When the angel forced their eyes open, it was because of the soil pressed up against their cheeks warming. They were alone, sitting up to look along up at the place where the mythic phoenix roosted. Their back was sore, though that was an improvement from before they had decided to take a nap. A distraction from the pain in their aileron, which had since sleep faded away.
Mayhaps not a good sign, but at least it wouldn’t hamper the last leg of their journey. One foot in front of the other, they began to climb the fresh soil on the sleeping volcano, home of the wizened tree.
Forgiveness knew fatigue, but it had never stopped them before.
It was time to consider what it was they would return with. When they had come up with this idea in the first place, they had thought about the phoenix alone, but now that they had come all this way, they knew it would be ridiculous to think about taking the phoenix back with them. Even if they had been capable of it, which they never had been, removing the phoenix from their home would have been a cruel thing to do. Which left them with the question: what might be left for them that Forgiveness could take?
Forgiveness considered a feather, wondering if the phoenix who lived here would be willing to part with one. Well, no way of knowing the answer but to ask, so the angel continued their path up the mountain.
Death would laugh them right back into spring, the angel knew, when they showed up like this. This far for a representation of a concept they could have spoken to him about. Forgiveness knew better. They knew Death wouldn’t take them seriously. That was what this effort was for. For Death to actually listen to the point Forgiveness wanted to make.
The way was long and tiring, even for the most rested of traveller, but especially for one who had already made their way from afar and spent most of their energy doing that. The angel wished they had another options to ease their way. To fly, to ride. Those were options they had had available earlier on in their question. Now both had vanished, leaving them with their hands and feet, the same as any human mortal.
What the angel had once believed themselves to be.
The hound was made out of bone. Bone so white it seemed difficult to think had had been exposed for as long as they had. When the bone was left uncovered enough to be white, in any case. Currently he had covered himself in mud and appreciating the assistance in cleansing himself.
While Pup enjoyed himself immensely, it didn’t mean he wasn’t listening to what the angel was saying. Forgiveness was his best friend, besides his master. He would listen to anything Forgiveness had to say. But he especially listened when Forgiveness spoke of his master. His master was the hound’s favourite subject. Other than fetch, of course. He rather liked fetch too. His master first, but fetch was a close second. Oh, and the angel, of course. The angel was on par with fetch. The angel often played fetch with him. Not in the same way as his master, of course. Not with skulls flying across the open fields. Usually with something less…
Pup didn’t understand the angel’s words, but the intent was clear. Forgiveness needed to find a present for his master and the sower. It was a very particular present. It wasn’t belly rubs. Pup thought those were the best presents. They were so easy to give! They were even easier to receive, too. Then again, his master required very particular things. Touch wasn’t usually one of them. Touch wasn’t ever one of them, unless it was the hound doing the touching. Even though it was Forgiveness, Forgiveness wouldn’t fare any better than anyone else would if touching his master.
His master was his alone for that. Pup knew that made his master very sad sometimes. It never used to, he thought. Like it was a new thought for his master.
The last of the mud and dirt scraped from his bones, the hound shifted in the water, resting his head on his back to watch the angel work. They had no qualms about getting their hands dirty. Or the rest of them, for that matter. Flecks of mud in their wings, smeared above their brow, clothing completely soaked from the water they tread to completely clean the hound. It felt nice, but it was almost over.
It turned from an explanation to a question. Pup stood up, shaking off the water from his ankles upward, where the water no longer touched. Forgiveness flitted back, then rested upon his back. A very light touch, as though they could go away in an instant.
They wanted quick travel. No one was faster than the hound. (Well, some were, but they weren’t as important and they didn’t travel quite so often, so Pup decided the fastest was his title by default. His master didn’t want it. His master had the title of being everywhere, so he didn’t need to be fast.)
Pup took the angel where they wanted to go.
Forgiveness had a general idea of where they headed. Pup listened to their directions as they gave them. Forgiveness didn’t often talk a lot – not in comparison to his master and the sower. When they thought about where they might find what they were looking for, they kept quiet, not speaking aloud as even other mortals might. It was a silence of complete clarity. They didn’t hide anything by being silent. That was not their intention. They simply had nothing to say yet, so they would say it when they had thought of it.
The hound had no idea about phoenix. They weren’t in his purview. His master dealt with phoenix and the angel let him know why. Phoenix do not die for long, as they are reborn right after their end.
Pup’s tail whipped back and forth in excitement. He wanted to meet such a creature. One that didn’t belong to his master. That had to be exciting. Everything belonged to his master, at the end of what they were doing here. Not that Pup’s master told him what they did after they belonged to him.
They traveled for some time. Forgiveness passed that time by talking to the hound about things that the sower had been up to and other conversations they had had with his master. He liked hearing about those things. The sower was really nice too. His master liked her as well. It was nice, his master usually pretended not to like things like that. Other than his hound, of course. No one would believe that Pup’s master did not love him.
They flew over the terrain. Which was a matter of speaking. It was the angel who had the wings, after all, but the hound had the speed and left nary a mark upon the ground as he passed through. Unlike his master, who could not move without leaving an imprint of his existence. Unlike the sower, who made the opposite mark upon the ground. Pup took it all in, inhaling as they passed through river, forest, mountain, desert, able to taste the LIFE and DEATH which permeated every single breath through the canals of his skull which mimicked a form of nasal passage.
An odd clicking sound slowed him, especially as the angel’s grip went from hanging on to using his spine as a way to look around without falling off. Something powerful, the hound knew. Forgiveness gave it a name, but it didn’t mean all that much to Pup. All he knew was that it sensed large and in charge.
Pup lowered his chest to the ground, back legs still vertical as his tail whipped back and forth, slamming into the well entrenched giants of the jungle. The force may have rocked the canopy above, but at their roots they remained still. Those that could move away from the vicinity did. Just as well, Pup didn’t have any interest in playing with them. Mostly because they weren’t interested in the first place. If others had interest, well of course Pup would want to play with them. It was what he liked doing most.
The creature slithered forward on hundreds of thin, synchronized legs. It pulled its front end up and back, creating a general S-shape with its body. The front end opened up, a large gaping hole with teeth inside, shrieking at the both of them.
The hound barked once, twice, in response.
Forgiveness wasn’t sure the creature wanted to play. They warned Pup not to put his hopes up, but he was already in the moment. It wasn’t often that a creature so far away from his master’s domain strode right up to him. He usually had to preempt any sort of communication. He liked this.
At least, he liked it until the creature struck. The hound jumped out of the way, all play, but the creature slithered up and around him, trying to hold him down while also trying to slip Forgiveness into their mouth.
Pup batted it aside. That wasn’t allowed. He might put the angel in his mouth, but that was different. Other people weren’t allowed to do that. Forgiveness was his friend.
The insect crashed against the jungle arbour, causing the thick wood to moan in response.
The angel said something, but now Pup was annoyed. The beast skittered around the tree it had crashed into and darted toward the hound again, as if it could possibly do something to DEATH’S HOUND.
Pup batted it aside again, then took the angel by the fabric at the scruff of their neck and bounded out of there. It was long gone, after a few strides. Pup let Forgiveness go, their hair completely windswept around their face, the air pressing against their face leaving it a little pale, despite the moist heat the both of them had been in.
At least, that was how people described that sensation. The hound wasn’t fazed.
The angel settled back on the hound’s back, rubbing their hands together. Throwing his head back over his shoulder, the hound tried to lick Forgiveness despite a lack of a tongue. It made them smile nonetheless, patting the end of his nose.
When the angel had bundled up once more, the hound continued on the path the angel wished they would take. This went on for hours, not in a straight line. Then again, the angel was guessing where this phoenix dwelt. Pup knew his master would know, but considering the point of this venture telling Pup’s master seemed besides the point.
There were more creatures like that first one, that did not fear DEATH or things associated to him. Such as his hound, who usually got the same reaction as his master, no matter how different he might actually be. Such as the fact Forgiveness could ride on his back. Even if Pup’s master was large enough to fit the angel on his back, that would not be possible.
Nothing living could touch the hound’s master and remain that way.
Forgiveness thought they were getting close when Pup could scent more curious creatures on the way. Whether they were here to play (as none of them had been) or here to act in the same manner as the others, he did not know, but Pup was inclined to believe the former no matter how many times the latter had actually been the case. His tail began to wave, left and right and left again. Forgiveness had a few words, patting the back of his head and taking slightly to the air above him.
Then it came. The loud whistle which echoed in the hound’s existence. His form went taught, head turning back in the direction the sound had come.
His master beckoned.
The angel could have come with, knowing what would happen next. The hound had no choice in responding to his master’s call. The hound saw no problem with this. Neither did the angel. Most of all, that was what his master expected.
Forgiveness did not hold onto him and Pup left them behind to trail off in a completely different direction to where his master waited for him. He would return to the angel later. After all, Forgiveness was their friend. Maybe they would have found the phoenix by the time the hound returned.
Pup returned to DEATH.
At a certain point, there was nothing more to come of standing here.
Life hadn’t been certain that it would work, but had remained nonetheless. The grass overgrew, the buds bloomed almost too quickly, the creatures came forth from their slumber to browse. This was one of the places Forgiveness liked to come. Life hadn’t meant to bring so much here, as she had, but she had thought staying here might mean the return of her angel.
As her angel had not returned, Life should have moved on. However, her mind was absent.
She distracted herself in her sowing. Gravitating to the hatching spiders, who swarmed from the sac. Ever present, Life was, even to the cat who was delivering away from the park, on the other side of the city. The recovering human in the hospital, whose body now teamed with the energy it needed to walk on their own. This usually took Life’s full attention, unless someone could see her form and address her personally, which no one was. No one saw Life, she wasn’t like her counterpart. She was always there.
For being there, she knew her angel must be somewhere. Still that is where her mind dwelt, away from her tasks at hand. More growth, another birth, more health. Her angel usually didn’t spend so much time away from her without checking in. She had no say over where Forgiveness went, she had never claimed to nor did she want such a thing. Forgiveness had always told her where they were going. She didn’t know why.
Yet they hadn’t done so this time. They had told her they had something important to do and they would return when they were done. She believed this. Then they had left and Life had not seen them sense. Her angel must have still been busy, with whatever it was that was so important to them. The seed of curiosity had diminished, leaving her with the blossom of loneliness she had never felt before. She was Life. She was connected to all living things. She was never alone.
Despite the fact none of them saw her. None of them knew about her, only what she gave them. Something she had given up true mastery of long before.
Not that anyone needed to know that.
The reason her mind distracted upon this wasn’t solely because of Forgiveness’ absence. Life was so focused on that, because it was one of the few things she could focus on, as flowers sprang forth and nectar became sweeter and mushrooms sprouted and the branches reached higher…
Death had either been lack in his duties or had found himself busy elsewhere. This city was almost too full of life. Too many things growing, too many lives forming. This should not have been the case. Life should have moved on as so to counter this, though her own absence would not have done enough to balance the excess here. Her garden of this land needed some weeding.
But there was a little too much now and Life was distracted. Life had no idea how bad it might become. It was like this and she was always unable to see it if she missed the first signs. Which she had. Because she was thinking of how nice it was to be so surrounded.
Then the wasp larvae hatched. They ate the spider, paralyzed as the creature had been, nourishing their new life. A dog was hit by a car. A man finally succumbed to his prolonged illness, thanking Death with his last breath.
“Hey there, beautiful.”
Life tore her attention away from the wasps and looked upon Death. He had no eyes that she could see, only black holes that claimed everything they lay upon. He always looked hungry to her eyes, though that was only to be expected. Occasionally she thought he was less so, but that was always when he was distracted enough not to be looking at her.
They were always keen upon the other’s presence – it was rare for one to surprise the other. Life had been very lost in her own mind to have left him come so close without realizing.
She smiled, nonetheless, glad to see him. “I wondered where you were.”
A woman stabbed her friend. A bird found an entire nest of insects. A car accident happened when the man, slumped over in the driver seat, veered off into the incoming lane.
He might have been trying to overdo it a little, to make up for his absence. She might have teased him for it at another time, but as Death’s simple presence did it’s work Life could think clearly again.
“Where I have been? All over.” His grin was near frozen at the moment, but she could tell he was actually amused, if not also annoyed. She never understood the whys of him sometime, but knew she had much more awareness of him than he ever had of her. It explained some of his questions to her. “The real question, my lady, is why you’ve been so aimless? It’s so obvious.”
Tact had never been one of Death’s strong suits. “It is good to see you too,” Life said, as honest as she ever was. “It has been so long since we have inhabited the same place. I can see your work wherever I go-”
“I see more of your work, I think.”
“-but I don’t feel it the same as seeing you.”
Her words came out calm, smooth, as she always was. Drastic changes in emotion were left for others. Life had acceptance, it came from how much her existence covered. Beginnings came in all forms. Ends did too, in a way, but at the same time it still came to a similar stop.
“You do a good job at trying to forget my question.” Death propped his scythe in front of him, everything where the handle drove into the ground dying as he leaned his forearms upon the top of the blade. It would not cut him. It would not harm him in any way. He could do whatever he wished with that blade.
The grass between them was in an odd state of flux. Dead, closest to him. Living, closest to her. Dying, somewhere in the middle.
“How long have you been doing this all on your own again?” Death asked. “I thought you’d gotten used to that fluttering company of yours. Is that what’s distracted you?”
They were similar in this aspect, though Death had made his companion long before. The hound which helped him with his work. Life was enthralled in the impossibility of that. If she were to tell Death it was the same as him giving LIFE, he would deny it, but that is what he had done with the hound. Taken from himself and made something living, someone important to him, like him yet not. The hound could take some of the burden from Death’s shoulders, not that he had ever acted like it was a burden.
Life created so many things, allowed for so much more, but nothing she made could take any of her task. Not on the level at which she was. Every living being had the chance at adding a little, putting a small bit forward, but their amounts were microscopic in the whole. All together, they were important. Yet none of it was a stand in for Life. Life could not let anyone take her burden. She shouldered it alone.
Alone. A concept she used to not comprehend. It was such a mortal concept.
“Forgiveness has been absent,” she told Death. “They had something important they had to do, but they have yet to return.”
Death chuckled, a grinding sound. “The last I saw them they were up to their usual tricks.”
“Now, now. I would hardly say what they get up to are tricks. That’s more of your fare, I believe.”
“Caught me red handed. Oh, wait, that’s blood.”
She laughed. “I know you take your work very seriously.”
“Everyone else does. Well, for the most part.”
She shrugged, finally standing up from where she had been kneeling in the flora. Moving her feet, the greenery exploded around her. Not as much as it would have in other circumstances. Not with him so close. She could feel the life leaving everything around him. He didn’t even seem to notice, but she knew he had to be keenly aware. He was a sharp one, Death. Tough cookie, she had said, but the meaning was lost on him other than in whatever media he had consumed. The day he ate something would be very interesting indeed. The day he could…
Life returned the conversation to Forgiveness. “They must be doing well. After all, you would tell me if they were not?”
Death was still smiling, but it had turned wry. “I haven’t taken them from you yet. I’m not sure I want them.”
That hadn’t stopped him before. It never would. Death was awfully possessive.
The space between them was becoming erratic, constant birth, constant death, uncertain where the line was. Life almost asked him to stay. She could see he was readying himself to leave. Leave her to feel empty.
So mortal, the desire to escape emptiness. As mortal as all her children and the lives she would give them. What would it be like? To live a single life, without this responsibility?
To become Death’s, once and eternal?
“Well, I’m off before I cause a plague.”
“It was nice to see you.”
“You too, my lady.”
How long had he been there? He was gone again, for so much longer. Life was not distracted as she once was, but did spend some time watching the mortal beings around her. The grass grew back. Time moved on. She would care for them as she always cared for every living being.
Except Forgiveness, who cared for her back. She yearned for them to return. For the mortal who had managed to remain with her the longest.
For the mortal who knew who she was and still saw her.
The blade hit the skull and it went flying off into the distance. Death watched as his hound chased after the bone, catching it miles away. He chuckled, moving over the muck of the swamp as it tried to collect the rest of the bodies before Death could have fun with them. Well, the suffering was over. At least, the suffering of those he had come to collect.
Even the plants that lived in this swamp, the insects which couldn’t get far enough away, the frogs who had been injured by what had transpired here… They would come to him, in their own ways, as their bodies failed them. As their lives came to an end. So simple. So artificial. They didn’t last very long. They never did.
Pup came back to him, tail flinging itself every which way, happily bringing back the skull. It was slimed, swamp slime, and Death tried to take a step back as Pup dropped it on his head, but he still got it all over his robes. He made a face, then ignored it to reach up for the large hound’s jaw.
With a big huff, Pup lay down to allow Death a good access to scratch at his jaw. Then he became impatient and flipped onto his back, showering the air with muck and exposing mud and blood which lay upon his bones. Death rubbed his stomach, what the hound obviously wanted. Then he leaned against one of his ribs, cleaning off the already clean head of his scythe. He didn’t want anything on it when it went to storage with the rest of his scythes.
Though if anyone realized he had more than one, well, he would have to deny it. Death only came in one form, after all.
The hound that he could touch. The only thing “ALIVE” in his reach. Only the wind matched the hound’s movement, wind Death was certain was trying to spy on him as it carried his looming messages to those around. By the scent of him, the sound of him (or lack thereof)… what a deceitful wind. Death didn’t like it. There were times he thought it was funny, but right now he had taken himself out of the mood by paying attention to the few things he had to him.
Pup would have had his tongue lolling out of his mouth if he had had a tongue.
“You wish I gave you one of those, don’t you?” Death reached inside Pup’s mouth, wrapping his fingers around a tooth and pretending to wiggle it.
The rest of the hound’s body thrashed, though his face remained still. Death scratched at the roof of his mouth, causing a shiver to run up Pup’s spine – something that was obvious when no flesh concealed the bone. Death blew a breath into his mouth and pulled back in time for the hound to sneeze.
“You don’t have anything that would allow you to do that, you weirdo,” he told his hound.
Death was done here and there was always more to do, but sometimes he couldn’t be bothered to be prompt. Not when he knew the inevitable. He would keep doing as he wished, but in his own way. He moved on from this battlefield to the next bunch of dying that he would save from their twisted torment.
On the way, he found someone who should not have been there.
“Angel. Isn’t this past your bedtime?”
Forgiveness looked up at him. Death noticed what had their attention. A small burrow, with life still inside. Four mice, the only creatures in the vicinity who had survived the skirmish around them. Who had survived Death’s personal touch in the area. Death kept his distance. They were not injured, they were not sick, they were not his. Yet.
The angel smiled, not worried in the slightest that Death might kill them, or the other mammals nearby. Their complete lack of reverence over his presence, especially when they were much more aware of it than even the most observant of mortal creatures, sometimes annoyed him. They waved.
“What are you up to?” he asked. Perhaps he treated the angel like a child, but compared to him every living being on earth was a child. And Forgiveness acted like one, even by mortal standards.
Pup bounded over, greeting Forgiveness with no awareness of decorum. Forgiveness laughed, patting him, and the mice in their burrow skittered away. Death watched them go with partial attention, most upon his hound.
“Behave, will you?”
That only got his hound to bound over to him. Death was glad he hadn’t made Pup with the ability to put slime all over him. For a canine type appearance, that would have certainly been what he would have done had he hidden within a mortal form. Pup had that ability, though Death hadn’t let him know that yet. Death wasn’t certain how he had managed that one, after all. He wasn’t sure why he would need it, either. Pup would likely become more insufferable, with skin and hair.
Forgiveness beamed at him. At Death, that was. The angel was like that, as if they were close. Metaphorically of course. Even if the angel seemed to come closer than they should. Death was very careful to make certain they retained that distance. Forgiveness didn’t seem to understand that they would very well die and belong to Death, whether he wanted it or not, if they came too close.
That wasn’t true. Death knew that Forgiveness was aware of this. Yet they always tempted fate. Death couldn’t imagine why, though he spent a great deal of mental power trying to figure it out.
“You shouldn’t be out here,” Death tried again, mollified a little when Pup returned to his side. Almost instinctively he reached out with a finger to his side to tap Pup’s rib.
“Hello,” said the angel. Happily. As they were.
“Causing more trouble, are you?”
Forgiveness tilted their head to the side, confused. Death snorted.
“I don’t know what you’re up to, angel, but you’re not fooling me.” Even if they weren’t doing it on purpose, though that seemed to be unlikely. How could the angel do as they did without realizing at least part of the effect they were having on the unchangeable around them? “Giving the gods strange thoughts. The last time I spoke with Life, she told me some strange things. Strange things which came from you.”
Forgiveness thought about it for a few moments, before appearing to draw a blank. “What did Mom say?”
Mother Nature indeed. “There’s only so close one should look into mortals, unless they were helping us with our jobs, you know.” Which meant plenty of mass murderers, genocidal leaders and successful hunters under his purview. And corals. Which usually shortly after Life had been with them.
His words didn’t appear to enlighten Forgiveness any. Did they not understand what Death said?
When had Life begun to pay so much attention to the lives she gave? There were too many, too much, and such little time to really invest in them while they were alive. There was a lot more to be said in DEATH.
The angel continued to not understand. Life’s odd new interest in questioning in the lives of mortals, perhaps it may have been a question raised by her newfound ability to spend time with one – one who had lasted longer, one who saw her and treated her as they treated everyone – but Forgiveness might not have done this on purpose. After all, Death remembered the first time he had seen them. As mortal as anything else. They had not expected to see him. Not expected him to be what he had presented himself.
Why a mortal was aware of them without their own power allowing them was a mystery for the ages. One that simmered inside Forgiveness and nowhere else. In which case, perhaps Life’s recent statements came from this and nothing deliberate. Perhaps she had always wondered these things, but now that a mortal tagged along with her she found a voice to speak of it with him?
He and Life shouldn’t have talked as much, but that would not stop them any time soon.
“She says many things. She does so like to talk about you.”
Forgiveness was thrilled to hear it, even if it couldn’t have been shocking news. “You like talking to her?”
“It doesn’t have to be about you,” Death said mildly, before having to take it back further.
“I talk with her. I like it as much as I like talking with you, which is to say, in various degrees.”
“You like talking with me?”
Childlike, they were. “You can be amusing some times. Just as you can at times be not.”
Forgiveness still smiled up at him, unfazed by the dark abyss they must have seen there by looking straight into his eyes. Then there was that look in their own eye, one he had started to recognize. It came very rarely, but always preceded a certain word that Death was beginning to understand the meaning of. The more he came to understand it, the more he believed Forgiveness didn’t understand this simple mortal concept. It came to show more of Forgiveness’ oddities, despite being a mortal being…
“I’ll leave you to whatever it is you’re doing out here,” Death said irritably. “Though you should return to her soon, if you wish to keep your place. Time means different things to us than it does to you, you must remember.”
“Can I call you Dad with the time I have?”
Death ground his teeth. “Immortals are not what you think us to be, angel. Family is a mortal concept. I think you would do best to remember this, if you wish to spend what time you have left amongst the living remaining around us. Before you become mine.”
Forgiveness had something they wished to say, but Death did not linger in which to hear what that was. He left. For a moment, he thought he had left alone, but his jealousy subsided when Pup remained in pace with him, at his side. Death slowed down, stopping as the life around him fled. As living things were supposed to do.
Pup pushed his head into Death’s side. Death reached up to stroke the top of his head, letting his hand linger upon the dirty bone longer than necessary. “You shouldn’t encourage them. I know you’re at fault for the angel’s thoughts about us.”
That tail waved slowly, those black holes showing more emotion in them than Death’s ever could. He wasn’t sure how his hound could express such things, when he had such limited make up to change to show them. A skull shouldn’t have been able to display expressions. There was only supposed to be a smile upon a skull.
“That’s enough for right now. You can go. Do your frolicking. There is always more work to do.”
He didn’t have to tell his hound when to come back. Pup would always be there when he called, no exceptions. As long as Death had that, he didn’t need anything else.
Forgiveness had spent so much of recent time flitting about behind Life, distracting her from her sowing. Nothing took them away from her for long, for whatever reason. But what was the angel doing so far away from Life?
The wizened tree stood on top of the volcano, a rather pathetic looking spindly piece of dried wood, that somehow could support the weight of the bird which slept on top of it.
Forgiveness rubbed at their arms, looking at the majestic beast. The feathers were of varied colour. The plumage of the body was golden where exposed with the occasional line of a deep red which showed between the line of each feather. Her wings darkened, where those two different colours blended together into a ruby tip for each primary feather. The scales of her feet were red as well, with white nails, which were same colour as the beak. It stood in contrast to the carmine colouring of the head. No other winged creature would look like this, especially not at this size.
And at this stage of life, looking very healthy. Nowhere near the rebirth in her cycle.
Forgiveness sat down to take a moment – particularly to see what they could do about their own wings. Such a mess, after Pup had left them, and they hadn’t been fast enough to pass unscathed through the creatures of the world that tended to think an angel didn’t belong. Forgiveness was used to this behavior, though they usually did better at avoiding any marring caused by it. They didn’t want to return to Life like this, their pain would sadden her.
Then there was a sound. The angel looked up and saw what it was. Bright sapphire eyes glimmered with irritation. The phoenix had awakened. Apparently there was some sort of protocol that Forgiveness hadn’t observed by coming up here like this and the phoenix wasn’t happy.
Her wings extended and it was like flames shot out from the motion. But it was simply warm air, maybe a circulation from that very volcano. Forgiveness thought otherwise. It wasn’t the same sort of heat from exertion or from the vents of the earth. It caught Forgiveness’ breath and would have knocked them to the ground if they hadn’t already been sitting. It did make them close their eyes against the pressure and when they opened them again, the phoenix was there in front of them, beak opened and talons flashing.
The angel opened their mouth. “Can I have a symbol of your reincarnation?”
The phoenix stopped, neck bending down to drop her head down to Forgiveness’ level. “You wish for something of mine?”
Forgiveness nodded. “I need something. For a gift.”
Those blue eyes peered into Forgiveness, then around at the rest of their mortal body. “You have come a long way for a gift.”
“It can’t just be anything. It’s for Life and Death.”
If the discussion hadn’t gotten the phoenix’s attention and the subject hadn’t garnered her curiosity, the mention of Life and Death settled the phoenix’s temper where nothing else had. The feathers which had ruffled and made the creature look so much larger had settled to give her the sleek profile that she had shown while sleeping upon the wizened tree.
“You wish to gift something to Death? And Life? Whatever for? Life has everything she would ever want in creation. Death receives the truth of everything at their end of this form of their existence. Why would you want to gift either with a mere object?”
Forgiveness shook their head. “It’s not just an object. It’s a symbol.”
Those eyes shone. “A symbol of what, little creature?”
The angel leaned back on their hands, a better angle to look up at the bird. “I wanted to give them something to show how close they are to each other. After all, someone like you exists. They aren’t as far away from each other as they think.”
For a moment, it seemed as though the phoenix had lost interest. She turned away from Forgiveness and extended her wings once more, though not as much as before, hopping back up to her roost. Her feet turned her around, back to the position she had taken before Forgiveness arrived. Her eyes remained open, still fixed upon them.
“I have always known that the last thing I will ever see will be Death. I remember seeing Life when I came to in this current existence. Old friends, the both of them, that I remember and forget at the same time. They are both a comfort to me and my continual cycle, full of the same mistakes, full of the same joys.” She peered even more closely at them. “Not that you would know, with your own mortal existence. Though I did mistaken you, you are certainly not human.”
Forgiveness frowned. “I guess.”
“I used to think I was.” Now they didn’t know. They were sure what had changed, when it had changed, why they had thought they were human in the first place. Their life made much more sense since they had become Life’s angel.
“You are certainly an interesting being.” It sounded as though there was laughter behind her voice.
She rose up her left wing and placed her head under it, eventually seeming to pull out a feather. However, when the phoenix pulled her head back out, it wasn’t with a feather in beak, but a silent shimmer of flame. Extending her head down, the ball of flame dropped from her beak and landed near the roots of the wizened tree.
“Here, enough fire for two. You may give them both this.”
Forgiveness got back to their feet and approached, stopping before the tree to stoop down and pick up the flame. The warmth was comforting and parted in their hands, splitting into two equal parts that easily combined once more.
“In many languages, fire is described in various ways, the ways that both give credence to Life and to Death. Blossoming flames, consuming flames. To grow, to kill. This is what fire is.”
Holding it close, taking some form of sustenance from the warmth, Forgiveness nodded. “Thank you.”
“I am not the only creature to both live and die, angel. They have long since been blinded by time, but if they looked a little closer, they would not need a gift from me to see what they have to share. You spend much time with them both?”
“Then you would know best, would you not? Perhaps better than I, unless you have died and lived many times as I have?”
“If I have, I don’t remember any of it,” Forgiveness admitted.
For some reason, the phoenix seemed mollified by this, though she continued on as though there had been no doubt. “Without the cacophony of changing forms, you have spent much time with Life and Death. You have seen them occupy the same space?”
Forgiveness nodded again.
“You would know best, would you not? How they do not affect each other at a distance? How destructive they are upon reality when they are close together? Things which are not alive don’t know what to make of near death. Things which are dead do not know what to do with returning life. Yet, at the very crux of it, when touching?”
This time when she extended her wings, it was simply to display her full splendor. The beauty of a phoenix. A gesture she would make at any time in her life. The meeting point of Life and Death.
“Thank you,” said the angel.
“Go with this gift, but forget not who gave it to you. Whether in this life or another, I will wish the favour returned, angel. I may lose the occasional detail, but I do not forget what I am owed.”
Not likely to forget such a thing within their own life, Forgiveness climbed back down the volcano. The warmth of the phoenix’s gift gave them the strength where they might not have had it before. Nevertheless, returning to where Life or Death would be might take some time. There were the places that Forgiveness knew well, but the world was vast. While Life and Death might traverse it all, the angel had yet to do so. Finding either might take longer than finding a phoenix had.
Even the flames of the phoenix could only give Forgiveness so much energy. They wished to sleep, nestled in that little house they had made, with Life watching them with such curiosity, as though she had never seen someone make a house before. Which was untrue, she had seen it so many times. She had helped them, with walls made out of trees, with carpets made out of moss, until Forgiveness had fixed everything to what would be good for them.
It was as though Life had learnt so much that day. Something Forgiveness was happy to teach her.
Forgiveness stopped to rest after making some distance, when they heard the sound of the wind. It brought with it the pretend panting of the hound, who hadn’t actually broken a sweat to catch up with them. Figuratively, of course.
A low whine came from his throat. Forgiveness reached up to climb up the bones, settling themselves on to the hound’s back. They would have asked to go home, but Pup already shot off as soon as Forgiveness had gotten into the best position. They pressed down against the bone, the warmth from the flame keeping the wind at bay as they shot through the world, back to home.
Or, at least, to Death.
The angel couldn’t help but pay rapt attention when Pup slowed down, looking at the charred remains of the large building that Death was sifting through. He knocked the occasional thing aside with his scythe, not bothering to look until hearing Pup’s whine. His head didn’t move and he didn’t stop his random behavior.
“Where have you been, angel?”
Forgiveness sat up, before Death might actually note anything about them. They didn’t know how much Death might be aware, especially with what they held on them, but they wanted to make sure it was still as much a surprise as possible. Separating part of the fire from the other piece, they placed part of it back in their shirt as they slipped down from Pup.
Death turned to them, but before an inquisition could begin, Forgiveness held out the flame to Death.
Death said nothing. He did not reach out, but Forgiveness didn’t back off. They waited for him.
Finally, Death reached out one hand, palm upward, and waited. Forgiveness felt it, felt what it was that Death was trying to avoid, even if no part of their body reacted in the way that one might have expected. Forgiveness dropped flame into his hand.
Neither of them said anything. There was nothing to say, it seemed. Forgiveness looked up into Death’s face. Death did not look back, not immediately, but eventually Forgiveness could tell that Death was staring them back. Two abysses in his face, calling to them. A call Death couldn’t stop, but one that he always gave.
Forgiveness stayed put, but smiled tiredly up at him.
“Take the angel back to her, Pup,” Death said, fingers closing around the fire. “Before they get into more trouble.”
Before Forgiveness could do or say anything more, the hound picked them up by the scruff of their shirt and placed them back on his spine.
There was something they had needed to say, a word to Death about the gift, even if they had no need to explain the reason behind it. Death knew why Forgiveness had done this, didn’t he?
The angel wondered. The rhythmic motion of the hound, moving along back to home. Back to Life. The warmth pressed up against their chest. They wondered what Life’s reaction would be, if she would have a word to say about it. If she would understand as quickly as Death had.
Whether either would then… return to acceptance.
Forgiveness, with a smile upon their face, drifted off to sleep.