After the burning sensation subsided, I found myself back in the throne realm. This time though, I was standing in the queue line and not next to it.
Normally, after a particularly horrible death, the memory of dying will be removed from a victim. They retain the knowledge of how they died, but are spared the remembrance of it. In my case, I’m not so lucky. I get to remember the feeling of death, like burning for instance, every, single, time.
I waited somewhat impatiently as the front of the line drew closer. Fortunately at least, I get to cut almost all the way to the front of the line when I die. My boss still makes me wait a bit though. He insists that if I didn’t have to wait at least that much that I wouldn’t learn my lesson.
There only appears to be loosely draped chains preventing someone from leaving the queue line. I used to wonder why everyone waited patently to be judged instead of attempting to flee. The moment you try to step over or under the chains, your body will refuse to move. Almost as if it were protesting the action, you cannot move over the threshold no matter how hard you try. My guess is that everyone must try that at least once somewhere in the back of the line.
“Things went well I see.” My boss greeted me, when I had finally reached the front of the line. Not in the mood for his games, I rolled my eyes, shook my head, and walked right past him toward the door.
“You know your hair’s on fire right?” he called after me as I left the room. After his comment, I realized that I had been smelling a faint burning scent for a while now. I pulled the tattered remains of my jacket up over my head to pat out any remaining embers.
I returned to my room, hung my coat, and got ready for bed. Despite my somewhat charred state, in the morning both me and my clothes would be reset to their original appearance.
The next morning, when I returned to the throne room, I was determined to confront my boss over the previous day’s mission.
“Axel, we’ve got a problem,” he spoke as I entered the room.
“You’re damn right we do!” I answered. As I turned to face him, I continued, “You knew that bastard planned to blow me up didn’t you?!”
“And if I did?” he responded with a firm look.
Hesitating, I countered, “Then you should have told me that before I left!”
“Maybe I had faith that you’d figure it out in time,” he immediately replied with a smile. “Furthermore,” the Devil continued, “If you hadn’t been so cocky and overconfident about things, maybe you wouldn’t have given him the time to blown you up in the first place.”
I let out a hard sigh as I realized this was no longer an argument I could win.
“Now, as I was saying,” he said pointing behind me toward the queue line, “We have a problem.”
I glanced over my shoulder at the line, then back at my boss and replied, “Don’t we always have a probl–” I turned around for a double take once the peculiar image had sank in.
At the head of the line stood a heavily charred man wearing remnants of plain looking, 1700’s-era clothes. He held a blackened straw hat over his chest and nodded at my acknowledgement of his presence.
Try as I might, I could not hold back from asking the man, “What the hell happened to you?”
With an unimpressed expression on his face, the man replied, “I got blown up!” In hindsight, his answer should have been pretty obvious.
“Oh,” I hesitated for a moment, feeling like the idiot of the room, then sighed and added, “I know the feeling.”
“I got that impression,” the man replied sarcastically, casting a questioning look at my boss. “I really don’t see how this fool–”
“This is Axel,” the Devil cut him off, trying to break the tension. “He’s my sort of ‘first-in-command’ and he’s the best person qualified to help you.” After a moment’s pause, he tacked on, “Of course, he’s also my ‘only-in-command’, so if you’ve got a problem with his help then you’re out of luck.
I didn’t know whether that last part was an attack on me, the charred man, or both of us. Knowing my boss, it was directed at both of us.
“What’s going on?” I asked the two of them.
“This is Eli. As you already know, his night went just about as well as yours did,” the devil smirked. “Apparently someone in his village has taken to blowing things up. Since you’ve recently become the expert in such matters, I thought you could give him a hand with his investigation.”
“That’s not quite it!” the man hastily added. “My village, no, my entire realm is made up of simple folk. These last few nights, several of the main buildings in our town square have been violently detonated. First the library, then my general store. I got word that the town hall was already hit while I was standing in this god-forsaken line of yours!” He paused for a moment after his outburst.
“And how is this anything that needs my attention?” I asked my boss, somewhat ignoring the prudish individual in front of me.
After composing himself, the man named Eli continued, “No one from my realm could have the know-how or the supplies to cause explosions of this magnitude. Short of loading the buildings up with manure and hoping for a good enough bang, it’s just not conceivable.”
I was apparently still giving him a look like he was crazy because he then glared a bit and added, “And yes, I would have noticed the smell. I was in my building when it went up.”
“Based on the location and importance of the targets, Eli believes the next attack will be on the church.” the Devil added. “It’s probably nothing more than an unhappy villager wanting to make a name for himself. Even so, I’ve got a bad feeling about it and I’d like you to go back with him and at least help with a steakout tonight.”
“Alright, alright,” I said, walking toward my archway. “So where am I going?”
“Simple-Life 63, the village of Christine.”
“Right, got it.” I yelled back, almost to the door.
“Axel!” the Devil called. I turned abruptly only to have a flashlight thrown in my face.
“I figured that would work better for you then a lantern… you know, just in case.” He smirked at me once more.
“Yeah yeah, have your fun. I’m sure you’ve been blown up once or twice in your day!” I replied.
“We didn’t have explosives in my day!” he laughed. With that he nodded in Eli’s direction. The man then faded away and was returned to his realm.
I headed through my archway and followed suit, feeling the world fade away.
I soon found myself in a small village square. I was surrounded by rough wooden buildings. Off in the distance I could see acres of farmland spanning toward the horizon. Looking around, I found a trail of black building wreckage. I followed it with my eyes until I had to turn around.
Behind me was a great stone structure with a steeple towering overhead. There were stained glass windows along the front and sides of the church. Two heavy wooden doors formed the entryway.
“Axel!” I heard behind me. I turned around to see Eli waving to me. He hurried over to my location and began to inform me his plan.
“I’ve got to go gather the village elders. We’re not used to dealing with disaster like this. I plan to bring a few fit individuals back to help us with our watch tonight.”
“So should I tag along or–”
“No,” he cut me off, adding, “I think it’d be best if I talked to them alone. They are… traditional people who aren’t particularly trusting of outsiders.” He again gave me that questioning gaze from earlier. “Stay here and familiarize yourself with our church.”
“Alright, I’ll look around a bit.”
“And be CAREFUL, please. We don’t need any more disruptions.”
With that request, he left and headed toward some residential looking buildings on the further edge of the village. Presumably this was a temporary town hall for the elders to gather in.
I turned around again and walked up the stone steps leading to the church doors. With a hard push one of them creaked open and I walked inside. Before me was a large hall, much bigger than it had seemed from the outside. As I walked down the aisle, colored light beams from the stained glass were shining all around.
On the back wall of the church, behind the alter, was the largest stained glass window of all. A large colorful depiction of Jesus shined light across the room. He had a particular smile that if I didn’t know better would kind of resemble my boss’s.
It amused me that such a large group of people, having died and met the Devil himself, would continue to go to church every day and pray to their lord. Maybe I was missing something in this picture, but to me it just seemed illogical.
I continued to explore the church until I was confidant I had the entire building covered. During that time, Eli returned with a group of men to help with the steakout. From afar, I could see him pointing around and giving orders to his men.
A few minutes later, he gave me a position as well, “Stand guard over there and watch the windows.” He pointed to the far corner between the back of the church and the forest. A location that was almost completely hidden from the sight of the village.
As I opened my mouth to argue, he cut me off with “I appreciate your help Axel, however I must remind you that the other villagers are not so keen on receiving help from outsiders.” Through his tone of voice, I really couldn’t tell if he was sincere about appreciating my help or not. “Please just take your position and leave the rest to us.”
On that abrupt note, he again turned and left, taking his own position near the front doors of the church. Feeling a little defeated, I wandered over to my corner in the back. Between me, Eli, and his men we had the entire perimeter surrounded. There was no way anyone was getting inside without a fight.
The afternoon passed by slower than waiting in the Devil’s queue line. Every hour there was a horn that would sound somewhere in the village. This obnoxious sound was presumably a stand in for the church bell we had sealed off access to. The horn, like the bell would have, sounded once for every hour past noon it was.
I watched as the skyline above the trees turned a bright orange. If it hadn’t been for the sun starting to set, I wouldn’t have believed the horn sounding. I counted it out to seven, in disbelief that it could be only seven o’clock.
Darkness started to settle in around me. I reached to my side and drew the flashlight I had clipped to my belt. At least searching by flashlight was a little more interesting. I scoured the line of trees for anything out of the ordinary. The beam of light cast shadows that danced between each tree.
From my corner I could see lantern light shining around the building. Our perimeter line cast a glow upon the entire building… except mine of course. My corner stayed darkened with only quick flashes of light keeping would-be arsonists at bay. I felt disadvantaged to the others, but stayed vigilant. Who needs to be able to see anyway?
The night continued quietly. No signs of movement, no sounds except wildlife, nothing out of the ordinary.
SMASH! I turn around to see the shattered remains of the Jesus window rain down onto the ground. In the midst of the shimmering glass shards a dark figure leapt toward the forest. Behind me, the glowing lanterns began to close in to my location.
None of them were missing, the line hadn’t been breached. The mysterious figure had somehow been hiding inside already.
Wasting no time, I took off in a sprint toward the forest. I picked up speed, running much faster than the average human. The villagers wouldn’t be able to keep up, but I’d rather they not get hurt anyway.
Shining my flash light in front of me, I caught faint glimpses of a silhouette. I closed in on them. When I was less than twenty feet away, close enough to almost make out their features, my attention got directed elsewhere.
A loud boom echoed through the forest. I immediately pivoted around to see bright orange flames at the forest’s edge and smoke billowing high. My mission’s objective returned from the back of my mind. I could hear my boss’s would-be words echo in the back of my head. “You had one job Axel!”
I tried to shake off my feeling of guilt and returned to the chase. I drew close to the arsonist once more, determined to bring him down so that at least something good could come of tonight.
Just a few feet behind, I reached out for a grab… WHAM!
I came to my senses a moment later, flat on the ground. My target had turned and elbowed me in the face just as I reached out for him. I could hear footsteps leaving the scene. By the time I was on my feet though the footsteps had stopped.
I scoured the trees with my flashlight. The footsteps hadn’t trailed off far away, they had just stopped. The trees in this area weren’t very dense and there didn’t seem to be anywhere to hide. The arsonist had vanished as mysteriously as he had infiltrated the church.
As I looked around, something caught my eye. On the ground next to where I had fallen was a flat piece of paper. The paper looked pristine, it hadn’t been there long. I picked it up and was dumbfounded by it’s contents.
Here, in the middle of this realm of god-fearing farmers… was an advertisement flier for a bar. A modern bar, not an old fashioned tavern or pub. In fact, this particular bar looked familiar. “Truth in Shadows”. After a moment, the location sunk in.
“Truth in Shadows” was where I had found Toni Giuliani just a few nights earlier. But how could this flier be here in this realm?
Not wanting to stick around and get hell from the villagers for letting their church blow up, I decided to follow this new clue while the trail was hot. Focusing for a minute, I brought myself back to the street corner from several nights ago.
I materialized across the street from the bar and waited for a minute, contemplating the trap I had to be walking into.