“You’re early,” the old man said, laying on his deathbed, struggling for breath. “Right?”
“I’m early,” The Angel of Death said, her black wings furled. “It’s been a slow day.” She leaned against the hospital wall, hating the slow days for how they dragged on, leaving her with nothing to do, no way to feel important.
“Don’t suppose you can,” he struggled for breath, “make it slower?”
A smile slipped its way onto the Angel of Death’s lips. At least he was interesting.
“You can’t push an old man’s death off for another day?” he asked.
“No,” she said. “I can’t.”
“But you have,” he said.
“Once,” she said.
“The writer guy,” he said, his words hanging in the air. “What’s his name. What’s his name?”
“George,” she said. “George Lewis.”
“Yeah,” he said. “That wasn’t so long ago.”
“Nearly forty years.”
“That’s not so long, for a creature like you.”
“You’re right,” she said. “But you’re no George Lewis.”
“What did he do?”
“You’re in no shape to do what he did,” she said.
“Then what am I in the sort of shape to do?”
She stood there, silent, watching him struggle to survive. The answer to his question was obvious. It would be condescending to say.
“Why?” he asked. “Why do I have to die?”
It was a tough question, one she’d had to answer many times, for herself and others. There were all of the cliche phrases to fall back on, the hackneyed bits of folk wisdom that people clung to in the hopes of making themselves feel better. She’d clung to them, once. But in the end, when she was so close to death, they hadn’t been enough. In the end, escaping death only made her confront that question every day, in the guise of this mantle of death.
When she was busy, she’d trot out the cliches, the old easy standbys that helped her ignore the reality of her existence. But that was the problem with slow days. She had nothing to do, no reason to drop a cliche and run. She had to confront her nature.
“Try answering your own question,” she told him, hoping to circumvent the truth. “We all like our own answers, better.”
He scrunched his face, looking surprised, confused. “I’ve thought a lot about it.”
“I think death is the last call for meaning,” he said. “It’s the moment where you can look back at your life, to ask if it was really worth it. It’s when you can look at yourself and figure out whether you were a good person. We can’t understand the worth of something until its over. The final judgment can’t happen until your life is finally over.”
He thought she looked like a statue, neutral and unfeeling.
“Am I right?” he asked. It was the most important question he’d ever asked. Laying there, then, he asked about the meaning of life, hoping to get an answer from a creature who should know the answer.
“Do you want an honest answer?”
“Yeah,” he said.
“No,” she said. Her words struck him.
“Then why?” he asked.
“You’re less than the sum of your parts,” she said. “Most old things are. I take your soul, then the universe takes the bits of you that aren’t you, anymore. The physical bits of your being get recycled to make something newer, better.”
“I…” his voice trailed off.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “There may be a Heaven, at least.”
“You don’t know?” he asked.
She shrugged her shoulders.
It didn’t take long before he cried. His face twisted, and he burst into tears.
She stood there for a minute, watching the old man cry, wishing the end would come so he didn’t have to feel so sad. Eventually, when it was near, she walked up to him. She placed her pale white hand on his chest.
“Shhh,” she said. “I’m old, too. I understand your pain.”
His breathing stopped. She closed his eyes.
She placed her hand on either side of his mouth, then opened his jaw. She slipped her hand into his jaw, taking out a thin, translucent sheet.
— — —
The Hyalu struggled, carrying the elf over her shoulder. The Hyalu’s heart floated right next to her, outside of her, following her wherever she went. She opened the bathroom door and walked in, nearly slipping on the tile floor. She steadied herself, took a deep breath, and walked towards the bathtub.
She didn’t need to be careful, throwing the elf into the bathtub. His head cracked against the porcelain tub, but he was dead anyway.
She slipped her hand into her pocket, and brought out a pouch of dust. She sprinkled the dust on the elf’s corpse. The corpse sizzled, skin boiling up, disintegrating before the witch’s eyes. She smiled.
A pillar of light materialized in the room. The Hyalu’s eyes widened. The hairs stood up on her skin, drawn towards the electrifying light. The Angel of Death walked out of the pillar of light.
“You’re early,” the Hyalu said.
“You murderous gnat,” the Angel of Death said, grabbing the Hyalu by the throat and throwing her against a wall. “I’ve been waiting for you.”
“Don’t!” the Hyalu yelled. “You and I are the same! We work for death! Please. Please, oh god.” She looked near the point of tears.
The Angel of Death craned her neck, placing her lips within an inch of the Hyalu’s ear. “I take souls to restore balance. You take lives and pervert the elements.”
“You’re not some impartial guardian,” the Hyalu spat. “You’ve upset the balance, with–”
The Angel of Death took the Hyalu, cracking her head against the tub. The Hyalu bled, unmoving. She placed her hand in the Hyalu’s mouth, taking out the thin, translucent sheet. She dropped it on the bathroom floor.
She sighed, watching the elf’s flesh boil. The little patches of skin bubbled up, popping and sizzling and disintegrating before her eyes.
She moved to wipe the sweat off her brow, only to find that she wasn’t sweating. After all these years, she still hadn’t gotten used to that.
— — —
The newsvendor nearly hacked up her lungs, looking for her handkerchief. She checked her pants pocket and breast pocket, but found nothing. She wiped her brow, wondering if she could leave her newsstand for a couple minutes, to find some sort of napkin.
A pale white hand offered a handkerchief. The newsvendor nodded in appreciation, grabbing it.
That’s when she noticed the stranger’s black wings.
“Oh, jeez,” she said, rubbing the handkerchief against her nose. “I knew this wasn’t good, but I never woulda thought–”
“The sickness won’t kill you,” the Angel of Death said.
“Then why…” The newsvendor didn’t know what else to say.
“Accident,” she said. “Car.”
The newsvendor nodded her head. “Knew it was coming someday.”
“Anyone you’d care to call?”
The newsvendor shrugged, chuckling. “Never had a good love life. No family to leave behind. So I guess I’m lucky, in that way.”
The Angel of Death thought it sad. “I guess you’re lucky.”
“I didn’t think it was supposed to be like this.”
“Like this?” The Angel of Death asked.
“Thought you only came after I died.”
“Usually, but it’s a slow day.”
“Slow day,” the newsvendor said, chewing over the words. “Don’t suppose I can offer you a paper?” She let out a bit of a chuckle. “See if we can’t arrange a deal?”
The Angel of Death looked at all the choices, which filled the news vendor’s cart. Here there was news from all over the world. She didn’t know which one she wanted.
“How will I know?” the newsvendor asked. “Will I have to cross the street?”
“You’ll know,” the Angel of Death said. She watched the newsvendor wear a puzzled look on her face. She watched as that puzzled look turned to understanding.
“I visited my friend across the street,” the newsvendor said, nodding at the clothing store across the way. “We don’t know each other all that well, but she buys my paper, sometimes. I decided to give her an issue for free.” She looked at the handkerchief in her hand. “That’s where I left my handkerchief.”
The Angel of Death didn’t react. The newsvendor knew what was coming. There was no good confirming or denying.
“I don’t need it anymore,” the vendor said. “I’ve got yours.” The handkerchief disappeared in her hands. She wondered if it had ever been there.
She lifted her gaze, getting ready to cross the street.
“I guess this is it, then.”
She got out of the news cart, stepping foot on the sidewalk. Without looking, she walked onto the street. She died, leaving a bloodied body and a bloodied soul.
The Angel of Death walked onto the street, reaching into the newsvendor’s mouth and taking her soul. People screamed, and a guilty driver sped away. The Angel of Death paid them no mind.
Instead, she walked over to the newsvendor’s stand, wondering which newspaper she wanted. She decided on the local one, flipping to the Obituaries.
She didn’t like what she saw.
— — —
The Angel of Death glowered, wings flapping as her feet touched the sidewalk.
Val Rador’s funeral was today.
Val Rador was not dead.
She closed her black feathery wings, so that she might walk through the temple doors. She’d been here only two days ago, and somehow it had called her back. For some reason, a funeral was being held for a living man.
She threw the temple doors open, striding into the aisle and making her way to the altar. On the altar lay a casket.
At the pulpit spoke a balding, sad man: “–ador was… He was–”
The man didn’t continue speaking. He didn’t see the need to, since all eyes turned towards the Angel of Death, marvelling at her flowing red hair and her great black wings. She unfurled the wings, letting them spread high and wide, above the heads of everyone who’d come to pay their respects to Val Rador.
The sad balding man pulled at his collar, mumbling. “It’s a little late to get the soul, isn’t it, Angel?”
“You snivelling, incompetent worm,” the Angel of Death roared, her loud baritone voice threatening to break the temple’s windows. “That man isn’t dead.”
Caked in sweat, the sad balding man continued. “Well, uh. You are the expert, Angel. But I’d like to point out that he seemed pretty dead the last we– uh, saw of him.”
She didn’t deign him worthy of her words. Instead, she flapped her wings and flew to the altar. Looking with her divine eyes, she saw no death in the casket. But she saw no life, either. She lowered herself.
As soon as her feet touched the floor, her accusations were proven.
A powerful white fist broke through the coffin, smashing through wood.
The second hand followed.
Curious, she stood there, watching the creature rip through the wooden box. Sufficiently free, it rolled off the altar and onto the temple floor. It got up, only to see her smirking.
She examined it while it got up. It certainly looked like Val Rador, if you ignored the gun wounds. And even the gun wounds looked real. But something appeared to be off: perhaps the blood was a little too red. Or maybe the wound to the head looked oddly shallow.
“You have disturbed the timeline,” the creature said. “Prepare to die.”
“Die? You want me to die?” she said. “You are truly misinformed.”
Two lasers shot out of the thing’s eyes, ripping right through one of her wings. It was only two small holes, but they hurt like hell. It was perhaps the first time the Angel of Death had ever felt pain. At least, it was the first time she had felt pain in this incarnation.
She screamed. And in her scream, there was anger. In her anger there was violence.
“What the fuck are you?” she yelled.
She slammed her foot against his crotch. He didn’t flinch. He threw a punch at her face. It landed, but she didn’t seem to notice.
“Should have stuck to the lasers, you bastard,” she said, grabbing him by the shoulder. He was heavy, but she was divine. She picked him up and hurled him through the stained glass window.
A host of colors lit up the sky, sparkling in the light of day. Then, they rained down on the creature’s fallen form.
At this point people began to scream, but the Angel of Death paid them no mind. They rushed out the temple; she didn’t notice. Instead, she flew towards him.
The pain in her wing was searing, nearly all-consuming. She bit her lip, working through the pain. She’d seen so many people endure pain, in the end. She’d seen so many people fight to the end. How could she do differently here, now?
The beast with Val Rador’s face got up. She swooped down towards him, using the momentum of gravity to give her punch some extra force. The beast fell down again. While it was down, she punched it.
She punched it again. And again. And again.
Rage lit up her face.
How could this thing take the face of a man she’d loved? How could it pervert death, make such a mockery of it? Who out there could summon a power that rivalled her own?
Even after the pummeling, the thing’s eyes were open.
“You have…” the creature began, but struggled to continue. “Disturbed…” he said, struggling to form the words. “The timeline.”
She looked out at the temple’s backyard, sectioned off from the street by a nice picket fence. She noticed the big thick oak tree, standing there beside her. She strode towards it. Digging her strong but slender fingers into the oak’s bark, she pulled. The roots struggled against her, fighting to keep the oak in the ground. They lost.
The scenario looked absurd, since the tree she was wielding was about four times her size. But once she’d uprooted it, she pulled it along, moving back towards the creature with Val Rador’s face.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“You…” the thing began.
“Wrong answer,” she said, hoisting the tree above her head. She whacked his body with it, the tree landing on its side so that the branches broke against the picket fence, some ten feet away.
“Who sent you here?” she asked.
“Have disturbed…” the thing continued.
She grabbed the head by its ears, ripping it off the rest of its body.
“The timeline,” it finished.
She raised the head so that their eyes were at the same level. It blinked, unnaturally. Wires dangled from its neck.
“More things on Heaven and Earth,” she mumbled. “This requires one hell of an explanation.”
— — —
Lusu Rador had sat in her living room, watching George walk back into Val Rador’s life. She’d sat in the temple, watching her husband punch his way out of his own damn coffin. And she’d sat in the police station, watching a blue man with see-through bones wipe people’s memory of the whole event.
Problem was, her own magic flew through her veins. Which meant she still knew. She remembered.
Half a dozen books lay sprawled on the living room table. None of them appealed to her. None of them meant anything.
Why had she even married that man in the first place? Most of the answers were all too simple: he was wealthy, he was handsome, he was a hero.
There was another reason, though. A reason perhaps even more important: he’d represented something different. A change her life had so desperately needed.
And hadn’t that been what she’d wanted, when she was young? Hadn’t that been her main desire?
Yes, but there’d been more than even that. How could you distill one person’s attraction down to another? How could you explain it without spending days: the way the loved made the lover feel, the things the loved reminded the lover of, the chemical attractions and the annoying quirks that somehow made them all the more appealing?
No, to state all the reasons Lusu loved Val would be impossible.
But now? What could she possibly–
A knock on the door. She got off the sofa to answer it. A small bullet hole still marred the door, left over from George’s outburst only a few days ago.
She opened the door and found the Angel of Death standing there. At least, Lusu thought it was the Angel of Death. The thing was, this creature looked so different. The black wings of before were now metallic, her right eye now bionic. Yesterday the Angel of Death had been there when Val broke out of his coffin. Now, here, today?
“I suppose a lot can happen, in a day,” Lusu said.
The Angel of Death cocked her head back, letting out a great big laugh. “A day since the funeral?” She pushed past Lusu, walking through the vestibule and into the living room.
“Val’s not dead.”
“Obviously I’m aware of that,” the Angel of Death said.
“That’s a complicated question.”
“I’m not a fool,” Lusu said. “I can handle a complicated answer.”
“You’ll get it, but now’s not the time.”
“A man with see-through bones made everyone forget about the incident at the church,” Lusu said. “Do you know him?”
“Who is he?”
“That,” the Angel of Death said, “is also a complicated question.”
“I demand answers,” Lusu said.
“Ha. As if you can demand anything from me.”
“Why are you here?” Lusu asked.
“Because I need to be.”
“I’m hoping this isn’t a professional visit,” Lusu said. “If it is, you should know that I haven’t died yet.”
The Angel of Death laughed again. “You’re funny. Pity it hasn’t done much for you.” She sprawled across the white sofa.
Lusu chose not to sit in the chair. “What are you doing here?”
“Val’s trying to bring about the apocalypse.”
“You’re going to have to stop him,” The Angel of Death said.
“You will,” The Angel of Death said.
“I’m familiar with the Death Cult.”
“That makes sense.”
“I’m familiar with your involvement in the Death Cult.”
“I’m still not surprised,” Lusu said.
“You have to kill Val.”
“I left the Death Cult a long time ago.”
The Angel of Death couldn’t help but laugh again. “You left the Death Cult to marry a killer. God, you’re funny. Too funny.”
Lusu stood there, arms crossed, unsure of what to do.
“Val wants to destroy the world,” the Angel of Death said.
“He wants to see what’s on the other side of that damn wall.”
“Which will destroy the world,” The Angel of Death said. “You have to stop him.”
“Why can’t you?”
“His sword,” The Angel of Death. “It kills gods.”
“Kills Hyalu, too.”
“If anyone can stop Val, it’s you and George.”
Lusu looked at the Angel of Death, incredulous. “You can’t be serious.”
“George is in a mental hospital right now, wearing the body of an elf,” The Angel of Death said. “You have to get him.”
“I’m not asking,” The Angel of Death said. “Either you get him out of that hospital, or I rip your soul out of your body.” She put on a bit of a smile. “What’s it going to be?”