Morana wrapped her cloak tightly around her frame and let her body sink a little lower into her comfortable slouch against a tree trunk, closing her amber eyes and waiting for the inevitable. Thankfully, it didn't take long—comparatively, at least.
She felt a hand come to rest on her shoulder maybe an hour later.
"Long time no see, Raven," the man said softly, and she chuckled. When she had first met Garet Jax years earlier, she had flat-out refused to tell the Weapons Master her name… Or anything else about herself, for that matter. It was a little game they played, by this point—he had given her a name, traveled with her occasionally for brief periods of time, and she cautiously revealed scraps of her history to him—never enough for him to piece things together. "You haven't changed," he continued. "As usual."
She smirked, getting to her feet. "I wish I could say the same for you… You're beginning to look a bit travel-worn. When are you going to finally decide to settle down?"
"Same time you do, I suppose," he joked, and offered his arm to her. She looped her own through it and let him lead her out of the trees and into Culhaven.
"Do they know you here," he asked, and she shrugged.
"There's always someone that knows me hanging around," she said evasively. "Usually, they're just waiting for me to come back into town."
"Why don't they just come find you, or send for you?" He paused. "They're probably afraid of you too, aren't they?"
She nodded. "That's generally how it works, yes."
"I still don't see why… There's nothing scary about you."
She had to stop herself from wincing—if only he knew… "That depends largely on how much you know about me," she countered. "Obviously, you don't know enough."
"I beg to differ," he said lightly. "There's an inn over there with decent food… Are you hungry?"
She shook her head. "I'll sit outside for a little while if you want to eat, though… Culhaven will at least have a small scrap of peace tonight." As she spoke, she glanced over at a beggar woman nearby, who was clutching a small child to her chest and looking positively terrified. Pity flickered across Morana's features, and she looked to Garet. "Do you have a blanket so spare?"
He nodded, pulling one from his pack and passing it to the beggar woman, knowing that Raven wouldn't touch it herself for some reason—she didn't like handling anything that she didn't personally own. He recalled one circumstance in particular—an innkeeper had once burned a chair she sat in for all of five minutes, declaring it cursed, and had immediately thereafter refused to rent a room to either of them…
"I'm not the one you need to be worried about," she told the beggar woman. "My brother is a far greater threat to your child."
"You have a brother," Garet asked her, intrigued, and she nodded.
"Three actually. You've met one of them."
"Have I?" He cocked an eyebrow at her. "Tell me, is he as frustratingly mysterious are you are?"
She shrugged. "He may have tried to be, but I doubt he did a very good job of it… He's a bit daft. Big, boorish fellow. Can't miss him."
He gave her a flat look. "You do realize that you just described over half of the men I know, don't you?"
She grinned. "I'm aware."
"So, these brothers of yours…"
"Brutes, all three of them," she supplied. "They delight in ruining other people's lives, then call me in to try and fix their problems so I take the fall."
"Can't you just tell them no?"
She shook her head. "I've tried. It only makes things worse… And I don't like watching people suffer."
He nodded, opening the door to the inn and stepping into the threshold. "Are you coming in?"
She shook her head. "I'll wait outside… Probably wander the gardens for a bit."
As he disappeared into the inn, a vague cloud of something appeared beside her, buzzing furiously. She rolled her eyes.
"Plague flies, Merihim? How unoriginal."
The cloud of insects morphed into a humanoid form. "You care for the mortal," was the only response he made, and she sighed.
"Can we discuss this elsewhere? The gardens, maybe? Away from prying ears?"
"But of course… Lead the way, sister."
She took him deep into the gardens before she spoke again. "Thamuz, I know you're here… You too, Alibas. You may as well show yourselves."
"You must understand, Death… We are merely concerned for you."
"That's not my name," Morana countered. "Not anymore."
"You take a new name, given to you by the Elves, as we all did," Alibas began, "and fall for a mortal… This alone would not worry us… It is how lax you have become in your duties that concerns us all."
"You rarely strike unless we intervene," Merihim continued. "Men are growing used to living past the age of forty."
"I grow tired of your complaints concerning how I carry out my duties," Morana said sharply. "When I last checked, the domain of Death was given to me because you three were unable to keep up with its demands."
"But can you," Thamuz asked her. "How many lives were claimed yesterday?"
"Fifty thousand, if you must know," she snapped. "I'm ahead of schedule. And what of you three? Thamuz, how many battles have you created in the last month? Merihim, I don't recall any pandemics in recent history… And Alibas, how many crops have you withered today?" The next time you feel the need to criticize how I do my job, you may wish to consider doing your own first!"
"Our jobs depend largely on how well you handle your own," Merihim said calmly, looking to Alibas (his twin) for support. "The last time you became lax with your duties—even going so far as to refuse the work we so generously provided for you—we were forced to annihilate the entire human race."
"We don't want to do that again," Alibas added, quickly sensing that his sister's hypothetical blood was beginning to boil. "We don't like seeing you run yourself ragged trying to exterminate an entire species, but without you there to do your job, there is no reason for us to even exist."
"And I don't like cleaning up after the three of you and becoming the target of mortal malice and fear that should be rightfully be directed at you!" She paused. "I was welcomed, once upon a time… I was a relief from the pain and suffering so many were forced to endure… They sang my praises at funeral services, and now here I stand, the cruel mistress of Time, hated and feared by all but the most miserable scum of the planet…"
"You are bitter with mortals, so you take it out on us," Alibas supplied. "But only in Death will they see the truth… Do you not understand that?"
She sighed. "I do, but I grow so tired of this…"
"It will pass," Merihim advised, "as all other things have. For now, we must all be strong and do what is expected of us." He embraced his sister warmly, and Thamuz passed her her scythe.
"You left this at home today," he said simply. "Surely you don't always appear unarmed in front of Garet?"
"He still hasn't figured out just what I am, exactly," she responded, and brought the blade crashing down into a tree, watching the leaves tumble from the branches and blacken.
"It has been quite some time since we have truly worked together, my brothers… Since the Renaissance, I think. Perhaps we should plan another game sometime soon." She spun the scythe around and made as though to sheath it behind her back, and it disappeared. "Garet will be looking for me… He's grown rather fond of my company."
"Of course," Thamuz said somberly. "Give him my regards, won't you?"
"Actually," Alibas said gravely, "it appears you can tell him yourself… Should we leave?"
Morana shrugged. "There's no point, now… I expect he's figured it out."
"I knew a long time ago, Raven," Garet Jax responded, prowling over. "War, my old friend… And these two must be Famine and Pestilence." The fact that he used their old names wasn't lost on them, but they didn't mention the fact. Garet, meanwhile, glanced at the dead tree. "Your work or your brother's, Raven?"
"Mine," she said softly, almost embarrassedly. "But how long have you known…?"
"Since the first time I brought you into a town," he explained with a shrug. "You thought I was asleep, and I followed you out."
"Oh no… The family with cholera?"
He shook his head.
"The two children in the wagon accident?"
He shook his head again. "The old man sitting at his wife's bedside," he clarified. "Said they'd been waiting for you for three days, and he was glad his wife wouldn't be in pain anymore… Then asked you how long it would be before he could join her…"
She gave him a slightly bitter smile, but nodded. "I remember that one now… All the places and people tend to run together, after the first couple millennia."
"But if you knew that long ago, why have you been playing dumb? And more importantly, why didn't you freak out and run off like everyone else does?"
He shrugged. "When you took the old woman, you just smiled at the old man, told him he'd see his wife again… And then you did something that confused me. You glanced over at the half-wilted flowers in the vase on the bedside table, touched them, and they sprung back to life. Then you told him—"
"As long as his wife loved him and was waiting for him, they would never wilt," she finished. "Without Life, there can be no Death. As the giver of one, I must also control the other. And without Hope, Life is not worth living." She paused, chuckling bitterly. "Besides, I really hate suicides. Idiots won't let Nature run its course… And they're always whining! 'Life's not fair! It hurts too much! Death sucks! I want to go back; why did I think this was a good idea?'" She grimaced, and caught Garet chuckling at her. "It's far from a glamorous job, but it's all I've really got," she muttered.
"Don't you want to know why I didn't run off," he half-joked, attempting to bring her back to the conversation at hand and take her mind off of her stresses.
She nodded, glancing at her brothers. "Is it really necessary for the three of you to still be hanging around?"
Merihim shrugged. "The conversation intrigues us. You must remember, we don't feel emotion anywhere near as acutely as you do… The mortals influence you heavily."
Tyrtza rolled her eyes. "Perhaps another apocalypse would solve all our problems, then? And this time, I won't let the men come back," she threatened, and the scythe reappeared in her hand.
"Such hostility," Thamuz exclaimed. "I haven't seen you this eager since the Great Flood!"
"Calm yourself, Death," Alibas soothed, using her old name in an attempt to grab her attention as he laid a thin hand on her arm. "He was merely making an observation. Your passions cloud your judgment."
"That's not my name," she told him for the second time that night, but she was already visibly calmer. The scythe shimmered once and turned to mist.
Alibas nodded. "I apologize… You prefer Morana now, don't you?"
"I prefer Raven, actually… Morana roughly translates to 'soul thief.' However, that is what all the mortals call me now."
"Except one, you mean," Alibas amended, giving her a meaningful glance, and she shrugged.
"I suppose so," she conceded, then turned back to Garet. "I'm sorry you had to see that little outburst… Every once in a while, the stress gets to me. Please, finish your story."
He nodded. "I got to thinking, and realized that I had seen you before. My house burnt to the ground when I was just a little boy… I was the only one who made it out alive. As I was standing there watching the house, a woman came over to me. She smiled, said I was very brave, and told me everything would be okay before she walked over to the house… And all of the sudden, I realized there was a scythe in her hand that I didn't remember seeing before…"
She frowned. "I don't know what I was thinking that time… I usually don't show the scythe around children…"
Garet nodded. "I started to follow… Do you remember?"
She stiffened slightly, then nodded. "I do now… When you took off after me, I turned around, and you just ran up and threw your arms around me, crying… I didn't have the heart to push you away." She paused. "I never made it into the house that night… I usually do whole families myself, you see… But I sent spirits in after your parents and sisters and spent the whole evening holding you."
"I fell asleep in your arms," Garet supplied. "When I woke up, you were gone, but I was wrapped in your cloak and tucked up against a tree by the guard barracks. They told me that a woman had dropped me off there and asked them to watch me, because my family had just been killed in a fire. They seemed every bit as confused as I did." He unfastened his cloak and held it out to her. "I suppose it's about time I gave this back."
"You kept it all this time?"
He nodded. "It never tattered or got dirty, so I never had a reason to throw it out… And it was the only reminder I had of the stranger who held a little orphan boy in her arms all night." He smirked, letting one of his hands rest briefly on hers. "Once I figured out who you were, I kept it for sentimental value for a little while, but I don't know that I'll need it anymore."
"What makes you say that?"
"I've decided that I'm following you, from here on out… As best I can, at least."
She frowned. "It's certainly plausible… I don't personally come to claim every person I take; usually only the ones that happen to be nearby… But why?"
He just shrugged. "It just fits, don't you think? The Weapons Master, walking hand-in-hand with Death herself? Besides," the smirk returned to his face as he spoke, "I think we're all a little in love with Death… Most people just don't want to admit it."
For the next two years, Garet Jax rarely left Morana's side. He stayed out of cities more and more, realizing not only that Morana didn't really like being in cities that well, but that she also often became distant and thoughtful for long periods of time when she was "working"—which was surprisingly frequently. During these spells, he usually had to watch her back a little—parting ways with her physical body left it vulnerable, and in the city, that would just be more difficult to contend with.
It was the Valeman that finally made them part ways. Garet was reluctant to leave, but Morana urged him to do so, reasoning that the Valeman needed help, and she would likely only frighten him… So while she wandered off to do some more intensive work, Garet could save the Valeman, and they would meet up again later.
Still, Garet protested, if she went with him, the Gnomes might just surrender the Valeman without a fight…
"Or they might kill him in a misguided attempt to appease me," Morana countered, and stepped forward to touch his face with a surprisingly gentle hand. "You have to do this alone, Garet. There's no place for Death in a rescue mission. I would only make a mess of things." She paused, letting her hand retreat from his cheek and fall back to her side. "Do you want my cloak? It will help keep you safe."
He shook his head. "I'll be okay… What's the worst that could possibly happen? Even if I die, I'll know where to find you." His all-too-familiar smirk flickered across his features, and he kissed her cheek. "See you soon," he teased, and disappeared into the trees.
The circumstances in which Garet Jax and Morana were reunited were less than ideal—a battle with a Jachyra had left Garet mortally wounded. Tyrtza had been with her brothers, watching the lives of mortals unfold—as they often did, when they weren't fighting—when she felt the familiar tug of another dying man… But even as she called for her scythe, she realized who it was and froze.
"No," she whispered. "Not Garet…"
"I'm sorry," Alibas said solemnly. "But you can't ignore the call."
"I won't go," she insisted. "I can't."
"He has been poisoned, Merihim supplied, his voice soft and even. "I cannot slow the venom's progress or ease his pain any more than I already have… He's going to suffer immensely until you reclaim him.
"We're sorry," Thamuz added. "Really, we are. But you have to go. There's no other way."
She turned away from her brothers and, for a long moment, didn't move. They were certain she was going to refuse them, but her body shimmered and disappeared right as they were about to say something more.
"I think she was crying," Thamuz said softly, once she had gone. "Where did she learn to do that?"
Garet was fighting to stay conscious. He could feel poison coursing through his veins like fire, tearing him apart from the inside out. He should have stopped trying to fight it a long time ago, he knew, but he wanted to see her again, and he didn't know if he would be able to do that, once he died… He wished he had had the sense to ask her how all of this worked, but then again, how could he have possibly known?
He breathed a ragged sigh of relief as a woman's form appeared in front of him, mist billowing at her feet. "Hi Raven," he rasped. "Long time no see."
She shushed him, dropping to her knees next to him. "I'm sorry it took me so long… I… Needed a minute."
He coughed weakly, and blood spilled out to fleck his lips and chin. "Am I still going to be able to see you?"
She nodded. "As often as you want." She pushed his silvery hair away from his sweat-soaked face and wiped away the blood. "Are you ready?"
He nodded, closing his eyes, and waited to wake up in another world.