Chapter 1 - Death and the Lady
Darkness spread all around. Darkness filled with echoing silence. It was neither hot nor cold and calmness spread through the world. She opened her eyes and looked around, up at the black sky above her and down at her feet. She was still dressed in the flowing dress, arms still clad in the silk gloves, feet still wearing the satin shoes.
Her eyes widened as she swung around. In this world of darkness, she cast no shadow, instead a figure of stark light spread out behind her. Her head snapped around, panic seeping in.
“Hello?” she called and listened to the strange echo her voice had. “Hello, is there anyone out here?”
She heard the click-click of bone on tile approaching slowly. She could see a blacker shape in the darkness; see a bony hand holding what looked like a curved staff. The figure was tall and gaunt, much taller than she was.
“Who are you?” she asked and the figure halted in front of her.
The face was hidden in the deep shadow of a cowl. Terror rooted her to the spot as she stared at the black robes that hid the newcomer’s body. There was a strange smell in the air. A smell of mould and dust and decay, it smelled of old dusty tombs, long forgotten and lifeless.
She felt her breath catch in her throat. “W-who are you?” she stuttered.
Lilith Valleyscape? a deep voice asked.
The voice was like the slam of leaden doors on granite. It boomed dark and rich and so very terrifying. Lilith swallowed and tried to speak past the terror that was blocking her voice.
“Y-yes?” she managed to choke and the figure raised its cowled head.
Lilith wanted to scream, but it stuck in her throat. She wanted to run away, but she was rooted to the spot. She felt her body start to tremble as she looked at the creature’s face. Only pride made her not flinch and cower, wouldn’t let her show her fear.
The apparition sighed and it sounded like wind whistling through an old boneyard.
Fair lady, throw those costly robes aside, no longer may you glory in your pride; take leave of all your carnal vain delight, I have come to summon you away this night, the voice spoke and she felt she recognised the words.
They seemed to whisper to her, as though she’d heard them before, many, many times before. She knew that there was an answer to what he said, but for the life of her she couldn’t remember the words.
“Who are you?” she asked, glad that her voice sounded strong and sure.
The figure bore an expression of surprise, if something like an expression could mar that faceless face.
Do you not know me? I shall tell you then, the deep voice intoned dutifully, as though she’d known that they were coming.
I am the one who conquers all the sons of men, no pitch of honour from my dart is free, my name is Death! Have you not heard of me?
Suddenly she remembered the words and the terror was gone. In that moment, with those dead and final words, the terror shattered. She looked at the creature standing before her. A skull was framed by the dark cowl and in the black eye sockets were two pinpoints of blue light. The jaw was fixed in a permanent grin. No expression should have been able to colour those ivory features, but his was solemn and grave.
She looked at the hand that was gripping the staff. Bony fingers, polished till they shone. Even without willing it the next stanza of the old ballad dropped into her mind. She drew a deep breath and spoke them with the grace pride of a lady, as she had been taught.
“Yes; I have heard of thee, time after time; but, being in the glory of my prime, I did not think you would have come so soon. Why must my morning sun go down at noon?”
The expression of surprise coloured the bony visage in front of her and she fought to keep her face neutral. Strange that she could shock even him, but maybe he wasn’t used to meeting people who knew their classics. Even in his apparent shock he spoke the next lines and she had to fight down the urge to mouth along. Her teachers always scolded her because of that.
Talk not of noon! You may as well be mute; there is no time at all for vain dispute. Your riches, gold, and garments, jewels bright, your house, and land, must on new owners light.
Then she smiled, and the figure made a grunt of surprise. Strange that she could still feel this way, even when confronted by this creature. She felt as though she was on a stage and that the audience was somewhere hidden in the darkness beyond the two of them. The shadow of light cast by her body was the spotlight that was trained on her. Pride flowed into her voice as she opened her mouth to speak again, filled her voice so that it could carry to the rafters.
Death looked nonplussed at her sudden change. Her teachers had also remarked on this strange ability of hers, especially in one so young. Controlling her body and emotions was almost second nature to her, especially when it took professional actors years to perfect.
“My heart is cold,” she said, making her voice heavy and pitiable, “it trembles at such news! Here’s bags of gold, if you will me excuse and seize on those, and finish thou their strife who retched are, and weary of their life!”
Death looked at her solemnly. I am impressed. None before you have ever matched me word for word, not even the original author. You have tremendous skill. An actress to the bitter end.
Lilith looked down, suddenly sad. “So this really is the end?”
It does not have to be, Death said softly, I have a proposition for you.
They looked at one another in silence and then she held out her hand. He looked at it and she smiled.
“Everyone calls me Lily,” Lily said and he hesitated. She cocked her head to the side. “You shake the proffered hand,” she prompted.
Carefully Death extended his other hand towards her and she tried not to shudder at the touch of smooth bone against flesh. She didn’t let go when he tried to pull back. She gave strange smile.
“Now, what is your proposition?” she asked and Death seemed to heave a heavy sigh.
A challenge for your life. A game of chess is the tradition, but I have grown weary of it in recent centuries, he admitted. He looked quizzically at her. You do not fear me?
She shrugged. “Death has been a stark reality for me through my entire life, I’ve accepted my mortality long ago,” she said and smiled, “why should I fear death’s personification? When he has the same flare for the dramatic that I have?”
She let go of his hand and it fell to his side. He moved his other hand up and there was a snick sound. Above her the blade of the scythe slid out of the staff. It shone eerily blue in the darkness and cast a glow around them.
However, he said solemnly, all must kneel before me and be taken to their timely rest. Come, my child, and waste no time.
Lily squared her shoulders. “No,” she said and he sighed again.
It matters not what you think, child. Your life is ended; you must come away with me now.
“I challenge you for my life!” Lily said loudly and he looked pained, if that were possible.
Many have taken my proposition before you. What makes you think that you can best me? State your challenge then and be quick about it.
Lily drew a deep breath. “A duel! Grant me a weapon!”
Death laughed. It boomed around her in the darkness and then he leaned down to bring his skull level with her face.
You would duel Death? How could you possibly think that you could win?
“Grant me a weapon,” Lily ground through her teeth.
Death waved a hand and a sword appeared in the air beside her. The blade was the same strange blue as the blade of the scythe. Without turning her head she grabbed it by the handle and drew her arm back. She knew how to battle with a sword and not stage fighting either. She knew the idea was to stick the blade into the body in front of her rather than making sure the blades hit with a dramatic clang.
Death drew himself to his full and impressive height. He took the scythe in both hands and grinned, not that he had much choice in the matter.
Have at me then, child!
She ran forward and ducked the sweep of the scythe. She heard it pass over her head, whistling with the sound of tearing silk. She stepped around him, inside his reach and swung the sword up. It connected with the deep folds of the robe, which suddenly boiled around the blade.
Like a spectre the robes folded in on themselves and then flew away from her. It landed a few feet away and rose to form Death again. Without hesitation he surged forward and she managed to deflect the swing of the scythe. It was heavy and cumbersome and didn’t make a good weapon, but it was like an axe. Once you got it swinging it didn’t only have weight on its side, but momentum as well. The jar of the blades meeting made her arm go numb and she jumped back.
She held onto her arm with her other hand and waited for the shaking to subside as she watched Death swing the scythe around him. He’d had centuries to get acquainted with his weapon of choice and even though she was a good swordswoman, she was still an amateur.
Had you lived but a thousand years ago, child, you would have been a great warrior. Sad for you that you were born to modern times.
A thousand years ago? she thought and smiled.
She was in the world between the living and the dead now and she could feel her blood singing at the challenge. Her father had told her many times that she was to become one of the strongest forces in the world. Thinking of her father now, in the last moments of her life, made her furious. She would not let her last thoughts be of him.
“Do you know of my lineage, Death?” Lily roared as she charged forward again.
Yes, Death intoned, you come from a powerful line. In your veins runs the blood of Templars.
“And here in the land between the veils I can feel them sing to my blood, I can feel their memories within my bones. You say that I would have been a great warrior, Death? You say that I would have been strong?”
You would have been unsurpassed had you lived and learned the ways of your people, child.
“Then watch my power unfold!” Lily yelled as she brought her arm up in a sweep.
She deflected the scythe blade as it whistled towards her and this time there was no numbing jar that made her muscles weak. She swung the sword around and deflected the blade as it came from the other side. She jumped and drew back the sword in both hands, aiming it between the empty eye sockets. The world froze for a moment and she hung, motionless in the air between the arms of Death himself.
In the empty eye sockets she saw the pinpoints of blue light. Two distant stars twinkled back at her from the depths of the darkness. Then, for a moment, one of them flickered off and on again and she started to fall forward again, into those depthless eyes. For a moment she was shocked.
“Death winked at me?” she muttered.
The sword vanished from her hands as the darkness poured around her. Around her stars began to twinkle and she fell into the starry sky. She looked around as the stars sped past.
You have defeated me at my own game, child, Death’s voice intoned above her, but there is a price for your victory today. Return now to your body and await the toll that must be paid.
“I’ll pay your toll, Death, gladly!” Lily managed to yell before she crashed hard into something solid.
Pain poured through Lily’s body and she tried to scream, but something clogged her throat. Fire burned in her veins and she fought the thing that was choking her and making her gag. There were voices around her, people screaming and sirens wailing. Pain rippled through her chest as she tried to get a breath. It came surprisingly easily considering that it felt as though something was choking her.
Her muscles spasmed painfully and rippled against her bones, seeming to come alive again with the fire that flowed through her veins, burning her alive.
Lily opened her eyes and bright lights blinded her, hurting her eyes. She tried to struggle, tried move her arms and legs. Sharp, stinging pain shot through her leg and she wanted to scream.
“Oh my God, she’s alive!” a voice somewhere above her yelled and she opened her eyes again. “Someone stop that bleeding from her leg, now! She’ll bleed out!”
“She already has! Look at all this blood! She can’t have any more left!”
“She’s alive, damn it! Just stop that bleeding!”
The bright light was eclipsed by a shadow of a figure. Lily moved her head and tried to say something, but the thing in her throat scratched at her vocal cords. Cool hands touched her face and arms and she tried to focus on the face looming above her, but the light from behind cast its features into deep shadow.
“Hold still, you’re intubated. Don’t fight it,” it was a deep voice, a man’s voice.
Confusion rushed through her as the memories clashed against one another. Had she really been in a world of darkness? Had she spoken to a tall skeleton that’d held a scythe? Had she really battled Death himself for her life?
A hand touched her neck and she arched against the movement of the tube as it slid out of her throat. She gagged against the movement and coughed as she fought the sick feeling that suddenly poured through her.
“Are you alright?” the voice above her asked and she shook her head.
“My chest hurts,” she managed and tried to move. “Something’s wrong with my leg.” Lily looked at the shadow above her and her eyes were pleading. “What happened?”
The shadow seemed worried. “Don’t you remember?” he asked and she shook her head. “There was an explosion and the building came down. You were stuck under some rubble, but we lifted it off you.”
The voice sounded confused as it spoke, but she didn’t have time to consider this. Something hot and burning was pressed hard onto her leg. Pain rocked through her and she screamed. Something was burning through her leg and she felt hot tears run over her face.
“Stop!” Lily screamed. “Stop! Please, stop!”
The figure seemed to half turn away. “Get a stretcher over here! We have to get her to the hospital, STAT!”
More people rushed forward and she felt more hands on her. There were more voices and they all seemed to echo around her, intermingling, becoming one.
“What is your name?” the voice above her asked sternly.
“Lily,” Lily said.
“And your surname?”
“How old are you?”
“What do you do?”
“I’m an art student, majoring in acting.”
There was a grunt from above. Lily was rolled onto her side, which caused her to scream again as the pain sped through her body. Something was slid under her and she was carefully lowered onto the hard surface of a stretcher. There was the acrid smell of smoke and dust in the air and the crackling sound of a fire.
“Can you tell me the last thing you remember?” the voice insisted and she turned her eyes back to him.
“I don’t know,” Lily said and shook her head. “I remember being on the fourth floor stage. Dress rehearsal. There was a loud bang and then…”
A skeleton had spoken to her. The icy knowledge trickled through her mind. She’d fought Death himself for her life and won somehow. She’d been dead and now she wasn’t. But there was a price to pay for that life and she was sure, deep in her bones, that it would be a high one.
“Then I woke up,” she muttered.
“There was nothing else?” the man asked sceptically and she frowned.
“No…I don’t know…should there have been?” she frowned, confused at the question.
He seemed to grunt again. “No,” he admitted, “I suppose not.”
Then Lily was lifted and carried towards a waiting ambulance. Once there someone strapped something to her leg, making her scream again.
“I swear I’m not going to have a voice after this!” she snarled between her teeth and there was a woman’s chuckle.
“At least you have a sense of humour, honey,” a woman said. “Now take a deep breath.”
Something was placed over Lily’s face and she inhaled deeply on the sickly sweet scent. If she’d had to describe it she’d have said that it tasted blue-grey, like raw sugarcane.
Lily coughed and tried to pull the mask away from her face, but a stab from a needle made her jump.
“No!” she yelled. “What are you doing?”
“Stay still, honey. It’s morphine, for the pain,” the woman’s voice said and Lily shook her head.
“I don’t want it. I don’t have any pain.”
But there was pain, so much pain that she wanted to die. Her whole body was on fire and she wanted to scream. It didn’t dull even as the morphine started to take effect. Darkness started to seep into the edges of her vision.
“No!” she sobbed. “I don’t want to go to the dark again!”
Warm, soft hands pressed her down. “Honey, stay still. You’ll open up your wounds again. Heaven knows how you’re alive with that hole in you,” the voice muttered softly, at the edge of hearing.
“No,” Lily slurred, trying to fight the rushing darkness, “no, I don’t want… to…”
In the darkness Lily hung motionless. She felt weak as a lamb, no longer had the energy to fight back against the onrushing darkness. Her body felt filled with lead. She’d last felt like this when she’d first stepped onto the stage, when she’d frozen in front of the watching audience, in front of people waiting for her to fail.
Lily closed her eyes and drew a deep breath… and smelled the scent of Death. He was near; she felt his presence like an icy wind on her skin. Suddenly she was angry, very angry.
“Are you here to exact your toll?” she snarled into the darkness.
There was no sound, but she imagined that she could hear the steady sliding of a stone over metal.
“Are you sharpening your scythe for me? I said that I would pay your toll! Name your price; name the price I have to pay to keep my life! I know it will be high! It always is!”
She tried to twist in the darkness, tried to move into an upright position, but her body wouldn’t obey. She was rooted to the spot, unable to do anything.
“Tell me what I need to pay!”
Lily gave up trying to move her body and then just hung motionless again. She stared up into the darkness above her and then slowly closed her eyes. It stole over her that this darkness was not like the darkness from before. In the world where shadows were made of light. This was the darkness where light was merely absent.
“This is a dream, isn’t it? But you are here, aren’t you? You’ll always be near from now on, won’t you? Watching me, waiting to snatch me up. Or will you be around only until I have paid my dues?”
Still silence answered her and Lily nodded tiredly. She knew that he wouldn’t answer her, but calmness spread through her as she hung in silence, listening to the steady scrape of stone over metal. It was rhythmic and soothed her strangely. She felt very tired.
“Down from her eyes the crystal tears did flow, she says,” Lily spoke the words softly, tiredly, the last stanza where the Lady spoke unto Death, “None knows what I now undergo! Upon my bed of sorrow here I lie! My selfish life makes me afraid to die! My sins are great, and manifold, and foul. Great Mighty Lord, have mercy on my soul! Alas! I deserve a righteous frown! Yet pardon, Lord, and pour your blessing down!”
And on the edge of hearing, almost in answer to her voice, Death’s voice echoed almost forlornly through the darkness to meet her. It enfolded her in its chilly tones and sent her to the dark oblivion that awaited her.
If life were merchandise that gold could buy, the rich would live… only the poor would die.