Prologue

The Last Night

The Boy never saw a shaft of light, only the twin headlights of a 1979 Lincoln. Before he knew it he was lying face down in a puddle of gooey redness. It was warm and sticky, yet the larger the puddle grew the colder he felt. The cold didn’t numb the pain; not in his arm, his legs, his chest, and especially not his head.

He reached out for ripped bags of groceries. He needed to get them back…back where? He was supposed to take them somewhere, so someone could do something with them? Dinner? Yeah, dinner, that must have been it, but who? More pain, pounding, cracking, and spilling all at once, shooting through his head as he tried to think, to remember. It was enough to make him want to scream, but he couldn’t. He could only watch as his dim breath barely made ripples in the red puddle. Maybe the man wearing the dark sheet could tell him.

The Boy couldn’t make out the man’s face through blurring vision and the shadows of the night, but he could just barely make out the walking stick clutched at the man’s side. It was taller than the man himself and the top was adorned with a large, curious piece of metal. A curved piece that gleamed even in the moonless night, perfect except for one jagged notch along the bottom edge.

The Boy reached towards the man, if only to get his attention, but before he could move his hand more than a few inches he heard something snap. His arm fell into the puddle, bent in a place it shouldn’t have, and then he felt it. He still couldn’t scream, only writhe and tremble in the ever growing red puddle.

The man was standing above him. The Boy smiled, or at least tried to, as he thought that he was about to be helped, that the man would make his arm and head stop hurting. That’s what the man would do, because that’s what people are supposed to do, help one another. The Boy allowed his eyes to close as the hopeful thought filled his aching head, and for just a few seconds the world went black.

Something changed. His thoughts became clearer, the pain disappeared, and then his eyes were open. He had been moved, but not far. Instead of lying on the ground he found himself dangling by his collar, held in the air by the man’s boney right hand. He wasn’t, but he was. He was being held up, but he was still on the ground too. He could plainly see his tattered body on the ground below, stewing in a puddle of himself. His left leg was gone, probably still in the wheel-well that had dragged him down the road after the initial impact, his right arm remained bent in a place that it wasn’t supposed to, and his head was cracked and oozing pink goop into the puddle of blood that was staining his clothes a dark shade of red.

The Boy’s meager hope vanished, in its place a knot of fear grew in his chest, tightening the longer he looked. His teeth chattered as a chill ran along his spine and no matter how hard he tried he couldn’t breathe. He felt the air in his mouth, but it refused to go down his throat. Was he hyperventilating? Had he ever done that before? He still couldn’t remember. It had all happened so fast, the car and the road and the flying groceries, but everything before those last few seconds was blurry and fragmented. That made him try to breathe harder, but the air still wouldn’t flow.

He turned to the man, who had yet to speak. Close enough to see through the shadows of the hood, the Boy saw not a face of flesh, only bone. He trembled with and disbelief, and in barely a whisper said, “No.”

The reaper, that was what the man was, drew the Boy in closer. Close enough so that the Boy’s eyes and the reaper’s empty eye sockets were on the same level. In a voice that was dark and deep he replied, “Yes.”

The reaper raised up his scythe, then brought it down with immense force. It struck the pavement not with a boom or a crash, but with the precision of a single, high-pitched note. It was shrill and long and filled the night, beckoning to something in the darkness. The reply was quick, and made the Boy think another car was heading their way.

When the sound of hooves resounded through the air, the Boy realized it hadn’t been an engine revving up but neighing that he had heard. It sounded deeper and more sinister than even the reaper’s voice. Each hoof beat was worse, pounding over pavement with such weight and speed the entire road seemed to shake as it approached. The horse’s glowing red eyes became visible long before the rest of it came into view, and gleamed so brightly that they left streaks of crimson hanging in the night air.

Unwilling to accept what was happening, the Boy shook so violently that he could barely force the next words out, “T-t-there m-must be s-some mistake!”

“There is no mistake.”

“I can’t be dead!” Yelling helped. It kept him from stuttering and drowned out the hoof beats, if only a little. “I haven’t even started junior year! I don’t get my license for two weeks!”

That’s right, his driver’s license, the only thing outside his dreams that had excited him lately. He was going to be the first of the guys to get his, they were counting on him to get it so they wouldn’t have to ride their bikes to the pier to ogle tourists anymore. They were counting on him, all three of them. He had people waiting for him, their names were…they were…

“The cycle brings death when fate demands it,” the reaper said, looking towards the approaching mount with no concern for the Boy’s turmoil. The horse, a steed nearly as black as the darkness it ran through, burst from the shadows on giant hooves that could have easily crushed a man’s skull. It was a monster.

“Please let me go!”

“That is not an option. That is not your fate.” The reaper crouched as his horse got closer, it wasn’t slowing down. “And that is not going to happen tonight.”

In a massive leap that shouldn’t have been possible for a literal bag of bones, the reaper jumped as the horse passed, the Boy pulled along in the skeleton’s iron grip. They sailed well above its broad back before landing in the saddle without a sound.

The reaper balanced by holding out his massive scythe, but as soon as they were settled he was quick to draw it in. The horse began to pick up speed and the Boy’s tattered body shrunk into the distance. The Boy bounced to the rhythm of the hoof beats, the scenery blurring into streaks of black, greys, and barely noticeable greens as they sped farther down the road. The bouncing caused him to twist in place, where he saw the reaper holding the scythe well above his skull. The curved edge continued gleaming as it pointed directly ahead. Then, with a swiftness no living being could have matched, the reaper brought it down in one unbelievable swing.

The Boy was nearly swept away by the gust that followed, but the reaper’s grip just grew tighter. The gust abated and he fell back into the rhythmic bouncing of the horse’s pace, but as he rose and fell he noticed something gleaming ahead of them. A faint trickle of light that seemed to be coming through a crack that hung in the air.

It was a crack, he could see that as it spread. Every second the space ahead of them splintered like glass and more pale light streamed through. The Boy blinked and his mouth hung open. It was as if the reaper’s swing had cut the air itself. A cut that led somewhere brighter, somewhere else. The cracks spread farther and the light grew brighter the closer they came to it, until a spiral of jagged light at least a dozen feet wide hung in their path.

The Boy didn’t want to know where that light was coming from, he didn’t want anything to do with this whole situation. “Stop this thing! I don’t want to die!”

“You already did.” The reaper leaned forward.

“Then I don’t want to be dead!”

“Yet you are. Now be silent, or the trip down will be most unpleasant.”

Down? The Boy gulped. “You’re Death, make a damn exception and put me back!”

The reaper raised his scythe again, pointing it towards the cascading cracks of light like a medieval jouster. They were close, any second they would hit the cracks and then…well the Boy didn’t want to imagine what came after that. But there was nothing he could do to stop it.

The reaper’s reply rang through the Boy’s ears as they crashed through the cracks, “I am not Death.”

#

There was ripping and shattering, then silence. No hooves, no wind, nothing. The only movement came from the dim shafts of light forcing their way between the Boy’s fingers. Tentatively, he lowered his hands and in that moment he forgot himself. He was awed by what lay before him.

Above spanned an ocean of grey clouds, thick and unmoving. Below, an expansive desert of pale sand, the color of bone and seemingly endless. The light seemed to flow towards the horizon, yet the dim twilight wrapped around them like a blanket. It wasn’t warm, but strangely welcoming, almost like something he was returning to. The Boy didn’t think it was a beautiful place, but it was a sight to behold.

As he gazed from one side of the horizon to the other, he was taken aback when he realized how they were traveling. The horse was still galloping, but not on anything. It simply ran through the air.

The Boy twisted as much as he could to defy the reaper’s grip and look behind them. The fracture was still there, the dark road on the other side. Broken bits of sky hung suspended around it, but as he watched a piece slid back into place. Before long it would reassemble itself, and then what would he do?

“Take me back!” The Boy started to squirm, but the reaper’s grip was unyielding.

“Your body is broken beyond repair, there is no going back.”

“Bull! You’re Death! Use your death magic and give me a one-up or something!”

“I told you,” the reaper said, not bothering to look at the Boy but instead focusing on something in the distance, “I am not Death. There is no one death, for it is but a step in the cycle. I am one of the five, no more and no less. We who serve the cycle guide souls of the departed to their next step within it. And there is no death magic.”

The Boy glared up at the skeleton for a moment before letting out another, “Bull!”

Reaching up, the Boy took hold of the reaper’s wrists with both hands.  He started to pull and bounce and twist, to the point that the reaper began to sway back and forth in his saddle. Yet the Boy didn’t receive so much as a glance.

I won’t let some skinless freak decide where I end up! the Boy thought. At the same time convincing himself that, already being dead, nothing else could happen to him.

The tearing came quickly as the Boy’s collar split and he found himself not only free of the reaper’s grip, but also free falling. For one hair raising second he tumbled through the air and the ground got just a bit closer. He was only stopped by the reaper’s boney fingers wrapping around his ankle.

“Are you suicidal?” the reaper asked. He was bent over the horse’s side, a twinge in his voice that the Boy couldn’t decipher as an attempt at irony or not. “If you are, you shouldn’t be my problem.”

“I’m not suicidal,” the Boy said as he swung back and forth. “I’m just pissed!”

He kicked and flailed in every direction. He jammed his free leg into empty space, against the reaper’s arm, and in one fateful blow his heel struck the reaper’s skull right between the eye sockets. Then the Boy was falling again, but with company.

Like two rags in the wash cycle, the Boy and reaper spun as the sea of clouds and desert twirled around them at nauseating speeds. The Boy kicked his foot free and leaned forward, attempting to grab the hem of the reaper’s cloak, but missed. He spun forward twice more before managing to latch on to the scythe’s handle. Holding tight, the Boy fought against the rushing air to pull himself closer and grab the reaper’s wrist, locking the bag of bones beneath him as they settled into a dead drop.

The wind pulled the reaper’s hood back, revealing the rest of his skull. It was cracked and pale, with slivers of red mist billowing like snakes from the collapsed crown of his head. The Boy didn’t focus on the cracks or the mist, he only focused on the reaper’s dark, empty eye sockets.

“Send me back!” the Boy demanded. The ground was getting closer but he though, no he knew, that the cloaked jerk who had reaped him could make everything right again. He had to. So the Boy pushed the reaper’s wrist into his cloaked chest and twisted the scythe so that the blade was pointing downwards. And then he just glared. If I’m dead then I can’t die again. That means nothing else bad can happen.

“I cannot!”

“You have to!” The Boy’s hands began to shake, not enough for the reaper to get free, but his desperation was clear. “I haven’t…”

“Haven’t what?” the reaper asked, as if he suddenly cared about what the Boy had to say.

The Boy tried to recall something, anything through the haze in his mind, but he could remember so little. “Lived! I can only remember dreaming, and even in those I was always looking for something else! Something I never found!”

“Many feel that way.”

“I don’t care!” The Boy looked away, and that’s when he saw it. Like the walls crash-test dummies get thrown at in those driver’s ed videos he was sure he’d seen, they were about to hit the ground.

The reaper’s eye sockets stared upwards, as if those empty holes could see something inside the Boy. Perhaps he did, or perhaps he could just tell what was about to happen, because in the next moment the reaper said, “Use it wisely.”

“Use what?”

“Your chance.”

“What?”

They struck the ground as the word came out of the Boy’s mouth.