Vita brevis breviter in brevi finietur,
Mors venit velociter quae neminem veretur,
Omnia mors perimit et nulli miseretur.
— Llibre Vermell de Montserrat, 1399
Going from the nether worlds of Hell to the tangibility of Earth always made me itchy. Death blamed my mortality for the issue, claiming that he never felt bothered at all. But then, I’d always think, being a giant skeleton probably helped, too.
The hourglass hooked to my belt gave a little shudder that I felt even through the thick cloak. My customer was close.
I always felt better calling them “customers”, or even “guests.” “Deceased-to-be” was rather clunky, and “victims” always sounded too harsh, especially since I wasn’t the cause of their sudden departure from life—”Just the escort,” as Death liked to say.
Someone walked right through me while I tried to gather my bearings—always an uncomfortable feeling—and I looked around for the first time.
It was a university campus, rather small, but very well taken care of and clean. I hadn’t had the chance to read the memo properly before taking off, as it had been a busy morning. The hourglass knew the way, of course, and now I followed its vibrations like a beacon, moving around, and sometimes, through people toward a nearby building.
It was a shame, really. Statistically speaking, it was likely that my customer was a young person, probably even my age. Despite having this job for almost a year now, it was still difficult not to care. Death said I’d get used to it, but I didn’t think I ever would, and nor did I truly believe that he had, either.
Generally, I tried not to think about it.
I slipped through the doors, and moved slowly down the long hallway, holding the hourglass in my hand. The cloak’s hood blocked part of my vision, but taking it down would allow people to see me, so I twisted around like an oversized bird, trying to get a feel for the target lifeline. This was something I did hope to get better at, as the faster I could do the deed, the sooner I could leave. Finally, at the entrance to Room 0923B, the hourglass gave an almighty twitch, and I saw a golden glimmer.
Through the doors and into the classroom, I saw that it was packed with students. Slightly puzzling, to be sure, as no one seemed to be tending a person taken ill. A sudden death, then. Unfortunate, but it wasn’t my job to figure out the whys and hows. A gleam figured into my peripheral vision again, and I turned to see the lifeline. It was golden and shimmery, and I seized it with both hands, having dealt with wibbly ones before. It brightened at my touch, and I began to follow it to its tether, the soon-to-be removed soul.
I didn’t take my eyes off the line, both for practical and personal reasons. Besides fear of losing it, I found it was easier just to slice it quickly, and then deal with the customer once in Limbo. The line came to a stop at a desk a few rows down, and holding it tight with one hand, I rummaged through my pockets with the other. Should I use my scythe or scissors? Given the confined space, scissors might actually be best…
My heart stopped. It wasn’t that the person was talking to me; sometimes a customer could see us before we took their soul, and in those cases, it was prudent to move fast.
But how did they know my name?
I looked up at the person’s face.
It was my best friend.
Zoe stared at me, looking impossibly both shocked and resigned at the same time.
I reeled, staggering away from her desk, shifting through the unaware people around me.
No no no
Her lifeline slipped through my fingers.
Can’t, won’t, NO
I was falling…falling across the floor, against the walls… And all the while, Zoe looked at me straight in the eyes… Impossibly knowing what I was there for…who I was…
The hourglass stopped vibrating, but I hadn’t cut the line, hadn’t taken her soul.
I could never
Darkness closed in around me, and the last thing I saw was Zoe’s face, still watching.
~ * ~ *~ * ~
Consciousness returned slowly, painfully. Itchily.
I opened my eyes. Swirls of darkness instead of sky. I was in Hell.
Well, the entrance, really. One of the limitations of being Death was that he could enter neither Hell nor Heaven, but as he had found it more profitable to be closer to the former, that was where he lived when not working.
Or when not standing over my supine body.
Death stared down at me, his skeletal face unreadable, but I could only imagine that he must be furious. I had failed a customer. I wasn’t sure what would happen if someone didn’t die when they were supposed to, but it couldn’t be anything good.
“You’re back,” he said. His voice came into my head more than to my ears, but I was used to that. It was the sound of his cold disappointment that made me shudder.
I sat up, unable to answer.
As if he didn’t already know. I knew he wanted to hear it from me, though.
Picking at the hem of my cloak, I said to the ground, “It was my best friend.”
I flinched at the sound of her name. A clinking sound made me look up.
Death was holding Zoe’s hourglass, now with the sand all collected at the bottom. Oddly, it was still glowing; normally, they went dark at the time of death. Perhaps because the lifeline hadn’t been cut.
I put my head in my hands, and tried not to cry. Death didn’t really understand mortal emotions (though he could mimic them quite well), and was always baffled by any displays, especially tears.
“Stand up,” he said.
I did so, wondering if I was fired. Wondering why Zoe’s time had come so soon. Wondering, why me…?
“You have failed to escort a customer. Their continued presence on Earth is against the laws of nature. Unforeseen consequences may arise from this transgression.“
Well, now it was really hard not to cry.
“Look at me,” Death said, and I reluctantly glanced under his hood.
At first, I saw what I normally did: a skull, bleach white, with pinpricks of light for eyes. Everybody saw Death differently, depending on your beliefs and the culture in which you were raised. Many people saw him like this, a grinning skeleton with a black robe. Others, or so I was told, saw a fierce warrior, a child, a magistrate, an angel, a witch, or even a beautiful woman. If you didn’t believe anything in particular or lacked a strong imagination, then Death was merely a swirl of darkness, an impassive force guiding you to the next life.
His face then shifted into that of a pale young man, with spiky auburn hair and scruff around the chin. That was his current preferred “mortal” look, for when he had to be out in the physical world. He also used it when he was feeling particularly human.
It was harder to talk to him when he appeared almost normal. I looked away to the hourglass in his hand, which was still glowing strangely.
“You’re not in trouble,” Death said.
This was the last thing I had been expecting him to say. Now I stared at him.
“You are still so very young. It would be foolish of me to assume you could perform such a task with so little experience as a Reaper. Especially given your mortal state, which you still refuse to discard.”
He raised his eyebrow significantly, and I shifted my weight uncomfortably, but didn’t look away. I knew I’d have to give up my mortality someday, but I didn’t want to yet, not for a long time.
“Your oversight shall be forgiven this time,” he said, with a slight emphasis on the last two words. “If you continue to perform your duties well, I foresee no further issues with your contract despite what has happened today.”
Good news for me, though I thought I sensed a “but” somewhere.
When one didn’t come, and we had been standing there for a few awkward moments, I realized what he was waiting for.
“Thank you, sir,” I said, slightly bowing my head. “I shall not transgress again. I appreciate your benevolent understanding. I shall continue to perform my duties to the best of my ability, for now and forevermore.”
The language was stiff, but necessary in the circumstances. Words were power, especially when dealing with supernatural agreements.
Death nodded his acceptance of my gratitude, and then gazed at the hourglass again.
Now that the formalities were done, and I was definitely probably not fired, I felt more relaxed. Then the anxiety and shock about Zoe came rushing back.
“What happens now, sir?” I asked, trying to push down the lump in my throat. “Will she…Will the customer remain among the living?”
He didn’t say anything for a long time, just turned the glass over and over again in his palm. He hadn’t dropped his human look, and I could see worry lines appear on his forehead.
“In normal circumstances,” he began. “I would merely go up and complete the task for you. As I did the first time.”
I remembered that. I hadn’t been able to do it then either, but that was to be expected for my first soul, and Death had been kind enough to finish the task, and escorted me on all jobs until I was able to do it alone.
“But in this case… Something strange has occurred.”
My stomach clenched. “The…unforeseen consequences of a soul not escorted?”
He shook his head. “Those effects are far less tangible and usually locally-based. The soul would be in Limbo while still in the mortal realm, neither truly living nor dead. A ghost, unseen and yet seen.”
A sideways glance at me. “It happens more often than I care to admit.”
I might’ve grinned had I not been feeling so miserable about Zoe. At least I wasn’t the only Reaper to have messed up.
“No, this appears to be a situation that I have seen only once before…” Death held up the hourglass in front of me. “What do you see?“
I suspected the obvious answer might come across as being sarcastic, so I examined it closely. “It’s still glowing,” I said. “Even though…the customer should have already died.”
Her name was too difficult for me to say.
“Yes. And yet, her soul still remains in the physical world.“
Clearly, I was missing something here. Didn’t he just say what happened to souls who were not taken? “Doesn’t that mean she is a ghost now?” I asked.
“No.” And his voice was full of rage, more than I had ever heard before. For the first time in a long while, I was frightened of him. His face shifted back to that of the shadowy skull.
“Zoe Biden is dead, but still alive. She is not a ghost, but neither is she mortal. She is undead.”
This kind of pronouncement ought to have been accompanied by a crash of lightning and thunder, but besides the swirling darkness around us getting a bit agitated, nothing happened. And I was still confused.
“Undead?” I asked, a little hesitantly, for Death seemed very angry. “You mean, like a zombie?”
I immediately felt foolish at asking, because of course zombies didn’t exist—but Death nodded. I stared at him.
His scythe appeared suddenly in the hand that wasn’t holding the hourglass, and he seemed to grow larger, until he was quite towering over me.
“Your friend has made a deal with the devil,” he said, and I wasn’t sure if he meant that literally or figuratively, but I didn’t dare interrupt.
“She is now a member of the undead, beings who undermine and challenge the very basis of the work we do here. They have twisted souls and perversely occupy the mortal realm. They are threat to humans and Reapers alike. They are dangerous and must be eliminated.”
It was all getting to be too much. My friend, a zombie? Dangerous? Zoe had figured out how to cheat death—and Death? It was impossible, ridiculous!
I hadn’t been a Reaper for long, but even I could sense there was something off about Zoe’s hourglass. It still had that fierce glow, which now seemed almost sickly.
“Her lifeline,” I said, looking again at Death, who was glowering at the darkness above, as if peering into the mortal realm. “If she is undead, why would she still have that?”
“It was a trap,” he said, and now I understood the real reason for his anger. “A trap for the Reaper who came for the girl’s soul. To make a Reaper one of the undead would give them immense power, enough to further their agenda of turning the entire world populace undead. No more death. No more life.”
He now looked at me, and I froze under those piercing eyes. “Your inability to cut your friend’s lifeline may have saved us all.”
This news would have been flattering if the situation hadn’t involved my friend (who was dead but not really), zombies trying to take over the world, and me barely having avoided being turned into a member of the undead myself.
“We must warn the other Reapers,” Death said suddenly, and took off toward his house with a whoosh of his cloak.
I hurried after him, intrigued. I had never seen any other Reapers before, even though I knew there must be millions. People died nearly every second of every day. And the Death I saw before me must be only one of the many personas that assisted the other Reapers.
These thoughts were mixed into the jumble already filling my head. I was reeling from this huge information dump. A few minutes ago, I had been mourning the death of my best friend, and now she was part of the enemy? There was an enemy? Zombies were real? And why was Death so very angry, even more than might be appropriate in the circumstances?
We were almost to his house now, each of us practically sprinting toward the door. But I was still confused.
“I don’t understand!” I called out to him. “How did Zoe become undead in the first place?”
He stopped so suddenly, I almost crashed into him—though I probably would’ve just phased right through.
Death gazed down at my panting form, looking fiercer than I’d ever seen him, and yet there was something almost comforting in his voice.
“My dear Fay Tate… We have a great deal of work to do.”
This story is based on a real dream that I had, where I was indeed a worker for Death and had to cut the lifeline of my best friend. It may have deeper meaning, but I was mostly just excited and inspired to spew out a whole bunch of words about it. I’m actually pretty proud of how this came out, and I’m thinking of turning it into a series of sorts on here. Maybe not a story every week, but this one could be the beginning of periodic installments as I work through the plot. Or I could just end it now, because reasons. Whatever ends up being the most fun!
EDIT: 12 March 2015
The Death figure I created here is very much modeled after Discworld’s Death, who is easily one of the greatest fiction characters of all time (and who I was actually thinking about in the aforementioned dream). He was created by Terry Pratchett, who passed away today at age 66.
It is, of course, good to know that Terry Pratchett is no longer suffering, but his imagination will be so sorely missed. His Discworld got me through college, with me having to go to three different libraries and a hurried session at the bookstore just to read them all. His words made me think about things I’d never considered before and dream of worlds I’d never imagined. Not only is he one of my favorite authors, he is easily one of the greatest of our time, and I know he still had so much more to give. Thank you for everything, Sir Pterry.