Lean build, soft features, blue eyes.
Tom scanned the faces of passing soldiers, nearly identical in their filth and exhaustion. They trudge past without an upwards glance. They can’t see me, Blake reminds himself. Only one man will be able to.
Early twenties, light hair, narrow nose.
The trench takes a sharp turn and opens up into a dreary alley; the Front Lines. He is close.
Energy thrums through his fingertips and Blake subconsciously tightens his grip on the long weapon clutched in his hands.
A scythe, tall and proud, the curved blade glowing blue-white and humming with power. Blake follows it’s force, letting it guide him through the muddy pits of the trenches. Even as he slips through the muck, he leaves no footprints, no physical trace of his presence.
Blake feels a tugging at his subconscious, another force is calling for him. It’s tension rich with potential, a bullet waiting in its chamber for him to arrive.
Ahead, soldiers swarm around a missile, heads bowed low from German snipers. The men scramble over each other, helmets colliding noisily. One man stands slightly taller than the rest. His features are slightly obscured by the shadows but still clear, early twenties, light hair, narrow nose. Far off, Blake hears the crack of a rifle.
It is time.
The man raises on his toes, risking a glance over the wall of the trench. That’s all Blake needs. His scythe glows brighter as he draws it back, reaching out with his mind, grasping for the sniper's bullet and dragging it towards its mark.
Inhale. Exhale. Steady hands, just like in training.
His blade sinks into the man’s chest as the bullet strikes him between the eyes.
The blade draws no blood, leaves no wound, instead sinking through his chest, flesh and bone alike, with ease. Time slows as Blake shifts his grip, letting the blade do its work, waiting for that familiar tug.
He feels it then, a pulling pressure on the scythe. With a swift and practiced movement, he pulls back, blade extracting itself from the dead man’s chest. Curled around the glowing metal is an ashen shape. Rising, it takes, for a moment, the figure of a man in uniform before evaporating into the polluted air of the trench.
The glow fades from Blake’s scythe and he settles back on his heels. Not too shabby, he thinks, for a first assignment out in the field.
The dead man has crumbled to the ground, helm tipping back to expose his face. Early twenties, soft features. His eyes are empty, staring blankly into the sky. Brown.
Blake frowns, peering closer, praying it was simply a trick played by the shadows of the trenches. Brown. Still Brown. Very clearly deep chocolatey brown.
A clatter. Blake jolted up at the sound to find the wide eyes of a soldier scrambling for his gun. Blue. Bright blue, set in a lean face. Early twenties, soft features. A man, the only man, who seemed to be able to see him.
“Oh shit,” Blake mumbles, staring into the man’s shocked face, “You’re William Schofield.”
The remaining color drains from the pale man’s face. His fingers flex on his gun, shoes slipping in the mud as he slowly backs away.
“Are you?” Blake tries again softly, “Will?”
William Schofield lingers in the silence for a second, eyes darting from Tom’s face to his scythe and back again, seemingly weighing the consequences of any action he could take and then;
Tripping over himself as he scrambles down the narrow trench. Dodging between soldiers, frantically clawing on the trench walls as he tries to clamber past. Blake can hear him cursing as he runs, losing direction as the front lines narrow.
Blake’s path is steady. He is a ghost among the men. He doesn’t dodge or weave, simply walking straight through the mortal soldiers.
Schofield scrambles through the mud ahead, slipping as he ducks into a narrow subtrench.
He is cornered, cowering into the mud at the end of the channel. Blake approaches the entrance of the subtrench, immediately spotting Schofield’s trembling figure.
The man’s hands are shaking as he handles his rifle, drawing it up to his shoulder to aim down the barrel at Blake.
“Oi mate, watch where you’re aiming that thing.” A Scottsman frowns.
Schofield cocks the rifle and the sound echoes loudly through the subtrench. “Stay away from me!” His voice breaks with emotion.
“Hey man.” Another soldier turns, reaching out for Schofield and attempting to push the gun down into the dirt.
“No, no,” Scofield is breathless, staring wide eyed at Blake. “Don’t you dare come closer.”
“There’s no one there, Corp.”
Blake glances down at Schofield’s raised gun then back up at the man. “Please calm down.” He raises his hands calmly, taking a tentative step forwards, “I mean you no-”
The gunshot explodes through the trench.
Blake feels the bullet pass through his stomach, hears it settle into the sandbags behind him.
The other soldiers erupt into action. One jumps onto Schofield’s back and the man cries out as he’s forced into the mud, gun wrestled from his hands. Schofield thrashes wildly as the man pins him to the ground.
Blake takes a tentative step forward, unharmed by the gunshot.
“Jesus Christ!” The lieutenant flinches back as Schofield flails beneath him, helmet tumbling off and into the mud. “Lance Corp!”
Schofield shakes his head, stuttering. His eyes are wild and unfocused.
“Get a hold of yourself man!” The lieutenant yelps as one of Schofield's hands swings up to box his nose. With a growl he slams Schofield’s shoulders into the dirt, raising a hand to slap the man across the face.
Schofield’s head snaps to the side at the impact. He chokes for a second on his own saliva, eyes wide in shock.
Blake watches as his eyes fall closed, head dropping back in exhaustion. The Lieutenant carefully climbs off of Schofield as he quiets. Blake risks a step forward, scurrying up to hide in the cluster of soldiers. Through the noise of the men, Blake can hear the lieutenant speaking gently, prying into Schofield’s health.
“Three days without sleep.” Schofield’s response is mumbled, embarrassed. “Seeing things.”
“Head to the back.” The Lieutenant’s voice is commanding. “Get rest.” He laughs but it’s an empty, hollow sound, “Can’t have you taking out our own men.”
Blake peers through the men, watching. Schofield is nodding as the Lieutenant offers a hand up. Schofield accepts it, rising shakily to his feet. His gun is handed back to him and the other soldiers step back warily as he slings it over his shoulder.
Schofield’s feet drag as he makes his way down the trench, heading away from the front lines. Blake follows carefully, trailing a few meters behind the man.
Schofield leans heavily on the support beams as the trench ascends, opening up into the 8th’s encampment.
Few soldiers spare a glance as Schofield limps past. Blake follows as he trudges to the edge of camp, kit rattling loudly as he finally collapses beneath a tree.
Schofield’s head tips back, eyes falling shut before his dirty hair even touches the tree.
Blake wrings his hands on his scythe as he approaches the sleeping man. With shaking hands, he reaches out slowly to pull the helm from Schofield’s head. The man makes a small noise, brows furrowed in worry, even in his sleep. The ridges of his face are defined, sharpened through hunger, and his cheeks are smudged with dirt.
William Schofield. Early twenties. Soft features. Blake reaches out before he can think, pointer finger tracing a line down the strong slope of Schofield’s nose.
Blake leaps back as Schofield shifts in his sleep. The man takes a breath and Blake’s eyes are drawn to his chest, rising and falling with the work of his lungs and the beat of his heart.
His heart. Blake frowns, worrying his lip. Schofield was still alive. He had failed his mission. His first mission, at that.
Blake paced nervously. He could head back to the academy, to his professor, and explain what had happened. He could just surrender the case, let the adults handle this.
Then he glances over at Schofield’s sleeping form. Schofield is his mission. His. He’s going to figure this out. Somehow. The grim reaper stared down at the soldier with newfound determination. The life and soul of William Schofield would be collected. If it’s the last thing he ever did.
But until then, Blake plops down onto the grass beside Schofield, waiting patiently for the man to wake up.
Heat. Something warm and close to his face.
Schofield slowly blinks awake.
“Shit!” Schofield jolts backward as he tries to get up. His arm tangles in his webbing and he tumbles onto his back.
“Sorry.” The face of a teenage boy pops into his sight, mere inches away from his own, head obscuring the sun like an eclipse. His eyes burn bright blue, little windows to a clearer sky. He looks apologetic, sitting back on his heels and extending a hand to pull the other man up.
Schofield accepts it cautiously.
“Aren’t you a demon? Here to kill me?” Schofield’s voice is quiet, distrustful as he eyes the other boy. He doesn’t look demonic. None of the horns or spiked tails he’s read about. If anything he looks more like a spy, dressed all in black. Clean pressed trousers and a heavy woolen turtleneck. The boy’s long trench coat is spotless, like his shoes. Schofield catches a glimpse of his tall scythe, leaning up against the tree behind them.
“To kill you? No.” The boy shakes his head. “Well,” he pauses, considering, “Sort of. I’m a student grim reaper.”
“A...student...grim reaper.” Schofield freezes, realizing he’s clutching the boy’s hand. He quickly lets go.
“Yes!” The boy blushes. “I’m in training, to get my certification.”
“Oh,” Schofield replies dumbly. “I didn’t realize that was something you needed a certification for.”
“Oh yes,” the boy nods enthusiastically. “It’s a very esteemed line of work. I come from a long line of reapers myself.”
“So you’re not the grim reaper.”
“Oh no.” The boy smiles broadly, rocking backward in an almost childlike way. “I’m Tom Blake, student grim reaper.” He extends his hand again, this time in introduction.
Schofield reaches out to shake it, “I’m Schofield, Wi-”
“William?” Tom Blake laughs. “I know who you are. William Henry Schofield. Lance Corporal. The 8th.”
He continues, “Early twenties. Blue eyes. Soft features.”
Schofield balked for a second. Soft features? Him?
“Do you know everything about me?”
“No,” Blake shakes his head. “Just enough to identify you.”
“They mustn’t have told you enough, then,” Schofield notes, “since you haven’t managed to kill me yet.” His tone falters. “Unless that’s what you’re here to do.”
“Yes and no.” Blake sighs, standing up to grip his scythe. “I was sent here to collect your soul. The bullet that struck your friend, that was meant for you.”
Schofield pales, processing. “So why don’t you just kill me now.”
“That’s where it gets tricky.” Blake fidgets his scythe between his hands. “We have restrictions, grim reapers do. Laws in place so we don’t just go...killing. When that bullet was fired, a warrant was sent out for your collection. I happened to be the one to pick it up. But I misidentified you.” Blake looks embarrassed. “I pulled the bullet towards the man I thought was you and collected his soul instead.”
Schofield blinks slowly. “So the soul of that man was collected in place of my own?”
“Yes! Exactly!” Blake snaps his fingers. “And now I can’t kill you. Because as far as my superiors are concerned, the soul of William Schofield has already been collected.”
“Already collected.” Schofield echoes. “So what does that make me, then? Immortal?”
Blake hesitates, “For now.”
Schofield’s mouth dropped. Immortal. Him.
For the better part of three years, Schofield had lived with Death’s cold hand heavy on his shoulder. Every day he had woken, not knowing if it was his last. Life, mortality, was fleeting.
And now he had forever.
“Lucky for you.” Blake interrupted his thoughts, “We can fix this.” He walked over, lowering his scythe until the blade rested above Schofield’s chest. “You just have to verbally consent to me taking your soul.”
“What!?” Schofield slapped the scythe away, scrambling to his feet.
“Oh come on!” Blake pleads. “I need to finish this mission to pass my class. I’ve already botched it up once!”
“And that’s on you!” Schofield exclaims. “I’m not signing away my soul!”
“Why not?” Blake whines. “You’re being so difficult.”
“Cause I don’t want to die!” Schofield laughs in exasperation, pushing past Blake to sit beneath his tree. “You’ll have to figure something out.”
Blake groans, dropping his head back dramatically. He trudges over to join Schofield. “This is gonna be so much paperwork.”
Blake holds out a closed fist and a bolt of blue electricity sparked out from the scythe blade, winding down his arm and into his closed hand. He opens it to reveal a small square of paper. It blossoms outward, unfolding like origami until it blooms into a large manilla envelope.
He drops down beside Schofield. “Last chance. Just let me take your soul, pretty please?” Blake bats his eyelashes.
Schofield glares at him. “No.”
“Fine.” Blake grumbles. He makes a clicking gesture and a fountain pen appears in his hand. “But I hate you.”
Schofield smirks, pulling a book out of his kit. “I can live with that.”