I see nothing. Feel nothing. The air is full of mildew and damp and decay. There is dirt on my tongue. A man’s voice rumbles in the darkness.
“Why are you here, Hope?”
Hope. Venetia’s voice is in my head. Ahhh, Rajah, my Hope. Where is your sister? Where is Leyla? I shake off the memory.
Why am I here? It comes back in bits and pieces. The intruder in the Kennel. The fight.
“I wasn’t quick enough.” I tell the darkness, “Not fast enough… not smart enough…” It had all happened so fast. “Who are you?”
“I am Death.” and at the words there is a spark against my fingers. Painful and sudden. Feeling is coming back slowly.
“Are you the one who killed me?”
“You were taken to atone for their sins.” It is easy to picture him then. The fanatical killer with his twin blades, grinning as he stabbed me.
“But why me? I’m not even from here.” My voice sounds confused, petulant even, in my ears.
“Oh no… You’ve danced with me a long time.” Death laughs. “And I can keep you here now.” Another painful spark, as though he is reminding me of his power. “Do you even want to go back?”
“Yes.” I say softly. I think so? It’s all so hazy now.
“Why?” Death demands. “What waits for you out there? The man you treat so badly? Those slaves? Your family who doesn’t understand you?”
A run-down pickup truck. A smooth rock. A nest of blankets. A group of people others underestimate. They are all one thing to me.
The sparks of electricity are arcing across my skin and up my arms. Strength returning. I can feel my body as a distant, hurting thing. Broken and twisted. Anger flares in me then, breaks through the nothing.
“And I don’t treat him badly.” I snap.
Death huffs in amusement. The sharp sting of pain flows across my skin.
“Tell me you want to go back.”
“Send me back.” I demand.
“I want to hear you beg for it.” The pain is increasing, I hiss as it flows through me.
“Send me back. Please send me back.” Begging has always struck me as a particularly useful skill to have at times. I am not too prideful to do it now. I pour my desire into my voice. “Please.”
“What will you give me in return?”
The question hangs between us, the pressure and pain building under my skin. He will punish me if I lie.
“…the only thing I have ever truly owned.” It is the secret to my survival, and the one thing that has brought me this far in our Dance.
“What is that?” Death’s voice is dangerous and interested.
The arcing electricity is climbing my torso, sparking at my face.
“Then I take it from you.” Death intones with finality. The sharp flow of pain courses through my body, broken torn parts knitting back together. There is soil pressing all around me now, a great shifting as it rushes past me, pushing me upwards.
“Lady Luck forgive me!” I cry out. What have I done?
Slowly I pull myself from the cloying dirt, straighten in the darkness. Where am I now? The scent of decay is still in my lungs.
But I can move. I take a careful step forward and my foot strikes stone. Stairs?
“Hello?” I call out. There is no answer and I feel… incomplete. Something is missing. Is that void where my Luck was? I bite back a sob.
There is a doorway at the top of the stairs and I push through the cloth into a brighter space. My eyes ache at even that slight adjustment. There is movement ahead, a shadow stepping in front of the grey light, glowing faintly.
“I’m here.” That familiar voice, “I told you I’d find you.”
Did he? I don’t remember. We stumble through the dark towards each other. There is a face to my left, a grinning mouth in a dark mask. Was she waiting for me as well?
“Is this another dream?”
I want so badly to believe him. Everything is so familiar, the quiet quick movements of Smiles as she turns her attention back to the pit. The strain in Ynk’s voice and wrinkles of concern around his eyes. The scent of skin and soap and, farther, fresh air from the doorway beyond. But something feels off… Something is missing.
“Where am I?”
Somehow, until he had said it, I had thought maybe it hadn’t really happened. My luck had brought me so far… but now…
“He took it.” I gasp, clutching at my heart. “Death took it from me.”
Ynk’s arms are around me, “Shhh… What did he take?”
“My Luck.” My words are thick with tears. For a moment he is still as he registers my words, then his hands are at his neck, removing the leather string around his neck and the Ace of Spades ring dangling there.
“Then you can have mine.”
“No, that was a gift.” I try to push it back but he fastens it around my neck. “You can’t give it back. You might need it.”
“To borrow then, until you get your own back.”
I nod, and clasp the trinket in my hand. It’s been months since I had gifted the ring, protection against Death. The irony is not lost on me.
He pushes the door open, slowly.
“Let’s go Home.”
I nod, slowly, and step into the cold light of dawn.
“Rajah?” Holiday’s arms stretch to me and I fall into them exhausted. The carpet is damp beneath my knees. I pretend not to notice.
“The dead do not sleep.” I inform Ynk. He has not either. We curl up once again, concentric circles with my weapons at the center, returned to my hands. Everything feels different, slightly shifted. Scars and birthmarks, subtly transposed.
“Are you sure this is real?” I demand again and again. My eyes search his face for any sign of deception.
“Yes.” he responds each time, patient with my pleading, until I fall asleep.