She is cigarette smoke stitched into a human frame, jacket tight like she needs it to keep her skeleton together, keep her bones from bursting free. She is something that only looks up to the stars to drink in their dead light, because they are echoes of the far away and faded, because these are whispers from beyond the grave.
(And they keep the darkness away with their death, and that is something she needs when she is all alone.)
She is hungry, but she forgot long ago how to feed herself.
“You’re quiet, these days.” Red lipstick-smeared lips shape the words, drop them into the salt-soaked air. War has the body of a girl, today, tattered army jacket and a slick black tattoo snaking around her neck. If Death looks at it sideways, she can see blinking eyes there in the hollow of her throat.
“Do you suppose the stars up there are all dead?” she asks, and gets a snort of laughter in return.
“I shouldn’t be surprised that you’re still so damn morbid.” War lights a cigarette with a flash of her fingers, and Death wants to tell her that that sort of creeping death is not her purview. The smoke is acrid, though, and is as familiar as her own heartbeat, so she keeps her silence.
Below, the oily water laps at the pilings, salt water eating away at the concrete a little bit at a time. One day, this city will be underwater, this city whose name she has forgotten, because these mortals stick labels on fleeting things of steel and glass. This will fall, and perhaps they will call on her again.
Rome was nice. They knew her name there.
(All the dark places that worshipped her have been banished by the light, driven away by black-robed fools
waving images of a dead – dying man nailed to an empty symbol.
It has been so long.)
“Where have you been hiding?” War continues, and there is steel and gunpowder in her voice, there is smoke and blood. Death wonders what it tastes like. “I can’t help but make an impression wherever I go, but you? You’re so quiet.”
She nods, because she does not know what else to do. She is quiet because graves are quiet, because skulls do not speak, because the crawl of worms and the creeping rot do not make noises that mortal ears could hear.
War is loud, because from the very first, humanity has screamed as it died.
They each have their roles.
She pushes away from the railing, and there are fingerprints of rust where her hands rested. War scoffs at the decay, spitting smoke like cannon fire.
“Are you off already?”
“See you ‘round, Death.” War sketches a mock salute with her cigarette, the orange ember glowing like a dying star, and Death steps back into the shadows.
She is not nameless.
Death has always had a name, in mortal tongues, spoken with fear or anger or awe. She is caged by what they believe, chained with cold iron and carved gold, fenced in with bone. They have their stories, and they gave her a name – and so she is powerless.
Things without names have the true power.
(There are things beyond the darkness that she does not touch, things that gnaw at the roots of the world. She throws the souls of those she carries into the void, one by one, and the light from them singes her fingers, but they are all swallowed.
And none who set sail into that dark have ever returned. That is where the mortals’ stories get it wrong – there is never a return.)
“We used to work together. Do you remember?” War’s nails are black tonight, the glossy enamel reflecting the neon lights across the street. She leans against the motel window, palms pressed against the dirt-streaked glass, and Death does not ask how she knew where to find her.
There were others who used to speak of the good old days, the golden age of worship and sacrifice and their names on the mortal’s lips. There were others, and they have scattered like lost radio signals flung into the void. She knows where some of them landed, though she does not visit with her kin.
Chaos lives in a shack near a desert, in the shadow of a castle, in an abandoned barrack in a wasteland. They tear thin holes in the fabric of peace and order, their hands always grasping, voice always seeding dissent. They are hungry, like her, but they have the wits to reach out and seize what they need.
Fear sleeps in other’s beds, twining her body through theirs till morning. She tells them it is to drive the shadows away and leaves them come morning light.
(For her own part, Death has lived in the shadows for so long that sometimes she forgets that the stars still shine their doomed light across the million-year gap.)
She watches War and says nothing.
“I used to leave you gifts.” War pushes away from the window, stalking to where Death sits on the edge of the bed, fingers digging into the thin sheets. “Bodies strewn across fields, blood and slaughter and––” She inhales, nostrils flaring like she can smell the charnel stench even now. Death catches the gleam of gunfire in her eyes.
She, too, is hungry for what they once had. (What they had was mastery, and what they have now is a pale shadow of that. Barely even memory.)
“Did you like my wars? Were they – suitable?”
When she leans forward, War’s mouth tastes like smoke and cold wind, like sulfur and flame. She feels it as War smirks against her lips, and her skin is warm against Death’s hands.
“I miss your gifts,” Death admits quietly.
War’s smile is sharper than knives, but her fingers are gentle against Death’s cheek. “I miss you.”
Once, they danced across the sky, cavorting through the mortal’s tales until they became less than they were, more than they would be. Once, there was one of them for every imagination, and the light of their tales around guttering flames kept the darkness at bay, for a time.
Things with names can be forgotten, but they can never fade forever. Names have a power, and as long as the mortals live, she will live. Death will remain, and War will remain, and they will wait for the fading of it all.
Those that remain cling to the shadows, cling to each other. Because the darkness is hungry. The mortals think they can keep it away with tales and gods, but the gods know better.
And the darkness smiles, and waits.