They say that people come to the Stop when they’re ready to die.
They say that Death himself is a patron. Certainly, that’s where the tavern got its name.
Azrael’s Stop. Watering hole for the Angel of Death.
There’s an altar in the corner, a white ash cabinet with a statue of the angel. It’s simple, but stands out—most taverns don’t have altars to Death, after all.
They say you’re supposed to leave an offering on the altar, instead of tipping. Not wanting to risk attracting Death’s attention, most do it. That’s also why most avoid the name, and just call it the Stop.
But that was all just rumour, and Ceph didn’t trade in rumour. He just served the drinks.
Only seventeen years old, small, thin, Ceph looked perpetually tired.
He’d seen a lot of death in his short life. Maybe that’s why he was here. No one really knew.
No one really knew much about the Stop—like why a hooded crow lived in the rafters of the common room. That’s why so many rumours sprang up.
But they were just rumours, Ceph said.
Except, of course, that every couple of weeks, someone died at Azrael’s Stop.
Losday, 30 Zalornym, 1006 KR
The Stop was busy tonight. Outside the heavy oak door, the famous mists of Theore City blanketed the metropolis in muffled quiet. Inside, the common room was kept warm by a slowly burning fire and the closeness of bodies, like the cramped space was designed to remind everyone that they were still alive.
Ceph poured an old dwarven tanner a glass of heavy Running River mead.
“Need a room? I haven’t seen you around.”
The dwarf shook his head, his grey braided beard swaying. “Nah, I live in town. Just needed a new scene. Something calmer, y’know?”
“If you want calm, just don’t piss off the crow,” Ceph said, without a hint of a smile. The dwarf watched as the crow flew down from its perch and stole a drink of whiskey from someone’s glass before flying away again. He snorted.
“How come it’s so quiet?” he asked.
“No one’s died yet.”
The dwarf stared at Ceph, but Ceph moved down the bar to help someone else.
Someone else might have asked the dwarf why the change of scene, but most of Ceph’s patrons didn’t like to talk about their problems.
Ceph had seen the darkness in the tanner’s eyes, the downcast look, the weariness. Someone close to him had died recently; the dwarf was here to grieve.
Alone, surrounded by people. As they all were at the Stop.
“Ceph!” Old Tom said as Ceph brought another glass of whiskey fey to his oldest regular. “I meant to tell you, the shutter in my room was stuck this morning.”
Ceph wasn’t sure just what Tom’s age was. He was probably in his seventies, though still a big man, his hands engulfing the small glass. He’d had a few already, tonight—this was the third time he’d mentioned the shutter.
“Blame the crow,” Ceph said. “Something about a safety hazard. Don’t want you dying on us, eh?”
Tom laughed. When he’d first come to the Stop a month ago, he said he’d come because he was ready to die. “I like you, Ceph. How’d you get so smart, being so young?”
“I was cursed by a gnomish warlock. I can still hear the ticking of his infernal clocks.”
Tom laughed again, and Ceph moved on.
He didn’t know much about Tom, but they got along. He didn’t want Tom to die.
Not like everyone else had.
There was a momentary break in the orders for drinks, and Ceph leaned against the rack of bottles behind the bar. His hand automatically went to the copper amulet around his neck, the design it once bore worn smooth by his thumb over the years.
He was tired. He was always tired.
His regulars wondered what had brought a seventeen-year-old kid to run a bar like this. What they didn’t know was that he wondered the same thing.
He didn’t know where he was going. Barely understood where he’d come from, all he’d come through.
So much death.
It haunted him. He was always tired.
He watched the hooded crow. It cocked its head at him.
“I’m fine,” Ceph said under his breath, as if to the crow.
It’s what he told himself every day. At least working at the Stop was something. At least it kept him busy.
He was fine.
Ceph was wiping down a table when they all heard the bell chime. Conversation died, and in the moment of silence, the dozen patrons raised their glasses, a nightly toast to the dead.
He’d barely returned behind the bar when the door opened, cool outside air momentarily chilling them, like Death passing by. A woman in a heavy cloak entered, one hand holding the fabric tight around her, the other pulling the door shut again.
She fell onto the stool at the bar. “Something strong,” she said. She looked young—maybe in her early twenties. She might have been very pretty, Ceph thought, but she looked worn. Like a newssheet, crumpled up and thrown on the side of the street to be trampled by horses.
Ceph poured her a shot of local gin. “A room?”
She shook her head, and downed the gin. Ceph poured her another. “Won’t be staying that long, I think,” she said, her voice weak. She shivered. “It’s cold outside.”
Ceph figured these thoughts were unconnected. “I can stoke up the fire, if the crow lets me.”
She glanced at the hooded crow, cocked an eyebrow with the slightest smirk on her face, then downed the second gin. When Ceph made to fill it again, she shook her head.
“I used to like fire,” she said. “A lot.” She paused. “Too much, really. I burned things just to watch the flames dance…”
She didn’t look at Ceph as she spoke, and Ceph felt in her voice the weight of things carried too long. He knew it well. Knew that here in the Stop, the burden often proved too much.
“I was always careful. I knew the power of fire. I respected it.” She stopped. Then, “I waited until the family had left the house. I’d always wanted to burn a building. To see the flames claim a structure like that, to see them tear down what men had worked to put up… But—” She drew a ragged breath. “There must have been—the kid must have been asleep—I heard him scream…”
Ceph looked away from her, suddenly disgusted. He was elsewhere, he could still see the fire of his childhood, the wood burning, the paint wilting. He could smell the smoke. He could still hear the screams. If only he’d…
“I ran,” the woman said. Her voice was a hoarse whisper, now. “Ran and ran. That was five years ago. I’ve been running since. Every night I hear that scream. It’s followed me. I haven’t been able to live ever since.
“Then tonight—a real scream this time. I was passing an alley, and saw man grabbing a child, trying to rob her mother. And I realised… I couldn’t keep on like I was. You can’t let one thing define you the rest of your life. You have to move past it, move on. It doesn’t matter what came before—you choose what to do with the time given you.”
She coughed, a rasping cough.
Ceph frowned. She was sweating, he suddenly noticed. Pale.
“I grabbed him away from the kid…”
“Are you okay?” Ceph asked, as she coughed again.
She raised her hand up in front of her, the one that had been holding her cloak close. It was crimson with fresh blood.
“I’ve been better.”
She fell off her chair.
Ceph ran around the bar as the patrons suddenly fell silent, gathering around. Ceph moved the cloak aside, saw a gaping wound in her side.
“How’s it look?” she gasped.
“I’m afraid the diagnosis isn’t good,” Ceph said. “You seem to have caught a nasty case of knife-in-the-gut.”
She smiled, a sheen of sweat on her face.
“Sometimes,” she said through clenched teeth, “you do your best, and you get shit as a result.”
Old Tom passed Ceph the bottle of gin, and he dribbled a little into her mouth. The others stood, silent. Most had seen enough death to know that it was too late.
“The important part,” she gasped, “is that you do your best. Do well by others, right? Go forth with dignity.”
“The kid?” Ceph said, quietly.
“They got away.”
Ceph nodded. “Then meet Azrael with dignity,” he said.
She closed her eyes, and the caw of the hooded crow rang in the silence.
The common room had emptied. The woman’s body taken away, the regulars gone home, Old Tom retired to his room. Silence filled the Stop in Azrael’s wake.
Ceph scrubbed at the floorboards. There would always be a stain, but he didn’t mind that. He thought she should be remembered.
He didn’t even know her name.
When the bar was full, Ceph could distract himself, could put on a brave face. He’d seen a lot of death, and it no longer fazed him. It was no longer an individual tragedy, but the next stage of the journey. It surrounded him.
But alone with his work, his memories filled the emptiness, and he could distract himself no more. That fire, the screams. But also the rock, the darkness. The blood and swords. The sickness. Every time, he’d been spared. He had to live with every one.
The hooded crow drank from one of the mugs left on the white ash cabinet. He walked toward it, causing the bird to flap up to the rafters.
He looked at the statue of the angel, and wondered if he’d ever see the white-eyed man again. Maybe he’d be stuck working at this bar for the rest of his life. Would he care if he did?
It wasn’t like it was much of a life to live, anymore.
But a part of him still wondered why he was here. Wondered if he’d ever get any answers. He’d long given up on getting any peace.
He picked up the whiskey fey Old Tom had left on the altar and downed it, ignoring the burning in his throat.
He glanced at the crow, who seemed to be giving him a disapproving look, then picked up the rest of the drinks to take to his own room, preparing for another sleepless night.