Generations of religious ideology has roughly shaped what the souls expect, divided people between seventy two virgins, a place of eternal peace, a sweetly serene garden where there is only sweetness and gentility.
But all souls in the end return to The Waters.
A vast ocean, dark and glassy smooth, dividing the realms of the living from the Beyond.
Do not drink from The Waters.
The Watchers guide the souls across the surface, the intangibility of inhumanness allowing them safe passage above the expanse. Nothing living stirs beneath the water, but mortal troubles of the living world cause changes in colour – the dark waters misting cherry red, ashen grey, bruise purple, raw blue.
The wars of the world, the political turmoil, the fires and the earthquakes, the floods and the pandemics, all can be seen in The Waters, if one cares to look.
The Waters quench no thirst, nor wash away any dirt or sin.
Beyond The Waters, there’s nothing. And everything.
The path back to the mortal worlds forms a shore to The Waters, a blank stretch of nothing leading the souls who are not yet ready to pass on back to the worlds below, pushing through the strange barriers to return to the living.
The Beyond is is what lies on the other side of The Waters too.
Once a soul passes through into the Beyond, they can never return to the mortal worlds. The Above has other plans for them, that is what the Watchers tell their charges, other plans and other places for them.
No Watcher has ever seen the Beyond, though.
Watchers are not Angels – they are beings of grey, of the between worlds, Children of The Waters and the Above and they don’t fit in with either place. Angels are the children of light, beings made of something far lighter and infinite. Angels have other duties – they don’t guard The Waters and take souls across to their next existence.
Adam is not an Angel.
He is a Watcher.
Time is relative – humans have barely the potential to imagine the complexities of the paths between worlds that Adam wanders, watching for the souls he is meant to guide across the and Adam isn’t sure when his own time began, but he knows he’s being doing this a long time. He’s watched civilisations fall, and cities rise, kings deposed, and rebellions crushed – humans are very fond of that sort of thing.
Romans, Vikings, Tudors, the Ming Dynasty, the British Empire, the French Revolution, the fearsome rule of Genghis Khan… Adam’s seen it all. Many times, many ways.
They are all the same, underneath the surface, and the names, and the dates, and the history books.
Isaac, he finds in the midst of a War - the American Civil War to be precise, knee deep in mud and bullets, fighting for independence for a New Nation.
It wasn't an easy death - few deaths in war are, in Adam's experience - but seeing a familiar face, bloodied and damp with sweat is nothing over seeing the gaping wounds in the heaving chest. It's a slow death too, Isaac lingering for hours as a surgeon calls for a priest and Adam watches as the heart - so young, maybe no more than twenty or so - skips and jumps, fighting still even as red oozes from the back. It's not nice, it's not pretty, and when dark eyes close for the last time, it's relief that passes on the surgeon's face, not sadness or anger.
Death can be a kindness.
The soul that reaches for Adam's hands is trusting. Glowing faintly, it's not a perfect replica of the broken carcass beside it, but an artist's rendition of it, perfect and whole again, wide eyed and trusting.
Not all have such faith - Adam has seen souls afraid, seen them cowering, or furious that their beliefs are not yet vindicated, or confused and lost at losing their God, their guiding light, their cherished and loved vision of the Beyond.
Isaac's hand in his is not soft and gentle like a child, but firm, secure in the belief that Adam will lead him to wherever he is meant to be. A man's hand belonging to a man who has that kind of quiet, unshakeable faith.
The Waters bloom red when Adam leads the soul of Isaac across them, each step taking them closer to the divide between worlds, where the Beyond meets the edge of The Waters, and the path back to the realms of the living twists and winds out of sight.
War rages but Adam doesn't think Isaac will find it again - something in the serenity in his face makes Adam change his mind from leading Isaac into the Beyond, into the white wash of light where only the Souls can go. Instead, he nods to Isaac, a look passing between them that says more than Adam can and he sees a faint, half smile on the man's face as he sends him down the path to the living world's again, to be reborn and remade and to relive a life.
Maybe next time - the Beyond is inevitable, but Adam didn't think Isaac was ready. Something in those eyes - a life yet to live.
He'll come back though. They always do.
He finds Isaac again - this time in the body of a man named Jon, living in Kentucky but hailing from somewhere else that he doesn't remember - a family man missing a leg from a farming accident. There's no great and tragic story here; just a man who set out for a better life, found one with a wife and four children, all boys, a farm that's quietly prosperous, a town that has a schoolhouse and a church, and it's twenty nine miles to the nearest train station.
A quiet life for a quiet man.
Isaac - Adam knew him first as Isaac, and the name - it comes again, and he cannot see him as Jon, no matter what the wooden cross in the back corner of the barn says - doesn't seem to recognise Adam. But the hand in Adam's has the same trust, the same faith that Adam will lead him to wherever he is meant to go, and Adam is strangely - so strangely because he is a Watcher and they do not feel, they only lead and guide and are the last things souls know before they leave the realms of the living - touched.
This time when Isaac crosses The Waters, they bloom white beneath the glassy surface, and the face reflected in them is lined and creased with age and hard work, rather than pain and suffering of war.
But when Adam looks into his eyes, looks beyond the faintness of age and clouds of experience, he doesn't see an old man ready to leave - he sees the same determination and youth he saw in the solider of before, and he knows - he knows so so so well that Isaac is not ready. Not ready for the Beyond yet.
And so he sends him back - leads him back to the path to the lands of the living, and watches the faint glow of a soul not yet done make that journey to be reborn, to return to a time and place which is only known to the Above because it's where he's destined to be.
Adam finds Isaac again - further back in time this time, wading around in the pond at the back of the school as a soul while his lifeless body on the bank is being tended to by a teacher. Other pupils, barefoot and crying, gather around, a mourning group no older than twelve.
England, 1789, somewhere rural and flat. The sun is shining. There are no clouds in the sky. Isaac was six when he died.
Curly brown hair and bright eyes don't seem to be afraid and perhaps it's not just an age thing, maybe it's just an Isaac thing, but even as Adam watches a carriage pull up outside the schoolhouse, and a man come running, there's no fear in those eyes. No fear at all.
Small fingers wave goodbye to Papa then it's onwards, upwards, outwards, beyond this living realm again.
This time, Adam carries Isaac across The Waters, those waving fingers wrapped around Adam's wrist, and when they reach the shore of The Waters on the other side, the Beyond seems brighter, seems ready and waiting to receive the child in Adam's arms, so close to sleep now.
But there's something that stops him, something small and not so small at the same time, a voice in the back of his mind, and he doesn't want to see Isaac vanish into the Beyond.
Once that happens, they will never meet again.
Once a soul passes into the Beyond, they are under the Above's watchful gaze, and Adam will never see them again.
But he wants - he wants so much, so badly, so very very very much to see Isaac again, and he knows something is going to be different, something is strange about this Isaac who trusts and who doesn't let fear override his faith that Adam knows he can't send him away just yet.
Small feet run along the path back to the living realm but behind Adam, The Waters flash blue before fading to dark, ominous black.
Adam is a Watcher. They are not meant to intervene, to change destiny, to alter the paths that the Above has decided upon.
But it felt right.