"Long ago, in the kingdom of Arluin, lived a great hero who could not be defeated. His name was Elrael.
"The kingdom of Arluin had many enemies, though none could defeat Elrael in combat. It began to be said in their councils that Elrael's strength came from his purity, and that—"
"What sort of purity, Aron?"
"He never knew a woman."
"What!? But how can that be? Did they have no women in Arluin?"
"No, no! I mean...he never...fell in love with a girl. Any other questions?"
"No. Keep going!"
"What do you think happened next, little sister?"
"Close, dear one, but no. Elrael was too pure and too dedicated to his kingdom to love any of the daughters of his enemies, and never kissed one of them."
"So then how did he fall?"
"Well, one day, after many long months of seeing the most beautiful women the world could offer, Elrael went walking in his gardens. As he walked, he looked into a pool, and in its reflection he saw a maid more beautiful than any he could have imagined. She had skin fairer than starlight, and in her mouth was madness, for she was Death's own daughter. Without a second's thought, Elrael dove into the pool, for he knew that he loved her more than he could ever love another."
"How stupid. No one falls in love that fast."
"They do in stories."
"It's still stupid."
"Just listen, okay? It's nearly your bedtime, anyway, and you don't want to go to sleep without hearing the end of this, do you?"
Aron's youngest sister curled up beneath her covers. "No. Keep going."
"Elrael swam to the very bottom of the pool—and it was a very deep pool, mind you, for it went all the way to Death's own door—and, when he arrived, he said—"
"That it is time for the young one to sleep," said the heavy voice of their father as he entered the room.
"No, Da! It's almost finished!" the little girl pleaded.
"Aron will finish tomorrow night," their father promised. "But for now you must sleep."
Aron stood and followed his father out, pausing to kiss his little sister goodnight. "Tomorrow night, little one," he said, smiling. "I will tell you of life and death and everything that falls in between."
She stuck her tongue out at him, and Aron grinned as he left.
* * *
"You're worried, Da."
Aron's father shook his head. "It's nothing that you need concern yourself with. There's nothing you can do about it."
"Tell me anyway. I'll just be up all night wondering otherwise."
"Then wonder. Now go to bed."
"You're going to finish tonight, right? Right?"
"Of course, little one. Lean back and close your eyes and I'll tell you of how Elrael conquered Death."
Aron's little sister fell onto her pillow and stared at him expectantly. He breathed deeply, preparing, and heard a faint and unfamiliar sound. He ignored it and began,
"Elrael dove to the very bottom of the pool and surfaced on the other end in Death's own chambers. And there stood the lady who had stolen his heart: Paraleon, the daughter of Death.
"Elrael approached her and said, 'Fair one, I must have you. Tell me what I must do to earn your hand.'"
Aron stopped as he heard the unfamiliar sound again. It had a perturbing quality, this distant echo: like screams of the battlefield-fallen, heard from leagues away. It was anguished, unrelenting, insatiable.
"And Paraleon said to him, 'I have heard of your strength, Elrael of Arluin, and know that if anyone is to win my hand it will be you. There is only one way to have me, and that is to kill my father.'
"Elrael knew he could never conquer Death, but agreed. That night they made...er, I mean, they kissed, and as they...kissed...Elrael felt his strength fade from his limbs."
"He was a normal man after that, then?" asked his sister.
"Yes. Elrael lost his honor and his strength in a night. Roughly fifteen minutes."
"Never mind. I'll tell you when you're older."
There was the sound again, louder, coming closer. It was like the singing of swords hewing skin and bone and muscle, like the keening cry of hunting wolves. What was it?
"The next day Elrael rose to find Death. He entered Death's house, and was set upon by the guardians."
"Who are the guardians, Aron?"
"The Gray Men."
The sound came again, more defined. More a screech than a song, like a noise from the mouths of dead men's mothers.
"What are they?"
"They guard Death, but they are servants of Lhaor. They bring misery wherever they walk, and all they touch crumbles to ruins. They smile like spiders and their eyes never stop searching, though no one knows what they're looking for. They are doomed, cursed to guard Death for a waking eternity, never ceasing, never resting.
"Now, though Elrael's great strength was gone, he fought the Gray Men as only lovers fight: desperately. None of them could stand against him, though they all struck him before they fell."
The screeching was more than a whisper on the wind, now. It was nearing them. Aron wondered, for a moment, if his sister heard it.
"When the last of the Gray Men had surrendered to him—beaten, though not destroyed—Elrael limped through the halls to Death's throne. Blood gushed from his wounds, his clothes clung to his ragged skin. He looked upon Death and said,
"'I have come to kill you.'"
"And, wearily, Death looked to him and said, 'No. You have come that I may die.'"
The door to the room burst open, and their father swept in, slamming it shut.
"Quiet!" their father demanded, and they both obeyed. "Hide."
"Do as he says, sister," Aron commanded, pulling a false floorboard up to reveal a hidden space. He slithered in, and as his sister joined him, he looked at his father.
"It's come, hasn't it? The thing you were thinking about."
"It has," Da said. "Don't make a sound."
Aron let the false floorboard sink back into place and hugged his sister, carefully placing his hand over her mouth.
"Whatever happens," he said softly, as they heard the door explode above them, "we must not scream."
They could hear the sound clearly now, the whirring and clicking and screeching of the Seekers. They heard their father's muffled cries as he tried to reason with them, and his muted struggle as he fought their inexorable fingers.
They heard the shriek of metal cutting flesh, and then everything fell silent.
The Seekers left quickly, but Aron didn't move, didn't let his sister move, for hours. Eventually, he became aware of a steady drip, drip, drip landing on his face. He touched the drops that lay, quivering, on his skin, and brought them to his mouth.
Salty, he thought, and coppery.
Blood. My father's blood.
He awoke to the sound of voices. Desperate for help, desperate for life, he pushed the false floor up, revealing himself and his sister, lying alone and trembling in the dirt.
Two men had found them. They were dressed in City fashion: red shirts, white pants, black cloths obscuring their left eyes. But they were different.
They were Artisans.
"Hmm," one said as he looked at the two children. "Angel blood, would you say?" He had a queer voice: flat, unchanging. His eyes gleamed yellow when they caught the light.
"I suspect so," replied his partner. "A speaker. We shall take them, I think."
"Yes. We shall take them."
And all was black.