He had to admit, this one had been a hard one to catch. He would have been out of breath if he had breathed. He hadn’t had a chase like this since the middle ages, when he had been run ragged collecting the mobs that died of plague and the souls of fanatics had run about with madman speed, looking for the God of Judgments at the apocalypse.
He had always hated queue-jumpers.
Of course he’d caught the target. This was no surprise. He was a Grim Reaper. He always won, in the end. Nobody had ever escaped from him or anything like him. The chase was over and it lay pinned to the metaphorical ground on the long, curving blade of his scythe. It was quieter than they usually were, no writhing or fighting or begging.
This was a good thing. Acceptance made his job easier. With a quick and infinitely practiced gesture he reached into the soul and tore out its name. Now the soul awoke and whined and grasped for its name as he brought it up to inspect it. They always did although he couldn’t ever figure out why. It’s not like they did anything with their names.
It stopped struggling as soon as he put the name away. Technically he was supposed to check the name against the one on the ledger, but nobody ever did it, the Amanuenses were never really wrong, and they’d just have to check it when they filed it back at the Sepulcher anyway.
He stowed the soul in his void, and went along the rest of his route. A car crash. Ironically that one died of a heart attack when the airbag released. A pair of suicides, completely unrelated to each other. Old age, a centenarian who querulously asked him what had taken him so long. Accidental death from exposure to an as-of-yet unknown (and completely unintended) side effect of a common household cleaner. He brought them all back to the Sepulcher.
The Sepulcher didn’t look like anything else. To a mortal soul it might have appeared as a tomb or gate to their chosen afterlife, had there been one present to see it. But to a Reaper, who had no expectations it looked like what it really was.
The Psychopomp was waiting for him. That was what it did. It waited. Always. He delivered the names to the Psychopomp by way of the Word Imps, which gleefully fed the ideas behind the names to the Psychopomp. Then he opened up his void and allowed the Hand of the Psychopomp to reach within to claim the souls and start putting them in their proper places.
It expended the Names as it placed the souls. True Names, not the paltry sounds they used to identify each other, chosen seemingly at random, but the names that were words made of time and spoken in the tones of will. They were encoded bursts that told those listening, at least those with the ability to hear, everything the soul had been, and much of what it could be. They were vital shorthand for those that had to deal with souls.
The suicides, like each other in no other respect, were filed separately. The centenarian filed with the heart attack on a technicality. The accident went where accidents always went.
There was only one soul left over.
There was never a soul left over.
The soul took a moment to realize that it hadn’t been collected and then did another run for it. But the Reaper was ready and hooked it on the blade of his scythe. Holding it up, he recognized the soul, it was the runner from earlier. An unclassified. Not common, but not so unusual that there wasn’t a place for them. Sometimes people just died, for no reason. Causality was not the iron-clad law that the Living thought it was. In this universe, there were, on occasion, things that just happened, for no reason whatsoever. In this case, the soul had just simply been alive one moment, dead the next.
Obediently he presented the soul, again, to the Psychopomp. It raised a metaphorical hand to stop him.
This soul, it informed him, was already placed.
The Reaper looked at the soul, which was now wriggling on his scythe like a worm on a hook, then back at the Psychopomp. That the Psychopomp could be wrong was counter to what a Psychopomp was. If it could be wrong, it wouldn’t be a Psychopomp. And yet, the evidence of his senses, of which he was well-equipped with a full suite of the dozens of avenues of perception necessary to do his job, told him that the soul in question was still on his scythe in a notably unplaced condition.
He repeated his inquiry. The Psychopomp confirmed it.
He thought for a moment about the situation. This was unusual as the existence of a Reaper was one of ironclad protocols and unwavering routine. A place for everything and everything in its place. It wasn’t that he couldn’t think for himself. It was just that generally he didn’t have to.
The Psychopomp would tell him no more. And he could not get back to work until this soul was placed. That was the one sure thing he knew. All souls must be placed. That’s what it meant to be a Reaper. By definition, he had always been a Reaper. Reapers had no past because they were taken from the future. It only made sense. After all, Death was the ultimate future, the ultimate ‘What happens next’.
He began by requesting back the name of the soul in question. It had been expended but the Word Imps forgot nothing. An imp ran up and whispered it to him.
He visualized the exact syllables, hissed in the language of time with an accent of passing seconds. Still carrying the soul along with him, he shifted backwards in time, navigating the roads of potential and actual using the Name as a map.
The moment of collection. He passed through his own shadow and saw the soul, the soul of this earlier timeframe, running from its fallen body, with him, the Reaper of this timeframe, chasing appearing to chase after it.
That’s when he noticed something. The man was already dead. That’s why he had a head start.
The man couldn’t have died and left his body without a Reaper there to sever the thread. Why hadn’t the Reaper who’d done the job collected the soul?
He unraveled the Name a little farther in his mind and moved back to the actual time of death, a few moments of linear time previous.
There. The man alive. He was walking, one physical foot placed in front of another and pulling the rest of the corporeal body along with it. And there, a Grim Reaper appeared behind it and swept its blade through the man’s body. The body fell and the soul remained standing. It looked behind it and saw, for the first time, the Grim Reaper. The soul still had enough of the animal to spin around and begin to run.
On his scythe blade, the future tense of the soul began to keen and whine in sympathy.
The other Reaper turned away from the body and the soul that had just been part of it. It made no attempt to collect the wayward soul.
So why was it here?
He stepped up in front of the other Reaper and simply presented his blade with the writhing, wailing future of the soul on it in way of question.
The other Reaper inclined its head and gently took the soul off of the scythe and placed it into its own void.
It held out its hand for the name.
He drew it forth from his memory and placed it in the other Reaper’s hand.
It rewound the timeline of the name into the condensed form. Then it began, ever so carefully, started to unzip the potentials contained in the name.
It didn’t have to unfold much before the Reaper realized that he was looking at himself.
He had Reaped himself. This was the future from which he had been plucked to begin Reaping thousands of years ago.
Confirmed, he dutifully folded himself into his own timeline, becoming the far end of his own loop. And began again.
[Just a bit of flash fiction for a challenge on Chuck Wendig’s Terribleminds http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2014/08/28/flash-fiction-challenge-yet-fate-choose-your-title/ and because it makes me happy.]