Pt. III of IV

The door slid shut, trapping Stel with his host, who hadn't responded to the comments of the departed lady.

The man crouched with his arms wrapped around his knees. He was dressed in a green flak jacket crossed with tiny holes from which dripped a dark green, pliable liquid. Around his neck lay a large crucifix, slightly warped as if it had undergone a trial by fire and hadn't made it out totally unscathed. Below his waist flowed the robes of a priest, hiding his feet.

Stel took this information in with a cursory glance, his real focus alighting on the face the priest wore: nothing but a mass of wrinkles topped by a harsh, pony-tailed hair line. Its colour was almost the same brown as the flak jacket, while the mass of wrinkles puffed the face in a manner that would have hindered the living, landing its wearer with intense social distrust and ridicule. Here both features simply accompanied the prevailing corruption, hiding the true characteristics of the face behind this enhanced mask. In between lumped-structured brows and rolled cheeks were coal-pricks of eyes, solid and small within the extenuated face. They burned with a sharpness his pudgy body lacked.

They and the voice. It rumbled across the gap separating the two, worming its way under the splayed skin of Stel, laying thick between folds of splattered tuxedo. Its secretive tone subtly cajoled Stel to tell all he knew, to surrender to the questions he was about to receive.

"Welcome to this..." A vague gesture. Stel stayed silent, not sure of the proper response, nor exactly where this was.

"I'm glad you pulled yourself together. Fancy believing you still had to breathe, that you still had lungs, a throat, anything inside you anymore. Since when have the dead had internal organs?"

Stel went to reply, questions forming so fast they tumbled over one another within his mind. But something told him his host wasn't finished. That he was just warming up.

"It's amusing to watch new arrivals struggle with the truth, although I'm sure to you it would have seemed serious. I must congratulate you on coming to your senses. Many times lately new arrivals having been getting worse and worse. Sometimes I can reach them in time, make them see the truth, but others...

"Especially with the War. Shell-shock, men gassed out of their brain, those lost within trenches, praying for death. They would all find the release they had prayed for, only to discover their memories and pain were intensified. Had become the sole reason for them finding their way here. They used to be the worst, almost all were... lost."

The word seemed to slip from his hidden lips with reluctance, as if he was loathe to let it through his mouth. Or savouring the feeling as it did get loose.

"But they became less and less as time crunched on. Or perhaps we lost sight of them within our own war? Whatever the cause, more and more such as yourself started coming through. Products of the Depression. Products of depression. You never fought in the war, did you Stel?"

The question knifed through Stel with an unexpected, sharp pain. He thought he'd placed that behind him. He'd turned from friends when they had joined, had pleaded he was needed to foster the war effort at home, even as they regaled each other in their new uniforms and real guns.

He'd ran to his father and asked - begged! - to be kept away from the war, even as reports of their deaths lifted the community with patriotic, and tragic, pride. The pain shot through him but he forced his face to stay neutral, swallowing the shock out of habit.

But another part of him, a new part reveling in freedom, was less obedient.

He knew, he knew, he knew!! I told 'im, it was me all along! When you were out we 'ad a little talk, man ta man. I told him everything about ya. Everything 'bout us!!

The voice was loud, guttural and entirely unpleasant. Worst of all it shot around Stel's head, impossible to ignore. Or escape. It showed on his face.

"Ah yes, I see you've met part of your new truth. I expected you thought death would be a little quieter, perhaps with a little more colour? Don't worry, many are disappointed when they arrive. Many wished they'd paid a little more attention when they were able to. Do you regret your life Stel?"

His host rushed on without pausing for an answer. He watched Stel as he talked with a disturbing calmness, like he was seeing right inside of him, ignoring the poor excuse for a body he wore.

"Do you wish now you'd gone to war? Gone and died with the rest of your friends? He has told me, the voice inside your head.

"Don't worry, you aren't going mad, well not from that alone. Each of us has one of our own. They're here to teach us, for us to learn from their mistakes, their exuberance for destruction. They're all different, much the same as we are separate from those around us. Yours calls himself Nagging Doubt, and gets quite a kick from the name as well. You can call him whatever you like, whatever feels right. Mine is called... well that doesn't really matter. Did you listen to him when you were alive Stel? Did you listen to your doubts?"

The man paused, obviously wanting Stel to respond.

"Didn't we all?" It seemed like a safe answer, short enough. But he wanted more.

"Sometimes the doubt kept me alive. Sometimes it let me fall flat on my face. But if I didn't listen, if none of us listened, we would have destroyed each other long ago. Our doubt is nothing but part of our moral conscience."

Ya, ya, continue!

"And yet you still ended up dead. You're here before your time. Did you fail to listen to your doubt, or did he control your actions a little too much?"

Stel was confused. The man spoke with the intent to trip him up, to make him fail the game. Or worse.

"Is this some type of test? Have I reached some kind of judgment? Do I have time to prepare myself?"

"Your life was the preparation, a preparation you chose to cut short. This is a test, you are right about that. You are to be judged according to the Will of the Almighty. Through me He will assess your next step. He has allowed you to fall to me so I can determine whether you are... suitable."

"Allowed me to fall to you? Who are you? Why should you judge me?"

At this the man's voice lost its soothing qualities and rose in a mild anger.

"I am one of the people to be Chosen. I stand upon the brink of the next stage as an instrument of His Divine Will. I will decide which step you are to take, what your actions in life have allowed for you. You fell to me as a newborn, the writing of your corruption laid bare for me to read and make judgment according to the Law. You fell, swaddled within the white blankets of death and I..."

He stopped for the briefest of moments, crossing one hand over the crucifix he wore proudly. About the same size as his hand, the cross glowed slightly pale green for a second with not even enough light to illuminate the face hovering reverently above it. With a slight *snick* a thick blade, bulbous and tapering to a fine point, slid from the bottom of the cross.

"...I reaped you. You are in my hands until I make my judgment. I have spoken to that part of you who revealed all. Now I speak to you, so you may justify your actions against the sins you have committed.

"He has told the truth. I pray you do the same."

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