The spirit world was blue, not black. Azure clouds of mist tumbled past on the back of a wind that could be seen more than felt. I sat perfectly still on hard ground. A hilltop somewhere in the middle of Kansas. Four fires burned around me, one in each direction of the compass. Someone was tending to them for me, but I couldn’t see them. They were part of the world I was trying to leave behind.
I’d been studying necromancy for a couple years. It had started as little more than a macabre hobby. Just poking through some books I’d found in a serial killer’s possessions. Some of it had seemed so real. Or at least had seemed so possible. I had been a homicide cop at the time and my partner and I had stumbled upon the killer’s hideout while he wasn’t around. The press had called the killer Black-Jack Mac, because he liked to take his victims alive by knocking them unconscious with a turn of the century leather sap. He specialized in rituals, killing his victims slowly over days. At the time I needed to get inside his head. I needed to understand so I could predict him.
The books were ancient. A few of them were hand written in languages I couldn’t even identify at the time. What I could read were the notes in the margins. Some of them were translations or interpretations. Some of them were more like recipies. I read them over and over until I began to understand what Mac needed. We caught him because of my reading. I was able to anticipate him and track him. He died in a hail of gunfire five seconds after gutting his final victim, but I kept reading the books.
I couldn’t even admit to myself why at the time. Part of me wanted to pass it off and forget all about it. Part of me was worried. Jack had been working rituals to try and exist beyond his life span. I joked with myself for months that I was reading until I was good enough to find him again if he had succeeded.
It wasn’t until later that I admitted the truth. Something had started in my mind, like a door had been opened. The things I read were dark, but they weren’t evil. They didn’t have to be. I could even see where people like Mac had mis-judged things. They’d read between the lines in a bad way. People like them were killers. They kill because they’re broken inside and they’d kill with or without an excuse. Necromancy and rituals were just window dressing. But if you weren’t a killer, if you weren’t a monster, it didn’t have to be that way.
It was mid-summer and I was cold. Warmth bled out of my body and fed the fires around me. I was left cold and empty. My life force was being left behind.
After a year of study on my own I had started looking around for more. It turns out that if you ask the right questions certain people take notice, and if you keep asking the right questions certain people come find you.
They called themselves ‘The People’. It was an old inside joke. They were the people who handled these things. A sort of self-appointed police of supernatural happenings. They don’t recruit, they don’t advertise, and they don’t train people, but they will stop people from going too far if they have to.
My heart gave a final shudder and stopped. The cold turned to numbness. Pain and panic had faded days ago, alongside hunger and thirst. Nothing remained of life. No trace of warmth or blood flow, no heartbeat, no breath. The shifting blue clouds halted slowly, stilling as the breath of my life faded. Only the dead remained, shifting forms barely reminiscent of the beings they used to be.
I don’t know how long I waited before the blue mist parted. The dead know little of the passage of time. Without rising from the ground I turned to face south toward the coming presence. Glowing eyes floated in a shape of sapphire shadow, challenging everything they saw. I met the gaze and held it.
The creature was a reaper. Legends call it an aspect of death, but that’s pretty far from the truth. Death is a concept, not a creature, but a reaper is about as close as it gets. A reaper is a sucking hole in the world. Some say it used to be a person. They feed on life force to sustain themselves. And they are clever.
I didn’t dare flinch or turn away, only the living know fear and only the living fight death. If the reaper found any trace of life within me it would tear it clear, killing me at the same time. His hand grasped at the blurred mist over his face and pulled it clear. I knew what was coming. It was the only one of Mac’s notes that had struck me as True:
I have faced Death itself
And found myself staring back at me.
The blazing gaze wore my face and entered my soul, sliding through every memory and ghost of emotion. It was searching for something to grab. It found nothing. The reaper’s gaze faded and the mist reformed over his face. He strode past me like a man on business and when he passed I raised a hand, dragging my fingers through the shadow of his being, trapping some of the substance like a handful of smoke.
He faded into the clouds behind me and I raised the substance to my lips, drinking the vapors. It ran like liquid fire down my throat, burning away my being and melting my body from the inside out.
I screamed, loud and long, gasping for breath only to scream again. The burning ache of boiling hot blood raced through me. My heart thundered with rage, boiling against the indignity of stopping before it was ready. I fell to my side, my arms and legs spasmed uselessly while I dragged breath into my lungs like shattered glass. My eyes burned with new tears and my head ached like it was being beaten.
The fires were out when I finally recovered enough to open my eyes. It hurt to breathe and even the moonlight hurt my eyes. Pain was good. Pain meant I was alive. The hilltop was dark and empty, but with the barest effort it became bathed in blue light. My lips cracked and started to bleed as I smiled.