How we think the fight will go
Nothing in it was grotty, exactly. But there was nothing new either. The couch, the coffee table, the shelves, the art on the walls. They all showed marks of use and care.
There were books in abundance, overfilling the shelves, stacked atop each other and tucked in at inappropriate angles. Albums were scattered around, near the record player and elsewhere. There were plants on the windowsills and the shelves vying with everything else for space.
There didn’t seem to be any particular theme to the decoration, except the usual one. Which is to say that that everything there belonged because it pleased the person who lived there. There was a framed Mary Poppins poster on the wall, action figures on the shelves, and a grandfather clock ticking softly in the corner. A glass jar half full of pennies sat atop an old television with dust on the dials.
It would be fair to call it cluttered. Or you could be generous and call it cozy. If you were in a different sort of mood you could make an argument for it being a bloody mess.
Perhaps the best thing to say about the apartment was that it was thoroughly lived in. That was the best way to put it. It looked eminently and enthusiastically lived in.
The doorbell rang, and a young woman came out of the kitchen. She had dark hair in a wild pixie style. She had a pale and impish face. She wore a black tank top with ragged jeans, and a silver ankh on a leather cord. Her name was Death, and this was her home.
Before answering the door, Death went to the record player where the Ramones were playing:
I heard about the Easter bunny
Presents under a Christmas tree
It was dreaming and fantasy
There was no—
She lifted the needle off the record without a stutter or the slightest hint of a scratch, then switched the turntable off.
Opening the door revealed a woman wearing a severe black dress of the sort you might expect a Victorian schoolteacher to wear. She had wild white hair with a streak of black running through it, and carried a fireplace poker casually in one hand.
Death smiled at her warmly, holding out her arms as if hoping for a hug. “Susan! Come in! I was hoping it would be you! I know it’s hardly ideal circumstances, but I’ve been wanting to meet you for…”
She trailed off when she saw the other woman in the hallway. The second woman was shorter than Susan, slighter, with long dark hair and slightly unsettling eyes that were all of a single colour, a dark twilight purple. She was also, to put it plainly, stark naked, and seemed utterly unconcerned about the fact.
Death looked back and forth between Susan and Felurian, her expression moving from confused to curious. “I’m sorry,” she said at last. “Come in, both of you. I’m guessing we should talk.”
* * *
Felurian sat on the sofa, as comfortable as a cat. Susan leaned her fireplace poker against the wall and sat in an overstuffed armchair, trying to look unalarmed at how deeply she sank into the upholstery.
“Can I bring you some cocoa?” Death asked Susan.
“That would be lovely.”
Death turned to Felurian then, “And would you like… anything?”
Felurian smiled at her. “I also would enjoy cocoa.”
“Cocoa all around then,” Death said, heading into the kitchen.
Felurian picked up a teddy bear from where it sat next to her on the couch and held it up to look it in the eye.
“His name is Cavendish,” Death’s voice came from the other room.
“hello cavendish,” Felurian said politely to the bear. Then, when no reply was forthcoming, she settled him in her lap and put her arms around him in a casual way.
It was barely a minute before Death came back with mugs for all of them. Felurian got a mug with a red cartoon heart. Susan’s had a Smurf. Death’s mug had “Tuesday” printed on it in bold black letters for no apparent reason.
“Not that I don’t appreciate the social call,” Death said as she settled into a rocking chair. “But aren’t you two supposed to have… y’know?” She waggled her fingers vaguely.
“Dueled to the death?” Susan said dryly. “Yes. I think we were supposed to. Both literally and figuratively.”
Felurian laughed at that, high and delighted. It was a pleasant sound that was almost, but not quite human. “we were supposed to fight each other for their amusement,” she said. “I do not care for that.” Holding her mug in both hands, Felurian took a sip of her cocoa then licked her lips and smiled. “I care about my own amusement.”
“Yes, well, I’m certain we all care about our own amusement,” Susan said with a bit of an edge in her voice.
“no,” Felurian said. “you do not. you care much for what is proper.” Her eyes turned to Death. “and you have great care for your duty.” She sipped her cocoa again and looked back and forth between them. “I have thought on this some time, and I believe I have found a way that all of us can have what we desire.”
Death’s eyes narrowed a bit at this. “Desire is not the wisest way of things in my experience.”
Felurian cocked her head for a moment, then smiled again. “ah. of course. rest assured that I am none of your sister’s. I am entirely my own. I cannot bear controlment.”
“Even so,” Susan said. “Is this allowed? Are we even supposed to be discussing this?”
Felurian laughed again. “show me rules,” she said, gesturing with one hand to the empty air around her. “and if you can, then show me any reason I should follow them.”
Susan opened her mouth, but before she could say anything, there was the sudden sound of thundering hoofbeats. A blur of motion all in black and white. A crashing noise.
Death’s rocking chair was knocked askew and she was spun halfway around, the contents of her mug spraying in an arc while she clutched the chair.
Susan tried to spring to her feet, but the deep cushions of the recliner foiled her, and she flailed helplessly for second, trying to free herself.
In half a heartbeat Felurian stood on the couch. One arm was still wrapped around Cavendish, but her body was straight and tense and angry. One hand was raised threateningly and the expression on her face was terrible. She was drawing in a breath and all around her was the dead and heavy silence that fills the air just before a thunderclap.
But before Felurian could finish drawing breath, Susan’s voice cracked out angrily: “Grandfather!”
There was a pale horse standing there, and riding it was a black robed figure carrying a scythe. It was a big horse. In a metaphysical sense, it was enormous, enough to carry multitudes.
But it was big in a regular-physical sense too. Any sort of horse is a large animal. And this was, as has been previously mentioned, a small flat. The horse was wedged rather tightly into the corner by the door near the bookshelf. Its left rear hoof was trampling a potted fern, and it looked rather embarrassed about the fact.
The figure atop the horse was sizable as well, seven feet tall and wearing a billowing black robe. A skeletal hand gripped the handle of the scythe, and the skull staring out from the depths of a voluminous hood had pinpricks of blue light instead of eyes, shining like cold and distant stars. The figure was known by many names: The Grim Reaper, Mort, The Pale Rider, The Angel of Death…
“Grandfather!” Susan repeated, furious. Finally managing to pull herself free from the recliner, she stormed over to where he stood and glared angrily up at him. “What are you doing here?”
“AH…” he said, looking as sheepish as it is possible for a seven-foot-tall skeleton to do. “WELL, YOU SEE, I’D HEARD…” He cleared his throat nervously, the sound like a lead brick being dropped onto a tombstone. “THERE WAS A RUMOR YOU MIGHT BE IN A BIT OF TROUBLE.”
The skull swiveled around, scanning the room and noting the lack of anything even remotely resembling carnage. “AM I LATE?”
From her rocking chair, Death gave a little laugh, then closed her mouth when Susan glared at her. “Sorry,” she said. “I thought he was telling a joke. You know: Late.”
Susan turned back to the black-robed figure. “So you thought the best thing to do would be to ride in and save the day?”
Susan glared up at him for a moment longer, then let out a long sigh. “I’m fine.”
“DO YOU NEED ANYTHING?” the figure said. “I COULD SPARE THE SWORD FOR A BIT…”
In the pale skull two tiny pinpricks of blue fire moved back and forth between Felurian and the still-seated Death. “I COULD HAVE A WORD WITH HER IF YOU LIKE.” He said. “AS, YOU KNOW… ONE COLLEAGUE TO ANOTHER. WE’RE ACTUALLY SLIGHTLY RELATED…”
“I’m. Fine.” Susan bit the words off sharply. “Everything is fine. We’re just talking.”
The blue pinpricks of light in the skull dimmed a little. “YOU COULD VISIT YOU KNOW,” he said in a quieter voice that could probably still be heard a hundred feet away behind a solid steel door. It was a voice that despite its deep, sepulchral nature, still somehow managed to sound slightly petulant.
Susan softened a bit. “I will. I promise. Just… now isn’t a good time. Okay?”
The hooded skull nodded, the slump of the shoulders managing to convey a profoundly hangdog expression. One bony hand tugged on the reigns while the horse tried unsuccessfully to remove its hoof from the fern without causing any more damage.
After an awkward minute, the horse was free and angled as much toward the door as the narrow confines would allow. The hooded skull turned to the woman who sat grinning in the rocking chair. “I’M TERRIBLY SORRY FOR THE INCONVENIENCE.”
“Don’t worry about it,” she said easily.
“I’M NORMALLY MUCH MORE PROFESSIONAL THAN THIS.”
“IT’S JUST. YOU KNOW.” The black robed figure made an inarticulate gesture with one bony hand. “IT’S A FAMILY THING. IT GETS… COMPLICATED.”
Death rolled her eyes sympathetically. “Oh, believe me. I know.”
“IS THAT COCOA?”
“Go!” Susan shouted.
With a flicker and the swish of a white tail, He was gone.
Death moved her chair back into place. Felurian settled down onto the couch, returning Cavendish to his previous place on her lap.
Susan turned and went back to the other side of the coffee table. She picked up her cocoa and sat down. She took several deep breaths before she could relax. “He means well.”
“I’m sure he does,” Death said kindly.
“His heart is in the right place,” Susan said. “Or, you know, it would be if he had one. But whenever he gets involved, there’s all this rushing around and swords and fate and… mess.”
Felurian nodded. “that is their way. fight and strife. conflict.”
Susan continued as if she hadn’t even heard. “It’s just that he doesn’t quite understand how the world really works.”
“It’s a hard thing to keep up on,” Death said, understanding plain in her voice. “I have to take a refresher every hundred years or so….”
Susan took a sip of cocoa, took another deep breath and blew it out. Then she looked at Felurian. “So,” she said. “Tell me about this plan of yours.”
* * *
The world intruded on their plans for a bit, as is always the case. They cleaned up the spilled cocoa and did their best to salvage the trampled fern. There was the offer of more cocoa, and Death put the kettle back on before showing them where the bathroom was. Felurian found it fascinating, and flushed the toilet a dozen times before she was lured back to the living room by the crinkling of a package of Oreos Death brought out to share.
“So,” Susan said. “Do tell. I’m terribly curious.”
“It is simple enough,” Felurian said, holding Cavendish loosely in her lap again. “We are the final three remaining, but there is no earnest rivalry between us. No need for violence. Let us decide among ourselves who is the victor.”
“So.. what?” Susan asked, “We draw straws?”
“I have a copy of Twister in the cupboard,” Death said.
“I believe I would enjoy the playing of Twister,” Felurian said, her soft voice low in her throat. She smiled a slow and wicked smile.
Susan narrowed her eyes at Death. “Don’t give her an excuse.”
Felurian sighed and picked up an Oreo delicately with two fingers. “there is no reason why we cannot decide this ourselves. a simple discussion. that way, not only do we avoid any undue harm to ourselves, but we ensure the proper person wins, and it is not left to the fickle twists of luck or vagaries of fate.”
“So it’s her, of course,” Susan said, gesturing at Death. “She’s obviously the strongest of us.”
Felurian’s expression was curiously blank. “what matters strength in all of this?”
Susan shook her head, plainly irritated. “Don’t get all Taoist on me. I had quite enough of that in the last book.” She tried to draw a calming breath, but it came out as an angry sigh instead. “Why did you even bring me here if that was going to be the end of this?”
“I brought you because you are the one who wins,” Felurian said with no particular emphasis. “in fact, now that the three of us are talking, it is the only sensible end to things.” She began to eat her Oreo, taking small bites.
Death eyed Felurian over the top of her cocoa. “You sound fairly sure of yourself.”
“What?” Susan asked, pointing at the woman in the rocking chair. “She’s Death. One of the Endless. She is literally without end.” She sputtered a bit. “And trust me when I say that anthropomorphic personifications are hell to beat in a stand-up fight.”
Felurian held up one finger while she finished chewing her cookie. She swallowed. “in point of fact, she is not herself endless. our gracious host is currently Death. but if she were to fall, another would rise to fill the role.” Felurian gave Death a level look. “this has happened before, with other of the endless, has it not?”
Death’s expression was curious, as she continued to watch the other women over the top of her mug. “This is true,” she said. “It has happened. Not with me. But it has happened.”
“more than once,” Felurian said.
“Yes,” Death said, her tone rather clipped. “More than once.”
“That doesn’t change the fact that she is, quite literally, Death incarnate,” Susan protested. “She’s immortal.”
“We’re all immortal here,” Felurian said in a dismissive way. “the important thing to realize is that there are many different types of immortality. and hers is quite a dangerous kind.”
A silence settled on the room at her words.
“What exactly do you mean by that?” Death asked, her tone an odd mingling of curiosity and caution.
“My immortality is of the simplest kind,” Felurian said. “I am forever unfurling. I do not wither, neither do I rot. I live forever bright and lithe until I die. and then there is an end to me.” She said this lightly, as the thought did not concern her in the least.
“but you…” Felurian looked at Death and shook her head. “you are a gear turning in the heart of the world. so powerful. so bound. to kill one such as you?” Felurian closed her eyes and shook her head as if exhausted by the very thought. “no. I could never hope for such a thing.”
Death nodded soberly in agreement. There was nothing proud in her expression. Nothing smug. Some creatures are too powerful for pride.
“but I could hurt you,” Felurian said, she met Death’s eyes, her expression similarly sober and devoid of pride. “if you and I should come to blows, the wound I dealt you would be beyond all healing. and you, so terrible and powerful and bound, would carry that hurt with you. forever. and every day it would be inside you like a thorn. forever. and every day it would prick at you a little more….”
Susan’s expression grew more and more alarmed as Felurian spoke. Her eyes glanced back and forth between the other women.
Felurian continued to speak in measured tones. “you are one of the unfortunate few who truly understand the meaning of forever. and thus you would continue. endless. hurt and broken. forever. until the stars go black and the aleu fall nameless from the sky.”
Death looked up at the ceiling thoughtfully. “And that would be intolerable to me.”
“just so,” Felurian said. “your duty weighs so heavy on your shoulders. an endless hurt with no hope of healing would keep you from performing it as well as you desire.”
Death nodded to herself, eyes far away.
“and so, in time, you would remove yourself,” Felurian said. “for the good of all, you would clear the board and let another rise to take your place as Death.”
Susan stared at Felurian, aghast. “You wouldn’t!”
Felurian turned back at her, startled by the outburst. “there is no need,” she said calmly, reaching out to take another Oreo. “our host is wise. she knows that all I say is true. and thus she knows the risk of such a thing is far too great. she will concede her place.” She cocked her head at Death. “is that not true?”
“You certainly make a compelling argument,” Death said, a slight smile quirking one side of her mouth.
“I merely speak the truth,” Felurian said with a small shrug. “and it is not a particularly complex or convoluted truth for all of that.”
Susan continued to look at Felurian. “Who thinks like that?”
Felurian smiled at her with genuine warmth. “never come to faerie, child. we live long lives, and despite what you believe, our entertainments range much farther than rut, rollick, and occasional twister. your wits are sharp, and you are wise enough to carry iron. but you are young.” She deftly twisted the Oreo so that it came apart in halves. “so as a friend I tell you, do not come to faerie. in a fortnight there would be nothing left of you but scattered bones among the gorse.”
“Why Susan?” Death asked suddenly. “Why not yourself?”
“because I desire that she should win,” Felurian said simply. “and that is enough.”
Death shook her head slowly, her eyes narrowing. “No. Everything you’ve said so far is true. And as I’ve said, compelling. But you’re leaving something out. I’ll not be swayed by half-truths.”
Felurian narrowed her eyes angrily at Death, and licked the inside of the Oreo with slow deliberation. But Death is patient, so finally Felurian relented and said. “there is also an issue of heritage.”
“Your heritage?” Death asked.
“her heritage,” Felurian tilted her head in Susan’s direction.
Susan frowned. “He’s not even *really* my grandfather you know. My blood is mortal.”
“mortal child,” Felurian said gently. “we are talking about family. blood matters nothing.”
“If you call me a child again,” Susan said crisply. “I will teach you something about blood.”
Felurian smiled at that. A wide delighted smile. She bowed her head. “I hear you, my most worthy foe. I hear and I approve. well said.”
Susan relaxed a bit. “Good. But you should know, my grandfather has nothing to do with this.
“not him,” Felurian said gently. “someone farther back. someone who, lacking better terms, we might refer to as your great-grandfather.”
Susan looked slightly confused.
“Someone recently lost to us,” Felurian said softly. “someone taken.” She turned to look meaningfully at Death. “someone gone too soon.”
“Ah,” Death said, looking down. “Yes.”
Realization lit Susan’s face, and her expression fell. “You mean…”
Felurian nodded, not looking away from where Death sat in her rocking chair. “there are many people who are angry. there are many who feel that there is something owed.”
Death pulled her knees up to her chest and wrapped arms around them. In that gesture she suddenly seemed very small. She looked to one side, not meeting Felurian’s eye. “If it matters. I didn’t want to,” she said. “If there was anything I could have done. Anything. I would have done it. But….”
“but you are bound,” Felurian said softly. “all powerful and bound. forever. I would not be you for all the world.”
There was a moment of silence. It was only seconds long. It felt like the passing of a world.
* * *
Finally Death spoke. “Yes. I concede my place. To Susan.”
Felurian nodded once. “I also.”
“I don’t know if I want to win this way,” Susan said. “But I’ll admit it’s better than the three of us battering each other senseless.” She paused. “I should be getting back. I have papers to grade.”
“We all have work to do, I imagine.” Death said.
Felurian smiled, but said nothing.
The three of them got to their feet and began moving toward the door of Death’s apartment.
Susan’s expression was troubled. “I still don’t feel quite right about this—”
Felurian gave her a gentle smile. “this is the landscape of the battlefield. there is no changing it, and no sense weeping. one merely does one’s best with the terrain.” She touched Susan’s arm gently and said. “and victory is victory. there is no denying that.”
Susan put her fingers to her lips and whistled sharply, and when Death opened the door a moment later, a pale riderless horse stood waiting in the hallway. It snuffled at Susan’s hand in a friendly way.
Susan said her goodbyes. Death, it turned out, was a hugger. As was Felurian, though the two experiences were intensely different. Then Susan mounted the pale horse easily, took the reins, and was all of a sudden gone.
Felurian and Death stood there for a moment. It could have been an awkward moment, but it was not.
“I will admit,” Death said. “This did not go anything like the way I had expected. I’d thought you would be more interested in winning for yourself.”
“winning” Felurian said dismissively. She made a gesture as if tearing something up and throwing it carelessly away. “what do I care for such things? who wins a dance? who wins a kiss?”
Death gave a sly and secret smile. “That is true,” she said. “But someone who takes a long view of things might think of things along a different line. Who is more powerful? The one who wins, or the one who chooses the winner?”
Felurian returned Death’s smile in kind. Standing there together, they were not entirely unalike. Both young. Both immortal. Both pale and dark in turn. Both with their curved and knowing smiles.
But they were different too. Standing close together, you could see Felurian’s paleness was very nearly rosy next to Death’s. Felurian was all poise and coy, while Death’s body language was more loose and spoke of play.
Felurian smiled at the other woman. “for my part I have been surprised as well. there is a kindness in you. and a sweetness. I had thought you would be lonely, but you are not. or at least not nearly to the stretch I would have guessed.” Felurian reached out and lay her hand above Death’s heart. It was an easy gesture. Friendly. “if you would come to visit me, you would be a welcome guest.”
Death returned the gesture, laying her hand over Felurian’s heart. “Perhaps,” she said kindly. “You will see me at least once.”
A mortal might have paled at this, Felurian did not. “come more than once,” she urged. “and come soon. we will speak of things that only the long-lived can understand, and I will show you things that might distract you from your endless duty.”
Death rolled her eyes a bit at this, still smiling fondly, and opened the door. “Perhaps,” she said again.
Felurian stepped lightly outside and turned back, giving Death a sultry look. “bring twister.”
“Perhaps,” Death said, laughing as she said the word, and closed the door.
Predicted Winner: Susan Sto-Helit, for various definitions of “winning.”
NOTE: THIS MATCH ENDS ON Friday, April 10, 2015, AT Noon EST
Cage Match fans: We’re looking forward to hearing your responses! If possible, please abstain from including potential spoilers about the books in your comments (and if you need spoilers to make your case, start your comments with: “SPOILER ALERT!”)