Note: This was written for the Review Game Forum's February Writing Challenge Contest. Let me know what you think, check out the other entries, and vote for your favorites.
The Good Death
Three humans and two dogs sit around a fire.
An old man holds a little girl, while a young woman scratches behind the older dog's ears. The young woman calls the dogs Jo and Teddy, after her daughter and husband, gone two months now.
A stick pops and the log collapses in the fire. The little girl starts to cry. For a moment, the old man tries to comfort her, but he is no one to the little girl and he is weary. She cries until Teddy rolls to his feet and licks her face. He doesn't know to miss the tastes and sounds of human children, and simply savors this moment. The little girl hugs him close and falls asleep with her arms around his neck.
Teddy is a young pup. He hasn't lived in a world where humans thrive. In his short life, he has seen a thousand Deaths come to the humans he has met. He is as accustomed to them as to the little girl breathing into his ear right now.
Alertness sets Jo's ears to twitching. She knows, as does Teddy, that something hangs over all of them. Shadows move in the trees and Jo growls when they come too close. She has seen these shadows take too many of the humans for her to count. The shadows need to know this is her pack: no one can have them without coming through her.
Jo faces an enemy as vast as the human consciousness.
For every variety of human demise there is a Death created in its image. Some Deaths are so unusual they fade from memory within months, forgotten by the human civilization that birthed them. Others are so ingrained in the human experience that they feed well on the hopes and fears of humanity and live nearly forever. But only as long as the humans exist to remember them.
The oldest of Deaths enters the clearing. The Good Death frightens Jo, as all these spectres do. But Teddy wags his tail. He has seen the Good Death twice in his short life. The Good Death is jolly and fat, jovial despite the hour. Teddy would sit at his side if it weren't for the little girl still wrapped around his neck.
The Good Death sits down beside the old man and waits. There's still hope he can have one more soul to feed him before they all fade away. Hope is a small thing to hold onto. None of them knows what obsolescence means for metaphorical beings.
The other Deaths mill about behind him.
"I could still do it!"
"Let me have a shot at them!"
"Please, you haven't been relevant in centuries!"
"At least I'm not a forgotten Death! Who even knows what-"
"We're all going to be forgotten soon anyway and if I have to fade listening to you lot bicker about who got the last-"
"I told you you should have just stayed in the city! At least it'd be quiet there!"
"And miss our last hurrah?"
"Easy for you to say. What chance do I have out here in the middle of nowhere? Who's going to run into-"
Jo watches and growls when any of the Deaths come too close. The young woman doesn't know what lurks in the forest but she cowers from the crushing knowledge of their solitude. Jo knows the humans don't see the assembled Deaths, but everyone senses them. Their numbers have grown for weeks now, as one by one the pack diminishes.
When Jo found the human pack, they numbered three times what they do now. When Teddy wandered into camp, they were twice this number. Teddy does little to hamper the Deaths, but Jo will keep them at bay as long as she can, until the pack can grow again. She does not like the Good Death, but Teddy has claimed him as part of his pack, and thus her pack. She lays her snout on her paws and keeps an eye on him and the others. There is still time.
The Deaths argue and boast into the night. The Good Death is the only one who notices when the old man falls asleep. His wrinkled fingers curl in the Good Death's healthy ones, before he goes limp and humanity numbers two.
"Damn it, he's gone and done it again. I should've known he'd be one of the last-"
"I will not be the last," the Good Death points out. He stands, sustained now for the long wait before they all fade. "My time is now done." He is only for the old, the sleeping. The young woman, the little girl, they won't be his. Not at this hour.
Jo stands and circles the fire as the young woman realizes the old man is no longer breathing. Deaths roil the trees. They're up to something, and Jo won't allow it on her watch. She stands between them and her pack.
The young woman tiptoes over to the old man to check on him. The little girl still sleeps, cuddled up to Teddy on the ground. The young dog's eyes watch her movements, and those of the Deaths around them.
Mercy Kill comes forward, and Murder-Suicide jostles past her.
"She'll pick me, I know it," Mercy Kill says.
"It's obviously going to be me," Murder-Suicide insists. "She's not going to stick around with two dogs after she kills the kid."
The young woman steps back, shocked, as she realizes she is almost alone. She looks down at the little girl, her sole responsibility. For a long moment, the young woman eyes the gun in the old man's hand.
"It's the best end for her!" Mercy Kill shouts.
"This is for both of you!" Murder-Suicide shouts.
Jo snarls as the Deaths push forward to guide the young woman's decision. The young woman jumps at the sound, and calls Jo over. Her fingers tangle in the dog's white fur and she hugs her close, like the little girl hugs Teddy. Jo quiets and licks the young woman's face; this is her pack and now the Deaths know it.
They watch in silence as the young woman makes her decision. She picks up the gun, and the Deaths whisper their approval. She puts a gentle hand on the little girl's shoulder, and the whisper changes.
"No," they hiss. "Choose one of us."
The young woman picks up the little girl and walks away from the fire. Teddy trots at her heels and Jo scouts ahead. She leads her pack away from the myriad Deaths. Jo knows a good place to raise human pups. Her pack won't shrink again.
The Good Death smiles. He may yet be the last.