Barghest: The Hellhound of Life's Ending
“Just do it, barghest!” The man called out to the hellhound. A cold, October rain pattered around the pair. Gas lamps painted the cobbled alley a ghostly, orange light. The man was little more than a shadow in the middle of the alley, blocking the entrance from the barghest, but the black dog could see him plain as day. Black curls, slicked by rain, clung to the cold wetness of his ears. His eyes were nearly as black as his hair and the night that shrouded them, but they were filled with an inner light the hellhound wasn’t accustomed to seeing when humans stumbled into his presence. The man’s dark clothes clung to his emaciated form, like a second, malnourished skin. The man didn’t care about the cold or the rain.
“What do I have to live for anyway?” the man asked. The barghest sat on his haunches, studying the figure before him. The cold of the night didn’t touch the hellhound, for hellfire kindled in his blood and shown green from his empty eye sockets. He looked the man in the eyes, wondering just how long he could stare back into the fiery depths before turning away.
The man didn’t turn away, nor did his eyes show the ever-present fear that always accompanied locking gazes with the hellhound.
“What’s wrong with you?” the man shouted, his arms splayed to his side, his chest puffed toward the dog. He was balanced on one leg, but was he ready to fight or merely bracing himself for the barghest’s deathly embrace? “I thought you were a creature to fear. But you’re nothing. You’re just a dog.” He held his stance for a few more moments before he scoffed, dropped his hands to his sides, and began pacing the width of the alley. His boots slogged through puddles, and each step thumped with agitation against the cobbles. “Your eyes don’t scare me. Is that what you thought would happen? You’d scare me away? Kill me with a locked gaze? Or do you feed on fear? Is that how this is done?”
The barghest quirked his head to the side, lupine ears hitching forward in contemplation. The man was a strange creature, but there was a reason more than death that brought him to the alley that night.
“Is that how you killed him?” It was barely more than a whisper, a soliloquy, but the hellhound heard it all the same. “He had a name, you know?” The man turned back to the creature, speaking to him once more. His arms laced across his chest. Was he trying to keep the cold out, or his pain, his suffering, inside? “Did you know his name? It is—was—Joseph. Do you know the names of your victims before you kill them? Do you know their lives? The people they have waiting for them outside the alleys, dales, or valleys you haunt? Or are they little more than fodder to please your hellish master?”
“I knew your Joseph,” the barghest spoke. If his sudden break of silence startled the man, he didn’t show it. “As I’ve known all who came before him and will know all who come after you this night. I know why they seek me out, even if they don’t know it themselves. I know their lives and who they loved. When I tasted Joseph, I knew you would come to find me, Evan. Though I must admit, this isn’t the meeting I thought we would have.”
The rain slanted around them. Outside the alley, wind lifted sodden leaves in a macabre, autumn dance down the street. Out there, life went on as normal; gas lamps burned along sidewalks, coal fires were lit to chase away the chill of the night, stories were told around fireplaces, and children settled down to sleep. But inside the alley, there was only Evan, the barghest, and the stare they shared.
“What do you mean? He came looking for you as I have done?” Evan whispered, his arms hitching tighter against his chest.
The barghest said nothing.
“We were going to run away together,” Evan said. “Get away from our families, from his arranged marriage, the drear of the city. Make a life for ourselves in the country. Have a little farm. Have a life free of expectations and hate. It would be just the two of us and the world would melt away as it had when we first met on Market Street.” Evan’s eyes flashed up to the barghest. He stared into the glowing green eyeholes. “Until you took him from me.”
“I didn’t take your love from you,” the barghest said. “He came to me, the same way you have come. His need called me, the same as yours has.”
“He . . . came to you? Willingly?”
The hellhound nodded.
“Suffering brings most people to my final embrace. There was no escape from the life he’d had planned for him since birth. There was no way to take you away without being found. And what would happen were you found? Joseph saw no easy way to leave his life behind and remain happy. Any day he was to be taken from you and handed to another. He’d rather leave his life behind on his own terms than live a life of constant regret, constant sorrow, constant unhappiness. Isn’t that why you come here this night, human?” the barghest asked.
“You know why I’m here.”
“I know why you came, but do you?”
His mask broke. Evan screwed his eyes tight and hung his head. His shoulders lurched, and he buried his face in his hands. The rain drowned out his sobs, but the barghest heard every gasp, every moan, every silent scream to bring an end to his suffering.
Several long moments passed before Evan answered. “Yes,” he moaned. He dropped his hands, and this time when his reddened eyes met the hellhound’s, they were filled with understanding as well as the pain that had initially been there. “Yes.”
“You came here seeking to join your love. What is it you seek now?”
“Just end it! Make the pain stop. Take my suffering. Every day I live without him is a ghost of what life once was. Every day I go through the steps, I put on my face, I show the world what they want to see, not what’s true and inconvenient. Every day I die a little more inside. I can’t keep doing this. I can’t keep going on, living half a life. I can’t keep living without him, without meaning, without hope and desire for the future. I can’t merely survive in this hell a moment longer.” Evan was on his knees now, his hands reaching out toward the darkness of death he longed for the barghest to bestow upon him. “Even if it’s hell I go to, at least I will be allowed to be miserable. At least I won’t have to pretend to be okay when there’s nothing about any of this that’s okay.”
“What some call hell, others call living.”
“Is that where you took Joseph? To hell?”
“Joseph went beyond.”
“Beyond? Where is that? Heaven? Do you truly send people there?”
“There are worlds beyond worlds of your understanding. What some call the afterlife, some call a new life. For the soul, there is no death, only transformation.”
“And what did he transform to?”
“That is a question only death can answer.”
Evan looked at the cobbles, but if he were truly seeing them, the barghest didn’t know.
“You came here seeking an end. Do you know what that means for the people you leave behind?”
Evan didn’t move. He didn’t even appear to breathe.
“Pain. Suffering. Torment. Each person, no matter how small they feel they are, provides happiness that lights the paths of every person they come across. Each presence does more for the loved ones around them than they will ever know. Taking away your light leaves them to walk in a darkness they don’t understand. You will leave behind pain in the hearts of the people close to you; pain that’s so very close to what you’re feeling right now.”
Evan snuffed his nose. “Well, I’m here. There’s no going back, right?”
“The moment you set foot in this alley, the die was cast. You chose death. Your need called to me, and you put in motion events there’s no turning back from.” The barghest stepped forward, the rain slicked his red claws, and they wept blood. “But there was another future in store for you, as there is for everyone who comes calling at the gates of death. A future of happiness. A future of light and love. I have felt your pain in most people who come seeking their death. Pain consumes them and drives them to the grave’s embrace. But pain is temporary. Death is final.”
Evan sobbed once more before the darkness of death claimed him.
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