Chapter 1: Angel Of Death
BOOK ONE: THE ETERNAL DAUGHTER SERIES
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.
"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 c***k 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?