Once upon a time, Death had a godson.
The boy's father was poor and knew that if his son was going to have any future, he needed someone looking out for him. God and the Devil appeared to the father, but he turned them both away. God and the Devil, he decided, inflicted sin and suffering on poor, good people just for trying to survive and turned a blind eye to the cruelty of wealthy men. This was not fair, he thought. Death, on the other hand, treated everyone the same—young or old, rich or poor. Death was fair. He asked Death to be his son's godfather.
And Death accepted.
Years passed, and Death came to his godson, now a man, and told him he would be a doctor.
"If you go into the ailing person's room and I am standing at the foot of the bed, then they can be healed. Give them this magic herb, and they will be well. But if I am standing at the head of the bed, then it is their time and you must do nothing."
And for a while Death's godson was obedient and prosperous. He became wealthy and well-known enough that when the king fell ill, Death's godson was brought to the castle to treat him. When the doctor entered the king's room, he saw Death standing at the head of the bed. It was his time to die. But the king was well-loved, and Death's godson feared being blamed for his passing. He ordered the king's bed to be turned around so that Death stood at the foot of the bed instead. He healed the King, who was on his feet within the hour. Death's godson was celebrated and showered in prizes, but Death was very unhappy.
"Death comes for everyone at their allotted time. I cannot spare even kings. But I am fair, and you have been obedient all this time. I will take someone else in the king's place and forgive you this once, but never again."
And Death's godson promised it would never happen again. But that very same night the king's daughter was struck with the same illness that killed her father. The king begged the doctor to save her, promised him all the gold in the castle, promised him even the princess's hand in marriage if he could heal her. But Death stood at the head of the Princess's bed, and the doctor knew it was his own fault. A life was meant to be taken tonight and Death, in infinite fairness, had chosen her. Death's godson stood by the princess's bed with Death before him and the king behind him and made a decision.
"What did he decide?"
Have you ever woken up somewhat abruptly in the middle of a dream, just as you were saying something, and in the confusing moment between being asleep and awake, you heard yourself speaking those words aloud? Maybe it's just me. I'd never slept well. Lots of nightmares, occasional sleep paralysis, always waking up a couple of times in the middle of the night. I fixed some of it with a rigorous sleep schedule and some prescription medicine, but it still happened from time to time. I'd open my eyes and hear myself saying something that doesn't make sense, in a voice I almost don't recognize.
That's how it felt to come back to life after dying.
The mumbled question on my lips made no sense. Disoriented and confused, I tried to get my bearings.
I was . . . standing, maybe? I wasn't sure I had legs to stand on. I was in a long, dark hall-, not like a hallway but like a banquet hall made of stone and shadow and filled with candles. Stone steps lined the walls as far as the eye could see, and every inch of every step held a candle. No two were the same. Wax of every color and type carved into every shape imaginable. Beeswax, tallow, and soy candles burned with the same bright-blue flame. As I watched, one of the candles reached the end of its wick in little more than a melted puddle. The flame did not go out but jumped to a taller, unlit candle nearby. The melted candle cooled for only a moment before growing into a new candle, its color and shape changing. A moment later, a flame jumped from another dying candle to light the new one. All over the hall, candles were dying and being relit, a thousand a second, so the fire constantly leapt from place to place.
I realized I'd been here a while and held a candle. It wasn't the Candle of the Covenant, the one that had killed me. It was the particular shade of black you see when sunlight hits a black cat's fur, golden brown at the edges. Warm. And it had an interesting spiral to its taper. It felt familiar.
"I think you know what he decided."
I realized I was not alone. A person stood in front of me, and in the way of dreams, for a moment I couldn't tell what he looked like. His features slid off my brain like water. And then all at once, I did know who he looked like.
It was Great Uncle Ptolemy, who died almost two weeks ago. I had cleaned and prepared his corpse myself.
"I don't know what's going on," I said. My tongue thick and clumsy and my mouth full of cotton, causing my words to be muffled.
"You do," Great Uncle Ptolemy assured me. "I was telling you a story, remember?"
It took me a minute, but he was right, I did know.
"Godfather Death," I said, remembering.
"Yes," Ptolemy replied and smiled. "And do you remember how the story ended?"
I looked around at the hall, at the candle in my hands.
"Yes," I said. I should probably have been worried, but I wasn't. I was already dead.
"You are not dead," Ptolemy replied, though I didn't think I'd spoken. "Not yet. You have a lot of time, still."
I looked down at the candle in my hands and held it a little tighter.
"Of course," Ptolemy said. "That can change. The candles are only a metaphor. A long wick does not necessarily a long life make. It isn't predestination. It's only a way of balancing things."
"Fairness," I said, still looking down at my candle.
"It is . . .. a kind of fairness," Ptolemy agreed. "Are you ready to go back now?"
"I'm not sure," I admitted. "I don't really know what to expect."
"That's life," Ptolemy said, and smiled.
And suddenly I was rushing upward. The wind tore the candle from my hands and spun me away like a leaf on the wind, fragile and insignificant. I flew forever and shattered like glass against the borders of infinity.
And then I was back in my body. Almost.
It's not easy to explain if you haven't had one of a very narrow range of experiences like sleep paralysis or locked-in syndrome. Maybe if you're familiar with disassociation?
I was there, sort of, in my body. Or maybe just a little to the left of it. But it wouldn't respond to me. I couldn't move my arms or open my eyes. I couldn't feel anything. If you'd ever slept on your arm long enough for it to go completely dead, it was like my body was one big dead limb. In case you don't know, it is fucking terrifying. I would have screamed my lungs out if I could. But my throat was as unresponsive as every other part of me. I became very afraid I had really died, my body was dead in a grave somewhere, and my dumb-ass ghost was trapped here still inhabiting a corpse. I couldn't think of anything more horrifying.
And then I heard something. Distant and muffled, like I was listening from a neighboring apartment. I tried to listen harder, but there was nothing to strain, nothing to push against, no way to struggle when with a last panicked thought in a brain gone dark. I tried to reach for my magic, to focus on it, but there was nothing. My magic just didn’t respond, it was like it wasn't there at all. I shoved down the panic, which made the voices a little clearer, so I tried harder.
"—defensive hex of some kind. I'm surprised it didn't kill her."
"Can you fix it? Please tell me you can do something."
If I'd had any control over my heart, it would have leapt. Ethan!
"I'm not sure. The state she's in doesn't make sense. The more I look at this, the more sure I am that she should be dead."
It took me a minute to place Julius's voice. Were we back at the bar?
"Well, she's obviously not." Gwydion sounded impatient. "So, there must be a way to fix it. And remove the hex from the candle as well."
"I'm going to do my best," Julius said, calm and reassuring. "But I can't make any promises. She just took the magical equivalent of a shotgun blast to the face. It wasn't artful or complicated, it didn't have any rules or caveats. It was just a big angry blast of magic meant to kill anyone who tried to take the candle. It's not a spell I can break or undo, you understand? The damage is done."
"But she is still in there, right?" Ethan asked, his voice growing a little louder like he was moving closer. "She's not a . . . a vegetable or anything?"
"I believe her consciousness is still present," Julius said, and the particularity of his phrasing made even me nervous.
"Can we talk to her?" Cole's voice was so quiet I almost didn’t hear it. "If she's still in there, is there a way to like . . . make her hear us?"
Julius was quiet for a moment. "Maybe," he said finally. "I'll look into it. But we need to talk about . . ."
His voice started getting too quiet to hear. Were they leaving the room, or was I just losing my ability to hear them? There was no way to tell. The thought of being left alone like this filled me with panic. I focused harder, trying to find my body, willing it to move. I had to get back out there! I needed to help them!
For a moment, as I tried my hardest, I heard footsteps and the AC running. And then, like a rubber band snapping, I was flung away, my physical self vanishing like a last glimpse of the sun as I fell down a deep, dark well.