Once, it had been a farm. Probably a good one, a prosperous one, before the war had started.
Aron kicked a stump absently and cursed when his foot went through the rotten wood. He bent, brushed the splinters from his worn shoes, and straightened again. In the distance, he could see the burned remains of a farmhouse. He trudged toward it, head down, hood up. Perhaps, here, his search would end.
Even if it didn't, he needed a place to sleep where the rain wouldn't soak him, and perhaps he'd find food. It was worth it.
The barn had three and a half walls and a bit of roof—the rest had been burned and collapsed—but that was enough to keep the rain off, and Aron needed that. He settled in the corner, spread his cloak over his legs, and burrowed for his fourth night without food. Outside, the pregnant clouds split like overripe fruit. Heavy raindrops tapped in staccato on the ground, and faraway thunder purred like a panther.
He'd nearly fallen to sleep when it stumbled in: enormous, humpbacked, a misshapen monster, silhouetted by a brilliant strobe of lightning. Instinctively, Aron reached for the sword beside him.
"Who's there?" cried the shade. "Who are you?"
Aron squinted into the dark and spoke a soft word. Light, flickering and pale, burst from his palm and filled the barn, revealing the creature—or, rather, the old man. The lightning's shadow-play had made him seem to be monstrous, but he was far from it: bearded, thin, and hunched, he was no more fearsome than anyone Aron had seen these last three years. Rags hung from his emaciated body, and the staff in his hand was aged and worn. When the light struck him, he threw up his hands and cowered, terrified.
"Peace!" he screeched. "I am of peace! Have mercy!"
A pitiable man, thought Aron, and he dimmed the light from his hand.
"Peace," he replied. "I am of peace, as well."
The man hobbled toward him, keeping one hand in front his face to shade it. Aron watched him closely, suspicious. This man didn't look like a soldier or a renegade, but that meant little: the di'Corvae mercenaries had passing cunning and Arluisians were born actors, raised on the art of blending in. It wouldn't be the first time he'd been fooled by one of their scouts.
He was only suspicious, of course, not scared. Not scared in the least. It would be a strange day indeed when he feared a simple soldier.
"Come, friend," he said, "and sit. Do you bring news? Food?"
"Neither," said the old man as he sat. "Unless you've not heard the country's at war, our people are dying, the Gray Men have turned us into sport, and the Angels themselves have given up on us."
Aron smiled humorlessly. "Yes. I've heard all that, though the last two are far from being news. The Gray Men have killed us for decades and the Angels forgot us long before then."
The old man chuckled as well. "Yes, I suppose that's true." He held out one hand. "I'm Elra. You from around here, sir?" He eyed Aron's glowing hand.
The young man shook his head. "No. I'm not...not from much of anywhere, really."
Elra laughed again—he had an easy laugh. "I know what that feels like. I'm from...well, I'm from a bit of everywhere, so it amounts to the same thing, I think. What's brought you here?"
Aron wanted to laugh but couldn't. How could he explain what brought him here? What would the answer sound like? I was born with a talent for magic so potent it eventually manifested as an entity older than creation. Three years ago I started this war, killed my sister, and stole a sword that can kill the Seven Angels. Now I'm wandering, aimless. Waiting. Searching. Looking for Death.
But he couldn't say it. Instead he said, "The war, like everyone else."
Elra nodded sagely. "Where were you when it started?"
"Depends on when you think it started," Aron said evasively.
"Not much debate on that. The war started when someone killed the Weeping King."
"Oh. That. No, I was...I was...." he exhaled deeply. "I was in Arluis. In their capitol."
"On the very day?"
"At the very moment," Aron said, and decided that deception wasn't worth it. "I was in the throne room when it happened. Mine was the hand that slew him."
Elra's smile faded. "Well. I suppose that should change things, shouldn't it?"
"I suppose it should." Aron's hand drifted slowly toward his stolen sword.
Elra gestured vaguely and said, "Well. Tonight, I don't think it will. Tonight we are just travelers in a rotted place, waiting for an end to the rain."
That was when the sky exploded, stark lightning streaking through the dark and throwing sharp shadows through the wreckage of the barn. Elra threw up a hand to block the light, but Aron didn't flinch. Almost immediately, the thunder followed, shaking the barn walls with its mighty war cry. It lasted nearly fifteen seconds, before, eventually, it faded, and they heard the screeches it had masked.
"What is that sound?" Elra asked, standing up. Aron stood, too, and picked up his sword.
"The Seekers," he whispered. "The Gray Men." He looked at Elra. "You should hide, old man. What happens next will be neither graceful nor holy."
"I don't expect it to be," Elra said, and huddled in the corner.
They came, shrieking and clicking and whirring like clockwork. Drawn by some invisible force, they appeared in the doorway of the barn, shrouded in their ragged cloaks, their toothy maws gaping, their eyes black and empty as the fathomless deep of the sea. They carried no swords, no armor, no magic.
They were also immortal. No man had ever defeated one, except in stories.
Aron lifted the sword. The blade shook as light ran down the blade like water, shining with eerie colors.
The Seekers swarmed forward, and Aron fought.
He had lied, partly, when he'd said it would be neither graceful nor holy. The Felling Sword was a tool of the Angels; it possessed still their beauty, their fluid elegance, and the selfsame poise flowed into Aron. He moved through the ranks of Gray Men like a dancer, hewing through their limbs without pausing to think.
They never stood a chance.
There were dozens of them—perhaps hundreds—and when Aron had finished, dawn was approaching. Pastel auroras colored the empty sky, and heavy fog rolled along the earth. It crawled over the inert bodies of the Gray Men and swallowed them, returning them to...well, wherever it was they came from.
Aron laid the sword on the ground and sat. After a moment, Elra came to sit beside him.
"That was...fair impressive, kingslayer," Elra muttered. "Fair impressive, considering you didn't call upon artificing."
"The sword did it," Aron whispered. "The Felling Sword." He looked at the old man. "Your sword, Elrael."
The ancient hero grinned faintly. "I suppose I could have chosen a less obvious name for myself, couldn't I? 'Elra' was hardly subtle."
"Why are you here? How are you here?"
"You already know. You've studied my stories since the day your father died, Aron. By now, haven't you figured out where they all end?"
Aron stared at him before saying, "You find Death. You defeat him." All at once, he understood: "You defeated him. You conquered Death, and now you live forever."
Elrael's smile became abruptly sardonic. "You might say that.
"I found Death, it is true. You may ask how I did it, but you already know: it was artificing. I was the first of us, the first true Artificer. I transcribed the Stars for the Artisans. I taught Mykrian the secrets he used to build the Glass Cities. I carved the first Weeping King statue with my own bared hands and spoke the words that protected their line for a hundred generations—a spell which you ended, by the way, with the selfsame symbol I used to craft it. And, when I had done all those things, I found the quest that ends all great heroes.
"I found a woman.
"She was remarkable, of course, a lady fine of face and soul, and she wanted me. I did what any man would do under the circumstances, and for a time it was wonderful. Wonderful...." His eyes were far away. He shook himself lightly and continued, "But it didn't last. My life was meant for stories from the day I was born, and no story ends when the hero falls in love. She died, just a few weeks after we...met."
Elrael laughed again, but not the easy laugh he'd had earlier: this was dry, lifeless, crackling like a dying fire. "And that made my story even more trite. No tale is older than the hero who chases his fair one past the gates of Death. It's such a cliche that storytellers won't tell it that way anymore, so they make up other reasons. That I fell in love with Death's daughter, or that I sought him out looking for a challenge...but they are not so. I sought Death because I wanted her back.
"Eventually, I found him, just as you found me, using my talent. I went through the Gray Men like a sifter through wheat, the sword leaping in my hands, shining like a sun. And, finally, I stood before Death.
"'I have come to kill you,' I told him. And he said—"
"'No,'" Aron finished, "'you have come that I may die.'"
"You know the story, then. And you know how it ends?"
"You slay Death. The versions vary some, but it always ends with you defeating Death."
"Exactly. I killed him, put that beautiful sword right through his chest. But no man can defeat Death, not even an Artificer."
"The Death Bringer died, but death remained. The job needed filling and I was available."
Aron's mouth fell open. "You...replaced Death?"
"It is an old tradition, one that no one in your generation remembers. Long ago, when a man killed another, he did not pay by dying. He payed by living. Murderers took the place of their victims. It did not last long among men, but the Angels cling to it. They enforced it with me."
Aron stared at the old man, and understanding seeped into his mind. "You're Death, then. Azrael. You've been slaving at your post for millennia."
"Millennia are not so long when you have such an interesting job," Elrael replied. "No man is more a man than when he dies."
"Do you...do you enjoy it, then?"
"Of course not. Humans are at their truest the moment I meet them, and more often than not their truest is simply fear. I terrify them."
"With good reason!"
"Hardly. I scare them because they do not know me. Babies are frightened to enter the world and men are frightened to leave it, but in truth I bring peace. I am their final rest, and the final limitation. I enforce the only law to which every man must adhere."
"And yet your servants run amok," Aron spat. "The Gray Men have been out of hand for decades. They murdered my father. They have killed indiscriminately longer than I've been alive!"
"That isn't quite correct," Elrael said softly. "They've been out of control exactly as long as you've been alive.
"I was there, you know, on the day you were born. Your mother is of my blood, and I used that blood to give her firstborn a gift."
"Artificing," Aron murmured. "You gave me my magic."
"I did. You were the seventh of us—the sixth that I had made. I put the Stars in your blood, and from that day the Gray Ones were not mine. Some time after your birth, you began telling stories, and one night...you said my name.
"They came for you, then, thinking you had called for me, and killed your father when they realized he would not give you up. They left, and, frustrated, they killed others. Hundreds of them.
"Some years later, you said my name again, and they sought you out. Once again, they could not find you. Once again, they left and killed."
"Why were they searching for me?" Aron demanded. "Why me?"
"Because you are an Artificer. Because you are mine. Because you are their future master and they needed to test you."
And Aron understood. It burst on him all at once, like the dawn or the first touch of frigid water.
"I must kill you."
"You said I'm the sixth. The sixth with this gift."
"Yes. I am tired, Aron. I have been tired for many thousands of years. Five times I have chosen a child to take my place, and five times they have failed. The first never found my sword. The third couldn't defeat the Gray Ones. The fourth and fifth simply left."
Aron looked at him and saw the pitiable helplessness in the old man's eyes.
"I cannot keep going, Aron. I cannot finish this task. And there must be an end of it. Lhaor is an Angel of boundaries, and when he made my predecessor he intended death to be for all. Men, the Folk, the Gray Men. Even the Angels. Everything must end, and Death will be the one to end it. But it cannot be me, Aron. I am old, and I am weak. Eternity is a long time to spend at one single task."
Aron smiled wryly. "You don't sell this job very well. It's no wonder two of them just left."
Elrael's face fell. "Then you will leave me, too." He breathed out. "I do not blame you. It is a hard task, taking the lives of millions. Even if you do think they go to a better place, it is...hard. And very nearly unending."
Aron nodded and hefted the Felling Sword. "Yes. I suspect it is." He turned the blade in his hand, admiring its edge. "But, if it must end, then I will end it." He turned to Death, the Azrael who once was Elrael, and said, "Many have come to kill you.