Plants died around his fingers. The leaves shriveled, turning black and dry. The slightest breeze made them crumple. Birds chirped around the trees, but they avoided Death’s tree. Nothing made noise around him, and the ground had turned black and dead.
A large sword was strapped to his back. It was completely black, no light or color reflecting off it. His clothes were the same color, the edges of the frayed fabric flowing out in an imaginary wind. His skin was pale, a large skull hanging over his face like a visor. It covered his forehead and eyes, hiding their color. Even he wasn’t sure what color his eyes were.
He used to know, but then he took up his sword. For years, he did the duty of death. Things like eye color didn’t matter.
Unless it was hers.
Death stood in the shadow of a tree, watching her. She was his age, at least, the age he was when he stopped aging. Her skin was bronze from days in the sun. Her long caramel hair flowed down her back, ending just above her hips.
Her eyes were the most beautiful. They were dark, her pupils hidden in her irises. Her smile was bright and dispelled Death’s gloom.
She was laughing with her friends, a picnic blanket laid out in the meadow.
Her name was Lilia.
Death had almost taken her several times. He stood below her when she played on a cliff and a rock fell out beneath her. He almost claimed her then, but she managed to pull herself up. Then, a few years later, he thought he was going to claim her when she went swimming in the ocean. He was there in the swells when the tide pulled her out and repeatedly pushed her under. It was only by luck that his sword didn’t touch her and a boat found her at the last moment.
But something struck him as odd during these experiences. Both times, Lilia had seen him. She had met Death’s eyes under the waves.
And she smiled.
That was the real reason his sword hadn’t taken her. Even when she was about to die, and they both knew it, she was happy. That smile never left Death’s mind. He began protecting her, leading her away from danger. Even now, years from when he once tried to claim her, he followed her, keeping her from harm.
Lilia laughed at something a friend said. The laughter echoed through the meadow, bouncing off the trees and joining the calls of the birds.
The sound was beautiful to Death. He stepped forward, wanting desperately to be closer to it.
His hand brushed a bush. The leaves shriveled, and fell, several picked up by the wind.
Normal people wouldn’t see the death so fast. To them, it would finally die in a few days.
But Death knew better. Life could be taken in an instant.
Lilia seemed to hear the crunch of the leaves. She turned, a smile still plastered on her face.
Death stood still, keeping his cloak hidden in the shadows. Mortals couldn’t see him. Lilia’s eyes would pass straight by him, unaware of his presence.
Her eyes locked his.
Death started at her, and she stared back. For several seconds, she watched him, and Death got the feeling she was remembering other times she saw him.
She’ll start screaming soon.
The action felt like a punch to Death’s stomach. He gasped, ducking behind the tree.
No one, not anybody, ever smiled at Death. They screamed at him, cursed him, but never smiled.
He slipped further behind the tree, careful not to touch the bark. He heard laughter resume in the meadow. Lilia had probably turned back to the group.
Death jumped and fell backwards, accidently touching several bushes. They shriveled and died, as quickly as water flowing from a broken cup.
Lilia stood on the small patch of dead earth he left. She was smiling at him. She glanced at the dead bushes, lightly touching one of the leaves. It crumbled under her fingers.
“How… what… how can you see me?” Death stammered.
She extended a hand. “Let me help you.”
Death shook his head violently. “Don’t touch me. You’ll die.”
Lilia pulled her hand back, but her gaze didn’t leave his. The wind played with her hair, making it flow out behind her like a cape.
“How…” Death said, trying his best not to touch another living thing as he pulled himself to his feet. “…How can you see me? You aren’t dying, I can tell.”
Lilia was several heads shorter than him. She had to crane her neck to see his face.
“I’m… not sure. I’ve always been able to see you. Ever since the ocean.”
When I started protecting her.
He wiped his hands on his pants. There wasn’t any dirt on them, things like that didn’t affect him, but it gave him something to do.
The wind blew, making plants bend and sway. One unfortunate plant blew into his clothes. It shriveled, the wind suddenly growing cold.
Lilia shivered, sensing death.
“You should go,” Death whispered, “Mortals do not belong in my presence.”
As if mirroring his words, Lilia’s friends started calling for her. She glanced at them, then back to Death. “I’ll see you soon.”
She turned and ran towards the clearing, leaving him standing in the middle of a blackened circle. Dead plants and small bugs littered the ground around him.
“Hopefully not for many years,” he whispered, though he knew there was no way she heard him.
The next few days, Lilia was always in the meadow, waiting for Death. At first, he thought she wouldn’t be able to see him any more, the first time had been a glitch, a fluke in his power.
But everyday, she found him. She would smile, and Death couldn’t help but smile back.
They sat in the middle of the meadow. A ring of black, shriveled grass surrounded Death. The sun wasn’t quite able to pierce the heavy cloud around him, and his skin didn’t feel the warmth.
Lilia was rubbing her fingers up a thin blade of grass. Her eyes shone as small bugs walked around her fingers. She looked up at Death, holding a piece of grass.
“Why do you wear a mask?”
Death met her eyes. They looked almost gold in the sunlight. He reached up and touched the smooth bone of his mask. It was cold.
“It puts people at ease. It would be uncomfortable for death to look like someone they know.” He subconsciously ran his fingers down the teeth embedded in the top half. They fell over half his nose, effectively hiding his face above his cheek bones.
“Can you take it off?”
“I’ve… never tried.”
Lilia’s gaze dropped back to a single ant walking through the grass. It’s antenna tasted the air as it climbed.
“Who were you? Before you took up the sword, I mean.”
The question seemed innocent, but it hit Death like a wave of cool water. He froze, the circle of shriveled leaves growing.
“I don’t remember.”
Lilia looked up at him, eyes full of sympathy. Her hand twitched, like she wanted to reach out and touch his hand before she remembered who she was with. Death looked away, but he felt her gaze still on him, studying him.
Finally she looked away with a sigh. “My family lives over those hills,” she pointed to a ridge line peeking out from behind the trees. There was a small line of smoke, likely from a fireplace.
It would be nice to feel warm again.
He was drawn out of his thoughts as Lilia kept talking.
“It’s a good place to live, but raiders come to our house every month, demanding we give them half our food. Usually it's fine, but I’m worried about this winter. My mother is sick.”
Death nodded. Lilia’s mother was very close to death. In a few weeks, his sword would be forced to fly.
He didn’t mention that to Lilia. He didn’t want to let his gloom surround her too.
What will happen when I claim her mother? She will watch me do it.
She would hate him after that. Death was sure of it.
“I could do something about the raiders,” he gambled. Maybe if they were well fed this winter she would avoid his touch.
Lilia looked at him. “Are you sure? Wouldn’t that be unnatural if they all died?”
Death shrugged. “I don’t always follow Nature. He created me, but does not control me.”
Lilia still looked unsure. Death longed to reach out and grab her hand, offer her comfort, hold her. He could wrap her in a protective embrace and never let go. She could come with him to death.
But she still had reasons to stay here. She had a family, a future.
Death did not.
“I don’t know. You shouldn’t go against Nature.”
Death didn’t protest. They sat in silence, watching the small line of smoke rise into the air. The wind was growing cold, and Death sensed a winter storm. He would be needed through that.
Lilia smiled, turning to him. “You never answered my question.”
Death blinked. “What?”
“Who were you before you took up the sword?”
Death trailed a finger through the black ground beneath him. “I told you, I don’t know.”
Lilia smiled. “I think I can figure it out.”
She stared at him, like she was trying to break his mask with her gaze. Her brow scrunched up and she raised a finger to the side of her mouth, lightly tapping it as she thought. “Your eyes... they were blue. Weren’t they?”
Death opened his mouth to say he didn’t remember, when he paused. “Yes… They were.” He stared at her. “How did you know that?”
Lilia smiled. “Death can’t hide you from me.”
She studied him for a little longer. “Your hair was blonde, right?”
Once again, Death was stunned as he nodded. Lilia’s smile turned mischievous as she turned innocently to look at the trees.
“So, what was your name?”
He thought for a second, then was shocked when he had an answer. “Talon.”
She looked at him, her smile breaking through the gloom around Death. “Well, Talon. I will see you tomorrow. The sun is getting low.”
Death glanced at the horizon in shock. The sun was almost touching the mountains. He could have sworn it was in the middle of the sky a few minutes ago.
Lilia stood. For a second, Death was worried she would throw her arms around him, but she turned and walked away.
“She knows too much.”
Death jumped. Balance formed from mist right beside him. Her dress was the same color as the sunset but her eyes were dark and filled with stars. As she moved, she looked both solid and unformed, the edges of her image distorted.
“Balance,” Death said, bowing his head, “it's been a long time since we’ve met.”
“Yes,” she said, still watching Lilia. “You haven’t given me reason to interrupt your doings. Until now.” Balance turned to Death.
“That girl is dangerous. She’s distracting you.”
Death clenched his fists at his sides. “She is not dangerous. She has been—”
“Helping you remember who you used to be? That's dangerous.”
He shook his head. “She doesn’t mean to cause harm.”
Balance nodded. “But the universe must stay in balance. I’m sorry. You’ll see the logic in a few years.”
Death grew cold and the ground around him froze. The winds picked up. He stepped up into Balance’s face.
“If you place a finger on her,” he hissed, “I’ll leave you wishing you could die.”
Balance stepped back. “I won’t be touching her. As you know, interacting with mortals goes against Nature.”
“Please,” Death begged, “I’ll cut ties with her. I’ll never see her again. Please don’t do this.”
She looked at him, her eyes filled with sympathy. “I’m sorry, Death. I can’t trust you to stay away.”
Balance dissolved into mist, whipped away by the building wind.
“No!” Death yelled, “You can’t do this!”
She was gone, leaving Death in the center of a dead meadow.
A girl screamed.
Death ran through the forest toward the small line of smoke rising from Lilia’s house. To his horror, the line became thicker, turning into a large plume. It blanketed the top of the hill, filling Death’s lungs with smoke.
Souls called for his attention. Sick animals, growing weaker from the smoke and plants too close to the flames, all called for him to release them.
For the first time in his existence, he ignored them.
It took him too long to reach Lilia’s house. By the time he got there, her house and the nearby trees were on fire, and the scene was a nightmare.
About a dozen men dressed in dark clothes and wearing masks were piling more wood onto the house. Around them, baskets and pots were overturned and their contents were spread across the ground.
Only a few feet from the raging fire, a form lay motionless. Death recognized Lilia’s mother. She was barely breathing, and Death could feel her soul begging for release. Without having to look at her, Death knew she had been mortally wounded.
He scanned the valley for Lilia.
For a frightening moment, he couldn’t find her.
Finally, he saw her.
She was screaming at the raiders, grabbing their weapons and trying to pull them away from her house. They kept brushing her off their shoulders, like she was an annoying bug. One got sick of her. With one slap, he knocked her to the ground.
Death snarled, stepping out of the forest. The plants around him died and the wind grew cold.
Lilia heard him. She scrambled away from the men, turning to call for Death.
It was a shock to hear someone else use his name. The raiders turned, weapons drawn, and looked around the clearing, trying to find who Lilia was talking to.
Balance’s words echoed through Death’s mind. Interacting with mortals goes against Nature. Forces weren’t supposed to influence things like this. Mortals weren’t supposed to know they existed. If he tried to stop this, Nature would be on him in a flash.
But mortals can fight.
And Death was once a mortal.
Death ran down the hill toward Lilia’s mother. As he got closer, he realized why Lilia was the only one trying to stop the raiders. Inside the house, three bodies were covered in flames. They filled the valley with the sick smell of burning flesh.
Death never escorted those souls. Balance had taken them.
He knelt by Lilia’s mother. The woman was pale. Her shirt was covered in blood.
“Death…” she whispered, “I’ve been waiting for you.”
Death bowed his head. “Mika,” he said, finding her name, “I need your help to save your daughter.”
Mika’s eyes seemed to focus for a second. She glanced at Lilia, who was watching Death.
“She...can see...you. Is it...her time...too?” She was struggling to speak.
Death shook his head. “Not if I have any say in it.”
That seemed to comfort Mika, but her eyes were growing unfocused. Death could feel her dropping into his realm.
“Before you go, I need to borrow your mortality.”
Mika looked at him, confused. “If it will help you save my daughter, then sure.”
He touched the dying woman’s arm. A shudder ran up her body, as her spirit left. Behind him, he heard Lilia fall to her knees, crying.
Mika’s soul started passing through him, into the afterlife. Before it could slip past his reach, he grabbed it and directed it into the empty hole where his soul used to be.
Black mist started building around him. The raiders looked over, and several started yelling.
The soul took hold. For a few moments, Death would be mortal. He could be killed, but he could also affect the mortal world.
“Talon,” Lilia whispered. Death looked down at her, as he stood, black cape falling around him.
“Stay behind me.”
Lilia nodded and stood. Death turned to the raiders, drawing his sword. “Leave. Now.”
The raiders laughed. The leader drew his sword, yelling to his comrades. “He’s just one man! Charge!”
A dozen men ran down the hill at Death. He braced himself, his sword feeling heavy in his hands.
“Ready?” Lilia asked, stepping next to him. She held a large knife, basically a small sword. Her eyes were fierce, but she trembled, and her grip was too tight on the hilt. She wouldn’t last long.
“Stay back,” Death said, placing himself between her and the charging men.
“No.” Lilia appeared at his side again. “I’m the reason you are risking being mortal. If you die, it will be my fault. I will stay by you, and protect you how I can.”
Death nodded, realizing there was no way to convince her otherwise, and the raiders were practically on top of them.
The first struck at Death. Death deflected the blade, and ran his into the man's stomach. He crumpled, and Death felt his soul leave, taken by Balance.
The men quickly surrounded them. Lilia pressed her back to his as she fought. She was surprisingly good. The enemy's weapons would get close, but at the last minute they skidded off her blade that appeared in their arc.
“Balance is on their side,” Death grunted as he fought. Three wounded men lay around him, along with two dead. Lilia had almost just as many.
“Yes, I am.”
The voice sounded next to Death’s ear, but when he turned, no one was there. The air shimmered slightly, and Balance’s face came into view. Her usually beautiful features were scrunched into a frown and she glared at Death. “I don’t like how this is turning out. You should not have interfered, Death.”
She flicked her hand.
Behind Death, Lilia screamed and dropped to the ground.
Death growled, swiping his sword through Balance. She disappeared, her smug smile the last thing to leave.
Death turned to Lilia. Her front was covered in blood, an arrow embedded in her side. One of the surviving raiders held a large crossbow, the shaft empty.
Death roared, slamming his fist into the ground. A wave of death rushed for the men, killing plants, and any other living thing in its path. It hit the men and they crumpled. The burst of power dislodged Mika’s soul. It followed the men to the afterlife, leaving Death how he used to be. Immortal, and unable to affect mortal life. Unable to change what just happened.
He knelt beside Lilia. The wound was fatal, and he didn’t have to check it to know. He felt her soul losing its grip on her body.
“Lilia.” She looked at him, struggling to keep her eyes open.
“I’m...sorry,” she whispered. Her voice sounded fraile. Too fraile.
“Don’t speak. Save your energy.” He reached to take her hand, but quickly pulled back.
“No, don’t pull away. Hold me.”
Death shook his head. “You’ll die.”
Lilia smiled. “I already am. Don’t let me die alone.”
Death willed his power to hold back, just for a few minutes. He pulled her into his arms. She grew paler and still, but her soul hadn’t left.
She will not die.
“Balance!” More plants around him died. “Balance! Answer me!”
She shimmered into existence beside him, her dress was dark blue, matching the color of the sunless sky. A few stars were starting to appear on the edges of the fabric. Her eyes were golden.
“I truly am sorry, Death,” she whispered. “She was getting too close to you. It was dangerous.”
“You need balance,” Death said, ignoring her.
Balance blinked. “Of course.”
“You know I’ve become unbalanced. I hold the power of life and death, but death shows.”
Balance nodded slowly. “Yes… But-”
She froze. “What?”
Lilia shuddered in his arms. Her soul was almost completely gone.
“Please! Give her the power of Life. Leave me with death.”
Balance tilted her head. “You would give up half your power for a mortal?”
Death bowed his head over Lilia. She was barely breathing. “Yes. Please.”
Balance smiled. “Then it shall be done.”
Lilia’s body started glowing. Death set her down, standing back. The plants around her regrew, leaving only a small circle around him.
Balance vanished as Life replenished what Death lost.
Life and Death would live forever intertwined, made from the same power.
Two sides, keeping each other in balance. Life created joy, and Death created space for growth.
And through all eternity, Death would protect Life.