life

A Life For a Life

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This post was originally published through Patreon on August 1, 2018.

“Come on,” Jacob said. “A life for a life. You know the rules.”

Indeed, Sarah did, and that was why this was going to be so sweet. She pulled out her gold crescent moon blade, glinting like fire beneath the streetlights above, and stood her ground.

“Sarah.” His voice was an urgent whisper in the dark. “Let’s get this done and get out. Now, before someone sees us.”

But Sarah didn’t move, and the two stared each other down as if from opposite sides of a canyon.

“You know the rules,” he said again. And did that tone now contain a hint of desperation? Sarah hoped so.

“No, I won’t do this.”

Tight cords bulged beneath Jacob’s neck, and Sarah could see he was struggling to control his temper. Good, she thought. Let him suffer as I suffered.

“I won’t do it, and I don’t give two shits about the rules. You brought this on yourself.”

On myself? she saw him mouth the words in silent fury. Then, out loud: “On myself?” He was no longer whispering. His face blazed like fire, glowing a bright and angry red.

“Careful,” she said, openly mocking him now. “Someone might see you.”

The light in his face instantly dimmed, but just beneath the skin, Sarah could still make out his anger, smoldering like hot embers.

For a moment, she glimpsed another layer to the man’s fury, an acute and palpable anguish that made her hesitate. Was she being cruel? No, not cruel. Just. Once upon a time, their roles had been reversed, and Jacob had been sent to escort her home. Then, like Judas Iscariot, he’d betrayed her.

A life for a life. Those were the rules, and they were vital. For every one of their kind that entered the mortal world, another had to die. Death for them was never final like it was for humans. Rather, it was a doorway back to the life their kind was supposed to live—a doorway back to their own incorporeal, incorruptible forms, free to roam the stars and all that lay beyond.

Despite their true form, they needed to experience mortality, needed to know what it was like to live as incarnations of flesh and blood. Each incursion into the mortal world was a fresh perspective. It was a deepening of self, an expansion of mind and soul that abided an ever growing library of knowledge and experience. The lessons gleaned from their time on Earth gave them the insights they needed to treat a debilitating blight that had long plagued their kind.

But when it had been Sarah’s turn to die, to resume her former existence for the allotted time and report what she’d learned to her people, Jacob had refused to kill her.

“If I don’t kill you,” he’d said, “they’ll have to take me back.”

Like most of her kind, Jacob had never wanted to be part of this. Pried away from a life of limitless supernatural potential, he’d been pressed into service against his will, forced to become human and therefore assume all the limitations such an existence imposed. It was like moving a whale from an ocean into a bottle. But instead of waiting his turn like everyone else, Jacob decided to cheat and return home early.

“The balance, you see.”

Indeed, the balance. Jacob and Sarah were a pair, and only one of them could enter into the human world at any given time. They would live for the appointed time as humans, then return home to recuperate, because it was important not to be away for so long that they forgot what they were. But Jacob, in his selfishness, had flaunted the rules so he could go back early, and Sarah had paid the price.

When Jacob dropped the knife and walked away, Sarah was condemned to a mortal life she was never meant to endure for any significant length of time. She’d grown old and experienced both mental and bodily failure. There’d been an inquisition, but no formal charges were ever levied against him, and after a long and undeserved rest, he returned to the human world only after Sarah’s body could no longer sustain her.

Now, here they were again, on opposite sides of the same dark alley where they’d met all those years ago, a loathing hatred burning in her hazel eyes.

“I won’t,” she said one last time. She threw her blade down onto the ground beside him, where it landed with a loud, dull ring. “You do it.”

When he peered back at her, aghast, she barked a laugh. Of course he couldn’t. She hadn’t been able to do it, and neither could he. It was a built-in safeguard that ensured the balance was maintained. He could contemplate killing himself all he wanted, but he would never be able to, no matter how desperately he wanted to be free.

“Don’t,” he croaked. Livid anger gave way to a desperate plea. “Don’t leave me like this.”

“I’m only giving you what you gave me. A life for a life, remember?”

The words twisted through his chest, more painful than a knife, and Sarah turned from him and walked away.

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Everyone Dies

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When Jill turned the corner and saw what was waiting for her in the street, she knew her life was over. Dread settled in the pit of her stomach, and she found herself backing away. Only she knew it wouldn’t do any good.

If she could see it, it could see her.

Indeed, the creature turned, and though it had no eyes—only a dark emptiness hidden inside a thick black cowl—she felt its gaze like a javelin through the heart.

Wide-eyed, she watched it approach, the dark fabric of its robes rippling languidly over asphalt as it crossed the street to meet her.

No, she thought. It isn’t supposed to end like this.

But in moments it was in front of her, and Jill knew she was going to die.

“You gave us quite a chase,” the Reaper mused. Its voice came out a haunting, otherworldly whisper, like wind funneling through a narrow tunnel.

Jill wanted to say something but couldn’t. She was too lost in the vistas of abject terror to open her mouth.

“Do you wish to end this now,” the Reaper asked, “or do you want some more exercise first?”

Jill prickled with a sudden flare of anger, and for a moment, her fear abated. The Reaper had a job to do, but it didn’t have to be so fucking condescending.

“So, this is it then? All this education and life experience, just so I can lose it all now?”

“My dear, sooner or later, everyone dies.”

“Then why not later? I have a lot going for me right now. There’s so much I can contribute to the world. Give me ten more years. Then you can take me.”

When the Reaper spoke again, there was no hint of its prior mocking. Its tone was serious, and if Jill didn’t know any better, she’d also say caring.

“You know that’s not how it works. Not even I’m allowed to decide who lives and dies. We Reapers receive our orders, and we carry them out.”

Yes, she had to concede that this was true. And why some people lived to a ripe old age while others expired young, she would never know. All anyone could say for certain was that one day, sooner or later, your number would be called.

“It’s really not so bad,” the Reaper continued. “Many die more slowly from terrible, debilitating diseases. Death by our hand is much quicker, much more humane.”

Jill snorted. “There’s nothing humane about you.”

“True enough. Would it help if I told you that the one who decides your fate isn’t as capricious as you make him out to be? That there’s a plan in the midst of all this madness?”

“Not really.”

The headless cowl nodded, as if the Reaper hadn’t expected any other answer.

“Come,” it said. “Take my hand, and see what awaits you in the life to come.”

Jill hesitated a moment longer, but there was no point resisting the inevitable. She nodded. Fine. Her time was up, and that was that. Goodbye, Earth. Hello, Great Unknown.

Its hand on her shoulder was like a dousing in arctic waters. She felt all the warmth—all the life—drain out of her body like a bucket with a hole in the bottom. But the Reaper was right. It really wasn’t so bad. And when everything went dark like the void beyond the Reaper’s cowl, Jill found herself contemplating her life, wondering if it had really been all that important to begin with.

After all, nothing in this world was permanent. As the Reaper itself had said, sooner or later, everyone dies.

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Answering the Call

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I.

Shining.

Resplendent.

A world of white sand and endless palms, of navy blue skies and shimmering otherworldly horizons.

You belong. You are one of us.

It calls to me. In the dark and endless night, it calls to me.

Come. Be one with us.

But I can’t. Not yet. The tether that binds me to my Earthly life holds fast; I cannot escape.

Oh, but that other world: It calls to me, and every day, it gets harder to turn away.

II.

A dream.

I am floating. Soaring through the clouds. Riding a jet stream through endless blue.

Not clouds anymore but foam, like the froth from a just opened bottle of champagne. And water, sparkling like a bed of polished sapphires.

Come. You belong. You are one of us.

I am ache and need. I know no other purpose, no other destiny than to answer this ancient, unyielding call.

A hand, reaching from beyond to carry me away. I stretch to grasp it with my own. But it’s so far away, so very far away…

I come awake beneath the dim and silver light of the moon.

A spark kindles in my chest—a smoldering ember of pain and desire that I realize now will never die—and I lie awake until the sun’s first rays pierce my bedroom window with their sickly, comatose light.

III.

Pain.

I turn my weathered, pockmarked face toward a gray and ashen sky and cringe when the worn out joints in my knees issue a loud, crackling pop.

I behold the world from the other side of time, as an old man who’s ascended the golden ladder of life, only to discover it was never actually gold, only worthless, tarnished brass.

The spark that erupted in my chest long ago has transformed into a fire. I am immolation and desolation made flesh—consumed by hurt and heartbreak, and ravaged by broken promises, I am cast adrift.

Come.

For years, I’ve ignored that other world’s call. It was just noise, I told myself, a foolish fancy with no real-world significance. Only now, my “real-world” life is useless to me.

Old and infirm, I can no longer work, and those I once loved are dead. The Earth, rich in promises, has gifted me with rags.

Now, I strain at last to hear that other world’s voice—Come. You belong. You are one of us.—and bring it into focus once more.

I know now where my true home lies, and I turn away from my former life to follow after it.

IV.

A threshold.

Beyond: blue skies, white sand, and endless sparkling ocean. Behind: gray clouds, desolation, and endless darkness. It’s a wonder I remained for as long as I did.

The entrance to that other world is ringed in fire, but I do not hesitate.

I walk forward.

Forward into the fire.

Forward into love.

Forward into the light.

V.

A flash.

Pain.

I cry out, hold fast to that other world’s call as my old self is burned away.

Come. You belong. You are one of us.

Suddenly, the pain is gone.

I am a new creation.

Love envelopes me.

I am home at last.

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