Wheels and Teeth.

Old Skill.

Each time a nightmare tried to claw at him, Silas felt a steady palm soothe the dream back down, taming it into something fluffy. When he awoke to his thick curtains choking out the rising sun, Galgalim was sitting beside a fireplace filled with dying coals, staring at the floor in rumination.

“You did stay,” Silas murmured sleepily, though the restfulness in his bones was indicative enough.

“Of course.” There was a small bundle of red-smoldering embers in his hand, but they did not burn him when he squeezed them in his fist. “Though I had to step out various times in the night. As is the responsible thing to do.”

Pulling himself out of bed, Silas hung on the edge and smiled to himself. Galglim’s statement was simple, but it was meant to appeal to him.

“Death waits for no one,” he remarked plainly.

“Death waited for you.” The psychopomp looked Silas over with a knowing gaze.

His smile dissolved and Silas felt his cheeks flush in its place. Loath to dwell on it, he leapt onto the floor and felt dizziness draw the color out of his skin entirely. When he pulled the curtains back he winced, the sunlight an assault on his aching eyes.

“Silas,” the psychopomp said intimately, sending chills trickling up his spine. “If you are not well, you don’t have to lead this dinner. I can send for Maleon to take your instruction.”

Offended, Silas drew back from the curtain. “No,” he said, turning to the hope chest to dig out the clothing he’d prepared. “This is the most important event we host all year. And I… I wouldn’t be able to sleep anyhow.”

And if anyone was going to take his place, a cheeky dwarf with a belly full of his own ego wasn’t going to do it. (Though he didn’t voice that part).

Gathering the folded suit into his arms, he turned to face Galgalim’s assuredly challenging gaze, but found none. The entity just seemed to be waiting for him to change his mind.

“Very well, Silas,” he acceed after a moment, “But if gets to be like last ti-” he turned to the window, attention snatched away. His body arched towards the light.

“I have to go,” he informed suddenly, standing. “Silvanus. Will you come with me?”

Silas considered his master, eyes pointed at the sliver of light peeking from beyond the curtains. It had been a long time since Silas had assisted with a reaping. The longest stretch yet; almost two months. Perhaps that was contributing to this shift in tone between them. Maybe their relationship would smooth over as soon as their daily life was regular again.

“No,” he decided regardless, shaking his head. “No, I need to go round and prepare everything.”

Distracted, Galgalim barely gave an okay before vanishing in a streak of cosmic vapor.

Silas sighed, suddenly and noticeably alone in his cold room, accompanied only by the smolder of dying coals. He undressed and started to pull on his usual uniform. They were dyed black and stitched from tweed, aside from the white collars of his undershirt.

The tailors made all his clothing within the household, where they could be modified to fit his tiny body. Almost all of his outfits had inlets in the back to accommodate his stubby wings, which ached and itched whenever he tried to stuff them inside a shirt for too long.

His birthright had not afforded him the beauty of long, flowing pinions.

He’d had the pleasure of meeting a few proper angels in his life. Not only were they beautiful in their features and the pleasant glow of their auras, but they presented their wings like the looming beacons of grandeur they were. Some were membranous, some feathered, some so wiry that dust caught on them and shimmered. By comparison, his were small and shriveled, the nerves clustered so closely that most touches sent pain burning through his shoulders.

He wasn’t bitter towards other angels. It wasn’t their fault he’d been rejected, transforming from angel to demon when he entered earth’s atmosphere.

All the same, tonight he would bandage his wings to his back and wear an outfit that concealed them. He’d pin his ears with golden rings to fold down their pointed, elven tips. He had even intended to glamor the thin, diamond-slit shape of his pupils, but he knew now that he was too exhausted to uphold a spell like that.

Every guest in the building would still know what he was, but at least he would be respectful, keeping his deformities out of sight.

He buttoned the cuffs of his sleeves and opened his window to blow the coals out.

Downstairs, the staff were already in full motion, shuttling tables and chairs into the main hallway.

He’d laid out a specific blueprint of how the table was to be arranged, as well as the seating arrangement for each guest. In most castles, this grand room would be reserved for the king and his housecarl, but this was not a mortal kingdom and Galgalim did not need to sit on a throne waiting for informants and visitors to come to him.

Tonight, however, the reaper’s throne would flank the banquet table, and Galgalim would sit a head taller than the rest, in a chair lined with crimson velvet. The king would be seated at the opposite end, still on an impressive chair, and with the same amount of precedence.

Absolutely dreading it, Silas passed through the bustle of the grand hall and into the storage rooms, where a fewer number of staff were gathering supplies.

Wood had always been a comforting element for Silas to be around, and as such, he’d spent a lot of time helping prep back here. The walnut shelves and storage pantries, where they kept the non-perishables, were stacked with spices and sugars from all kinds of lands. He’d afforded a wealth of experience by testing the different substances. The castle’s supply of honey and jams from far-off fairy kingdoms were unpredictable in their effects, and as a younger boy, he’d spent half of his nights sick on his back, and the other half immobilized by euphoria. His tongue (slightly forked at the tip, not that he’d ever let anyone know) was impervious to even the hottest spices after such experimentation. He was stupidly proud of it.

Towards the back of a pantry, there was a trapdoor that dropped down to the soldier's barracks. He pulled it up and descended into the musty cavern below, pupils deepening to adapt to the scant light. Lanterns hung from the rafters, casting dark shadows all around him.

“Wyatt?” he called, the sound swallowed up by the thick stone walls and carpet of chicken feathers below.

When he got closer to the male’s sleeping chambers, he rapt on the wooden door. “Wyatt?”

The door didn’t budge, but distantly there came the sound of a bolt unlatching, and before long, a face peered out at him from down the hall.

Silas advanced, wringing his hands together. He never felt quite secure down in the barracks of the soldiers. They were rough, ill-tempered men and women. They had to be. But he felt a slight guilt, knowing that they loved their craft, and wasted most of it sparring with scarecrows in the garden. Sometimes he almost wished for a real threat to crop up for once. At least then they might be less bored and frustrated.

“Hello Silvanus,” Wyatt greeted him cooly, oily face slicked by lantern fire.

“I wanted to make sure you knew where to greet the lord’s men. Are your warriors prepared?” he asked, glancing at the line of empty bunks behind him. Aratha was sitting on the edge of hers, pulling an armored boot up to her calf. Her red hair hung long in her face but she pushed it back once more, ever-refusing to cut it.

Wyatt bounced a small, steel ball around in his palm. “No. Where should they be?” he asked.

Silas opened his mouth to respond but was cut short by the ball being hurdled at him. He whipped out his hand and caught it before he’d even realized it had happened.

“Yes, demon, I got your instruction. Same every year. I know the drill.”

Silas uncurled his knuckles and flicked the metal ball back into the air. Wyatt caught it with an easy grace that spoke to training more than it did of reflexes.

“You should sparr with us,” the soldier interjected, once more cutting him short before he could even open his mouth. “It’s not just about learning new skills. It’s also about refining existing ones.”

An embarrassed, hot feeling slid down Silas’ core. For an irrational moment, he was sure that his master had betrayed his secret.

“Don’t think that I can’t see your potential,” Wyatt added, and the words were like soothing balms to Silas’ pinkened face. “I spend every day assessing strategy and skill. You even see it in how a person walks after a while.” He narrowed his eyes. “You’d make a good defense.”

There was something silly about imagining this young halfling male teaching him, an altogether different kind of half-breed who was now almost two centuries old, how to hold himself in battle. But he wasn’t brass enough to believe it couldn’t be done effectively.

In truth, he’d needed it for a long time.

But he just gave a weak smile and thanked Wyatt, heading up to discuss the menu.

-


Galgalim had to go slowly towards the soul.

If he chased after it too quickly, it felt too much like hunting. And if he let himself hunt, he knew it would awaken a nature much more predatory than he wished to possess.

He also knew that some of the other psychopomps delighted in the chase. They scared the soul, ripping it out of the body prematurely, and played with it in their jaws before finally ending the game. He had no want to behave that way, but he couldn’t properly judge others for doing so. The warriors of the northern realm prefered to part with their souls as though it were a final battle. He supposed it was easier for them, feeling like they’d earned a long rest after a good fight.

But humans weren’t the same, nor were the wood elves that hid in their forests. His creatures consistently showed the need for a gentler passing.

So he didn’t race after the soul like it was his prey. He followed the trail precisely, thirsting for it, but knowing he wouldn't be able to drink its residue until after he’d walked it into the void.

That was a measure that Silas and he had put into place. Instead of absorbing the souls upon impact, they were always saved for the coming night, when Silas could brew them up. It was safer that way. It left his instincts in check.

The one he was following now belonged to a wood elf like Silas, but its blood ran pure. He could taste the golden veins of it, a bit acrid in comparison with his own demon’s, but familiar enough to comfort him.

He found the creature lying on a bed of grass in a shallow home; it looked like a clump of earth to anyone without the right kind of eyes, but it was the home, and deathbed, of Rilia and her partner Toru.

Wood elves died much, much less frequently than humans in the kingdom he reaped for, but there were certain things they were exceptionally vulnerable to. On her bed of twigs and grass, Rilia was burning with a fever that was too hot for her body, leaving the earth below her damp and matted.

The psychopomp knelt down by the bed, taking her hand. The eyes did not move on her glittering, earth-colored skin, but he could see her spirit looking at him. He thought of how Silas had told him he had eyes. It made him wonder what she saw.

Behind him came the sound of stumbling.

Holding the elf’s hand, he turned and saw Toru leaping from the kitchen table, his chair clattering to the floor. So he could see Galgalim as well. The psychopomp had thought he’d tasted two souls rather than one.

“Don’t,” the elf implored feebly, his voice trembling with the absence of hope.

“I have to,” Galgalim told him.

“Why?” he challenged, fear changing shape and becoming anger. Galgalim felt the soul of the woman clutch back, curling her fingers around him. She stood up, leaving her body with a throttled sigh.

Galgalim turned and looked up at her. Fully detached from her body, he was filled with the taste of her spirit. It really was like being in the presence of half of Silas.

Death got to his feet. “You already know why,” he spoke. “It is why you made that potion. You knew this was preferable to suffering.”

Toru breathed in defiantly, trying pointlessly to intimidate the creature with his glare. Then his vision darted over to the poison he’d made from crushed herbs and boiled flowers, corked beside the other empty jars on his kitchen counter.

“You’re right,” he submitted with a face full of spiteful tears, grabbing for it.

“I-” Galgalim faltered, mouth going dry. He stopped, his fingers slipping from the woman's hand. He had never, to his knowledge, directly influenced a death before. And yet he’d tasted this elf’s death from the moment he began traveling.

Confused and upset, Galgalim clamped his hand firmly back around the other's hand. He could not remember when he had started thinking about things this much. He could not remember when he had started to feel. It was as if he had been introduced to consciousness so sneakily that he hadn't even noticed it come.

“Tell him to stop,” the elf pleaded to him as her husband drank the poison. “Tell him he will be okay without me.”

Galgalim felt anger flare inside of him.

“It’s too late to stop him,” he growled, stepping forward and pulling her with him, “And he will squirm on the ground for yet another hour before his stomach finishes dissolving. But I am merciful, and I will take him now.”

He reached down and forcibly ripped the soul out of Toru’s body. The elf screamed, and even his soul screamed for a moment before realizing it had escaped the pain.

Would Silas have praised him for that, or would the demon have reprimanded him?

This mistake would not have been made if Silas were here, Galgalim knew that much. His assistant was equally as compassionate as he was logical. But Silas had stopped coming with him. He couldn’t be blamed. Galgalim’s heart ached still for the last time Silas had been present during a reaping.

“He’s ready,” the psychopomp told the elven woman, holding each of their hands in one of his. “Are you?”

“I can’t see him,” she whispered.

“He’s there,” he assured her. The male’s spirit was still in shock from the sudden loss of his body, and from the trauma that the poison had started to inflict. "Mortals can't see each other's souls. But he's there."

Galgalim looked forward and opened the veil.

He walked them both through, and though he was sure neither of them were ready, he felt their hands dissolve from his own.

The wood-elf taste vanished from his mouth. He felt his knees weaken with hunger, and he hadn’t even realized he was imagining himself with a body to begin with.

He wanted to get home and drink their souls.

He wanted to bask in the taste of Silas all around him, swilling that earthen, smoky flavor around in his mouth, never using it up but never getting quite full off of it. Silas, whose soul he could see all the time, because he had overstayed his death. Silas, who saw his master as though he had eyes and a mouth and hands, and in doing so had made Galgalim forget that he didn’t.