Genre: Urban Fantasy/Horror
2845 E University St – Apt 1
Publishers: Harper Voyager, Bantam Spectra, Eos
Springfield, MO 65804
Don't Fear The Reaper
I awoke in darkness, curled up on my beanbag chair. Renee was sprawled on my futon a few feet away. I looked around the dimly lit room, hazy moonlight streaming through my window. My gaze caught on a black-shrouded figure leaning against the wall. Breath catching in my throat, I rose and balled my hands into fists, stalking towards the man. I swung, and he easily caught my fist in his hand.
The silver-haired man raised an eyebrow at me. "Sleeping Beauty has quite a temper when she first wakes up, doesn't she?"
Jerking my hand away, I snarled in fear and rage, "What do you think you're doing in my home, you creepy freak? Decide to come and give me the touch of death now?" I realized how crazy I sounded, but didn't particularly care. What had I been thinking, throwing a punch like that? The man had touched me – I was probably already dead.
The man turned to face me, slipping his hands into the pockets of his faded jeans. "I don't murder people, Jade. When it's their time, I show them the way."
I snorted derisively and shook my head. "Sure you do. To the afterlife, maybe. And how the hell do you know my name?"
His lips curved upwards in a small smirk. "Actually, that's exactly right. I guide the souls of the dead to their destination. Very perceptive of you." He ignored my question.
The air around me felt a little colder. I just stared at the crazy man in front of me. "You're not serious. You – what the hell are you even saying? That's ridiculous. Get the fuck out of my house."
He regarded me silently for a moment, something like pity, or maybe compassion, in his eyes. "Jade. Look over there, and tell me what you see." He gestured for me to turn around.
Suspicious, I quickly glanced over my shoulder. My body lay curled on my beanbag chair, utterly limp and relaxed. My neck was at a weird angle, though. I jerked my head back to the man, eyes wide. "I'm dead already, aren't I? You broke my neck."
The man in black sighed in annoyance and shook his head. "No. Like I said, I don't kill people. I just...I needed to talk to you, privately. You can see me in the physical world, but our communication is limited. So I separated your spirit from your body for a little while. Your body stil lives; it's just in a kind of coma. Try not to worry – essentially you're just sleeping. You'll wake up when we're finished here."
I clenched my hands at my sides, fighting back the emotions that threatened to choke me. I felt so real – exactly the same as when I was awake. How could my heart be beating so fast when it was across the room? "So what was so damned important that some ghost guy needed to stalk me and then put me into a coma? What do you want with me?" Fear made my voice break, and I swallowed hard, trying to calm myself.
He sighed and shook his head, his voice laden with exhaustion and regret. "Your instincts are good, Jade. Something did kill Henry Malone, and Melissa Evans, it just wasn't me. I'm sure you noticed the similarities in their deaths – the seemingly natural causes of death, the blackened veins, the tunnel vision you got when you touched them. These are all signs of supernatural attack. Specifically, attacks by what we call remnants – spirits that have lingered too long in this world."
"Ghosts are killing people? You really expect me to believe all this?"
"Ghosts are spirits that refused to go into the light when they died. Remnants are ghosts with too much willpower, too strong of a connection to the world of the living. When they start to fade away, they seek out a source of power strong enough to keep them anchored here. And there is no power more potent than that of life. So they attach themselves to a person, and drain out their life, eventually killing them."
I rolled my eyes at the man in black. "So...vampires. Only life instead of blood. And invisible. Riiight."
He nodded earnestly. "Pretty much."
This was either the weirdest dream, or the absolute stupidest out-of-body experience. I pinched my arm – it hurt, but I didn't wake up. Didn't that sort of rule out both options? I threw a skeptical glance at the guy. "So why do I see this stuff when no one else can? What's so special about me? And don't tell me I'm the only surviving member of an ancient lineage or some bullshit."
The man tilted his head back. He seemed somehow more substantial than he had when I was awake. He also seemed more tired, more sad, more human. He finally looked at me again, with those old eyes set into a youthful face. "You can see these things because I gave you the power to. I may be an incarnation of death, but that doesn't mean I enjoy seeing lives cut short and ended before their time. I can't stop the remnants. Life is the only thing that can destroy them – something I am rather sadly lacking. But I can give someone else the tools to do what I cannot." He patted a sword that hung at his side. The hilt was wrapped in black and looked familiar. A katana – I could almost hear my Japanese grandmother murmur the syllables in my ear.
I crossed my arms in front of me, humoring the man for the sake of my curiosity. "Uh-huh. So you think I can fight ghosts? Why would I be able to do that? And even if I could, why would I?"
"You would because I offer you the chance to save your friend." He walked over to Renee's sleeping form and pointed at her foot, poking out from under a blanket. I followed him, giving my own body a nervous glance before turning to my friend.
When I saw the black webbing of veins silhouetted below the henna tattooing on the side of her foot, I whirled and stared at the man in black. "What the fuck? When did this happen?"
He looked at me, lips set into a grim line. "Not even an hour ago, while she slept. One of the remnants followed you two from the party." I didn't know when I'd started giving him the benefit of the doubt about not killing people. He just seemed so...sincere.
"Did you know that this would happen when you...did whatever you did to give me this power? Did you know that these things would go after Renee?" Suspiscion crept into my heart – maybe this guy had orchestrated this whole thing. My best friend gets attacked, and I have a reason to join up with his side. My misgivings wrestled with my instincts, and raked my hands through my hair in agitation.
He looked vaguely offended. "No. I don't desire for any more lives to be lost to these disgusting creatures. I may not be human in the strictest sense, but that doesn't mean that I would willingly throw away human lives for what I might perceive as the greater good." He talked a good game, that was for damn sure. I wanted to believe him, but couldn't. Not quite.
Turning back to the sleeping redhead, I reached out and laid a hand on the ugly, pulsating darkness that infected her flesh. Instead of the overwhelming tunnel vision of my waking hours, my vision actually cleared a little, tearing away a haze I hadn't noticed was even there. Hunched over in front of me was a monstrous and deformed creature, with claws and fangs sunk deep into Renee's ankle. It looked human, in theory, but twisted and deranged. Flesh hugged tightly to its sharp bones, sallow and splotchy like old bruises. Its head was covered in old blood, the left side crushed inward. Slowly, the remnant lifted its head from Renee's ankle and fixed its ink-black eyes on me. Faster than I could think, it lunged for me, its claws inches from my chest when I felt myself shoved back, hard.
The man was standing between Renee and I, staring at me like I'd grown a second head. "I tell you that your friend is being attacked by something that feeds on souls, and you essentially poke at it with a stick when all you are is a soul? Are you bloody suicidal, woman? You're just lucky that Renee's easier prey than you right now, or you might not be waking up any time soon." He stalked away from me, running a hand through his silver hair.
I rubbed my arms vigorously, trying to stop picturing the disgusting creature that was eating my best friend. "You mean...that's what killed Henry and Melissa?"
He nodded. "Do you believe me now?"
I hesitated and glanced away. "I never said that." I cleared my throat and blurted out the next thing that came to mind, turning the conversation away from a topic that I was still unsure of. "So...that's really me – my body, I mean – in the beanbag? I don't feel much different than normal."
He just sighed and shook his head. "We still exist in the world, just a sort of step to the side, you might say. We still abide by the same laws."
"So no walking through walls, then?"
"Sadly, no. That would make my job a good deal easier."
I snapped my fingers and laughed nervously. "Aw, shucks." I've always had this tendency to resort to sarcasm when upset. My old therapist used to always tell me that it was a defense mechanism. Aunt Tara called it being a smartass.
The man in black gave me a look that said quite clearly which of the two he agreed with. "I am deeply sorry that you have to go through this – it wasn't my intention to use your friend's life as some sort of bargaining chip."
I tilted my head. "Why would I agree to help you, then, if I didn't have a personal stake in all this?"
"Originally, I thought I would convince you by telling you the truth about your mother's death, and your father's suicide, but then this..." He trailed off, his face reflecting a small portion of the anguish that was currently filling me.
I wrapped my arms around myself. "You're not telling me...that my mother was killed by these things, right? She had a brain tumor. Stage four, inoperable. There was nothing the doctors could do." An image of my mother flashed into my mind, her pretty face contorted in agony, a remnant chewing through her skull. I shook my head, hard. Sometimes being a visual person really, really sucked.
The man nodded distantly. "Yes, she did. But she wasn't supposed to die of that for decades. The remnants ultimately caused her early death. Another reaper gave your father the same power and the same choice that I'm giving you. Your father chose not to believe. Then when your mother died, he went mad with guilt. It was that guilt, the thought that he might have saved her, that drove him to take his own life."
I looked at Renee's face, so peaceful in sleep. She'd been my best friend since we were children. We'd comforted each other through the deaths of our mothers, bonded over our absent fathers. When my dad lost custody of me, I went to live with Aunt Tara – but Renee's house was home. She was my sister, my family, and I couldn't imagine life without her. Maybe this was all some crazy dream, but if it wasn't...Could I really take that chance? "What would I have to do to save her?"
The man in black regarded me seriously. "You would have to become a guardian. Your life will be much as it has always been – but when you sleep, you will step out of your body and come with me. I can show you those who have been marked for death by the remnants, and you will save them."
I raised my eyebrows. "That doesn't sound so terrible. What's the catch?"
"This is not a temporary position. Once your body dies, you will do this full-time. You will never go to the world that lies beyond this one. You will never find true peace."
I felt my eyes widen. "That's a big catch, dude. I'm...going to need some time to think this over." My thoughts tripped and stumbled over themselves – give up my afterlife, or lose one of the most important people in my life? How does someone make that kind of fucked up choice?
The man nodded soberly. "I know. I'll give you until sundown tomorrow. Any longer, and we may not be able to save her."
I felt an odd sense of disorientation, and darkness reached up and grabbed me.
I groaned as I forced my eyes open. They felt gummy, and my mouth was dry as sand. I shoved myself into a sitting position, stretching the kinks out of my sore back and neck. Sleeping on a beanbag isn't exactly the most comfortable thing in the world. The man in black had been true to his word – I ached way too much to not be back in my body. The sun was shining through my window. I had a couple hours until sundown, but not many.
Renee was still sprawled on my futon, sleeping like the dead. I winced at the thought, and used the blanket as a barrier as I gently turned over her left foot. No way did I want to chance seeing those creepy ghost things again. The black splotch still throbbed on her ankle, beginning to creep halfway up her calf. I noticed the toenails on her other foot were black, as well.
I needed to go clear my head, think about the choice that had been offered to me. I dressed quickly and quietly, leaving Renee a note about where I'd be. I grabbed my wallet and ran out the door.
The graveyard where my parents were buried wasn't overly far from my apartment, so I walked. I stopped at a florist on my way, buying a vaseful of tiger lilies – my mother's favorite.
As I walked, I remembered. My mother's sudden decline, my father's mad ravings at her bedside. He'd been passed off by therapists as grief-stricken. Then he'd started drinking. That had gotten some attention. By the time I was twelve, a year after my mother's death, social services had taken me away from my father and sent me to live with Aunt Tara. He was dead within a year of that. The funeral had been a stark contrast to my mother's – hers had flowers everywhere, dozens of guests. His funeral had been a simple, closed-casket affair, with four guests: me, Aunt Tara, Renee, and my father's strict Japanese mother, flown halfway across the world for the occasion.
Obaasan had wanted to take me back to her home in Kyoto. I might have gone, if it wasn't for Renee. She was the one who would hold my hand when I got sad. I couldn't leave her.
I looked up from my reverie to find myself standing in front of my parents' graves. I clutched the lilies to my chest, breathing in their scent. "So what do you think, Mama? Can we trust the creepy ghost guy? And if we can, what's the right choice? Do I give up any hope to see you again to save Ren? Could you forgive me if I did? Could I forgive myself if I didn't?"
I knelt and settled the vase of lilies to the side of the headstone. I pictured my parents as they'd been before we'd moved to the city, so long ago. My mother, with her auburn curls bound in a tight braid, and her kind green eyes. My father, always laughing, always telling me beautiful stories. My heart squeezed once, tightly.
Their faces changed – my mother's into the waxiness of death, my father's contorted with rage and guilt. He told me, over and over, that her death was his fault, that he would do anything to take it back. I didn't understand him then. I did now.
I knew he'd understand my choice. I knew they both would. After all, they were the ones who had taught me how to love life with everything I had.
I stood and glanced at the sun, just beginning to sink below the horizon. I turned and nodded at the man in black, standing a respectful distance behind me. "So, how do we do this thing?"
I woke up in my room an hour later, the sky a beautiful mix of rose and amethyst. My fingers itched to capture the colors, but I had bigger things on my mind. The man in black had told me to go home and get some sleep. Renee had been gone when I got back. That was okay, though. I'd see her soon.
I glanced over my shoulder – my body's black-clad legs were slung over the arm of my beat up pink and orange armchair, a book dangling from one hand. Taking the opportunity, I gave my body a quick look over, but didn't see anything out of the ordinary, besides a mole behind my ear that I'd never noticed before.
I looked down at my spirit-self – black tank top, black jeans, gold belt, black boots, same as the ones in the chair. Did the spirit reflect the physical? Or was I stuck in these clothes everytime I popped out of my body? The man in black had been wearing the same thing everytime I saw him. At least mine were functional, and not referencing a band from the 1970s.
A slightly off-pitch voice drifted through the wall. "Came the last night of sadness, it was clear she couldn't go on. The door was open and the wind appeared, the candles blew and then disappeared, the curtains flew and then he appeared..."
I glanced over to find the man in black leaning against the doorframe, smirking at me. I quirked an eyebrow at him, deadpan despite the situation. "Don't Fear the Reaper? Really?"
"Of course. Never let it be said that I don't have a flair for the dramatic."
"Blue Oyster Cult went out of style years ago. Besides, you forgot the whole candles and curtains bit."
He just shrugged. "We're in a bit of a hurry, so I gave you the short version."
I tossed my hair over one shoulder, jerking my chin up. "You're right. How do we save Renee?"
The man strode over to me and pulled a sword from his belt. Not the elegant katana on his right hip, but a plain thing, with a long blade and simple metal hilt. "This weapon will focus your life force and allow you to use it against the undead. But as soon as you touch it, your fate will be forever sealed." He caught my gaze with his own, compassion in his eyes. "I will understand if you change your mind, but this is the last opportunity you will have to do so."
"What, I touch a sword and that's it? No satanic rituals? No sacrifical goats? I'm kind of disappointed, dude."
He snorted, somewhere between amused and annoyed. "Just take the bloody sword if you're going to."
My hand reached out almost of its own voalition, wrapping tightly around the hilt. He released the sword, and I watched in amazement as it changed, the hilt becoming ornate and gold, the blade growing thinner and lighter to better fit my strength. He tossed me a brown leather scabbard that became black with gold embroidery the moment it touched my fingers. I grinned in spite of myself. "Sweet."
He turned to go, coat rippling. I sheathed my new blade and followed him out the door.
We walked the streets together, people unconciously moving out of our way. Their voices were garbled and indistinct, like a slightly out of tune radio. If I concentrated, I could understand them, but it took some work.
My companion strode purposefully, his eyes affixed on some distant point. My skin – or spirit, or whatever – prickled, jitters growing more pronounced as the silence extended. Finally, I opened my mouth and words just came tumbling out. "You said undead back there. Are there more kinds than just those remnant things? Please don't tell me that I just signed up to be the next Buffy."
He blinked and stumbled, just a bit, like he'd forgotten that I was there. "Sorry. Used to working alone. But, yeah, there are others. Zombies, vamps, ghouls. Mostly they're just spirits that possess dead bodies. Much more rare, but also more of a pain. Besides finding remnants, they're the reason why guardians like you need reaper partners. I yank the spirit out of the body, and you stab them. Pretty simple, when you get right down to it."
I glanced down at the sword in my hand, rubbing a thumb over the jade that had grown into the crossguard during our walk. "So is that what I am now? A guardian?"
He glanced over at me, ghost of a smile lingering on his lips. "That's right. Humanity's very own guardian angel – without all the Christian subtext, of course."
I tilted my head. "Hey, speaking of...if you guide people to the afterlife, then...what's it like? Nirvana? Heaven? What?"
"I don't know."
"What do you mean, you don't know?"
"Exactly what I said. I set people on the path, I've never seen where they go. You're not the only one who gave up your afterlife for the good of humanity."
I blinked at this unexpected revelation. "What do you mean – "
He raised a hand and indicated the building we stood before. I recognized it as being where Renee's dad worked. His office was on the thirteenth floor, she was probably visiting him. "I'll tell you the story some other time. We're here. Let's go."
I took a deep breath – figuratively speaking, anyways – and squared my shoulders. We went inside. The man in black filled me in on the details as we rode the elevator up.
"Basically, you touch Renee so you can see where the remnant is, and then you stab it."
I snorted softly. "Sounds too easy."
He just shrugged. "Either you can do it or you can't. Only way to find out is to try."
"'Do or do not, there is no try?'"
"That didn't exactly go well for Luke and Yoda, you know."
The man just shrugged in reponse.
I spent the rest of the elevator ride in silence, digesting that distinctly unhelpful little nugget of advice.
I was right. Renee was sitting in a chair in front of her father, looking paler than usual and wearing shoes that covered her henna-tattooed feet. It was eerie, being in the same room with people who were utterly oblivious to your presence.
I stepped forward, unsheathing my sword. I gripped the weapon tightly in my right hand, extending my left until it lightly brushed against Renee's bare upper arm. I experienced the same weird shift in my vision as last time, but didn't even get a glimpse of the remnant before it slammed me across the room.
I saw stars for a moment, and when my vision cleared, the only thing I could see was the remnant's gaping maw, larger than any human mouth had a right to be. We're talking horror movie levels of fucked up and creepy here. I struggled, but it had me pinned.
A black blur hit the thing from the side, breaking its hold on me. I raised my right hand only to find it empty – my sword had gone sliding away when the ugly thing attacked me. I lunged for the blade, watching the remnant and my partner scuffle out of the corner of my eye.
The man in black managed to get a hand on the few wisps of hair the thing had left on the uncratered side of its head. He forced it to its knees and planted a foot in its spine, exposing its throat.
I clutched the hilt of my sword and swung it like a baseball bat at the thing's neck. I misjudged the angle a bit, biting deep into its collarbone. The remnant screamed in rage, but I hit true the second time, burying the point of my blade in its breastbone.
Cracks radiated out from the wounds, glowing gold threads where the veins would have once been. The man in black murmured a few words under his breath, and the vengeful spirit faded away.
I lowered my sword and stared at my partner, who was rubbing his side. He glanced back at me, a wry twist to his lips.
"Well. That was fun."
He just grinned at me. "Don't worry. You'll get better, in time. I think you might want to find someone to give you lessons on how to use a sword, though."
I sniffed in mock offense. "I think I did a good job, thank you very much."
"Mm. If you say so."
I sheathed my sword and looked over at Renee, who was still completely unaffected. "So...she'll be okay now, right?"
He crossed his arms and leaned against the wall. "Yeah. She's back to normal."
I nodded, newborn confidence humming in my veins. "Thanks for the save back there. I appreciate it."
He shrugged and walked out of the office. "Don't mention it, Jade."
I started after him, suddenly realizing something. "Hey! If we're going to be working together, you could at least tell me your name."
He stopped and turned his head towards me, mouth curved in the first genuine smile I'd ever seen from him. "You can call me Kael."