No Guarantees

Here, on the near bank of the River Styx, stand I, a purveyor of flesh. I, to whom the desperate turn, those who have fled the pits of Hades, those who seek new faces, new lives, in the world above. They come to me in my castle of bones, a grim shadow in the darkness, where I stand, and smile... and wait.

"Help us," Prospective clients wail, "Help us! We are not ready to die."

They do not see me at first, merely hear my voice, echoing from around them as if I am not a sole presence, but speak from the air itself. I warn them, all who come to me:

"I can certainly lead you back to life, but beware. You may not recognize who you were in what you become. Couples? May be separated. In my business there are no guarantees."

The shadows recede slightly and now the damned can see my smile, a beacon in the gloom. I continue, "You may not even be human. To live again, I ask, are you prepared to pay the ultimate price?"

"W-what's that?" The corpses ask, holding each other's ragged rotten forms, beginning to doubt their courage.

"My price? All I require from you is what you already are, your battered and broken selves. Your bones," In the shadows they see my vague gesture of the palace around me, built from grinning skulls, white ivory totally cleanedof flesh. "Foundation for my home. Where you're going, you won't need it."

The skeletal forms of the damned hesitate, even in their fear of the death awaiting them, unease gives them pause. To what force are they giving everything, their trust, their bones, their hopes of life anew? What am I, one who lurks in the dark, who preys on the dreams of the dead?

But fear of Hell always wins in the end, the thing in all of us that recoils from death's touch. In the end, nearly everyone agrees. They leave their bones behind, piled in my skeleton halls, their souls all that remain of who they were. They take my hand and begin their journey from darkness back into light. Still all I am to them is black, the unseeable made solid. Still all they see of me is my smile, my glowering, rictal menace.

Surefooted across the border twixt life and death I lead. Where the winds howl, along with... other things. Things that undulate in the black, that grasp at us from the distance as we pass. My charges stop, trying to fix on those haunting our travels, but I push on and caution:

"Look straight ahead. The... creatures here? Are best not seen. They have a way of leading people astray. People lost here, in the Middle. They are never found."

Through this warning, through the entire of our journey, my smile never once falters. Unsettling perhaps, but as the sole lodestar in the deep, they begin to find it the gloam's only comfort.

Who knows how much time passes? What relevance has time to the dead? But eventually we near the light. These souls begin to remember the song of being. Eventually we halt. My smile turns to them.

"I go no further," I explain, "These last steps, this rebirth. It's a journey you must make alone."

They stumble on towards the dawn, buoyed by memories of life, of taste and of touch. I watch from the Beyond and as they depart, my smile turns... sinister.

In my business, there are no guarantees.

Closer and closer to life they creep, the light fills them, then pulling them onward under its power. They feel heavier, and more and more solid. Until...

You may not even be human.

In the middle of a dark forest, surrounded by old growth, shrouded in black, sprout two oak trees. Scrawny trunks, and four gnarled limbs. Etched in their bark? Markings almost like faces.

Their mouths open in shock, frozen in silent screams. Two souls, trapped again in life. In a still, dull existence. In a fate worse than death.

Back on the River Styx, in my growing palace of bone, again and again spirits approach. They dream of flesh. They seek solace from damnation. Desperate like the rest, they ignore my warning:

"There are no guarantees."