An ankou and a banshee work together in death.
|I died one minute past midnight on January the first, 1843, after losing a long game against consumption. It was a game that I'd only diced into by caring for my frivolous and dying brother the year before. I left no survivors, excepting my horse and two pigs, all of whom were nearly dead themselves before my body was found.
I awoke in a mausoleum, shivering cold so that my bones rattled under the threadbare cloak I'd been buried in. On a stone slab across from me sat another living skeleton reclined in a pose that I recognized, a sort of devil-may-care slump. My brother.
"Miles?" I asked. My voice scraped. I tried to swallow but found I couldn't.
If a skeleton could appear to smile, then that's what Miles did, smiled like an aura. "Yes! Oh, John. I truly regret that it is you taking my place but I'm so glad to be free!"
"Taking your place?" I felt sluggish. It was hard to react when I had no heartbeat, when I felt no rush or heat, no panic. Only hollow distance and deep, frozen cold.
"I've done my year." He proclaimed. "I'm off to wherever will have me. Heaven, Hell. I may be wrong but it seems to me that either is better than here. Collecting souls, the aching empty loneliness, dealing with Death." He paused to shudder. "That's all on you now. Best of luck." He hopped down and tipped his hat in my direction before pausing and sweeping it off to hand to me. "Actually, John, it may not be so bad for you. You always were quiet and never much liked people seeing you. Did I mention that you are invisible now?" I took the hat and the comment with a shake of my head, still feeling numb. He clapped me on the shoulder, bone against bone, then jaunted out the door.
I followed like an echo as he made for his grave.
"Wait!" I called out just as he reached the edge, my mind just starting to catch up.
"No. I don't think I will, thanks." He called back. His old bones collapsed and sank into the earth, embraced by it. His soul rose up from where he'd disappeared, glowing like the moon. It hovered for a moment and then pinged off into the darkness.
Days passed. I adjusted to my new state. I paced the perimeter of the graveyard and discovered that I couldn't pass the boundary. Snow fell, and I left no footprints, rather walked atop it, never feeling anything. Here but not here. People visited graves and grieved but never saw me standing there.
It continued, one sunset sinking into the next until one empty afternoon I felt a tug, deep in my abdomen, and I was yanked across town. I fell into a barn that I didn't recognize but I did recognize the man inside. Old Jack Turner, who was already sinking to his knees, clawing at his throat and choking. I watched as he slumped and twitched and died. Miles' voice crept back to me. Dealing with death, he'd said. And I thought, from both sides now.
As soon as Jack's soul unstuck itself from that old frame, it flew into my hands and I was whisked away again, through a void, to land at an altar with two sides. A large sign above stated that Death was busy and to please drop my requisition into one of the slots below. One was clearly marked for newly released souls—the other for errants. I supposed mine was newly released? I dropped it in and was whisked back to the outskirts of the cemetery. Lovely.
When I returned to my mausoleum, it was to find it already occupied. A young girl stood with her back to the door next to where I would occasionally rest my bones.
She caught sight of me and stared. "Who are you?" she asked. "Why are you here?"
I looked behind me, thinking she must have been talking to someone else, but no.
"I live here," I said, baffled. She looked alive from where I was standing. Pink-skinned and yellow-haired with a brightness to her that shone outward. The spark of a soul and a clean one. How could she see me?
She walked up close and poked me in the ribs. She tilted her face up and got a good look at my skull beneath the brim of my hat.
She gasped, not with fear as I would have expected, but with realization. "You are the Ankou. The soul collector."
"Am I?" I hadn't known the title. "And who are you?"
"I'm James Wilcox's sister. Annie."
I didn't gasp because I couldn't but I'd had a realization of my own. "You're the banshee. A woman was talking about you at the Tate monument. You've keened your brother's death."
Some of the brightness that floated around her dissipated and I felt genuine sorrow to see it go. To be the cause of it's leaving.
She studied me. "It would have been you sent to claim his soul."
I nodded and took in the subdued way that she was holding herself now, a direct contrast to the will she'd carried before. "Me and him, we're all each other has left." The way she said it spoke of a recent loss but I didn't pry. She blew out a slow, deliberate breath and something she said caught in my mind.
"Would have been?" I asked but I didn't hear her answer.
The tug in my abdomen was back, and before I could warn her, I was jerked away, sliding through the ether and on my way to collect.
When my feet hit the ground, I found myself standing across from James Wilcox. His sister favored him, and well, who else would it have been?
He sat alone in a rocking chair by the hearth. He stared into the flames and ran his fingers along a length of ribbon hanging from a letter. Through the blankness on his face, I could see the sheen of sorrow, of loss. I suspected it was a reflection of what my own face would show if I still had one. A remnant of the work I do. I thought of Annie's fresh face and the innocence that gleamed from beneath her sadness. I wanted to be anywhere but here.
A screech rang through the empty halls of the house that startled us both. Something large thumped against the door, followed by the sound of wings and another less violent strike. The doorknob slowly turned and disengaged. The door hung suspended on its hinges for just a moment before exploding inward.
A creature like a massive crow with huge dangling deformed claws streaked across the room, emitting another warbling cry as it descended upon James. He tried to flinch backward but only succeeded in slamming himself into the back of the chair. The thing pecked at him and yet there was no blood, no injury, and I realized that it wasn't attacking the man, only the soul. Devouring it until there was nothing left but an empty shell, reclining with the ribbon from that letter still tangled in his limp fingers.
With the soul's departure, I was drawn back to my home, back to Annie. She was pale but looked straight at me. Into me. "He's gone, isn't he?"
I nodded; still a little shaken by the unnaturalness of what I'd seen.
"Was it the sluagh? The soul eater?" she asked.
That got my attention back on her. "How did you know?"
"When I keen deaths, I see them. I didn't know the timing, just how it would be." She looked lost in thought.
A memory from my childhood tickled the back of my mind. "He's doomed now, isn't he? To hunt with them? To chase souls?"
"That is what the stories say," she said. Some of her brightness returned. "If the stories are true, I think I know a way to save him." She bounced back over to me. "I want you to pull out my soul," she said. "You've got to use it as bait."
I felt something, not unlike the moment I had died—a pure frisson of shock followed by frigid emptiness.
"No," I said.
"It's the only way. If my body isn't harmed then I have a chance of getting back."
"How do you know?"
"My grandmother used to tell tales. I think she told them for a reason. This reason."
I sat and listened to her machinations and half-cocked ideations for so long that I'm still half-convinced that I only agreed to the whole thing to get her to finally stop talking about it.
Once decided, there was no point in waiting. That's what she said. Personally, I was alright with waiting for her to change her mind.
In the end though, I couldn't really fault her. Whether or not it was worth it, I'd died of care for my brother as well.
I finished extracting her soul just as the sun was starting to slip over the edge of the horizon. She lay atop my sarcophagus, like sleeping beauty, only not asleep. Her soul bounced in my hands. Never had I moved one so happy with the situation it was in.
It felt ridiculous, stalking round a cemetery waving a soul like a lantern. The sun set, the moon rose, and my thoughts were interrupted by the eerie shrieks of the sluagh. Now that they were summoned, my impulse was to pull Annie to safety, maybe even stuff her into my ribcage, but she resisted.
The creature swooped, starvation written across its face and one of those terrible dripping misshapen claws wrenched her from my grasp. The creature made to fly away but instead fell to the ground, Annie's soul apparently too heavy for him.
As I watched, she grew taller, took the shape of the body lying inside, an outline with a faint glow. "I come to you willingly." She said, "Has anyone ever done so?"
The bird shook its head.
"Then you bow to me now."
The bird bowed.
"Where is my brother?"
Another of them crashed down beside her. The look in his eyes was not starvation but longing. I recognized it from the boy he'd been, staring into the flames.
She reached out to touch him and his form melted down, small and round but darker than hers had been. Rich caramel to her buttercup yellow. She cradled him and whispered a secret. She turned to me and gently placed him into my hands.
The moment his soul made contact with me, Death appeared, his scythe silver in the moonlight.
He asked Annie, "Can you change them all back?"
"And what would you like in return?"
Apparently, when you've existed as long as Death has, you don't question even the possibility of getting something for free.
"Can you give me my brother back?"
He shook his head, slower than slow.
"Then, I think I'd like to stay like this," she said.
I jolted. This wasn't part of the plan.
"Here, I can protect other souls from this fate. I can save them forever. What could I have done in life that was more important?"
Death turned to me, "And you?"
I didn't think I deserved anything for my involvement in this, for what amounted to murder, but I could take something for her. I thought of her brightness and how alone she would be. It set on me like a vice.
Miles was right. While I was alive, I really hadn't liked people looking at me, seeing me, but now I found that when Annie looked, it wasn't so bad.
"I'd like to stay and help her," I said.
"You would willingly exceed your year's vigil? Live here and take souls forever?"
Death nodded and disappeared and Annie?
Well, she glowed.