Author's Note: Book 2 of Death and the Emperor is almost finished and NaNoWriMo is approaching, so it seemed a good time for another side-story!
This one is a complete AU. When I first had the idea for D+E, it was basically a gender-flipped version of Hades and Persephone, but when I began to plan it, the plot (obviously) turned out pretty different. This was supposed to be "what if it had been more similar to Hades and Persephone?" But it went off in yet another unexpected direction. *shrugs*
When Winter comes, the winter wild that hill and wood shall slay;
When trees shall fall and starless night devour the sunless day;
When wind is in the deadly East, then in the bitter rain
I'll look for thee, and call to thee; I'll come to thee again!
– J. R. R. Tolkien, The Ent and the Entwife
There is a rumour in the Carann Empire. It lies in the hazy mist between legend and fact, never quite proved but far from disproved. Everyone knows that the Caranilnav family have always been far too interested in Death. But one of them, says the rumour, went far beyond being interested in Death. He fell in love with her, and in return she gave him immortality. All he had to do was spend three months each year in her realm.
Is the rumour true?
Some people have asked Kilan. It's no use. He never answers.
If you asked Varan when it began, she'd say it began when she died trying to save her stupid little brother, and "don't make that face, Kilan. You were incredibly stupid and you know it."
If you asked Kilan when it began, and if you managed to get an answer out of him, he'd say it began when he made a deal with Death, and "what was I supposed to do? My sister was dead."
If you asked Death when it began, she would say it was all Fate's fault – "but those damned Reapers helped."
It actually began when Kilan gave Death ten years of his life. He signed their contract in his own blood, and Varan came back to life.
And that was that.
Until Fate got involved.
Fate, in Death's opinion, was like a meddling relative. The sort of meddling relative who insisted on giving everyone exactly what She thought they needed without reference to what they actually wanted. And She always made other people Her unwitting pawns.
Who would have thought that a group of Reapers' attempts at baking could have caused so much trouble?
Kilan liked wandering around the Land of the Dead. It was full of so many strange and impossible things, and nothing was ever the same twice. Once he had found a group of skeletons playing croquet with each others' skulls. Another time he had found talking cats playing chess under an acid waterfall. After those events, he was sure nothing could ever startle him again.
Walking into Death's castle to find a group of her servants covered in flour, however, was quite startling.
Kilan stopped in the doorway, staring. Death had disappeared after bringing him to her realm tonight, muttering something about an exploding spaceship and incompetent Reapers. She had said nothing about letting some of those Reapers turn her castle into a bakery. And so, putting two and two together, he suspected this was happening without her knowledge. They'd taken a previously empty room and brought baking supplies into it. Where had they found baking supplies in the Land of the Dead?
One of the Reapers spotted him before he could decide what to do.
"Look!" this Reaper shouted. Kilan thought they might be male, but it was hard to tell when they had green skin and an unnaturally long neck. "It's the living boy!"
All of them stopped whatever they were doing and gawked at him. Kilan suddenly understood how circus animals felt.
"Is the Queen coming back?" one of the Reapers asked, craning their neck to see behind him.
That confirmed it. They weren't supposed to be doing what they were doing, and they didn't want Death to find out. "I don't think so."
The group breathed a collective sigh of relief.
"What are you doing?" Kilan asked, looking at the bowls full of some indeterminate mixture that strongly resembled mud.
"Baking a cake," another Reaper said. "Heibar there–" She jabbed a finger in the direction of one of her friends. "–has a son who's going to die later today. So we're making a cake for him. To make him feel welcome, you know."
Kilan couldn't see how a cake could make someone feel welcome to the Land of the Dead. If he had been given a cake on his first trip, he would have been hopelessly confused. But it was a nice thought. "Why the secrecy? You're not doing anything wrong."
"No," said the Reaper apparently named Heibar, "but we want it to be a complete secret."
That made very little sense to Kilan. The residents of the Land of the Dead were hardly likely to give anything away to the soon-to-arrive son. He began to think that Death had some reason for complaining about the stupidity of Reapers.
"Could you help?" A Reaper who looked like a little girl gave Kilan a hopeful, pleading look. "We don't know what cakes are popular among mortals now. Will an utchaguna cake be all right?"
What's an utchaguna cake? Kilan wondered. "...I expect so?"
And that was how Kilan came to spend a night in the Land of the Dead in the company of several Reapers, cutting up fruit and stirring it into the cake mixture.
There was more cake mixture than the cake needed. So after some thought, the bakers decided to make a second, smaller cake for themselves.
Death arrived just after the second cake had been served. Kilan had taken a bite out of his slice, and was trying to decide if he liked the cake or not, when the doors to the "kitchen" opened.
Everything went very quiet.
The Reapers stared at Death. Death stared back, her arms folded and her eyebrows raised.
"What," she said at last, "is the meaning of this?"
A smile played around the corners of her mouth as she spoke. Kilan realised with a start that she wasn't angry at all. She was amused, but not angry.
The Reapers didn't know that. They saw only that their Queen was unimpressed. As one they all began trying to explain.
"It was my idea–"
"We thought it would be nice–"
"Please don't put us on scythe-sharpening duty!"
"We'll clean up the mess–"
Death held up her hand. Everyone fell silent.
"Put that cake somewhere safe before one of you stands on it," she said, pointing to the cake meant for Heibar's son. "And then you can scrub all this flour off the flour. Where did you get the flour? Have you been borrowing things from the Land of the Living again?" A few Reapers carefully looked everywhere except at her. "And–"
Death's eyes fell on Kilan – and his slice of cake. A look of absolute horror crossed her face.
"Tell me you haven't eaten any of that," she said calmly. It was the sort of calmness a person displayed when they were on the brink of panic.
A sick feeling formed in Kilan's stomach. Was the cake poisonous? Was he going to die? "I haven't eaten much!"
Death shut her eyes and pressed a hand against her forehead. "Oh dear."
"What do you mean, I'm stuck in the Land of the Dead?!" Kilan's voice was a high-pitched squawk. He felt he could be forgiven for that, however, when Death had just told him he couldn't leave her realm.
"Believe me, I'm not happy with this situation either," Death said, glaring at the Reapers responsible for the sorry mess. "But mortals are not supposed to eat anything in my castle. It… traps them here for a certain length of time every year. Take my hand and I'll show you what I mean."
Kilan grabbed Death's hand, fighting his rising panic. He felt the brief disorientation that always accompanied travelling between the Land of the Dead and the Land of the Living. For a moment he was hovering in a void, somewhere between both worlds. Around him was a vast emptiness, filled with ever-shifting shadows. Ahead of him, blurred and vague as if seen from underwater, was his bedroom, exactly as he'd left it. Then it was as if he had walked into a wall.
The void disappeared. The glimpse he'd caught of his room disappeared. And he found himself standing in Death's castle again.
Death let go of his hand and muttered something that sounded like a curse. "You see? You can't leave. The barrier between the worlds is closed to you."
Kilan took a deep breath. It didn't help. So he took another. Finally he felt he could speak without hyperventilating. "How do we reverse it?"
Death shrugged helplessly. "This isn't a situation that happens frequently. It hasn't happened for five thousand years, and we couldn't find a solution then."
An uncomfortable silence fell. The Reapers cowered at the far side of the room, not daring to move in case they brought their queen's wrath down upon them. Kilan buried his head in his hands. Death paced to and fro, lost in thought.
"I'm afraid that for now, all we can do is wait for the effects to wear off," she said. "You only ate a small portion of the cake, so it shouldn't take long."
"But what will my parents say?" Kilan protested. "They'll think I've been kidnapped!"
Death pursed her lips. "I'll just have to explain the situation to them."
It was an understatement to say Særnor and Arásy were displeased to learn of their son's deal with Death, and the complications that had arisen. Death had never realised until now that the Carannish language had so many swear words.
She also learnt that Arásy had inherited Ranoryin's temper, and her willingness to resort to violence.
The day after Death's visit, Arásy went to see a witch.
"I need help," she said, drawing herself up to her full height and tapping her fingers against the hilt of her sword. "I need to rescue someone from the Land of the Dead."
The witch stared at her through unsettlingly-unblinking eyes. "No one can bring back the dead."
"I don't want to bring back the dead. I want to rescue my son."
Kilan's nineteenth birthday was a surreal event. Well, more surreal than his life usually was. There was no cake for obvious reasons. And the guests were his long-dead ancestors.
"Do you think you can return to the living world soon?" Great-aunt Tannen asked.
Kilan thought of Death's failed attempts to return him. "Not yet."
Then, after approximately three months of being stuck in the Land of the Dead, Kilan woke up one morning and found himself in his bed. In the manor. In Rethli. In the Land of the Living.
His first reaction was confusion.
His second was to jump up and shout, "Finally!"
Minutes later, when his parents had barged into his room and alternated between hugging and screaming at him, Kilan wished he was still in Death's realm.
The residents of the manor began a rather awkward dance around each other. Everyone carefully avoided talking about Death, where Kilan had been, and the fact he would inevitably go back at some point.
Death was conspicuous by her absence for almost a year.
Then Kilan woke up one morning in the Land of the Dead.
A shout of "Damn it!" echoed around Death's castle.
Death herself, embroiled in a disagreement with Chaos, only learnt of Kilan's return when he stormed into her throne room.
"Did you bring me here?" he demanded. Without waiting for an answer, he continued, "I can't leave again, can I?"
Chaos looked blankly from her mother to this strange new arrival. Death didn't bother to explain the situation to her.
"No, I didn't bring you here," she said, feeling the beginnings of a headache. "And no, I don't expect you can leave."
She was right.
Kilan sulked for the rest of the day.
"What am I to do here?" Kilan asked the next day, when he'd resigned himself to his fate. (Technically there were no days in the Land of the Dead, or months for that matter, but Kilan insisted on thinking of them. It made his new "home" seem more normal.) "Father wanted to teach me sailing on the lake. I can't exactly learn that down here."
"Why not?" Death asked from where she was leafing through a book while sitting in a floating chair. Perhaps it was Kilan's imagination, but the book's covers kept opening and closing like a creature's jaws. "There are lakes here. And oceans, if you prefer."
"And monsters lurking in them," Kilan said. Large bodies of water, in Death's kingdom, were less 'water' and more 'impossibly deep abysses hiding god-knew-what horrors'. "I don't want to be eaten, thanks."
Death shrugged and dropped the book on the floor. It immediately sprouted hundreds of tiny legs and scurried away. "Well, what do you want to do?"
Kilan was tempted to reply with "That's what I'd like to know." Instead, he thought of the places he had already seen in Death's castle. "I suppose I'd like to see the Library of Memories again."
"There are ways to get into the Land of the Dead," the witch said solemnly. "But many who have tried have gone mad."
Arásy didn't flinch. "What are they?"
Nadriet was sixteen and away at school for most of the year, but when she was home she noticed things. She noticed that her brother's mysterious disappearances were never spoken of outside the manor. If anyone asked, her parents always said Kilan was ill. She noticed that her mother had taken to disappearing for hours and even days at a time, and that she always seemed oddly distracted when she was home. She noticed that her father had become silent and grim as the days passed and Kilan remained missing.
She noticed that an unnatural chill had settled over the manor since Kilan vanished.
Perhaps it was her imagination.
When he was just an occasional visitor to the Land of the Dead, Kilan had never thought he could get tired of it. Now that it was his part-time home, boredom became his constant companion. Even looking at the memories of long-dead mortals from far-flung parts of the universe grew tiresome after a while. Speaking to his dead relatives lost its appeal now that they were his neighbours. The sheer strangeness of the Land of the Dead stopped being strange when he saw it every day.
"If you ask me," Death said one day when his boredom got on her nerves more than usual, "the problem isn't that there's nothing to do. It's that you want to go home."
"Of course I want to go home!" Kilan snapped. His temper had steadily worsened over his stay on her realm. "Wouldn't you, if you were trapped in my world?"
"I would never be trapped in your world," Death said. That was hardly helpful. "But I can see your meaning." She thought for a moment. "I wonder… There are other worlds out there, neither mine nor yours. Perhaps you could visit them."
For a moment this idea sounded splendid. But then Kilan thought about it more. "This… magic or whatever it is stops me from leaving your realm at all, doesn't it? I don't think it makes a difference if I try to go to another world."
He was right. It didn't.
Kilan returned to the Land of the Living as suddenly as he'd left it.
He was just in time for his uncle's death.
Weeks later, as he watched the priestess place the crown on Marin's head, all Kilan could think was, Someone's going to notice the next time I vanish.
Several months afterwards, a servant walked into Prince Kilan's room to find him missing.
The entire palace knew of it in five minutes.
"I can't be trapped down here yet again!" Kilan complained. "Marin's doing his best to ruin the empire. What'll happen if I'm not there to stop him?"
Death shook her head. "I wish I knew."
Three months had never seemed so long before. Kilan counted the days until he'd return to the Land of the Living.
What will I find? he wondered. Will Marin have started a war while I was gone? Will the people know I'm missing?
These questions were going to drive him mad. So he began searching Death's library for any way to return to his own world.
She had an amazing number of books, most of them in languages he'd never heard of. He had to enlist the help of Reapers, souls and Death herself to understand some of them. But he was determined. He was going back to the Land of the Living if he had to use necromancy to do it!
"This is the first time I've seen you so intent on something," Death remarked, watching him scribble notes on a piece of paper. "Are you really so worried about Marin?"
"Yes!" Kilan pushed the paper away and turned back to the book. "And with every day I stay down here, the more likely it is that someone notices I'm gone, and then everyone will want to know where I am, and then they'll all know that I'm married to you and I made a deal with you and now I'm stuck down here."
"Believe me, they already know."
Well, that was just wonderful.
"I have an idea," Kilan said after reviewing his notes. "There's a ritual that involves drawing special symbols and calling upon a god to let someone get into the underworld. What if we reverse it?"
Death frowned thoughtfully. "You mean, use it to get out of the underworld? ...It would be difficult, but I believe we could do it."
"Dear, are you sure about this?" Særnor asked as he followed Arásy into the Death-god's shrine. "It's hardly ever been done before. You could die if something goes wrong!"
"I'm sure," Arásy said, placing a candle on the altar of the Death-god. "Now help me draw the imbryl."
"Are you sure you've drawn those imbryl correctly?" Ranoryin demanded, glaring at her distant cousin Sazua.
Sazua, who in life had been a priestess, gave the former Empress an unimpressed look. "I spent sixty years studying imbryl. Do you think I could have made a mistake?"
"All right, Kilan," Death said, ignoring their bickering. "This probably won't work the first time. But we'll see if anything happens, and if so, we'll try again."
Kilan stepped into the circle of imbryl and sent a brief prayer to any god who might be listening.
Please let this work, he thought.
Sazua turned away from Ranoryin with a disgruntled "hmph!". Her eyes widened when she saw Kilan standing in the circle. "Why are the imbryl glowing?"
Kilan looked down. Sure enough, the imbryl were glowing faintly.
"Death?" he said nervously. "What does this mean?"
Death knelt down and held her hand over one of the imbryl. "How strange," she murmured. "They aren't doing this themselves. They're receiving an echo of energy from another ritual somewhere else. But who–"
A bright blue light shot up from the circles. By the time the onlookers had blinked away the spots before their eyes, Kilan had vanished.
No one could deny Fate had a sense of humour.
Kilan and his parents had attempted the exact same ritual at the same time. And Kilan found himself standing in the middle of the circle his parents had drawn.
There is a rumour in the Carann Empire. No one knows if it's true or not. But what is known is that Emperor Tinuviel disappears every year, and no one knows where he goes. His sister Nadriet reigns until he returns. And so his absences, though mysterious, have no real effect on the Empire, and the people have come to see them as another Caranilnav oddity.
Nadriet knows now where her brother goes. He always returns unharmed, so she says nothing and acts as if this is normal.
But she has seen strange things out of the corner of her eye. Rooms in the palace suddenly bleed into brightly-coloured gardens that were never there before. A frozen wasteland lurks in the corners of the corridors. Shadows flit to and fro when there is nothing that could cast them.
The borders are blurred between the Land of the Living and the Land of the Dead.
Nadriet doesn't know if she should be worried or not.
 Death's Reapers were all once mortal, but not all of them were humanoid mortals.
 utchaguna = A sort of fruit native to the planet Abhaya. This planet is more than twenty galaxies away from Niorla, so no Carannish person has ever heard of this fruit before.
 Carannish superstition forbids the mention of the god of death's name in case speaking it attracts their attention, so they are referred to only as "the Death-god".
 imbryl = Symbols believed to have magical significance. (Runes, basically.)
 Sazua = This Sazua is not Varan's daughter, but an earlier Caranilnav with the same name.