Chapter 1It was no ordinary night. The moon was full. The sky buried in clouds. The wind marched through the treetops singing its melodic tune of death. The cemetery gates sat crooked on their hinges, creaking and wailing in step with the wind. Mercian, a carrier of souls, sat atop the gravestone of Barthelow Mooreshire, waiting to escort the poor man’s soul into oblivion. Moments of time flew by like demons in the night. Losing patience, Mercian cawed and pecked the stone with disgust, already late for his next appointment. He was not one known for his tolerance, as he had rushed Judas himself into oblivion two thousand years ago. Just a moment before all sanity drained from him, the ground cracked open, releasing the banished soul. Without hesitation, Mercian breathed the soul into his nostrils, filling his lungs with the putrid taste of death. It was not a long process, but the pain of it was nearly unbearable. Souls who are banished carry with them the burning fury of Hell itself. Mercian could feel the inferno burning the tissues of his lungs just as a person who smokes for the first time feels the sensation in theirs, only his was compounded a thousand times. After nearly ten thousand souls carried in this way, you would think the feeling would be dull or even lost, but in fact it grows stronger each and every time. With the deed of capturing the soul being done, Mercian took to the sky. The flight ahead was going to be long and treacherous. From Pennsylvania he would fly west across the country, hugging the border between the United States and Canada. Then, once reaching the west coast, he would head northeast, traveling up through the mountains in Alaska. Thoughts of Alaska made him cringe. If it was not for the fire burning in his lungs, he would most likely freeze to death in mid-flight and plummet into the snow-covered banks where neither he nor the soul he carried would ever again be found. That would be a most tragic situation. If he were to die while transporting a soul, that soul would be lost between worlds forever. Not to mention the pain and agony his soul would suffer. God himself would punish Mercian for his stupidity and banish his soul into oblivion if it were to happen. Thoughts of death always traveled with him, and, as he saw it, kept him alert and on edge. They were like second nature to him. Every moment without a thought of death was like spending an eternity in Hell. They were so comforting. They made him feel the way a baby feels when cuddled and nurtured by its mother, or like that special blanket children often have. They made him feel loved, in a twisted kind of way. Of course, after living two thousand and seventy years, things of that nature tend to get a little twisted inside your head.
Chapter 2January’s fury had dealt the world below him a huge blow. Snow was piled nearly ten feet in areas, burying everything in sight inside its polar blanket. Very little moved across the ground, and what did was of no interest to Mercian. Hunger was rare for him, and, when it did strike, only a feast of flesh and blood would suffice. He was neither a carnivore nor a scavenger, but had rather grown accustomed to the feasting of such things. In his early years, a meal of fruits and grains would soothe his appetite, but, maybe due to all the death constantly surrounding him, had been tempted one too many times by that beautiful, luscious, bitter-sweet aroma of fresh blood. Nothing, really, could come close to that wonderful nectar. The more blood he consumed, the more his wanting of it grew, maybe due to the fact that blood had a very salty taste and never leaves a thirst quenched. On either hand, Mercian was in love with it. Just thinking of it brought yearning in his stomach. His mouth salivated. A few minutes of sheer pleasure would not make him anymore late than he already was. The thoughts drove him down toward the snow-covered ground. His wings were dragging in the snow for quite some time before he realized that he had even descended. What a time it was for him to be in search of food when nothing moved except the snow drawn in the wind. He looked left and right as he skated across the top of the snow. His hunger was growing at a rapid pace, nearly consuming his every thought. His stomach roared with the intensity of a fire-breathing dragon, needing to be filled before he could continue on. Thoughts swarmed so fast he had no time to react to the snow-covered wall in front of him. He plunged into it at full speed, nearly four feet, before his forward motion was abruptly stopped with a thud. Had there been nothing under him he would've dropped straight to the ground, but luckily for him he weighed next to nothing and the snow held his weight. Pain burst into his skull like a dam breaking. At first just pulsing and then a constant torment. His vision blurred to a point where he could no longer make out anything around him. Everything became nothing. Darkness welled up around him as if he were sinking in a barrel of ink. In less than a minute everything was dark. His thoughts abruptly ceased to exist.
Chapter 3Warmth. Warmth consumed his body, from the tips of his talons to the tip of his head to the tips of his wings. Never had he felt so much warmth before. He knew he was dead but he had never thought it would feel so warm. He could only see darkness. He could only hear darkness. He felt no more pain. No burning in his lungs. No burning. No soul. No soul, thought Mercian. Poor Barthelow. The absolute horror of spending eternity in oblivion is now his existence. Poor Barthelow. Well, what can you do? Carry on and keep no regrets. There was nothing really to do. He could only wait until another carrier of souls came for him. Bask in the warmth while it lasted and reminisce on times of the past. Whatever had happened to Ariana? What had become of her? Her feathers were so soft, like the finest of silks. Looking into her eyes was like looking into heaven. Little windows of bliss. So full of passion. No one loved the world and the things in it like her. What I would give to see her beauty once more… A single tear fell. So moist on his warm feathers. A tear? A TEAR! If there is a tear there is life for me! I am not dead! I’m not dead! Not dead! With that thought, fear struck in his heart like a bolt of lightning crashing through a tree. If I am not dead then where am I? Why can I not see? Why can I not feel the burning of the soul trapped in my lungs? Why must I suffer through this warmth? Help! Help! Why am I crying for help when no one can hear me? Why can I hear nothing? Thoughts flew through his mind at a pace so intense he nearly forgot to breathe. Pain began seeping back into his body: first the tips of his wings, then his legs, his head, his neck. His entire body filled with pain. Such wonderful, full-of-life pain filled every inch of his body. He realized the darkness encompassing him was brought on by the fact that his eyes were swollen shut. H tried to open them, one at a time, but it was of no use. He would not see today but at least he was alive. Somewhere to his left he heard a crackle. He strained with all his strength to hear it again. Nothing. Moments went by, how many he was unsure of. Then again a crackle followed by a pop. A fire? Yes, that’s it…fire. Fire! Oh no…please dear God, don’t let me die by fire! Don’t make me suffer through fire here just to send me to the eternal fire! I’m too young to die! Others like me have lived so much longer. Don’t let it be my time. Don’t let it be… Darkness cradled him once more as consciousness evaded like a thief in the night. Horrors only hell could bring filled his dreams. Nothing could save him from it. Nothing would.
Chapter 4The ground moved beneath Mercian. It was so sudden that it jolted him back from the dark abyss. As he regained consciousness he could faintly make out objects going by him. I’m not flying. How is this happening? His head was still reeling. Suddenly he felt a large thud and the movement stopped. As he gained his footing he peered into the darkness once again. The only source of light he could make out was coming from the fire. I’m in someone’s house. He fluttered his wings and they beat against something. As his eyes continued to adjust he looked toward the fire. He could make out what seemed to be bars. He reached his wing out and felt them. He made a complete circle and felt the cage around him. I’m trapped! Although the room was too dark to make out much, he could tell the cage was on top of something. He came up with a quick plan. He wasn’t sure it would work, but he had to try something. First he had to make sure there was no one in the room. If anyone suspected him of trying to escape, things could get bad quickly. Since his vision wasn’t an option, he decided to use his hearing. Mercian heard a clock ticking somewhere in the far corner of the room. He could hear the wind howling outside and thought for a minute. Living in a cage in a nice warm house might not be all that bad. He knew though that if he didn’t find the soul of Barhelow Mooreshire he wouldn’t live long anywhere. He tried to concentrate on the sounds again. It sounded like someone was snoring ever so slightly. The sound was so faint, he couldn’t get a bearing on how close or far away it was. He decided it didn’t matter. He had to put the plan into action and find that soul. Since the cage wasn’t large enough for him to fly in, he backed his tail up to the back of the cage. With his tail feathers sticking outside, he gathered all of his strength and ran toward the direction of the fire. He slammed into the bars and the caged rocked slightly. He backed up and did it again. It rocked a little more, but he hit his head and stopped. I’m going to have to do this quickly and repeatedly to get this cage to turn over. He wasn’t sure his head could take another blow. He backed up once more and prepared himself for the knock-back. He ran with all of his might and used his wing to smack the side of the cage. It bobbled this time. Quickly he ran back and did the same thing once more. The cage tumbled over onto its side. He stopped to listen. He could still hear the slight snoring. Once Mercian maneuvered the cage into position, he pushed with all of his might. The cage fell from the side of the table and smacked the floor with a loud thump.
Chapter 5Mercian pecked at the bottom of the cage, checking to see if his plan had worked. On the fourth peck, the bottom of the cage fell away from the sides with a final thud as it met the floor. Thank God! Mercian was about to retreat from the broken cage when a hand swooped in from the darkness, wrapping itself around his muscular body and pinning his wings at his sides. Mercian grunted as the hand tightened around him, squeezing the air from his lungs. "You're a naughty little bird, aren't ya?" said a man's voice as the hand withdrew him from the cage. The man was back-lit by the fire, his face shrouded in darkness, but the glow of his eyes was unmistakable. Mercian involuntarily ruffled his feathers as a chill raced down his back. The man turned toward the fire with a devious grin spread across his face. Mercian swallowed hard as his tiny heart raced in his chest. "I wonder what crow tastes like, " said the man. His laughter filled the small room, echoing as it taunted Mercian. Mercian knew the man holding him was not himself. He knew there was only one explanation: the soul of Barthelow Mooreshire had entered this man's body and was possessing him. How did I let this happen? How could I have been so stupid? If only I'd ignored my hunger I wouldn't be in this mess. "Thought you'd just escort my soul straight into hell, did ya? Looks like yours'll be the one needing an escort!" Mercian closed his eyes and let his thoughts drift back to Ariana. If only I'd shown you my true self. You're the love of my life, Ariana. I'd give anything for one last chance to tell you so. Mercian snapped his eyes open as the temperature rose around him. His head was only six inches away from the flames. I'm dead. His heart twisted in his chest, matching the spiraling of the flames. I'm dead. God, let the fire be quick!
Chapter 6Mercian cringed as the fire drew closer. The smell of singed feathers filtered through his nares and filled his lungs. His thoughts raced as the inevitability of death became clear. Mercian did the only thing he could: he mustered all of his strength and clamped his beak down on the man’s finger. The man grunted and pulled his hand back from the fire, startled by the attack. Mercian exhaled, thankful for the reprieve from the scorching flames. “Think you’re smart, do ya?” The man grabbed a fork from the table. Mercian struggled in the man’s grip, unable to move. The man held the fork in one fist and eyed Mercian in his other. He’ll have to open his hand to get to me. Just as the thought ran through Mercian’s mind it happened. The man’s grip loosened, giving Mercian the opening he needed. Mercian moved fast, fluttering his wings and pecking at the man’s fingers before the man could pierce his flesh with the fork. Barthelow Mooreshire, you’ll not win that easily! Mercian kept fighting as the memories of Ariana filled his mind and soul, giving him a boost of adrenaline. He broke free from the man’s grip and flew around the room, looking for some way of escape. The man shook his fist in the air and flung the fork at Mercian, missing him by a narrow margin. “I’ll kill you yet!” A cold rush of arctic air filled the room. The door of the house stood wide, blown open by a large gust of wind. Mercian flew through the door like a loosed arrow. He looked back and saw the man was giving him chase. I’ve got to get the soul of Barthelow Mooreshire back! As Mercian looked around, a plan formulated in his head. As much as he didn’t want to, he forced himself to fly back toward the man. Mercian made quick circles around the man’s head trying to confuse him. The man swatted at him and twirled around in the snow. The plan’s working! Mercian flew in such a way that it led the man toward the corner of the house and a large woodpile. It was time to put the last part of his plan into action. He flew at the man’s face, aiming for the man’s right eye. He opened his beak as he closed in. The man’s hands flailed in the air, narrowly missing him. Mercian’s beak met a warm, but firm, object and he bit down. He pulled back, bringing part of the man’s eye with him. The man screamed and swatted at his own face. Mercian flew into the air, satisfied with what he’d done. The man stood by the corner of the house, holding his eye as the blood dripped into the snow. It worked! Now, Mercian had to get the man to trip over the firewood lying near the house. He took off in full flight toward the man. The man retreated from Mercian’s advance and tripped over a large log. The man fell backward and his head hit another log with a thud. The man’s neck twisted into a ghastly position as his body settled on the ground and he stopped moving. Fresh blood smeared the edge of the log and the snow around the man’s head turned crimson. Mercian dropped the piece of eye from his beak. Not even on a cold day, Barthelow. Mercian settled on the bloody log and waited for the soul of Barthelow to come out of the corpse. His heart raced in his chest and the anticipation of the moment twisted his stomach in knots. In the distance he heard wings flapping. He turned on the log and watched as a small dot of black raced toward him, growing in size as it approached. “Mercian,” the bird cawed. Mercian recognized the voice, “Ivan? What are you doing all the way out here?” Ivan flapped his wings as he settled himself down on the dead man’s chest. “You can’t carry two souls, my friend.” “Two?” Mercian knew what Ivan meant the moment the word came from his mouth. “Right. Barthelow and whoever this man was.” Ivan winked at him. “Exactly.” The soul of Barthelow Mooreshire came screeching out of the man like a banshee. Mercian took a deep breath and captured the soul back in his lungs. The familiar burning of his lungs filled him with joy. He flew to a branch in a tree and rested. A sense of relief spread through him. I can’t believe I actually recaptured Barthelow Mooreshire’s soul. Mercian watched as Ivan breathed in the second soul as it poured out of the dead man’s mouth. With the task completed, Ivan flew up next to him. “Be careful with that soul, my friend. You still have a long journey ahead. He will try and escape again, given the opportunity.” Mercian swallowed hard, “Over my dead body. I will make no more stops until I’ve delivered his soul to the gates of hell.” Ivan winked at him. “Solid plan, my friend. I must get this soul to its destination as well.” Ivan took to the sky again, “Be safe Mercian, and Godspeed!” “Same to you, Ivan!” Moments later Ivan was out of sight. Now to get this wretched soul to his final destination. With fire in his lungs and love in his heart, he took to the sky. By the end of the week Ariana would know of his love for her. Mercian soared higher, through the clouds and then above them. The warmth of the sun was no match for the arctic air, but the thought of his intentions regarding Ariana was more than enough to keep him warm. He would never let anything stand between them again. To hell, and then to you, my love!
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