They weren’t breathing.
Lying on the ground, slumped over, the light flittering and fading from their eyes. Were they dead or frozen in time? There was no way to tell.
Arkay feared that it was the former. He’d put them all in the standard recovery position. He’d held their wrists, checking for a pulse. He’d looked into their eyes, to see if there was life in them. He even checked their airways, to look for blockages and obstructions. Now, he was pounding at his brother’s chest and stomach, desperately trying to get him breathing again.
Nothing had worked.
“I need them, Arkay…”
The voice seemed both hot and cold at the same time. Like a warm breeze before a torrential downpour. There was a layer of care and sadness, as if the voice regretted what they were doing.
Arkay slowed. He was tired. There were bruises on his brother’s stomach. He didn’t want to give up though.
“I need their help. But unlike you, they can’t help me while they’re alive, and you won’t help me any more.”
“You… don’t…” Arkay’s breathing was also slowing. Not from death. From exhaustion. How long had he been trying to revive his friends? Why were they like this? What had SHE done to them?
“I do… I can’t take you Arkay. I would, but you have a long life ahead of you. I know I… teased you last year. Saying you didn’t have long. You believed it.”
“Why..?” Arkay’s words were garbled, punctuated with harsh breathing. “Why… are you…doing this?”
The voice gave itself form. A sickening, blood-soaked form. That of a predator, claws as long as its forearms, its mouth full of needle-sharp teeth. Death had made herself apparent.
“I need more Veth. Something is happening soon. In twenty five years. If you were a Veth, I wouldn’t need them. But I can’t kill you. You have to give yourself willingly but you never will. In twenty five years, I could make them… hundreds of them… all into the killing machines I need…”
“It takes… twenty five years to make a Veth?”
“A true Veth, yes. Unless they’re… unique… like you. Then I can do it in a week.”
Exhaustion taking over, Arkay slumped down next to his brother’s body. His breaths were heavy, a harsh contrast to the utter lack of his brother’s breathing. He wanted to stand up and scream at the monster in front of him, he wanted to fight the monster for their lives. That was a fight he would not win.
“What if… I did give myself up willingly?” Arkay puffed. “My life in exchange for theirs.”
The creature paused, then stepped back. “You would give up your life?”
“You’re forcefully taking theirs.”
“True…” The hideous beast began to pace, lost in its thoughts. “Hm. Well, I was going to give you two hundred years… For… future things… If I give you twenty five years, when you die, you belong to me. No more cycle. You become one of my Veth, with no backsies, until this universe dies.”
“In exchange for their lives,” Arkay sighed. “Their lives. My family. All of them.”
Death’s tone changed, from sadness to amusement. “Hah! You can’t have all of them. You can have these five here. And a few more, my choice. If you agree, that is.”
Arkay whimpered slightly, his exhaustion slowly leaving, then gazed at his brother. Twenty five years wasn’t a long time. It was enough though. Enough to live his life, to settle down, maybe find a partner and have children. He would have time to say goodbye. More importantly, little Psiksi would be able to do all of that. So would the others all lying there, still and dying.
“Fine. I become your Veth in twenty five years. They all live their lives normally. You leave them alone.”
Death spun around. With a snap of her fingers, she disappeared, leaving nothing but a wisp of black smoke. All around Arkay, his friends began coughing and spluttering, life returning to their cold bodies.
“Arkay?” Psiksi whimpered weakly as he regained consciousness. “What happened?”
“I… don’t know…” Arkay lied. He simply stared where Death once stood, the pain of what he’d just done creeping across his mind. “I… can’t say…”