The stars are beautiful, and then they’re gone…
And then, they’re replaced by a million spiraling lights, dancing above a serene blue sea.
Ned doesn’t join them, though. He feels anything but serene — no, he’s the roaring ocean that’s torn up and whirled around by a cyclone. He’s the weight that turns the storm deadly as it batters away at the harbor, as it rushes in to drown anyone who thought they could trust the sea.
But even now, he refuses to accept it as the end of the story.
Where’s Dani? Where’s the gate?
Am I dead? I can’t die yet, I still haven’t warned anyone that the shapeshifter was after the goat…
I still haven’t finished cleaning up the mess I made…
It’s ironic, perhaps, how close he came to leaving them just a few hours ago when now he’s so desperate to return — but really, there’s no excuse for him not to have seen this coming. Every time Ned thinks he’s lost it all, thinks he’s hit rock bottom, he’s proven wrong and finds himself sinking lower and lower — so why should this time have been any different?
A jagged rift slices through the air just a few feet in front of him, and he dives towards it without thinking. He’ll do anything to get back to them even for the briefest of moments, anything to warn them —
Appearing out of nowhere, a scythe swings in a broad arc, binding the rift shut before coming to a stop just inches away from Ned. He can feel the power emanating from it with a instinctive certainty he’s never before had about magical objects, and he knows in the back of his mind that one touch of that blade will banish him to the furthest depths of the afterlife, from which he might never see Kepler again even if he spent a whole century struggling to climb back out.
The figure holding the scythe is cloaked in black robes, their face obscured, and something tells Ned that missing him with the scythe was a calculated choice, an intentional choice. That if they’d meant to strike him, they would have, and that would have been the end of that.
But the scythe-wielder — a humanoid, somewhat stout figure with sparks of red electricity dancing all across their sleeves like static electricity — doesn’t make any further move to attack, and instead procures a book from within the folds of their robe. It floats in the air alongside their head, flipping through pages all on its own as if assigned to search for a particular entry.
“Look, bud, I don’t really want to send you to the Eternal Stockade,” the figure addresses him, voice masculine and tone surprisingly casual. “You look pretty disoriented, and I can’t really blame you — but you did just try to make a break for it, and if it turns out you’re a repeat offender, I can’t in good conscience let you keep hanging around in the low-security sector.”
He says all of this in such a matter-of-fact tone that Ned is left at a complete loss for words. Of all the visions of the afterlife he’d ever entertained, none of them had been so full of… bureaucracy.
The pages of the book come to a standstill, and the figure raises a skeletal hand up towards his shadow-obscured face, allowing Ned to catch a glimpse of something reflective — adjusted glasses?
“Let’s see here… Edmund ‘Ned’ Chicane, human, only one death — good for you! — at age sixty-three. You’re good to go, then — just don’t try anything like this again, or I’ll have to lock you up.”
Ned finally manages to collect himself, and choke out a few words. “You’re the Grim Reaper, aren’t you?”
The specter approximates a shrug. “Well, not the Grim Reaper. There’s three of us, for one thing, but… well, I guess it’s a pretty accurate description aside from that.”
Another thing Ned had never imagined was that death incarnate would be so willing to make casual conversation, but the realization gives him all kinds of hope. Escaping prison — and supernatural prison, at that — would be a daunting task, but just talking his way out of a bad situation? That, he could do.
“Well, you know, Mr. Reaper, if I may call you that — I’m a huge fan of yours, loved you in ‘The Masque of the Red Death!’ And I would really hate to throw a wrench in the operation you have set up here, but…”
The reaper’s book vanishes in a plume of smoke, and his grip on his scythe tightens. “Okay, I think we both know what you’re playing at here, and let me just warn you now — even if I did want to let you go, it’s not my decision to make. I already told you I wasn’t the only reaper, and even if we all agreed to let back into the world of the living, the Raven Queen would never sign off on it. Flattering me isn’t gonna get you anywhere.”
“But I need to get back!” Ned blurts out. “I made a mistake, a whole pile of mistakes, and I need to fix them — there is an entire planet, an entire world in danger because of me! The apocalypse is impending for a whole world of innocent, sapient creatures, and hardly anyone knows the truth of it! Hardly anyone can stop it, except me and —”
The reaper flinches at the mention of a world in danger, but Ned doesn’t notice because the words, the confessions, the pleas are now pouring out of his mouth too fast to contain. “Except me and the rest of the Pine Guard, but I left them without doing nearly enough to help, to make it up to them — so I need to get back, just for a few hours! Just to make sure they’ll be alright! To warn them, and — and to say goodbye, because they and Kirby were still the closest thing I ever had to a family…”
He’s oblivious to the enchantment the reaper has cast, compelling him to speak the truth — because if telling the truth meant getting back to Kepler, meant saving the world and in particular the Pine Guard… then not even Ned Chicane would dare to lie.
“Just a big, weird, dumb family of cryptids and magicians and park rangers and crazy old men trying to stave off the apocalypse together! I can’t abandon them now, I can’t —”
“Shh.” The reaper holds up a hand. “Shh, it’s alright. I just need to check something, okay?”
With his scythe, he cuts a small tear in the dimension, edges of the rift glowing a vibrant green. Yet the inside of the gash shows nothing but a churning storm of dark purple clouds that cover the night sky, blotting out the stars as the wind roars and howls like chained beast straining to be free.
“Yikes. It really does look apocalyptic in there. Tell you what, Ned…”
In the shadowy void beneath the cowl of his robe, a devious smile lights up. “Legally, there’s nothing I can do to help you. But if it just so happened that Edmund Chicane was an unnaturally skilled necromancer, who overpowered me and stole my scythe to slip back into his own plane of existence… well, he’d need a corporeal form to be much of a help to anyone, but surely someone of his skill level could reanimate his body without any help from me whatsoever… I’m sure he’d be in a good position to avert the apocalypse, in that case.”
“Thank you,” Ned whispers, but the reaper quickly raises a finger to his lips.
“Don’t thank me yet,” he replies. “Really, you should know… a stunt like that, it’s gonna earn you a lot of prison time. I’m gonna have to bring you back here eventually, and when that happens, a bunch of folks are going to want you locked up in the Eternal Stockade. I can try my best to get your sentence mitigated, but… the Stockade’s not a nice place, even if you’re only in for a few decades.”
“I don’t care. I’ve done prison time before.”
The reaper nods slowly, and with a flick of his scythe, he tears a longer gash in the air, widening the small rift he’d opened before.
Before he steps through, though, he waves a hand across his robes, and stands still for a moment as they melt away into… a plain white shirt, battered denim jacket, and faded pair of blue jeans, worn by possibly the most mundane-looking middle-aged man Ned has ever laid eyes upon.
“Now, Mr. Reaper, I realize that I’m deeply indebted to you,” Ned says, “but that said, what on Earth are you wearing?”
“Can’t walk around looking like a skeleton if I’m gonna sneak over to your dead body and resurrect it,” the reaper answers. “And just call me Barry, by the way.”
Kirby is speeding across Kepler in a stolen car with a screaming goatman buckled up in the back seat, and none of it feels real. Street signs and traffic lights pass by in unidentifiable blurs, but he doesn’t dare take a hand off the steering wheel to wipe his tears away. His knuckles are white, and the old station wagon’s engine is groaning from the exertion —
The four-armed figure of pure white light springs down onto the car, and a spiderweb of cracks spreads across the windshield. Kirby slams the brakes on instinct, and Billy lets out an anguished bleat as his head collides with the back of the driver seat.
“Fuck!” Kirby shouts as two of the figure’s arms jab in through the windshield, grasping at thin air at first but stretching ever closer to him, and he fumbles with his seatbelt and flings the door open. “C’mon, goat, we gotta run!”
“Duuuuuck!” Billy bleats, flailing his arms nowhere near his buckle as Kirby opens his door. Somehow, the seatbelt has gotten twisted all around his horns, and he won’t stop jerking his head around long enough for Kirby to untangle him.
“Stay still, please stay still, we don’t have any time —”
Billy’s head abruptly jerks up, and his slitted eyes fixate on something just past Kirby. “Nedddddd!”
“Ned’s not gonna be able to help us anymore,” Kirby chokes out. “Please —”
A firm hand lands on Kirby’s shoulder, and his blood runs cold as he realizes he can make out a white glow in his peripheral vision. The figure squeezes tighter and tighter, dragging him back from the car and away from Billy —
He hears the satisfying swish of a blade swinging through the air, and the figure’s grip goes limp. He collapses to his knees, and around him, tiny particles of light drift through the air, winking out one at a time like lightning bugs.
Behind him, a familiar voice remarks: “Got here just in the nick of time, didn’t I?”
Immediately, Kirby staggers to his feet and whirls around. “You — you died! I saw it on the drones! How —”
His voice cuts off, as his brain begins to process what his eyes are seeing.
Ned is smiling slightly, but it’s not that fake showman’s smile that he always wears at the Cryptonomica. No, today his smile is confident and determined — and just a little bit melancholic, too, in a way that someone who doesn’t know Ned as well as Kirby does could easily miss.
But then again, maybe Kirby doesn’t know Ned as well as he thinks, because Ned is currently wielding a giant ebony scythe with a long silver blade, and standing above the glowing, bisected body of the four-armed figure. Even as it disintegrates, it’s clear that it was sliced in half at the waist by a single clean cut.
And perhaps most damning of all is Ned’s shirt — ripped and bloodied just above the stomach even though the bare skin shows no sign of a wound, and the body as a whole shows no signs of being dead as an injury like that should surely mean.
“What happened to you?”
Ned’s smile widens, and the melancholy immediately drains right out of his expression as he launches into his familiar “storyteller” mode.
“To put it succinctly, my friend, I met Death and we struck a deal! He’s a surprisingly helpful fellow, you know — he did wear a truly unconscionable amount of denim, but there’s no accounting for taste.”