The walk down memory lane was just the beginning.
A shadowy figure, hooded, covered from head to toe in a concealing robe, appeared before Graeme. The being's presence suddenly made everything more substantial. Graeme could hear again, feel again, speak. When he shoved a hand through his hair, he felt the wiry curls cropped close to his scalp. Automatically, he touched his face, ran a hand across his chest, cracked his knuckles.
Just feeling something again was beyond description. Too bad he didn't realize there would be a cost.
"It is time."
"Time for what?" Graeme asked, wary. But somewhere inside, he already knew.
Judgment. What else? Why else would he be here?
"No. The time for judgment is not yet upon you. I speak of something else--but it will affect your day of judgment, Graeme."
"What are you talking about?" Graeme couldn't see his--her--its--face and he hated that. He wanted to see the eyes. A ghost from the past whispered in his ear, "The eyes are the gateway to the soul."
"It's time to make amends. To save one such as you. To redeem yourself."
Although Graeme didn't remember leaving his home, he was no longer within that obscure cocoon. He was in what appeared to be the afterlife's version of a movie theater.
The star of the show was Vixen herself.
He couldn't exactly see any kind of screen, any kind of projector, but he could see her, life-size, lovely and sleek, walking by. The image of her was so real, at first he tried to reach out and touch her. That was when he realized it was some sort of illusion, maybe a hologram. Something.
Except he could smell her. Almost even feel the silken glide of her hair as it blew across his face.
"What is this?"
This afterlife business was a pathetic joke and this had better be another humorless little torture, a way for the beings around him to amuse themselves. Time had no meaning in this place, and for all he knew he could have been there for centuries. He was guessing a couple of years, though, going by how Vixen looked. Her hair had grown out--the last time he'd seen her, right before she stabbed a knife into his heart, her pale, silvery blonde hair had been cropped to chin length and now it was well past her shoulders. It had always grown fast, but not that fast, so he figured it had to have been at least a few years.
He looked away from her and faced the being that had brought him to this place. Being--because there was something completely androgynous about the cloaked and shadowed figure. A sexless voice, a sexless affect. A seriously annoying manner of refusing to answer anything Graeme asked--but that didn't keep him from asking another question.
"You have got to be kidding me."
Under the cloak, its shoulders rose, fell. From under the hood, its voice rang out, clear, pure and bell-like. Gentle, but firm. "We do not kid in matters of salvation and redemption, Graeme."
The being, as though puzzled by Graeme's derision, cocked its head. Graeme didn't need to see the being's face to know he was being scrutinized. Shit, he could feel the weight of that stare. Feeling somebody's stare was the closest he'd come to physical sensation in far too long. "So which is this? Redemption? Salvation? Or just plain torture?"
The cowled head swung back and forth. "We do not torture. Your own guilt is torture enough, is it not?"
"Guilt?" he asked. "Guilt isn't something I waste time on."
"No? I feel a great deal of guilt coming from within you."
But it infuriated him.
The ability to physically feel again wasn't a blessing just then. He was too damned pissed off and it would have been easier if the fury had that softening haze to it. Hands closed into fists, he glared at the cloaked being in front of him and demanded, "What did I ever do to Vixen to feel guilty about? I loved her."
"Oh, Vixen isn't the one you feel guilt over. Indeed, if you hadn't met her, you wouldn't be here."
Graeme grunted and glanced back over his shoulder at Vixen's image. It was like whatever had captured her image had changed, moving in for a close-up as she walked down a street. All he could see was her face, her eyes, so dark in her pale face. "You got that right. If I hadn't ever met her, she couldn't have stuck a knife in me and I'd still be alive."
It laughed. There was nothing mocking in the sound, though. It was more sad than anything. "No, Graeme. You would have died long before now...but nothing you had done in your life before meeting Vixen would have awarded you one last chance. She changed you. She made you better. Make no mistake, Graeme, her presence in your life and the changes you made for her are why you are here. Instead of..."
These beings didn't spend a lot of time on special effects or anything, which made it all that more effective when something freaky did happen. As the silvery white light surrounded Graeme went orange-red, the air blistered fire-hot. The heat threatened to melt the skin from his bones. It seared his lungs and stole his voice.
Then it was gone.
"You really don't want to live eternity like that, do you?"
Instinctively, he reached up and rubbed his burning eyes. That was when he noticed his hands. That was when he saw his hands. They were red from the heat, blistering, but already the blisters were fading away into nothingness. "And some wonder why in the hell a lot of people don't choose to believe in God, in heaven or in hell. If He is such a decent, loving-type God, He wouldn't threaten to send people there."
The air in the room grew weighted, heavy with sadness and the being sighed. There was censure in that unseen gaze, Graeme could feel it. "Graeme, He sends nobody anywhere. He gives them the choice. Gives all of us the choice." A long, slender arm lifted, the belled sleeves obscuring everything but the fingertips from view as it passed over Graeme's hands.
Even the faint, lingering itch of heat faded. Just like that. "She changed you, Graeme. Meeting her unlocked a door inside of you that nothing else could do--but even with that door opened, it couldn't erase the darkness within you."
He hissed in surprise when the being touched him--and he actually felt it. He was still reeling over being able to feel, but being touched--it was almost painful. The being touched him on the back, in the exact spot where Vixen had plunged a six-inch stiletto--one that Graeme had given her. In response to the being's touch, Graeme felt an icy-cold pain tear through him, brutal in its intensity--hell. It hadn't hurt that much when Vixen had killed him.
"This is salvation. This is redemption."
The voice was changing, deepening. A hand came up, closed over Graeme's shoulder and squeezed--and Graeme felt it. Its hand was warm, too warm, painful in contrast to the ice rushing through his system. "I'm a little past salvation," Graeme said, trying to pull away.
But he couldn't move.
"It isn't your salvation, Graeme. It's hers."
Then the being let go and glided away. The shadowed face glanced in Graeme's direction and then away, nodding to the panoramic view of Vixen on the hunt. "Her salvation." Then its gaze cut to Graeme and it added, "Your redemption."
"What in the hell are you talking about?"