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Excerpt for Eve by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Eve

Book One: The Eternal Daughter Series

© Patti Larsen 2016


Smashwords Edition

Find out more at

www.pattilarsen.com

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Smashwords Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person. If you are reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to the vendor and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

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Cover art copyright Valerie Bellamy

www.dog-earbookdesign.com

Editing by Annetta Ribken

www.wordwebbing.com

Copy edits by Jessica Bufkin

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Chapter One


I felt him staring as I stood over the dying man, waiting for me to do something. Well, not something. What we came here to do. At least he didn’t prod me immediately, standing with his dark hair hanging over his blue eyes. A frown made him look older than his early twenties, lips in a tight line I caught clearly out of the corner of my eye. Trying not to notice his judgment, he who judged me the least of my brothers.

My hand wanted to move, to rise and touch the cheek of the old, withered body decaying slowly in the bed before me. The soft, steady beep of the monitor he’d been hooked to, a literal lifeline, pulsed in time with his slowing heart. The sound of anticipation, of impending oblivion. A gift, or so I was told. The gift of passing from this realm to the next with the help of an angel of Death.

My job.

“Eve.” I heard the huff of impatience in Nero’s voice, knew I hesitated too long, even for him. My brother, despite the rest of my family’s opinion of me, still held onto his kindness toward me, even if it was only a thread. “We need to move on.”

Right. That meant I had to take this old mortal’s soul exactly as a child of Death should. Take it and let it travel onward to the next realm and allow the physical body of the man to return to dust and earth. The circle of Creation complete and tidy, wrapped up in the way things were meant to be.

All I had to do was lift my hand and… and. Sweat broke out on my upper lip. This was the part I dreaded the most. Not the release of the soul. That I would welcome with a smile of relief and a hurried thanks to whatever power in the Pantheons might allow me to succeed for once. That ending, his ending, would be a blessing for sure. Except I had a terrible feeling this wasn’t going to be one of those neatly boxed and bowed moments.

Precedent had been set in my case, after all. Far too many times.

Nero shifted beside me, his anxiety layering over mine. My brother was well aware of my history, of my previous failures and, I was certain, understood my lack of enthusiasm. But even he was at the end of his patience, irritation wavering like a heated mirage between us, burning me with its growing intensity. I hated how empathy seemed to haunt me, that whatever power I possessed drew on the stress and worry of others. I had my own cares, didn’t I? My own needs and fears. Despite my brother’s attempt to be even remotely supportive, he wasn’t helping.

I caught a shaking breath and squared my shoulders while my brother whispered something at the doorway. The power of Death stilled the air, quieted the world, slowed things down. Nero’s influence kept out the nurses, the family. Normally, this task I dragged out into infinity took a heartbeat, less than that. Loved ones lifted and freed in an instant of time split in two by the power of Death. But more and more often I found myself frozen, unable to act, emotions getting the better of me while I struggled to fulfill my task.

Eve.” The stress in Nero’s voice hurt like a blade across my skin tied to the whip crack of frustration he released. I winced from him, shrank not out of fear but out of pain. “Now. Or step aside.” We both knew I couldn’t let him take my task. My name stood next to that of this old man in the Book of Death, inscribed there by the Reaper himself. I had to do this no matter my fears. Our father asked and I agreed. I had to make this work.

The instant I decided my hand lifted as if on its own, the thin, trembling fingers ending in sparkling nail polish chipped at the edges feeling foreign, detached from my body. What had I been thinking to wear bright pink paint like that? No, not my choice, but my best friend Tulip’s. I’d have to make her change it. I liked my natural nails better anyway.

My mind sank deeper into minutia, anticipating her unhappiness with my request to remove the polish, hiding from my rapidly expanding stress. Stress that only increased as my hand descended, fingertips feeling the heat from the man’s wrinkled skin, tiny hairs rising to greet my flesh. Overwhelming fear flared in my chest and the knowledge I was about to fail again hit me and hit me hard. From within and from the pulsing, worried aura of my brother.

Mist wavered at the edges of my vision, half blinding me, even as I made physical contact with the old man and gasped, a spark jumping between us.

His body arched, his eyes flying open, a moan escaping his lips while the heart rate monitor speeded before settling into a strong, healthy rhythm. I jerked my hand back, weight in my chest as the mist dissipated and left me to stare at the man in the bed.

His skin had filled out somewhat, still old but no longer carrying the pallor of Death. Pink now, warmed and puffed slightly from the shriveled wasteland he’d been only an instant before. And, even as Nero’s hand grasped my arm and pulled me forcefully away, I knew the truth. The old man’s eyes fluttered, opened. And he smiled at me.

Alive. Healthy. Full of Life when his fate was Death.

No. Not again.

I stumbled into the corridor, the dim light from the room behind me disorienting as the nighttime activity in the hospital ward finally reached us. Good thing Nero was paying attention, because I certainly wasn’t. My brother’s power encouraged the nurse and two family members hovering outside the door to ignore us, preventing them from noticing when we hurried past them and left them to discover their dying loved one, once poised on the brink of Death, had now fully recovered.

Nero’s hand didn’t loosen on my elbow as he guided me with firm agitation past the nurse’s desk and out the large, swinging doors at the entry to the ward, stopping only when we reached the quiet common room on the other side. I inhaled the scent of industrial cleaner and I tried to hold back tears burning my throat and eyes, closing my chest in a tight fist of disgust at my own failure.

“I’m going home,” Nero said, quiet and intense, his head low over mine, tall, slim body shaking with anger. It washed over me, though I wasn’t sure he was aware of the impact of his emotions as it did. I liked to think he had no real clue what the power of his feelings did to beat me down while his fists sat tight at his thighs. No hitting required.

My eyes glazed over, unwilling to focus while I locked my gaze on the artful hole in the knee of his jeans. “I’m going to tell Dad what happened.” He grumbled something unintelligible, stilled. “Just what we knew would happen, what always happens.” An inhale as he pulled in his emotions at last, offering me some relief. “I don’t know why we keep doing this, Eve.” I shrugged when he fell silent, knowing he waited for a response, an answer I didn’t have to give. How did I know? Because I’d been here before, so many times. This reaction, my reluctant acquiescence, all part of a sick, familiar dance I’d twirled to since I was eight years old. Half my life spent shaking with my head bowed under the anger or irritation or frustration of one brother or sister or another.

Nero didn’t leave yet, though. He stayed long enough to reach out one hand, unclenching his fist, an offer of kindness more than I could bear. My eyes lifted, locked onto that gesture of remorse and compassion. I didn’t deserve his pity, the waves of it lapping at the edges of my hurt. When I flinched from him Nero sighed and shrugged, the motion showing in the shifting of his feet when my gaze dropped again. That outstretched hand settled instead on my shoulder and squeezed ever so slightly, caring pouring out of him and into me through that contact for the briefest of instants. I choked on his warmth and the gentleness he shared, though likely without knowing he did it, pushing back as he did the darkness trying to eat me alive.

My brother and his huge heart, so much like Dad’s I could barely stand it.

He turned and left me then though I longed to call him back, to wallow in his understanding, just one more moment of such generous support. I could face anything knowing Nero cared about me. But I let him go, my brother disappearing through a doorway on the other side of the room. I knew he was no longer in the hospital. That exit had taken him home, likely to Dad and a conversation he’d had with our father so often. Why then didn’t those talks seem to matter to either of my parents, knowing as they did what a screw up I was?


***


Chapter Two


It was just as well Nero was gone. His attempt at comfort would likely turn to disgust and he’d be unable to hide it. Disgust at my glazed over gaze, fluttering the distance to the blue carpet. Relief came with his departure, at least, no more heavy pressure from Nero’s feelings—kind or judging—though I missed his presence all the same. Because sometimes it was easier to deal with the emotions of others than my own. Most times. Abandoned to the ache of yet another disaster I caused, I had no place to hide.

My feet carried me forward, arms circling myself in a protective hug. I’d have to go home soon, to see Dad and tell him personally I failed again rather than letting Nero’s report stand. Not that my father would be angry or anything. I often wished he would get mad, lose it and tell me I was never again to return here to the mortal realm, that I was a failure as an angel of Death. But that never happened. Instead he kept trying, just like Mom kept trying, the two of them winding me up and sending me out in some futile attempt to make me like them.

It was Dad’s disappointment that troubled me so much. He had to know how hard I was trying. But it wasn’t enough. It hadn’t been since the first time I joined my big brother Nero, my idol angel of Death then, on my very first task and, to the delight of the child I was, failed. Only to discover what I’d done—saving that girl’s life in the instant of the car crash that was supposed to kill her—meant I wasn’t like my brothers.

No surprise there, I suppose. I ran my hands brusquely over my upper arms as I strolled the corridors of the hospital and settled myself. There was something soothing about places like this, on the cusp of Life and Death. Which made sense, considering my parents and their particular jobs.

Just my luck, wasn’t it? That Death fell in love with Life and I was the result?

I don’t know how old I was when I realized I didn’t fit in anywhere. I scooted sideways to avoid a crash cart and three scrub clad people who rushed by, feeling their fear, their adrenaline soaked passions passing over me on their way. How the man on the far side with the silver hair was tired and worn and the woman behind him excited for another challenge. No one else could feel what others felt, at least that I knew of. My childish inquiries ended when my sisters and brothers first grew angry then mocked me for my questions, calling me either weak or a freak.

Maybe I was both. I paused on a glass bridge suspended over the grounds of the facility, looking out into the night, the moon reflecting from the snow covered ground. Lights flashed in the distance, headlamps of cars moving in and out of the parking lot, lives ebbing and flowing, not knowing in their mortal realm just how much existed outside their little world.

I could have blamed Mom and Dad for having me, for choosing, for the first time in history, to have a kid together. But I knew my freakishness wasn’t their fault. My nose was cold where I pressed it to the glass and exhaled mist onto the polished surface. A frown pulled at my forehead, the memory of that mist making me angry then sad. This was on me, this endless failure to do what I was born to do.

Which always led me to the same question. If I was an angel of Death like my brothers, I should have been able to send that man to his peace. So, I wasn’t, right? On the other hand, when I was sent on task by Mom, as an angel of Life, I invariably killed those I was meant to grant first breath to. It made no sense to me, nor to my furious sisters who learned to hate being assigned to hold my hand.

So, not an angel of Life nor of Death, daughter to that last where he only had sons. As always in the last eight years, as time went on and my hurt grew, I found myself asking the quiet night outside the obvious question.

What was my purpose?

I’d asked this question so many times the words themselves blurred together into nonsense. Except tonight felt different to me, charged with more need than I’d ever felt. Standing there that night, on the cusp of my sixteenth birthday, I knew it was time I did. I couldn’t go on like this anymore.

That reminder made me sigh and sag. My birthday was tomorrow, the turning of my year in a few hours. Which meant it was also a day I dreaded more than any other. Moving day. The day I left my father’s realm and joined my mother in hers.

Typically I would have let that realization—one I carefully and conveniently forgot for as long as possible—bum me out sufficiently it would ruin the rest of my last night free of my mother’s influence. But, now that my decision to do something about this mess had been made, I leaned away from the window and felt a smile lift my lips, my heart’s ache easing, tension released. Wallowing wasn’t really my thing, though I suppose most people wouldn’t blame me. That is, most people who weren’t my brothers, my sisters or my parents. So, reasonable people with hearts and souls and things.

Two more years of this. Until I was eighteen and able to decide which realm I wanted to live in forever. That was the promise they made me. Four more cycles back and forth, passed between them.

No. No more. Sixteen years had to be enough. Surely they would see that. I would talk to Dad. He would listen this time because I would refuse to act unless he did. And then, I would have that same conversation with Mom. This had to stop. I was done.

Well, we’d see about that.

Steps brisk and ready to go home, I spun to find the nearest door and go talk to Death. And almost ran into a familiar figure who hurried past me. How Daphne missed me standing there I don’t know, but when she turned, two of our sisters hurrying past her, the look of utter fury that crossed her face made me step back.

She spun and jabbed a finger in my direction, her blonde hair spilling in ringlets over one narrow shoulder, perfect face pinched with rage. “Don’t you dare,” she snarled, pointing then at the sign over the door at the end of the hall behind us. “You come near my nursery tonight and I’ll make sure you never, ever set foot in the Garden again.”

Her two companions observed with mixed emotions. Brunette Cadence watched, wide-eyed, young enough at thirteen not to have become as harsh and jaded as my older sisters. But icy blonde Ophelia smirked, green eyes narrowing while her disgust hit me solidly in my empathy. Likely on purpose.

“Go back to Undertown where you belong, loser.” She turned her slim, pale body, draped elegantly in a stunning pink sundress, until she’d cut me out of her view. “It’s time, Daph.” Reverence there, and respect for our oldest sister.

Daphne didn’t comment to Ophelia, her determined fury still focused on me. While Ophelia’s emotions did some damage, it was nothing compared to the full out attack on my psyche Life’s successor-in-waiting slammed me with.

I shrank back from her, shook my head. Opened my mouth to tell her I had no intention when she crossed her arms over her chest, foot tapping in her expensive shoe on the carpet. “If you think what you did tonight went unnoticed, Eve,” she made my name sound like it tasted awful in her mouth, “you can forget it. Everyone knows. Everyone.” That meant Dad and Mom. And all my siblings. Well, not like there was far for me to fall, after all. No one would be shocked, would they? Small comfort, that. “There is something fundamentally wrong with you.” Her words emerged in a hiss of fury, hateful and full of venom. I shriveled within despite my need to fight back, her powerful emotions sucking all the will out of me and crushing me under the weight of her rage. “I’ve told Mother you’re trouble, that she should have put you down like the monster you are a long time ago.” My cheeks heated, whole body shaking, my ears pounding and the mist moving in around the edges of my vision. Ophelia added her agreement in layers of pressure. Oddly, the young apprentice, Cadence, didn’t join in the fun. She’d better hope Daphne didn’t notice.

I wanted to run away from them, from my perfect, model sister who always got it right and was Mom’s favorite, but I couldn’t make my body move. This empathy of mine was a curse that held me in place, forcing me to take in all the vitriol and make it mine while the core of my soul screamed to fight back.

“Stay away from me, Eve.” Daphne spun and stomped off at last, Ophelia waving at me with delighted spite.

Cadence followed after them, her eyes on me while the doors of the nursery swung shut behind the trio with a whoosh of air.


***


Chapter Three


Finally able to move, I stumbled backward into the glass, tears burning tracks down my flaming cheeks, choking on more while I forced myself to turn slowly and walk away.

I didn’t make it far. I chose the nearest ward and slipped inside. I needed to hide, to escape and probably should have done so in a realm where I couldn’t hurt anyone. But the comforting peace of the hospital enveloped me, the soft emotions of the night mixing with the lingering limbo of health and illness drawing me deeper.

I sank at last onto a narrow, uncomfortable sofa under a big window at the end of a ward corridor and hugged my knees to my chest. I had just enough control left to hide myself from the mortals who patrolled the halls before sinking my forehead against the worn denim of my jeans and weeping as softly as I could, expelling the violent, poisoned emotions I’d gathered from Daphne and Ophelia into the fabric of my pants.

When I was finally done I sniffed a few times, wiped my nose on the cuff of my dark plaid shirt and collapsed back on the worn cushions. I always felt better when I let out the emotions I gathered, stronger somehow, more myself. I had to do it privately, though, or risk gathering even more feelings from others who either wanted to make me feel better or, more often, chose to tease me for my weakness. But I’d come to realize crying wasn’t weak. If anything, it helped me. And while I didn’t like having to go through five minutes of sobbing my heart out, the alternative was unimaginable.

My eight year old self learned early I either let the emotions out as fast as possible or I couldn’t function. And while I struggled with offering myself compliments, my own resilience shocked me sometimes.

Weary and weak from the experience I examined my own aura, the empathetic layer surrounding it that seemed unable to do anything but absorb the feelings that battered me on a constant basis. I’d often wondered where it came from and why it troubled me so. It had grown denser over the years, taking on more than I’d ever thought anyone could handle. It was able to smother my aura so completely at times I could almost feel myself slipping away. And in those moments when I hovered on the edge of no longer being Eve, of falling into darkness and the stillness of release, there was the mist.

I dreamed about it my whole life. Felt it hiding within me like a wavering second soul. I was certain it was because of that odd presence I was able to bounce back over and over, find myself again, even dig up a bit of optimism when I needed it most. But neither my father nor my mother could tell me what it was for or about.

Dad would just look at me strangely and hug me. Mom, on the other hand, with her arrogant overbearingness that burned with the forward momentum of Life unyielding, wouldn’t even listen.

I teased the edges of the mist, letting myself sink into it only to feel it retreat with what seemed to me like sadness. Some kind of hesitation, of waiting even. I sighed and shook off the questions this kind of exploration always raised. I was getting nowhere, as usual. Except to the place where I believed utterly I was just a freak.

“Eve.” How had she snuck up on me like that? I jerked slightly in surprise to find Cadence standing a few feet away, hands clasped before her. She seemed nervous, glancing back over her shoulder, brown curls bouncing, before taking a hesitant step forward. “Are you okay?”

Why should she care? That bitter and instant reaction made me inhale and instantly reject such a response. “I’m fine.” I wasn’t, that much had to be obvious, but I would make a good show of things in front of my younger sister.

Cadence joined me, to my utter shock, sinking to the sofa next to me, hands still folded, now settled in her lap over the pattern of flowers printed on her full skirt. She cleared her throat, a small and delicate sound, dark hair scented with Mom’s favorite roses. “I’m sorry.” The words blurted from her, lower lip trembling slightly. “For not speaking up.”

I gaped in shock, not sure what to make of this encounter, or of the sorrow in her aura now tinting my inner world with the need to hug her. “Against Daphne?”

Cadence nodded, swiped at one round cheek as a tear fell. She glanced at me quickly, large, brown eyes blinking, glistening with more moisture. She was crying? For me? “I wanted you to know,” she said, “I hate how she treats you.”

Despite the weight of her sorrow, I almost laughed. It was a gut reaction to such kindness, unfamiliar from one of my sisters. “That makes two of us.” No, I wouldn’t take this girl into my confidence. This had to be some kind of trick, a ploy of Daphne’s to give me solace then use it against me. But Cadence’s emotions were so raw, felt so real, I found myself softening toward her when she spoke again.

“I’m not strong enough to stand against her,” Cadence said, the wisdom of Life in her young voice. “And I won’t always be able to take your side. But I’m here for you, Eve.” She smiled then, offering one hand which I took slowly, limply, feeling the gentle offer of friendship and sisterly love in her touch through our auras. “You might not know it, but you’re the strongest of all of us. What you go through, how mean Daphne is to you.” She sniffed subtly, stood after squeezing my hand, still clinging to my fingers. “You never say anything to hurt anyone.” The wonder in her tone made me flinch from the truth of living in Life’s realm. “You’re my favorite sister. I just thought you should know.”

Cadence hurried off, her skirt whispering in the quiet, feet carrying her away from me too quickly for me to react in my stunned silence.

The moment she was gone distrust woke, thoughts of Daphne again invading. Cadence was my sister’s apprentice, shadowed her. She had to be behind this attempt to get into my heart. None of my sisters had ever tried such a thing before. Unlike Death’s sons, it hadn’t taken Life’s daughters long to start their lifetime dance of one upping and spite against me. At least my brothers waited until I was eight and proved to be a disaster before shunning my presence.

But as I sat there and thought it through, the more I considered my younger sister’s actions, the better I saw the truth.

Never once had Cadence treated me with disdain or spoken an unkind word. In fact, the opposite. She had always gone out of her way to avoid being mean or cruel. Still, it was hard to accept maybe, just maybe, I had a friend in Life after all. And, possibly more than one. What if there were those of my sisters without the courage to speak up as Cadence had? Surely all of Mom’s daughters weren’t like her. I was proof of that and, honestly, aside from Daphne and Ophelia, most of my sisters simply ignored me as unimportant and unable to assist them in their climb to favor with Life.

How many of them despised Mom’s encouragement to competition as I did?

Regardless of the truth, Cadence’s visit succeeded in releasing the last of my hurt. That and the time to myself granted me ease and relief. Enough so I finally felt up to facing my dad. I rose from the couch and stretched, vertebrae popping and muscles pulling. My black hair had escaped the messy bun I preferred, so I made busy with still shaky hands. The stretched out elastic barely contained the massive curly mess that fell to the small of my back when I let it. As I stepped past a partially open door, fumbling with the static laden stuff, I glanced inside, gaze caught by a flicker of light and my own reflection in the window.

I’d had better hair days, that much was obvious. Didn’t help my looks my plaid button up sat askew, my messy bun more of a monstrosity of knots and twists sticking out behind my head than a hairdo. My already pale skin looked ghostly in the glass, eyes two sunken, black holes instead of the dark blue I knew they were. I jerked to a stop, fingers finding my sharp cheekbones, wondering if this was how mortals saw me when I was playing at being an angel of Death or if I just looked like crap in general.

The flickering light steadied to constant illumination, drawing my gaze down from my own appalling appearance and to a face turned up toward me. I froze in his doorway, realizing only then I’d drifted close enough I caught his attention. I had to have been in pediatrics I realized as I flushed at the sight of the handsome teenager in the bed. His dark hair, sheered short, showed a long, narrow scar at the base of his skull. But his high cheekbones and wide jaw made him classically good looking, as did the pale, gray eyes that caught the light from the screen of his laptop. Eerie, though, his face in that glow, his cheeks slightly sunken, teeth seeming transparent when he smiled and beckoned.

I’d let my glamour fail me, the masking of my presence clearly gone or he never would have seen me. How could I be so careless?

I glanced behind me, one hand going to my throat in surprise and embarrassment. Partially out of concern I’d let myself slip and partially because I’d never had a cute guy pay me the least attention. Never mind I rarely had the chance to encounter anything resembling a handsome boy my age outside my brothers. Which made me shudder slightly and ew in my head before I squeaked out a question.

“Me?”


***


Chapter Four


He laughed, a nice sound, full of life even if maybe he wasn’t. And he wasn’t, not really. I could feel Death in him as I crossed the threshold of his room and paused there, hesitant and nervous. Consorting with mortals was against the rules, every angel of Life and Death knew that. We didn’t visit this realm to make friends. We were here to do a job and that was it. I could get into some serious trouble just talking with him. Somehow, that made this brief moment of interaction all the more appealing. I blushed at my own tiny flare of rebellion as the young man pulled himself up higher, three pillows behind him, laptop sliding sideways from his long, lean fingers. Again he gestured.

“You,” he said. “Unless you’re a hallucination, then you can come in anyway.”

I laughed, a half snort, half donkey braying kind of sound and fell silent, cheeks hot yet again. This was a disaster and I really had to go. Instead, I found myself shuffling my feet, hands diving into my back pockets while I struggled to not feel like an awkward loser. But holding my ground nonetheless. Where had this brave Eve come from?

“Hallucinations are allowed to sit down,” he said with an air of authority. “But only for a minute.”

I giggled that time and, despite knowing if Daphne or Ophelia saw me I’d be in for a huge dressing down, I slipped closer, sinking into the rigid armchair beside his bed. He grinned back at me, white teeth shining.

“I’m Adam Worth,” he said.

“Eve,” I whispered. Cleared my throat and tried again. “I’m Eve.”

He waited but I didn’t have a last name to give him and he was so cute and his smile was so sweet and friendly I couldn’t make my brain function well enough to fake one without choosing something totally stupid. So I held still and quiet and smiled back weakly until he shrugged. He had no idea I just enjoyed this moment of being with someone who had no idea what a crash and burn I really was.

“Nice to meet you, Eve,” he said. Then frowned, looking at me a little closer. “You okay?”

I nodded, fast and too eager. “Yeah,” I said, both hands on my face, wiping away imaginary moisture as I realized I must have looked even worse than I thought from all the crying I’d done. “Just… rough night.”

Adam set aside his computer, hands settling in his lap over the bleached white sheets. “Hear you,” he said, only the faintest trace of hurt in his voice and his aura. Funny, his emotions touched my empathy but didn’t assault it, just skimmed past as if unable to sink in. Either that or he had no desire to share, not really. He looked away, chin falling, lips tight before he exhaled and smiled at me again. “Need to talk about it?”

His offer caught my breath. I’d never had this much interaction with a mortal before, for obvious taboo reasons. Usually, my time with them consisted of either killing the ones who were meant to have life or saving those bound for death. Not exactly conversation evoking times. Let alone had a handsome guy my age ask me to tell him my troubles.

And his question was genuine. It came through clearly, his aura vibrating with his offer. He truly wanted to help.

In a rush of guilty need, I gulped and spoke. “Things just don’t seem to go the way they’re supposed to when I’m around.” Vague enough for him?

Adam’s lips were lovely, really, made the most delightful bow shape when he smiled. And those white teeth, utterly perfect. “At the risk of sounding cliché,” he said, gray eyes smiling, too, “which is, in itself, a cliché,” he winked, “that’s life, chiquita.”

“I suppose.” I sighed, sagged in the chair, the plastic squirting air from small holes, making embarrassing noises. Adam smirked, but out of real amusement and not a trace of teasing so I smiled back despite my conscience whispering to me I really, really had to go. Just get up. Get out of there before someone caught me. So why then did my body remain where it was, heart sighing softly in response to his kindness? “I just wish for once I could have been able to do something right.”

Adam’s smile faded. “It’s not your fault,” he said. It could have sounded like a rote response, something lacking authenticity or truth. But, from him, it came out with so much insistence my empathy latched on with purpose and absorbed it of its own accord. First time for everything. I gasped softly at the change and almost missed his question when he spoke again. “Who’s dying?”

I tensed when understanding woke, but his emotional support lingered, strengthened and I let it. Like I had a choice, or so I told myself, enjoying the moment immensely as it stretched out in delightful softness I’d never experienced before. “He’s not,” I said. “Not anymore.” That came out as a whisper despite Adam’s emotional contact.

“And you’re upset about that?” Adam shook his head, but didn’t judge, his aura warm and kind. “Grandfather?”

I didn’t respond, let him assume. Because I couldn’t tell him the truth.

“Is your family upset he’s going to be okay?” Adam sounded totally confused now, though his faith in me didn’t waver. Was this what it was like to be mortal? To believe utterly and wholly in things and never doubt? But no, my sisters and brothers had beliefs this strong.

So doubt was just me.

“In a way,” I said, struggling to answer him. “It’s been expected, you see.” That sounded terrible, had to, to a mortal. Especially one who was sick. “It’s complicated.”

Adam chewed his lower lip a second, the warmth of his aura fading, leaving me, replaced by his own worries. I wished then the empathetic layer I carried was reversible, that I could comfort him with what had, until now, felt like a lifelong curse. “I guess so,” he said. Then sighed, sorrow in his energy. “People are weird about dying.”

“Tell me about it,” I said. His aura shifted into pain, physical and emotional and I almost reached out with my hand to grasp his but held back, knowing better. I didn’t dare touch him. For all I knew, doing so would trigger an ending I’d regret. I wasn’t here for him, so who knew what contact would result in? Death or Life or nothing? Not worth the risk, not when I felt myself connect to this young man in a way that the rules demanded I shouldn’t. “So, how about you? Did you want to talk?” I was a good listener. At least Tulip said so. My only real friend loved to chatter on and I preferred to let her so I guess it made sense.

Adam didn’t look at me, staring out the window into the darkness. “I don’t talk about it,” he said.

I sat there a long moment, feeling the break in our connection and wishing I hadn’t ruined this, too. Not that I could do anything to maintain our relationship, whatever it was in these few rebellious moments. I couldn’t help wondering what I could do to help him though, secretly wishing I could find a way to start again. When he turned back to me, everything slid toward joy again. This guy had mercury in his blood or multiple personalities. Or maybe he’d come to terms with the thing that was killing him—his Death was written all over him when I allowed myself to look—and refused to feel badly for long.

“I like your attitude,” I said, meaning it. And liking him far more than I knew was good for me. But as I sat there and smiled at him, I found I didn’t care so much what anyone thought. About rules and mortals and angels. I wasn’t a daughter of Life or Death, not in that way. I’d proved that often enough. So the rules didn’t apply to me, did they?

Adam laughed. “You’re the only one, then,” he said. “Everyone else tells me I need to come to terms with what’s happening to me. The tumor.” He gestured at his head while his aura warmed up again and hope hugged me. “But there’s still this new treatment they’re trying. I’m not ready to give up yet.”

I couldn’t tell him what I saw. I was enough of Death’s daughter I knew his end was coming. Then again, who knew? Not me, certainly. For all I understood he might make it. After all, I was the worst angel of Death ever.

Made me feel a little better for him and his chances.

Eve. His mind always felt soft and kind, but Dad’s touch made me tense anyway. Partly because I sat where I did, consorting. I almost snorted at the word before sighing and answering him.

Coming. He didn’t have to ask. I knew what Dad wanted. Time to face the music. Even though it was his orchestra and the score was created by my parents, not me.

I stood, hugging myself again. “I have to go, I guess.”

“Hallucination over,” Adam said. “Got it.”

I turned toward the door, paused. “How’s the game?” I’d have to tell Tulip I met a mortal who played. My best friend loved video games, made her own, in fact. She’d be gasping and shocked and jealous all at the same time.

Adam glanced at the screen. “Played one, killed everyone in sight, you’ve played them all.” He sat back, waved. “By the way,” he said. “Our name connection was not lost on me.”

I rolled my eyes and laughed. “I was wondering.” And forged ahead with a privately giddy thought even though the likelihood I’d ever see him again—should or would—was pretty slim. “Next time, I’ll be sure to bring an apple.”

His eyebrows rose, smile broadening. “Next time?”

I waved instead of answering and left him there, heart buzzing with something I’d never felt before. No, I couldn’t have a relationship with a mortal. This was once and once only, right? A chance to clear my head and release the last of my hurt before facing Dad. An accident, a slip up from someone who constantly stumbled from one mistake to another.

At least I’d keep telling myself that while finding a way to return and see Adam. I wasn’t hurting anyone, was I? The hospital corridor swallowed me while I clung to the feeling Adam left in my aura, not sure if I wanted to let that emotion out.


***


Chapter Five


I found the closest door, a utility closet, the buckets and cleaners within vanishing as soon as I stepped past the threshold. A faint chill passed through me as it always did when I left the mortal realm behind for the Crosspath. The dim quiet enveloped me, dark green carpet soft under my shoes. The air here always smelled faintly of dust, though the large, circular space seemed immaculately clean for somewhere that saw so much varied traffic.

I had the hub to myself, the curve of velvet upholstered art deco sofas about as welcoming as any waiting room, the small fireplace in the center smoking faintly, the wisps of it disappearing into thin air. Someone had been here, perhaps held a meeting just recently, but for now I was alone.

This place often gave me shivers. The silence of it, though the times the Crosspath played Muzak of its own accord seemed even worse. Though we all took its existence for granted, I wondered at times just who designed this place that was nowhere with its walls of black stone that absorbed light, ceiling lost to the darkness overhead, pinpoints that looked like stars flickering far above. Not that it mattered, really. But it would have been nice to know.

My feet dragged as I turned away from the corridors leading off in arching spokes of halls branching away from the Crosspath hub. There were plenty of doors to choose from, though only one I really should have been heading for. Death’s door, the entry to Undertown, loomed in its own special place between the branches. Dad’s realm had enough standing to warrant a wall space instead of being relegated down some hallway or another. I purposely didn’t turn around to look for the opposite. Life’s entry was just as prominent, though Mom made sure her door was bigger, brighter, flashier. Which was typical of her, really. I wondered if she knew Dad didn’t care if she thought she was better than him or not.

Somehow I doubt his attitude would have made a difference.

Two more large doors dominated the Crosspath. The one I’d just exited, to the mortal realm. And the fourth the looming, welcoming portal to the Repository of Creation.

I hesitated, knowing I should go see Dad as soon as possible. I’d already let Nero have plenty of time to break the news, though our father would have felt what happened the instant it occurred. He would have lived my failure, sensed the change in the Book as the name of the old man was erased. And, honestly, with my track record Dad shouldn’t have been surprised. Probably wasn’t. So, there was no hurry to go back, was there? Yes, he’d personally summoned me just a minute ago. But Death was patient.

Besides, I only had a few hours left before the night turned over into day and I wasn’t Dad’s problem anymore. At least for the next six months. Moving day, my birthday, meant leaving Undertown behind for the Garden and Mom’s damaging attention. Or lack, thereof. Maybe if she’d taken the time to actually get to know me she would have stopped this silly back and forth long ago. Why my parents continued to pass me between them at times raised the anger I struggled to hold onto as a sign I had even a little control over my own life. It wasn’t like they sent me willingly. For whatever reason, Mom fought Dad every time for my presence, only to treat me like I didn’t exist. I know Dad would have kept me in Undertown with him if she hadn’t been so stubborn about it.

Not like I had a say in the matter. Still, the way Mom treated failure in my sisters, even perceived failure, I would think she would have been happy to be rid of me. And yet, it was likely my continuing lack of success motivating her. Until I actually did the job she assigned me, Mom refused to let me go.

My failure was hers or some ridiculousness that made my life misery for six months of every year.

I stood there, fretting and trying to convince myself with layers of excuses Dad was a better choice at the moment. That maybe this time I’d be able to just put an end to the cycle of awful two years early. My stomach suddenly dropped, a dizzy spell washing over me while the mist drifted into the edges of my vision. I’d never felt it so powerfully before and pressed both hands to my stomach, lips clenching against bile burning the back of my throat. It took me a moment of gasping to bring my unhappy insides under control, time in which I gaped, shocked, at the sight of a fifth door.

Where had it come from? It seemed vague, wavering, made of the same ghostly mist that plagued my dreams since I was little. The same mist that appeared so frequently when I tried to fulfill my duties. It formed an entry, the Crosspath shifting before my eyes, disorienting and making my dizziness worse. I had to look away at last, staring at the carpet for a moment, breathing pants of air through my open mouth until the feeling subsided as quickly as it came.

When I looked up again, the misty doorway was gone, the Crosspath hub back to normal. I spun slowly on the toe of one shoe, looking down each of the multitude of hallways leading off like the spokes of a great wheel, but the wavering door had disappeared.

I had to have imagined it. Just a stress reaction to what happened with the old man. And yet, I couldn’t bring myself to believe this was some kind of a hallucination. It happened, I was sure of it. But I had no idea why.

I stood there a long time, breathing in the quiet, dead air of the Crosspath, listening to the final crackles of the fire someone left behind and the sound of my own lungs drawing and expelling breath. I called on the mist, willing it forward, only to have it retreat as it always did. My body righted itself quickly enough, though it took a few minutes for my pulse to settle completely. By the time it had, I wound through enough paranoid scenarios to drive myself to distraction.

Maybe I was losing my mind? I didn’t fit in with my brothers or my sisters, with Life or Death. It was quite possible that instead of the stable, sane and helpful angel of either I was supposed to be, I was instead some kind of anti-angel. The monster my eldest siblings always told me I was.

My jaw ached from clenching it and I finally shook off my frozen, self-conscious state of anxiety. Purposely, with effort, I forced myself into calm and composure. As usual I was turning something that likely wasn’t anything into a gigantic problem that would just make my life more miserable. I shook my head, making my lips smile until I felt the shift in my emotions and relaxed at last. It was just some mist, just a door. It had nothing to do with me.

Feeling better, I threw my shoulders back and, still smiling, strode with fake confidence toward Undertown.

The tall, narrow way of dark stone waited for me, seeming to exhale outward as I drew near. The pale, gray skull carved into the surface grinned when I reached for the round, silver knob in the center and winked one gaping eye hole at me. When I was small, I always tried to talk to the bony guardian and though it never answered, Death’s door had taken a liking to me. I waved and blew the skull a kiss before it swung open for me without my effort, allowing me inside.

All I had to do now was hold onto the optimism and false confidence I’d wrapped around myself. I’d learned early on it was my only defense against falling into darkness and despair. Thankfully, I had those in my life who did their best to encourage my self-worth and, because of them and my stubborn refusal to allow the rest of my family to hurt me, I was able to enter Undertown with my head held high.

The door swung shut behind me, disappearing, taking the view of the Crosspath with it when it did. A mountain towered behind the place it had been, the etching of the exit just visible in the dark stone. I turned deliberately and firmly away from it and strode with heavy steps across the rock outcrop at the entry to Death’s realm, pausing as I often did at the lip of the bridge into Undertown.

This view was part of the reason I didn’t give up hope. Yes, it was the domain of Death, but it never failed to thrill me. The pale, gray sky arched over tall, stone buildings, dark green gardens lush with heavy foliage on every roof. Statues marched in stately columns down the broad promenade leading to the towering palace of Death.


***


Chapter Six


It might have seemed gloomy to others, but I loved it so.

My shoes squelched softly on the stone of the open bridge arching across to the wide courtyard on the other side, heavy, rubber soles firm on the path. One of my hands slid across the moss crusted bricks, edges eroded over eons, carved faces and animals winding their way underfoot. I’d spent endless hours on this bridge as a small girl, following the carvings back and forth, listening to my father tell me about the march of life that ended here, in his realm.

I almost made it halfway before he caught up with me, the rustle of his broad wings dusty in the air. The great raven settled on the arch of the thin, iron railing, fluttering his feathers to settle them, beady, shining black eye fixed on me as his big head tilted sharply in my direction.

“Eve,” he said, crisp British accent irritating me the instant he spoke, a learned reaction to the weight of his disapproval. “Your father has been waiting for you.” A film of white rolled over the beaded black, the inner lid sliding forward in that creepy way the raven had of unsettling me.

“I’m coming, Corvus.” It was happening despite everything I’d told myself. I felt it, the bowing of my chin, the rolling forward of my shoulders in response to his presence. It took a great deal of effort not to let him win immediately, though I’d be furious with myself later for even giving in this much to the grumpy old bird.

Corvus, Death’s advisor and general pain in my behind, fluttered forward, settling ahead of me so he could glare as I walked by. “Your recent disaster has yet again caused your father difficulty.” He preened a moment, the arrogant prat, claws clicking on the stone he clutched. “I really don’t know what it is you’re up to, child, but whatever game you’re playing it’s time to end it.”

I halted instantly, anger rising, though it didn’t emerge. It never came out, no matter how frustrated I felt. Instead I stood there and shook, lips glued together. As if this was my fault, by design, by choice.

Finally able to speak past my frustrating wall of anger, I continued on, hurrying now, needing to escape the nasty creature but knowing I never would. “Dad’s in his throne room?”

“Where else would he be, you ridiculous girl.” Corvus lifted off, hovering near me, keeping pace with his own power and the occasional flap of his wings. He intended to follow me all the way in. I could feel my skin tightening as it crawled with inexpressible emotion, my stomach forming a hard, hot ball in my gut, bubbling with acid. He knew exactly how to make me feel worse and, whether by design or just natural vindictiveness, Corvus never failed to do his best to make sure I was in the worst state possible when I talked to my dad.

My empathy betrayed me all over again to the point I wished it would just leave me to fall into darkness in peace.

There was no real relief on the other side of the bridge, either, the courtyard crisscrossed by my brothers, hurrying on their way to tasks of their own. Three of them stalked toward me, their thin bodies draped in fashionable clothing, taking to the bridge themselves, heading for the realm of mortals, more than likely. Angels of Death, stunning in their tall, slender maleness, eternally young, with dark hair and blue eyes just like my father. But without the kindness in their faces his always held.

Least of all Kael, my eldest brother, who—as luck would have it—led the small group of my most antagonistic brothers. I did duck my head then, feeling the need to be small and unnoticed take me over. His shoulder brushed me, knocked me off balance, the faint chuckle from his companions enough of an emotional strike to complete the hurt.

“Eve.” Kael’s heavy, silken voice pulled me to a halt like I wore a collar and leash. I turned slowly to find him watching me, body turned sideways, head tilted down as he smirked with cruelty in his aura.

He of all my brothers knew about my empathy, loved using it against me. He purposely, I now knew, spent enough time with me as a child he gleaned understanding of my pain and turned it into the means to amuse himself. Never mind I was sure he’d done the same to every single sibling of ours. And, I had no doubt, kept careful note what he could use against each one. Because that was Kael.

There was a time when his dislike and disdain could have been crippling. But it was partly because of Kael’s deliberate attempt to break me I was able to learn to shed the excess negative emotions and come out the other side. Not that I’d ever thank him or anything.

“Kael.” I managed his name at a reasonable volume and tone, voice steady enough.

He just stared and felt at me. My eldest brother didn’t have to speak. All the words he’d needed to say had been spoken over the years. It had come to the point Kael only had to look at me and share that small, nasty smile and my aura crumpled in agony.

Not today. I wouldn’t allow it in these last hours before my inevitable return to Life and my mother’s Garden. I would not fumble and falter when I’d come through a barrage of pain already tonight. I think I surprised him when I succeed in staring back. I know I surprised me. And, to my shock, the source of my strength had buzzed dark hair and a kind, stunning smile, the embedded warmth of Adam’s memory lingering.

I turned and walked away, breathing deep and fighting a grin of triumph, certain Kael would follow and shocked when he didn’t. He would wait six months, gather his hate, use it against me when he saw me again. Many times in the past just knowing he waited for me, his abuse only building strength with the weeks passing, would have made me run for my room to weep. Not today.

Maybe things were looking up after all.

I wasn’t pushing my luck with him though, forcing a quicker pace, carrying me away from him before his well-designed emotional attack could do further damage.

A glance behind me once I was out of his reach revealed Kael glaring still, motionless on the bridge as if uncertain of what to do. Oh yes, he’d make me pay for escaping his nasty attempt to ruin my day. Failure hurt, didn’t it, brother? I almost laughed, more out of despair than humor, but I’d take the emotional perk where I could find it.

It was impossible to avoid all of my brothers, though there were no more concerted efforts to bring me low, at least. For the most part, as usual, they avoided me, and I hardly blamed them. The bulk of Death’s angels weren’t unkind to me so much as their collective decision to ignore me or treat me like a stranger hurt just as much. For the most part, my brothers shared Dad’s kindness, his compassion. I suppose years of my constant failure led to this generalized agreement to simply pretend I wasn’t there. Likely Kael’s delight in my torment only added to the distance.

Thinking of Cadence made me wonder if there were those among them, like her and Nero, who might feel otherwise but lacked the courage to stand out. Heartening, that wistful longing.

Surprisingly, Corvus kept his beak shut after my encounter with my eldest brother, winging softly beside me, muttering occasionally but clearly distracted, his feelings not aimed in my direction. I wondered long ago why Dad’s advisor didn’t stand up for me. I’d learned to hate the raven for never interceding when Kael’s abuse became heartbreaking. Until I’d simply chosen to avoid the large, black bird whenever possible.

By the time we reached the other end of the long parade to the stairs leading into the palace I managed to reassemble a bit of my optimism, enough my shoulders weren’t bowed and my neck aching from staring at the ground.


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