Summary: As you sow, so shall you reap, or, Death has a visitor.
Disclaimer: Neither of the Deaths and their families belong to me. I'm just playing with them for a while.
Notes: Written for lynnmonster for Yuletide 2004.
Albert carefully closed the door behind him.
The click resounded in several dimensions.
He looked down.
"Doesn't look good," he said. "Doesn't look good at all."
"Yeah, but he's never been this bad before," said Albert. "'S not like anything's even happened. Nothing important, anyway. He wasn't hardly acquainted with the kitten."
"Yeah, all right, that probably is the point," Albert admitted. "Still, we can't be having with this. It's his job. What'll become of the world if he keeps breaking down at every dead nipper he meets?"
"'S right. And we can't be having with that."
He paused. It was clear he was troubled.
"Have you got the gel in?"
The little bony snout nodded.
EEK EEK SQUEAK.
"Ah, but being on the brink of homicidal rage is her normal state of mind," said Albert. "Probably help her with the job, in fact. We don't have to worry about the living for a while, then."
The grimness hadn't lifted from his crabbed face, but there was relief in his voice. There was something comforting about the thought that somewhere in the universe, at that very moment, Susan was getting really angry. It made you feel that despite everything, in some small way, the world was going on as usual.
It was even more comforting to think that that somewhere was very, very far away.
"Right, then, there's nothing for it," said Albert. "We're going to have to bring her in."
"Not Susan," said Albert. "Someone else."
He hesitated. Worry crossed the wrinkled landscape of his face.
"I don't like it," he said, more to himself than to the Death of Rats. "But he respects her. He'd listen to her."
"You'll see," said Albert. "Now. Would we have any fresh eggs left in the kitchen?"
Albert would have been the world's greatest expert on the Rite of AshkEnte, if he'd actually been in the world. As it was, he was the greatest Rite of AshkEnte expert in Death's household, since for obvious reasons neither Death nor the Death of Rats needed to know it, and the raven wasn't interested in anything that wasn't eyeball-shaped.
He hadn't performed it in a while, though. There didn't seem much point in carrying out an intricate magical rite of summoning when all he had to do when he wanted to talk to Death was walk down the hall and knock on the study door. Besides, while his last attempt at the Rite of AshkEnte had been fairly successful -- he'd wanted to prolong his life another sixty-seven years, and had ended up living out another two thousand, albeit only in the unreal recycled time that passed in Death's domain -- he wasn't eager to try the experiment again. You never knew what would happen with rites that summoned Death. There were all kinds of deaths that could be called down on a wizard's head.
But he didn't have a choice. His master needed help. Quite apart from the disastrous effects on the natural order of things Death's being in trouble would have -- and worse, the ticking off Susan would give Albert -- Albert was concerned about him. You couldn't be fond of Death, exactly, but you couldn't help liking him. He cared. That was the problem, of course.
In Albert's day -- well, earlier in Albert's day -- it'd been thought that the Rite of AshkEnte required an elaborate magical ceremony: chanting wizards, dribbly candles, octograms marked out in some unfortunate small, furry creature's blood, the whole circus. It was now known that this was just tradition, and that you could do the rite equally well with small bits of wood and a fresh egg, if you insisted on being so disgustingly literal-minded.
Generally it took two wizards, if only so one could support the other if he was given to fainting, but Albert was doing it on his own while the Death of Rats watched. It was going to have to be a modified version to summon the entity he was thinking of, and there was no knowing what would happen, but there was no running away from it. You'd got to do what you'd got to do, and that was all there was to it.
He stood amidst eggshell shards and splattered yolk before the octogram marked out in pink chalk (it didn't have to be an octogram, but old habits died hard), and held aloft the bits of wood he'd tied together with string. It didn't look much like what he'd been aiming for, but it was going to have to do.
He coughed. He always found summoning supernatural beings embarrassing. It seemed so intrusive.
"Miss -- uh, Death, I stand before this here octogram and hold your sigil," he said. "We'd appreciate it if you could drop by for a moment, that's if you could spare the time, that is, won't take much more'n five minutes, but we wouldn't want to trouble you if you're busy and all."
He coughed again.
The octogram remained obstinately empty.
Albert brightened, his hand dropping.
"Well, if you can't get away from work that's all right, hah, you can bet we know what it means to be busy in this house, some seasons they're going off so fast himself's hardly got the time to take a breather, not that he can take a breather, not having lungs, but it's the thought that counts, innit, anyway, sorry to bother you -- "
The air above the octogram shimmered. Albert winced, but he raised the rigged sigil with a steady hand.
An image unfurled above the centre of the octogram. Albert peered into it, down a tunnel that went on for an unimaginable distance, and at the end of the tunnel, a light.
A figure was silhouetted in the light, getting bigger as it approached, too dark for anything to be made out of it except that it appeared to be vaguely human-shaped. Seen in the two-dimensional patch of unreality that hovered mid-air, the figure had a curiously illusory quality about it, as if it was nothing more than a moving picture. At the same time, it was more real than anything in the room.
This didn't worry the spectators. In Death's house, where the rooms are bigger on the inside than they are on the outside and time has a permanent disinvite, you get used to this kind of thing -- which made it the more puzzling to the Death of Rats that Albert seemed to be getting progressively more nervous as the figure got closer.
"Can't touch me here, wouldn't be manners," he was muttering, as if he was trying to convince himself.
SQUEAK? the Death of Rats had just asked, when the image wobbled, stretched, and elongated abruptly, and the figure stepped out.
"Can I help you?" said Death of the Endless.
The Death of Rats's jaw dropped, baring amazed pointy tips of teeth. The girl smiled, and leaned over to look at the contrivance in Albert's hand. Albert gulped audibly.
"That's a new one," said the girl. "How did you get the bits of wood to stick together like that?"
"String and quantum, if you please, miss," squeaked Albert, clutching at the makeshift ankh like a lifesaver.
"'S magic," said Albert, with reserve. "Very complicated, miss."
Wizards are not free with their secrets, and though it had been a long time since Albert had been a wizard, he wasn't going to talk about magic to a girl, even a girl who just happened to be Death.
"Ingenious," said Death. "So, what do you need? I'd've thought your employer could have handled your case."
She had walked out of the octogram as if she hadn't even noticed it, and was examining the room with undisguised interest.
"Oh, it's not for me," said Albert hastily. "No, don't you worry about me, miss, I'm perfectly fine, don't feel a day older'n fifteen hundred. It's about my master. He's not doing too well at the moment, if you want the truth of it, miss."
"Call me Death," Death said kindly. Albert nodded, with an expression that implied he'd sooner stab himself with one of his own cooking knives than comply. "What's up with him?"
Albert struggled with the instincts of loyalty for a moment, but finally necessity won.
"Gone a bit funny in the head, he has, miss," said Albert. "He's gone out of character again, and it won't half be a mess in this universe if we don't get him on the job again. His granddaughter'd kill me, for one thing, and in this family, when they make things die, things stay dead. So we was hoping, well, maybe you could talk to him, set his head to rights, sort of thing. He'd listen to you."
"So he's having his trouble again?" she said. "What kicked it off this time?"
"That's the thing, miss. We don't know," said Albert. "He was perfectly all right till -- well, till some time ago, you could say, if there was time as you could reckon in this place, which there ain't. But anyway, then he up and went to his study and locked his door, and he's been there ever since, not talking to anyone. And it's not like anything's happened to put ideas into his head. You know how susceptible he is to ideas."
"Right, yeah, okay, there is the kitten . . ."
"Was the kitten, I should say," said Albert. "One of the cats just had a litter, and one on 'em didn't survive. Little runty thing. It's not like it's anything he's not seen before, but now he's sitting alone in the darkness, and, well, we're at our wits' end, miss. He's never been this bad before, not over something small like this. We wouldn't of bothered you, knowing how busy you are, but we couldn't think of anybody else who could help."
"Okay, lead me to him," said Death. "But first, I've got one more question."
She pointed upwards.
"Pots and pans? Not exactly de rigueur for the fashionable magician, are they?"
Albert looked offended.
"We didn't want to disturb him, and there wasn't anywhere else we could do it quiet-like, with all the ingredients to hand. And it is a kitchen. Somebody has to get the cooking done, miss."
"Why? It's not like he needs to eat."
"He likes to have his meals regular, and his cup of tea," said Albert. "It gives the day shape, if you know what I mean. And he likes feeling he's doing as everybody else does. Big on the proper thing, the master."
"Yeah, I'd noticed," said Death. "So, where is this study?"
It was up some steps, through the entrance hall, and down a passageway. The girl knocked on the door, then, when nobody answered, pushed it open.
Picture the study of Death.
To call it infinitely large would be an exaggeration, but an understandable one for humans, who like things to be in manageable thought-sized chunks, to persist in. It's enormous, a dark echoing space filled with the suggestions of strange shapes, and a vast, busy silence. Presumably there is a ceiling somewhere up there in the gloom, but nobody's ever spotted it who lived to tell the tale.
In the middle of the room is what you might call the room proper. It's the only part of the hugeness that human visitors allow themselves to see. It encompasses a relatively small carpeted area, lit in a pool of light in the midst of the darkness, with the usual paraphernalia of a study, including the more unusual ones.
The master of the house is sitting at his desk, very straight, because it's difficult as you could imagine for a skeleton to slouch. His hands are resting on his lap, and his hooded skull is bowed over something between them.
He's in good surroundings to look imposingly miserable in. Possibly by intention, but more probably because Death in many things has very typical tastes, the room is designed to encourage thoughts of despair, desolation, and indeed, death. It's got a certain Gothic feel to it. Everything that could be carved to look even vaguely like a skull has been. Dribbly yellow candles everywhere dribble over the less important papers. Apart from them, everything is in black, and not a trendy, slimming black. This is a hollow, gaunt black, the black of the end, the final note, the full stop.
But something funny happens when the door swings open, and the girl steps in. Nothing changes, exactly, but suddenly everything looks a lot more . . . streamlined. The candles are suddenly a lot more elegant and a lot less like something out of a cheap horror movie. The black of everything is abruptly cool.
The skulls don't stop grinning, but they start meaning it.
The girl shuts the door and pauses.
There are two ways available to those who see things as they really are of getting to the middle of the study. There is the first way, which is to cross the mysterious, eternal darkness that lies between the door and the small, bright room in which Death sits. And there is the shortcut, the way the few humans who have entered the room use, which ignores the petty details of space and time, and looks to a higher delusion.
Death of the Endless takes the shortcut, and steps from the door . . .
. . . Onto the carpet, as if the space in between wasn't.
It is occasionally convenient, Death has found, to think like a human. Of course, the problem with her colleague is that he's never figured out how to control the tendency.
I SAID I WAS NOT TO BE DISTURBED, ALBERT.
"Yeah, well, deal with it," said Death.
The bowed head snapped up.
OH. IT'S YOU.
He sounded disconcerted. It wasn't exactly a gushing welcome, but at least it was better than the flat monotony that had been in his voice.
"Mm-hmm." Death perched on the desk, drawing her booted feet up beneath her. "Albert's worried about you. Or as close to it as he can get, anyway."
Skulls can't frown, being stuck with a fixed manic grin that seems to insist that yes, life without flesh really is better, but the disapproval in Death's voice was clear. And when you have a voice like the last earthquake in the world, disapproval rumbles.
HE SHOULD NOT HAVE INVOLVED YOU.
"Because you're doing so well on your own," said Death. "What's that you're holdi -- oh."
It was a kitten. More accurately, it had been a kitten, before becoming what it now was, which was dead.
Since time didn't really move in Death's domain, it hadn't undergone any of the distressing changes which would have made sitting in a room with a dead cat in one's lap unpleasant in what, for lack of a better expression, could be called the real world. It lay quiescent in Death's lap. Anybody else would have thought that it looked like it was sleeping, but it's hard to make mistakes of that sort when you're Death.
There was a silence.
"You're really not okay, are you," she said.
THERE IS NO NEED FOR CONCERN, Death said stiffly. I HAVE MERELY BEEN THINKING.
"Yeah? What about?"
Death didn't seem to notice her question, his head drooping again, as if in deep thought, but after a while he spoke, apropos of nothing.
SUSAN IS GETTING MARRIED, he said. The words clanged like bells for the dead.
"That's great," said Death.
YES. A VERY RESPECTABLE YOUNG MAN.
"Are you going to the wedding?"
I . . . AM NOT SURE. I DO NOT BELIEVE EVEN SUSAN KNOWS YET. IT IS DIFFICULT FOR HER, YOU KNOW. Death stared at the kitten in his lap.
SHE HAS HER MOTHER'S LOOK, he said wistfully. AND HER FATHER'S. WE HAD OUR DIFFICULTIES, BUT I WAS . . . FOND OF THEM BOTH. I DID NOT AGREE WHEN THEY DECIDED TO KEEP HER AWAY FROM ALL OF THIS, BUT I BORE THEM NO GRUDGES. THEY THOUGHT THEY WERE PROTECTING HER.
PERHAPS THEY WERE RIGHT.
"It would have come out anyway," said Death gently. "You can't escape genetics, even if they aren't actually real. Especially if they aren't real."
YES. AND SHE IS GOOD AT THE JOB. A NATURAL. IT'S IN HER BONES, AS IT WERE.
"It's too late to stop that ball rolling, anyway," said Death. "You're just going to have to try to keep up."
PERHAPS I SHOULD NOT HAVE STARTED IT . . . ROLLING . . . IN THE FIRST PLACE. PERHAPS I SHOULD HAVE LEFT YSABELL. OR RATHER, Death corrected himself, COME FOR HER SHORTLY AFTERWARD.
"Yeah, well, no disagreement there," said Death. The skull turned to her, the twin blue glows in the sockets looking faintly surprised. "Well, what did you expect me to say? You're right. You shouldn't have saved her. You know involvement with them is a bad idea. Things always turn into a mess."
THE CONSEQUENCES WERE NOT ALL BAD, Death said, lamely.
The girl nodded, ignoring the flash of surprise.
"You're right there too. There's always something worth taking the risk for," she said. "And there's always something too important to be worth the risk of losing it. That's the way it goes."
HOW DOES ONE MAKE THE DECISION?
Death shrugged, silver jewellery tinkling.
"You just do," she said. "You make a choice every time, and you hope for the best. That's how mortals and gods do it. We aren't any different, in the essentials."
IN THE ESSENTIALS, said Death. She followed his gaze down to the limp kitten.
SUSAN IS MORTAL, he said.
I DO NOT KNOW IF I COULD -- he halted. THE LAST TIME . . . THERE WAS NO CHOICE. IT WAS MY DUTY. BUT I DO NOT KNOW IF I COULD DO THE SAME NOW.
Death knew she would have to tread very, very carefully.
"Then when -- " she began, considered the possibilities inherent in Susan's situation and the unavoidable power of genetics, and started again, "Then if the time comes, and you're in need, you can call me. And I'll come."
Nothing was said, but she could feel the atmosphere relax. The house of Death twanged to its creator's mood; now it unravelled abruptly. The candles flickered for a moment, and blazed up again, the flames brighter than ever.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO HER AFTER? Death said wistfully.
For someone who didn't have glands, his colleague reflected, he functioned with remarkable efficiency in the emotions department.
"You know as well as I do," she said.
"Everything," said Death, at the same time. "Yes."
Molten wax dripped, the sound very small in the vastness of the room. Papers curled like startled millipedes.
It was very quiet.
"You want me to hold your hand?" Death said.
IF YOU PLEASE.
She reached out and wound her fingers with his, cool to the touch and surprisingly solid.
In the silence, Death lifted his other hand and brushed the kitten bonily across its still-warm back. It vanished.
They were still for a while.
DOES IT EVER GET EASIER? said Death finally.
It'd clearly taken some some effort to get the words out. It's hard to ask questions when you're the final answer.
"Yes," said Death. "And no. Is that an answer?"
WOULD YOU LIKE TO PLAY CHECKERS? he asked.
CHESS, THEN. I CAN NEVER REMEMBER HOW THE ONES LIKE HORSES MOVE.
"Yeah, okay," said Death. "We can do that."