There was only now. I guess that’s all there ever really is, right?
I repeat the question out loud, but the thick mist is a poor listener, and an even poorer companion. It’s cold and aloof, this mist, but it’s all over me like puppies, all through me like sadness, and all around me like Death.
Grim, ubiquitous, unsmiling Death has seen to it I’m the only one who didn’t die.
“To what purpose?” Talking to the mist again. The question sounds like ‘why?, but it’s not the same thing. A purpose implies a task to be completed, something left incomplete that needs to be finished so the next task is revealed, or reveals that another question lies in wait.
Coming out of my thoughts, I realize I’m walking through the mist. It undulates like a nest of ethereal serpents, seemingly harmless in their airiness, their danger not obvious.
I realize also that I’m lost.
I couldn’t go back if I wanted to, and I wouldn’t know what to go back to claim.
Everyone I knew was gone.
Colors flaring, though my eyes are closed.
Drops, dabs, splashes, and swirls come together in impressionist patterns. They’re the colors of fire and smoke, steel and blood, horses and men. They fill my vision, occupy my thoughts until something bigger than all of them blots them out.
I grow inexplicably impatient, and want to say the names of my parents out loud, but if I do and they don’t answer, that will only confirm what I already fear, and indeed, already know.
The ground is hard and damp, but I sit anyway, leaning my back against the bark, even as the ridges of it gently scrape against my shoulders through my shirt.
This hoary patch of grass feels wet and cool beneath my palm, and I splay my fingers, make them intertwine between blades both brown and green, and give the tuft a hard tug.
The roots tear, but don’t break.
Clinging to earth, to life… Life is a midden. There is nothing profitable, beautiful, or redeeming about it.
A profound sadness washes over me as a breeze pushes the mist toward me, and the essence of a shape begins to emerge, drifting like a boat on a calm lake in a slow current.
I hear the words ‘Precious Human,’ in a sibilant whisper, as if it were my name.
I push back against the tree, my skin riddling with goose bumps as the hairs on my arms and neck stand on end. If the tree could have absorbed my body, I would have used it for shelter against looking at the final form of what coalesced to be something dreadful and terrifying.
“Precious Human.” It was finally in front of me, its bony face expressionless beneath the dark hood, a ghostly, ivory contrast to the gray gloom.
I looked at it and all my strength fled.
The sum of all my days unfurled like a black tapestry, woven through sorcery and decorated with blood, gore, and dirt.
In a moment my face was in my hands, tears leaking through my fingers to run down the back of them: I was to die alone in a cold mist, harvested into hell by one of the Reaper’s lackeys.
Knowing full well what it wanted, I gained some semblance of control, wiping water, mucus, and road dirt onto my tattered sleeves.
“What do you want?”
I want to tell you something.
A long silence followed as the figure’s cloak drifted and billowed behind it like a gathering storm cloud in a nightmare.
I managed to stand up, but still leaned against the tree for support.
I began to shiver, and hugged myself for warmth that never came. “What is it you want to tell me?”
You are not the last, Precious Human, but the First.
Everything in me told me not to ask. “The first of what?”
It smiled before it answered, and its eyes flared with a scarlet light. “The first of what’s to come.”
The shivering grew worse, and I braced my palms against the tree as my legs threatened to buckle. “And what might that be?”
The eyes flared brighter. “Damnation.”
I turned to run, but tendrils of mist shot out and seized me, and held me fast by the waist, wrists and ankles.
The figure drifted closer. Hold still, Precious Human; it will be over sooner if you’re still.
I didn’t. I couldn’t.
The scythe descended; I felt it cut and dig, but the slice was not clean. Blood spouted as I writhed and gurgled bloody spit, my flesh growing even colder, limbs twisting in the manacles of mist, my soul crying out to silent gods in abandoned temples, and screaming my agony to a barren sky.
There was only now…