Blinked my eyes open.
Wrecked car. Crashed against a tree.
I put my hand on my forehead. Blood, but not too much. A scrape, really.
I looked over to my left. A lot more blood.
Too much blood.
Val had a hole in the back of his head.
Tried opening the car door, but it wouldn’t budge.
Fist hit glass a couple times, until finally it *CRACKED*.
I fell out of the car, my shoulder hitting the grass.
Shoulder hurt, but everything else did, too. Body felt like rubber — hard to move.
Still made my way to the other side of the car. Car door opened. I pulled Val out.
“Oh god,” I muttered. “Oh, god. Oh god.”
He lay there on the grass, unmoving. His chest just wasn’t moving.
I put my finger under his nose. He wasn’t breathing.
“Val,” I said. “Not now, Val. I thought we were… I didn’t even want to do this! Do you hear me? I didn’t want to do this.” My head lay on his unmoving chest. His chest was wet, now. Tears.
“I didn’t want do this,” I whispered. “You made me do this. You can’t go now. Not like this. Not now.”
“Don’t cry for that monster,” a man from behind me said.
I turned around and saw the last living dealer from Demersi’s. He had a gun pointed at my head.
“Hostem’s going to destroy the world,” I said, “and this was the man who was going to stop him. Don’t you get that?”
“He,” the dealer said, “was a monster.”
I looked at Val, blood oozing from his head, soaking his blond hair. He didn’t have a monstrous face — didn’t have any of the hate or loneliness you’d expect from a monster. Really, he looked like a hero.
But the dealer was right, wasn’t he? Val was a monster. There was no way around it — around the killing, the arrogance, the violent ambition required to even think about killing a god.
Still, he’d been humanity’s last hope.
And now he was gone.
I noticed the sword hanging by Val’s side. Unsheathed it.
“What are you doing?” the dealer asked.
I crouched there, sword in hand. “Get away from here.”
“What do you think you’re–”
“Get away from here,” I said. The sword felt heavy in my hand. Hot. My hands felt like they were surging with energy.
“Fuck you,” the dealer said. “You shouldn’t have travelled with that murderer.”
The dealer collapsed.
Putting it all together in my head, I realized that the bullet had ricocheted off the sword, hitting the dealer.
He’d shot himself.
I dropped the sword, looking at my hand. It shook. Felt powerful.
I grabbed it with my other hand. Slowly felt the power drain from me.
Looked down at Val.
Dead. Dead as could fucking be.
A pillar of light shot up out of the ground. Out of it stepped the Angel of Death.
“Death begets death,” she said, looking down on me. “I just got back from Demersi’s.”
“No,” I said. “No, you can’t do this. Val, he… Val has a mission!” I yelled. “He and I are on a quest. We have to complete our quest, don’t you see?”
“I’m on a mission of my own,” the Angel of Death said. “I’m sorry, George. I know you’ve seen a lot of me over the years.”
“No!” I yelled. “No! Fuck you! I have seen too much of you!”
She crouched down, her knees stuck outward and her wings spread across the sky. “I have to do this.”
“No!” I yelled.
“George,” she said, her voice soft, her milk-white hand grabbing mine. “I have to do it. You have to understand.”
“Don’t,” I said, tears streaming from my face. I pulled her hand towards my face. I was getting her hand wet. “You’ve taken so much from me.”
“That’s the way things are,” she said. “Life’s loss. That’s part of the deal.”
“No,” I whispered.
“No!” I yelled. I grabbed the Godkiller with my free hand and picked it up. It was so damn heavy, but every second it was in my grasp, I felt stronger. Every second, it got easier to wield. “I’m tired of being pushed around by the forces of nature.”
“No!” I yelled. “No, no, no! I didn’t want this, understand? I didn’t ask for this. It’s the world that told me I had to go on this journey. It’s the world that railroaded me into this crazy fucked up life. And the one thing that had any hope of consoling me was Val’s confidence. I needed the big, strong Alpha Dog to give me confidence. But now you’re trying to take me away? That’s not how prophecy’s supposed to work. It’s not how destiny is supposed to work. So, no. Sorry. But you can’t have Val. Not now. Not this time.”
The Angel of Death looked at me — sadder and more serious than I’d ever seen her.
“George,” she said, “I have to take his soul.”
“I understand that,” I said. “I get it. But just like you have to do what you have to do, I have to do what I have to do.”
“You think this is what you have to do?” she asked. There was a hint of challenge in her voice, mixing with the sadness.
“Yeah,” I said, voice quivering. “I need Val to fulfill my destiny. I need Val to save the world. So I’m going to sit here with the Godkiller, and you’re going to go away.”
“You think he’ll come back to life if I don’t take the soul?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’d like to find out. I’d like to try.”
She sighed, looking down at the floor.
“Do you know?” I asked. “Do you know what happens if you don’t take the soul?”
“I’ve always been honest with you, George,” she said. “Most people I don’t give a damn about, because frankly I have neither the time nor inclination to give a damn about them. Most people hate me. Most people aren’t worth more than the time it takes to collect their soul.”
“What are you–”
“But I’ve always been honest with you,” the Angel of Death said. “Maybe it’s because I feel bad about the way things went with you brother. Or maybe I just like how interesting you are. I don’t know. But I’ve always been honest with you, and that’s kept me going through some of the terrible things I’ve done. So I’ll give it to you straight: I have no damn idea what happens if I don’t take the soul, but I’m afraid to find out. My job is to make sure no one finds out.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, trying to wipe the tears away from my face. Of course, it was stupid to try and wipe away the tears. There’d always be more.
In a world like this? There’d always be more.
“I have to do this,” I said. “I have to save Val. I have to make sure–”
“I understand,” she said, all the anger rushing out of her voice. In a strange way, she seemed calm. “I just want you to understand what you’re doing.”
“But I don’t understand what I’m doing! Not even you understand how this works!”
“Exactly,” she said. “There’s no rulebook for this. There’s no way I can know what’s going to happen here.”
“I have to do it.”
“I’m not saying you can’t,” she told me, “I’m just saying I don’t know what will happen. He might come back to life, but he might not.”
“I have to–”
“I’m not trying to stop you, George,” she said. “So shut up, and listen to what I’m trying to tell you. I’m telling you to think about what you’re doing. I’m telling you to think about it. Is this what you want? Is the reward worth the risk?”
I calmed down — slowed my breathing — thought about what I was doing.
I hadn’t wanted to go on this mission in the first place. This quest was just my destiny pushing me around, right? Well, now I had to decide if I actually wanted to do it. I had to decide if we should kill Hostem to save the world.
I mean, damn. If a god wanted to kill the universe he’d created, why shouldn’t he? What possible purpose could there be, if Hostem himself couldn’t find meaning in the world?
I sat and I thought. Maybe Hostem did see meaning in the world. Maybe he didn’t really want to destroy it.
I mean, was he omniscient? Did he know everything that was going to happen? Somebody had to — if destiny was a thing, some sort of being had to know how the universe ended, and all the steps that were taken along the way.
Maybe he’d fulfilled his purpose, but the universe hadn’t. Maybe threatening to kill us all was his way of giving our lives meaning — of making us think about what our own meanings could be.
I knew the meaning of my life, of course. I’d been given a destiny. I’d been given a purpose. So what if it didn’t come from within? So what if I needed to take meaning from some other source?
I had meaning. Everyone else did, too, but I didn’t have to worry about that. Asking about the meaning of life was absurd. I just had to think about the meaning of one life — my life. Everyone else could figure out their own meanings — forge their own meanings, if they couldn’t find any external ones.
“Well?” the Angel of Death asked. “What’s it going to be? Can I take the soul?”
— — —
The Angel of Death sat there with me for three days and three nights. I didn’t eat — only had a little bit of water. Somehow, it didn’t seem to matter. What could I possibly be worried about?
Starving to death? Ha.
We would talk for long hours, then follow it with long hours of lonely silence.
At the time, I didn’t really think about what that meant — what the ramifications of that could possibly be.
I remember asking her at one point, “How’d you end up like this?”
Angelic, I meant.
She told me: “I’d been human, just like you. Sad and pathetic, as all humans are. But at the same time, I had an undeniable beauty. Didn’t know it then, but I really was a beauty.”
“Still are,” I said, in a hushed tone.
“Thanks,” she said, “but you don’t need to tell me. I know.”
That made me love her all the more.
“I’d been stupid, too. Wasn’t my fault. When you’re young, you don’t have enough life experience to be anything but stupid. You make mistakes so that you can learn how to make sure they don’t happen.”
“What does this have to do with you becoming the Angel of Death?”
“I made a mistake,” the Angel said. “Fell off a horse while riding into town. Broke my spine.”
“God,” I muttered.
“The Angel of Death was old and sad when I met him — a ghost more than a spirit,” she told me. “Wore a shroud so that most of his body couldn’t be seen. The only thing I was able to see was that bony finger of his. When I lay there on the ground, back cracked and tears streaming down my face, he took a long time standing over me. Took a long time to move to a kneeling position. I’ll never forget the way his bones cracked before his face was a few inches above mine.
“‘You’re scared,’ he told me.
“‘Yeah,’ I told him.
“‘I can make it all go away,’ he told me.
“‘How?’ I asked him.
“‘It won’t be pretty,’ he told me. ‘You’ll have to see death all the time.’
“‘I don’t want to die,’ I told him.
“‘Are you sure?’ he asked me.
“‘Yes,’ I told him.
“I lost consciousness, then. When I woke up, I was the Angel of Death. My back felt fine, and I’d grown wings. The problem was this pit in my stomach, which told me that I had to go somewhere. I closed my eyes, and when I opened them, I was in front of a corpse. My stomach told me to reach my hand down the corpse’s throat, so I did. My stomach told me I was holding onto a soul. Then it told me to take the soul away. I did, only to repeat the process all over again.”
She didn’t seem to be looking at me anymore. I wondered if she was lost in the thoughts, or in the fight with that feeling — that desire to collect souls.
Some time after that, Val gasped for air.
I looked over and saw that he’d been healed.
He sprung into a sitting position, stammering, confused. I’d never seen him confused or inarticulate. It was strange, really. But I supposed death was as good an excuse as any.
“George, I just– I just saw… I just saw the strangest, most beautiful thing.”
“This wasn’t supposed to happen,” the Angel of Death said, getting up. “I’ve no idea what the consequences could be.”
“Thank you,” I said.
A pillar of light formed behind her. She turned around, stepping into it.
— — —
The diner felt eerily quiet, though I might’ve just been projecting.
“You coming off something?” the waiter asked, pencil and pad in hand.
I wiped the sweat off my brow, looking up at him in confusion.
“Drugs, I mean,” the waiter said. “Are you coming down off a drug or somethin’? I ask, ‘cause I’m a recoverin’ drug addict, and I know how it is. It’s tough, man. It’s tough.”
“I’ll just have coffee for now, thanks,” I said, deciding not to make eye contact. Did I really look that bad?
“You sure that’s a good idea?” the waiter asked. “With the jitters you got?”
“Just coffee,” I said, a little louder than I meant to.
The waiter widened his eyes a little, looking annoyed. “Alright, buddy. Whatever you say.”
I was sweating too much. I unwrapped the napkin from the silverware. Dabbed my forehead with it.
Damn. Damn. Damn.
Godkiller had been published and it was a roaring success. I could’ve been anywhere, doing anything. But I was here, now, in a diner sweating like a hog.
Val had asked to meet me here, at this time.
On the one hand, it was considerate. I hadn’t seen the Sun much during the past couple months. Slept during the day, stayed up at night. So asking to meet me now, when the moons were high in the sky and most people had gone to sleep, was considerate.
That’s what I tried to tell myself, anyway. I couldn’t shake the thought that there would be few witnesses, if he tried to murder me.
Wouldn’t that be what I deserved?
I mean, the guy had saved the world, and there I’d been, blowing the fucking whistle, letting the whole world know what we’d done and wondering if it’d all been worth it.
I traced the line in my palm. Found the motion soothing.
“Your coffee,” the waiter said, setting down the mug and pouring me a cup. He left the pot on the table.
God, he was an asshole. I was thankful he was dumb, actually. Meant he didn’t recognize me.
Made him a rare breed.
Val entered the diner — scanned the place like a predator, even though I was the only customer they had. Once he’d swept the room, his eyes locked on me. He walked towards the booth and sat across from me.
Before he got a word out, I began talking: “I know this is tough, but I used a pseudonym, so they don’t really know it’s–
Val raised his hand, so I stopped mid-sentence.
“I’m not upset you had doubts,” Val said. “I’m not upset about the truth in the book and I’m not upset that you wrote it. You’re a writer. Fish swim and writers write. I get all that.”
Val slammed his hand against the table, so I stopped talking.
“Lemme make one thing straight,” he said. “I’m not listening to anything you have to say. You don’t get to talk to me anymore, you got that?”
I didn’t respond.
“I’m pissed off,” he said. “I’m pissed off because you lied, George. You fucking lied to the world about what you did.”
He leaned in real close, getting an inch within my face. He was like a wild animal, and I was some prey. He growled, “I didn’t kill Hostem. You did.”
My cheeks were wet. I raised my head towards the ceiling.
No. It wasn’t true. That seemed true but it wasn’t true.
“I have nightmares, George,” he said. “I never used to have nightmares.”
Val slammed his fist into the table. “You don’t speak. I just wanted to let you know the gravity of your actions. I wanted to let you know that I see things in my dreams. Terrible things. I see the Celestial Wall breaking. I see my dead son wrapped up in a bag. And I don’t want to believe it. I don’t know that I believe it. But the Angel of Death and I have spoken. She thinks this could be the end of the world.”
Val sat there, looking at me, letting the gravity of it all sink in.
“The problem wasn’t killing Hostem. The problem was bringing me back to life. If you’d just had a little goddamn confidence, I could’ve been born again, into a better world. Now? Now I think everything’s going to end, one of these days. And it’s going to be your fault.”
Val got up to leave, but the waiter approached, saying, “You want me to get you something while you go to the bathroom?”
“Fuck you,” Val yelled, shoving the waiter to the floor. He stormed out of the restaurant, while the waiter lay on the floor in shock.
“I didn’t kill Hostem,” I muttered to myself, tears streaming down my face. “I didn’t destroy the world. It wasn’t like that. He didn’t have a choice. I didn’t kill him. It wasn’t me. I didn’t. I didn’t… I…”
There was no point. Val was gone. I wouldn’t see him for several decades.
Those decades seemed to be nothing more than that one conversation, played over and over again in my head, taunting me, horrifying me, hanging over me.