She stood alone amidst the crowd that day on the Place of the Skull, where the wind swept the hilltop with growing fury. Her long veil whipped around her like black feathers in a storm, or ash flung far on a hurricane.
They did not see her; the crowd. They never did.
She clasped her hands atop the scythe that rested against the ground before her and propped her chin on them, staring with narrowed eyes at the three crosses silhouetted against the angry red of the sky. It was the eighth hour. Not long to wait now.
She brushed one hand absently down the shaft of her scythe and touched the cold iron blade. One hour more… and all the eons of the world had not seemed so interminably long.
A soft footfall sounded behind her. “Greetings, Death.” His voice was calm. As always.
A tiny smile lit her lips. She did not turn. “Greetings, Life. It’s been too long.”
He stepped up beside her. The pure white of his own veil swept him from crown to foot with a shimmering light, untouched by the ghastly red glare of that place. He clasped his hands around his staff and was silent for a long time.
Lightning flickered along the dull grey bellies of the clouds. Thunder growled like the grinding of stone against stone in the deep places of the earth. Like jaws opening slow and wide to swallow the world in their grip.
Death shifted restlessly, then glanced at the white figure beside her. “Remind you of anything?”
“Yes.” Beneath the misty folds of his veil his face did not turn. “Everything.”
“I wonder you dare show your face here, in the hour of my triumph.” She bumped him gently with her shoulder.
She could not see his face, but she knew he was smiling.
“Hour?” The shape of his face turned to her at last, blank with the fluttering white of his veil. “The hour of your triumph, Death?” He shook his head. “You still reckon by single deaths, don’t you?”
She shrugged. “Because ever since Abel I have won them.”
“And why should you not? You are Death. Of course you have.”
“You are Life.” She arched one eyebrow. “Show me one captive you have saved from me in the end.”
She heard the grin in his voice before he even formed the words, and cut him off with a slash of her hand. “Don’t you dare bring up Elijah again.”
He ducked his head with a little laugh and was silent.
Death slung her scythe over her shoulder with a sigh and lifted her chin. “I have told you a million times. I may not have taken him, but neither did you keep him.”
He shrugged, and raised his face to the three crosses on the summit of the hill. When he spoke again his voice was grave. “I suppose that depends on how far you think I rule.”
She hooked both hands on the shaft of her scythe behind her neck and snorted. “As far as I do, Life. What a silly question.”
He leaned his chin on the top of his staff. “I suppose we’ll see.”
She glanced at him sharply. “Oh please. Don’t tell me you’re hoping to snatch Him from me at the last moment.”
Death dropped her scythe back to the ground with a sharp clack of iron against the stones. “Your Master promised me, Life. Are you calling Him a liar?”
He shook his head.
“So then? You hope? Why?”
“Who can tell why anyone hopes, Death?” He straightened from leaning on his staff and looked her full in the face. “And who can say whether there is not something greater than you and I and this game we play, and have played from the beginning of Time?”
She stared at him. “A third kingdom? You’re mad.”
“Not necessarily a third.” He looked away. “May I remind you it was my Master who set the borders of your kingdom, and that your master knows nothing of mine?”
She frowned. “You really are desperate, aren’t you. You should be used to defeat by now.”
“You’re right, I suppose.” He lowered his face and poked at the rocks with the end of his staff. “I should, shouldn’t I.” He turned away.
Death shook her head and looked back to the crosses. They were almost lost in the blackness of the sky now. Only the fretful streaks of red lightning revealed them, stark and ugly in the lashing rain.
When had it begun to rain?
She lifted her veiled face and felt the sting of the flying drops against her skin. She closed her eyes. It was close… so very close… He was slipping away. The shadows gathered faster and deeper around the central cross, like strands of her own inky veil. Tearing. Clawing. Beckoning.
The shape of the Man, slumped in breathless agony against the sky, shifted.
Death set her teeth and gripped her scythe until her hands went numb.
“Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”
The cry splintered across the stony hilltop like a thorn driven deep, deep into living flesh.
The silent crowd broke into a tumult of mutterings and speculations, but Death glanced sideways at the white figure beside her.
His head bowed against his staff. White hands clenched in silent agony on the pale wood, and drops of water that were not the rain streaked his veil in slow streams.
Death looked away.
The crowd was going wild now. Their faces, pale and stained red with the sickly light, raised to the central cross, and clenched fists shook out from the sea of garments tattered in the wind. “He is calling for Elijah!” one of the crowd shrieked. “Let him alone; let us see if Elijah will come and take him down!”
Life raised his head and glanced at her, and even through his tears gave a broken laugh. “Elijah… no. They don’t see, do they?”
She shrugged. “When have they ever?” She raised her scythe from the ground one last time and stepped forward into the wind. Her veil tangled around her feet, but her steps were sure. Down through the huddled masses of shrill people that reeked of fear. Past the groups of Pharisees and scribes clustered to the side in the shelter of a great rock, their rich garments stained with red and their faces drawn like corpses. Over the ring of stones and through the soldiers who guarded the crosses, with their hands so white and stiff on the shafts of their spears, until she came to the central cross itself, and looked up.
He met her eyes through the blood that streaked His face like the tears of a million fallen souls and smiled.
She raised her scythe from her shoulder. One blow.
The breath left His body in three words, whispered hoarse and barely heard against the howling wind.
“It is finished.”
The jeers of the crowd turned to wails.
Death slung her scythe across her shoulders with a smile, turned, and lifted her eyes to the cluster of boulders at the shoulder of the hill.
It was empty.
Life was nowhere to be seen.
She followed the mourners to the tomb once the storm was over, walking in quiet triumph through the flowers that lay broken and bruised by the pounding rains. The sky had turned from black to purple, with crimson streaks scored through it like the trails of raking thorns.
Death breathed deeply of the cold air and raised her face until the wind swept across it, stirring the folds of her veil and filling her lungs with the taste of victory. “My Master,” she whispered. “It is indeed finished. We have brought down the pride of Life into the grave, and the glory of those who cast you out has been bowed down into the very dust.”
She watched them lay His body on the stone prepared for it, wrapped in misty white. She watched them weep, her own eyes bright, and watched them one by one file from the tomb and fade away into the twilight.
Soldiers came and sealed Him in.
Death’s lips twisted, then parted in a tiny grin. What need had they to seal so fearfully tight? Did they fear He would leave her grasp? Did they fear, as Life hoped? She wrapped her veil close around herself and shook her head. Fools. There was no hope beyond the grave.
Death seated herself on a stone bench, leaned her head back against a tree, and watched.
The wind died from a wail to a whisper, then faded altogether. Even the night creatures were still. The leaves of the trees drooped from their branches in the darkness, heavy with grief, and the moon hid her face in a veil of black clouds.
Death closed her eyes.
The last hope of the children of men had been destroyed.
It was the grinding snap of broken stone that jolted her awake, like a shock of cold water dashed against her face.
She stumbled up before she had even fully woken and snatched her scythe, blinking in the soft violet light that bathed the garden in shadow.
All was as before. No wind. No rustle of mice in the shrubs or birds twittering softly in their nests. A ribbon of colorless light streaked along the eastern horizon like a faceless banner.
Death blinked the last sleep from her eyes and dropped them to the tomb.
The stone lay on its side with shards of broken mortar all around it.
Death froze. Her hand tightened on the shaft of her scythe until her skin burned like fire. Then she was running, her feet noiseless on the stone path, wet branches slapping at her face. She plunged into the violet shadows that filled the open mouth and stumbled down three steps. Her own breathing was like gusting wind in her ears.
She froze a few feet beyond the door. A shaft of pale light sliced through the opening in a haze of dust and spilled across the stone in the center of the vault.
It was empty.
Her screams rang to the farthest reaches of the vault and set the walls to shivering, bringing dust and roots and dead flowers from the roof in a rain of filth and mold, as though all the nations from the beginning of time were crumbling around her ears. She found herself on her knees on the floor, clawing with bloody hands at the stones and half-suffocated with her screams. “Adam did not escape me!” she shrieked. “Nor Noah, nor Abraham!” Her lungs burned in her chest like molten lava. “Where is Samuel but moldering in his grave?” She tore her veil and flung it from her in a burst of passion, stumbling to her feet and tearing at her hair with raging hands. “David?” she howled. “Solomon? John? Dead! All dead! I took them! You promised me this one!” She fell back to her knees, then collapsed on the floor with a croaking sob. “He was mine.”
Her voice was flung back echoing from the empty vault.
Somehow she managed to get her hands and knees beneath her. Somehow she crawled back to the mouth of the tomb and up the steps, pulling herself along one agonizing inch at a time with her scythe. Unbearably golden light slammed against her burning eyes. The whole east was aflame with it.
Death crawled from the tomb as a worm crawls from a flooded hole, and flopped down on the path utterly spent.
A soft shadow fell over her, and in the same moment the first stirrings of a gentle wind set the leaves to whispering around her.
“Greetings, Death,” said a quiet voice.
She scrambled to her knees, then pushed to her feet with the shaft of her weapon, sick with horror and trembling with fury in every limb. “Life,” she croaked. “What have you done?”
She felt his eyes even through the flickering white of his veil. Piercing. Calm, even in triumph.
She bared her teeth in a snarl and clenched her hands on her scythe until splinters stung in her torn palms. “How did you know?!” she screamed.
He said nothing. Only raised one hand and swept the misty veil back from his face.
It was a strong face. Strong and wise, with heavy brows and deep, keen eyes the color of amber.
She staggered back a step. Her scythe fell from her hands with a ringing clatter and shattered at her feet in a shower of splinters.
She knew that face. Those eyes had locked with hers only a short time ago between streams of blood.
And the scars of cruelly driven nails still bled in His hands.
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”