Time is a funny thing.
And, lately, Life and Death had been disturbed more regularly than at any time before. This perturbed Death greatly, who saw these distractions as nothing more than an inconvenience that served no greater purpose than to disrupt his winnings.
All these nuisances and anomalies, like the eclipse and this upstart little boy beside him, upset Death greatly. In his mind, he saw Life gaining confidence in his game, and despite the fact that he continued to lose every time, he seemed not in the least inconvenienced, and always had that sickeningly pleasant smile stuck on his too-perfect face.
Which also annoyed Death.
Life, it seemed, had been gaining confidence from all these irregularities, as if each unusual occurrence fed the fires that kept his eternal engines running.
And Death did not want Life to be confident. It made him uneasy.
“Why do you always have that stupid grin stuck on your face?” Death demanded suddenly after winning yet another game. In a fit of rage, he slammed his pale, skeletal hands to the table, causing the pieces upon the board to jump upright and dance a moment like wind-up ballerina figurines.
“Testy today, aren't we?” Samuel observed, haughtily. Life's perpetual grin suddenly multiplied, and its clone leapt off Life's face, crawled around on the floor a bit, then plopped itself comfortably onto Samuel's lips.
And the sight of two lopsided grins, one of them carved from mockery, irritated Death doubly.
Since the day he was subdued and taken from Earth to sit beside this hapless bastard, stripped of all his power and glory, Samuel reveled in any chance to make a mockery of Death. How he despised Death for what he had done to him. And every fit of rage and every moment of Death's grumpy demeanor brought Samuel one small step closer to satisfaction.
“Silence, boy!” Death spat in retort, as he had done a hundred times before. He would love to threaten or punish the lad for his annoying insolence, but they both knew he was powerless to do so. The little brat was Life's bastard, and thus he was, to him, untouchable.
And the chessboard was reset, with Samuel placing each piece back to its start with practiced rhythm. And then it was silent, save for the silent tapping of the pieces upon the board with every move.
And this was how time unknown had passed. It was a constant cycle, never-ceasing, of match, Death's victory, and after each, a minor spat between Death and Samuel while Life sat there, wordless, shining forth his eternal grin, as if the whole exchange amused him more than the world.
Perhaps Life found pleasure in seeing his partner's annoyance. And if that were indeed the case, what would happen next would please Life infinitely.
A boy appeared.
The boy wore lightly colored robes, had an untidy shock of raven's hair, and stood little taller than the board itself. He approached the game opposite Samuel, unspeaking with silent steps, as he watched the play of pieces upon the colored squares. By the time the others had spotted him, he was only feet away.
It was indeed a curiosity, so much so that Death didn't at first believe his eyes. The three, in unison, looked over at the lad, who was naught more than a half dozen years of age, if that.
“Who are you?” Death inquired, his tone cold and not polite.
“A boy,” replied the boy.
“So I see,” Death grumbled, feeling smarted. “Well, begone with you. We're too busy to deal with the likes of a boy.”
And the boy turned and left. And the game resumed, with only the three of them remaining.
“That was quite harsh of you, don't you think?” Samuel interjected.
“My job is to take lives,” Death replied under his breath, his attention never leaving the board. “Not babysit.”
And, for a while, the game continued. Until it was once again interrupted by a visitor.
A man appeared.
The man wore lightly colored robes, had an untidy shock of raven's hair, and stood as tall as any of them. Upon his chin he had the uneven stubble of a fledgling beard. He approached the game opposite Samuel, unspeaking with silent steps, as he watched the play of pieces upon the colored squares. By the time the others had spotted him, he was only feet away.
The man appeared to be little more than twenty years of age.
“Who are you?” Death demanded, his tone harsh and irritable.
“A man,” replied the man.
Death cast a most foul look at him, his near-featureless face contorted by suppressed rage. His tone of voice was most hostile.
“Well, begone with yourself, you foul nuisance! We're quite involved here, and we haven't the time to deal with your antics. Leave us this instant!”
And the man turned and left. And the game resumed, with only the three of them remaining.
“That was rather quite mean of you, don't you think?” Samuel interjected.
“Shut up!” Death raged. His temper was more black than ever before. Upon his turn, he slammed his piece to the board, causing all the others to tremble, shivering as if in fear.
And, for a while, the game continued. Until, one last time, it was interrupted by a visitor.
An elderly man appeared.
The elderly man wore lightly colored robes and had long, flowing waves of pure white hair. Upon his chin fell an extravagant beard of flush white, reaching all the way to his sandaled toes. He approached the game opposite Samuel, unspeaking with silent steps, as he watched the play of pieces upon the colored squares. By the time the others had spotted him, he was only feet away.
And with this latest interruption, Death was positively fuming with rage.
“What the hell is going on?” Death roared. “Suddenly we can't carry on a simple chess game without the entire world coming in to take a gander! Are we on display? Is this some type of museum? No? Then out with you, you annoying vagrant! And lock the door behind you, lest some other hapless fool should happen by!”
“Aren't you going to ask who I am?” asked the old man patiently.
“No!” fumed Death. The chess game, by this time, was forgotten completely. “I haven't even a fleeting concern for whom you might be, or what brings you here. All I want is for you to be gone, for me to resume winning, and for Life to finally wipe that damn smirk from his ugly face!”
“So what you desire is actually from Life, and not from me?” posed the old man.
“Yes! Wait. No. I think?” Death was properly rattled now, and it was all Samuel could do to keep from bursting into a great fit of laughter.
Death sat a moment, drawing in great, rattling breaths, restoring his composure. With that accomplished a moment later, he turned back to the old man.
“Who are you?” he demanded, suddenly curious.
“An old man,” replied the old man.
Death, feeling a sudden headache, brought his fingers to his bony forehead. “I walked into that one, didn't I?”
“Why do you torment me so?” asked Death, turning back towards the old man. “Your very presence gives me a headache.”
“Because you deserve it,” replied the old man knowingly. He leaned forward, putting his wrinkled face that much closer to Death. “For not remembering.”
At last, Life suddenly spoke. “You forget?”
Death turned to him, feeling as irritable as ever. “Now and then,” he admitted, grudgingly. “Not often. And not with you!”
“I, on the other hand, do not forget,” replied the old man with a knowing grin.
By this time, Death really hated that grin.
“I'm the man who beat you first.”
And in a sudden rush, the memories of Death's first chess game came back to him. He remembered Life, so hurt and sorrowful that his loss had led to the death of a man (it was so pitiful back then, to see him get so troubled at every soul Death claimed). Death remembered him leaving the board to take an aimless jaunt, feeling quite sorry for himself, almost like a child.
And that was when this old bastard appeared. Death remembered it all too well.
Before Death knew what was happening, the new contender was seated across from him, the pieces upon the board reshuffled in an order that Death did not recognize, and they began to play a stacked game.
“You cheated, you old bastard!” roared Death, lashing out in fury with a kick of his foot at the table upon which the chess match stood. The board, along with the pieces, sailed through the air, scattering about upon the floor. Samuel, always at the ready, took his sweet time picking up the pieces, watching and enjoying every moment of this.
“I did,” replied the man calmly. “And I did not.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Death retorted.
But instead of answering, the man posed a different question. “Do you know who I am?”
“A meddlesome old wretch.” Death replied automatically.
“That is true,” agreed the old man. “But do you know my name?”
Confounded, Death was without answer, for he did not know the man's name. Nor did Samuel, so young compared to any of them, who picked up the fallen pieces from nearby.
Life, the oldest of the three by a slim margin, spoke up, for he had a guess at the man's name.
“You're Time?” asked Life.
“I am,” replied the old man with a polite nod to Life.
“Very well,” acknowledged Death, knowing that this man was both elusive and older than any of them. “Why are you here?”
“I told you I would return, did I not? Or do you not remember?” A moment later, wearing a wide grin, Time added, “perhaps you choose not to remember.”
A moment later, seeing Death's lack of reaction, Time nodded to himself, as if in answer to his own question. Then he turned to Samuel. “But you knew of me, did you not, Samuel?”
Samuel, as all eyes turned to suddenly face him, had been bending down to retrieve a rogue pawn. Feeling a bit flustered, he righted himself, and took a moment before answering the old man.
“Not really,” Samuel admitted. “I was just guessing, hoping that Death had actually suffered another defeat before. I was attempting to get under his skin, to blind him by his own wrath so that he might once again lose, and I might one day have a partner of my own. I had known nothing for certain.”
To this, Time acknowledged his words with a slow nod, but his expression seemed suddenly sorrowful, his face long. Samuel, looking at his wrinkled face, was saddened, as if he had let the old man down.
“I see,” was all Time said, before turning aside to walk slowly away.
“Wait!” cried out Samuel, rushing to the old man's side, his task momentarily forgotten. “You never told us the reason for your visit.”
Time stopped walking, and he turned his head slowly to look down at Samuel. He seemed suddenly to be aged an eternity, as if he had suffered through a hundred lifetimes.
“I am Time,” replied Time. “I have been around for all things, long before either Life or Death were conceived. I have witnessed the birth of everything, just as I will one day witness the destruction of everything. I am properly eternal, unlike you, or Death, or anything else. And, in all games I play, I always win. Time can never be beaten, as you'll find that I am extremely patient.”
“Then what brings you here?” Samuel repeated, mystified by the old man, reverent of him.
“As long as I have been around, there are few things I take pleasure in anymore. But one of those things is, and will forever remain to be, the tormenting of our dear friend Death, who only wishes he could survive as long as I have.”
He then flashed Death a particularly pleasant grin. Which infuriated him, of course.
“Then away with you, old man, and leave us to our game!” Death called back, dismissing him with a wave of his bony hand.
“Remember that you are not eternal, boy!” Time jeered at Death, his voice both jubilant and mocking. He spoke down to Death as if he were nothing but a small lad. “Soon there will come a day where even Death will die, and I shall still be around to watch it! And I will laugh at your demise, laugh long and heartily into the night, knowing that you finally led to your own undoing.”
And with a gay laughter and a polite nod to Samuel, Time vanished from the scene. And suddenly there were just the three of them again, and this time it would remain that way. Time, for now, would not return in any form, whether as a boy, a man, or as an elder.
And Samuel once more righted the board, and placed upon it the pieces scattered during Death's rage. And the three sat, taking up a new game. Life made the first move, and Death countered, all of it as Samuel watched from the side, a silent spectator.
And Life grinned down at the board, and at each move played by both persons. And Death acknowledged his everlasting grin without saying a word. He, in fact, remained quiet throughout, both silent and meditative like he had never been before.
And the game played through to its conclusion, with Death being the victor, and one by one Samuel reset the pieces for another match. Death followed every movement of his arm, still without comment or complaint.
And then to the great shock of both Life and Samuel, Death, in a small voice barely audible, said something that neither ever expected to hear.
“Thank you, Samuel.”