Laval awoke, lying prone on the stone slab in the center of what looked like 9 monoliths surrounding him in a circle. It was nothing like Stonehenge, with its rough, massive and weathered stones. No – this was a circle of black shimmering pillars, shaped like perfect rectangular pillars of seamless and perfect marble. They were at least a yard thick, and twice that wide, and twice again that in height. The altar he awoke on was made of the same flawless substance, but was proportioned 3 by 6, and seemed only 3 feet tall, though who knew how deep it extended into the ground.
And then there was the ground – it was white – some sort of shimmering white stone, with little white pebbles making a ring around the perimeter of the black pillars. The ground beyond was pale white sand for at least a hundred yards. The sand seemed relatively smooth and evenly distributed. This valley might be some sort of depression, like a bowl, or the caldera of a volcano. He just wouldn’t know until he got to the top of the bowl’s edge.
Laval felt somewhat disoriented, with the pervading brightness, that made it so he could barely see when he squinted. He realized he was wearing the leather Mask, and the spiked armbands that he’d been wearing in the compound before … when had that been? He’d just completed his perimeter walk, having secured the compound for the night, and he’d entered his sleeping chambers. And he’d heard something. A noise. What had that noise been? He couldn’t quite remember. It was just not there, as a memory. But this whole situation was odd. Someone had surely drugged him, and brought him here.
He was naked, save for the armbands and the mask. He crouched and squinted against the all-pervading haze, not that it really helped him know anything more. He wasn’t afraid, though. Never that.
But something was so odd here. There were no sounds of nature. There was no wind. There was almost a high pitched ringing in his ears, almost just above the threshold of hearing, like a form of tinnitus.
But his lithe, athletic form tensed and he reached up to take the tumble of his long, white locks in his hands, and brush his fingers through them, trying to regain his center, regain his composure. He had to admit it – he was a bit fucking scared, though he’d never tell anyone else that. He had to get out of there.
He had to find his way home.
He slowly approached the outer ring of the monoliths, and stepped around, back against the slick, cool marble-like pillars, and he could see his reflection dimly in the surface of that shimmering black stone. If it weren’t for the haze – was it fog, or something else? He didn’t know. He simply kept his back to it, as he scouted the entire perimeter of the ring of stones – flitting from one monolith to the next. HIs muscles were tense, his body coiled like a lion’s, and he felt vulnerable. He felt naked, more in the sense of that vulnerability, than actually being unclothed. He had fought naked and barehanded before, but not like this. Not when he had no idea how he got here – nor when, where and why he was there. Someone had taken him so completely and suddenly, he couldn’t recall a thing past that last memory – that last memory in his sleeping chambers — when he’d sensed that other presence.
He did remember one thing – as it just dawned on him in that moment. That ‘other’ presence had felt cold, like these stones – like it radiated the chill that reached past all warmth and made you feel like your life was over, or nearly so.
He had only felt that way once before. Long ago, at the Academy, when he’d faced his rival, with his hands gripped at Jivendal’s throat. Death had taken the other one, but somehow, he knew he’d been the one that was supposed to have gone that day. But he had refused to let go, and in the end, had been victorious. They had to pry Jivendal’s cold, dead hands from that dagger he’d driven into Laval’s stomach. Really, he should have died. Instead, he had lived on to win every other contest that the academy had to offer, both physical, mental, and magical.
But something had got the drop on Laval, and now was toying with him.
His tattoos on arm and hips were strangely almost like shadows moving over his pale frame. His green eye shimmered in the diffuse but every present light, as did his blue left one. He closed his blue eye, and willed his magical sight to come forth, and it nearly staggered him, his mind reeling at the intensity of the brightness – it nearly burned his eye as the sight seemed to roar into his mind like some jet engine ramping up on a runway before takeoff. He dismissed that magical sight before it burned his optic nerve out, and staggered a few paces towards the outer edges of the valley he was in. He knelt on the ground for a few minutes, panting, both eyes closed.
Even with his eyes closed, the light was so bright it was crimson through his closed eyelids. He finally centered himself, and stood – his body tense and still. He did what his master had taught him – he went through the meditation exercise, and as he did, stretching and centering his mind and body, until finally, he wasn’t trembling or feeling the disquiet that had ruled him in this strange and impossible situation.
He finally had achieved a quiescent point of mind and body and spirit.Without another moment’s hesitation, he strode away towards the edge of this bowl-shaped valley.
The white sand was not very warm beneath his feet. In fact, as the dry grains slid in between his toes, it gave him the odd sensation that the sand was not really sand. He paused, stooped, and scooped up a handful of the grains, and brought them closer to his face. He could feel they were more like debris of some kind. He rubbed the grains between his thumb and forefinger, and it seemed to him that the ‘debris’ was well rounded, in comparison to sand grains roughness, similar to glass beads, but smaller than any he’d ever seen before.
He dropped the sand, brushing off his long, nimble fingers, and then stood. He glanced from side to side, crouched as if imitating a sprinter, grinding his foot into the strange sand, then launched himself forward with the grace of a panther. He hardly slowed, either, as he loped up the edge of the valley’s bowl, and launched himself over the top.
He came to a skidding stop, however, as he reached the top of the valley’s hilltop. He looked around in amazement, at the top of the ridge. It was perhaps a volcano, long dormant, apparently. He looked around to find he was high above what looked like a green, vibrant and lush island, and the light was no longer so intense and diffuse. The sky was gray with clouds, but blue sky could be seen here and there in patches. The mist in the bowl of the volcano’s caldera was confined alone to that area, and he felt as if he could breathe again.
He glanced down at the valley behind him, and he could only see a white haze, with the slightest hint of darkened features at its center, where the obsidian obelisks were. And it hurt his eyes to try to look back into that area. He looked down at his body, and found that his skin did not look quite like what he expected – though his tattoos were no less finely etched on his skin than before. His skin was an absolute pale white.
He blinked, as he looked over his frame and ran a hand over his chest, as if hoping he was coated with the whiteness from the sands of the valley. The touch did little but make his nipples hard, as the fingertips slide over smooth skin. He flexed his lean, tight muscles but his skin felt smooth and not at all gritty, as he expected. He let out a soft sigh trying to get a sense for the scents of the volcanic island he was on. But found he didn’t really smell much, other than the faint hit of grass and scents of unknown flowers.
There was one way down, more gentle and forgiving, as if a lava flow had created a ramp just on one side. It was covered with a short, soft looking carpet of grass, dotted with different flowers and plants, shrubs and stunted trees. He couldn’t be sure what direction it led, as the sun was not visible in the cloud-strewn sky. But he’d call it ‘north’ for now. He set off down that slope.
“This has got to be a dream,“ he told himself. There was no birdsong, no sounds of insects, or of any other nature sounds. He didn’t even hear the sounds of the wind, as he descended. The ground was fairly even, for the most part, and his bare feet didn’t feel any sharp stones or nasty surprises from broken rocks or plants.
He made good time getting down the slope, until he came to thicker vegetation, longer grasses and white lilies that grew from the fertile soil of the mountain side. When he finally reached the end of that decline, he came into the beginning of a large clearing. The grasses were short here, as if it were a manicured lawn. He glanced around at a rustling sound, however, coming from the surrounding tall grasses. Was it finally some kind of animal, he wondered?
He turned, and as he looked, he saw rustling grasses near a dip on the ground. The section was covered with tall grasses and reeds, and many of those white lilies.
He started to approach, eager to see something other than the unending plantlife, when a man-shaped figure seemed to part its way through the screen and shadow of vegetation. Well, it didn’t just part it, it leaped out of it, and it sounded like the clatter of thick bamboo sticks, colliding together.
It was a skeleton, pale and mottled with age and the bleaching of sun and the staining of the earth. The dust and soil tried to cling to it, and its ribcage was festooned with the lilies that it had been lying in. Despite the fact that time and decay had taken its organs, the lilies seemed to try replacing its innards with their form of life.
The skeleton’s charge stopped abruptly, and it half crouched, as if defensively, before it clenched and unclenched its hands, as it observed Laval’s pale frame. The young, pale-maned boy could have sworn that he heard the sighing of delight, and a growl of hunger coming from the silent creature, as if it were a mental echo of its undying need for flesh.
The young man crouched defensively, as the animated skeleton stalked towards him, the empty sockets of the creature somehow seeing him, sensing him – and now stalking him.
As quick as a mountain cat, the skeleton leaped through the air, springing across the 5 paces between the two, coming at Laval like a missile. The creature’s leap had so startled him, he nearly didn’t try to dodge the airborne creature, as its grasping, claw like hands tried to wrap themselves around him. But Laval did side-step, almost enough so that only a partial grasping hand managed to touch him at all. The claw like hand grasped his shoulder enough to arrest its leap, digging its tips into his shoulder and leaving deep scratches. Laval landed unbalanced, and he tumbled to the ground awkwardly. The skeleton landed nearby, a pace or two away, and instantly sprang to its feet, as if it had not had any troubles.
Laval’s heart was beating so hard, hammering in his ears, and his calm from the meditation earlier had almost fled him. But he managed calm himself and react, as the creature thrust itself at him once more. Knowing he couldn’t outrun the thing, he sprang to his feet and struck a defensive pose.
Laval struck first, as he channeled his innate mystic power through his hands, increasing the martial power so that it would do more than just break bones – it would powder them. His hands took on a nimbus of blue light with the intense power, and when he struck the skeleton, his hands pulverized the skeleton’s ribs into the consistency of the sand-like substance in the volcano’s valley. Plant matter, dirt, and flower flew in a spray behind the creature from the fierce impact. He brought his other arm up to block a lunge by the skeleton’s arm, but he’d been somewhat deceived, as the skeleton didn’t quite have it in mind to stab or rake him.
The creature grabbed hold of Laval’s shoulder and pivoted around behind the naked warrior in such a quick move, that he almost thought the thing had flown right past into the weeds. But then he felt it pressed against his back, as it wrapped its bony arms around Laval’s taunt frame, intent on pinning his arms to his side. Then creature slid its bony fingertips over him, almost like a lover.
As that thought played itself through Laval’s mind, the skeletal hands slid up his chest, and rested on his neck. Laval nearly panicked, as a chill and numbing cold radiated from the skeleton’s hands, as if to drain him of life. Laval nearly panicked, as the cold, bony fingers squeezed at his throat like a vice. He gasped, and groaned, but wasn’t able to utter a scream as the skull nuzzled against his cheek and ear. Death embraced him and was going to kill him.
Laval reached for those hands, and gripped at the wrists, and he screamed with rage and fear, yanking forward, even as the skeleton pressed its hips against his ass. The fear impelled his over-the-shoulder throw, and he yanked hard enough that the creature flew over his back, and sailed through the air to hit against an outcropping of stone. The bony assailant collided hard with the rock, and the skull and body separated, and part of the spine broke, as well.
The skeletal form lay still, after that. Laval was hugging himself, his arms rapped around his chest as he edged back away from the creature.
“That was nicely done. I honestly thought that Alfred, there, was going to have his way with you.”
The voice was melodic, and had a hint of a cultured London accent to it. Laval’s eyes widened and he whipped around, assuming a defensive crouch, his hands held up defensively.
Standing before him was a figure of about medium height – about Laval’s size – in a black silken robe. It was long and pooled around the figure’s feet, and the fabric was unadorned. I almost shimmered like the Aurora Borealis on a starless night sky. But that might have just been a trick of the light.
A pair of delicate but strong hands appeared out of the depths of the billowing sleeves, and pulled deep hood back to revealing a beautiful, male face. His skin had a slight pallor to it, as if someone were losing their tan to the winter months. He looked to be in his mid-twenties, perhaps, with long black hair that was pulled back into a half-ponytail, with the ungathered locks to either side fell straight on either side of his narrow face, and caressed his shoulders and back. His face was best described as elvish, with delicate, high cheek bones, almond shaped eyes, a narrow chin, and elegant pointed ears. His high forehead was adorned with a single flat disc in the middle, with the yin and yang bisecting the artefact, with perfect white and obsidian tear drops curved into each other.
He wanted to scream at the man.. Elf.. creature in black robes.
And he did. A long and feral scream, as he started to edge back from the figure. It ended in a long, and almost serpentine hiss, Laval’s eyes narrowed to slits. “What.. in the..Fffff…What .. are you? Are you Death?”
“Yes,” came the simple answer from the black robed figure.
Laval gulped, but didn’t back down any more. He stopped his retreat and stood tall. He almost felt a slight bit of embarrassment, suddenly, at being naked. But he dismissed that thought, as he gazed at the creature before him. The true enemy. Everyone’s eventual enemy.
He just didn’t know why he had always imagined death would be a skeleton or some craggy old geezer in a robe, carrying a scythe.
“Oh, that was something I did back in the middle ages. You know.. Reaping souls – people as an analog for wheat. Peasants needed a simple analogy. Besides, a scythe is a devastating weapon, if you wield it right. I will admit, it was a stretch for a metaphor, but it held up well over the centuries…”
“Enough!” Laval shouted. He took in breath after deep breath, trying to calm his raging heartbeats. “Enough! I .. I don’t know what your plan is.. Or why you brought me here..”
“Oh, you know why I brought you here, Laval. You have a debt to repay. All those years ago you should have died. But I chose not to take you then.”
“That .. that was you, back in the arena? During the trials? You .. let me live?”
“Indeed. Your lust for life was beautiful to behold. Your will was strong. It wasn’t much of a stretch to let you continue.”
“But I .. I lost! You .. cheated and let me take another’s life instead..”
“He was dying anyone. A defective heart valve. He would have keeled over in a few more moments if you hadn’t finished him then. As I said, it wasn’t a stretch.. Or much of one. Besides, I didn’t cheat anyone.”
“What do you mean?”
“Everyone gets the same thing. A lifetime. Its only if you are trying to keep score, with that time construct you mortals love to use, that you change the definition of what a lifetime is. Usually it’s the luck of the draw. But in this case, I stacked the deck just a little. After all, I have eternity, so I get to play at being a god once in awhile.”
Laval stood there, his breathing steady once more, as he observed the young-seeming Death before him. “But.. why me? Why now? Why.. any of it?”
“Don’t worry about that, Laval. You see, I am not sending you to your final rest just yet. I want you with me. I want you as a companion.”
“A companion? What.. what do you mean? As a .. lover?”
“We might become that in time. Do you so seek Death’s sweet embrace, “ The elf-like being asked with purr in his voice, a smirk and a suggestive wiggle of his brows, as if he were leering at Laval’s naked form.
Laval goggled his eyes at the display and blushed hard, his cheeks taking on a pallor more akin to the living at that moment, and he bit his lower lip, as Death let his over-exaggerated expression fade back to just mild amusement, before he took in a soft breath and held out his hand. “Look, Laval – I do this from time to time. I seek to have a companion to assuage my boredom. Eventually you will want to move on to the lands beyond the Sun. But when that time comes, we will part ways, and you will go to what awaits you next. I will mope for a time, and then seek out another companion. But for now.. Won’t you help me while away Eternity?”
Laval blinked, and ran the conversation through his mind a few times, and then furrowed his brow.
“Can I at least think about it?”
Death laughed, and Laval took his hand. And they shared adventures that neither of them expected for a time out of counting.
Death’s embrace – who know it could be a good thing?
Story by: Dehrynn Shepherd
Hair- =DeLa*= “Sylvai” (Uber)
.Reckless. – Yakuza (Store)