There are reapers who see their victims as nothing more than sources of power or information. There are those who have been rendered bored, and therefore dangerous, by centuries of labour. This is one of them.
The room was alight with crystals hung from curtains, with the animated sparkle of champagne in polished glasses. Conversation thundered like the tide, ebbing, flowing, resounding against the walls. Every inch of the hall adorned with white and iridescent violet, the air rendered heady and charming by a pervasive floral scent.
Such an electric feeling, to wind his way through the crowd and know how many of its smiles were for him. So many of their fortunes built by his hand - to many, he surely appeared as the spectre of luck itself. Raising their glasses in congratulation or clasping their hands over his, courting his favour in the most transparent and ridiculous ways.
Wise move. Each of them knew what had been done to supply their own luck, even if they couldn't stand to admit it to themselves in so many words. In that way he was not only Good Fortune to them, but keeper of the secrets that they wouldn't dare to mention in the presence of any other. So clear to see in their rigid smiles, and the fear that glazed their eyes when he turned in their direction. Of all those in that palatial room, he was the one with the most power, and they had only themselves to blame for the fact.
Both gratifying and cloying to be watched so closely by the weak. Something to be savoured, but at the same time, the scent and rising voices of that hall always became oppressive in the end. At last, he pulled himself away from the hands and the desperate conversation, seeking refuge on the balcony that overlooked the countless constellations of the city below.
A sea of light to mirror the stars, and every door in it would open to him somehow. He could be anywhere they feared to find him, and so they were forced to entertain him in that way, simply so he wouldn't be bothered to try. A life so close to perfect that each question and blemish stood out all the more.
For example, the fact that he was not nearly as alone as he had thought or wanted. A hint of movement tugged at the corner of his eye, and turning to face its source only painted his face with a deeper frown.
It was not a place for children, nor for the humble and poorly dressed. So who had admitted that ragamuffin, with his knobby knees and grey, tattered scarf? Hair as pale and eyes as absent as death, hands wound tight around an object that could only be seen for the distinctive glint of its metal?
"You..." The word seemed to fall slow and heavy from his lips, and how had he planned to follow it? What could be said in response to those eyes, to someone who looked so much like a tragic character from some centuries-old novel?
Nothing, as those small fingers unwound to reveal the mystery that they carried. A small silver bell, its note ringing sweet and clear through the evening air as it swung according to the guidance of a narrow scarlet ribbon. An echo quick to fade, taking with it what little warmth the night had possessed.
In its wake, a breathless hush.
What sort of joke was it? Stupidity on the part of one of his hosts? If so, its point was lost on him, curling his lip into a bitter snarl as he took his first step toward the ragged child. "That-"
"You should be thanking him, really. What a favour he's done for you."
The voice was like the bell, the voice came from everywhere and rested in the same. Dark and deep as the space between the lights below, and at first, turning in search of its source seemed to be a futile effort. Nothing to be seen but the boy, no one who could possibly have-
No one, nothing, until the whisper of shifting fabric turned him on his heel once more.
Then, for the first time, he questioned whether that evening could be nothing more than a dream.
The air itself was demarcated by wandering ribbons of stygian silk, and the pattern that marked their edges seemed to alter itself with each passing second, bleeding together only to blossom out into something dizzying and new. No sign of that which moved or supported them, and gradually they flaked to pieces, as though destroyed by some unseen flame. Fragments of ash rising, sticking, gathering to create an unmistakable form. Human - humanoid? - the grey of the ash flushing in imitation of rich, natural hues as it collected. Somehow, when the process reached its conclusion, he could have sworn that he was standing face to face with another man.
An impossible man, still attended by flecks of falling ash. His very presence seemed to draw the air into thick violet tangles, wildly animated and visibly desperate to escape their imprisonment. By all appearances, he could have been the brother of the silent boy, whip-thin and pale to the point of unnatural. Those eyes, though...
Was that how most people felt when he looked their way? A tug in his chest - a dark, swiftly moving power, as though by meeting that gaze he'd given up any right to decide his own ultimate fate.
"For most people," the dream-like stranger was informing him, "Death is something entirely divorced from reason." A dark glove strayed across the lapel of a darker coat, as though in vague indication. "I think it's for good reason. Sweet, naive little Asta, though - he seems to think that there's some value in knowing. Humour him, won't you?"
Dream - it had to be a dream. There was no way that he was standing in such a mundane place, having such a conversation with a...a conversation with a-
Vision blurring, sweat pricking beneath his collar like pins and needles. That tug in his chest was sharp and real, like rapacious fingers working their way around his heart. Why?
"I suppose it may have some worth," the stranger noted, working his fingers free from one of those oil-black gloves, "Being the last thing you'll learn as a proper mind. Tell me, can you even guess at how badly you've been hated?"
Did he have to guess? Badly, as bad as any- but why couldn't he seem to breathe?
"How long do you suppose they would stand a modern warmonger like you?" The glove had been flung aside, chalk white flesh braced in its wake. "You threaten their secrets and damage their self-righteous notions. You tempt them towards a world that is opulent, ugly, and apart. It was only a matter of time before one of them saw the saving of his soul in the poisoning of your glass."
Poison? It couldn't- but none of them could ever have been so foolish. They had to know that he'd prepared, that the consequences would be dire if he wasn't there to manage the workings of their-
"Some of them may regret your absence for a while," the pale man assured him, raising that bare hand as though to beckon or seize something from the empty air. "In the end, however, I'm sure they'll agree that it was best to dig out your entrenched influence and plant again in new ground. You cultivate cruelty and uncertainty between them - there is no telling what this city could be in ten years' time without your influence."
The polished stone of the balcony dug into his knees, hands clutched uselessly over his burning heart. Before his darkening eyes, the stranger stooped and smiled.
"That is the part that appeals to me," they explained to him with a certain brightness and lightness of tone. "There is no telling. Every inch of your life strict and scaled - planned to the letter and for the best. A wiser man, a man not dying as I speak, would have known - the moment you say 'that is so' with absolute certainty, there are forces that rouse themselves gladly to prove you wrong."
"Again and again I tell you - they'll never remember."
The corpse lay sprawled and still at last, eyes vacant, blood and foam about the lips. The immaculately groomed husk of a man who had sought to be certain of everything. And stooping over him, death's smirking cohort, against whom the very air seemed to rebel in silent agony.
"The clamour of transmutation is louder than anything they've ever known. If there's a soul strong enough to withstand it, I've never met them."
At last the lips of that ragged boy were on the move, producing a sound as frail and thin as the whisper of folding paper.
"But you want to meet one." His near-translucent hands closed more tightly over the summoning bell. "Because you don't expect to."
A dry chuckle of concession broke from the lips of the kneeling spectre.
"Clever boy. If your voice was for their ears, they would be truly blessed." Slowly his uncovered hand was raised to gather lines from the air above his unfortunate quarry. Weaving them like silk about his fingers, speaking in absent sing-song.
"You would bring them to despair, yet their tears would be of joy, if only you hadn't been sired in a world so infatuated with mundanity." In those moments, the lines that played merry havoc about his hand began to coalesce into a dangerous edge.
"Be patient a while longer, however. As you urge me with the bell, so I'll find some means of calling you to my side. Consider - you'll be my only guide to every world, and some will not hesitate to exalt you for what you are."
A widening grin on his face, blank acceptance in that of the boy. And at last, that blade forged from the ether fell to begin its work among the tissues of the deceased.