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Balancing Death's Books
"Lookit here... You need a ticket to ride this ride, and if your ticket gets punched then you gotta take somebody else's ticket."
So, time is up, the Grim Reaper
has arrived to collect the soul
of you or your loved one, and he's not interested in a game of chess
. It looks like all hope is lost. But wait... all Death needs is a soul, right? Surely there's someone around here whose life is less valuable
than the person Death has come to collect. Maybe he'll take their soul instead.
Essentially, this is getting the Grim Reaper (or some other soul collecting entity
), to accept one life in exchange for another. It can be done through an offer or some kind of trick. If a person volunteers to be the replacement soul, it could be a Heroic Sacrifice
, but it doesn't have to be. There is often some kind of Equivalent Exchange
involved, if the reason one life has to be traded for another is to preserve some kind of balance. When characters find themselves in this situation, it is almost always the case that Someone Has to Die
. If an exception is made, it's generally at the whim of the soul collector.
It's rarely explained why
Death has to maintain this kind of balance. Presumably, if his books don't add up, the Celestial Bureaucracy
will be down on him like a ton of rectangular building things.
Or he's anal-retentive, either explanation is good. It's also rare that anyone questions whether one soul is really equal to another in value. (For example, is the soul of an Ax-Crazy sociopath
a fitting replacement for the soul of a person who volunteers at animal shelters and donates every spare dime they have to charity
?) It's generally accepted that any soul can replace any other and still maintain the balance
As the examples show, this trope is Older Than Dirt
, with many variations. Compare Chess with Death
, Sacrificial Revival Spell
and Take Me Instead
As a Death Trope, all spoilers will be unmarked ahead. Beware.
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Anime & Manga
- Hansel and Gretel in Black Lagoon hold this as their life philosophy, believing they're immortal as long as they keep killing. Balalaika disabuses them of the notion. Violently.
- In Yu-Gi-Oh!, during the Waking the Dragons arc, the loser of a game in the Seal of Orichalcos has their soul taken away to be used to fuel the Great Leviathan. At one point, Yami loses a duel and Little Yugi heroically sacrifices himself, taking Yami's place and resulting in a Heroic BSOD for the latter. They both get better.
- YuYu Hakusho:
- Early on, when Yusuke is still dead, Keiko gets trapped in a fire. Yusuke is told that the only way to save her is to use the magic egg that is the only chance he has at coming back to life. Yusuke does, and as a reward for his sacrifice, he gets another shot at returning to life.
- Only shortly after that, they seem to be building up to another such life-for-life scenario when Kurama uses a magic mirror to offer his life in exchange for his mother's. However, Yusuke also manages to resolve this without anyone dying by offering his life instead. In honor of his selflessness, the mirror spares all three of them, only taking a piece of life from Yusuke and Kurama to fuel the recovery of the mother. The mirror even says that if everyone was like Yusuke it wouldn't have such a bad reputation.
- Bleach: When a human dies their soul passes on to Soul Society, and when they die in Soul Society, they eventually reincarnate back into the Living World. This process is called the cycle of reincarnation. Maintaining the Balance of Souls is the primary function of the Gotei 13, wherein the approximate amount of souls in the Living World and in Soul Society must always be the same. Not doing so and allowing the number of souls in, say, Soul Society to exceed the number in the Living World will cause Soul Society to flow into the Living World, destroying all of existence. It's because of this reason that the Gotei 13 was forced to exterminate the Quincy; their attacks did not purify hollows and allow them to pass on to Soul Society, but instead caused them to cease to exist, removing them from the cycle of reincarnation and tampering with the Balance. The shinigami tried to reason with them but they refused to listen, forcing their extermination. When the Vandenreich started messing with the Balance once more, Mayuri Kurotsuchi was forced to kill 28,000 Rukongai citizens in order to even it out.
- In Death: The Time of Your Life, Death's lingering fondness for the protagonists leads her to agree to bring their baby back but, she warns, she'll be back, and someone will be leaving with her. Her return 5 years later is the catalyst that starts the story.
- In a Justice Society of America story, Atom-Smasher knows that an exact number of people must die in a plane crash to avoid damaging the time stream and so, at the last moment, swaps his mother for the villain who caused the crash in the first place. (Saves the mother and replaces her with the villain, that is. For those who were confused.)
- This is common with the Black Racer, the death of the New Gods. A person may substitute himself, or even someone else, for the one meant to die and the Racer won't make a fuss about it. This was used in Final Crisis, when The Flash lead the Racer to collect Darkseid instead of himself, as part of the ploy to defeat the villain. The Racer seems rather laid back about that issue, despite representing the inevitability of death.
- In Thorgal - Beyond the Shadows, Thorgal travels to the underworld to bargain for his wife's life, and Death decides to be a dick. Death takes him and his guide to an enormous black cavern filled with tiny golden strings that a blind beast constantly cuts off at seemingly random. Death gives Thorgal a bow and arrow and tells him that he will repair his wifes life-string if Thorgal fires off an arrow in any direction, knowing full well that the arrow will sever one life-string at random. Thorgal, being the hero and all can't go through with it, but his companion (who was in love with Thorgal) grabbed the bow and let loose the arrow. In a twist that should surprise absolutely no one, it turned out that the life-string she struck "just happened" to be her own.
- In Charles de Lint's The Blue Girl, the ghost of a nerdy fellow asks about this, thinking to exchange the life of a bully to save the life of a girl he likes. The guardian angel assigned to him at first thinks he's contemplating a heroic sacrifice before finding the truth, after which he is thoroughly disgusted.
- In The Lives Of Christopher Chant by Diana Wynne Jones, a character was supposed to be sacrificed to a goddess; an elder priestess explained that the goddess just demanded a life, not necessarily the nominated victim's, and that she generally took a spare life from one of the temple cats (they, of course, had nine). It didn't work in that particular case, but the goddess accepted a spare life from an enchanter who also had lives to spare.
- In order to release Camber's soul from stasis in The Harrowing of Gwynedd, his daughter Evaine voluntarily gives her life in a ritual.
- In Watership Down, in the last legend of Prince El-ahrairah, the Prince of Rabbits is playing Chess with Death for the fate of his people. After he loses several games betting (among other things) his ears and tail, he decides to die in their place by carrying back a disease to his enemies. He tries to enforce the decision by jumping into one of the Black Rabbit's pits full of plagues. Then Death informs him that the pit he jumped into holds a plague (Myxamatosis) that is transmitted by fleas biting the ears—and he no longer has ears. However, Death spares his people because of the attempt. Presumably because the Black Rabbit enforces Frith's (the rabbit God) promise that rabbitkind won't be wiped out despite their many enemies.
- The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold:
- It's possible to perform a "death magic" ritual that will cause a demon to kill anyone you name. The catch is, the demon has buckets for two souls, and can't return to the netherworld until both are full—so performing the ritual is thought to be inevitably fatal. The protagonist ends up surviving performing the ritual; through a miracle, the demon as well as the soul of the man he wanted dead are trapped inside his stomach tumor; when he gets stabbed through the tumor, the demon takes the soul of the person stabbing him.
- It's also mentioned that the only prayers of this kind that are granted are the ones in which the victim really was a nasty piece of work. In essence, the demon god dispenses miracles of justice. Praying for the death of someone who doesn't deserve it won't get you anything but sore knees—well, and the possibility of hanging, because attempting death magic is a capital crime. (Succeeding at death magic is not illegal, because the result was a god-granted miracle, but the fact that no one survives succeeding at death magic makes the whole issue kind of academic.)
- From Robin Hobb's The Soldier Son trilogy: "You owe me a life or a death, Nevare Burvelle!"
- In The Death Gate Cycle, any magic which brings a dead corpse to life (as a zombie-like being) causes the untimely death of another member of that race, resulting in the eventually decline and near-extinction of the Sartan.
- Inverted in the same series with the character Hugh, who is resurrected completely and made immortal to boot- but to keep things balanced, he can never kill another living thing again, even by accident. As he's a professional assassin, he's not happy about this development and spends several books trying to track down the guy who did it to get him to lift the magic.
- There is a short story about a doctor who had Death as a foster father and was able to see Death coming to collect people and tell them when they would die. If Death was at the foot of the bed, they would recover, if Death was at the head of the bed they would die. The doctor manages to save the life of a beautiful girl by rotating the bed. But Death said he needed another life to "balance the books", so the doctor took his own life.
- The foster father premise is expanded upon in the novel Godmother Night, with much exploration of mysticism and lesbian relationships along the way.
- The Death as father and rotating the bed probably came from a Brothers Grimm Fairy Tale named "Gevatter Tod" ("Godfather Death"). In the fairy tale, the doctor does not sacrifice himself willingly, but tricks Death - twice - and is killed the second time.
- A Song of Ice and Fire:
- A variant occurs in A Clash of Kings that may not directly involve dealing with a supernatural entity, but operates on the same principle. After Arya saves the lives of Jaqen and two other prisoners, he subsequently informs her that, due to her interference, the Red God is now due three lives. Not to worry; if she'll but name three names, he'll happily help balance the books. However, after the first two murders, she manipulates him into a situation where he must either kill himself, abandon his honor, or help Arya kill a lot more people. He chooses the third option.
- Mirri Maz Duur's "Only death pays for life" in the first book. Of course, she's not very clear about whose death, or her definition of life.
- Dustfinger exchanges himself for Farid in Inkspell of The Inkworld Trilogy.
- One Bruce Coville-edited collection has a story where a young Jewish girl tries to save her grandfather by marking the doorframe with lamb's blood (a la Passover). Death warns her that he has to claim someone, and the girl's pregnant aunt is caught in a car crash. After realizing what she did, the girl's grandfather convinces her to wipe the blood away, because he's ready to go. She does, he dies, and her aunt and the baby recover fully.
- In Jasper Fforde's Something Rotten, the rule for the underworld is someone's got to cross over, but it doesn't have to be the original soul. Although the gatekeepers do at least make an effort when Thursday complained that Spike wasn't dead yet.
- In the Salman Rushdie children's book Luka And The Fire Of Life, a wickedly summoned spirit cannot leave without taking a life. Or turning an immortal into a mortal.
- In The Night Angel Trilogy, black ka'kari confers Resurrective Immortality to its holder. Only later does the cost become apparent: for each resurection, someone the holder cares about soon dies.
Live Action TV
- Greek Mythology has the story of Admetus and Alcestis. Admetus is a beloved king; and, when he is due to die, Death agrees to allow him to live if he can find another willing to die in his stead. However, he is unable to find anyone - for all that his subjects love him, they don't love him enough to die for him, with even his father refusing to do it. Finally, believing himself doomed, he returns to his room - to find that his wife, Alcestis, has already agreed to die in his place, and promptly expires. Admetus lives - but in the knowledge that he has lost the one person who loved him enough to die for him. Then, in a surprise twist happy ending, Heracles arrives and punches out Death to save Alcestis.
- Not much of a surprise when you realize that the ancient Greeks were the inventors of the (usually literal) Deus ex Machina, and pretty much always had a god/god-like hero show up at the end to sort things out if the protagonists hadn't done something to deserve divine punishment.
- Heracles, in particular, does this all the time. For instance, he's credited with having rescued Theseus from the underworld and Prometheus from having his liver eaten by an eagle every day (if anyone else had tried the latter, one imagines there would have been thunderbolts).
- There's a legend about the prophet Elijah who was treated with kindness by a poor elderly couple. That night their cow died. The Rabbi Joshua asked him why the family had to suffer like that, and Elijah explains that the Angel of Death came to the house that night for the old woman, so he prayed that it would take the cow instead.
- There are multiple variations of a tale in which a man makes a Deal with the Devil (or Death) and is allowed to know whether a sick person will survive or not (such as The Brothers Grimm tale "Godfather Death"). The Devil gives a signal like appearing at a dying man's feet or a survivor's head. At some point the man, who's a successful doctor because of all this, is called to treat a doomed person whom he'd rather save. In some versions, it's a rich man who will, hopefully give him lots of money, so he saves the guy anyway. The devil tells the man that now he'll have to give up his own life to make up for the patient's. Other versions involve a girl he wants to marry, and he tricks the Devil by turning the bed around.
- Older Than Dirt: In the ancient Mesopotamian myth Inanna's Descent to the Netherworld, Inanna was killed and trapped in the underworld, Irkalla. Ereshkigal, Queen of Irkalla, would only allow her to leave if she gave another's life in return. Inanna sent her husband Dumuzi. When she came back trying to find someone to take her place, he wasn't mourning for her. Instead, he was lounging around under a tree (or in some versions, sleeping with another woman), leading Inanna to think he didn't care about her. So in a fit of hurt and anger she sends him to Irkalla... but later regrets it.
- New World of Darkness examples:
- Sin-Eaters are somewhat defined by having come back from the dead once, but their geists can ensure they come back many more times. Problem is, to fuel the resurrection, someone else somewhere has to die... and when the Sin-Eater wakes up again, there will be a caul over their face depicting just how the person died.
- The mages may have powers over life and death, but even they are unable to resurrect anyone. There is one exception, however — the Legacy known as the Tamers of the Cave. One of the spells the Tamers have special knowledge of allows them to raise someone from the dead, and the odds are good that the person will Awaken sometime after that. The downside? The Tamer dies in their stead.
- Dark Eldar in Warhammer 40,000 have made it their raison d'etre to stave off their inevitable deaths by regularly throwing the figurative Reaper (the chaos god Slaanesh) fresh souls to keep it from taking theirs instead. Pretty much any sentient being's soul will do and the older the Dark Eldar is the more often will souls have to be sacrificed in their place; this has much the expected result on the species' moral compass.
- The assassin's guild in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, which offers its victims' souls to a being called the Night Mother, were willing to help a man fake his death in exchange for his mother's life.
- The man's ancestors, however, aren't happy with his Rules Lawyering and lack of filial piety, and rise from the dead to try to kill him (and the player) after he's revived.
- The 'Ritual of Soul Transfer', appears in several places in the Valkyrie Profile series of games, and allows anyone to sacrifice their own life to resurrect a recently deceased. You get a couple of... 'recruits' that way. In somewhat of a subversion, a person tries to sacrifice his life in order to save someone else who sacrificed their life in this manner. Lenneth tells him this cannot be done, and he dies for nothing.
- Extra lives are common in many platformers that still used the life system, but King's Quest VII is quite possibly the only game in which one serves as a collectible item, relevant to the story. Rosella saves a cat from a coffin midway through, and the cat tells her that "since you saved one of my lives, I'll give it to you." This extra life, of course, is needed to get the best ending.
- In Quest for Glory IV, there is a spell that enables someone to trade their own life for that of someone they love. Toby ultimately uses it to resurrect Tanya.
- In the original Toe Jam And Earl, if you are playing a two-player game and one of you loses all your lives, you can bum one off of the other player, reducing their number of extra lives, but allowing you to stay in the game.
- This is also possible in the Super Smash Bros. games, the original Contra, Super Mario World, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II.
- In Planescape: Torment, this is the crux of The Nameless One's power. He cannot die, so another random person on The Great Wheel dies in his place every time he's supposed to. Those who die in his place become mindless tormented shadows and spend the rest of their eternal un-lives trying to track him down and getting payback, unaware (or uncaring) that it will only make more people suffer their fate.
- A particular quest line in World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria involves a Night Elf asking you to investigate a springs, the waters of which are rumored to grant immortality. You bring a vial of water back to him, where he discovers that, while technically true, it only grants life at the cost of the life force of another. When his daughter is gravely wounded later in the quest line, he uses the vial to use the remainder of his own life to save his daughter's.
- The second game in the Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time trilogy, Warrior Within, starts off when the Prince escapes the death that was assigned to him in The Sands of Time, which forces the Guardians of the Timeline to sic their monster, the Dahaka, to claim it back. He spends seven years on the run from the beast and eventually manages to sacrifice himself to the monster in order to appease it by taking advantage of a mask that lets him invoke the Timey-Wimey Ball.
- In The KA Mics Gertrude or Brunhilda might have died if not for taking advantage of this trope
- Jack, The Reaper, doesn't play chess. As "The Case of the Traveling Corpse" demonstrates, though, once he goes to Earth, he's not going back to hell until someone dies. Like Death of the Discworld, though, he's shown to fudge things whenever possible.
- An episode of Darkwing Duck has Darkwing die, and spend part of the episode trying to avoid Death. At one point, he inadvertently tricks Death into taking his neighbor instead. In this case, after some debate ("After all, the world needs Darkwing Duck, while Herb Muddlefoot serves no particular purpose."), Darkwing decides not to let Death take someone else.
- Glen Quagmire of Family Guy once faked his death to escape his new wife, who had turned out to be clingy enough to consider homicide and/or suicide an appropriate response to divorce. However, as is often the case when somebody on the show lies about being dead, Death showed up to collect Quagmire's soul. When Quagmire's wife tried to interfere, she touched Death and abruptly dropped dead. Quagmire's friends manage to convince Death to take her soul instead, since her last name was also Quagmire and she had alluded to being suicidal.
- A slight variation happens at the end of The Halloween Tree: the protagonists each give a year of their lives to Moundshroud in exchange for the life of their friend.
- In one The Simpsons Halloween special, Homer becomes Death, and receives an order to kill Marge. He manages to trick God into taking her sister Patty instead. God actually finds out and chases Homer with a beam of light. He eventually gives up and stops caring because He's "too rich for this."
- In Adventure Time, Abraham Lincoln, as King of Mars (don't ask), accidentally executed Jake thinking he was the Magic Man. He travels to the Eighth Dead World to bring him back, where he meets with Death. When Death refuses the payment of one penny, the King offers his immortality instead, killing him and turning him to stone (an exact replica of the Lincoln Memorial, in fact).
- They say that during the Holocaust, one Jew tried to bribe a guard to transfer his son (about to be sent into a gas chamber) into the workers section. The guard said "Bring me another boy. The books must be balanced". note
- In a heroic example, St. Maximilian Kolbe volunteered to take the place of a man who had been selected at random to be starved (along with nine others) because somebody escaped from the concentration camp. The condemned man broke down in tears over what would happen to his family without him, so Kolbe, a Catholic priest (and therefore celibate), requested to take the man's place. The guard agreed. For extra tearjerking, it transpired some time afterward that the missing prisoner had not actually escaped —he had drowned in the camp latrines.
- During the Reign of Terror, a father sacrificed himself to save his son when his name he was called up for execution while the son was asleep. The son then survived because the reign of the Committee of Public Welfare was ended a short while after the execution of the father.