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        DEATH REMAINS, THROUGHOUT RECORDED history, perhaps the most mysterious phenomena most will ever encounter. Since the first original thought, humans have been entranced—obsessed even, with a single event which will presumably only occur once in a single human life cycle, and for most, it happens within a blink of an eye; quicker and easier than falling asleep, some say. So, what is it about the minutiae of our demise that haunts us so? Perhaps the most prudent and complex question is: what happens afterwards?

     Are we truly destined for nothingness, mere dust in the wind . . . or are we something more?

    Man's imagination has been captivated with this question; philosophers, preachers and scientists alike, throughout history and around the world remain baffled to this day, no matter how advanced technology becomes, or how well we seem to master the complexities of the natural world.

    In hindsight, we are no closer to understanding death now, than we were when mankind first pondered the thought; humanity, as a whole, never quite reaching a satisfactory or definitive conclusion on the matter.

    The popular belief in the modern era is simply nothing at all.

    Oddly enough, if one would study the origins of human civilization, even from an atheistic standpoint, one indisputable fact remains: every society, no matter how isolated from the rest of the planet, shares one seemingly innate common denominator, the belief in an afterlife, in one form or another.

    Belief naturally spawns religion in every society, and it seems that like our commonality in our curiosity for the unknown, each religion seems to carry similar attributes: punishment for the wicked and anointment for the faithful. To seek such profound answers is not inhuman, but appears all too natural, there is no doubt. Curiosity of the unexplained, without exception, walks hand-in-hand with rational thought, ironically enough; the irrational all too rational to the evolved mind. It is our final conclusions—or absolutes rather, that are of consequence to the whole of humanity.

    It is in the organization and structure of standardized religion that brings about mass bloodshed and human suffering; the absolutes leaving little to no room for forgiveness or compassion.

     It is no wonder how the world has grown in atheism.

    The modern theme is to ignore our thirst for anything science cannot prove beyond the shadow of a doubt. Yet despite the unpopularity of such subjects in the scientific world, nobody knows for certain what happens when we die. Like an unreachable itch, we have little choice but to learn to ignore it, until death rears its ugly head in our everyday lives, and we are reminded of our certain mortality.

    Such subjects are an afterthought, aside from the rat race we call life, after all. We simply haven't the time to consider what—if anything—happens when we meet our demise; constantly distracted by television, video games, social media and the like. But distractions cannot postpone nor halt the inevitable, and sooner or later, we must all discover the truth first-hand.

   Most are complacent with the idea of not knowing; a blind eye or shrugged shoulder the vague response to which society has unanimously settled. To speak of the paranormal is to be dismissed in most conversations, as the living have a tendency to ignore the strange and unusual. On the other hand, others are cursed with an unquenchable thirst for discovery beyond the physical; the gears of the human mind relentless, constantly turning, yearning for more.

  The realm of the unexplained is a deep and vast rabbit hole, both frightful and enticing, chalk full of things you cannot unknow nor unsee. Acknowledging one possibility seems to only reveal more, until you find yourself lost in the macabre, the strange and perplexing, the terrifying and outright dreadful realm of conspiracy and enlightenment.

    After a lifetime of study; politics, religion, history and the paranormal, a single conclusion can be reached, most evidence pointing to one ultimate statement that can be summed up as such:

    If the world must end, how can humanity possibly know what to expect?

   Amongst countless lost and wandering souls, one man is the subject of our particular interest. His unique story is of the utmost importance; the events in his life, unknowing to him, rest at the crux of civilization and all of its form and splendor. His tale is perhaps the most crucial key to unlocking the past, present and future of our world. He, himself, knows not where he has been, what he has done, or the dire circumstances for which may very well determine how we will all meet our fate. By the time this man realizes who he truly is, and what has been requested of him, he will know in his heart that all which begins must find its end. 

    Empires rise and fall like the sun, floods may take the land and gift us new refresh, but nothing echoes through eternity more fierce or vivid than the ties of love that bind us.

    Like many, Michael Archer was caught up in the madness of life; the monotonous, vicious cycle of work, debt and misery. His only escape was that of the bottle, and the distractions of primal want and material possession. He was only twenty-five years old the day he realized the sheer boredom of human existence in the modern age. Whether he realized it or not, this young man was beginning to question everything, standing but at the base of a seemingly endless metaphorical staircase, one that would stretch beyond the clouds, and into the heavens. It is this fateful day where our story begins . . . well, the day after, to be more precise.

    A cool morning air was settled over the brisk Toronto streets, as the city was only just beginning to wake from its slumber. Spring hadn't quite arrived, the chirping of the first season's birds not yet heard, only the bustle and hustle of the first wave of early commuters. The population of the downtown district still wore their winter attire, bundled up with an unspoken anticipation for warmer climate, and a more comfortable commute to their individual workplaces. The snow hadn't quite faded from the streets, and a gentle freezing rain lightly pelted every surface of the neighborhood, leaving small icicles stretching from every streetlamp and road sign.

    This morning was quite different than the previous, however. Near a busy intersection, within the mouth of an alleyway between a local pub and a franchised deli, there lay an obvious tableau. The unusual sight demanded the attention of a growing number of onlookers, pulling inward every would-be passerby like moths to a single flame. The scene was like that of a car accident, and few could fight the temptation of their own morbid curiosity, as a blood coated man lay still upon the asphalt, bare and exposed, legs sprawled and face up for all to bear witness.

    Cell phones flashed erratically from behind a wall of umbrellas and shielding newspapers as the crowd clustered around the bizarre spectacle. Their faces were sour, sleeves covering their noses with the pungent stench of the body before them, many not quite sure if the man was still alive, but none willing to find out.

    How long the body had been lying there was uncertain, and the spectators were too preoccupied with capturing footage of the scene to bother checking if the man was alright; not so much as an active glance for a pulse.

    Bare flesh steamed unusually thick in the cold air, as though he'd just been pulled from the raging inferno of Hell itself. As the commotion grew louder, only those closest heard the low groan, the first sign of life to be noticed before his rib cage began to move, drawing breath with a sense of desperate longing. Muscles tightened, swelled and seared, and every bone burned like a furnace beneath his skin as he began to come to. He leaned forth, pressed the slippery pads of his feet against the wet asphalt, and propped himself up. His joints and cartilage cracked loudly as he let out a cry of sheer agony. 

    As his eyes finally pried themselves open, everything was a blur, his usually impeccable vision no more than a series of smears and blots.

    'Wha's happened; where'm I?' he asked, jaw slacked and knees buckling under his own weight.

   The crowd stepped back as he toppled forward, but managed to catch himself on a nearby blackened window.

    Then . . . panic, as the confusion took hold.

  He panted in his hysteria, each hot breath rushing from his throat like thick smoke from a chimney stack, as he blinked relentlessly, hoping his vision would somehow correct itself. Every muscle ached and swelled as though he had ran a marathon, the slightest movement a rigorous trial of endurance and pain. Every lungful of morning air was a viscous attack, his body on the verge of collapse.

    A sense of smell abruptly returned without realizing it was lost, and his innards churned with the sickening odor of festering meat and decay. Faint crimson outlines finally began to form hands before his eyes, and Michael stared in bewilderment at their blood-like tinge, his slippery fingers sticky with a gritted texture, like used motor oil.

   His neck cracked and popped, raising his brow to an odd reflection in the blacked out window; a stranger looking back with an unfamiliar face.

    "Who is this man staring back at me?" He thought, the bizarre, bloody image not even a shadow of his former self.

    Caked, brown locks of hair slowly dislodged from his face from the cleansing rain, and he peered into a set of bright blue eyes with focused concentration; the only feature that seemed to strike a mere glimmer of recognition. A strong angular jaw, and a toned physique seemed almost foreign, as though he had wandered elsewhere for an extended period of time; his vessel somehow not quite home.

    'What happened to him?'

    'Is that blood?'

    'I think he might have killed someone.'

    'Should we call the cops?'

    'Way ahead of you, pal. Called 'em about five minutes ago.'

    'What the hell is that smell?'

    'What's your name?' the only direct question seemed to somewhat get through to him. Every previous word sounded like a different language, as his mind struggled to keep up. The naked man hesitated to respond, as he honestly wasn't sure of the answer.

    'Michael.' He muttered, lips trembling as he looked from one face to another, desperately hoping to recognize someone—anyone.

    As abrupt as his sense of smell returned, so could he feel the air on his bare flesh, and only then did he realize just how naked he truly was. Though his body shivered in the cold, he made no attempt to cover himself, as the realization of the strange moment hadn't quite hit him. It was the sound of distant police sirens that seemed to jolt him from his stupor. He gave his head a shake, eyes widening as he smeared his bloody hand over his own reflection, leery and bitter at the sight.

    "They're coming for you."

    "What did you do?"

    "Who's blood is this?"

    "What the hell happened last night?" He asked himself internally, his thoughts finally making sense.

    "I have to get the hell out of here. Move, you son-of-a-bitch!" Michael argued with his vessel, as if they weren't one. It was as though there was a broken connection between thought and action. When the first of many police officers arrived at the scene, it was the sound of their radios that finally sparked a reaction, and before the authorities could push their way through the crowd, his legs finally kicked into gear, though it brought tears to his eyes; fight or flight overriding all.

    'Stop!' They yelled, and although each step shot shockwaves of pain through his system, his steps turned to stride, stride turned to run, and before he knew it, Michael was fleeing against his better judgement.

    In the moment, he knew not why he ran. So much was unclear, the events of the night prior a complete and utter haze, and until he could recall what happened, he felt there was no choice but to retreat. For all he knew, he could have indeed killed, as one of the many onlookers had suggested, or perhaps the truth wasn't as bad as it looked. Either way, he needed time to sort it out, and the authorities didn't give him much option, the sight of blood requiring little excuse to draw their weapons.

    Shots rang through the air as he swiftly turned a cluttered corner, possibly cornering himself further for all he knew, but there was no time for thought in the moment, only action. More shots fired from behind, the police hot on his trail, when he felt a sudden sting in the upper cartilage of his left ear. A bullet that had whizzed by his head had bit off a tiny chunk of his ear, mere inches from certain death.

    Brick dust shot out in small clouds from the surrounding walls as his feet moved swiftly around corners, over and around abandoned furniture and trash cans, until he finally found a small space of solitude.

    Reaching the dead end, Michael quickly barricaded himself behind two steel garbage bins, rolling them together with great difficulty. He was not a weak man by any means, but the slightest task seemed nearly impossible.

   It didn't take long for the authorities to catch up, but as they approached the other side of the dumpsters, Michael acted quickly, and without really thinking. Noticing a discarded book bag just above the rim of the nearest dumpster, he grasped an arm strap and raised it in the air above his head. The words that would seal his fate slipped out as though another controlled him, and came in the form of a hesitant scream.

     'I have a bomb . . . I think.' the latter part of the sentence was muttered under his breath, feeling the weight of what he was sure was nothing more than rain soaked text books within. 'Back the fuck up or we all die!' the volume of his voice returned, but his eyes widened with the sudden realization of what he had just yelled.

    Michael's character was without question mundane and predictable, if you were to ask anyone who knew him in the slightest, and so the threat came as a shock to even him. The reaction he had hoped for was instantaneous, however, and so the alleyway promptly cleared out, and the gunshots finally stopped.

     At last, he was left alone to gather his scrambled thoughts. He had bought himself some much needed time, but just how much was unclear. He paced back and forth, beating his head with the palms of his hands, hoping to somehow jog his memory from the haze of disorientation it truly was.

    'Think, damn you! What the hell happened last night?' He asked himself over and again, but to no resolve.

   In that moment he would have given anything for a slight recollection, even a miniscule fragment—anything. His name seemed to be the only surety in a sea of dislodged puzzle pieces; not his home address, his profession, or any of his friends and family. His mind was but a thick fog of dither and melancholy.

    Michael shook his head in defeat.

    He was wasting too much time, and it was only a matter of minutes before the police would piece together his empty threat; yet another criminal charge to add to the list of the unknown.

    Was he involved in some sort of illicit activity?

    Had he been drugged and forced into committing some terrible crime against his will?

    Would he risk spending the rest of his life in prison to let the authorities investigate?

    If he could only remember.

   'Sir!' He heard a male voice calling from a distance, breaking his train of thought. 'A negotiator is on their way. You best not think of doing anything stupid.'

    There was no response. What could he say, really?

    Ignoring any distractions, Michael combed the area for any means of escape; a ladder to a nearby fire escape, a way onto the roof that would provide a means of hope, but there was nothing. Barefoot, exposed and exhausted, tears glistened in his eyes, almost certain that this was it.

    There is something about these types of moments, where we all step away from ourselves and take in a broader perspective. Michael, though he could recall no specifics, was well aware his life was but a breath in the whole of existence—a single breath that would draw little satisfaction; not even a glint of lasting purpose or nobility of any kind. It was within this hollow thought where hopelessness would dwell, and so, he gave into it, surrendering all that was and would ever be.

    Grudgingly pushing his weight against the garbage bins, he began to roll them aside, fighting his urge to keep moving. But as he heaved, he caught sight of a police officer aiming his pistol from behind a corner, and quickly lunged to the pavement as a panicked trigger was pulled, and a bullet ricocheted off steel.

  On the filthy ground, Michael prayed for relief; a way out that didn't end in death or imprisonment. He didn't know who or what he was praying to, or whether he really believed in anything of the sort. It was instinctual, like the pumping of his heart valves.

    He hadn't a clue what he did wrong; the only certainty was just how well he knew himself. It simply wasn't in him to kill, no matter how much he had to drink the night before, or whatever drug was still coursing through his veins, he was certain. But it was too late; he had acted too rash without working out the consequences of his actions. With a bomb threat, the police would open fire without asking questions, as had become abundantly clear.

    Michael could smell the rot of whatever coated the ground, but within the mess of discarded garbage, he spotted a distinctive pattern that didn't match the asphalt. A circular shape seemed to jumpstart his adrenaline, its discovery igniting only the slightest spark of hope. The sewer cover was located between the two dumpsters, and he was positive that more bullets would fly if he dared make an attempt to reach forth and open it.

    With the utmost prudence, he crawled like a soldier in the trenches, allowing as little of his flesh to be seen as possible, from the other side of the dumpsters. He jammed his fingers into the lift holes, the sharp interior edges almost cutting his skin. The manhole cover was much heavier than expected, barely nudging in its housing, and Michael had little to no strength left to give.

    He would have to stand up to give what little effort remained, which promised the imminent risk of his exposure.

    Footsteps could be heard flitting on the rooftops above. The clock was ticking, and it was now or never. His next move would have to be swift, no margin for error, the palpable difference between life and death.

   Eyes wide shut, he let out one last exasperated breath, granting the brisk chill of the air to rejuvenate his otherwise stale lungs. In what he was positive would be his last stand in this life, he lifted the book bag high in the air for all to see, and every voice went silent from beyond sight. With the imminent threat of an urban explosion in a very public place, the dead silence was eerie.

   'Here goes nothing.' He whispered to himself, and with an obvious hint of dubious regret, he tossed the bag as hard as he could toward the corner that concealed the crowd of police officers, the blast radius direct had there truly been an explosive device inside. As the blunt weight of the bag hit the asphalt they all scattered like cockroaches.

    Only when Michael heard their scurrying footsteps did he leapt forth, crouch over, and screamed as he used every ounce of strength to lift the cover from its housing.

    Only managing to lift and slide it slightly to the side, he wasted no time, as every millisecond was of profound consequence. He quickly braced his back against the cold steel of the dumpster and pushed with his bare heel, managing barely enough space to slip through.

   Without hesitation, he lowered himself into the darkness of the sewer as shots echoed from above, but as his bare foot lost grip on the steel rungs of the ladder, he tumbled into the darkness of the subterranean.

    Michael's body hit the concrete like a loose sack of potatoes, knocking out what little wind there was. Moaning and groaning, his vision grew all the more blurry, as he had struck his head on the way down, and the odor of the sewer wasted no time twisting his stomach this way and that. Regardless, he staggered to his feet and pushed forward, his vessel running on fumes. 

    'Just . . . a lil . . . further—'

   The sudden echo of screeching steel allowed the rays of the morning sun into the dark of the sewer, which only hastened his pace.

    'Don't fucking move!'

    'Stay right where you are!'

    The commands were an afterthought, but the authorities were hot on his trail, and there was no time to rest.

    Michael ran harder and pushed himself further than he ever thought capable. His veins pumped acid, muscles burning like a fierce wind against smoldering coals. Through a blackened maze of tunnels he ventured deeper, the only light slight beams of sun from the tiny holes in each manhole cover along the way, leaving much to be desired in means of guidance.

    The improvised and unspoken goal was to reach a respectable distance from the would-be crime scene, emerge from a different part of the neighborhood, somehow shake the pursuit, and make his way from there. There was nowhere the police would not follow, and so he would have to make haste if he was to successfully flee the city, at least out of firing range.

    Suddenly there was no solid surface beneath him, and Michael let out a high pitched yelp as he tumbled forward, deeper into the darkness. His cries were quickly muffled by the sudden shock of freezing cold water as his body plunged below a subterranean waterfall. Submerged in human excrement, he felt his stomach convulse. As he kicked his way to the surface of the cesspool vomit shot out from the base of his throat, but he pushed himself regardless, arms frantically wading upward; his freedom—his life depending on what little endurance remained.

   Reaching the surface, he looked upwards to the edge of the falls, visible only by the countless flashlights now frantically moving upon the walls above, accompanied by the sounds of barking dogs and police radios. In that quick second's thought, he envisioned their teeth ripping through his flesh, and silently found himself grateful the stench of the sewer would mask his scent, and the falls could potentially act as a dead end. However, if the approaching hunters reached the edge above before he could get himself clear, he would find himself in the line of fire.

    Michael kicked vigorously toward the edge of the pool, and when he gripped solid concrete, he quickly flopped himself onto the floor and tried to catch his breath, coughing out the small bit of water in his lungs.

    He groaned to his feet, joints crackling like crumbled tin foil as he spit profusely. He tried not to think about words like feces or urine, fester or stew, holding down whatever he had eaten within the last twenty-four hours to focus on the task at hand. Michael found himself at an impasse, as a fork in the tunnel presented two possible routes, either as uncertain as the next. The tunnel on the left was shrouded in a dense darkness, but within the long stretch of tunnel to the right was a slight glow of light from around a distant corner.

  Which way would lead him to freedom he could have no possible way of knowing, but an unspoken instinct told him to go right; to always veer on the side of light rather than the ambiguity of certain darkness.

   Suddenly, voices could be heard echoing from within the blackness on the left; not many but definitely more than one.

    'Michael.' a crisp feminine whisper echoed in a taunting tone.

    'Fate cannot be outrun.' a masculine voice joined in.

    The choice was made.

   The flesh of his bare feet tapped along the sewer floor just as many German Shepherds could be heard barking from above, but thankfully not seen, as Michael managed to scurry out of firing range just in time.

   Seconds felt like minutes as all energy drained, moving deeper along the main stretch of the tunnel.

    Reaching the corner, Michael leaned his close to dead weight against the wall, eyelids drooping and barely able to stand, but as he lifted his brow the source of the glow came into view. Daylight beamed from high above like a merciful hope from the heavens, a steel ladder enticing his desperate thirst for liberty.

    He flagged in stride, pushing forth though there was nothing left in him, lungs tired of drawing breath, shivering and soaked from head to toe.

    It was almost over, if he could only reach daylight, he thought.

    Meters away from the steel rungs he reached out, but without warning, a lone figure stepped out from the darkness; a towering man that hid his identity within the shadow of a wide hood, that of a flowing black cloak. This was clearly no police officer, and Michael wasn't quite ready to surrender.

    Lunging himself forward, he suddenly felt his body miraculously stiffen as the man held out a wide open palm, the strange move like magic at his command. Like curing concrete, each muscle somehow seized in place, unable to move in the slightest. A short scream quickly muffled as even his throat muscles seized with what felt like an internal crackling turned stiff and solid.

    Michael stood frozen in mid stride, a human sculpture incapable of the slightest maneuver, not so much as a single blink of an eye, nor quivering of lips. Tears streamed down his cheeks, the only part of his body seemingly still capable of basic function.

    The captive man could do nothin but stare wide eyed at the dark figure before him.

    A strange phenomenon was at play; a power he couldn't possibly understand, and nor did he wish to. All that mattered was breaking free and climbing up the ladder to freedom, but this mysterious figure stood in his path, as bold as brass. He could feel the cool air from high above; his freedom so close yet so far from his grasp.

    'Wha . . . are . . . you?' The words slipped with great difficulty from the deepest part of his throat, a barely coherent squeak though his lips could not move. Michael lacked the strength and the stomach agility to say anything more, but if he were capable, he would have begged for his life; offered the man anything in his power to set him free. Daylight was so close, his escape merely rungs away. Instead he stared into the blackened shade of the man's hood, long braids of blonde beard dangling from within.

   Suddenly, he felt the embrace of a much more delicate touch on his shoulder, and his body seemed to turn with a smooth glide, as though he were somehow floating in mid-air; not far off the floor, possibly an inch or less, he was positive. Michael hadn't even felt his dripping feet lift from the floor.

    Pupils contracted as he stared against his will into the hood of a second black cloak, a figure much smaller than their counterpart. The sunlight from above offered little clue as to her identity, only the feminine curve of a perfectly sculpted chin, and the slight view of a plush bottom lip.

    The woman tilted her head slightly, studying her captive prisoner for a brief moment.

    'You sure this is him?' asked her male comrade with a slight accent.

  'Most certainly.' Her confident tone replied, though she took a slightly longer pause than expected, revealing a flicker of uncertainty.

    'Well then . . . bag em' and tag em, dearie.' he replied.

    Fear raced through every heart valve as Michael came to a sudden realization.

    He was about to be abducted.

   The sound of police radios could be heard growing louder from above, and just then, Michael regretted fleeing from the authorities. These odd people were not bound by laws and statutes, he was sure, nor would they recognize basic human rights. An uncertain fate whispered subtle thoughts of torture, unable to help but think of worst case scenarios.

    He squealed from the base of his throat, hoping to make enough noise to attract the authorities, but it came out as nothing more than a pathetic whimper. Warm tears dripped plentiful off his frozen cheeks, a lost cause at the end of his pitiful rope, he convinced himself.

    No chance.

    No hope.

    No fate.

   'Are we done, mate; is that all you can mustah?' said the slight Australian accent when the woman's fist was raised, and he was abruptly struck to the floor, released from whatever mystical hold they had on him.

   He could finally move, but barely. Every muscle swelled and burned as blood filled his nostrils, exhaustion more powerful than any aberrant spell they could cast upon his fleshly vessel.

    'Le-me leave.' Michael drooled strings of blood from his lip, eyes drooped lifeless as he attempted to lift himself, but his quivering arms gave out and his body finally collapsed, his head smacking against the wet concrete.

   The dangling fabric of their cloaks grew blurred and darker still, as a merciful calm of relief gripped his soul with a welcomed sense of finality. With a shattered heart and a forfeited will, Michael slipped into a peaceful state of unconsciousness; a dreamscape of endless oblivion his only ally in the sea of chaos and madness that had become his reality.

    What horrors awaited him, this man could not have possibly known. Now knowing how his story had begun, we must observe a fundamental concept only those of faith truly learn to embrace:

    We are scarcely tasked with more than we are capable of enduring.

    Given the magnitude of the truths that were about to come to light, and the burden that would soon be upon his frail shoulders, it is not an exaggeration to assume what lies within Michael Archer's heart was nothing short of greatness, if only he dare find the will to yield it.

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