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Live by the sword, die by the sword. That was the way I’d lived for so long.
It was an old piece of advice—ancient, even, depending on what version of it was being told. But it was a useful one for someone like me. I’d first been told it by my father. Years and years ago when he’d lain in the same bed he would end up dying in. It had been only a few short months since I’d started training with the blade by then. A few short months of becoming fascinated by the art of sword-fighting, as well as using the skills I’d picked up to earn some money on the side.
My father had been proud of me. He’d always put on the largest smile when I’d explained this stance or that, or when I’d laid out my plans of becoming a master of the art. Of becoming a Knight of Credon and protecting our kingdom more effectively than any before me. He’d entertained my teenage ramblings quite well back then, and he’d even believed that I would be able to do it. He’d been a swordsman himself during his formative years, even if he’d never been half as good as I was now, and when I’d picked up the blade myself, he’d passed off that ancient wisdom he’d heard from rumors during his life.
It had been the last piece of advice he’d ever given me.
If only I’d known how true it was.
That mantra repeated in my head as I stared across the path at the embodiment of decay itself. Standing out there in my field, only a few dozen paces away from me, the reaper stared right back at me. Wind billowed through its tattered black cloak; it made no effort to conceal the bleached bone underneath. All it did was balance its scythe in skeletal fingers as though taunting me to come and fight.
I wondered why it didn’t simply attack me for my ignorance. Why it didn’t finish the job it had appeared for after I’d ignored all of the signs. A tense pain in my chest and a sudden shortness of breath had been the only warnings I’d gotten as I’d walked my morning trail. But before the reaper had appeared, I’d shrugged them both off. I’d been stupid and short-sighted enough to allow my time to come.
Yet the reaper just stood there, watching me.
With my sword held at the ready in my hand, I considered whether or not it was scared. Whether or not it was doubting the frozen moment in time where its scythe would harvest my soul. Perhaps it hadn’t expected me to be ready to resist, I ventured. After all, landing a strike on a swordsman of my calibre wasn’t easy for anyone.
The rational part of me didn’t think that was it, though. It didn’t fit with the concept of the end-bringer at all. The beast of decay was part of nature as we were told; it was integral to the cycle of the world. And while I’d never entirely agreed with that interpretation—especially not after my father had been ripped away from his life—it still shouldn’t have had any issue with a measly swordsman and his will to live.
Then again, I thought with a grin, the word measly hadn’t described me for decades.
I stepped forward, my foot crunching on the dirt of the path I walked almost every morning. My path, I reminded myself. The tranquil sanctuary that I’d cultivated for years. I was supposed to be safe when I walked it. And I had been until it had shown up.
A sneer broke through on my face as I continued to approach the beast. Its tattered cloak still drifted on the wind. Its scythe still balanced in silence. But as I approached its vile form, it looked up. The pallid skull fled hooded shadows into the light. It stared at me, nearly striking fear into my heart before I gritted my teeth and cemented my resolve. Before I remembered the mantra my father had told me as a child.
The reaper stopped its scythe and raised it. It angled the ever-sharpened metal in my direction, and for a moment, I could’ve sworn I saw a smile on its face. I couldn’t be sure, though, as it was already charging my way.
In an instant, my body surged into action. The reaper disappeared from its spot and struck through the air like lightning to force me down with its scythe. But as the frozen moment passed with the shriek of clashing metal, I was left standing. The resistance from its attempted strike was still fresh in my bones.
I’d parried it, I realized, on instinct and fear alone. And as I glared back at its still form once more, picking apart the details of the bone, I saw the surprise. I knew what it meant. The beast had never been parried before.
A grin grew across my lips as I readied my blade again. Its surprise would keep the scythe at bay for the moment, but I still had to be ready. I would never let my guard down.
And as I’d expected, that surprise faded quickly before it was on me again. I watched it charge with inhuman speed, almost gliding over the ground. I only dodged with a stumble as its scythe cut right through where I’d been.
That attack had been faster than before, I noted. It had hit closer. I had to be ready.
I furrowed my brows and felt ice-cold fire flood my veins. It signaled the onset of battle, and I took the change in stride. Feeling the burn of the sun on my skin, I stared at the beast with everything I had and only barely ducked its next attempt at my life. The blade of its scythe came down right where my head had been.
The scythe, however, never reached my former location. Instead, it turned at the last second. But even with the turn of blade, I was ready. It was one of the oldest tricks in the book.
I parried the hit with barely a second thought.
Surprise returned to the beast’s hooded, bleach-white face. It stared down at its unstained scythe and I had to stifle a chuckle. It didn’t matter how fast it was. I would never let my guard down.
I leapt backward, my feet already positioning themselves for the next attack. The beast growled, its tone dark enough to strike fear into any ordinary mind. But I was no ordinary mind—even at my age, I was as sharp as my blade.
I narrowed my eyes, thrusting my sword out to the defense and ignoring the call to blunder. Its skeletal form charged me again—just as I’d predicted. My lips curled slightly as I turned in the nick of dime and whipped the hilt of my sword around my wrist.
The clang that rang out was one to split mountains.
Both of our weapons fell, but I was more than ready for mine. I swept mine up in an instant and was already twisting away. A smile blossomed across my lips. I never made an attack without knowing how it would play out.
Then, spinning back with my blade in hand, I shoved steel deep into the hooded cloak. My ears twitched at the screech—the screech of metal tearing through bone.
As soon as I heard it, I retracted my arm. My feet pushed me backward as I brought my blade out to the defense. Looking over the serene path turned battle field, I saw too many familiar things. The ornate stone lining in the dirt. The shaded patch of trees. My humble homestead barely visible over the hills. I gritted my teeth.
It had no right to be here, I told myself. It had no right to take me here. This was my home, world’s dammit. And I would never let my guard down.
Images flashed through my mind—parries, deflects, attacks. I was ready. The power in my muscles was already responding to clean commands. But as it turned out, none of it was needed.
The beast stood frozen in place.
Carrying the same surprise it had shown minutes before, the reaper stared at the grass. Its ash-black robe wavered in the wind and its skeletal form stood hunched. Watching its frozen lack of movement, I relaxed my shoulders a hair. The situation was painted clear as day on its face. It had never been hit before either.
Ragged black cloth lifted back off its head as if on wind and exposed pale white bone to the sunlight above. Its dark eyes were riddled with confusion when it turned its head to me. And as it stared at me, I was about to look, about to seal my glorious fate. But, at the last moment, I recognized the trick.
Darkness flared out and I snapped my eyes shut. My father’s proud face flashed in my mind, another one of his warnings playing back through my head.
Never look into the face of death.
The embodiment of decay rushed at me once again—I felt it in the air. Heard it. Smelled it. Its speed was even greater than before and I only barely shook off the strike. Even with my eyes closed, with my most important sense stripped away, I would never let my guard down.
I snapped my eyes open as I sprinted away readied for the attacks that were sure to hit my unguarded side. I waited, my ears perked and my eyes sharp, but the strikes never came.
After about a dozen strides, I turned back to the beast, expecting to see the same dry surprise as before. I didn’t. Instead, I saw the beast’s cracked, white skull with the hood completely off.
Bitterness fell on my tongue. It coated my mouth with disgust. I felt power radiating from in front of me; I felt it washing off of the bone. Simply looking into its face forced my blood to run cold. Where I’d expected to see the same dry surprise as before, the same complete and utter shock, I saw confirmation of what I’d assumed before. An expression more terrifying than any other.
The crooked, bony grin was perfect and horrid at the same time. It spawned a sense of worry deep within me that I rejected as unnatural. I was a warrior, a swordsman, a knight—I didn’t have time for worry. And yet, as I felt my gaze stay frozen on the beast, the dread only deepened.
It didn’t rush at me. It didn’t move to attack. It didn’t even reach for its scythe. For some reason, it seemed done with the fight. But even still, I would never let my guard down.
“Impressive display,” it said, words reaching my ears on the wind. I hadn’t seen its bony mouth move an inch.
“Thank you,” I replied through gritted teeth, unconsciously getting myself in a stance.
The beast noticed and raised a dismissive hand. “There is no need for that. I have no intention of keeping this up.” Its voice came like the concept of decay itself, forcing me to shudder as it ate my mind alive.
“Then what do we do now?” I asked, keeping my gaze as harsh as nails. My fingers curled around my blade’s loyal grip. I knew it was playing with me—I knew it was a trick, but I would never let my guard down.
The beast chuckled dryly. “You are special.”
I glared at the beast, barely avoiding its eyes. It was toying with me and I knew it. Why couldn’t I take advantage? Why couldn’t I just strike now? No, I told myself, dismissing the questions. It was smarter than that. It knew I wouldn’t let my guard down, and it wouldn’t let its guard down either.
“And?” was the only word I could muster in response.
“It would be a shame to let someone like you fall to the house of the dead.”
My gaze lifted, brows furrowing on my face. “What are you getting at?”
“I could give you another chance,” it said, the tone in its voice spawning hatred deep in my chest. Its smile all but dropped off its face as the force in its words made one thing abundantly clear.
It was serious.
My mind raced, remembering my younger form longing for more time by the sword. Would it really give me another chance?
“Yes,” it said, the dark words forcing hope out of my soul.
“What’s the catch?” I asked, my words escaping as nearly a hiss.
Its grin came back, more devilish than before. A chill ran down my spine. “You will have a different body. But you will retain your mind. Life would be more a curse if I were to take that from you.”
I considered the offer against all of my better judgment. The same instincts that were guiding my stance were screaming at me to stop. But, as I stared at the beast, the sunlight dancing on its cracked bone, I could find no fault in its intentions.
“What do I have to do?”
Its grin grew wider. “One touch and a new life is yours.”
Overcome by dark, sudden, inexorable urge, I agreed. The desperation in my mind preyed on my memories of the past and won out over my doubts before I could even get a word out. The reaper appeared next to me like another shot of ashen lightning.
Its finger approached my shoulder, cooling the air around it as it went. My grip tightened and my mind screamed, but it was already too late. The bony finger touched my skin and my body filled with an unnatural cold.
My mind burned. My bones froze in place. And I experienced the most agonizing second of the rest of my life before everything went black.
A jolt of motion startled me up from my slumber. I twisted my head, feeling only the most distant of pain. Everything was numb. A cold, unfamiliar haze draped over my mind. I stared into the black, barely wishing for the ability to feel again, and my wish was unfortunately granted.
My body snapped up. A frigid wind crashed against my face, sending shivers down my spine and a howl through my ears. In a second, everything came back and my mind spun through images. New mixed with old and familiar with foreign as my mind swirled, but I couldn’t stop any of it. I clenched my jaw and just waited for it to stop. And yet, as soon as it did, one thought was left, one that forced my lips into a smile. The beast hadn’t lied.
When I opened my eyes, I expected to see my land, my humble homestead. I expected to see my fields, the rows of crops that I was no longer required to tend. I expected to see my wife, the beautiful face that just barely escaped me. But the eyes that only vaguely felt like my own were met with a completely different sight.
All around me, spinning in the wind as if just to mock me for my choices, was a dark forest that I couldn’t recognize for my life. Feeling the horrid cold cut deeper, the smile faded from my face.
I forced myself up, feeling soreness in my bones. My muscles felt hollow. My arms felt shorter. My legs felt… different. Everything about me just felt frail, as if on the brink of death. And as I sat up on whatever rock my body had been strewn across, I felt a sharp pain cut a deep pit through my stomach.
My head started to spin again, the foreign feelings of thoughts, worries, and pains all coming back at once. As the waves all passed, they were replaced with regret that was only my own. I shivered in pain, the truth cementing in my mind.
This wasn’t what I’d wanted. It wasn’t what I’d wanted at all. I closed my eyes—if they even were my eyes—and shook my head, trying to force it all away. But my efforts felt useless as the world set in around me and one horrible thought echoed in my head.
I’d let my guard down.