Death followed his sense of the dying. Once upon a time it would have been hilarious to say he could feel it in his bones, but since mythology had grown beyond its conception of him as a be-robed skeleton the statement was les hilarious than it was fact. As birds could sense the approach of winter, Death could sense the straining of a soul as it tugged at its fetters to the mortal world. This meant that he was constantly pulled in all directions. Pinched by the reaching fingers of straining hands that stretched sometimes all around the planet just to tug his sleeves, it was the nearest souls that could get a grip on and pull him. Even without the current soul leading him by the nose, Death thought he might be able to find the Lower Lorcliff orphanage from memory. Never mind that it held the distinct honor being both the tallest and most dilapidated mud hut in Lorcliff (perhaps in the history of man.)
Death strode up to the building, staring up the edifice a moment. He took a moment to size up the wobbly beast of a building. A three story building whose primary infrastructure was severely compromised wood deemed unusable by the ship yard. The rest of it was made of mud, irregular bricks and sheets featuring a painted frown when they ran out of the other two. Above the double door (currently sporting only one door) hung two signs. The first messily read 'Lower Lorcliff Orphanage' and the other read 'If you haven't faced adversity, how can you rise above it?'
"The most adversity of any orphans on the coast
" Death repeated to himself with a lazy lilt, "beautiful."
Death ghosted through the lower floor. He walked slowly but with purpose to the ladder and then descended, hand over hand, to the dock from which the orphans were set adrift each night. It was a long, slow climb, through a high, dark cave. The cavern echoed with the soft breathing of a thousand orphans humming with life like a hive. Their gentle intakes and outtakes sounded in correlation with the slapping of waves against the wooden walls. Death's shoes thumped against the dock as he jumped those final few rungs. He spent a moment unsteady, and another checking to see if his presence had woken any of the children. A few stirred, but overall the room remained wrapped in sleep. Death walked the dock examining for a moment the mooring lines which secured each orphan to a morning. He wandered along the row until at last he detected the line attaching the soon to be deceased. Our boy.
Death grabbed hold of the rope and drew the half-barrel to dock. Not until it thumped abruptly against the dock did the boy suddenly jerk into a sitting position as his soul leapt upward at the sight of its deliverer. A nearly expired soul was thrilled to see Death standing there. A young man, however, was so terrified that he scrambled backwards and nearly fell into the water. Death grabbed his ankle stopping this potential dip.
Douglas had not recognized Death. A mix of alcohol and nobility kept his thoughts so far from myth that even Death's nametag was not warning enough. Most humans, in fact, knew that every day Death walked among them but would not recognize him until he was standing above them dangling a a watch. For a child, however, who fed their young mind on stories of heroes, heroines, and noble steeds (who still believed in the Eaterfest rabbit) Death was an easily recognized face.
"You're Death," he squeaked.
"I am," the pale man agreed with no more prompting, "have you been expecting me?"
"N-no," he stammered, "and yes
"You've been sick for quite some time now," Death purrs as he takes a step closer to the boy, offering his hand to the child and receiving only further terror.
"I've been sick," the boy agreed with a gaping jaw, "But I'm not dying! I'm not dead! I'm alive! I'm alive! I'm alive!"
" assured Death. He leaned forward and grabbed the orphan by shirt and wrist, heaving the child up onto his feet briefly. The boy stumbles and falls to his knees while still having his wrist held in death's fringed grip. Death bends, lifts the near weightless figure up under the arms and sets him back on his feet. The boy is stiff, but he does not resist. He's stunned in a moment between screaming and crying.
"Death is nothing to fear, boy. All creatures that take their walk in the garden must someday pass through my gates. Everyone has their final moments to enjoy the splendor, however. You may take that time now
if you feel it necessary."
Death lifted his head to examine the world from here, as did the boy. A chilly cubby of dark, soggy wood lapped at by salt water. They were sitting in the dark, at the very bottom of the world. No light. No sound but the quiet clunking of sea on slats and the occasional cough of a ten bit orphan.
"You're better off going with me. These ideas they have about artificially forming a hero are--"
"What about a challenge?" the boy asked into the dark eternal, "I can challenge you."
Death closes his eyes. For a moment he was consumed by his own deep shiver, "A challenge?"
"Poniros the Long-Lived defeated you in a challenge. He lived twice the length of the longest lived man after he
" The boy trailed off, pulling on each of his fingers tentatively.
Death's face had grown (forgive the phrasing) graver. Poniros had challenged and defeated Death, that was for certain, but not the way that the warrior proclaimed. When Death had gone to collect Poniros, the man had challenged death to (of all things) build a better sand castle than could a man who had spent his years defending castles. The concept was asinine and so Death occupationally obligated to humor mortals agreed. This was also years ago, in the time when Death kept track of people's life force by means of an hour glass, so whilst Death worked Poniros had sneakily refilled his hour glass to the brim. The warrior would go on living twice the lifetime he should have, all the while claiming that he had defeated Death in single combat. Death was offended by the original trick. He was frustrated by the high traffic of warriors who thereafter were positively intent on physical altercation. By far the most exasperating result, however, was that Death now regulated the lives of mortals with pocket watches -- time pieces which were particularly touchy and unreliable.
"Indeed," Death mused. He said the word with a slow drawl, giving himself time to contemplate where the danger in gambling with a child could lie, "what is your challenge, boy?"
Our boy quickly tried to remember every legend he has ever heard of a hero who had beaten Death. Sebastian the Good, Cedric the Merciful, Prince Percival the Dignified, Lord Patrick the Faithful, Sir Simon Thomas Christopher Julian de Melival the Precise. They had all beaten Death in some test of their skill. Those skills, however were nothing that our boy was convinced he could perform better than the immortal reaper. Frantic for something, panicking beneath Death's incredulous gaze, there was only one story he that he remembered in full. It was a story his eldest brother told him, and he was quite sure that it was completely made up. And about a troll
guess my name?"
"Your name?" Death repeated with a small smile, "I am to guess your name? Well, little one, what is to be your prize for defeating me?"
"The opposite of what it is you came here for," it seemed sensible enough.
"My boy," Death began with a shake of his head. He reached within his breast pocket and pulled from that seemingly flat dimension a lusterless brass pocket watch. The chronometer looked to have already been through a service covered in a coating of soil reminiscent of depths at which the dirt becomes moist and brought forth with a scuttling beetle scraping its tiny claws across the watch's cover, "everyone has a watch to keep track of their time in the garden. And everyone's name is on their pocket watch. All I need do i"
"NO!" The boy lunged forward. Two small hands, trembling, wrapped around the one of Death's hands in which the pocket was clutched. Cold, clammy fingers are stiff to force around the tarnished time piece. Grabbing the bloated body of a fellow who'd fallen out of bed would have been less horrifying the moisture of this man seemed to all be on the surface and there was this deep seeded chill that immediately shocked the boy. His eyes were wide and he felt the instinctual draw to jump back, but for his life he clung to Death's bare, boney hand and looked him in the eyes, "you have to take the challenge. Take it and then you can look!"
Death sighed. He spent a moment with closed eyes and then withdrew his closed hand from the boys, "Child
everyone's name is on their watch. When two parents discuss what their child's name will be prior to birth
that will be that child's name. If they called you 'the third boy' or 'the short one' that will be inscribed on this watch. If they so much as labeled you "black-haired boy child" while you walked through the orphanage
that will- be on this watch. At least two human minds have given you the same name, boy."
Take the challenge."
Death's face screwed up for moment. He eyeed the child wearily, and with a pre-emptive sadness. If he has this much confidence that he is a nameless wanderer of the world, Death thinks, then that will be miserable enough. Let this child at least leave the world knowing that the universe loved him enough to give him a name. That someone knew and loved him enough to define him as something. Anything, "I accept."
You know how this ends, don't you? I need not drag it out. Death looked at the dirt caked surface of the pocket watch and on it found no name. Nothing was engraved there. No name. Nothing more than the scrapes and scratches of its apparent unearthing sullied the watch's casing. Death looked surprised, but the boy did not.
"Now what happens?" He asked.
"The stories don't say what happens to heroes when they beat you. They just
go on to do more great things.
Is that what I do now?"
Death simply wasn't sure. What had he done here? What was this deal?
just go on living?"
"No," Death answered, "No."
The tall white figure tucked the watch back into his pocket and cleared his throat, "That is not what you bartered for."
Death took a step past the boy, thinking, "The opposite of what I came here for
and what I came here for was to take his life. I can't give him more life though
nothing is more living than any other. Healthy, yes, but not more living
so the opposite of his death
of a- death must be a
living." Death looked back around at the boy and examined him incredulously, "I owe you a job
"A job?" youth asks, "I'm
I'm too young for a job."
"A conventional job, perhaps," Death agrees with a tone, "but since it is I who owe you your living then it will likely be most unconventional indeed. I simply hope we have no labour laws I'm unaware of
pack your things. We're going."