It Makes Me Happy That I'm Not ThemBy Miles S. Mistoffelees
This story is disgusting. Not at first, but near the end. Seriously. Don't read it if you're uncertain whether or not you can handle it. Maybe if you've read a lot of Stephen King or other horror novels, like Silence of the Lambs. It's best to read it 24 hours before going on a shuttle launch - when you aren't allowed to eat anyhow. Consider yourself warned, and don't blame me if it doesn't agree with you. It isn't supposed to.
Also, a bit of a language warning for the Brits.
~ ~ ~
Well, that hadn't been so bad. A bit prickly in the throat, but that was to be expected...
Keinruf opened his eyes.
"You bugger," he said.
HE CAN'T HEAR YOU, YOU KNOW.
"Well, yes, but he's still a bloody bugger."
HE APPEARS TO BE UNWOUNDED.
"Just a bit more to the right... I could've done him. Bloody bugger."
ARE YOU DONE YET?
"No." Keinruf glared at the robed apparition, stomped his footpaw again. "Bugger. Do you see that? I could've done him. Just a bit more to the right. Perfect hit."
PROBABLY. WOULD YOU HAVE WON?
"No. That was my last dart. His score was still higher. The bugger."
Keinruf kicked at the prone form on the ground. His footpaw went right through. Something seemed to dawn on him.
"Why is he crying?" he asked, indicating the younger marten kneeling over his body.
I PRESUME HE IS SAD.
"Why? It wasn't like I was nice to him."
NEVERTHELESS, YOU WERE STILL HIS FATHER. YOU CRIED WHEN -
"Completely different circumstances."
The robed figure merely shrugged, wagged its scythe in an "if you say so" manner. Keinruf peered closely at it.
"You're a bloody rat!"
"Of course not a green rabbit. Don't be ridiculous. I wasn't expecting any of this... " The marten rubbed his chin. "This. Wasn't. This." He looked to Death, frowning.
IT WAS A PROBLEM WITH YOUR BODY. IT CANNOT EFFECT YOU ANY LONGER.
Keinruf nodded slowly. "I remember... I was strangled." He closed his eyes. "My mother."
Death said nothing.
"I was born in Bully Harbour. Not Falterland." He stood there for a while, simply remembering. At last he opened his eyes, and started. Everything had faded, leaving them stranded in emptiness.
"What happens next?"
WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE HAPPENS NEXT?
"I don't believe anything."
YOU BELIEVED QUITE A FEW THINGS IN LIFE.
"That was in life."
ARE YOU CERTAIN YOU BELIEVE NOTHING?
Keinruf thought about it.
"No. I'm something, here. You're something. I'm dead, but I'm still here. Something should happen next."
ARE YOU CERTAIN YOU WOULD LIKE TO BELIEVE SOMETHING HAPPENS NEXT?
"I'd rather experience something than nothing."
IF YOU EXPERIENCE NOTHING, YOU WOULDN'T HAVE PREFERENCES. YOU WOULDN'T BE AT ALL. BUT SO BE IT - WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE TO BELIEVE?
"I don't know."
THEN YOU SHALL EXPERIENCE THE MOST STANDARD BELIEFS OF YOUR KIND.
And they were standing on a mountaintop - had always been standing on a mountaintop. The ground was brown, unnaturally flattened, no little rocks, every bit of dirt the same colour. Clouds surrounded them, obscuring everything within a few feet, and the sky was a pure, blue hue, but gave off no light. The only object obviously firm was a large set of cast-iron gates, beyond which, through what seemed to be a sheet of darkness drawn across them, Keinruf could see trees.
YOU ARE QUITE UNIMAGINATIVE.
Keinruf stepped forwards, put a paw on the Gates. It opened to his touch.
STILL, Death continued, I SUPPOSE IT IS BETTER THAN WHAT I HAD EXPECTED FROM YOU.
"This is my idea of Dark Forest Gates?"
YES. IF YOU HAD YOUR OWN IDEA OF THEM, ANYHOW.
"But I had thought - "
And the sky turned blood red, the clouds into fire, the firm, plaintive ground into an expanse of scarred flesh; only the Gates remained the same, the only addition being a variety of beasts impaled on its spires, squirming and screaming for forgiveness.
NO. YOU ARE CONFUSING THE TWO.
And it was as it was before. Clouds, blue sky, brown ground. No screaming.
"Oh," Keinruf said, rather unperturbed. He stepped through, Death following behind him. The plain dirt gradually gave way to soft, dewy grass, and the sky grew more depth the further they went. The clouds and the veil of darkness faded, allowing detail to assault their senses. The trees grew into more than just trunks with branches and leaves; willows, pines, oaks and others - Keinruf spotted a banana tree - grew together in an arboreal amalgamation that completely defied their original topographical placings on earth.
IS THIS TO YOUR LIKING?
"It is too... eh," Keinruf decided. Death nodded.
HOW DO YOU IMAGINE A FOREST TO BE LIKE? AH. INTERESTING.
A grin tugged at Keinruf's mouth. This was much better. Snow crunched underpaw, the trees - now mostly pines - were bereft of leaves, and moss covered most of their trunks. A chill wind blew, ruffling the marten's fur and Death's robes.
They walked for quite some time - although time no longer had any meaning, did not even exist. Eternity is believed to be time without end, when it is actually a single moment, without even a beginning. Not "now, forever"; just "now". At last Death stopped Keinruf from going further.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO STAY HERE?
"It is rather boring," Keinruf admitted. He leaned against a tree, began trying to snap a twig off the trunk, but found it was as if it were made of steel. "Could I change things when I want to? And where's everybeast else?"
YOU COULD NOT CHANGE THINGS, NO. ONCE YOU KNOW WHAT YOU BELIEVE, THAT IS HOW IT WILL BE. MOST ARE NOT GIVEN THIS CHANCE TO CHOOSE.
"Huh. And where's everybeast, again?" Keinruf glanced behind, as if they'd be waiting behind the trees, peering out at them.
THEY ARE NOT HERE.
"So if I stay... it will always be winter. Nothing to do. Nobeast to talk to or do anything with."
"And if I choose not to stay?"
THEN YOU FORFEIT YOUR BELIEFS AND WILL BE TAKEN SOMEWHERE ELSE.
"All right. So long as it's more interesting than this."
OH, YES. INFINITELY SO.
Death lowered his head, turned away. Keinruf didn't see him disappear into the forest, or even fade, nor did he simply disappear when Keinruf blinked. The marten couldn't quite place his paw on it. It was like a smell on the breeze, or a taste on the tongue; there simply came a moment when it wasn't there anymore.
Nothing changed. Irritated, Keinruf continued walking. The ground went slightly downhill, but every few paces it felt as if he were back in the same place. Every tree looked alike, now that he payed closer attention to them. And yet behind him, quite clearly, he could see his pawprints in the snow, leading upwards, and in front of him the snow was without blemish, apart from the occasional spot of yellow he had originally conceived would appear.
His ears perked up after what felt like miles, however. Voices! Hurrying forwards, Keinruf came upon a small cottage. He slowed as he neared, then tip-pawed to a window and looked in.
Three ferrets were gathered around a table, a large male and female, and a smaller male. They were eating a meal, being quite joyful about it, and altogether entirely too polite for Keinruf's tastes. He snorted, went to the door and barged in.
"Hello," the larger male said. "Welcome, friend - do take a seat. Dear, no need to get up, I shall get our guest a plate."
"Thank you, you're so thoughtful," the female replied, smiling at Keinruf. Somewhat taken aback by this, Keinruf felt he had no choice but to take the extra seat at the table.
"What's your name, friend?" the younger ferret asked - after he had swallowed his food properly.
"Keinruf Wright," Keinruf said, his tongue working of its own accord. "Thank you," he added, as the father placed a plate of food in front of him. It was bratwurst. Absolutely delicious bratwurst, he discovered shortly.
"My name's Veil," the young ferret said.
"Bluefen," the female said. Keinruf looked to the father, who offered his paw across the table. Keinruf didn't even give time to think about it, just reached across with his own, and shook as the ferret introduced himself.
"Swartt Sixclaw, the best father. Absolutely the best."
His family beamed at him.
"How is that?" Keinruf asked. "Surely there isn't somebeast else who's - "
"Oh, no. They can't be, I'm sad to say. I have to be the best. Absolutely the best."
Keinruf raised his brow.
"It's his sins, you see," Bluefen said. "Rather, his punishment for them. He has to be good to us. Not just good - the best." She stood and rounded the table to kiss her husband's whiskers. Swartt smiled at her, then returned to his food. Keinruf noticed the ferret's paws were shaking. There were, he also noticed, six claws on his left paw. Frowning now, he turned his attention to the other two. There was something about them, a tone to their voices, that disturbed him. Their eyes, he realised, were blank. Oh, if he looked close enough he could make out a vague pupil, but there was absolutely no life to them. They didn't look around, or blink, or move at all. Absolutely lifeless.
And then there was the sounds they made; they didn't. Between words and the clacking of dishes, there was nothing but silence coming from the ferrets. Keinruf's own heartbeat sounded like a deafening drum beat in comparison. Fixing his gaze upon their chests, he saw that they did not breath.
"Excuse me, I need to be going," Keinruf said, pushing himself away from the table. His fear increased as his listened to his own words. 'Excuse me'? He had never said that before!
"Oh, that's all right," Swartt said. "I shall see you on your way."
"Thank you for coming to dinner!" Bluefen called as Keinruf opened the door.
"Yes, thank you!" Veil said, waving. Keinruf waved back, tugged his arm back down with his other, scared witless now. He ran from the cabin - but stopped after a few steps. He had to wait for Swartt, who had promised to walk with him a while. It was the polite thing to do.
"Sorry it took so long, friend," the ferret said when he at last joined Keinruf. "I had to convince my wife to let me make you some more bratwurst for your journey. She tried to make it herself, but as she had all ready made dinner, it simply wouldn't do to let her cook anymore."
"Of course," Keinruf said pleasantly, trying to keep his jaw shut. "Thank you for your consideration, Mr. Sixclaw."
"Any time you come by, my friend."
At an undeterminable distance, Swartt stopped.
"Here is my border," he declared. "I should not step across it. But I beseech you, friend, to do a favour for me, in return for my hospitality. Of course, you need not consider it..."
"Anything," Keinruf said. He wanted to run.
Swartt looked at him steadily, for the first time making eye-contact.
"Push me across."
It was an odd request, but Keinruf felt he owed it to the ferret. Fates how he wanted to run.
"Oh! I'm sorry!" Keinruf said as he shoved his paws into Swartt's back. The ferret fell across his imaginary line in the snow. "I'm so terribly sorry! Can I help you up?"
"No!" Swartt suddenly snarled, crawling forwards. He laughed, then, cackled and giggled, and began spouting as many curse-words as he could remember. He stood, a mad grin on his face, and beckoned to Keinruf. "Come here, 'friend'!"
Smiling pleasantly, Keinruf crossed the line as well; as he did so, he felt something lift off him. His tongue and arms relaxed, control restored once more. So startled by this change, he did not notice Swartt's fisted paw until it was an inch from his nose.
"Hah!" Swartt cackled. "Did that hurt?"
"No," Keinruf said, rubbing confusedly at his snout.
The ferret shrugged. "Ah, well. Still felt bloody good in principal. Blast. You had to go and make it snow, too." He paused suddenly, ears twitching. He began to growl, grabbed Keinruf's arm and began running. Keinruf was all too eager to follow now that it seemed some manner of normality had been restored to them both.
"Your wife!" he said as they ran, "And your son! What is wrong with them?"
"Damned if I know - and I am! They ain't mine! The real ones are probably suffering their own sins. For all I know, they might still be alive."
Keinruf cringed. He imagined Leite and Reisender, constantly thanking him and being polite, their eyes soulless...
Swartt swore again, put on extra speed.
"Ain't going to make it..."
"Where are we going?"
"Gabool's. If we can cross his border in time, we should be safe for a bit. And this time, don't stop his bell from ringing. Knew I shouldn't have let that furless idiot Ublaz try to help another - d'k!"
Keinruf stopped, crouched in fear, looked around wildly. Swartt was nowhere to be seen. This time, it had clearly been a case of just up and vanishing. A distant chorus of joyful "Hello!"s could be heard, and Keinruf could only assume the ferrets had been reunited. Shaking snow off himself, he resumed running in the direction Swartt had been aiming for.
Although his heart was beating wildly and he was gasping for air, Keinruf didn't feel the least bit tired - and when he concentrated on not breathing altogether, although he succeeded, nothing changed. It was indeed an odd sensation, to not need air to survive. But was this surviving? How could there be survival after death?
Odd, it was. Everything here was odd. Was this the skeleton rat's version of interesting? Keinruf started to wonder if maybe he would have preferred to experience nothing, to simply blink out of existence altogether. But surely the afterlife couldn't be as weird as it had been so far? And it wasn't like anything would hurt him. While the ferret's punch had a physical affect on him, it really hadn't hurt in the slightest.
As he ran unbreathing, and as he pondered these things, his heart stopped.
It was then Keinruf realized he was truly immortal.
It was also then that a hooded figure appeared in front of him, tripping him up as he passed. Two others came in from the side, grabbing his arms before he could get up himself and continue running.
"Oh, good, you've finally done it."
And there was a fourth figure, hood down. Quite plainly another rat, with large, almost flag-like ears. This was the first thing Keinruf noticed, the second being that she had flesh, unlike the other one. Beneath her robes Keinruf could see a green tunic, dusty and tattered. Here and there, tucked into the fur of her head, were grains of sand, giving her a rather dirty appearance overall, compared to the other three, who were simply... shades. Nothing beneath the hoods.
"I'm sorry we didn't come outright - we like to give you a chance to understand first. It's also amusing to watch. Once, somebeast had managed to help five others get out of their borders. Quite fun."
Keinruf tried to think of something to say or ask, but then realised he didn't care anymore. He was dead, he couldn't feel anything, so what did it matter? He had forever to find out what was going on. The longer the mystery dragged on, the better.
The robes regarded him carefully. One of them spoke up:
"Well, let's get on with it."
"I'm not sure..."
The other three - rat included - glared at the last to speak. It fidgeted beneath its robes.
"Well, Vulpuz never really gave us permission."
"We're the Fates - who's he to allow us to do what we like?"
"Technically, he's the ruler of Hellgates, actually..."
"And who appointed him?"
"Wait... Hellgates?" This was Keinruf.
The Fates blinked at him curiously.
"Well, where else would you go?"
"The skeleton rat - "
" - said this was Dark Forest."
"Did he? I doubt it."
Keinruf thought about it. Actually... Death hadn't said so. Keinruf frowned. No. He'd merely said that Keinruf had been confusing the two. Keinruf himself had thought it was Dark Forest's gates, so that was what it seemed to turn into for him.
"I must admit, I like this scenery," the rat Fate said approvingly. "Apart from the fact that all the fire and brimstone gets old when appearing in everybeast else's consciousness, it really shows one's true character." She eyed him as one might eye an interesting rock. "And we like being right. Just one last question before we begin: You don't know why you're here, do you?"
"Because I told Death I wanted to go somewhere interesting."
"That's partly it," another Fate said. "But why would he send you here, instead of the real Dark Forest?"
Keinruf shrugged. "Is there a difference?"
"There will be."
"You're here because of your choices in life," the rat explained. "Which, I assure you, were entirely yours. We presented you with options and situations to test your mettle, but you're the one who decided what to do. In short, you decided wrong. Rather a lot. You're here to be punished for your sins."
The Fates glanced at each other, then around at the winter landscape. As one they thought: He really doesn't know. Either he's the epitome of innocence, or... They didn't need to finish the thought.
Then, as one, they began.
No great change took over Keinruf. He simply fell over in the snow. The Fates waited a moment to see make sure this was the correct reaction, and when it appeared it was, they created a border around the area. Because otherwise, Hellgates was boring.
"He was right about one thing," the rat said when they'd finished. "It does make you happy you're not them."
~ ~ ~
He is a mouse, small, unable to move as yet another arrow is driven into his arm, pinning him to his sisters' bodies.
He is a weasel, struggling uselessly upside-down, trying to twist himself away from the doorknob, failing.
He is an otter, and once every minute a drop of hot wax falls into his open stomach until it is full, hardened, and he is sewn together again and let back out to starve.
He is a ferret, perfectly restrained, hoarse now, as the eighth bone from his tail is slowly pulled out despite the muscles around it being perfectly intact.
He is a sparrow, hanging by a rope from a branch, slowly being plucked, then forcefully re-feathered.
He is a mole, speechless as ever as his mate's arm is grafted onto his stomach to join the other parts of her he now has.
He is a rat, burning from the inside as his blood is slowly siphoned from his veins, to be replaced by salted vinegar.
He is a fox, unable to breath as he swallows blood and septic tea, each time forcing the spikes deeper into his mouth, until it last it can't go any more and his jaw cracks.
He is a badger, frozen and old, unable to resist as he is skinned and rolled into a nest of ants, hot honey being poured over him.
He is a hare, blinded, deafened, but starving, not in his right mind, eating anything that is put in his mouth, losing, with each swallow, another chunk from his limbs.
He is a stoat, waiting in a sticky, warm puddle for the screams to stop, waiting for his next turn.
He is an eagle, or at least the basics of what an eagle needs to stay alive, as he has been for years now.
He is a squirrel, smiling at last as the blade cuts too deep this time.
He is a vole, simply trying not to move anymore.
He is a lizard, curled up inside a barrel beneath the ocean, breathing his last breath, forcing himself into a vacuum that his eyes can't handle.
He is a pine marten, lying in the snow, being. Every torture he had performed, every hurt he had inflicted upon another in life, he now experiences, not as himself, but as them, somewhere in the infinite space of Hellgates, watching a soulless Keinruf re-enact every last moment of his life. He feels it all, not over a length of time, but compressed into a single moment of "now".
Somebeast stands at the edge of his border, watching him.