Lycan blood coated her blades and ran down her arms, but Andy didn’t bother to wipe it away. She’d only get bloody again. Using both hands she dispatched the wolf in front of her with a vicious, cross-handed swipe and watched without emotion as it dropped lifeless to the ground. Blood surged from the ruin of its throat onto the thirsty dirt below. Idly she wondered what would grow there, with the soil being watered with wolf’s blood. Plants with a tendency to bite and snarl at other plants?
Then it happened. She looked up at the howl behind her, and started to turn. They’d heard plenty of howls during the attack, but this was different. The fury and defiance, the general bad-assed, I’m-a-wolf tone was gone, replaced by a sound of unimaginable torment so complete it made even Andy shudder.
She whipped around. A huge wolf was on its side, writhing in pain. Its shape-shifting ability seemed to be completely out of control. Its body was in a continuous state of flux, each part shifting from human to wolf independently of any other. Bones popped and cracked, breaking only to reform themselves, then start the cycle all over again. She winced as its ribcage inflated to the size of a barrel but its shoulders turned human. Even from here she could hear muscles tearing and bones creaking as they tried to settle into a form even the current, twisted version of nature had never intended.
The skin was worse. Sickeningly worse. It bubbled and slid, flowing over the monstrous forms beneath, but like everything else, it couldn’t seem to make up its mind what to be. One second it was hide and fur, and the next it was soft human skin regardless of what lay underneath. A massive paw formed from the end of a human arm, then covered itself in skin before the bones within, too large for the casing, ripped through it.
She turned her head away for a second, covering her mouth as bile rose, and fought the urge to lose her lunch. She hated to be sick but just looking at that was enough to make her forget the habit of a lifetime.
The sound of torment rose into a plaintive plea for mercy. A death howl which called to every non-human instinct she had. All emotion leeching from her, Andy stepped forwards and into the Shade, her blades already raised for the killing blow.
Warmth and color disappeared as she left the land of the living behind. Here things were calmer, so much simpler. Spectral souls, human and Lycan, waited by their bodies, nice and orderly, for her to go along and reap them. She ignored them. They were dispatched. First she needed to deal with the tortured wolf.
Without asking, she knew it was the alpha, Jed. The power rolling off him was unmistakable. Just as she knew what had killed him. The silver-treated knife lodged into his heart glowed white hot in her enhanced vision. Even if she’d been of a mind to kill him, he was done for. After the blade had entered his heart to deliver its fatal payload, the continuous form changes had locked it within his flesh, putting protective layer after layer over it. The only way they were getting it out would be with a gifted surgeon, or a chainsaw.
She sure hoped that wasn’t Mason’s favorite knife.
Jed’s soul stood to one side, watching his body contort with an expression of fascinated horror on his face. Registering movement he looked up and at her. His face blanched, which considering where they were was an achievement.
“No! Not me, not yet. I’m not done,” he protested, and tried to run. Andy didn’t hurry her measured pace, nor crack a smile. She’d seen this before. It was rare, admitted, but sometimes when a person was caught between life and death, they could see her in the Shade.
She watched as Jed ran two steps then fell, yanked back to his body by the unbreakable thread of his own lifeline. There was only one creature on the planet that could cut a lifeline. Her. He looked up over his shoulder, whimpering as he tried to scramble away.
Her lips compressed into a thin straight line as she looked deep into his heart. Normally she didn’t bother. Whether they went up or down was no business of hers. This time though, she was interested. If Jed wasn’t headed down, so help her God, she was going to drag him to the fiery pit herself.
She needn’t have worried. His heart was black, rotten to the core with evil deeds and disgusting impulses. She blinked as every act of violence he’d committed, every rape, every murder, every evil deed right back to his childhood flashed before her eyes. Here, in her world, she didn’t feel sick. She just felt angry.
She stalked him, murder in her eyes. Apart from the fact he was already dead… Kind of hard to murder someone who was already dead. He leapt over his own body, trying to escape again. She sighed and changed direction. If there had been railings nearby, she’d have clicked her blades along them as she approached, just to scare him more.
“I can do this all day, you know? Now stand still like a good little doggie.”
“Fuck you, bitch,” he sneered.
“Not without a week long bath, a change of species, and a personality transplant,” she snarled back as he flipped to his back and bared his teeth at her. “Might as well put them away, sunshine. This is my world and here we play by my rules.”
“Bitch. I’m gonna rip your fucking heart out.”
Sliding one of her sickles home into its sheath, she reached down to the lifeline from the shadowy mound that represented his body in the mortal world. Like everything else, here it was indistinct and lacking in features, but she knew what it was. The pulsing scarlet thread attached to it was a dead giveaway.
“Oh, you can try.”
She started to wrap the thread around her fist, pulling him closer by slow increments. He struggled and fought, to no avail. She dragged him closer and closer until he was within range.
Finally close enough, he took a swipe at her. Vicious claws erupted from the ends of his fingers as they flashed towards Andy’s face in an unstoppable arc. She stood and waited, an impassive look on her face, as they passed right through her and exited the other side, turning the enraged soul into something akin to a spinning top.
As soon as he turned she slammed her booted foot into the small of his back at the same time as she looped his own lifeline around his throat, then pulled him hard against her.
“How’s it feel to be helpless, Jedediah?” she whispered into his ear, picking his hated full name from the memories she’d gleaned. “To be able to do nothing whilst it all goes to shit around you? Impotent, useless…at the whim of someone else. Terrified, like so many of the people you killed.”
Her breath whispered over his neck as she tightened the red cord around his throat. Of course, his soul couldn’t be killed by strangulation, but Jed didn’t know that and he reacted as though Andy was throttling the very life out of him. His fingers scrabbled at her hands, as he kicked and bucked in her hold, but Andy was unshakeable. Her lips twisted as she pulled the line tighter.
“Rot in hell, Jed,” she whispered, lover-like, before she snapped the cord.
She stepped out of the Shade to a much quieter scene than she’d left. The fire popped and crackled merrily to itself. Soft sobbing and the odd whimper broke the silence periodically. Half the attacking humans were dead. She nodded slightly to herself, the numbers were better than she’d expected. If she was honest, she hadn’t expected any of them to survive. Period. There was one way to describe humans attacking a Lycan camp.
She stood for a moment in the center of the camp, just by the hideously twisted corpse of the former alpha and scanned the survivors. They sat in shell-shocked silence, most of them covered in blood. She couldn’t see Mason but she wasn’t overly worried. Something told her that, if anyone could survive attacking a Lycan camp, the hard-nosed, ex-soldier turned town-guardian could.
She turned and looked behind her. The cage the children had been kept in was empty. Valerie had done her job well. Andy flicked her vision to the Shade for a moment, noting that all the lifelines that led away from the cage into the darkness were flat and healthy, including Valerie’s. Good. Some of the parents hadn’t survived the attack, and those kids would need someone strong to look after them.
Scanning around her in the Shade she looked for Mason’s peculiar lifeline. She’d never seen another one like it, so it would be hard to miss. However hard she looked though, she couldn’t spot it. Which was impossible. Wherever a person went, their line followed behind them, like a scent trail. It was what Andy followed when she tracked a soul ready to be reaped. Unlike scent though, it was something that was impossible to mask, and Andy was no bloodhound to be put off the scent easily.
Where the hell was he? A familiar sense of irritation rising, Andy stomped around the fire to the nearest survivor, one of the young men from the town. He sat in a trance next to another of the furry corpses, his face splattered with blood.
“Have you seen Mason?” she demanded, waving her hand in front of his face. “Hey! Wakey-wakey!”
At the sound, the guy snapped out of it somewhat. Still wearing a stunned expression he transferred his attention to her face. “Huh?”
“Mason? Tall, shaved head. Kick-ass attitude,” she said shortly. “Seen him?”
He lifted his hand slowly to point behind her. A sickening feeling wormed its way into Andy’s heart as she turned to look at what he was pointing at. There, hidden behind the bulk of Jed’s twisted body, caught somewhere between human and Lycan, was another, smaller one. Andy’s heart shuddered to a halt as ice filled her veins.
“No…it can’t be.” Her voice was a low whisper, a plea to any God who might be listening. Unable to tear her eyes away from the fallen figure, she took a couple of steps forwards and stopped, her feet refusing to carry her like they were stuck in quicksand. It couldn’t be Mason, it just couldn’t.
The broad shoulders were too familiar though, as was the tattered T-shirt stretched over them. He lay on his side, unmoving. Too still. Her breath caught in her throat as she raced around the fire and slid to her knees in the dirt next to him.
“Oh God, no. Please. No,” she moaned as she tugged on a shoulder to roll him onto his back. There was no resistance. Mason flopped onto his back, his eyes wide and unfocused as they stared sightlessly up at the night sky. His throat was a bloody mass of mangled flesh, the bones of his spine glinting white in the gaping wound.
Andy screamed, a mingled sound of agony and fury as her heart broke in her chest with a sharp crack. She fussed, gathering him to her, not caring that his blood soaked through her top. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she cradled him. She’d only just found him, the other half of her soul, and now he was gone. Snatched from her by a cruel twist of fate and the snapping of a Lycan’s jaws.
Her head lifted slowly.
Dead. Mason was dead.
It was a simple word but one spoken with utter conviction. She looked at the man in her arms. He couldn’t be dead because she wouldn’t allow it. Death did not scare her, nor did it hold any sway over her. She was a Reaper…perhaps the only Reaper. The Grim Reaper herself.
Death would bow to her, be bound by her rules and her will.
Fighting back panic she reached deep inside herself. Deep within, in a place she avoided thinking about or calling on too much, was a dark place devoid of anything. The center of her reaper powers, the core whatever that made her what she was. For years she’d avoided it, tried to forget it was there, as she carried on pretending to be human.
But she wasn’t human, and she never would be.
This time she didn’t just brush the void, or embrace it, she did a run up and went for a full-on base jump right into it. The void enveloped her, consumed her. She threw her head back and screamed again, as the memories of a billion or more deaths slammed into her. Time lost meaning as she tumbled, bounced from death to death throughout the ages. Her voice expanded, power added to the feminine scream as she accepted her destiny and took on the full power of a Grim Reaper.
Her mouth snapped shut – the sound cut off as she lowered her chin and opened her eyes to look at the world around her anew. Jed still lay in front of her, his body locked in everlasting torment, the fire still blazed merrily, and the man she loved still lay dead in her arms.
Only, like her, the man she loved wasn’t human, and never had been.
“Can’t be having that, now can we?” she said to no one in particular, and leaned down to kiss him. At the first touch of her lips, power flowed between them. A spark of life that she gently blew against his lips. Nothing happened for a long moment, then he coughed.
She lifted her head. As she watched, the hideous mess that was his throat started to heal. Flesh filled out as structures started to form. Veins slithered across the open space and started to pulse with blood as skin crept over the wound to cover it. Within a minute it was gone, his skin as unmarked as it was this morning.
He opened his eyes to look up at her. She smiled as a pitch-black lifeline flared into life in the corner of her vision.
“Welcome back, my love.”
He’d been dead six months, and it had been the best six months of his life. Sighing with contentment Mason leaned back in his chair and took a sip from his drink as his gaze followed the small woman behind the bar.
Six months pregnant, Andy was starting to waddle but she still insisted on pulling her weight. Like pulling the late shift in the bar whilst Valerie was settling the kids. With so many orphaned the night of the Lycan attack, looking after them all was a full-time job.
She wiped glasses with efficient and swift movements, placing them neatly on the shelves behind the bar. Every so often she would cut a glance his way, heat in her dark eyes which set an answering heat to smoldering within him.
“Just you wait until later, woman,” he promised silently, knowing she could hear him. Quite how the link between them worked, or exactly what he was now Mason hadn’t figured out. All he knew was that he had been dead, and now he wasn’t. And that now he could see things…lines he couldn’t see before. Like the three amber lines which blinked into existence in the corner of his vision. Andy calmly wiped the last glass, and placed it on the shelf.
“Incoming,” she announced as the door opened and three Vampires swaggered in.
Mason smiled and caressed the trigger of the shotgun rigged under his table. Vampires before nine in the evening? Looked like it was going to be a busy night.