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Chapter 3 – That Doesn’t Make You Invincible

Six Months Before Impact Day

I didn’t see him again for what I’m pretty sure was a week. It was hard to know for sure, given the lack of daylight or any timekeeping device, but it felt like a week. I only slept twice, but that wasn’t unusual for me. Part of the immortality deal seemed to be not needing a lot of it.

I spent most of that week being subjected to a battery of tests. They took vial after vial of blood, cut samples of my hair and fingernails, scrapings of my skin, saliva… other things I’d sooner not think about. I got crammed into every x-ray type machine I could think of, which worried me at first, but when they didn’t start ringing any alarm bells, I figured they somehow hadn’t noticed. Guess I lost that bet.

I was almost excited to talk to whatever-his-name-was again when he finally opened my door. Not because I had any sort of misplaced affection for him, but just because talking was a lot more fun than being poked and prodded.

“I was beginning to think you’d forgotten about me,” I said to him as he led me to the same interrogation room.

“I’m a busy man,” he replied. “I have a lot of damage to undo, thanks to you.”

I was beaming with pride, but I did my best to make sure he didn’t see it. By the time I’d taken my seat opposite him, my face was completely blank.

“So, what do you want to hear about today? My sixteenth birthday? I played laser tag. I won, but I think that’s because Liz let me win.”

He held up a hand to silence me. I considered ignoring it, but remembered I was supposed to be playing nice.

“Six months ago, you tried to kill yourself. I want you to tell me how you went from that to trying to single-handedly dismantle the largest criminal network in the city.”

“It wasn’t single-handed,” I said, enjoying the shock on his face. “I had help.”

“More like you?” he asked, his eyes lit up with a combination of hope and fear. He would not have made a good poker player.

“There’s no-one like me. But they were special.”

“Special how?”

“I’m guessing you want another story?” I asked.

“I want answers. If a story is how I get them, I will listen. But if you waste my time…”

“Point taken,” I said. “Okay, let’s go back to the night I tried to kill myself.”

 

One Year Before Impact Day

Half an hour later, I was crawling in through the window to the basement, which also happened to be my bedroom. The second my feet touched the floor, the light turned on, in the most clichéd reveal I’d ever been a part of it. I had to smile at that. Aidan was leaning against the wall, a concerned look on his face.

Like his father, Aidan was thin in that bony sort of way that made him kind of look both like a stick figure, and also taller than he actually was. The blonde hair and fair skin added a somewhat spectral element to his appearance, though I wouldn’t have described him as unattractive. His grey eyes rarely settled in one place, but when they did, they stared with an intense focus that was almost unsettling, which was exactly what was happening.

It didn’t surprise me that Aidan was waiting up for me. I was even grateful that it was him and not Mark, my adoptive father, but mostly I was just irritated. I wasn’t exactly in the mood for conversation, and there was no way he was going to leave without a long one.

“Oh my God, what happened to you?” he asked, his expression mortified.

It hadn’t actually occurred to me that I looked like I’d been in an accident. Obviously I was fine, but whatever had kept me alive hadn’t done the same for my clothes. They were pretty badly torn up and covered in dirt and dried blood.

“Huh? Nothing,” I said, knowing he wouldn’t accept it but unable to think of a convincing lie in time.

“You look like Hell,” he said.

Rude,” I told him, even though I knew he was right.

“Not like that,” he said. “Your clothes are all torn, your hair’s a mess, and you’re filthy.”

“Oh,” I said, as if I’d only just realised. “Yeah, I took a bit of a tumble.”

“A tumble.”

“In the park. It’s dark, and I fell down a hill. I’m fine though, really.” At least that part is true?

“What were you doing in a park in the middle of the night?” he asked, still sounding unconvinced.

“Just taking a walk,” I said, still lying through my teeth. “I just needed some air.”

“Charlie, it’s not safe,” he said, and I knew he wouldn’t ask me any more questions after that. He was too protective, and once those instincts were triggered, that was all he would focus on.

“Oh, please,” I said, rolling my eyes. “What’s the worst that could happen?”

I had to keep myself from smirking as I watched him bristle. When you’ve known someone for the vast majority of their life, you tend to figure out exactly how to push their buttons. Aidan had been my adoptive brother since the accident, and we were best friends even before then. I knew everything about him.

“Do I really need to say it?”

“Aidan, I can take care of myself,” I insisted. “I have like, three black belts.”

Mark had signed me up for aikido classes years ago in a vain attempt to give me an outlet for all of the aggression I was feeling. It didn’t work, but I enjoyed it so much that I also took up jujitsu and karate. I’d never actually been in a real fight, but I still felt pretty confident I could take care of myself.

“That doesn’t make you invincible,” he said, and I struggled to keep a straight face. “If anything, the overconfidence only makes it worse.”

“You are such a worrier. Trust me, I’m fine.”

“Try telling me that when you haven’t just come home looking like you were hit by a car,” he said, and for a moment, I hesitated. That was a little too close to the truth. There was no way he could actually know what had happened, right?

“God, you’re such a nag,” I teased.

“And proud of it,” he said. “Alright, go and have a shower. I’ll make you some food. Custard?”

If there was one thing Aidan was good at, it was taking care of people. Unfortunately for him, he didn’t get much of an outlet for that, living with Mark and me. We much preferred to take care of ourselves. That said, I wasn’t about to turn down custard.

“That’s cheating. You know I can’t say no to custard.”

“I’m just looking out for you,” he replied, smiling innocently.

I grabbed a clean t-shirt and underwear from my closet, then pushed him up the stairs so I could get to the shower. As he made his way to the kitchen, Sadie followed me into the bathroom. I started the water running so that we could talk without anyone overhearing me, and began peeling off my ruined clothes.

“Are you going to tell him?” she asked, perching on the side of the bath.

“I’m not going to tell anyone,” I said, wincing as I realised how badly my clothes stank.

“You can’t keep everything to yourself, Charlie,” scolded me, as I stepped into the shower. The hot water felt amazing, and almost immediately I could feel all of my muscles beginning to relax. After only a few minutes, I felt like myself again.

“Just watch me,” I told her.

“Aidan’s worried about you, too. Don’t you think it’s unfair to lie to him like this? If you can’t trust him, who can you trust?”

I wanted to say nobody, but there was one person I felt like I could actually trust. I wasn’t ready to talk just yet, but when I was… I felt pretty sure I knew who I was going to talk to.

I turned off the water, ignoring Sadie’s question. She stared at me as I began to towel myself off, and it was obvious she was checking for any sign of injury. I just kept ignoring her, pulled on the baggy t-shirt and fresh underwear, and threw the ruined clothes in a plastic bag. They were going right in the bin.

The smell of custard lured me back into my room, where Aidan was waiting for me, bowl in hand. He offered it to me and I snatched it out of his hands, suddenly very hungry.

“Okay, yes, this is delicious,” I told him, my mouth full of hot custard.

“Feeling better, then?”

“I told you, I’m fine,” I insisted. “Look, not even any scratches.” I pulled up the t-shirt to show him, smirking as he turned red.

“I see that,” he said awkwardly.

“Oi. Eyes up front, pervert.”

“Put some damn pants on, then,” he snapped, looking away.

“Shouldn’t have to,” I retorted.

“No, I didn’t mean-”

“Relax, I’m kidding,” I assured him, enjoying his embarrassment. It felt harmless and natural, which was just what I needed. I also needed sleep, though. I was going to get precious little of it as it was. “Thanks for the custard. Mind if I sleep now?”

“Yeah, I’ll leave you in peace,” he said, collecting the bowl from me. “Just take care of yourself, okay?”

I stuck my tongue out at him as he left the room. It was nice to feel loved. It was nice to be able to recognise it. Even a few hours ago, I hadn’t felt that way at all.

 

Next Week: You’re Not A Very Good Liar

Chapter 2 – Don’t You Know What This Means?

One Year Before Impact Day

I lay on my back, staring up at the sky, stars twinkling peacefully above me. There was grass beneath me, cool and a little wet. A weak breeze ruffled my hair. My body felt weak, and far away.

I remembered jumping, and then… nothing. I jumped, then I was just lying on the ground, looking up. My head ached.

Complaining loudly as I pulled myself into a sitting position, I started when I saw Sadie sitting beside me, her expression completely unreadable. We were on the side of the road, not far from the bridge I’d jumped from. I knew that something had happened, because most of the lanes were blocked off, and the flashing lights were blinding.

“Why am I on the side of the road?” I asked Sadie, holding my head though I was already starting to feel better.

“You were unconscious,” she said, her tone icy. “I dragged you here.”

She dragged me? She’d never been able to do that before…

“How?”

Not that that was the biggest question on my mind, but I had a feeling she wouldn’t be able to answer the one I really wanted to ask. I wasn’t entirely sure I’d be able to cope with the answer.

“I don’t know.”

“I feel fine,” I said. “Why do I feel fine?”

It shouldn’t have been possible. The height that I jumped from, even without the cars, should have seriously injured me at the very least. I patted myself down, but as far as I could tell, there wasn’t a single injury on my body.

“You must have gotten really lucky,” Sadie said, not making eye contact.

“There’s no way,” I insisted.

“Well, how else do you explain it?”

“I don’t know,” I said, as hazy memories began to return. “I remember falling, I remember getting hit, knocked around. I remember the pain. I was hurt. I should have died.” So why didn’t I?

“But you didn’t. Shouldn’t that be enough?” Sadie asked, almost pleadingly.

“This has happened before,” I realised, my entire body suddenly feeling cold and very heavy.

“What?”

“The accident,” I said. “When you died.”

“Charlie, don’t-”

“No, I remember,” I said. “Not everything, but there are pieces that are definitely true. We were all in the car. You, me, Mum and Dad, and there was no way any of us could have survived. The car was hit by a train going at full speed.”

Sadie cringed. “Can we please not talk about this?” she begged, but I ignored her. I needed to say it out loud.

“I was dying. I was in so much pain, and then, all of a sudden, I wasn’t. They pulled me out of that wreckage, and they couldn’t believe I was alive, let alone unscathed.”

“Charlie, please…”

More pieces were falling into place. Something was different about me. There was no other explanation.

“No, Sadie, don’t you know what this means?” I said, my fingers digging into the grass beneath me.

“That the world is completely unfair?” she said, disappointed and a little irate.

I sighed, beginning to calm down again.

“You. You’re right. I’m sorry,” I said, feeling a little bad.

“It’s fine,” she said sharply. “Just, please, don’t talk about it anymore. Any of it.”

“Yeah, okay,” I said. “Let’s just go home, okay?”

I tried to stand, but she placed her hand on my arm, stopping me.

“Wait,” she said, her expression severe.

“What for?”

“I want you to look at the road,” she said, delivering it almost like an order.

“I thought you didn’t want-”

“Just look!” she snapped.

“Okay.”

My eyes adjusted to the bright, flashing lights, and for the first time I could actually see what had happened. Several cars were strewn about the blocked-off section, all at odd angles. One of them was even upside down. There were multiple ambulances, police cars and fire trucks, and overhead, I could even hear a helicopter. News crews crowded around the edges of the barricades, filming everything.

“Thirteen people died because one person threw herself off a bridge,” Sadie said. “Just because you get to walk away, doesn’t mean any of them do.”

I couldn’t look away. All of that was my fault? I hadn’t even considered the impact that my jumping would have. At least, not the physical impact. I’d killed thirteen people, and for what? I hadn’t achieved a damn thing, except to make the world an even darker place.

“I-”

“No. Don’t say anything,” Sadie said. “Even if you had died, even if you’d gotten what you wanted, it wouldn’t change the fact that they all died too.”

“Sadie, I-”

“Charlie, I get it, I do,” she said, shaking her head. “Life is hard even at the best of times, and yours has never been easy. I know. I was there, remember? And if you really wanted to walk away from that, well, that was your decision. But those people who died? Their families? Friends? Your family and friends? None of them made that decision. So if you ever, ever try something like that again, whether you live or die, just remember that you’re not the only one it affects.”

I didn’t know what to say to her. I felt ashamed of myself, but at the same time, I felt angry. What right did she have to lecture me? She never had to think about whether her actions affected anybody else. She never had to worry about anything at all.

Where did that anger come from?

“I’m not going to do anything like that again,” I said weakly, painfully aware of just how pathetic a response it was.

“Alright, well, we really should get moving,” she said. “We’re not directly visible here, but they will start spreading out soon, and it would be pretty difficult to explain what you’re doing here.”

As I got to my feet, I thought I saw someone watching me, sitting atop the bridge, completely ignoring everything else. She had bright blue hair, and a long black coat. Then, a second later, she was gone, leaving me wondering if I’d really seen anything at all.

Six Months Before Impact Day

“Wait, that’s it?” he asked, frowning at me from across the table. “Who was the girl with the blue hair?”

“No idea,” I lied.

“Then why mention it at all?”

“It’s my story, isn’t it?” I said irritably.

“Fine, fine. So that’s it, then? You jumped off a bridge and realised you had magic healing powers?”

“How else did you expect the story to end?” I asked him.

“I didn’t expect that to be the end. How did you go from that to… where you ended up?”

I laughed. “Oh, you want the whole story. You should have said so.”

He shook his head, pushing his seat away from the table. He got up, and knocked on the door.

“We’ll continue this again next time,” he said. “Right now, I have some tests I want to run on you.”

“Can’t wait.”

 

Next Week: That Doesn’t Make You Invincible

Step 5 – What Death Fears

Melbourne, 2003 – 12 Years Before Impact Day

Roxie and Felix sat on the branches of a tall tree, watching the accident unfold. She’d seen dozens of deaths now, carried as many souls to whatever was waiting for them. She still felt the loss of each and every one.

“Does it ever stop feeling so tragic?” she asked, as a car pulled to a stop in front of a level crossing, waiting for the train to pass.

“Knowing what comes after helps,” Felix replied.

“The people they’re leaving behind don’t know,” Roxie pointed out.

A car was hurtling down the road, swerving slightly, showing no signs of slowing down.

“Loss is a part of the human experience,” Felix said.

The train was growing closer.

“Still, a family of four, all dead?” she asked.

“I’ll take the kids,” he said.

“Thanks.”

The swerving car collided with the back of the stopped vehicle, sending it lurching forwards, crashing through the barricade and onto the train tracks. The train’s horn blared, but it was far too late for it to stop.

The force of the collision sent the car flying forward, rolling and bouncing until it landed in a crumpled, smoking heap beside the tracks. The train was screeching to a stop, but there was nothing that could be done.

Roxie and Felix dropped from the tree, landing lightly on their feet, and approached the vehicle. Three spirits shimmered into existence around it. One must still be clinging to life, Roxie realised. Won’t be long now, though.

She approached the parents, a moderately attractive heterosexual Caucasian couple, with fair skin and brown hair. They acknowledged her approach with a mixture of confusion and relief. Carol and Jason Farrow.

“What happened?” Jason asked, his arm wrapped around the shoulder of his wife.

“Are we… dead?” Carol added, glancing back at the wreckage.

“Yes,” Roxie told them, her voice gentle and soft. “I’m sorry.”

“And the girls?” Jason asked, his voice pained.

“I’m so sorry. There was no-”

“STAY AWAY!” a child’s voice screeched, cutting her off. It sent a chill down her spine, and she looked over to Felix, who had already drawn his rapier.

Two girls, looking maybe six and four, were backed up against the car. The older one was standing in front of her sister, defiant and fierce.

“What the…” Roxie muttered.

“Charlotte, I’m sorry,” Felix said calmly. “It has to be this way.”

“No…” Jason said, staring at his daughters.

“Uh, maybe we should wrap this up,” Roxie said, feeling a sudden spike of anxiety.

“But our girls,” Carol said, hesitantly.

“We’ll take care of them,” Roxie assured her. “I promise.”

“What’s going to happen to them?” Jason asked.

“Same thing that’s gonna happen to you. We’re going to take you somewhere safe, and everything will be fine.”

I mean, it’s mostly true.

“Heaven?” Carol asked.

“Yes,” Roxie lied.

Well, it wasn’t technically a lie. Hell basically served the same functions that people attributed to Heaven. The only reason it was called Hell was because… Actually, she didn’t know why it was called Hell. She knew it had about a dozen other names, but none of them were Heaven. There probably was a reason for that, but it didn’t seem important, or pertinent.

“Okay,” Jason said, squeezing Carol’s shoulder. She leaned into him, smiling.

Roxie summoned her scythe, collecting both of them in a single swipe. She could feel their sparks inside of her, and it was a comforting feeling. Every time she collected a soul, she felt connected to them, to the lives they’d once had, to her place in the universe.

“YOU. CAN’T. HAVE. HER.” the older child was screaming, and Roxie turned in time to see Felix actually take a step back. The girl scared him that much? Why?

“What’s going on?” Roxie asked, rushing to his side. As she got closer, she realised there was something different about the girl, though she couldn’t put her finger on exactly what.

“She’s… not dead,” Felix said, eyeing the girl warily.

“What? Then how can she-”

“I don’t know,” he said nervously.

“GO AWAY!” the girl shouted. There was weight behind her words, a force that even Roxie had to admit was a little frightening.

“There’s something wrong here,” Felix said. “She’s not human.”

“Her name is Charlotte, right?”

“Yes.”

Roxie approached the girl, letting go of her scythe. It vanished back into her, and Charlotte relaxed a little, but still stood protectively in front of her sister. Sadie.

“Charlotte, listen. It’s gonna be okay. We’re taking her somewhere safe. She’ll be looked after.”

“She’s staying with me,” Charlotte insisted.

“She can’t,” Felix insisted. “She’s dead. We can’t undo that.”

Charlotte folded her arms and shook her head. Her mannerisms were very much those of a child, but there was something else to them, something unnatural.

“I can still see her. I can still talk to her. She’s staying with me.”

“If she stays, she’ll get worse,” Felix told her. “She won’t be happy. She won’t be herself.”

“I’ll make her happy,” Charlotte insisted.

“It won’t be good for her, Charlotte,” Roxie said gently.

“You can’t take her,” Charlotte repeated, widening her stance. Roxie’s skin was crawling. Something was very, very off about this girl.

“Distract her,” Felix whispered, beginning to circle around her.

Bad idea, her instincts screamed, but she obliged. She had no choice.

“Charlotte, talk to me. Are you afraid to lose her?” she asked.

“I’m not losing her.”

“You have to say goodbye, Charlotte,” Roxie said, her heart breaking a little. “I’m sorry.”

“No,” Charlie said.

Felix stood behind Sadie, on the other side to Charlie. He moved quickly, thrusting his blade into the girl’s chest. It was faster than Roxie had ever seen him move. Did fear motivate him that much?

It didn’t matter. However fast he was, the girl was fast. Charlotte whirled, grabbing his blade before it could touch her sister, stopping it. Fear burst forth onto Felix’s face, no longer concealed.

“What the-” he began, but she cut him off.

“MINE!” she shouted, the words booming out into the night.

With a single, savage movement, Charlotte grabbed the sword with her other hand, and snapped it in half. Roxie watched as Felix convulsed, as if his spine had been shattered, and he collapsed to the ground.

“Run,” he whispered.

Charlotte stood over him, cuts appeared all across her body. Blood flowed out of the wounds, circling around her, a gruesome aura that effectively doubled her size. Roxie could feel fury emanating from her in waves, and she was barely able to move.

Helpless, she watched as Charlotte picked up Felix, holding him in the air before snapping his neck and tearing him in half. She flung the two halves away from her, though they disintegrated in the air before getting very far.

Felix is dead. This girl, this thing, just killed a Reaper.

In that moment, she realized it wasn’t Charlotte she was looking at. There was something inside of her, something very dangerous, and very powerful, and very angry. Something Felix had just pissed off. If she wasn’t careful, it would kill her, too.

“What are you?” she asked it.

“DESTROYER,” it replied.

“Why are you protecting her?” Roxie asked, gesturing towards the other girl, tiny and terrified. “You’re not human. She’s not your sister.”

“CHARLOTTE LOVES HER,” it said.

“I need to-” Roxie began, but she was interrupted by the appearance of another young girl. Fair skin, lilac hair, deep purple eyes.

The girl from the hotel? Before I died?

“Don’t,” the girl said.

“Who are you?” Roxie asked, certain it couldn’t be the same person.

“The Child. You collected my soul,” the girl said.

“No, I didn’t”

“You will.”

“How?” Roxie asked, still staring at Charlotte, or the Destroyer, or whatever that thing was. It seemed content to simply stand over Sadie, protecting her.

“Time is weird for your kind,” the Child said. “And mine.”

“Your kind?” What are you?”

“Guardian,” the Child said.

“Which means…?”

“I outrank you. So listen to me, and run.”

“I can’t leave a soul here,” Roxie said, summoning her scythe. If she had to fight both of them, she would. Even if it meant ending up like Felix.

“You don’t have a choice,” the Child said.

“I can-” Roxie began, but the Child interrupted her.

“No, you can’t.”

“What are you doing here?” she asked, one of a thousand questions racing through her mind.

“Protecting an investment,” the Child replied.

Roxie tried to move, but the Child was faster. Her movements were graceful, fluid, and completely inhuman. All it took was a single finger, placed on Roxie’s forehead, and everything around her faded to nothing. A blink of her eyes, and she realized she was back in the clearing, now in the midst of winter.

The souls of Jason and Carol Farrow had left her. Felix was gone. She lay there, staring up at the black and purple sky, snowflakes landing gently on her skin.

Who was Charlotte Farrow, really? What was she? And who was that girl?

If she was lucky, it would be a very long time before she had to see either of them again.

 

Next Week: Dead Girls Don’t Cry (Impact Day, Volume 2 begins!)

 

RoxieSo there you go! That’s the end of our 5 week hiatus, and the bonus story that filled the space. I hope you enjoyed it! It’s a bit weird, but it’s all important in the end.

Anyway, if you’ve enjoyed the story so far, consider supporting me on on Patreon, so I can afford to keep writing it. Additionally, you can buy the complete collection of Impact Day on Gumroad. It features a bonus chapter that I’m not releasing online! Also, you can get Roxie as a standalone purchase.

Next Week, Dead Girls Don’t Cry begins! It’s basically like Impact Day, only set earlier, and more full of personal drama and angst. I hope you enjoy it!

Step 4 – Bring Out Your Dead

London, 2209 – 276 Years Before Impact Day

“So, how does this work?” Roxie asked, her gaze sweeping the clearing. She couldn’t see a single visible way out.

“Like this,” Felix said, pressing his palm against the air in front of him. The air shimmered and rippled, and faded to reveal a doorway. “Shall we?”

“You just, make a hole in space, and we walk through it?”

“Yep.”

“Fair enough,” she said, shrugging.

They walked through together, finding themselves on a quiet, familiar street. Roxie looked around, nostalgia warring with a creeping sense of dread.

“This is home.”

“Feels like… about a month,” Felix said. “Since you died. This isn’t your home anymore, Roxie.”

“It’s quiet. And it feels…”

“There’s a lot of death here. Hundreds of thousands in the last month. It’s not usually like this,” Felix said.

“What happened?” she asked, her skin crawling.

“The Outbreak,” he answered, as they started to walk again. “A weaponised virus. Sooner or later it takes over the whole planet. Turns almost everyone into, well, something else. Violent, dangerous, unstable. Those who survive…” He let out a heavy sigh. “You’re gonna come back here a lot, Roxie.”

“Did you know? When you came for me, did you know what was going to happen?”

He didn’t answer her. They walked in silence, and all around them, she could see the signs of a world descending into chaos. Buildings burned, bodies lay strewn across the streets, blood splattered every surface.

She couldn’t even begin to imagine what could have caused something like this. A weaponised virus? Someone had done this intentionally? Why? To what end?

Felix led her into a building, passing right through the door. Roxie tried to follow, but found the door as solid as if she were alive. Felix stuck his head through the door.

“Right. Next lesson. Physical objects only exist if you want them to.”

“What?”

“Act like the door isn’t there, and walk through it,” he said, disappearing back inside.

“Fucker,” she muttered.

Alright, just act like the door isn’t there, she repeated to herself. That’s fine. You can do this. It’s not like walking into it would hurt you.

She walked forward with purpose, and was pleasantly surprised when the door offered no resistance. It might as well not have been there.

Weird. But kind of cool.

He led them upstairs, stopping in front of an apartment door. She noticed the lack of blood and bodies. Maybe the violence outside hadn’t made its way in here yet? So then, what were they doing here?

“This is the part that sucks,” he said, resting a hand on the door, not passing through. “Just remember, there’s nothing we can do, nothing we can change. All we do is perform a function.”

“Oliver White,” she said, unprompted. “Why did that name just pop into my head?”

“That’s our soul,” he said.

“Right.”

They passed through the door, into a small apartment. An older man was standing at the window, staring down at the street below. Roxie flinched when he turned around, but his gaze passed right through them.

“He can’t see us?”

“It’s pretty uncommon for people to see us before they die,” Felix explained.

“I saw you.”

“Your business continued after dying,” he said.

“Right.”

The two of them watched as Oliver opened a cupboard, stoic resolution plastered across his face. His fingers trembled as he pulled down a cereal box, and extracted a pistol from it.

“Oh, fuck,” Roxie said.

“We can’t do anything,” Felix reminded her.

His hand found hers and squeezed. Oliver sat on his couch, jaw clenched, hand shaking almost too much to press the gun up into his chin. Roxie could barely maintain her gaze, but it felt disrespectful to look away, somehow.

He pulled the trigger, the gun went off, a bang echoed through the room. His body slumped backwards, and a copy of him shimmered into existence, standing over him.

“What happened?” he asked.

Roxie glanced at Felix, who just inclined his head towards Oliver. Taking the hint, she took a step forwards.

“You’re dead,” she said gently.

“Oh.”

“We’re here to help you move on,” she said, feeling the throbbing of her core, ready to summon her blade.

“I don’t want to move on,” he said. “I just want it all to be over.”

“I can do that, too,” she lied. “Just tell me you’re ready to go.”

He glanced down at his body, seemingly oblivious to the fact that it was him. Without any trace of emotion, he looked back over at her, and nodded.

“I’m ready.”

With a flick of her wrist, she summoned her scythe. It materialised in her hand, growing out from her palm.

She didn’t need Felix to explain the process. She just knew, and with a single swipe, she sliced right through Oliver, who winked out of existence, a small spark of energy added to her own.

“He’s inside me,” she said.

“Now we take him home,” Felix told her.

Without needing to be told, she pressed her palm against the air in front of her, thinking about Hell. The space in front of her shimmered and vanished, a portal back to Hell. She stepped through, and Felix followed.

As she passed through, the spark escaped, dissipating into the air. Her instincts told her that was normal, that was okay. That was the Process. Felix nodded at her, confirming her assumptions.

They were back in the clearing, quiet and peaceful. It had changed, though. Rather than feeling like spring, it felt like autumn. All of the trees were orange and red, their leaves scattered across the ground. The sky was a hazy greenish-orange, with no visible source of light.

“So now what?” she asked. “Is there anything between collecting souls?”

“Plenty,” he said. “Once you’ve finished your training.”

She sighed, but nodded, and pressed her palm against the air again. Somehow, she knew where to go. Together, they passed through the portal, into somewhere new.

 

Italy, 1599 – 416 Years Before Impact Day

The air was thick, a black haze that took Roxie too long to identify. Smoke. They were far from any buildings, though in the distance she could see a small village, with very old-fashioned buildings. European architecture, but that was as far as she could identify it.

A crowd of people had gathered around a fire, dressed in dark clothing, voices murmuring. Roxie and Felix wandered through them, completely unnoticed. An uncomfortable stench permeated the air, and Roxie found herself grateful she didn’t need to breath. Inhaling that would have been unbearable. She didn’t know how the crowd could stand that.

When she reached the fire, she felt all of the strength go out of her. It shouldn’t have surprised her, given the apparent time period and their reason for being there, but she wasn’t prepared. Her gut turned over, and she felt like she was going to be sick.

In the middle of the fire was a single pole, and tied to the pole, the blackening body of a young woman, probably not even out of her teenage years. Renata. The girl she was here to collect.

A witch burning? Why? Why did she have to be here? To witness this?

She forced herself to look at the girl, screaming and writhing, struggling against her bonds as her skin blistered and bubbled. Even through the smoke, she recognised the face.

Rebecca?

“Wait, this is…”

“Yeah, it’s her,” Felix confirmed, his shoulders slumping.

“But how? She’s already…”

It didn’t make since. She couldn’t wrap her head around it. How could she be collecting the soul of somebody already dead? Somebody she’d spoken to, who had been her guide?

“Time works differently for us,” Felix reminded her. “And especially for her.”

“For her?”

“She’s… special, I think,” Felix said. “I don’t know the specifics.”

Best not to think about it. Just do your job. Don’t think about it.

“So how does this work?”

“Same as any other,” Felix said gently.

“But-”

“Roxie, do not give anything away,” he cautioned.

“Fine,” she said. “You handle this. It’s too weird for me.”

“Not this time,” he said sadly.

“I can’t. I just, it’s too weird.”

“You don’t have a choice.”

“Ugh,” she said.

She couldn’t look at the girl any longer. Instead, she stared at the crowd, wondering how they could be so passionate, so angry, so full of hate. How could they watch this at all? How could they allow it to happen?

When the screaming finally stopped, she let herself look again. The body continued to burn, but the girl’s spirit stood beside the fire, staring up at it. Felix nudged her forwards.

“Uh, hey,” Roxie said.

“Who are you?” the girl demanded, turning around. It surprised Roxie to realise they were both speaking Italian. She didn’t even understand Italian. Or, she hadn’t. Apparently she did now.

“Uh. Roxie,” she said. “You’re-”

“Renata,” the girl said.

“Right. I guess so.”

“Are you angels?” Renata asked, tilting her head.

“Yes?”

“Then you can piss off.”

“Excuse me?” Roxie asked, wondering if there was something missing in the translation. How did that even work, anyway?

“I’ve no interest in Heaven,” Renata said coldly. “Goodbye.”

What the Hell is with this girl?

“You don’t just-”

“Look,” Renata interrupted. “I practiced witchcraft. I fell in love with a woman. A demon. You have to send me to Hell.”

“What?”

“Please. I don’t know what else to do.”

She seemed scared, vulnerable. At the same time, there was a fierce determination in her eyes, and Roxie was completely at a loss.

“You want to go to Hell?”

“It’s the only way to see her again,” Renata said.

“Well, this just keeps getting weirder,” Roxie muttered. “Fine, have it your way. Hell it is.”

It’s where you were going anyway, you know.

“Really?”

Roxie reached out her arm, summoning the scythe. Renata watched, fascinated.

“Don’t move. I promise this part doesn’t hurt.”

“I wouldn’t care if it did,” Renata scoffed. “I just got burned to death, remember?”

At that point, Felix stepped in, placing a hand on Roxie’s shoulder. “You shouldn’t remember that pain,” he told Renata.

“Well, I do,” she said irritably.

“Not for long,” Roxie said, shrugging off Felix’s hand.

“Roxie, wait-” Felix called out, but it was too late. She swung the scythe, feeling it connect with Renata’s soul, but it didn’t pass through. Rather, it bounced off, as it if it had hit another blade. Roxie recoiled, feeling the impact all the way up her arm.

“What the shit?

“What are you?” Felix demanded, stepping between Roxie and Renata.

“What?” the girl asked, clearly confused.

“What just happened?” Roxie asked, holding her aching arm.

“She’s still tethered,” Felix said.

“And that means…?”

“She broke off a piece of her soul,” he explained. “We can’t touch her. It’s… It’s magic, incredibly complex witchcraft.”

Renata baulked, staring back at her body. Tears were welling in her eyes.

“But that’s not what I wanted! I just, I wanted a way back, in case…” She trailed off, but the rest of the sentence was clear enough to Roxie.

“So what do we do now?” she asked Felix.

“We open a door,” he said. “She can still go, but she has to choose it.”

“Gladly,” Renata said instantly.

“So you really were weird from the start, huh,” Roxie said, appraising Renata, wondering how one went from that to the person she’d met before.

“What?”

“Nothing,” Roxie said. “Let’s go, kid.”

“Right,” Renata agreed. “Let’s go.” Her eyes scanned the crowed, locating a younger girl with a passing resemblance. The only person in the crowd who seemed to be genuinely upset at Renata’s fate. “Goodbye, Annabelle,” she whispered.

For just a second, Roxie could have sworn she saw the girl smile.

 

Next Week: What Death Fears

Step 3 – If You Can’t Beat Them, Join Them

Hell, ???

The word hung in the air between them. Reaper. Unfamiliar, ominous, strangely resonant. Roxie frowned.

“A Reaper? Black cloak, scythe, that whole business?”

“Is that what the Reaper who collected you looked like?” Rebecca asked, somewhat amused.

“What?” Roxie’s thoughts flashed back to Felix, the well-dressed man who’d chased her down the street. “Oh, right, that guy. Uh. No.”

“Reapers don’t have a set look,” Rebecca said, smirking.

Roxie sighed, turning the hilt over in her hands. She couldn’t help but to feel it looked slightly pathetic.

“Why would I want to be a Reaper? That sounds depressing as all Hell.”

Rebecca’s smirk grew wider.

“Well, they’re stronger than demons. And they spend most of their time anywhere but Hell.”

Roxie tilted her head. “Stronger than demons?”

“They’re the ones who keep stray demons in line. And they can’t be killed.”

“I guess that makes sense.” It was difficult to imagine anything that could kill something that was a part of the cycle of death. Plus, if her experience was anything to go by, you had to already be dead to be a Reaper.

“So?” Rebecca asked.

“I’m not really big on violence,” Roxie said, waving Rebecca off. “Or death.”

“Demons fight a lot more than Reapers do.”

That was an easy enough calculation, then.

“Looks like I’m gonna be a Reaper.”

“Thought so,” Rebecca said. “Let’s go.”

“Just like that?”

“You want more time to think about it?”

“No, I just…” She wasn’t quite sure how to finish that sentence. “I was expecting a slower process, I guess.”

“Sorry to disappoint.”

“No, no, let’s get on with it,” Roxie said. “Lead the way.”

Rebecca put her hand on the door, resting her palm against the wood. She held it there for several seconds before reaching down and pulling it open, revealing an entirely new area behind it.

Roxie followed her through door, into a warm, sunlight clearing surrounded by trees. She couldn’t help but smile to feel the sun on her skin. The breeze was sweetly scented, and she liked the way it tousled her hair.

All around the clearing appeared to be the ruins of a large stone building. At a guess, Roxie would’ve said it was a cathedral of some kind.

A familiar sight awaited her just behind one of the collapsed walls. Felix leant against it, arms folded, eyes closed.

“Hello again,” he said, without opening his eyes.

“Uh, hey.”

She didn’t really know what she was supposed to say to him. It was kind of his fault she was here, wasn’t it? She supposed he was only doing his job, but it was hard not to take it personally.

“I’m not at all surprised to see you here,” he said, opening his eyes and smiling at her.

“Well, that makes one of us.”

“Ha!” He grinned. “I do enjoy your fire.”

“Alright then…”

“I think you’ll make a fantastic Reaper.”

She looked around, trying to figure out exactly where they were. Presumably, some strange corner of Hell, but it seemed far too pleasant for that. A Reaper training ground? There wasn’t a lot around, and no other Reapers that she could see.

“What should I be expecting, here?”

“Heh,” was all Felix said.

“What, ‘heh’?”

“Nothing.”

“Don’t you ‘nothing’ me,” she said, feeling a lot like she wanted to punch him.

“You’ll see,” he said, grinning. “It’s quite the experience.”

“You-” she began, but she was cut off.

“Careful,” Rebecca said from behind her, placing a hand on her shoulder.

“Where did you come from?” Roxie asked.

“Nowhere,” Rebecca replied.

“What’s the deal?”

“You’ve been assigned a mentor,” Rebecca said.

“Oh, no.”

“Oh?” Felix said, bemused.

“Yep,” Rebecca confirmed. “Meet your mentor, Roxie.”

“A pleasure to meet you,” Felix said, grinning.

“Kill me,” Roxie muttered. Felix laughed.

Rebecca left the two of them alone, chuckling to herself before vanishing into thin air. At least, Roxie assumed that there was air around them. She didn’t seem to be breathing, except maybe by force of habit.

“Would you like to learn, then?” Felix asked, extending a hand to her. Reluctantly, and a little unsure, she took it.

A very still, cold sense of calm washed over her, radiating from his touch. Her body felt distant, almost intangible, and at the centre of her, a warm, humming presence grew in size.

“Whoa,” she murmured.

“You feel it?”

“It’s warm. I like it.”

“That’s your core,” he explained. “That’s what you form into your blade. If it breaks, you break.”

“That seems risky,” she said.

“I’ve yet to encounter a single force that could break a Reaper’s blade,” he said. “We’re the embodiment of Death itself. Nothing is exempt from that. Nothing can change that.”

She closed her eyes, focusing on the core. She felt the energy pulse and ripple, settling into a comfortable throbbing. Slowly, she let it spread out and fill her, channelling it down her arm, feeling it in her fingers, holding it in her hand. She opened her eyes, let go of Felix’s hand, and felt the energy solidify.

In her hand, she held a messy lump of jagged metal, twisted in on itself. Felix appraised it, his expression bemused.

“Well, that’s…”

“Ugly?” she asked, sighing. “What am I supposed to do with this?”

“Shape it,” he said.

“How?”

“Hmm…” He took a step back from her, his hand flicking to the side. In an instant, he was holding his rapier, which he immediately pointed at her. “Defend yourself.”

“What-” she began, but he was already attacking. He moved quickly, and she struggled to fend off his blows with her unwieldy scrap-heap of a weapon.

She was pleased to find how easily her body moved. It felt just like it always had, only with all physical restrictions removed. There was no sense of fatigue, or lack of strength, or poor balance. Everything just worked the way it was supposed to, the way she wanted it to.

Felix was relentless, though. She reflected attack after attack, unsure of what would happen if anything actually hit her. Her instincts told her it wasn’t worth finding out, as difficult as it was to protect herself. Her weapon stubbornly retained its shape, though she was at least relieved to find she couldn’t feel the impacts of his blade connecting roughly with it.

“Is something supposed to be happening?” she asked, not the least bit out of breath despite how hard she was pushing herself. That was going to take some getting used to.

“It will when I stop going easy on you,” he said, grinning. His movements grew faster, less predictable. Within seconds, a strike got past her defences, his blade coming within an inch of slicing her open. It was knocked back at the last second by a long, wickedly-curved edge.

Her weapon had changed. No longer a warped mess of misshapen metal, she was holding a long, straight staff, the end of which held a curved blade with a sharp point.

“A scythe?” she said, staring at it with her mouth agape. “A fucking scythe?

“Evidently so,” Felix said, his rapier disappearing.

“You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“Something wrong?” he asked, clearly holding back laughter.

“I am not going to be a fuckin’ cliché,” she snapped. “Next thing you know I’ll be wearing a black cloak and a skull mask.”

She let go of the scythe, feeling the energy of it flow back into her, its familiar warmth filling her chest. Felix just smiled, adopting a more relaxed pose.

“Fine, so I’m stuck with a scythe. What’s next?” she asked, folding her arms.

“The rest is mostly academic,” he said. “Since you’re such a quick study, I’m sure the rest will be just as painless.”

“Wait, seriously? That’s it?”

“Well, that part usually takes longer, but yes,” he told her. “But if you’d like to spend longer on it, we can delay the lessons on time manipulation?”

Time manipulation?”

If not for the dead seriousness of his tone, she would have assumed he was joking. There was life after death, there was work after death, now there was literal time travel? It was all too much for one day.

“It’s not quite as complicated as it sounds,” he said. “Then again, depending on your perspective, it might be more complicated.”

“Has anyone ever told you how bad you are at explaining things?” she asked.

“Only people too impatient to listen to the explanations,” he retorted.

“Fine. Explain whatever weird time bullshit I need to know.”

“Envision this,” he said, drawing a line in the dirt between them. “This is time, in the world you know.”

“Sure.”

He drew a second line, parallel to the first.

“This is time, in another world,” he said.

“Another world?”

“The world you know is only one of several. Each of them has its own timeline. Though they all mostly match up, they are independent, and not perfectly in synch.”

He drew more lines in the dirt, all parallel. Then he drew two more, running perpendicular, across the top and bottom of the others.

“Hell, or whatever else you want to call it, exists independently of time. We exist independently of even Hell’s time stream, so we tend to come and go in the other worlds in a somewhat non-linear fashion.”

“So, we can time travel?” she asked, struggling to keep up with his explanation.

“Not intentionally,” he replied patiently. “We just go where, and when, we’re sent. It just doesn’t always happen in order.”

“That makes no fuckin’ sense,” she complained. “But sure. Fine. What’s next?”

“Next? Well, I suppose we can teach you the rest on the job,” he said. “Would you like to harvest your first soul?”

“Can you make it sound a little less creepy?”

“Nope,” he said, grinning.

 

Next Week: Bring Out Your Dead

Step 2 – Dying Was The Easy Part

Hell, ???

It was impossible to tell how much time had passed. She woke suddenly, almost forcefully, startled by her new surroundings. It certainly wasn’t the street she’d been stabbed to… death? Life? Re-death? Something, on.

“What the…” she muttered, looking around.

So far as she could tell, she was in her own bed, in her cheap, run-down apartment. The same worn posters adorned the walls, barely concealing the same cracks. The same street was visible out the window. The same bedcovers wrapped her up.

It didn’t feel the same, though. Instinctively, part of her knew it wasn’t really home. She wasn’t even certain it was real.

Well, she was dead. Presumably, that made this the afterlife.

“Man, the afterlife sucks,” she complained aloud. “Can’t even get a fancy mansion or anything?”

To her surprise, someone replied. A quiet, restrained voice that somehow communicated an inordinate level of power.

“It’s constructed from your memories,” the voice explained. “You wouldn’t get a mansion unless you were familiar with one.”

Roxie looked around, trying to locate the source of the voice. Someone was standing in the doorway, leaning against the frame. She could have sworn there was no-one there a second ago.

She took in the mystery figure. A young woman, similar in age to herself, maybe younger. Pale, porcelain skin that contrasted sharply with long, black hair and surprisingly gentle brown eyes. The woman wore an elaborate, gothic black and red dress covered in lace and frills, mixed with a few more modern accessories, like striped gloves and heavy black boots.

“Who the Hell are you?” Roxie demanded, vaulting out of bed.

“Rebecca.”

Roxie glared at her, then glanced out the window. Traffic wasn’t movie. What a cheap illusion. She couldn’t help but be underwhelmed by her first impressions of Hell.

“What a monumentally unhelpful answer,” she said.

“I am here to help,” Rebecca said, shrugging.

“I don’t know that I want help.”

She recalled Felix’s words, before he’d attacked her. They’d included processed and moving on. There was no way she was ready for that.

“Well, you need to be inducted sooner or later,” Rebecca said, seemingly unbothered by Roxie’s resistance.

“Inducted? What is this, some kind of a cult?” She shook her head, indicating it wasn’t a question in want of an answer. “You didn’t exactly give me a lot of time to get acclimatised.”

“We usually step in once someone realises they’re dead,” Rebecca explained. “For most people, that takes a lot longer.”

“Kinda hard to forget your own death.”

“Actually, you’re kind of the exception here. You’re supposed to forget. Trauma, and all that.”

There was a sort of mischievous undertone to Rebecca that Roxie couldn’t quite put her finger on, and didn’t quite understand. It wasn’t that Rebecca seemed at all dishonest, just… chaotic? Whatever it was, Roxie was amused to find it made her trust Rebecca more.

“Lucky me.”

“Well, I can leave you alone if you want,” Rebecca said, “but you can’t leave this area. There’s nothing outside of it.”

Something about the mental image that conjured made Roxie laugh.

“What, Hell running out of real estate?”

“We’re not in Hell currently,” Rebecca said. “This is more like a waiting room.”

“Well, maybe I’ll wait a little longer.”

“Suit yourself.”

Rebecca turned to leave, a dignified elegance to her movements Roxie hadn’t expected. The girl’s fashion sense was so odd she’d half expected, well, something more eccentric.

It alarmed her to find herself experiencing a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach, watching Rebecca leave. The last thing she wanted was to be trapped in a fake replica of her crappy home indefinitely. Her bravado was waning, and she needed answers.

“Wait.”

Rebecca turned, traces of a smug smile forming on her lips.

“Uh-huh.”

“Fill me in,” Roxie said, swallowing her pride. “What’s gonna happen?”

“Depends,” Rebecca replied, shrugging.

“On?”

“Whether you want to hang on.”

“As opposed to what?” Roxie asked, a little frustrated. “Letting go? Moving on?”

“Exactly.”

She sighed. Talking to this girl was like pulling teeth.

“So I don’t have to move on?”

“You do not,” Rebecca said, the smile growing ever so slightly more smug.

“Then why would I?”

“Well, if you don’t move on, your other option is to live in Hell.”

There was always a catch.

“Sounds delightful.”

“You either move on, or you become a demon,” Rebecca continued. The way she said it, she almost made it sound normal.

“I’m back in,” Roxie said, enjoying picturing herself as a demon, until she remembered what a demon actually was. “Uh, not so big on the whole evil thing, actually. How evil do I have to be, exactly?”

The level of smugness in Rebecca’s grin reached an almost infuriating level. Somehow, she managed to keep her tone completely neutral.

“It’s not like that,” she said.

“Then what is it like?” Roxie asked, wondering if she was going to have to play Twenty Questions every time she wanted a straight answer.

“Very complicated.”

Apparently so.

“Not like I’m going anywhere,” Roxie pointed out.

“Well, the short version is this. Become a demon, and you’re functionally immortal, but you generally can’t leave Hell.”

She latched onto the noncommittal language, firing up a spark of hope.

“Generally?”

“There are always exceptions,” Rebecca said.

“Noted. Keep going.”

Rebecca sighed.

“Demons are… constructs, of mental and spiritual energy. They have a hierarchy. You start at the bottom, with no power. You pledge yourself to a stronger demon, they use your power to get stronger, they protect you. Eventually, weaker demons pledge themselves to you.”

“Does strength matter?” Roxie asked, wondering why Hell sounded so much like prison. Maybe that was a redundant question.

“It’s a demon-eat-demon world.”

“Not a strong sell,” Roxie confessed. “Talk to me about getting out.”

“There are a few ways. Weak links, passageways, portals back are rare, but they do exist. Not recommended. Most worlds have some form of demon hunters. Plus, the Reapers tend to shut you down pretty quick, and they’re much less kind to demons than the recently deceased.”

Once again, Roxie latched onto the one word that seemed out of place.

“Most worlds? Plural?”

“Yes,” Rebecca said, her tone suggesting that was all the information she was prepared to provide.

“Right. That’s that, then. Next.”

“Demons can be summoned. That’s kind of a lottery, unless someone’s trying to summon you specifically.”

“I’ve seen movies, that never goes well,” Roxie said, adding a shudder for dramatic effect. “Next.”

Rebecca’s eyes lit up.

“Live long enough, accrue enough power, and you can become a demon prince.”

“No princesses?”

That made Rebecca laugh.

“I guess you can be a princess if you want. People don’t generally talk back to demon princes.”

“Power. Freedom. A life of your own.”

The way she said it, there was a sense of warmth, familiarity. Was she…? What was she?

“So, you’re…?

“Here to help,” Rebecca repeated, frustratingly vague. Roxie sighed.

“Right. Alright, let’s chart a course for demonic royalty, then.”

Rebecca grinned again, and offered Roxie her hand.

“Let’s go, then.”

Roxie reached out to take Rebecca’s hand, but was distracted by her stomach complaining. That sense of hunger hadn’t quite faded. If anything, it had grown stronger. She could honestly say she hadn’t expected ghosts to get hungry.

“Uh, can we grab food on the way?” she asked, pressing one hand against her stomach. “I am famished.”

Rebecca froze, staring at her with renewed intensity. All of a sudden, Roxie felt uncomfortably scrutinised. Her stomach growled again, and Rebecca seemed to glare at it.

“What?”

“Food,” Roxie said, a little on edge. “Hungry. Do demons not eat?”

“They don’t get hungry,” Rebecca said.

“Well, I’m hungry.”

“That’s… unorthodox.”

Rebecca stepped all the way into the room, closing the door behind her. It made the sound of a much heavier door slamming shut.

“Hurray for me,” Roxie muttered.

“Hold on,” Rebecca said, reaching into a pocket that Roxie was quite sure wasn’t there before. She pulled out a phone, an old-fashioned looking thing, and pressed her finger against the screen. After a moment’s pause, she pressed it to her ear. “Yo. Yeah, weird question. New soul. Says she’s hungry. Ya-huh. Got it. Thanks. Love ya. Bye.”

Rebecca smiled as she put the phone back into her pocket, the kind of smile that isn’t directed at anyone in the room. Roxie kept her eye on Rebecca’s hands, and sure enough, the pocket disappeared as soon as it wasn’t needed.

“Boyfriend?” she asked, hoping to get a reaction out of Rebecca. Rebecca burst out into hysterical laughter, nearly doubling over from the force of it. It took her several minutes to regain her composure.

“No, not, uh…” She cleared her throat. “It’s complicated.”

“Alright,” Roxie said, not interested enough to pry. “What’d they say, this mystery person?”

“How’d you die?” Rebecca asked.

“Gunshot.”

“Alright.”

Rebecca held her arm out, making a pose not unlike someone about to fire a gun. Roxie flinched, missing the moment where a gun actually materialised in Rebecca’s hands. It was a lot harder to miss Rebecca pulling the trigger, the boom of the gunshot, or the pain in her stomach.

“What the fuck?” she demanded, dropping to her knees and clutching her stomach.

“Focus on the pain,” Rebecca said, with the tone of a patient school teacher.

“Kind of hard not to.”

“Do you feel it?”

Yes!” she shouted. The pain wasn’t spreading, but it wasn’t subsiding either. It was static, and unexpectedly consistent. Pain had always felt more elusive than this.

“Hold onto it,” Rebecca instructed.

“What?”

“Visualise it, reach in and grab it.”

“You’re insane,” Roxie grumbled.

Rebecca rolled her eyes. “Here, let me.” She crouched beside Roxie, and gently, tenderly, reached out to hold Roxie’s hand. Roxie flinched, but didn’t resist as Rebecca guided her hand into her own chest, and somehow, through it.

It was a surreal experience, feeling her hand inside of herself. It was liking reaching into icy water, whilst simultaneously being injected with a burning liquid. There was nothing stopping her from reaching in further, and Rebecca’s hand continued to gently push.

Her fingers brushed up against something hard, the only solid part of the weird icy void her hand was in. Her first instinct was to recoil, but she fought the urge, wrapping her fingers around it.

It was… a hilt? She pulled at it, and it moved easily. In one quick movement, she pulled it out of her chest. All at once, the hunger subsided, and the pain stopped completely.

“What the fuck…” she murmured, staring at the silver hilt, unattached to any blade.

“Well, then,” Rebecca said, standing up and backing off.

“What? ‘Well, then’ what? What the Hell just happened?”

“That’s a piece of your soul,” Rebecca explained. “In the form of a blade.”

“What?”

“You have the potential to be a Reaper, Roxie.”

 

Next Week: If You Can’t Beat Them, Join Them

Step 1 – All You Have To Do Is Die

London, 2209 – 276 Years Before Impact Day

It started the same as any typical day. She slept in, ate an unhealthy breakfast in the early afternoon, dragged her guitar into the city centre and busked. When her throat was sore and her fingers were throbbing, she ate another greasy meal, and went to work.

Work consisted of sitting behind a counter in a cheap hotel, maintaining a presence, answering emails and calls that came once every few hours, and helping the people that came in looking for a room. She was lucky to see more than one of them a night.

She liked the quiet, though. The city was bright and noisy, full of people and advertisements. Are you happy with the way you look? Our new gene therapy works 50% faster, giving you the body you always dreamed of.

Gene mods for naturally blue hair, for silver eyes, for naturally pale skin. Was it kind of racist to want that last one? She tried not to think about it. She wanted to look like a goth pixie. It helped her earn money when busking.

She spent most of the day surrounded by all of that noise. She made some of that noise. People going by, hundreds, thousands of them. All of them different, all of them beautiful.

There was something very relaxing about boxing herself in, leaning back in a chair behind a desk, munching on a steady supply of chips. There was always music playing, though it was set so nobody else could hear it. The music was hers, she controlled it, it helped her feel quiet.

Work was good. The pay was poor, the hours sucked, but it suited her. It was perfect for her.

There was a man, sitting in the lobby, not paying attention to her. She hadn’t noticed him come in. He hadn’t spoken to her. He didn’t make a sound at all. Far too well dressed for the kind of establishment he’d wandered into. He seemed occupied reading something. She was content to let him be.

A lot of nothing. Peace, quiet, respite from the world outside.

Then they entered.

Three of them, two adults and one child. Not so well dressed. Looked kind of desperate. Much more appropriate.

She gave them her warmest smile, keeping her curiosity to herself. Despite their clothing, all three of them were staggeringly beautiful. They could easily have been supermodels. There was something about them, the way they moved, that wasn’t quite human. Perhaps they were angels, she joked to herself.

Was it a family? A couple and their child? There wasn’t a strong familial resemblance, but that didn’t mean much. The dynamic seemed off, though.

He approached first. Fair skin, dark hair, deep amber eyes. He smiled awkwardly, a look of pain and regret. Was she reading too much into it? Probably.

“Welcome,” she said, taking her feet off the counter. “Need a room?”

“Please,” he replied.

“How many nights?” she asked, running through the availability. There were a lot of free rooms.

“Just one.”

“How many beds?”

He glanced back over his shoulder. The woman shrugged. Same fair skin, short blonde hair, eyes that couldn’t decide if they were ice-blue or a fierce red. That was a neat trick.

“Just the one,” he said. “We can rotate.”

“You got it,” she said, shrugging. It didn’t particularly matter to her. “Need a name to put the room under. Names for all three of you, actually. And ID.”

The two adults exchanged a glance. Discomfort? Irritation? Fear? It was difficult to tell. She didn’t really mind. She’d expected that to be an issue. It frequently was. It was just that kind of establishment.

“That could be difficult,” he said.

“Let’s start with names,” she said, smiling. She had no intention of denying them a place to stay. They looked like they needed it.

“John,” he said. “John Smith.”

She nodded, hiding her smirk, and typed it in.

“Jane Smith,” the woman said.

She looked down at the child, a slender girl with porcelain skin, lilac hair and kind lavender eyes.

“Alice,” the girl said.  “Ma-”

“Smith,” the man said. “Her name is Alice Smith.” He and the woman both stared, but she didn’t challenge them. Their situation was none of her business.

“Three Smiths. Makes it easy. In fact, it looks like you’ve stayed here before. I can just use the information we have on file. And… you’re good to go. Room twelve, first floor. Here’s your key.”

The three of them smiled, and John collected the key. Roxie smiled as she watched them disappear into the stairwell. The way they moved was odd, even the girl. There was a sort of fluid grace to it, like an animation that was just a little too smooth. The adults were almost predatory in their movements, whilst the girl just seemed… unsettlingly solid, Roxie decided. Like nothing could move her if she didn’t want to be moved.

She didn’t give them a lot of thought once they were out of her sight. Their business was their own, and she’d certainly encountered weirder customers. They were polite, and that was all she really cared about.

The man in the lobby continued to read, ignoring her. Something about him made her feel uncomfortable, like something bad was going to happen. Even still, she didn’t want to say anything. He had an aura of unapproachability that seemed unassailable.

Well, he wasn’t hurting anyone. She decided to leave him be. That worked out better for the both of them.

She looked up as the door chimed, and another person entered. He was tall, broad-shouldered, and moderately attractive at best. His face was set in a determined expression, like a poor attempt at disguising anger, frustration, or both.

He was well dressed, in what appeared to be a reasonably-priced suit, though it was also obvious he was carrying a weapon. He didn’t seem to be trying to hide it at all. It made her feel intensely uncomfortable, but there wasn’t anything she could do about it.

“Good evening,” he said, with forced courtesy that felt entirely unnatural.

“Uh, hey,” she said, then remembered she was supposed to be professional. “Lookin’ for a room?”

“No.”

She frowned. He wasn’t exactly making a good first impression. Something about him felt off, like he was broken somehow.

“O…kay? What can I do for you, then?”

“I’m looking for some friends of mine,” he said, his eyes scanning the lobby. He didn’t seem to notice the reading man at all.

“A’ight…”

Just tell me what you want so I can stop talking to you, she thought.

“They said they checked in here, but I don’t know their room number,” the man said. She’d never heard a more obvious lie in her life, but she knew better than to outright call him out on it.

“So message ‘em,” she said. “Call ‘em.”

“They’re currently offline.”

Lucky them.

“Then I can’t help ya,” she replied, shrugging. “Sorry.”

“It’s very important,” he insisted, leaning on the counter. His blue eyes were staring intensely at her, and she really, really wanted him to go away.

“So are the rules.”

He sighed, clearly annoyed. She felt a certain sense of pride in that.

“Can you at least tell me if you’ve seen them?” he asked.

“Yeah… No.”

He stared at her, his face twitching in an effort to hide a scowl. After a few seconds, he reached into his coat. She flinched, but he only pulled out a tablet. He pulled up a picture, and turned it around to show her.

It didn’t surprise her at all to see the three people from earlier. It did surprise her to find she felt instinctively protective of them.

“Those sure are some people.”

“Gabriel, Zoe and Alice,” he said, not breaking eye contact. It was very disconcerting.

“Nope.”

“You’re lying,” he accused her, tucking the tablet back into a pocket.

She felt frightened, cringing at the unspoken threat under his words. Even still, her dislike of him was strong enough that she felt like she wanted to get in his way as much as possible.

“Does it matter?”

“I don’t think you understand the gravity of the situation,” he said.

“Well, you just told me you were only looking for some friends, so…”

“They’re very dangerous.”

“I try not to judge,” she said, with a lot more levity than she felt. The sense of danger was intensifying, and there was nowhere she could go.

“If you don’t start taking this seriously…”

Her heart skipped a beat.

“Yes?”

“Those three people, they’re fugitives,” he said. “I’m trying to bring them in, but I need your help.”

“One of them is a kid,” she pointed out. “What’d she do, push someone in a playground?”

“She’s their captive,” he said, but the lie was still obvious. Even if she hadn’t seen them all together, he was just a bad liar.

“She seemed pretty happy to me.”

“So you did see them.”

Shit.

“Still doesn’t matter,” she said. “I can’t tell you anything.”

His face contorted into a snarl. She instinctively backed away.

“You’re endangering countless lives,” he told her. “Is your petty service job really worth that?”

“Yep.”

“Idiot,” he growled.

“Well now I really want to help you,” she said dryly. “What were those names again?”

“Get out of my way. I’ll check myself.”

“Yeah, or not,” she retorted.

Without warning, he vaulted over the counter, shoving her backwards. Her back hit the wall, and the force of it winded her. There wasn’t anything she could do as he took over her computer, checking through the recent bookings.

“Room 12. Thank you,” he said, without a trace of irony.

“You’re breaking the law, you know,” she threatened him.

“I’m saving the world.”

He started to leave, walking towards the stairwell. She found herself overcome with the urge to do something, anything to stop him.

Inspiration struck, and she tapped a button on the screen, opening a communication line with room 12.

“Guys, this is Roxie. You’re about to have company.”

The man’s fist slammed into the screen, shattering it. His expression was pure fury.

“Oh, you stupid kid.”

“Feel free to report me,” she said, with a lot more bravado than she was feeling.

“You spoke to them,” he said, pulling out his pistol. “You’re infected.”

“Say what now?”

“It’s too late for you.”

He’s really going to shoot me…

“Uh…”

He pulled the trigger, and her world went dark.

* * *

The world didn’t stay dark. Rather, her vision returned almost immediately, and everything was exactly the way it was before the gunshot. Nothing had changed.

No, that wasn’t entirely true. There was one new addition: her body, lying on the ground beneath her. The man who’d shot her looked right through her, completely expressionless, completely oblivious to her presence. He holstered the gun, then took off towards the stairwell.

“Uh, what?” she said, to anyone who might have been listening.

“You’re dead,” the reading man said, catching her entirely off-guard. She whirled around to face him. He’d stood up, and was slowly walking towards her.

“Who the Hell are you?” she demanded.

“Felix,” he said. “I’m a Reaper.”

“A what?”

“We collect the souls of the dead,” he explained.

“Which is me.”

Saying it aloud, she felt disturbingly calm. The realisation wasn’t lost on her. She somehow knew, unequivocally, that she was dead. Why didn’t that bother her?

“You catch on fast.”

He smiled gently. It meant nothing to her.

“I just got shot, it’s not that hard to wrap my head around.”

His smile broadened.

“I wish all my collections were like you.”

She looked around, wondering why everything looked the same. Even raising her hands in front of her face, they looked the same as they always did. They felt the same as they always did. If not for the body lying on the floor, she might have found it harder to accept.

She didn’t feel dead at all.

If anything, she felt hungry.

“Doesn’t feel like I expected,” she said.

“It never does.”

“So, what happens now?”

“Now, you come with me,” he said, the smile finally faltering.

Roxie frowned, then took a step away from him.

“To…?”

“Hell.”

“Is there an option B?” she asked, without hope.

“No,” he said flatly.

“Well that sucks.”

“It’s not as bad as you think,” he said, in what she assumed was supposed to be a reassuring tone, but wasn’t.

“No eternal punishment and damnation?”

He laughed.

“Not unless that’s what you want.”

“So what am I in for?” she asked, still eying him warily.

“Depends on what you’re expecting,” he said.

She tried not to let his vagueness irritate her. It wasn’t successful.

“Not really expecting much of anything, to be honest.”

“It’s going to be rather dull, then,” he said, with a bemused smile. She prayed he was joking.

“Two decades of life and all I get is a bland nothing of an afterlife?” She shook her head. “Nah. No thanks.”

He put his hand against his hip, the sort of motion that would suggest he was about to draw a sword, except there was nothing hanging at his waist. Even still, he continued the drawing motion, and by the time his hand was in front of his body, there was a sword in his hand.

Roxie stared at it, her eyes wide. It was a thin, elegant weapon, with a simple hilt and a crystal vein running down the blade. And he’d pulled it out of nowhere.

“You don’t have a lot of say in the matter,” he said.

Her eyes darted to the door, and she grinned.

“Well, there is one thing I can say,” she said.

“Please don’t.”

Her grin widened.

“You’ll have to catch me first.”

She vaulted over the counter, narrowly avoiding his blade. He followed, but she was already moving, racing towards the front door. It occurred to her only as she reached the door that a ghost might not be able to open a door, but then again, in that situation she imagined she could probably just pass through it.

The sensors didn’t detect her, and the door stayed close. She slammed into it, rebounding in a surreal, painless way, whirling just in time to avoid another attack from Felix and his sword. He looked moderately distressed.

“Roxie, please…”

She took a step back, and somehow managed to pass through the door. Nothing seemed different, except that she wasn’t actively thinking about the door.

Either way, it got her outside. She turned, and ran.

The streets were mostly empty, though that probably didn’t matter. It was obvious nobody could see her, or the well-dressed man chasing her whilst holding a sword. It would have been a rather ridiculous scene, had anyone actually witnessed it.

She wrapped a hand around a lamppost and used it to quickly change direction, hurtling down a side street. Glancing back over her shoulder to see if Felix had followed, she discovered he no longer seemed to be following her.

No, it’s too easy-

He was standing ahead of her, poised to strike. She pulled herself to a stop right before she entered his range. He lowered the sword, and sighed.

“Please, don’t make this worse on yourself.”

“How is this worse?” she asked, glancing around. She wasn’t even a little out of breath, her and though she couldn’t feel a heartbeat, somehow she still felt full of adrenaline. It was fantastic, and she had an entire world to explore.

“Let me take you to Hell,” he said, avoiding the question. “You’ll be processed, it’ll be peaceful, you’ll get to move on.”

“No,” she said, shaking her head. “I’d rather stay here.”

How long would he keep chasing her? Did he have other souls to collect? Would he call in reinforcements? Were there others like him?

“You’ll decay,” he said, which gave her pause.

“I’m dead.”

“Surely you have ghost stories here.”

She glanced around the side street again. If she doubled back, she could probably stay ahead of him for another few streets.

“Ooh, do I get to be a vengeful spirit? That sounds way better.”

“Roxie…”

She shifted her weight, ready to run. Not yet, though.

“Y’know, I never actually told you my name,” she said.

“I already knew it,” he replied, sounding tired. “Part of the job.”

“And who put you in charge, anyway?”

She was almost far enough away to safely make a break for it. Just a little further…

“Lucifer.”

The name sent an involuntary chill down her spine.

“Okay, now I’m really not coming with you,” she said.

“You really don’t have a choice.”

She started to run, but he was already in front of her. Too late to stop, she all but ran into the tip of his blade.

To her surprise, there was no pain as he thrust forwards, driving the sword through her heart. It didn’t feel like nothing, but it certainly didn’t hurt. If anything, it was like a physical sensation of intense nostalgia, mixed with the feeling of falling a great distance, and longing for something far away.

There was no sense of the world fading out around her. Everything just ended abruptly, gone in an instant. She never even noticed. The moment the sword touched her, her existence ended.

 

Next Week: Dying Was The Easy Part

Chapter 60 – Strong Enough Now That I Don’t Need To Pretend

“You doing okay, Charlie?” Rachel asked, taking pained steps towards them. Zoe tensed, but didn’t move.

“You took your sweet time,” Charlie said, grinning.

“This again?” Zoe asked, a predatory glare directed at Rachel.

Rachel flinched, but didn’t back away. Instead, she took another step forward, her entire body straining with the effort. She looked closer to dead than when I’d first met her.

“Not exactly,” she said, waving the gun in Zoe’s general direction. “I had time to finish this.”

“You won’t get a chance to use it,” Zoe growled.

She launched herself at Rachel, but didn’t get far. Charlie wrapped her hand around Zoe’s arm, holding her back, and Zoe whirled back to face her, hissing.

“We’re not done yet,” Charlie grunted.

“Yes, we are,” Zoe said.

With a vicious cut, Zoe severed Charlie’s hand, pulling herself away and turning to face Rachel in the same motion. She charged.

Rachel was already aiming the gun, and all she had to do was pull the trigger.

There was no visible effect, not at first. Zoe froze, dead in her tracks, completely static. The air around her began to shimmer and warp, then tear apart, exactly like the rift that had first brought her to this world.

She began to squirm, twisting and fighting against it, but she couldn’t get away from it. The rift expanded, beginning to engulf her, and through it I caught a glimpse of a night sky, a city skyline that was entirely black, and a cold, dark feeling.

Zoe screamed.

The rift closed.

Zoe was gone.

Rachel let out a long sigh, dropping the gun. It bounced and clattered along the floor. Rachel staggered, but remained standing.

“Fuck me, I’m glad that worked,” she said.

“You okay?” Charlie asked, with genuine concern.

“I’ll live. You?”

“Fuck off,” Charlie said.

The two of them stared at each other, then laughed. It was an awkward, pained laugh, but at the same time, it was full of love. Rachel actually smiled.

“Alright, let’s get these out of you,” she said, gripping one of the shards with her mechanical hand.

“Actually, I’m kind of getting used to it,” Charlie replied, then winced as Rachel pulled the shard out of her.

Two minutes and more than half a dozen shards later, Charlie dropped to her knees, free from the wall. The wounds were already healing, and she stood up again, a little unsteady. Rachel reached out, balancing her.

“Your healing is getting faster,” she commented.

“You’ve missed a lot.”

After another awkward pause, Charlie centred herself, then pulled Rachel in for a hug. They held each other for what felt like a lifetime, then separated again. Charlie stared lovingly into Rachel’s eyes, then kissed her. I looked away.

“I’ve missed you,” Rachel said.

“Tell me about it,” Charlie grumbled.

“What the fuck,” I muttered, and both of them whirled around to face me, seemingly having forgotten I was present. They exchanged surprised glances, then walked towards me.

“Oh, you’re still here,” Charlie said.

“We should probably get her off the wall, too,” Rachel said.

“She’s not gonna try and attack me again, is she?”

“I’ve got her covered,” Rachel reassured her, recovering the dart gun that had neutralised my shifting ability before. She kept it pointed at me as Charlie unbent the desk legs that had pinned me to the wall.

Finally free, I tried to rub the wounds on my chest, but they were still open, raw and bleeding. I definitely did not heal as quickly as Charlie did. The blood loss was actually starting to make me feel a little woozy.

I looked up at the two of them, standing side by side, no animosity or fear between them.

“I’m so confused,” I murmured, feeling unsteady.

“Yeah, I’ll bet,” Charlie said.

“I used you,” Rachel said, her voice tender. “I’m sorry.”

“Sorry?” I asked, reeling. “You’re sorry?”

“Charlie was never trying to kill me. We just needed a convincing reason to get me close to Zoe.”

I remembered the condition Rachel was in when we first met. Weak, barely standing, shaking and frail. I remembered the fear in her eyes when she told me what had happened, the pain when she’d recounted the way Charlie had ripped the power out of her, and left her for dead.

“But, your condition…”

“Not Charlie’s fault,” she said.

“Partially my fault,” Charlie corrected.

Rachel shook her head.

“I submitted willingly.”

Charlie smirked.

“Guys,” I snapped. Rachel sighed.

“When we realised Zoe was trying to build a portal back home, we knew we needed to interfere. The last thing this world needs is more of what came through the first time,” she explained.

“But you, you helped,” I said. “She couldn’t have built it without you.”

“Oh, she would have eventually. And yes, I helped. I needed to understand how it worked, so I could build this.”

She retrieved the silver pistol-thing from the floor, the dart gun still trained on me.

“We’re going to send them all back home,” Charlie said, taking the gun from Rachel.

“Why?” I asked, still confused. My head ached.

“It’s better than killing them,” Charlie said.

“And now we have this, the rest should be a lot easier,” Rachel added.

I felt my stomach turn.

“And what about those of us who aren’t from that world?” I asked.

“Undecided,” Charlie said. “The Celestial definitely needs to be shut down. Miss Murder can probably be rehabilitated. And you…” She shrugged.

“You can’t be the one who decides this,” I said, shaking my head. “You just, you can’t. It’s not…”

“Fair?” Charlie offered. “No, I suppose not.” She smiled. “But who’s gonna stop me?”

“Don’t give her ideas,” Rachel muttered.

“I will,” I said, determination filling me. “I’ll stop you.”

“I told you,” Rachel said, rolling her eyes.

“Stop me, then,” Charlie said, unconcerned. “Power talks. You have plenty. So stop me, if you can.”

“I will.”

“Good luck,” Charlie said. “Let’s go, Rachel.”

Rachel looked like she was considering shooting me with a dart, but it was obvious I was too weak to stop them from leaving. They walked out together, Charlie’s hand wrapping around Rachel’s. I felt confused, and full of anger.

“Well, that is not what I expected,” Envy said, appearing out of nowhere the moment Charlie was out of the room. “At all.”

“We have to stop her,” I said.

“Well, you know what we need, then.”

“Haylie.”

“Precisely,” she said with a grin.

A thousand thoughts ran through my head. Veronica, warning me not to give Envy too much power. Zoe, and her stories about Haylie, her certainty that Haylie was good. All of the anger that had driven me, and the fear it would consume me.

Slowly, every one of them was replaced with the image of Charlie, that smug arrogance of hers forming an impenetrable shield as she bent the world to her will. An unstoppable force of nature.

“Let’s do it, then,” I said.

Envy smiled, but there was no love in their eyes. All of a sudden, I couldn’t move.

“Actually, I don’t think so,” they said.

“What?”

“You’re weak. Too weak. You’re holding me back.”

“What?” I repeated, fear gripping my throat. I couldn’t move, my head was filling with cotton, and I couldn’t think.

“I’m strong enough now that I don’t need to pretend,” Envy said. “You’ve outgrown your usefulness. Your body is mine.”

They approached me slowly, their fingers pressed against my chest. I could feel them, cold and hot at the same time, pulsing with energy and power. With a smile, they pushed.

It was gentle, no more effort than you’d use on a light door. I stumbled back, out of my body, out of the world. Everything around me grew dark, and I fell.

I fell, and I fell, and I fell.

And from a distance, through a thousand windows, I watched my own body smile. Envy’s smile, not mine.

I’m sorry, Veronica.

 

Next: Epilogue

ImpactDayArtFinalThanks for reading this far. I hope you’ve enjoyed the story up to this point! It’s probably pretty obvious that this isn’t the end. Consider this more like a season finale. We have an epilogue later this week, then a five-week break, during which I’ll be publishing a bonus story arc, titled Roxie: Dying In Five Easy Steps. After that, we’ll be starting Volume 2 of Impact Day, titled Dead Girls Don’t Cry, which is a prequel story of a comparable length. It’s a story about Charlie and Rachel, and the events that led to Impact Day.

Anyway, if you’ve enjoyed the story so far, consider supporting me on on Patreon, so I can afford to keep writing it. Additionally, you can buy the complete collection on Gumroad and on Kindle. It features a bonus chapter that I’m not releasing online!

See you later this week!

~Snow

Chapter 59 – You Still Care About Her

Zoe pulled her hoodie over her head, and tossed it to the side. Beneath it, she wore a thin tank top and a sports bra. She looked entirely unharmed.

Charlie shrugged out of her coat, tossing it to the side. Her shirt was ruined, and she tied the scraps of it around her chest, an ineffectual binder. Clothing aside, she also looked unharmed.

“So, we finally get to meet,” Zoe said, comfortable but wary. “Face to face.”

“And what a pleasure it is,” Charlie said dryly.

I strained my neck to try and look through the doorway, but I couldn’t see anything. I feared the worst for Rachel.

“You made a mistake, coming here,” Zoe said.

“Maybe.” Charlie shrugged. “Guess we’ll find out, won’t we?”

“I know what you are. I’ve fought something like you before.”

Charlie reached behind her, pulling out a knife sheathed in the small of her back. She ran her finger along the blade of it, drawing blood, and licked it off her finger before it evaporated.

“See, now, that intrigues me. I’d love to hear more,” she said, licking her lips. “Unfortunately, I’d rather beat your face in.”

The pain in my chest had faded to a dull throbbing. It occurred to me that I could probably pull the metal bars out if I really tried, but somehow I just couldn’t muster the energy. All I managed was a weak groan.

“You doing okay there, Sabrina?” Zoe asked, keeping her eyes on Charlie.

I’m pinned to the wall by a pair of metal spikes, how do you think I’m doing?

“Please be safe,” I said weakly.

“Don’t worry, I can handle myself,” she replied, smirking. Charlie raised an eyebrow, but said nothing.

My eyes darted to the back room again. I had to ask. I didn’t want to hear the answer, but I had to ask.

“Is Rachel…?”

I couldn’t even finish the sentence. Charlie’s attention shifted, focusing on me for a second, then back to Zoe to hear the response. Zoe noticed.

“Dead? Quite possibly,” she said. “Her ego got the better of her. Kind of like this one, hey?”

Charlie’s grip on her knife tightened, the darkness in her eyes returning. I could see the fury forming on her face, spreading throughout her entire body.

“You killed Rachel,” she said, her voice dead.

“Jealous?” Zoe taunted. “Or just upset you’ll never get that piece of you that she stole back?”

Charlie’s death-grip on the knife intensified, to the point where it actually snapped, the blade clattering to the floor. She didn’t even seem to notice. Her attention was now fixated on the back room.

“Rachel, you idiot…”

That wasn’t just anger. Beneath the rage and fury, there was pain there. There was love there.

“Oh, this is precious,” Zoe said, laughing. “You still care about her?”

Charlie snarled, an inhuman, monstrous sound.

“You’re going to regret every second of pain you inflicted on her, you wretched beast,” she growled.

The rage wasn’t even directed at me, and I felt a chill. There was something dark about it, a cruelty and viciousness that seemed to reach beyond that of anything any human should be capable of. Something that seemed to come from beyond Charlie herself.

“Irony abounds,” Zoe replied breezily, seemingly oblivious to that sensation I was feeling. “Alright, let’s do this. I’m sure Sabrina’s eager to get down off that wall.”

Unsurprisingly, Envy was nowhere to be seen. The moment Charlie had turned violent, they were gone. Charlie seemed to be the only person that scared them, and not just because of the danger she posed to me.

Charlie attacked first, a blur of movement that was difficult even for me to follow. Her fist slammed into Zoe’s stomach, and I watched as Zoe buckled, shock apparent on her face. Charlie kneed her in the chest, sending her flying backwards. I heard her bones crack from the other side of the room.

Zoe recovered quickly, turning her momentum into an evasive manoeuvre, putting distance between her and Charlie. I could see the cogs turning in her head, processing new information, preparing a strategy against Charlie.

She moved like lightning, darting across the room. Charlie’s retaliation was too slow, and Zoe’s nails sliced through her neck and shoulder. Charlie’s elbow collided with Zoe’s head, but Zoe rolled with it, carving deep gouges across Charlie’s stomach.

Charlie snapped Zoe’s wrist. Zoe sliced Charlie’s neck open to the bone. Charlie shattered Zoe’s kneecap. Zoe ripped through Charlie’s stomach. The entire exchange was brutal, difficult to watch, impossible to ignore. I felt sick to my stomach.

They were picking up speed, bouncing around the room and breaking everything in sight. Every time Charlie attacked, it seemed like Zoe would learn and adapt, and gain the upper hand, but then Charlie just switched tactics, taking Zoe by surprise all over again.

Charlie wrapped her hands around Zoe’s throat, slamming her against the wall, and I could see her fingers digging into the flesh, threatening to cut through. Zoe dug her nails into Charlie’s forearms, pulling her knees up to her chest and kicking Charlie away with enough force to knock her to the ground.

The force of it ripped Charlie’s arms off at the elbows, and though they started to grow back almost immediately, Zoe seized the opportunity to strike. She was on Charlie like an animal, cutting and stabbing, forcing Charlie backwards.

Charlie staggered back until she hit a wall, and with nowhere else to go, she tried to fend Zoe off with her feet. Zoe backed away momentarily, only just long enough to collect a handful of long metal shards from the floor. With a pointed glance at me, she struck, driving them through Charlie’s body, one by one, pinning Charlie to the wall in a grim mirror of what she’d done to me.

Charlie strained against the metal, but couldn’t build up enough force to get herself free. She struggled to grab shards and pull them out, but they were too sharp, and cut up her hands, the blood making it impossible to get a grip.

Satisfied Charlie was pinned, Zoe took a step back again, out of breath for the first time I’d ever seen her. She wiped blood from her mouth, wincing from the pain of her still-healing wrist.

“You were saying?”

“You fight like a demon,” Charlie said, but the rage was already subsiding. She seemed almost human again. “How appropriate.”

Zoe walked over to another shard of metal, picked it up, and drove it into Charlie’s thigh. Charlie grit her teeth, bracing herself as Zoe twisted the metal.

“And I’m going to show you just how demonic I am,” Zoe taunted, practically whispering the words in Charlie’s ear. “I think I’ll keep you in pieces, tiny little pieces. And your head, I think I’ll keep it in view of Rachel’s corpse. So you never, ever get to forget that she’s dead.”

Charlie strained against the shards again, but only managed to cause herself more pain. It was difficult to watch, and I found myself wincing in sympathy. Nobody deserved that. Not even Charlie.

“Who’s dead?” a third voice said, echoing through the room. Three heads turned to the back room, where a hunched, bleeding Rachel stood, murder in her eyes. A silver pistol-like device hung loosely in her hand, blood dripping down it.

 

Next Week: Strong Enough Now That I Don’t Need To Pretend (Finale!)

Chapter 58 – A Necessary Evil

Sabrina

Charlie walked casually into the roam, glancing around. She seemed calm, almost relaxed. It was unsettling. But then, maybe that was the point?

Run, Sabrina. Get as far away as you can. It’s not too late.

I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to shut up the part of my brain that I now recognised as Envy. I couldn’t afford to let them manipulate me. Not now.

When I opened my eyes, Charlie had moved slightly closer, an amused expression on her face. Her hands rested in her pockets.

“Charlie!” I choked out, trying and failing to hide my fear. “What are you doing here?”

“What do you think?” she asked, one eyebrow raised.

Run away. It’s not too late. Run away. It’s not too late.

I shook my head violently, trying to dislodge their voice. It wouldn’t work, but even the placebo effect felt like a small relief.

“Rachel?”

Charlie laughed, glancing around as if Rachel might appear at any moment.

“No, she’s just an added bonus.” She grinned. “I’m here for Zoe.”

She’s not here for you. You can leave. It’s not too late. Run away.

“Why?”

“Why?” Charlie seemed confused by the question. “Why do you think?”

Don’t talk to her. Don’t engage her. Don’t provoke her. Just run.

What if I could convince her to leave? What if we didn’t need to fight at all?

“We just finished it,” I blurted out. “They just finished it. The device, the gateway to send her home. You don’t need to do this.”

She considered that, her gaze moving past me, to the room behind me. The room where Rachel and Zoe were. I prayed that Rachel was still alive, even if it was only for a little longer. Then again, maybe a death at Zoe’s hands would be less painful than whatever Charlie would do to her?

No, alive was always better. Alive meant you had a chance. Alive meant you could do something. She had to be alive.

“You don’t need to do this,” I repeated, hopelessly.

“No. But I want to.”

She took a menacing step towards me, and I backed away. That seemed to amuse her, and she took another step forwards.

“Charlie, please. You’re not this-”

“My, my, the hypocrisy,” she crooned, wagging a finger at me. “You’re going to tell me who I am, now?”

You’re making this worse on yourself. You’re provoking her. Stop. Run away. It’s not too late.

I refused to believe Charlie had changed this much. We were friends. She was a good person. She was a nice person.

“Zoe didn’t do anything,” I pleaded. “She’s a good person.”

“It’s cute that you think so,” she said, dismissing me.

She took another step towards me. I took another step away from her.

Run. Run. Run. Run. Run.

“You don’t know her,” I insisted.

Charlie held up her hand, silencing me. I noticed she was wearing a gauntlet, similar to the one Rachel had made for me. It looked cruder, more basic. An early prototype? Rachel must have made stuff for her, back when she was the Vigilante. Before Impact Day. Before Charlie betrayed her.

“I know her better than you think, but even if I didn’t, it doesn’t matter.” Another step towards me. “She’s a threat to this city. She’s a threat to this world. And I’m going to remove her.”

“And me?” I asked, making the very obvious connection.

She actually took a step back at that, her gaze running up and down my body. A grim smile crossed her face.

“I haven’t decided yet.”

Run. Just fucking run. For fuck’s sake, get away. Get as far away from her as you can. Just run.

Haven’t decided yet? That’s bullshit.

“And you?”

Her grim smile became a mocking smirk.

“I consider myself a necessary evil,” she said.

The way she said it was almost dripping with danger. An implicit threat. A discarding of humanity.

Run.

Maybe I should have listened to Envy when I had the chance.

“You’re a monster,” I said.

Run.

“More than you know.”

Run.

“I won’t let you fight her,” I said, bracing for a fight. I would lose, I knew I would lose, but it didn’t matter. I couldn’t leave, couldn’t abandon Rachel or Zoe.

“You can’t really stop me.”

“I can try…”

Run.

We moved at the same time, and the difference in skill was immediately apparent. While I relied on Zoe’s instincts to guide me in a fight, Charlie knew exactly what she was doing. She moved with purpose.

She twisted me around, slamming my face into the floor before I even knew what was happening. Instinctively, I rolled with the impact, breaking free from her grip and leaping to my feet just in time for her foot to connect with my stomach. I staggered backwards, but recovered my balance quickly.

She might have been the better fighter, but Zoe’s power was more than just physical. I was learning, adapting already. We clashed again, and this time I ran my nails across her face, spraying blood everywhere. The wounds healed before her blow landed, the edge of her hand slamming into my throat.

I attacked again, and she took the hit, a stabbing strike to her sternum. Her body armour absorbed the worst of the attack, and she swept my legs out from under me. I hit the ground, already rolling away from her.

Her boot connected with me, hard enough to lift me into the arm. I bounced against the wall, and by the time I hit the ground again, I’d shifted, taking Ami’s form instead. If I couldn’t win in a physical fight…

The room expanded and shrank around me as the telekinetic awareness of the space hit me. I could feel Charlie move before I saw her.

With a thought, I sent her flying across the room, hitting her harder than I ever could with my body. She curled into a ball, riding the wave, and kicked off a wall, heading right for me.

Another burst of telekinetic energy sent her reeling, but she shrugged it off faster, still coming for me. It wasn’t enough.

I tried something more focussed, a lance that I drove straight into her chest. It pierced her armour and sent a spray of blood out in both directions, but barely slowed her down. It was like she couldn’t even feel it.

She closed the distance, grabbing my shoulders and pulling me into her knee. The impact winded me, and I collapsed to the floor. Ami’s form wasn’t as resilient as Zoe’s. Ouch.

With her so close, though, I could feel her entire body. Not just the outside, but her skeleton, her muscles and organs, her arteries and veins. It was the most disturbing sensation in the world, but I could use it.

Like reaching in with my hands and ripping a box open, I felt the telekinetic energy rush into her chest. Blood blasted out in every direction, covering the floor. I felt her ribs snap, her muscles tear, her skin rip. And she grunted.

I literally tore her open, and she grunted. She staggered backwards, arms spread to keep her balance, and didn’t even fall over. The wound on her chest was already closing up, the blood that coating the floor turning to steam and evaporating. Within seconds, she was whole again, throwing her chest armour to the side, glaring at me.

Run.

Immortal. Truly immortal. This was why Rachel was so scared. It wasn’t Charlie’s strength, her speed, her ability to fight. Those were just tools. But this, this relentlessness… She was unstoppable.

I tried again, tearing her arm from her socket. She didn’t even flinch, just marched towards me, murder in her eyes. The arm twitched helplessly before beginning to shrivel and die. A new one was already emerging from the stump.

What is she? What kind of creature is capable of this? I knew Zoe could regenerate a lost limb, but it took days. For me, weeks. To regrow an arm in under a minute?

Her hand wrapped around my throat, and she slammed me against the wall again, hard enough to make my head spin. There was a look in her eyes, something cruel and destructive. They were growing darker, and it looked as if the spilled blood that remained was convalescing around her, in a grim kind of aura.

She let me go, backing away, shaking her head. I heard her muttering to herself, clutching the sides of her head. When she looked up, the darkness was gone, the aura was gone. She looked pained, frightened.

Then that was gone too. She grabbed a metal desk, and ripped off the legs. I tried to attack her again, but she moved away from it, and all I managed to do was splinter a chair.

She rushed at me, impaling me with a desk leg, driving me into the wall. I screamed, and she drove another leg into me. One in the chest, one in the stomach. She twisted the ends of the bars around until they were facing inwards, back towards me.

Breathing heavily, she backed away. I could feel myself growing faint, and I realised what she’d done. Ami’s form didn’t have the same regenerative capabilities as Zoe’s. She’d forced me to taken a form that couldn’t hurt her from a distance.

She’d disabled me.

“Fuck,” she said, not talking to anyone. “Fuck.” She glared at me. “I didn’t want to hurt you, Sabrina. I’m sorry.”

At that moment, the door to the back room swung open. I already know who would emerge from it. Zoe took the sight in with a glance, and grinned.

 

Next Week: You Still Care About Her