I sat up with a gasp, my hands flying to my chest where, only moments ago, I’d felt that stunningly painful impact. I patted down my uniform, searching for the huge, bloody wound that I’d glimpsed before falling back, everything fading to black…
It wasn’t there.
My brain couldn’t quite seem to understand. But I’d been shot; I remembered it – the blow, like a punch to the chest from a boxer, knocking me back off of the front of the trench and down into its depths. I’d hit the ground hard, my limbs pointing in all directions, but somehow didn’t feel the impact. I didn’t feel anything, really; I tried to pick myself up, but my legs and arms didn’t want to move. I couldn’t even feel the rain hitting my open palms, dripping off of my fingers. I’d just lain there, staring up at the sky, blackness creeping in from the edges of my vision…
WELL, COME ALONG, THEN. THERE ISN’T TIME FOR DAWDLING.
I started at the sound of that… was it a voice? It sounded different, somehow. Almost like I was listening to a vibration, but one that had words encoded in it. It rattled through my head like the tolling of a single, mournful bell.
I looked around – and jumped backwards in fright at the sight of the grinning white face peering down at me.
“What the- the hell are you, demon!?” I burst out, reaching for my rifle as I scrambled back, away from the apparition. “What have you done to me?”
My hands found the rifle – and then slipped right through it, as if it was just an illusion. The huge, looming, white-faced figure over me shook its head.
I KNOW THIS TAKES A MOMENT TO SINK IN, it boomed out, BUT WE ARE ON A TIGHT SCHEDULE. AT LEAST FOLLOW ALONG.
And with that, it turned and strode off across the battleground, not even pausing as bullets cracked through the air. I stared after it, wondering what to do next.
Aw, hell. Tommy Genstein might be many things, but he’s not a coward. I picked myself up and, still a little hesitant, followed after the figure.
As I followed, I tried to make sense of what I was seeing. He was, I observed, very thin. Abnormally thin, far thinner than any person ought to be. Of course, part of that thinness was due to him lacking a lot of important features found on most people.
Skin, for one.
I couldn’t tell about his entire body, given the black, hooded robe that he wore around himself, but I guessed that the grinning skull was connected to an equally skeletal body. As I followed after him, I couldn’t help but notice that his feet, somehow landing a centimeter above the muddy battleground, also appeared to be nothing but articulated bones.
We’d reached the other side of the trenches, now, where the enemy soldiers scrambled up and down and fired at us. The tall, skeletal figure stood on top of one of the trenches, adjusting the stick in his hands-
No, not a stick, I saw. A scythe, but with a blade of glowing blue, so thin as to be nearly transparent.
Somehow, the sight of the scythe made it all snap into focus. “Hey, I know who you are!” I burst out, lifting a wobbling finger. “You’re Death! The Grim Reaper!”
INDEED, Death replied politely, with a little nod of his head. Now, I saw two tiny blue flames inside the eye holes of his skull, burning brightly despite the rain and darkness. NOW, ONE MOMENT. THIS NEXT PART CAN BE TRICKY.
A man leapt up over the top of the trench, howling as he started to charge – and then, barely a step later, he collapsed as bullets thudded into him. Just as he fell, Death swung the scythe, and that thin blue blade cut right through the man, as if he wasn’t even there.
And a second later, a glowing orb hung in the air, motionless even as the man’s corpse fell down into the muck.
WELL, DON’T JUST STAND THERE, Death said to me, gesturing towards the orb. GRAB IT.
I reached out and tentatively took the orb. It felt curiously warm to the touch, although not unpleasant. “Wait, why didn’t he appear like me?” I asked.
BECAUSE THERE ARE QUITE A LOT OF SOULS THAT NEED TO BE COLLECTED HERE, AND I COULD USE ANOTHER SET OF HANDS. Death was already moving off across the battlefield, striding back towards the side that I still thought of as “mine.” COME ALONG.
Well, okay. “Do I get anything for helping you out?” I asked with a vague sense of hope as I tagged after Death, holding the soul of the fallen soldier in my hand. “A good mark on my record or anything?”
Death shrugged. I have to say, until you’ve seen a seven-foot-tall skeleton in a hooded robe shrug, you really don’t understand the impact of that gesture. AFRAID I CAN’T SAY. THAT ALL COMES AFTER MY BIT. BUT THINK OF IT AS ONE LAST GESTURE OF KINDNESS TO YOUR COMRADES ON THE BATTLEFIELD.
“This guy wasn’t my comrade,” I groaned, looking down at the soul of the enemy soldier in my hand. It flared a little, as if in agreement.
YOU ARE ALL HUMAN, ALL WITH THE SAME HOPES, DREAMS, AND FEARS, Death answered, still moving forward. PERHAPS YOU ARE MORE COMRADES THAN YOU REALIZED.
I didn’t have anything to say to that. I followed after him, the rain no longer touching me as I walked just above the churning mud of the battlefield.