Born in Death
The horizon was blotted grey and purple as a storm approached, and any light which penetrated the deep clouds was dull over an unsteady sea. He let the wind sway him slightly, his bare toes curled over the cliff edge like a fledgling bird gripping a branch. He thought it would be poetic, dying in the storm.
Rocking forward, he felt the thunder shake his ribcage and the lightning flash beyond his closed eyes. Soon the winds gave way to the rain, and it was time to fall. He opened his eyes slowly, watching the clouds grow and warp. He took a single deep breath and threw open his arms. His heels left the cliff and his chest led the descent. In the moment before he hit the ground, where he was as fast as the falling rain, the world stopped. The wind was still and the waves frozen, he was suspended above the rocks and raindrops hung as cold sapphires against the water.
A hand entwined with his, it was warm but thin, like bone covered in smoke. Turning his head he saw her face, both terrible and beautiful. Her eyes were wide and loving, but her skin was tight and dry over a gaunt skull. There was a comforting alienation in her figure, her body was a black shroud, no features discernible except skeletal hands and two large midnight wings. She floated beneath him, one hand clutched onto his and the other resting over his heart.
“Find who needs you and give them peace,” Death whispered, her breath leading him into darkness.
After a moment, where there was infinite silence and deafening noise, he found himself within the storm. Curled into a ball, his knees pressed into his chest and his head bowed down in painful prayer, he felt himself die. His bones broke and his skull shattered. He was destroyed and remade. His mind was consumed by pain, and he felt himself slip into unconsciousness.
Thunder growled beneath his ears and he started to wake. He was falling on his back, the storm was above him, the sky alive and angry. He stretched desperately to touch the clouds, but he was moving too fast. Frantically twisting through the wind, he looked out, seeing the cliff from which he had jumped. It looked small from the distance, the rocks like pebbles and the sea beckoning below him.
The icy water stabbed into his chest and the air froze in his lungs. In his first moments of stillness, he was met by pain. A sharp crack shot through the water, then a second. His shoulder-blades ripped through his skin, his exposed flesh burning in the saltwater. Two long white bones grew around him, feeling out through the abyss. His muffled screams fractured the water as he clawed at his scalp. Splashing in the waves he gasped for air; unable to control his body, he was pushed under the surface. The expanse was bleak and dark beneath him. The waves above were frothing like a rabid dog. As the pain scratched through his back he began to swim, tearing through the water his body became thin and indistinct. He could see his flesh change. Whiter. Skeletal. The pain subsided just as he reached the shore.
As the sand began to scrape along his feet, he dragged himself onto the rocks. He tried to stand, but weight on his back kept him pinned to the beach. Large waterlogged wings, shining like spilled oil, laid heavily across his frame.
He was Death.
The sky was beginning to clear and the dull grey clouds were rolling away and though the wind was still strong, the sun had a weak shine. His wings were dry now, though he didn’t know how to use them, and so Death stood on the beach. There was a difference in the world. Colours so slightly brighter and shadows so slightly darker. Walking across the shore, he felt his feet sink deep into the sand, but when he looked back, there were no footprints.
Coming to a crevasse in the cliff-side, he could see a form ahead. It was slumped over on the rocks and surrounded by a puddle of crimson. Death inched closer, knowing what he would find. The body was broken, the limp flesh no longer supported by the bones which perforated the skin. Death bent down to see his face. Parts of his skull had caved in, but he ran a finger over the sharp, unshaven chin. Bringing his hand to his face, Death felt his own new chin, it was the same. Death considered how he could look so different and remain the same; his chin, furrowed brow and long nose were all still there, but now his skin was smooth, cold and dry. No muscle to form a true face.
The clouds shifted over the sun and a delicate shadow was cast over Death. He stood tall now, disregarding the body at his feet. That was no longer him. He walked on, watching the water recede.
Death came to a large stone groin at the end of the beach, steps would take him up to the top of the cliff. His legs were tired and weak, shaking at the prospect of the climb, his wings however, were powerful, just waiting to be used. Death flexed them, opening his new limbs fully and feeling the tips of his feathers brush the cliff beside him. Drawing his energy, he started into a clumsy run, tripping over seaweed and stones. He flapped and felt his body rise sharply, then drop onto the sand in shock. Dragging his body up, he tried again, running, flapping, rising; he flapped more forcefully and more frequently, pushing his body skywards. Death considered how light he had become, that flying was easy. He turned on his wing tips, joyful.
Death was flying far from where he had died. A metropolis sprawled out below him, the smell of petrichor heavy after the downpour. Death looked out, remembering his life there. The offices where he worked, roads he had driven down and people he had known. An instant after he had thought of them, they were gone. He was new and old and something different, something that did not need those memories. He remembered something else, his first instruction. “Find who needs you and give them peace,” his own Death had told him so, informed him of his purpose while it was still hers.
The city was large and teeming. Death felt like a spider above his web, looking for the fly about to die.
Swooping low over the streets, he was unseen by the crowds who were far too busy to look, even if they could view him. Every so often he would pass a figure as indistinct as he was, their wing tips brushing in greeting. They could barely see one another and could not speak, they were so alone but together. Deaths in the world, waiting for a reprieve.
Death landed on a tall glass building, higher than the cliff that killed him and sentinel over the city. Honking cars were distant and street chatter quiet while he considered how to find whomever needed his help. The smell of carbon fumes permeated around him and the sky turned red in the evening sun as Death felt the pull. There was something, in the area where his heart used to be, that pulled him forward. It was painful to be so far away from the source of his yearning. Taking flight, he followed the pull, soaring over the skyscrapers and diving through the air to swoop beneath bridges. The closer death came to finding his charge, the easier the pressing in his chest became. Then Death saw him.
He was standing on the edge of a train platform, looking forward serenely. The evening light was casting long shadows over his face, but it was the shadows around him that let Death know. He was surrounded by an aura of darkness. Landing lightly on the platform beside him, Death considered the man. He was shorter than Death had been, his hair dark, but his shoulders were broad. Death looked over at the man, on his hand he had written numbers ‘19:45’, the board behind him read ’19:38’ he had only a few minutes.
Death walked around him, questioning his motives, trying to know his mind. He was struck by an image. A man stood on the edge of a cliff waiting for rain. A man with his chin, and nose, and brow, but a man who was no longer him. He could see, for the first time, the darkness around that man and how Death must have viewed him. How she could have waited with him. How she knew, and now he did too, that in moments before everything must be lost, that something must be found.
19:40. Death stepped in front of the man who was about to die, folding his wings around him in embrace. Death took one of his hands in his own, feeling the muscles in his fingers and the heat of blood, gripping tenderly. Death rested the other over his heart, aware that each fragile thump was numbered.
“Who are you?” Death asked.
“Michael,” he whispered, “are you here to stop me?”
“No, I am your Death. I am here to see you die. I am here to help you die.”
“What’s your name?”
“I do not remember any more, and it is no longer important. I am not that man.”
Death took his hand from Michael’s chest and rested it on his face. They held each other’s eyes for a moment. Michael calmed by Death and Death scared for Michael. A rhythmic engine was growing louder and closer. Michael took a single breath and looked down the tracks, two pinprick lights were coming closer.
“Thank you,” Michael told Death.
“Find the one who needs you and give them peace,” Death replied.
Dropping his wings, Death let Michael run; he sprinted down the platform, jumping down onto the tracks. The train was coming closer and closer, Michael running to meet it. Death knew in a moment they would collide. A horn sounded frantically from the train, shouts for Michael to move, but he simply threw open his arms and waited. In the second before he was hit, the world stopped. The train paused inches from Michael’s body. Leaves frozen in mid-air.
Death held out his hand and beckoned towards Michael. Something shining and transparent exploded from Michael’s body, it was laid down on the tracks, stunned. Death walked forward and picked up Michael’s soul, carrying him back to the platform.
“Be well,” said Death.
Michael’s soul started to stir, and so Death started to fade. In the final moments, Death saw the world restart. He heard the train screech in an attempt to stop but fail. He heard the screams from the platform as passengers witnessed. He saw Michael die.
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