Angel Maker – Part Four
Michael’s first day in the “Forgotten Place,” as he’d taken to calling it, was uneventful. After Korri vanished on him, he’d spent the rest of his daylight wandering between and above the unnecessarily large trees, alternately swearing a blue streak at Korri or himself for being an idiot and following her.
“And you just got employee of the month, you absolute moron.” He grunted, pulling himself up the side of a tree the width of a freeway. Anuk would have shish-ka-bobbed him on her scythe if she could see him dangling by his fingernails on the bark. That is, after she finished laughing. He figured he looked like a particularly disoriented spider monkey in this position. Safe to say, Michael didn’t see much humor in the situation. Neither, apparently, did the creatures that watched him with silent, glassy-orbed eyes as he struggled back to the canopy, his Reaper powers spent from the day of searching for this so-called Lady. He finally gave in to exhaustion and flopped down on a broad limb beside one of the giant, carved cubes.
The dome of water swirled above him, throwing darts of soft moonlight onto the trees and forming swirling patterns on his clothes and hands. He couldn’t hear the waves that had to be letting out easy shushing noises above him. He couldn’t hear much of anything in this place really. Everything seemed to absorb sound, not even his footsteps or the grunts he’d been releasing seemed to hang in the air for very long. The short panting breaths that pushed their way out of his lungs trembled in the air, before being silenced as swiftly, like fingers laid across a plucked guitar string. He hated it. The silence was oppressive, heavy in a way that not even the ocean surrounding him could be. It seemed like, with every muffled sound, the world around him vanished a bit more, taking him with it. Michael closed his eyes and tried not to think about it.
Dreams of Erin greeted him as he sank into unconsciousness. Memories of the years she’d spent as his partner. Korri hadn’t been wrong when she’d said Erin had reminded him of his mother and sister. Not in looks, of course. The women in his family had had the same deep olive skin tone and black hair he did. Erin had been the opposite, pale skin split with freckles and scars and flaming hair that put him in mind of the land she’d been named after. He’d often compared her to Anuk. They were polar opposites in more than looks. Anuk was hardened magma, solid and firm in the wake of chaos. Erin had been pure fire, happy to light everything ablaze if only to watch the flames dance. One particular memory flickered across his mind and he frowned in his sleep, unaware of the dark shape that loomed over him just outside of the dome.
The dark mass crooned at the dome, at all the creatures that lived there. One by one they turned their sad eyes to her, to their Lady.
“Saying, ‘Lie you there, young Isabel’,” the creature in the water began, wrapping its arms around the dome. “‘And all my sorrows lie with thee.’” Michael’s body tensed, feeling the call in his bones, but he didn’t wake, locked in the dream.
He remembered this moment. Early on in his career as a Reaper. There was a mass execution. He didn’t remember where or when. Rough thoughts and information flickered in his head like old film reels. He saw the bodies, burnt and swollen, lying in a ditch cut into the earth like a scar. He remembered how light those souls had been as he’d carried them one by one. Old souls, small ones, souls that weren’t souls so much as biological pinpricks cut off before they could bloom. He’d hated it. Hated the smell of rotting flesh and the soft, cloud-like feel of the souls as he carried them. They should be heavier, he’d thought. They should feel like they were worth something.
“‘Till Kemp Owen shall come to the craig…’”
Erin found him later that day, on the balcony in one of the halls of their then home. The Reaper’s quarters weren’t warm or inviting, instead, they were darkly clinical. Everything had a place and was in its place, including him. He hadn’t fought anything back then, hadn’t tried to establish himself as an individual in any way. Good Reapers were uniform and took orders like proper soldiers. He’d believed that being a Reaper was a second chance, one he didn’t want to mess up by having, God forbid, a personality. That had never stopped Erin. She’d always seemed so bright to him, a star to orbit around. Maybe that’s why he’d told her so much about himself. Maybe that’s why she burned out before he did.
“What’s wrong, a bhuanchara,” she’d asked.
“Nothing, just tired, I guess.” She hummed at him, clearly not believing a word, and slumped down to dangle her legs off the balcony beside his. After minutes of heavy silence, he couldn’t stand it anymore. He reached over and tugged on the dark sleeve of her uniform. It felt childlike and wrong to seek comfort like that, but his insides had been swarming with a nest of wasps, and he didn’t know how else to quiet them.“How many were there, anamchara?” His voice had rumbled out of his chest, too quiet and tired to even fill the space between them. “I lost count.” Erin had gripped his hand silently.
“It doesn’t matter now,” she’d said. “They are at peace. We’ve done our job.”
“We could have saved them, couldn’t we?”
“No.” Erin’s rebuttal had shocked him. In all their time together, he’d never known her to be harsh. Even if he’d known the answer, he’d thought she’d be gentler about it. “No, we cannot save them. We can never save them. It is not our place to question their fate. We bring them peace after their times have come. That is all.”
“All right.” The silence descended again, wrapping them both in a shroud that became more oppressive the longer they sat.
“‘And break this spell with kisses three.’” The humming grew louder, as if she sensed the battle being fought in the mind of her newest quarry. The song wrapped like ropes around the Reaper, binding him to her world. He would be safe here, she’d make sure of it.
Erin’s laughter rang out in the silent halls and echoed over the shifting landscape of the Nether where they resided. Michael looked at her, wide-eyed and confused. The sound was musical, but forced, like a singer who’d reached the limits of her lung capacity midway through a note.
“Laugh with me, a bhuanchara!” she demanded.
“Sometimes, you just have to laugh, if only to keep yourself from crying. Laugh until it doesn’t hurt anymore, then carry on.” Though she didn’t face him, had turned her face towards the swirling shadows of the nether, Michael knew she wasn’t crying. Erin wouldn’t cry, but she wouldn’t let him see her face either. Not until it stopped hurting.
“Her breath grew strong and her hair grew long, twisted three times ‘round the tree. And all the people far and near thought that a savage beast was she.” Almost, almost ready. Another lost and forgotten soul would be safe.
It was a whisper in his subconscious, a little nudge that told him something was wrong. He whipped his head around, cautiously examining the dream world for whatever was tying his stomach into knots. Erin watched him.
“What are you looking for?”
“I don’t know.” He didn’t know. Everything was exactly how he remembered it being. The balcony was still made of chipped granite, the hallways were still covered in the ugly beige tiles. “Something doesn’t feel right.” The more he tried to focus on it, the more the thought slipped away. Erin patted him on the shoulder.
“Forget about it, Michael.” The bad feeling grew stronger, but the sudden need to just relax and let it go invaded his body, making him sag against the balcony. Still, he fought it. There was something she’d said, something his mind rebelled against.
“You never called me ‘Michael,’” he hissed. Erin froze, and just like that, the dream shattered.
Michael woke up to find his arms and legs immobile against the rough bark. Not even his pinky toe moved when he willed it to. A song echoed around him.
“And how she cried for Kemp Owen, that he might come but near to her hand.”
It was a sweet voice, exactly what he would expect to hear in a fairy tale grove in a magical bubble at the bottom of the ocean. Like Korri’s, the words dove into his head, twirling and wrapping around his senses until he couldn’t tell up from down. The weightless feeling they created had him wondering what he was fighting against them for. He couldn’t tell you. Why was he fighting? Wouldn’t it be easier to forget? His eyes closed. Erin’s voice drawled over his mind.
“I didn’t think you were this weak, a bhuanchara.” It taunted. It was enough to wake him up.
It felt like a lifetime, but he finally pried his eyes open, staring into the void that hovered expectantly outside the dome. It was a leviathan, inky black with splotches of white. He could almost believe it was a giant mermaid, but the jagged fangs and bedraggled hide changed his mind very quickly. Still, the song whirled through the trees, pushing his thoughts back with the sweet promise of rest and no more memories. The song had to go.
There were words of power Reapers knew, not meant to be used unless in an impossible situation. Michael thought this counted. The muscles in his neck tensed and strained as he wrenched his jaw open and yelled. It was a guttural noise, more of a formless sound than a word, but it did the trick. The noise, the light, all of it vanished, plunging the grove into darkness. Everything was gone. Blacked out. Dark, dark, dark, even to his enhanced vision. This must be what death felt like. He waited; his heart stalled in his chest for a break in the endless night.
When it finally came, he wanted to sob in relief. The leviathan’s song was silenced, and when the light finally returned, the creature had vanished. A much smaller form remained, flickering an eel-like tail lazily in the currents. Korri watched him for a few more moments before following after her mistress, he assumed. Michael fell back against the bark. Tired in a way he hadn’t been in centuries. Words of power were like that, he supposed. They made your entire being feel like a cracked hourglass. It hurt.
“Laugh with me, a bhuanchara!” Erin’s voice fell on him like a blanket, comforting and so, so warm. “Laugh until it doesn’t hurt anymore.” The laughs started to come. First, they were giggles and snorts, then it was full belly laughter that wracked his frame. He laughed and laughed until he was sick, until his ribs protested the movement and his face felt stretched with the forced expression. But he kept laughing because it still hurt. He hadn’t realized until just then, how much he’d grown used to being alone.