Cause of Death: ???

Award Type
Manuscript Type
Text: Cause of Death: ??? by K.N. Salustro. Image shows a the skeletal figure of Death in a hooded robe looking questioningly at a pair of legs dressed in a business suit that continues off the page, suggesting the rest of the body.
When a soul is taken before its time, Death sets out to find the culprit, only to fall upon a tangled trail that leads to more and more unnerving discoveries. If Death doesn’t find the truth soon, the universe may be destroyed. Nothing says “hurry up” like the threat of an apocalypse!

- 1 -

The morning my entire world broke, I was slumped over my desk in my windowless bedroom. My legs were thrown haphazardly over the side of my chair, my face was buried in my arms against the surface of the desk, my spine was twisted at an uncomfortable angle to accommodate both of these things, and I was too exhausted to care.

Then the smell of a freshly brewed pot of coffee seeped under my door.

I did not get out of my chair so much as I was suddenly on my feet, bones creaking with stiffness. I relished the rich scent coming from the other side of the bedroom door as I stretched and cracked my various joints. I drifted out of my blissfully dark room into the agonizing brightness of the sunlit hallway. I threw an arm across my face to block the light and let my feet guide me past my roommates’ larger and overly lit bedrooms, past the front door, past the living room, past the bathroom we had no use for, and into the kitchen.

“Morning, Death,” Destiny’s voice greeted me from the general direction of the table.

I grumbled something resembling a response and dropped my shielding arm from my face. It took a long time for my senses to adjust to the sunlight pouring in through the east-facing window over the sink, but my feet knew the way and by the time I could see again, I was already fishing a mug (one of the big ones) out of the dishwasher.

“Just so you know,” Destiny began, but I cut her off with a raised finger.

“What did we say about fate readings before coffee?” I asked as I went for the kitchen counter. The coffee maker was nestled contentedly between a gleaming toaster and the tidy library of brightly colored cereal boxes that were the main source of my female roommate’s sustenance. The pot was full of steam and perfect black coffee. The liquid sloshed beautifully as I lifted the pot, a lovely ring of bubbles dancing across its surface.

“It has to do with the coffee,” Destiny said.

That made me pause. “What is it?”

“If you pour a cup before nine, you’ll break the mug.”

“What time is it now?”

“About eight-thirty.”

I considered this carefully. “How much is in the mug when it breaks?”

“About half a cup.”

“Is that because I will have already consumed the rest of the coffee?”

“Well, yeah, plus another full cup before that, but—”

I poured the hot coffee and took a long, loud sip.

I felt Destiny’s disapproving stare on my back as I drank. She never liked it when I ignored her prophesies, but given that the mortals could defy her just by flexing their free will, it was laughable to think that she should have any control over my actions, never mind that she was usually right. I had learned a long time ago that it was best to enjoy the moment and worry about the consequences when (and if) they came.

Also, half an hour was far too long to wait for coffee after I’d already smelled it.

I saluted her with my mug as I sat at the table. She wrinkled her nose at me and went back to devouring her bowl of neon breakfast cereal.

“I still think you should wear a glamour when you’re not in your room,” she informed me, clearly still peeved over my decision to ignore her fate read.

I held up my hand and admired the way the bones caught the morning sunlight. “And stifle this natural beauty?”

Destiny shot an exasperated sigh across the table. “At least wear something other than the robes. You make me feel like I’m an extra in a bad horror movie in my own kitchen.”

Our kitchen,” I corrected, “and I do wear these robes for a reason. As you may recall, the mortals and even some of our fellow Forces tend to be prone to terror whenever they see the swirling void that is my core.”

“You could cast a glamour to hide that.”

“Glamours itch.”

Destiny gave up the argument and went back to her cereal.

I returned to my coffee, content with the silence. I took more time with my second mug, out of both enjoyment and a desire to procrastinate before shuffling back to my room and calling my reapers in. As I drank, I idly wondered what would be the trigger that could possibly cause me to drop the mug. Would I be holding it? Would it be sitting on the edge of my desk when I summoned my reapers and began the tedious task of distilling the taken souls? Would one of the reapers knock the mug off the desk in their eagerness to get to me first?

So many possibilities. So many ways to tease Destiny about her mundane little prophecy.

But I was not feeling cruel, and decided to let the moment pass. After all, it wasn’t every day that we got to enjoy a quiet morning. Which did beg a certain question.

“Where is Life?” I asked.

“Still in his room,” Destiny said. She took a sip of coffee so overloaded with cream and sugar it was almost white. Actually, she may have just been drinking cream and sugar at that point; to have included coffee in that concoction would have been a crime against creation. “Last night, he said he was getting close to finishing something big, and then he locked himself in. Haven’t seen him since.”

I groaned.

Lately, and in spite of my protests, Life had been throwing himself into creation, spitting out creature after creature in a desperate attempt to have something he could completely call his own. He tried in earnest to make his creations beautiful. He understood and appreciated the perfection of delicate colors and bold patterns alike, and knew how to balance symmetry with nonuniformity. And yet, he always forgot some key feature. Like a functioning brain, or lungs, or—in one very tragic case—a skeletal structure. That poor thing had been a screaming puddle of feathers and organs on the floor by the time Life had dragged Destiny and me back to his room to see it. Destiny had not found that particular attempt anywhere nearly as funny as I had.

“You know why I think he does it?” Destiny asked, pulling me out of my reverie.

Admittedly, I cared not for the theories behind why Life was piling on to my workload, but I was open to another excuse to linger over coffee before getting back to work. “Enlighten me,” I said.

“I think he’s trying to counterbalance your creation.”

That managed to catch my interest. “Do you mean my reapers?”

“Exactly,” Destiny said. “You made something on the mortal world born of you and you alone. I think that scares him.”

I motioned for her to go on.

“I think Life is looking for their counterbalance,” she explained. “You two built the entire mortal world around the promise of balance, but with you finishing the reapers, I think he feels threatened.”

“He made that one species of jellyfish,” I pointed out, rather lamely.

Destiny gave me a small, patient smile. “Yes, but you modified them so that they could be eaten and therefore die.”

“I had to ensure that they could exist on the mortal world without violating the Contract,” I said.

Truth be told, I should have pushed for more changes to that deathless creature than I had. That particular species of bag fish could still threaten the Contract if the right stars aligned. I let that be, however, and instead pointed out that my reapers did not exist in every sense of the word. They could interact with souls, certainly, but beyond harvesting their assigned targets, they were incapable of impacting the mortal world.

I had also been very careful with them, ensuring that the reapers had no power of their own beyond what I bestowed upon them. I gave each of the reapers a small piece of myself, lessening my own power in exchange for a chance to rest, however brief that ultimately turned out to be. With Destiny’s help and Justice’s blessing, I had also run exhaustive tests and calculations to ensure that the Contract would remain intact long before I created my first reaper. I knew all too well what the consequences of a Contract violation were.

We all did. It was the agreement we made in exchange for a chance to benefit from the mortal world; a chance to flex our influence and grow our power without tearing apart our home realm Eternity. To violate the Contract was to invite capital punishment, and even I had cause to fear that.

When I reminded Destiny of this, she agreed. “But I do think that Life feels like he needs to keep up with you,” she said.

“Keep up with me?” I said. “Did you see how many souls he put out last week alone? I can barely keep up with him.”

Destiny gave me another soft smile. “He says the same thing about you. And he’s afraid of being left behind. It’s just… in his nature, I think.”

My mug of coffee was down to a little more than half-full at that point. I swirled it absently, wondering what Life’s next attempt would look like. I think that Destiny and I both knew that if Life succeeded in creating a truly deathless creature, I would either need to find a way to destroy it, or banish it from the mortal world.

The decision would hinge on how pretty it was; something beautiful could potentially find a permanent home in Eternity. Everything else would meet the sharp end of my scythe. Given Life’s penchant for aesthetics, chances of an endless existence among the Forces were high. Of course, given his extensive record of failures, it was very unlikely we were anywhere near that possibility.

I had the sudden thought that perhaps Life could use a vacation along with me. It had been a while since we’d had time together without work getting in the way, and if this next attempt was a failure, a trip away from the mortal world could have done us both good.

My thoughts slipped back to Life’s past creations, and I absently tried to imagine this new species. I had hopes for something sleek and muted in color, but I would not have minded a dark iridescence to it. A living embodiment of black opal, perhaps. Life had been drawing inspiration from gemstones lately, and if he could remember to get the details right, he had the potential to create a beautiful creature in—



I jumped in my seat, and felt the mug start to slip through my fingers. With a lurch and a slosh of coffee over the edge, I managed to keep my grip on the handle as my partner came sailing into the room. A few precious drops of coffee fell to the floor, but the mug and the majority of the still-steaming drink were saved. I gave Destiny a smug look as I carefully set the mug on the table, well away from the edge.

Destiny glared into her cereal and tried to sneak a look at the clock on the wall without me noticing.

“I have finally, absolutely, unquestioningly done it!” Life proclaimed, practically dancing across the kitchen. He paused long enough to plant a kiss on my forehead before spinning away and pumping his fists in the air.

In spite of my exhaustion and certainty that this would be more work for me, I smiled as I rose from the table and moved to grab the paper towels. I always liked seeing Life happy, even if it signaled trouble for me.

“What have you unleashed upon the lowly mortals this time?” I asked as I bent to clean up the spill, my victory over Destiny’s prophecy taking on a bittersweet note. Spilled coffee was still spilled coffee, after all.

Life began to tell us of his decision to work small this time (probably for the best), and much as he loved to add them, leave off any unnecessary ornaments (absolutely for the best). He’d created a bipedal creature, fluffy with shining silver fur and a head that could rotate one-hundred-and-eighty degrees on a well-protected neck. It was nocturnal, used small primate-like hands to gather food, and ran from place to place on strong, silent legs.

He described it in such loving detail, even I was partially enamored with it by the time he was done.

There was just one problem.

“Life, my darling,” I said, “did you remember to give it the ability to breathe?”

He opened his mouth, but no sound came out. The smile drained from his face. That was answer enough.

“I’ll take care of it,” I told him. Just as I always did.

It wasn't Life's fault, really. It simply was not in his nature to consider all the things that could destroy something.

But that was more than an inconvenience for me, since I was the one who had to clean up his messes.

At least Life had a sense of humor, and once he’d worked through his grief, he let Destiny tease him about this latest overlooked detail in a long, catastrophic series of overlooked details. Life made a remark about being glad that I was always there to fix his mistakes. My response was a strained smile.

Destiny caught my expression. “Poor Death really needs their vacation soon,” she said.

My smile was more genuine this time. “More than you know.”

Life looked over his strong shoulder at me. “Are you still set on taking one?” he asked.

“Oh, absolutely. I thought I’d mentioned that before?”

“Several times,” he said.

“Yesterday alone,” Destiny added.

I drained my coffee mug and then refilled it to the brim, making sure Destiny saw my every move.

“I was sure you’d break it,” she grumbled.

I watched her over the rim of the mug as I slurped another gulp.

“Would you leave?” Life asked.

I broke off my petty battle with Destiny to look at him. “What?”

“The mortal world,” he said, tracing a knot in the woodgrain of the table. “Would you leave it, if you took a break?”

I had been so busy that I had not seriously considered what I would do with a vacation once I got it, but I knew the answer to that question. “Yes,” I told him. “It would be nice to see something other than the mortals and the inside of this apartment for a change.”

“If you wore a glamour,” Destiny grumbled, “you could go outside. We live near a lovely park, and the night life a few blocks over is exciting enough that the mortals might not even notice your creepiness.”

I took another loud sip of coffee.

“How long do you think you’d stay away?” Life asked. He kept his voice casual, but I knew what he was asking.

I reached over and squeezed his shoulder. “Not too long,” I said. I remembered my earlier thought of inviting him along with me, but I still owed him for the unbreathing mess he’d left for me in his room, and his earlier teasing.

Destiny abruptly gave a pointed cough, clearly aiming to distract Life and me from each other. “How close are your reapers to being independent?” she asked.

“Very,” I said, settling back against the wall . “They have been out on their own for a while now, and I just sent off what I hope is the last wave. I’m giving them a little time to test their wings before I introduce them to the soul distilling process, but they’ve been doing perfectly so far. This time next year should see me packing up my scythe and bidding you a fond farewell.”

“You don’t want to leave your oversized farming tool with me?” Destiny asked.

“What do the mortals say?” I traced the rim of my mug. “I trust you as far as I can throw you?”

“I’m an incorporeal cloud,” Destiny said. “You couldn’t throw me at all.”

“That would be my point, yes.”

Destiny and Life were both laughing now, and I was smiling in the sunlight. Everything felt right. And then something slipped out-of-kilter, and the world seemed to stop.

A nasty feeling wrapped itself around my spine, and a shiver ran through me. Life froze in bewildered horror a moment later, and then Destiny was on her feet, trembling. They both turned to look at me as the bad feeling crept up my back and through my skull. I felt it leave me as quickly as it came, but it sapped away a good chunk of what little energy that morning had given me, and left an aching pain in its place. I recognized the warning, but the bad feeling wasn’t done with us yet. It coated the room like a thick fog, growing denser as something approached.

It finally coalesced at the kitchen window, and I turned to see one of my reapers perched on the sill. The reaper knocked its hoof against the glass, and rustled its leathery wings. I could see light seeping through the thin skin of its body, right where it would have stored a swallowed soul. The reaper would not look at me.

All three of us had been given a warning, then one of my reapers had come to me unsummoned, loaded with a soul, and ashamed of itself. This could only mean one thing: the Contract had been breached.

The coffee splattered my robes when my mug shattered on the floor.


Katja Kane Thu, 19/08/2021 - 23:00

I thought this was wonderful. Great characters, delightful idea, humour, pace, hooks, setup and payoff all excellently executed. I would be interested to read more.

Robin Cutler Sun, 29/08/2021 - 22:11

You are developing a unique voice as a writer which is very wonderful to see. Great job with writing. I'd like to see a bit more imagination in the cover design.

knsalustro Sat, 11/09/2021 - 18:05

In reply to by Robin Cutler

Please excuse my delayed reply, but thank you very much! That's wonderful to hear, and I appreciate it. As to the cover, this was one I took a crack at myself. I wanted to try it out and see how it went. Had I gone with a cover designer, I think I could have gotten something that popped more, for sure, so I will definitely be investing in that more in the future. :)

Charlotte Valentine Wed, 01/09/2021 - 19:36

I really enjoyed these opening pages! I love the originality of the premise, and your writing style kept my attention throughout. It was a fun, entertaining read and I look forward to reading more. Well done!

Charlotte Valentine Wed, 01/09/2021 - 19:36

I really enjoyed these opening pages! I love the originality of the premise, and your writing style kept my attention throughout. It was a fun, entertaining read and I look forward to reading more. Well done!

JerryFurnell Tue, 14/09/2021 - 08:01

Love your sense of humour and querky premise. Well done on becoming a finalist.