“Andreas, do not go in there,” Cleo warned her brother. “Father is worse today. You will only disturb him.”
Her brother waved her off. “If he is worse today, then his time is nearing. I need to talk to him - before...”
He didn’t need to finish the thought; they both knew what he was thinking. He needed to speak with his father one last time before he died. Andreas had been gone when their father had first been taken ill, and now that he had returned, he was loathe to be far. In the meantime, however, it had fallen to Cleo to leave her position as temple priestess in order to care for him. She wondered if she would be accepted back after her father died, not that she would get the chance to find out.
To keep herself from brooding, Cleo kept busy. She tended to their small garden and then washed off in the stream. When she returned to the house, she went about fixing a simple dinner, but even by the time she had set it out, her brother and father were still not present. With a sigh, Cleo sat down in her chair by the hearth to wait. She smoothed down her sleeveless white dress and tried to stay still. Failing that, Cleo twisted her fingers in her hair, deftly maneuvering the chestnut strands into a thick braid that fell over one shoulder.
All at once, the door opened with a bang and Andreas came out, supporting his father with a strong, muscled arm. Cleo rushed over and pulled out a chair for her father to slump onto. She pushed him in close to the table and placed a hunk of bread and cheese in front of him. Cleo poured wine for her father first, then her brother and finally herself.
“Why are you not eating?” Cleo asked her brother as she took a seat.
Andreas frowned into his goblet. “Just not hungry.”
“You are always hungry,” she replied. “It is one of the constants of life.”
“I am not hungry, alright?” Andreas snapped in reply.
Cleo pursed her lips and backed off. The rest of the meal passed in silence. Their father ate little and spoke even less, but at least he had managed to get up for a little while. Soon, Cleo feared, he wouldn’t even be able to do that.
As she cleared away the plates, Andreas carried his father back to his bed. When he returned, he shut the door with a snap. “Cleo,” he said to get her attention.
Cleo turned, letting the dried herbs she was hanging fall to the table. “Yes?”
She nodded, wringing her hands. “The healer only expects him to last another day or two.”
“I know. And that means you and I...” Andreas trailed off, hinting at what Cleo had already been thinking. He looked at her, his brown eyes filled with so many emotions that she couldn’t distinguish between them.
“You are thinking of the curse?” Cleo asked. “Do you think it is true?”
“Father seems to think so,” Andreas replied. “He is afraid for us, Cleo. Afraid that the prophecy will come true - that the curse will cause us to die shortly after he does.”
Cleo’s hands shook. She clasped them behind her back in attempt to still their agitation. “How do we even know it is a curse? Many prophecies are just prophecies.”
Andreas slammed a fist on the table and Cleo flinched. “It matters not what we call it! The point is that we are most likely going to die in a day or two, and I am not going down without a fight.”
“Let us see if Thanatos still cares to take father’s life after he meets me.”
“Andreas!” Cleo pleaded, grabbing at his arm. She took one of his large hands in hers. “You can’t do this. You are strong, you are a good soldier, but Thanatos - he is a god. He is the god of death. You will not stand a chance.”
“I am sorry, Cleo, but I will not sit idly and wait for my death.” With that, Andreas grabbed his sword and strode from the house. “Stay inside,” he tossed over his shoulder.
Cleo did as he asked, but moved to the window where she could watch him.
“Thanatos!” Andreas called up at the sky. “I challenge you to a fight for life! I will fight against Death! Will you meet my challenge?”
For one tense moment, there was silence - complete, utter silence. Silence so deep it seemed as if sound had momentarily disappeared from the world. No waves crashed onto the rocks below, no birds chirped, no wind whistled through the trees until, at last, a crack split the air. Wrapped in shadows, Thanatos stood facing Andreas. The insubstantial tendrils of his robes searched the air like feelers.
“You think to challenge me, mortal?” Thanatos asked in a deep, rumbling voice.
“Yes,” Andreas replied. To his credit, his voice didn’t waver. “There was a prophecy that said my sister and I would die shortly after our father. Even now he lays on his death bed. I fight you for his life.”
For a moment, Cleo couldn’t breathe, thinking Andreas would be blasted where he stood. Then, much to her surprise, Thanatos tossed back his head and laughed, “Oh, you foolish mortals. When will you learn that prophecies cannot be cheated? The Fates do not bargain and neither do I.”
Thanatos raised a hand.
“NO!” Cleo shouted as Andreas fell. At the same time, a flash of light blew the door to her father’s room open behind her, and she knew that he was dead as well. On impulse, Cleo ran from the house towards her brother’s fallen figure. She crouched, hugging his chest, but there was no movement. “You coward!” Cleo screamed at Thanatos.
Thanatos’s eyes flashed. “You have the nerve to call me a coward after having seen what I can do?”
Cleo wiped her tears away angrily. “You are a coward!” We have spent our entire lives worshipping the gods of Greece, thinking them honorable and worthy, but you...You defy everything I believe! I thought the gods were merciful. I thought the gods were fair - would at least give my brother the honor of dying in combat, not being struck down by the wave of your hand.” She stood now, facing the god. Her fists were balled at her side as she fumed.
His dark eyes narrowed. “I long to destroy you now, but it has been a while since my last argument. I think I will let you live just a while longer. What makes you think you are any less a coward as you think I am? All humans are cowards when it comes to death. All of them.”
Cleo spat at his feet. “Not I. You do not scare me, Death.”
The light of the world seemed to temporarily dim and the temperature dropped a few degrees. Thanatos’s face darkened and his eyes flashed with anger. “You consider yourself brave? I offer you the ultimate test. A true curse. I will give you a hundred lives,” he said with a wicked grin that tightened Cleo’s chest. “I will give you a hundred lives and a hundred deaths. You shall not live past the age you are now - twenty four years. At this age, you will die before being reborn to start again.”
Cleo’s heart pounded. Dying a hundred times. That wouldn’t be enjoyable, but it wouldn’t be so bad. At least she would be reborn. Was her life really being cut short if she was allowed to start it over?
Thanatos smiled a cold smile. “Ah, but here is the catch. You will not remember your previous lives; you will not know for what you are dying. And yet, each time you die, you must face death bravely. If you do this one hundred times over, I will grant you a final life - as long and as full as anyone could hope to have, and I will never bother you again, save for at the end of that life. If your bravery wavers in even one of your deaths, you will be banished to the underworld like all other souls. However, Hades is a personal friend of mine. I will drop by and pay him a visit, make a few...suggestions.” He smiled again.
Cleo was momentarily speechless. At last, she found her voice and said, “I will prove to you that I do not fear you. It does not matter if I know what I am dying for, I will do it with bravery. If I must die to live, then so be it.”
“Yes, so be it,” Thanatos said in reply. “Well, we best get started, then. Shall we?”
He raised a hand. Cleo took in the sight of her world one more time. Greece, her home, her lovely home. She closed her eyes and felt the world spiral from her grasp.
In southern Greece, in a small rural village, in a tiny shack, in the year 502 BC, a baby girl was born.