Balance by Brandy Nicole Jones
Balance by Brandy Nicole Jones
The sun glared down upon the land, harsh rays of light chasing away even the briefest hope of blessed shade. Moisture hung thick and heavy in the air, clinging to Velkan Brand’s dirty tunic as he pulled weeds from his small, sad garden. Sweat dripped from his brow and stung his eyes, his dark hair stuck to his slicked neck and shoulders, and the oppressive sun continued to beat down upon his back. He was uncomfortably hot and wished nothing more than to join his mother inside their crumbling stone cottage. Though the house wouldn’t be any cooler, he would at least be by her side.
The weeds had been particularly stubborn that week, growing almost as fast as Velkan could uproot them. With every passing year, the vegetation took over increasing amounts of the scorched earth that made up the Brand farm, threatening to overcome what little crops Velkan and his mother were able to grow. Mother had told him that it wasn’t always this way.
In her stories, there were seasons. Wet seasons with cool rain, cold seasons with ice and snow, colorful seasons where the trees matched the skies of a setting sun that Velkan had never seen. In his twenty years of life, he had never seen a rainstorm or a snowflake or a colored leaf or a sunset. He had grown up under an unending sun that burned hotter each year, with untamed vines and forests that claimed whole cities, with the Taking. Mother had told him that twenty years ago, when the sun refused to set and the summer refused to end, the Taking first came to their world. The blood plague moved throughout the cities and the country in equal measure, seemingly striking at random. But no matter when it came, it would eventually come for everyone. In the last month, it had finally come for Mother.
With every passing day, her blood turned darker until black lines stretched across her skin like vines of death. With every passing day, she grew weaker until she could no longer work the farm as she used to. With every passing day, Velkan took on more of the work, more of the strain. He knew his mother worried for him, worried that the increased labor would tempt the Taking to come for him early, but he had little choice. If he could not keep nature at bay, it would steal away their garden and their home with little care that two souls still resided within it.
After clearing the garden as best he could, Velkan returned his tools to the nearby barn and made his way to the farm’s well, wiping his dirty hands on his brown patched hose before washing in the near scorching water until he was decent. He went inside, the hot air blasting him full force as he entered the doorway, and poured water from a pitcher to bring to his mother. She had felt weak this morning and refused to leave her room.
He knocked before entering and found her kneeling on the floor, his father’s chest opened in front of her. She was trifling through it but gave him a small smile as he handed her the water.
“I have something for you,” she said. She pulled a brown leather-bound book from the chest and offered it to him. “Your father never filled this one.”
Velkan was confused as he joined her on the floor. There were countless journals like these in the chest his mother was currently burrowing through. In their youth, Velkan’s parents had been adventurers and his father had documented many of their shared journeys through drawings. It was on one of these adventures, just before Velkan was born, that his father had become Taken. He made it home with barely enough time to tell his wife he loved her and to pass along his haul before succumbing to the Taking. His last journal remained half-filled, a sharp reminder of a life cut short far too early.
“Why are you giving this to me?” he asked.
“You should start thinking about having some adventures of your own. You’re a good lad but we both know I’m not long for this world. I don’t want you to waste what time you have before it comes for you, too,” his mother answered gently. Velkan felt his heart sink.
“Don’t say such things, Mother. You should be resting.” He made a move to stand but she held his arm.
“All I do is rest. Let me speak before I have no more words to say.”
Velkan nodded and reluctantly sunk back down to his knees. She thanked him with a warm smile and turned back to the chest. She pulled out a traveling pack that had seen much better days and after rooting around near the bottom, Velkan watched as his mother pulled an old sword from the chest. Despite its dullness and a few dents and knicks, it was apparent the sword had been well loved.
“This was your father’s. He could have had finer swords made, especially with the coin we made from our younger days, but he refused to part ways with it. He said it brought him luck.” She stroked the worn blade affectionately as she spoke and Velkan could see some of that old sadness burn in her eyes. In addition to the black lines inching across the sallow skin of her throat, his mother made a pitiful picture. “He would have loved teaching you to wield it. He would have loved you.”
“I wish I’d known him,” he murmured. His mother gave him a sad smile.
“I wish the same. You would have been his pride and joy. He brought me roses when he asked if we could start a family, he was such a romantic,” her voice broke.
“I’ve heard about those.”
“Yes,” he nodded, “That traveler who came through last year, one of the songs he taught me was filled with mentions of them. It’s hard to image people gifted each other plants.”
His mother smiled and the sadness seemed to ease. “It was a different time. Flowers were given as a sign of affection. They were especially pretty in spring when all the new flowers would bloom. It’s quite rare to find them now and even if you could, intentionally bringing nature into your home doesn’t have quite the same meaning as it used to.”
“Anyways,” she began again as she rose to her feet, “you should see about sharpening that sword. You’ll need to practice if you have any hope of using it someday.”
Despite his sadness at his mother’s illness, he was happy to have a part of his father with him. He did as he was told, finishing his chores before heading to the barn for the night cycle.
While Velkan had never experienced true night as it once was, he liked the thought of it. It seemed odd to him that in the time before his birth, the sun did not stay an ever-looming presence. His mother had told him of the moon and the night sky and the darkness that stretched over the world for hours at a time. It seemed to Velkan the type of thing to be found in children’s stories.
He retired to his hay bed, tossing his tunic across the room and setting his father’s pack down beside him as he admired the sword. His father had made a fortune with this sword, back when fortunes still mattered. Velkan hoped that he, too, would one day have adventures and stories to tell. If the Taking doesn’t take me first, he thought. Uneasiness speared through him. If there was one thing he was truly afraid of, it was the Taking.
Ah well, nothing like a good dose of certain death to put my mind at ease before bed.
He moved to put the sword down on the floor, knocking over the pack as he went. His ears perked as something within the pack thudded. With his curiosity peaked, he pulled the tattered satchel into his arms and reached inside. All he could feel was something small and solid wrapped in cloth. He pulled it out and kicked the pack back to the floor before inspecting his find.
The cloth itself was old and worn. Velkan shook out the fabric until something small, solid, and oblong fell into his waiting hand.
All at once, his whole world changed. The gem was solid black, blacker than any ink he had ever seen, but most shockingly, it was cold.
In a world of endless sun and summer, Velkan had never felt anything cold in his life. The water from the well sometimes came out more lukewarm than hot and the creek in the surrounding forest sometimes felt slightly cool if it were a particularly scorching hot day, but he’d never experienced anything truly cold.
He ran the gem down his wrist and arm, the hair on his arm raising at the temperature difference. The gem remained cool to the touch.
By the Maker, he thought, what is this?
He continued running the gem across his torso and up his neck, downright grinning when cool relief followed the gem across his brow.
“If you would be so kind, could you not do that?”
Velkan startled, launching himself nearly a foot into the air before crashing back down to his makeshift bed and falling unceremoniously to the floor. He picked himself up, tripping over his tangled, too-long limbs as he did so, only to find a red headed girl clad in a plain white shift leaning casually against the loft’s wall.
“How the-…who are you?” He stammered, grasping for his shirt to cover himself appropriately.
“I am Death.”
Well, that’s comforting.
“Er…that’s nice. What are you doing in my loft?”
“Apparently interrupting your little moment with my foci,” she smirked.
Are girls supposed to smirk? Velkan didn’t know enough of them to know for sure.
“I was not having a moment with…sorry, a foci?”
Yes, clearly that’s the most important topic at the moment. He gave himself a mental shove. Clearly he had been in the heat too long.
“Yes, and I would like it back. Sooner rather than later, if you please. I am not sure how long I have been awake,” She gave him an expectant look, as if he had any clue what to do in this situation.
“…Right. Well I was actually trying to go to sleep so if you wouldn’t mind,” he glanced towards the lower area of the barn, hoping the message would get across that this was clearly not a normal or even appropriate occurrence.
“Sleeping at midday? It is nice to know some things do not change about you humans. You are always doing the strangest things,” she trailed off.
Velkan could only stare blankly at her. He wasn’t even sure where to begin with that.
“I’m sorry, can we start over? I’m at a bit of a loss,” he said.
The auburn haired girl sighed and lifted her eyes to the rafters.
“If you would like,” she agreed.
“My name is Velkan Brand. This land belongs to my family. You’re currently standing in my barn.”
That seems like a simple enough start, right? He thought.
“A pleasure, Velkan. I am Death. The foci in your hand belongs to me. And yes, I am currently standing in your…sorry, what did you call it? A barn?”
Oh yeah, the sun dried her right out.
“Uh huh. Yeah, I’ve had sun stroke before. Why don’t I get you some water and then we can go about looking for your people, sound good?” he asked, making sure his words were slow and clear.
Sun stroke was no joke. He’d caught it three years ago when he stayed out in the fields too long. Mother had told him he’d been in fever dreams for several day cycles. The only thing he could remember from it was the dryness of a parched throat and the searing heat that wouldn’t leave his body no matter how long Mother stood over his prone form, fanning him in quiet desperation. He clutched the cold gem tighter at the memory.
If this lost girl had gotten caught out in the sun, he would do all that he could to return her to her people.
“I have no people,” she spoke softly, her smirk finally falling from her face.
“Oh. I’m sorry. Were they Taken?” he asked.
“Taken? Seems odd to assume somebody took them as a first guess,” the girl cocked her head.
“What? No. You know, Taken. Sick with the Taking,” he explained.
Definitely heat addled, he thought.
“What are you on about?” she asked, looking at him as if he were the one who needed a cup of water and an urgent fanning.
“I…I’m not quite sure how to respond to that. You’ve either been hiding under a rock for the last twenty or so years or you’re actually Death and I spent too much time in the sun.”
“To be fair, I have been under a rock for longer than I care to admit, but I truly am Death. Will you accept it now or shall I tell you for a fourth time?” she gave him a bright smile and despite the sheer lunacy of the last five minutes, Velkan found himself smiling back.
At least Death is pretty
“You don’t look like Death to me.”
“Oh?” the girl, Death, smiled, “And what do I look like to you?”
Velkan blushed down to his overly warm neck. It was the night cycle and a strange but very pretty girl claiming to be Death incarnate was standing in his loft. Even he could not be expected to hold himself accountable for acting like a heat addled moron.
“Well I suppose if you’re here to kill me, you may as well look pretty as sin while doing it.”
Death smiled sweetly, her green eyes warmer and far kinder than the sun ever was.
“That is sweet of you to say, though I am not here to claim you.” She said.
And then all the good, fluffy feelings left him.
“My mother?” he asked, dreading the answer.
“Take heart. I am only here because the foci called to me. Although I feel it a kindness to tell you that your mother…” Death hesitated, an apology shining in her eyes, “she is very close. I am sorry.”
Velkan knew that, of course he did. Every day, the black lines grew further across his mother’s skin. The blood plague took its victims as quickly as nature took the land. Even still, knowing what was coming did not ease the ache of it.
“I am not familiar with her sickness. Is this the Taking you spoke of?” Death asked.
“Yes. If you’re Death, how do you not know of it?” he questioned. Velkan was surprised how at ease he felt saying the words. Trust did not come quickly between strangers but something in him, some part of him that he had never realized was unbalanced, seemed to right itself.
Death opened her mouth to reply but then paused and closed it again. She did this a few more times before shaking her head.
“It is a story for another time. Though that does bring me back to my original request. My foci, will you return it?” she gestured to his hands.
“Oh, sorry. Yes, of course. Here,” he stretched his hand out to return the gem, already missing its coolness against his palm, when the girl jumped backwards and flattened herself against the barn wall.
“Not to me! Are you daft?” she exclaimed, her green eyes wide,
This girl was starting to make Velkan feel like a moron.
“I’m sorry, did I do something wrong?” he mumbled, at a complete loss.
“I apologize, I just…it would be a very bad thing for me to touch it. You humans have clearly forgotten much,” Death explained. She had a hand raised between the two of them, as if to ward him off.
“Why is that?” Velkan asked. The girl seemed a bit lost and despite her words, she eyed the gem unhappily. She sighed and lowered her hand.
“It is a story for another time,” she replied softly and maybe, Velkan noticed, a bit sadly.
He felt his heart tug a little in his chest at her crestfallen expression and hoped that his next words wouldn’t damn him.
“Okay then, where am I taking this thing?”
Death smiled brightly and Velkan felt his heart tug in a different way entirely.
At the beginning of the next day cycle, they began to plan their adventure. Velkan didn’t understand everything Death told him, and she was more than a little sparing with the finer details, but he believed he caught the gist of it. The foci needed to be returned to a temple that rested beneath Maker’s Grace, a mountain about a week’s journey from Velkan’s farm. He wasn’t quite sure why the mountain prompted an eye roll from Death and he wasn’t especially eager to ask. It did not take him long to learn how prickly his new friend could be.
The main problem they kept running into was the path they would take to get to the mountain.
“If we cut through the Arkan Wilds, we can save two days,” Death pressed.
“If we cut through the Arkan Wilds, we’ll be dead in two days,” Velkan argued.
“How many times do I have to tell you that I am Death?”
“Good for you. Your human companion, however, is not Death and he would like very much to not end up dead before he kisses a girl.”
“Then I will kiss you and you can take the forest path in peace.”
“Can you even be considered a girl? I mean, you’re Death.”
“How would you like to die in the next two minutes?”
Another problem on Velkan’s mind, and truly the most vital one in his opinion, was his mother.
“If I told her I wanted to leave tomorrow, to live out my own adventures the way she did at my age, she would let me go with a smile.” Velkan said as he went about weeding the small garden. The various weeds he had plucked the day before had grown back and then some. It left a bitter taste in his mouth when he realized yet another potato plant was lost. At this rate, they would lose the farm within a year or two. If it continued this way, he and his mother would starve before the Taking could claim them.
“I sense a question coming,” Death encouraged, making faces every now and then when he had to get creative about removing a vine without killing the food bearing plant.
“Will she be okay?”
“I also sense that is not the question you are truly asking.”
Velkan cursed and threw down his gloves when he pulled too hard and the whole plant came up. Between the death count of his food supply and the humidity that weighted every breath he took, he could feel his frustration growing. Death kneeled in the dirt beside him, seemingly without a care to her white shift, and laid a gentle hand on his shoulder.
“Let me help,” she said. Velkan watched in complete and utter fascination as Death gripped a vine between her fingers and after only a moment, the vine seemed to wilt and die. She pulled it loose from the plant it had been strangling, leaving the plant and all its vital produce unharmed.
“You want to know if your mother will die while you are gone,” she took one of his hands into both of hers and met his eyes. He wasn’t sure if it was the pleasure of her company or if he had been out in the sun too long, but Velkan could swear the sun wasn’t beating down on his shoulders with quite the intensity it usually did.
“I will not come for her while you are so far from her side, Velkan. I promise you.”
“Do you have to come for her at all? Can’t you save her?” He hated how small he sounded but his mother was the only family he had ever known. He was not ready to be on his own. He did not want to die alone.
“I am not all powerful, my friend. I can only act within my own nature and it is the very nature of a thing to age and die.”
“Tell that to these damn vines.”
He didn’t expect her to look so sad at his comment. Her eyes seemed to dim and she released his hand as she rose to her feet, leaving him feeling slightly off balance.
“That is the plan.”
He didn’t ask what she meant.
In the beginning of the next day cycle, Velkan said goodbye to his mother. With the food Death had managed to save from the garden, his mother wouldn’t have to lift a finger for her meals for a week or two at the earliest. He hoped he would be back within two weeks at the longest but despite the worry, Velkan wanted to go. He needed only to glance at his father’s sword to know his mother wanted him to go, too. And at the prospect of his adventure, she was only too happy to send him off, convinced that he was accepting of her imminent demise and completely unknowing that he had a traveling companion.
It had come as quite the shock when he realized that his mother did not seem to see or hear Death. He had nearly choked on his supper when his mother had walked right through her the night before. He had reached out and taken Death’s hand in his own, not able to comprehend how she was all but a ghost to his mother while being so cool and solid in his grasp. She had winked at him and then proceeded to make childish faces at him from over his mother’s head throughout supper, prompting more than a few odd looks from Mother when he reacted. He had been slightly worried about what the contact with Death would do to her but if anything, his mother seemed to smile brighter and sit a little straighter.
His mother sent him off with a kiss to his brow and whispered words of love as she held him to her. He knew that in her mind, she believed this to be the last time she would see him. He knew this to be false but had no way of comforting his mother without sounding like a sun drunk lunatic.
He kept his shoulders straight and his chin held high as he walked the path away from his mother and his home and all he’d ever known. His father’s sword, freshly sharpened and polished, hung in a patched scabbard at his hip and his father’s old pack hung from one shoulder. He had placed Death’s foci in a small pouch that he cinched closed and tied loosely around his neck, safe from her touch. He could feel the soothing coolness through his tunic and it worked wonders for his nerves, as did Death’s hand in his.
After two day cycles of travel, it became very apparent that something was off. The most noticeable was the sun. While it was still unbearably hot and humid, Velkan no longer felt as if each ray of light was beating down upon him. The sun also seemed to have sunk in the sky, though he couldn’t be sure and wasn’t willing to risk blindness by staring into the sun to find out.
Another thing that had changed was the water. While there was no shortage of water to be found in this area of the country, it had always been uncomfortably hot unless it came from a well. Baths in rivers or lakes were a rushed affair and often left Velkan’s skin feeling red and raw. But with Death at his side, and he was somehow sure beyond reason that it was Death’s doing, every body of water they came upon was blissfully chilled. He had floated on his back nearly an hour before Death threatened to kill him if they didn’t continue on.
He wanted to ask her about it but every time he got close to the subject, her eyes would turn sad and she stayed quiet for awhile. He knew she was okay to talk again when she would reach for his hand.
Though that didn’t stop Death from asking him questions.
By the Maker, the girl could talk. She questioned Velkan on nearly every aspect of his life, lacking though it may have been. She didn’t seem to care, she wanted to know absolutely everything there was to know about him and his life. As soon as he thought a topic was exhausted, she would paint it in a new light and the discussion would begin all over again. She was especially curious about the Taking.
“I do not understand it,” she pouted as he tried his best to explain yet again what he knew of it.
“There isn’t much to understand. Its only been around for twenty years or so. You’d be hard pressed to find someone claiming to be an expert,” he said, reminding himself to have patience.
“But it does not function like other illnesses. There is no purpose to it,” her frustration was bleeding through.
“As opposed to other ailments?”
“Yes,” she countered firmly, “illness separates the weak from the strong, it serves a purpose in nature. There is a balance to it.”
“Tell that to a mother whose infant dies of fever at her breast.”
“I told you before, I can only act within my nature. I do not decide who lives and who dies, I can only maintain the balance between the two.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to sound like I’m blaming you,” he reached out for her hand and some of her frustration seemed to melt away.
“I know,” she smiled and squeezed his hand, “that is why the Taking confuses me though. I have never seen it before. It has no purpose, no balance. It is unclean. How can every human be doomed to a single ailment?”
“Nobody knows. All we know is that it’s a matter of when and not if. Unless somebody runs a sword through me, I will become Taken.”
“Do not say that,” she snapped.
Velkan stopped walking and their hands pulled as she kept her pace. She stopped before their hands could part and Velkan couldn’t bare the pained look on her face.
“I am human, Death. Whether it comes for me tomorrow or five years from now, it will come. One day, you will be called on to claim me.” The words were harsh but he spoke them kindly. He tried to ignore the panic clawing up his spine, the same as it did every time he thought of himself as Taken.
Death’s only reply was to throw her arms around his neck.
Four day cycles into their journey, nothing could be done to explain away Death’s influence on the land around them. The humidity and heat Velkan had grown up with was all but gone. It was not cool by any means but he no longer had sweat gather at this brow and even mentioned it may be necessary to take a detour into a nearby village to purchase additional clothing, mostly for Death. Her white shift, which had somehow not suffered a single stain despite their travels, would not be enough protection if the temperature continued to drop. She only patted his cheek and told him it was sweet that he cared. He didn’t bring it up again for fear of blushing down to his collar.
The sun, which Velkan had rightfully suspected of sinking in the sky, lowered with each passing day. The sky, which had been an unchanging bright blue for over twenty years, began to darken.
The leaves, too, began to change. Rich green, the color Velkan had always known, gave way to yellow and then to orange and then to red. And as they changed, so too did Death. Her eyes melted from rich green to a pretty hazel to a warm brown. She did not offer explanation and he did not ask. When he told her that her brown eyes looked lovely with her bright auburn hair, she smiled sweetly and took his offered hand.
He had never seen so much color in all his life and recalled his mother’s stories about the seasons. He hoped that his mother could see them as well. Death seemed to know exactly when he thought of his mother. She would close her eyes for a moment, then smile and tell him in exact detail some action his mother was performing. Whether it was enjoying the cooling weather, patching holes in her clothing, or sitting in the barn loft and thinking of her only son, Death portrayed her in such detail that he could almost see his mother before him.
Whatever curse had befallen the land was slowly being lifted. The vines that once invaded and strangled seemed to wither away, easing the strain on crops and farmlands. Sun scorched earth felt the bliss of shadow as new growth bloomed as quickly as invasive weeds ever did. Somehow, Death’s presence was breathing life into the world.
His eyes asked her why even if his mouth did not.
On the fifth day of their journey, Velkan saw Death claim a soul.
They had been walking north along a path, only half a day’s walk from the Arkan Wilds. Her arm was looped through his and to her delight, Velkan was recounting a memory of a traveler he had met who exchanged a lute and a book of songs for Velkan’s boots, which had been in much better condition than the traveler’s. His mother had been furious with him for trading away something so valuable but had melted when he spent each night cycle playing her to sleep. He had to go nearly a week before they found another pair of boots and Velkan was halfway through explaining the creative substitutes he suffered when the arrow hit.
It sunk into his left shoulder and the force of it separated him from Death, who shrieked his name. Three men appeared from the tree line, rushing Velkan and forcing him to the ground. One ripped his pack from him and began rifling through it while the other two held him down, passing through Death as easily as his mother did. The only thing Velkan had on him of any true value was hanging cool and comforting around his neck. Even his father’s sword wouldn’t be worth much if stolen and sold. Death watched helplessly as he struggled against the arms holding him down.
The men tore through his meager belongings and Death raged. It wasn’t until one of the men made to grab the pouch hanging from his neck that Velkan broke free. While he wasn’t a fighter by nature, he had spent his entire life working a farm and had a decent weight to throw around. He managed to grab ahold of his sword and the next moment passed by so fast, he wasn’t entirely sure what happened. One second, the bandit was bearing down on Velkan and the next, Velkan’s sword had pierced his stomach. The other two split and ran, not deeming him worth the fight now that he had a sword in his hands.
Velkan couldn’t look away. The man was afraid, that much was clear. Thick black lines stretched from his wrists, up his exposed arms, and all the way to his neck. Even the small line of blood that spilled from his mouth was more black than red. The man was already dead, Velkan’s sword just finished the job. The man collapsed on his feet, Velkan catching him and leading him down onto the ground. But the man’s eyes were on Death.
As far as Velkan figured, he was the only person who could see and hear and touch and feel her. But there was no question that this dying man’s gaze was locked on her. He cried out, terrified, and Velkan wondered if maybe the sweet face he saw was not the same face the dying man was seeing.
It was over in a moment. Death looked angrier than Velkan had ever seen a person look and she was none too gentle when she laid her hand on the man’s heart, making contact rather than passing through, and the man finally went still. When she retracted her hand, a part of him seemed to follow her, a golden light that left him and passed through her before fading.
The fury and pain on her face discouraged the questions that burned in Velkan’s mouth.
They made camp early that day. The arrow wasn’t too deep. He gritted his teeth when she pulled it from him. He wrapped it with the little spare cloth he had but there was no denying that he would need a healer. His belongings were scattered but mostly still accounted for. He had yet to clean his blade, not quite ready to face the blood yet. Death broke the silence.
“I know you want to ask.” She was hesitant, guarded. And it broke his heart.
“It makes you sad when I do,” he answered.
“It is okay, Velkan,” she promised, “I think I am ready now.”
He sat up straighter, careful of his wound, and met her gaze. The sky behind her was more of a pale yellowish orange than a blue and the sun seemed to flare as it hung low on the horizon.
“The golden flash, what was that?”
“A human soul.”
“It looked like you absorbed it.”
“Not exactly,” Death paused but then sighed and closed her eyes, “it passed through me. You would not have been able to see it come out the other side. This is my nature, even if it is the last thing I wish for.”
“You didn’t want to claim him?” Velkan asked.
“I have no choice in the matter.”
“Right, because you can only act within your nature.”
“No,” her voice could have cut steel, “it is because my Father made me this way.”
“Your Father? I didn’t know you have a Father, I thought you just…are, if that makes sense,” he said.
“I was not born in the same sense you were but I did have a beginning. All things do. Well, all except one,” she huffed bitterly.
“Wait, are you talking about the Maker?” Velkan never considered himself religious but if Death was born of the Maker, then He really existed. It was a frightening thought.
“That is what He liked His humans to call Him, yes. Though I doubt your stories of Him live up to reality.”
“And what is reality?”
Her eyes darkened and more rage and pain than he had ever seen or thought possible gathered in the lines of her face.
“Reality is a Father who created twin souls to rule His kingdom in His stead and then punished them for doing exactly that.”
“I don’t understand, Death,” he encouraged.
Her pretty brown eyes welled with tears. Velkan drew her close, tucking her under his good arm and shoulder as she buried her face against his chest.
“When He made this world, He wanted something to reign over. But taming nature is a nasty business and so my brother and I were brought into being. Life and Death, in perfect balance. He made the world, but we controlled it. And then He created humans. They were fascinating, Velkan, like nothing else He had ever made before. My brother and I adored them, and they adored us in return. In time, Father grew jealous of their love for us. When we refused to abandon our friends, He turned on us. He killed us, Velkan, His own children. But he had made us too well. My brother would just be reborn again, as is his nature, and my nature would compel me to come into being every time he died. We were too balanced. It is ironic actually, that the weapons Father made to tame nature became nature itself. And so, He turned His gaze to the humans we loved so much.”
“He made them mortal. My brother brought each one of them into the world and I took each one of them from the world. Our friends aged and died and I was compelled to claim them. In grief and rage, we openly rebelled against our Father. It was…chaos. In time, we found a way to bind Father using our own souls as His chains. An endless slumber; it was as close to death as we could ever get. My brother and I fashioned foci, tools to concentrate our natures so that we might maintain balance even in sleep. And there we remained.”
“Death, I… I don’t know what to say. I’m sorry,” Velkan held her a little tighter to his side and hoped that would be comfort enough.
“Thank you. You are always so kind to me.”
“You’re my friend, my best friend.”
In the following cycle, or at least what Velkan thought was the following day cycle–with the sun dangerously close to setting for the first time in decades, the fading daylight was throwing his internal clock for a loop–the two friends made their way into the city. Velkan had been to a city only once before and that one had been nowhere near as big as the oceanside city of Arkanport.
A great wall encircled the front and sides of the city while various ships dotted the ports alongside the bay. Velkan and Death had stood on the edge of the port quarter for hours soaking in the sight of the ocean. At least Velkan had; Death seemed to be growing more impatient by the minute.
“Let us leave already. The sea will not dry while you see a healer,” she said.
Velkan wasn’t sure he believed her. He was completely entranced. Vast blue stretched as far as his eyes could see and the sun rested only inches above the horizon. Rich oranges and reds reflected from the sky onto the water. A burning sea of fiery water crashed in waves before him and a gentle breeze, which could almost be considered cold, raised the hair on his arms and sent a shiver down his spine.
“Just a little longer. Please.”
Death pursed her lips but nodded before rejoining his side and looping her arm through his.
“You like the sea, then?” she asked.
“It’s beautiful. I’ve seen lakes, some of them quite big, but nothing like this. There aren’t words…” he trailed off.
Death smiled smugly at the horizon.
“I am glad you enjoy it,” she began. “She was fun to tame.”
“What do you mean?” Velkan angled his head down at her.
“I told you that Life and I had to tame nature. It was the only way for life to come into being. I raged against the seas while my brother calmed the fires that burned throughout the world. I claimed the moon and my brother, the sun. I took fall and winter as my own and in due time, my brother would usher in the spring and summer and new life. It was a good life. There was peace and balance. My Father loved us still,” her eyes remained on the horizon but her smile had fallen at the mention of her father.
Velkan hummed in thought. “An interesting notion. I guess it makes sense that the ocean belongs to Death. It’s a pretty gruesome way to die though.”
“What ever do you mean?” Death jerked back, clearly offended.
“Well, I mean…it’s a deathtrap,” he defended. She raised an eyebrow and Velkan could feel another shovel’s worth of dirt deeper into his figurative grave.
“I am quite pleased with the seas,” she spoke pridefully. “My brother filled them with the most beautiful creatures. They are the epitome of nature and balance and all that I am.”
“Death, there is no life in them,” he said, a little more cautiously. “Maybe there was once but not anymore. It’s almost death just to touch it.”
Her eyes grew wide and tears welled in them. She looked so lost.
“It is all gone?” she whispered.
“I’m sorry,” he laid a hand on her shoulder in an offer of comfort. “The ocean is beautiful to look at but it burns hotter than any fire.”
“No,” she said firmly, shaking her head. Velkan felt for her. Denial was something he knew well.
“No, I will not stand for this,” she continued.
Death took his hand from her shoulder and all but dragged him along the port side. They passed through the docks, weaving amongst the sailors and shipping merchants until they came to a boardwalk off to the side. She led them determinedly past the boardwalk until wood gave way to sand dunes. She continued on towards the beach, leading Velkan by his good hand until the were mere feet away from the lapping waves.
“Death, I’m not so sure about this. While its true the water we’ve come across has been significantly cooler, none of those waters had been known to boil a man alive,” he reasoned.
“Trust me,” she said as she all but pushed him forward.
Velkan caught himself just before the water could hit his toes and nearly danced out of the water’s way. He could hear shouts from the walkway they’d been standing on just a few minutes prior. With a turn of his head, he could see a small group of men and what looked like a child all but running towards him from the boardwalk.
He turned to her, feeling a slight fear creep up his spine. No matter how enchanting the ocean was, he did not want to die.
“Trust me,” she said. Her eyes were wide and comforting and he felt guilt and fear in his heart for not trusting them. The ocean was death. Everyone knew that.
The shouts drew nearer.
“The ocean is mine and I will not harm you,” she promised.
He gulped, took an unsteady breath, kicked off his boots, and with eyes on the crimson horizon, stepped forward.
It was like he was back in his barn loft all over again, trailing an unknown gem along his skin to feel the first touches of cold in his entire life. Emotion gathered and choked him in his throat.
The water lapped at his exposed feet, tickling over them like cool silk. He buried his toes into the mushy sand and watched as the water carried the sand away, effectively sinking him by an inch. A laugh bubbled up from deep in his chest and a grin broke across his face as he swished his feet and waded forward until he was knee deep and able to drag his hands through the water as well.
“Get out of there, boy! Do you have a death wish?” a man called from the shore, standing a few feet to the right of Death. Several other men, a few women, and a small girl with deep black lines across her face and exposed neck stood behind him, looking upon him with frantic concern.
“It’s cold,” Velkan said incredulously. He splashed his hands into the water again, amazed that they came back cool and wet instead of welted with burning flesh.
He heard several gasps from the crowd and the young girl cautiously stepped toward him. The man, a sailor by the look of him, yanked her back by her arm before she could reach the water line.
Strangely, the girl looked to Death, who smiled kindly and nodded in encouragement. A wide grin broke out on the young girl’s face and she all but ripped herself from the man’s grasp and launched herself into the water. Velkan caught her with a laugh and splashed cool water at her face, grinning when she shrieked and made a sad attempt at splashing him back.
Others made their way to the water and once they felt for themselves it was safe, they too joined in on the play. Even the sailor, who the young girl ran back to and dragged him into the water herself, joined the fun.
For the first time since the sun first refused to set, people played in the ocean. And when their laughs and playful screams drew attention, more and more people joined them in the water. None of the newcomers noticed the auburn haired girl in a simple white shift who watched over them all with a fond smile. Nobody seemed to notice as she winked at an injured dark haired boy and the small Taken girl who sat on his shoulders.
But they all noticed when the first star woke from its rest.
The sun had not set quite yet but the sky had darkened enough to see faint twinkling lights among the heavens. Velkan had since left the water and laid down upon the sand, though still close enough to the water line to feel an occasional lapping at his feet. He gazed upon the heavens in fascination, filled with wonder at what looked to be bright candles stuck in the sky.
The sight was not new for everyone though. The sailor, Velkan noticed, had small tears in his eyes and a slight wobble in his chin as his face arched upwards. Some of the older women in the small crowd also seemed to be emotional.
He wondered if his mother could see them, if she would feel awestruck like him or if she would cry out in joy like so many around him did.
“Would you like to know what she is doing?” Death asked as she laid beside him in the chilled sand. He couldn’t help but to smile; Death always seemed to know when he was thinking of his mother.
“Always,” he said.
She was quiet for a minute and he turned his head to face her. Her eyes were closed, a small smile on her pale face; she looked completely at peace. Her auburn curls were wild and wind tousled and with the stars shining down on her from one side of the sky and crimson light from the other side catching on the red in her hair, Velkan thought she had never looked prettier.
Her eyes opened to reveal a warm brown. If eyes could smile, hers were.
“She is attempting to play your lute. It reminds her of you. A song about roses, I think, which reminds her of a lost love. She is not very good,” she laughed. “She misses you very much.”
“I miss her,” he sighed on a smile and lifted his eyes back to the stars.
“You’re able to see her because she’s dying, aren’t you? That’s why the girl can see you, too.” It wasn’t a question, just a statement.
“Yes,” she replied, “I have a bond with every soul in this world. The closer the soul is to death, the closer our bond is. I hope this does not upset you?”
“It’s a part of you,” he answered simply.
Death was eventually able to drag Velkan away from the ocean and to a healer in the city, though not before Velkan gave the little Taken girl a cheery goodbye and a farewell to those who had joined him in the sea. Death had said her goodbyes as well, even if none but Velkan and the girl heard it.
The healer patched Velkan up, confirming the wound wasn’t deep and shouldn’t get infected so long as Velkan kept it relatively clean. After accepting Velkan’s gloves as a reasonable payment, he had sent the young man on his way with bandages and a warning to rest lest he invite the Taking upon himself.
Death and Velkan made their camp outside the city walls and with the shade of the trees above them, it was deemed dark enough to light a fire for the night cycle. Velkan had struggled at first, much to Death’s amusement, but was able to build a small and steady flame before too long. He retrieved the leather journal his mother had given him from his satchel and thought of how his father had documented his adventures. In the light of the fire, Velkan began to draw.
He drew the foci. He drew Death as he had first seen her, leaning against the wall of his barn loft. He drew her hands healing the plants in his garden and his mother’s smile before he had left. He drew himself swimming in a small lake and he drew Death smiling. He drew until his hand ached and pictures of bandits and sailors and a Taken girl playing in the sea filled the pages.
“They are beautiful,” Death broke the comfortable silence.
“Thank you. My father used to do this. He didn’t live to tell me his stories himself, but Mother told them well enough,” he answered.
“I am sorry you never met him.”
“Me, too. I had my mother though and she is enough.” Velkan paused in his drawing.
“Death, do you have a mother?”
She looked thoughtful for a minute before answering.
“I do not know. At the moment of my birth, I do remember a presence. It was soft and warm and I knew it to be good. I know for sure it was not my Father but beyond that, I am at a loss. For all I know, it could have been Life. I like to think that maybe I did have a mother though, that I am more than what my father made me to be.”
“I think you are,” he smiled at her and she smiled back in gratitude.
“What is Life like?” he asked.
She barked a laugh.
“He is impossible. He flits from one thing to the next, always curious about the life he coaxes into being. He always liked to be there when a child or creature was born. He wanted to welcome every being into the world himself. And by my Father’s blood, he loved to create. He was always growing things. Plants just everywhere! I cannot even begin to contemplate the amount of time I spent following behind him and containing his flowers lest they conquer the world,” she laughed. “They grew like weeds, even the most beautiful of things.”
Despite her mirth and warmth at her brother’s memory, Velkan felt a cold dread settle in his core. Death took noticed and the smiled slipped from her face. He felt like he had just been run through with a blade.
“It’s him, isn’t it? He’s the reason why the world is dying, why the sun never sets,” Velkan accused.
Death shook her head quickly. “No,” she defended, “it is not his fault.”
“How could it not be? Death, the forests grow unchecked across the land. They claimed entire cities! Between nature growing wild and the sun scorching everything, so little food grows and its almost impossible to survive. You said your brother claimed the sun, right? Why is it that it never sets?”
“He is only acting within his nature.”
“That’s a shitty defense and you know it,” he said harshly.
Her shoulders slumped and he tried not to notice the tear trailing down her pale cheek.
“The fault is my own,” she whispered.
That’s not true, he thought, Death is good.
“That’s not true,” he voiced aloud.
“It is. What do you think it is that you carry around your neck?” She gestured to the tied pouch hanging around his neck and hidden behind his tunic.
He unwrapped the cord and shook the pouch until the cool black gem fell into his hand.
“What is it then?” he asked.
“After my brother and I rebelled, the world was in chaos. My Father was intent on destroying all He had built and starting anew with worshippers that would love Him more than they did us. My brother and I fought against Him. It was easy for Life but I was working against my own nature. I was killing those I loved more than I was helping them. And then we found a way to stop the war. We used our own souls to bind our Father and spent the next eternity in dreamless sleep.”
“You’ve told me most of this before,” he encouraged.
“Yes, but what I did not tell you was that without us, the world would have fallen to chaos anyway. To keep balance, our human friends, those most loyal to us, cut our hearts from our bodies as we slept and imbued them with their own lives. Our hearts became foci, concentrating and enhancing our natures so that nature itself would be balanced even as we slumbered.”
“You’re telling me I’m holding your literal heart in my hand?” He gazed down at the stone, the inky black as chilled and as beautiful as it had been the first time he laid eyes on it.
“It is cold and black but it is still mine.”
“Don’t say that,” he scolded, “You’re the kindest person I’ve ever met.”
She gave him a small, sad smile that didn’t reach her eyes.
“So what changed? I mean, something clearly went wrong along the way,” he said.
Death sighed and shook her head.
“I am not sure. Somebody must have found the temple and taken the foci, weakening my connection to nature. I do not know how it came to be in your possession but I am glad it did. Who could say what would have happened to the world if you did not wake me when you did?”
“I woke you?” Velkan frowned. He didn’t remember doing anything. As far as he was concerned, she had appeared in the middle of the night cycle while he was half naked and demanded that he return the stone. If anything, it was her that did all the somethings.
“You touched my foci. You must be a descendant of one of those loyal to me who gave their soul to my heart. You would never have been able to hold it otherwise. Not without dying what I am sure would have been a rather gruesome death, at least.”
Well, that’s cheery.
“That’s good, I think,” he gulped.
“Agreed,” Death smiled. “Regardless, my foci must be returned to restore the balance. I shudder to think what my poor brother has been going through. While he likely has no knowledge that I am even awake, it is his soul alone that is bearing the weight of holding our Father comatose.”
“If that’s why the world is so messed up, then why can’t you just take your foci and fix nature?”
Death visibly paled.
“That, my friend, is a terrible idea. Think about it. My foci was made to essentially grant me full power while in sleep. Think of the strength it would give me if I wielded it while awake,” she explained. “Velkan, you were born to a world over rich with Life and look at what that imbalance has wrought. Can you even bear to imagine what your world would be if Death reigned unchallenged?”
“Oh,” he grimaced. It wasn’t a pretty picture. By the Maker, there would likely be nothing left.
“‘Oh’ indeed,” she agreed sadly, “My brother does not mean to harm the world; he would be devastated if he saw what was happening. He is only doing what he has always done, the only difference is I am not there to balance him out as I should be. I must go back to sleep.”
“Wait, what?” Velkan shot up, his journal tumbling from his lap. Death lunged forward just in time to save it from the still burning fire.
“You never said anything about going to sleep!”
“Velkan,” she said gently, kindly, “What did you think we were doing?”
“I thought…we can’t…I thought we were just returning the gem!”
“We are, and me with it. It is useless otherwise.”
“No!” He paced back and forth before the fire, Death watching him with sympathetic eyes all the while.
“No, you said that sleep was the closest you could get to dying. I’m not doing that to you,” he growled.
“Yes, you will.”
“You will,” she insisted consolingly, “For the love of your mother.”
He paused his pacing.
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“I was not sure at first but the more I learn, the more certain I am. The Taking, I believe I am at fault for that as well. The world is unbalanced and this is just one more way it manifested. The idea first came to me when your mother touched me. You saw how she reacted, didn’t you?”
“She got stronger,” he croaked, hating the words with everything in him.
“Yes. I thought it correct when I claimed the man who shot you. He was Taken, unclean. But the moment his soul passed through mine, I felt it be cleansed. The world needs me. You can see it in the setting sun, in the turning leaves. Velkan, I must go back to sleep. And once I do, nature will be whole again and the blood plague will heal. Your mother will heal.”
He wanted to fight her. He wanted to hate her. He wanted to scream and shout for forcing him to choose between her and his mother, between her and the world.
“There is no choice to be made,” she whispered across the glow of the fire.
He felt cold all over, and not in the good way that he had craved all his life. She answered his thoughts. She could hear him.
“You are Taken. It is weak but it is there. I can feel it like poison in your blood.”
She set his journal down before standing and going to him, lifting her hand to his cheek. He held it to his face with his own and placed a kiss on her wrist.
“I love the world, Velkan. I love humans. But I would damn them all if it meant I could stay with you. I won’t damn you, though. If I go, the Taking will follow. You will heal and so will your mother and the little girl from the beach and all the others.”
“I have to go.”
Later that night, the sun set for the first time in twenty years.
Velkan held Death tight to him and wished it would never rise again.
They cut through the Arkan Wilds. With nature no longer an immediate threat, there was no valid argument in wasting two days by going around the Wilds. The sun had risen that morning and set again that night. The moon was shining bright and beautiful when the temple first came into sight. Velkan may have enjoyed the sight more if not for the weight in his heart. After all, he had always liked the idea of night.
The pair hardly spoke during the final day of their journey, though their hands rarely parted. They broke through the lines of the forest and climbed the crumbling steps to what looked more like an ancient tomb than a temple. It was simple, nothing more than a standard looking crypt. Nothing about its outward appearance would suggest it was the resting place of such powerful forces as Life and Death. The inside was a different story.
A set of inner stairs led Death and Velkan deep into the earth and into a spacious cavern. There were seven golden lined, white granite sarcophagi bordering the room and an archway leading into another room.
“Our friends,” Death acknowledged, “Those who were most loyal to us and who we loved dearest. They poured their love and loyalty and life into our hearts so that their children might grow in a world safe from my Father.”
Velkan paused at one as he passed, feeling a pulling in his heart. A sense of joy that was not his own flooded him and his heart leapt to meet it.
“Pollux,” Death smiled as she named the man within the stone tomb. “I’m not surprised you’re of his blood. He was the kindest of them all. His soul lives on in my heart.”
They moved through the archway where two more stone sarcophagi rested. One was black granite, topless, and empty. An empty oblong shaped socket rested at the head. Velkan knew it to be Death’s resting place.
The other was pure white and it was not empty. A young man, taller than even Velkan, with snow white hair and pale skin rested with a frown. His body was tense and his face was pinched, as if the sleeper was fiercely uncomfortable.
“Oh brother, what has become of you?” Death cried softy. She stroked his cheek and the second her skin made contact with his, Life gasped and stirred slightly before groaning and resting once more. His body relaxed and his frown eased. Velkan watched as his hair turned a shade darker.
“He’s exhausted. My Father must have stirred for such a strain to be put on his soul,” she said guiltily.
“It’s not your fault. It’s not his, either. I know that now,” he squeezed her shoulder in comfort and she smiled at him even as her pretty brown eyes welled with tears.
She placed a kiss on her brother’s brow and then another on her brother’s foci, a gleaming, pristine white gem at the helm of Life’s coffin. And then she turned and threw her arms around Velkan’s neck. He did not have a chance to hug her back before she broke away with a sob and slipped gracefully into her own coffin.
She looked up at him with watery eyes and gave him a smile that warmed him to his bones. He pressed a kiss to her forehead and guided her down as he slid the cool stone into its slot above her head.
The effect was immediate. A golden line sprung into being along the floor, a matching twin to the one leaving Life’s coffin. He didn’t notice before. The world itself seemed to shift. Something that had always been inside of him, off kilter and unbalanced, soothed slightly in Death’s presence, finally righted. He felt whole, fresh, new.
With her soul once more feeding her Father’s chains, Life relaxed entirely and his hair darkened from stark white to a rich brown. He had a smile on his face, or less a smile than the natural upwards curve of his lips. He looked at peace.
Death, too, looked at peace. Her eyes were drooped in tiredness, but they were still trained on him.
“Thank you,” she said.
“Please don’t thank me for this. I still feel like I’m killing you,” a tear fell from his eye and landed on her cheek.
Her face was etched in exhaustion, but she still managed a cheeky smile.
“Well I suppose if you are here to kill me, you may as well look pretty as sin while doing it.”
He laughed and she did, too.
In his heart, Velkan knew he would see his friend again.
And he was right.
The sun rose and set and rose again, the forests grew and died and grew anew. Seasons passed and the years with them. The Taking had retreated until it disappeared entirely. As far as the common people were concerned, whatever curse had befallen the land had been lifted. No hero came forth to claim reward or fame. The world was all but oblivious to the young man who returned home to his mother.
With his mother’s health returned, Velkan often left for weeks or months at a time. His mother never stopped worrying for him but always felt comforted when she would receive a leather journal in the post, each one filled with letters and sketches detailing his adventures. Until one day, Velkan returned home not with a journal but with a child, a young girl he had encountered on a beach years prior. With no family to call her own, Velkan adopted her as his own.
In time, Velkan’s mother passed on of old age and he buried her under a linden tree on their farm. The next spring, the most beautiful roses he had ever witnessed grew over her grave and no matter how cold the winters got, the roses never once wilted.
Velkan’s daughter found love as she grew and he had never been so happy as he was when he built a neighboring cottage near his where she and her husband lived, and where all five of Velkan’s grandchildren were born and raised.
He lived a rich life, a full life, and on a bright night late into his seventy third spring, he sensed that life coming to an end. He sat himself in a chair his son-in-law had crafted for him and smiled at the full moon in the dark sky and waited for her to come.
When he felt her cool hand slip into his, the same as it did so many times so many years ago, he felt the aches of his old bones leave him. He felt the chill of the night air on his skin, a feeling he never ceased to appreciate, and turned to face her.
Her eyes were a lively green, a wonderful match to the spring season, and her red hair was as curly and wild as ever. She smiled warmly at him and leaned forward to place a sweet kiss on his cheek.
“Hello, old friend.”
Copyright Brandy Nicole Jones 2020