Bonus Short Story: Délok

No one realizes they’re about to die, or at least that they have. I know I didn’t. I’d been inside a hospital room surrounded by friends and family for months. My prognosis had never been good, and the fact that I hung on so long was miraculous to just about everyone I met. That’s the interesting thing about pancreatic cancer, it’s the most dangerous of all of those terrible diseases. It has the highest mortality rate of any disease, disorder, or cancer around– including Ebola. That last point’s important for posterity’s sake as it needs to be understood what is meant when I say things weren’t looking good.

I’d accepted that, along with everyone else around me. That included the whole world– literally– They’d been watching me die for months, and were riveted. ‘Cause of the type of man I’d always been– a high-powered CEO whom demanded one-hundred-percent transparency from myself and the people around me– I’d managed to amass quite a following on the reality television and web-markets. Twenty-four hours a day I had cameras around me– although those last few months I couldn’t imagine made for very good television.

All the same, my death came with about as much obviousness as an ant crawling on a paralyzed limb. I woke from sleep to find myself standing before the window in my meek hospital room. I must have had one of those strange blackouts again, I figured. The cancer had a way of doing that, you see. It had metastasized to tumors in my spine, brain, and lungs. Sometimes I’d go hours acting totally normal. Then, a moment later, a tumor would shrink enough not to press a nerve, or cut-off certain blood flow, and I’d suddenly exclaim, “What!?” all the while wondering why I had no memory of the goings-on.

That day was different though, I felt it. That, and the duplicate of me in my hospital bed, told me something was off. I thought maybe I was hallucinating again– another thing that tended to happen from time-to-time– but the way the aides, nurses, and my family-members ignored my pleas for an explanation told me something more was afoot.

It must have been one of those fabled, out-of-body experiences, I reasoned; a sort of transcendence of space and time that a properly-positioned mind could enter. I’d heard and read about them before, and in most cases, they were the results of psychotropic or hallucinogenic drugs. I was certainly on enough of those, but with none of the associated euphoric feelings.

In fact, I felt terrible, as if all at once I could feel every growth, cyst, and tumor in my body. The pain throbbed within me– or rather, I throbbed completely, overwhelmed by the pain. I doubled over onto the floor only to feel something pass through me. I looked around to see my family, the medical staff, and a camera-man in a somber, shuffling procession for the door. On my hands and knees, I could do little more than retch as their progress through me sickened my core. A white-light overtook me then, and I knew I was dead– or dying at least.

Then, something curious happened. I found myself in a field of white-light– actually that’s misleading. It was more like an endless sprawl of white-light with no beginning nor end, a trans-dimensional terminal for those to pass through, alone, on their way to whatever after-life they were destined for. Those were my sentiments at least. The Christians would have called it purgatory, but I just called it, “What the hell?”

He materialized before me; an old, hunched man that wore robes like the old Buddhist monks you see in Tibetan flicks. His wide smile and prayer beads affirmed the likeness. He leveled both hands before him, prayer beads hanging from one. They lifted slowly with a singular word; “Up.”

I felt myself rise to my feet, found once more standing and painless. He turned away with a gesture to follow. We wandered through the field of light together, he with a timely shuffle beside me while my gait lightened with a languid caution. I wasn’t sure where I was, but the pain was gone and I knew I was safe. After months of agony, that former point was really all that mattered. I was ready to shuffle off to any number of the great beyonds if it meant I wouldn’t feel the pain again.

That hunched figure led me to an edge of the light that formed mist around us. I must have seemed hesitant at first, because he gave me a look of beaming pride like a grandfatherly master to his beloved apprentice. He disappeared into the mist that obscured all beyond it.

I felt compelled to follow, if only for the sake that his radiant kindness was euphoric. I’d had enough people around me lately whom had lost their warmth. I missed it. They were all too concerned with avoiding the elephant in the room, too fearful of rousing any further pain in me. I really just wanted a game of cards, or a cup of coffee– something to remind me that being human wasn’t just a series of painful moments underlined by others’ fear. Somehow this old man exuded every game of cards, cup of coffee, and everything else fun in my life all at once.

I followed through the mist, found myself beside him on a dock. The sun shone with a brilliance that kissed a river’s pristine surface with diamond radiance. Slightly ahead and below us in the water, a wooden row boat rocked gently from an invisible current. He shuffled his way to the boat and I followed, allowed him to brace himself on my shoulder for support as he stepped wide for the boat. To think of myself in the state being the lesser of two, fragile souls warmed my heart. I was human again, even if– as I suspected– only in death.

He thanked me with that beaming smile that needed no words, settled onto a bench in the boat and gestured me beside him once more. I took my seat, and as if pulled by a distant tug, the rowboat launched along the river. All around us the flats and foliage of his once-native China rolled out around thatched-roof huts of bamboo and grasses. The sunlight was heavy overhead, traced a morning arc that warmed us. Despite the ever-present haze of thin mist and fog that seemed to amass in the sky only, it warmed us, let just enough light refract rainbows over that untouched surface-water.

I cannot say how long we traveled through that beautiful land for. I know only that I had an amazing sense of wonder, awe, and more than a little profound belonging. It was only at those feelings’ apex that I began to wonder what might come next. I was soon granted visions of terror that matched the beauty.

The water became chopped, rough. All of my pain returned at once. Beside me, the old man sensed the impending doom. All the same, the only change in him was that of his smile fading to a determined indifference, and the slight draw of the corners of his eyes that complimented it. I braced myself against the water’s attempts to throw me overboard, saw ahead the reason for its tumult; a waterfall emerged from the mist with a chaotic spray all its own. From the echoes beyond it, and the carrion-birds that circled above, I knew it would kill us.

It was only with that thought that the old man put a hand to my tense leg, looked at me knowingly. As if by some magic, he read my mind, silently imparted a thought to me; if I were so convinced of my own death, what fear did I have? What more killing of me could there be? If this was to be the end of the end, why would it be any worse than the last end– where I’d been completely unawares and only noticed after awaking beyond it? The questions’ answers formed one, collective thought; I had no reason to fear. Whatever lay beyond that water-fall, something in the old man beside me said, was to be faced as a challenge; not as a thing to fear but rather overcome.

That euphoria that had once before flooded me returned with enough force to blot out the pain in my body again. I gave the old man a stern, knowing nod, and relaxed into an equal determination just as the rowboat plummeted over the edge of the fall. I feared nothing. Not even as we fell like stones through the air, pinned to our seats on the boat.

We landed with a heavy splash that rattled the boat’s joints. Even so, it kept afloat, as firm as our faces against what terrors lay before us. It was only then that we once more emerged from the mist to see blackness all around us. Then, sparked by something in it, red skies descended. All of the world’s worst terrors were upon us: We saw men murdered, women raped, villages burned. Pickpockets pilfered while thieves liberated bread from stalls, only to be shot by the guns of faceless soldiers. Heavy tanks chased flocks of children and families, herded them toward firing lines.

I wished to help, but boat’s speed was double that of the atrocities around me. I knew I could not help. My teeth grit in anger, enmity. The old man touched my hand, gave a shake of his head. At first I did not understand, but his face returned forward, empty. I saw then what I had missed.

This was not a thing to be helped, not here least of all. It was, as it had always been, the way of human suffering. Whether real or imagined, these horrors were as much a part of the human condition as the death I had so recently succumbed to. He protested my anger for one, simple reason: anger, fear, spite, these things that I’d felt were the very core cause of the atrocities around me.

My shoulders sank helplessly, and suddenly the world around me flared with that ambiguous white light. All of my emotions left, drained through a sieve of confusion that couldn’t even manifest its usual ways about me. Suddenly the murdered men embrace their killers, the raped women held those that assaulted them as babes while they wept on their shoulders. The burned villages were extinguished by the bucketfuls of water from those that had set the fires.

Like them, the pilfering pickpockets sought forgiveness, returned the stolen goods with shame. The half-dead and dying thieves broke bread with the faceless soldiers whose countenances were now those of their comrades. The heavy tanks too, turned to other men, women and children whom chased the others in joyful play. All along the former firing line, the weapons dissolved to form the faces of more, smiling family-members; brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers.

Just as I began to understand, the boat and the field dissolved once more into that endless sprawl of light. I was once more on my feet before the old mam. He raised his hands again, this time pressed them together as though in prayer. He gave a small, hunched bow. I felt compelled to return the gesture, and with it, came his beaming smile.

He placed a palm flat against my chest at my heart, and I spoke, “Me?” A small nod from him, and with the opposite hand over his own heart, I said, “You.”

He said only a single word, “Délok.”

Somehow I knew what it meant. Perhaps in that mysterious way that all of those things had occurred, I had also been imparted with new knowledge. In either case, I knew that like myself, he was meant to help show others the way, impart messages from the dead. Those places we’d visited were realms of beauty, pain, and finally peace. There was only one way to reach them yet, and in that, only one way to assure that one day it would no longer be necessary: relay my journey, tell others what I knew was its purpose, intent.

When I awoke on my hospital bed, I had been confirmed dead for two-days. In wishing to observe some ritual of closure, the hospital staff and my family had left me as I had died. There were no doubts to those thousands– maybe millions– of viewers that I had died either. Even fewer doubts were present in the learned medical staff and my family. An immediate series of tests confirmed that my cancer had gone, and I yet lived. As if healed by death, I was once more pain-free, and with a perfect forum to tell my story. I sat in my bed, and began to speak…

And here we are.

I cannot say why I was chosen, having never known of the ways of the délok, whom return from death to relay the wishes of the dead. But now knowing it, I am certain that my journey must be heard by all. Whether those that hear believe it or not is of less import than that they feel its sincerity in their hearts. Only then, perhaps, may we find a way to reach those blissful realms without first succumbing to death. I know, for my part at least, that is the purpose of the délok; to help Humanity reach its collective Nirvana, and one day, shed this mortal coil without fear. I know too, that it is not a thing we should fear, but rather, take as a challenge that we all must overcome, together.

Bonus Story: Stronger Without Them

Cold wind whipped snow and ice in drifts across a plain of white mounds and frozen boot-prints. The mounds were the size of a man tall, five or six men wide, and spotted the horizon for countless miles. The man was clad in furred leathers, well-insulated from the cold with only thick, wild hair and beard to shield his face. He planted each step with a stone’s determination. It made his resolve immovable. His head was kept upward, eyes small, squinted against the snow that pelted and plastered his face and furs, coated him with a fine layer.

His people had a legend, one that made the trek all the more unavoidable: if a man were to seek to rectify the past, he must first risk his future, his life, in the mounded flats. Only once he made it through, could he hope to seek out recompense for the slaughter of his wife and children. He made the journey alone, as a man should, was certain he would die before he found refuge in the Gods’ embrace. He refused to listen to reason from those in his tribe; the invaders, they said, were the ones to blame.

But he blamed the Gods. For millennia, their tribe had lived the way of the righteous, their gratitude and sacrifices never late nor without due praise or ritual. They had given to the Gods all that had been requested, earned nothing but their contempt in the process. He’d had enough. He was man, and no God– gracious or not– would keep him from seeking his bounty. The righteousness that compelled him forward was just as it had always been; with conviction of spirit, character.

The Gods had let the invaders come. In any case, had not prevented it. In the harsh of Winter, when their ardor was already dampened, his tribe had been half-slaughtered by the invaders clad in their fierce battle armor. With sword and musket alike, they pillaged, plundered, raped and conquered all they’d seen. It was only after their leader, in his bear skins and helm, was killed that the tribe had finally withdrawn.

The snows of the village were stained crimson like the hands of the Gods that had neither prevented nor appeared during the massacre to stop it. The seasonal perma-frost had been breached by the pyres of a dozen men, their women and children. What few did not die by the sword wished they had. Only the fear of reprisal in the after-life kept them from turning their weapons upon themselves. The echoes of men and their families wrenched billowed cries for absolution through the blizzard that came after the battle.

But he would no longer stand for it. They had done all the Gods had asked of them, more even, in the promise that the Gods would watch after them, protect them. They had failed. He would not. Once he found them, he would paint the hallowed grounds of their hidden refuge with their blood. He would bury his sword in their bellies for every life lost and given in vain. Then, satisfied with the carnage, he would turn the sword on himself to die alone, the Gods vanquished and his work done.

He had fought the cold and the snows for five days to cross the flats. Like others of his tribe, he’d taken to resting only to conserve his strength, eat stored morsels and drink from a water-skin. He was no fool, knew not to take the journey lightly. If he did, there would be no one left to avenge the fallen, seek retribution for the sacrificed.

By the sixth day, he stood before a clearing in the mounds where the storm that raged seemed not to exist. In that emptiness, the ground was stone, clear of snow. The mounds around its perimeter formed a wide circle open before him. A furious huff of hot breath blasted from above his white-covered beard, fogged the air with the fire of his heart and ready wrath. His last steps were even firmer than the thousands that had brought him here.

He stopped in the center of the clearing, in his tribal tongue, demanded an audience with his Gods. It was answered with an intense, blue glow of light that deposited three, elongated figures with bulbous heads and black-eyes before him.

“You seek an audience, primitive?” The center God asked.

He spat at their feet, then in his tribal tongue, barked, “You have forsaken us! Broken the bonds that bound us to your servitude. Your treachery must be answered for!”

“You speak of the battle passed,” the left-most God said.

“Yet there is little that can be done for the dead,” the right God said.

“No!” He shouted in defiance. “There is one thing that can repay us for their loss.”

“Blood.” The three chimed in unison.

Your blood!”

He drew a thick blade from his side with a sound of metal that rang through the open air.

“You mean to stand against your Gods?” The middle God asked.

“I mean to seek vengeance for all the blood spilled in your name, both in sacrifice and in the battles past– those you failed to protect, as was your promise to our people.”

The three Gods fell silent, as if to speak mentally. Then the middle one spoke with a bargaining air about him, “We cannot resurrect the dead. What is is what what must be. But we can offer something for the sacrifice your people have given this winter, both from the battle and when we did not think to aid you.”

He was unconvinced, his mind unchanged. He demanded they speak, “And what is that?”

“Bountiful harvests,” the middle God said.

“Warmth and fertility,” the left God added.

“And strength and protection in the battles to come,” the right God finished.

He growled from his throat. In a quick charge, he launched himself at the middle God, kicked him backward to rebound at the gut of the left God. The blade slice deep at its belly to ooze green. The curiously-colored blood did not faze him– blood was blood and it was to be spilled. With an outward spin, he moved for the God at the right, buried the blade in its belly as he’d planned. More green spilled out, leaked from the God’s mouth. He twisted the blade, heard the crunch of soft bones, then pulled it back. The second God fell dead.

His blade dripped a trail toward the God that still lay dazed on the stone ground. He dropped a heavy knee to its chest as it eeked out a few, last words.

“We would have… given you anything, made you the most powerful tribe,” it said, barely drawing breath.

“Your cowardice and bargaining only weaken us.” He grit his teeth, “We will be stronger without you.”

Then, the blade plunged into the belly of black-eyed God. The bulbous head gave a shudder with a last, rattling breath. Its eyes shut. The smallest bit of green oozed from the God’s mouth as the tribal rose to his feet, readied to bury the sword in his own gut and finally end things. Instead, something compelled him to look at the carnage around him, his three Gods slain about it. His own words resonated deeper than he’d first realized.

He lifted the blade to examine it, “No.” He sheathed it, spat at them once more, “Enough has been lost to you. I will lead my people now. Protect them as you should have. I will show them they are strong– stronger even without you. Then no man, woman, nor child will ever think to play servant to your kind again.”

With a steadfast resolve, he turned away from the green-stained ground, and left the mysterious clearing to show his people the way.