There's a common myth that when you die, you're allowed to challenge Death to a chess game for your soul. That's true, technically. Turns out chess isn't the only option. Any sport, game, or activity you can think of can be challenged, and he has to oblige. Perfect for a former boxing heavyweight champion such as myself.
I glanced over at the skeleton and grinned. The figure – formerly clad in a menacing tattered robe but now wearing a too large pair of gym shorts – was struggling to tie up his gloves. After a few minutes of grunting and swearing, he finally managed to slip them on. I forced a laugh down. The Grim Reaper, so terrifying a creature, now stood before me wearing gym shorts that extended past his knees and bright red boxing gloves almost as large as his skull. The awkward thinness of his bones perfected the look. If only I had a camera. We stepped into the ring.
The bell rung out, and we dropped down into fighting stances. At least I did. He crouched self consciously, his shoulders tensed up, his legs spread too far apart. He hopped forward to me and swung his fist. I saw it coming from a mile away, slipped down, and drove my fist forward with all the power I could. A crunch echoed through the halls as his ribs snapped. Marrow dripped to the ground. He stumbled backwards into the ropes, and I leaped in for the kill. Just before I could deliver it, he ducked under my arm and stumbled back into the center of the ring. His eyes flared as he raised his fists.
“Come on, at least try to stand your ground,” I said as I moved forward.
"OKAY". The voice rang through the ring, and Death darted forward. Before I could blink, his fists mashed into my face. My nose caved with a sickening crunch. I was falling through space. I'm not sure how long. Half a second maybe, but it felt like an eternity. Then I landed and everything was still, until I rose to my feet.
“What the hell?” I said as I brought my fists back up. “How did you do that?”
He shrugged. "I'M A QUICK LEARNER". Again he stepped forward to me. Stepped isn't really the right word. He was there, and then he was right up against me, with only a blur in between. This time I was ready. The blow only glanced off of me as I turned into the ropes, but still, it hurt. Blood flew through the air. I swear to God I could have counted each droplet, that's how focused I was. Unfortunately, focus wasn't enough.
I don't have any idea how I survived those next 30 minutes. Blow after blow flew into my body, my head, sending blood splattering and bones snapping. Each time I would lash out instinctively, and each time my fist would land on nothing and be returned by one just as vicious. I don't know how many times I fell. I don't know how many times I begged myself to give in, only to stand back up.
But as we fought, I became aware of something. When we had started, it had just been us, the ring, and the surrounding void. As time went on, people began to appear around us. Not people – spirits. Some were human, yes. But there were animals, aliens, twisted monstrosities, things so beautiful they would make you weep, and they were all cheering. It started as two people crouched by the stage, yelling encouragement. Then a few more trickled in and joined the shouting. Then a few more. Soon there was an entire stadium around us, every seat filled. And every single person was cheering.
I thought it was for him at first. But then I began to realize it wasn't. It was for me. They wanted me to beat the bastard. Just one person was all it took. One person to win and show them that their hopes weren't futile. I knew then that I couldn't lose.
On his next punch, I moved faster than I knew I could. Sweeping under the blow and rose up, putting the entire force of my body into a single uppercut that caught him and flew him into the air. He smacked into the ropes and lay still on the ground. The crowd was still. Come on you prick, I thought, stay down. You have to stay down.
He didn't stay down.
Instead, he rose up, stretched his arms, and went right back to using me as a punching bag. He rained blows down on me with ten times the fury he had before. There was no time to counter or dodge. I just backed against the ropes and took it. I don't think I had the energy to do anything else.
Finally he backed away and watched me. Every muscle in my body cried out for relief. My knees shook. But I didn't fall. I couldn't fall. There was no way I was going to lose this, not with my life on the line, not with all these people watching. I'd never lost before and I wasn't going to lose this one.
But I did. My legs buckled and fell. I tried to will myself up, to push my body back into working condition, but all I could manage was a blink. Unconsciousness took me then. I woke up somewhere else. Death, back in his traditional garb, stood over me.
"YOU DID WELL", he said. "BUT THAT ISN'T ENOUGH."
I coughed. “No. I guess it wasn't.” My voice was weak, nothing but a hoarse half-whisper. My body shook, and I realized I was crying. Not much, but I was.
"THERE IS NOTHING TO BE AFRAID OF. YOU'RE GOING TO A BETTER PLACE THAN YOU WERE BEFORE."
“It's not that.” I looked up. “It's that you beat me. I've trained for years. Countless hours. They called me the best, and I was the fucking best. Then you come along and beat me.” I slumped. “Shit, what's the point if you can't be the best?”
"THAT'S ONLY GOING TO HURT YOU."
“Yeah. That's what they said. But look where I ended up. I stood on top of the mountain and looked down at the rest and saw that I was finally where I needed to be. They don't understand do they? They wouldn't understand that now, I just have more mountain to climb.”
“Is it time to go now? To pass on?”
I sighed. “Then let's go.”