Haven, Washington- 1776
In the beginning, there was nothing.
There was space, and nothing more. Darkness, nestled within darkness, perfectly content to exist in obscurity. There was darkness, and darkness only.
What follows, unfortunately, is a sorry tale.
Darkness meets light- a heretic to widely accepted, uniform truth. Darkness falls in love, and creates the universe to win the hand of light. It creates the stars from nothing, exploding outward from oblivion, painting hydrogenous marvels of yellow, pink and white. It places itself between those stars, to prevent such a mistake ever being made again, but forms planets around them, because light wouldn’t be able to sleep at night knowing those suns were lonely.
Darkness does all this to earn light’s affection. The only problem with light is, she’s fleeting. Capable of breaking the heart of bottomless shadow, and wandering off to illuminate elsewhere in the Great Unknown.
My name is Hale and I have died twenty-eight times. At the behest of Reaper, who currently drags me through the swirling portal from his realms of purgatory, I climbed in his basin. I took twenty-eight names and met every imaginable, brutal end in the book.
He said if we did this, we could go home.
Things are different now, stumbling through the swirling mass of black and purple liquid. I am not wet and my clothes do not drip, but the material washing over my face is thick like oil.
I killed her. Her blood is on my hands. Reaper may have tricked me, but it was my arms thrusting a ceremonial dagger through her abdomen.
I am the one to blame.
I thought it was him. Now, on hands and knees, I look out at the overgrown field, no sign of civilization around it.
“I would not advise attempting that again,” Reaper says. My hair has grown long throughout the trials, and falls over my face as I squint toward the ground.
I killed her.
“If you think I’ll ever stop,” I say, climbing to my feet, “you don’t know me at all!”
In his hooded dressings, there is no face looking back at me; only a blackness, drawing me in with laboured breathing. The scythe in his hands drags behind him; its blade is well-kept, but the staff it’s attached to is worn at the bottom. In Valhalla, it scraped the concrete. Here, its struggle against dirt is quieter.
“It would be best to save your energy,” Reaper says, “for things that matter.”
“Oh, and what matters now, you son of a bitch? Olivia is dead! You told me to sink the knife! And it was you! Sick fucking prick!”
There is no regret on Reaper’s part; no remorse for the body left upon a stone block, overlooking the Timestream’s calm waters, ending at the Falls of Eternity.
“Where the Hell are we, anyway?” I ask.
Reaper stares outward, if he has any such eyes to do so with.
“Right now, the Revolutionary War is being fought on the other coast. The original colonies are in revolt against the British monarch, and he is bringing everything to bear against the rebels.”
“What does that have to do with-”
Reaper interrupts me, continuing.
“In 1887, the town of Haven will be established here. It will begin as a trade post near the Canadian border, before incorporating as a township in 1928. It will largely be a commerce hub in northeastern Washington State until 1963- the year of the Kennedy assassination- when it develops into a more residential-driven area outside Spokane.
“What that town is not aware of, during its entire existence, is that they sit next to the breach between Earth and the Shroud. If there is one place people can physically pass into my world, it is on this very spot.”
“I don’t know why you’re telling me all this, Reaper,” I reply. Olivia is dead, thus light has died, and by my hand.
I just want to go home.
“Because it will be up to you to decide when they find out, Hale.”
I shake my head, telling my jailer I do not understand. I have not understood any of it, but the least he can do now is enlighten.
“I tire of this burden,” Reaper says, “It has been upon me too long, and these games no longer hold my interest. I am passing it on.”
“Passing it onto what?”
The hood looks away from the field, on which Reaper says there will be a town, and directly into my soul. What’s left of it, anyway.
“What?” I spit, “I don’t think so, Reaper.”
“You will become me. A guardian of Death, a necessary counterbalance. You will sow chaos so that order will be held accountable. You will be darkness, to give Light something to consider other than its own radiance. You will become Death, until Death becomes you.”
I chuckle as he raises his ebony hand toward me. There is nothing I could describe as skin, but something still hangs on them. Too busy preparing my tirade, I neglect to notice it is reaching for my face before it can be swept away.
“What makes you think I’m going to-”
Before I can swat it down, Reaper’s entire hand wraps around my head. It happens with lightning speed and the decaying limb smells like old meat, left in the open for several days.
It is nothing compared the process he has begun. It funnels right from the spiny fingers over my eyes and nose. The light between them blinds, and my head feels like splitting out the back, leaving a mess of brain and blood behind me. But that never comes. There is only the intense pressure applied, and light transferring between us. Unsure who is taking from whom, I try to scream, but no sound is worthy of the effort.
During this process, Reaper does not flinch. What we saw him do to the Anchor does not happen here. He is not weakened by the exchange. When it ends and the hand around my face is removed, I collapse to the ground at his feet.
“There,” he says, “You are Death now, and no light remains within you.”
At first, I feel no different. Before I can inform Reaper of that fact, there is a shift in the muscles of my left arm. When I pulled the ragged white sleeve up the thick of my bicep, flesh at my elbow shimmers between skin and scale. Checking the other arm at further shifts in physiology, I find it has also darkened.
“It will take some time to get used to,” Reaper remarks above me, “You will not discover all your new abilities in a single day.”
He chuckles within the hood.
Again, I climb my feet; only this time, with none of the fear and confusion the first time wrought. I feel stronger, more resilient. Weapons of my anger evolve alongside my body.
Something is happening to me.
Unaware of either my new speed or might, I reach out, grabbing as much of Reaper’s dressings as my hands will fit in them. I lift the cloak, but it comes up empty, and the scythe he held falls to the ground beside him.
All I’m left with is cloth and rage.
But in the wind, Reaper speaks, as if a message was previously recorded within it, to be played aloud at a time of his choosing.
“Return to Valhalla. Secure the Anchor, for she is the only thing that can hurt you now.”
Lowering my hands, I am pleased to find they do not shake for the first time in eons. Reaper may be clever, but I will even the score someday.
As Olivia said, we have to bide our time, Hale!
Lot of good that did. The preserved beauty of my surroundings does not register any longer, because I know someday it will be another blemish on this Earth.
I am Death, and wish it visited upon all.
It takes a moment to figure out how to craft a portal. Reaper made it look flawless, but for me, it requires several trial and error attempts. Each portal looks like a tear in the sky, where its purples and reds will revolve against the swirls which decorate them.
With the portal open, it is a second-long trip before Haven becomes Valhalla. Back at the Timestream, where I lived and died so many times; where Olivia’s corpse is outstretched on a stone slab beneath the massive canopy of trees preceding the beach.
Her head is turned sideways. Mouth and eyes hang open as they were, before I laid her down to attack Reaper. He deflected my blows, twisted my arm and threw me forward into an improvised portal- all like it was nothing. To make it even more humiliating, he fought me off with one hand, still holding his scythe upright with the other.
The Anchor, whose name is Ariel, takes notice of the portal opening behind her. As I cross the threshold between the two locations, our eyes meet. She brushes aside her black hair, climbing to her feet to greet me. Her eyes are brown and she looks human, but her words are timid. She approaches slowly, so that the portal I returned through has time enough to close.
“So?” she says, taking no mind of the corpse on a slab behind her, “Is it over?”
She looks human, but is just an object. I watched Reaper transfer the Anchor’s power from a black prism to her soul, and she was the Anchor ever after that. The black prism rolled away, swallowed by lapping waves.
Ariel is the object now.
Safeguard the Anchor. She is the only thing that can hurt you now.
Without responding, I grab her arm. She is not a person, but a tiny black jewel that instantly evaporated when it rolled into the water. The Timestream does not tolerate foreign objects; only souls, and that prism was swallowed in its embrace.
Ariel will be the same.
“Hale, what are you doing?”
She fights me all the way to the Timestream’s shoreline. She thrashes against my superior strength as I drag her kicking legs into the body of water.
Reaper gave me this role. I do not accept it.
“Hale!” Ariel screams, kicking up torrents of water all around us, “Please don’t do this! Just-”
I will not hear a word of it, and push her head under the surface. The toes and fingers remain visible, but her head is not, and I revel in the final moments of her struggle.
Safeguard the Anchor.
Fuck you, Reaper.
She is the only thing that can hurt you now.
Not if I have a say in it.
I push her further down, sending bubbles to the top. She is the Anchor and she controls the madness Olivia and I lived through.
She does not deserve to survive.
Nothing deserves to survive.
Ariel’s struggle weakens, then ceases. I stumble back in the water, letting go. Her body surfaces, floating away from me. In a few minutes, it will drift to the Falls, and be taken over the edge.
Disposed of, like the waste of life she is.
My name is Hale, and I have lived twenty-nine times. I may live and die a few more, but I am Death, and decide the world’s fate. Watching Ariel’s corpse pulled toward the edge of eternity, I know Olivia would be horrified at my actions.
But she is gone, and I am Death.
Maybe just for now, or for all time.
When I return to the shore, no water is left upon my clothes or flesh. It is nothing new, for the Timestream is more than water, and makes every attempt to reclaim its pieces quickly.
I look to the stone slab where Olivia’s body was, but any thought of returning to grief is gone, as is her body. Blood remains upon the stone, smiled on by Valhalla’s version of a sun, but she has all but disappeared.
So, I look away from my greatest mistake, to the trees and the pathway carved through them.
Where Valhalla ends, and the unknown begins.
I walk towards it, because it is my realm and I am its master.
I am Death, and nothing deserves to survive.