“Why did you bring me back?” Philip asked. “And why was it so difficult?”
Mortimer’s laughter stopped abruptly.
“Two questions with the same answer,” Death said, setting his coffee mug down. His hand shook faintly, Philip noticed. “Because the reason that you were able to stay alive as long as you did is the very reason that I’ve brought you here.” He sighed heavily and closed his eyes. Closed them for so long that Philip almost thought he’d fallen asleep. Then he opened his eyes again, slowly, and the gray eyes looked mournfully at Philip. “My die was stolen.”
“Your die?” Philip repeated, surprised, and automatically gazed at Mortimer’s chest, where the hundred-sided die should have hung from a silver necklace. One of the two great dice. Death’s die. The one that gave newborns their life-years. But there was no necklace. No die. “When?”
“About two weeks ago. At first, I thought I’d misplaced it, that I’d put it somewhere. I searched the entire house before I realized.”
“Realized what?” Satina asked.
“That the front door was ajar. Someone had been here. Someone had been here and had stolen my die while I slept.”
“Do you have any idea who it might be?”
Mortimer shook his head. “I have no clue. But it must be someone who knows me well. Knows my habits. I sleep just once a year, you see. On April thirty-first, when spring has arrived, Vita’s working overtime, and everything is in bloom. That’s when I get my deep sleep. You remember Vita, right Philip?”
Philip nodded. He remembered Vita very well. She was Mortimer’s sister. Philip had met her the last time he was in Hell. She was the one who brought him back to life. She was life.
Then it hit him, exactly what Mortimer had said, and he counted the months on his knuckles. January, February, March, April. No, there weren’t 31 days in April. And another thing…
“You said the die was stolen two weeks ago,” he said. “But half a year has passed since April?”
“For you, yes,” Death replied. “But time is different down here, remember.”
“Oh yeah,” Philip said, a little irritated for not figuring that out himself. Hadn’t he just determined there was no such thing as April 31st? Of course, time was different down here. Everything was different down here.
“This is a calamity!” The old man stood and began to pace the floor, shaking his head in despair. “Without my die, every child born in the world will be immortal. The consequences will be horrific for those poor people, who won’t have death to look forward to.”
“Death isn’t exactly something people look forward to, is it?” objected Philip cautiously.
Mortimer paused, staring at him. “Yes, it is,” he said in a voice verging on a snarl. “They just don’t know it.”
“I don’t understand.”
“And Lucifer said you were such a bright boy. But then again, he is the Father of Lies,” Death muttered. He moved to the window and looked out at the evening darkness as it sank swiftly across the bleak countryside. “Many people would say the same thing, Philip. That death is something terrible, a necessary evil best avoided.”
“Well… isn’t it?”
“No!” shouted Mortimer, startling both Philip and Satina. His old eyes sparkled. “I’m humanity’s greatest fear because there’s no greater fear than that of death. But that’s not the way it should be! The truth is, people don’t realize just how much they should appreciate me. Death isn’t an unfortunate consequence of life; on the contrary, Death is what makes life worth living. Men and women value only that which they might lose. Don’t you see? Without death, life is uninteresting and utterly meaningless.”
Philip didn’t entirely understand what Mortimer was saying. And yet… maybe he did. “It’s like what Lucifer said. Without evil there is no good. You can’t have one without the other. And the same goes for life and death?”
“Exactly!” Mortimer thrust out his arms. “Without death, the joy of life is killed by life itself! And that’s not even the worst of it. How would the world look in just fifty years? Think about all those poor wretches who’ve been seriously injured, but whose heart continues to beat. Victims of traffic accidents, of earthquakes, fires, floods. Terrible, terrible! The world would be populated by living corpses who wish for nothing more than the peace that comes with death, but their wishes would never be fulfilled. Can you imagine that?”
Satina said nothing, but Philip had to swallow twice. Yes, he could imagine it. He could see it all too clearly, and he could feel the nausea burbling in his gut at the frightening scenario Death described.
“When you roll your die,” Philip said, “what happens exactly?”
“That’s a huge question,” Death said, gazing deeply into his eyes. “Can your mind handle the answer?”
“When the die is cast, the sand begins to run.”
Philip glanced at Satina, who shook her head to show she didn’t understand either. “What do you mean?”
Mortimer stepped slowly toward him. Shadows covered his face like a black spiderweb. His eyes were concealed in darkness.
“Are you afraid, Philip?” he asked. His voice was dry as the fire crackling in the woodstove. “Are you afraid of death?”
Philip’s first impulse was to nod. Because he was afraid of Death, afraid of this odd, ancient man who’d been around since the origins of life, who had seen civilizations rise and fall, who had seen so many ghastly things that it had snuffed out the light in his eyes. But he surprised himself by shaking his head. “No. I’m not afraid. I’m already dead.”
Mortimer seemed to consider this response carefully. Then his mouth twisted into a wry smile.
“Come along,” he said. “I will show you something no human being has ever seen.”