The man lurched from his body, then stood horrified as Death let his corpse crumple to the ground, to where all the garbage and filth covered the floor. Red mist circled the soul and he screamed as it attacked him, stinging like a swarm of bees.
The sound of a gunshot cracked in the enclosed space. Loud enough for Death’s ears to ring. There was a fiery sting along his arm. Blood seeped through the tear in his jacket.
He turned to face the man who’d shot him. He strode over to him to grip his shoulder. The man jerked and his body fell lifeless to the ground before he had a chance to shoot again. The gun slid across the floor and was lost beneath a pile of trash.
There were only three men to go and Death worked fast. He set his eyes on his next target. The black mist had almost covered his face entirely. One, two, three strides, and Death locked his palm over his face.
He screamed. And as soon as he was propelled from his body red mist gathered around him like an angry, red cyclone.
“Sophia!” His voice held a desperate edge. He was driven by the black mist. He wouldn’t be able to help himself.
Two more to go, and one of them was Jim Broton. It would be good, saving the best for last. This was one reaping he would enjoy. Certainly the first where he felt anything other than apathy.
There was another shot and fire lanced through his shoulder this time. Death was too angry to feel much pain as he created a fist and smashed it into the face of the second-to-last man. He crumpled to the ground and the red mist devoured him.
Death spun for Jim, but he was nowhere to be seen and the apartment door was wide open. The urge drove him through the door and down the corridor, black mist trailing over the floor. Death’s heart pounded as he strode to where he’d left Sophia.
She was gone.
A scream had him jumping down the stairs, and down and down, until he came to the ground floor. Jim was dragging Sophia across the tiles. The few people who were in the foyer darted for cover and screamed when he brandished a gun.
Sophia reached for him when she saw him. “Death!”
But he stopped walking and gritted his teeth, resisting the urge to get any closer to them. There was so much black mist. Thick and circling them both.
“What are you waiting for? Get him, Death.”
He groaned as he resisted. Fiery pain came from his arm and his shoulder, making it hard to concentrate. To resist. He had to. Because the mist covered them both.
“If he knows what’s good for him, he’ll stay exactly where he is,” Broton yelled.
“Leave her. You’ve done enough already,” Death gritted between clenched teeth. A trickle of perspiration snaked down his temple.
“She told you, did she? Gave you the whole story? Did she tell you I found more scrolls? They’re sacred. They contain the word of God and I need her to translate them,” Broton said.
“All the goddess wants humans to be is good enough to be able to journey to the afterlife they deserve,” Death said.
“Goddess? There’s no goddess,” Broton said.
“That’s where you are wrong,” Death said. The black mist wound thicker around them. If he didn’t act soon, there was no way she would escape.
“I found a way to escape death. It’s in the scrolls. I can have everlasting life here on Earth. I will live forever.”
“Is that what this is about? Living forever?” Death said.
“Who doesn’t want to live forever. Who wants to die?” Broton said.
“Death is inevitable, but if there’s one thing I have learned, it’s how you live it that makes all the difference,” Death said.
“No! I will cheat death. I will,” Broton screamed.
The urge built. Almost too much to bear. The pain of the bullet wounds was nothing compared to the pain of denying the basest need to harvest.
“Sophia. Get away from him.”
If she could get away maybe the black mist would leave her. She would remain untouched and his touch wouldn’t mean death for her.
She struggled, but Jim settled the tip of the gun against her forehead. If he pulled the trigger, there was no way Death would not be able to reap her soul. She would suffer.
He lunged towards Broton. Broton pointed the gun at Death and fired. This shot found its target. It ripped through his newly beating heart, sending agonizing ripples of pain throughout his chest.
He staggered, catching Broton on his arm. Broton’s body collapsed next to Death. The red mist descended. His scream pierced the air. He writhed in a rictus of agony. “I can save the human race. Save them from death. It never has to end.” His screamed faded and he disappeared along with the red mist.
But the black mist still stirred and he had to wonder if this was his own end he now faced. His body throbbed in pain, and darkness edged his vision. His breathing was labored and he couldn’t seem to get up from the ground.
Sophia leaned over him. Tears streaked her terrified face. “Death!”
“Don’t come near me. Don’t touch…” He caught her wrist as she went to touch him.
Her eyes glazed over and her face froze. Her body went limp. He clutched it as her soul reeled backwards.
“What just happened?” White mist gathered around her. “What’s happening, Death?”
He watched her soul and he tucked her unmoving body tight to his chest. He could barely draw breath. He felt his body failing. He was dying.
“It’s all right, Sophia. You’re going to heaven.” He blinked away tears from his eyes. Now he knew what they felt when he saw the living grieve over the dead. Now he understood the truth of loss and the weight of what he was tasked to do.
“Heaven?” She blinked in surprise as she saw her body locked tight in his arms. The white mist covered her and she began to fade.
“Thank you, Sophia. Thank you for the best days of my very long existence. I know now. I understand now.”
“Death!” She reached for him and she faded from the Earthly plane to begin her soul’s journey to the afterlife.
Death closed his eyes, threw back his head and roared. She couldn’t be gone. She couldn’t. He ploughed his fingers through her locs and hugged her body tighter and tighter to him, even though it was empty. The pain of his body, even the pain of his missing heart, didn’t compare to the pain of her loss.
He roared again and again until his throat grew hoarse. He held her body until the people who had hidden slowly came from their hiding spots and edged closer to him.
“Her soul deserves the gift of life. Please let her return, Danu. I give my life for hers. Take my life and bring her back in place of me. I beg you. My worthless existence for hers. It is an uneven swap, but I beg this one thing of you. Life deserves respect. Humans deserve respect. The Earth deserves Sophia’s soul for longer than it was lucky enough to have her. I need you to do this. I… I need… her.”
He buried his face in Sophia’s hair, breathing in the scent of cinnamon. He’d only had one night, and that was not even close to being enough.
A faint breeze stirred, the scent of heather and earth stirred around him.
“Oh, Death. You certainly have found your heart, haven’t you?”
Danu had come to return him to the immortal world. He squeezed his eyes shut and tightened his arms around Sophia’s body. “Leave me.”
“It seems your time in exile has changed you.”
The goddess’s white silken gown rippled in an unfelt breeze. Her long golden locks cascaded down her back and her crystal crown sparkled with a million stars. She wore a subtle smile as she looked down at Death.
“I don’t want to listen to you, Danu,” he said.
“But you already have. Your apology was music to my ears,” Danu said.
“Is that what you’re here for? To gloat?” He didn’t want to speak to her like that. She was a goddess who demanded respect, but at the moment he didn’t have it in him to care. The eons ahead stretched interminably. A long, endless stretch of loneliness. Even now, he felt his body knitting together, repairing itself. A little piece of himself had still not repaired.
His heart was still dead.
Danu knelt next to him. Heather teased his nostrils. “Not at all. I’ve come to share a secret with you.”
He was sick of expulsion and lessons and riddles. “Just say it, Danu.”
She leaned close; her golden hair was strands of fine silk where it brushed his skin. “Not one thing exists without another. There is an end and there is a beginning. Yin and yang. It is the balance of life. You can’t be dead on the inside without also being able to live. Ignorance breeds knowledge.”
He sighed and peered at Danu. Her damn words of wisdom didn’t change anything. He was still here and Sophia was still gone.
Danu chuckled; the sound was a musical chime. “You’re not listening to my words of wisdom, but that is nothing new. Tell me, Riordan. What do you do?”
She wanted to play this game. He was not in the mood, but when she was like this, there was no choice. “I am Death. I reap souls.”
“Yes, you separate souls from their bodies.”
This was getting tedious. “Yes! I reap souls and separate them from their bodies.”
“And what is the opposite of separate? Think, Death.”
His brain churned. She didn’t mean… It couldn’t be possible… “Connect.”
Her smile widened and distant chimes sounded. “You have only been using half of your powers all this time, dear Death. That is because you lost true sight of what it means to be human. Yours is the power of separation, but also of connection.”
His hands landed on Sophia’s inert form. Could it be possible? He never considered it. Just gone about his duty without thought. Done what needed to be done.
Danu’s fine brows rose. “Yours is not a power of duty. It is a power of compassion. That is what you have forgotten.”
“How do I bring her back?”
“You don’t bring her back. It is not your decision.” A finger rose when he went to object. “However, you may ask her soul so that she can make a decision whether to return or not. That is the right and sovereignty of a soul that nobody has power over. If she agrees then you can connect her soul back to her body.”
Mind reeling, he sat up, cradling Sophia’s body. He gently brushed hair from her face. Placed her arms in her lap. Rested her head on his arm. She looked as though she slept. An angel. His angel.
He cupped her cheek, whispering her name over and over like a prayer. There was a swirl of white mist and Sophia appeared by his side.
“Death!” She dropped to her knees, her smile radiant. That smile. He’d never get enough of seeing it. He would do anything for her to smile all day, every day.
He opened his mouth and croaked out a sound. He didn’t know what to say. How to ask. He’d never asked for anything in his life. He took. That was his nature. But for Sophia, he would find the words. “Come back to me.” Such as they were.
She laughed. The sound was filled with joy. His face stretched and he realized the foreign feeling was a smile. “I like your smile. In fact, I like everything about you, Death.”
“Does that mean…?” There was a spark on his chest. A golden wave of heat and something undefinable. It was the feeling that sometimes drifted off Danu, that he caught when she brushed past him. The power of a goddess. The power of…
“It’s love, Death. That is the word you’re trying to find,” Danu said.
“I’m beginning to fall for you, Death. I like my afterlife, but I want my life first. Would you… could you… share it with me?” Sophia said.
His mind stuttered. Could he? He was Death, and Death had a duty. Souls had to move on. They couldn’t stay in decaying corpses if he didn’t move them on. He looked to Danu.
“I have come to make a bargain, Death,” Danu said.
He groaned. He’d learned that Danu drove a hard bargain. “What is your bargain this time, Goddess?”
“One week of your time every month you will perform your duty. The rest of the time you can live wherever you want to live and spend it however you want to spend it,” Danu said.
Death gaped at Danu, while Sophia squealed in delight. “Can we still live in the bungalow?”
Danu’s eyes twinkled. Death groaned. That bungalow was nothing like his residence, but that bungalow was not chosen for him. Was it?”
She inclined her head. “Everything will be as it is now. If you choose to return, Death will connect your soul to your body.”
“Sophia?” He wasn’t good with words. Or emotions. Or anything to do with life, but he expected Sophia would teach him. And he would lap up her lessons.
“Yes. I want to come back. Please, Death. Connect me with my body.”
He was inept at anything that wasn’t destruction. “How?”
“Just as you separate, you connect. Use your will, Death. Ask her soul back and join them together. You can do this because the soul wants it,” Danu said.
His palms firmed on her body. He looked between her soul and her body, imaging the cord that once joined them to be reconnected. Reconnect the soul. Join the body to the soul.
White mist enveloped Sophia’s soul and body. White and golden motes danced around her and the light of life made her glow from within. Her smile was wide and happy, and her joy washed through him. So much joy. So much happiness. Her soul faded and the white mist by his side dissipated.
He cupped her cheek as the white mist faded from her body. She blinked open her eyes and there was that smile. “It worked!”
“Did you doubt it?”
Her smile faltered. That wouldn’t do. Not at all. He leaned down and pressed his lips against hers. Her arms tightened around his neck as the tip of her tongue slid against his. He groaned and as he deepened their kiss, his ruined, healed heart burst back into life.