The near death experience is a mystery explored by millions of living human beings. They didn't die, but for a time neither were they alive. Where did they 'go'? What became of them there? Why do some of them come back so different?

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In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.

And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

And God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night…

-Genesis, Book 1, Verses 1 – 5

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Genoa, 1343

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"Damnation," huffed Recensio, as he tucked his fur-lined collar beneath his chin, and spat into the muddy road. "It is great evil a'foot these days, Pietre."

"Indeed." Pietre leaned against a wooden column beneath the porch awning, and watched drizzle further wet the thoroughfare. "We have had ill tidings from all 'round, this year."

Recensio shook his head and turned his gaze to measure the commerce apparent on the street. As it was early morning, the street was well traveled. Business had not failed, it seemed. "Oh? And what is the news?"

"The house of Peruzzi has fallen into decline." Pietre scratched himself obscenely, coughed up a wad of phlegm and swallowed it, and turned to find a wooden chair that stood against his shop's façade wall. There he sat, motioning his old friend Recensio to sit beside him in another. "King Edward has repudiated his debts with them, and, though they hold Canterbury hostage, they cannot make the king pay. So they, in turn, have been forced to default on their own accounts." Pietre shook his head and used his gnarled, arthritic fingers to scratch a lice from his scraggly beard. "It must become a great pile of shit, Recensio, to roll downhill onto our heads. Mark my words, it will not be five years and we shall all be paupers, as a result. I tell you now, I have lost much faith in the Florentine business acumen."

Recensio took his seat, shaking his own head disapprovingly. "Fools. What did they expect at one-hundred-twenty percent interest and sixty-percent fines? A sovereign would never long sit still for that. Not even an English king."

Pietre grunted agreement. "Especially when they have a war on. Most say it will be quick and bloodless, but I think not. I think it might stretch on for years. Maybe a hundred years, who can say?"

Recensio did not think this likely, but neither did he believe the war between England and France would be quick or bloodless. Those people feared each the other too much to make it quick or clean. No, it would surely be a long, violent affair.

"You are recently returned from the east, no?" enquired Pietre eventually. The mist turned to drizzle and further threatened to come a downpour. Women hunched beneath their head-covers and hurried from errand to errand, lest they be caught in the deluge.

"Yes, God save us all."

"And the passage?"

Recensio shrugged. "It went not at all well, but better than it might have been. Most of us are delivered home alive, after much trial and tribulation."

"Truly? Pegolotti has said the passage from the Black Sea to Cathay is safe both day and night these days."

"To be sure, but that says nothing at all of the road from the Black Sea to Genoa. We were waylaid near Calla by Tatars," both men grimaced and spat a foul taste into the street. "God plague them.

"Fortunately, we had hired a large vanguard from the lord of Kirsch only days before the first assault. Turning this initial attack aside, we made a mad dash for the walls of Calla, while the Kirsch men ran away home, leaving us naked." Recensio watched mud crowns form in the puddles, as a heavy rain fell from the drear heavens. "Many weeks we sheltered there, at cost of a pretty penny, too, you may be sure. Still, the Callans are less greedy than the vile Tatars, and only wanted our money, rather than our goods and our lives, all."

When Recensio fell silent and did not seem inclined to finish the tale, Pietre prompted him. "How ended it?"

"Hmm?" his friend appeared to recover from a deep reverie. "Oh, well, to our favor, the Tatars had been afflicted by disease some months earlier. Already sickened and their numbers thinned, they were in no shape to maintain a lengthy siege, for lack of heavy weapons and bandits to man them." Recensio rubbed the bridge of his nose with a grimy thumb and forefinger. "Still, they had a brace of catapults and a few smaller engines. They used these to launch their dead over Calla's walls before they left, frustrated as they were by our escape."

Pietre nodded and coughed up another wad of mucous. "I have heard this story much and often of late."

"A great evil is a'foot, I tell you. The devil has followed us from the east." Recensio said it with great conviction, for he was secretly certain of this. "It comes as a black shadow that the sun cannot dispel. I feel it nipping at my heels like a leopard that plays for a stumble. Before all is finished, I fear we all must fall and be devoured."

Shuddering, it was Pietre's turn to pull his collar closer to his chin. Autumn was coming on cool and sudden, foretelling a long, cold winter.

Turning his head this way and that, Recensio was careful to be certain they were alone. The rain had chased most people inside for the time being, he noted, and so he turned to his primary concern with Pietre.

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