Empires of Thought by Michael de Waal-Montgomery

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GWEB, ONE OF the departing souls, hung suspended from the rope that eased his pain. For minutes he dangled there in the dark room, second by second losing what he'd come to know as life.

It was easy, and after all, he'd rather forget the pain and constant suffering of existing in such a place. His body may have kicked and thrashed, desperately trying to postpone the inevitable, but Gweb felt no sympathy and merely looked the other way.

"How could you," it snarled at him, gasping for breath, "after all we've been through?" But there came no reply. He considered it the mercy-killing of a terminally ill patient, and one with whom he'd shared particularly bitter memories.

Sensing that death was upon him, he welcomed it with open arms... and as his soul slid free of its cage, decided never again to play puppet on a stage so cruel.

When consciousness returned, Gweb found himself standing knee-deep in a shimmering expanse of what appeared to be water though he could not know for sure that stretched off into the distance and to his every side.

If it was, in fact, the water of this world, then it was a water far more brilliant and inherently beautiful than any he had ever known. Even liquid diamond, he thought, couldn't compare.

The air hung dreamily, blurring shapes and objects whilst sharpening their colours. And what magnificent colours they were! Colours that he, in his old body, could never have seen in a hundred thousand years. For it had been a frail and pathetic body, incapable of perceiving the light spectrum in all its splendid radiance; a body of disgraceful imperfection and countless flaws.

And yet, as he stood there brooding on the past, he was struck by a strange and distant thought: perhaps there were things imperfect and unpleasant things - that only his previous body could feel and understand.

And in that moment Gweb wondered if he had made a mistake. The words of a kind old man he'd known only in his dreams floated back to him, lucid and unperturbed in this shiny land of death:

"Gweb, my child... there will be times ahead when things may in fact not be as they appear to be; when reality and unreality will seem to lose all meaning and you may find yourself confused and uncertain.

But do not lose face, my dear child, and look to the future not with pain. For, be it known or unknown, there is a path and there is a purpose... and there is an end to which we all strive. That, my dear boy," he would say with a hearty chuckle, "is something I can assure you of."

At this point Gweb would usually wake up. On the one occasion when his dream didn't come to an end after the old man's reassuring words, the two of them simply continued to sit around the small fire well into the night; listening to the burning wood as it splintered and crackled, and watching the mischievous flames as they danced and played inside the small circle of stones that was their world. But not another word was spoken.

All of their discussions took place around this small and peaceful fire, and Gweb often wished he could stay there forever. Beyond them, everything was always shrouded in darkness; consumed by a benevolent night that would play hide-and-seek with the lively and tenacious flames.

He never thought it would take until after death for the old man's words to make sense.