Glass shattered in the fireplace. The bar grew quiet and heads turned to Old Tom, standing by his usual table, fist clenching and unclenching. He was in his seventies, and his shoulders slumped from the weight of years, but he was still a large man; the Stop was always dominated by his presence.
I watched Ceph, the barkeep, touch his arm. Ceph had always been small—next to Old Tom, he looked like a child.
“Let’s get you upstairs,” Ceph said. His voice was soft, not unkind. He cared for Tom like a dear friend. Like he cared for me.
Ceph led Old Tom to the stairs, right past me. He looked tired—they both did. He didn’t look up as he passed, but then, he didn’t know I was there.
I followed them upstairs, silent, to the third floor where Old Tom’s room was. Tom sat on his bed, still not having said a word. Ceph looked at him for a moment, a quiet concern on his face, then turned to the room’s desk. On it was a square mirror, about a foot to a side, with an ornate silver frame, tarnishing. Beside the mirror, an unopened letter.
“That letter arrived weeks ago,” Ceph said.
“From my son,” Tom said. “In Icepeak.” He had turned to gaze out the window at the night sky. The twin moons slowly circled each other, the roofs of Theore’s Temple Ward stretching away into the starry sky of city lights. Old Tom said no more on the subject, and Ceph didn’t pry.
Ceph never pried. It was an unwritten rule of his. He was always scared of what might happen if he did.
“We used to own a cat just like that one,” Tom said. He was looking out the window still. I could see a tomcat sitting on a roof across the alley, light reflecting in its eyes, watching us right back.
I went back downstairs, leaving Tom to his memories and Ceph to his silence.
Subdued conversation had resumed in the common room. Some of the regulars expressed concern about Tom, that he’d been looking older, that he’d been growing more restless, more impatient, that he’d been drinking more.
Azrael’s Stop had a strange atmosphere for a bar. After all, it was named after the Angel of Death, and they say people are drawn there when they’re ready to die. And the regulars at a place where they see someone pass away every couple of weeks are a strange group of people. It’s not a depressing atmosphere, not depressed people—just a bit subdued, a bit melancholy, a bit more respectful than it might be in other bars. The regulars never talked about why they came—whether being so close to death made them feel more alive, or whether they liked the sense of solemnity. I heard some say they just liked Ceph and his dry wit—a wit I knew masked a much deeper depression than any of those who came to die. But I’d known Ceph for years. Regardless of their reasons for being there, the Stop was a place with a lot of memories, a lot of stories.
No one knew Old Tom’s. Except that he had arrived a few months ago, saying he was ready to die, and had lived there in tired desperation ever since.
I glanced at the hooded crow that lived in the rafters as Ceph returned to his place behind the bar. It watched the proceedings silently—the crow only ever cawed when someone in the Stop had died. Otherwise it was just an observer, like me.
The next morning I returned to the Stop. I was the only one Ceph wanted around in the mornings—the few people who stayed in the rooms above, like Old Tom, tended to go out during the day or to stay cooped up in their rooms, and hardly anyone ever came for a drink during the day. Even those led here to die, if that’s really what happened, tended to show up at night with everyone else. Without the clamour of people, the silence of memories was too much for most. But Ceph liked it.
Those days when I was around, Ceph tended to be in one of two moods. Some days we were silent for hours—he worked to prep the bar, and I watched; he just took a calm comfort from my presence, I allowed myself to yearn for things with Ceph that never were.
Other days, we talked.
“Whatever happened to Lacaena?” Ceph asked as he counted piles of silver and copper coins from the previous night.
“Which one was that?” I asked.
“The little forest elf girl. She came, what, the year after we did?”
“That’s right. Brilliant with numbers, but she could barely speak the language?”
“Her accent was cute,” Ceph said.
It’s funny how it’s those little comments that hit you. I didn’t have a cute accent. But then, I wasn’t a girl either. “I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe she’s still at Larilla’s.”
“Maybe,” Ceph said. “I kind of lost track of them all, after…” He trailed off.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Don’t you get out and around, Rye? Ever go back?”
“It’s a big city.” He didn’t know how much I stuck around, even when he didn’t see me.
We heard feet coming down the stairs. I gave Ceph a wan smile, and disappeared as Old Tom emerged into the common room.
“Eh?” he said. “You say something, Ceph?”
“Just good morning, Tom,” Ceph said, smiling at him.
“When was the last time you had a good morning?” Tom asked.
“Fifteen years, three months, and four days ago,” Ceph replied. They smiled, but they both knew there was some truth behind the jokes.
“Big plans for the day?” Tom asked.
“I thought I’d go out to the docks, hijack a merchant ship, and be a pirate on the Thron Sea for a couple years. What do you think?”
“Grand idea. But will the crow let you out?”
“Good point. Drat. Ah well, there’s always tomorrow.”
“And tomorrow, and tomorrow,” Tom said, and the levity left his voice. It was about this point in the morning when Tom normally ordered his first whiskey fey of the day—Ceph was reaching for the bottle—but then he said, “Ceph, let’s go for a walk.”
Ceph looked at him, then at the work he was doing.
“We both need the fresh air,” Tom said.
I could see the hesitation on Ceph’s face. I knew he was worried.
It always seemed that it was those who shared their stories with Ceph, needing to unburden themselves one final time, that ended up dying in the Stop. That’s why he never pried. He didn’t want to encourage it. He didn’t want to be the cause of any more death.
He didn’t want Tom’s story. He’d grown to like Tom, over the months.
But I also knew that he wondered. If he knew why Old Tom was there, maybe he could understand why he was there. A seventeen-year-old boy, led to an old bar to serve drinks to those on their way out.
Go, I urged him silently.
In one last appeal, he looked around the rafters for the hooded crow—but it didn’t seem to be around this morning. Taking that as permission, Ceph swept the piles of coins into the strongbox and nodded. “All right.”
They walked the tree-lined cobblestones of Temple Ward in silence for a while. It was one of those perfect Theore spring mornings: a light rain that freshened the air without drenching you, no wind, the air just warm enough to be comfortable. I had loved the smell of rain and greenery. The smell of life.
They were an odd pair, young Ceph and Old Tom, barkeep and regular. They were more than acquaintances certainly, but you couldn’t say it was like family when they knew so little about each other. They seemed aimless at first, but as they crossed into Copper Ward, the mercantile district, and approached Songwind Park, it was clear that Tom had always had this destination in mind.
It wasn’t a large park, just a patch of green at the edge of the ward, a couple groves of cherry blossoms and a still pond. The cherry blossoms were coming to the end of their bloom, late, and pink littered the grass. Tom sat heavily on a bench by the pond, Ceph eventually sitting beside him.
“Is this where you come?” Ceph said.
“When I’m not at the Stop? Yeah, often.” A pause, like that might be all he’d say. Then, “My wife died here.”
Ceph looked at him. He’d prevented Tom from telling his story before, interrupted with other conversation. All Tom wanted was to die. All Ceph wanted was that for once, someone he liked wouldn’t die.
But he didn’t say anything, and Tom fell silent, and it seemed for a moment like he wouldn’t go on after all. But the door had been opened, a crack of light allowed to escape.
“Drowned in the pond,” Tom said, his voice heavy. “She’d just walked right in, like she thought she could breathe it. Like it was where she belonged. Her body was found floating—” He stopped.
“I didn’t even find out until the next morning. I’d been out all day, working down at the docks, then all evening with the guys at Codwick’s. I got home, and I guess my son had put himself to bed—he was ten. I don’t know if I even realized she wasn’t there. Not till the morning when they knocked on the door…
“She’d been getting worse. She’d always been, I don’t know, off. Like she saw something no one else could. But she was kind, and pretty, and she raised my son while I worked.
“Every day, I worked. I was never around. I’d barely noticed.”
He fell silent again, looked away from the pond into the trees, while Ceph sat still, staring at his hands.
“I’ll be damned,” Tom said. “There’s that cat again.” The same one from the roof, a calico old thing, scruffy around the edges. It looked old. “It really could be ours.”
He sighed, and looked at Ceph, who had remained silent. Ceph had always been a good listener. People found it easy to open up to him.
There was worry on his face, though. I know he tried to hide it from Tom. But I could see it. Worry that Tom had told his story, that now Azrael would finally come for him. He didn’t want to see Tom go. Like so many others had.
“Come on,” Tom said. “The crow’s probably wondering where in all the hells you are.”
Ceph never sleeps well; violent, disturbing nightmares plague him every night. But that night, I’m not sure he slept at all, waiting anxiously to hear the caw of the crow that would suggest Tom had died in the night, his story shared.
But the call never came, and in the morning Ceph checked in on Old Tom in his room.
“Still here,” Tom said with a small smile despite a hangover.
He sat at the table in his room, looking at the mirror, while Ceph stood over him.
“Why don’t you read his letter?” Ceph asked.
Old Tom didn’t respond, and Ceph was about to repeat himself when he said, “Things were worse after she died. Had to leave him at home while I worked. He left for Icepeak as soon as he was old enough…” He shook his head. “I’ve barely seen him since. Never seen my granddaughter… Y’know, she’d be about your age, now.”
He sighed, and picked up the mirror, avoiding the letter sitting beside it.
“My wife gave me this not long before she died, on our anniversary. She always remembered our anniversary. ‘So you can see what I see,’ she’d said.”
Tom put the mirror down again. “All I ever see is an old man who was never there for his family.”
“Go get some fresh air,” Ceph said. “I’ll tidy your room today.”
Tom nodded. “Thanks,” he said, standing slowly, bones creaking. He looked at Ceph, then turned and left the room.
Ceph made the bed and cleaned up some of the old glasses that lay about before he realized I was there.
“You’re here early,” he said. “You usually knock.”
“I was worried about you,” I said.
“I’m fine. It was Tom I was worried about. He was so hopeful that he would go tonight.” He paused, looking at the mirror on the table. “Is it selfish that I’m relieved he didn’t?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe it’s selfish of him to want to go, to leave you behind.”
“I guess we all are. We want it to be all about us.”
He’d picked up the mirror to wipe some dust off of it, then suddenly looked out the window. I followed his gaze, but didn’t see anything.
“What is it?” I asked.
He looked back at the mirror. “I don’t—I have to go.”
Still holding the mirror, he ran out of the room, footsteps flying down the stairs.
Ceph found Old Tom sitting on the same bench in Songwind Park. He sat down beside him, the mirror on his lap. Tom barely acknowledged him, sat staring at the still water reflecting the grey sky, itself a mirror.
“What was your wife like?” Ceph asked. “Before she died?”
“The sweetest woman you’d ever meet. Caring, affectionate, even to people she barely knew. She was very religious, though not to any particular deity—she just had this sense that there was more out there, and that it was… beautiful.” He paused. “She was beautiful. Simple, some called her, like she wasn’t all there. But that wasn’t true. It came and went. Like sometimes she would drift off into that other world she believed in, that only she could see.
“I should have been there for her more. Maybe I could have kept her in this world. Kept her alive. Kept my son…”
“Did she like your cat?” Ceph asked.
Tom looked at him, a cocked eyebrow and a wry smile. “She did. She thought the world of that creature.”
“Which world?” Ceph asked. I didn’t know if he meant it as a joke.
Tom frowned, looked back at the pond.
Ceph picked up the mirror, and looked at it. Then, he stood, and held it in front of him and slowly started turning around.
“What are you doing?” Old Tom asked.
When he was facing away from the pond, Ceph stopped. “Look.”
Tom stood, looked in the mirror beside him—then quickly turned, to look at the pond, then back at the mirror. “What—”
Whatever they saw in that mirror, I could not. I’m tethered to this world and to the shadow—I can’t see any others. But Ceph described it to me later.
In the mirror, they could see a woman, sitting on a rock in the middle of the pond. Bird wings folded around a beautiful body, and though they could not hear her, she seemed to be singing.
“A siren,” Ceph said.
“How?” Tom asked, looking again at the empty pond behind them.
“They say cats have an affinity for the mirror world, the Otherwhere,” Ceph said. “In your room, I saw that old cat—your old cat—in the mirror . I bet he’s been travelling to the Otherwhere—where your wife could see. She had the Othersight, Tom. She had the gift of seeing beyond this world, like you thought she could.
“She probably came here, while you worked, to watch her.” He indicated the mirror, the siren. “She wanted to hear her sing.”
Tom took the mirror from Ceph’s hands, sat down slowly on the bench.
“Tom, she wasn’t crazy. She didn’t die because you weren’t around to keep her safe. She was plagued by a gift no one could understand, by a desire for something she could always see but never get.
“She wanted to hear the song of another world.”
Tom had begun to cry. As Ceph sat beside him, resting a hand on Tom’s shoulder, the old calico appeared again, twining itself around Tom’s legs.
That night at the Stop was quieter than normal. Tom had stayed in his room, presumably needing some time alone, and things seemed more subdued without his boisterous presence.
Ceph kept up his usual banter with the regulars, but even he seemed a bit more removed than normal.
It was almost midnight when the hooded crow let out his call.
Ceph dropped the glass he was holding, and was at the stairs almost before it shattered on the floor.
Some of the regulars must have come to the same conclusion as he, for a few rose and ran after him.
Tom lay on his bed, still, eyes closed. The mirror lay beside him. He looked peaceful. He might have been asleep.
The letter from his son sat on the table. It had been opened. Ceph gently picked it up.
“‘I never blamed you,’” he read. “‘She wouldn’t have, either. I wish you wouldn’t blame yourself. Come to Icepeak—let’s try to be a family again.’”
Ceph put the letter down, and sat on the bed beside Tom’s body.
The next day, he wrote a letter to Tom’s son. The calico and I kept him company.
I died about a year ago. But I wasn’t allowed to move on, to journey to the Shadowrealm where the shades of the dead go. Where Tom had gone. My spirit is stuck in that liminal space between this world and that, trapped in Limbo.
Ceph thinks my death is his fault, that he wasn’t fast enough, that he wasn’t good enough to save me. It’s not his fault—it’s not anyone’s. Like Old Tom and his wife.
I wonder if I’m still here so I can help Ceph understand that. I wonder if we all are.