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death knell

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It’s a pleasant day. The sun shines bright, though he cannot feel its warmth. He glances out of the window, looking up at the cloudless blue sky.

He imagines it’s the kind of day that humans like. Balmy and peaceful, the promise of a new beginning. Winter has passed, and tiny buds are unfurling, new life sprouting from damp soil. The earth itself is awakening, laughter and birdsong chasing away the lingering chill.

No matter how much time passes, humans always look forward to spring. It has been this way for the past couple of millennia; it would stay this way for years to come.

Xiao wonders if he has ever looked forward to spring. He cannot remember. It has been too long, and his memory fails him sometimes.

Instead, he drifts through the doorway, coming to a stop in the middle of the room. A girl sleeps there, her hair sprawled across her pillow, hands folded on top of her stomach. Attached to her wrists are various cords and monitors, showing readings that he cannot comprehend.

A boy sits beside her. He resembles her, though he looks haggard, the circles beneath his eyes dark against his pale skin. He never takes his gaze off her, and Xiao wonders what he’s thinking – whether he still holds hope for the future, or if he has resigned himself to her fate.

It is a matter of time, he thinks. She has been this way for two months, and she shows no signs of waking up.

Xiao steps closer, and the boy jolts upright, looks over his shoulder, his golden eyes wide with panic. “Who’s there?” he calls, and Xiao remains silent, waiting, watching – a moment later, his shoulders relax and he turns back to the bed, his hand reaching out to touch the girl’s cheek.

“When will you wake up?” he murmurs, and in his voice, Xiao hears a world of anguish.

The boy’s name is Aether. Xiao has learnt that over the past few weeks he’s been visiting – he is a final-year university student, cheery and well-liked among his peers. His friends are many, but no matter where he goes, no matter what he does, there is one person constantly by his side.

His twin sister, Lumine. She lies asleep in bed, the only sign of life being the gentle rise and fall of her chest. A coma, the doctors have said – but Xiao knows the truth.

“Is there no way for me to go back?” He turns his head at the question, his gaze meeting honey gold. Lumine stands beside him, her expression wistful, and he exhales.

“Perhaps,” he answers, his voice gentle. He is used to dealing with those who have lost their way – he knows how to talk to them, how to reassure and cajole so that they do not forget their sense of self. “Nothing in this world is strictly impossible. But I cannot show you the way.”

She sighs, her arms folded behind her back, leaning in. There is longing in her eyes as she stares at her brother. “Do you know how I ended up like this? I can’t remember.”

“I know, but I cannot tell you.” It is an unwritten rule, put in place for good measure. Death is traumatic; making souls forget their passing is meant to protect them from such realities.

Souls who remembered always lingered. They became wandering spirits, playing a desperate game of make-believe. He thinks she deserves better than that.

“Tell me something else, then.” She hums, floating over to the open window. This way, she looks almost alive – the sunlight touches her blonde hair, and for a moment he thinks she looks like an angel. “You must have many stories to share. Tell me about the other horsemen.”

He pauses. “That’s a dreary story. One that does not suit such a lovely spring day.”

“I’d say that death doesn’t suit me either, so we’re even.” She clasps her hands, spins to face him, wheedles. “Please? I’m bored out of my mind, just waiting around like this.” She glances back at her brother, and pain flickers through her eyes. “Since I cannot tell Aether that I’m here…”

“You wish to be distracted instead?” he asks. She nods, and he hesitates. “You might regret listening to my tale, human. It is not one meant to entertain.”

“I think I will be able to handle it.” She smiles. A gentle breeze is blowing through the window, ruffling Aether’s hair – he sighs, reaches for his sister’s hand, presses it against his cheek. 

The Lumine in front of him tries not to pay attention to her brother, though he sees her falter all the same. Xiao nods. “Then make yourself comfortable, and I shall tell you.”

He first met her because of an accident. Two cars crushed and folded, a giant pile of metal twisted and fused. Blood on the pavement, the wail of an ambulance, people taking photos, pushing and jostling, some of them on the phone with the police.

And in the middle of it all, a girl lay motionless on the black tar, her hands stretching for the pavement. The boy she shoved out of the way was trembling, too frightened to even cry. In his hand, he clutched a toy truck, the culprit that had sparked this entire series of events.

Xiao knew she was going to die. Her fate was written in the stars – he, the final horseman, was responsible for guiding lost souls to the afterlife, and so he waited for the inevitable.

Everything went the way he expected, save for one crucial thing. Her soul wasn’t there. And as he searched for her, wondering where she could have gone, a thought crossed his mind – that perhaps she was still clinging to life, somehow. That perhaps her heart continued to beat.

So he went to the hospital. Waited as the surgeons worked on her, waited as her family arrived, frantic and fearful outside the operating theatre. Waited as a doctor came out and told them, voice solemn, that while they had managed to stabilise her condition she was still terribly injured, and there was no way to tell when she might wake up.

If she would ever wake up. And Xiao watched as Aether crumpled, disbelief and denial evident in his expression. Something almost like pity made him sigh, the faint echoes of emotion long forgotten. Once, he would have mourned with them, but he no longer knew how to grieve.

He continued to wait, and as he predicted Lumine eventually showed up, hovering beside her bed, staring at her sleeping body. She didn’t seem surprised when he approached her.

Are you Death? She sounded oddly calm, and even he was startled by the acceptance in her voice. Most souls he collected didn’t seem aware of what happened to them.

Yes. She looked back at herself, her hand reaching for her body’s – it passed right through the bandages, and she withdrew her hand, lifting it to her face. Underneath the fluorescent lights, she shimmered like a mirage. He could almost see the colour of the wall behind her.

Are you here to take me? More wistful than accusatory. He faltered.

Do you want me to? Her future was not for him to decide. He never took souls against their will – doing so left them troubled, left them grieving. And he had long grown tired of their anguish.

She would have to make her own choice. He was no more than a guide, a beacon to which the souls of the dead flocked. She looked at him, her golden eyes curious, and took a step closer. He did not back away, though he met her gaze, wondering about her intentions.

Then she bowed her head. Give me some time. I will move on when I am ready.

He nodded. Three months. I cannot give you any longer than that.

She smiled. Thank you. Together, they stayed in the room, watching over her slumbering body. Neither of them spoke, but he found the silence strangely peaceful.

“How did you end up becoming Death?” she asks, curled up beside the window. She likes the sun, he realises – likes to bask in the sunshine, though its warmth does not reach her.

It suits her. When the sunlight touches her face she looks so alive, more so than the comatose girl lying in bed. Aether visits her almost every day, and whenever she sees him something flits through her eyes, a flash of emotion that she always suppresses far too readily.

Xiao thinks a part of her is still in denial, even if she does not wish to admit it. But he gives that to her, sitting next to her on the window seat, leaning his head against the cool glass.

“It happened a long time ago,” he says. “When the earth was new and civilisations had yet to rise. People were nomads then. We were quick to move, quick to hunt, quick to die.”

She rests her cheek on her knee, her legs drawn up to her chest. “So there was another Death before you?”

He tilts his head, thinks. Tries to remember his past, though the centuries have long blurred into vast, empty swathes of time, an existence that holds no other meaning.

It surprises him sometimes, that he still knows his name. “I believe so. But Death back then was a cruel master. He took and he took and he took until we had nothing left to give.”

She’s silent for a while, her finger tracing circles over her shin. He does not try to continue the conversation – that is something humans do, and he is far from human.

“Do you get along with the other horsemen?” she asks, changing the topic.

“The others?” He thinks about their faces – War, Famine and Pestilence. The Four Horsemen of legend, though humanity has made them out to be far more fearsome than they truly are. “The four of us are colleagues working towards a common goal. I’m not sure about…getting along.”

“Are you friends?” she presses, unsatisfied with his response. He has to turn her question over in his mind, a futile attempt at understanding the concept of friendship. It’s such a human ideal; even after she exhales and turns towards the window, he has no answer to give her.

“My brother and I. We love each other,” she says. “We care for each other. When I see him like this, grieving for me…it makes me wonder if clinging to this half-existence hurts him more than it does me.” Her fingers glide over the window, and he watches as she draws a flower over the glass. The sunlight shines through her, filtering gently onto the window seat. “Am I selfish?”

“It’s human to be selfish,” he answers. “A human without selfishness is like life without death. An unnatural existence.” He links his fingers together, places both hands on his lap.

“Why do you wear gloves?” She nods at his hands, and he blinks down at them, momentarily confused – then he recognises the smooth black that coats his skin and remembers that once upon a time, his hands looked just like hers. “I’ve never seen you without them.”

“I am Death,” he says, voice quiet. “If I touch you without these gloves, I will bring you with me to the afterlife, whether you wish for it or not.”

“Ah.” She doesn’t recoil the way he expects her to, though she does shoot him a look, one he isn’t quite sure how to read. It has been too long since he’s last had to interact with a human. Then suddenly, she smiles, and it reminds him of the moon – beautiful and radiant, but lonely among the stars scattered in the night sky. “We’ll just have to be careful, I suppose.”

He nods, and together they stare at her body, neither of them saying a word. He doesn’t keep track of time, though he notices her tapping her foot, counting the seconds as they pass. She is restless, he knows – the days are slipping by, and soon her three months will be up.

“How much time do I have left?” she suddenly asks, as though she could sense what he was thinking.

He knows she cannot, but that does not stop him from wondering – after spending this much time accompanying her, he has realised that she is not quite like other humans he’s met. “You have three more weeks,” he says. “You must choose by then.”

She sighs. “Three weeks,” she murmurs. “To a university student, three weeks isn’t a long time. But now, when I’m like this…” she gestures at herself, her lips curving into a smile that borders on bitter, “three weeks might even be too long.”

“You don’t need to take those three weeks if you don’t want to,” he answers, practical. “If you have made up your mind, you can let me know. And I will do what is necessary.”

“I’m too greedy to turn down what you’ve granted me.” She shakes her head. “Xiao.”

He startles at the sound of his name, unused to hearing it said by anyone besides himself. His colleagues usually referred to him by his title, Death – none of them cared for their names, their identities having long bled into the positions they held.

But it feels nice to hear her call him that. Perhaps this is what differentiates her from him. She is still bright, still filled with hopes and dreams and possibilities, while he barely remembers. He’s a ghost of the past left on the mortal plane to guide other ghosts, an endless cycle from which he cannot escape.

He hopes to break free someday. To retire and seek eternal rest. But he knows he cannot – the reason eludes him, but he remembers this is his punishment. He is atoning for a crime that he once committed, though even this crossroads in his life has long been lost to the sands of time.

“Yes?” She is watching him, and for some reason, it makes him uncomfortable. He is unused to being studied so intently by anyone, much less a mortal.

“What happens when we move on to the afterlife?” she asks. For once, he hears a trace of fear in her voice, and something within him itches to reach forward, to pat her head and tell her there is nothing to be afraid of.

Instead, he quells the urge, clears his throat, tries to seek comfort in familiarity. Too many have asked him this exact question, and the answer lies waiting on the tip of his tongue.

But he falters. He finds he cannot give her the story he has given to so many others. She would not appreciate lies, no matter how pretty they are. And he refuses to deceive her. “Nothing.”

“What do you mean?” Her eyes widen, and he can see how tense she is, her fingers gripping her forearms. She is still curled up, her chin on her knees, and for a moment, she looks young. Like a child, afraid of ghost stories, afraid of the monster waiting under the bed.

He realises that in this case, he’s the monster she’s so afraid of, and it makes him uneasy. “You disappear. There is no afterlife, at least not the kind most people envision.”

She stays silent, and he can sense her waiting for him to continue, so he does. “Your soul will scatter back into stardust and dreams, and eventually you will return in the form of someone, something. But I don’t know when. It’s all dependent on the will of the universe.” He exhales, then smiles, bitter. “Does that scare you? The fact that the afterlife doesn’t exist?”

“I won’t say it doesn’t,” she murmurs, glancing away from him. Her voice is soft, wondering. “I don’t like to lie. But…” She pauses, picking at the sleeve of her hospital gown. “I’m happy you told me the truth, Xiao. Even if it frightens me a little.”

He nods. “I hope this helps you make your decision when the time comes.”

“It might.” She hums, stretches, rolls her shoulders. “You’d think being a wandering soul means that I won’t feel stiff anymore, but evidently not.”

“You’re still human, at the end of the day,” he reasons. “Corporeal or not, that doesn’t change.”

“And to be human is to suffer?” she asks, raising an eyebrow. She rises from the window seat, and he follows, drawn to her every movement. Two months, he thinks – two months, and he’s already attuned to all her little quirks, to everything she does.

Then again, she was the first human who did not shun him. Who even welcomed his company. Who else could he possibly turn to, if not her?

“What’s your name?”

It was the first time anyone ever asked him that. He paused, tried to dig deep into the recesses of his mind, the memory elusive. “Xiao,” he said, the word coming out slow, uncertain.

He had almost forgotten his own name, and he was unsure how to feel about that. A name was a precious thing – most people would not forget such a crucial part of their identities, but he was not…a person. He was a mere entity, a physical manifestation of a metaphysical concept.

“And you’re the Grim Reaper?”

She asked too many questions, he thought. She was too bright, too lively, too unlike him. But even so, there was something enchanting about her utter lack of fear. It had been a while since anyone approached him with such reckless abandon.

“The Grim Reaper is a fairytale made up to frighten men,” he answered. “But it is not wrong to call me that. I’m…” He contemplated, turning his response over in his mind. Their gazes met, amber clashing with honey; there was no hint of uncertainty in her eyes. “Have you heard of the Four Horsemen?”

“Ah. So you’re that Death.” She pursed her lips, turning away from her sleeping body, properly facing him now. “I always imagined Death to be more…well, frightening.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Are you not afraid of me?”

Most people would be, regardless of appearance. The notion of death in itself was enough to make grown men cry. Too many had begged him to leave them alone, had begged for another chance or asked if he could take someone else in their place.

But this girl, this fragile human who had pushed a child out of harm’s way, who had let herself be crushed between two cars to protect someone more vulnerable than her – she gazed upon him with no semblance of fear, and for once, he was shaken.

“Why should I be? I’ve done nothing wrong.” She laughed, and he thought she looked lovely for a wandering soul – few of them ever looked so full of life, the way she did. “And you said you’d give me three months, didn’t you? To get my affairs in order.”

“Not necessarily for that purpose, but yes, three months.” He glanced at her motionless body, at the monitors that beeped quietly in the background, reading her vitals. “Your body clings to life. So long as your mortal shell does not expire, there is always a chance…”

“That I can come back?” she interrupted, eyes bright with excitement. He nodded.

“But every soul has its own way of returning,” he cautioned. “It’s not as simple as climbing back into your body. The path to life is something you will have to discover on your own.”

“You won’t give me any clues, I suppose,” she hummed, dragging a foot against the floor. Her translucent slipper made no sound against the cheap vinyl. “But will you stay with me?”

He blinked. “You wish for me to stay with you?” he echoed, just to be sure.

She nodded. “Is that so strange? You’re the only one who can see me, after all.” She sighed. “I tried, you know. Going after my family when they visited. But I can’t go far.” She waved a hand at her body. “It’s tiring being alone all day. Some company would be nice.”

“I do not make for very good company.” And he didn’t exactly have the freedom to dally about with a human, but her invitation had stoked some long-forgotten flame within his chest. Part of him yearned to say yes, to bask in the gentle warmth of someone else’s presence.

It had been a long time since he last held a conversation with another person, living or not.

“I think you’re doing perfectly well,” she said. “I’ve seen far worse.”

He hesitated. Studied the gentle curve of her mouth, the clasp of her hands before her, casual supplication. The way her eyes seemed to glow in the sun. “Very well. For these three months, you will have my company. I pray you do not come to regret it.”

“Oh, I will not.” She smiled, and he felt inclined to believe her.

He wonders if Aether can sense his presence. He seems more attuned to the supernatural than most – once or twice, he sees him glancing over his shoulder, honey eyes filled with suspicion, his hands subtly joining in prayer.

That does nothing to keep him away. Death does not listen to the will of God. He is present and eternal, the conductor of life’s final symphony – once the curtain falls he rules absolute. Mortals fear him, the quiet spectre that symbolises the universe’s vast unknowns.

Xiao is used to loneliness. It has been this way for millennia, and that will not change.

“Do you think he’ll ever give up on me?” she asks, staring at Aether. There’s a wistfulness in her eyes, and he shrugs, slants his gaze away from the bed.

“From my experience, maybe. Or maybe not. It’s difficult to say.” He looks out of the window – the sky is overcast today, and he can see the leaves rustling on the trees outside.

The wind is cold, harsh, and it brings with it the scent of rain. It lingers on him, and that does not escape her notice. She glances at him, sniffs then turns back to look at her brother. “You know, sometimes you seem so real.” A pause. “Almost as though you’re…human.”

“But I am not.” Maybe he was, once upon a time, but that was long past. Xiao isn’t sure if he wants to be human, anyway. People were so fragile. Broken bits of glass scattered across an unforgiving landscape; pushed and pulled by the whims of forces far beyond their control.

Though he does find them particularly resilient. It intrigues him, the way they try to mould reality to suit their needs. Ingenuity and progression, traits that mark a clear distinction between what is human and what is not.

“Hey, tell me again. About the other horsemen.” She asks this of him at least once a week, and he always indulges her.

The first time he spoke of the others, he was hesitant, wondering why she would wish to hear a tale so grim – was she not afraid of them? The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, heralds who sought to bring forth the Last Judgement. They were divine punishment, harsh and unforgiving in the face of sin; though most days they slumbered, their wills remained eternal.

But she shook her head and laughed. I am already dead. What do I have to be afraid of?

“There are three others,” he says. “War is much like his name. Impulsive and rash, constantly seeking battle. In less forgiving times, one might see him riding across the bloodsoaked land, hand in hand with Death, trampling across the ravaged corpses of the fallen.”

“He must be bored, then. We don’t have many wars now,” she answers, and he does not reply. It’s not in his place to speak for his fellow horseman – besides, War has been asleep for a long, long time. Sometimes, Xiao wonders if he would ever wake up.

Instead, he moves on to the others. “Famine is intelligent. Cunning. She rides with Pestilence, and they two usually work hand in hand, spreading decay wherever they tread.” He sighs. “And more often than not, I accompany them, picking up the souls they so carelessly abandon…”

“You sound like you hold a grudge against your colleagues,” she remarks, and he cocks his head. She’s smiling, looking far too pleased with herself; it makes his chest feel…strange.

“I bear no grudges,” he answers. “They do what they must. It just so happens that Death, the final horseman, holds dominion over all. In the end, no one can escape mortality.” He quietens, studying her face, noticing the little crease in her brow. “Do you dislike me?”

Even if she does, it’s impossible to blame her. He was the one who cut short her life, after all.

“No,” she says, and he blinks. “You’re…doing your job.” She exhales, folds her arms across her chest, looks once more at her brother. “I just feel a little sad. I wish I had more time.”

She moves in front of the window. The cloudy sky turns the light grey – it shines through her, and she wavers, an illusion just barely holding itself together. For a moment, he’s afraid she might disappear.

“Time,” he echoes. “We all wish we had more time. Even us.”

“But you’re immortal,” she answers. He can hear her confusion. “You have time. Perhaps even too much,” she adds, a lilting tease in her voice.

His gaze meets hers. Dips down to her brilliant grin, to the hospital gown she is clad in, muted beige a few shades darker than her skin. The blonde hair haloing her face like sunshine. He thinks about her hand, reaching for her brother’s shoulder. The resignation when it passes right through him, though she always recovers, shuttering her disappointment behind a ready smile.

“I may be immortal,” he says. “But you are not.”

“Can you bring me elsewhere? I’m sick of staying in this room.”

He looked up from where he was playing with an hourglass, the dark sand within trickling bit by bit into the chamber below. She did not know what the hourglass signified, nor did he intend to tell her. “Where do you wish to go?”

“There’s an animal shelter I used to volunteer at. I miss the animals I looked after. And I’m sure they miss me too.” She hesitated. “I want to see them one last time. My final goodbye.”

“You seem convinced that you won’t be able to return to your body,” he said, waving his hand. The hourglass vanished. “Just last week you were overflowing with optimism.”

“I’m getting tired,” she stated, and he paused, studying her. She was running her fingers across the windowsill, her hand hovering over painted wood. He wanted to believe that her increasing translucence was a trick of the light, but he knew better.

The longer a soul stayed away from its body, trapped in the boundary between life and death, the more they faded. That was why he only gave her three months – not because he was hard of heart, but simply because it would be impossible to hold on any longer than that.

A soul that overstayed its welcome would become a wandering spirit. Ghosts who slowly lost their sense of self, their memories eroding with regret. And Lumine, bright and tender, did not deserve to disappear that way, crushed beneath the weight of her existence.

“I can take you there.” He could grant her such mercies, but they always came with a price. “I must warn you, however, that doing so will weaken your connection to your body. It would be harder to return if you still have your heart set on that. Do you wish to continue?”

She hesitated. He could sense her thinking, and for a while, neither of them spoke. She drifted away from the window, and when she passed by her sleeping brother he mumbled her name, his hand tightening around hers.

Xiao saw heartbreak in her eyes, but she didn’t stop and reach for him, the way she might have a week ago. Instead, she cleared her throat and spun back to face him, expression resolute.

“Show me the way,” she said. “I’m ready.”

He rose from the chair, gliding towards her. His gloved hands wrapped around her wrists, and she looked up at him, something shifting in her gaze. “Come with me,” he said. “Don’t let go until we reach the shelter.”

Together, they left the hospital, and he led her to the shelter she spoke of. He did not need any directions – he knew her life like he did the back of his hand. Every joy and regret and sorrow, every hope, every dream, every detail significant enough for her to remember.

And everything she wished to forget, too.

Most of the journey was spent in silence. He watched from outside the shelter, staring through the window as she moved down the aisles, waving at the animals she once looked after. He didn’t want to go in – cats and dogs could sense his presence, even if they were unable to see him, and he’d rather not frighten them.

Usually, animals would shun spirits as well, but it seemed like they were familiar with Lumine; all of them were well-behaved, approaching her when she lingered near their enclosures, their heads bowed almost as though in sorrow.

Perhaps they did grieve for her. Animals were often more empathetic than humans, though he kept that thought to himself as she finally left the shelter, her lips curved into a radiant smile.

“Are you happy?” he asked. “Was this trip worth potentially sacrificing your chance to return? To cheat death?” He turned his head and saw her staring straight ahead, contemplative. “It is not often that one is granted this opportunity. A chance to linger. To reconsider their choices.”

She did not answer immediately. But when she did, she met his gaze, expression determined, unflinching. “If I am meant to stay, then I’m sure it will come to pass. There is no point fretting over my decisions. Not anymore.” She sighed. “I’m not afraid of death, Xiao. I am not…afraid of you.”

“Then you’re a rare soul,” he said, completely earnest. She laughed, and her hand sought his, wrapping around the smooth leather that protected her from his touch. She was freezing, but he didn’t mind, letting his fingers tighten around hers.

Something fluttered in his chest. He dared not acknowledge it, so he let the feeling pass, ignored.

He studies the hourglass, watching the remaining grains of sand cling to the curved surface, a reminder of how stubborn mere mortals could be.

“That shows how much time I have left, right?” she asks, sitting beside him, her hands folded in her lap. They make sure to maintain some distance between them – he’d rather not risk her disappearing before her promised time is up – but she leans in as close as she can, curious.

“Yes,” he says. “You have two more days. Today and tomorrow.” He closes his fingers around the hourglass, hesitates. “Are you going to try again?”

“Nothing works.” She shrugs, rising gracefully from the floor; her hospital gown flutters around her knees. “You saw what I was doing earlier. I don’t really know what else I can try.”

He remembers. He had drifted into her room to see her lying on top of her body, gaze fixed on the ceiling, just breathing. If not for the gentle shimmer of her skin, he might have even missed her. “That’s not how souls usually return to their bodies.”

She stares at him, unblinking. “Then how should I go about it?”

“You know I cannot tell you.” He sees her bottom lip quiver, and he softens, reaches towards her. His hand slides through her hair, and she closes her eyes. “I may indulge you more than I do others, but I will not contradict the laws we’ve been given.”

“I’m only now getting used to being a soul.” She gestures at herself, settling into the chair her brother normally occupies. “When I first woke up, it was difficult, trying not to sink through the floor. It’s difficult not…being tangible.” Her voice quietens, and she shakes her head.

“But you are not meant to be a soul,” he answers. “No one stays this way forever. You’re in an unnatural state of in-between; it’ll tear you apart if you remain like this.” He crouches, meeting her gaze, their faces now on the same level. “You have to decide.”

“I’m scared,” she admits. “I want to stay here. With my friends and family. And with…with you too, if I could.” She draws her knees up to her chin, wrapping her arms around herself. “You’ve been so kind to me these past few weeks. I know you didn’t have to be. So thank you, Xiao.”

“It was nothing,” he says. He does not think much of his actions – there is no precedent to follow, so at the end of the day, what he has done is nothing out of the ordinary.

She shakes her head again, her expression mournful. “It was much more than nothing. If you hadn’t been around, I don’t know what I would have done.”

He twirls a lock of her hair around his fingers. Wonders how it might feel against his skin. “I am Death, the fourth horseman. I guide the souls of the deceased to where they need to be. When you died, I came to pass judgement, and I will continue to stay until you have moved on.”

“Do you do this for everyone?” she asks. “Or is it just me?”

The answer doesn’t come immediately. He takes his time, deliberates over what to say. Even now, he is not accustomed to her straightforwardness. “You are the only one who ever asked me to stay with them.”

“Oh.” She blinks. “That’s a surprise. You’re peaceful, Xiao.” She exhales, a faint smile curving her lips as she tips her head back, staring at the ceiling. “I like having you around.”

“You are a strange human.” He lets go of her hair, approaches the bed, examines her body. She breathes, but only barely, and he knows that if not for the modern machinery the doctors have hooked her up with, she would not be alive right now.

“You must make a decision.” He glances over his shoulder at her. She looks almost pitiful, like a lost child missing her parents, eyes wide and anxious. “Death will not wait much longer.”

She reaches out, tugs on his sleeve, the gesture timid. A far cry from her usual boldness. For a moment, something flashes through his mind – a memory from a long, long time ago. The tiny hand of a child wrapped around his, her eyes alight with fear.

He blinks, and the moment passes. “Will you be there with me?” she asks. “Will you leave me once I make my choice?”

Her voice wavers. He hesitates, then reaches up, brushing her bangs away from her forehead. She relaxes into his touch, and something within him aches. It makes him uncomfortable.

“I will stay with you,” he promises. “No matter what decision you make, I will stay.”

“Good.” She closes her eyes. “Thank you, Xiao,” she says again. “Thank you for everything.”

He nods, his gaze flitting over her, taking in the serene smile on her face. He wonders how Aether would respond if he knew. Wonders if he’d take her passing as well as she takes her own.

“Do you have any regrets?” he asks. Most people had regrets, and he always tried to fulfil their last wishes if he could. It’s his final act of kindness, a tiny miracle only he was able to grant.

She opens her eyes, and for a second he imagines this must be what drowning feels like. “Not anymore. But I wish I knew more about you.”

“There is nothing to know,” he says. “Even I barely remember anything about myself.”

“I don’t think that’s true,” she whispers, but she says nothing more, and for the rest of the night they stay with each other, gazing out of the window at the stars dotting the dark sky.

There are consequences for cheating Death, Xiao. You must have known when you first started on this foolhardy journey. All this pain, all this effort – and what for?

He knew. He’d seen for himself the phantasm of Death riding his pale horse, prowling through the shadows, striking fear into the hearts of men. He knew, and yet he stood defiant, his hand gripping the little girl’s, their fingers intertwined.

In her touch he found comfort. Despite the terrible voice booming all around them, he did not back down, tilting his chin and meeting the hollow eyes of the apparition. The horse reared, its legs reaching up towards the heavens – when it slammed back down, the earth itself trembled, and he twisted to shield the child, protecting her from the resulting shockwave.

He was tired. Tired of watching his kinsmen die helplessly around him; tired of living in fear of a master who cared little for human sacrifice. The Four Horsemen wielded absolute control, but this did not deter him – he had seen far worse than the promise of eternity, and when he spoke his voice did not waver. “Bring her back,” he said. “She was taken before her time.”

You dare to make demands of me, mortal? Death laughed, a low rumble that reverberated in his very bones. He winced, resisting the urge to clap his hands over his ears. How bold of you.

“I will not watch her die!” he shouted. “You’ve taken our families. Our children, our parents, our desire to live. But I will not give her up.” He glanced at the child, and the quiet soul stared back at him, violet eyes trusting. “I will not give up my sister to you.”

Very well. I will make you a deal. You wish for her return, yes?

He nodded. There was no price too steep to pay – his sister never deserved to die, caught in a skirmish she had no stake in. I will bring her back, in exchange for one simple condition.

“What do you want?” he asked. The horse snorted, mist curling from its nostrils, and he looked away from its blazing red eyes, burning like coals in the darkness.

Take my place as Death. With hope, even the impossible can be achieved, but there is a price to pay. Death is greedy. Promise your eternal servitude, and your wish will come to pass.

He hesitated, but only for a second. “Fine. I agree. I’ll take your place as Death.”

Death laughed again, and he flinched, stumbling back as the sound pierced through his mind – the hollow rattle seemed to be both everywhere and nowhere at once. Then we have a deal.

He could feel himself being pulled in, sucked towards Death, who spread its arms, gleaming white bones unfurling to embrace him. His sister screamed, and he was falling, falling

Xiao opened his eyes, his gaze fixed on the opposite wall. Lumine was sitting beside him, leaning against his shoulder, and with a sigh, he squeezed her hand.

“It is time,” he said. She raised her head, meeting his gaze. There was no fear in her eyes.

“Were you asleep?” she asked. Her hair spilt over his shirt, and he wondered if she knew how close she’d come to being forced into the afterlife.

Why was she always so careless? He had warned her so many times before – that if she ever touched his bare skin…

“I do not sleep,” he answered. “But sometimes, my mind brings back the past. Memories from so long ago that they feel more like dreams.”

“Do you want to tell me?” she said. “What you were thinking about, I mean.”

For once, he had to force a smile. “It was nothing. Just something mundane. You wouldn’t be interested in hearing about it.”

She looked at him, and for a second he wondered if she was Death instead, with her searching gaze, so intense – almost as though she knew he was lying. “I’ve made up my mind.”

“What do you want to do?” He glanced at the bed, at her slumbering body. Aether was sitting beside her, working quietly on his assignments. A pair of headphones was jammed over his ears, though sometimes he turned, stared at their corner as though he knew they were there.

She paused, following his gaze, and for a moment both of them watched Aether – watched as he twirled his pen between his fingers, his knee bouncing agitatedly beneath the table. “I love my brother,” she murmured. “And I know the sooner I leave…the sooner he can start to heal.”

Xiao nodded. “Then I will be your guide to the afterlife.”

“How do you normally do this?” she asked, toying with the hem of her gown.

He hooked a finger underneath his glove, peeling it off his hand. “Through touch,” he told her, trying not to flinch at the sensation of cool air against his skin. He so rarely took his gloves off. “Do you have any final requests? This is your last chance to tell me, if so.”

She began shaking her head, then paused, staring him in the eye. “I want just one thing,” she said, and before he could ask what it was, she leant forward, pressing her lips against his.

He had no idea how to respond. She was so soft, and she tasted almost sweet – like sunshine itself made liquid, spilling into his mouth. Her hand reached up, touching his face, and when she pulled back, she smiled, her eyes strangely shiny. “In another world, I would have wanted to be your friend,” she whispered. “Maybe more, if you allowed it.”

“Lumine,” he said, his chest twisting. His fingers reached for her cheek, hesitant, and when he felt her soft skin against his, he trembled. She was cool to the touch, but still solid, still present, and something within him seemed to shatter – he kissed her again, and she sighed into him, a faint shadow of the life that could have been.

She pulled back, meeting his gaze. Her smile shook. “I’ll see you on the other side,” she told him, and he tried to reach for her. His hand slipped through her translucent arm, and he knew then that there was no coming back. “Goodbye, Xiao. Thank you for these three months.”

And then she was gone, and he withdrew, letting his hand fall onto his lap. He thought about the look in her eyes when she bade him farewell, and he bowed his head.

“The other side,” he echoed. “A place even I cannot reach.” Only souls could roam that plane of existence – he was still too tangible, too dependent on human belief to follow her.

In the background, the monitors beeped, and Aether jerked up, calling for the nurse, his voice climbing in panic. Xiao stayed there, watching the flurry of activity as the doctor came, as he determined the time of passing, as Aether watched over his sister, grief etched onto his face.

Eventually, he rose to his feet. Lumine was gone. So, too, was it time for him to leave.

He longs for a day to come when he can cast off these gloves and rest – searching not for the lingering dead but rather that one newborn star, shining bright amidst the darkness.