The smell of food awakens me from a familiar dream, where the demon skull at the base of Chaoseater becomes animated and speaks to me of its torture. Of eternal, all-consuming hunger. “Let me partake in your victory,” it said this time. “Let me taste Ravaiim blood!” Then it was no longer a demon skull, but Strife’s mask, and it too spoke of dark cravings, but they were of a different kind.
Hearing me stir, Death beckons me to join him by the fire. The meat is lean and bland, but delightfully juicy and I eat in focused silence until there is no more.
“Shall I put on the other half?” he asks.
In place of an answer, I unbuckle my belt so I can breathe.
Death looks at my belly, bulging like that of a pregnant woman, and laughs. If he has eaten at all, he must have done it while I slept. “You look like yourself again.”
He laughs some more, then hops on his feet and offers a hand. “Come on. Let us rest till the heat lets up.”
The heat doesn’t bother me, but now that he mentions it, I realize it’s midday. The shadows of tree crowns are perfectly round, there’s not even a hint of a breeze in the air, and all the sounds of nature have ceased. Well, apart from Dust’s excited clacking as he starts to pick the bones clean. The steppe is still lush with recent rainfall, but it will soon grow yellow and dry, and then the skies will darken with the smoke from fires. My favorite time of the year. How I love the smell of burning fields!
Death sits next to me as I settle into my old spot with a hand under my head, but sleep doesn’t come again despite the full stomach and the lull of the noon.
“What manner of artifact did you get from the Archon?” I ask.
He turns to give me a sidelong glance. “A sentimental trinket,” he says. “For a sentimental fool.”
I smirk. “A gift for Strife?”
“I see you’ve been spending too much time with him in my absence.”
To my relief, he has turned away once more and cannot witness my mortification. Not for the first time since we’ve been traveling together, I wonder if I should confess my feelings for Strife, and his for me, to Death. My mind has lingered on it, on him, whenever we weren’t busy going about our tasks, ever since Death brought me back from the brink of the Abyss. He called my soul stubborn, but it hadn’t been obstinance that kept me tethered to life, despite my failure. It had been fear that I would never see Strife again. That he might never know the depth of my devotion, which I foolishly kept hidden so it wouldn’t burden or frighten him. I wish him to know! I wish the world to know!
Yet here I cower behind Death’s back, too embarrassed to speak up.
“I was too hard on him,” Death mutters, almost too quiet to hear. “And on you. It seems the five hundred years of solitude did little to bolster my patience.”
“He should not have drawn his weapons if he wasn’t ready to use them,” I reply in an equally quiet mumble. Speaking of Strife feels odd and I hurry to change the subject. “I, at least, was ready to use mine.”
But Death will not be steered from his course. “He has grown fond of leadership and resents me for displacing him.”
“He is no more fond of giving orders than you are, brother. But even less, of taking them.”
Death turns about on his rear and reseats himself facing me. “What of you, War?”
“What of me?”
“Do you not wish to lead?”
I hum. I’ve thought about it often enough, but never reached a satisfying answer. “If this honor was bestowed on me, I would accept it, and perform it to the best of my ability. But I do not envy you for it, nor have I envied Strife.”
His eyes smile. “You’ve grown. This is not the answer you’d have given when we met.”
“Thankfully, no one asked.”
He laughs. Has he always laughed this much? It is difficult to remember more than impressions from the time before his absence. And besides, we were all grim after Eden, followed so closely by Lucifer’s corruption of Earth. Death was tense and edgy at the beginning of this journey, but has been more at ease, at times even unhinged, since our triumph.
My brows rise as he kicks off his boots to the side, and for a moment I fear he will stretch his legs with feet next to my face. But he spins around once more and lies on the grass beside me. A rope of his hair slides into my right armpit and I snort, and then he yelps when I tug on it, pulling my arm in to stop the tickling. He shoves an elbow in my side and I shove back, and we laugh like youths. When at last he leans in to extract his hair from my clutches, I catch his strange scent, of ancient scrolls and paper dust. I’ve grown accustomed enough to the unappealing odor of Despair during the past few weeks that I can no longer detect it on Death even when I try.
Before I can think myself out of it, I kick off my boots too. Small creatures will probably avoid the spot where our feet are resting for years to come.
“Here,” Death says, lifting something in the air above our faces. It breaks the scant sunlight that filters through the foliage into a dozen sparkling rainbows. “Ever seen one of these?”
“A Crystal of Recollection,” I mutter. “This is what you bartered for with the Archon? What does it contain?”
“Nothing. That’s why he drove such a hard bargain. It is pristine.”
“Impossible.” I reach for the crystal, then almost drop it. “They could only be mined in the grottos of… what was it called?”
“Wenetra,” Death says. Another world trampled by the Horde, long before I was born. “Yes. Only a few may remain that have never been used.”
I turn the bright crystal over, its purity in stark contrast with the dirt caked under and around my fingernails. “We used these in school,” I muse idly. Ancient memories, unbidden, spill from the dark well of the past, perhaps following the lure of the crystal’s power. “But they were all cracked, scratched and milky, passed on from one generation of angel children to another for centuries. And they were a lot bigger.”
Death snorts. “Or you were a lot smaller.”
“Hmpf.” I hand the crystal back. “What do you need it for?”
“To store a recollection, obviously.”
From his tone, I sense I should not have asked. It’s just as well. I’m unused to conversation at the best of times, let alone when slow and heavy like now. Death’s shoulder is pleasantly warm, pressed against mine. I feel I might sleep again after all. But not a minute later, he speaks again.
“What else do you remember of your childhood?”
I groan. Although I have as many recollections of joy from my youth as I have of pain, it is not a subject I can speak of without effort. I suspect it is the same with all of us. Strife understands. He has never insisted, and neither have I, despite that promise, made long ago in ruined Eden, that someday, we would give one another a full account of our lives before we were Horsemen. The sorrowful tale he had told me just before I set out in pursuit of Death was the closest either of us has come to it so far. And although I feel no resistance against telling Death such stories, I also feel unequal to the task. Just thinking about it makes me short of breath.
“One of my earliest memories,” he says after a while, “is of the time I buried myself six feet under the ground.”
At first, I intend to say nothing in the way of encouragement. Let him speak on if he wishes, or not, if he doesn’t. But the incongruous image his words have evoked soon gets the better of me. How does one bury himself? Digging a pit is easy enough, but then?
“Did you use magics?” I ask.
He laughs. “No. I had a… friend, of sorts. One foolish enough to help me. She was older than me, but no less imprudent. Ambitious too.”
“A young demon.” His breath catches, as if he started to say more but abruptly changed his mind. “From Lilith’s court,” he utters through his teeth when I glance his way.
I hum in acknowledgment. It’s no surprise. I have suspected it—I suppose we all have—long before his deranged behavior during our visit to the demon queen convinced me of it. If he expects a shocked reaction, he’s waiting in vain. None of us chose to be born as half-breeds for whom there is no place in Heaven nor in Hell, with nothing to connect us but the endless wrath in our hearts and a thirst for destruction that can never be quenched. Nor could we choose our parents, guardians and teachers. The lives we chose started when we became Horsemen, and it is only in this life that I will be held, and hold my brethren, accountable. What came before matters not.
“I promised her—this friend—my entire bone collection for burying me, hiding the tracks, and keeping her mouth shut,” Death goes on at last. “She wanted it all in advance; in case I died in there. But she settled for a half when I added the petrified duskwing eye, the crown jewel of my hoard, to the offer.”
“You were a child, you say? How old?”
He shrugs. “A youth. Late teens, I think? Grown enough to hunt and fight and plot my escape from that place, if that is what you’re asking.”
I frown. Escape. It is, of course, what I ended up doing myself, and at a similar age, yet I find it hard to imagine that Death, with his lofty air of confidence and superiority, could have ever been in a situation to run away from anything.
“How long did you remain underground?”
This time, when I turn to look at him, he inclines his head too and returns my gaze. There are no signs of humor or exaggeration in his eyes.
“Did no one look for you?”
He snorts. “They did. They thought I was kidnapped by another demon lord, for study and entertainment. There weren’t many of us at the time. A Nephilim slave could fetch a handsome price.”
“Yet your friend did not betray you for a reward? Odd to hear of such loyalty from a demon.”
“Ah.” He turns skyward again. “Only because I made sure of it.”
“The rest of your bone collection could not have been worth it, even if you had leviathan teeth in it.”
“No.” He is silent a while. “The duskwing eye is ingested for a long-lasting boost in stamina, night vision and virility. I knew exactly what—or rather who–she needed it for. It is why I chose to approach her with the offer, and not someone else. I dipped it in poison before trading it. She must have died far from my burial site, as no connection was ever made.”
As I turn away, mulling it over, I sense his gaze on me again. “I know what you’re thinking,” he says.
“You think it was dishonorable.”
“It was. But it was also clever.”
“The ploy with Azrael and Hadrimon was clever as well, but did not meet your approval. How is this different?”
“I didn’t say it is.” I grunt, suddenly irritated. “You asked of my youth. How about this? My bloody-minded insisting on honor got my best friend killed.” By my own bloody hands. Before I could say all the things I foolishly kept hidden in fear of burdening or frightening him. My vision blurs. How many centuries will it take for the pain to fade? “I would give anything to swap that memory for one of being dishonorable but clever.”
“Would you really?”
It is not a taunt. If anything, the soft tone of his voice tells me that he gleaned from my speech much that I hadn’t voiced in words, but I am inexplicably angry anyway. When I face him, he is close enough for the burn of my brand to tint his mask orange. “Would I trade my principles to save someone I love?”
We stare at one another, but there is no fight in his eyes and the spark in my chest flickers out and dies before bursting in flames.
“I hope you will never have to make that choice, brother.”
I look away, no longer able to bear the gravity of his gaze. “Why did you do it?”
“Why did I kill her?”
“Why did you want to be buried, at the cost of someone’s life, and risking your own?”
Finally, he straightens his head again and it’s like a weight has been lifted from me. For a long time, many a tense breath, we lie in silence, and I resolve to insist, should he try to leave it at that. But he does answer in the end.
“At first, I wanted to test my limits. But more than that… I wanted to be left alone. To be unseen. Perhaps even… to not be. I was comfortable, under the earth. Calm. After a while… I no longer planned to come out.”
My heartbeat grows loud and heavy. “But you did come out in the end.” I look at him. “Was it by choice?”
“What changed your mind?”
“I had a vision. Do not ask what I saw. I have recalled it so many times and imposed on it so many different interpretations that I no longer know true memories from fantasy. These days, I like to think it was about becoming a Horseman, but who knows what new fancies the future will bring? Suffice it to say, it made me believe I should rejoin the world.”
“This is why you need a pristine Crystal,” I mutter.
There can be no doubt about it, for why else would he tell me this disturbing tale? The Crystals of Recollection have the power to reveal the truth hidden among lies, whether one makes them to fool others or oneself. There was a time when they were a routine tool of angelic judicators, but their magic weakens with use. After Wenetra was put to the flame and the sword of the Nephilim, the remaining ones were gradually reduced to amusing classroom props.
“Yes,” Death says. “I hoped my journey into the dark would bring me closure and clarity, in this and other matters that weigh on me. But it failed on both accounts.”
His words sharpen my focus and suddenly I grasp a strange intuition. But I stop myself just as I take air to say it out loud. It is a presumptuous thought, one likely best kept unvoiced.
“You may speak freely,” Death says when the silence has stretched long and thin. “I wouldn’t have told you all this if I was averse to hearing your opinion.”
“I’m thinking… that your ‘journey into the dark’ was another way to dig yourself into a hole. Be unseen and left alone. This time, for five hundred years.”
He coughs a dry laugh but doesn’t reply. When I look at him, demanding an answer, I notice his throat is working as if he’s swallowing a particularly large lump.
“I didn’t lie idle in some grave, if that is what you mean,” he says at last, in a deepened voice. “But I suppose it’s true, in a way.” He shoots me a glance. “Since when are you so insightful?”
I shrug, momentarily embarrassed by the compliment, but my thoughts soon return to his troubling confession. I used to think that Strife anguished over what had happened in Eden more than any of us, but now I wonder if Death hadn’t been stricken even harder. My chest tightens with grief. For what was lost. For the suffering our kin inflicted on Creation, and we inflicted on them… and on ourselves. I have come to believe what I once so vehemently denied. Annihilation was too high a price to pay. Even for the Balance.
“I’m glad you chose to rejoin the world once more, brother.” My voice has grown thick, but I care not to hide it. “Regardless of the deeds of your past, the world is better for it.”
He laughs, then raises his arm to his face. When I turn, I find him unmasked.
Taking a deep breath, he looks at me. I stare without shame. I’ve not seen his face since our early days as Horsemen. A handsome, angular face with wide cheekbones, strong chin, and straight brows. Lined deeper than I remember it. Wherever his journey had taken him, he did not return unscathed.
“It is good to see you, brother.”
He smiles back at me. “It is good to be seen.”