The Story Behind Her Eyes

The Story Behind Her Eyes

She's dying.

Cold, bluish skin, shaking and shivering, sweating, yet when I touched her forehead and her neck, I could feel that she was burning up, inside. She's not even conscious now, which may be a blessing, because when she is, she speaks of a great pain in her chest, and she breathes rapidly, as if drowning.

Drowning.

She is. She told me about liquid in her lungs. Choking her slowly to death. Water had condensed in it, and the matter-of-fact way in which she had described this just made me feel, all of a sudden, incredibly furious.

With her, somewhat. She did it on purpose. She does nearly everything on purpose. Probably thought that making me get angry with her would be better than being angry with myself. And I am...angry with her.

I suspected she had been hiding something for a while. She'd been talking up to Sanctuary more often, avoiding me, Rai'gy looking a little more harassed than usual, then one day in my presence she coughed, a hacking, wrenching sound. Coughed up blood, a small, bright red spray of it.

That tends to get my attention.

She tried to wave this away, play down the incident. Said I shouldn't worry, she'd take care of it herself. I didn't think she was doing that very well, so I refused. Demanded to know how long this had been going on. She refused to tell me. Ended up quarreling with each other. We do that sometimes. Then she clutched at the side of her head with one hand, in the middle of a sentence, and collapsed.

That did it.

Should have been the end of it, except that nothing seemed to be helping her. Not even Rai'gy could cure her, and he even bit down his pride to allow healers of other gods to try. Thought that maybe Lloth had something against Winter.

Nothing worked. She got worse, until she couldn't even get out of bed without nearly blacking out. Everything she did began to tire her. And the coughs. And the pain. Took me a long time to pry the latter out of her. She didn't want to tell me, could you believe that?

She told me one day, frankly, that Irr'liancrea was going to let her sleep. Either she got better and woke up, or she'd die without the pain.

What could I say?

Oh, I tried. But she wouldn't listen. As usual. So now she's sleeping. Worsening visibly. And I realized that I was afraid, afraid for her. Holding her in my arms, trying to ignore the shivering and the cold, and the harsh breathing. The wolf known as Kel lay mournfully on her feet, ignoring me. It doesn't like me much.

Quite obvious that it blames me for this. And I can't contradict it, because yes, this was my fault, indirectly.

Her sword glowing next to it. It's been quiet ever since it made Winter sleep. Damned thing, I wish I'd never heard of it and its power. Then I would not have asked Winter for help, so long ago...

Not even Crenshinibon could help.

I knew Winter was going to die.

That was why I called everyone else out of the room. Rai'gy didn't look very happy about it, but he left. He loved her, even if he wouldn't admit it.

The wolf looked up suddenly, and growled, and scrambled to its feet.

I glanced at it, then up. And blinked. Seated demurely on the table close to the bed in the sickroom was a girl. A slender, pretty human girl, wearing black leather trousers, and a black skimpy vest-like garment, cut low and held up by two thin straps. Black hair and deep black eyes, piercing but kind. Under her right eye, in the light of the room, was a tattoo, a black spiral.

She held a strange device with black folds and an onyx hooked handle [umbrella] in black gloved hands, and black boots with silver buckles dangled over the floor. She had a necklace with the pendant of an ankh, starkly simple. Her skin was white, incredibly pale.

And she smiled when she saw my eyes on her.

"Who are you?" I demanded. "How did you get in?" A flick of the wrist, and I'm holding my throwing knives.

"You wouldn't believe it if I told you." She said in a pleasant voice, in perfect drow.

The wolf Kel whimpered slightly, and then growled again, as if trying to be brave.

"Try me." I said coldly.

She shrugged. "No can do. But it's strange that you can see me." She frowned a little, and stared at me so intensely that I finally looked away. Diatryma feathers bobbed to the side as I turned my head.

"Are you a mage, then?" I asked. I'm too heartsick to kill her now, but that does not mean I would not if I had to. For now, I'd humor this strange rivvil. For now.

"No." She folded her arms, then pulled up her legs to sit cross-legged on the table. "I'm Death."

For a moment that passed right over my head. The next question, 'why are you here' was just about on my lips.

Then I realized.

And I stared at her, and tried to smile sardonically. Not really succeeding, since Kel let out a whimper at her words, and if Kel thinks she is who she is...

"You're Death?" I sneered. "A rivvil?"

"I'm Death," She repeated, and smiled. "Yes, currently I like this form, thank you very much. Didn't your mom tell you that if you don't have something nice to say you don't say it?"

"No," I said dryly, warily. For her to have entered Bregan D'aerthe unseen and unnoticed, she would have to have magic more potent than any mage in this city.

Unless she really was...

No, I couldn't believe that.

Death's when you watch someone bleeding from a mortal wound, the light slowly goes out of their eyes, and they change in a few moments from something living into something dead. When you see those poor tortured remnants of drow in torture chambers, whose very eyes beg you to kill them cleanly. When you see someone wasting away and you can't do anything to help...

But a girl?

A human girl?

No.

I won't believe it.

Must have said that last out loud, because she turned to regard me. "You won't?"

I shook my head, vehemently. The plumes in my hat twirled away at the edges of my vision.

Winter let out a sobbing breath, and I glanced down quickly, but she's still asleep. I shifted her into a more comfortable position, rubbing her arm absently in a subconscious effort to try and stop the shivering, then looked up again.

"Fine." The girl shrugged. "I don't care."

I blinked.

"Not my job to make you believe me or not," she grinned. "You'd believe me, sooner or later. When I come for you."

Was she threatening me?

Something of my expression must have been very obvious, because she chuckled, a soothing sound, an infectious laugh. "Oh, I come for everyone sooner or later. You're not the one I'm here for now, even if you can see me."

Maybe...

And I knew.

Deep down.

She's Death.

And if she's here...

"You are here for Winter?" It took a lot of effort to say that. And I couldn't keep out the desperate hope clinging on to the edges of my flat tone.

"You know the answer, Jarlaxle." Death said, and balanced the umbrella on her shoulder.

I wasn't surprised that she knew my name. Still, I tried to deny it. "She's not dead yet."

"She will be." Death replied noncommittally.

"Are you always here early, then?" I replied coldly. "To watch them die?"

"Why should I do that? It's depressing," Death said, and crossed her legs.

"Then why?" I demanded.

Death shrugged. "Can't remember." She said, blithely.

I wondered if...and I held my throwing knives more tightly. Kel noticed, and braced itself to help if I tried.

"Killing me won't help. I can't die. Sorry." Death said, a little sympathetically. "You can try if it'd make you feel better." And despite myself, despite whom she was, I found myself liking her, grudgingly. She's someone I would like to meet at the end, a last friend before I go. So I sheathed the knives.

And that was, I suspected, why she was like this.

Winter moaned in her sleep, and my attention was distracted for a moment as I whispered to her, disjointed soothing phrases, as if speaking to a sleeping child. If they didn't help her, at least they comforted me.

When I next glanced up the girl was still there. She was looking at the ground, but she met my eyes once I began to stare. "Want to talk about it?" she said comfortingly.

"And that helps?" That came out more bitter than I had intended.

The girl shrugged, and grinned lopsidedly, moving her hand palm down from side to side in a strangely endearing gesture. "Some people, yes. Think you're one of them?"

I thought about this. Did I really want to open my heart to a stranger? By nature I am not that sort of extrovert who'd tell anyone and everyone what he feels at any moment. I like to keep to myself.

But yes, I did need someone to talk to. Before Winter, I mostly kept to myself. Then I opened up to her, grudgingly at first, only when she teased and cajoled and threatened, prying open my heart. Then later it came so naturally that now...

So I twisted my lip into a semblance of a smile. "Yes I am."

Kel settled back in the bed, ignoring the both of us.

"Well, I'm listening," Her voice was not demanding at all, which would have made me shut up, but quiet and calming. Seemed to tell me to take my time if I wanted.

And faced with that sort of attitude, I didn't know how to start. It seemed like too much I wanted to say, so much that I could not even put some of it into words. I glanced helplessly at her.

She grinned. "You rather I ask questions then?"

I shrugged. Nice, neutral expression. That would help, but I didn't like it. Don't like answering questions.

"'Kay. Now." She thought a little, and I wondered how I thought she was speaking the drow tongue, even if some of her words technically did not exist in the language. "Would you like to tell me why you think it's your fault?"

I blinked.

How did she...

But I was speaking before I was consciously aware of it. "It was Winter's fault."

Kel growled. So it wasn't ignoring us after all.

"You sure?" she smiled, and it wasn't a supercilious smirk.

I felt myself slipping into the mode I used when speaking to Matrons – cryptic – but managed to pull out of it. "If she had not used that accursed power of hers this would not have happened to her. She thought that she would be stronger the second time she used it, but the first time weakened her, and the second time worsened her..."

Kel growled again.

"Kel thinks that she had to use the power of hers to save your skin," Death said mildly.

"There must have been alternatives," I said reflexively. "And she made that mistake of thinking she could handle it. She always thinks she knows what she is doing." That last said with a touch of resignation.

"No one really does." Death agreed. I kept thinking of her as a human girl.

"But yes, in a way if I had not sauntered into House Baenre so full of confidence that I could talk my way out of everything, she would not have needed to use that power." I admitted, painfully. Kel sniffed.

"Did you tell her about this?" Death said gently. She knew the answer. I suspected this was more for Kel's benefit.

"Yes," I said. I remembered what she said very clearly, after all. "I did, when she was worsening."

"And?" Death prompted.

"She told me that I was a greater fool that she had given me credit for," As I said it, I began to smile, unwillingly at first, but a genuine smile for times past. "Then she waited for me to stop sputtering at her before continuing to say that although I was stupid to get captured by Baenre in the first place, her methods to extricate me were hers. And that since the choice was hers, the consequences she would also shoulder."

"She said that by believing it was my fault I was insulting her ability to make decisions, and that if I continued to moan about it in front of her she would throw me out of the room." I chuckled.

Winter was very beautiful when she was angry. Which was one of the ways in which I could disarm her when she was in a tirade – smile at her suddenly and tell her she was lovely. Always works. She'd glare and call me a flatterer, but she liked compliments. As I had said before, Winter was vain, even if she would not admit it.

"There you go, then." Death rocked back on the table. "But yes, it was your fault."

I stared at her.

"Even if it was indirectly," Death continued. "So if you'd accept that, you'd feel a little better."

So I did.

But I didn't feel better.

"Oh, you will in time," Death said confidently. "You know what you would do when she goes, better'n me."

And I did. I would grieve for some time, but elves have a lot of time. A year or two is nothing to us. But I would not grieve forever. Sooner or later my nature would lead me back pragmatically to more or less my normal state of mind. I'd continue as before, if without Winter, masterminding all the activities of Bregan D'aerthe.

My personality is not built for lingering on the past. I harbor regrets, like any other, but I have never continued to think about them except to learn from the experience that they have brought me.

Yes, I would grieve. And I would not forget her. But I would not destroy myself because of it. Elves are practical, especially those of my age. We see time as something that would stretch for much longer than even our lifetimes, and we know that all things would pass on, sooner or later.

But it took a lot of heartache to admit this to myself.

"Yes I know," I said, and sighed.

"Well, you're not one of those who'd belong to my sister just because I came for a close one, that I know," Death shifted on the table, comfortably.

"Your sister?" I asked curiously. When my main thought now was, how long more.

"Despair," Death said. "Sooner or later people visit her realm."

"I did it very early, then," I said, half-jokingly.

"Yes," Death nodded. "You don't belong to her. But you are partly in her realm now."

"Visiting," I said, a rancid taste in my mouth. "Visiting."

Death smiled. "Everyone belongs to me in the end, if you rather."

"No," I shook my head. Depressing.

"Please yourself," Death shrugged. "'Tis true."

"Sounds fair," I commented.

"You know, you're the first to say that to me," Death looked mildly surprised.

I shrugged.

"But it's neither fair nor unfair, it just is," Death corrected.

"What are your siblings?" I asked, more out of making small talk than anything else.

"Oh, Destruction, Dream, Despair, Delirium, Destiny and Desire." Death recited. "Desire's the only one whose realm people visit in passing."

"Let me guess," I said dryly, "Most of those who enter her realm next visit Despair's?"

"You know a lot about people," Death said, placidly. "Well yes. If not Despair's, then mine."

"And what is your realm like? Heaven and Hell?" I asked, morbidly curious.

"No," Death shook her head. "It is peace. But you'd find out. In the end."

"I was led to believe that there were planes where spirits went depending on how 'good' they were," I pointed out.

Death smiled. "There are."

"And then your realm?"

"There's also my realm."

I frowned. "I do not understand."

"You will. Eventually." Death said easily. "But it'd help if you try not to think about it."

Winter moaned again, and I stroked her hair helplessly.

"How long more?" I asked quietly, dreading the answer.

"Won't help if you know." Death replied.

"Maybe it would." I retorted.

"It wouldn't." Death said calmly. "And you know it."

I did.

But it still made me furious that she would not tell me.

"And you know how long more I have as well?" I continued.

"Yes I do." Death nodded. "But I'm not telling."

I expected as much.

"Can I make a deal?" I asked carefully, touching Winter's cheek. It was very cold.

"No deals, Jarlaxle," Death said.

"But she would live if you let her?" I inquired slowly.

"She's in a lot of pain," Death pointed out. "I offer peace."

"She would live if you let her, yes?" I stubbornly continued.

"Why does everyone ask that question?" Death sighed. "It won't do you any good to know."

"Would she?" I asked again. "If you wanted to?"

"Yes, I could let her live if I wanted to," Death said, unwillingly.

"Then..."

"No." Death said firmly. "If her time has come, then it will have come. Sooner or later she will die. As will you. So why do you ask this of me?"

"As commander of Bregan D'aerthe," I said slowly, "I would think that I do not wish her death because her mind has been a large asset to our plans and schemes as well as to our structure since she joined...again," I corrected. The first time she had joined Bregan D'aerthe was as Velve, a male drow. Disguised very well.

She hadn't exactly joined again. Just told me that she would be 'observing' and that she would 'comment' once in a while. I let her think that.

Death made a noise like 'go on'.

"She told me that Bregan D'aerthe was making the same mistake as Menzoberranzan, if from another angle. We prefer male members, so females that would truly like to join are either grudgingly let in and watched, or are discouraged. Menzoberranzan is prejudiced against males, Bregan D'aerthe was becoming prejudiced against females," It seemed so easy to talk to her. As it had been to speak with Winter.

"She had been working on that," I continued. The proportion of females in Bregan D'aerthe had increased significantly, even if males were still the great majority. Proved to be a great investment.

"I treated her as an equal...eventually," I added. I was not used to that. "She made a splendid critic of my ideas. Two minds are better than one. Bregan D'aerthe has improved more quickly than when I was the only one who orchestrated everything. She does half of the paperwork now, all of those which do not require my signature. Or used to do. Would not have been surprised if eventually the head of Bregan D'aerthe would not solely be myself."

And as I said that, the import of my words came down on me, and I felt worse. There would not be an 'eventually'.

Death asked gently, "But personally?"

"Personally I was prepared to treat her as an opponent, at first," I shrugged. "She had Irr'liancrea. I had Crenshinibon. The two still would not work together."

"I admit," I said, eyeing Kel, who seemed to be listening with fascination, "That the first emotion I felt for her was lust. She is very beautiful...more so than any female elf I had seen so far. And I do not speak solely of looks, but also for her mind." There was still that lust now, whenever I looked at her, felt her touch.

"That's not unusual," said Death, easily.

"I believed at first that a close association with her would be dangerous," I said bluntly, deciding, for some reason, to speak the words in my heart, "I did not really understand her, and she did not hail from this world, any longer. I did know that I wanted her. And to prevent that from turning into an infatuation I decided that I would have to have my way with her. I tried to seduce her."

What an ugly word for something we both enjoyed.

Kel growled, but the menacing sound petered off.

Death did not accuse or judge, merely listened, so I continued.

"It did not work that way," I admitted. "She responded, yes, but then she disappeared from Menzoberranzan. I was very angry at first, furious that she could have escaped so quickly, severing herself from my plans. Even Rai'gy did not know where she had gone to. But when I calmed down I knew that attempting to concentrate Bregan D'aerthe's resources on finding her would simply be a waste. At that time there was an angel known as Reima who was after Crenshinibon, and I had to concentrate on it."

"Admittedly when Baenre called for an audience so quickly after she had left I was suspicious. With one crystal gone, they may have thought me...weaker. One ally was blatantly gone, after all." I touched a finger to Winter's bluish lips. "Nearly broke me. Then Triel accused me one day of freezing up the city, and ordered me to stop it."

"I didn't know what she was talking about, and she must have believed me, because she dragged me up to one of the balconies. And it was snowing. Outside. And inside, it was still incredibly cold."

"A lot of drow died," Death said.

"I would think so," I nodded. "Triel wanted to know what was happening. Said that there was some sort of monster in the courtyard who demanded that Baenre give me up to it so that it could 'take its vengeance' or something. So I said I could not see any monster. Mostly that I wanted a better look."

Death nodded.

"It growled and snarled when it saw me, and demanded again that Baenre throw me out. I knew that if I tried to encourage Baenre, Triel would not let me go. But if I acted afraid...well, she might."

"Reverse psychology," Death murmured.

I shrugged. "An old trick. But I had to be sure if this monster was real, a trick, or a ploy to rescue me. So I gambled. Only later did I realize how much it had cost her to play this 'trick' on Baenre. It took her a long time to recover enough to walk without help, then she insisted on visiting Sanctuary. Was going to take the twins along, because she said that Drizzt visited during holidays, and the twins wanted to meet him."

I chuckled at that. Wonder how he did. Drizzt didn't seem like the type.

"After that. So I did sleep with her. But again it did not work like what I thought it would. I did not 'get over' her...in fact, I wanted her more than ever. And she did know what I was trying to do. It amused her, I remember," It had annoyed me when I realized that she knew, for a while.

"And very painfully, she made me want her for her mind as well. To value her opinion, and to confide in her...that took her a long time. I do not change very easily." I smiled, self-deprecatingly. Not used to not speaking in riddles.

"It was not perfect, and it still is not. We do argue. At least twice a week if we happen to be together for the week." I smiled despite myself. "About whether a venture into Undraeth is currently profitable. Whether it is advisable to admit females into a higher rank in Bregan D'aerthe, to give them more freedom. Whether Bregan D'aerthe should consolidate its position in the Underdark before trying the Surface. Once even...to use her words, 'why the hell do you wear a purple hat with feathers?'"

Death grinned. "Really? It's nice. Very striking."

"Thank you," I returned her grin. "I like it. She didn't, and told me in not so many terms. First one to dare to do so. She dared many things." And I looked down, and I continued, "Not long more now, yes?" And I felt better about saying that. Even if I still did not want to let her go. Too used to having my way.

"Won't do you any good to know," Death said patiently.

"I thought you would say that," I sighed. "And I would think that another question you would like to ask is 'Do you love her?'" Of course, the drow tongue being as limited as it is, I had to use the svirfneblin word for it.

"Well, that was certainly in my mind," Death admitted cheerily, "But if you don't want to tell me it's cool."

"Nearly everyone asks me that question," I mused, "Though not in words."

"So...you want to tell me?" Death inquired.

"Would you like to know?" I smiled.

"Well, yes," Death affirmed.

"Why? I would not think it matters," I said carefully.

"Because...once in a century I take mortal form for a day so as to better understand the lives I lead on," Death smiled, and her eyes were nostalgic and far away. "And each time I find the wealth of what every living thing has but usually takes for granted...intoxicating. I fall in love with it every time. The emotions, the tastes, the textures...and so each time I have to return I regret. So very much. But so I like to see such emotions...because they remind me of what I leave behind each time I return."

I thought about this, and I said, "Have you ever danced beneath a night sky dotted with stars in the moonlight?"

Death did not look like she was expecting this question, but she shook her head.

"You should try it," I smiled, and it was my turn to remember the past. "Almost like magic."

"With Winter then?" Death knew, of course.

I nodded. "Her idea. I had forgotten how exquisite the surface could be." Later, of course, had been something to remember as well.

So, did I love her?

"She made me see everything in a different light," I said neutrally, as if reading off a page. "Power is only a game to her. It was everything to me...nearly everything. She told me that even if I somehow managed to rule the Underdark, it doesn't really matter. Because even for elves, life is too short. History is rewritten. Sooner or later I would be forgotten, as well, and she thought that the main point of living is to truly enjoy yourself."

"And it is," Death said.

"She said that all the power in the world is useless in the end when you die and you have no one to truly mourn and remember," I recalled.

"Do you agree?" Death asked.

"No," I replied, and grinned. "Precisely that life is short, hence I try to achieve as much as possible. Even if I did acknowledge that yes, it had turned into a rather dangerous obsession. She does everything by her own rules, whether I liked it or not. Inflexible." I sighed, true regret. "I wish she trusted me enough to tell me what was happening to her."

"Did you ever consider that she just did not want you to worry?" Death asked obliquely. "The outcome would have been the same."

"How do you..." I flared, then subsided. "Then again, maybe you do know."

"I've seen it happen many times," Death agreed. "So, do you?"

"Define the word," I replied. Riddles.

Death smiled. "Okay. It's a strong feeling of affection for something...maybe very attracted to them. It's when you feel good inside when you think of the something, not disturbed or angry. When you...think of the person very often? When it hurts to see the person unhappy. Delirium would talk about sunflowers and butterflies, which is also another way of looking at it."

"What of sacrifice and 'doing anything for the person'?" I asked. But I knew the answer.

"Would you?" Death grinned.

"No," I admitted.

"There's no real way of defining love. In some ways I think life runs by its terms. You can love, for example, eating chocolate, but doesn't mean you'd sacrifice yourself for it." Death said whimsically. "So do you want to tell me?"

"You know the answer," I said, and smiled, throwing her words back at her. It's a habit that annoys Winter.

Death nodded, but didn't acknowledge it. She changed the subject. "Winter loves you, did you know?"

I did. But it still felt...strangely good to listen to someone else tell me this. Strange, very strange.

As to Kel...it didn't move. Already knew this, probably. Winter confides in it more than she does with me, which still makes me a little jealous. So she must have told it already...and irrationally, I'm annoyed at her for not telling me instead.

How would Death know?

Then again, I didn't want to ask.

Death suddenly turned her head towards the blank wall next to her. "Hello," she brightened up.

A shifting in the texture of the air, and a tall human appeared, all in white. I'd seen him before. Not human, no.

He bowed a courtly bow to Death, then kissed her hand. She smiled.

Then he turned to glance at me, and I realized belatedly that in his hands he held some sort of bundle of brown cloth.

"You would take her?" he asked Death.

"You know the answer, Morikan." Death replied. "I come for everyone. Eventually, even you."

I blinked at this. Always thought They were forever.

Morikan nodded. "I know. However, I'd like to interfere a little this time..."

My heart leaped.

Death sighed, but she didn't look upset. "Again?"

"The possible successors for the shards are not as yet in place," Morikan said irritably, "Winter was not supposed to...but this would do no good to tell you."

"When would they be in place?" Death asked mildly.

Morikan shrugged. "The best ones aren't even born yet."

"You'd live," Death got off the table. I tensed as she approached.

"Thanks," Morikan was saying.

"No problems," Death grinned. "Was nice talking to Jarlaxle."

I frowned. Morikan had wanted Death to speak with me?

But because of that, I had admitted and accepted much to myself. Was that why? But would he not already have known? Winter gave me the impression that they were all-powerful...

"Have you asked her if she wanted to?"

"I was about to." Morikan said casually, and there was no surge of power or light, but Winter stirred. Her shivering stilled, and her breath evened, then she opened those ice blue eyes of hers and smiled up at me, fleetingly, before shifting to face Death and Morikan.

"I'd never recover, would I?" she said, and her voice was strong, something it had not been for very long. I wondered how she knew.

"No," Morikan said. "Even with the best healing you would still have the occasional cough...sometimes the pain, the headaches...so I'd let you choose. I'm democratic," he said, with the ghost of a smile.

"Winter," I whispered, afraid.

"Hush," she replied absently, then looked at Death.

The girl reached out. "Take my hand, Winter."

Winter chuckled. "Jarlaxle, let go, will you? This is my choice."

It took me a bit to realize that I was holding her tightly. Rather sheepishly, I loosened my grip.

"Right," Winter said, "I don't see any point in dying, yet. Still a lot I want to do, even if I'd have to be in pain while I do it. I'm sure a lot of people welcome you, but now I don't, and you know it."

Death nodded. "Only met three other people who had the same views."

"And?" Morikan chuckled.

"They're still alive," Death admitted.

"So?" Morikan prompted.

Death sighed. "Bad dragon. You owe me." Then she turned back to Winter. "You do know that I will come for you again?"

"Yes," Winter smiled. "Maybe next time, then."

Death nodded. Morikan smiled, satisfied, and then handed her the brown bundle.

Death uncovered it. A small baby dragon, thin and weak, scales of silver blue not yet hardened, breathed its last. Then a dim gold light flickered from within it, and the dragon opened its eyes and squeaked.

It was now translucent.

"A replacement," Morikan explained. "I would have saved this one."

Death nodded as if satisfied. "Well, looks like I'm not needed here any more, then," she said, and waved cheerily. "See you."

That didn't sound very nice.

She disappeared. Morikan looked down at Winter, then frowned slightly.

A portal opened, and two humans, along with a centaur filly wearing the barest of clothing stepped out. I recognized the filly, at least, from the school that taught healing in Sanctuary.

The room suddenly seemed rather crowded.

The filly glared at Morikan and said something irritably. Morikan bowed to her, winked at me, and then admitted, "They wanted to come 'with or without' my permission. Winter has too many friends."

He waved, then dissipated into silvery dust that twirled around as if lifted by wind, then melted away into the wall.

Winter was unconscious again, her symptoms returning. The humans and the centaur filly shooed me off the bed, then set to chanting over her. Kel watched happily, then let out a snort of indignation when the filly also picked it up – what strength – and dumped it off the bed.

Many friends.

Yes, she was that sort of person.

I began to smile.

I knew that Death would have taken Winter anyway, but this time, she did not want to. Not out of favor for Morikan. Or some whim.

Why?

Because of the compassion, kindness, understanding in her eyes, the wisdom in those black orbs, the great heart behind it that allowed her to 'do her job', be the sort of person you would like to meet in the end. Was that the story behind her eyes? Duty?

Or perhaps...

Love.

And...

Fading away, into the distance, I could hear the sound of beating wings.

--

Afterword

"There." The author said with satisfaction.

"Shorter than the first one," Jarlaxle observed, leaning over her shoulder.

"Would you rather I pulled it the six pages longer?" The author retorted, fingers resting threateningly on the keyboard.

Jarlaxle shuddered. "Gods forbid."

"Why are you here anyway? I was expecting Zak." The author said mildly. "And I wish you people would take off your boots downstairs or something. I mean, mom's asking how come I have shoeprints of different sizes on the floor..."

"And what did you tell her?" Jarlaxle grinned, straightening and folding his arms.

"I changed the subject," The author replied, then stuck out her tongue when Jarlaxle chuckled. "You haven't answered my question."

Jarlaxle leaned against the bookshelf. "Zaknafein said he wanted a break. Somehow he got hold of his other self and then asked him for help. This other self, being a certain sword master, happened to ask Winter for help."

"Uh. Thoughtful of him." The author said sarcastically. "Winter I can work with. So why are you here instead?"

"Can't work with me?" Jarlaxle feigned hurt.

"Next time those jewelry clash on each other I'm duct-taping them to you," the author said snippily. "Stop dodging questions."

"Very well," Jarlaxle held up his hands in mock surrender. Not a single bracelet or bangle clinked. "She did want to come. Told me she was going 'offworld' for 'a while', and not to 'worry'. I ask you. She only just managed to walk by herself yesterday."

"You didn't let her, then?" the author grinned, as if at some secret joke.

"I told her no. She told me to stop behaving like a 'mother hen', and said that she could 'take care of herself'," Jarlaxle said dryly, "We were beginning to get into the better part of screaming at each other when she started to cough. No blood, but it sounded bad, so I ordered her to go and rest."

"Don't think she liked that," the author said mildly, her mouth twitching at some barely hidden mirth.

"She didn't," Jarlaxle smirked. "Called me all sorts of names, told me to vith'ir, then began to cough again. So I told her I'd come instead. At least that satisfied her."

The author snickered then. "Jarlaxle, did you happen to wonder if she wanted to come in the first place?"

"Of course she did..."

"What I meant was, did you consider the possibility that she may have been manipulating you to come instead?" the author pointed out innocently. "Seems to me like she knew all the buttons to press."

Jarlaxle frowned, and rubbed his nose with his hand, then blinked and let out a low exclamation. "Why, that..."

"Exactly," The author beamed. "Thank you very much for coming, by the way. You've got better manners than Zak."

"Even Kel would have better manners," Jarlaxle retorted, still looking rather mortified. "Damn. Forgot she could act so well."

"You underestimate her," the author shrugged. "Right. Now you have to ask me questions."

"How do I leave?"

"No, about the story. You leave when I let you," the author smirked.

"All right," Jarlaxle sighed, then said slowly, as if reciting words from a script. "This disease...what is it?"

"Pneumonia, or an approximation of it," the author said happily, now that Jarlaxle was co-operating. "My brother got it once, a long time ago." She paused, then added in a softer voice. "I remember folding those little 3D paper stars...a hundred of them, because a hundred of them give you a wish. I wished that he'd get well."

"Bloody nice of you," Jarlaxle said sardonically, "If your brother is that human boy outside."

"Yes, he is," the author said dryly. "Things change I suppose."

Her brother bangs on the door. "Hey! Are you using the 'phone? I can hear you talking to someone! I want to use the 'phone!"

The author winced. "I don't have the 'phone," she replied, sounding annoyed.

A few more loud bangs on the door, shaking the hinges, then stamping away.

Jarlaxle sniggered, then brightened. "Can I go now? I want to express something to Winter about..."

"No other questions?" The author pouted.

"Can I go now?"

"I meant about the story," she said irritably.

"Can I say no?" Jarlaxle said hopefully.

"You ask something or you stay here," the author snapped, folding her arms. "Why does it take so much effort to make you people work with me?"

"Damn." Jarlaxle muttered. "Right. What's this about beating wings at the end of the story?"

"Something that happens to every Death story," the author shrugged. "I was supposed to kill off Winter at first. Death really doesn't do deals."

"Well, I'm glad you did not," Jarlaxle retorted. "So what did you do?"

"Got you to talk a bit," she grinned. "Then gave Death a little replacement. Winter's friends from Sanctuary could have healed her, but Morikan didn't like so much interference...but they managed to win their case. Good for you."

"Yes," Jarlaxle nodded. "Right. Can I go now?"

"Why're you so angry anyway? Don't like working with me?" The author returned to the screen.

"I was in the midst of devising a very important treaty with regards to Calimport," Jarlaxle explained irritably.

"Then how did you find out that Winter was going offword?" the author asked curiously.

"Rai'gy was in the room, and he looked a little more uncomfortable than usual, so I pried it out of him," Jarlaxle shrugged, "Come to think of it, Winter may have manipulated him as well. So when he told me, I went to find Winter. After that, you know. Can I go now?"

"Okay, okay!"