If you missed chapter 1, you can find it at this link.
Chapter 2 – Ellis
I strode through Central Park until I arrived at West 59th, searching faces as I moved, looking for answers. Why did seeing Danielle cause so much conflict inside of me? She made me feel… what?
Things I wasn’t supposed to.
My kind learned long ago that human emotions were best kept behind a wall, like a dam holding back the swell of a mighty river. But like any dam, the floodgates needed to open when storms raged else the waters rise too high and crash over the top.
For us, the floodgate was a two-week hiatus every century, full of emotions which tore through us with the power of a tidal wave.
My dam cracked the night I met Danielle. Instead of immediately starting my vacation as I should have, I postponed, hoping in vain I’d been mistaken about what happened. Two years later, and feelings I shouldn’t have been capable of continued to seep through.
As I walked, no one returned my gaze. Given my power to determine when humans saw me, this was normal.
But Danielle’s light-brown eyes, which glittered like topaz when the sun hit them right? They pierced the barrier surrounding me, and she actually saw me. Whether I was invisible or in any number of forms—a woman holding a door open, a tall man retrieving a bottle from a high shelf, a boy on a train—every time I was near, her eyes found mine.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have sought her out so often, but from that first night, there was something that drew me toward Danielle. And her toward me. She felt it, for sure, the way she calmed when I smiled. How her frown gradually—
Tires squealed, followed by the rumble of crumpling metal, dragging my thoughts to the present.
Two shock waves hit me in quick succession.
Every person stopped and turned to a collision on the road. A black SUV had run a red light, careening onto the sidewalk and into the low stone wall at the park’s border, hitting a pedestrian in its path. Screams erupted from the crowd, but the weight of quiet inside the vehicle and in its wake pulled at me as the shock waves collapsed back on themselves.
Two deaths. Two shock waves. Two contracts to be doled out.
I held up a hand, searching within the ether for one of the contracts, but they were already assigned to others. Fewer and fewer came to me over the last year, leaving me bored and wandering the city—a subtle hint from my boss, Azrael, to take my vacation and straighten my head out.
People ran to the crash, yelling at each other to call 9-1-1. Asking if there were any doctors.
I remained on the sidewalk, observing. A man next to me merely glanced at the scene, scurrying along whatever path he thought more important than the end of two lives. What insignificant moment held greater sway over him?
Dark smoke gathered on the street, swirling upward, gradually revealing a figure clad all in black. He wore a tattered cloak which billowed in an unearthly wind, absorbing all the light, transforming sunshine into shadow. He towered over the surrounding people, moving through them with effortless grace. Each person he touched jolted, looking about frantically for the invisible source of the disturbance. The cold.
I knew that reaction too well. Even Danielle had burrowed deep in her little sweater the moment I approached her. I’d been visible, though, and she shouldn’t have felt it.
The cloak flared, instilling a discomfort around the figure, causing the crowd to separate while he worked. He lifted an arm toward the SUV. The tip of one bony finger extended from the sleeve, pointing to the driver. His other arm raised to the side, skeletal hand outstretched, and an immense scythe of gnarled wood and black metal coalesced out of the darkness which emanated from him.
Nothing happened. The creature took a step forward, stretching his hand toward the vehicle. A blast of cold erupted off him, agitating the crowd.
“Let go!” The thundering voice echoed off the buildings and vehicles, beyond mortal ears. He planted his feet and swung the scythe with both hands, slicing unseen through those who were not his target, slamming into the soul hiding inside the vehicle. He wrenched the weapon back, severing the soul’s link to its body, and hauled it through the windshield.
The driver flailed his arms, as though that trivial action could fend off inevitability. He landed on his knees, staring through the golden wisps of his limbs at the monstrous figure.
A parchment appeared above the giant’s hand, and he rasped out the words, “I am here to deliver you to the afterlife. Your judgment has not been a favorable one.”
At the figure’s feet, the pavement shimmered, gradually shifting into a red light which expanded and deepened until it arrived at the soul. Clawed, demonic hands reached from it, the screams of the damned shrieking for the next victim to join them. The stench of sulfur, ash, and decay invaded my nostrils.
No matter how many times I watched its sinister maw gape in front of those who’d earned it, it never ceased to impress.
The soul of the driver howled as the figure lifted him above the horror, taunting him, until it abandoned him into damnation. The light vanished, and the figure turned toward me, its face hidden in the shadows of its voluminous hood.
The next instant, it stood beside me.
“Hello, Reg.” I held out a fist to bump. “What happened there?”
The figure bumped with me. “Heart attack. Just came from his doctor’s office and a lecture on taking better care of himself.”
“Humans.” I shook my head, scanning the height of him. “Have you gotten taller? What are you now, ten feet?”
“Only nine. I added a few inches last month.”
Ambulance and police sirens compounded the chaos on the road, many drivers honking their horns to signal their irritation over the holdup. Two souls being reaped, and these temporal creatures were upset over a few minutes’ delay.
“I was six feet when I recruited you!” He held one bony hand to measure the old height, then waved it away. “The whole cloak and skeleton thing used to be enough, but it doesn’t scare them anymore. I blame the video games.”
Black smoke swirled on the sidewalk where the pedestrian lay, growing until two cloaked figures—no taller than those in the crowd—arrived. Their hoods were down, dark hair dancing about them, kind smiles on their serene faces. They held their arms wide, as though offering an embrace, an invitation toward the soul. A Grim Pair, bonded for eternity, their connection conferring a strength unequaled by any half dozen unbonded Reapers.
“They don’t even need scythes, Reg,” I sighed.
The colossal figure shrugged, clattering bones echoing underneath his cloak, which never stopped swirling about him. “Those two rarely deal with souls who resist. Even if they did, they’d just hug it out.”
I held the chuckle in as best I could but sensed Reg’s glower.
The radiant soul of the pedestrian rose from the sidewalk until it faced the Reapers. A parchment materialized in front of the Grim Pair, and a bright-white doorway formed, revealing a gleaming staircase.
Most souls I collected passed through the gateway to paradise, so I knew their words well. ‘We are here to deliver you to the afterlife. Your judgment has been a favorable one.’
They spoke for a few moments, the spirit glanced around as it came to accept its fate, and it nodded. But it didn’t move toward the door, which closed and vanished. This soul was not destined for the afterlife.
The Pair turned to Reg and me, stood to either side of the soul, and all three appeared next to us. The Pair spoke as one. “Sorry we missed your delivery, Reg.”
They’d chosen female bodies with black hair, light-brown skin and eyes. Practically twins, they were never apart and rarely let go of each other’s hand. They’d been the ones to escort Danielle’s mother and brother to the White Stairs that night.
“Not an exciting reaping today, I’m afraid. A few screams, some howling from the Pit. Same old, same old. Although he resisted, so that was fun. I’ll play it up next time.” He nodded to the soul standing between them, little more than shimmering light in a vaguely human shape. “New recruit?”
The Pair held up the pedestrian’s contract, which stated her Reaper status. “We’re taking her to see Azrael now.”
“Any idea who’ll be mentoring—” Reg cut off as time stretched.
The humans around us slowed, gradually coming to a halt. The vehicles, leaves in the trees, the birds flying overhead all stopped. Each of us groaned.
“Great,” muttered Reg.
“Stay quiet until he’s gone,” I whispered to the soul.
A streak of white and gold plummeted from the heavens. The ground trembled as an angel slammed into the sidewalk to my left, none of us having to guess who it would be. His sickly sweet scent and annoyingly glorious aura were all we needed. Raguel, Archangel of Justice, landed with knees bent, head down. As always, his glimmering golden wings extended at his sides, ready to strike. Before he straightened, I checked Reg, who’d already shortened to match my six-foot-two height.
The angel wore gold armor over an ivory robe, short strawberry-blond hair swept up and away from his face. His piercing blue eyes evaluated each of us, squared jaw flexing. “Why are you not working, collectors?”
Reg, the most senior among our group, was the first who dared speak. “No contracts pending.”
“Then you should be training.”
Those of us reaping for paradise or the undetermined did our best to connect with humans as we reaped them. A Reaper with an appreciation for their small lives—their hobbies, habits, culture—eased the transition to the next stage, helping ensure they didn’t resist. For the last several years, I’d spent my training hours at a hospice, laying the groundwork for what was to come.
I clasped my hands in front of me, pushing back the tide of emotion the angel evoked. “The Pair and Reg just finished—”
Raguel turned his glower on me. His judgmental glare, as though he were cataloging everything I’d ever done wrong. “Was I speaking to you, golden boy?”
Golden boy? That was new. “No, archangel.”
“You were lazing about with a human today.” His eyes narrowed, one wing closing in on me. “Does Azrael allow that?”
Of course, she did, and he knew that. Bloody archangel. And it was hardly lazing.
“As long as I’m not shirking my duties.” I shifted my gaze to the ground, as we all did, avoiding his Glory. His irritating-as-the-Pit Glory. This was so much easier when he sent one of his Furies to harass us. We could converse with his immortal employees, discuss our jobs, and get back to work. But, when he came himself, it was eyes on the ground.
“Duties?” The wing curled around me, tilting my chin so I faced him. “It seems to me one of your duties is to take your vacation, isn’t it? I can tell from your scent you’re shirking that particular responsibility. Perhaps we should tack on a few more weeks, to help remind you of why you do it?”
A shock wave ran through me—another death somewhere nearby. Each Reaper lifted a hand, searching for the death contract and a way out of this confrontation.
Please let it be assigned to me.
The Pair took advantage of the momentary distraction. “We need to get our soul to Azrael for induction.” They smiled at Raguel, resulting in a rumble inside the angel’s throat, and vanished into a swirl of blackness with New York City’s newest Reaper before anyone could speak.
The contract hadn’t been assigned to either Reg or to me, leaving us no escape from the archangel with an attitude problem.
“Pathetic.” Raguel’s lip curled as he forced me to look at him again.
The emotions swirling just below my surface beat at my brain, begging for release, the waters ready to crash over top of the dam and flood everything in their path. I worked hard, focusing on keeping the energy inside me down to Reaper levels—to unfeeling, uncaring levels.
“There is a balance to all things, little collector. You’re a strain on that balance. So, either do what you’re supposed to—take care of your duties—or your services will no longer be required. Stop playing with that human and take your vacation.” Raguel’s other wing pressed against my chest, where a heart once beat. “Azrael may grant you latitude, but I won’t be so kind if you continue to unbalance the Order of Nature.”
Before I could decide how or even whether to respond or not, he released me, giving one mighty flap of his wings, and ascended in a blur. Reg and I stared into the sky together as time began ticking forward. The people and vehicles moved, the noise closed around us, and the birds flew.
Visiting Danielle was not against the rules. I never ignored a contract in favor of time near her, nor had I ever revealed my true nature. Although freezing that king was pushing the limits.
The growl which had been building in my throat escaped. I hated that angel. That smug, all-important, rule-twisting angel.
No, wait. Reapers didn’t hate. Calm down, Ellis.
Reg nudged me. “He was talking about that woman, wasn’t he? You saw her again?”
I exhaled my revulsion at having his wings on me and let my mind wander back to her shoulder-length brown hair dancing in the breeze which followed me. The way she tucked it behind her ear after each move. How she stroked the scar on her palm, tugging at my essence. Did she remember how she got it? “We played a game of chess.”
Reg smacked a hand to his forehead, jostling his hood free so I could see him clearly. Today, he’d chosen dull bone, white pinpricks of light gleaming in his eye sockets. When he’d taken the driver, those eyes would have been crimson flames, the skull covered in filth and worms. He’d always been a master at terrifying the damned.
I scratched the light stubble on my cheek, trying to hide the smile creeping across my face. “And she was really good.”
“Bloody Pit, Ellis, you’re a mess!” Reg slammed the end of his scythe against the sidewalk, and the weapon vanished. Someone walked through us, pulling their arms closer for warmth. “You swore you wouldn’t interact with her after the last time I caught you helping her with some ridiculously mundane task! You’re liable to start making promises you can’t keep!”
“You should be proud. I received her contract early this morning, and I waited nine whole hours before I went to see her.” Her contract was a special one. Most were assigned at the time of death, but I’d placed a claim on her soul two years ago. So, when the Fates drew up her contract, they sent it to Azrael for final determination, but they delivered a copy to me as well. From that moment, Danielle had fifteen days at the most. Depending on the schedule of whichever Fate would clip her life thread, it could be less. Fortunately, they were usually on time. “We still have two weeks to fix things.”
“Don’t you dare say ‘we’ again!” Reg’s white pinprick eyes flared briefly, erupting into white flames. Perhaps he was going to need a vacation soon too. “She can’t change that much in two weeks.”
“You’re right, you’re right, but I have to try.” I plucked Danielle’s contract out of the ether and showed it to him. The words looped across the page one at a time, their golden ink flashing in the sunshine, until it reached the final, inescapable word: Damned. “I did this to her.”
Reg shook his head, meeting a finger and thumb where his nose would have been. “No, you didn’t. That’s your guilt talking.”
“Reapers don’t feel guilt, you know that.”
“Reapers who take their vacations when they’re supposed to don’t.” Reg nudged my shoulder. “By my estimation, you’re at least two years overdue. How you’re still standing is a mystery to me.”
“I’ve been too busy. This city’s a hectic assignment.”
“There are hundreds of Reapers in New York. You’d barely be missed.” He laid a hand on my shoulder, the touch of a friend. “Transfer the contract to me. Spend your vacation somewhere far away from here, and I’ll take care of her.”
“Not a chance.” I couldn’t abandon her to that fate when I was responsible for it.
Reg pointed a skeletal finger at me. “Don’t tell me you’re going to—”
I swatted at the finger, cutting him off. “Yes, I’m going to visit her a few more times and see what I can do. And before you say it… No, I don’t know what I’m getting myself into.”
“What is it about her?”
“Powers that be, we’ve been trying to figure that out since I met her!” I read the parchment again, as though I had any power over the decision. How could she be damned? It simply wasn’t right. “But the way I feel when she smiles at me—”
“Stop throwing the F-word around so casually.” He shuddered, bones rattling from head to toe. “You’re giving me the creeps.”
“I don’t understand it.” From the night we met in the car, when I felt the first stirrings of emotions that I shouldn’t have been capable of, I hadn’t been able to stop thinking about her. Why? Why was I compelled to seek her out? “But in fifteen more days, it won’t matter, anyway.”
I closed my hand and the parchment vanished. Danielle’s soul was damned, unless she turned her life around.
And I had precious little time left to ensure she did.