Nex Hath Plures Visio

THE SIGNS OF DEATH


HISTORY

In the center of the hall, a great stair wound up to the second floor of the house. As the woman set her foot on the first tread, she heard a rustling high above; she looked up and saw what might have been the hem of a petticoat in the shadows of the landing. This disappeared instantly; her eyes had deceived her.

She went to her own bedroom. It was still warm there from the sunlit day, and the air that drifted in the open windows was heavy with the smell of water and dirt. In the perfect stillness, she heard a rook sound loudly as it flew to its roost in the home wood.

She walked to a mirror and checked the oval of her face. A curl had fell from its ribbon onto her cheek, and she raised her hand to tie it back.

Hands still in midair, she froze, watching the mirror intently. A woman had come in the door behind her. The image grew clearer as the figure approached, petticoats rustling. The intruder stopped just behind the young woman and stared into the glass. Then the newcomer shifted her gaze to the woman and moved her lips in a mechanical parody of a smile. The young woman pressed her hand to the glass. It was herself who stood beside her, exact in every physical detail. But the breast of her twin did not rise and fall with breathing, and no voice came from her pallid lips.

When the family came home later in the evening, they found the daughter on her bed, feverish, racked with pain, and clearly dying. With her last strength, the young woman whispered of the encounter, repeating the tale again and again in tones of terror. Her eyes were still bright with fear when she died.

The woman had seen the most frightening of apparitions - in Britain variously known as the double or fetch or co-walker, and in Germany called the Doppelganger, or "double goer." These were the spirits who could assume the physical form of those about to die. Sometimes they appeared to friends or relatives of the dying - and their mimickry was so convincing that, if they were met casually walking along the street, they might be taken for the person involved. More often, however, they delivered their silent message to that person alone. And after death occured, it was said, the double shed the mortal image and fled to whatever world had spawned it.

Double and banshee, raven and owl, all were no more than heralds, the forerunners of the hunter of souls, hungry Death himself. He was the fearsome slayer of man, woman and child, of peasant, priest and prince alike. No one knew who he was, for he assumed many shapes and guises as he went about his business, But in every country there were names for him and tales about him.

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