A wet thwack.
Her neck ached, but the feeling was growing fainter by the moment. She needed to get up, it was important, but that was growing fainter too.
Even though the urge was fading, she pushed herself to get up. She was at an ornate gate, hewn straight from the smooth rock of the enormous tunnel that stretched before her. Ahead, the walls glowed yellow-orange as if from some unseen inferno, but far steadier than flame should be. She glanced behind her. Only darkness that way.
The voice came from not two paces to her left causing her to jump in the otherwise eery stillness. Standing there, somehow unseen before, was an indistinct figure. Not in dark, but… blurred. As if the figure was made of clay and been smudged by clumsy hands. She could vaguely make out a sharp nose, a mop of hair, a wicked smile. A pocket watch held open in one hand held the figure’s apparent attention.
“Late for what?” she asked.
“No, no. Not ‘for what’. As in, ‘Friends and family are mourning the late…’ what is your name, anyhow?” the figure replied, snapping the pocket watch shut.
She reached for it. It was on the tip of her tongue, but somehow completely absent.
“Can’t remember?” the figure said sympathetically, “Never mind, happens to the best of us. But if you ever want-”
Something clicked in her head.
“What? Me?” the figure held up its hands in mock affront, “No, he’s up ahead. And you’ll have to meet with him shortly. But, as I was saying, if you ever want to remember who you are again, I’m going to need you to follow my lead.”
She tensed. “Is that a threat?”
“Again, no. You’re doing quite poorly at this. The threat lies ahead. And you can either walk blindly into it, or you can take my aid. Do you recall, are you any good at chess?”
Death’s skull face was inscrutable. She was glad she hadn’t opted for poker.
“Knight to F3,” Death rumbled, jaw flapping despite the lack of lips or vocal cords.
She picked up the onyx queen and moved it forwards to defend her pawn.
“Hmm. Bold. Aggressive. Relying on mobility to get you out of future harm. But I suppose I already knew that about you,” Death contemplated, “Bishop to C4.”
“I feel like you’ve got the advantage on me there,” she said, repositioning her queen to threaten both the pawn blocking her own and the pawn guarding the knight, “A little unfair, don’t you think?”
“I always have the advantage. It’s my nature. And I’ve seen these moves before. Many times. Castle on King’s side.”
“Got your pawn,” she replied, moving the queen to remove the piece from play.
“Indeed. And I have yours. Bishop to F7. Check.”
The assembled spectres and ghosts around them gave a polite applause. Things were getting out of hand. Where was he?
Wordlessly, she picked up her king and captured the too-close bishop. Death remained impassive.
“Predictable,” was his only response, “And disappointingly flawed. Knight to G5. Check. Again.”
Behind Death, a figure stepped casually from the gathered crowd. She’d almost not recognise it, but for the wicked grin.
Focus. The chess game. Her queen was threatened by the same knight Death had just moved, but she could see little to save the piece. Reluctantly, she moved her king back.
“I admit, I had higher hopes,” Death murmured, an impressive feat for a being with no lips, “Rook to E1.”
She frowned. He’d spared her queen? She reached for the piece, ready to move it out of danger, as the figure crept up behind Death…
“Careful,” Death’s voice growled. If she could feel her heart, she was sure it would have been racing.
“As I mentioned, this is not the first time I’ve seen these moves. And they end-”
“Nobody move!” the figure cried, accompanied by a metallic swish as it drew the sword from the scabbard at Death’s side. Two ghosts stepped towards it. The blade whispered through the air, glowing black as it connected, the forms of the ghosts seeming to fold into themselves and into the blade.
“Well, this is new,” Death said, as she stumbled to her feet, her chair clattering to the stone floor. Death likewise stood, drawing the massive scythe from his back. “What now, then, mortals?”
“Now? We run,” the figure said.
Her feet were already moving, though barely moments later she felt a tugging at her arm.
“Not that way,” the figure said beside her, dragging her through the surprised crowd, “Not towards the light.”
“I’m pretty sure I remember moving into the light being recommended.”
“Only if you want to die for good. We’re going away from the light.”
They ran toward the darkness, the sounds of pursuit coming from behind them. She risked a glance back over her shoulder. The ghosts were hot on their heels, but Death simply stood behind the chess board, scythe held in one bony hand. For the first time, she swore she could see emotion in that implacable visage. Emotion.
“You know, there’s stories about the grim fate of those who look back during an escape from the underworld…” the figure beside her commented.
The ground ahead was becoming softer, and she had to return to looking forwards to keep from stumbling. Each step seemed to leave her shorter of breath and her lungs seemed to burn for the lack of oxygen. The pain in her neck was back, and driving along a mean headache to go with it.
“Keep going. Don’t stop.”
There were faint things in the darkness, now, and the tunnel had somehow shifted orientation so that she wasn’t so much running forward as running up, in defiance of gravity. A small stuffed rabbit appeared mere feet ahead of her, bouncing of her shoulder.
Wait. She knew that rabbit. Longears. She’d had him as a toy when she was a kid, lost him in a fire at 12.
Further ahead, her grandmother’s antiques cupboard tumbled from the gloom, back towards the distant sound of the ghosts, closely followed by the Ford Festiva that had been her first car.
Her lungs felt like bursting now.
“I can’t…” she gasped, “Need… a breather.”
“Great idea. And I expect, just a short way ahead, is some lungs that you can actually do that with,” said the figure.
She blinked. The figure was right. She didn’t have lungs here. She was dead. The feeling… it had to be the sensation of her actual lungs, somewhere ahead in the world of the living…
Another stride. Another. And another. Her vision was becoming faint, each step seeming lighter and more ephemeral, the pain and the burning of her lungs overruling everything else. The figure grabbed her arm, helping her along, but even that felt distant, until finally she took one step too far, and felt herself collapse into the void…
She awoke coughing and retching liquid, before struggling in a deep, sweet breath. Her neck and jaw ached, though not as bad as they had during the escape.
“Embalming fluid,” the voice of her escape companion said from nearby, though she was too focused on coughing up more of the fluid to identify where from, “Could be worse. Could have been grave dirt.”
As the immediate threat of suffocation eased, she took a moment to assess the rest of her body. On her toe was a tag, labelled “Sandra Collins/Blackbird”, a name that stirred vague recollections. She was otherwise completely naked, the coldest she had ever been, and it felt like someone had stabbed her in the chest, a pain that was gradually separating from the burn of her lungs. She glanced down.
“Woah, tits,” her companion interjected.
Blearily, Sandra looked around.
“In your head, hon. I wasn’t going to be able to go back to my own booby… ah, I mean, body. The only way out was with you. I’d, uh, just thought you were a guy.”
She scowled, “What difference would that have made?”
“Well, it’d ease the awkwardness, for a start. Now, back to the chest pain…” Of it’s own free will, her head tilted down to look back at her chest, one hand pointing to the Y-shaped scar there. “…it looks like the coroner has cut us open already, though our return from the underworld healed us sufficiently to not immediately die on return. We can use that.”
“‘Us’? This is my body. You’re just an interloper,” Sandra growled.
“Not true,” her companion said, getting her body to her feet as the shivers set in, and grabbing a nearby sheet to wrap around her, “We share this work of art now, hon. Now, let’s see if they’ve stored your belongings somewhere around here. I’ve got some people to see that need to take my place back down there.”
Her leg took a step forward on it’s own. With determination, she forced it back down, the cold muscles spasming as they received differing orders.
“No,” she said, “And I’m not your hon. You can call me Sandra.”
Her body sighed.
“Look, we’re not going to get anywhere if you just fight me. We’re stuck with each other,” her companion said.
“Exactly. And while I’m thankful for your rescue, we’ve both got goals now we’re back. I’m prepared to work with you, but you’ve got to do likewise.”
“Alright, I can work with that. Now, shall we get dressed?”
Sandra released the pressure on her leg. It was somewhat weird feeling her body walk across the morgue on it’s own, but she soon noticed she could feel the concept form in her mind just before her body acted on it. The will of her unnamed companion.
“Do you have a name?” she asked.
“Probably. No idea what it is, though. I didn’t have the benefit of a toe tag on awakening. You can keep thinking of me as the companion, though.”
Oh. So you can read my mind? Sandra thought.
“Well, it’s my mind too, now,” the companion said, opening lockers at random, “You’ll probably find you can hear me, too. Which might save some strange looks in the street if we keep our conversations private.”
“If you can’t remember your name, how come you know you’ve got people you want to kill?” Sandra asked.
“Some things transcend death,” her companion said, finally finding the locker with her bodysuit, “Okay, the suit, yes. Not the cape.”
“I like the cape.”
“No. I can recall your last memories of this cape, and this was what got you killed. It’s not sending us back to the grave- Oh, hello.”
Beneath the cape was a sword. Three foot long, straight edged, chisel tipped. The Sword of Death, somehow having followed them out of the underworld.
She felt a wicked grin spread across her face. She wasn’t sure if it was hers or her companion’s.
“Aww, yes,” they said together.
Death turned a chess piece between his fingers, flipping it between his knuckles like a gambler would a coin. Despite his frozen visage, an observer would swear he was smiling.
“Knight to Freedom City. Check. Your move, Hades.”