22. Admonishments by a Frightened Bunny

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Reuben was in a wonderful and terrible place. A maelstrom of hot, unforgiving darkness surrounded him. In between periods of darkness, he saw strange flashes of light mixed with images of faces. Some part of him recognized the experience—he was slipping in and out of consciousness, as he had been after the accident, so many years ago. Only one thing was different: the face hovering most often above him was not that of a surgeon or a priest, it was that of a girl. What was her name again? Oh yes... Ayla.

There had been a girl back then, too. But she had never hovered over him, never had a moment's concern for his well-being as he lay, grievously wounded. She had been too busy for that. Ayla was always there. Or was that just his wishful thinking? Was he dreaming of her, and in fact she was not there?

Reuben didn't really care if she was only a vision or reality. Her deep blue eyes, dark as the cool waters of a bottomless lake, were the only thing that soothed and sustained him as he lay there, burning. Not burning in the sense the priests had wanted to burn him all those years ago, no. This time the fire was in his flesh. He couldn't feel the pain of it, but he could feel the heat. The merciless force of death eating its way through his body.

Would it succeed? Would he... what was the word again? Die? Yes, it was die. Would he die?

Hmm. One would have to see.

Looking back on his life, he pondered the question of whether, if there was a God, it would merit a trip to heaven or to hell. Hell, probably. Reuben knew his life's story. It was said that God was merciful, but he doubted anyone in their right mind could be that merciful.

When Reuben opened his eyes and saw a red glow, he knew he had been right. Hell. Oh well, he supposed he would find something to do here. It couldn't be much worse than the world of the living, now, could it?

Then he remembered Ayla and bit his lip. Yes, it could. She was still there and would surely never join him. He had been a fool! He had had his chance at life and wasted it.

Trying to keep the tears out of his eyes, he blinked—and suddenly realized that the red glow around him was illuminating a stone ceiling. A very familiar stone ceiling. He didn't know all that much about hell, but it probably didn't have the same ceiling as his room in the Castle of Luntberg. He also realized that the red glow looked suspiciously like the light of sunrise.

From behind him, he heard the light footsteps of a woman.

Could the devil be a woman? He rolled his eyes. What a silly question. Of course he could. But with all the other indications pointing to this not being hell, he was willing to have a look. The chances of him receiving a poke in the eye with a red hot pitchfork were pretty slim.

There indeed was someone in the room with him, and it wasn't the devil. It was a girl—not the girl, not Ayla, just a girl. But he had seen her before. Frowning, he tried to get his mind to work. If only his head didn’t feel this fuzzy...

“It's you,” he croaked, realizing who it was: the silly maid who had brought him the disgusting soup.

When she heard his voice, the maid jumped, threw him a look not unlike a frightened rabbit who was sneaking past a sleeping wolf only to discover he was, in fact, wide awake, and retreated into a corner.

Reuben scowled. “You don't need to be afraid of me, you know. I'm not going to eat you. I'm no monster.”

She swallowed. It was obvious she wasn't convinced on this point. “Y-you walk around with three arrows in your back as if there is nothing wrong with you,” she accused.

“Only on the weekends.”

“That's unnatural!”

Reuben gave her a devilish grin. “You think so? I could do it on Wednesdays instead.”

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