Keaton realized that he was in over his head. Well, he’d figured that out awhile back. It just didn’t sink in until he’d watched Brook slam Blade–the last of the Assassins to be sent after them–into the wall. The Assassin bounced off and whipped around, swinging one of her knives toward Brook. She ducked and grabbed Blade by the throat. Brook squeezed. A loud snap echoed through the room. Blade’s eyes rolled into the back of her head and she slid to the ground.
“Whoa,” he muttered.
Brook staggered backwards. Before Keaton could move, Gale rushed forward and grabbed his sister. He helped her steady herself as she closed her eyes and took several deep breaths.
“Can you make it,” Gale asked.
Brook nodded. “I’ll be fine.”
Keaton wasn’t so sure about that. He’d heard the siblings conversation with Death, although he hadn’t been able to see it. Whatever Death had done to Brook, it was catching up with her. She struggled to breathe and could barely stand. The strangest part was how she seemed to fade, shrinking in on herself, becoming insubstantial.
A loud bang made him jump. The three of them turned to see the door that they’d barred shut buck. It happened again. A low hiss streamed from the cracks, making Keaton’s hair stand on end.
“I thought you killed the other Assassins,” Gale said.
Brook shook her head. “They’re not alive to begin with. I only bought us time to get further in while they recovered.”
“Perhaps we should get a move on then,” Keaton suggested. “Before the Assassin on this side of the door does an imitation of Lazarus.”
“Agreed,” Gale said. “Brook, which way?”
Brook closed her eyes and tilted her head. After a moment, she pointed to a door on their left. The three of them headed that way. Keaton was the last through the door and locked it behind them. Not that he really thought it would stop a hoard of undead Assassin’s, but it might buy them some time.
Keaton raced after Gale and Brook. As he pulled up behind them they passed a string of bodies all dressed in military uniforms. They weren’t dead, at least, none of the rest they’d passed in the building had appeared dead. It seemed that Death had immobilized everyone in the base. That didn’t bode well for them.
Gale’s shout drew Keaton’s attention. Ahead was a reinforced metal door that was slightly ajar. Iridescent white light spilled from within, bringing with it ghostly whispers that made Keaton grit his teeth. Ten to one that was where they needed to go. He really didn’t want to go there.
A loud bang erupted behind them. Keaton glanced back and almost faltered. The Assassins streaked down the hall after them, hissing like demonic beasts and shouting incoherently, Blade at their fore.
Keaton put on a burst of speed, willing himself to go faster. Ahead, Brook reached the door first and slipped inside, followed by her brother. Keaton could hear the Assassins getting closer. A stitch formed in his side. He ignored it.
Keaton slipped through the door, whirled around and grabbed it. Brook and Gale were right beside him They pulled on the door. With an agonizing screech it slowly gave. The three of them pulled as hard as they could, but the door wouldn’t close any faster.
“We need to get this thing closed,” Keaton shouted.
“Then stop chatting and put your back into it,” Brook retorted.
Keaton couldn’t argue there. Outside the Assassin’s cries were getting louder. A quick glance showed him that they were only twenty feet away. Then fifteen. Ten. Five.
With a final heave they slammed to door shut. It locked into place just as the Assassin’s ran into it. Keaton heard them hissing and scrabbling at the door. It would hold longer than the last one, but it wouldn’t keep them at bay forever.
“That was close,” Gale said.
Keaton nodded, wiping sweat off of his forehead. “True, but at least we made it in time.”
“Did you,” a familiar voice asked.
The three of them whirled around. A large glass box stood in the center of the room. It resembled a green house, but rather than catering to plants, it contained large vials of unidentified substances. The air inside it shimmered, as if the aurora borealis was contained within. It was also the source of the strange whispering he’d heard outside.
But that wasn’t their real problem. Standing beside a bank of machines, with his finger on a button, was a man. Keaton took note of the glassy eyes and bony fame and felt his stomach plummet.
“I win,” Death whispered.
It pressed the button. Within the box the vials shattered. The lights flared in response, sending a shockwave through the room. The three of them went flying. Keaton hit the wall, driving the air from his lungs. His head hit something hard and he blacked out.
Brook staggered back to her feet. It wasn’t easy, the last of the energy she had was fading, but she managed. Behind her, she could hear the Assassins hissing as they clawed at the door. Hopefully, it could keep them at bay awhile longer. They had enough problems on this side as it was.
The body that Death had inhabited lay sprawled on the floor, the force that had possessed it having already fled. Her brother had knelt beside Keaton to check his pulse. Gale glanced up and nodded. The P.I. was still alive.
The two of them walked over to the glass box and regarded it. The souls were getting brighter and the whispered voices louder. Brook still couldn’t make out what they were saying, but she didn’t need to. She could feel the souls melding with the infectious diseases. Typhoid, ebola, the bubonic plague……the list was endless. When the process finished, they’d shatter their containment and spread to the four corners of the world.
Hell on earth would arrive.
“This is not good,” Gale said. “How do we stop it?”
“I’m not sure,” Brook whispered. She was feeling weaker by the second. “If I was still a full Assassin I could sever the souls from the world, but now, I’m not sure. I don’t know what to do.”
“But I do.”
The two of them turned. A soft, amorphous light glowed by the door. It elongated, stretching into an unidentifiable figure, just like Death. Unlike Brook’s previous employer, however, this being project love and compassion, a sense of ease rather than a sense of dread. Brook recognized it.
“That is correct, Assassin.”
“What are you doing here,” Gale asked. “I thought that this was Death’s plan.”
“And yet Death left,” Life stated. “That’s because it’s still bound to its role, as am I.”
“How is that,” Gale asked. “No one has dies as a result of this yet.”
“Which is why I’m here and Death is not,” Life explained. “There are areas where our spheres of influence overlap. Just as a person’s end can be changed by what they do in their lives, so can an individuals end be reversed.
“And Death was obliged to leave,” Brook asked. “Because your roles dictated it?”
“That’s correct, although I doubt Death thinks that this plan can be stopped, not when it believes that it’s fulfilling its purpose.”
“What does that mean,” Brook demanded.
“Have you not figured it out yet Brook Jackson,” Life chided. “Surely, between the Gift and what you’ve seen, you know the answer.”
“Balance,” she stated.
Life nodded. “Mortals believe that I am a begging and my counterpart an end, but the truth isn’t that simple. We are balance, a flow, a cycle. Life gives way to death, death gives way to life, and in so doing, the world grows and changes.”
“Death doesn’t seem to think so,” Gale retorted.
“Centuries of frustration have set in,” Life explained. “Mortals cling to and deify me while they reject and vilify Death. My counterpart feels neglected and that his work is no longer appreciated.”
“So its solution is to kill every person on the planet,” Gale demanded.
“Death seeks to restore a perceived imbalance,” Life explained. “But if those souls are unleashed upon the world it will do irreparable harm to both of us.”
“Is there a way to stop it,” Brook asked.
“Yes,” Life replied. “But it will require a sacrifice.”
“What kind of sacrifice,” Gale asked.
Instead of replying, Life walked over to the glass containment unit and placed a hand upon it. The souls within flowed toward Life, sensing the one who’d put them on the planet. Life regarded them for a moment before turning back to Gale.
“These souls were not meant to leave the world when they did,” it explained. “They cheated Death and are not like the others. As a result, they will only recognize one of their own.”
“No.” Brook grabbed her brother. “You can’t do it.”
“Do what,” he demanded. “Sacrifice myself to save the world? If Death succeeds, then everyone on the planet will die, including me.”
“No.” Brook used whatever strength she had to hold onto her brother. “There has to be another way.”
“There isn’t.” Gale placed a calming hand on her shoulder. “It’s either me, or the world Brook. There aren’t any other options.”
“Actually, there is.”
Brook turned back to Life who regarded her quietly. “What other choice?”
“You didn’t avoid Death as your brother did, but you cheated it nonetheless.” Brook could almost here Life smile. “You cheated Death of a soul, not just once, but twice. You are kin to those inside and soulless yourself. They will be drawn to you.”
“They’ll possess me,” Brook replied.
“They’ll try,” Life clarified. “No vessel can be filled beyond its capacity. A body–even one that is leaving this world–can only hold one soul. They would be bound to you and be dragged from this world, leaving it safe and free.”
“But she’ll die,” Gale exclaimed. “You can’t expect her to-”
“Gale.” Brook’s voice was quiet, but firm. “I’m already dead. Only Death’s will has kept me in some semblance of life and that’s fading. Let me do this.”
Gale swallowed. He looked on the verge of tears. “You shouldn’t have to do this. You shouldn’t have to save me again.”
Brook smiled. “I’m your big sister. It’s my job.”
Gale hugged her. Brook embraced him, remembering all the things they’d been through over the years; good and bad, joyful and hopeless, the dark and the light. They were memories worth taking with her.
Brook let go and stepped back, passing through her brother’s arms, no more substantial than a ghost. Perhaps that was all she ever was.
Brook glanced at their onlooker. “Can you get both of them out?”
Life nodded. It walked towards Keaton’s prone form. Gale hesitated, giving his sister one last glance before following. When he’d knelt beside Keaton Life stretched into a nebulous cloud. It flashed once and vanished, leaving Brook alone.
The sudden silence made the Assassin’s scrambles to get in louder, but Brook was unconcerned. If Live was correct, they no longer mattered.
Brook took a deep breath and stepped into the containment unit. The souls immediately flooded her and she gasped. In that brief moment they returned a semblance of life to her, allowing Brook to feel the world around her, even as they burned her from the inside out. Her vision quickly blurred to the point that Brook could barely see. She closed her eyes and smiled. Brook took one last breath and let go.
She’d died once before. This time, when Brook stepped into death, there truly was nothing to fear.