Kristy D. Bock

Defiance in Death - Kristy D. Bock

Defiance in Death

For Derrick,

You get me.

Chapter One
Only the boring stay dead.

I’m an Internet stalker.

Each night after work, I sought his profile and read every ridiculous thing he posted. Unashamed in invading his privacy, I’d ‘like’ everything. Just my passive-aggressive way of announcing he’d been in my thoughts. Not that he ever left them. From the moment I met him, his fractured spirit captured me.

I had this thing about people. I cultivated friendships with the broken. I did whatever it took not to have to inspect the person in the mirror. Their lives were so much easier to focus on.

“Daria, a few of us are getting a beer after work. Are you in?”

He’s so cute when he talks. The little dimple that sits just off the corner of his mouth made me want to poke him. He hadn’t shaved today, making me want to run my fingers down his face to feel the stubble against my skin. God, I’m an idiot.

“Earth to Daria.”

He smells clean. How can he make soap smell so good? There’s something about a man who need not mask his natural scent with chemicals.

“Seriously, are you okay?”

With a sigh, I snapped out of my hormone-induced fog. “I’m poverty stricken this week. I can’t afford to pay attention.”

He smiled again, and the dimple deepened.

“You drink cheap beer and only two. I’m sure we can swing five dollars for you.”

“Then count me in. I need to finish a few things here. Who is all coming?”

“You, me, Alex, Tamera, Sheldon, and…” He paused, so I knew I wouldn’t like the next person whose name came out of his mouth. “Sharon.”

“Why on Earth would you invite the boss to go drinking? I’m out.”

Of all the people I wouldn’t mind getting intoxicated with, my anal-retentive boss wasn’t one of them. I had nothing against the woman who signed my paychecks, but I liked the gaping red sea that separated our personal lives.

“You’re still in. She’s just a person, red blood cells and all. Besides, it’ll do Alex good to network with her. They have passed him over for the last six promotions.”

Oh, man, he used the Alex card. Anytime I’ve ever fallen behind on my work, which is pretty much every day, Alex is the first to offer his help. I couldn’t possibly do something that would stand in the way of him getting what he rightfully deserves. They could promote me to Sharon’s job, and Alex can have mine. Then I’d be the boss, and everyone would avoid me like the plague. I’d have to pass on that.

“Fine, but I’m not singing.”

Kurtis laughed. “There’s beer and karaoke. I bet you ten dollars you don’t get through your first bottle before signing up. We all know that deep inside your jaded little heart lives a vibrant woman waiting to be the center of attention.”

His laugh enveloped my ears and made me smile. Why couldn’t I like the bad guy douche noggins like all the other women out there? Bad boys didn’t stick women in the friend zone. Pretty girls past thirty do not get laid in the friend zone. I’m just saying.

“Lucky for you, I don’t have ten dollars to bet you. Now go away and let me work before Sharon thinks I don’t have enough to do.” With a swivel of my chair, I returned to my workstation and began the billing work I should have done two days ago. Since when did procrastination become a lifestyle choice? I remembered not too long ago when I wore eagerness like a cape and would have finished everything early. With five shot-down attempts to get ahead, my motivation amounted to that of my sex life. Non-existent. At this rate, Alex would be a manager before I would, and everyone knew he wasn’t already because he’d slept with the director’s daughter.

As soon as Kurtis walked away, I swung my chair back around to watch him. He might not have much of an ass, but his tall, lanky gait when he walked made me think again about what he’d be like in bed. Every inch of him was just so long.


The groan escaped my throat before I could clamp my lips together. It’s bad enough she’s invading my after-work activities. Now she’d want me to do something irritating, like work.

“Daria, why are there sticky notes all over the Jefferson, Brendon, and Skoal files?”

Perhaps, oh-wise-boss, if you read said sticky notes, the answer would magically appear before your very eyes. Though I didn’t say that to her, it felt good to think about it. “There’s something wonky with those accounts. They need to be reviewed.”

“Aren’t you an accounts manager?”

“I’m more than happy to review them further, but I thought you’d want to know before I did so.”

“I don’t have time to do my job and yours.”

“I’ll pick them up in a few minutes then. Is there anything else?”

“Just keep me updated on what you uncover. All three are long-standing clients. If these findings are accurate, we need to tread lightly.”

It would not be a great idea to say that all three were fraudulent companies without employees. Every social security number I had traced returned to an infant that died in the early 1900s. The whole thing was odd; apparently, I was the only one who’d ever noticed. This has corporate cover-up right on up to our Strategies Unlimited eyebrows. I wanted to pass it off to Sharon, so I didn’t have to have any part of the fallout. The companies had enough ties to military contracts and arsenals to lay siege to the entire population of humans. In my whole experience as an account specialist, I had never seen any company win so many contracts as these three did. Combined with the fact that they were all owned by the same person, it sent my conspiracy theory mind into overdrive.

“Will do.”

“I need your billing on my desk in one hour, or your entire team will not get paid next Friday.”

With that, she hung up. See that is what I meant. On the one hand, she’s willing to let me tackle the more extensive assignments without micromanaging me to death, and then she squashes my inner rebellion with threats of my team not getting paid. Like that will ever happen. My twelve account specialists would skin me alive and boil my remains to feed the seagulls that roam up and down this coast.


It irritated her when I answered with letters. Once I sent her a text message that said Running L8. She brought me into her office to discuss professionalism. Every subsequent text message started with HRU. (How are you?). What can I say? In the core of my being, I’m a spoiled, petulant pre-teen just waiting to piss off my subsequent authority figure?

When it came time for them to deny me a promotion again, I’m sure I’ll regret all this immature nonsense.

I finished the billing in about fifteen minutes. The sad part of my life was that I was ridiculously good at my job. I work for a firm that acted as a conglomerate corporation’s check and balance system. They hired us to review their company practices in ethics, billing, advertising, and community involvement. We gave them a rating they then used to promote themselves in developing areas or in career-building campaigns.

I started as a temp about four years ago. Fresh-faced and college educated, I’d been ready to take on the world. One thousand, eight hundred, and sixty-four accounts later, I hated everything corporate-related. I have yet to see one company that wanted to be a strong presence in the community or pay their workers what they were worth. They just wanted an excellent little A on their report card. We’re the Health Department giving out ratings based on an archaic system that had no fundamental basis in this century. Not to mention, I had a suspicion; the entire setup was a fraud to cover companies like Jefferson, Brenden and Skoal. That or I just watched too much crime television. These three were the dirtiest companies I’d ever seen, all owned by a woman named Winterbourne. The world knew absolutely nothing about her. This woman controlled the weapons contracts for the US military, and many of her foreign investments dealt with technological warfare.

Sharon’s office stood about twelve feet from my humble desk. I switched out the billing folder for the folders of the three companies I had spent the weekend investigating. One of the great benefits of my job was that I only had to show up on Fridays. I spent most of my time in the field and visited the companies. Initially, I signed on as an intern to get a feel for what it would be like to work there. I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to quit my job and work for some places that tried so hard to impress me. Strategies Unlimited made me sign a disclosure stating I wouldn’t leave their employment for a company I had investigated.

They sucked like that.

I finished the last bit of paperwork and cleared off my desk for the week. Clutter disturbed me in ways I couldn’t explain, and I’d be spastic next week if I returned to things out of place.

Sharon poked her head out of her office door as I walked by. “Good night, Daria. It’s been an adventure working with you.”

“Uh, bye.”

What kind of statement was that? She made it sound as though our work relationship was ending. Oh, thank God. If I’m getting fired, then I don’t have to investigate why three of our biggest clients all carry the identification of dead people.

Death by Karaoke

Something about a local bar made your feet stomp, your ass shake, and your tongue dry as cotton. The deafening mixture of rock and country assaulted my ears as the door opened. My taste buds perked up on my tongue to state a single demand. Beer. I’ve never been a fan of hard liquor. I don’t need an excuse to act stupid, get naked, or be bold. When the higher authority created me, he gave me a healthy dose of exhibitionism and skimped on common sense.

No sooner had I walked in when a regular wrapped her intoxicated arm around me and said how happy she was to see me. Her name escaped me, but drunk people liked everyone, and I was her new best friend.


A chorus of voices called out my name as I found my small crew of friends in the bar’s back corner, beside the karaoke stage. How convenient. Kurtis sat at the end, with a seat open next to him. He patted the center of the bar stool.

“Saved you a seat.”

Tonight, he wore a t-shirt with a picture of entwined utensils saying, ‘I like to spoon after I fork’. A part of me wanted to reply, can we get a jump start on the forking, but I behaved because I noticed across from the seat was Sharon. Dear holy entity above, what was she wearing?

My boss looked like a hooker.

Breathe, stay calm, and say something nice. Anything but what was on the tip of my tongue. Something that doesn’t talk about her…

“Damn, Sharon, your girls came out to play!” I had no willpower in life.

The straw of her glass rose to her lips as she arched a well-manicured eyebrow at me before saluting me with her drink before she put it back down. “What’s the point of having them if you hide them away in layers of tops?”

Oh! Point for the boss lady. I had on three shirts. The first a green camisole, and then a button-down shirt over the top with half the buttons undone. Last, a sweater because it’s November and I can’t stand being cold. My girls were in hibernation.

“So, foot in mouth, girl, whatever is on tap?” Kurtis asked.

I nodded, still trying to form a retort to Sharon’s thrown shade. He remembered my beverage of choice. First, he saved me a seat, and next, my beer was based on budget choice. I wish he saw me as a sex object. Though, Sharon probably had a point about the whole clothing thing. If I wanted to be sexy, I probably should have tried to dress that way. I dislike my boss, especially when she’s right. I watched him walk away as he left the table to get me a beer. Then I turned and greeted the rest of my friends.

My foot tapped against the metal posts of the stool as I listened to a poor rendition of a newer country song. When someone butchered a song, it made my day. What’s the point of karaoke if everyone sounded like they ripped the vocal cords from the throat of angels? I want to hear some glass-shattering, nerve-fraying, cat-howling thrown-down noise. That way, when I stepped on stage and sounded moderately decent, I’d be a welcome relief.

“Daria, it’s a good thing he turned his back. You just molested him eight ways to Sunday with those eyes.”

Okay, so point two for the boss lady, a big fat zero for inept verbal volleyballer Daria Gale Platts. What does one say to their boss that they shouldn’t be out drinking with their subordinates?

“Suck it.” Well, not my best retort ever, but it worked just the same, I guess.

She gave me an odd look, and her tiny pink tongue darted out briefly. She looked at me with sadness, and I swear I saw her eyes filling with moisture. The woman had a touch of crazy. When Kurtis returned with my beer, I was ready to divert my attention from Sharon to anything else.

“Dance with me?”

Whereas I went to a bar to sing, Kurtis went to dance. He’s the only straight man I’d ever met who genuinely liked to dance. Me? I was born with two left feet and an invisible third that tripped me. However, I loved any excuse to be in his arms, so I hopped off the stool, beer in hand and went with him.

The next song was an oldie by a legendary country artist. He held out his hand to me. With flair, I bowed before him and took him in mine. He pulled me close and wrapped his arms around me. I want to say this was because he wanted to hold me close, but if he didn’t ultimately lead me to the floor, I’d break his toes. We’ve learned this from going to bars together over the last few years. I learned two things as I tried to keep my feet in rhythm with his. One, he smelled amazing. I wanted to bury my nose in his neck and inhale the essence that made up Kurtis Winterbourne. As his hands moved toward my ass, I forgot the second thing.

Holy crap, he grabbed my butt.

I looked up at him. His eyes sparkled with amusement. “You should see your face right now.”

“I almost dropped my beer.”

“That would have been a travesty.”

“Good beer shouldn’t go to waste.”

“I am going to kiss you now, Daria.”

What? No sooner did he say the words when his mouth dipped down and captured mine. At first, the shock made my mind blank, as if I’d forgotten how to kiss. Then reality kicked in, and I remembered how long I’d wanted this. With my fingers around the neck of the bottle, I wrapped my arms around his neck and enthusiastically returned his kiss.

When he drew back, I had lost the ability to breathe, think, and speak in that order. I blinked a few times as I stared at him. My mouth still carried the taste of his lips. “Well golly gee, sir, you altered our friendship’s entire course.”

He leaned forward and kissed the tip of my nose, which made me crinkle it. “I’m tired of waiting for you to make the first move.”

Now it all made sense. I haven’t yet woken up for the day. That explains Sharon’s cryptic goodbye from work and this anomaly of Kurtis’s mouth on mine. I’m still warm and snug in my bed, with a big old smile on my lips.

“Maybe I was waiting on you.”

“Then you should have said so.”

“That defeats the purpose of the first move.”


We danced to the next song, and I knew bliss in those moments. I don’t know when my dreams became a reality, but Kurtis Winterbourne kissed me tonight under the corny strobe lighting of my favorite bar. I leaned closer, resting my cheek against his shoulder and breathed in his scent. God, he smelled so good.

“One of our local favorites is up next. Come on over, Daria!”

The usual excitement I experienced when I was about to sing didn’t happen because I didn’t want to step away from Kurtis.

“That’s you.”

“No, they mean some other Daria.”

“Get your ass on stage.”

“Fine. Fine.”

I pulled away and walked up to the stage. The funny thing about being a regular at a small bar was that the DJ learned what you could sing. She handed me the microphone and smiled. “Thanks, sweetie. The night is a barren wasteland for people wanting to sing.”

“No worries, I was only making out on your dance floor.”

The music started, and I giggled. The DJ played a song from the nineties about kissing. Never let it be said that the women in this town didn’t have a sense of humor.

The lights went out as soon as the music started, and the sound died. My heart skipped a beat as a tremor of fear ran up my spine. It was hard enough to be on stage in front of others, but to be on stage in the dark with no music made my nerves fray. The darkness settled on the crowd, and for a moment, every person in the bar fell silent.

Apprehension filled me as I felt a presence before me, though I couldn’t see anyone there. While the dark was intense, it wasn’t pitch black, so I questioned my belief that I wasn’t alone on the stage.

A sharp pain exploded throughout my chest. I couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe. My mouth gaped as I tried to scream, but no sound came out. When the lights came on, I looked out at the crowd. Their mirrored expressions of horror made me stagger back.

Again, I tried to speak, but the taste of copper flooded my mouth. A woman screamed as I fell to the ground. My legs just gave out as if they no longer worked. I looked down at my chest and saw a dark red stain spreading. Blood dribbled from my mouth to the front of my well-covered boobs.

What? Why was I bleeding?

Kurtis rushed up to the stage and put his arms around me. He pulled my head toward his chest. “Daria, look at me.”

I blinked a few times as I tried to stare up at him, but his face was fuzzy and unfocused.

“That’s it, stay with me. Call 911.”

I tried to talk but gargled nonsense dribbled out of my mouth. I couldn’t feel my arms or my legs. My eyelids closed of their own accord. Each breath from my chest took more effort than I had left to give. The real threat of death took root in my chest as panic set in.

“No! Don’t close your eyes. Look at me.”

My lips curled in a smile as I gave my last breath. At least I died in Kurtis’s arms.

The choice of a lifeline

They, not that I know who they are, say in death, a person experiences the sensation of going through a long dark tunnel with a light at the end. They lied. There was no tunnel, just the chaos and panic that erupted after my life ended.

Kurtis held my bloodied body, alternating between calling out for help and telling me to stay with him. He babbled about kissing me for the first time and how it wasn’t enough for him.

It made me happy that he admitted the same emotion for me I had for him. Except I was dead. Who died while singing karaoke? Taking away from the fact that it was total degradation to die so exposed on stage, with everyone and their drunk ass mother staring at me, I didn’t even know how I died. No matter how hard I reflected on when the lights went out, the only memory that surfaced was a vague sense of someone in front of me before the explosion of pain in my chest.

My life didn’t flash before my eyes. I don’t know why it bothered me not to experience these things, but I felt cheated that death was nothing more than watching your lifeless body. Where were the angels? Okay, that’s reaching in my case, but where were the demons? The soul reapers that would carry my body to the pearly gates to await judgment. There must be more to death than watching paramedics attempt to work on your lifeless body. The bar patrons couldn’t get out fast enough, but the bouncers kept them inside until the police arrived. The blood all over my body probably clued them in that a murderer was in their midst. Police officers corralled everyone by the bar to take down their names and addresses. No one saw anything. One minute I was up on stage. The next I was dead on the ground. Even at the end of my life, I was messing it all up.

“Good evening.”

I swiveled around, but the movement proved unnecessary as my focus shifted from before me to behind. Amid all the chaos and confusion, one lone patron sat at the table with a goblet of amber liquid in hand as if nothing happened. The man stared right at me. He wore a suit that would have stood out like a sore thumb in the dive bar. Chiseled in a Greek God way with a square chin and eyes that a girl could get lost in.

“Are you talking to me?”

“You seem to be the only person floating around.”

“Why aren’t the police questioning you?” Not that I found it a trifle suspicious or anything. Someone murdered me. I didn’t think I rated high enough on anyone’s dislike list for murder.

“You do, in fact, rate on someone’s list of people to murder as you are dead.” The man took a swig of his liquor and lifted it level with his eyes. The look of appreciation made less sense than my apparent death. The glass made an audible thug as it hit the wooden surface. No one looked at him or even noticed that a random person was still at the table drinking.

“Did you just read my mind?”

“Yes, I did. I’m only here as a courtesy. You slipped through the cracks before they put a freeze on death.”

The pure explosion of randomness that spewed forth took me by surprise. “A freeze on death? Who are you? Who killed me? Why am I dead? Am I going to Heaven? Don’t answer that last one. I’ve never been an exceptionally good person.”

“I cannot answer your questions. I suggest you hang out with your body and take in the sights. I’m sure the strike will end soon, and you can move on.”

“What strike?”

“Death workers feel entitled to more than we have given them. To set their universe right, they’ve stopped working. I believe your unions do similar things when workers wish to fight the system.” The disdain in his voice wilted my rampant curiosity.

I died at a karaoke bar. The unfairness of everything crept into my stupor—all the things I didn’t do or should have done. As I thought about it, I hadn’t much going for me. I had a crappy position at a place that didn’t appreciate me. Other than Kurtis showing interest in me after months of hard-core crushing, I had no real emotional connections to anyone. My parents passed away years ago. Their world revolved around me, but they left me far too soon. My friends were acquaintances from work that I bonded with over a beer and accounted for from work.

I wasted my entire life doing absolutely nothing of value or importance.

“Your thoughts are depressing. I apologize that you have not led a fulfilled life.” He said. “Young Daria, one day, this will make sense. I wanted to meet you. Your decisions have such a pivotal role in our world.”

If I had eyes, I’m sure I’d be in tears. My entire life was reduced to inconveniencing a… wait. I didn’t even know who or what this man was.

“Who are you?”

“I’m deeply sorry that your life has ended. We had hoped the strike would not occur, but it has.”

“Who are we?”

“The Council of Life.”

Then to top off my special night, he disappeared before my eyes. Well, if I still had eyes, which was subjective to the condition I found myself in.

So, I took his advice. I stayed with my body and watched the surrounding people. Those from work huddled around with tears in their eyes. At least my passing had meant something to someone. Sharon stayed with Kurtis at his hip, until he went in the ambulance with my corpse. A moment of panic set in as the doors shut on the ambulance. He told me to stay with my body, and my body was about to leave!

I reached forward and tried to touch the ambulance door. The faded view of my fingers slipped past the metal frame as if nothing stood in my way. I took a moment to reflect on how utterly cool it was to pass through a solid object and then took the full plunge. Within a few seconds, I’d breached the ambulance and hovered over my body again.

The distinguished gentleman from earlier popped into the ambulance soon after. He sat on the bench beside the gurney between Kurtis and the paramedic.

“One more thing. Your spiritual guide feels terrible that they cannot aid you with this transition because of the strike. They’ve asked that I return and give you a choice.”

I had a spiritual guide. Perhaps the day wasn’t a total loss. “That’s okay. We all have priorities, I guess.”

“You would be sympathetic. Why aren’t you hysterical, anyway? I thought all you lot had huge breakdowns when you died?”

I couldn’t muster enough outrage to have a breakdown. “I’m dead. I can’t change it. I don’t know what to do from here.”

“This strike thing, it’s not your fault. The reapers want more power in the council. The angels want free will. The demons want hell all to themselves without invading twisted human souls. They spend their entire lives transitioning humans one way or another with little to no reward.”

“Are you a reaper?”

“God no, I couldn’t handle talking to basket case humans all the time.”

“Are you an angel?”

“Do you see wings?”

“Are you a demon?”

“Ditto for horns.”

“Well, what’s left?”

“This universe is vast. Countless creatures roam it. Let’s say I’m like a congress member of sorts. I represent people who cannot speak for themselves at the Council of Life. Though I rarely represent humans, I felt bad that death would strand you at a bar when you died.”

“You must be an outstanding politician. I keep asking questions, and you have yet to answer one.”

“I’m the best. Now, I’m tempted to put you back in that body to save myself the paperwork. Do you want to live?”

Duh. “It beats the alternative of haunting my corpse.”

“Here’s the thing. Humans who have actual death experiences come back with a few quirks. Well, more than a few. You’ll come back completely changed. Still a go for corpse reanimation?”

“I won’t be a zombie, will I? Eating brains is disgusting.”

“You won’t have to eat brains.”

“I just can’t imagine eating someone’s brains for survival.”

“Silver lining and all. So, is that a yes?”

“Will I still be me?”

“You’ll be you with alterations.”

“In what way?”

“It’s different for everyone. I need to know, like right now.”

Was I ready to find out what awaited me after death? Not a chance in hell.

“Fine. Put me back or do whatever you have to do.”

“That a girl. No paperwork for me.”

With that, he grabbed at me. His hand gripped my essence and forced it back into my body. Even though I wasn’t sure why, I struggled against him. My survival skills sucked on stage, kicked into high gear, and I fought him with everything I had. Sadly, this amounted to more of a shimmering convulsion than an actual battle.

For a few moments, I felt my lifeless body. Nothing worked, but the energy within me seemed to grow. Who knew how long I’d died or even if I ever died? All I knew was that tonight ranked as the weirdest night in my life, and I’m sure that when I wake up tomorrow, I will need a ton of alcohol to make it all sense.

An end for a beginning

When I woke, the darkness cloaked the room with a sliver of moonlight spilling in from somewhere, just enough to irritate me. My body hurt, and the weird flashing light waving in front of my eyes made no sense. Where was I? An intense hunger shook me to my core. I tried to take a breath but found that though I remembered how to breathe, my lungs no longer seemed to respond.

Lifting my head became far too much of a chore, so I didn’t bother and just focused on opening one eye. Light pierced my pupil, and I squeezed it shut tight. Whoa, that hurt. I wiggled my toes to make sure that they still worked. As I worked my way through my extremities, I realized that the numbness of death had been a blessing I squandered, and two, there were people in the room with me that weren’t breathing. As I tried to focus on my breathing and heartbeat, only to realize I had neither, I became aware of others in the room with me. I’d hear a slight shuffle of movement, but no tale indicates an actual person. I couldn’t even be sure there were people in the room with me, but I just knew as it happened when I stood onstage. With acute hearing, I could sense what was around me before I could see. My nose twitched as I caught a tantalizing aroma.

When one eye pierced open once more, I tried to look around. I saw shadowed images of varying degrees of grey but nothing that stood out as a threat. Not that I could do anything. My body would betray me the second I jumped out of the bed.

“She’s awake.”

I didn’t recognize the voice that said those words. “Where… Where am me?”

“Daria. You’re in the morgue.”

As my vision cleared, I took in the room around me. Am me? That was wrong. A heavy fog settled in my mind. Nothing seemed to connect to a thought when my eyes fell on it. A long wall of metal doors reminded me of something, but I couldn’t figure it out. “Wrong. Me way wrong!” I exclaimed with as much emotion as I could fit while whispering.

“You are the most adorable train wreck. Hold on a little longer. Can you do that for me, Daria?”

It took effort, but I latched on to his words with as much mental understanding as possible. “Who.” As hard as I tried, I couldn’t get the words out. God. So hungry. I licked my lips and lifted my face. My nose twitched again as I caught the scent again. My limbs moved without thought as I rose from the solid surface. The staples in the Y-incision on my chest itched. Where am I?

The sigh that carried to my ears gave me pause for concern, but not enough to stop me from finding food. The lids of my eyes slammed shut as my eyes began to burn.

“Shit, the light. Turn out the light.” The words sounded important, but she had no idea what he just said.

Strong arms wrapped around me as I slid down until my bare feet touched the cold tiled floor. “Focus, little one. Just one moment longer. You can do it. Hold on.”

The smell crawled up my nostrils and embedded itself into my brain. No other thoughts or emotions surfaced beyond the desire to find and consume the source. Did I snarl? Why am I strapped down? Each time I tried to lift my arm my agitation grew. “Suck.”

His laughter sent another lifeline for my consciousness to grasp. “I hope you have a sense of humor, Daria Gale Platts. When you get your marbles back, take it easy on me. I volunteered for this.”

Some part of my addled self understood that I was being wheeled somewhere in what felt like a chair. Both my arms and legs were bound, but I couldn’t focus my eyes enough to see what. Every time I tried to talk, it came out in a grunt or a weird heavy breathing.

The scent erupted around me, and the restraints began to stretch. No longer able to fight the intensity of my hunger, my mind slips as a roar erupts from my lips.

“She’s ripping through them like paper. What is she?” A new voice drifted toward me, but it held nothing appealing. I ignored it until I smelled fear. Fear meant prey.

No longer bound to the chair, I focused my energy on moving. One thought drove itself through my thoughts on repeat until she could do nothing but repeat it.


“Hold her, and I’ll bring him to her.”

“Seriously? We use those on shifters!” The succulent scent of fear engulfed me when I was forced back into the chair. Moving and thinking took too much effort together. It had to be one or the other.

“I’m going to invade your personal space now, Daria. I don’t feel comfortable not explaining this before you do it. Are you in there at all?”

My teeth ached as he brought something significant beside me. Not even my mama’s collard greens could fill me with anticipation as whatever was being given to me. It took three tries, but I popped my shoulder enough to fling my arm toward what I wanted. Fabric. No, it had to be food. It smelled so good. The sounds of struggle and whimpering didn’t penetrate the fog of my mind.

“Hold her still, damn it. Here you go, Daria.”

I gripped the fabric and leaned into the source. My mouth fell open, and I sucked in thick air that filled the empty cavity that used to hold my organs. A high-pitched scream hurt my ears, but the relief from hunger overrode anything else.

My hand tightened as I pulled the strange vaper into my chest. Not wanting to leave a single tendril, I pulled until I couldn’t hold anything else.

“Someone had fun in college.” The voice chuckled.

The fog lifted when I exhaled, but a wave of euphoria chased away any thought. “Oh, wow.” If I had lungs, a good wholesome sigh would have been perfect.

“You good over there, train-wreck?”

“Ssh. Don’t interrupt my dream. It’s so peculiar, but I’m curious about what happens next.” The audacity of rude people these days.

I tried to sit up, but the pain returned me to bed. “Everything hurts.”

“Of course, it hurts. Your internal organs were removed. I imagine your chest must feel like a bomb when off between your broken ribcage.”

Few sentences in life capture one’s attention, quite like the discussion of an autopsy done on a living person. “Where are my organs? Put them back right now! I need them, all of them, even the appendix that I’m sure I had removed when I was twelve. I want that one back too.” All rational thought fled as I tried to sit up again despite the pain. I looked down at my chest and saw staples starting from the top of my right shoulder and another set that started from my left. Oh, my, God.

“Daria, listen to me. The humans are going to be here any minute. They will put you in a pine box, bury you six feet in the ground, and leave you there to rot. I need you to calm down and come with me.”

He paused momentarily and then said, “Go, prepare the council for our newest member.”

Tell the dead zombie girl to calm down. Excellent job. “Listen here, buddy. I don’t even know who you are, but I’m alive. I can hear myself. I am talking to you. I can move my body. What is going on?”

“Thanatos put a living soul in a dead body. He reanimated your corpse. When you’re asleep or unconscious, you’re dead. No vitals, no brain activity. When you’re awake, well, you’re mostly alive.”

“He made me a zombie, didn’t he? I told him I didn’t want to be a brain-eating zombie.”

The voice chuckled before moving closer. “He’s a God. Kind of a second-stringer but still a God. I don’t imagine he’d take too kindly to a human telling him what to do.”

“So, wait, I’m a zombie?”

“We tend to use reanimated corpses. It’s a little more PC than Zombie.”

“Do I have to eat brains? Wait! What did I eat?” I’ll never forget that hunger.

“Daria, we need to get you out of here. Can you walk?”

I sat up and gasped as the movement ripped through the staples in my chest. At least he could have perked up my boobs before removing all my vital parts. When I meet the person who performed my autopsy, I will give them a what’s for about how to treat a newly reanimated corpse.

Though it took a few minutes, I swung my legs to the side of the wheelchair. It took me a moment, but I stood. I want my organs back. I may not even know what a spleen does, but I’m sure I needed it and liked it right back where it was before this zombie business happened.

“You must stay awake. We must put these clothes on you and walk you out the front door as if you belong.”

“Am I allergic to sunlight?”

“That’s vampire lore.”



The voice, which happened to be a young-looking man in a lab coat, struggled to get a lab coat on me as well. With little to no help from me, because I couldn’t coordinate simple movements, he had me dressed in an outfit like his. When my legs threatened to give out, he caught me. His arms sent a shiver down my spine, but I also chose to ignore that.

“Reacquaint yourself with gravity, my friend. It’s too risky to keep you in a wheelchair. Your death made big headlines. They splashed all your dirty little secrets all over the news.”

“My life is more interesting in death. I have no dirty little secrets.”

He put my arm around his shoulder as he helped me stand. We shuffled toward the door. With each step, I gained confidence in the limbs that carried me from infancy to adulthood. By the time we reached the hall, I walked on my own accord. Out of pure habit, I tried to take a breath, and each time, pain exploded in my chest anew. What good was not having lungs if it hurt to breathe? That made absolutely no sense, and I know that, but frankly, all my sense of rationality was left with my necessary bits.

“You’re making excellent progress. All you need to do is groan and moan while calling for brains, and you’ll truly have the zombie thing working for you.”

“That’s not funny.”

“By the way, my name is Marcus. I am a liaison to the Council of Life. You’ve created quite the scandal.”

Doctors, nurses, patients, and visitors rushed by us as if we didn’t exist as we trekked from the morgue to the outside world. The antiseptic smell of the hospital gave way to the subtle scent of nature and the human destruction of it. Trees mixed with car exhaust—ode to Parasitic existences.

“How does a girl make a scandal by dying?”

“Thanatos hasn’t been seen or heard from in a few hundred years. Then suddenly, he rushes to the side of a dead girl to offer her a way to live again. It’s all anyone can talk about.”

“Where are you taking me? Is there a halfway house for the newly reanimated?”

“I thought you’d like to freshen up a bit before I took you in to meet the council.”

Meeting a group of strangers wouldn’t be one of all the things I would be doing that day. “Marcus, this has been fun, but I need to go home, get cleaned up and return to work.”

The young man stopped and turned toward me. He fumbled with the bag on his hip and then pulled out a large mirror. Then he held it in front of my face. My first thought was, why did he have a mirror in a bag?

After almost thirty years of looking at the same mug every time I passed a reflective surface, I’d grown comfortable with my image. However, the pasty white, blue-lipped, bug-eyed, freak of nature that stared back at me was enough to make me stumble around, tripping over the curb that lined the sidewalk and falling flat on my ass.

“I’m still dead!”

“Reanimated corpse.”

“I look like hell.”

“You’ll learn to do remarkable things with makeup and spray paint. Now, come on. We’re going to be late.”

Marcus slid his arm around my waist and ushered me to his vehicle, but not before I saw the scariest thing I’d ever witnessed. A giant black-winged beast landed on the pavement in the parking lot behind his car. Its wing spanned the length of three parking spaces. Its hawk-like head dipped down, and a screech erupted from its throat.

“Time to go,” Marcus said as he shoved me into the front seat. To add insult to injury, I hit my head on the door frame before falling in. He barely waited until my feet were in before he slammed the door and ran to the other side. He hopped in the driver’s seat, pressed the ignition button, hit the car into gear and peeled out of the parking lot.

“What the hell was that?” I asked as I watched the creature shrink from our rear-view mirror.

“Remember how you kept asking if Zombies eat brains?”


“Well, that thing eats everything.”

Oh great, as if I didn’t have enough to worry about. Rotting flesh, a Y-incision on my chest complete with staples knocked any chance away of ever having a sex life, a supposed hunger for brains, and now I had a harpy freak of nature who wanted to chow down on Daria’s bones. What kind of world did I find myself in? Was it not earlier that I complained about mundane things like my boss sucking?

My life, or afterlife, officially sucked.

Can I drink beer?

A mental challenge before coffee would have sent me into a tailspin before my sudden death, but going even one step into my future without sorting my thoughts was enough to drive a girl to drink.

“Can I still have a beer?”

The doctor impersonator chuckled. “She doesn’t ask normal questions like ‘Who killed me?’ or ‘How am I walking around with my heart in formaldehyde?’ no, you want to know if you can still have a beer.”

“All the rest of it is too much right now.”

He drove for a few minutes before speaking. I closed my eyes with my hair against the passenger seat’s headrest. The silence gave me time to think, and as I didn’t want to consider it, I started naming all the facts I knew about zombies. Which, I’ll be honest, came from cheesy B-movies and pop culture.

I didn’t feel dead. My fingernails ran along the inside of my palm when I clenched my fists. I felt the sensation against my skin. When I wiggled my toes, they moved. If I inhaled, it hurt. How could I be dead yet still experience the same things I did when I lived? I didn’t want to think about how I could breathe without my lungs.

“The last reanimated corpse was around the year 1200 AD. Thanatos has a twisted sense of humor but usually does things for a reason. I know you’re confused about everything, but I’m not the best person to ask these things.”

He paused again, and I waited for any tidbit of information he could spit out that wouldn’t make me focus on the nervous breakdown that stayed at the edge of my consciousness. My chest itched like mad. I had an overwhelming urge to rip the stables out and scratch them until I had no fingernails left. I was also hungry.

“You’re the living dead. Like a vampire, but instead of blood to survive, you need the essence of life, what you call a soul.”

“Wait, I need to eat souls? Time out. That’s worse than blood.”

“It is. Many see a reanimated corpse as one of the lowest forms of life. Thanatos will have to answer to the council for returning you to life.”

“Nice to know my… re-animator is in trouble for saving my life.”

Marcus looked over at me and smiled. “That’s what makes the whole thing so strange, and it’s completely out of character for him.”

The familiar sights and sounds made me smile as we drove through the city, I grew up in. If nothing else, the familiarity of my surroundings helped keep the panic at bay.

“Do I get a superpower?”

“What do you mean?”

“Vampires are beautiful, mega strong, can fly or sparkle depending on what movie you watch. All zombies do is moan and eat people.”

He grunted at my words. “Vampires do not sparkle. Though, they can move fast enough to look like they’re flying.”

“That so didn’t answer my superpower question.”

“Well, no one knows very much. Legend has it you are almost invincible. Your nerve endings work fine, so if you get stabbed or shot, it will hurt, but it can’t kill you. A Life Leech can kill anything because it would consume not just the body but the soul. Though, even that will only kill you temporarily.”

I can dig Superman invincibility. Pain as a side-effect made me question if the cure was worse than the disease. “Okay, so I have to eat souls and can’t die by regular means.”

“As long as you maintain a steady diet, you’ll regenerate. If you stop eating, though, you’ll rot. It’s gross. Seriously, I am basing all of this on the legend of one man. No one knows anything about you.”

Daria, the five-foot-four people eater. As if being the shortest person in my small group of friends hadn’t been bad enough. Now they’d worry if I would suck their soul out with a straw.

“So, when I embark on a life of bank robbing, I’ll survive the shootout in the parking lot—got it? Is that it? Cause I got to tell you, that’s a lame superpower.”

Marcus drove a route like the one I took to work every day. However, he bypassed the parkway, which I found a few minutes faster. The streets were so close that I could see the parkway out the passenger side window.

“You are living in both worlds. That of the living and that of the dead. You will see the dead just as real as the living.”

“I see dead people?” That made me laugh. Despite the pain in my chest, I laughed until tears welled in my eyes.

“They will find their way to you. Once you get a handle on the undead thing, you can command them to do whatever you want. It’s why your existence is such a threat. You can control the dead, all the dead.”

Now we’re talking. “Can I make them haunt my boss? She bugs me.”

Marcus smiled, and at that moment, I saw the long tooth that rested on his lower lip. A chill ran up my spine as I stared. Once I took in that little image, I noticed the unnatural pallor of his skin. The dark irises of his eyes stood out against the ridiculously long lashes he had. Though not conventionally handsome, he had an undeniable draw to him.

Was Marcus a vampire?

He laughed and turned toward me. His mouth opened, and his incisors extended.

“Put those suckers away. I lost enough blood for one day.” Despite my bravado, I moved a little closer to the door.

“I can hear your thoughts. I can’t decide if you’re the most sporadic creature I’ve ever met or if you’re just in shock and have processed nothing yet.”

I refused to question or think about what he just said. I didn’t want anyone to hear my thoughts. They rarely made sense to me. How could another person do them justice? “They sent a vampire to pick up the zombie. I’m sure there is a punchline to this joke somewhere.”

He turned into a familiar parking garage. No wonder I recognized the drive. He pulled into the place I had called my job for the last four years. “What are we doing here?”

“Oh, that’s right. You used to work here, didn’t you?”

“Used to. Was I fired?”

“Daria, your former life is over. The council must decide how to keep you alive, away from Life Leeches, and figure out what Thanatos is up to. They will keep you safe so that nothing can harm you.”

Oh, but I heard the underlying words he chose not to say. He meant, ‘Daria, I’m taking you to prison to ensure you don’t enslave the dead.’

Again, he laughed. In less than ten seconds, I’d forgotten that he could hear thoughts.

“You are the most amusing person I’ve met in a very long time.”

I looked over at him. “What are you, twenty-two? You have peach fuzz on your jaw.”

“I am just shy of two thousand years old.”

“You don’t look a day over fifteen-hundred. Seriously.”

He laughed so hard his shoulders shook. “Does your mind ever slow down? Does it process anything? I understand the need to roll with life, but you are incredible.”

“I’m not one hundred percent convinced I’m not dead or asleep and dreaming. I’m sure this will all hit me at some point, and I’ll have a good old fashion panic attack, but right now, I’m just waiting to see what happens next. Also, never tell me what I ate.”

He parked the car on the top floor of the parking garage. I’d never been up here before because it was for headquarters. All the bigwigs had offices up there, and peons like me worked on the lower three floors. The inner rebellious child within me wanted to write Daria Was Here in chalk on the shiny black pavement.

When he came around and opened my car door, I stared at him without getting out. “Can’t we just hang out here for a moment? I’m not ready to face my prison sentence.”

He held his hand out to me. “Come on, where’s the bravery you’ve shown up to this point? The council may surprise you.”

A group of individuals who got to pass judgment on me and decide my fate. I can count how many times that’d benefited me over my lifetime. Oh, wait. It never did. The cosmos, not flawed, emotionally driven people, should make decisions that impact the lives of others.

“Think I will hang out here.”


“Screw you. I had a rough day. I died and everything.”

“I died a long time ago. It’s overrated. Only the dull stay dead, Daria. We give the rest a chance at something spectacular.”

“Oh, look who drank the corporate drink. What if they just say chuck morality, and kill me?”

“They can’t. There are laws protecting every living creature, and as luck would have it, you, my dear, are living.”

“The government’s been breaking laws since the dawn of man.”

“This council predates both man and your government.”

“Oh goody, so they’re even better at breaking laws.”

“Daria, get out of the car.”

“I don’t want to.”

“I know but do it anyway.”

Having a smart remark is hard when the other person no longer engages in the battle. I attempted a deep breath, but the pain refused to allow it what I wouldn’t give for a hot shower to ease the insane itchiness along the incision on my chest. What was used to embalm me, itching powder?

I got out of the car and walked three steps behind Marcus. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to run or not. Even if I did, where would I go? At the very least, I should learn how to survive an attack from the bird-like spawn I saw earlier. I’d be dead if I ran into one of those in a dark alley. For real, that time.

As soon as we walked into the double doors that led into the lobby of the tenth floor, a voice I hoped never to hear again greeted me.

“Oh good, Daria, you’re here.”

What? Of all the people to meet in my afterlife, my boss Sharon should not have been one of them.

Heaven is a bathroom.

“We don’t have much time. Please follow me.”

I stopped one foot into the doorway and stared at her as if she’d grown three heads. “You are so not the boss of me after I’m dead.”

“Is there ever a point in your life when maturity settles in?” she asks with a sigh.

“I see no reason to start now. Why are you here? What is going on? Why am I here? This is getting ridiculous. You tell me it’s been interesting working with me earlier today at work as if I wasn’t coming back. You’re at the bar with my friends, where I’m killed. Now here you are. Coincidence? I think not. And why does my chest itch? I swear to God I will strip and pull these staples out, one by one.”

Just as I had done as a child, my nails raked over my body as I shifted from foot to foot. When my nail slid under a staple and popped it out, the small projectile flew through the slight opening of the smock at the neck. Because the cosmos had a sense of humor, the small metal-pronged piece flew toward Sharon and bounced off the center of her forehead.

Marcus coughed into his hand, but I’m sure he didn’t want Sharon to know he was laughing.

Tell me you left the staples in. Are you kidding me? You truly are an asshole.”

Her tone never changed from the authoritative tone she always used with me, but this time she looked at my unwitting partner in crime.

“A life leech waited for her outside the hospital. Forgive me for thinking her safety was your main concern.”

She marched toward me with an eye roll that left no doubt in her thoughts on his words. Without a word, she grabbed my arm and dragged me to a door on the far right of the lobby. I’m not sure why I followed her, but she reminded me of my mother then, and the thought of defying her didn’t occur.

The new room reminded me of bathrooms that always seemed to be in the movies. It was huge, well lit mirrors everywhere, and an attendant sat at the end by the wall. The woman couldn’t have looked more bored if she tried. The door swung closed behind us.

“Laura, do you have tweezers?”

“They won’t work. I have pliers, though.”

Sharon cocked her head to the side as if to think about it and nodded. “That will work. Daria, sit.”

I sat.

“You have an incredible tolerance for pain. Take off your shirt.”

Now I may not have been born with an ounce of modesty, but your boss telling you to strip in front of her and another random stranger just proved to be a bit too surreal than I could take. “What are you going to do?”

“I will pull the staples out. You absorbed a soul, so your body is trying to heal itself. The staples are inhibiting the process.”

My mind refused to process anything she said. With a sigh, I lifted the smock over my head. The stretching of my torso made me groan. High pain tolerance, my ass. I wanted to crawl under the bathroom sinks and hide without moving for the rest of my natural life, death, whatever. The attendant brought over the pliers, and Sharon invaded my personal space with them. So, there I sat, naked from the waist up, the incision carved into my chest, put my girls out on display pointed in odd directions, and my boss looked ready to do real damage with a pair of utility pliers. God, please let this all be a dream.

She hooked the second staple down and pulled it out. Holy mother-of-pearl. My eyes watered, and my breath stilled. I grunted as I tried to process what to do with that much pain at once.

“I’m sorry, Daria. I don’t think it went in straight.”

“You think?”

Each one hurt a little more than the last. By the time she finished, I was panting like a dehydrated lap dog, with both hands gripping the base of the seat to prevent myself from falling over. She pointed to the mirror, and to my utmost surprise, I watched as my skin healed. The separated flesh rejoined and sealed as new tendrils grew to replace what was missing. The new skin formed a pink puckered line.

Sharon handed me the shirt back. “You should notice immediate relief. We need to make you presentable for the council. You’re what, a size six? There’s a shower through that door. I’ll ring for dinner while you’re in there.”

“I accept that I may have already done so, but I’m not eating souls. That’s murder.” The rational part of me spits out.

Sharon gave me yet another of her favorite looks that let me know what she thought of my word choices. “Survival is not negotiable, Daria. You will have to. We have resources to help.”

“Resources? You are talking about people.” The outrage had to show on my face because I felt it flush.

“Daria, this is not the time for this discussion.”

“I will not kill a person to live.”

Sharon laughed. “You will, but I will help you through that transition.”

The way she said it made me square my shoulders a little more, and on its own accord, my chin lifted. “What will the council do to me?”

“They decide if you are worthy of their protection or if they’ll leave you to your defenses against the life leeches and others who would see you destroyed. Most of them know that you are here because they couldn’t come to terms with negotiating a new contract between the dead workers. If they had, you would have moved on without knowing anything about this world.”

“Who killed me?”

Sharon shook her head. “I’m sorry, Daria. There are some things that I can’t tell you. Your death catalyzed a political empire that fell in a day because Thanatos gave you a new life after death. It reminded everyone that the death workers weren’t as powerful as they thought. There are a lot of people who will want you swept under the rug.”

Oh great, so being a zombie wasn’t enough. Now I’m a bureaucratic pawn on a chessboard I couldn’t see. “I will be kicking Marcus’s butt for feeding me a soul.”

“He’s a genuinely nice man. You can’t trust his sense of humor, but there’s no greater person to have at your side.”

Those were nice compliments from the woman who gave me a year-end review stating I had yet to live up to even 1/3 of my potential. “Where do you fit in all of this?”

“That is a story for another day. Let’s say that I spend my days cleaning up the mess that others make from their lives, or in your case, their afterlife.”

“So, you’re like the discount therapist to the other?”

“Something like that. Now, shower. The smell of congealed blood has done no one any good.”

Though I still had more questions than answers, at least I didn’t feel as if I were alone in this whole surreal adventure. I walked to the room with the shower and turned on the water. As I shimmied out of my clothes, I had to give props where due. My chest felt a million times better, and I no longer had a burning desire to shred my skin to ribbons with my fingernails.

After I stepped into the shower, the water cascaded around me. For one moment, the bliss of normalcy put my mind at ease. How bad could life be if a shower made one feel this great?

There were little bottles of shampoo and conditioner and various body washes and soaps. Because I was secretly a five-year-old, I used every single one. I washed my hair repeatedly until I ran out, then used each soap until they were slivers of their former selves. I still didn’t feel refreshed, but at least I felt clean. I could live with that.

When I exited the shower, the attendant, Laura, handed me a large fluffy white towel. The steam from the towel hinted at the magical warmth I would feel when it wrapped around me. She pushed two white slippers over with her feet, with soft steam rising from their promised comfort.

“This bathroom is heaven.” As I put on the towel and stepped into the slippers, I couldn’t quell the moan that escaped my throat.

“You are welcome back, Miss Daria. We’ve been waiting for you an exceptionally long time.”

“For me? Why?”

“Because you will set to right all the wrongs of the past few centuries.”

“Oh honey, if you knew what a screwup I was, you wouldn’t trust me.”

“You will do important things, you’ll see. Now get dressed, so you can show the council you are a formidable ally.”

She pointed to a small stack of clothing with a bra and panty set I’d never seen before. They were black little bits of silk and lace. “Wow,” I said, holding them up to show her. “Someone has good taste.”

“That’s Sharon. She has more class in her fingertip than most have in their whole body.”

With that, I got dressed and had to admit that the clothes Sharon found for me were exquisite. “Any advice on what I say to this council?”

“Just let Sharon do the talking. She’s incredibly good at getting them to do what she wants.”

“Ugh, I’m terrible at listening to Sharon.”

“Lucky for you, she’s good at her job.”

Time to face my piper.

Take my name off your tongue.

The inside of the fourth floor of Strategies Unlimited consisted of a spacious room that looked how I imagined the United Nations floor plan looked. Well, if the United Nations met science fiction anyway. In a half-moon shape, row after row, every mythological creature I’d ever read about or seen on a television show sat staring down at me. My stomach clenched as I turned around to look at the exit just ten feet behind me. The urge to run made my skin crawl as I prepared for flight. It was too much. I couldn’t chalk it up to a dream because people were in those seats I’d never imagined. Oh shit… this was all real. I died and now stood in a room set to decide my fate. I took a giant step back and started to pivot on my heels.

“Don’t. If you show fear in this room, it’s over, Daria. Show them the same disdain you’ve shown me for the last four years.”

Something about the tone of her voice gave me the strength to resume facing my audience. We walked to a podium in the center of the half-moon circle of freaks that would give me nightmares for the rest of eternity.

“If it pleases the council, I want to open this month’s meeting with a new member.”

The rumblings started immediately. It grew like a tidal wave that threatened to overpower any word I could have spoken. Voices rang out louder than the one before it.

“They should put her down.”

“A Zombie!”

“Amongst civilized societies.”

“It’s preposterous.”

“Sharon, daughter of the Fates, you dare bring a Living Dead among us? Do you know the penalty for creating such a life?”

Sharon brushed imaginary lint from her shoulder and shrugged as if she had all the time in the world. “Oh, I’m sorry. I thought we created this council so that all who lived had a voice and a say in what happened to them. I must have the wrong room.”

Well, this was not a meeting of Daria’s fan club. However, they should buy me dinner before hating me so thoroughly. It was how my dates went. I couldn’t believe the sheer decibels that the conglomerate group could reach. It gave me a headache, and I was dead. Well, kind of.

A loud whistle ripped through the air. It pierced my eardrum and made me cover my ears. Holy Toledo, what in the name of blueberry muffins was that noise? It had the same effect on everyone else in the room, hands covered ears, and the yelling died down.

I caught the eye of a raven-haired beautiful woman. Her tawny skin shimmered under the fluorescent lighting of the room. She winked at me and smiled. I couldn’t decide if it was a come-hither smile or a turn of the lips that showed she wanted to eat me.

The man who did the ear-splitting whistle stood, and all the rest sat down. All eyes left me, and I turned to him. It was a unique experience to see someone command such respect. I wanted to learn that trick before I died.

“This meeting will come to order, and you will only speak when spoken to. Sharon, please take your seat.”

She turned to me and frowned. “I’m sorry, but I must obey. Just be yourself.”

Oh, excellent, my only ally was about to leave me high and dry. I stood alone at the podium and looked out over the crowd. What was I going to do now? I didn’t even know why I was there, who they were, or what power they thought I possessed.

“What is your name, young lady?” The omnipotent one said.

“Daria Gail Platts.” Most people would have whispered it or said their name soft-spoken. Not me. I ripped my name out of the silence and made damn sure it carried across the room. If they would put me down, they’d remember my name before they did it.

“Daria, please tell me how you came here today.”

I took a deep breath. “I went out with a few friends tonight, and as I stood on stage, someone thought it would be a brilliant idea to stab me in the chest when the lights went out. The next thing I know, I’m floating over my body, and some man drinks a shot at the table. He talked briefly about some strike and how he took pity on me so I wouldn’t die alone, which I appreciate. Then he told me I should stay with my body and enjoy the sights until the strike ended. I went with my body to the ambulance. He popped in out of thin air, scared the bejeezus out of me, and asked me if I wanted to live. I said I would do it if I didn’t become a zombie and eat brains. In seconds, I was in tremendous pain again and passed out. I woke up in the morgue with my insides cut out, embalmed, and a scar on my chest. Let me tell you that it did not make my day. I will never get a date having to explain that! Then some guy absconds me from the morgue, we get chased by some ugly black bird that wants to eat me, and I’m told that I must stand before some council to decide if I can stay alive or dead, but since I’m both, I guess makes this whole thing rather silly.”

Once the story started, I couldn’t prevent it from tumbling out of my mouth.

“Do you know the name of the man who gave you back your life?” The man asked.

“He didn’t give me one, but the consensus of who I spoke with said Thanatos.”

A murmur of voices rang out once more, but one quelling look from the one I spoke with died a quick death. “Why should we let you continue to live when your own kind considered you dead enough to be embalmed?”

If I still had blood, it would boil at his words. I have a quick temper and couldn’t stop the words that erupted. “Listen here, buddy. I am a United States citizen. To the constitution my forefathers wrote, I have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. If you try to stop me from existing, you better believe I’ll fight with everything I have. If that’s what you all do, some death squad who decides who gets to breathe, take my name off your tongue and forget I ever stepped foot in this building. I don’t even want to associate with something like that.”

The gasps did not bode well for an excellent reception to my outburst. I sought Sharon and saw her smile, which made me feel better about everything.

“Young lady, look around you. Do you think you can take on everyone here for your survival?”

I looked around with my lips pursed. “I refuse to ask your permission to live.”

He nodded and then lifted one hand in the air. “The path you are now on is hard, Miss Platts. I hope you are ready for the new life given to you.” He turned as if to walk away.

“Hey!” I yelled out. He wasn’t walking away from me.

He turned, “Yes, Miss Platts?”

“Who are you?”

He smiled. “I am the creator of all things.” Then he disappeared into thin air, and the noise erupted once more.

Wait, like God? Did I meet God? Oh no, was I rude to God and told him I wouldn’t ask him permission to live? A full-fledged panic attack threatened. When will I learn to keep my ever-loving mouth shut?

Sharon made her way through the crowd and came back to my side. She put her arm on, and I took comfort in the touch. I felt a weird tremor of arousal that made about as much sense as anything else when she touched me. I took a shuddered breath.

“What the heck is going on?” I whispered. “Did I just tell the man upstairs to listen here, buddy?”

She chuckled and nodded. “He’s a forgiving type. You did great, just like I knew you would. Now, do you want to know what happens from here?”

“I’m inducted into some secret society where we exchange blood vows of silence and have wild, rampant orgies?”

“Your mind frightens me. No, we get you a liaison to our world, you learn what we do, and then you’ll assume your spot on the council. Once a quarter, we get together, hash out grievances and territory disputes, and ensure that the varied species of life have a voice. You are the only living dead so you will speak for yourself.”

“Nothing new there. So, what now?”

“We’re done here. If we don’t leave immediately hundreds of people who want to eat you will meet, kill, or suck your power from your soul. Shall we make our escape?”

“For seriously?” I turned on my heels and bolted for the door. She didn’t have to ask me twice.

We met in the lobby, where I found Marcus sitting on a leather recliner as if he owned the world. I walked over to him as silently as possible and stomped on his toe with every strength I possessed.

“What the hell was that for?” he exclaimed.

“For making me eat a soul!”

He threw his head back and laughed, so I stomped on his foot again.

“Hey! A girl must eat.” He stood and hobbled, favoring the foot I didn’t step on.

“You’re a jerk face.”

“Yeah, well, you’re a walking corpse. How about I buy you dinner?”


“Did you just ask me on a date?”

“See, I’m a man. You’re a woman. That’s usually how it works.”

“I’m a neurotic mess and just died today. Not to mention a whole screwed up quasi relationship with this guy from work.”

“Well, if he can’t handle the living dead thing, Sharon has my number.”

Surprisingly, he leaned in, pressed his cold lips against mine, and slid his tongue along my lower lip. My eyes closed as his tongue invaded my mouth, and his arm snaked around my neck. Just as quick as it started, he pulled away and grinned.

“Just a little thing to remember me by.”

Besties drink tequila

I caught a cab and returned to my apartment because I had nothing else to do. Sharon had tried to get my attention as I was leaving, but at this point, I’d had enough of all the weirdness, and I wanted to curl up on my bed and sleep until all of this made sense. In twenty-four hours, I’d gone from a peon in a conglomerate corporation to a council member for a race of one. My whole life made no sense, and I needed to understand it again.

The predawn sun peeked over the horizon as I stood on the sidewalk in front of the building, I called home for the last few years. I entered my code to unlock the front door. It beeped, and then the acceptance light turned red. Odd, I must be more tired than I thought to forget my access number. I tried it once more. Again, it turned into a lovely shade of denial. This could not be happening. I wanted to go to bed. I rang the buzzer to my neighbor, who never slept. She hated me, but she’d let me in.

“Do you know what time it is!” she snapped through the intercom.

“Mrs. Morrison, it’s me, Daria. Can you let me in?”

“You’re a sick freak. I’m calling the police. How dare you claim to be that poor dead girl?”

A groan rose in my throat, but I swallowed it in time. “It’s me. I’m not dead.”

“I went to her memorial service. You better leave before the police get here.”

The line went dead, and I thought about what she said. I had a memorial service. I just died a few hours ago. How could I have had a memorial service already? Who knew I had enough people in my life who gave a damn enough to give me one? I wish I could have gone to see who went.

I fished through the baggie Marcus grabbed from the morgue. It held my wallet, my cell phone, and my car keys. My car rested its ratty wheels at the dive bar, unless the police impounded it. The cell phone screen flashed as I turned it on. A picture of Kurtis’s tattoo greeted me and made me smile. Maybe I could crash at his house.

The date flashed, and I dropped the phone. That’s not possible. According to my phone, I died over six weeks ago.

I leaned down to pick it up and stared at the screen. I went on my favorite social media network and checked my messages. I had over seven-hundred notifications. As I went to my profile, I read comments from people I hadn’t thought about in years. Each expressed sympathy over my passing and wished they’d kept in contact with me. Family members crawled out of the woodwork to tell little stories of how I impacted their lives. My first thought to all of this? How did my cell phone battery last six weeks? Technology wins!

I sat down on the sidewalk as tears welled in my eyes. Life as I knew it no longer existed. Daria Platts died six weeks ago in an unsolved murder at her favorite local hangout. At Thirty-two years old, my world ended. What now? I had nowhere to sleep, nowhere to live, no car, no money, nothing but a cell phone and a wallet with a dead girl’s identification.

A car pulled up. The black sedan had tinted windows. The passenger side rolled down, and a voice rang out.

“Someone needs a pick-me-up.”

The raven-haired woman from the council meeting stared at me. Her ruby lips shone in the pale moonlight.

“I need a whole new identity,” I muttered. My give-a-darn was missing in action.

“Buck up, buttercup. I thought you’d come back here. I saw you give Miss Tight Ass the slip. She’s looking for you. So, Zombie girl, want a lift?”

I made no move to get up from the cement. “You would have voted whether I lived or died. Why would I go anywhere with you?”

“First off, I’d already abstained. You aren’t the only hated species in the universe, doll face. Research banshee one day.”

So, self-preservation aside, a freaking banshee? How awesome was that? I didn’t know the first thing about a banshee other than they do some weird shriek-scream thing that kills people. “What do banshees eat?” Okay, maybe a little survival instinct remained.

She laughed and licked her extremely red lips. “Trust me, sugar. You’re the wrong sex, species and all-around wrong for me. I’m Sharon’s sister. You’re my new best friend because it will piss her off.”

Now I knew she thought I just fell off the turnip truck. My uptight boss couldn’t be more human. “Pull the left leg. The right one is long enough already.”

“Come on. We’ll have a good old fashion bitch fest over shots of tequila. You usurped me as the new bad girl in town, and I’m a little jealous.”

I’d never been a bad girl before. That made me laugh. “I never even got a speeding ticket.”

She put the car in park and took the keys out. “The name is Desiree.” She tossed the keys my way, and out of instinct, I caught them. “I bet you an entire new wardrobe that you can’t get this baby up over 120 before we hit the town limits.”

That sounded like the worst idea I’d heard all day. “I’m homeless, unemployed, and in no position to buy you a new wardrobe if I lose.”

“Then don’t lose.” With that, she opened the passenger door and sat down.

Daria Gale Platts would never have taken a reckless bet like that. Daria Gale would have been in bed dreaming about the man she never once had the nerve to ask out, and the time had come for Daria to be reborn.

The new me would take that bet and win. Besides the fact that I couldn’t afford to lose, I wanted to prove that I could do this. I could reinvent myself and make this work. I could be whole.

I slid into the driver’s seat and looked over at her. “Hold on.”

I learned to drive a stick shift on a tractor. This former farm girl was about to make a banshee cry. I slammed the car into gear and peeled rubber on the asphalt. The vehicle responded like a dream and launched us into motion. My head hit back against the rest. I punched the clutch and popped it into the next gear. Over the years, I’d forgotten how much fun driving was.

I hit one thirty-five as we passed a sign that read ‘Thank you for visiting’. Everything in me exploded with excitement. I did it. I won the bet.

“Damn, who taught you how to drive like that?” I saw respect where amusement had been when she first found me.

“I used to drive on backwoods roads. Wow, that was fun. I feel so…” I almost said alive, but that didn’t apply anymore.

“Zombie girl, you and I will get along fine. I live outside Mooreshire.”

I let out a low whistle. I lived in a humble apartment, paid for by my mediocre job. The residents of Mooreshire never had to work a day in their lives. Multi-billionaires petitioned the city to buy land only to have their applications rejected due to the exclusivity of the location.

“Why are you being so nice to me?”

“Girl, you told off God. You looked him straight in the face and said screw you. You are my fucking idol.”

We drove in relative silence as I thought about what she said. Would it have made a difference if I had known who he was when I spoke? No, I’d have said it, anyway. Tact hadn’t ever been my strong suit in life. I found it repulsive that a council decided who lived or died. In my life, I’d never committed a crime worthy of the death penalty. Death squads were an archaic institution that should never have existed.

When her GPS told me we’d reached her location, I lost my speaking ability. She lived in a mansion. Not like the Hollywood idea of a mansion, but a stone building that rivaled any castle I’d ever seen. It looked creepy as hell and more than a little intimidating. What parallel universe did I fall into where banshees outlived the lifestyles of the rich and famous?

“You should see your face.” She chuckled as I parked the car.

“Who lives here?”

“Me, and sometimes Sharon. Come on.”

She stepped out of the car and sashayed to the front door. As a happily heterosexual woman, I was slightly confused by my captivation with her. Her beauty didn’t just make me stare. I had to blink a few times and shake my thoughts before I could even step in her general direction.

“Stop looking at my ass and move it.”

If I could blush, it would flame my cheeks. My eyes rode up her back and away from her ass. What the freak was wrong with me? There was nothing I could say to dispute her words.

She opened the front door and smiled at me.

“Welcome, Zombie Girl. To the inner sanctum of utter chaos.”

Drink, Drank, Not Drunk

True to her word, Desiree brought two shot glasses and a bottle of tequila. Not much of a drinker, I saw a whole lot of heaping trouble brewing in that bottle of amber liquid. I couldn’t take my eyes off that and the slow smile on her ruby-red lips. I can appreciate all forms of beauty, but my little captivation with Desiree made it weird for me to sit there.

“Oh, damn, I’m sorry. One moment.”

She set the glasses before me and ran out of the room. The abrupt departure shocked me. Bereft in her absence as if I mourned her death weirded me out. If that wasn’t bad enough, tears welled in my eyes. What? My fingers touched the corner of both eyes to confirm. My soul sang upon her return.

“Here! I should have warned you. I am not used to dealing with humans.”

Desiree pinned a bunch of rich purplish red, slightly drooping flowers. The moment they were on me, my sense of self returned. The crushing need for Desiree’s presence lifted, and I returned to my usual neurotic self.

“Helleborine. The flower wards off the lure of the Banshee. Otherwise, humans turn into mindless, loving, enslaved people. Having to stay in my house is annoying because I can start a war just by walking down a street.” Though she said it with a smile, I heard the deep-rooted pain that she kept within her.

“That is one awesome superpower. Is Sharon a defective Banshee? Mostly for her, I felt a mild disdain.”

She laughed before she answered. “Sharon has the entire building filtered with fresh Helleborine blooms. That little human job means the world to her. It’s the entire reason all supernatural creatures can exist today.”

“The dummy corporations. Wait! So why would she let me investigate them?” For everything that made sense, one more question popped up. This other world irritated me.

“You’re the famed Daria Gale Platts. No other human in that place could spot a discrepancy like you could. We based entire charters on the information you put in those reports.”

“Then why didn’t I get paid more?”

“You irritated Sharon regularly.”

“I saw that as my job.”

She poured two shots and handed me one. I took it in my hand and stared at it. Without a liver or blood, could I even get drunk? One way to find out. I wrapped my lips around the glass and swung my head back. The tequila burned from my tongue down my throat. The weirdest sensation of my new life would go down as the burn from that tequila which stopped at the base of my throat. I felt nothing below that.

“So, you probably have questions. I know I have a million about humans.”

“What did the last Zombie do that freaked everyone out?”

“You sure get to the heart of it, don’t you? Let’s say you can see and command the dead. The long dead, the recent dead. You can turn humans into the living dead. Unlike in the movies, they don’t turn into mindless flesh-eating machines, but they will be under your control and do whatever you tell them. They will have no free will and cannot think for themselves beyond what you tell them.”

“Wow, it’s the zombie apocalypse.” I couldn’t help myself. I had to use that in a sentence.

“We all use humans as collateral. Vampires use them as a food source. The Fae and banshee feed off their emotions. Most quietly coexist but take something from them such as wishes, worshipping, deals, promises, first-born children.”

“So basically, the globe is your department store, and we’re… humans are in the clearance aisle.”

“Something like that, but there are so many more of them, then us. If they knew we existed, they’d burn us to the ground. The council protects us from that. It will protect you too.”

“You still haven’t said what the last one did.”

“I know. It was a dark time for us. He enslaved the dead and saw the potential it held for him. After building a vast empire, he learned he could control all dead, not just humans. He forced the vampires into enslavement and commanded them to walk into the sunlight by the hundreds. That wasn’t enough. He forced the recently dead to get their mourning relatives to do whatever he wanted from them. It was horrible.”

“That’s just disgusting.”

“My turn. Why are there starving children in Africa on television? Your food source grows from the ground.”

Of everything she could have asked, that one I had no answer for. “In some areas, crops and plants are not as abundant.”

“So why don’t people just share?”

“Because they value money and what it can buy for them.”

“But what about the kids?”

“Humans suck at the whole global caring thing. We’re more liable to blow each other up than help feed another person’s child.”

“That’s so weird. Our cultures are smaller, and while we have one here or there who isn’t a team player, we survive solely on the group mentality. Your turn.”

“Why did Thanatos bring me back to life?”

“Here’s the thing about that. Thanatos led the battle against the last of your kind. He is a righteous man with strong beliefs. He and the big man are tight. I guess he took it hard when the death forces went on strike. The death forces are any creature that relates to or deals in death. Specifically, the reapers, angels, and demons are on strike. Sharon already has temporary workers in place to keep the world moving. Thanatos saw the grievances as petty. The big man allowed the strike, and Thanatos went off the deep end. I don’t think in the entire existence of our world, the two of them have been on the outs.”

“Are they both God? I know that’s two questions. I’m just trying to understand.”

“Yes, they are both Gods. The big man is a creator god. He can create life in any form he chooses. Thanatos is an earthbound deity. He’s a piece of the planet’s soul. There are other gods and goddesses, but they rarely come around. Most see humans as a plague on their beloved Earth and would sooner kill them all than work to co-exist.”

Ugh, now I have more questions.

“Your turn,” I said.

“Why are humans so blood-thirsty?”

“I don’t know that there is any one answer for that. We developed a culture that caters to the strong, the pretty, and the perfect. Differences in financial standing, skin color, or the deity we worship are often enough to bring out the warmongers. Our species hates anything different from itself.”

“Well, I guess that makes sense. I hate the Fae that comes sniffing around my turf.”

The conversation went back and forth for a while, well into the bottle from which I hadn’t yet felt a single effect. It bummed me out that I wasn’t getting drunk. I was wondering if I would ever enjoy being a zombie.

The two of us moved on from questions and answers to our lives. I heard she grew up with the perfect sister, a woman who could do no wrong. She learned how I led a boring sheltered life, and nothing of consequence ever happened to me until the day I died.

“Who do you think killed you?”

I tried to avoid thinking about that. To me, the most prominent suspects were Sharon and Thanatos. I believed no one else in that bar could get fired up enough over my karaoke skills to kill me. “I don’t know,” I said. How did you tell someone their sister was at the top of your list?

Desiree laughed. “Yes, you do. So, you must suspect Sharon. As much as I enjoy that assessment, let me bust your bubble. A banshee is called to the scene of death. We don’t kill humans. Our wail will knock them unconscious, but it’s not fatal. To other supernaturals, though, it’s much more powerful. Sharon was at the bar that night because she knew you would die and didn’t want you to die alone.”

What a complex woman my boss turned out to be. “I didn’t think she liked me.”

“Some days, she didn’t. She called you an annoying waste of human potential. Some days she couldn’t believe your insight or the ability to perfect a company’s policies and procedures.”

“We had pet names for her. This has been fun, and I honestly mean that, but I could sleep for a month of Sundays.”

“Yeah, I’m bushed too. Come on. I’ll show you to your room.”

I followed her down the meandering hallways that explored her giant house. She paused and opened the door to a room that looked like a hotel suite with a kitchenette and a living room. The fabulous room with tasteful decor held modern conveniences with a nod to history.

“There’s an outside door through the kitchen. Here’s your key. I’m not a morning person, and there is a housekeeper, a cook, a chauffeur, and a groundskeeper. I’ve already let them know you’ll be staying here. Here’s a credit card for the new wardrobe I owe you. It’s in your name and new identification that doesn’t reflect your old ones. Oh, and a house key. Did I forget anything?”

“My glass slippers, fairy-god mother.”

Desiree laughed and shook her head. “You are no princess. Sharon did all the work. I get to give it to you because you bolted from her.”

I frowned. “Yeah, I wanted to go home.”

“She figured and sent me to get you.”

“I’m glad you did. Tonight, was unlike anything else I’ve ever done.”

“Too bad we can’t get drunk, though, right?”

“Yeah, that sucks.”

“Good night, Daria.”


I took fifteen steps to the bed, collapsed fully clothed on the side of it, and fell asleep before I even thought to take my shoes off.

First taste of rage

The sun needed to go away and come again some other morning when the world made sense, and my whole body didn’t feel like it was being ripped apart at the seams, but I guess that wasn’t bad for a quasi-dead girl. While I admit, I’d never slept in sheets that made my skin feel cheap for touching them. It did make a girl feel like a princess to wake up to breakfast in bed. The scent of bacon would have made any day better, surrounded by waffles with natural fruit and some egg-cheese-pie thing that looked amazing. I hadn’t yet taken a bite because it looked so beautiful sitting there. The last breakfast I remembered involved a cup of coffee and a bagel with either raisins or mold. I could never tell which.

A hunger unlike anything I’d ever felt gripped my stomach, and I swear it made my rib cage grab my stomach and pulverize it around my middle area. I heard the sound that gurgled from beneath my belly button like a freight train on a highway. All aesthetics aside, I tore into that breakfast like it was my last meal. With a moan between the bites, I tasted the succulent flavors before shoveling more food down my throat.

“You look ridiculous.”

Desiree stood in the doorway and looked fresh off the runway as I probably had food from nose to chest.

“Shut up,” I said between bites.

“Rude much? We’re going shopping. I need to flaunt my zombie girl bestie.”

I don’t know which term I took offense to more, the zombie girl or the bestie. I wasn’t some tween freak show on display. “I hate shopping.”

“That was girl code for we have shit to do. Get your ass up and out of bed.”

This was why I didn’t have girlfriends in life. They never said what they meant or meant what they said. Middle school girls taught one another this secret language I skipped because I’d been far too busy staring at Dale Jarrett. I wanted to marry him and have ten babies, all named Dale. Yes, I know that my aspirations were pitiful even then.

“Can’t I just stay in bed and eat all this amazing food? I swear I’m starving.”

Desiree laughed and licked her lips. Once again, her mouth drew my gaze. This time though, I remembered the flowers I should always have with me in her presence. My first girl crush made me giggle, which led me to inhale quickly, lodging the mouthful of bacon at the opening of my throat.

Soon my giggle turned into a coughing fit that sprayed half-chewed food everywhere.

“Daria, you are a mess.”

This only made me laugh-choke even harder. I couldn’t seem to get enough oxygen to clear my throat. After a moment or two of extreme chest spasms, I calmed down enough to take a few swallows of whatever drink she shoved in my face. It tasted like water but had a weird minty taste to it. Who drinks watered-down mouthwash?

“Sorry, I’ll clean that up. Holy crud muffins.”

“Well, I’d hope you wouldn’t leave food all over the sheets. That would be gross.”

I cleaned up the mess I made and got out of bed. I stripped the bed and shook out the blankets and pillows. While I tried to contain the crumbs in a small pile, I took a contained mess and made it worse. Let me say once more that I suck at life.

“You are a mess, girl. Sit.”

With nothing else left to do, I sat on the edge of the bed and looked at the chaos I had wrought just from trying to eat breakfast. If that wasn’t the story of my life, nothing would have been. Everything I touched turned to madness and mayhem by sheer coincidence. Did they make calming pills for zombies?

“So, I have news. Some man, Kurtis, has visited your final resting place every day. Now it’s entirely against the council’s policy to revisit your past life, but he’s depressing all the dead and making them feel inadequate that no one comes to visit them.”

Kurtis. Once I’d gotten over the initial shock of hearing about him, my mouth couldn’t help but grin. I missed him. As I no longer had a real purpose in life, such as getting up and going to a job I hated, I didn’t know what to do with my time. A good old fashion heart attack-inducing graveside visit seemed about as good as anything I could have done.

“You have such an expressive face, Daria. I assume this means your whole breakfast fiasco is over, and we can proceed to find you the absolute hottest outfit imaginable to go see your grave?”

I had a grave. That was something a girl didn’t say every day. How epically weird.

“I have nothing to wear.”

Desiree laughed. “The awesome power Sharon possesses that you seem unable to comprehend is that she fixes everything. She delivered a ton of clothing for you. She even left a note that said she picked out everything she hated and was certain it would be right up your alley. Then she threw in some things she liked because she’s addicted to plastic and how easy it is to spend the council’s money. They are already in the closet. You have ten minutes before I get bored and go to the graveyard myself.”

I flew to the closet, not from some sudden burst of fashion sense, but Kurtis would not meet Desiree without me running interference. Her hotness alone was enough to make any woman nervous but add in her sexual voodoo addictiveness, and she’d have him eating out of her palm before I could blink twice.

“I don’t chase men I can turn into puppets. Not at all my type. I’m only teasing. If I were you, I’d pick something from Sharon’s choices, not yours. You look like a little girl who plays dress up at the grownup table.”

While there may be truth there, that didn’t stop me from turning around and sticking my tongue out at her. When I opened the closet, I lost my ability to think. First, the closet was the size of my bedroom in my apartment before the pathologist took all my organs. It even had a weird half-couch chair thing I’d only seen in magazines. The seat that a dazzling model would be half outstretched with her high heels giving her calf muscles a flawless look. There were clothes of every color, type, and texture.

“What the bejeezus did she do, buy out the whole store?”

“Shopping makes Sharon feel better, and she feels bad about everything you’ve gone through.”

“That woman can shop for me for the rest of my life.” I fingered different shirts and then went toward Mannequins wearing dresses in each corner of the room. I never owned one. A dress, I mean, I’m sure I did as a kid, but honestly, I don’t think I’ve bought one in my entire adult life. While most of my clothes always comprised of neutral colors, I found a red dress that captivated me. That was what I’d wear when I saw Kurtis again. I shed the clothes I wore yesterday, not an ounce of shame in my body as I shimmied into the dress that fit like a second skin.

“Whoa, you have a figure!”

I turned around and looked at Desiree. “That was so random.”

“I have the perfect shoes. What size are you?”


“Fabulous.” She took off for God knows, where as I continued to look around the room. Each article made me want to rethink my choice, but I wanted to be unforgettable.

She returned in seconds with red heels that would break my neck just from looking at them. They would add a good six inches to my statute and make every woman around swoon with envy. They were toothpick heels with a studded buckle around the ankle and a sexy silver chain crossing down my foot’s center. The toe had a red strap that glimmered against the light in the room.

“Break these, and I swear on all that is holy, I will murder you with them.”

I took the shoes from her and held them to my chest. “You’re letting me borrow your shoes?”

“Duh. You’re a little slow on the uptake, zombie girl. Let’s go. Cynthia wants to do your hair and makeup. She said you have untapped potential.”

I couldn’t remember who Cynthia was or why I’d let her touch me. Desiree had other ideas. A swift knock on the door interrupted our closet shopping, and people I’d never seen before invaded the tranquility of my bedroom. They sat me down on the settee and swarmed me like a hive of bees to a bouquet. They plucked my eyebrows and waxed the line above my lip. The roots of my hair ached as a wretched woman yanked large chunks at my temples.

I want to say this magical transformation took moments when I’d always had a beautiful girl buried somewhere deep in my soul, but I’m sure we were there for at least an hour. Follicles, I didn’t even know I had hurt. I’d pass if this were what it meant to be a girl.

“Are you ready to see yourself?” Desiree asked after everyone left. She hadn’t let me see myself the entire time. The finishing touch had been her strapping the shoes to my ankles. I’d just been too uncoordinated to do it alone.

“I’m almost afraid to.”

She helped me to my feet. I only wobbled for a second before finding my balance. We walked toward the back of the closet where a department-style dressing room mirror stood—three mirrors to show me every flaw I ever had.

When I looked in the mirror, I forgot to breathe. That couldn’t possibly be me. That was… Can you airbrush reality?

“What did you do to me?”

“Eh, you were already there. Cynthia just brought you to life again. Let’s go.”

The ride to the cemetery was relatively quiet in that I couldn’t stop looking at myself in the mirror above the passenger side. I looked so alive. Even my teeth seemed whiter against the red lipstick I wore. We pulled in through the arches that announced the local city cemetery. I guess that’s where they buried all the paupers who couldn’t afford their funerals.

My stomach clenched as I realized I was about to look at my grave. A headstone, or a plaque with my name on it, announced to the world that I, Daria Gale Platts, had died before I reached thirty-three.

“I’m nervous.”

“Eh, don’t be. He’ll never notice you are pale in that outfit.”

“I’m nervous because I’m about to see the end of my life.”


Not usually at a loss for words, I glanced over at Desiree and saw that she had her lower lip between her teeth.

“I’m sorry, sweetie. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be immortal yet still lose all the world has given you since birth.”

I looked out the window, no longer in the mood to talk about my untimely demise. As we rounded the corner in her car, I saw him. Kurtis stood there, with the sunlight spilling down on his shoulders. He looked so cute. I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed just looking at him.

When the car stopped, I stepped out and took a moment to adjust between high heels and gravity. I didn’t wait for Desiree as I walked to where he stood. I didn’t care about anything else but seeing him. To my surprise, he turned toward me and didn’t have the look of shock I expected.

“I wondered when you’d show up.” He stepped toward me with his hand reached out in a movement that defied any logic I still possessed.

An explosion of pain in my chest happened once more. I looked up in dumb shock as he jammed a dark-handled knife where my heart had been.

“This time, Daria, have the good sense to stay dead.”

Grandma’s Sunday Best

Two things happened when I hit the ground. Rage filled my soul for the first time in my life. The heart I no longer housed within my chest exploded with the indignity of being stabbed twice. Kurtis? Oh, hell no. Fueled by anger, I didn’t know what I was about to do. I sat up, my temporary dirt nap over. Marcus hadn’t lied about the pain or the invincibility. I brushed the dirt off with sluggish jerking arms and looked down at the beautiful red dress with a slash under my left breast.

My body shook as I got to my feet. Every thought and action pursued a single purpose; killing Kurtis.

As I stood, I felt the power from the ground. It surged and lifted me into the air. Beyond the panic that should have risen as my body did, I watched him crawl away from me. I wanted to hurt him. I tried to rip him limb from limb. Kurtis killed me. He kissed me and then killed me. What kind of jerk did things like that?

“How are you not dead?” Kurtis stumbled backward and fell on his butt. He stared up at me with the shock and awe he should have shown upon my appearance. A strange pulsation vibrated from the ground and rose in white waves. He stumbled as he scooted further from me.

Throughout history, there are references to a banshee wail, but the reality could never capture the intensity of Desiree’s shriek. The sound vibrated through the air as if it had a physical texture and flung Kurtis away from me. His hands clutched his ears as he flew back and landed on his backside. A hum from the ground fed the hate inside me. The pain of others called out to my shattered soul. Together we provided for one another through our misery. The ground rumbled as the grass-covered earth overturned. Bodies crawled outside of the graves, each at various levels of decomposition.

“Daria, sweetie, this is bad. This is a terrible thing. I need you to come down from there.”

Too far gone to focus on Desiree’s words, I focused on Kurtis—the dirtball murderer. The pond scum-sucking kisses a girl and makes her believe in miracles, then stabs her as she sings karaoke jerk. Thoughts of revenge were foreign to me, but I embraced them when they reared their head. The bodies of the dead stood on the loose ground and looked to me as if for guidance.

“Sweetie, put them back. Put them all back.”

I looked around and realized that I’d done that. I’d ripped the poor corpses from their final resting places. Nothing deflated a girl’s anger like seeing a grandma with her Sundays’ best hanging off her skeletal form. A chill ran up my spine as the untapped power coursed through me. I could make them do whatever I wanted. I could make them destroy Kurtis.

“Whatever you’re thinking, stop.”

I want him dead. The thought didn’t fully form before the army of the deceased turned toward him. He screamed as he backed away, dragging his butt across the ground before he got to his feet.

“Daria Gale Platts, you listen to me right now. You will never forgive yourself. These are people or were, I think. Mortals all look the same to me. Tell them to go back to sleep.”

No, I wouldn’t listen to reason. I’m dead, they’re dead, and we’re all dead. And so, too, Kurtis had to die. More power surged through me, and I smiled. I fed on it like a babe to milk. The army slowly descended upon Kurtis as I watched. Oh, how I wanted him to suffer. In my mind’s eye, I pictured his limbs scattered across the cemetery. He screamed.

“You suck, you know that? Fine, Daria, look at me.”

The pull against the power was strong, but I felt compelled to listen to her. I turned toward her and stared. God, she was so beautiful. I blinked a few times to clear my head, but the moment my eyes connected with hers, I lost all thought. Desiree’s lips turned up as she beckoned me closer with the crook of her finger. I floated toward her without resistance, even as my mind cried out that I had other things to do.

“Come down here, on the ground.”

Like a puppy wanting to please a new master, I dropped to the ground.

“Now, tell them all to go back to sleep.”

I watched her lips as she spoke and wondered what they would feel like pressed against mine. Would she kiss me if I did as she asked?

“Sleep.” The word sounded guttural from my lips as if speaking were new to me.

The dead horde fell to the broken earth and crawled back into their graves. Their rotting corpses folded in the ground as they reburied themselves. I stared at Desiree, needing her approval above all things.

“As for you,” she said to Kurtis, who had backed himself into a tall statue of an angel’s wings.

“Please, just let me go. I had no choice. Don’t kill me!” he screamed.

Desiree opened her mouth and wailed a beautiful sound that brought tears to my eyes. It enveloped my senses and brought me to my knees. I cried out and begged her to allow me to come to her. My voice was ragged and filled with emotion I couldn’t even describe.

“I should have let her kill you. Leave now, but you house the mark of a banshee. Death is near.”

Kurtis fled, but I didn’t care. I only wanted Desiree. When she turned back to me, the warmth of her gaze filled my soul.

“Daria, I will give you a gift. Come to me.”

Without delay, I crawled to her on my hands and knees, unable to do anything else. She knelt beside me and ran her hand through my hair. “God, I hope you forgive me for this.” I lifted my face toward hers, the need for her lips on mine outweighing every other want or desire I possessed.

She put a necklace around my neck filled with the same flowers as the night before. The moment it touched my skin, I regained complete control of myself. I took a deep breath and threw myself backward. With the back of my hand, I wiped my mouth, weirded out by how desperately I had wanted her to kiss me even though she hadn’t done it.

“So, um, are you cool?”

Unable to speak, the ramifications of all that transpired roared through my head. I just rose the freaking dead. I turned husbands, wives, grandparents, and children into zombies at my command. If I had a stomach, I’d be vomiting my guts out. My skin crawled with the wrongness of it all.

“You can hate me later, but I had to show you. You had to see for yourself what the others are afraid of. Sharon didn’t want you to know about Kurtis, but you had to know. Please look at me.”

“You knew.” She knew that he killed me. She knew if I came here to this cemetery and saw him, he’d do exactly as he did, and I’d react.

“I’m sorry. Please understand that I did it because I wanted you to know the truth.”

I wanted to shut out the world at that moment. I’d gladly crawled into any available grave and shared a coffin with a grandma to escape the knowledge of what I’d just done. I stepped out of the shoes she’d given me just a brief time ago and ran.

“Daria!” She screamed from behind me, but I didn’t care.

I ran as fast and as far as I could away from her. I no longer wanted to be a zombie or reanimated corpse. I never wanted to feel that power I tapped into at that cemetery. The soft sound of my bare feet hitting the pavement filled me with a sense of urgency. I’d be happy if I saw no one from that world again. Kurtis could die in a hole somewhere. Desiree pretended to be my friend only to bring out a monster within me I didn’t know existed.

Tears welled in my eyes, and I cried despite my lack of internal organs. It hurt so much to know what I’d almost done. They had all been people. Their lives had value, and I destroyed that value by waking them from the dead and forcing them to act out my vengeance.

Past buildings and houses deep into the city that had brought me bland memories, I ran until I had nothing left and collapsed in an alley I’d never seen before. Everything in me hurt as I looked down at my chest and saw that incision, he made with the blade still gaped, revealing open ribs beneath my dress. How freaking disgusting that I couldn’t bleed but could see my ribs. Could this day get any worse? My thoughts disconnected, and panic set in.

Hunger clawed at my insides as I grabbed my midsection. Weakness robbed me of my ability to stand. I crawled to the side of the building. The bricks dug into my back as I leaned against it. With my knees up to my chest, I rested my forehead on them. I cried in silence as I wrapped my arms around my shins and huddled in the shadows of that alley. A dark fog settled in my thoughts again.

“Hello, Daria.”

I lifted my head and groaned. I recognized the voice but couldn’t be sure if they were safe. My nose twitched as I tried to smell him. Not food. A sense of disgust rippled through me. Maybe I didn’t like him.

“Is that any way to greet the man who let you live? I brought you something to make you feel better.” I tried to focus on what he held in his hand.

It looked like a man in a bright orange jumpsuit with a bald head. Words made little sense, but when the scent of his offering hit me, I bared my teeth. Yes. Food. A nagging voice screamed, but I couldn’t focus enough to hear it. I’m so tired, but first, food.

Acting of their own accord, my hands touched the face of the man in orange. The static in my mind grew louder at a sense of wrongness. I tried to think of something to ground me in my thoughts. I pictured my mother, and when her face came into focus, I exhaled in relief.

“No. I’m not a murderer.” Each word proved harder than the last to spit out.

He chuckled and sat down beside me. I turned to him for comfort when he put his arm around my shoulders. It didn’t surprise me that Thanatos arrived again to save me from death’s door. He might not be my first choice for comfort, but he was the only one there, and I desperately needed contact. I wrapped my arms around him and poured my heart out through great wracking sobs.

“I chose you, Daria. You don’t cry tears for yourself but for the free will robbed of others. We need you.”

“I… don’t… want… to… be… this…” I said through my wails.

“Then we must teach you the control you lacked this afternoon.”

I shook my head, done with the whole thing. It took me a moment to compose myself. “Can’t you put back to being dead?”

“It doesn’t work that way. Now, eat your lunch. To save your delicate senses, I took him from death row. His execution is in fifteen minutes, and he has already had his last meal and prayers.”

“It’s still murder,” I said as I sniffled.

“He volunteered.” Thanatos shook the man. “Right?”

“Whatever, man, I’m dead no matter how this conversation ends. Sure, lady. I volunteered.” The monotonous voice sent me spiraling into confusion as I lost control. My stomach clenched as I doubled over.

“What is wrong with me?” I gasped as the pain tore my insides apart.

Nothing a light snack won’t cure. Here you go.” Thanatos shoved the man toward me.

The part I wanted to resist fled to the back of my mind when I inhaled his intoxicating aroma. I didn’t even fight the fog as I leaned closer to the man whose eyes were closed with a smirk.

“At least kiss me before you kill me, sweetheart. In the arms of a hot babe is exactly how I want to go out.” His words broke through my mental haze, and I complied. I pressed my mouth against his. Instead of kissing him, I inhaled the thick vapor of his soul. Unlike last time, I knew I was willingly murdering a fellow human to survive. Shame filled me as I pulled more of his essence into my mouth. When his body hit the asphalt, a glorious burst of energy flowed through my veins, and I stretched as if I’d just woken up. Unfortunately, the reality of what I’d done also came.

“You turned me into a murder.” Her accountability could come into play later.

“We all have our problems. Where’s the brave girl I met at the bar?”

“She crawled right in those graves with Grandma and her Sunday Best.”

“What can I do to make it up to you?”

“Give me something to live for. This is all too much. I’m losing my mind. Something shuts my brain off, and I can only think of food.”

“Then stay fed. Do you want something to live for, Daria? Find the thread that ends with your death and follow it until you find out why someone saw fit to murder you.”

Only because I wanted to know that. “Fine, but I want a house with a credit card and a car.” Never one for material things, but I’d not go back to Desiree’s after she manipulated me.

“Done.” He handed me a black credit card that had my name on it. “It’s unlimited, and I’ll get the bill. Find your house and your car. Take some time to adjust to your new life, and then send for me when you’re ready to begin. Remember, time is of the utmost importance.”

Just like that, he disappeared, and I stared at the air. Did anyone in the supernatural world have any manners?

The first ghost

An unlimited credit card and enough time to sort out my life before fulfilling a duty I wasn’t sure I wanted to complete. Got it. Anger and hate at everything I held dear? I’m working on this. Would it be too much to ask to let me enjoy the buzz of an iced cold beer? I had so many unanswered questions. The self-loathing moment passed as I decided that one of my superpowers was an extreme sense of survival, and that caused the collateral damage of dead criminals and grandmas climbing out of their graves. Inside, I’m still Daria Gale Platts. I may not be a great person, but I was a good one. I would never purposely rip a soul from its final resting place to satisfy some blood lust that I have.

Never having purchased a home before, the mere thought of the process made me want to nap. I knew I didn’t want to live in an apartment or condominium. Neighbors should be safe if someone ever dies in the complex. I didn’t want to raise the dead because I got pissed off when I burned toast. I called a real estate agent and gave her three basic instructions. The first and most important would be that my new house should be nowhere near a cemetery, no Indian graveyards, nor any other weird sacrifice locations. The second required no neighbors within sight. That may be harder, but what the hell? I had the time and money. The third was just a personal quirk. I wanted to be able to make it impenetrable. Two murders in a fleeting time made me a tad bit paranoid.

I told her money was no object, so I expected a quick turnaround. She oozed helpfulness. I didn’t even remember her name. The diner had an honest-to-goodness telephone book where I’d found a local name. After a quick stop at the local department store, I went there to find something more presentable than a tattered red cocktail dress. I felt better in my normal attire of jeans and a T-shirt. I may not know how to be a zombie superhero, but I knew how to be Daria. For the time being, I took up residence at a hotel I’d never have been able to afford in my former life.

The sheer posh indulgence of the suite I rented made me smile. I ordered room service even though I’d just eaten at the diner. When it arrived, I gave the attendant a one-hundred-dollar tip and asked that he ensure it left me alone. So, I sat on a bed big enough for four people in the center, surrounded by pillows, unsure what to do with myself next.

“Excuse me.”

They could have heard the scream that erupted from my throat in the next county. I swung my head around from right to left and looked for the source of the words. In a chair, in the bedroom’s corner, sat a woman about my age. She put both hands up in defense and picked her feet up to make herself a smaller target.

“Please, don’t be frightened.”

“Who in the holy Hades are you, and how did you get in here?”

She kept her hands up and inched further back into the chair. “My name is Melody. You can see me?”

“I can! You’re in my hotel room!” Oh, that room service man is giving me my tip back. He just left, and already there was a stranger in my room. It hadn’t escaped my attention that I could see the chair through her body while she appeared corporeal.

“How can you see me?”

The bewilderment of her question stopped me from making the phone call I desperately wanted to make. “Ah, ’cause you’re right there. Invisibility is not your strong suit. How did you get in here?”

“I’ve been in suite 106 since the night my fiancé murdered me.”

I looked at her as if she had three heads. She wasn’t dead. I saw her moving. “You can pull my legs all day long. They aren’t getting any longer.”

“I’m serious. No one has seen or spoken to me in at least five years. People come in all the time and stay here. I always try, but they go on about their day.”

She unbuttoned her shirt, and I covered my eyes. I’m a coward, yes, but I have no desire to see any naked people. The last man I wanted to see naked killed me. “What are you doing? Stop that.”


I spread my fingers over my eyes and looked through the openings. On her chest was a gaping hole. I literally could see through her. “Um, why is there a hole in your chest?”

“I walked in on him screwing my bridesmaid on the eve of our wedding, and when I tried to leave, he shot me.”

“With what, a torpedo?”

“He tried to dig out the fragments of the bullet. He didn’t want to go to jail.”

What was wrong with the men these days? Kurtis killed me, and this poor woman’s fiancé murdered her, then butchered her corpse so he didn’t go to jail. Never mind that I’ve killed twice. That wasn’t important.

“Did he? Go to jail, I mean?”

“I don’t know. This room has been my home since the day I died.”

I went through a myriad of emotions as I stared at her. If nothing else, she was a kindred spirit. I understood the betrayal that she must have experienced. “The man I’d crushed on for months stabbed me in the heart while I sang karaoke.” Why I shared this information with her was beyond me, but I wanted her to know at least she wasn’t alone.

“Men suck.”

“Yes, they do. Why can’t you leave this room?”

“I’m afraid to. I wasn’t exactly a great person. If I leave this room, I may go to hell. I don’t want to go somewhere I will burn in hellfire and brimstone for all eternity.” She buttoned up her shirt and sat with her legs crossed in the chair.

“Didn’t you have a soul person to guide you to your final destination?”

“Hell yes, and I kicked them out. I’m not going anywhere until I find out what happened to my fiancé. Only his death will satisfy my soul. I have nothing left but the vengeance I carry daily.”

Wow, that could be me. If I embraced the anger I held toward Kurtis, would the walls of this hotel imprison me, as it did Melanie? A lifetime of waiting for someone with the ability to communicate.

“What’s his name?”

“Gregory Mallon.”

I pulled my new cell phone out and searched for the name. It took me a few minutes, but I finally found the smiling face of the murdering fiancé. “He’s in real estate. According to this, he lives on the outskirts of town with his wife, Victoria.”

“That bitch!” Melody jumped up from the chair and paced the length of the room. I didn’t mind when she walked toward me, but the weird emptiness of her back freaked me out. It looked like he stuck a grenade in her chest and let it explode.

“You can’t spend the rest of your… afterlife wishing his demise. Why not haunt him or something? I don’t think there is a rule that you have to stay in the room where you died. Rattle his windows, slam some doors until he turns himself in.”

“How can you see me? What are you? Are you dead too? I saw the attendant talking to you.”

“I’m a zombie.” God, that sounded so ridiculous to say.

“You don’t look like a zombie.”

“So, I’ve been told. Look, let’s try something. His number is online. I will mess with him.”

The words were out of my mouth before the idea took form, but I understood her outrage. How dare he walk around, making money, married, while his crimes went unpunished? I pressed send on the number.

“Mallon and Silverstone Associates. How may I help you?”

“Gregory Mallon, please.”

“He’s in a meeting. May I take a number?”

“No, that’s fine. I need a house as soon as possible. I’ll find someone else.”

“Did you have a specific area or budget in mind?”

I laughed the same pretentious laugh I’d heard Sharon use regularly. “Mooreshire.”

She sucked her breath through her teeth. “Please hold, miss?”


“He’s just coming out of the meeting. Let me get him.”

Within seconds a throat cleared, and a male voice got on the line. “This is Gregory Mallon. I understand you’re looking to purchase a home in Mooreshire. I’d be more than happy to help you with that. It just so happens I have a few listings there.”

Liar. “I’m free this afternoon from three pm to five pm. I’d like to see those listings.”

“Um, it may take me some time to arrange it…” he paused.

“Then please don’t waste my time. I’d been told you were the best. That information was incorrect.”

“Three o’clock on the dot. I will meet you at the entrance to the division.”

“Don’t be late.” I hung up on the lying murderer and smiled at Melody. “We have a date with your fiancé.”

The look on her face sent a shiver down my spine. This woman wanted vengeance, and I would be the tool she used to extract it.

Ghost powers activate

Funny thing about long drives. My thoughts allowed me to focus long enough to reflect on the course of action about to be taken. I want revenge as much as the next girl who had her heart obliterated by a man. In the case of Melody and myself, our hearts were preserved in formaldehyde because of the men that once filled them with joy.

What was I going to do for the woman who sat beside me in the rental car? I didn’t know the man who I’d made an appointment with. I didn’t know what happened that led to Melody’s untimely demise. For all I knew, she could be mistaken about her death. I’d have never said that Kurtis could have done me in, yet he did. Her story didn’t make a whole lot of sense. If a man was naked screwing another woman, where did the gun come from? Did he happen to carry it with him on his wedding day?

“Melody,” I began.

She stared out the window as if she hadn’t heard me. With a quick glance, I grew more apprehensive about my chosen course of action. Something didn’t add up in her story, and I couldn’t pinpoint what. I needed my head examined. I unearthed an entire graveyard just this morning because I got pissed off. Here I am, hours later, ready to take on another woman’s battle because I didn’t want anyone to feel the betrayal that I did.

“Melody, can you tell me again what happened the night you died?”

I swear I saw glee on her face as she turned toward me. My fingers tightened on the steering wheel as I drove.

“It was the night before our wedding, and I wanted to see him. I knew it was wrong to visit him, but I loved him and didn’t want to spend a single night apart from him.” The wistful tone of her voice didn’t match the weird expression she carried. Her lips were curled in a smile that would have given the Joker a run for his money.

“I understand.”

“I heard the moans first, so I crept in quietly. There she was, riding him like a wild stallion, naked as the day she was born.”

I nodded in what I hoped was a sympathetic gesture and tried to appear as invested in the story as she looked. “That must have been hard.”

“I couldn’t look away. I just watched them for what seemed like hours. I called out his name, and he shot me.”

From under another woman? I didn’t verbalize that, but I sure thought it. “I’m so sorry.”

She kept going as if I hadn’t spoken. “Of all the people, my maid of honor. There is no loyalty among women these days.”

Okay, so did the title change in her story, or was that my imagination? I vaguely remembered her saying her bridesmaid in my hotel room. While my knowledge of weddings comprised romantic comedies as my primary source, there’s an honorary status difference between a bridesmaid and a Maid of Honor.

“That’s why I need you. You can make him pay for what he did to me.”

It was then I saw the silver glimmer in her eyes. I’ll be the first to admit I know nothing about ghosts, but something didn’t sit right with me. Melody’s entire story made me question myself and her. I continued to drive until I reached the gate for Mooreshire. The large iron fence that used to keep people like me out opened. I stopped at the guard station and told him I was there to see a real estate agent about a listing he had.

“Yes, ma’am, you are clear. Please always keep this pass visible in your vehicle.” He handed me a paper, and I stuck it on the dashboard. Rich people had weird customs.

He directed me where to find Gregory Mallon and then returned to the small black and white television on the desk before him. Who still had a box black and white?

I drove silently until I pulled up in front of the most beautiful house I’d ever seen. It was close to Desiree’s home but not close enough that I would catch her peering through windows. I wasn’t ready to think about her or how I felt about the stunt she pulled at my gravestone. I turned in the long horseshoe driveway and pulled right up behind a silver Hummer that reeked of prestige.

“Miss Platts. I’m glad you made it. I believe you will fall in love with this home.”

Gregory stepped out from beside his car, and I got a good look at him. He stood about six foot four and had the softest brown eyes that I’d seen in a long time. His smile gave way to pearly white teeth with a tiny gap between his front two that endeared him to me. This wasn’t the face of a cold-blooded killer and body mutilator. Darn it.

“Thank you.”

I followed him into the house, doing my best to look interested in a place I could never afford. I didn’t have housekeepers and butlers and made way too much of a mess to clean up after myself in a home with over five rooms, let alone a house with twenty rooms, including seven bathrooms. Who the Honda needed seven bathrooms?

The door closed behind me, and the hairs on my neck stood. I looked around to find the cause of my nervousness but saw nothing. Melody walked beside me without making a sound.

Tell me, Miss Platts. What made you call me?”

Eh, when in doubt, go with the truth. At worst, he’d call the police to have me carted out in a straitjacket. “So, I was in a hotel room, and a woman with a hole in her chest told me you killed her and dug out the bullet. I wanted to meet the man capable of such violence.”

My words didn’t even register. He just smiled and continued to stare at me. “Melody always enjoyed a flair for the dramatic.”

The normalcy of his tone freaked me out. I called him a cold-blooded killer, and he acted like I had commented on the weather. “Excuse me?” I asked.

“The famous Daria Platts, zombie by day, and vengeful woman by night. How touching. I was there, you know, at the council meeting.”

What the bleep did he say to me? At what point in my new life would I get to exit the twilight zone and start a meaningful existence? “Huh?” Not the best response I could have come up with, but it worked.

“Oh, come now, Daria, keep up. You will do exactly what I tell you to, and you will do it right now.”

That’s it. I’m packing up all my toys and going home. This is enough bull hockey for one day. I turned around and reached for the door, only to have Melody jump between me and freedom and knock me back so hard I slid on my butt across the hard-marbled floor.

“Now, where was I? Oh yes. Don’t look so surprised, dear. Almost every natural being in the world wants you dead. I assume you want to live, so that’s my bargaining chip. Do what I say, or die again, this time though, I’ll make damn sure you don’t get back up.”

That gap in his teeth mocked me. How dare he have such a cute smile and be so evil? “Excuse the hell out of me. I’m already dead. If you want to make it so I can’t walk and talk, take a number and get out of my way.”

I stood, dusted myself off, and marched toward the door. This time when Melody struck, I was ready. I may be small, and I may be weak, but I know how to defend myself. As she lunged toward me, I kicked out my foot and slid it under her legs. The only problem was my foot went right between her legs as if I’d kicked the air. Not fair! How come she could hit me, but I couldn’t hit her back? That’s lame.

“Oh, I like them feisty. You did well bringing her to me, my darling.”

Melody walked over to him and slid up against him. Her shimmering silver eyes lit up at his praise. “I will always give you what you need,” she all but purred.

So, being at a council meeting meant he was supernatural. She was a ghost. I think. Ugh. How did I get myself into these weird predicaments?

First, I had to remember that I wasn’t without power. What did Marcus say? Invincible and something else. I could control the dead. That much I remembered from this morning. Wasn’t Melody dead? What if I…?

Before I finished the thought, it happened. I pushed her away from him and into the wall. I heard her body thud as it made an impact and knew I’d done it.

“Hey! What are you doing?” His outrage matched hers as they both yelled out.

“I’m leaving!”

I didn’t wait for either of them to respond. I ran to the door, ripped it open, and bolted for my car. I jumped on the driver’s side and burned rubber out of the driveway. I booked it to Desiree’s house. I punched her address in the GPS and prayed she would be home. I didn’t want to fight random supernatural men and dead ghost women alone. As I pulled up in her driveway a few moments later, I wondered if she’d even let me in. I was rude just leaving her the way I did, but I still thought she was in the wrong.

Her front door swung open, and she stood between me and protection with both hands on her hips. “I was worried sick!” she exclaimed.

“Worry later, crazy man and a dead woman threatening my afterlife.”

As if I’d said let’s have some tea, she parted for me to enter the doorway, and I didn’t need a second invitation. I ran in and slammed the door behind her. I quickly relayed to her the strange events and asked her for help.

“Tell me you forgive me first,” she demanded.

“Keep me alive, and I’ll always forgive you.”

She laughed and wrapped her arms around me. For the second time that day, comfort came from the most mysterious place, but it was what I needed when I needed it.

“Shall we go kick ass and take names?” She asked.

“You kick ass. I will cower and hide.”

“The hell you will.”

“I am not the hero type.”

“Suck it up, zombie girl. I’ll teach you to be your hero, so people stop trying to kill you.”

“Yeah, that’s getting old.”

“Let it end today.”

The avenging banshee

I may be one card short of a full deck, but I had a sense of urgency that she didn’t possess. Desiree stood in the doorway behind the closed door and flipped open her cell phone as if she had not a care in the world. I wanted to reiterate that people were out to kill me again. It seemed every single day of my new existence, I met another person who wanted me with my toes up in a cemetery. Why did Thanatos give me a life that everyone else wanted to snuff out? I needed to understand more, but right now, I just wanted to find a way to escape the realtor from hell and his bat-snot-crazy bride. I now understood the expression series of unfortunate events like no other. The whining in my head began to drive me crazy.

“Sharon, do your thing, girlfriend. Zombie girl is home.”

The thought of my former boss had a calming effect on my nerves. The no-nonsense woman had previously fixed my problems, and I saw no reason to discontinue such a good thing. She would ream me out afterward, which I always disliked, but I’d even take that over the threats on my life that I had going for me now.

“You called Sharon?”

“Oh, sweetie, when will you learn we have your back?”

She opened the door just as Gregory’s Hummer pulled into the long driveway. Out of nowhere, my strait-laced boss dropped from the sky like an avenging angel. She landed on both feet and one hand. She threw her head back, and Desiree’s hands covered my ears. A sound erupted from Sharon’s throat that sent a chill down my spine. The leaves on the trees shook with force as a wave of power surged toward the crazy realtor. The four-ton vehicle crumbled like a piece of paper in someone’s hand. Her bellow had no end as a surge of energy hammered the car and its occupants until it rolled away from Desiree’s driveway. I’d never seen such a force in my entire life or afterlife. The reality of what she’d just done left me speechless. She could have squashed me like a bug, and I used to mess with her all the time. All the pranks I pulled on her, and she’d never so much as flicked me in the forehead. I don’t know which scared me more, that she could squash me like a bug or that I’d made her miserable, and she could still hold all that against me.

“I know, I’m jealous. I can only do about half of what she can do. I got screwed in the gene pool.”

I looked up at Desiree open-mouthed. “Where does all that come from?”

“Sharon’s the oldest. She got the mother lode. If she wants to decimate an entire city, she could. I can wipe out a city park or something. Maybe a building if I get mad enough.”

“Damn, all I can do is fling a dead girl across the room who preceded the move by kicking my ass.”

Desiree’s eyes widened. “You flung her across the room? That’s impressive, zombie girl.”

I rolled my eyes. It wasn’t nearly as impressive as what I’d just witnessed Sharon do. Desiree laughed and put her arm around me. “Come on, she’ll be here a moment, and I’m sure she will tear you a new one for running away from her and then from me.”

We walked down the hallway as if the whole crazed incident never happened. Sharon followed moments later and met us in the kitchen. I stared at her for a moment in disbelief. She didn’t have a single strand of hair out of place, and her intelligent business suit didn’t so much show a wrinkle.

“Daria Gale Platts!” she began.

If my mother were still alive, I imagine she’d of spoken to me in the same tone. Even though I probably deserved it, it irritated my nerves. “That’s my name.”

“They could have killed you. I was so scared.”

Well, that stopped any discord I had with her motherly tone. “Why were you worried about me?”

The three of us sat down at the kitchenette. “I get it, we were never really friends, but I thought at least we were acquaintances.” Sharon stared me down as if daring me to disagree with her. Heck no, we weren’t friends. She drove me insane.

I dropped my head to the table, resting my forehead against the wood. “Why is everyone trying to kill me?” the muffled sound did little the curb the whine that carried through.

“You’re a threat to the dead, the undead, and all those that fear someone stronger than they are.”

Rationality bounced around my head like a Superball. “Thanatos gave me a credit card.”

“Be careful with him, Daria. He’s not the most transparent of men.”

“I want a house with a moat and dragons. I want a place where nothing will happen to me when I sleep. Does such a place exist?”

Desiree scooted her chair toward mine and draped her arm around me. “Yeah, and you’re in it.”

Sharon nodded. “This is a fortress protected by supernatural forces I don’t have the time to explain. There are no monsters here that will get you. It permits none intending to harm entry.”

I looked back and forth between Sharon and Desiree. The two looked nothing alike, not even so much as a nose angle that could mark a resemblance. Part of me still wanted to distrust them completely. The other part wanted to crawl between them and hide.

Just then, a thought struck me, and I reached out to punch Desiree in the arm as hard as possible. She jumped back and rubbed where I’d hit. “What was that for?”

“That was for taking me to the cemetery, knowing what would happen, and not forewarning me.”

Sharon laughed. “Yes, Desi, what were you thinking? She could have started a riot.”

Desiree shrugged. “She needed to know who killed her, Sharon, and you would not tell her.”

“I stand firm that she would have found out on her own that Kurtis wasn’t who he claimed to be. Though, it introduced her to a glimpse of her power. I’m thankful you could put the bodies back at rest.”

Though not quite praise, that’s how I took it. I did something right in this whole mess that was my life. “Thanatos told me to find out why I was killed. Though I’m sure, he already knows.”

“What is that man up to? I swear, the last time he played his little games, the world fell into darkness, and the humans almost wiped each other out.” Sharon clucked her tongue like a mother hen and shook her head. I watched in awe as her black hair never moved. I wondered momentarily if it was a wig that magically stayed in place.

“Thanatos lost his wife then, though. Yes, it went to Hades in a handbasket, but don’t leave out the part that endeared him all to us.” Desiree said.

It never occurred to me that a god could have a wife, let alone lose one. Couldn’t he bring her back like he did to me? I never thought of Thanatos as a man, let alone one capable of love enough to bring desolation to humanity. “Thanatos had a wife?”

“Oh yes,” Desiree said with a soft smile. “It’s the love story of all love stories. They were both earth Gods. She was the most beautiful being in the world; they were together from the beginning. He worshipped her, cherished her. All the women of the world were jealous. Then something happened, and she grew weak. Everyone did everything in their power to save her. The humans brought sacrifices in her honor. She just slipped away into the earth with Thanatos still holding her. Then he lost his will to live, which meant Earth itself bled his heartache.”

Oh, for someone to love me like that. After hearing about his life, I didn’t know what to say or think.

“God brought him back to a quasi-existence again. He was not alive, but he did his job. Then the supernaturals rose and demanded more than he would give them. He wrongfully assumed that God would back him. When God sided with his creations, Thanatos went underground again. To my knowledge, he came out the first night you died.”

Where did I play into all of this? I never had an inflated sense of ego, but what made me so special? “Why me?”

Sharon shrugged. “That is the question on everyone’s lips. That’s why you are such a target. Why you?”

Desiree looked me straight in the face and smiled. “That’s why we must take him up on his mission. Let’s find out why you died.”

“First things first,” Sharon, always the pragmatic one. “We need to teach you some basic self-defense. Marcus has already made the offer.”

“Oh joy, so the vampire will teach me how to protect myself from all the other vampires that want me dead,” I said with as much sarcasm as I could muster.

“He’s a good guy, just an asshole,” Desiree said.

“So, will you stay here with us? So, we can keep you safe until you find your bearings?” Sharon asked.

I looked at them both again and nodded. “Where else am I going to go? The last realtor tried to kill me.”

“Let’s make that target on your back a little harder to hit, shall we?”

“I’m in.”

Hands of Sands

Self-defense training, my bruised heinie. As I slid across the floor for the hundredth time, I glared at Marcus. I do not care how cute I once thought he was. If I could curb-stomp him, I would have done it with my best pair of boots on. Every muscle in my body screamed at me with a pain that I had never thought possible.

“Get up, Daria. Again.”

I did not want to. Nothing in this world would have made me get up at that moment. Sweat dripped into my eyes. I blinked to clear away the sting, but it had a trivial effect. I stared up at him. With his pale skin and those dorky glasses, he looked much like a college nerd that spent more time in the library than kicking my derriere all over the gym floor. Who has a gym in their house, anyway? At that moment, I hated all of them. Marcus, Sharon, Desiree, Thanatos, Kurtis, and God.

I pushed off the ground with my palms and got to my feet. My labored breathing sounded like an asthma victim. “You suck at life,” I muttered to him under my breath, but loud enough I’m sure he heard me.

“You suck at death, so we’re even on that. Come at me again.”

I mustered the energy to launch a new feeble attack, and with one swing of his arm, he flung me across the room again. I landed hard on my thigh. The lacquered floor burned as I slid across, even with the cloth covering my legs.

“Truce. Can’t we learn something less painful? Perhaps you can teach me chess.”

“You are a zombie, Daria. You have the power to control all the dead. I’m dead. Stop trying to use brute force, which you do not have.”

My mind flashed to the house’s foyer that the crazed realtor showed me. When Melody handed me my behind, I did something that made her hit the wall. The problem was I didn’t know what I did or how I did it. I just thought about it. Throughout the last few hours, I’d thought of Marcus’s demise so often that if it only took thought, he’d have spontaneously combusted in front of me. So, it couldn’t be just thinking about it.

“I don’t know what to do.”

Then he looked at me with an expression that frightened me. His eyes, which were previously rather pleasant to look at, turned into solid black orbs. His fangs erupted from his mouth, and a growl escaped his throat. A chill ran up my spine, and goosebumps crawled over my skin. My heartbeat raced as I hurried back into the corner of the room. This wasn’t the same man who spent the last few hours trying to teach me how to save my life in a fight. Marcus, the geek, became a scary vampire Marcus with a lunch of Daria on the menu.

He advanced on me with slow, deliberate steps. I swear I saw him drool as he got closer. Oh my gosh, he was serious. Nothing about him said training and everything about him screeched edible morsel.

“Marcus… You’re scaring me.”

His hand wrapped around my throat, lifting me up against the wall as if I weighed nothing more than a piece of paper. My back slid as my feet dangled. My hands clutched at his arm as I tried to pull it away from my neck. I kicked out at him as I struggled. I tried to scream, but his hand only tightened, lodging the scream in my chest.

Even though, in the back of my mind, I knew that I didn’t have lungs anymore, that when I breathed, it was purely from habit; I felt them burn. The need to take a deep breath overwhelmed me, and I lashed out harder.

He pulled my neck to the side, exposing the throbbing artery in my neck just beneath my skin. Holy moly, he meant to bite me. Marcus wanted to plunge those dagger teeth into my vein and suck me dry. Absolute terror took hold as I launched a new attack geared toward survival.

From the depth of my new existence, I felt a slight hum of power. It called out to me and begged me to let it go free. His mouth came down, and the fangs dug into my skin. All the movies about vampire bites being erotic and pleasurable lied. It may as well have been two knives plunged into the side of my neck. When he sucked, my energy exploded as I gave in to the power.

Marcus had attached himself to my throat one moment, and the next, he hit the wall across the gym floor hard. Dust and debris fell around him as he grunted. I slid to the ground and clutched my neck, coughing as I took the breath that my mind swore I needed. To my surprise, blood pooled around my fingers. I brought it to my face and stared at it. How did I bleed after someone had removed my blood? Did anything in this new world ever make any damn sense?

“There it is.”

“I’m bleeding.”

“I know, and it’s the most delicious blood I’d ever tasted. You, my dear Daria, are exquisite.”

“No, seriously. I’m bleeding. I felt like I was suffocating, and I was bleeding. My heart is beating so hard. I feel the pressure in my eardrums.”

Marcus laughed as he dusted himself off. I stared dumbfounded at the body imprint the wall now held. Whoa. I did that. I made him break concrete cinder blocks! Oh, my bejeezus.

“Take everything you know about zombies and forget it, doll face. Your organs probably regrew. Your entire body will regenerate, inside and out. That heartbeat you feel, it’s there. The air you need in your lungs is necessary. Thanatos gave you a new life, with it some of the most powerful gifts any other supernatural creature can even dream of having. You are the living dead. You are virtually impossible to kill.”

“Then why is everyone trying to kill me? How can I die?”

Marcus shrugged. “Even a life leech will only enslave you temporarily. The hand of God enslaved the last zombie. He ripped his life from him. No one knows how else to kill one. If a reanimated corpse lives, it can enslave us. That fear drives most of those connected to death to want you out of the way.”

I touched the bloody imprints of his teeth, bewildered. I have a heartbeat. I have blood. My body has regenerated itself to be new and perhaps better than before. Then as if a light switch came on in my mind, I raged at the fact that he bit me. He took blood I didn’t even know I had from my body. Marcus stole from me.

The power that I let loose earlier grew in my stomach. With each pulse of my regenerated heart, the power expanded until I felt it at my fingertips.

“Daria? Why are you looking at me like that?”

Even though I knew he meant no harm, I couldn’t get past the violation. I felt betrayed that he drank my blood. It angered me that he took something from me and hurt me on purpose. At that moment, I didn’t see him as an acquaintance who sought to help me but as an enemy I needed to punish for stealing my lifeblood.

The rage expanded within me until I couldn’t control it. I stared at him with malice filling my thoughts and advanced on him. This time he backed away. I heard my name from his lips, but it didn’t break through the wall of animosity I held. I wanted to hurt him, to crush the bones of his hands into sand because they had been on my throat.

When he threw his head back and screamed, I watched in horror as his hands deformed before me. Both hands seemed to have lost their shape as his fingers melded together. He clutched both hands to his chest and continued yelling in agony. His sound snapped me out of the fog of power that had engulfed me.

“Oh God, oh no. Marcus, I’m so sorry. Please tell me how to fix it. Help!” I screamed the word help and prayed that anyone would come racing in to save the day.

I ran over to him and reached out. He jerked away from me and groaned. The sound broke my heart. The knowledge that I did that to him floored me.

“Please, tell me what to do,” I begged as tears formed.

A whisper filled the room with a voice I recognized but couldn’t see. “Fix what you broke, Daria.” The same boom I’d heard at the council meeting stilled my thoughts and filled me with peace.

Okay. I can do this. I closed my eyes as tight as I could and reached down in the depths of my soul for the power that came to me when terror gripped me. It flared up on demand and filled me. In my mind, I pictured his bones reforming beneath his skin. When he cried out anew, I opened my eyes and saw him collapse on the ground with his hands slowly taking their original form. With each slow movement beneath his skin, he squirmed on the floor and moaned like a tortured animal.

“Please be okay. I’m so sorry.” I whispered as tears rolled down my face.

Moments ticked by in a slow crawl as his hands reformed. He flexed his fingers and stared at them with awe as his breathing returned to an average pace. After what felt like an eternity, he moaned softly and spoke.

“I think we’re done here.”

He got up and left the room without a backward glance. At that moment, I knew I’d lost one of the few new people in my life.

The dead wife gives gifts.

I lay curled in the luxurious bed provided by Desiree and Sharon, with the covers pulled up over my head, and my knees pulled up to my chest. I couldn’t help but let a few tears fall from the corners of my eyes. Zombies got the worst of all superpowers. What good was regeneration if your thoughts hurt people? I didn’t want to do anything again other than stay in bed. The whiney me has returned with a vengeance, and I couldn’t quite find the motivation to drive her away. Thanatos was the object of my ire. He knew exactly what I’d become yet left me to my own devices as if I’d somehow excel at all this crap.

Not only did he leave me to learn this all on my own, but he also didn’t even give two sugars that I’d be hurting innocent people along the way. Or I’d have enemies crawling out of the woodwork to cleave my regrown heart. Had he told me that night in the bar, Daria, I would give your life a massive do over, and it would prove exponentially worse than your first attempt. I’d have probably said, go lick pond scum. A mental visual of the all-mighty Thanatos, life-giver, licking pond scum made me giggle. The tiny sound from my throat turned into a full-blown laugh.

“Of all the things you could think to do to me, the worst you could come up with was to lick pond scum?”

His voice infiltrated my joy and made me scramble onto the bed. I sat up and wrapped the surrounding covers. While not nude, I wasn’t in any position to entertain guests—especially ones of a divine nature.

He sat on the edge of the bed. This surprised me because I’d never felt the ripple of the down comforter. Not for nothing, but he looked like hell. He had stubble across his jawline that didn’t suit the intensity of his brown eyes. With a soft smile on his lips, his eyes roamed my disheveled appearance. Why did I look like death warmed over when cute hot Gods ogled me? Wait? Did I call Thanatos hot? Did I have a fever? Seriously?

“Oh, Daria, I enjoy the vast irregularities of your mind.”

“My mind isn’t irregular. It’s spastic. There is a difference.”

He smiled, and I noticed that he had a deep dimple on the left side but not the right. Even though I knew he could read my mind, I couldn’t stop my rampant thoughts from going back to how freaking gorgeous he looked in bed with me. I’m not some sex-starved teenager who thinks with hormones. Not to mention, he’s a God, like the real deal. He gave me a life after death, for goodness’ sake.

“If you keep looking at me like that, I will test the restraint you put on yourself.”

His voice had changed. Just a slight difference in timber that sent a chill down my spine. “Do you always peek in on women while they’re having a nervous breakdown in bed?”

With that, he threw his head back and laughed. The rusty vibrations shook the room. Pictures fell off the wall and everything. I clutched the covers closer and looked around.

The bedroom door burst open, and Sharon and Desiree rushed through. Each looked ready to battle with some unseen enemy. Sharon’s dark skin shone against the early morning light as her black hair cascaded around her. Desiree, the more beautiful of the two sisters, arched one eyebrow at me as she caught the tail end of Thanatos’s laughter. Both bowed when they caught sight of him. Seeing such strong women humbled before him like that freaked me out.

“Good morning, Sharon and Desiree. I hope you’ll forgive this intrusion on your home.”

Sharon recovered first. “It is an honor, Thanatos. May we get you anything? Breakfast, coffee, tea…” she trailed off.

“Condoms,” Desiree whispered but loud enough for everyone to hear. Sharon elbowed her in the side.

“If it’s not too much trouble, may I have a glass of chocolate milk?”

I know my expression had to mirror the Banshee sisters. Shock and awe didn’t entirely cover their gaped mouth and arched eyebrows.

“You want some chocolate puffs with that?” Desiree asked.

“If you have some, that would be delightful. Human foods are wondrous, are they not? The things they come up with boggle my mind. Daria, have you had chocolate milk and chocolate puffs?”

I’m back in the parallel universe where nothing made sense, and the world spun off its axis. “Former human, I ate that for breakfast for most of my childhood.”

“Oh yes. Did you know they even made a bowl of cereal with chocolate and marshmallows? I buy it in bulk every time I visit the human world.”

Oh, excellent. I picked today to realize that Thanatos had sex appeal and then find out he’s got a soft spot for unnaturally sweet breakfast foods. I could hardly hold a grudge against someone like that.

“I will have it ready for you in the dining room.” Sharon dragged Desiree out of the room and closed the door behind them.

“So, why am I licking pond scum this morning?”

The stupid slow human brain, I did not understand what he was talking about until I remembered that’d been what I was thinking about before his random morning visit.

“Sheesh, if you eavesdrop, at least do it the whole way. I said had I known now what I knew then, I’d have told you to lick pond scum instead of reanimating me or whatever it is you did.”

“I believe you mean, had you known then what you know now.”

“You should never correct a woman in bed, and it’s just rude.”

“You’re correct. I want to give you something.”

“Um, the last time you gave me something, they put my heart in formaldehyde.”

He chuckled and held his hand toward me, palm up, fingers wrapped in a tight fist. “I trust this will make you think better thoughts of me than bacteria growing on water.”

Greeks and Gift horses. Knowledge and wisdom were clearly two different things. I had the knowledge of what happened to those gifted the horse, but it didn’t stop me from reaching for whatever treasure he held in his hand.

He extended his fingers and revealed a shimmering chain. The links were so small that the light almost made it look as if it were moving. Then when it moved on its own accord, I jumped back and snatched my hand far away from his.

“You have no reason to fear me, Daria. I wish to make amends for the way I’ve handled your rebirth. I left you unprepared, and that is inexcusable. This is my gift to you.”

The chain leaped from his hand and wrapped around my wrist even as I tried to hide it. The soft metal spiraled around until it ran from wrist to elbow. It pulsated against my skin with a vibrancy that I’d sworn reminded me of a heartbeat.

“Normally, a guy buys me dinner before jewelry,” I said with a shaky laugh. It wasn’t even true. No man had ever bought me jewelry before.

“This is not a bauble for decoration. It’s a weapon. Never again will you be unprepared for the dangers you seem to wander into aimlessly.”

I looked at the weird chain around my arm and arched an eyebrow. “This is a weapon?”

He smiled, and I realized how handsome the man was once again. Thanatos may be a God, but he had a chiseled jawline for which all the European models would sell their souls.

“Flick your wrist.”

Though gentle in tone, the command left no room for dispute. More out of curiosity than some need to obey, I flung my wrist out. The chain went into action and extended far beyond its plausible size. It acted like a bullwhip and crackled in the air. An electric blue shimmering light coated it.


“This belonged to my wife, and I hope it protects you as it did her.”

Oh geez. Not only did he give me a gift, but he gave me something that meant a great deal to him. “Thanatos, I can’t take this. Not if it was your wife’s.”

He smiled, and that dimple came out to play. “She told me to give it to you.”

The dead wife gives gifts.

“Huh?” Great verbal response.

“When a God dies, it isn’t like with humans. She returned to the Earth, as I will be one day. Though I cannot see or hold her as I once did, she lets me know when she’s around.”

I flicked my wrist again and stared in amazement as the light around the chain changed from blue to green. The thing looked like a strand of silver silk, but the power I felt as I wrapped it around my wrist spoke volumes for the damage it could do.

“Why would she want you to give this to me?”

Thanatos shrugged. “She didn’t like how I’d left you to fend for yourself. What kind of man does that to a woman he intends to court?”

Wait, what? “Court?” I asked, not sure if I heard correctly.

“That is an old-world term. Would you prefer I say date? Pursue? Perhaps chase?”

Thanatos, the Earth God, wanted to date me? Now I knew I’d not yet woken up that morning, and boy, was I going to be super sad when I did.

“Why would you want to date me?”

“What a silly question that is. I will leave now. I hope you’ll think about the intentions I’ve stated here this morning. I will share breakfast with Sharon and Desiree. Will you be joining us?”


My brain stopped working. That’s my only excuse for my severe lack of communication skills.

“You are adorable, Daria. Until we meet again.”

With that, he stood up and walked out of the room as if he didn’t just leave yet another bombshell in my lap.

Suitors all in a row

As I stood in the closet and looked around, it occurred to me that I wouldn’t say I liked clothing. What does one wear when they have breakfast with a god? Somehow jeans and a T-shirt wouldn’t instill in me the confidence to discover more about what he meant by courting. Even saying that sounded prehistoric and weird, but what the hey, I liked the idea. Who wouldn’t want a smoking hot man setting their sights on them? At the same time, it freaked me out. He’s a freaking G. O. D. I stared at the wardrobe Sharon picked out and sighed. I made a horrible girl.

As I fingered a line of shirts, the bracelet shimmered when I touched a silky green top. At first, I thought it was my imagination, but as I moved away from it, the bracelet tightened. Not uncomfortably, but more of a ‘notice me, I’m squeezing your wrist’ way. I went back to the green shirt and pulled it out. It was beautiful, and I knew it would fit perfectly. It reminded me of a wench blouse top with a built-in tight black corset under it. The strands that tied the corset together were emerald, green. It was far too risqué for breakfast, but the bracelet shimmered again, and I knew it’d be what I wore. Honestly, the trinket on my wrist probably had more fashion sense than I did. It didn’t even freak me out that I considered listening to a piece of jewelry that moonlighted as a weapon.

“Okay then, what shall I wear to cover my derriere?” As I spoke aloud, my sanity came into question, but only for a second. The bracelet shot out at a pair of black jeans. They were designer skinny jeans, but jeans, nonetheless. The bracelet and I would get along fine. I chose lacy green undergarments, almost the same color as the shirt.

When I turned toward the right, a lengthy line of shoes stared back at me. I didn’t need the bracelet’s help in deciding what to wear. A pair of calf-high boots with just enough heels to walk safely in. They had a green ribbon that crossed from the ankle to the top of my calf.

See, getting dressed wasn’t as hard as it used to be when you had the entire mall in your closet. I put the clothes on and stepped into the boots. Though not naturally over-endowed with a chest that made men drool, the shirt made mine high and on display. With an appraising gaze into the three full-length mirrors, I figured this was as good as it got for me. I began my descent into the unknown world of Gods who ate breakfast made for children. As I rounded the corner toward the dining room where their voices carried, the bracelet tightened, and I stopped. Because it wasn’t weird enough to get clothing choices, I figured, why not see what else it had in store for me? I know that didn’t make any sense, but I could feel the silver entity sighing at me. It snaked up my arm, over my shoulder, around my neck, and pulled at my hair. I felt weird, so I raised my hand, but the links tightened around my throat. Trust and believe my hand dropped like a stone.

In amazement, I watched through the mirror in the hallway as the bracelet did some crazy braided updo with my hair. I had a whole pirate theme going, and even I had to admit that my hair looked amazing. Part of the bracelet separated and kept every single strand in place. Like my hair would dare disobey a magical piece of metal. The bracelet, except for the small piece acting like a hair band, slid back down to my wrist when done.

Just when I thought my life couldn’t get any weirder.

I resumed entering the dining room and saw Sharon hovering over Thanatos as if he made her nervous about being in the home. Desiree sat at the table with him. Her demeanor showed one of guarded amusement. Their stances made her wonder what they thought of the man sitting at their table. It didn’t look like either fully trusted him, but neither would dream of disrespecting him.

“Damn, zombie girl.” Desiree noticed her first.

I bit my lip, unsure what to say in response. Sharon stared at me as if I had two heads. This was nothing new. She always looked at me like that.

“Daria, you look lovely. Are you sick?” Leave it to Sharon to voice the opinion that makes the most sense. Her former boss took life far too literally.

“Nice, Sharon. You are such a tool sometimes. So, Thanatos explained that he thought it would be a clever idea for you to put in a few hours at the Council of Life. This will allow others to get used to you. It’s harder to want to kill someone once you know them.”

This made me smile. “Sharon, how many days of the week did you want to kill me?”

“All of them.” She replied.

“I’ve had enough death threats recently. I’m not so sure I’m ready for more.”

Thanatos stood and turned, he stared at me for a moment, and I felt his gaze. Heat touched my skin as his eyes roamed from my head to my toes. The warmth lingered on my breasts, and I had to ruin the moment with my big mouth. “You will give me sunburn if you keep that up.”

His eyes snapped to mine, and I swear that a flush of red crept up his neck and tinged his cheeks. Oh, my goodness, I embarrassed him. I and my mouth would have a conversation one day.

“I apologize. It’s just you look beautiful.”

Desiree laughed and relaxed in the seat. Sharon wore her famed smirk, and life shifted to something of normalcy.

Thanatos’s head turned toward the front of the house as if he could see straight through the walls, which he probably could because of the whole God thing.

“There is a vampire at your front door.”

Though I hadn’t heard a thing, the tone of his voice left little doubt in the validity of his statement. When the housekeeper ushered in Marcus, I felt a twinge of sadness.

The sadness turned to confusion when he carried in two armfuls of gifts. He held a beautiful bouquet, two small boxes, a rather large stuffed teddy bear, and a heart-shaped box that looked like it would have some chocolates.

“Sharon, Desiree, I’m sorry for arriving unannounced, but I needed to see…” He saw Thanatos and frowned. “What is he doing here?”

Desiree chuckled before responding. “The same thing as you.”

I want to say I understood at that moment what she meant, but I couldn’t comprehend the vision before me. I was so glad that he came at all and didn’t hate me for hurting him. It bothered me even then; I’d crushed his bones in anger.

“Marcus,” Thanatos said with a tightness to his voice I hadn’t heard before.

“Thanatos. She’s mine.” The ordinarily jovial vampire snapped with a strong hint of annoyance.

“She’s her own person. Though, the master rarely falls for the puppet.” Thanatos responded with a bored tone.

“Funny, aren’t you the ones pulling her strings?”

With that, Thanatos stood and faced Marcus. The two had an epic stare-down in the dining room.

Sharon took control as I stood there in my usual stupor. She stood between them and announced that if they were going to have a pissing contest, they could have it outside like dogs. Wait, was that stuff for me? Marcus brought me flowers. Oh wow.

Marcus walked over to me and thrust everything at me at once. “I’m an asshole. I know I’m an asshole. Please say you forgive me.”

As far as apologies go, that one ranked up there with the best I’d ever received.

People didn’t spend much time telling me they were sorry, but still, it was cute.

“I forgive you.”

Thanatos again turned toward the front door, and his entire body froze this time. Even though Marcus stood before me, I couldn’t let the god out of sight. It’s lame, but he captivated me.

“All of Daria’s suitors showed up for breakfast.” This time the irritation in his voice went beyond anything remotely related to boredom.

The housekeeper again brought a man down the hallway toward where they all were. He held up both hands as if to surrender, and my mouth dropped.

Marcus flung me behind him, Sharon and Desiree leaped into a battle position, and Thanatos just appeared in front of the three of them. A growl erupted from the vampire’s throat as he bent forward. Kurtis Winterbourne laced his hands behind his head and dropped to his knees.

“If you ripped my head from my chest, it would be what I deserve for the pain I caused the woman I love.”

Gargoyles don’t like pink.

I’d never understood the expression, you could hear a pin drop, before that day. He said he loved me. Nothing else registered because I’m that lame girl who doesn’t care that the villain will carve her into a thousand pieces. His love made it okay. My gaze swung from Kurtis, who killed me and tried to kill me again at a cemetery, to Marcus, who bit my neck and sucked my blood, to Thanatos, who reanimated my corpse and left me to fend for myself. Regarding the dating pool, I needed to work on my choices. Ones that didn’t potentially lead me to hellish existences would probably be preferable.

I pushed past Marcus, who tried to hold me back, but I forced him to put his hand down. The scowl, in return, didn’t do much for our budding truce. I stepped before Sharon and Desiree and placed my arm on Desiree’s shoulder. “It’s okay. He will not hurt me with all of you here.”

Sharon did a curt nod, but I could see by the look on her face she wasn’t at all ready to back down. Thanatos sighed but stepped aside. Not because he wanted to but because I asked him to. The man was polite.

I stood knees to face with Kurtis. I had so many questions to ask him, and I didn’t take his love declaration as an end to all our problems. He took my life from me. I’d be dead in a cemetery if it weren’t for Thanatos.

“What are you doing here?”

To say my heart thumped in my chest would be an understatement. I struggled to combine the two sides of Kurtis. On the one hand, he remained the sweet, adorable man I worked with for so long. The other was a man who willfully took a blade and stabbed me in my chest, not once but twice. Which proved more decisive, the compassion in my heart or the fear in my mind? Who could I trust, the man who killed me, the man who drank me, or the man who gave me a messed-up life? Why were they all there at the same time? The more I thought about it, the more it angered me. I spent three decades years unnoticed by the men in the world. After death, I became the belle of the ball, and even that had nothing to do with me and everything to do with Thanatos turning me into something that everyone hated.

“I had to see you,” Kurtis said as he lifted his head to look at me. “I’m so sorry, Daria. I will do anything to make it up to you.”

“To make it up to me. You killed me!”

In the battle of compassion versus fear, anger trumped them both. The low-down jerk hurt me in many ways.

“How did you even find me? I don’t want you here. I may not let them kill you out of some misplaced affection, but please get up, get off your knees, and get the fuck out.”

Some words tingle when they touch my lips, the ‘F’ word being one of them. He looked up at me, and his eyes sparkled with unshed tears. Under any other circumstances, a man crying at my feet would probably make me weak in the knees, but this time it just made me want to thump him in the forehead before I let Marcus rip his throat out.

“That’s my girl,” Desiree said as she stood beside me. She threw her arm around me and pulled me close. “I like you more and more every minute we’re together.”

“I won’t give up, Daria. I’ll never give up on you.”

Then it appeared he did just that as he got up and slunk down the hallway like a dog with his tail between his legs. Woah, he had a tail. How in the holy Hades did I never notice that Kurtis had a tail? It had a spade at the end, or whatever the upside-down heart was. A flipping appendage attached to his butt. My mind exploded and left me in a stupor as I stared after him.

“Um… Zombie girl…”

“Yeah?” I asked, still distracted by the spectacle he made in the hall.

“He’s got a tail…” she said as she giggled.

Unable to control the mirth that rose in my throat, I laughed. “Yeah… and here I thought he was just happy to see me.”

Then, I heard Sharon laugh for the first time in my career. Her full laugh reminded me of wind chimes and red wine. Desiree and I both turned to stare at her but continued to laugh right along with her. If newfound friends can’t laugh at ex-love interests extra limbs, what could they possibly find funny?

“Well, my stock just rose at least thirty-three percent,” Marcus said. “There’s no way I’m losing to a dude with a tail.”

Thanatos sat down at the table with a severe expression, given the oddity they’d just learned. Not that he’d been an outspoken entity in my afterlife. “Sharon, Desiree, did you remove the wards from your home?”

Their laughter stopped as if the air had evaporated from their lungs. “No, this house is secure.”

“Then explain how a half-breed demon walked through your front door.” Seeing the depth of Thanatos’s anger sent a tremor of fear through me. I snuck a glance and saw the tightened jaw and thinned lips.

What did he think happened? I assumed a magical security system doesn’t just evaporate… wait… hold the phone—demon half-breed. The vein between my eyebrows at the start of my nose throbbed.

“Or he’s working with a druid,” Desiree said as she plopped at the kitchen table. “I vote for the druid. Those magic-hoarding joy-kills were pretty pissed that Daria exists.”

“Is there anyone that’s happy I was given an afterlife?”

Thanatos, Desiree, and Marcus put their hands in the air. I looked at Sharon and raised my eyebrow at her. She sighed and raised her hand too. “You irritate me, but the world would be boring without you.”

Knife-wielding co-workers with tails, realtors with ghost sidekicks, and now druids. “I thought Druids were humans, like a religion of sorts.”

Thanatos lost his scowl as he answered. “Druids are the link between humans and the supernatural. Physically they are human. However, each carries the magic of the elements within them. For example, we built this house with stone and wood, both natural elements. A druid could make the house do whatever they wanted.”

“Wouldn’t that make all alarm systems, including yours, invalid?”

“The druids are not responsible for this. There must be some other explanation.” Thanatos spoke with a conviction that did not allow for contradiction. As both Desiree and Sharon’s mouths snapped shut, he probably got what he wanted often. Not that it would work with her.

“Why are you so sure?” I asked, and Sharon cringed.

“Because I’m their God. The druids are my people.”

“And that means what? I went to Sunday school for years as a young child and still stole bubble gum from the penny candy store. And let me tell you, a certain teen heartthrob actor had more wall space in my bedroom than should have been possible. That’s two commandments obliterated before I turned fourteen. Not everyone follows in line.”

“Not to mention you told the Big Guy to take his council and shove it.” Desiree smiled.

Thanatos knelt and touched the floor until the granite covering became an extension of his hand. Through the soles of the boots that covered my feet, I felt a rhythmic thumping from the floor as if the house had developed a heartbeat. A shimmer ran along the floor and up each wall. I spun in a circle to catch each movement. When mundane things like houses did weird things, I was still human enough to find it interesting. A weird sound erupted from outside the home. I couldn’t help but run outside and find out what the noise was with Desiree at my heels.

Giant gargoyles stood at each corner. At least fifteen of them on the ground, with more on balconies and rooftops. They didn’t match the decor at all. The stone winged beasts wore the same serious expression. While their facial features had subtle differences, the horns, claws and teeth were a shared trait. Of everything I’d seen to date, that thrilled me the most. I wanted to touch them.

“You invoked the guard!” Desiree exclaimed with awe in her voice.

Thanatos appeared at my side. “No harm will come to anyone in this home.” With that, he disappeared. He had to learn how to say goodbye like an average person.

“What just happened?” I asked as I stared at the statues.

Sharon and Marcus stepped outside. They stepped off the front porch onto the gravel with Desiree and me. “Well, my flowers pale in comparison now,” Marcus stated.

“Thanatos takes your safety seriously. He gave you his wife’s army.” Sharon said.

I looked at the stone figures. “How do creepy life-sized figurines make an army?” I asked.

“You are so human.” Sharon rolled her eyes. “They’re alive, Daria.”

Now that got my attention. Unable to suppress my natural curiosity, I approached the nearest gargoyle. I reached out slowly, with my fingers extended, to touch a gargoyle. The stone moved as fluid as water, and its claws gently circled my wrists. It didn’t hurt, but it scared the daylights out of me, and I yelped. The statue released my hand and knelt on one knee, its head bowed, with its massive wings folded behind its back. “At your service.” A voice rumbled from the ground itself.

I leaped back into Marcus, who steadied me with his hands on my shoulders. He chuckled as he leaned in, his mouth close to my ear. “Looks like he’s making up for lost time. This is a legendary army. No one has seen the guard since the time of his wife. He just upped the ante to our little game.”

“You sound impressed.”

“I grew up listening to their stories. Seeing them in person has exceeded any childhood fantasy.”

I took a moment to lean against him. I closed my eyes momentarily and let my mind pretend that none of this was real. A vampire wasn’t behind me. There were no supernatural creatures, and a dead woman’s army of gargoyles didn’t surround me.

“Where’s the fun in that? Wait till you see what I bring you next. It will be epic.”

God should ban mind reading. It sucked not to have that superpower.

“I’m sorry for how I acted yesterday. I realized after I left that you probably thought I was upset with you,” said Marcus. “On the rare occasion I experience real pain, my survival instincts override rational thought.”

I opened one eye. Nope, still gargoyles. The lack of heat coming from leaning against Marcus was another indicator that Alice was still in Wonderland.

“Say that again,” I said. “But make it make sense this time.”

Marcus chuckled and wrapped one arm around my waist. “Vampires respond to pain with an overdose of adrenaline. You weren’t prepared for the fight I’d bring.”

“A little better. You left so you didn’t bite me again.”

“Correct,” he said with a low soft voice. “But only if you begged.”

Is he flirting with me? “What is wrong with you?”

“You need someone on your side,” he said. “I want to be that someone. Whether it’s learning to defend yourself, committing felonies, or hiding bodies, you can lean on me for support.”

“Why me?” I asked.

“You make me laugh,” he held up one finger. “You looked hot in a lab coat.” He held up two fingers. “Not a minute spent with you is boring.”

As far as compliments went, all three made me want to ask follow up questions. Did I make him laugh in a funny ha ha sort of way, or he thinks I’ve lost my mind kind of way? Did Marcus just say I looked hot as a corpse? Was not being boring a compliment?

Before I could respond he said, “Funny ha ha, I don’t think you had it to begin with, and it’s most definitely a compliment.”

“Stop being weird,” I said, starting to get a little uncomfortable. “All I want is a normal, quiet life where I feel safe. This world is making me feel paranoid and hunted.”

“When Thanatos gave you an afterlife, he gave you the gift of death. There is nothing you can’t do, Daria.”

“I can’t fly,” I said with a small smile.

“Only because you haven’t tried.”

Sharon and Desiree joined us. Desiree wrinkled her nose as she looked at the front of the house. “Think they’d mind if I painted their claws pink or something? This is a girl’s house.”

“We’d mind that very much,” a voice rumbled from the ground, making the gravel pebbles shake.

“Well, Daria. It appears you have a vampire bodyguard, two banshee sidekicks, and an elite guard believed to be mythological. Whatever shall you do with yourself,” Sharon asked.

“It’s time for me to do what I do well. I’ll investigate why I died and who pulled the strings that set it all in motion.”

The red balloon that didn’t pop

As I stood at the entrance of Strategies Unlimited, my short new life had come full circle. Though I wanted to walk right in through the front door as I always had, the panic of a dead girl walking through the building might generate more interest than we cared to have. Marcus hovered as the receptionist let us in on the fourth floor. What I once thought was the executive’s entrance was just the supernatural one. How segregated. With the newfound knowledge of this world, I could smell the flowers that kept Sharon’s attractions at bay. She’d gone to work hours earlier.

Because nothing in my life made much sense, I arrived with an entourage. A glamorized version of my former self, it didn’t even strike me as odd when a young girl snapped a phone photo of me. If I still had social media, I’d want her to tag me in it because I’d never looked better in my entire life, thanks to Sharon’s shopping skills and a bracelet that thinks for me. Oh, who am I kidding? I still count the steps and prayed I didn’t trip in the three-inch heels. This new life barely fit the old me.

“Miss Daria, welcome. Can I offer you a glass of wine? Champagne? Sparkling water?” The woman behind the desk had beautiful blue-green scales that shimmered against the light of the lobby. It never ceased to amaze me that this entire world existed before I died, and I never even knew about it.

No one ever stumbled over themselves to offer me anything before. The creepy eyes on me feeling crept up my spine. “No, thank you, I’ve just come for information. If you could direct me to the person mediating the strike for those relating to death, that would be helpful.”

The woman leaned in and motioned for me to come closer. “She’s not your biggest fan, but I’d be happy to get you all the documentation on the mediation. It’s going well, from what I hear. Come with me.”

She led us down a long corridor with white doors along the wall. Each entranceway bore no name or distinguishing mark, just a long row of white against the mute gray walls. “How do you know which room is which?”

“Once in a great while, and I mean a great while because I can only remember it once, a curious human will venture up here to see what goes on above them. As what we do is sensitive, we don’t make it easy on them.”

Heat crept up from my chest and flamed my cheeks. I wanted to see the people responsible for making the stupid decisions affecting the hourly employees below. I made it far in too, but never once saw a hint of anything weird.

“Why does it not surprise me it was you,” Marcus whispered. He’d positioned his head to be next to mine. His breath fell upon my ear, and I felt an extra heat.

“Daria was famous before she was infamous,” the woman leading us said as she chuckled.

I hated those thinly veiled hints to being a household reference before my untimely demise. Either sit down and explain how I had any impact or stop talking about it. She led us to a small conference room with laptops at every seat and large flat-screen televisions lining the walls. The table freaked me out as it worked as a giant screen with digital images with data just chilling out under coffee cups.

“This is how I always pictured NASA.” Or, you know, a ship with space aliens about to invade, but who’s keeping tabs these days?

“All of our information is in a centralized location. You’ll find that our world enjoys recording its history and current events. I will check on you in a little while to see if you’d like lunch. Are you all set?” she asked. The efficiency with which she did everything made me feel like a slacker in her presence—a well-dressed fraud, famous for dying, infamous for living. Go me.

Though I might be a screwup in living, I knew how to investigate. I nodded at her as I approached one of the available laptops. I found a Linux-based system I’d worked with and began gathering information on everything from the strike to Strategies Unlimited and even my dossier. Occasionally, Marcus would come over and say something to me, but I waved him off because I was in my element for the first time in weeks. This is what I did. I made sense of the data. I compiled timelines and Excel sheets of the people I’d met since I started working at Strategies Unlimited years ago. Everyone, all my agents in the call center, and everyone in the whole darn building except me was other than human. How did I wind up there in the first place?

A cup of tea magically appeared before me. I took a sip of it and winced. I must tell whoever brought it that sugar is my crack of choice. I slid another laptop toward me and compiled a list of events to balance the characters in this crazy drama of my life. Sharon popped her head in the doorway, but she knew better than to bug me when I was investigating. I’d bitten her head off more than once over the last few years.

“Get that abomination out of my conference room.”

My chair whipped around with a force that had my head spinning. Before I even knew what had happened, they launched a fist in the general direction of my face. I’m sure buried somewhere in my body, a warrior dwelled. Unfortunately, my warrior had the reflexes of an elephant on laudanum and the instincts equivalent to that of someone with little to no use of their five senses. I cringed to brace for impact. Just before her knuckles slammed into my face, a sliver of silver snaked around her encroaching hand and whipped her into the wall. The effect with which she hit the wall shook the entire room.

“Damn, Daria, we just can’t take you anywhere,” Marcus joked as he took an offensive position between me and the woman who tried to hit me.

“I did nothing!” This time I didn’t.

“You are an abomination! They created you to destroy life, to rip those from the peace of death and wage war on all of us.” The woman looked human, but the more she talked, the redder her face got. Not pink like someone who is going through minor oxygen deprivation or embarrassed, but comic book red. Ugh, I probably shouldn’t have thought about comic books. Now I am picturing her face turning redder and redder until it rises off her body like a balloon. That made me giggle until it happened.

“Daria, sweetie, she’s a reaper. While I’m sure we’d all love to see her head pop, you probably couldn’t live with the reality.” Marcus spoke to me in a gentle tone.

The swell in my midsection didn’t agree with Marcus at all. This person wanted me dead. Her thoughts screamed it. Though I couldn’t hear them, I could see it written all over her. It fascinated me while putting a genuine sense of fear in my heart. I wasn’t ready to let go of my hold on her. I didn’t want to see the mess her exploding head would cause, so I pictured her in her natural state. I imposed my will on her and forced her to remain still. I left her with no ability to move.

“Do I know you?” I asked, a calmness settling over me as I let the power within me take greater control.

I saw her work her throat and realized when I’d forced her to freeze, she wouldn’t move, couldn’t breathe, she’d lost the ability to control her eyelids to blink. Panic welled up in me as I gripped the power within me and shoved it deep down into the bowels of my stomach. It fought back and waged war within me that forced me to break out into a sweat.

“Please… get her out of here.” She regained her movement as I struggled to maintain my sense of self, and the fool went after me again.

Marcus intervened and wrapped his arms around her. Despite all the chaos, I couldn’t help but admire those arms and the tattoos that covered them. Rage exploded within me when I saw her fling him across the room. Who did she think she was? Only I’m allowed to throw him against concrete.

I gave in to the entity that fought me so hard for control. The power radiated through my veins, and a growl erupted from my throat. I turned on her, extended my arm, and raised my fingers toward the ceiling. As my hand went up, so did her body. She slid up the wall as she struggled against my force.

“Daria… don’t…”

Marcus did not faze me as I closed my hand. The slow part of me that remained an upstanding moral citizen was no match for the part of me tired of being threatened. The enraged new entity that dwelled within my body wanted her throat crushed. Scary Daria would whoop some serious behind in this kill-or-be-killed world. Old Daria, well, she already died.

No! I wasn’t a murderer. I fought harder and released her throat. She coughed and clutched her neck as she fought to breathe. Guilt could seriously damage a girl’s ability to be a bad ass. I relaxed my hand and let her slide to the ground. How could I have been so ready to kill a woman without knowing her name?

I took a few deep breaths and cast a glance at Marcus. Though his eyes held steady with mine, he feared what I could do. Despite that, he still gave me a small smile that reassured me.

“I’m sorry,” I mouthed to him before turning back to the woman who coughed and sputtered against the wall.

It took me a moment to register the gun in her hand. A real gun, it had a trigger and everything. When the bullet ejected from the barrel, time slowed. I watched the glint of a silver streak cut through the air, with rippled effects as it broke through. When the bullet entered my shoulder and flung me backward, the new badass Daria broke through.

The bracelet slid down my wrist and flung across the room as a whip. It wrapped around her neck and yanked her to the ground. Blood seeped down my shoulder as her struggling pulled at my fresh wound. The pain only fed my anger. I yanked my arm with as much force as possible and heard the pop from her neck. All her struggles ceased as she slumped to the ground.

The room fell into a silence that engulfed us all. I stared down at the woman. Even in death, she belonged to me. I killed a living soul. Though I reacted to offensive action, I took her life when all I had to do was force her to stand down. There’d been no reason to kill her. God, what have I done?

The conference room door swung open, and a matronly woman flanked by men in militia gear stared at the scene before her. I felt her hatred touch me like a poison against my skin. She looked down at the dead woman and screamed. The men rushed in, plucked the body off the ground, and brought her to the woman.

“My angel, my baby.”

I killed someone’s child. I took a child away from their mother. I am a horrible person.

“You will give up all that you love for what you have taken away from me today, Daria Gale Platts. I will destroy everything you’ve touched. This is my solemn vow.”

The woman took out a blade and cut down the center of her palm. Blood dripped as she squeezed her fist closed. Each drop hit the floor and evaporated with a hiss.

I opened my mouth to speak, but words wouldn’t come out. I murdered someone in cold blood. I am a murderer.

A vision from God

I have experienced the pain of metal slicing through my flesh twice, but a bullet had an entirely different pain. Shot is like being electrocuted from the inside out. The pain staggered me as I slid to the ground. Marcus saved me from an unladylike backward swan dive, and I collapsed against his chest. The agony of the wound didn’t hold a candle to the burden in my heart. I killed someone. I took their life and snuffed them out. That made me no better than Kurtis and his ilk, who landed me in this position. What made my life more valuable than hers?

“Daria, sweetheart, your thoughts are making me depressed. Please think about something so I don’t bite into that little neck of yours.”

I closed my eyes for a moment to take a deep breath. I thought if I could take small gentle air intakes, it wouldn’t hurt so darn much.

“Jesus, Daria, what happened here?”

There’s the disapproving voice I’d missed so much of my former life. I popped open one eye and would have scowled at Sharon, but the effort was too much. So, I closed my eyes and pretended she didn’t exist. It worked so well for me in the past.

“Gloria Winterbourne attacked Daria. Daria defended herself.” Marcus’s tone surprised me. It was harsh like he was the one who got shot.

“Where is Gloria?” Sharon asked. “Damn it, they shot her. She’ll heal before we can get the bullet out.”

I hate being talked about as if I weren’t right in the same room with them. Marcus growled and pushed me forward. With slow and tender care, I turned to see he’d launched himself across the room. His eyes were as red as a fire truck, and the black pupils swallowed any other color that might have been there. Fangs glimmered across his lip as he stared at me.

“Marcus, get out of here. I will help her. You go… do whatever you need to do.” Sharon had her control freak voice on.

The pain from the bullet radiated through my body. I focused on the cause of the pain. As weird as it seemed, I found the bullet in my body. It lodged between my collarbone and shoulder—fragments of both splintered off near the projectile. I closed my eyes and blocked everything else out. If I can turn a man’s bones to sand, I can move a bullet within my skin. Sweat broke out over my forehead and slid down my face as I struggled to move the foreign object in my body.

When it budged, I exhaled loudly. Sharon tried to get my attention, but I ignored her as usual. I focused only on removing the source of the pain. The bone splinters and the bullet worked out toward the surface of my skin. Blood seeped out of the wound as they popped out of the entrance hole. I held my hand under the wound, and the tiny bits of bone and the bullet landed in my palm, caked in blood.

“Whoa,” Sharon said.

“I got the bullet out, Sharon,” I said with apparent awe.

“I see that. You are such a freak of nature,” she said.

“That’s nothing new. Am I going to jail?”

It must have taken her a moment to realize what I was asking because she didn’t speak right away. She sat beside me and put her arm around my shoulders, not touching me, just hovering close to my skin.

“No, even in the supernatural world if someone shoots you, you can defend yourself. You gained a new and powerful enemy, though. We’re going to have to be vigilant.”

I had so many questions. Who has that woman, and why did she want me dead? What did I do to her that instilled such hatred in her? Surely it couldn’t just be because I have zombie-like tendencies. Everyone is a little weird in this world. Why was my weirdness so frightening? None of the questions rose to the surface. Something about Sharon’s arm around my shoulders distracted me. She smelled like a spring day. Though I knew it was banshee voodoo, I looked up at her and saw emotion reflecting in her eyes.

“Will you please stop getting stabbed, shot, or kidnapped?” she said quietly.

I chuckled as I reached up and touched her face, caressing her caramel-colored skin. “If I stopped getting into trouble, who would you clean up after?”

“Desiree. Her messes are much bigger than yours. Daria, stop looking at me like that.”

I didn’t want to, so I continued to look up into her beautiful brown eyes. The rational part of me screamed how much I didn’t even like Sharon, but that didn’t stop me from wondering what it would feel like to have her lips against mine.

“Okay…” She pulled away from me and helped me up to my feet. The haze of lust lifted with distance, and I shook my head.

“Wow, you need to come with a warning label.”

She laughed, “It’s because we touched. The flowers are useless if I touch someone.” Then she frowned, and I realized how hard that must be to live with. To never touch someone that didn’t turn into a mindless desire-filled puppet.

“Well, I’m glad I’m not your type, or we’d have shared an interesting story over breakfast.”

We walked out of the conference room. The administrative assistant from the lobby tripped over herself to apologize for what happened. People were rushing around us to clean up the chaos in my wake. Strangers were apologizing, offering help, or trying to shove their business cards at me everywhere I turned.

A hush fell on the building, contrasting to seconds earlier. I turned to look around because I couldn’t even hear anyone breathing. Just by that reaction, I knew who’d joined the party. The only person who could command such respect. G.O.D.

He strode toward me with Thanatos on his right. My mind tucked away a mental note of him being at God’s right hand. It amused me, which only distracted me from the intense fear. This person judged souls, and I’d just taken a life. I killed someone. I killed them in cold blood when I could have just as quickly made her do what I wanted. I could have forced her to put that gun down. I could have forced her to do whatever I wanted. Instead, I snapped her neck like a twig.

“Daria, come here, child.”

I went over to him with a deep breath to fill my lungs. I couldn’t even look at Thanatos. He gave me such a beautiful gift, and I used it to murder someone. I suck at life in every way.

God placed his hand on my forehead, and a vision played in my mind like a movie. We were back in the conference room. The woman pulled out the gun and fired. This time, instead of using the bracelet as a weapon, I took the bullet and dropped like a stone. She called out, and two men rushed in. One held me down as the other went after Marcus. Though he fought hard, the second man plunged his hand into Marcus’s chest and pulled out his black heart. I would unpack that later. Then the stranger pulled an archaic blade out and cut off Marcus’s head. Seconds later, Desiree and Sharon came running, only to have their throats grabbed by the two men before they could make a sound. Within seconds, the goons broke their necks.

I screamed until the sound no longer came. When God took his hand off my head, I collapsed hard against the ground. He showed me what would have happened if I hadn’t reacted. I’d done what I always do in life, I just took what came at me.

“One last thing, Daria. Evangeline, mother of Gloria, the woman who lost her life today, is the leader of all Reapers and Death bringers. She will be a most formidable foe. Do not think you started this war, as she ordered the hit on you for investigating the companies she owns. She manipulated her son to kill you.” With that, God evaporated. I have no other way to put it. He didn’t just disappear. He became part of the air, the walls, and life around me. It brought tears to my eyes to be in his presence.

With Sharon at my side, I stood up. Thanatos stepped toward me. “Are you all right?”

I tried to speak, but my throat hurt. I coughed to clear it, but it was raw and painful. I guess my screams were real during my God-induced mental breakdown. “Fine. I want to get out of here for a bit. I need to breathe.”

“Where would you like to go?” he asked.

“I want to go see my mother.”

He nodded and held his hand out toward mine. It’d been far too long since I visited my mother’s grave. She wouldn’t care that I’m a zombie. She only ever cared if I was happy and if I ate vegetables. I just wanted to sit on the soft grass before her headstone and rest my forehead against the cold cement.

He did his God thing, and in one second, we were in the hallway with Sharon, and in the next, we were in a field of wildflowers. They were all purple, different shades of the royal color. It made me smile as it reminded me of her.

“Hello, my angel.”

My eyes opened so wide my eyeballs were in danger of falling out. There, in a field of purple flowers, stood my mother.

Traded for a gas can

I froze, unable to do anything but stare at the woman who raised me. It would have taken an act of God to get me to move. Even the cliché statements in my head had new meanings in my new chaotic world. My mother came to me as she always did when I wouldn’t budge. She enveloped me in a hug. Everything about her was exactly as I remembered, from her smell to her touch to the tightness she held me. I don’t even think I understood how much I missed her. My heart broke and I rejoiced at the same time. I couldn’t decide if this was some morbid dream or if she stood toe to toe with me.

“Let me look at you,” she whispered as she kissed my forehead.

She took a step back and gave me a once-over. “Daria, you grew up! I believe I told you never to do that.”

“Well,” I sniffled. “You weren’t there to remind me.” With that, the tear gate broke, and I sobbed as I’d done the day she died. I cried until my knees gave out, and I sat with her around me in the field of flowers. Everything in this life proved too overwhelming for me. I sat with my dead mother’s arm around me, holding my bloodstained hand. She stroked my hair and whispered how much she loved me.

I had no idea how much time had passed, but eventually, my emotional breakdown subsided. I wrapped my arms around her neck and held her. For a moment, the anger I held toward her surfaced. I tried to squash it down, not wanting to ruin the perfect moment, but I had no control over my mouth.

“You left me!” I hissed.

She put her fingers under my chin and forced me to look into her eyes. “My life was over, darling, but I carried you in my heart every day. You were such a blessing when you arrived in our life. Your father and I couldn’t have been happier when you joined our family.”

Arrived? Joined? What an odd way to describe my birth. “Please don’t add any new bombshells in my life, mama. I don’t think my heart can take it.”

“Oh, sweetheart, I would have told you while I still lived had the Lord let me have a few more years. You were going off to college. I thought I’d have more time.”

“Where’s daddy?” I didn’t want to hear what she had to say.

“He misses you too much to take you away from him again, Daria. You were his world. He’s settled into his next life. I thought it best if I let him be.”

As much as I wanted to see him, too, I understood. It will break my heart all over again when I say goodbye a second time around. We sat there in the field of purple flowers for a few more minutes, and finally, she started talking.

“You were three months old the day you were brought to me. A strange woman came to the house and asked your father if he’d watch her infant while she ran to put gas in her car. He offered to get the gas for her. Heck, he even offered to give her the gas from his car. I believe he would have rather chewed glass than watch a baby. She insisted, and well, your father caved because he never could put his foot down where a woman was concerned.” She smiled.

All I could think of was that my mother wasn’t even my mother. I had nothing left in this life or the last.

“She brought you into the house and left with your father’s gas can. From hanging up the laundry, I saw this red-faced squalling infant on my sofa. It was love. Later, when we were looking for identification, we found the note begging us to raise you as our own, complete with birth certificates that bore our names. You were 100% ours from that moment on.”

“Why couldn’t you keep this story with you? You and Daddy were all I had.”

“What a silly thing to say. You still have us. Are you so stuck on blood and guts that they mean more than the eighteen years we had together?”

I loved my mother. Only she could put something I didn’t understand in perspective and had no room for doubt or questions. “How am I able to see you now?”

She chuckled. “The dead are all connected. All of life is. I’m your mother. I will always be here when you need me most, baby girl.”

That made no sense, but in the end, I was so dadgum happy to see her that I didn’t care about anything else. Who cares if someone abandoned me for a can of gas? That ranked right up there with getting murdered for singing karaoke. At this point, nothing would surprise me any longer.

“I killed a woman today, mama. She wasn’t even the first person I’ve killed.” There. I said the words aloud. She would no longer look at me with love shining in her eyes.

She brushed a strand of hair from my face and looked at me with the same expression as always. “Daria Gale, death is just the second stage of life. That woman will wake up in her afterlife, just as I did, just as you did in yours. It’s different for everyone and exactly where they need to be.”

Just like that, I understood what God himself tried to show me. Though I may never forget how it felt to end her life, mine didn’t end with hers. If I could go back, I’d do the same thing. However, I’d do it before she shot me next time. No one will hurt me, my friends, or those who cannot defend themselves if I still draw a breath.

“It’s time.”

Thanatos came up behind us and held his hand out to me. Before I turned to him, I got on my feet and dusted off the dirt. With one last soul-crushing hug, I told my mother how much I loved her and hoped to see her again someday. She had tears in her eyes as she said she wouldn’t, that this was her last journey into the realm of the living. My heart seized as it did when the police told me my parents had been in a car accident. I would never see her again. The heat of tears pricked my eyes as I kissed her cheek.

“Daria Gale Platts, you will return and be the woman you were always meant to be. Nothing will be able to stop you because I believe in you.”

My mother turned and walked away. It only took a few seconds before her form disappeared into nothing. She just disappeared.

Thanatos slipped his hand around mine. Upon contact, we left the field of purple flowers and wound up back in my bedroom at Desiree’s house.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

I looked up at him, his hazel eyes staring at me with concern. He gave me a gift that could never be topped. He let me say goodbye to my mother. He gave me one last hug, a kiss, a smile, and a moment in time with the woman I loved beyond all others in this life.

I lifted my fingers toward his face, sliding them up along his cheek and in his hair. I gently pulled his face toward mine until my lips pressed against his. His eyes widened, but only for a moment, and then he wrapped his arms around my waist. Though soft at first, I kissed him to convey all the emotions I couldn’t speak. Though there was no fire or heat, it was the perfect moment of intimacy.

When he pulled away, I smiled but with sadness. I would have followed him to the ends of the Earth if that kiss had sparked something. He steadied me with his hands on my shoulders and smiled.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever had a woman kiss me first.”

“A God has never kissed me, so we’re even.” Score one for a sense of humor.

“I’m as much a man as a God, and I feel like I’ve kissed my sister.” He looked ill at ease standing in my bedroom. Though he didn’t have a hair out of place, every part of him looked flustered. I started to giggle and then couldn’t stop.

“That was terrible.” I laughed harder as fat tears rolled down my cheeks.

“We will never speak of this.”

Death by best friend

On my mission to establish a new life, I went to work processing everything I’d learned before the death interruption happened. I knew that the woman I’d killed, Gloria Winterbourne, daughter of Evangeline Winterbourne, worked as a liaison for the reapers. Evangeline happened to be the ruling body of all things death related.

It wasn’t a coincidence that she carried the same last name as Kurtis Winterbourne, who killed me and set this whole thing in motion. She benefited the most from the strike because death was apparently big business in the supernatural world. If her people held out for better money, benefits, or status, it only stood to improve her standing in the magical realm.

This was before Thanatos created me, the only being strong enough to overturn the greed and corruption currently overflowing between the human entities and those that represented the afterlife.

Thanatos’s decision made a little more sense as I dug deeper. I tried not to think of the cringe-worthy kiss we shared or that someone traded me in for a gas can. I can’t handle that much realism these days. I threw myself into the madness and disorganization of my current situation and found common threads that started to make sense.

This woman, Evangeline, thought that death workers were so vital to the existence of all life that they should be treated as Gods themselves. While I agree they play a massive part in the circle of life, her demands were outlandish and comical. As far as Mrs. Evangeline Winterbourne was concerned, all entities born a reaper should instantly be gifted with the ability to reinstate a life status. I couldn’t imagine the worst power to give out willy-nilly to anyone who happened to be born with the ability to retrieve human souls.

The entire human population could be given a second chance at life, which would undermine everything humans believed in and disrupt the universe as they know it. The unthinkable consequences would have cataclysmic ramifications. No, thank you. If I didn’t already have this woman as my enemy, we’d have never been friends. I disagreed with her politics.

I created something of a who’s who list of the law-making powerhouses. Evangeline got in league with the other death races. The vampires stood against her, but only because they already believed they were a superior race. The ghosts, who seemed to want nothing more than validation of their existence, jumped on her bandwagon because they wanted more of a physical presence in the council of life. Demons wanted human souls evicted from Hell.

The angels, who kept the souls who chose to pass over, demanded the right to live a human life for one year before committing to a lifetime of servitude. Why anyone with extraordinary abilities would want to be human was beyond me, but hey, to each their own. Evangeline fed on the combined desires of one centralized group and created a movement that shook the foundation of the freak world I now resided in. While I respect her combine and conquer methods, I found many flaws in her plans.

I may suck at life in numerous ways, but if I wanted to take over the world and had the monetary means, I could. I’m not tooting my own horn, but my mind didn’t work like an average human’s. I could plan something to perfection and carry it out. Thank God he made me too lazy to try something so foolish.

While Evangeline combined the power players of the death world, she played on their vanity. If each race thought themselves superior to the others, putting them in the same room would be absolute chaos.

The supernatural world needed someone to go in and clean up the mess this woman had created. That housekeeper would come in the form of a five-foot-four zombie with the social skills of roadkill after it went around a few tires. Bully for me!

“What are you doing?”

I lifted my head from the laptop that consumed my attention. My grid of organization did not appreciate the interruption. When I had something to work on, I worked. It’s just how things went. I grunted in response and returned to figure out how she could have gotten angels and demons on the same page. The very nature of their beings should have made them enemies. One nurtured humans, and the other ate them.

“You’ve been in here for two days. You need a shower because your hair looks like shit.”

“Desi, what would make vampires and angels friends?”

She scrunched up her face and then laughed. “Annihilation of their common ground.”

That’s it. That’s the one thing she could promise them both that would satisfy their mutual need. If the angels had nothing to protect, they’d have no reason to live secluded lives if the vampires killed off all the humans. Oh wait, then they’d have no food source.

“What if there were no humans? What would vampires eat?”

Again, she looked constipated while in thought. I loved my new friend, but she needed a better thinking face. “Vampires can exist on animals, other world creatures, bottom feeders. If it has a heart, they can suck it dry.”

“In the books, I grew up reading, drinking animal blood weakens them. Is that the case in real life?”

“Nah, vampires wrote ninety percent of all the material out there to prevent humans from discovering how they truly live.”

As I stared at the Excel forms in front of me, I tied everything to one conclusion. If there were no humans, all the creatures associated with death would get the existence they wanted. I tried to contain my trepidation, but it looked as though Evangeline Winterbourne’s goal in the strike wasn’t to have a louder voice in the council but to perform genocide on what she saw as parasites of the supernatural world. Humans. Holy Moses and Noah too.

“How much of a bad mamajama is this Evangeline woman?” I almost didn’t want to know the answer.

“Let’s just say that I watched a movie once with this creature that stepped all over Tokyo. She’d use that creature for dental floss.”

That about summed up what I thought, anyway. I couldn’t go racing into God or even Thanatos with a wild accusation of pre-genocide, but I’ll admit to being a little scared for every human I ever knew. It wouldn’t take much prompting to send her army of vampires, reapers, ghosts, and angels to wipe out a weaker species.

“I need a spy.”

“No, you need a shower. I get it, and you’re doing your Daria Platts magic that you’re so famous for, but enough for now. Let’s go.”

Without warning, she hooked her arm through mine and dragged me out of the chair. I struggled because the entire position proved more awkward than my two left feet could support. I fell face first. I smacked my head off the table with a resounding thud. The intense pain woke the part that stayed dormant unless my life was threatened. I lashed out even though my mind screamed not to. The chain flung from my wrist out at Desiree and sliced her cheek. Dark droplets of blood appeared as she bellowed in my direction. The force flung me across the room, but again, the bracelet reacted. It whipped out and caught her ankles. My arm acted of its own accord and ripped her feet from under her.

“God, No, I’m so sorry!” I screamed as I tried everything to reclaim the power within me.

Desiree sprung to her feet with a look I’d never seen from her before. Her mouth opened, and she unleashed a sound that burst my eardrums. I hit the wall behind me with such force it crumbled, and I went through it. Concrete and rock rained down on me as I landed on the grass outside. My head hurt, and I swear I saw stars. I lay there, unable to move. What just happened?

She came outside, and I saw her mouth move, but I couldn’t hear anything she said. Tears welled in her eyes as she continued to vent, red-faced. Each time I tried to open my mouth to speak, she would open her mouth, and the weight of her power would crush over me. Her tirade lasted longer than my broken body could. When I could no longer take the pain she inflicted, my eyes began to close. My heartbeat slowed, and I welcomed the darkness. The power in me demanded that I get up and fight, but I didn’t have the desire or the energy to. Each bone in my body shuddered at the thought of moving. When my heart stopped, I gave in.

The barbaric punishment

Light pierced my eyes as I struggled to open them. It might be just a phase, but I’d gotten sick of dying. Not that the experience wasn’t pleasant in some ways, but being born anew had its regeneration factor. I could feel each of my cells bursting with new life awarded to me by Thanatos’s gift—the pain I could do without. Desiree crushed my insides with her epic vocal cords. Each organ that ruptured within me grew anew and left me a little in awe of my body. The mental fog rode the first wave of hunger that gripped my stomach.

“What were you thinking?”

I knew that voice anywhere. Sharon stood somewhere near wherever I was, and she was madder than a wet cat by that tone that she used with me so often. The fog I’d come to recognize as hunger eroded my mind. Not again. I struggled to hold on to my mental state.

“I didn’t mean it, I swear. I just reacted. I don’t know what happened.” Desiree’s voice filtered through my befuddled thoughts, and her words’ guilt held little meaning to me at that moment. I’d forgive her for killing me, but not yet.

“You hurt her, Des. You turned on her like some fair-weather friend who doesn’t understand what she’s going through. We talked about this. She has no control and is just tipping the iceberg of her power.”

Their voices fell away to a dull murmur. I didn’t want to hear it anymore. My body would recover. I accepted that as a fact. What angered me the most was that the entire thing was my fault. If I hadn’t lost control and let the beast out, Desiree would never have used her incredible abilities to turn my organs into mush. Now someone else would have to die for me to live. The thought disgusted me. What good was being a fantastic supernatural being everyone feared if, at the slightest provocation, I flatline and someone else had to lose their soul?

“I think she’s waking up.”

Ugh. I didn’t want to. I just wanted to sleep the day away and forget everything that happened.

“Daria, sweetie, can you hear me?”

When Sharon used that sugary voice, it made me cringe. I liked her better when she hated me.

“Control is hard,” I whispered as sweat stung the corners of my eyes.

“The souls you take are gifts, Daria. They do not survive death. You must take better care of yourself.” Somehow the maternal tone in Sharon’s voice allowed me to focus even with the hunger building inside me.

“I don’t want anyone else to die.” My eyes began to burn. Each blink felt as if my lids were lined with sand.

“I told you I would help with this transition, but you must let me. Sit up.” Sharon sat on the corner of the bed. “As humans so often hunt us, our kind has become adept at meeting our basic needs. I programmed a number into your phone under the name Fast Food. Should you ever need it, dial the number. Your location will be transmitted to them, and a volunteer will be delivered to you. Every person is vetted and has decided they no longer wish to live. It’s a form of assisted suicide that allows people like yourself to live.”

My boss knew me like no other. Each word she uttered added a new puzzle piece to my life. Soon I’d have a picture of what I was supposed to do. The fog that was overpowering before clung to the outskirts of my mind as I dug deeper into what she said. “Is it 1-800-death-on-us?” Quite often, laughter was the only thing I had left to give.

“It’s an app. Now, I can see you are learning to maintain control. That will be a skill you are going to have to work on. And not with your usual attention span. This is serious.”

“Lecture later; dial the suicide hotline.” My stomach rumbled its agreement.

“I’ve already called.” She lifted her phone to view the screen. “They are three minutes out. Let’s hear all the reasons you find this new part of your life so abhorrent.”

It took more tries than it should have to force myself into a seated position. The fog hadn’t taken over, but if I let my guard down for a second, it tried to force its way through. My limbs were another issue entirely. They only worked when they wanted to. My skin took on a ghastly grey color, and my head refused to stay above my shoulders. Worst superpower ever. Being a zombie sucked.

“Do you want to know anything about your donor?” Sharon asked as she looked at her phone.

“You are certain it is entirely volunteered? This person wants to die?” Even as I asked the question, I knew the answer didn’t matter. My will to live outweighed my moral outrage at murder.

Sharon dumped a bunch of pamphlets on the bed. I couldn’t see any of them clearly, but based on the pictures, I took it to be ‘how to survive one’s afterlife’ hacks. As one minute rolled into two, the pain grew unbearable. I wrapped my arms around my stomach and leaned my head between my knees. The fog exploded and overtook all my senses. I curled in a fetal position.

“What’s happening?” Desiree asked with panic in her voice.

“She’s just hungry, but don’t show fear. Think of her like a rabid wolf, with half its leg caught in a trap. Also, don’t show disgust. As the people who care about her, we cannot allow her to develop a complex about what she must do to survive.”

Sharon’s words forced my train of thought onto a different track. Fear. Wolf. Survive. The rest of what she said muddled somewhere between my ears and the now-familiar fog of the savage zombie I’d become if I didn’t eat.

A knock at the door scared me enough that the fog shut down what little control I had left. In one fluid movement, I flipped from curled on the bed to semi-upright positioned with my arms dangling uselessly at my sides. Limbs were funny like that.

“Desiree, don’t let her kill the delivery man.” Sharon walked toward the door and opened it.

Two women walked in, one with a tablet she handed Sharon for her thumbprint. I struggled to get off the bed when the second woman walked in. The stranger smelled like everything I’d ever loved about my mother’s home cooking.

“She’s not going anywhere.”

Her words proved to be true. No matter how much I snarled or jerked in a random direction, I never made it off that bed. Sharon took possession of the woman and led her to the bed.

“I assure you, she’s extremely grateful for your sacrifice,” Sharon said.

“A Fae soul is not like a human. This was planned long before you or I were even thought of. The Queen designated I will be an impartial guide in the upcoming war.”

I struggled to drag my body toward the source of what drove my nose wild.

“Look, Sharon, when she’s herself again, I’m telling her I rode her for over eight seconds.”

“Please forgive my sister’s vulgarity. Daria is truly blessed to have such council.”

“It is time. Her savagery will only grow if she does not learn some control.”

Words ricocheted between my ears without allowing one to register. The aroma came to me when I didn’t think I could stand it for another second. I tried to focus, to thank the person in front of me. My subconscious screamed rational arguments as to why it was wrong to murder. When our eyes met, the rest of the room fell away.

I couldn’t focus enough to do anything but stare in her general direction. The stranger walked to the side of the bed and leaned her face close to mine. She placed her thumb on my chin and opened my mouth.

“This will be different than when you fed before, Daria. Trust that it will be all right. You might want to move.”

A sudden loss of the weight holding me down caused me to get tangled in the sheet and fall further into the bed. Two hands gripped the side of my face. Our foreheads touched, and then my mouth called to the soul. An electric blue vapor rose from the stranger’s mouth into mine. Far denser than the others, it filled my body and threatened to overpower me. Frozen while half-buried in bedding, I could do nothing but absorb everything that came from the stranger.

Sharon caught the body before it hit the ground. My left hand twitched. Not to be outdone, my shoulder jerked. Within seconds my body shook in the center of the bed. Pain robbed me of my breath and gave me something to focus on. A searing heat started at the roots of my hair and rode my skin down to my toes.

“Please sign here. We strive for excellence, so a survey will be sent to the email on file. We appreciate your business.”

In the silence that followed, I writhed on the bed. Something cool was pressed against my head. It felt like I was on fire from the inside out. Then all at once, the pain stopped, and the fog lifted. As my mind again became my own, I sat up and looked around.

“See, she’s okay,” Desiree said with a sob. Before I could react, she scooped me up. Every movement hurt, but physical contact made it better. Just like when I was a child, my mother would hug me to make an injury fade.

“If I ever pick a fight with you again,” I said. “Please remind me that you can kick my behind eight ways to Sunday.”

She laughed and then started to cry again. I opened both eyes to look at her, and she looked like a hot mess. Her makeup was smeared from apparent signs of tears and anguish.

“You suck,” she said.

“You both suck. I want to deck you both for putting me through this. Daria, it would help if you learned more about what you are doing to prevent flare-ups. Desiree, you need anger management.”

That was the Sharon I knew and loved, bossy and in control.

“How exactly do I find out about what I am when I’m the only one there is?” Not to mention I had other things to uncover, such as who traded me in for a gas can.

“There was one more. He’s dead. You can commune with the dead. Why not try that?” Sharon said as if the thought should have occurred to me ages ago.

“So,” I sat up. “You want me to visit the guy who instilled such fear that most people want to kill me on site because he went power trippy and tried to usurp the balance of power?”

Sharon nodded and sat on the edge of the bed. “You must. How else will you learn to stop Evangeline from trying to eradicate all humans? He can teach you to be the person you need to be to save all the people that do not deserve to die because some woman thinks they are parasites.”

So much for wondering how to break the news that I thought the enemy I made had such dire plans for the world, Sharon was one step ahead and already planning her end game as usual.

“What was the point of making me go through all this if you knew it already?”

Desiree hugged me once more. “I ask her that all the time. Sharon always knows everything. She knows how this entire thing plays out but never says a word. She and God have some arrangements. It’s frustrating as hell.”

Sharon looked away, but not before I saw something odd at the mention of the big guy. She looked lost and sad before that iron facade she wore all the time clenched into place.

“All banshees can see into the future. Some choose not to muddy the waters of what must happen.” She replied.

“Oh, get off your high horse, sister dear. You, who would die before entering a tavern, went to the bar because Daria would be killed. You knew that Kurtis would kill her. You knew that Thanatos would hear your plea and rescue our little zombie girl, and you also knew that she’d accept the only choice given to her. You could have just let her die.”

Sharon’s eyes flashed the same dark onyx Desiree’s had before she blasted my insides to kingdom come. “I picked a side in the upcoming war.”

“You started a war, and we both know it.” Desiree hopped off the bed and faced her sister. I scooted to the headboard and pulled my knees up to my chest, not wanting to see them go at it. I was a little scared that I’d be caught in the crosshairs.

“So, you’d have had me let Evangeline just ruin the balance of life? How long before the vampires turned on our kind for their food source if there were no humans? When the angels realize they get their powers from the warmth that grows in a human heart, how many will dwindle to nothing? I’m tired of you dropping innuendos like I made the wrong choice. Let me ask you, baby sister, why did you tell Evangeline no if I’m wrong?”

Desiree paused and then chuckled. She shook her head and touched her fingertips to her forehead. “I don’t know why I ever think I can keep a secret from you. I told her no because she’s bat shit crazy and because her tyrannical daughter made me want to commit suicide, so I didn’t have to hear her speak.”

“You two have a dysfunctional relationship.” I sighed and scooted back to the head of the bed. Every muscle I had hurt, but that quickly became the norm for me.

“You’re one to talk. You have three men vying for attention. One who killed you, one who bit you, and one who brought you back to life.”

Having had the same thought, I understood how she might find that dysfunctional. My thoughts drifted to the two men that infiltrated my life. Marcus, the vampire that accepted me as I was and teased me at any given opportunity, and Thanatos, the God who I kissed. There was no choice between the two, but it would not be the day I shared that. I had bigger fish to fry, or at least I had an agenda to fulfill. I couldn’t stop a war on humans if I spent my day lounging about picking my next ex-boyfriend.

“Don’t forget and I also drooled after each of you. So, that means I lusted after five people in the last month. My brain gets more action than my body ever did.”

The two of them laughed and joined me at the headboard. We sat in silence for a few moments, just enjoying the companionship without all the hella crazy nonsense that has attached itself to my life.

“So, you should know, Sharon is team Marcus, and I’m team Thanatos. We both decided that if you choose Kurtis, we’re giving you a lobotomy.”

“I’m going to make it a week without being killed or killing anyone else before I even think of dating either of them.”

Sharon barked a laugh that took me by surprise. I stared at her as her shoulders shook with laughter. “Oh honey, don’t ever give yourself time constraints like that. You’ll die old and alone.”

I did what I did best where Sharon was concerned. I stuck my tongue out at her. The three of us giggled as if we didn’t have a care in the world, as if our lives didn’t depend on me learning to control this powerful entity inside me. Sharon wanted me to meet the big lousy zombie king who tried to conquer the world. Fine, I’d do that. What could go wrong with meeting a dead person who learned to control the dead while living as a reanimated corpse? This would not be a suitable time to find out if poltergeists were real or if the dead can inhabit the body of a live dead person.

“So, time to visit the devil incarnate and learn how to control the temper tantrum-throwing two-year-old with more power than all the comic book heroes combined. Any clue where God stuck him?”

“He’s kind of… um.” Desiree looked down and away from me.

“The thing is….” Sharon looked uncomfortable as well.


“Do you know how characters were tortured for all eternity in Greek Mythology? One stood in the water, dying of thirst, but the water receded every time he bent down to drink. Or the man quested with rolling a rock up a hill only to have it break into a thousand pieces as he almost reached the peak? The same principle applies here.”

“Great, so this man has been tortured for centuries?”

Desiree cringed. “Thanatos thought it best to remind him each day of his actions.”

Sharon pulled out her laptop, which never seemed far from her fingertips, and slid it across her lap. She entered a few keystrokes on the keyboard and passed them over to me.

The image that glared back at me would forever be burned into my memory as the worst thing I’d ever seen. A slight shadow of a man hung from marionette strings and danced across a stage. With his head bowed and his shoulders sagged, I saw the vision of a broken man. Disgust filled me. No one deserved to be someone else’s pet, not even someone who committed unspeakable acts of violation and violence.

“Thanatos did this?” I asked, my voice shaking.

“It was necessary,” Sharon whispered, but her voice held that of someone who didn’t quite believe what she said.

“It’s barbaric,” Desiree said. “But the man is a grade-A creeper who killed something like five thousand humans and almost every vampire. He butchered them at will. Let’s not forget that. He used their bodies and forced them to bend to his command.”

“So, kill him and let his death be the end of it. This is… too much.” I might not know Thanatos well enough to tell him about himself, but he’d certainly hear my thoughts on turning a man into a puppet. Torture was not okay.

The first zombie

I fingered the bracelet that shimmered on my wrist. It made me wonder about the woman who once wielded it. Would she have condoned the torture that I witnessed on Sharon’s laptop? The image of a man hanging from marionette strings haunted me, but not as much as the thought that Thanatos forced someone to spend eternity as a puppet. Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t some weak-willed woman who didn’t understand that sometimes extreme measures had to be taken, but there had to be a line in the sand at some point.

Sharon and Desiree spent half an hour trying to convince me that I didn’t understand how the supernatural world worked. That may be true, but I still had enough of my humanity to see a wrong when one was presented to me. The contradictions within Thanatos overwhelmed my thoughts. On the one hand, he was a dick to me the night I died. He couldn’t be bothered to even explain a single thing to me. Then he left me for days to figure things out on my own. Fast forward just a few days later, and he summoned a colossal army of stone men to protect me from harm. He gifted me what had to be a precious item of his late wife.

How could a man capable of such kindness do something that made my stomach turn?

Ugh. Men. Never in my former life had I had to worry about how one made me feel. The remarkable thing about being plain and invisible is that no one caused a stir in my world. Part of me wished I could go back to being the old me.

The bracelet tightened, and I couldn’t help but chuckle.

“Another party of weird heard from.”

Judge not when the history has not been given.

I’m sane enough to know those thoughts were not the same as my chaotic thoughts. It’s official. I’ve lost my cotton-picking mind and heard voices in my head.

I can show you, child.


I looked around the office I wandered into to sort my thoughts. Even though no other soul inhabited the space with me, I had to ask. Isn’t that what all the victims do in a horror movie right before the bad guy comes out and slaughters them?

Sit, and close your eyes.

So, what did I do? I sat and leaned back against the chair as my eyelids blocked the view of the bookcase. Within seconds a dream-like sequence began to play. I opened my eyes quickly to ensure I was still in the room, and once satisfied, I closed them again.

A lone man stood in a cemetery. Unable to stop, I rushed toward him until my essence merged with his. I could feel him, his thoughts, his emotions, even the fact that his shoes pinched his toes on his left foot. The rage that bubbled in him made me cringe. I’d never experienced a wave of anger like that before. It salted every thought he had.

He raised his hand, and the same powerful entity within me sprang to action. The dirt from the graves gave way to reveal corpses as they rose from the earth. Each tattered body stood to await his command. A twig snapped, and he swung around. A legion of vampires lined the forest behind him. Their pale skin and white teeth gleamed in the setting sun. I knew they weren’t there for tea and crumpets by their faces alone.

He chuckled, but not because of any real mirth. He’d wanted them to come. While keeping the deceased at bay, he turned his attention to the vampires. The thought that ran through his mind made me gasp with horror before he carried it out.

He raised his hand toward them and clenched his fist. One by one, they walked into the lingering sunlight. Each screamed in agony before turning to ash. Dozens of men and women walked to their death because the man forced them to do so.

One fought his control. He held back two vampires. This only made the crazed man try harder. He unleashed the full force of his fury upon the last holdout of the vampires. The vampire threw his head back and screamed but did not step into the light. The muscle of his arms bulged as he held firm to the two females at his side. One appeared to be no older than a teenager, and the other an adult woman of indiscriminate age.

Blood-red tears fell down the cheeks of the younger one as she fought against the man who held her.

“Emily, no.” The man cried out. He turned toward us, and I gasped and cried out. His eyes held unshed tears that I could see from across the cemetery.

“You have taken what is mine, and I will obliterate everything you love.”

The voice came from me, the man whose body I seemed to be vacationing in. I felt his loss, his pain—the memory of a family taken from him by a vampire.

“I will never let you.” The voice I recognized vowed as he renewed his grasp on the two struggling women. They fought him, even begging to be released from the pull.

The man rolled his eyes at the meager display of strength. He ordered his army of corpses to rip the women from the vampire’s arms.

Tears streamed down my face as I watched in absolute revulsion. Though the lone vampire fought valiantly, the two women were separated from him. The corpses held him in place and forced him to watch the two creatures he cared about go into the sun just before it set.

The agony of the dying women made me scream. As they turned to ash, the vampire dropped to his knees. He had no fight left in him. His reason for life drifted away with the gentle breeze of dusk. The man smiled when the sun fell behind the horizon and cast a shadow upon the cemetery.

He called back the dead. Like mindless bits of nothing, they did as he commanded. Their appearance disgusted him, so he forced them to wither into nothing. He forced their bones to dust as I’d done during a training session. He trashed them in the most despicable way. He used and treated them like garbage, even as their souls watched on.

All the pain and anger I felt in him did nothing for the revulsion that crawled within me. A man who could destroy the defenseless had no soul.

I looked at the vampire, who’d dropped to his knees and openly wept. My heart shattered into a thousand pieces at the only vampire I’d ever met.

This glimpse into the past of the last zombie gave me a tortured look into the history of Marcus.

I forced my eyes open to clear the images from my mind.

“I hate you,” I whispered to the empty room.

I laid my head on the desk and cried, not for the past that I couldn’t fix, but for the knowledge that I had to seek help from the bastard who ruined the lives of the man who’d done nothing but help me since my afterlife began.

Thanatos cannot see beyond the abuse of power. He will not take it lightly that you wish to end the abuse of Roderick.

“I don’t give two figs what Thanatos thinks right now. Yes, he deserved to die. No one would dispute that. We are judged by how we treat those weaker than us.”

I do not envy you, Daria Gale Platts, but know I am an ally.

“You’re his wife, aren’t you?”

I was. I thought my time on this Earth ended, but it would seem I am to rise again. When those we protect become the plague, the Earth Gods always return to their former state. Humanity is in danger, Daria. We’ve chosen you to protect them. You will see me soon.

The void of her from my mind let me know that she’d left. I had no idea how to process what she’d just told me. It never occurred to me beyond random selection that Thanatos reanimated my corpse. Knowing that the Earth Gods handpicked me was a humbling experience.

How would Thanatos handle the return of his wife? What did it all mean? What did she mean by a plague? I hated it when answers beget more questions. If my life ever turned to normal, I’d write a handbook for the recently reanimated so that no other person would ever have to go through the same mess I found myself in.

I had to come up with a plan. To save the world, I needed to learn what I was doing. I couldn’t run and hide every time someone tried to kill me. Through a weird series of events, I had the tools necessary to survive. I just had to learn more about myself. The time had come for me to stop wallowing in my new existence and work out my residual power struggles.

Step one would be to find this Roderick person and convince him to tell me the secret to controlling the power I now carry. Step two involved infiltrating the demon hierarchy to get them away from siding with the reapers. Step three involved putting a power-hungry bitch in her place.

Look out, world, Daria Gale Platts had a plan.

The sparkly blue kiss

Men courting women were curious creatures. Even though I’d planned to seek him out, Marcus found me first. Not that you could miss the woman living behind the army of gargoyles in the front yard. He stood on the front stoop with a silly grin and a large box, and my heart sank. As much as I wanted to be happy that this man came over to see me, I had to destroy his mood with questions about what could potentially be the worst moment in his life. Time wasn’t something that I had to waste.

For a moment, my mind flashed back to the fierce expression on his face as he tried to save the women in the memory of my predecessor. That made me more curious about the man who first told me I’d have to eat souls to survive. The amount of men, and women, who held my thoughts couldn’t be healthy for a human, living, dead, or otherwise.

“Good morning, beautiful,” Marcus said to greet me as I stared at him.

“Hi.” Ugh, I wanted to smile and flirt. Unfortunately, I had a one-track mind and couldn’t focus on anything other than reaching the man who could help me save humanity.

I noticed men at the most inopportune time. Marcus was beautiful, far too much so for the likes of me. He belonged with the women from his past—the tall, beautiful model type with alabaster skin.

I opened the door and let him in. I bit my lower lip as I tried to think of a way to approach the subject with him. Never one to have appropriate timing, I saw no reason to put off what I planned. He didn’t have his glasses on today. That struck me as weird. Not sure what to do, I sat down in the living room. It’s not like I’d ever had an opportunity to receive visitors.

He followed behind me and handed me the box. “This is for you, but it’s not why I’m here.”

Curious, I opened the box like a child starved for attention. A bubble of laughter burst forth as I saw his unexpected gift.

“I thought maybe one night the four of us can pretend to get wildly intoxicated with beer and sing a few awful renditions of classics.” He’d gotten me a karaoke player.

Tears pricked my eyes, and I blinked a few times to clear them. Because I’m not remotely graceful, my nose started to leak the moment my eyes did. In seconds I went from ridiculously amused that he got me a karaoke machine to crying. Holy hormones, and I wasn’t even on my period. Wait. Will I still get my period, because if not, it might be my first zombie win.

“Hey. Hey. What’s this?”

He set the box down and sat on the couch beside me. He put his arm around me and pulled me to his chest. I didn’t break down into heart-wrenching sobs, but I’ll admit that I took his strength to get through that moment. The small memory of my old life made me miss the simplicity of it. This kind, sweet man, who probably wanted nothing more than my attention, had turned into a piece of a puzzle I could not put down.

“I don’t think those are tears of joy.” He put his fingers under my chin and lifted my face toward him.

“I think I’m losing my mind,” I said, half-smiling.

“No one ever accused you of having one. At least not a sane one, anyway. Now tell me, what quieted that mind of yours? I can’t hear one single piece of random nothingness.”

For some reason, that made me smile. Marcus could tell something was different simply because my spastic nature wasn’t filling the contours of his cranial cavity.

“Someone gave me away for a gas can. Thanatos has tortured a man for centuries by turning him into a puppet. My bracelet talked to me and showed me the death of two women especially important to you. And apparently, it’s up to me to save the entire human race from a megalomaniac with a hard-on for killing me because I happened to kill her kid. I have a rough afterlife.”

If I hadn’t been so close to him that our bodies touched, I would have missed the tightening of his mouth or the flash of his eyes. Two reactions lasted less than a second, which indicated his pain in my words. He buried them before they registered.

“Your bracelet’s name is Karra. She spoke to you?”

I thought about his question for a moment and nodded. Sure, it was in my head, which may mean I was hearing voices that weren’t there, but I was sure it happened. Mental health was no joking matter, and I took mine rather seriously.

“She advised that I not judge too harshly because Thanatos’s actions were justified based on the barbaric nature of Roderick.” I snapped my jaw together to keep the rest of the words from tumbling out of my mouth. How do you tell a man who fought so hard to save his loved ones that the punishment was too severe, that eternal torture came at the cost of the soul of a civilization?

He leaned forward and kissed my head. “There are those wild thoughts I’ve grown to adore. Daria, that happened a long time ago. While I still miss my family greatly, I’ve made peace with my past.”

“So where do you stand on the Roderick-puppet subject?” I asked.

His eyes closed for a moment as he tightened his mouth. Peace or not, he didn’t like talking about it. “To this day, I believe death is too good for him. I carried hate for so long that I don’t know how else to feel about his existence. He obliterated entire covens of vampires. Lineages that spanned the ages. He killed people I love for no reason other than they dared stand against him. I couldn’t live with that hatred. What once controlled me now has no power. You probably shouldn’t put me in the same room as the man, but that doesn’t mean I won’t help you with whatever plans are cooking in that brain of yours.”

“Karra,” I said her name to get a feel for it. “She said because humanity is threatened that she must return. I don’t know what to make of her helping. It’s weird, even for me.”

Marcus laughed. “All Gods do things according to their agendas, but she cares about all the inhabitants of this rock.”

“If she knew she was coming back, why play matchmaker with me and her husband? The bracelet fixed my hair and picked out my clothing.”

“You let a bracelet dress you? Marcus teased. “He wasn’t the only person that arrived that morning. Maybe the bracelet dressed you for me.”

“I don’t seem to do well on my own.” I hadn’t thought of that.

“Says who?”

“Says that I haven’t had a date in over two years, and the last time someone invited me to a bar, it was to kill me.”

“I like the way you dress. I like everything about you.”

“You barely know me.”

“Not true. Daria Gale Platts, beloved daughter to deceased parents. The intelligent former living person with pure intentions and a rather relaxed atmosphere about life in general. Quirky sense of humor, secretly loves the attention of her new life but doesn’t know what to do with it. She carries the weight of humanity because she’s convinced it’s her job to save it. Sound about right?”

I scrunched up my nose. He made me sound weirder than normal. “You forgot about the gas can part. The one question I’m stuck on, above anything else, is, why me? Of all the humans to make into a zombie, why me?”

“That’s what I came over to tell you. A human can’t be a zombie. Roderick was a reaper who died a horrible death at the hands of vampires. A God answered his soul’s quest for vengeance. I was going to ask you about your parents, but since you just said you were given away for a gas can, I can safely assume you don’t know about your biological fuckups.”

I was happy to hear him call the people who gave me away fuckups. “Well, that’s it. My humanity was all I had left. Now it’s official. Everything I am has been systematically stripped away from me. My name probably isn’t even Daria.” Anger wove through my words as I spoke. Even though the feel of his chest against my body was nice, I untangled myself from his arms and scooted away.

“I remember the day I woke up a vampire. Certain God forsook me, and I spent lifetimes attempting to find my footing. Daria, you woke up in a morgue, made friends, and uncovered a plot that the others just suspected. It’s been days, and you’re ready to take on the biggest bad asses that ever lived to save the lives of people you don’t even know. Nothing was stripped away from you because you’d never allow such a travesty to occur.”

I thought about what he said. He’s wrong, of course. Somehow, he saw me differently than I was. I reacted to a random series of events that happened to me. I wasn’t taking on anyone. I wanted to find out how to control the inner me, so the outer me would stop dying. Then I wanted to discover who abandoned me. If I saved humanity in the process, I’d be okay with that.

Marcus shook his head, and I knew he’d read my thoughts. He got up off the couch led me toward a decorative mirror that hung on the wall above a table with the ugliest vase I’d ever seen. He stood behind me and held my arms down at my sides as he turned me toward the mirror.

“This woman didn’t bat an eye at learning Gods were real, that her boss was a banshee, and that the man who drove her from the morgue was a vampire.”

“Oh yes, I did. I was freaked out, so much so I ran and almost got killed by a ghost.”

He smiled. “And then you overcame that fear, used a power you knew nothing about and sought shelter. Trust me. You aren’t the first to run to Sharon to fix their problem. Now, look at yourself.”

I did, and then immediately looked past me at him. I think I liked him better with his glasses on. He had a slight indent on his nose because he wore them so often. I guess vampirism didn’t fix vision. I thought it made all human bodies perfect.

“Focus, Daria, this is about you.”

Instead, I closed my eyes. Throughout everything that happened in my life, I don’t think I’d ever had a man stand behind me and look at ourselves in the mirror. I opted to enjoy the sensation instead of thinking about it too much. Like a dormant switch that activated within me, all rational thought ended with a baser need filling the void. I leaned in and my back pressed against him.

“Do you ever do what you’re told?” His voice was deeper than it’d been moments ago.

“Not really.” I turned around and looked up at him. His eyes were dark, almost black, and this time, it wasn’t blood that caused such a severe reaction in him. I did that. This man, who remembered that I enjoyed karaoke, wanted me.

“If you keep looking at me like that, I will show you how much I want you.”

A shiver ran through my body. To grasp the moment, I slid my palms up his cloth-covered chest and wrapped my arms around his neck. I pulled his mouth toward mine and kissed him.

Time stopped the moment our lips connected. He enveloped me in his embrace and assumed control. His tongue demanded entry into my mouth, and I let him. He lifted me off my feet and set me down on the table. The power that I couldn’t control exploded around me. Glass shattered as decorative ornaments whipped about in a vortex of energy. I closed my eyes and pretended nothing else in the world existed but his lips on mine. I would have given my last breath before pulling away.

The kiss drained my soul of all its emotion and filled it anew. My body hummed with energy, and still, he kissed me deeper. He laid my essence bare and rebuilt me with the force of his kiss.

“Daria, honey, you’re blue. I just thought you should know that.”

Desiree’s voice drifted through the fog of my desire-laden mind, and her words registered. I pulled away from Marcus and stared at my hands in disbelief. Sure as sugar, my skin was the same electric blue as the bracelet turned when it was used as a weapon.

“And, damn, are we talking about that kiss later.”

With that, Desiree left. I looked up at Marcus and started to laugh. What just happened? I could still feel his mouth on mine.

“So, you have about ten seconds to make a choice. We can go upstairs to your bedroom or find out why your skin looked like it was on fire when I kissed you. Which, incidentally, is what I came over to tell you. I found a way to find out where you came from. It was going to be my gift to you.”

Fairly sure if his words had stopped at the bedroom, we’d be on our way there. Never in my life had I reacted to a man the way I just did. The rest of his words stopped my libido and forced me to remember everything else that went along with being me. As my emotional state calmed, the blue electric waves coming off my skin went away.

I looked around the living room and couldn’t believe the destruction. It looked like a bomb had gone off in it.

Marcus chuckled, and I didn’t have to say a word. “Come on, beautiful. We’re going to find out what you are.”

The puppet execution

The linked cyber world of the supernatural realm made it easy to find the most hated creature. Once inside Strategies Unlimited, they found the video feed on a closed-circuit network and knew he wouldn’t be far. To think that I’d worked for the company all those years without knowing I stood atop a torture chamber. Even as I tried not to judge so harshly, it made my skin crawl to know that Thanatos could do something horrible to another creature. Redemption cannot be achieved when a person has no choice. Not that I truly felt redeeming qualities when I inhabited the mind of Sir Crazy, but the thought could still comfort me as I made my way down under the call center.

“Sharon arranged one thirty-minute visit. So, I’d make your questions count.” Marcus broke the weird silence that had encompassed their trek through the building.

“I’m working on them.” Kind of. My mind wandered between his punishment’s outrage and his crimes’ disgust. Being at war with myself in multiple ways wasn’t fun. My lips were little tramps. Three men pressed their mouths against mine. How could I feel so much for so vastly different men? Ugh. What was wrong with me? I wanted to save Roderick by letting him rest in peace. A tiny part of me wanted to let Marcus loose on whatever was left of Roderick to hurt. Then the real kicker, where did I come from, and if I found out, would it replace the love I’d shared with my parents? Oh, and let’s not forget the man I kissed had a W.I.F.E who knew I kissed her husband.

Marcus chuckled. “Even now, about to face down an enemy stronger than any other, your mind is on everything and everything all at once. They offer medication for the inability to focus, you know?”

“I focus fine. I don’t have tunnel vision like the rest of the world.”

We reached a security door with two armed men. I tried hard to suppress the gasp that erupted as I realized neither man had a face. Nothing, just blank slates as if made of deep brown clay an artist forgot to finish. It freaked me out. They didn’t even have ears.

“Daria, allow me to introduce you to Gideon and Gregory. Please don’t ask me which is which. They are wraiths.”

“Platts, Daria Gale. Entrance permitted.”

The words permeated my skull with a clarity that defied the logic of other people talking in my head. Between my thoughts, Karra’s random talking, and now Frick and Frack, it was a proverbial party in my head.

“Marcus Aurelius. Entrance denied.”

Well shucks. I didn’t want to go in there by myself. Not with a big creepy, scary guy who put Vlad the Impaler to shame. And Marcus’s full name reminded me of something that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

“Wait, a king? Were you seriously a king? You are old as dirt.”

“Emperor. It was a long time ago, Daria. How do you even know that?”

“I was an odd child, and I read a lot. I enjoyed Greek and Roman history, as well as mythology.”

“Time is wasting. Go. I’ll wait right here for you.”

I looked at him and rolled my eyes. “You weren’t even a scandalous king. How lame.”

I stepped forward with the featureless duo, transcending into a new world. A vortex of light and sound swirled around me as I fought the urge to panic and run back in the opposite direction. It only lasted a second, but it was enough to take my breath away. “You could warn a girl first,” I mumbled.

“Platts, Daria Gale. Roderick Van Elderman is ahead. You will see and speak to him through an impenetrable wall. Do not touch the wall.”

I may not be the brightest crayon in the box, but no door stood before me—nothing but a blank gray wall. I turned to look at the twin guards, but they were nowhere to be found. What? Did nothing ever make sense in my life?

“Hello?” I called out.

The gray wall shimmered in front of me and pulled back like curtains. Like liquid smoke, they rolled up and away from the center, revealing the stage I’d seen on Sharon’s laptop. Nothing prepared me for the sight of the man whose memory I’d tagged along for. Silver strands of silk ran through his wrists, elbows, knees, and ankles, which hung from wood on the ceiling. It pulled him across the stage with his head bowed. Bile rose in the back of my throat, and I turned away. It took a force of will to turn back around and face the empty shell that had once been a man.

“If you’re looking for closure for some relative, you can just fuck off.”

An empty shell, my ass. A puppet for centuries, he remained full of piss and vinegar enough to tell a visitor to Ef Off. Those were not the words of a broken man.

“Far as I know, you didn’t kill anyone I care about.” Well, not exactly, anyway. Weirdly, I cared about Marcus, and the loss of his family tore at me.

“Then what do you want?” He swung across the stage with his arms outstretched. His legs made the motion of dancing movements. It disgusted me to see any creature forced against their will.

In for a dime, in for a dollar. “I want to know how to control the power you abused.”

For the first time during my visit, I believe he looked at me and saw me for something other than a sin to atone for. The contours of his face changed, and a sick glee shone through his clown-colored eyes. When the strings forced him in one direction, he struggled against them. I didn’t say anything until he swung back toward me. Even though a wall stood between us, I took a step back. His intensity made me shiver.

“You were blessed with the gift of life after death.” He said the words with the same relish a thirteen-year-old boy has for his first Playboy magazine. It was creepy how excited he looked. “You could release me.”

It was then that I felt the tendrils of darkness from him. Though I couldn’t see it, the essence rapped against the invisible shield between us. Though no longer alive, he still held the power of darkness. Smoke rose from my exposed skin as he curled his boney fingers in my direction. He called to the power within me but the powerful soul keeping me alive coated my skin as a protective barrier.

Woah. I know that earlier that same day, I contemplated a rescue of this man, but the sociopathic joy on his face at my ‘gifts’ not only led me to believe that he would still enslave the Earth if he could but that he’d use me to do it. Why couldn’t I meet a creepy serial killer who didn’t give off the heeby-jeeby vibes?

“I may disagree with your punishment on a humanitarian level, but I’m not here to set you free.”

“Then I have no use for you.” He swung away from me as if I no longer existed to him. I’d had about enough dismissals from those with information I required to survive. Ignorance made people pawns. The expression made me think of my father. He’d have loved to hear the story of my new life. Hands down, I’d win the perpetual contest we had over who could tell the most outlandish story.

“There isn’t even freedom in death around these parts. How did you learn to control the power inside you?” If nothing else, I had to learn how to harness the energy I had to ensure that I wouldn’t hurt someone I cared about.

“Why should I help you?” He asked the question with just the right amount of condescension to piss me off.

“Because I’m the only person in the world who gives a damn that you’ve been tortured for hundreds of years.” Put that in your pipe and smoke it, asshat.

“Oh, how touching. A youngling with a bleeding heart. I care not for your meager pity, child. If you aren’t going to release me, go.”

With that, he swung away and danced around the stage. The fluid motions of his arms and legs captivated me as much as they repulsed me. In a flash of memory, I saw the deaths of those Marcus cared for. It steeled my heart against the wanderings of compassion. This man butchered legions of people for revenge. Though his pain came from the right place, it didn’t give him the right to destroy so many lives.

“It’s the song that never ends. It just goes on and on, my friend….” I sang the song from childhood that proved to be the most obnoxious thing I could think of. I had no idea how long I sang it, repeating the words repeatedly until he put his hands to his ears.

“Enough!” He screamed, his voice bouncing off all angles of the stage.

“Then tell me what I want to know.” I placed both hands on my hips and pointed my toe out for emphasis before I started singing again.

“The answer is so simple. Even one such as yourself should be able to figure it out. Leave me to my afterlife. I have no desire to be bothered with the problems of your world.”

I knew finality when I heard it. There would be no help from the man parading on stage as a tortured soul. Given the opportunity, the man before me would not change anything he’d done in the past. The evil permeating from his skin led me to believe the only regret he had was not ridding the world of all its inhabitants.

“You suck,” I muttered as I turned to walk away.

“You, too, will embrace the darkness. It will feed upon the goodness you seem to believe you still possess. Perhaps soon, there will be two in this everlasting play.” His laughter reminded me of cult-classic horror movies. Creepy yet engrossing to watch.

The darkness shoved against the invisible barrier between us as fear tickled my spine. When the first fissure appeared, my heart dropped into my stomach. Dread filled me as spider web cracks began to appear two feet in front of me. It was as if the air splintered and had black fractured lines like that of a broken mirror. The deranged man wanted to break down the barrier. I would never again be a victim. The new Daria Gale Platts had strength. When the barrier exploded around me, I was ready.

I no longer wished to be on the same planet as the monster on stage. Eons of punishment would never make this man sorry for what he’d done. I turned back toward him and stared at him. Our eyes met, and he saw my plan before it fully developed in my mind.

“No. You can’t.” His whisper held the first tremor of real emotion he’d displayed.

I closed my eyes and called upon the power within me. The bracelet around my wrist tightened as if asking what I was doing. Done with being the puppet of the gods, I ignored the silver adornment. The energy in my veins erupted as I focused on him. I only knew how to turn bones to sand, so I called upon that same force, but this time it would be ash.

I watched his entire being engulfed in flame before it turned to ash. He screamed and tried to escape, but he was no match for my death sentence. The sound he made would haunt me for the rest of my life. Even though I knew I could have made his death swift, I chose to make it potent enough that he would not look upon his death as kind in his next afterlife. I stood there until the last flake of ash fell to the stage floor. I inhaled deeply and blew into the barrier that separated me from the stage. Though I wasn’t even sure if it would work, the force of my air scattered his ashes all around.

I ended a life for the second time. The first one happened because she’d shot me. Roderick had done nothing to me, but I took his life anyway. Part of me knew it was because I disagreed with his eternal punishment. Another part knew it was to provide closure for Marcus for the loss he’d suffered. Another part still knew the truth. He threatened me, fearing that I might turn out like him someday. I didn’t need him to train me. I already knew how to call upon the power within me. All he could have taught me was how to abuse it. What I needed to learn was how to balance and limitations. That I could learn from Sharon, God knows she’d been trying to teach me both for years.

I returned to the exit with a few deep breaths and prayed that others would understand what I’d done. I walked through the vortex away from the stage.

A twist of Fate

“What did you do!” Marcus hissed as Frick and Frack detained us when I reached the other side—neither had said a word as one yanked my arms behind my back and did the same to Marcus. I didn’t even bother to struggle. Some actions had repercussions, but at least I could live with myself.

Marcus didn’t take his confinement quietly. He struggled and tried to fight back, but the hold was too strong to break. They forced us down the long hallway, and for once in my life, I remained silent. Fear held my tongue as much as the shock. I couldn’t believe I went through with ending another life.

They brought us to a room where Sharon stood with God and Thanatos. Sharon and Thanatos did not look particularly happy to see me, though Sharon’s eyes held a glimmer of respect. It’s not an expression I’d often seen from her, so I took it to heart when she did.

God, though, held a strange expression on his face. The serenity that he exuded on the other occasions I’d seen him no longer clung to him, but neither did the anger or animosity I expected. He held my gaze, and I refused to look away. If I were to have a staring contest with an omnipotent presence, it might as well be the creator of all things.

“Daria, sit.” I sat.

Thanatos erupted, “How dare you undermine my authority by killing him!”

His anger called to mine, and I responded before I had time to pretend to be contrite. “How dare you use torture and barbaric practices to keep a civilized society at bay.” Yes. That sounded a great deal like I’d regretted my actions. I didn’t, but I’d hoped to appear that way at least.

“Daria, this is important. You violated the trust of the council.” Sharon said. She walked toward me and leaned over the table I sat at. “What possessed you to do such a thing?”

I tried to bite my tongue, but the words sprung forth just the same. “Oh, bull hockey, the minute the barrier broke, what other choice did I have? There was no other reaction I could have had to such an inherently evil practice as what I saw in that room.”

Marcus turned to look at me. His eyes betrayed none of his emotions. “How did he die?”

I fidgeted in my seat and didn’t want to answer him. My manner of death for Roderick was a tribute to how Marcus’s family died.

“She turned him to ash,” Thanatos said with disgust laced in his voice. He ran a hand through his black hair. “She effectively burned him from the inside out. For all her talk about hating the barbaric nature of his punishment, his death was extremely painful.”

Marcus dropped his head and closed his eyes. He took a few breaths before he looked back at me. “You didn’t have to do that.”

He knew. He knew I’d done it for him. Even if I didn’t fully understand the manner of death I chose, he understood that he’d been the maestro of my composition.

“I will accept any punishment, though I ask that you respect me enough not to degrade my body as you did his.”

“He deserved it!” Thanatos paced back and forth in the confines of the room. His footfalls broke the otherwise monotonous silence.

“No one deserves that!” I bellowed. My emotions could no longer be held at bay. With all the changes in my life, the one thing I’d been able to hold on to was my sense of self. If I couldn’t be true to that, nothing else mattered.

Thanatos stared at me with a dark expression before he stomped out of the room and slammed the door behind him.

“Daria, why did you kill Roderick?” God asked.

I let out a slow breath to give my mind time to formulate the truth so others would understand. “I will admit a small part was due to fear from the invisible wall exploding into darkness. Mostly though, because I believe that you cannot fight evil with evil and still have a soul.” My words were barely above a whisper.

“Taking a life is considered evil. You have taken two lives; does that make you evil?” He asked. I heard no sarcasm in his voice and understood he wanted me to answer his question.

“The first life I took because I reacted to instincts I have not yet learned to control. Even though only a brief time has passed, I can say that if the situation happened today, it would have ended differently, and Evangeline would still be alive. Hers was not murder but self-defense from a primal need to survive. Roderick’s death was something I chose to do. I knew what my actions were and that there would be consequences for them. I couldn’t live with myself and allow someone to be tortured who no longer threatened the society we live in.”

“And you chose to turn him to ash, burning him alive. One of the most painful ways to die?” He asked.

“I chose to kill him as he’d killed. I believe that to be fair.” Somehow that made so much more sense in my head than it did outside my mouth.

“There will be fallout for this, Daria. You will survive if you are the woman I believe you are. Thanatos will come around, but I think avoiding him for a while would do you well.”

“How long is a while?” I asked, more out of curiosity because I only had four friends, and to have one gone so soon would be catastrophic for my existence.

God just chuckled and disappeared. I hated how they could do that. Just once, I’d like someone to answer my questions and say goodbye before they walked out of a doorway. What was the point in having doors if no one had to use them?

With Sharon and Marcus left in the room, I waited to see if either would say anything to me.

“I’m so proud of you,” Sharon said as she came over to me and engulfed me in a hug. Her arms wrapped around me, and her head rested against my shoulder.

Shock kept her erotic voodoo at bay. Never in a million years would I have expected Sharon to be proud of anything I’d ever done.

“Huh?” I asked, not at all able to articulate my shock.

“Let’s go home. I think you’ve had enough excitement for one day.” Sharon said.

Marcus stood up and reached his hand out to me. “One more thing before we go. I uncovered a way to find your birth parents. If you’re still interested.”

He smiled at me with such boyish charm that I couldn’t help but return the grin even though I had no desire to rip open that wound yet. Nothing said value and worth like being traded for a gas can.

“Come on, and it will be fun.”

He grabbed my hand and led me through the labyrinth of hallways that made up Strategies Unlimited. As we walked through the building, I felt an unnatural pull toward one of the doors. I put my hand on his arm to stop him.

As with everything I did, I opened the door and walked in. Why wait to see if some hidden danger would try to kill me? The new Daria was meeting this life head-on and damn the consequences.

Their heads turned to stare at me as I made my grand entrance.

“Daria, you can’t just walk into these rooms,” Marcus hissed as he came in behind me.

“There’s something in here, and I can’t explain it. I feel like I need to be here.”

I forced my way in, past the curious faces in my direction. I don’t know how I knew, but no danger would come from any of them. They returned to work, typing in their small cubicles as if I hadn’t interrupted their workday.

“Daria, we must get out of here. These are the Fates.” Marcus’s voice held an unusual note of fear. He tugged on my arm again, and just as before, I ignored him.

“Fates, like decide your future fate?” I asked, curious about those who inhabited the cubicles.

“Yes, they decide everything. Every outcome of every choice is made in this room.” Marcus spoke in a whisper. His pale skin lost what color it had the deeper into the room we went.

“Ah, Miss Platts. You got my message.”

A tiny woman meandered down the row of desks to stand before me. At five-foot-four, I’d never towered over anyone before. It unnerved me to stare down at her.

“If by the message you mean compulsion to open a door and enter for no reason, yes,” I said.

“Well, I meant the more practical memo sent to your home kind, but this works. Marcus, I trust you are well.”

Marcus just stared at the woman who spoke. While I understood his inability to process a three-foot-tall woman with blue hair and pointed ears, it was rude.

“Do not fret, Daria dear. Very few people can speak to me. It’s refreshing that you can. Allow me to introduce myself. I am Atropos.”

Score one for Greek Mythology that I recognized that name. Then dread filled me as I realized which Fate stood before me. “I hope that memo wasn’t about your shears not working when my number was punched.”

The tiny woman threw her head back and laughed. “Darling child, my shears always work. The entire reason you live is that they cannot cut the thread of your life.”

I blinked, then did it again as I tried to process what she said. “So, I’m like Hercules?”

“He was a tool, so I do hope not. You exist outside of the natural realm. I wanted to meet with you to offer my help in your quest to uncover your past.”

The freaky-deeky way everyone knew everything in my afterlife was ridiculously obnoxious and quite useful. “I appreciate any help these days, just as long as it doesn’t come with an insane sticker price involving first-born children or vital organs.”

She chuckled, and Marcus groaned. “Your firstborn child will be such a handful. Forgive me for saying I don’t want her. My aid does not come at any cost. You’ve been brought into a war with no real battle armor. It is time we even the odds. I do ask one thing, though,” she paused.

There it was. Nothing in the supernatural world came without cost. Wait. Will I have a daughter? How can a dead girl produce a kid? My mind spun into overload as I imagined the possibilities of being a mother. Oh, dear God, in heaven, the poor child couldn’t be born to the worst parent.

“Nonsense, you will be an amazing mother now, as I was saying. I only ask that when you discover who you are, you do not rush to judgment.”

Probably not the best time to state the obvious, but I was on a roll. “Yeah, I’m afraid that the bigger the bombshell, the bigger the judging.”

Atropos smiled as if she understood. “Hold out your hand.”

Because I always seem to do what people tell me, I held out my hand, and she grabbed it. She trailed her nail down the center of my palm. A small trickle of blood appeared at the line she drew across my lifeline.

“Put a drop of blood in the vial on the desk before you. Take it to the lab two doors down, and you will know your entire family line.”

With that, she stepped back and held her arm out to point toward the test tube on the desk. Curiosity drove me to follow her instructions as droplets of my blood slid down the glass walls of the tube.

“Thanks,” I said.

“You are welcome, young one. I hope what you learn proves to be an asset in the battles ahead.”

As if I wasn’t weird enough.

Waiting had never been one of my strong suits in life. I’m sure that when the big man upstairs handed out virtues, he gave mine to someone else, leaving me with an extra dose of wit. I didn’t so much mind that, though. Patience had done less for me in my life than wit, anyway. They’d taken the drop of blood and scurried off like rats to uncover what deep dark secrets the crimson liquid held.

My mind couldn’t fully focus on what they would uncover as I couldn’t quite get the image of Roderick out of my head. Something about him will always haunt me. I killed him in cold blood and made sure that he suffered. The person I once was and the person I have become no longer seem to be the same. Was I losing my humanity? Did death steal that part of our soul? The more questions I had, the worse they made me feel, so I changed the direction of my thoughts.

Mm. Marcus. Always a good direction for my mental train. I loved the little brown and gold flecks of light in his eyes. He didn’t make me feel like this chaotic world was out to get me. It was and that truly wasn’t paranoia speaking. It seemed that everywhere I went, something crazy happened. Maybe I just needed sex to rewire my brain. The last person I wanted to have sex with killed me, though, so my taste in men was questionable.

He looked at me as if he knew my thoughts were drawn to him. I smiled and squeezed his hand.

“I love your mind. It is most entertaining.”

Ugh! Damn, I’d forgotten that he could read my thoughts. One day I’d figure out this whole thing.

“Shut up.” My wit went in the same direction as my patience. It abandoned me in my moment of need.

As if the cosmic chaos of my thoughts wasn’t enough distraction, a small person in a white coat walked down the hall with a clipboard. They called out my name, and I rose to get up, but the weirdest thing happened. My bracelet went berserk. It wrapped around my hand and tugged me in the opposite direction of where I wanted to go. I tried to pull my hand back, but the silver demon had other ideas.

“Well, this is weird. I need to go this way.” I tried to laugh it off as if it was just another random thing that happened to me.

“Miss Platt? If you will follow me.” The little person said. I wanted to check their ears so badly but knew on some level how rude that would be. So, I stood in the hallway, being pulled in one direction by my wrist and my legs, trying to walk in the other. The universe hated me.

“Enough!” I gripped the bracelet’s edge with my other hand and tried to unwrap it from my wrist. Which it refused to do. The temper tantrum two-year-old was back. “Listen here, you crazy piece of metal. I don’t know what’s gotten into you, but I’m heading in this direction one way or another. Even if it is not this second, it will be five minutes from now or tomorrow, but it will happen.”

Just like that, the fight left my bracelet. In my mind, I could hear it sigh.

“Are you done arguing with your jewelry, dear?” Marcus said with a smile. Forget the cute part. He was an asshole for not understanding the real struggle regarding the magic of the supernatural world.

“Shut up.” Again, my words failed me. Maybe I should have let the bracelet march me away from this nonsense. Why did I need to know where I came from? The person traded me for a gas can.

I wanted to know. Everything seemed to lead up to this point. I stepped toward the clipboard-wielding person. He ushered us into an office that reminded me of every doctor’s office I’d been to. Bland boring, with ugly pictures that no sane person would ever want on their walls. Everything matched as if the color blue alone could make a person forget that they’d be waiting for hours for a doctor to give them fifteen minutes. Like good little patients, we sat in uncomfortable but aesthetically pleasing chairs and waited.

“Doctor Klein will be with you in a moment.” With that, the clipboard man disappeared, but with a wink, he pulled back his hair to reveal his long-pointed ears.

“So cool!” A smile exploded from my mouth.

“Delighted to meet you, Miss Platt. Please do not hesitate to reach out if you should ever need medical attention for yourself or anyone close to you. Anytime, day or night. All you must do is whistle three times.” With that, he disappeared.

Marcus whistled. “Someone is seriously stacking the deck for you, I think. Do you even know who that is?”

“I don’t know who that is. I don’t know who anyone is. Half the time, I don’t even know who I am.”

“Do you know what a Nightingale is?”

“A bird?”

“Well, technically, yes. What do you know about them?”

“It’s a bird, and someone with that last name was a nurse or something.” Even to my ears, it sounded as if my knowledge had gaps, but it was just a bird. Who cares?

“You are referring to Florence Nightingale. She received the Royal Red Cross award, among others. She founded nursing. What do you know of her?”

“Very little, to be honest.”

Marcus smiled, “In our world, a Nightingale is a skilled healer that surpasses any other creature. If there is an ounce of life left in someone, even just one last heartbeat, a Nightingale can heal them. They can heal anything.”

“Well, that’s cool. So, what does that have to do with that adorable little person?”

“He’s a Nightingale. To my knowledge, there is only a handful left in the world. They were hunted for hundreds of years because of the advantage they gave in any battle. Imagine having an army that couldn’t die from conventional means.”

“Why do I feel like I should be preparing for war?”

“Because you are. Everyone is lining up on the side of the chessboard. Positions are being assumed, and the war will start once the first attack happens. Have no fear, Daria. Your side has ridiculously powerful pieces.”

“Except for a pissed-off God who feels like I undermined his authority.”

“Well, you did.”

It hurt to hear him say that. I thought, of all people, he would have understood my motives. “It wasn’t about him.”

Marcus turned toward me. He put his hands on my shoulders and forced me to face him. I looked up at him and arched an eyebrow.

“You can lie to everyone else about what happened in that room, and I will gladly back you up. Please do not lie to me. It was about Thanatos as much as it was about Roderick. The woman in you could not understand how someone capable of such greatness could be so evil. What Thanatos did was wrong, and everyone knew it. While I admit that it did not bother me to know Roderick was tortured for hundreds of years, it did bother me that Thanatos handed him that sentence. You shamed Thanatos. He will forgive you.”

I wanted to dispute what he said. I didn’t kill Roderick to shame Thanatos, but I couldn’t dispute the rest of what he said. I chose to correct Thanatos’s mistake. I, rather publicly, told the world I thought his punishment was wrong by simply undoing it. I took away a god’s free will. My stomach clenched as I realized I’d used my power to force my will upon others just like Roderick had done.

“At what point do decisions get easier? I want the hardest decision I make all day to be what kind of cereal I eat for breakfast.”

“Those days are over for now. Buck up, though. You have the supernatural world at your fingertips. I will show you that all is not lost when we discover what we came here for. That there are some cool benefits to this life.”

“That sounds like a date.” Why did my heart skip a beat as I said that?

“It is, and I’m sure it will end in sex if your erratic thoughts are of any consequence. It will be an enjoyable time.” He dared to wink at me.

“Miss Platt, please follow me.” A large human-sized man said as he appeared in the doorway to the waiting room.

It was time to find out where I came from.

My bracelet reacted once more as I got up to follow the person. He looked human, but as this was the supernatural realm, no one was human there except me. I wasn’t even human anymore, but I enjoyed belonging to the species once. He led us to an office. We sat behind a mahogany desk with pictures of children on it. Little werewolf children, little mermaid children. It freaked me out to see kids so young with a supernatural flair. I knew everyone had to be a child once, but kids made the whole thing more surreal. They grew up in this life.

“Do you mind if I call you Daria?” The man walked toward and thrust his hand in my direction.

“Uh, sure.” The wit had left me completely as I couldn’t formulate a thought. Those pictures haunted me. I found them much more fascinating than the older gentleman with white hair and yet another white lab coat.

“Daria, you can call me Big Al. Everyone does. So, we have quite the problem here.”

That got my attention. “What do you mean?”

“This is a conversation I never thought I’d get to have.” Excitement shone through his eyes, and he talked with his hands as if it hurt him to stand still.

“So… That means?” I tried to lead him to the answer, but he looked like a toddler about to burst at the seams.

“You are God-made!” The words burst from him as if he couldn’t contain them.

Marcus gasped. The sound made me turn to him. His eyes were huge and seemed to swallow his whole face.

“What does that mean? Aren’t we all God-made?”

“Oh, I’m sorry dear, I forgot you were raised as a human. God-made means that a God created you. That a creator God started a new line of life with you. You were never born.”

That sums up how I ended my last train of rational thought.

I nodded, stood up, and walked out of the room. I heard Marcus call out to me, but I couldn’t quite make out what he was saying. Everything sounded like a buzz in my head with little to no relief. I had to get away, to get out of that world. Nothing made any sense.

My parents were dead, I died, and then I lost my humanity.

Not your punching bag

I walked out of Strategies Unlimited with my mind in a fog. What looks like a human, talks and walks like a human but is a duck? That would be me, Daria Gale Platts, a non-human extraordinaire. What kind of God makes a person, then drops them off for a gas can? So, I had no mother or father. I was created like some test-tube experiment that didn’t go well if I could be killed while singing karaoke. I had no exceptional skills to speak of before being killed. Thanatos gave me my wonky superpowers. I’d certainly not been born with them.

As I walked on the uneven sidewalk, the sounds of the city encompassed me. The noises of traffic and life drove out the silence of my mind. No complete thoughts would form. Since that night of karaoke, my entire world had systematically been ripped away. My name probably wasn’t even Daria. It was probably something dumb like Ethel. Not that Ethel was a dumb name. I’m sure there were plenty of others who were wonderful people. They probably had better luck than I did too.

With one foot in front of the other, I walked until I had no idea where I’d wound up. Dusk had long since cast shadows on the buildings. With each passing minute, the sight and sounds of life disintegrated, and I realized how utterly alone I was. When a truck roared past, my heart jumped into my throat. I laughed at my stupidity for walking away from civilization. I looked down at my bracelet and took comfort that I still had that.

“What was with that nonsense earlier anyway?” I asked the metal adornment. It tightened as if to give comfort, but no words. Oh, how far I’ve fallen when my trusted confidant was a bracelet.

Because my common sense seemed to have gone the wayside, I continued to walk in the same direction. Long gone were the buildings and bright neon lights of the city. Without the sun’s warmth, the chill night air caused goosebumps to ripple across my skin. What, I’m dead? Why was I getting cold? Was there nothing good to come of an afterlife?

A loud shriek filled the air that caused my breath to halt. I swung around and saw one of the weird bird things that chased Marcus and me the day he liberated me from the morgue. It dove down from the sky as soon as it saw me. I took off and ran as fast as I could. I turned only for a second to see if it was still following me, and to my dismay, there were three. I turned away from the main street and ran down an alley. Houses with little to no light littered the path as I ran. Each step caused my heart to race and my breath to quicken. I tried to remember what Marcus had said about the stupid birds, but I couldn’t even remember what they were called.

I remember him saying they would eat me, though. As I rounded another alleyway, I ran smack into a fence. Of all the cheesy B-rated horror movies with velociraptor birds chasing me, I chose the one alley that didn’t have an exit. What the sugar honey Iced tea was that sound like? Each bird landed with a giant thud. Dust rose around them, which gave them an eerie, ominous appearance. They flanked my escape rounds, with one leading the other two.

“So, I’m having a dreadful day. Can we possibly do this another time?” I asked, in the hopes that maybe the freaks of nature spoke.

My bracelet came alive as the ringleader took a step forward. It whipped out and turned electric blue. It looked almost as if flame sprang from each link. I flicked my wrist, and it crackled in the night, lighting up the alley and casting shadows along the abandoned buildings lined the street. The birds stepped back in unison, almost like they were of one mind. The leader bent its head forward and stamped its foot as if prepared to charge. My bracelet whipped out and slashed it across the face.

It shrieked so loud I had to cover my ears. My arm pulled forward as the bracelet whipped out again. I looked around for an avenue to escape. They came forward slowly, waiting to see what I’d do. I gripped a part of the bracelet and flung it out like I’d seen people do in movies. It sliced through the lead bird at its wing. It stunned me when the wing fell off as if it was made of paper. The bird writhed around after falling to the ground. The other two took the lead and charged at me. One snapped at me with its beak, catching me in the arm and drawing blood. It burned like acid. It pissed me off enough that I punched it in the beak with my non-dominate hand. I don’t know who was more shocked, me or the bird. It snickered through its nose, and that only added to my exasperation. I flung my wrist forward and caught the bracelet around its head. I pulled back hard, and the bracelet decapitated the second bird.

I’d been so focused on the second bird that the third one had full range to attack me. It clipped me with its wing and I crashed back into the fence that held me captive. My face smacked against the chain links, and I felt my cheek slice open. I screamed out as the pain overwhelmed me. With its head pointing down, the bird rushed me and hit me full force in the back, sending me sprawling to the ground face first. I barely had time to put my arms before me to catch my fall.

Within seconds I felt it attack again. This time, something ripped open the back of my calf. I’m certain the darn thing bit me. I rolled over and tried to move out of the way on my hands and feet, facing the bird. Each movement sent waves of agony through me.

A loud whistle ripped through the air, and the bird backed away. I looked up to see where the sound was coming from.

“My my, what have my beasties caught today? If it isn’t the bitch who killed my daughter.”

Of all the people to find me, why did it have to be her? Evangeline Winterbourne strode through the dark alley as if she owned it. Her simple black business suit blended in with the night. She wore black pumps that made soft clicks against the asphalt. Her look of pure vengeance sent a shiver down my spine.

“I don’t know which would give me more satisfaction, letting the beasts feast on your intestines or ripping your heart out with my bare hands.” She walked toward me and stood over me with a sick smile on her face. In that instant, I couldn’t see her as the evil woman who set out to do damage to the humans of the world. I only saw her as a mother who lost her daughter because of me.

“Mrs. Winterbourne…” I began.

“Oh, save your petty conversationalist skills, child. I will kill you, and nothing you can say will stop me.”

She bent down and wrapped her hand around my throat. My hands instinctively went to both sides of her arm to try to pull her arm away. She tightened her hand and closed my airway. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t inhale. I couldn’t do anything but struggle. The pressure built in my head as my lungs reacted to the lack of oxygen.

As if I weighed nothing more than a rag doll, she picked me up and shoved me against the fence. My feet dangled in the air as she lifted me off the ground. My eyesight grew hazy, but I knew I couldn’t give in. If I did, this woman would win, and I’d be dead. Though I would revive, God only knew what she’d do to me.

“I can see the fight in your eyes, young Daria. So brave, a little human thrust into our world. You stood up to God, which makes you bold. You bested life leeches, which makes you strong. Hell, you even turned Marcus’s bones to sand, I hear. That makes you quite possibly the most interesting person I’ve heard of in eons. Then you had to go and kill my darling little girl.”

She thrust my body away from her with enough force to send me crashing into the side of the building. My shoulder hit first, and I heard, as much as I felt, when it broke against the bricks. The pain unleashed a force within me. It rushed through my veins as I dragged in my first breath.

“I’m… So… Tired…” My voice was raspy as I tried to catch my breath through the pain. “Of… This… Flipping… World.”

I gave in to the power inside me. It wasn’t the bracelet. It was me. My skin began to glow as it lit up the darkened alley. From head to toe, I became engulfed in a blue flame.

I no longer cared if my name was Daria. My mother was dead, and whether she gave birth to me was inconsequential. All that mattered was that I didn’t give a flying fig about anything except surviving. I might be a screwup, but I’m good at surviving.

My arm hung limply at my side as I stalked toward Evangeline. I couldn’t even formulate words to speak. She didn’t get to decide when I lived or died. Her son already did that once. Her family was responsible for my whole freaking existence.

Anger, unlike anything I’d ever known, fed the power within me. The flame grew brighter. She shielded her eyes as she backed away from me.

“How?” she asked with fear trickling in her voice.

“Because I’m God-made, you heinous bitch.” The ugly words rolled off my tongue. It felt good, even though I knew it would shame my mother to hear me talk that way.

“What are you?” she asked as she backed away.

“My name is Daria Gale Platts, and I’m not your punching bag.”

With those words, she turned and ran down the alley. One bird flew over her as the other hobbled behind her, leaning to the side of its dismembered wing.

The dead wife that isn’t

After the blue flame left my body, it took every bit of energy I had in me. I would have collapsed against the ground but bending hurt too much. My shoulder hurt so badly that I’m surprised I didn’t pass out from the pain, but even that didn’t hold a candle to the burning tear in the back of my calf. Holy moly, did it feel like it was on fire. My breath came in short spurts as I tried to push past the agony that erupted in my body. Wasn’t I supposed to heal or something?

I looked down at my shoulder. It seemed beyond weird that my arm hung forward, across my chest, as opposed to on the side of my body where it’d been for the entire length of my life. I used my good hand and tried to search for my cell phone. I had no idea where I’d left it.

“Somebody, anybody? I could use a little help here.” I said the words without any real thought to someone listening to me. Fairly sure I’d burned those bridges. Thanatos would probably never speak to me again, despite what Marcus said. I left Marcus high and dry at the doctor’s office.

At least one of the Gargoyles could have come to my rescue. What good was an army that guarded only a house I’m never at? Gods were lousy at gift-giving. My parents gave up their can of gas that could have been useful.

With painful deliberation, I slid down to the ground. Blood trickled down my leg and dripped onto the pavement below. Once on the ground, I turned my leg to the side to inspect the damage. A huge chunk of flesh was removed, about the size of a baseball. I could see the bone. The sight of my own torn ligaments and muscles nauseated me. I leaned over and threw up everything I’d eaten.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that all the sound had stopped. The air didn’t move. There was not even the occasional car sound in the distance. It was as if all life stood still. A sense of dread filled me. What could make the air stop circulating? Honestly, I wasn’t sure I even wanted to know.

“Rough day?”

The lyrical voice drifted toward me. It took me a moment to place it, but then I realized exactly where I’d heard it. It was the same voice that showed me what Roderick had done. The same disembodied voice tried to explain why Thanatos chose such an extreme punishment. The owner of the bracelet probably saved my life tonight.

Thanatos’s dead wife. Seriously? No one ever stays dead in the supernatural world.

“You can heal yourself; you know.”

I looked around to try to locate the voice but didn’t see anything or anyone. “I’m a little busy wallowing in pain here. I can’t even think of a witty question about how you came back from the dead.”

Her laughter sounded like bells chiming all around me. The sound alone made me feel joy, where I’d only previously felt pain and frustration. However, her words had a bit of truth to them. If I could push a bullet out of my body, I could regrow tissue. I focused on my leg, looking at the mangled mess the bird had left. I focused my energy on what it was supposed to look like.

In a slow, tedious motion, the muscle stretched over the bone. Each movement caused a new wave of pain to rip through me. Tears streamed down my face as I kept my focus on my leg. After it became too much, I cried, dragging my nails against the pavement. My leg was better after what felt like an eternity, but it was probably only two to three minutes. The light pink skin looked as though the sun had never touched it. It didn’t blend with the rest of my leg, but at least the insides were on the insides, and the outside somewhat matched.

I reached up to touch my cheek sliced open by the fence. I closed my eyes and concentrated on sending my energy to my cheek. My skin rippled beneath my fingertip as it reattached itself.

“You’re doing well. Why did you let yourself get so broken, young one?”

The frustrating thing about disembodied voices is that there was no one to roll your eyes at when they said something particularly dumb. “I didn’t hold up a sign that said, please hurt me,” I grumbled as I focused on my shoulder.

“You may as well have. I gave you everything you needed to survive.” There was no one to roll your eyes at when a random voice said something stupid. “I gave you parents to raise you, who wanted nothing more than a child of their own. I gave you complete access to the supernatural world by ensuring you worked for it. I gave you my chain, infused with the powers of the Earth. You were gifted with my private guard, and you couldn’t even be bothered to learn how to use any of these gifts properly. I’m beginning to think you do not want to live.”

When the last bit of my shoulder healed, I rolled it forward and then backward. I stretched out my arm and extended my fingertips. I decided to ignore the dead goddess and focus on myself. Her words were almost funny, and a small snicker escaped my lips.

“Do I amuse you, young one?”

“Nothing about this amuses me!” I could hear my mother’s voice warning me to keep my emotions in check, that a smile and a joke would diffuse a situation far better than venting my spleen.

Well, my spleen was full to bursting, and every terrible thing that happened to me could be laid at this woman’s feet.

“I can hear your thoughts, young one. You may as well share them. Let’s clear the air and settle this between us.”

“How about you come out into the open and stop playing games.”

An orb of light floated down from the sky and drifted toward me. The light grew and almost blinded me with its brilliance as it got closer. I shielded my eyes but kept them on the illumination.

She would be the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. It hurt to look at her. She had hair so black it shimmered purple against the light that seemed to come from within her. Her eyes were like emeralds. Not the cheesy pick-up line that men used in bars, but actual shimmering shiny emeralds. Her cheekbones could cut glass. She towered over me at about five-eleven with legs that went on for days. I hated her on principle.

“Hello, my child.”

All the frustration I’d felt since my death bubbled up to the surface. To my utter annoyance, tears sprung up in my eyes and fell down my cheeks as if I were no more than an overwrought child.

“Why did you destroy my life?” I whispered.

She embraced me. Her arms enveloped my body, and her warmth radiated around me. As far as hugs go, she gave the best in the world. She wiped my tears with her fingers. Her hand went under my chin and lifted my face toward hers.

“The humans needed a champion, darling. I chose you.”

“Everything I am, everything I was, was a lie.”

She smiled at me, and I saw the sun on her face. It hurt to look at her. “Nothing about you is a lie. You are still the same warm, beautiful person you’ve always been. You happen to have a few more perks these days.”

“I’m not even human.”

“No, you aren’t. You were special to begin with. When my husband gifted you with life after death, he enhanced your natural abilities. There is no other creature like you in the entire world.”

For some reason, that made me instantly think of the kiss that I’d shared with Thanatos. I effectively kissed my mother’s husband. Ew. Gross. Was that like kissing my father? My mind spun with the possibilities.

She laughed again. “Thanatos had no part in your creation, dear. Though, he did make it necessary by his punishment of Roderick. That set in motion a path that couldn’t be altered. So, while he is the reason you exist, you’re safe from the thoughts you’re having.”

“What do you mean?”

“He altered the balance of life. While Roderick was a demented soul, he culled the population of vampires, which would have eventually overtaken the humans. His punishment did not have the desired effect on others who would endanger God’s favorite species.”

It made sense. Without a prey stronger than them, the death leagues of the supernatural world would run rampant. But keeping him tortured for centuries gave the creatures he preyed upon a sense of superiority that would have only grown over time. All those in league with death would have believed themselves to be almost parallel with the Gods.

“Why didn’t anything weird happen to me until after I died if I wasn’t human?”

She smiled. “To answer that question, I must show you who I am. Do you trust me enough to allow me to remove you from the physical realm?”

I’d only ever heard her mentioned through passing in stories mentioned by Sharon and Marcos. She was Thanatos’s great love who got sick and died. Nothing in their takes warned me about her being dangerous or unhinged. “Yes.”

“I didn’t get sick. Thanatos killed me.”

Death by Goddess

At that point, I’d nearly convinced myself that the Goddess Karra had misspoken. It simply didn’t make sense that she’d have stated that Thanatos, the man who saved me, could have had any hand in her death. I tried multiple times to open my mouth to speak, but nothing came out. I couldn’t wrap my head around what she said. There had to be some mistake.

She grabbed my hand and waved hers in front of our faces. The entire world disappeared.

I don’t know what I expected to see in the realm where the Gods dwelled, but perhaps something like ancient Athens with their white temples and togas. That wasn’t what appeared before my eyes when we stepped forward. I once read of a beautiful oasis in the desert that drew many wandering souls to their death. I believed it because nothing would have pulled me away from such beauty. The trees gave life with their abundance. The sky shielded the world with a blanketed layer of protection. Everything felt alive and connected. The animals served the trees that fed them. The sun gave strength to everything it touched. My heartbeat found the natural rhythm of the land. I became one with life.

“Welcome home, my child.”

Her words, though heard, couldn’t penetrate my connection to everything around me. I could see through the eyes of a deer that I couldn’t see with mine. The leaves whispered to my ears and told me of everything in the forest. The sun touched my skin to wrap me in its warmth. If it had eyes, I could see through them. If it made noise, I could understand what it said. If it lived, I knew its thoughts. I felt the hunger of the deer and shook a tree to make an apple fall, all without moving or even being able to see the events happen. In the depth of my soul, though, I knew it occurred.

“You wanted to know about yourself, Daria Gale. This is who you are. This is who you were born to be. You asked why you had no special abilities before you died, and the answer is that to comprehend life fully, you must experience death. You are now living, as well as dead.”

“I don’t feel like this anywhere else. I’ve never heard a tree tell me its story.” My voice couldn’t contain the awe I felt and came out only in a whisper.

Karra didn’t speak for a few moments. I didn’t mind, as I couldn’t get past the craziness that I could hear the blades of grass. They were communicating. “I hid this from you. I felt you would be in a fragile state of mind until you could come to terms with the new you.”

I wouldn’t say I liked her very much. Never mind that she effectively manipulated me since the beginning, she also cast aspersions at the man who gave me life after death. The same man gave me her army and bracelet to defend me. Everything jumped into my mind. “What am I?” I finally asked her.

“You are the creation of the Earth Gods. You were infused with the essence of all life to protect our world. I had you raised among humans because they are the natural inhabitants of this planet. All we do is protect them. Some, like my husband, feel that all creatures should be equal, and that natural selection should weed out the weaker species.”

“He used the most horrific punishment imaginable to stop a man, and send a message to others, that it was not okay to prey on a weaker species. How can you say he believes in natural selection?” I don’t know why I felt so compelled to defend him. Ever since she told me that he’d killed her, I couldn’t help but defend him in my mind.

“Ah, but Roderick wasn’t just natural selection. A God turned him. In life or death, he never spoke of who created him. Thanatos wanted to message the dealers of death that upsetting the natural order would not be tolerated. I think even he knew enough time had passed for Roderick to be warning enough, so he created you.”

“And I’m somehow supposed to stop the Winterbourne family, who keep trying to kill me, from amassing an army of demons, angels, reapers, and ghosts to eradicate the humans who don’t know they exist. Does that sum up the reason for my existence?”

“That is why Thanatos gave you life after death, yes. He knew that you would come back with abilities like Rodericks. An army of demons, reapers, and ghosts cannot stand against you. You have the power to simply will them to sit down. When you die, your body will repair itself, and you will live again.”

It sounded so easy when she said it like that. My thoughts flashed to Roderick’s memory. He forced vampires and the dead to bend to his will to rise and be his minions. I could do that but hoped I’d never have the emotional death that allowed me to do it.

“And why did you create me?”

“A war is coming. A war that cannot be prevented even if Thanatos manipulates those involved like pieces on a chessboard. Giving you life after death was a stroke of genius. I’ll give him that, but it won’t be enough to stop the division of the races. Nature has a way of always balancing things out. While you may win the battle with the Winterbourne family, though that is not a certainty because you are vulnerable. You must yet prepare yourself for the upcoming war.”

I turned to her because I’d died a bunch of times already, and each time I seemed to bounce right back to my normal self. I know that Marcus said the birds could eat me, and they ate my soul or something like that, but I don’t know how much of what he said was true, considering I healed my leg back in that alley.

“Forgive me, child.” Her words barely registered before her hands were on my head, near both of my ears. She jerked her wrists, and I felt the bones in my neck break before I could even comprehend what she was doing. I crumbled to the ground. What the holy hell? And then my world went black.

I have no way of knowing how much time had passed before my body returned to the land of the living. As my consciousness returned, the vertebrae in my neck healed. When I opened my eyes, she stood over me with a sweet little smile that reminded me of what the witch must have looked like offering a candy house in Hansel and Gretel.

“In the time it took for you to come back, a war could be won. Millions could be enslaved and killed.”

As if I needed her to tell me about my weaknesses. Anger pulsed through me with each heartbeat. Who did this chick think she was? I may be some dumb pawn in what was starting to look like a feud between a husband and a wife, but I will be damned if I was going to play the game quietly without putting in a little of my spin. I stood and turned toward her.

I tested out a few things with my fingertips. Nature responded to me as I thought it would. I was connected to every inch of life that surrounded us. I called upon the roots of the trees to grab her and hold her in place. It was only because the attack surprised her that I had any level of success. The gnarly knobbed roots shot out from the ground and wrapped around her arms, legs, and midsection. It pulled her to the ground before she could even react.

Oh, but then react, she did. “Clever girl.” she chuckled as she waved her hand away, and the roots ceased to exist. Not ready to concede defeat, I put my inability to focus on one thing to effective use. From one side, I continued to have roots attack her, forcing the grass to grow and tangle around her feet as she moved. I pulled water from the clouds above and sent it down by the bucket loads over her while forcing the wind to swirl around her.

She floated above the blades of grass, raised her hand slightly above shoulder level, which created some air pocket so the rain and the wind went around her, and she forced the roots of the trees to form a throne so she could sit on it. Epic fail.

“Good job, Daria. I’m quite impressed.”

I didn’t want her to be impressed with me. I wanted her to feel some pain for the chaos of my life. I couldn’t even put into words my anger at the goddess in front of me. As my emotions overwhelmed me, tears pricked my eyes. What was the point? For every action I could create, she had a far more potent reaction and eons of experience to pull from. I sat back down on the ground and crossed my legs in front of me.

“You suck.” It was the best my mind could formulate after such a wasted display of anger. I may as well have been a toddler throwing a temper tantrum, which, given her age in relation to mine, was probably what she thought it was anyway.

“I meant what I said. You weren’t afraid, even though I’d ended your life moments earlier. You faced me, a God, without hesitation. You used what was available to you to aid you in battle. You will need these traits when you are called upon to defend our world.”

With that, she smiled at me once more and waved her hand. I found myself right back in the dirty dark alleyway where she’d first appeared to me because that’s how every girl should end her night—sitting crisscross applesauce on the ground in filth and black feathers.

Tear stains are all the rage.

“What is it about you in a dark, deserted alley and looking like someone kicked your puppy?”

Yet another party heard from. I lifted my head and looked up. Thanatos stood in all his glory. Just as handsome as he was every other time I’d seen him, but now I saw him as a flawed man. “You yelled at me.”

Okay, so maybe I lost some of my wits. That was, by far, not my best response ever.

“Well, you did undermine my authority behind my back.” He sat down beside me and put his arm around me.

For a moment, the two of us sat in silence. I wanted to tell him about Karra and everything I’d learned, but I couldn’t help but think he already knew. Each time I found out something new, it was old news to everyone around me. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

“So, I’m God made.”

Thanatos chuckled. “I’m going to tell you a little secret. Everyone is. There is only one God, Daria. We play on the same field. The only difference is that you were created for a specific reason. The rest of us are just flukes of nature.”

For some reason, that made me feel better. It’s like finding out you were the only planned kid, and the rest of your siblings were oops-babies. “Be honest with me. Hand on a bible, swear to God honest. Are there any more bombshells I need to know about? Also, did you kill your wife?”

The last bit flew out of my mouth before I could censor myself. I hadn’t meant to ask it so bluntly, even though I wanted to hear what he had to say.

He went so silent that I looked up at him from the corner of my eye to ensure he was still there. Though not usually known for my patience, I sat still and allowed him the chance to respond to my poorly timed question.

“In your lifetime, Daria Gale, I don’t believe the bombshells will ever end because you attract chaos to you. Though, I believe you are now armed with all the information specific to you. The second question is a little harder to answer. I did not harm my wife in any way, but I am the reason she died.”

My head exploded with more questions, but I stamped them all down to allow him again the opportunity to speak. I had to bite down on my tongue to keep from demanding that he tell me more. I could taste copper as my teeth pierced my tongue.

“Karra and I were powerful together. Our happiness was all that mattered to me. When humans began to grow as a species, they began to harm the environment. Whether it was cutting down trees in the early days, to toxic emissions today, it took a toll on all of us. All the Earth Gods, I mean. We began to see them as parasites we were tasked with protecting. Many of the Gods wanted to end their existence. I’m ashamed to admit it, but myself included.”

Woah. I couldn’t prevent my mouth from falling open or my eyes widening. “You wanted to kill all the humans?”

“Try not to judge me too harshly. These were dark days. We knew it was only a matter of time before humanity outgrew the planet’s natural resources. Many of the supernatural beings you met were created with the sole purpose of culling humans.”

Desiree once told me that humans were a food source for most of the supernatural world, so that made sense. “And then?”

“Karra stood alone as she fought for the humans. To this day, I’m not certain why she fought so hard, but it hurt her to be separated from the other Earth Gods. We are all connected, and when one of us pulls away, it weakens the collective group, but mostly the one that has left the fold. If I would have stood with her, she would have lived.”

“What changed that she is back now?”

“You did. When you killed Roderick, you swayed others to your cause. You gave them faith in humanity. If a young woman could stand up to the Gods and show mercy, humans can’t be all that bad. They waited for one person to prove them wrong for eons, and you did.”

I hated that everything I did seemed tied to the reanimated corpse before me. “Did you know I wasn’t human when you asked me if I wanted to live?”

“Not at first. Karra created you as a final effort to save her beloved humans.”

“If she died hundreds of years ago, what took so long?” I mean, I could have been born in the Middle Ages, which would have sucked, but the timeline didn’t match me. I wanted to believe him.

“For so long, it was rumored that a child would arrive gifted with the essence of life. The rumor turned to legend, which grew to myth. After enough time, all the records of that child were forgotten. The natural enemies of humans, specifically those that sustain life from humans, grew too powerful. God granted permission to create someone who would help restore the balance.”


Thanatos laughed, “No, we’re not to you yet. An Earth god born of winter created Roderick and gifted him to a family of reapers.”

No way. No freaking way. “Winterbourne. Roderick was part of the Winterbourne family.”

“For centuries, they bid their time and plotted their revenge. You see, they believed in his cause. Even though he was unhinged and served only himself. To them, he was family. The punishment I chose was just as much for them as it was for him.”

“Back to Karra. How long have you been aware that she’s back?”

“The second Roderick’s life ended; I knew she crossed back into this realm.”

I tried to process everything at once and knew I couldn’t. There were times in a girl’s life when she had to accept that nothing made sense and that she was surrounded by people who lived to make her life harder. This was one of those times.

“Thanatos, may I use your phone?”

He looked at me with concern but handed me his cell phone. I didn’t even question why a god would have a cell phone. I just took it and sighed. “Can you use your God mojo to get me Desiree’s number?”

He chuckled, “Look in the contacts under Desiree. She’s the only one.”

He would choose that moment to be a logical person. Because that just made everything better. I swear everyone was in cahoots to force me to have a mental breakdown.

“Hello?” The sound of her voice made things better. However, she sounded a little confused about being called from his phone.

“I need tequila and karaoke. I need you, me, Sharon, and Marcus too. With copious amounts of alcohol. And did I mention Karaoke?”

“I’d ask if you were all right, but the shrill of your voice tells me otherwise. I’ll make it happen. Just come home. It’s weird without you here.”

Home. It was time for me to go home. I may not know what home meant anymore, but at least there, I knew two people who wanted me to be with them. Thanatos stood and reached for my hand. I might not understand his motivations, but I trusted him. And for that reason alone, I was going to help him. He might not even be aware he needed help, but he had a serious wound to fix in a certain other Goddess he caused.

“Why did you come to find me tonight?”

He pulled me in for a hug, and I sighed. In the arms of the hottest God, I’d already started working on a scheme to get him back with his wife, where he belonged.

“I felt you would need someone familiar after everything you’ve learned today. I could just as easily have sent Sharon or Desiree, but I still have a few shirts that aren’t stained with your tears, and it’s unbalancing my closet.”

His words made tears spring into my eyes, and I buried my face in his chest. He rested his chin on my head and sighed. “I can’t promise you that this will get any easier, but I do promise you that I will always be in your corner. I’m sorry I yelled at you.”

I looked at him, “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you what I was going to do before I did it or at least discuss it with you.”

He smiled and kissed the top of my forehead like one would a child. “Never ever change, Daria Gale Platts. You are utterly perfect the way you are.”

10,000 women would rule the world

One of the best things about friends is their ability to cut through all the bull hockey of life and get straight to the point. About thirty seconds after Thanatos dropped me off at Desiree and Sharon’s house, two beautiful sets of eyes stared me down.

“Our very own goddess! This is so epic.” Desiree said with unmistakable glee shining through her eyes. She licked her lips in delight.

Wait, what? God made did not mean goddess. I tried to interrupt, but Sharon began asking me questions rapidly.

“Do you feel differently? What was she like? Karra is somewhat of a legend. She’s a champion of humans and always has been. I heard you almost kicked her ass in heaven.”

I plopped down on the couch, wishing it would swallow my whole body. I’d had enough crazy in my life for one day. I wanted to sit down and enjoy an evening of normalcy with the only two people in the universe who didn’t seem to want me to be anything but the person I was before I died. Well, except maybe Sharon. She probably wanted me to be anyone but the person I was before then.

“Not a goddess,” I muttered as I grabbed a throw pillow and shoved it over my face in a lazy attempt to smother myself into the next life. For some odd reason, when the fabric touched my skin, I knew the history of the plant that created the cotton sewn lovingly by an artist. It came from a farm in North Carolina. I pulled the pillow away and stared at it in confusion.

It was then that I noticed everything in the room at once. My senses were overwhelmed as I could feel the essence of the wood from the furniture, the stones that held the house together, and each member of the elite guards that stood outside. I felt their purpose. Though their real master once again walked the earth, they belonged to me. When Thanatos gifted me with Karra’s guard, they became mine. As my mind settled on one, his emotions rippled through me. He primarily went with annoyance that I’d left them to guard an empty house without taking one of them with me or sharing my plans with them. Great, I made a lousy charge.

“I’ll be right back,” I stood up and walked outside.

As I walked on the gravel, the stones and pebbles shared their pride to be of use. The sun rained its warmth upon my skin, and I couldn’t help but lift my face and smile. To be gifted such joy from the world around me gave me pause. If nothing else, at that moment, I was grateful to be alive.

“So, you live.”

The rumbling voice put a damper on my joy. “It would appear so,” I whispered in reply. There was so much I didn’t understand about the world I now resided in. Talking gargoyles didn’t even hit the tip of the iceberg.

“Why didn’t you call to us, to me, when you were in danger?” The accusatory tone sparked my inherent need to defend myself.

“Perhaps if one of you had taken five minutes of your time to tell me exactly how I was supposed to do that, I would have, and wouldn’t have been bitten by a bird, beat by a distraught mother, and then finally killed by a goddess,” I said with just a bit more animosity than I’d planned on delivering.

His grey eyes flashed black. I’d struck a nerve. Not everyone got to play the ‘let’s dump on Daria game.’ “Forgive me, for you are correct. Allow me to begin again.”

If my eyes could have opened any wider, they’d have fallen out of my skull. In a millisecond, gone was the stone exterior that covered his body, and in his place stood a man in a three-piece suit. He looked more at home in a hostile takeover than guarding a mansion. Like a beautiful painting, his skin remained unmarked from the life he led. Kissed by the sun, his brown skin shimmered as he turned toward me. He was beautiful in the same way a sunset was. It took my breath away.

“Hello, Daria Gale Platts. My name is Hydarnes. I lead exactly ten thousand men. We are your army.”

I looked around at the dozen gargoyles and couldn’t quite comprehend how that got to 10,000 men. He must have seen my confusion because he chuckled. “The rest are in stasis until the need arises.”

Something he said triggered a memory. “Hydarnes. Son of Hydarnes, right? You led the immortals!” Though it clicked who he was, it staggered my mind. This man beat the Greeks and the Romans with an immortal army of ten thousand. I had a freaking unbeatable army!

“I was warned of your ability to make connections. Long before you were born, yes. So, now that introductions have been made, please call me Hayden. It is slightly easier to roll off the tongue in English. All of us are at your disposal. It is preferential to me that one of us always remains at your side.” Then he bowed to me as if I were more important than him. He was a freaking immortal warrior of epic proportions.

“Can you teach me how to fight?”

He lifted his head and smiled. “My lady, it would be an honor.”

The other gargoyles made their way toward us. Each assumed the form of a human. Their Persian ancestry inherently defined every feature of their face, from the dark eyes to the black hair atop their head. Their brown skin varied by different shades. Each bore an unmistakable beauty that spoke of their immortality. The Gods had touched these men. “Wow,” I whispered.

A lone female sauntered up from the middle of the group. Her head was covered in a scarf that only enhanced the perfection of her physique. Nothing made one feel quite like a troll as standing next to radiance.

“I am Roshanak, wife of Hydarnes—Sister of all the immortals. I walked beside Karra, and it would be my honor to walk beside you. You may call me Rox.”

Then because life just wasn’t weird enough in the world of Daria, she swung at me and clipped the side of my head. I dropped like a stone, and my ears rang. Tears sprung to my eyes as anger rose through me. What was it with everyone hurting me? I used the air to push myself off the ground. It came to me with no effort at all.

“Your reflexes are nonexistent. We should start there.” She swung at me again, but I forced distance between us. I expanded the air to cause her to miss me. “Not bad defensive. I believe we can work with this.”

The silence of the group unnerved me. ”What do I do?”

“You stop running toward danger. You are like the eternal child who must touch the fire to see if it is hot. We will gladly guide you on this journey, but you must first stop putting your life in peril at every opportunity.” Roshanak, Rox, lectured me as one would a child, and I didn’t disagree with her words. Every step of the way since the night I died, I’d reacted to one form of stimuli or another.

“Karra is back. Will you not return to her?” I asked.

Rox and Hydarnes smiled as they stood together. He slipped his arm around her waist. “Thanatos gifted us to his wife until the day she died. When she died, we became free of our promise to him. When he called upon us to protect you, we answered for you, not because he asked us to, but because a war is coming, and you are the protector of humanity.”

I scoffed, “Some protector I am. She just dropped me like dead weight with one hit.”

Rox laughed and, in her slightly accented voice, responded, “And then you learned, and I could not do so a second time. Life is not about how you handle something. It is about how you learn from the mistakes of the past.”

In a weird way, that made me feel better about myself. I did run headfirst into just about everything, but I also learned from the mistakes I’ve made in the past.

“If you are true in your desire to learn to defend yourself, it would please me greatly to teach you. Though, we would be making a serious commitment of time and energy. Just because you can regenerate does not mean you should waste time dying.”

A collective murmur rumbled through the remaining ranks of the beautiful men. “Why are you the only woman?” I asked, curiosity piqued.

“Because a group of 10,000 women would have taken over the world.” Sharon emerged from the front door and walked over to Rox. The two women embraced like old friends. It made me wonder exactly how old my former boss was.

“And peace and serenity would reign supreme,” Rox said with a smile. “It is good to see you, my old friend.”

“I’d heard that the Gods were returning, but I had no idea you’d be one of them,” Sharon said as she sized up the other woman.

“What can I say? Karra can’t have all the fun.”

I sluggishly made the connection that Sharon was attempting to point out. “You’re a God?” I yelled out.

“Roshanak, Goddess of war, at your service. My husband, Hydarnes, is the God of strategy. We may not be as famous as the Greeks and Romans, but we did kick their ass, so that should count for something.”

My head spun with the newest members of my team. What possible enemy could be so powerful that I needed so many Gods on my side? No matter what I learned, I felt I would never know enough to understand my new world. My face must have shown my confusion because Sharon spoke.

“Not every God is on our side, Daria. Many would still prefer to see humans extinct. You may have swayed the Earth Gods, but we must prepare for what’s coming.”

“Why don’t I kick Evangeline’s ass and call it a day? She’s the one behind everything.” The petulant sound of my voice irritated me.

“Who do you think guided her hand in all of this? Who created Roderick in the first place? Who betrayed God and created a monster instead of the savior he sanctioned?” Sharon asked pointed questions, and each one hit me a certain way. Was I a monster too? I could do what Roderick did. Thanatos created me to an extent. Does that make him a monster? Did he betray God in making me?

“Then who in the heck am I going up against?” I asked.

Sharon shrugged. “No one knows who made Roderick, just that he was a winter god. Like an Earth God, but different.”

“Are there summer and Autumn Gods too?”

The collective chuckles made my question look stupid. “Daria, a winter god, doesn’t refer to a season but more of a time frame. Usually, they are quite helpful. They prepare humanity for their mortality. People who have reached the winter of their life must be transitioned so that their afterlife is less catastrophic than yours.”

It made sense. “So, the Winterbourne members are all reapers, who collect those who have died, worship a God, or Gods, that focus on the elderly or those about to die and prepare them for the afterlife, for when the reapers take them. Sounds legit.”

“Now imagine a God whispering in your ear that the favored race is unworthy of our sacrifices. They stopped believing in the very Gods who protect them. They feel as if they are at the top of the food chain on this planet. Would you not feel angry with them?”

I thought about it for about three seconds. “No, because we’re the equivalent of toddlers. You don’t get mad at toddlers for wanting to do things themselves. You help them.”

Rox clapped, and Hayden smiled. “Karra did well.”

So, it would seem I had to prepare for war with the Gods. While some would be at my side, others would be across the battlefield awaiting my demise. At least for now, I had time to figure out what to do next. “Speaking of Karra, I’m arranging a date between her and Thanatos. What do Gods eat?”

The stunned expressions of everyone standing in front of Sharon and Desiree’s house would have made me laugh if I didn’t want to know the answer to that question.

“Of course, you are because saving the world isn’t enough for Daria. She wants to fix a wrong from ions ago and bring a once happy couple back together,” Sharon said with her usual irritation at my ideas. It felt good to be back to normal.

The world broke

There came a point in every woman’s life that she had to admit to herself and others that she could not go on a moment longer. This was my moment. As I sailed through the air from yet another kick to the midsection, my mind shut down the pain, which I was grateful for, and turned on the gentle musing of a mad woman. It took me ten seconds to realize I’d lost my ever-loving mind.

“Stop trying to fight me like we are equals. You are Godlike, Daria. Start acting like it.” Rox kicked my ass all over the room until my emotions turned from annoyance to anger. Sweat poured from every pore in my body, my lungs screamed from exertion, and I’m sure I had a hangnail that distracted me from thinking clearly. I wanted everything to stop. Let me regroup. I needed time to think.

Silence descended upon my world as I fell slowly to the ground. After my soft landing, I looked around at my tormentor slash guardian and realized she wasn’t moving. Her foot hung in the air from her last kick, and the rest of her was in some suspended animation. I stood up as my gaze swept the room. I realized that everything stood still except me. A speck of dust, visible only in the stream of sunlight carrying into the room, remained immobile. It was the weirdest thing I’d ever seen, and after my new life, I never thought I’d think that.

“I broke the world!” My breath started to burst forth from my chest. I knew a panic attack when I felt one now. “God? Someone? Karra? Thanatos? Someone? I broke the world!” My voice didn’t carry far and sounded far more high-pitched than normal.

Silence answered my tearful plea. I had no idea what to do or how to fix what I wasn’t even sure I broke. What was wrong with the Gods in this world? Why would they give someone like me abilities I couldn’t even comprehend, let alone use? What if the entire world remained stuck for all eternity? Seriously though, who in their right mind would put me in charge of something that could be apocalyptic? There’s a reason the government never gave me nuke codes, the primary being that they never knew I existed, but the second is because everyone in their right mind would know that I’d somehow manage to cause the end of the world.

I tried to think back to just a moment ago. What did I do that caused time and space to stop? I’d wanted to regroup and think. I stood up and walked around. Never let it be said that it wasn’t unnerving to be the only thing that moved. No air circulated in the gym-style room. I walked to the front of Sharon and Desiree’s house, and my heart sank.

Everything stopped. A bird hovered in mid-air, clawed feet extended as if preparing to land. The clouds above my head remained as if the world had stopped spinning. What if I froze all the other Gods too? What if no one could help me undo this weird phenomenon?

“Hello?” I asked as I started to walk around. I couldn’t be the only thing left moving in the whole universe. That just made no sense at all. “God, I don’t know if I froze you, but leaving me in charge of the world would be a bad idea. I’d be terrible. I don’t need much in this world, but I do need other humans.”

Silence deafened my ears. The absence of sound caused pressure in my eardrums. Everything became strange and overwhelming.

“Someone fix this!” I screamed to relieve the pressure in my head from the lack of noise and my strange reaction to it. My heartbeat sounded like the bang of a gong. My forced breath had a slight whistle to it. Anger ripped through me, unlike anything I could remember. I’d never thought to be mad at God throughout all I’d ever been through. Mad at the creator of all life didn’t make much sense. What was the point? It wasn’t like he could relate to my simplistic problems.

Then the anger roared again, and it centered on the omnipotent one who allowed this train wreck of life to happen to me. All the other lesser Gods made a muck up of everything that left millions of vampires dead from the past and billions of humans in danger because of the present. Who stood by and allowed that nonsense to happen?

“This is not fair! You did this. You let idiotic people make idiotic choices, and now here we are, the whole wide world is frozen, and I’m yelling at the sky as if anyone is listening to me.” Frustration mounted and entwined with anger that built bricks of rage. Layer by layer, the foundation of intense animosity gripped my soul. It swirled around me like chaotic tendrils of smoke.

I’ve had it up to my eyebrows with weird random shit happening to me that had no explanation for a sense of purpose. I could handle being killed by the man I lusted after because, in a weird cosmic way, that made sense in my addled mind. I could even handle turning into a zombie-type human who could crush bone into sand. As far as superpowers go that one didn’t suck so tremendously. But this? Stopping the world with thought, this sucked. Stupid Gods and their petty wars ripped the fabric of life and caused people to lose their damn minds.

A ball of energy hovered in my stomach. If I could stop the world, I could damn well find God. He let this happen. His inaction caused me to lose my tentative grasp on reality. I dug deep and embraced the energy within me. Power extended throughout my limbs. I centered my mind on one thought. One action. Find God.

I shot through the air as if I had rockets connected to my feet. The stagnant air proved to offer no resistance to my body. I tried not to think about what I was doing. Okay, so I was flying. Even the angry me couldn’t get past how flipping cool it was to soar through the air like a superhero. I landed in front of Strategies Unlimited and walked in through the door held open by a frozen man. I silently apologized to the man as I brushed past him.

I passed many doors as I followed my internal God tracker. When I stopped at the end of the hall, I knew I’d reached the right door. I’m not entirely sure how I knew, but past that door was the man who ruled the universe. And I was about to give him a piece of my mind.

With my hand on the doorknob, I turned it and pushed it open as if I owned the place. Propriety does not have a place in my world right now. I stomped into the room, half scared I would find him frozen. He lifted his head and looked at me with a gentle smile.

“Come to read me the riot act, have you?” His voice still had the same calming sense it always did, but the quirk of his lips smiling at me popped my anger bubble and drained me of my animosity.

“I broke the world,” I whispered as I collapsed into the chair before the desk.

“Did you, now? Are you sure it is broken?” He asked. His salt and pepper hair shimmered against the sunlight that streaked through the window behind his desk. It illuminated his figure, making it look like he was glowing. After a second of looking, I realized it wasn’t the sun. The man glowed. Of course, he did.

“Pretty sure it’s broken. Everything stopped. The air, the clouds, the birds, people. Except me.” I tried not to sound like a petulant child, but how else could I deal with the world breaking?

God pushed his chair back and stood up. He came around the desk and stood beside me. He put his hand on my shoulder and looked down at me with a smile. “Why do you think that is?”

A flicker of anger exploded before I could stop it. “Because you let stupid people make stupid choices, including giving me this nonsense life.”

“Ah, free will. You are upset with me because I let terrible things happen in the world you love so much, correct?” He said it like Santa Clause if St. Nick asked if you were upset over the wrapping paper, he put your pony in.

“A war is coming, and people are coming out of the woodwork to join sides. There have already been casualties. My life ended, and a new one began. I killed two people. Why are you letting these things happen? Who in their right mind would give me the power to stop everything?” In hindsight, I knew it probably wasn’t the best idea to make it sound like God had a few screws loose, but honestly, I was too tired to care.

“What is it you would have me do?” he asked without a hint of condescension.

I thought about it momentarily and realized he couldn’t force his will upon others and still maintain the illusion of free will. People had to be allowed to make their own choices, even if they were stupid ones.

“Pick a better person to have this power.” I sighed as I realized that wasn’t even what I wanted. I didn’t mind the responsibility of leading the fight against people who want to kill humans. I wanted to understand how to do anything without turning bones to sand or stopping time.

“Nothing in this world could make me feel like you were not the absolute best person to be in the position you are in. Don’t think momentarily that I didn’t hand-select you based on what I know is inside you: your faith, your hope, your personality, and your heart. Everything about you is exactly what I wanted it to be. You are perfect. Daria Gale Platts. You are perfect the way you are.”

Validation went a long way in soothing my mind, even if I didn’t fully comprehend his insistence on my attributes. “I’m grateful you think so, but I don’t know if I’m the right person for this job.”

God slid his hand down my hair. His touch calmed me. “Now, fix what you’ve done, child. You’ve had the ability the whole time.”

I closed my eyes and sighed. I didn’t want to be the catalyst for some supernatural world. I clutched the power within me and sent it outward. In my mind, I pictured a giant blanket that covered the world as I jump-started everything. Almost as if the air itself began to circulate again. “Did I do it?” I asked.

“You did.” He waved his hand, and the air shimmered in front of me. Within seconds, I found myself back on the ground, where I fell after Rox kicked me. I looked up just in time to see her lower her leg.

The world was back to normal.

Mother trucking god

My life fell into a painful ritual. Every morning Rox would torture me in the gym. My bruises had bruises. In the mid-afternoon, Hayden would use a chessboard to teach me battle strategies. I liked chess, but planning an open battle seemed silly when the enemy had so much time to prepare. In the evening, I sparred with two men who refused to speak to me. They didn’t speak at all, just bowed. It was cool the first time, but the bowing lost its charm.

The best part of the evening was when I was alone late at night. It took a long time to wind down. With everything that had transpired, sleep didn’t seem all that important to me. Sometimes, I’d lay there and lift the veil I kept over my connective senses. Just a sliver, and I could feel everything in the room. If I extended it further, I could feel the insects outside. The crickets that chirped in the distance sang to attract their own. Beyond the house in the woods, a lone wolf stalked a rabbit. The cunning rabbit led him on a merry chase. I smiled at the simplicity of nature. Even though I knew that chances were the wolf would eat the rabbit, it made sense to me that everything had a purpose, a place.

When the crickets fell silent, I sat up in bed. The still air sent a trickle of fear down my spine. I connected with the wolf and borrowed his eyes. He stopped the pursuit of his prey and turned toward the house. With speed and silence, the wolf made it to the property line. He crouched low and scanned the area. Six men with flame-lit hands stood just past the privacy fence surrounding Sharon and Destiny’s house. In horror, I watched through the eyes of a predator as they released fireballs from their hands and hurled them toward the house. The gargoyles woke from the sound of the flaming orbs.

My anger bled into the wolf, and it attacked. It howled to call its brethren before launching itself at the closest man. The wolf and I were one. When its jaws were wrapped around the man’s leg, I tasted the copper of his blood. The sound of an explosion brought my attention back to my bedroom.

Glass erupted from the window as the flames consumed everything it touched, starting with the curtains. The blast of heat slammed against my skin. Somewhere in the distance, I heard Destiny scream. I felt every wound the house experienced, from the wood burning to the glass that no longer had a purpose. I shook my head to sever the connection to the house. The door to my bedroom swung open just as another round of fire balls slammed into the exterior. Smoke billowed in all directions, and I jumped off the bed.

A woman I’d never met walked into my bedroom as if she owned the place. A hood cloaked her face. A chill ran through me as I faced her. I had to do something. I stopped time. The flames immediately froze, and the smoke hung in the air. When the woman lifted her head, I swallowed hard. This was no normal person.

“Who are you?” I asked.

Without a word, she attacked. She came at me as a person possessed. No words were uttered, but every part of her attacked me: her fists, feet, elbows. I blocked what I could and absorbed what I couldn’t. The pain of each blow she landed took my breath away. Each time my bracelet launched an attack, she countered with her weapon. I tried another path and called to the wood in the furniture, and it flung toward her from every direction. Again, she met my attack with ease. Her silence unnerved me.

“What do you want?” I screamed at her, a little breathless.

No response. The power within me refused to be contained for another moment. I threw my head back and screamed as it ripped through me. A wave of energy blasted from my body and slammed her into the wall behind her. My skin erupted in a blue flame as I stalked to where she hit. No longer would I just react. I used every bit of training I’d learned when I woke up as a reanimated corpse.

Fuck this. I wasn’t a human.

I wasn’t a zombie.

I was a mother trucking god.

Raw power radiated from my skin as I reached and wrapped my hand around her neck. I lifted her off the ground as if she weighed nothing more than a rag doll. “Who are you?” I demanded after I threw her into the wall.

The hit to the wall must have only stunned her because her renewed attack left me on the defense again. She moved so fast my eyes could not keep up with her. Sweat broke out across my forehead, either from the flames along the wall behind me or the exertion from my battle.

After what seemed like an eternity, I finally managed to get the upper hand and knock her feet out from under her. Not wanting to lose the advantage, I took the chair I usually just threw towels on after I got out of the shower and slammed it down on her body with the front stability brace across her neck. I used every ounce of weight I had to keep her in place. Shock seemed to have unbalanced her thoughts as she struggled. The chair rocked like a boat out at sea. I straddled it and stared at her, trying to catch my breath.

“Just stop,” I said.

She stared up at me with silent eyes, rage etched in every contour of her face. This woman had not made a single sound from the moment she entered my bedroom. It had not fazed her when I stopped time.

“Why are you trying to kill me?”

She struggled harder, the hood falling away to reveal a woman who resembled Goddess Karra, but with subtle differences. The two were related in some form or fashion. That, combined with the indifference when the flames froze, I realized this could be another god.

“Let’s just be rational about this. Eventually, I’m going to have to unfreeze time. We’ll burn to death, well others will, but who wants to be burned alive even if death isn’t an option?”

“Have no fear, young child. Death will claim you once more.”

She exhaled some mist that ate through the chair’s wood. I scrambled off and leaped back to the bed. What the actual holy heck was that? Eyes open wide, I watched in both fascination and fear as everything she breathed on disintegrated. In my whole life, I’d never seen a superpower cooler than that. I was so screwed.

I connected to everything in the room. When her breath fell upon the corner of my bed, I felt the remnants of life scatter like dust in the wind. An idea came to me that expanded my conceptual thought processes. As she breathed death onto objects, I inhaled deeply and blew gently, turning my head from right to left. At first, I felt rather stupid for expecting anything to happen, but then it did.

The Ying to her yang, my breath gave birth to what she’d destroyed. We faced off once more when she jumped back up onto her feet. Her eyes looked different from the deadened depths they held the first time I investigated them. An expression I’d only ever seen once before rippled across her features. Her mouth tightened, and her dark eyes slanted hard.

“You were given the ability to breathe life, yet you burned my son to death. You die tonight, Daria Gale Platts, as does everyone you care about.”

It clicked at that moment who she was. The Winter God. The one who created Roderick. The sole responsible for the havoc he wrecked in his life. The Goddess was responsible for the deaths of thousands of vampires.

“Ah, I see recognition in your eyes. I can hear your thoughts. Tonight, you were the distraction. Someone you care about is now dead. Everyone you ever loved is now a target, and I never miss.”

With that, she waved her hands, and time restarted before disappearing.

I could turn bones into dust and put out a damn fire. The problem with making things happen with thought is getting past the rational sense to think it. Water. There was water in the air. Once I accepted that as fact, I knew I could accept the thought of me pulling the water from the air to put out the flames. I began to sweat profusely as I worked on putting the flames out in my room.

It dawned on me that I could probably affect the weather if I could breathe life into objects. Hell, I’d stopped time. I pictured a thundercloud in my head, full, fat, and plump, and whispered to God that I was sorry if I was entering his domain. I prayed for rain as I tried to remember what caused the rain. Nothing happened.

It was too much to hope that I could do anything I wanted with thought alone.

The sounds of battle rose above the flames, I went to the hallway, but the fire engulfed it. The intense heat made me jump back when it lick my skin. Smoke billowed around me. I tried to pull moisture from the air, but there wasn’t any. The fire had already consumed it. I needed to make sure everyone was out of the house.

I charged forward because death did not concern me. When my clothes caught fire, I batted them out the best I could but kept moving forward. Pain rode my skin like a glove, but I did not stop.

I found Sharon first. The smoke surrounded her, and she looked madder than I’d ever seen her. Her eyes were black as night, and her skin had an eerie glow. At that moment, I feared her. As flames erupted around us in every direction, Sharon’s eyes fell upon me and offered no recognition. Sharon was gone. Something else was in her place.

It was then that I saw her. On the floor behind Sharon lay a crumpled body. I knew without a doubt that it was Desiree.

Something clicked in my soul. A knowledge that I’d had all along but refused to see. I knew what I had to do. With a flick of my wrist, I shoved Sharon aside. She opened her mouth to yell at me, but I forced her into silence. It no longer mattered what my rational self thought. I was living, and I was dead.

I scooped Desiree up and carried her in my arms even though she was bigger than me. I forced the sky to open and poured rain down on the house. Big fat raindrops began before they pelted down in earnest. I laid Desiree down on the grass before me with Sharon at my heels. I put my hand on her heart. So completely certain that I could give her life within me.

It never occurred to me that nothing would happen. No spark, no light. Nothing. I screamed up at the heavens as frustration mounted. I couldn’t believe that nothing happened.

Tears welled in my eyes as I looked at her. Her beautiful face was covered with ash and soot. I cradled her head in my arms and whispered her name.

I refused to let her die. I stopped time again and prayed there was enough life left in her. I would call upon an offered favor.

I didn’t know how Desiree could have a spark of life left in her, but I refused to leave my first friend in this world. I stuck two fingers in my mouth and whistled as hard as possible in three rapid successions. Sharon looked up at me with a glimmer of life returning to her eyes as she knelt beside her face. Tears ran down her skin, causing the ash to mingle with her brown skin.

With a whispered prayer to God that I could touch her and not turn into a mindless zombie, I wrapped my arms around Sharon and pulled her to me. Upon contact, she melted into me and lost her remaining control. She sobbed as tremors wracked her body, her voodoo sent ripples of awareness through me, but the shock of Desiree’s condition overrode anything else. My hand ran down her hair, and I told her it would be all right.

She placed her hands on both of my ears and squeezed my head. The pressure built as I watched her lift her head to the sky and bellow so loudly that I could see the energy shooting up into the heavens. The pressure built until blood trickled down my lip as it leaked from my nose. When she pulled her hands away from my ears, both were stained crimson. I dropped to the ground like a stone, stunned by her power.

A flash of light appeared like lightning across the sky. The same little elf I’d met in the doctor’s office stepped out of the crack in space. Hope erupted in my chest as I looked at him. Not entrenched in a battle with the flame-handed men, the stone guards formed a circle around us.

“Sharon, daughter of the Fates, please step away from your sister.” Sharon’s eyes flashed at him, but she did as he asked. “Daria, Goddess of Death and Life, I need you to act as my conduit.”

He stood next to Desiree and knelt beside her. He placed his hand, palm side down, on her forehead and his other over her heart.

“You did well, young God. There is life yet to be lived in this soul.”

As I stared down at Desiree’s limp body, I prayed he was right. He kept one hand on her forehead and the other, he reached out to me and grabbed my hand.

“You will pull the death from her body, and I will heal her injuries. Brace yourself, young God, because this will not be pleasant.”

The first tendrils of darkness forced their way into the palm connected to his hand. I pulled my hand away from the pain, but he only gripped it tighter. “If you want your friend to return to you, you must take the death away. I cannot do that. I can heal everything within her, but your friend will be forever changed if we do not pull the death out.”

I entwined my fingers with his and flattened my hand. Then I pulled in the painful essence. Death tasted like licking an ashtray at a truck stop. I felt each particle zinging as it tried to connect with something. Increasingly, it flooded through me. My stomach heaved and sweat broke out all over.

He let go of my hand, and I collapsed onto the ground. Black swirls of smoke eroded my vision, and all the sound stopped. I couldn’t even feel the ground beneath my hands and knees. Everything in me centered on the dark mass of power in my soul. It wanted control. It wanted to take over. Whispered promises spilled into my ears. With this power, I could be anything I wanted. I no longer had to stand by and watch my friends die. I could control death. It was my friend.

In the background, I heard voices murmuring. There was something important that I needed to see, but I couldn’t remember what it was. Pleasure saturated me like butterflies after my first kiss. My bracelet tightened around my wrist, but I didn’t care. For once in my afterlife, peace resonated with me. The quiet of my mind was brilliant and beautiful. I smiled.

“Daria Gale Platts, you spit that out right now!”

Just like that, my mind snapped out of its weird euphoria. Nothing ever got to me like Sharon when she used a mom’s voice. I looked at her, and nausea rolled through me like a freight train. I bent over and retched. Black ash erupted from my throat and landed in a pile before me. It tickled my throat and made me cough. I kept my head down until I took a shuddered breath.

“Girl, that was freaking disgusting.” The sound of Desiree’s voice brought tears to my eyes. My head snapped up, and I stared at her. Voodoo be damned, I scurried over to her, wrapped my arms around her, and buried my face in her neck with a sob. When she returned my embrace, a new peace filled my soul—one of joy.

Not the boss of me

Time passed as we lay in the front yard. Sharon and Desiree were on each side of me. Our arms were around the other’s shoulder with our knees up. I don’t know how they kept their lust superpowers at bay, but I was thankful.

Each of us stared at the devastation of the house. Even though I wanted to embrace the small elf who saved my friend, he’d poofed away before I could even utter a word of thanks. I still didn’t even know his name. I promised myself that once Sharon and Desiree were safe, I would find him and find some way to show my gratitude.

The house could not be saved even with the rain splashing down from the heavens. The fire moved too quickly to be extinguished by chance. Tears leaked from the corners of both eyes as I watched the only place I felt safe in my afterlife fall to pieces.

“You saved my sister,” Sharon whispered, the first to speak. “She was to die today.” Her voice cracked as she spoke, and new tears poured down her face as sobs wracked her body. As I’d never seen Sharon react emotionally to anything, all I could do was stare. My jaw hung open as my eyeballs refused to look anywhere but at her.

Desiree gasped and looked over at her sister. “If fate decreed that I am to do so, this will not stop it.”

“I used to be in awe of everyone I met in this world. This other side of the veil is hidden from the humans. From watching movies, reading books, and even the occasional D&D game, I loved everything about the supernatural world. There are no checks and balance system. People with that much power should not be able to cause this much damage. She entered a guarded house, warded by druids, and beat us. We almost lost everything today.” With each word I spoke, my anger grew. I pulled away from both and stood up.

“They beat my not so unbeatable guard. It was six men and the winter God, who looks just like Karra.” I turned toward Desiree. “You will not die today. I swear that I will do everything I can to keep that elf on standby.” Just after I found out his name, I thanked him for the first miraculous event and offered him everything up to my firstborn child.

“Elthea of Winter. She’s like the anti-Karra. It’s a war of Gods.” Sharon whispered, her arms still wrapped around her sister, with her fingers resting on her face.

“I never thought I’d say this to you, Sharon, but don’t be dramatic.” The words tasted so good in my mouth. I almost smiled despite our house being reduced to ash and each of us covered in soot. “This is still containable. We just need to meet with the leader of the demons and the leader of the angels. I have a strategy.”

The look on Sharon’s face would be etched in my soul for all eternity. Her eyes rolled back as they had a thousand times in my presence, but then her features softened, and she smiled. Her dark skin glistened beneath the soot. Just when I thought her mojo was back, she laughed. She laughed so hard that tears rolled down her face. Even Desiree looked at her like she’d lost her mind.

“The entire fate of the known world rests on the hands of Daria Gale Platts’s ability to mediate two natural enemies.” I no longer found her mirth so amusing after she spoke.

Desiree’s shoulders started to shake as she began to chuckle. “Maybe she’ll invite them to kill each other, and we can start with new leadership?”

Over the whole conversation, I pushed off the ground and got to my feet. “You two suck. I seriously have a plan. I have researched the entire lineage of both angels and demons. Gloria Winterbourne is a shrewd businessperson but blinded by history.”

“Don’t get your panties in a twist, Zombie girl. Didn’t anyone tell you laughter releases tension? Twenty minutes ago, I was dead. God reached his hand out to me with a sad smile, and I didn’t want to go. Never in my life have I felt so powerless, and then a voice offered me a choice; go in peace or come back and beat the bitch that kicked my ass. Trust me. You are not alone in this endeavor. If I am to die today, it will be after we save the human race.”

Sharon’s breath caught in a sob. “I don’t know if I can go through that again,” she whispered and stood up. She tried to dust her pajamas off but to no avail. “It killed me to watch you die, unable to do anything.”

Desiree stood up, too, and smiled. “Ain’t that about a bitch? The one thing in life you can’t control is still me.” She chuckled. “Come on. We need to find the guard and assess the damage.”

Since when did Desiree become the voice of reason in the group? “I want to drape you in bubble wrap and lock you in a vault for the next 24 hours so that you make it through this day.”

We spent the next few moments absorbed in tending to the injured. Fire couldn’t hurt the guard in gargoyle form, so other than minor injuries, they were all fine. After we compared versions of events, it looked like the attack was more to make a statement.

“With my death,” Desiree whispered.

Members of the enemy had cut a direct path to Desiree’s room. She’d been the intended target. Someone decided she’d been their weakest link and took her out to send a message that we were not as strong as we thought.

The guard came forward, most still in their stone form, anger resonating in their features. The emotion ignited within me, and I spoke before I should have. “Where were you? Desiree almost died. How did they breach the wards on this house?” I demanded. The guard failed, and Thanatos’s wards failed for the second time. The power within me rose as my anger spiked.

The wind picked up as I spoke. The embers from the house flickered around us like morbid lightning bugs. The smell of wet, burnt wood filled my nostrils with each breath. It fed into my emotional state, which only caused the elements to react. The wind began to howl, and the rain poured down on us.

“We failed you and will not do so in the future.”

Hayden and Rox soon joined their comrades. Both looked like hell. “We will be assigning personal guards to each of you. They are to remain at your side, no questions asked. I take responsibility for this failure, I assumed that this house was impenetrable, so it was not guarded as well as it could have been.” Hayden spoke each word with a clipped accent that I couldn’t place.

“Forgive me, my friend,” Rox said to Sharon with her head down.

Sharon embraced Rox but didn’t say anything. It had been my experience with life that Sharon was at her most dangerous when she didn’t speak. My boss, no, my friend, was about to go full-on berserker mode. I don’t know how I knew that, but somewhere in Sharon’s mind was forming a plan that would do nothing but put her life in danger.

As specifics came to mind, like her marching up to Helen Winterbourne and popping her head like a balloon, I realized I was reading her mind. W.T.F. Since when could I read minds?

“Sharon! You will so not!” I yelled and stomped up to her. “You. Will. Not.” I got right in her face and stared her down. At first, she looked at me with confusion, but then her eyes narrowed, and I knew she knew. Ha! Score one for at least getting something over on Sharon for about ten seconds.

“You are not the boss of me,” Sharon said, and then just because my life had utterly and completely landed sideways, she stuck her tongue out at me.

Her tongue.

I stared at her with my mouth open and eyes bugged because I could not process what she’d just said. Desiree walked over and put her fingertips beneath my chin to close my mouth. She chuckled as I still couldn’t break my gaze away from Sharon.

“Come on, Zombie Girl, we need to find a place to stay for the night and get someone out here to start rebuilding tomorrow. This is my home, and some bitch goddess will not take it from me.”

It hit me then that these two women had lost everything. I may have lost a sanctuary, but they lost a home. All their memories, their mementos from life, are just gone.

“Desi, I’m so sorry,” I whispered as tears surged.

“Girl, bye. I’m standing here because you made it happen. You didn’t start this fight. You didn’t cause any of this. And I am damn tired of them using you to justify their actions. We go on the offense. Tonight. Rox, get Marcus and his ilk. Sharon, warn the fates. I know how they hate being blindsided. Hayden, get your men. All of them.”

“What do you want me to do?” I sniffled as I asked, looking up at her.

“Get your army. Tonight, we march on Winterbourne.”

Death by Goddess takes two.

“Wait, let’s talk about this,” I began as I followed Desiree in the rain. Get my army? What? She was my army.

“There’s nothing to talk about. It’s time, Daria. Get the dead. You don’t want to override free will, so just ask them. I think you’ll be surprised about who comes to you.” This new mature Desiree was freaking me out. She was my partner in crime, not the woman in charge.

“I don’t know what to do!” I explained in frustration. She turned to me with wild eyes.

“Yes, you do. Now do it.”

She jumped into the air and disappeared into the night sky. I stared after her, shocked by what I had just witnessed. Could Desiree fly?

“She’s right, you know. It’s time.” Sharon said with a sad smile. “I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty tired of being on the defense.”

While I was a little tired of running around like a chicken with my head cut off, we were jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire by marching on our enemy. Hayden had already disappeared, and Sharon had her cellphone out. I assumed to call Marcus.

Everything we’d prepared for barreled at me like a freight train, and I wasn’t ready. I lifted my head toward the heavens and bellowed for Karra and Thanatos. I used my internal tracking thing that found God to send my voice to them. If this was going down, they would be in the thick of it. I also whistled three times.

In moments, both Gods and the nightingale appeared. Before I did anything else, I walked over to the small elf and hugged him. I didn’t say anything. I just held him close and put every ounce of warmth and love into the hug I gave him. Finally, I whispered, “What is your name?”

His face flushed with embarrassment at my display of affection. “Andrew.”

“I owe you a debt I cannot pay, and I will ask you to stand with me as we march on Winterbourne. I know it is selfish, but I fear what I will do if something happens to one of them.” I’d seen the allure of the darkness. I felt its power. The whispered promises of peace and tranquility were hard to battle.

“On my honor, I will march beside you. Not many of us are left, but all are at your disposal.” With that, he faded into the background. I turned toward both Gods, who stood far enough apart to gulf a continent.

“Karra, say you’re sorry,” I demanded with both hands on my hips.

She looked up at me, stunned, “For what?”

I sighed, I knew this wouldn’t be easy, but they had to work out their problems, and Thanatos already felt enough guilt for both.

Tell Thanatos you are sorry for not trusting him to come around. Did he want humans dead? Yes, and he’s sorry. Aren’t you Thanatos?”

He turned toward his wife, and I felt his all-consuming love for her. It occurred to me, at that moment, that he probably hadn’t laid eyes on her since the day she died. This powerful God was tongue-tied at the sight of his wife.

“Now,” I demanded with a stomp of my foot.

Karra sighed and looked at him. The instant she did, her face softened. She walked over to him and touched his jaw with her fingertips. He flinched at first but didn’t pull away. That was progress.

“Hello, husband.”

“Hello, wife.”

He sighed and closed his eyes. He rested his forehead against hers, and tears trickled down my face at the sight.

“Forgive me, my love?” Karra whispered. I had no idea why she listened to me, but she bent first. I knew it had to be Karra because it’s been my limited experience that it took men too long to realize they’d messed up.

Thanatos wrapped his arm around her and lifted her chin toward him. He pressed his lips against Karra’s, and time stopped. Not a power that was unique to me. I smiled at the sight of the two of them. It just felt right. I waited for a moment before interrupting them.

“Glad you made up. Apparently, we’re going to war tonight, so I’m going to need you both to do whatever you do to save us from whatever Gods are against us.”

Karra flicked her fingers, and time started again. “Always in the thick of things, aren’t you, dear?” She chuckled.

“Sorry, but you own that. I’m reactive, not proactive.”

Thanatos chuckled as he pulled away from Karra but kept his arm around her. “Daria, I am rescinding my offer to court you.”

Of all the things he could have said, that just struck me as hysterical. A bubble of laughter escaped my throat, and I looked at him. “That’s probably for the best. There’s a certain vampire that I do believe I’ll be courting.”

A bemused smile overtook his face, “Better him than the demon half-breed, I guess.”

I frowned at the thought of Kurtis. A part of me clung to the belief that there was more to his story than a conniving murderer. “One day, I will have a sit-down talk with Kurtis, but it will not be today. Today we are leading an attack on the Winterbourne estate. Desiree is a little perturbed about the whole almost dying thing.”

“It’s a good thing Big Al just happened to have a nightingale in his office, who remembers the last war of the Gods,” Thanatos said without a hint of irony. It was then I knew who pushed another hero in my direction.

“Karra, do you know where Althea is?” I asked. I only had about a million more questions, but that’s the one I went with. General Desiree’s barked order about getting my army of the dead ready still rang in my ears.

“She lives in this realm. About three hours from here, in the mountains. It will not be possible to take her by surprise. This is a seasoned God with an axe to grind against the people who imprisoned and murdered her son.”

Her son. Regret coursed through me. My part in his death may seem like murder, but I chose to look at it as the end of an exceptionally prolonged stay of execution. The man deserved to die for what he did. “Wait. Does this make me your daughter? If Althea made Roderick, and he is her son?”

Karra laughed, and again I heard bells chime in the distance. “No, he was truly her son. Althea is not the one who turned Roderick into a reanimated corpse, but she is the one who gave him life. He was born a reaper from the womb of a god. Quite literally, she gave birth to him.”

Well, that made less sense to me. “So, who turned him into a zombie?”

Karra shrugged. “No one knows.”

Thanatos looked around at the destruction of Sharon and Desiree’s house. “My druids have failed them a second time. I do believe it’s time to find out what my children are up to,” he said with the same tone as a parent who had unruly teenagers.

“Allow me, husband,” Karra said with a sweet smile. She spun around with her arms wide open. Joy was etched into her every feature. Wave upon wave of energy pulsed from her body and restored everything it touched. Board by board, stone by stone, the house repaired itself before my eyes. It was amazing. Within seconds, the damage was undone.

“Woah,” I whispered.

“Fire is an element of life. Before you jump headfirst into battle, allow me to unlock your senses so that your mind will no longer hinder you.”

I wouldn’t say I liked the sound of that. My mind was the only thing I had left. Apprehension flittered up my spine as I prepared my protest. “I’m good, thanks though.” Was all I could get out before she shoved her hand through my chest.

Now, I’ve died at least four times, twice the same way, with a blade through my heart. That pain could not even remotely compare to the explosion in my chest. I staggered back, caught by one of the gargoyles who looked at Karra as if he would face a threat. The others formed a wall between us, but it was too late. My heart was in her hand. I have no idea how my body still lived, but I saw my bloody, beating heart in her palm.

“What the actual fuck? Give that back!” I croaked through the pain.

“Karra?” Thanatos bellowed with shock etched on every line of his face.

“Trust me, husband. No one values this young woman’s life more than I,” was Karra’s only response.

I tried to take comfort in her words, but my fucking heart was in her fucking hand. And did I mention it was beating?

My tenuous grip on reality slipped, and I fell into maddening darkness. It was a cross between being awake and asleep, the twilight of life. Everything was grey, from the ground to the sky. No colors existed, or at least I couldn’t see them anymore. Maybe I was dying for real because that crazy bitch took my heart out. In the back of my mind, it struck me kind of funny that somewhere in the world, there were two versions of my heart. The old one is in a jar and is probably floating in formaldehyde, and the new one is resting in a madwoman’s palm. Did that mean there could be two of me? That thought caused a shudder.


I turned toward the sound. There I stood as if, by my thought, I created a second me. I spoke it to life. Well, the other me, I guess. “Just when I thought my life couldn’t get any weirder.” I stared at myself. It was like looking into a mirror that didn’t move with you. Yes. Twilight zone.

“I’m not real, you know.” The other me said.

“So, you say. Where am I? Why are you here? Why do you look like me? Why did Karra take my heart?” I fired questions because if that thing were me, she’d appreciate having them all at once. I hated it when people beat around the bush to get to their point.

“This is the veil, the space between life and death. You are here because Karra thought it best to keep a part of your powers separate. She believed that you would not be able to handle it all at once. I am the embodiment of that energy. And a living heart cannot cross the veil. Does that answer your questions?”

Yes. No. Maybe. “Why didn’t she just unlock my powers or whatever?” God, it was so weird looking and talking to myself. I officially dropped off the deep end of mental instability.

I chuckled. Well, not the real me, but the other me. “Because she wanted you to have a choice in something. Everything has just been thrown at you repeatedly. She wanted you to choose to embrace your whole self. Life and death, light and darkness. You can be the whole package—a creator god. You will have limitless power. You will not be tethered to that of the workers of death but all life. It will be within your power to create new creatures to balance life and protect the humans.”

Did I even want that? “Why?” I asked.

“For a God to die, one must be able to step in and take its place. That is the way of things. There is always a balance. In this battle, Althea must die, and you will take her place. Only then can balance be restored.”

Nope. Hard pass. Not happening. “Send me back.”

The other me shrugged. “The choice is yours, but remember, the next time you come here, she’ll have to rip your heart out again.”

Sadly, that thought gave me pause. Not enough to change my mind, but there were better candidates than me to become a god.

Scars bring perspective.

When I returned to my reality, I would have leaped for Karra’s throat had it not been for the gargoyle holding me. That manipulative horrible woman has used me for the last time in whatever game she has played. After she shoved my still-beating heart back into my chest, I ripped the bracelet from my wrist and threw it at her feet.

“I’m so done with you. I do not want anything to do with you.” I stomped into the house she rebuilt and slammed the door behind me. Anger radiated from me and fueled my resolve to make the right decision. I couldn’t stand the sight of her or Thanatos at that moment. The manipulation just never ended with beings of a higher power.

Hayden came in not long after. He found me sitting on the couch in the living room that Desiree and I had once tried to get hammered with tequila.

I didn’t know what to do anymore. I couldn’t very well lead an attack on a God without proper backup, and nothing in me wanted to work alongside Karra or Thanatos. I may not be the most upstanding individual on the planet, but I try to be fair, honest, and conscious of what other people think or feel. To have someone so completely disregard my thoughts or feelings on my own life proved more than I could live with.

“Penny, for your thoughts?” Hayden said from the doorway.

“Are they gone?” I asked.

“No, they are outside. Thanatos reprimanded his wife for her behavior. She doesn’t understand why he’s upset with her, though. I don’t claim to know what happened, but I will stand with you whether we have the earth gods or not.”

This man, who had done nothing but help me since I met him, brought tears to my eyes. He didn’t know me. He didn’t know anything about my struggles or my life. He chose to protect me, and I believed he would do it. I felt safe with him. “Thank you,” I whispered.

“May I ask what happened?” Rox came in from behind him. She spoke in a low soft voice as if not to spook the crazy lady on the couch.

“She wants me to be a god. That if or when we kill Althea, I was to take her place by unlocking some power hidden inside me.”

Rox nodded and came toward the couch. She sat down and took the scarf off her head. Then, I saw the massive scarring that started behind her left ear and went around the back of her head. Little to no hair grew anywhere. Her head was a massive maze of scar tissue.

“I know the polite thing to do is not to stare and not to ask questions, but I can’t. My god, are you okay? What happened?” This insanely beautiful woman hid her flaws from the world, but she showed them to me. Why?

“When I was but a slip of a girl, I saw Hayden. This big strong man protected the villages of our land. I followed him around like a lost puppy. He would try his hardest to deter me in any way he could. One day, raiders came to our village. Men were slaughtered like sheep and women….”

She paused before continuing. “Well, it would have been kinder had they slaughtered the women too. My mother and sisters were brutally beaten and raped in front of me. I was held in place by a man who whispered everything he would do to me when they were done.”

She paused, and I sat up. My problems were forgotten as I listened to this horrific tale. “I managed to escape, and at twelve years old, stabbed him to death with his scimitar. His companions decided that the regular punishment for women was too good for me, so they tied me to a stake, stripped me naked, and poured boiling oil down my head. It was by the pure grace of God that it went down my back instead of in my face. They left me to die, tied to that stake, a visual reminder for everyone who stood up against them.”

With that, she took off her shirt and turned around. The scarring on her back brought bile to the back of my throat. Her back looked like ground meat. “Rox, I am so sorry.” Tears choked me as I went to her, and without a thought, I wrapped my arms around her and engulfed her in a hug. She returned my embrace and stood in silence for a moment.

“I didn’t share this with you for pity or comfort. I have long since made peace with my past. I shared it because I want you to know who you are up against. These people will not care that you are a good person. That you love everyone you meet as soon as you meet them. The goodness in you is a distraction for them. They want evil. They want the darkness that you can hold. They want anger and fear. They will use it, use you, to turn the tide of a war with the Gods.”

“I can’t control the darkness. If it weren’t for Sharon snapping me out of my trance, I’d probably still carry around the blackness of death that I pulled from Desiree.” Tears stung my eyes because I couldn’t make others understand this was too much.

“Could you choke a three-month-old?” The question asked as if she said nothing more than I needed milk from the grocery store.

“What? Absolutely not.”

“Could you slit Sharon’s throat?” My heart began to race as the image took root in my mind.

“Stop it. Stop putting these images in my head.” My palms began to sweat, and my fingers flared with blue light. I had to keep reminding myself that Rox and Hayden were friends.

“Well, you did turn Marcus’s hand to sand. Oh, and let’s not forget Roderick. You burned him from the inside out. I can tell you from experience there is no greater pain on this earth than being burned alive.”

Anger ignited in me. The blue flame ran up my arms until every inch of me was covered. Fury at her words made me turn to her. Even as I tried to force the power down, it resurged. This was not me. This was not who I was. I got off the couch and moved to the other side of the room.

“Let’s not forget that she did murder someone she didn’t have to kill,” Hayden said as he joined in. “We wouldn’t even be at war if it weren’t for her. Not only did she not have enough sense to die properly, but what did she do as soon as she was reanimated? She kills poor Evangeline Winterbourne’s daughter.”

“Stop it.” I had no idea why they were saying these hurtful words, but I wouldn’t give in to it. No one, not two meddlesome gods, nor two gargoyles sent to protect me, nor my mirror-image self was going to control me. My name was Daria Gale Platts, and I decided what I did or didn’t do.

I stared at my hands until the blue light went out. “Get out.”

To my surprise, Rox smiled at me. “That a girl. The difference between you and them, Daria, is that the worst things you’ve ever done were justified. Evil cannot live where you dwell because you would never allow such atrocities to occur. Even as we threw your worst fears at you, your only thought was to control your baser instincts. Karra kept part of your abilities from you. This was not to harm you or even to manipulate you but because she knew that you were not yet comfortable with the control you had over your current self. She is, and always will be, your strongest supporter.”

With that, Rox and Hayden walked out of the house.

I will never forget the look of what evil can do by the map of horror on that woman’s skin.

The dead want to play too.

Marcus and I went to the cemetery after my conversation with my guards. We stood in the middle of the largest cemetery in the state. Row upon row of headstones and plaques lined the ground. Just the thought of waking these poor souls filled me with dread. They had already been through enough trauma, and I was about to ask them to do it again. It disgusted me on levels I couldn’t even comprehend.

“Talk to me,” Marcus said as he held my hand.

“I just don’t want to do this. I don’t want to raise the dead. Never mind that they’ve suffered enough, but to ask them to take part in a battle to save a world they don’t even live in anymore seems over the top.”

Marcus looked around and nodded. “So, don’t. We have an army of vampires, ten thousand gargoyles, nightingales, banshees, and two Gods who want to prove to you that they only have your best interests at heart.”

Yes, but what if that wasn’t enough? What if I lost everyone I’d come to know because I was too squeamish to do what was necessary? Desiree told me to ask. She said that I might be surprised by what I saw.

I stepped away from Marcus and walked to the center of the cemetery. The moonlight shone down and reflected on the white marble that littered the land. I placed my palm down on the earth and sent forth a small amount of energy. With it, I simply said who I was and what we were up against. I kept it simple as humanity lay in the balance and asked for volunteers.

At first, nothing happened. I stood up and dusted the dirt off my hand. I turned back toward Marcus and shrugged. Oh well, I asked.

Then, with a rumble like an earthquake, graves began to open. The ground beneath me quivered as the dirt overturned. One by one, thousands rose—more than my eyes could see as I spun in a slow circle. Men, women, and even children climbed out of their graves. I shuddered with revulsion as I saw what I had done. The smell brought tears to my eyes.

“This is so wrong, so very wrong,” I whispered. Almost immediately, I was ready to put them back to sleep. I even leaned over to do it, but a voice rang out.


The voice startled me. I looked around, as did Marcus. In my afterlife, I’d seen a whole lot of crazy. But seeing a literal army made up of the dead rise from their grave and look to me for guidance? The universe surely had a sense of humor. Row upon row of corpses stared back at me. I could feel them, their thoughts, and their emotions. As a collective whole, they were grateful. That I did not expect.

“You asked for us, and we are here. Do not send us back.”

Though I couldn’t pinpoint the voice, it may as well have come from one of them, as they all felt the same way. I’d always assumed zombies were mindless creatures, but they had their former sense of selves.

“I do not know what I’m doing,” I said. I wanted them to understand that just because I can ask them to follow doesn’t mean I’m the right person to lead.

“Yes, she does, and she’s grateful for your support,” Marcus interjected. He stood at my side and put his arm around my waist. I loved it when he found little reasons to touch me.

“Daria Gale Platts, we are honored you chose us.”

Something tickled at my palm, like a phantom itch. My inner entity tried to tell me something, but it didn’t register. Then, because my entity was a mean toddler, my knees just gave out, and I fell to the ground with my hands in front of me. Once my palms hit the dirt, energy shot forth into the ground. To my utter astonishment, I watched as bone and sinew were covered with skin. My hands pulsed again, and my army began to look alive. Tattered clothing repaired itself. The awful stench of death drifted away with the night’s breeze. One final explosion of energy fell into the ground, and as I looked around, my mind couldn’t comprehend what my eyes saw.

My army was alive. Like, for real, alive. I could hear their heartbeats and see the rising and falling of their chests. They lived.

Holy Dr. Frankenstein moment.

“Daria, what did you do?” Marcus asked in shock. I stood up and looked at him.

“I believe I started by saying I do not know what I’m doing. There are these random moments when my body just does things. This is one of them.” Every one of the thousand or so dead now lived. The hues of their skin ranged from pale to deep brown. They looked vibrant and healthy.

“Bless you, Daria Gale.” Someone yelled from the back. Then they all took a knee.

Row upon row of humans dropped to one knee with their heads bowed. Men, women, and children silently pledged themselves to me. This was a recipe for disaster.

“We are going up against a god I have wronged by murdering her son and a woman whose daughter I also killed. I do not expect you to follow me blindly. I could have prevented at least one of these deaths had I had better control or minded my business.” My voice rang out strong, which also surprised me. Who would have thought I could still speak clearly after all that?

“She put the monster down. Even though his very existence fed fears throughout the communities of the dead, he was kept alive as a reminder. The mere mention of his name caused pain, and the Gods allowed him a semblance of life. The Gods did not allow us the decency to put the man who terrorized our kind to death.”

A lone man broke through the ranks and stalked toward us. His clothing looked like old war fatigues. It predated anything anyone else seemed to be wearing. “This young woman died, was reborn, offered power unfathomable to the likes of us, and yet turned it down because she feels unworthy. I pledge my afterlife to Daria Gale Platts.”

Their voices rang out, one after another. I didn’t know what to do or say. I’d never had a real army before. In my head, they were all going to look like zombies. There’d be moaning and maybe fallen body parts. I certainly did not expect them to look alive.

“I do not know what this power is or how long you will be alive. I just know that some bad people want to kill many innocent people, and this is the only way I can think of to stop them.” Humbled beyond words, I didn’t know what they wanted or needed from me. I just knew I was asking them to be cannon fodder.

“My name is First Lieutenant Victor Jarman of the Confederate Army, I’ve had experience facing an unwinnable war, and I’m proud of the chance to redeem myself for dying on the wrong side.”

The Confederate army? Like in the Civil War? “Woah.” As eloquent as always, I couldn’t think of anything to say to that.

A small child raced through the lines of the stationary bodies. All I could see was a blond mop of hair zipping through until they broke through the ranks and walked up to me. He looked to be a boy of about twelve, all elbows and knees. He wore a page boy cap, an off-white collared shirt with brown suspenders, and tan slacks. He should be hawking newspapers on the street corner in the 1920s, not standing in a cemetery.

“Hey, lady,” he called out, tugging on my hand.

“Yes?” I said as I knelt beside him.

“If you’re going to lead the dead, you got to know what you’re doing, right?” He asked and looked at me with the clearest green eyes I’ve ever seen. They were like glowing emeralds lined with thick lashes that most women would kill for.

“You don’t even look dead anymore. This is so weird.”

“If you could be given one chance, just one chance, to go back to your old life and do one thing, what would it be?” He asked me.

I’d never really given it much thought. What would I do if I could go back? Would I stop myself from going to sing karaoke that night? No, because while this new life was strange, it also was beautiful and exciting. So, is there anything I’d have done differently?

“To be honest, I would change nothing. I feel like my life began the day I died.” I squeezed Marcus’s hand and felt slightly bewildered that I meant that.

“Now, imagine never being allowed to have your afterlife.” Though he sounded like a twelve-year-old boy, his words registered with wisdom, I didn’t possess.

“We are all in a limbo of sorts. Our lives weren’t that great. Our death represents the life that we lived. You’ve allowed us the opportunity to earn a better afterlife. The happily dead wouldn’t have bothered responding to you, and the bad dead can’t.”

While that made sense in a strange cosmic way, I needed them to understand what they were up against. “We will be fighting in a battle of Gods. Reapers, demons, and angels are all teamed up to end human existence.”

“Then we best get cracking.”

The entire army stood behind the First Lieutenant and the young boy.

My friends and your friends

I was not the leader when I thought of the epic battle that would ensue. It only made sense for Sharon to lead the charge. Who else could boss around entire armies and still have enough common sense left over to remember to keep people alive? So, when I arrived with my very living dead army, I naturally assumed I’d fall back behind Sharon.

So, imagine my surprise when she turned to me and asked how I wanted to storm the castle. My initial response was to shrug my shoulders and say whatever she recommends, but that was the old Daria. The new Daria could make tough calls if necessary unless it hurt my army. Those people deserved a weekend resort in New Zealand more than they needed a God battle. They shouldn’t have to face another death to get out of their purgatory potentially. Their circumstances have not improved in their afterlife.

The armies filed around the base of the Winterbourne compound. My army of the formerly deceased was transfixed with the world around them, what little they could see in the shimmering moonlight. That at least made sense to me. Some of them had been underground for a long time. They were bound to need time to adjust to the world around them—time which we did not have. If we were to survive the night, we had to keep Desiree alive, even if the Fates were against us. As I saw it, the only way to keep her alive was to prevent an apocalyptic event with such minimal casualties that perhaps the Fates would grant her the boon of Desiree’s life. All warring aside, that was her goal. To get her best friend to survive the night and break her connection with death.

Also, to avoid being a vessel of a God. Who in their right mind wanted that nonsense? The more I thought about it, the more I convinced myself that the idea was ludicrous. The thought of someone having to live or die by my command filled me with dread. This was not the life I was born into. Well, that wasn’t even true, as my birth never happened. I appeared as a babyand was subsequently traded for a damn gas can. All because a Goddess didn’t know what to do with me or didn’t want to raise me herself. It hit me like a lightning bolt at that moment.

I wasn’t mad because Karra manipulated me, but because the first act of life I’d had on this planet was to be discarded like used trash. My parents both went and died, which left me alone in this world. The man I hard-core crushed on for years murdered me, not once, but twice. Well, the second time, I didn’t die. I just got mad. Even Thanatos, for all his attentions, left me high and dry the moment his beloved rose from the dead.

Everyone left me all the time. I didn’t want to become a God because I’d have to leave behind the family, I’d built for myself. I looked around and found each of them. Sharon, the mother figure who captivated me and forced me to be a better human. Her dark skin blended into the night as her hair shimmered against the moonlight. Her hair never moved, even when she ran, as she was doing now. We all were. At her side, her sister and my best friend in the entire world. Desiree looked fierce as she met her sister’s steps. The two were everything right in the world, and I refused to leave them behind. I valued them too much for that.

I looked back and saw Marcus leading a group of vampires around to flank my army of the not-so-dead. I saw flickers of fear rise among my crew. They had probably never seen a vampire before. That had to be addressed far before they could fight side by side.

“Marcus,” I called out. My voice rang out much louder than I intended in the silence we were moving in.

“Here.” He appeared beside me in an instant. I’d never even seen him move. The gasps from the recently dead said they’d seen him appear at my side as well.

“My friends and your friends should be friends, don’t you think?” I asked more to avoid adding to any of the jitters displayed across my army’s many faces.

“Ah, I tend to forget that the average human had no idea about us.” Marcus smiled and put his arm around my shoulderse. Just that one moment of contact calmed me, and my thoughts settled. Sure, I was still afraid that we’d all die on the way to a stupid compound, but at least in that second in time, I was just a girl with a hot guy’s arm around me. If it wasn’t for such moments, we might as well give up the fight.

I realized my thoughts were retrospective, as if I was recapping my life to prepare for the eventuality of death. Thanks to the meddling of Gods, I couldn’t die, though, but everyone I cared about could. I had the world’s most powerful friends, and all of them could die because of a foolish quest led by a person who would hashtag adulting when I bought coffee at Starbucks. Seriously, no one should entrust me with their lives.

I shook my head to clear the morose thoughts. No one would die today. I refused to allow that to happen.

With a nod to Victor, the unofficial general of my army, I turned to face my new favorite humans.

“I did not prepare you for what you would see today, and I apologize. In the new world, you have risen from. Some people are quite different from you. I am God Made, meaning that I was never born. The Gods created me for moments like today when humanity hangs in the balance of our outcome. Marcus, here, is a vampire. He was an incredibly old and boring one who never did anything adventurous in his human years except lead Rome in peace and incorporate education into their bleak little lives. Sharon and Desiree,” I nodded toward them. “They are banshees. They are two of the biggest bad asses you will ever meet in your afterlife. They are good people, all of them.” I turned toward the Persians who led our charge. “The group who chose to lead our assault is known as the unbeatable army. Many kingdoms, including the Greeks and the Romans, have fallen to this group led by Hayden and Rox. They also happen to be gargoyles who dislike having their fingernails painted.” I smiled at the memory.

A collective group of chuckles let me know that my words were hitting their mark. “Please do not fear them, for every one of them will lay down their lives for every one of yours, and they don’t even know your names. Everyone here is here for one single purpose.”

I paused and looked around, unnerved that everyone looked in my direction. I steadied my heart and faced them all, letting my voice ring out. “Today, we save humanity because if we fail, their tomorrows are numbered.”

With that, I turned to resume my march. At first, no one said anything. We’d reached the first path up Winterbourne Mountain. It towered over us like a bad dream. When Sharon and Desiree joined me, I gripped both of their hands. “So, are we ready for this clusterfuck?” I asked Sharon.

“What a ridiculous question. Of course, we are.” Sharon said, though her words did not house their usual bite.

“I expected William Wallace to jump out and yell “Freedom” after your speech. I was kind of disappointed he didn’t.” Desiree laughed.

Even gods need forgiveness.

Hours after, the sun dipped behind the stupid mountain we were climbing. I sank mid-calf into the snow and glared at the ridiculously cold mess covering the ground. Victor and Marcus spent most of their march conversing about historical times, equating to horrendously boring noise to almost everyone around them. My stomach grumbled for the tenth time that hour, and it became obvious how little we had planned for this battle. First, it was an actual mountain. Our progress was painfully slow, even with our wide range of supernatural creatures. We needed help up this mountain, or at least supplies and an actual plan, or we’d do something dumb like become frozen landmarks.

I stomped over to Marcus. He was helping some of the recently deceased women make it over a large group of boulders covered in ice and snow that led to the clearing the rest of my army stood at. He was the better leader, which makes sense, because he led an entire nation. What did I ever lead? A team of lazy account specialists. I sighed and rolled my eyes at the situations I often encounter.

“Marcus, we’re making camp. Where are Karra and Thanatos?” We needed their help, and my guilt about how I ended my relationship with them forced me to evaluate my original thoughts.

His eyes flashed at one of the vampires, who nodded in response and disappeared. Vampires were weird. They moved crazy quickly, though. “They are scouting ahead to ensure our path is clear.”

I nodded and continued to march through the soft snow. When I plan my next battle, I’ll be certain to remember snowshoes. And food. And perhaps a tent or fifty. With a glance over my shoulder to make sure everyone settled into the clearing, I searched for the two Gods whom I had such mixed emotions over. What I did know was that if we died while walking, I’d never be able to face myself in the mirror again. A woman leads an army to their second death because she doesn’t realize that people need supplies. Ugh. Even the headline made me want to cringe.

I followed the imprints in the snow that I assumed were Karra and Thanatos. How does one approach two Gods with the intent of smoothing things over without taking back anything said? I meant what I said when I said it to both Karra and Thanatos. They had manipulated me from the start and failed to treat me with any real sense of humanity. I didn’t want my relationship with them to be where it was now because, in their weird way, they both meant a lot to me. I felt they were more like parental units than friends, and I needed to change my thinking. Sure, Karra had a hand in my existence, but she didn’t raise me, and she didn’t deserve to pay for my abandonment issues.

I found them about a quarter mile ahead of the clearing we chose to camp at. They were huddled close together. Thanatos’s hand rested on the small of her back as Karra’s head lay against his chest. It looked like an intimate moment I took a bit of perverse joy in interrupting. None of this meant that I’d completely forgiven them, but I did need them in my life, and I knew they were both good people at their core.

“Do you have a moment?” I called out as I trudged toward them in the calf-deep snow. My feet were frozen, and the boots I’d worn were uncomfortable, but I was grateful that I’d taken the time to put on shoes that blocked wetness.

“Daria, yes.” Thanatos turned stiffly, with a reserved smile on his face. He reminded me of the day I met him. What I took for arrogance, today I saw for what it was, uncertainty. He didn’t know what to make of me then, probably even less now. That made me smile.

“I’m sorry I yelled at you both,” I said. While I wasn’t sorry for what I said, my delivery could have used some work.

Karra turned to me and took a few steps before she stopped. “No, Daria. You were correct in what you said. I should have been honest with you from the beginning. I’d spent so much time in the Valley of Death that I forgot what it was like to be alive. When I devised the plan to use you to save humanity, I never saw you as a person, more of a weapon. You were a means to an end to all my plans and schemes. Now I see how horrible that was. I stripped away everything that made you who you are. I hope that you will find it in your heart to forgive me.”

I had so many questions, but now just wasn’t the time. I had to remember why I was here. “Karra, we will have that conversation another day. Right now, I need your help. We need shelter, food, and clothing to tend to our fighters. Also, we need an easier passage up this mountain. It will take way too long, and I’m sure the Winterbournes know we are here by now.”

Thanatos bent down and touched the earth beneath the snow. “It is safe to say they know we are here, yes. About ten miles north of here is where the Winterbournes live. It’s a huge compound that is heavily guarded. It will be impossible to sneak upon them.”

Great, we’re bringing the battle to them and giving them plenty of time to prepare. What were we thinking? I already knew the answer to that. We thought that Althea took the fight to us, and we had to now take it back to her. To finish it with her.

“Let’s deal with one thing at a time. Food and shelter. Can you arrange that?”

Karra smiled and looked at me. “Done. Now please take this bracelet back. It is incredibly angry with me, and I’m a little tired of welts.” She held up her wrist that showed angry red marks from wrist to elbow.

“Um, why is your arm all jacked up?” I asked. The bracelet had never hurt me like that.

“The entity in this metal found fault with how I handled things. I am sorry.” Karra walked over and stretched her arm out. The bracelet slithered off her arm like a serpent and wound its way back up my arm. I had to admit that I’d felt naked without it. It was the first thing given to me to help me adjust to this new afterlife.

“Thank you,” I smiled. “We need a better plan than this. Sure, we have powerful numbers, but we have 10,000 soldiers who haven’t had anything to kill in a few thousand years and a few hundred recently dead folks who want to prove they are worthy of a better afterlife. Throw that in with a bunch of vampires, two banshees, one zombie, and two gods; what we have is a fustercluck of life. So, come back with me to the camp, and let’s figure this out.”

I turned around and started to walk away. Karra grabbed my arm and spun me back around. She wrapped her arms around me and gave me a hug. “I will make this up to you. No matter what happens here today or with the Winterbournes, please know I am here for you. Your safety and well-being mean more to me than anything else. I hope you see that eventually.”

I hugged her back. While part of me wanted to hold on to the anger and resentment in my heart, I knew it wouldn’t do any good. Overall, I needed her help to keep my people alive.

“I accept that neither of you meant to hurt me, but you did. I forgive both of you, but I won’t be able to trust either of you immediately because you aren’t clear with your motives up front. You both need to work on honesty, or you will find yourselves alone and miserable. Now, let’s go. We got a mountain to bring down.”

Walking into a trap

We made camp just as night fell. With the aid of Thanatos and Karra, the trek through the mountain pass eased. Sharon led the camp detail and organized everyone into small squadrons guarded by a gargoyle. If anyone could lead an army of broken misfits, it was my boss. The gargoyle stayed in stone form and allowed the army of the newly undead to practice on them as Karra and Thanatos brandished weaponry recognizable to their time. Marcus rode ahead and confirmed that the Winterbourne compound sat atop a cliff that overlooked a sharp fall into an icy lake. The only way to get to the compound was a direct route to their front door.

With everyone tucked in for the night, a new fear crept up my spine. The fire cast shadows all around me. In them, I saw monsters. They danced around in a hue of orange and gold. Smoke plumes formed claws and teeth that snapped and snarled at the wood consumed by the fire. As no one jumped back in surprise, I could only assume it was another weird Daria special. Find a new weird power? Only on days that ended in Y. I stared into the flames and watched the dark creatures as their faces pushed through them. My mouth opened in a silent scream, on faces etched in anguish and forced their way through the flames at my face.

I was more curious about what was happening in front of me instead of being afraid that I’d no longer have eyebrows if one of those things got close enough.


The sound tore my attention from the flames, and I turned toward the woods. At first, I saw nothing in the snow-covered trees that lined the valley where we’d made camp.

“Psst.” The sound came again, and this time I saw the movement on a small path into the dark woods.

Everyone was busy doing something important as I turned back to the fire. It made as much sense as any to go off into the dark wood without letting anyone else know what I was doing.

Nope. I’d seen every horror story ever turned into a movie.

“Desiree?” I called out. And because I wasn’t stupid, I also told Rox what I was doing. She disappeared, but I felt her eyes on me.

Desiree came over to me with a stern expression. “You should be getting some rest, Daria. We do have a bully to beat tomorrow.”

I grabbed her hand and pulled her as I marched toward the woods where I’d seen the moving shadows. “Come with me and warm your vocal cords in case we need them.” I all but commanded the woman who’d turned my insides into soup.

She didn’t ask any questions or falter as we reached the tree line. Her silence spoke of her trust in me, and it humbled me to know that she would willingly go where I asked. “I saw something and figured it would be better if two of us investigated it,” I whispered.

“You’re scarier than anything that hunts in these woods,” Desiree said.

“We got our asses handed to us by a god who lives in these woods. I didn’t want to die before I went out on a date with one of the men who seemed to be vying for my attention.” My laughter was absorbed by the blanket of the night.

“Bad luck about the Earth God. There’s no way you’re beating out Kara for her husband.” Desiree laughed as well.

“And I will die as one of the few women alive who can say they kissed a god.” She bumped my shoulder as we walked to where I’d heard the noise.

“And one of the many dumped by them,” Desiree retorted.

We silenced our laughter as we stepped into the woods. We walked without sound into the darkness with our backs to one another. When Kurtis stepped out into the shadows, my heart had all but exploded in my chest. I gasped his name.

“Daria,” he said as he dropped to his knees with his hands held above his head. He wore the same shirt he did the last time I sang karaoke. The same shirt he killed me in.

My hands flared with a bright electric blue flame as anger ripped through me. “What could you possibly have to say that I’d want to hear?” Tears sprung to my eyes as my traitorous dead heart thundered and my throat tightened. I wanted to kick him in his adorable face.

“You must trust me. There’s another way into the mountain. If you keep going, every single one of you will die. You aren’t the only one with gods.” Kurtis spoke in a muffled voice. His eyes met and held mine. I heard the truth in his words but still questioned his motives.

“You killed me,” I cursed the wounded sound of my voice and my need to understand why.

“Daria, the entire mountain is rigged with explosives. There is only one way up. You must walk across the cliff.”

Desiree walked in a small circle around Kurtis. “Why are you telling us this?”

I wish I’d thought of that. “What’s in it for you?” I asked.

“Nothing else can be taken from me,” he forced a bitter laugh. “I’m already dead.” Kurtis bowed his head toward Desiree.

“Don’t look to me for sympathy there. You stabbed me twice,” I said.

“The cliff is an illusion. One must have ties to death to see the path and the ability to control the dead to pass through it. There are enough explosives to bring down this entire mountainside and never touch the compound.”

Again, I sensed the truth in his words. Living or dead, I’m still an idiot. I caught Desiree’s eye and shrugged.

“He is marked for death. He’s Evangeline’s son. He’s also telling the truth.” Desiree said.

Why did everything in the supernatural world come down to a literal leap of faith? “We need Thanatos. His powers are necessary. I have a plan.”

“What do we do with him?” Desiree asked and jerked her head toward Kurtis.

I looked at the face I once fantasized over. The friendship we shared had meant something to me. “Were we ever friends?”

“Goodbye, Daria.” Kurtis faded from sight. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the spot he once held.

“Demons are so weird,” Desiree said with disgust.

“We should work under the assumption that he’s telling us the truth and leading us into a trap. Let’s go.”

I found Thanatos first. He worked with a group of women dressed in a different decade. They practiced with shields that were said to be bulletproof as well as indestructible to melee weapons. Karra worked one-on-one with a smaller group. With so little time to prepare, it bothered me that their afterlife would be cut as short as their natural one.

“We had a visitor. Kurtis said that the cliff behind the compound is an illusion. The mountain is riddled with enough explosives to bring this face down. He said we had to have ties to death to see it and the ability to control the dead to pass through it.”

Part of me hoped one of the two creatures of divinity would pop out with a solution that didn’t include the possibility of falling off a cliff. Their silent glances did little to ease my mind.

“Well?” I demanded as I watched them.

“Tell me, young god?” Thanatos said with a deep bow. “Is there no end to the number of men bending your will?”

“What?” How did he get that from the story I just told him? “No, I think you missed the point.”

His head fell back as laughter shook the ground. Desiree snickered from behind me before she began to laugh.

“What?” I asked again.

Karra walked over, looped her arm with mine, and pulled me to the small group of women. “Ignore him, dear. Tell me what you need.”

“I need Thanatos to create tunnels that will lead from our current location to the top of the cliff. I need you to create an illusion that we’ve settled in for the night. The illusion must be believable by other gods.” No man has ever bent to my will. Well, that wasn’t true. My father never could stay mad at me for long.

“Focus, Daria. A balance must be struck with the mountain before we can burrow through it like parasites. Let me first ask if it will bargain.” Karra said. She dropped down on one knee and placed her palm on the ground. Her head fell to her chin. Her perfect shimmering hair framed her face in a disgustingly angelic manner.

A nervous laugh rose as I stood in silence, watching her. Sure, let’s just ask the mountain. Well, for all I knew, it was as conscious as everything else I’d seen. I didn’t want Kurtis to die.

The thought took me by surprise. I squashed all thoughts of him and focused on the matter in front of me. When Karra rose, I was able to focus on her. More or less.

“The mountain will grant you passage if you free the souls tethered to its surface. Do not speak,” Karra said as I opened my mouth.

She held up her hand. “Wait, and allow me to finish. We do not know if the souls are malevolent or not. Nor do we know if they will wreak havoc on our small army. Do not agree without more information.”

One thing I’d learned in my short afterlife was that information was key. As she did a moment ago, I placed my palm on the ground. I sent my power deep into the rocks. With each heartbeat, it pulsed further into the ground. I wasn’t quite sure what I was looking for, but if something undead was tethered to the mountain, I could sense it. That was the working theory, anyway.

There. Tied to the deepest part of the mountain, I felt the spirits anchored into place.

Please be friendly ghosts like Casper. I prayed to anyone willing to listen to my prayers.

The rage that responded to her power took her breath away. It rode my skin like oil and coated my pores. Their souls cried out for vengeance. Harvested against their will, they had no choice but to be used as a conduit for the power polluting the mountain. Would they attack when freed? I tried to focus on one thought, but the souls were tangled in torment.

“I vow to free the imprisoned spirits after safely infiltrating the Winterbourne compound.”

The ground trembled beneath her as large sinkholes appeared that burrowed deep into the earth. All the power in the universe was at my fingertips, and my solution for keeping us alive was to tunnel in. This is what they get for leaving me in charge.

“The illusion is in place. The magic on this mountain is strong. Maintaining anything of this magnitude will have repercussions.” Karra said with a crease above her brow. The tiny mark on her perfection only enhanced her appeal. Life just wasn’t fair.

Hayden and Rox led two teams for protection through the newly formed tunnels. We both had ties to death, so theoretically, he’d be able to see it as well. Desiree and Sharon walked in opposite directions to search for the entrance. The rest of our forces remained underground to avoid detection.

I felt nauseous when I walked toward a tree with Spanish moss hanging from its branches. The trunk of the tree spanned the width of a small car. Wave after wave of pressure crushed my stomach and forced bile to the back of my throat. I leaned against the tree for support. The second I touched the tree, it told me everything.

Three short whistles into the air requested the presence of my favorite nightingale and let everyone else know to head in my direction. I swallowed hard to try and calm my overactive intestines. Rox and Hayden appeared seconds before Andrew.

“I can’t see a path, but I’m certain it’s here.” Stress perforated my words. They surveyed the area. Only Marcus could feel a vague sense of nausea when he stood near the tree. Both Sharon and Desiree said it gave them a mild feeling of indigestion. It wouldn’t surprise me if I threw up my stomach itself as the pressure crashed over me. My proverbial leap of faith, and I couldn’t even see which way to go. It would serve me right to fall off the edge of the world.

Marcus found the door when I couldn’t find the strength to keep standing. Whatever oppressive power had me in its grip was nothing to be trifled with. He reached his arm out to press against the knot in the giant tree, but I reached my hand out to stop him.

“Wait. Let’s think about this. This information came from the man who stabbed me in the heart twice.” Once again, my stomach rolled with less intensity than a few moments ago.

Marcus didn’t say anything. I liked that about him. He let me lead without making a big deal about putting me in charge. Sharon drove me crazy by telling me about my potential while reading the riot act for not paying attention to details. Focus, Daria. Now is not the time to think about puzzles.

“No, something is very wrong. Turn everyone around.” With strength I didn’t have, I started to ask my army of the recently dead to head back down the mountain. “Please, turn around. Don’t come…”

Kill them all

The explosion stopped my warning and rocked the entire mountain. Heat rode my skin as the blast started from the ground beneath our feet and rose like from the mouth of a dragon. Flames erupted from the crevices that rose when the mountain broke. Like a bad horror film, I watched Marcus fly back against a tree. His back smacked into it with a thud with a branch through his chest. I soared back as the flames from the blast seared my flesh after eating away at my clothing.

In horror, I watched as my skin sizzled and boiled until it turned black and charred. I fought to remain conscious through the excruciating pain. The lesson Karra taught me in the realm of the Gods was etched into my memory. I would not close my eyes and give into the darkness.

Stop, drop, and roll. The mantra I’d learned in elementary school sprung to mind, and I forced my battered body to roll around against the quaking earth. The scent of burned flesh coiled through my nose and made me gag. It took a few tries, but I got the flames out. My hands and feet were burned beyond recognition, and the skin of my legs and arms was the color of a badly cooked steak. With both hands under me, I pushed against the ground and gasped in horror at the carnage before me.

Through the smoke and falling debris of ash and rocks. Trees snapped like twigs as the mountain tore through their ageless roots. What wasn’t engulfed in flames was covered in tons of rocks and dirt. I tried to take stock of my situation. No power rose to meet me and save the day. When I needed it the most, my abilities were useless. The silence told me that my ears no longer worked, but it didn’t stop me from crawling through the fractured earth.

At some point, my heart stopped. The pain proved too much for my body, but I refused to die. Not until I found my friends. When I saw Kurtis again, nothing would save his life.

I found Andrew first. The nightingale lay on the ground with a large boulder across the lower half of his body. Blood trailed down from his eyes, nose, and ears. I dragged myself to him, crawling on all fours as hunger ripped through me.

“No, not now,” I begged whoever controlled my zombie-like tendencies though I couldn’t hear my voice.

With a shake of my head, I moved forward until I reached the fallen man. His neck, slick with his blood, had no pulse beneath it.

“God, please. Please don’t let him be dead.” With my hand on his chest, I tried to call upon anything that would save his life. My tears fell on his battered face.

The pain in my burned arms and legs robbed me of my ability to process what had happened. Then I saw a crooked neck with straight black hair, and my heart fell to the bottom of my chest.

“I’m so sorry,” I whispered to Andrew as I crawled over, praying that it wasn’t who I thought it was. With three short whistles, I sent my cry of desperation into the night.

Nothing prepared me for the sight of Sharon’s face as I turned her head away from the fallen rocks. Her neck bore no pulse as I slid my hand down her arm in desperation to find a pulse from her wrist. She couldn’t be dead.

The skin scraped off my hand as I pulled the huge rock off her legs. Though I couldn’t hear it, the sensation of my exposed bone scraping against the rock sent a wave of revulsion through me. When I freed her from the debris, I put her against my lap.

“Come back.” Not being able to create tears didn’t stop me from crying. I sobbed against the woman who’d taken care of me in her weird way. This was wrong. It was all wrong. Torn between shock and anger, I hugged Sharon’s body close.

My stomach erupted into a series of gurgles that vibrated my body. The dense mental fog I’d come to associate with my zombies threatened to overwhelm my senses. I tried to think of my mother but couldn’t see anything except Sharon’s bloodied face.

Rocks and foliage dug into my knees as I dragged myself toward where I’d last seen Marcus. A vampire was already dead, right?

Already dead. Dead. The words repeated as I fought to think of something to focus on.

When I found him, I’d lost my will to move forward. Why not just embrace the zombie? As I stared at Marcus’s ashes surrounding the charred remains of his clothing, no will to survive sprung forward.

My nose twitched, and the sweetest scent replaced the stench of decay. With renewed strength, I dragged my body across a fallen tree trunk toward the mouthwatering scent. The fog settled into my mind, but I managed to keep it at bay by thinking of everything simultaneously. I started with everything I knew about business law. It wasn’t much, but it gave me a few precious moments to find the soul that survived the eruption before I lost my mind and ate it.

I found Desiree leaning against a large rock with her hands clutching her stomach. The blood beat through her fingers and pooled into her lap.

Her mouth moved, but I couldn’t hear her words. As I crawled toward her, I felt the pressure of her voice in my head. She let go of her midsection and crawled toward me. She placed her hands on my face and brought her lips toward mine.

With every ounce of strength I had left, I tried to pull away, but she proved stronger than my broken body. The moment our lips touched, the battle for my sanity began.

Even as I called to her soul, I closed my mouth and turned my face as much as I could in her grasp. Her forehead came down on mine. Her blood-tinged tears coated my cheek as she mouthed.

“Kill them all.” With that, she brought her lips toward mine and shoved her tongue in my mouth. I inhaled her soul even as my own cried out to stop.

As my body healed, I collapsed with Desiree’s body. The euphoria I’d felt after consuming a soul in the past did little to dent the haze of guilt and self-hatred I felt.

I couldn’t stop myself from murdering my best friend. The only real friend I’d ever had. Death was too good for the likes of me.

I didn’t bother calling out to Thanatos or Karra, though I didn’t always trust their motives. If they could have prevented the mountain from blowing, they would have.

My torment mingled with the souls held captive deep in the mountain’s bowels. My power rekindled with Desiree’s soul, and the force of it dropped me to my knees. The earth dug into my palms as I curled my fingers into the dirt. Through tears of frustration and rage, I screamed out and let the power within me erupt against the binds holding the imprisoned souls.

The soul imprisoned on the mountain flew up through the fractured ground. I threw my hands up to protect my face as they darted into my body like phantom bullets. Swarmed by shimmering black souls, I curled into a fetal position as they destroyed my broken body but fed the hate within me. When the onslaught ended, I held the souls of thousands within me.

Half-naked with singed hair and covered in dirt, I stood up in the circle of death brought upon by powerful beings who thought they could sacrifice lives like pawns in a chess game.

Anger gave me purpose. On top of the mountain was a compound that held everyone responsible for the deaths of my friends. Except for Desiree’s, I would carry the guilt within me forever.

Kill them all.

Worthy by fire

With one foot in front of the other, I used instincts that weren’t mine to navigate the unseen path leading to the Winterbourne compound’s front gate. Nothing stopped my trek toward the front door. When the first bullet fell at my feet, I didn’t notice until it tinked against the concrete. After the thirtieth bullet dropped before hitting me, I figured either I was suddenly bulletproof, or they were the most defective bullets on the planet. Honestly, the jury was still out.

The first guard rushed at me, and my wrist and bracelet were in unison as they whipped around his neck and brought him to the ground. The moment his soul left his body, it flew into my chest.

With the newfound knowledge the guard had of the compound, I moved in the shadows and stalked my way toward Kurtis Winterbourne.

If I killed his hateful mother on the way, that would also be a win in my book. Each time I blinked, I’d see the broken bodies of my friends, so I stopped blinking. The will of a stubborn woman and the powers of a God meant I didn’t have to do anything I didn’t want to do.

Like something from a horror movie, the compound had steel warehouses leading to an antiquated brick monstrosity.

With each new attack from a mortal guard, a new soul found its home in my chest. My boundless power hummed with the sensation of electricity crackling beneath my skin. The legion of dead housed within my body worked with one silent message.

Kill them all.

The sane part of me, raised by a loving mother, put her blindfold on with earplugs in her ears. The old Daria wouldn’t have called an army of the dead to follow her path. My former self would never have killed with blind fury and indiscriminate taste. Beads of blood dripped from my bracelet as I reached the front door.

A buzzing started as a mild annoyance in the corner of my mind. I ignored it, but it grew louder. Even in death, Sharon managed to annoy me. I swear I could hear her voice telling me that walking in the front door of the enemy’s compound was a trap and that I should stop being stupid. It was an extremely specific buzz.

I loved the idea of Kurtis Winterbourne for four years. He was everything I enjoyed in another human. Because I chose to believe him after he killed me twice only proves with dreadful finality that the universe chose wrong when it picked me. I was too stupid to live and too stupid to die.

“It’s difficult to keep them at bay. Be a dear and find the Goddess that binds the souls of all those who have died on this mountain.”

On more than one occasion, I heard someone else’s voice in my head. This was the first time I’d heard another voice spoken aloud from inside my head. All forward momentum stopped.

“Hello?” My voice sounded strange.

“I have neither the time nor the patience to explain this. Find the Goddess, take her place, and get a move on!”

“What? She asks to the disembodied voice coming from my head.”

The voice sighed. “For as long as I can harness the souls within you, you cannot be harmed. Now do what you were created to do.”

That was the best news I’d heard all day. My hand flung forward, and the bracelet snared the front door. With strength that surprised me, as my arm returned, the door ripped off the hinges.

“Sorry, Sharon, your way just never worked for me.”

I stepped onto the front steps and walked through the splintered archway. Two startled guards were cut down in their attempt to fire at me. More guards came, and the bracelet danced over my head until it grew in length to span the room. In one twirl, the heads of Winterbourne’s elite fell to the ground and rolled away from their bodies.

Evangeline descended a fancy staircase in front of men in militant gear. Though I wanted to hate the woman who would kill all of humanity just to further her status in life, I’d killed her daughter.

“How dare you break into my home.” The older woman said.

“How dare you send your pet goddess to mine.” Again, my voice sounded foreign. It vibrated with power.

“You have no home, Daria Gale Platts. Where are your patron Gods? How does it feel to hold the souls of those you murdered in your quest for revenge?”

Her villainous diatribe didn’t sway me. “Leave now and try to kill me another day if you want.” I offered.

“How cliché. Kill her.”

Sharon’s buzz returned to remind me that they were all reapers, and I controlled those related to death. For once, I listened.

Connecting to the power was like sticking a fork in a socket. The hairs on my skin rose when I lifted my hand. Instead of the epic showdown Evangeline probably envisioned, I forced her and her men to step outside. Then I seared a command on their souls that they could not enter the building or any other building on that land even after my death. Then as an added measure, I stated that she had to stay within ten feet of the front door until the authorities arrived.

I believed in being specific in my commands. Her screams grew louder as she tried to regain entry.

Karra’s doppelgänger fell from the balcony and landed dramatically at my feet.

“You people watched way too many television shows.”

The hooded goddess threw all sorts of colorful orbs of light at me, but when anything that got close fell in a harmless pool at my feet. I rather enjoyed this style of combat. Unexpected guilt filtered through as I remembered that I had also killed her son. As I marched through the compound, I murdered countless sons and daughters of parents who will spend the remainder of their lives grieving. This couldn’t be what my afterlife would be like—an endless cycle of murder begetting murder.

“God will not tolerate the death of his creations.” Connections snapped in my head as a timeline took shape. “We don’t have to do this. You don’t want to die, and I don’t want to be a god. Just don’t annihilate humans.”

Althea laughed, and it grated my ears like nails on a chalkboard. Now that I’d fulfilled my lifelong sitcom fantasy, I worked on getting past the goddess. She wasn’t my intended target, even as the souls screamed inside me to end her life. I would kill Kurtis Winterbourne. And then I would mourn him.

The Goddess attacked me from every angle but couldn’t penetrate the protective coating surrounding me. I did everything I could not to kill her. I wanted to believe that there was good somewhere in a creature that held so much power.

“What did you do to Karra and Thanatos?”

The atrocious hood fell away from Althea’s face and stared at me with a hatred that penetrated my protective barrier.

“They are dancing.” Her droll voice held a note of glee that terrified me.

“Why are you helping the reapers?”

“Why are you helping the humans?” she asked after she stopped her advance.

The overload of souls and voices made it hard for me to focus on anything. It was hard to dispute her words when I held the souls of thousands in my body. What did she mean by dancing? A sick feeling in the pit of my stomach rose.

“What did you do to Karra and Thanatos?” I asked again.

Althea looked around at the destruction of the Winterbourne home. When her eyes fell back on me, I had an overwhelming urge to apologize. The bodies of the guards littered the ground in various states of dishevel. Blood pooled around headless corpses and severed limbs. Zombie Daria killed a whole lot of people.

My skin hummed with the energy from the multitude of souls within me. The rational parts left of me knew there would be a price to pay for so much power, but I rather liked not being hit.

“Don’t you think this has gone on long enough, Althea?” The disembodied voice came out of my head again. If there were a sanity test, I’d certainly fail with the number of people who communicate on the same frequency as my thoughts.

Althea stepped over one of the headless guards and sat on the base of the steps. “Who do I speak with?” she asked formally.

“Nissa, Unseelie Countess to Queen Tyramon.”

Althea’s demeanor changed from aggressive to thoughtful as she leaned back against the stairs with her spine against the second step. She crossed her legs and spread out her arms.

“What is your bargain, Fae?” Althea demanded.

Even I knew not to bargain with fairies. There were entire books written about how good they were at making deals. I stood about ten feet from Althea, still like a stone, unsure where the battle would take me next. The next time I went off half-cocked, I’d at least take Rox with me. I didn’t know if the gargoyles survived the explosion.

“Transfer your essence to Daria, and we will grant you passage for the remainder of your life in the court with the Queen.”

Althea ran her hand across her face. “Not specific enough. Do better.”

My face smiled without any muscle movement of my own. It freaked me out, and panic gripped my spine.

“Transfer your soul to Daria, and we will grant you passage for the remainder of your life in the court with free reign under the rule of Queen Tyramon.”

“While that is indeed a fine offer, first, you must do something for me,” Althea said as she crossed her ankles.

“Name your terms.” The voice said, but this time, my mouth moved with the words.

“Daria must experience the death of my son.”

The F-bomb came from within my thoughts, but I wasn’t sure it was mine. The thought of being burned alive did not sit well with me.

“Physically or mentally?”

“Wait, no. I’m not doing that.” I said directly after the disembodied entity.

“As long as she suffers, I am indifferent.” Althea stared at me with eyes that narrowed.

“We accept.”

“No, we don’t.”

“A bargain has been struck,” Althea’s grin did not bode well for the next few moments of my life.

I backed up toward the wall. There was no way I’d let them burn me alive. Dying was hard enough, but the thought of what I did to Roderick instilled me with fear.

“I’m not ruining my only clothing.” I stripped down to panties and an undershirt. If I had to die once more to save the world, I guess I would.

The first wave of heat started at my feet. I danced around as I tried to put out the invisible flames until I saw the smoke. The pain ripped a scream from my throat when my hands erupted into flames. I fell to the ground with my hands splayed in front of me as the fire rode my skin until my body was completely encompassed.

“Remember this lesson, Daria Gale Platts. All actions have consequences.” Althea said as she watched me burn.

At that moment, I understood why I’d remained conscious through the explosion, even after my heart stopped. Death and I were old friends. As my fire ate away at my skin, I curled into a ball on the ground. The sound of my groans was the only thing to break the silence of the rooms.

The intense agony robbed me of the ability to think or speak.

There would be a reckoning for the lives I took, but nothing shook my need to kill Kurtis. Because of him, I died so many times that the muscle memory of life enabled me to remain alert.

“We are square.”

I lifted my head and saw Althea standing over me. No sound emitted from my charred face

“The souls have tethered me to this land for eternity. My son was poisoned by narcissism and greed. Though I will hate you for eternity for ending his life, I also deem you worthy.”

Her hand lifted with her index finger pointed. She touched my forehead, and my head fell back. Flashes of color and light exploded behind my eyes. My teeth ground together, and my body trembled.

“Too much,” I ground out.

“It may not be enough,” Althea said. “I do not envy the road you are on, Daria Gale, but you were not the worst choice.”

Just when I started to form a reply, Althea disappeared.

I couldn’t contain what Althea had transferred to me. Every sense I had was overwhelmed. My eyes blinked and twitched in all directions. Panic set in as I fought for control.

The crippling sensation transitioned into a sense of serenity that defied logic. It was as though I connected to everything, living and dead, on the earth. In the realm of the Gods, I’d tasted a oneness with my surrounding, but nothing like having every question answered.

The multitude of souls healed my body as rapidly as the flames had destroyed it. I lay on the ceramic tile floor until my heart again developed a steady beat. Then I got dressed.

With his heart in hand

I couldn’t think of anything except finding and killing Kurtis. If I thought about my friends’ deaths or what I did to Desiree, there would be no recovery. When the vision of Desiree clutching at her stomach to keep from bleeding out rose behind my eyes, I forced myself to recite an animal for each letter starting with A. I’d gotten to Z twice before it started to work.

One step up, then another, until I reached the room I knew to be his. Omniscient powers come in handy when a man breaks a girl’s heart too often.

Because I’m extra, I kicked the door in. It swung wide and banged against the adjacent wall. Kurtis sat on a plush sofa with a video controller in his hand. Two life leeches started toward me but stopped when he lifted his hand.

“Want a beer?” He asked after he paused his game. The jerk dared to play our favorite online game.

The rage that drove me to that moment turned to confusion as I stared at him with my mouth open. Despite everything he’d done to me, a small part of me wondered if we’d ever had a connection or if everything I’d ever thought or felt was manufactured.

“I’ll take the weird silence as a yes. Make yourself at home.” Then he got up, walked over to a mini-fridge, and pulled out two beers. He opened both with a magnet bottle opener and handed me one.

Because I was stuck on stupid, I couldn’t do anything but stare at his offering. He already killed my friends and me why not come into his house and drink his poison?

“I’m not poisoning you here.” He took a swig of both bottles, then stuck out his tongue to show me he swallowed the liquid. “See. Safe.”

“How do I know you don’t have some weird poison immunity to go with the tail?” Old Daria babbled to the rescue.

Drink, don’t drink. I don’t care. Grab a controller, though. This boss is unbeatable without you.”

Kurtis picked up the video game and turned back to the television as if I wasn’t standing there in tattered, burnt clothing covered in the blood of his guards.

“Where are Karra and Thanatos?”

His shoulders sagged as he turned his head toward her. “I died because you didn’t join me. Don’t take this the wrong way because I’ve wanted to see you naked for years, but there’s a change of clothes in the bathroom.” Then he lifted the beer once more.

I snatched the beer from his hand and went to the bathroom, if nothing else, to buy a few minutes to process the sight of him acting as if nothing happened. Where did the rage go at the death of my friends? Though I wanted to shower and wash the blood off, I settled for ruining a few of the white towels. I found clothes from my old apartment.

He’d gathered my favorite things down to the sneakers my dad signed when I stepped in his paint can. Tears pricked my eyes as I hugged the shoes to my chest. Then I placed the shoes down and took a deep breath. Kurtis remembered everything that mattered because he manipulated me into telling him. The night I died, he gave me the tiny morsel of affection I’d craved, and then he stuck a blade into my chest and ended my life.

The emotional warfare did not cause me to remember old times or rekindle my secret crush in my chest.

The foreign parts of me that invaded my senses fought to surface, but as usual, I ignored the pounding in my head and focused on what I could control. After I changed into the remnants of my past, I put my hair up in a ponytail and opted to go through the wall instead of out through the bathroom door. Stone and wood separated for me like the tide pulling away from the dunes.

Both life leeches stood on either side of the bathroom door, with Kurtis pointing a nasty weapon toward where I would have walked out.

“Silly man, don’t you know I like to make an entrance?” When I spoke, the birds launched toward me, but I was ready.

My bracelet was lit with vibrant blue light and crackled with newfound power. I connected with the power of the earth and whipped the weapon. In one fluid motion with my wrist, the decapitated corpse of the bird fell to the ground. Their blood pooled on the floor between Kurtis and me. I took care to avoid getting blood on my shoes and stepped around.

“You have killed me enough for one lifetime.”

Kurtis dropped to his knees and folded his hands behind his head. “Don’t kill me.”

“I have something else in mind for you.”

Like all my best plans, I developed it as I went. I stalked toward him and forced his eyes to stare into mine as I reached into his chest and pulled out his beating heart.

Before the light faded from his eyes, I said, “Your heart will be my most prized possession. I will covet it and protect it always. You shall live in a life of comfort with all your needs met in the space between life and death.” When his body wavered, I kissed him on the forehead and watched as he fell to the ground.

I owed Thanatos an apology because I understood his reasoning. Sometimes killing someone just didn’t quell the thirst for vengeance. The old me died as I placed his heart in a chest I created from the splintered wood. The pieces lifted from the ground and formed in my hand.

After retrieving the beer battle in the bathroom, I sat down on the sofa and picked up the controller. I began to play to prevent the knowledge of what I’d just done from settling in my head.

With his character on the screen, I completed the mission and killed the boss. My sad homage to our pretend friendship did nothing to appease my sense of guilt.

I had a living heart in a chest. As I came down from the shock of everything that had happened, my consciousness returned. The apology I owed Thanatos would involve a great deal of eating crow. My judgment and condemnation of his treatment of Roderick reeked of self-righteous ignorance. I’d condemned Kurtis to a nicer fate but prolonged imprisonment of my own, doing just the same.

What would Sharon do? Stabbing the heart and ending his life seemed cowardice now that he was locked away between life and death. Then again, shoving his heart back into his chest just to beat him to death seemed cruel.

This was too big for me. I didn’t want to be responsible for life and death decisions. Annoyed with my inability to settle on a sufficient punishment for Kurtis, I took the heart out of the box and stomped over to his corpse.

“I hate you so much,” I said, shoving the heart back into his chest. Sharon would be so proud of me. I didn’t even kick him when he took his first breath.

“Don’t send me back there,” he pleaded as he rolled onto his knees. His eyes were wide with fear, and his mouth quivered. Great, I’m the bully.

“I’m taking you and your mother to God. He can decide what to do with you.” While my emotions were in a state of disorder, a small voice inside my head congratulated me for not turning to the dark side. At this point, I had no idea if it was my voice.

I had two gods to find and two people to take to justice for having me killed. I’ll share the plot to kill all of humanity I uncovered, but their real crime was thinking that my life was dispensable.

Not taking any chances, I pulled a strand of the bracelet and tied it around his neck. Sure, I could have just tied his hands, but I wanted him to run just so I felt justified in killing him. It boggled my mind that after all he put me through, I just couldn’t end his life.

“Come along. It’s time to find Mommy.”

Badass of the mountain

Darkness fell on the land as I walked out the front door of the Winterbourne compound. Kurtis stumbled as we reached the front stoop. His mother scowled toward us, her two henchmen doing their best to look menacing.

“God!” I bellowed. This whole situation fell within his purview, not mine.

Evangeline started toward me, flanked by two guards. Filled to the brim with power, not my own, I lifted my hand, and her movement stopped. When her face turned red, I amended my thoughts and allowed her to breathe.

“This ends today. All of it. You will both be brought before the Council of Life to atone for the threats against humanity and for thinking that my life didn’t matter.” I spoke. Tired down to my bones, I needed about twenty-four hours of sleep.

I jerked the bracelet and forced Kurtis to walk down the step. Someone was coming to take these two derelict humans so that I could return to the side of the mountain and say goodbye to my friends.

A light flitted across the sky in an uneven pattern as it grew the closer it came toward me. I shut my eyes to avoid rolling them. The pink orb floated to the ground like a bubble before it turned into the form of a tiny woman.

Atropos, the Fate I’d met at Strategies Unlimited, appeared between Evangeline and me.

“Well done, Daria. We are most pleased. Your work here is done, child. I will take it from here.” Her eyes twinkled with a joy that I couldn’t bring myself to feel.

“You’ve been kind to me, so please do not take this personally, but I’m only handing these two off to God himself.” No other person could be trusted to make decisions that affected the outcome of future generations.

Not me, with the memory of Kurtis’s beating heart in my hand, not Thanatos, who set most of what transpired into motion, and certainly not the scriptwriters of life.

“We thought you might say that. I’d like to share the history of Winterbourne Mountain with you if I may?” Atropos folded her hands together and laid them across her waist.

“Again, I mean no disrespect because you seem nice. I just want this day to end. I don’t care about the history of this mountain.”

As if I didn’t speak, Atropos began. “There is a balance to life. An earth god once walked this mountain. He tended to it with great care. When humanity found their way to the bountiful land, the earth god tried to teach them to live as one with the land. For many years they lived in peaceful tranquility. When humans from different lands breached the mountain base, they were treated with kindness and respect. The invaders slaughtered the peaceful residents.”

“Humans suck,” I muttered. Kurtis chose that moment to struggle against his bonds. I’d had enough of him, too, so I yanked the bracelet hard to remind him who held his reins.

“He gathered the souls of those who died and bound them to the home they’d created. What he didn’t know would happen was that every human that died on the mountain was also bound to it. As time passed, the souls corrupted the mountain and all those who lived upon it. The poison of greed, hate, and envy destroyed the earth’s god’s connection to the mountain. His hatred of humans grew until it destroyed everything he touched.”

Get to the point. Again, Sharon would be proud of me because I kept those words inside my head. The same story could be told on every continent on the planet.

“That is true. The land is soaked in the blood of humanity. No soul tethered to this mountain has passed on from this life.”

That felt important, but I couldn’t sort through my thoughts.

“Return to your friends, Daria Gale Platts. Give back what you protected.” Atropos walked between us and lifted her child-like hand to my face. “As a side note, God asked you to fix the mountain first as it has suffered the longest.”

The bracelet unwrapped from Kurtis’s neck and wound itself around my wrist. An uncomfortable amount of time passed as I stared at my bracelet. Her words repeated in my head, but they didn’t make sense.

“I don’t understand.”

Atropos’s eyes twinkled. “I’m afraid I cannot say anything else, dear. Please release your hold on Mrs. Winterbourne.”

I did as she asked. The elder woman straightened her suit. Her chin lifted as she took a regal pose. It took everything in me not to laugh at the sight of her.

“Come along,” Atropos said.

When they both fell in behind her, my mouth opened. Why would she have created me if she could have just walked up to them and said come along?

“Free will, Daria. It is the foundation with which life is built.”

Then the woman encased the Winterbourne and the remaining guards in giant pink bubbles that reminded me of bubblegum. They floated away on the first breeze that blew through.

“That wasn’t weird at all.”

The paint-splattered shoes on my feet carried me to the front gate and past the fallen guards. With no one left to fight, the only thing left to do was mourn. I didn’t want to see the bodies of Sharon and Desiree again, but I would not leave them ravaged by animals in the woods.

I stopped a few hundred feet from where Desiree’s body lay before it came into view. God’s request filtered through my errant mental musings

I sat down on a level rock to avoid taking those last few steps. The mountain bore signs of the battle it held because of the living. With downed trees and fissures that spanned hundreds of feet, the destruction went on for miles. God wanted to fix the mountain.

When it took me to close my eyes and connect to the power within me, the mountain responded with a rumble. Using the same skillset, I used when I healed myself, I envisioned the mountains returning to their former glory.

The energy from the souls flowed through my fingers into the ground. Too tired to even open my eyes, I let the power drain from me into the mountain. I had no idea what I was doing, but it felt like the right thing to do.

“It is time for me to leave, Daria Gale.” The disembodied voice spoke.

My eyes popped open in time to see all the souls rushing out of my body. My head fell back, and my arms opened wide as the black mist exploded from my chest.

The relief of the silence in my head was astounding. Never again did I want to have a league of a thousand voices in my head at once. My thoughts were frightening enough.


A weak voice carried on the wind. The faint sound got me off the rock and into the valley I’d avoided. Andrew’s body came into view as he struggled to sit up, the boulder that once laid across his body now safely back into the mountain where it belonged. All the chaos and destruction from the explosion had disappeared.

“How?” I asked as I ran to him and fell on my knees beside him. “You were dead.” I reached out and touched his face to make sure he was real. His skin warmed my fingertips.

The elf’s ears wiggled as he laughed. “I was at the entrance to the afterlife when you offered me a gift so precious that I chose to return instead of finding my way into the next life.”

He got up and dusted himself off. His torn, bloodied clothing is a tribute to the death he experienced for helping me. Guilt was an ugly emotion, but it reminded me of the repercussions of my actions.

Andrew walked over to Sharon’s body. I followed him because I had nothing else to do. Her face already haunted me. Seeing it again would do nothing more.

“Let’s get to work.” He grabbed my hand and placed it palm down on the earth over mine. His other hand rested on Sharon’s head. A golden light lit his hand and traveled through her body.

The darkness of death attached itself to my hand and rode up my arm. Unlike before, when I’d helped him with Desiree, I didn’t absorb the darkness. I let it flow into the ground with the permission of the mountain. When the desire to contain the power started to ride my thoughts, I sang the song that never ended until I couldn’t hear anything else.

“You did well, Daria,” Andrew said when we were done.

I watched Sharon’s face for any sign of life. My heartbeat raced as I waited on bated breath. Her eyes fluttered open, and I cried out.

“Sharon!” I wrapped my arms around her and held her close. Voodoo powers wouldn’t stop me from sharing the relief in her life.

“Can’t breathe,” she coughed, and I loosened my arms a fraction.

“Don’t you ever die on me again,” I whispered against her hair, which didn’t have so much a strand out of place.

“Desiree?” Sharon asked.

The words tumbled out of my mouth before I could think of a diplomatic way of delivering it. “I ate her. I didn’t want to. She made me do it.”

“We will address that later,” Sharon said. “Marcus? Rox? Hayden?”

“I have no idea what happened to the guard or my army. Marcus died in the explosion. I found his ashes.” The tears I withheld began to fall.

“A second death is much harder to recover from, but I am up for trying. I’ll call a few of my brothers.”

Andrew let loose three whistles that reverberated in my eardrums.

“Warn a girl next time,” I said.

Sharon got off the ground and fixed her clothing despite the grime and blood coating the blouse untucked from her skirt. “Daria, the second death is always a choice. Marcus may not want to return.”

That proved to be the dynamite that destroyed the dam of my tears. I couldn’t do anything but plop down on the ground and cry. My hands covered my face as I sobbed.

“Daria now is not the time for an emotional meltdown. We have far too much work to be done.”

My hysteria turned into laughter at the terse tone she thought to use with me. “Excuse me? Work to be done? I just saved the freaking planet.”

Sharon grabbed my hand and yanked me up. When I resisted, the bracelet sided with her and launched me onto my feet as I stumbled forward.

“I’m up. I’m up.” I said.

“Lead us to Marcus,” Sharon demanded.

His ashes flashed in my mind. “Sharon, I can’t.” I never wanted to see him like that again. If he’s happy in his afterlife, who am I to try and bring him back? Maybe he was with his loved ones again.

Sharon put both her hands on my face. Instant desire chased away my lingering doubts. “I’m going to take my hands away now, but I want you to realize I can make you. Now get your ass moving.”

The mental fog cleared when her hands pulled away. “You are so lucky you just died, or I’d punch you in the face.” I still wanted to.

“I’d like to see you try. Now move.”

I remembered why she bugged me. “The next time the world needs saving, you can call someone else.” I stomped each step to the tree the killed the first person I met in my afterlife.

I pointed to the pile of clothing covered in the remnants of Marcus.

Andrew came up behind me with three other little men. It thrilled me to see their adorable, pointed ears. Each man looked ageless with flowing blonde hair and skin that shimmered in the moonlight.

“Daria, this is Nate and Parker. They will act as the conduit this time. Please stand back.” Andrew said.

I shook hands with both his brothers and then stepped back away from Sharon, who I still wasn’t sure I wouldn’t punch. The brothers joined hands and knelt on the ground. They formed a circle around Marcus’s clothing. A golden light started within their enclosed hands and spread up their arms. The darkness disappeared in their brilliance. In unison, their heads bowed, and one hand broke away.

Parker’s hand reached into the earth with his fingers digging into the dirt. The darkness of death flowed through him into the ground. It grossed me out to see someone else carry it on their skin.

“Marcus of Aurilias, make your choice.” Andrew’s voice carried deep into the night.

The wind picked up and scattered Marcus’s ashes. Like golden embers, the ashes light the same hue as the nightingales. They twirled and danced in the light. The swirls grew larger as more ashes joined in until they began to take shape.

I’d died more times than I care to count, but nothing prepared me to see Marcus’s body forming from the ashes.

“How is this possible?”

Sharon laughed. “Daria, what you know about life can be written on the head of a pin. Turn around, or you’ll see more of Marcus than he’s prepared for you to see.”

One day I wouldn’t listen when she told me what to do. After I turned around and crossed my arms over my chest, I sighed loudly. “You are not the boss of me.”

“It took you long enough.”

The sound of Marcus’s voice soothed my soul. I turned around and tripped over my feet. Just before my face planted on the ground, he caught me.

“You were kind of a badass up there on that mountain.” He said as I stared up at his handsome face.

“They were in my way.” I tried to shrug, but it was awkward. “Why did you come back? You could be with your family.”

His lips curled up in a smile. “For a moment, I was with them. They’ve moved on, as have I. Our time together was here, and that ended a long time ago. I told you I will always be at your side, and death cannot make me break my vow.”

“You came back,” I said, lifting my face toward his.

The kiss I expected never happened. Marcus pulled me up and wrapped his arms around me. He held me and buried his face in my hair. “I will always come back for you.”


The trek to Desiree’s body was somber as I showed them where to find her. I’d eaten hers, unlike the other souls who bound themselves to me after death. Though I ached to believe that the three brothers could bring her back, a real part of me feared the difference.

Sharon stiffened at seeing her sister’s body against the blood-soaked earth. Tears welled in her eyes and cascaded down her cheeks.

“Oh, Desi,” she whispered.

Her heartbreak triggered a new wave of tears. I turned toward Marcus and took comfort in his embrace. “I didn’t mean to kill her,” I said.

Andrew and his brothers bowed their heads. “I am sorry, Sharon, but we cannot bring her back.”

The words stole my breath, and fresh tears burned my eyes. How could they bring back ashes but not Desiree? Nothing in this world made any sense.

“No,” I said as I ripped myself from Marcus’s arms. I knelt beside Desiree and placed my hand on her chest.

“I refuse to accept this,” I said.

“Daria, what are you doing?” Sharon asked.

“Giving her a choice.”

I found the essence of her soul inside me and forced it to manifest out of my body. The hunger ravaged me instantly, but I kept the fog at bay by focusing all my energy on her soul. I shoved the soul back into her body as I imagined Thanatos did with me the day I died.

“No!” Sharon screamed but did not attempt to stop me.

Desiree’s body began to convulse in violent seizures. I gripped her face with both hands and stared down. “I offer you the same choice I was given. Accept your afterlife or come back with a few quirks.”

Her mouth opened, and a sound erupted, tossing me back on my rear end. The power of her vocal cords doubled when Sharon joined in. Though I covered both ears with my hands, the sound still made my organs mush. I couldn’t keep the zombie at bay if they kept it up much longer.

One of the nightingales approached me and placed their hand on my shoulder. The fog lifted, and my heartbeat started again. “That is the best superpower.”

“We must leave you now, Daria Gale. You know how to reach us. We are forever in your debt for saving our brother.” Parker said with a deep bow, followed by Nate.

Andrew stepped toward me and helped me off the ground. “The tears of a god are precious, and I will never forget you shared them with me.”

He went to bow, but I stopped him and pulled him to me. His head came to my chest, but I wrapped my arms around him and hugged him tightly. “You saved everyone by saving them,” I whispered the words I knew to be true. Without them, I had no foundation. The three men disappeared.

Desiree’s eyes opened, and she snarled at me. A bubble of laughter rose because she looked like a zombie from a movie. Her clothes were bloodied, with cuts and wounds lining her face.

“You don’t think anything through,” Sharon said as she looked around. “We’re alone on a mountain, and she needs to eat, and so do you. The healing will only work for so long.” Her long sigh put my world right. If Sharon was mad at me, life made sense.

“Call 1-800-Eat-A-Soul,” I said.

“I got Desi.” Marcus went over and picked her up. “I’ll get her to where she needs to be.” He held her gently but kept her face away from him. She writhed in his arms and flung her head as a weapon against his shoulder.

Sharon nodded, and Marcus used his super strength to disappear into the night with Desiree.

When Sharon grabbed me and wrapped her arms around me, her voodoo power infiltrated my senses. Even though I knew that I didn’t want to stick my tongue down her throat, my mouth ached to do so. “You saved her. You saved everyone.”

As I fought through her sexual haze, her attributes came to mind. Sharon could handle Althea’s powers far better than I could. I still hadn’t even embraced my powers and abilities, let alone added another level of energy to them.

“Sharon, I will have to kill you again, but it will only be for a moment.” I didn’t wait for my words to register before I shoved my hand into her chest and pulled out her heart. She gasped and stared at me with horror before she fell to the ground.

“I promise it will be okay.” As I did with the bullet once before, I forced my heart to work its way through my chest. The blood trailed down my shirt as the organ pushed through my skin. I held both hearts in my hands.

The journey to the land of death didn’t frighten or surprise me as it had in the past. The serenity of the land calmed me. Of all the decisions I’d made in my afterlife, the one I was about to make would be the one I was most proud of.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” Sharon marched toward me. “Where are we?”

As far as I knew, the gray void didn’t have an actual name. “I call this Death. It’s a space between life and death. A living heart cannot travel here. I need to give you something.”

Again, I didn’t wait for her to answer before I placed my hand on her forehead. Everything that Althea had given to me, I gave to Sharon.

Her screams were louder than mine but didn’t decimate my organs as they had before. After I transferred the power to her, my hunger returned and would not be denied.

“Losing… control,” I muttered as my hand fell away.

The fog rolled in like a freight train, and instead of fighting it, I let it take me.

Team Marcus for the win

My story ended much as it began as I walked into Strategies Unlimited to face the council. My creation had caused a small stir compared to the news that I’d created another zombie and given Sharon god powers.

Protestors lined the halls of the lobby holding signs that demanded my demise. The woman behind the desk, with her shimmering scales, smiled when she saw me. “Oh girl, you do know how to create a scandal. There’s a message for you in the bathroom.” She winked at me and sat down behind her desk.

It didn’t occur to me to question why a message would be in a bathroom, but it intrigued me. I detoured the room I swore had magical healing properties. When I walked in, a group of people jumped out and yelled surprise!

The small bathroom that seemed much larger than I remembered housed everyone I’d met in my new life. They held balloons and gifts.

The woman I first met in the bathroom, whose name I couldn’t remember, came up first. “My husband died on Winterbourne Mountain. His soul is at peace. No matter what happens today, I am in your debt.”

One by one, each person shared with me how bringing down the Winterbournes brought them a measure of peace. I’d like to say I accepted each gift graciously, but I’d be lying. I sobbed and ruined the makeup that Desiree’s stylist had worked so hard on. They held me in such esteem, but I jumped from one tough situation to the next, trying to save my own life.

“Daria, it’s time.” Sharon came up from the back and held out her hand.

We’d learned that prolonged exposure lessened the impact of her voodoo powers, so I took her hand and ignored the weird tremor of attraction I felt.

We walked through the chanting protestors and opened the double doors to the room with the horse-shoe-shaped seating. There were no empty seats in the house as people lined the walls and filled every space.

When we entered the room, all Hell broke loose. People were shouting and ranting. A few things were thrown in our direction, but Sharon created an invisible barrier that made the plastic bottles and other projectiles fall at our feet.

God arrived, flanked by Karra and Thanatos. I’d taken so many lives that I couldn’t look at him. I kept my head down and stared at my feet.

“Silence.” He called out, and all the noise stopped. “I am here to announce the council’s verdict for Evangeline and Kurtis Winterbourne.”

The voices rose again, but he held up his hand. “The council has voted to strip the Winterbourne’s of their name and power. They will live out the rest of their days as humans with no memory of their previous life.”

When their outraged voices rose this time, God silenced the room through supernatural means.

“In the Sharon, Desiree, and Daria matter, the council will continue to do its duties and treat them as equal members. Anyone found in violation of this will join the Winterbourne’s.”

It wasn’t the first time in my life when I’d been the most hated person in the room, but the hatred in so many eyes as they fell upon me sent a shiver up my spine. Humans have been breaking God’s laws for an eternity. The people in the room with me would follow suit.

“They aren’t wrong,” I called out, still unable to lift my head and look at the creator of life.

“Tell me what you’ve done that was not a direct result of Kurtis Winterbourne killing you at his mother’s bequest,” God stated.

Whenever I opened my mouth to talk about something I did, it started with my death. “Murder is still wrong. And I must murder someone to live. Now, because of me, so does Desiree.”

“Then choose your prey wisely.”

The meeting ended without any fanfare. God disappeared, and Sharon shoved us out the back. Little was said on the car ride home. When we arrived, another party of people greeted us. The guard, in both human and gargoyle form, lined the sidewalk leading to the front door. My very live army of the dead wore modern attire and clapped as I exited the car.

My new life may be weird and scary at times, but it was mine. I may embrace the other half of my powers one day, but that day isn’t today. I’ve held the power of a god within me, and it wasn’t my cup of tea.

Marcus brought out the karaoke machine and held a microphone to his mouth. “Attention, everyone. Attention.” He said.

The crowd settled and turned toward him. “To the woman who told off God, saved the humans, saved herself, and brought down an empire of corrupted leaders, give it up for Daria Gale Platts.”

He slipped his arm through mine and handed me the microphone.

“Go on, say something,” he urged.

“Someone once told me only the boring stay dead. I think he might have been right about that.” I tossed the microphone aside, wrapped my arms around Marcus, and kissed him.

“Team Marcus for the win!” Sharon said.

About the Author

Kristy D. Bock – A Wordsmith and a Fixer-Upper.

Born in the sunny state of Florida, Kristy spent her childhood reading everything she could get her hands on. Moving from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Snead’s Ferry, North Carolina, Kristy continued her love affair with books and storytelling.

After becoming a mother of four and nurturing her children, wishing they’d become avid readers, Kristy leaped and published a series of books with various publishing companies. Her love for combining honor with serious themes is evident in her writing, which often incorporates religious and mythological elements.

Today, Kristy resides in Kinston, North Carolina, and is the Assistant Publisher of the Neuse News, a hyper-local digital media outlet. She is also an active Kinston Smart Artist Project member and a passionate advocate for drug recovery and reduced recidivism.

When she’s not busy at work, you can find Kristy playing Hearthstone Battlegrounds or teaching herself Adobe Character Animator to bring her books to life using animated puppets. And if she’s not doing that, she’s probably fixing something she broke. With five grandchildren to keep her on her toes, Kristy is never without something to smile about.

So, if you’re looking for silly books about serious things, Kristy D. Bock is your gal.

Facebook: @KristyDBock

Twitter: @KristyDBock

Instagram: @KristyDBock

TikTok: @KristyDBock

YouTube: KristyDBock

Sneak Preview of Ascension Descension

Welcome to Hell’s reality show, where the wicked women of the Bible compete for a chance at freedom.

Hosted by Dionysus, with the Morningstar himself, Lucifer, and God’s forgotten daughter Sophia as team captains, watch as these women are given supernatural powers to attempt impossible tasks.

With the show broadcasted to all realms, including humans, through the Ascension Descension app, the audience can play along and give money to their favorite contestants. But as the women form a friendship and work together, the viewers face the reality of their favorite reality show, leading to a question of their morality.

As the stakes get higher, the women are killed individually until a winner is announced.

Will you be able to watch as the line between good and evil blurs and the consequences of their actions are revealed?

* * *

Chapter One

“Demons of Hell,” Dionysus screamed in the middle of a platform raised high. A golden microphone hung from the ceiling. He grabbed it and brought it closer to his mouth. “We have a treat for you this evening! This will blow your mind. Seriously, we have regeneration bots on standby.”

The crowd roared in jubilation. Their thunderous applause and stomping of cloven feet shook the stadium. Dionysus soaked up their enthusiasm like an addict snorting coke. He could taste their indulgences. Soon enough, he could break the bonds that held him, but for now, he’d gorge on the decadence of Hell.

“You may have noticed we only seated half the stadium. The riot out front when you found out was hysterical. Seriously, I saw one chick rip the horn off another and stab her with it. I love you guys.”

Laughter exploded from the crowd. He often wondered if it was because he was funny or if the show’s producers compelled them to make the sham a hit. He spun around to take in the view. One side of the colossal stadium was filled with demons of every kind, and the other was cloaked in impenetrable darkness.

“This year, we’ve invited another group to our little get-together. Because the stakes are higher!” The crowd let another roar rip through the night. “We double the contestants!” Again, they exploded in howls and shrieks. “The contestants are all the worst of the worst.”

After a breath, he said, “So wicked they brought down empires without ever lifting a sword.” He paused again. “They gave birth to the worst of all humanity. They are the ten most wicked women of the Bible!”

First, silence. As if they had to absorb what he’d just said. A smattering of clapping flitted across his left side before he gave in to their confused silence. “Before we get to who the women are, let me blow your mind more.”

He queued for the music to build in its intensity. Their stomping took on more of a rhythmic beat as their frenzy swayed to the sound. “To my right, I have a group that hunts you. A group so high and mighty that they honestly believe because their boss told them so, it must be.”

There it was.

He felt their recognition because he tasted their rage. When he released the shield that blocked the angels from view, the crowd had erupted from their seats. Unabashed in his gluttony, he absorbed the abundance of their emotions. The depths of their anger, their sense of betrayal. Ah, and jealousy. That never-ending pool of self-indulgence. That is what would free him.

A blinding light erupted toward his right as the angels spread their wings in a united show of force. Dionysus quickly calculated if a blood bath would give him enough to escape prison. He decided it wasn’t and was a little curious about how the show would turn out.

“This season, instead of demons tormenting our contestants in Hell, they will tempt them to darkness. For an unforeseeable twist that boggles the mind, the angels will join us this year.”

The boos had started long before he finished that sentence. He knew the normal crowd wouldn’t appreciate their former brethren being present in their torture games. “Now quiet down, my lovelies, quiet down.” He paused and motioned them to quiet down with his hands. After a moment, they did.

“It will be an epic showdown of Heaven versus Hell. The title for the biggest badass in existence is up for grabs!” He purposefully threw in gratuitous cursing to appease the demons, as they knew the angels would hate it. He caught a whiff of glee.

After a few moments, the crowd died down again. “This year will take place in real-time, on real Earth, with actual humans!” he yelled out the word humans until it echoed throughout the stadium. The noise was loud enough to stir Heaven. When it died, he said, “I will introduce you to the candidates. I don’t even know who they are! How crazy is that? Your host with the most will surely do fine with surprises.”

“One last thing before we get to those bad Bettys. This is how it will work. We will release the ten women on Earth in two teams. Four angels will also drop into the human world. Four of our finest will also take a trip. That’s right, folks! Four of our legends are going topside to ensure our little mamas come home like good little lambs.”

The angels didn’t make a single sound. They stood like statues with broomsticks shoved up their behinds. “The question is… who do you want to know first? The women…?” He dragged out his last word. “The angels…?” again, he paused. “Or the legends….”

The crowd erupted for two of the three choices. “Before we get to your choice, a word from our sponsors.” Dionysus took his earpiece out and pressed down on the elevated platform. He did not understand why there would be sponsors for an event in Hell. Everything was in abundance. The only reason the demons had anything to covet was that it was their nature to want what someone else had.

In the center of the room where he once stood opened two screens that spanned the stadium. “This broadcast is being sent through all realms. As clear as you can see us in front of you, viewers in Heaven and on the surface of Earth will watch.” He couldn’t see the screen from his level, but they should commend the producer on their music choice. “You will have the best view. They will enable every screen for access. You must download the Ascension Descension App and follow along!”

The demons fell silent, but the angels gasped. He said all three realms. “That’s right, children of Heaven and children of Hell. This year we are adding humans to the mix. It’s time the little ants learn who the demons are and who tried to lead them all along.”

Dionysus may not know who the sponsor was, but it had Lucifer himself written all over it. Did the King just openly declare war on God again? And would he care if he did?

“Everyone, take out your phones, locate the app Ascension Descension, and vote for who you want to hear about. It doesn’t matter where you live. It will be there. If you have a smartphone, a bio-phone, an internal phone, or an old-fashioned rotary phone, it doesn’t matter. It will work.” The voice cackled. “Just kidding, rotary phones don’t have apps, people. Humans buy your grandmother’s better phones so they can play Ascension Descension! In-app purchases may apply.”

Dionysus hopped back onto the platform and rode it as it rose into the air. The microphone slid into his hand with smooth precision. He didn’t have to fake his enthusiasm.

“Humans are watching me. Right now? Dionysus is here, lovelies! The time has come for you delectable little humans to remember my name.”

A sharp pain punctured the back of his neck, and he felt some of his power drain. Not enough to hurt him, but enough to remind him he had more to lose than to gain by blowing his hand right now.

He nodded once to let his captors know he understood. He was only a Demi-god. Contrary to widespread belief, his mother had the unfortunate luck of sleeping with the horniest god in Olympus. But they destroyed Olympus. They locked all but one of the Olympians in Hell. Most lived decent lives because Lucifer had a unique sense of fairness. If you stayed within those lines, he gave you anything you desired except for freedom.

“Wow, folks! That is quite a change from last year. It lasted what, five days? But ten wicked women from the Bible? We could double that!” the crowd roared. “Now, let’s look at your choices. Open your apps! We have so many surprises in store for you tonight. The biggest one is yet to come. But now, the moment you were waiting for. The list! You chose with an overwhelming 50.001% The Ten Wicked Women of the Bible!” His spittle touched the microphone as he added some power to his words. This changed everything.

“Before I tell you who the lovelies are, you have yet another juicy item to fawn over. There will be two team leaders. I’m getting their names now.” The first came through loud and clear. He relayed it with a stunning stutter. “Th… The first team leader is… The Lord of the Hell, King Lucifer!”

The king himself had come out to play. Something big was about to go down. So grand it had angels and demons in the same place and broadcasting the demon version of the Olympics to humans. When he heard the second name, it didn’t register with him at first. Then they gave her the title. For the first time in his life, Dionysus lost his ability to speak. Even after the stab in his neck, he struggled with planning words.

“Sorry folks, I lost my voice for a moment. The um. The second team captain is Sophia, the daughter of God Sophia. The one struck from the history books who stood up to her tyrant of a father and demanded that he listen to reason and speak to Lucifer. She did the biggest eff-you of all eternity when she ripped off her wings and swan dove into the netherworld.”

The silence reigned so long he could hear the tick of his wristwatch. Then a stunned crowd’s thunderous applause shook the very foundation that the stadium sat on. Both sides cheered for Sophia. The angels even blinked a few times. They were so boring.

“This is how it will work. Each team leader will pick a name from the list. They will read their crime and then offer the contestant a choice. The contestant will decide if they want to be on Lucifer’s or Sophia’s teams. In honor of the hashtag Me Too movement taking over human social media, everything will be ladies’ choice.

As you know, damned life cannot re-enter the human realm without a new body. The brilliant Goddess Sophia has found a loophole by gifting them a borrowed life force. Their souls belong to Lucifer, so he created The Wheel. It holds every species of life. The contestant will spin the wheel to receive their gift. I will give each team an impossible task created by the best minds of Hell.” He let the demon roar.

They loved when anything made demons look good. “The Fates will score each contestant on their actions in a convoluted point system we’ll review later. It’s simple: goody-two-shoes behavior gets points added, and anything fun subtracted. The Fates will be their judge, jury, and executioner because one contestant will return to Hell after each task. Let’s get started!”

The light changed as he rode the platform to the rear of the stage. Two new platforms rose as the lights fell around them, and the intensity of the music rose to a feverish pitch. Dionysus strained to look. Sophia? When the light fell upon her, her radiance touched him. He felt the light of life for the first time in longer than he cared to think. Everyone else had the same reaction. Every eye fell upon her chestnut tresses. The long, tight curls fell around her shoulders. Her beauty was undeniable. She was perfect in every way. His kind came to Earth long after the fall of Lucifer.

“And now, for the first contestant. Our magnanimous king graciously agreed to let the divine Goddess Sophia take the first pick. Goddess Sophia, so lovely to meet you, darling. I am an enormous fan. Will you please say the first name?” A hushed silence fell over the crowd. Cymbals clashed into quiet as the unmistakable intro of a song played in the background.

Sophia cleared her throat, and her voice rang out in subtle waves of power. “The first contestant is the daughter of Betrayal… Delilah!”

A fourth platform rose in the center, between Dionysus’s platform and the table where Lucifer and Sophia sat. A beautiful raven-haired woman in rags attempted to stand up straight. She shielded the brilliant light from her eyes. Just as he expected, the crowd went crazy. Delilah was famous.

“This famous beauty brought down the invincible Sampson. She met him, fucked him, and betrayed him to his enemies. That’s cold! Remember, if you want to get behind Delilah, click on her picture when the app opens. You can watch her live or even send her money. More money equals more opportunities. Let’s not send little Miss Delilah out in the cold… Shall we…” Dionysus paused as the lights swung from him to Sophia and Lucifer, with a spotlight still on Delilah.

“Welcome, young lady,” Lucifer began. He chuckled as she gripped the platform’s ledge to keep herself standing. “There, there. Take a moment to get yourself together.” Less than half a second later, he said, “All better now? Good. Delilah, the Goddess Sophia, has chosen you to fight for your life on Earth. Do you accept?”

“Whoa…?” Delilah attempted to speak but couldn’t get a word out.

“Come now, a simple yes will do.”

Delilah looked confused and asked, “Yes?”

Even though it was a question, Lucifer surged forward.

“Wonderful. See, gentleman, all things require consent.” A chuckle erupted from the crowd, but the boos quickly overpowered it.

“Delilah, you must choose between Team Lucifer or Team Sophia. Who do you choose?”

Delilah had no clue what was going on. Her legs kept giving out at various times. Just as she’d stand straight, one of her legs would bend at an odd angle.

“Tick Tock, doll. What’s it going to be?” Lucifer said.

Delilah gripped the railing. There were two buttons in front of her. One white with a black S, the other black with a white L. All she had to do was pick one, and it would decide her fate. The buttons flashed back and forth and then faster. They grew brighter until the light illuminating them was strong enough to hurt the fragile human eyes. Delilah batted at them with her limbs like an infant with little to no control over their mobility. She finally hit one hard enough to set off an explosion of lights.

“Team Lucifer! The King has his first champion!” Dionysus shrieked. “Now, please, lovely Delilah, spin The Wheel. This handy little device will help our lovely damsel survive the trials she’s about to face. Now it looks like she’s not ready to spin the wheel, but maybe if you all cheer her on, she’ll get the energy she needs to spin the wheel.”

A wheel rose from the side of the platform beside Delilah. She jumped back from it as if it harmed her. Her head swung around as she tried to remain standing. The crowd obliged his request by jumping to their feet and screaming. Delilah seemed to have a glimmer of understanding as she took a tentative step toward the wheel. Dionysus’s heart went out to the woman who had no clue what was happening.

“When she spins the wheel, His Royal Awesomeness with allow the Goddess Sophia to merge our wanton little contestant with a gift to help her on her journey.”

The audience fell silent. For such an enormous space, Delilah’s shuffling feet sounded like thunder. Delilah shook her head and looked down at her feet. She wiggled her toes, then shook both knees. As the seconds went on, she stood up a little taller. Maybe she wasn’t a total loss.

It was then he noticed Sophia’s gentle waves of power. Only his former god-like status would enable him to see it. It took his willpower not to push the little tart out of the way and absorb every tasty morsel of energy flowing from Sophia. It worked. Delilah stepped toward the wheel and placed her hand on it. She spun it enough to go around a few times. The silence stretched across the realms.

“Woah! I did not see that coming!” Dionysus said with feigned shock. They would turn the poor girl into an ogre.

Tears fell from Delilah’s cheek. It would have been better if Sophia had left her ignorant. She had no fight left in her and bowed her head. Her hands clasped together in front of her.

Lucifer stood and gripped Sophia’s hand. He couldn’t hear what they were saying, but it looked like Sophia was unhappy with him. He smiled at her, and she scowled.

A bolt of energy flung from Lucifer’s outstretched hand, hitting Delilah in the center of her chest. She dropped to the floor, and the lights over her platform went out. The platform lowered to the ground.

The crowd roared for their king. They chanted his name and whistled. The angels stood like motionless logs. He’d break through their uptight mentality. What good of a host if he couldn’t appease his entire audience? “Next up, the King will pick the second contestant.” The unmistakable sound of a famous song filled the pregnant pause.

A hush fell over the crowd as Lucifer motioned them to silence. “The second contestant on Ascension Descension is the daughter of Vengeance… Herodias. This powerhouse manipulated those around her to have John the Baptist’s head served on a silver platter.”

Unlike Delilah, Herodias stood strong in the middle of the platform as she rose. Her long black hair flowed like silk around her. Though she wore the same garb as Delilah, hers looked clean and crisp. It was her face that showed the most. She rose on that platform like a warrior going to war. Dionysus didn’t care who won in these games, but he had a feeling the woman on the platform in the center of the room would be a powerful force.

The crowd went crazy. When they saw her, they rose to their feet, and applause sprang from their hands. A fan favorite. She manipulated her daughter and her husband to get revenge on the man who wouldn’t sanction her marriage. Her revenge was legendary. She got John the Baptist’s head.

“Hello, Herodias,” Lucifer said as he leaned in with a smile. The king always pandered to his crowd when he had an audience.

Herodias stared him down as if he were a mere mortal. When he finally returned her gaze, she winked at him. A human, tortured for thousands of years, dared to flirt with the devil himself. Dionysus didn’t understand why these two women drug out such human reactions from him. Delilah made him feel concern for her welfare, and then Herodias made him feel pride. This was the year. With humans, angels, and demons watching, the world would be a feast for him. Freedom beckoned.

“Hello, warden,” she said with a smirk. Her arms crossed over her chest, and her fingers gently tapped on her arms.

“You seem no worse for the wear from my hospitality,” he said with his uplifted eyebrow.

“I watched Simple Sally earlier. I pick Team Lucifer. Raise the wheel,” she commanded.

Lucifer smiled, but not the kind that spoke of joy. It sent a chill down Dionysus’s spine and robbed him of his speaking ability.

“She’s not spinning the wheel. This is still my house. Sophia.” Lucifer held out his hand, and she grasped it without saying a word. “You will never again see the sun or feel the warmth. My gift to you is eternal darkness.”

He flicked his wrist, and this time, the beam of his power hit Herodias in the middle of her forehead. Her head flung back, and she screamed. The wheel lit up with the word Vampire right before the lights went out on the platform.

Lucifer’s name ripped through the crowd. They chanted it in unison like rabid tweens at a concert.

“Hold on to your wings and horns. We have three more contestants on tonight’s show. Tune in tomorrow night for the next round of contestants. This will be the best year ever! And now, a word from our sponsors.”

The lights faded from around him, and the screens expanded the length of the stadium. This time, Dionysus could see the screen. A cartoon character demon spoke to the crowd. The baby demon had a horned headband, a black tail with a pointed upside-down red heart and hoofed feet.

“We hope you all have your Ascension Descension app open! I know you voted for the humans first, but we will mix it up a bit. Tonight, at about mid-show and again at the end, we’ll select one angel and one demon to tempt our little humans. Their entire purpose will be to influence the decisions of our lovely ladies. On your screen, there are twenty-five angels and twenty-five demons. Your votes decide who will represent you. On your marks… Get Set… Angels put your phones under your feet.”

Dionysus looked over at the angels, there was hesitation, but like the do-gooders they were, they put their phones under their feet and stood up.

“Demons – GO!”

Laughter burst from the demons as the room lit up with their phone screens. A clock with one minute filled the screens. It began counting down. The angels scrambled to pick up their phones and select their choices.

“45 seconds. If you don’t vote, you can’t complain about who wins!” The petty demon said. In the background, cartoon images of humans and their voting complaints filled the background behind the clock. At the 30-second mark, the screen changed and showed all 25 names and how many votes each had.

An obscene number of votes tallied, and Dionysus thought they rigged it until he remembered that humans were watching and voting. The clock returned, and the crowd began counting down from ten.

A loud foghorn went off. “Time is up!” The tiny demon squealed. “Stay tuned to the halftime show to discover the demons and angels you picked to kick start this event! In the meantime, back to the impotent Demi-God that someone saw fit to host the greatest show in the universe.” The demon snickered, and Dionysus ground his teeth.

A snap of rage ripped through him, and he battled it down. He had enough to obliterate the screen with which the idiot spoke. What he needed to do more, however, was to continue with the facade of the host so he could finally escape this sham of an existence. As he rose to the surface of the platform, he took every second to get himself under control.

“The lovely Sophia,” he said as he grasped the microphone and stared into the crowd. “It is time for you to select the third contestant.” His voice held far more reverence when speaking to her than ever.

She said something to Lucifer that he couldn’t hear, and she didn’t look thrilled with him, but she smiled as she turned toward Dionysus. “Yes, the next contestant will be…” she paused for dramatic effect and in the background, a song played. “The daughter of Lust… Zuleikha!”

The dead silence of her announcement brought a blush to her cheeks. It droned on for seconds until she realized they did not understand who Zuleikha was. “Listen while I share a tale of Potiphar’s wife.” A sprinkling of recognition happened, more so on the angel’s side than the demons. “Once, Potiphar had a beautiful, enslaved person named Joseph. She wanted him and offered herself to him frequently. At his refusal, she fabricated a story to her husband he attempted to rape her, and her loyal husband thrust him into prison.”

The demons became interested in her betrayal, but even they didn’t understand why this woman was one of the most heinous women in the world. Dionysus wondered if they had given her the chance of redemption. It was wrong to accuse someone of rape. He knew the rest of the story. Joseph had been so loved by his father that he created a coat of many colors which led to the jealousy of his brothers selling him into slavery. Once imprisoned by Potiphar, his success in interpreting dreams caught the notice of a pharaoh. Joseph became a power vizier that allowed Egypt to survive one of the most devastating famine episodes in history.

The platform rose in the center of the stadium. Dionysus watched Sophia as the circular podium stopped. There was something in her face that he couldn’t read, but it was neither joy at the sight of Zuleika nor disgust. It was almost maternal. She looked upon her as a mother would a child who had only just returned from a lengthy absence. He wondered about her actual intentions in this farce of a game show.

Zuleikha stood in the center with her head bowed. Her kinked ebony hair fell around her face covering it completely. Her hands lay clasped in front of her at the waist, with her shoulders rounded. Though she wore the same drab garments as Delilah and Herodias, hers hung across her body with gaping holes that hid nothing. The figments of fabric exposed one of her breasts through a slash. Her body bore signs of abuse that took the words from his mouth. Every inch of her exposed flesh housed bruises and deep lacerations that looked crusted over with filth and grime.

Silence still settled upon the room as the audience absorbed the sight of her. Dionysus glanced at the angels, outrage at her condition reflected in their faces. At that moment, he saw the truth of what was happening. Sophia wasn’t joining Lucifer in a game show. She was ripping the blinders off the crimes of the past.

Here, with all his creations watching, she was shaming the will of God. Here was her first authentic example. Sure, Delilah didn’t deserve an eternity in Hell, but she brought about the fall of a hero. It’s easy to hate her. Herodias deserved to be in Hell. Her greed and power corrupted her soul. Zuleikha only temporarily ruined a man’s reputation. Because of her actions, he led a phenomenal life. The punishment did not fit the crime.

Lucifer broke the silence first. “Well, I think we can all say you look lovely as always, Zuleikha.” His voice sounded gentle but with a hint of strength in the timbers of his voice.

Dionysus gasped when she lifted her head and the black hair fell away from her face. They had branded the flesh covering her eyes. Raw red welts marked both of her eyes that had long since rotted and rendered them closed. While he’d lived in Hell in the lap of luxury, this woman had truly suffered.

“I wouldn’t know. Mirrors aren’t much use to me these days.” Though she whispered, the clarity of her words surprised him. The demons couldn’t help themselves but chuckle at her response. “Allow me to fix that for you,” Lucifer said with a benevolent smile. Dionysus admitted to enjoying the company of Lucifer but also living in fear of him. The man had angles upon angles from which he worked from. No one ever knew the real motives behind the fallen angel.

“If you would but give me one kindness, my lord, I beg of you do not.” Again, she spoke barely above a whisper, but her words had steel.

Lucifer cocked his head to the side and looked at her intently. A flicker of emotion raced across his face, but Dionysus couldn’t tell what it meant. “I have brought you out of your torment to join us in a wonderful game, isn’t that fun?” Lucifer said as he panned to the cameras.

“I am unworthy of such a gesture. Surely there is someone else far more deserving than me to take part?” Her vacant expression stared off into the distance as she spoke.

Sophia stood and put her hand on Lucifer when he spoke. He quieted, and she walked on air toward the raised platform. It blew Dionysus’s mind that she could manipulate gravity and walk through the air. Some Olympians could fly, but it was as if she created as she moved, allowing every step to carry her into the air.

The crowd again fell silent and watched in awe as the daughter of God made her way to the miserable wretch of a human. Once they stood face to face, Sophia embraced Zuleikha. She whispered something in her ear that the microphone would not pick up, and Zuleikha nodded once. Sophia brought her close and kissed each eye with gentle affection. The moment her lips touched the ravaged skin, the crowd gasped. Every bruise that covered Zuleikha’s skin faded until every bruise disappeared and left nothing but the caramel skin of her birth. Every welt rescinded back into her skin. When Sophia stepped away, a light blue film covered the eyes of the human woman, and tears fell from their red rims. Sophia had removed the branding but left her blind as requested.

“For many years, I have carried within me the soul of a dear friend. Though her essence is long gone, the power she once held is mine to give. With the permission of our most gracious Lord of Hell, I request that you allow me to imbue her with this soul. It will alter her so she will go to Earth and walk amongst mankind.”

Lucifer stared hard at Sophia before he answered. Dionysus wished he’d thought of bringing popcorn. The drama was so good. In all the years he’d done the show, he’d never been interested in the outcome. Now he wanted to champion the women but still held a weird loyalty to Lucifer, who let him live in exile.

“Remember, Sophia dear, lady’s choice. First, she must choose a team.” It appeared as if Lucifer would take it personally if Zuleikha chose Sophia’s team.

As if she heard the subtle warning, she spoke. “My lord, I could choose only the protector of my soul. As much as I am grateful for what the Goddess has done for me, I belong to you.”

Lucifer flashed a grin for the cameras. “Sounds like another one for Team Lucifer.” Just like that, the crowd engaged and went nuts. They stomped and cheered on command better than Pavlov could have ever imagined.

Sophia took both Zuleikha’s hands in her own and stood before her. “I understand your choice and accept it.” She floated backward.

“Wait,” Lucifer said, and all noise stopped. “I am fair. I will grant you this boon, Sophia. You did not stand in my way when I overrode our little idea for Herodias. Though, I will not hiss at you as you did me. I allow you to give your gift to our tortured little human.”

Sophia returned to Zuleikha. She placed the tips of her fingers under her chin and lifted her head towards hers. Sophia exhaled a black mist that flowed into Zuleikha’s mouth. When she struggled, Sophia placed her other hand over her heart to calm her.

The transfer was complete, and Zuleikha collapsed to the floor of the platform. “Do not fear, fellow life bearers. She will be fine. The transition will take a few moments. I have given her the soul of Themis.”

There was no mistaking Lucifer’s reaction to Sophia’s announcement. “A Titan? You gave her the soul of a Titan. Are you out of your mind?” He rose from his seated position, splayed both hands on the desk and leaned forward.

Sophia turned to him with a gentle smile. “Themis was a friend whom I miss dearly. Though technically a Titan, she never fought in the Greek wars.” Sophia floated back to the desk beside Lucifer, and the platform holding Zuleikha dropped to the ground floor.

“Um, for those of you who do not know who Themis is, she’s so powerful that the Olympians deferred to her wisdom. Her sense of justice drove the understanding of every law any civilization has ever had.” Dionysus tried to keep the show moving even though he was absolutely awed by what had happened.

Sophia brought back a God killer. Only the Titans, a long-ago but never forgotten race of violent beings, could withdraw life from any living being, including those called Gods. No one knows if they can kill the God that made angels, demons, and humans, but in thousands of years, no one has ever brought back a Titan for fear of just that. Many of the Olympians fell to the Titans. The war between them obliterated most of both races and destroyed Olympus, or what humans called Mars.

An eerie silence fell again as ripples of awareness went through both sides of the crowd. Sophia made one contestant stronger than the gods that once walked the Earth. No one knows where the Titans came from. The Olympians came from another planet in the Milky Way. They rose and fell from power because the Olympians couldn’t help themselves from interfering in the lives of humans. Titans had no such affliction to their power. Dionysus shook himself to push the show forward.

“Interesting. It’s been long since anyone walked the earth with the power to kill Gods. You heard it here first, folks. Ascension Descension is here to provide you with the best entertainment in any realm!” He pandered to both sides of the crowd and got them at least motivated to cheer.

Lucifer raised his hand, and the noise died a quick death. “My lovely adversary has raised the stakes, though they have benefited me. I’m now the leader of a Titan.” Smug as always, he turned the news in a way that benefited him. “Shall we move on to the next contestant?” He asked the audience. “But first, let’s recap: We have the lovely Delilah, who chose my team. Then the fiery Herodias, who also chose me. Now we have the delectable Zuleikha, who also chose me. Sophia, dear, you will lose by default soon.” He snickered and motioned for Dionysus to continue.

“It doesn’t look good for Team Sophia. She doesn’t have a single champion. Let’s see if the next person doesn’t bring her some luck, shall we? I cannot wait to see who is next!” Dionysus wasn’t sure why Lucifer brought it back to him.

“Ladies and Gentlemen. We have two contestants left to meet tonight, and while I know you are excited to see them, I wanted to make a little side wager. Because I am such an honest man, I’ve done it before everyone.” Lucifer said as he held his arms out to extend his voice toward every recipient in the room.

Sophia looked up at him with surprise. Her eyes narrowed and showed a slight confusion. “What are you doing?” “I wager that every contestant tonight selects me as their leader. If they do not, I will allow my co-captain the supreme right to select whatever manifestations she sees fit for all tomorrow’s contestants.”

“And what if I lose?” she asked with no expression on her face.

“If you lose, you must rip the titan soul from poor little Zuley and let her spin the wheel. I will test my egotism against whatever fiendish angle you are playing. It’ll allow you to decide after the next contestant. Let’s find out who that is, shall we?”

It intrigued him that Lucifer would gamble on something so big. No part of him wanted a Titan walking around, but Themis wasn’t like the others. She’d been an oracle, the embodiment of justice. No. He hoped Lucifer won the bet and Sophia had to rip the soul from that poor woman. Titans walking was always cataclysmic news.

“I will consider your wager. I admit to being intrigued. As you do not know the remaining candidates, I feel confident that tonight will go more in my favor than yours. Though I admit, I thought Zuleikha was a sure winner for my team.” She chuckled and shrugged as if it didn’t matter. She waved her hand, and the next name appeared before Lucifer.

His jaw clenched light, and he whispered to Sophia in a loud voice. “Are you trying to make me look bad?” All she did was arch an eyebrow.

Dionysus took that as a queue to take a break. “And now a word from our sponsors.”

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