The guard came on to the decrepit street facing the ramshackle house that was home to the serial murderer, but he could barely make it out through the pulsing waves of darkness that seemed to be doling in on all sides, faster and faster, as if he was witness to a savage, nightmarish compression of time, clay hurtling into night into day and on and on. As if he was somehow rushing into his own old age, right up to his final mortal moment. A roaring sound filled his head, excruciating pain radiating out from his chest, burning with fire in his arms, the side of his neck. His jaws were clenched so tight he was crushing his own teeth, and every breath was agony.
He made it halfway to the front door before falling to his knees, doubling up and sinking down on to his side, the lantern clunking as it struck the cobbles. And suddenly he had room for a thousand thoughts, all the time he could have wanted, now that he’d taken his last breath. So many things became clear, simple, acquiring a purity that lifted him clear of his body—
And he saw, as he hovered above his corpse, that a figure had emerged from the killer’s house. His altered vision revealed every detail of that ancient, unhuman visage within the hood, the deep-etched lines, the ravaged map of countless centuries. Tusks rising from the lower jaw, chipped and worn, the tips ragged and splintered. And the eyes — so cold, so… haunted — all at once the guard knew this apparition.
Hood. The Lord of Death had come for him.
He watched as the god lifted his gaze, fixing him with those terrible eyes.
And a voice spoke in his head, a heavy voice, like the grinding of massive stones, the sinking of mountains. “I have thought nothing of justice. For so long now. It is all one to me. Grief is tasteless, sorrow an empty sigh. Live an eternity in dust and ashes and then speak to me of justice.”
To this the guard had nothing to say. He had been arguing with death night after night. He had been fighting all the way from the Phoenix Inn. Every damned step. He was past that now.
“So,” continued Hood, “here I stand. And the air surrounding me, the air rushing into my lungs, it lives. I cannot prevent what comes with my every step here in the mortal world. I cannot be other than what I am.”
The guard was confused. Was the Lord of Death apologizing?
“But this once, I shall have my way. I shall have my way.” And he stepped forward, raising one withered hand — a hand, the guard saw, missing two fingers. “Your soul shines. It is bright. Blinding. So much honour, so much love. Compassion. In the cavern of loss you leave behind, your children will be less than all they could have been. They will curl round scars and the wounds will never quite heal, and they will learn to gnaw those scars, to lick, to drink deep. This will not do.”
The guard convulsed, spinning down back into the corpse on the cobbles. He felt his heart lurch, and then pound with sudden ease, sudden, stunning vigour. He drew a deep breath, the air wondrous, cool, sweeping away the last vestige of pain — sweeping everything away.
All that he had come to, in those last moments — that scintillating clarity of vision, the breathtaking understanding of everything — now sank beneath a familiar cloud, settling grey and thick, where every shape was but hinted at, where he was lost. As lost as he had been, as lost as any and every mortal soul, no matter how blustery its claims to certainty, to faith. And yet… and yet it was a warm cloud, shot through with precious things: his love for his wife, his children; his wonder at their lives, the changes that came to them day by day.
He found he was weeping, even as he climbed to his feet. He turned to look at the Lord of Death, in truth not expecting to see the apparition which must surely come only to the dead and dying, and then cried out in shock.
Hood looked solid, appallingly real, walking down the street, eastward, and it was as if the webs binding them then stretched, the fabric snapping, wisping off into the night, and with each stride that took the god farther away the guard felt his life returning, an awareness of breathtaking solidity — in this precise moment, and in every one that would follow.
He turned away — and even that was easy — and settled his gaze upon the door, which hung open, and all that waited within was dark and rotted through with horror and madness.
The guard did not hesitate.
With this modest and humble man, with this courageous, honourable man, Hood saw true. And, for just this once, the Lord of Death had permitted himself to care.
Mark this, a most significant moment, a most poignant gesture.