People always want to know from me: what is the shape of death? But they are asking the wrong question. Death has no shape I can articulate. Were it so simple, there would be no need for my work.
Some years ago I bedded an old man, a wizard and mathematician, who told me that any statement you make contains the entirety of the universe in what is left unsaid by it. If you were to declare “I exist,” then by extension you are also declaring that you are not a tree, that you are not sorrowful, that you have not eaten, that you are not among the stars, that you are not your brother’s keeper... Every positive affirmation contains an infinity of negation. There is nothing you can speak that the universe is not held in the shadow of your flame.
I loved hearing this. I did not usually sleep with men so much older than me, but his wisdom charmed me as much as my young man’s body charmed him, and it was a good night for both of us.
“Then say it,” I said.
“Say what?” he asked me as he ran his finger down my chest.
“I exist,” I said.
“Such a silly boy, but how can I refuse you? I exist.”
It was beautiful to hear him say that.
“I exist,” he said, sharing my laughter.
“I exist,” he said again, then I slit his throat.
His eyes bore no horror or betrayal. He knew what I was, and he knew too that, like words, every life contains the negation of the universe. As a death artist, it is my privilege to turn life into everything it is not.
“You look troubled, Master Dominic. I hope you are not here in my establishment on behalf of your employer tonight.”
Grenwald, the bartender, looked more pallid every time I saw him, but my dagger did not yet call for him. I wasn’t looking forward to that day. Few bartenders anywhere in the world had shown me as much kindness as he had.
“Let’s just say I am not here for you, and it is something else that troubles me tonight.”
“I can tell. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen you bothered before, sir.”
I took a seat at the bar. My legs were too short to reach the floor, temporarily disconnecting me from my shadow. No death artist ever likes to be disconnected from their shadow, but necessity sometimes calls for it. And it always put others at ease to see it.
I rested my hand on the countertop and felt a little bit better, though it didn’t provide the connection that standing on the ground did. Grenwald shifted, putting himself between me and the lantern behind him, his shadow falling on me. It brought a touch of warmth to my soul. It was how I knew he was a good man. You could tell so much about someone by how their shadow feels when it falls on you. He placed a beer in front of me and stared expectantly. He wanted to know what was troubling me.
“My shadow has given me a monumental task— I have been called upon to kill the bird king.”
The other patrons erupted into laughter. They had been straining to listen even as they pretended to ignore me.
“Kill the bird king!” a cat woman shouted, her whiskers twitching; “that’s a good one!”
“You death artists just can’t handle the fact that someone figured out how to get beyond your reach, can you?” a huge pig man said.
“No one is beyond the reach of death,” I said to him.
He snorted, snot flying from his snout, and approached me, hunching his shoulders for a fight. “Does that include death artists?”
He kept coming towards me until his face was nearly pressed against mine.
“Get him, Cochon,” someone shouted.
I hopped off the bar stool. I stood only chest high to him.
“There’s no need for this,” Grenwald said, “Master Dominic was not trying to start a fight, Cochon. The ways of death artists are mysterious even to them.”
“Pah! Death artists are nothing but trouble, from the moment they touch the ground for the first time and bond with their shadow. Death shadows always seek out bad ones. Everyone knows that. No one good ever gets made into a death artist.”
“No one knows why anyone bonds with the shadows they do,” I said to Cochon, “why did I bond with a death shadow? I don’t know. And why does death need us to do her work? I don’t know. And why does she choose the time and place she does for people? I don’t know that either. All I know is everyone must come to her eventually, including death artists, and it is our job to bring them to her when they are called for. The time for the bird king is coming soon, Mr. Cochon, but he’s not what brought me to Grenwald’s bar this evening. No, it is someone else death has called for tonight.”
I stared at him. The laughter in the bar died. He was trembling, all the fight gone from him.
“Oh gods,” he said, “not now, not today.”
“It is not for me to decide these things.”
He ran to the back of the bar, out a back exit that led to the alleys of the hidden side of the city. There was no need to run after him. All would come about in due course.
I tossed some money on the countertop. “Your hospitality is always appreciated, Grenwald.”
“That poor bastard,” Grenwald said.
“No. This is a great day for him. He just doesn’t know it yet.”
I made my way out the same back exit, to the hidden alleyways, passing mysterious others out on dark business of their own. This was the shadowed part of the city, where people live in the kind of squalor that made my work welcoming to them. Few made eye contact with me—these people saw so much of my kind. Occasionally I passed another death artist, following their own shadows to their evening’s task. I gave each of them a congenial nod.
I walked through trash and tunnels, eventually finding my way to a little river flowing through the city, and there sat Cochon, gasping for breath. He had not delayed death; this was where his time was intended to come all along.
“It’s the closest thing to beauty you could ever find in a city like this,” he said to me, nodding up at the night sky.
I did not hurry. My shadow was in control now, taking my steps for me, twitching my fingers.
“Why now?” he asked me, “what did I do?”
“I’m only an interpreter,” I said, “performing death’s dance.”
I was nearly upon him, my dagger’s obsidian blade indistinguishable from the darkness. He was terrified. Many were when death came for them. My shadow always stayed my hand until I could provide them a bit of comfort. People speak so often of the cruelty of the universe, and yet, however briefly, it always gives them this moment of compassion before they die. I put my hand on his cheek. His breathing steadied.
“There’s nothing to fear,” I said, “this is a sacred moment.”
“Is that why your shadow makes me feel so peaceful?”
“My shadow often has that effect on people.”
“What’s there for me on the other side?” he asked.
“The whole of the universe,” I said, then slit his throat.
When he died, his eyes were peaceful enough to reflect the stars. These were the moments that made me grateful for who I was.
I was there on the battlefield years ago when the Bird King Azule took flight for the last time. This battle was a rebirth of the old hatred between the bird men, those lords of the sky, and the snake men, those kings of the earth, whose polarity of dominion bred as much hatred as that which existed between shadow and light. They met on the flattest field they could find, to represent the middle point of their realms, and there set to reckon the generations of hatred they felt between themselves.
I had never seen such a gathering of death artists as I did on that field. All the world’s arbiters of shadow must have been there. I was still young then, and I had never felt as giddy as I had as when I was marching towards that destiny. The bird men and the snake men felt a hatred for each other so pure they could hardly articulate its nuances, but for us this was love as divine as any we had ever felt. Our shadows were in euphoria. We danced to the tune of the clashing swords, striking down with our obsidian blades those who had been chosen to lose their struggles. Death had already decided the outcome of this battle, but the sun, that bitch, she had other plans.
There is nothing the sun hates more than to have to shine her light on our work. She is the enemy of shadow, fool of life. Often we will kill at night to forestall her meddling, but the night can’t hold all the world’s death, and certainly not on a day like that. A great rumbling pulsed through the sky, stopping warrior and death artist alike. The sun was weeping, raining her fiery tears down on the battlefield. They pockmarked the earth, crashing amongst us, sending us all scattering. Her sorrow was brief, the work of only a couple of minutes, and it culminated with a rock that crashed violently into the center of the battlefield, and where the other stones were dead and black upon impact, this one glowed. We all crept towards this mystery. It was scarcely larger than a fist, and the impact had cracked it in half. Azule the Bird King and Boomslang the Snake King approached it, hardly aware of each other’s presence. I don’t know what spirit drove their actions, but each of them picked up one half of the rock and devoured it. No sooner had they swallowed than Boomslang burrowed himself into the earth and Azule took flight, leaving their armies to mill about leaderless and uncertain on the sun-pocked battlefield.
In time we would learn that the sun had gifted them unchecked spirit, life, and energy beyond measure. Boomslang took to perpetually burrowing ever deeper into the earth—deeper than any of his people could follow, while Azule stayed ever aloft in the skies, never needing to land again. Though Boomslang had burrowed himself deep, there was no tunnel out of reach of a death artist, and it was not too long ago that he had been dispatched.
But now the shadows—my shadow—cried out for the other one, the ever-flying bird, and that was the trouble. A death artist cannot be separated from their shadow when doing their master’s work. We must be connected to the ground for death to run through us, and when Azule permanently took flight he had also put himself permanently out of the reach of death. But somehow I had to deliver his soul to the universe, and for the first time in my life I had no idea how to do what was needed of me.
I had no plan but to follow the footsteps of my shadow out of the city, leading me to whatever land Azule soared above. Any journey one takes as a death artist is a meandering one, fraught with many detours to deliver death to worthy souls, but this journey took no curves. I walked for three days across plains and forests in a line that hardly deviated, but on the fourth day our journey was a chaotic zig-zag. That was how I knew we were close.
I was in a shallow forest, one broken up regularly by clearings. From one of these I heard the sound of voices. I emerged to the sight of a cross-section of different species of men and women, about two-dozen people in all, birds, pigs, cats, lizards, and unadorned humans like myself. There were species here who did not love each other: the cat people had a rivalry with the bird people nearly as old as the birds had with the snake people, so there was some profound act of love that had to have brought such a disparate group together. They were gathered in a camp, enjoying lunch and talking amongst themselves. They showed no alarm at my arrival as I joined them at their fire.
“Has someone’s time come?” a cat woman said when she saw me.
A lizard man spoke up: “Maybe we have a death artist who has come to live in the shadow of Azule, to worship the undying.”
A round of laughter came around at this.
“Everyone is immortal until they die,” I said.
This earned another round of laughter. These were people at ease with death.
“We only laugh,” the cat woman said, “because this is not a place of death, not under the shadow of the Bird King. He sends his life down to us through his shadow.”
“His life is infinite,” a dog woman said, “he can give all the life he wants without ever losing any of his own.”
A human man added: “For now he is the source of life only to those who follow him, but soon he will become the source of life for all the earth, and we will become the sole light in the universe where death does not shine.”
An old woman said: “We live for those little moments when his shadow passes over us and rains his life down onto ours.”
“Shadows as a source of life?” I asked.
“It is the power of the Bird King.”
“That is not what a shadow is for,” I said.
“Of course, a death artist knows a thing or two about shadows,” the cat woman said, “but stay with us a bit and feel the shadow of Azule as he passes over you, and see where your hunger for death leaves you then.”
I didn’t have to wait long. The cat woman had hardly finished speaking when a young man on the edge of the camp shouted “He comes!”
Everyone stood and looked to the sky. I scanned for Azule’s form and spotted him: a speck in the distance flying higher than I had ever seen a bird man fly before. He was coming towards us, and with the sun positioned just behind our heads it meant his shadow would pass right over the camp.
Everyone broke out in a cheer as he soared over us, the bird people launching themselves into the air while those without wings contented themselves to jump. For my part I felt only the profound sorrow of a shadow forced to follow its flesh from a distance, never hoping to be reunited.
“It seems not even the Bird King can make a death artist jump,” the old woman said to me, “but what do you feel?”
“I feel my shadow call to him,” I said, “I don’t know how, but Azule is going to die at my hand.”
This was also comedy to them. I expected nothing less. These zealots had blinded themselves to the truth of death, but it was still the truth.
The followers of Azule let me stay with them despite my vow to kill their god. They were convinced I only needed more time to learn to worship him. They would no doubt love to be able to count a death artist among their ranks—what better proof that Azule truly was the world’s new fount of life if even a death artist put down his dagger to follow him?
By evening I had learned the key members of the community. The old woman was Anna, the first follower of Azule and the de-facto leader. The cat woman was Delilah and was a sort of manager of the group, overseeing the day to day realities of their nomadic life. The lizard man, Ringus, stood out to me largely for his zealotry. He more than any other was convinced that Azule was a god. The rest of the names and faces were still a blur after my first day, except for one.
It was one of the bird men, a young fellow named Laurel. He stood out to me because of his youth and his exquisite coloring but more significantly because he had a female shadow. I had slept with plenty of men with male shadows who were adventurous enough to ignore their darkness’s desire, but it was nothing compared to the experience of sleeping with a man who had a female shadow.
Bird people were another matter though. Their relationships with their shadows were far too flippant, nearly the opposite of that of a death artist. Bird people were the only species who never produced death artists—their feet left the ground too easily for it—and as such no one had such an uncomfortable relationship with the work of death. It was a given that every bird person became immortal the moment they took flight. In the air they are safe from the reach of our blades. But gravity always calls them back to their shadows. Some claim that this is out of love for death, but bird people never see it that way. For them, every landing is a tragedy.
Death artists and bird people have a strained relationship, but there was something about Laurel that drew me to him, and it wasn’t my dagger. It may simply have been the call of his shadow. I had never slept with a bird man before. He alone would be worth staying in the camp for just a little while.
I was offered a tent but preferred to sleep on the ground. Lying prostrate, hands stretched out, I could feel my shadow more intensely. I needed to speak with her, understand the secrets of the impossible task she was calling me to.
How could I possibly kill the bird king? His range was far out of the reach of arrows or any other weapon I could hurl at him, and the prospect of following him until I found myself perched on some cliff or mountaintop that looked down on him was too absurd to consider. I had no plan and, it seemed, neither did my shadow. What had spurred her to this mission I do not know, I never understood or questioned why I was to claim the souls I did, but the bird king was an ambition beyond anything she had ever shown before. I needed to see into the shadow realm: the negative space that mirrored our breath down to its every last stillness.
She showed me the not-life, the not-breath, the not-space of her world, where positive articulation fails; where a not-bird space, shaded in not-joy, forced itself into the nothing—a malignant absence. Our shadows were in pain. The bird king’s life was the suffering of others. The pain he was causing was a physical thing, enough to put the universe out of balance. I understood now. He had to be stopped, in any way I could discover.
It was no surprise to me that everyone in Azule’s following took to me except for the four bird people in the group, though Laurel showed me more interest than the others—his female shadow at work, no doubt. When, that evening, Laurel sat away from his fellow people I took a chance to sit beside him. His bird friends glared at me, but I took no interest in their gazes.
“My shadow calls to you,” I said.
“What is your shadow’s interest in me?”
“Contrary to what you might think, there is nothing that loves life more than a death shadow.”
“Then why are you here?”
“Azule’s time has come. No one can live forever.”
“And are you hoping to use me to get to him?”
“That’s impossible,” I said, “only my blade wielded by my hand grounded by my shadow can take his life. To do it through you as a medium would defy the rhythm of the universe.”
“Then why did you sit next to me?”
“Because my shadow calls to you. Listen to your shadow. What does it say to you?”
He responded by putting his hand in mine.
I lay with a bird man for the first time that evening, far from the light of the fire, where our shadows could meld with the forest and with each other. I felt the lightness and freedom of Laurel’s life; through the union of our shadows I understood the desire of the bird people on a level I never had before. Even I came to desire eternal flight for just a little while, though my love for my own shadow is always paramount.
Afterwards we lay facing each other, Laurel running his fingers against the skin of my face, his wing feathers spreading with the motion of his touch.
“Human flesh is so open, so vulnerable,” he said, “I don’t know if I could face the world like that.”
“It’s easy when you don’t have a choice,” I said. I stroked the feathers on his cheek. “Do you feel safer with these?”
“Not with you I don’t.”
“Don’t worry, I’ve only killed a few of my lovers.”
He laughed at that. “Does anyone ever get to live forever?”
“Not as such. In death you become everything except life, including eternity itself.”
Laurel had something he was going to say but stopped when a silhouette passed in front of the moon. It was Azule. His shadow passed over where we lay. I felt a shiver pass through me, one of terrible freedom. I shuddered, which made my shadow ripple in the firelight.
And then I understood how to kill the bird king.
I had a plan in place, and it was something that the followers of Azule would never support me in. I had to leave the group. I snuck away in the night while the others slept, guided once again by the will of my shadow. She had divined my plan. She knew what to do, and through whatever machinations by which the negative space guided her, she led me to the place I needed to be to work my plan.
I walked until morning, the only civilization I passed a lonely farm where inside I found an old woman sick in bed, waiting for me.
“What a fine sight you are,” she said before I gave her to the universe.
In her barn I found a shovel, just the thing I needed. A couple more hours’ walking led me to an open field where my shadow bade me dig. I lay myself down on the ground first, marking where my feet and head fell, then began digging inward from those markings. I needed the hole slightly larger than my length and width, and deep as well. I dug the hole deeper than a grave and I was near the end of my efforts when a feather dropped into it.
I looked up to see Laurel and the other bird people from the group standing over me.
“How convenient of you to dig your grave for us,” one of them said, a gray-headed fellow whose name was Hopkin.
“You gentlemen don’t seem to understand how death works,” I said, “there is none here who can take my life but myself, and my blade has no love for my throat.”
I grabbed the edge of the hole to hoist myself up. They took hold of my arms and pulled me out. When I was on firm ground Hopkin ran his fist into my gut. I doubled over; no time to catch my breath when more blows came.
“Do you think we’re going to let you kill our god? We’ll protect Azule with our lives if we have to.”
The only one of them not hitting me was Laurel, who hung back from the others, trying not to meet my gaze.
“Death comes to all,” I said, “god and man alike, though your Azule is no god at all.”
Hopkin kicked me in the teeth. I felt one come loose. My blade didn’t call to me, this wasn’t their time, but even if it was I don’t think I could have wielded it. Behind Hopkin a dark figure emerged from the trees, another death artist. So this is it, I thought, my date with negation, and the life of Azule will have to be claimed by someone other than me. I could only hope his blade would stall long enough to let me convey to him the trick I had uncovered to bring down Azule.
It didn’t matter. Still unnoticed, he stepped behind Hopkin, grabbed his chin, tilted it back, and slit his throat.
Hopkin’s body hadn’t even hit the ground when my savior plunged his blade into the chest of one of the other bird men. The third tried to take flight, but the death artist grabbed him by the leg before he could get out of reach, pinned him to the ground, and stabbed him in the chest. Laurel had never tried to take flight.
The death artist, a taller man than me, and thin, came over to me and helped me to my feet. Like myself, he was fully human. I spat out a mouthful of blood, a couple of my teeth going with it, before thanking him.
“There’s no need to thank me for doing death’s work,” he said, “you above all should know that.”
“I thought my time had come,” I said, “and in a rare moment when I wasn’t ready for it.”
“One must always be ready for death, my friend,” he said.
“A momentary lapse, because I am on the cusp of a rare prize.”
“And who is it that death prizes so highly?”
The name wiped the smile from his face. “You claim Azule today?”
“Thanks to you, his death will be my privilege.”
“Then, by your leave, I must stay and watch.”
“You can do better,” I said, “you can help.”
“It would be my honor. I am Martin, by the way.”
“Dominic,” I said. “It is always a pleasure to meet a fellow death artist.”
I turned to Laurel.
“Death has not called for you today. You are free to do as you wish.”
“I couldn’t turn away from my people,” he said.
“I do not judge you,” I said. “You were a fine lover.” I bade Martin to help me lift the bodies and throw them into the pit.
I felt the pain from their blows in my abdomen and my arms as I moved the bodies. That would complicate the plan. I needed all of my physical strength for this task, and I had never been the strongest man.
“We need kindling,” I said.
“An offer to the gods?” the other death artist asked.
“I do intend to offer something to a false god today.”
We scoured the nearby forest for twigs, leaves, and pine needles. It hurt every time I bent over, but I kept at it as diligently as my companion. Even Laurel helped, though only half-heartedly, his turmoil slowing his movements. I left him to his anguish. He was undergoing a transformation, and it was a journey he had to undertake himself.
When we had enough for a fire, I pulled out a flint and set the kindling alight.
“Now I will really need your help,” I said to my companions, “you must lay me across the pit and hold my arms and legs to keep me from falling in.”
“This does not seem like a wise plan,” Martin said.
“This is the only way to bring down Azule.”
“I don’t understand,” Laurel said.
“You believe that Azule has made you a gift of his shadow. I am going to make him a gift of mine.”
They lowered me across the pit. I had tried to keep the pit deep and the flames of the fire low, but still I could feel them searing against my back. Laurel and Martin gripped my arms and legs, but I barely had the strength to hold myself stretched across the pit. I had dug it too wide, but there was no time to correct. It was already late afternoon, and if Azule didn’t pass, the projection of my shadow onto the sky would be lost in the universe.
After just a few moments, my limbs were shaking with exertion. I was slowly drooping into the pit, the flames coming ever closer. I could not see my shadow projecting into the sky. I only had to trust that the light was accomplishing the task.
“My blade calls to me, friend, I cannot lie,” Martin said.
“My weakness was momentary. I am ready to die today if this is the day that it must be. But by death, let this plan work.”
Laurel’s grip on my ankles was loosening and his eyes were growing distant. “I can’t,” he said, “I can’t do it. I can’t betray my kind.”
He let go. I was unsupported at my legs, trying to keep from falling into the flames by my own strength, which was failing quickly. Laurel charged at Martin, whose obsidian dagger moved so quickly I could hardly follow its path from sheath to Laurel’s eye. I gasped and shuddered. I had killed men that I’d slept with myself and it had never wounded me to do so. To deliver them to death to me was an act of love, but to watch a lover die at the hands of another, that was pain as severe as the flames beneath me.
Martin resheathed his blade and secured my arms back onto the ground.
“You had affection for him?” he asked.
“I laid with him the other night,” I said.
“Only one night?”
“Yes. But it was a good night.”
“I have killed every lover I have ever had,” he said. “I will carry my love for each of them with me to my grave.”
I nodded. My legs were slipping again.
“Hold strong,” he said, then ran into the woods. A moment later he returned with a long branch. “What fools we are,” he said.
He slid the branch underneath my shoulders, easing my burden considerably.
“Thank you,” I said.
“Let’s hope Azule arrives soon.”
It was not long after that Azule’s silhouette appeared in the sky above us and, as I should have anticipated, a moment later his followers emerged into the clearing.
“They mean to kill Azule,” someone said.
“We must stop them.”
“Be strong my brother,” Martin said, “my blade calls to me.”
The idolators of Azule surged forth, and Martin was there to meet them. One by one they fell. The branch bearing my weight was starting to crack; my legs were slipping again. Azule needed to pass directly over me for this to work. He was circling nearby, moving by some rhythm I could only guess at. Some of the idolators were retreating, but others were rushing past Martin, charging towards me. Azule was circling closer and closer.
And then I felt his shadow on mine. I shivered, my legs slipping into the pit. The branch broke beneath me, but I managed to dig my fingers into the earth at the edge of the pit, the flames searing my shoulders. Martin was there to pull me up and to beat the flames out of my clothes. The idolators who were still alive in the clearing were screaming and pointing to the sky. I looked. Azule was falling, spinning to the earth. It had worked. My shadow had knocked him out of the sky.
Martin gave a shout. “You did it my friend.”
“The deed is not done yet,” I said, getting to my feet. I could feel the burns on the backs of my legs. Every muscle in my body was sore, and there was still a crowd of angry fanatics around us, but I had done it. I had felled Azule.
More of the idolators charged at us. We were both ready with our blades to kill those who approached, gifting death to them until none were left. So much for their immortality.
We sheathed our blades and I hobbled in the direction my shadow bade me, Martin helping me along the way. There was no hurry now. After a fall like that, it was impossible that Azule could take flight again, even with the light of the sun coursing through his body.
We passed through the woods into another clearing where Azule lay in a crater formed by his impact. He was staring up at the sky, a distant look in his eyes. The sun was still there on the horizon, but she was closing her eyes to this moment. The first stars were just becoming visible above us. Martin let me go, and I walked alone towards Azule.
“I felt something,” Azule said. He turned to me. “Was it you?”
“That was my shadow,” I said.
“It called to me like nothing I have ever felt before.”
I noticed it now—something I had not felt before. He had a female shadow.
“It was a great love that called to you,” I said.
“I haven’t felt such warmth since I swallowed the sun.”
“The sun waits for you, along with so much else, all that is not you. It waits to embrace you.”
“Why have I feared this moment for so long?”
I knelt down beside him, wincing with pain as I did so. “In the sky, you are disconnected from the world. You have been so alone.”
“But it was good up there,” he said, then sighed. “Such a life I have had, is it not a tragedy to see it end?”
“Not if it ends well.”
“Will you sit with me awhile and let me tell you my tale, or is your blade in a hurry to set right the universe?”
I lay down beside him, curling up against him, resting my head on his shoulder.
“Tell me your story,” I said, “and leave out nothing.”
Azule spoke through the night, and the tale he told me was beautiful. I cherish it above all stories but my own. I had never wept when I killed someone before, but I wept when, at sunrise, I plunged my blade into Azule’s chest. It was all so beautiful.
Martin was still waiting for me when I emerged from the crater.
“Is there nowhere else that calls to you?” I asked.
“My shadow has been gracious enough to let my curiosity have its place today.”
“And I think my shadow will be gracious enough to give me some time to rest.”
“Death can wait awhile.”
“Death can afford to,” I said, “it wants for nothing.”