His breaths came in ragged gasps.
The air down here is thick.
It’s darker than I thought.
Gravity pulls harder too.
And it’s too damn quiet.
The shackles fell from Ken's wrists as four hooded jailers clad in black stood silently on the bleak ground beside the great pit.
“Run!” The fifth jailer whispered as he unlocked the boy's handcuffs.
Without thinking, without hesitating, twelve-year-old Ken broke into a desperate sprint toward the forest. Though darkness engulfed everything, the faint light from the edges of Sawad - the black-hole-like sphere above outlined a path toward potential refuge.
The other convicts each chose a direction and imitated the boy, fleeing into the darkness.
Yet the moment he reached the edge of the dark forest, Ken glimpsed at something popping out of the dense bushes and felt something cutting his arm.
“Hein!” He gasped but didn't scream. He hesitated only for a moment, but it was enough for two more cuts to land on his torso and the left side of his neck.
Blood gushing from the wounds, Ken's eyes fell upon a skinny, wild-eyed man in rags. Saliva dripping from his mouth, the man gripped a shank made of bones in his right hand.
Instinctively, his body reacted, breaking into a sprint away from the man, deeper into the trees. He pressed his hand against the gash on his neck to stem the bleeding as he ran.
Those condemned to the Underground rarely found food, since they are food for whatever creatures roamed it. So naturally, their last resort to survive was to eat newcomers.
Or so said the fifth jailer on their way down there.
The Underground was a realm of perpetual darkness - no stars, no sun or moon illuminated the endless flat expanse. The only light Ken could perceive came from the distant glowing rim of a massive black sphere dominating the horizon called Sawad- the Sphere of Dark.
Fungal jungles sprouted of twisted vegetation. And within the jungles, life teemed in all its twisted forms. And all that those jungles promised were lethal dangers - a nightmare realm perfectly hostile to all.
He wants fresh meat I bet! Ken snickered as he continued running for his life.
Ken darted between the shadowy trees, his breaths coming in scruffy pants. He dared not look back at the hurling man crashing through the underbrush behind him. The cuts on his body burned as he clutched his neck.
Up ahead, the forest thinned. Luckily he was within the reach of the light of Sawad which filtered through the branches, still providing dim illumination.
If I could just make it someplace to hide, I might have a chance.
What am I thinking?! He snapped back to reality. Best die early. Still, I would rather end up fodder for a beast, a drake, or even a snake than that fella. The grin never left his face.
As he had these thoughts, Ken began to scream, trying to attract whatever creatures lurked near.
Suddenly, an exposed root snagged his foot. He crash-rolled into a clearing, spinning on the wet earth. Pain shot through his ankle and wounds as he urgently rolled over to face his pursuer.
He was hideous—a mass of a coarse and thin layer of flesh barely covering his bones. Saliva still dripped from his jaws as he bared his teeth in a growl. Beady brown eyes focused hungrily on Ken, devoid of regret, but filled with predatory joy. He was happy to be able to eat again.
There was no escape then.
The man reared up on thin legs, standing over six feet tall. He raised his right hand, ready to plunge the shank down. Ken stared defiantly up at him, grinning.
Abruptly, everything froze.
The swaying trees halted mid-bend. The wind died, the murmuring muddy stream not far from him fell silent, and the waving grass stilled.
Even the saliva droplets hung motionless in the air. The man remained suspended in his attack position like a statue.
It was as if time itself had stopped flowing, locking the world in place. The very air felt thick and stagnant.
“What the...!” Ken uttered in confusion.
“Don't mind me,” A casual voice said. “Just thought you could use a break.”
Ken whirled around to his right.
An otherworldly handsome man dressed in a crisp three-piece black suit with a white shirt and a loose black tie stood at the edge of the clearing, watching the scene with detached interest.
He was tall, slender yet muscular built. His fluffy and disheveled black hair fell carelessly across his forehead. While his sharp ice blue eyes peered out from a light-skinned, angular face.
With great amazement at the sight, and some effort to move, Ken heavily stood up, grimacing, as pain shot again through his wounds. I can move!
“Who are you?!" Ken demanded.
“I have many names— King, Reaper, Guide. Some even call me a god, which is a bit melodramatic for my tastes. Name's Azrael.” The man shrugged. “Not sure it'll mean much to ya!” He casually drove his hands in his pockets.
Why does he look human?! And why does he look familiar?! Ken's eyes widened in recognition. “The Angel of Death?!”
“Bingo.” Azrael smiled, strolling closer. He gestured at the frozen man. “Nasty customer, that one.”
For a while, Ken stared uncertainly at Azrael as he moved closer. His pitch-black locket dangled around his neck as he walked.
Ken did not notice it initially, but Azrael resembled him - both had fluffy, disheveled raven-black hair framing aristocratic, and extremely handsome faces.
However, where Azrael had piercing ice blue eyes, Ken's were an equally piercing jet black that seemed to stare into one's very soul. Though only twelve, the fair-skinned boy had a lean yet strong build from years of intense labor concealed under tattered beige rags.
If asked, those who knew Ken would say his most noticeable features were his tendency to go barefoot, the happy gleam that lit up his eyes, and his frequent wide grins.
“Did you...stop time?!” Ken wondered joyfully.
Azrael arrived a step away from the boy. “Not exactly. More like how this little scene temporarily adapts to my presence here,” Azrael said leaning in conspiratorially. “Don't tell the other angels.” He winked.
Ken just blinked, confused.
“You know what I am here for, don’t ya!” Azrael smiled. “Yet the first thing you ask is how I do what I do! You aren’t afraid, are ya!”
Ken did not reply, just smiled back.
Azrael's presence confirms it - Granny Kadoya's stories are true! There is another life waiting for me beyond death.
She used to tell me that if a man suffers in life, does good, and lives honestly away from greed and sin, he would eventually go to Paradise.
This is it.
This is my way out.
“That's bad,” Azrael said, his piercing gaze steady. “Soon you will be, my little friend.”
Then suddenly, all at once, the world distorted violently around Ken. The landscape warped and melted before his eyes like paint in the rain.
He tried to cry out, but his voice died in his throat as the ground surrendered beneath his feet. He found himself submerged to the waist in a dark swamp, alone.
The handsome man who stood moments ago before him was gone, as was his would-be killer.
As if he had been transmigrated to another world, Ken gasped as he took in his new surroundings. Where there had once been solid ground, there was now a pit of thick, biting tendrils of black quicksand sucking hungrily at his legs.
Panic gripped his heart as he flapped his arms, struggling in vain to find purchase. Each motion only hastened his descent.
The gritty muck oozed up his torso, an unrelenting current that refused to relinquish its prey. Ken choked on mouthfuls of the vile stuff as it crept steadily higher.
Through the filth, he saw skeletal fingers extending loosely from the mud, leftovers of those who had come before as the swamp pulled him deeper into suffocating oblivion.
Calm down! I must be already dead. And this must be limbo.
His wounds were healed, he was not in the Underground anymore, and the threat of the inmate was gone. Being here after the angel of death’s visit meant one thing, I am dead, and this limbo that I must pass to get to the afterlife.
Trapped in suffocation loomed if he didn't do something quickly. Ken forced himself to still, regulating his breathing as best he could. He looked around for anything that could help, but there was nothing but the dark sand in all directions.
A memory surfaced - something his grandmother told him about those trapped in quicksand should do. Very slowly, Ken began to roll onto his back. It was agonizingly difficult with the suction of the swamp all around him, but bit by bit he managed to turn over.
Now floating somewhat thanks to the buoyancy, Ken was able to move more freely again. He gave a mighty kick with his legs and one arm, propelling himself forward an inch at a time. It seemed a pitifully small gain against the vast pit, but he knew it was better than sinking helplessly.
After what seemed like hours of tireless struggle, Ken felt his outstretched hands brush against something solid. A shield, half buried in the sand. He clung to it feverishly as the pit redoubled its efforts to reclaim its prize. Lean muscles burned with pain from the strain of dragging his sluggish body upwards inch by painful inch.
Taking a ragged breath, Ken angled the broad face of the shield beneath him. Pressing down with all his weight, he used it like a sled to gain a few moments of relief from the relentless suction.
This is a lot of effort for someone who just died! Ken laughed. But being suffocated by sand without the relief of death freeing me is a nasty way to pass time in limbo.
After a brief pause, Ken continued his escape.
Inch by painful inch, again Ken dragged himself up and out of the clinging mud onto what passed for land in this strange world. He collapsed in exhaustion and lay there panting for several minutes.
Eventually summoning the strength to lift his head, Ken gazed out at his surroundings. An endless flat plain of black stone met his eyes in all directions. Not a single pebble, plant, or hill broke the monotony as far as he could see. The sky was bleak grey, and nothing more.
Yet there was a more immediate threat even than the barren desolation. As his vision adjusted, Ken realized the ground was scarred with countless dark pits. He edged closer to the nearest one and peered cautiously over the rim. A thick pool of inky quicksand bubbled lazily below, waiting to claim any unwary traveler who stray too close.
A chill ran through Ken's sore body. How many souls had been swallowed never to return in that darkness?
Definitely a nasty way to pass the time here!
He backed away unsteadily and then surveyed the bleak terrain again with a more analytical eye. The pits were spaced at uneven intervals all around, making the entire plain a treacherous obstacle course.
But there had to be a way across. If he was very careful not to let his feet slip even an inch too near the edges, hugging the rim of the stone wherever possible, maybe he could navigate a path.
Ken steeled his resolve and set out into the unknown.
With no Bayad or Sawad to mark his progress, he wearily walked under that ominous and weird grey sky. The complete absence of celestial light unnerved Ken almost as much as the lethal terrain, yet the misty sky gave off some form of illumination.
He walked for what felt like hours yet could have been minutes, constantly scanning his surroundings for any sign of life other than his. That was when he caught a shadowy movement out of the corner of his left eye.
Ken froze, hardly daring to believe what he was seeing. Floating above a nearby quicksand pit was a humanoid figure, but one like nothing he had ever seen before. Its lower half dissolved into thin animal-like black tendrils that kept it upward, while its skin was a mix of ash grey and green. Two burning black orbs took the place of eyes.
As if sensing Ken's stare, the creature slowly turned its head. Its gaze bored into him with unsettling intensity. For a long moment, they studied each other in silence across the distance. Then an unnatural smile split its face, revealing sharp obsidian teeth.