Chapter 1: Lullaby 1 Lullaby
Peach velvet with embroidered baby-blue trim. Honorable Scythe Brahms loved his robe. True, the velvet became uncomfortably hot in the summer months, but it was something he had grown accustomed to in his sixty-three years as a scythe.
He had recently turned the corner again, resetting his physical age back to a spry twenty-five—and now, in his third youth, he found his appetite for gleaning was stronger than ever.
His routine was always the same, though methods varied. He would choose his subject, restrain him or her, then play a lullaby—Brahms’s lullaby to be exact—the most famous piece of music composed by his Patron Historic. After all, if a scythe must choose a figure from history to name oneself after, shouldn’t that figure be integrated somehow into the scythe’s life? He would play the lullaby on whatever instrument was convenient, and if there was none available, he would simply hum it. And then he would end the subject’s life.
Politically, he leaned toward the teachings of the late Scythe Goddard, for he enjoyed gleaning immensely and saw no reason why that should be a problem for anyone. “In a perfect world, shouldn’t we all enjoy what we do?” Goddard wrote. It was a sentiment gaining traction in more and more regional scythedoms.
On this evening, Scythe Brahms had just accomplished a particularly entertaining gleaning in downtown Omaha, and was still whistling his signature tune as he sauntered down the street, wondering where he might find himself a late evening meal. But he stopped in midstanza, having a distinct feeling that he was being watched.
There were, of course, cameras on every light post in the city. The Thunderhead was ever vigilant—but for a scythe, its slumberless, unblinking eyes were of no concern. It was powerless to even comment on the comings and goings of scythes, much less act upon anything it saw. The Thunderhead was the ultimate voyeur of death.
This feeling, however, was more than the observational nature of the Thunderhead. Scythes were trained in perceptive skills. They were not prescient, but five highly developed senses could often have the semblance of a sixth. A scent, a sound, an errant shadow too minor to register consciously might be enough to make a well-trained scythe’s neck hairs bristle.
Scythe Brahms turned, sniffed, listened. He took in his surroundings. He was alone on a side street. Elsewhere, he could hear the sounds of street cafés and the ever-vibrant nightlife of the city, but the street he was on was lined with shops that were shuttered this time of night. Cleaners and clothiers. A hardware store and a day-care center. The lonely street belonged to him and the unseen interloper.
“Come out,” he said. “I know you’re there.”
He thought it might be a child, or perhaps an unsavory hoping to bargain for immunity—as if an unsavory might have anything with which to bargain. Maybe it was a Tonist. Tone cults despised scythes, and although Brahms had never heard of Tonists actually attacking a scythe, they had been known to torment.
“I won’t harm you,” Brahms said. “I’ve just completed a gleaning—I have no desire to increase my tally today.” Although, admittedly, he might change his mind if the interloper was either too offensive, or obsequious.
Still, no one stepped forward.
“Fine,” he said. “Be gone then, I have neither time nor patience for a game of hide-and-seek.”
Perhaps it was his imagination after all. Maybe his rejuvenated senses were now so acute that they were responding to stimuli that were much farther away than he assumed.
That’s when a figure launched from behind a parked car as if it had been spring-loaded. Brahms was knocked off balance—he would have been taken down entirely if he still had the slow reflexes of an older man and not his twenty-five-year-old self. He pushed the figure into a wall, and considered pulling out his blades to glean this reprobate, but Scythe Brahms had never been a brave man. So he ran.
He moved in and out of pools of light created by the street lamps; all the while cameras atop each pole swiveled to watch him.
When he turned to look, the figure was a good twenty yards behind him. Now Brahms could see he was dressed in a black robe. Was it a scythe’s robe? No, it couldn’t be. No scythe dressed in black—it was not allowed.
But there were rumors.…
That thought made him pick up the pace. He could feel adrenaline tingling in his fingers, and adding urgent velocity to his heart.
A scythe in black.
No, there had to be another explanation. He would report this to the Irregularity Committee, that’s what he would do. Yes, they might laugh at him and say he was scared off by a masquerading unsavory, but these things needed to be reported, even if they were embarrassing. It was his civic duty.
A block farther and his assailant had given up the chase. He was nowhere to be seen. Scythe Brahms slowed his pace. He was nearing a more active part of the city now. The beat of dance music and the garble of conversation careened down the street toward him, giving him a sense of security. He let his guard down. Which was a mistake.
The dark figure broadsided him from a narrow alley and delivered a knuckle punch to his windpipe. As Brahms gasped for air, his attacker kicked his legs out from under him in a Bokator kick—that brutal martial art in which scythes were trained. Brahms landed on a crate of rotting cabbage left by the side of a market. It burst, spewing forth a thick methane reek. His breath could only come in short gasps, and he could feel warmth spreading throughout his body as his pain nanites released opiates.
No! Not yet! I must not be numbed. I need my full faculties to fight this miscreant.
But pain nanites were simple missionaries of relief, hearing only the scream of angry nerve endings. They ignored his wishes and deadened his pain.
Brahms tried to rise, but slipped as the putrid vegetation crushed beneath him, becoming a slick, unpleasant stew. The figure in black was on top of him now, pinning him to the ground. Brahms tried to reach into his robe for his weapons, but could not. So instead he reached up, and pulled back his attacker’s black hood, revealing him to be a young man—barely a man—a boy. His eyes were intense, and intent on—to use a mortal-age word—murder.
“Scythe Johannes Brahms, you are accused of abusing your position and multiple crimes against humanity.”
“How dare you!” Brahms gasped. “Who are you to accuse me?” He struggled, trying to rally his strength, but it was no use. The painkillers that were in his system were dulling his responses. His muscles were weak and useless to him now.
“I think you know who I am,” the young man said. “Let me hear you say it.”
“I will not!” Brahms said, determined not to give him the satisfaction. But the boy in black jammed a knee so powerfully into Brahms’s chest that he thought his heart would stop. More pain nanites. More opiates. Brahms’s head was swimming. He had no choice but to comply.
“Lucifer,” he gasped. “Scythe Lucifer.”
Brahms felt his spirit crumble—as if saying it aloud gave resonance to the rumor.
Satisfied, the self-proclaimed young scythe eased the pressure.
“You are no scythe,” Brahms dared to say. “You are nothing but a failed apprentice, and you will not get away with this.”
The young man had no response to that. Instead, he said, “Tonight, you gleaned a young woman by blade.”
“That is my business, not yours!”
“You gleaned her as a favor for a friend who wanted out of a relationship with her.”
“This is outrageous! You have no proof of that!”
“I’ve been watching you, Johannes,” Rowan said. “As well as your friend—who seemed awfully relieved when that poor woman was gleaned.”
Suddenly, there was a knife at Brahms’s neck. His own knife. This beast of a boy was threatening him with his own knife.
“Do you admit it?” he asked Brahms.
All that he said was true, but Brahms would rather be rendered deadish than admit it to the likes of a failed apprentice. Even one with a knife at his throat.
“Go on, slit my throat,” Brahms dared. “It will add one more inexcusable crime to your record. And when I am revived, I will stand as witness against you—and make no mistake, you will be brought to justice!”
“By whom? By the Thunderhead? I’ve taken down corrupt scythes from one coast to the other over the past year, and the Thunderhead hasn’t sent so much as a single peace officer to stop me. Why do you think that is?”
Brahms was speechless. He had assumed if he stalled long enough, and kept this so-called Scythe Lucifer occupied, the Thunderhead would dispatch a full squad to apprehend him. That’s what the Thunderhead did when common citizens threatened violence. Brahms was surprised it had even gone this far. Such bad behavior among the general population was supposed to be a thing of the past. Why was this being allowed?
“If I take your life now,” the false scythe said, “you would not be brought back to life. I burn those I remove from service, leaving nothing but unrevivable ash.”
“I don’t believe you! You wouldn’t dare!”
But Brahms did believe him. Since last January, nearly a dozen scythes across three Merican regions had been consumed by flames under questionable circumstances. Their deaths were all ruled accidental, but clearly they were not. And because they were burned, their deaths were permanent.
Now Brahms knew that the whispered tales of Scythe Lucifer—the outrageous acts of Rowan Damisch, the fallen apprentice—were all true. Brahms closed his eyes and took in a final breath, trying not to gag on the rancid stench of putrid cabbage.
And then Rowan said, “You won’t be dying today, Scythe Brahms. Not even temporarily.” He removed the blade from Brahms’s neck. “I’m giving you one chance. If you act with the nobility befitting a scythe, and glean with honor, you won’t see me again. But if you continue to serve your own corrupt appetites, then you will be left as ash.”
And then he was gone, almost as if he had vanished—and in his place was a horrified young couple looking down upon Brahms.
“Is that a scythe?”
“Quick, help me get him up!”
They lifted Brahms from the rot. His peach velvet robe was stained green and brown, as if covered in mucus. It was humiliating. He considered gleaning the couple—for no one should see a scythe so indisposed and live—but instead held out his hand and allowed them to kiss his ring, thereby granting both of them a year of immunity from gleaning. He told them it was a reward for their kindness, but really it was just to make them go away and abandon any questions they might have had.
After they left, he brushed himself off and resolved to say nothing to the Irregularity Committee about this, because it would leave him open to far too much ridicule and derision. He had suffered enough indignation already.
Scythe Lucifer indeed! Few things were more miserable in this world than a failed scythe’s apprentice, and never had there been one as ignoble as Rowan Damisch.
Yet he knew that the boy’s threat was not an idle one.
Perhaps, thought Scythe Brahms, a lower profile was in order. A return to the lackluster gleanings he had been trained to perform in his youth. A refocusing on the basics that would make “Honorable Scythe” more than just a title, but a defining trait.
Stained, bruised, and bitter, Scythe Brahms returned to his home to reconsider his place in the perfect world in which he lived.