The raging horrors and screamed in her heads had stopped and there was nothing but a moment of stillness. she let out one shuddering breath and then another. She had to work her lips for a moment before the words would come out. “A-Am I dead?”
“Yes and no,” said Autiur.
She looked. He was sitting next to her, one leg to the side as he reached out for her. She felt no order or command from him, only dullness. The presence he had possessed earlier was gone. Reflexively, she pressed her cheek against his cool palm.
The world around her was a raging hell of darkness but it was frozen in place. She saw half withered bodies clawing for the doors, sparks of energy hanging in mid-air as mages tried to shield themselves. The darkness had reached the outer walls of the courthouse and a few beams of painfully bright light speared into the black mists.
She focused on Udin who was still straddling her. Well, part of his body was still there. The rest of it was half destroyed by the blackness swirling around him. There was nothing left of his face and upper body, just the blackened stump where his waist was.
Fear rose inside her. She looked at Paladay who was half-destroyed herself along the ground underneath her. As the fear stained her thoughts, she shifted and pulled herself free of Udin’s body. It remained in place, hanging in the air.
“What…” she coughed. “What happened?”
“You can project now. Udin can no longer hurt you. He can’t hurt anyone ever again.”
Relieved, she switched to the more comfortable mental communication. It was the only comfort and her skin crawled. Even the darkness that had been jetting out of her remained in place; there was an empty place where she was only moments before. (What happened? Why is everything still?)
“You happened. You are a True Submissive, probably one of the few beings that the Justice Geas should never be applied against. Then again, you are the first True Submissive in history to have the geas, so I’m not surprised they wouldn’t know that.” He gave a bitter laugh. “Hindsight is always crystal clear, they say.”
She whimpered and ducked her head. Udin’s body didn’t move with her, he seemed frozen in place. As she pried herself free, (Every time I tried to stop the energies, it got worse.)
“You were forced to submit to the pain, which gave you power. The geas tried to stop it, forcing you to stop which only gave you more pain. That is one of the dangers of Alphas, their limits come from their masters, not themselves. Bound to themselves, like you, I can’t imagine how this would happen any other way.”
A tear burned on her face. (What is going to happen?)
“A lot of people are going to die. That is why we’re here.” He sounded sad as he stroked her face with his thumb. “I like my job, there is a satisfaction in getting smug bastards like Udin. But not this many, not like this.”
(What are you?)
Autiur smiled at her. “You asked that earlier, didn’t you?”
At her tentative nod and mental pulse of encouragement, he continued. “I’m one of the gods of death.”
Ice ran through her veins. The gray-looking man was a god? She guessed he was something more than just a guard when he showed up. A god? He wasn’t anything she expected when she thought about the divine forces that guided everyone’s life.
“Well,” Autiur shrugged, “there is a lot of death in this world. More than any one being could every handle. Even a god. Because of that we have specialties. In my case,” he gestured to Udin’s darkened corpse, “I’m Death by Blindly Following Orders.”
He shook his head. “It’s a very specialized field, but sadly I’m called too frequently. There are a lot of men and women who die while obeying.”
(Am I dead? Are you here for me?)
He nodded. “I think so, but not by me. Actually, none of us know who is going to collect you. That collar… makes things difficult. I’ll admit, it makes me curious. I can feel the resurrection magic in there, it has the touch of divinity in it but a god of life didn’t contribute to it. I’m not sure if you can survive this or not.”
There was movement on the corner of her vision. She turned and looked at where the world itself was twisted, like a tear between the worlds. It was growing bigger. Slowly, but she could see black claws through the torn opening. She reached out tentatively and felt the alien thoughts of the darkness pushing through the stillness. Her ears flattening, she peered around and noticed that the edges of darkness were still growing, albeit with painful slowness.
(The darkness is still coming?)
Autiur glanced over and shrugged. “Yes, time slows down when we reap.”
“Paladay too. They are in their own fragmented reality, talking to me at the same time. Udin is begging while Paladay is crying. I’ve heard both so many times. Neither have reached their acceptance, which is the point I take their souls.” His voice grew tense. “I’ve seen what these two had done, I want them to see the full impact of their decisions even if it takes years for them to see the full extent.”
Merrie sobbed. (I tried to stop it.)
A little girl walked through the darkness. She was gray as Autiur. There were tears in her eyes as she looked directly at Merrie and then at Autiur.
Autiur bowed his head. “I wondered if it would be you, Sacrificed by the Innocent.”
The girl shook her head. She frowned at Merrie and then sat down next to her. She had soft, gray hair that caught on Merrie’s ear.
The world seemed to ripple and Merrie thought the darkness slowed down even more.
“I’m not for her, Death by Blindly Following Orders. I was summoned to attend but not to reap.” The girl had a beautiful voice, filled with despair and strength. Merrie wondered if she had been human once.
“Summoned by who?”
“Why are you here?” asked the little girl in response, a wry smile on her lips.
Autiur looked uncomfortable for a moment but then gestured to Udin and Paladay.
The girl shook her head. “You wouldn’t be in her fragment if that was true. You were summoned also.”
Autiur looked at Merrie. “I cannot say.”
“Neither will I.” The little girl reached up and scratched gently behind Merrie’s ears.
An older man’s voice rose up. “I suspect there are many who were summoned by us. I’ve already reaped mine but I must attend to this one.” Merrie looked up as he sat down next to Udin. He was naked, his wrinkled body sparkling with hundreds of crystals embedded in his body. His eyes were too large to look at and it took a moment to realize they were rose quartz. (Hello, Merrie Golddotter. I am the Death by Insanity of the Crystalline Mind, the god who guides the souls of psions to beyond.) His mental thoughts were comforting but also firm.
She let out a soft cry.
(I am not here for you but I am required to attend with the pretense of reaping your soul.)
It scared Merrie that that forces were gathering around her. She was still recovering from the idea of being a traitor to the country. The idea that she was important enough that someone was using death to manipulate her terrified her beyond anything she could imagine. (By who?)
(Remain quiet and you’ll see. The gods are using your death as an opportunity for a conference.) He seemed confident. (Death slow down time around the soul they reap. The more of us gather, the slower your world goes and the longer they can speak. Most lives only take seconds, but I sense that there will be enough deaths gathering that time will practically stop despite the duties we have ahead of us.)
Dread prickled along her skin. (How many are going to die?)
(Millions. Almost every reaper who could apply or has dominion is here. We have been gathered to take the souls that this gathering darkness will kill.)
Despair clutched her heart. She trembled and closed her eyes tightly. (Millions?)
(Almost fifteen million humans, every living being within the limits of Franome City and beyond. Only a handful will survive.)
(The Royal Family?)
(Death of the Assassinated Royalty is here, so I suspect at least one of the royal family will be killed. )
(No,) she cried, (not them. I cannot, please, what can I do?)
(Death cannot be denied.) There was more to his thoughts.
(It can be changed?) Then she remembered what Autiur said. (You can change it. Autiur said there was a point of no return, that hasn’t been reached for everyone, right?)
He smiled. (Negotiation, that is one of the stages everyone goes through.)
(I don’t care about me!) She sent a pulse of frustrated anger. (How do I stop others from dying? There are friends out there, lovers, companions. There are children!)
(Not from me!) The tears burned on her face and she felt black ice crack as it froze.
(You are already dying, Merrie Golddotter. There is nothing you can do anymore.)
She whimpered and pulled away from the little girl. Her bare thigh brushed against a cat who meowed. Merrie gasped and spun around. The gray cat purred softly before carefully jumping on Udin’s hovering corpse. With a proper flick of its tail, it curled up and went to sleep.
More gods were approach: a pair of twins, more children, more old. Each one sat quietly around her, watching her with bright eyes. They were as uncomfortable as she was.
Around her, the destruction continued to slow. She could see individual shards of wood no longer being corroding into black mists. The dust hovering in the sunlight stopped and became diamonds. Near her thigh, the rips in reality had frozen in place, the pitch black eye of the Lord of Shadows peering out at her as it was caught ripping open the barrier.
Merrie reached out for him with her thoughts, a tendril of mental awareness connected the two. There was resistance but she could feel the alien thoughts still spinning in the darkness, the unfathomable mind of a terrible creature only meters away from her and yet a world away. (Are you there?)
(Light Snuffer. Hurt?)
She let out a quiet sob of relief. The alien thoughts were overpowering and thundering, beating against her consciousness. More importantly, they weren’t affected by the time being slowed down on the cusp of her demise.
(You must not.) The command crashed into her, driving into the very core of her being. A surge of pleasure came following, but there was no agony from the geas fighting her. Instead, it just hummed inside her, an orgasm right on the edge of cresting.
Another god of death approached. It was a middle-aged woman with flowing gray hair but a young face. “So many of us in one fragment but none of us taking the soul? That is worrisome.” Her voice brought a strange comfort and kinship for Merrie, she wondered if she had brushed against this one before.
Autiur bowed his head. “Greetings, Death of Submissive’s Lost Master. We have gathered as we were summoned but none of us feel the urge but to attend. You must be the one, you are the death of most alphas who survive their master.”
Merrie gasped and her body grew still. She had meet with this goddess of death before. The memories of Kine’s death rose up, choking her as she remembered the precise moment her bond had snapped and her heart had been rippled out.
The newest death didn’t answer Autiur. She came over and knelt down in front of Merrie, catching her head with two soft hands and pulling her gaze up until Merrie was staring into the bright gray eyes of the death Merrie feared most.
“Don’t worry, my little bitch, I’m here for you but I will not take your soul today.”
Tears ran down both of their cheeks. Merrie whimpered again, her body trembling.
The death kissed her forehead. “Soon. I promise you, it won’t hurt anymore.”
“You can’t say that,” muttered the Death by Torture. “None of us can promise that.”
“Just because you refuse doesn’t mean others won’t bring sweetness,” whispered the Death by Surrender of Spirit. “Not all of us enjoy the pain.”
The world shimmered around her, it had come almost to a complete halt. The deaths were all focused on each other, debating and talking with each other.
A thrill of pleasure tickled Merrie. They were ignoring her, treating her as nothing more than a thing. The feeling of uselessness and being unimportant reminded her of her place, nothing more than a pet at their feet. She sank into the pleasure even as her mind spun furiously. She needed to save others, to stop the city from being destroyed by her power. The Royal Geas may not have its hold on her in the moment of her death, but that didn’t stop her from needing to save others.
She gathered the pleasure and sent it through the tenuous connection to the Lord of Shadows. (I need help.)
(Light Suffer. Your promise binds us. You are the Shadow Maker. We shall protect.)
(What can I do?)
(You are Shadow Maker. You be you.)
She could do that. Concentrating, she focused on the connection between the world. The raw, gaping wound in reality scraped against her senses. It was icy and comforting, a terrifying grip of her salvation.
Around her, the shadows grew sharp-edge and deeper.
Carefully, she let her power funnel through the dark energies that made up her soul. The triple beat of her heart calmed her as she worked through the complexities of an improvised spell to convert pleasure into the rawest from of darkness she could create. Gingerly, she channeled her pleasure through it and into the icy depths of the Lord of Shadow.
(Yes,) came the rippling pleasure of the alien creature. The Lord of Shadows clawed at the opening, moving infinitesimally slow as it widened it.
“If none of us are here to take her soul, then I have work to do. Millions are going to die today and I’m anxious to get started,” muttered Death By Screaming Agony, a bitter old man with wrinkled fingers tipped with sharp claws. His frizzy hair moved as he looked around, his eyebrows rising as he tried to get others to respond.
“Many of us are anxious to move on,” said Autiur, “but you know the forces at play. Her death must be accepted before we can dispersed.”
“Then why aren’t we taking her soul? It’s just a mortal. A powerful woman but we’ve taken worse.”
Merrie cringed at his harsh words. She tried to pull away but Death of Submissive’s Lost Master kept a grip on her face. The effort to even try to pull away sent ripples of pleasure coursing through her body. She was terrified but couldn’t escape.
“No, no,” whispered Death of Submissive’s Lost Master. “You can’t escape us. No one escapes death for long. Not even the beautiful and rarest of submissives, the Omega. Oh, I had my fingers right on you before but you just slip away. That Rakin has made you the ultimate challenge for me.”
Trembling, Merrie couldn’t look away. They would stop her if they knew what she was doing. They wanted to reap the souls of the city, the millions who would die because of her. But she couldn’t allow that.
Diverting a portion of her power, she wrapped the entire area around the rip in a shade. She didn’t know if the diversion spell would keep death away so she wrapped the calligraphic energies with the crystalline, blending shadow and psychic energies together. She tried to add power from the collar but it was empty, drained into the explosion that would tear apart the world around her.
The Death of Submissive’s Lost Master’s grip loosened. Her eyes shifted away to another conversation between the gathered reapers. Her lips moved.
“We are waiting for the acceptance,” said one reaper. “Until then, we have things to discuss. We are rarely given a moment to interact, let’s take advantage until the death that must come presents itself.”
Looking around, she saw that other deaths were doing the same. Their attention slid away from the Lord of Shadows as they casually discussed how they would gather the souls of the millions that were about to die. They were planning it, which gods would take which parts of the cities. A million fragments of lives ending where every single person got their last words in before their souls were gathered for some purpose. It would be the largest mass death in modern history and the gods were almost celebrating it.
Trying not to think about her own contribution to the reapers, Merrie breathed a sigh of relief. They appear to have forgotten her completely and avoiding the rip in reality. The ripple of pleasure flooded through her, giving her a sweet balm of power to keep feeding to the Lord of Shadows.
Her eyes caught with Death by Insanity of the Crystalline Mind’s gaze. The old man was staring directly at her, his fractured eyes seeing through the magic she used to hide the shadows. Fear prickled along her skin and she tensed waiting for him to draw their attention back.
He looked at her and then pointedly looked away.
Merrie froze, unsure of his response. Then she ducked her head and settled to the ground. She was content to be nothing more than a mortal at their feet as she tried to figure out how to save the rest of the city from the darkness. She knew it was possible, she only had to figure out how to cheat death a million times over.
She needed time, the one thing she had plenty to work with.
Ears flat against her head, she closed her eyes and let her tail thump as she began to work.