sunrise had brought more than the scenery to view. It wasn’t long before the rest of his surroundings were brought to his attention and he found himself rapt, staring in wonder. Hundreds of thousands, probably millions, of winged insects filled the air. Bees, flies, butterflies, moths, dragonflies, damselflies, locusts, stoneflies, cockroaches, praying mantises, wasps, gnats and thousands of others: all of them swarming around a single, striking figure. A fine chain belt around his slight waist held dozens of assorted jars, some empty, some filled with insects. Other bugs clung to his dark cloak. A bony hand protruded from the black sleeve, clutching a long wooden handle, twisted with age. Timmy knew him immediately.
Just as immediately, the gaunt being sensed Timmy’s presence as well, and turned to look at him.
Timmy gulped, not knowing what to expect.
Death turned fully toward the ghost, a skinless face bent up in an eternal smile. “Ah, yes…” he said slowly. “Timothy.” Coming closer, he reminisced, “Thee I well remember: a beautiful morning; a regicide most thorough; and thee- a dragonfly most vivid.” It struck Timmy that such a greeting would have been a little over the top, seeing as it was just yesterday and all, save for the fact that Timmy couldn’t remember meeting Death on that beautiful, terrible morning. He pondered a little at that as Death asked amiable, “How farest thou in thy haunting, o princling?”
His misery immediately washed back over him, dousing his wonder. ‘Oh. Is that what that was?’ He cleared his nonexistent throat of nonexistent gunk and, lifting his face imperiously, informed Death, ‘I chose not to stay. Is that a problem?’
Death stared for a moment. A butterfly fluttered past his head and he finally replied delicately, “I see. Thou wert ever eager to leave thy path.”
That brought on another wave of misery and he admitted, ‘I suppose I was…’ A bee buzzed past his arm and he reached gently toward it. ‘A dragonfly, was I? So I suppose these are…’
“Aye,” he replied, sparing Timothy from finding the properly polite term for ‘dead people’. “My little charges.”
‘So many of them,’ he said a little sadly, looking at all the insects around them.
“Indeed!” he said, almost cheerfully. “So many so as I have need of interns- not so since the Seventh Great War!”
Timmy glanced over Death’s shoulder. A trio of wing-borne angels was bunched together in a thick clump of insects, working with butterfly nets through the crowd. (Timmy then realized that Death too was holding a butterfly net, which wasn’t exactly what he would have expected, but it didn’t seem like a respectful sort of thing about which to ask a stranger.) A determined looking angel was snagging a Monarch butterfly at that moment, another looked discouraged as a fly got away, and a third one seemed rather confused by the entire situation. For lack of a better adjective, Timmy said politely, ‘They look… diligent.’
“Aye, as they must be,” Death agreed, sobering considerably. “A terrible plague, a sickness of undying: the flesh goes wrong and expels my little ones, and goes shambling on.” He shook his head without malice. “Unholy monsters, without Life and seeking lives.”
Timmy looked back at Death, surprised. ‘You mean… it’s true?’ He looked down at the small town they were all hovering over. ‘We’d heard rumors of some medical experiment gone wrong, but I didn’t think they’d really…’ He trailed off as the magnitude of the wrongness blossomed in his mind.
“O, the arrogance of man that he would fain steal the very immortality of the Living God!”
‘I thought they’d been contained,’ Timmy thought quietly, silently running through a card catalog of all the ridiculous rumors he’d heard of the situation, and how easily he had dismissed them, back when he’d been alive.
“Somehow or another,” Death explained somberly, “One always escapes.”
‘Huh.’ They stood in silence and Timmy examined the village more closely. A steady stream of smoke and insects wafted up from buildings which appeared otherwise normal. But then he realized that it was awfully quiet down there and he wondered how long it had been going on in this poor little place and how he had not heard. Examining the countryside around the city’s walls, he saw a fence of sorts just before the evergreen woods and military vehicles on the roads and so obviously someone had heard, and it just seemed strange to him that he had not heard. An iridescent butterfly flittered past him and he smiled slightly, a tiny shrug coming into his demeanor. A little pit stop on the way home might do him some good. He turned to Death, smiling politely. ‘You’re very busy. Would it be rude of me to-’
“Go, go, indulge thy curiosity,” he replied with good-nature. “We shall meet again. Good day!”
‘And to you!’
Timmy arched down past the triad of angels and into the thick column of insect-infested smoke. It didn’t burn his eyes or make him cough, and that saddened him a little. He came through the smoke and found himself in the midst of an entire block raging with fire. But there were no sirens, no screams. Nobody tried to douse the flames and nobody stood around watching in the proud, ancient tradition of rubberneckers everywhere. He glanced around, mentally braced himself, and edged closer to the fire. He eased closer and closer, feeling something inside of him, something hovering somewhere between hope and loss, sink a little lower the closer he got. Finally, he reached out and pressed his hand into the glowing embers of what could just as easily have been either building struts or a couch. It felt warm at best, but he couldn’t tell if he felt it or if he just knew it should be. He sighed and floated back. Glumly glancing around, he still didn’t see anyone. Rising on a thermal, he cruised away from the fire and deeper into the town. Rows of shabby old apartments towered over the streets below. There were no lights on, but it was still day. There could be people. Some of the curtains were drawn, some of the windows broken. He thought he caught a glimpse of a tired, nervous face glancing out between thick drapes, but it was gone in an instant and he still had enough of a sense of privacy to not investigate further. A car was burning down on the street and he swept down to look at it. A body lay several yards away, but it was so mutilated so as to make any sort of identification impossible. Morbidly curious, he leaned in closer, but some sense he couldn’t name drew him away.
He looked around himself nervously. He hadn’t really felt watched since he lost his body, but he had the uneasy feeling that something unnatural was nearby, with at least one foot in the world of the dead. He waited in the middle of the street, too nervous to investigate, all his senses attuned to that gaping hole in what the world should be.
A sudden cry for help broke his attention.