The sun was rising. The Alto manor had quieted down a few hours ago. The sound of police sirens from the nearby cemetery had long ago faded into the night.
Fate looked at the rising sun while she stood on a small, quaint bridge near the Alto mansion. The peach and light blue sky reflected from the river quite nicely there. Fate smiled at her reflection.
She had kept her end of the bargain and the Deacons had got away. She didn’t even know where they were at the moment. She would have to locate them again if she needed them. But right now she didn’t feel like it. In a way one could have argued that she had just done something incredibly stupid. She knew that her actions had just delayed finding the gemstone that Death wanted back. Not too long ago that would have been the opposite of what Fate had wanted. But at this point she knew that Death wouldn’t leave when he found the stone. No, he needed something more effective. Something that would make him realise how unhealthy staying among humans like this for so long was.
At least endangering the people he seemed to care about – though Fate really couldn’t understand why Death bothered with the heartache that connecting with mortals on a more personal level would inevitably mean – was probably something that would make Death understand that he was just doing more harm than good.
Besides, now that Fate had helped the thieves, they owed her something. She could aid people for free if she so wished, but if one specifically asked for her help, she always had a right for a reward. So all in all, she had done well.
“Hey, long time no see!”
Fate turned to look at the redheaded, woman-shaped being who had appeared on the bridge. She gave her a tight-lipped smile.
“Love? You are here as well?”
Love smiled with dark red lips.
“Hey, I couldn’t miss out on all the fun! Your and Tad’s excursions caused ripples all the way in my place!”
Fate narrowed her eyes.
“I am here to stop just that from happening.”
“Didn’t you just make this whole thing last longer?”
Fate sighed and reminded herself that some things weren’t quite as obvious to others as they were to her. That she should try to be patient. She quite liked Love – it was impossible not to. Sure, she spent a lot of time in the mortal world, but she didn’t let it interfere with her job or the natural flow of things. And she always repented for her reckless actions when it was needed. Sometimes Fate worried for her, sure, but at those moments Love was quick to dismiss it all with a smile or a very self-aware comment, and they could have a mostly pleasant conversation again.
“Yes,” Fate said, “But I am trying to teach a lesson here. Some of us are less free to do what we wish, and he should know that by now.”
“I do know that.”
Fate spun around when she sensed and heard Death behind her. She cursed her carelessness. She shouldn’t let anyone sneak up on her like that! Love smiled and waved at Death, who had appeared on the railing of the bridge.
“Hey, Tad! Nice to see you here!”
“Hello, Phil,” Death said, “I am glad you are no longer angry at me.”
“Psh, that was, like, yesterday! I slept it off so we’re cool again. As long as we don’t talk about the… erasing-thing right now.”
“I… promise not to,” Death turned to Fate, “I was hoping to find you here.”
“Well, have you finally realised what kind of a mess you are causing?”
Death looked at her blankly. Intentionally so, probably.
“What? I think it is perfectly clear that you had a hand in this. You could have got people killed before their times just to spite me!”
“To teach you a lesson!” Fate snapped, even though she had to admit that maybe she had gone a bit too far, “Before something really bad happens!”
Death’s expression wavered.
“Your methods have been questionable, and you are pushing the limits of what you are allowed to do,” he said, “But… I can see what you are trying to do, Fate.”
He narrowed his eyes.
“But I also told you before; I understand the risks.”
“Do you really?” Fate asked, “I saw what happened at the cemetery! Normally none of us would go down from being shot like that! Not even in a physical form.”
“I was taken by surprise…” Death muttered defensively, “And, well… I have practised bleeding from my wounds to keep my cover.”
“Oh? And did you practise feeling pain as well?” Fate sneered.
“No, I… That part was unexpected…”
Fate raised her brows meaningfully.
“Ugh, feeling pain totally stinks,” Love said when Death fell into an uncomfortable silence, “It’s happened to me a couple of times. Always a sign I need to take more meds. And a sign I’ve become too physical.”
“Exactly,” Fate said.
“Fine! You are right,” Death sighed, “I have let this form take too much of my being. But I… I can fix that. I will… I will leave this form for longer periods of time. I am sure Amelia will understand if I will… take vacations.”
“You sure that’s going to be enough?” Love asked, “Aren’t all those emotional connections getting a bit… too much? Trust me; I know how that feels. It’s not pretty, in the end.”
“Yes. I remember,” Death said, “It took three of us to calm you down that one time you had one of your… episodes.”
“Oh man, was it three?” Love giggled again, “Man, I totally punched you in the face! Except you didn’t have a face then, so uh… the hood? Didn’t you memento mori me after that?”
“Didn’t I what?” Death frowned.
Love waved her hands.
“You know, when you do that thing when you make someone experience being dead without actually being dead?”
Death stared at Love.
“Why would you name that? It is one of the most awful things I can do!”
“Hey, it’s an effective sedative,” Love shrugged, “Besides, no harm done.”
“Sometimes I worry about you,” Death sighed.
“And I worry about both of you!” Fate said, “Death, can you promise to detach yourself from the mortal world the way you should?”
Death turned his head away, looking at the water that flowed under them. Fate could see that there was a struggle behind Death’s eyes. In a way she understood that. She had many times experienced too much curiosity and attraction towards the mortal world as well. But usually her compulsions to guide the lives of others with her power won over any wishes for long-term attachments. In a way she was thankful for that.
Perhaps Fate had been too harsh. Or at least not understanding enough. That didn’t mean that what Death was doing could go on like this.
“Yes,” Death finally said in an oddly fragile, small voice, “I will try my best. But I will stay here. And do you promise to let me handle this without your interference?”
Fate crossed her arms.
“If you keep your promise, I will keep mine.”
“Huh,” Love said, “This is surprisingly amicable. I would’ve thought at least someone would be angry.”
“Oh, I am a little angry. But the harm this caused was… minimal, all things considered. You know how it is; sometimes we fight, and we do things wrong, but in the end, it is all water under the bridge.”
Fate smiled. It wasn’t a completely honest smile. Yes, she and Death did clash about many things, and they had gone through the motions of being angry at each other and then letting their feuds die down many times before. But this time it wasn’t over petty reasons, even though sometimes their methods could get petty. This was about the tears in reality that Fate kept sensing in the future. About something happening to Death. That was never a good sign where the universe was concerned.
But she also knew that she too was pushing things. The deal with Deacons had given her an excuse to overstep her boundaries and to deliberately mess with things a little bit, but she knew not to push it any further. She had made her point, got Death to listen, even though she knew that he hadn’t listened quite as well as he claimed.
She would be watching for sure. But for now, she had to admit that some kind of truce was in order.
“Right,” she said, “Water under the bridge.”
When Amelia woke up, her eyelids felt too heavy and she wanted to just sink back into the hazy, soft sea of sleep. But then she realised that she had fallen asleep in her formal clothes, and that she felt very grimy. Her hair was uncomfortable in the bun it wanted to be free from, and her makeup made her face feel like she had stuck it in cement. Had she really been tired enough to just crash straight into bed?
The events of last night slowly returned to her. The terror in the cemetery. The disappointments. The probing questions of the police and the ride to the police station to give statements. Okay, so it did make sense that she’d been tired enough.
Amelia struggled up from the bed and saw Vanja sitting in an armchair at the other end of their room. She was reading a book.
“Good morning,” Amelia yawned.
“Morning,” Vanja grunted back, “I thought it’d be appropriate to wait for you to wake up. You should hurry up, though; we have to be leaving soon.”
Amelia nodded slowly.
“Right… I think I’ll go take a shower first.”
“You do that. But quickly now; I think we all need something to eat before we go.”
Amelia’s stomach rumbled. Last night she hadn’t been able to even think about food despite them skipping the buffet at the party. But now her body was begging for a proper breakfast.
“Sounds good,” she said, “I’ll be back real quick. And thanks. For waiting.”
“I figured we all need some kindness after last night. Now hurry up!”
After a shower and a change of clothes Amelia felt much more refreshed. She and Vanja made their way downstairs into the pub/restaurant of The Snoozing Kitten, and Amelia tried very hard not to think about how nice a time she’d had there with Jay.
She still couldn’t quite believe that Jay had turned out to be a criminal.
Speaking of criminals, Novak was sitting in the pub when Amelia and Vanja got there. He had a plate full of pancakes in front of him. There was even whipped cream and a couple of fresh strawberries on them.
“Hey there,” he said, and Amelia could hear a hint of tension in his voice. He was probably anxious to get far away from Mr. Beagle and his gang as quickly as possible. Not that Amelia could blame him. She shuddered at the thought of how close they’d come to being kil-
No. Don’t think that. We didn’t. We’re alive.
“These are really good,” Novak said and nodded at his plate of pancakes, “You should get some; they’re cheaper in the morning. The staff is mostly in the kitchen but they’ll toss a plate at you if you just order from the door.”
Amelia and Vanja didn’t need to be told twice.
“Where’s Tad?” Amelia asked once she and Vanja had their own breakfast plates in front of them.
“He said he needed to do something, and disappeared. I don’t ask too many questions with that guy.”
Amelia frowned, but then reminded herself not to worry too much. Or at least try not to worry too much. She took a bite of her pancakes. They were perfectly fluffy and sweetened with honey.
“Oh, wow, these really are good!”
“Pretty adequate indeed,” Vanja nodded, “For a tasteless inn like this, at least.”
“Wow, aren’t you a charmer,” Novak deadpanned, “Where do you get the energy to maintain that sunny personality of yours, Leifsdóttir?”
Vanja let out a quiet “hmph”, and didn’t seem to want to dignify Novak with a proper answer. Novak turned to grin at Amelia.
“You know what’s the best spice for any food? The feeling of being alive. Especially after a part of you knows you could be dead.”
Was it, really? Amelia tasted the pancakes again and realised that Novak was maybe right. Hadn’t she been so glad to be there, alive and well, the honey in the pancakes probably wouldn’t have been as sweet, and the strawberries wouldn’t have tasted so much like childhood summers.
“That’s my kind of comfort food,” Novak said when Amelia had stopped to stare at her pancakes in quiet contemplation.
In Amelia’s opinion there were perhaps easier and less hazardous ways to appreciate life. But Novak seemed to live life with a different mindset.
The door leading out of the pub opened, and Amelia smiled with delight when she saw the familiar, lanky form of Tad entering the place.
“Good morning,” he said, “I trust you all are well?”
“Sure,” Novak said, “As long as we get moving ASAP. I really don’t want to be too close to Beagle.”
“Understandable,” Tad nodded, “We can leave as soon as you have eaten.”
He sat down next to Amelia, and took a moment to look her in the eyes. Amelia wasn’t sure what to make of it. Usually Tad didn’t deliberately seek eye contact. Mostly because he knew how unnerving his eyes could be. But now Amelia could catch a glimpse of something… uncertainty, maybe? Or a desire to talk to her. The moment passed quickly, and Tad turned away. Amelia had a feeling something was bothering him. Well, something that hadn’t bothered him before.
Amelia knew she should wait for a while, to let him figure out how to talk about whatever was bothering him. She took another forkful of pancakes that tasted like sweetness and summer and being alive.
Lydia Deacon loved the feeling of getting away from unpleasant situations. She also hated the stale, mucky smell of swamp water. That was why her feelings were very mixed when she and Gaius finally trudged through the yard of their father’s secret cabin in the woods. Though the ache in her legs after trekking for so long – Gaius had never been the most accurate at teleporting spells – and the knowledge that she would soon be face to face with her father tipped her mood towards foul.
Still, she knew they needed this. Their hasty retreat from the party had taken them away from Death and his entourage, but Lydia knew that returning to their previous hideout would be risky. She still didn’t trust Fate. Now that she had fulfilled her promise to them, who was going to stop her from turning on them? They needed time, and as much as Lydia hated to admit it, their father’s place was a good place for it. At least he could let them know which of the Deacons’ many houses were good for hiding right now.
And most importantly of all, seeing father gave Lydia a chance to report her success. Her victory.
Because this had to count, right? How many people could say they had bargained with Fate and outsmarted Death?
“Well,” she sighed, “Here we go.”
“It’ll be fine,” Gaius said, “I’m sure even dad will be happy to hear how awesome we were.”
Lydia nodded, trying her best to believe it. They walked up to the ramshackle porch and knocked on the door. Lydia wrinkled her nose at the smell of water-damage. Her father’s equally water-damaged voice yelled through the door:
“Who is it? Go away!”
“Dad! It’s us!” Gaius shouted back, “Let us in! We’ve got big news!”
The sound of multiple chains rattling was heard, followed by a chant Lydia recognised as a command for the door to open. Even she could feel the protective charms on the door melting away. Their father barged through the door to give Gaius a big hug.
“I’ve missed you, son!”
Lydia crossed her arms. She knew there would be no hugs for her. Not that she needed any. Sometimes father was just so annoyingly blatant. Thankfully the hug was over quickly, and father was back to his grouchy demeanour.
“Come on, get inside! Quickly!”
They stepped inside and father slammed the door shut as if afraid something else would come through after them.
They sat down on couches that were admittedly rather nice and comfortable – leftovers from the mansion she and Gaius had grown up in before the Deacons had converted it into a magical research centre. Lydia took a moment to study her father. She hadn’t seen him for months now – not that she complained. It seemed that every time they met, father had aged at least five years. Lydia did some counting. Father was only 64, but now he was starting to look at least eighty. The zombies weren’t good for him. Nor was probably having – according to what he had told them in one frantic phone call – having his soul almost torn from his body by a peeved Grim Reaper. Though Lydia assumed the extra lines on her father’s face and the wild look in his eyes were mostly from the stress and fear the event had caused rather than an actual effect of being attacked by Death. Then there was the wear and tear father’s experiments and hiding in a water-logged cabin had slowly eroded onto his face.
To put it nicely, Demetrius Deacon looked like shit.
So why did he still manage to have the presence that made Lydia feel like the failed daughter she didn’t want to be?
“Well?” father asked, “This has to be something important indeed; why else would you brave the swamp just to pay me a surprise visit.”
He looked at Gaius.
“Although, I could understand you coming here, son. But Lydia…”
Lydia massaged her temples and then started telling her tale, trusting Gaius to back her up. He always did.
She told about Fate and the party at Altos, and about how easily they had got away from their pursuers. To her surprise, father actually listened with interest, without the judging and belittling look he usually gave her. When she was done, she noticed that her posture had shed the slight slump that it had gained as soon as she had entered the cabin, and that she was trying her best to hide her victorious smile.
“So I could say that this was already a sign that I could do better than you.”
Father frowned. Lydia had a feeling she shouldn’t have said that. Subtly bringing up the possibly traumatic night when Death had broken into father’s home in search of the gemstone was probably not the best thing to do. Sure enough, a familiar sneer found its way onto her father’s face.
“Better, you say?” he said, “Because to me it sounds awful lot like hired help and Gaius here have done all the work!”
Lydia gritted her teeth.
“We agreed that I could get help. It’s the planning that counts!”
“Right. Planning. And what do you have to show for all of that ‘planning’?”
Lydia jumped up before she could stop herself.
“What?” she repeated in an almost shrill voice, “You already admitted that us getting the stone was an amazing feat! I’m only willing to play this stupid game as long as you follow some kind of logic!”
Father stood up as well and grinned.
“I am. You know that I’d love to be proud of you, Lydia. Yes, stealing from Death was admirable… bold, difficult and just imaginative enough for a proper Deacon.”
He stepped closer. Lydia caught a glimpse of Gaius’s tense expression. She knew things were again escalating into a shouting match, and Gaius hated that. She clenched her hands into fists.
“But you know, the novelty of your theft has worn off by now,” father went on, “You keep telling me you’ve got plans. What was it… artefacts? You have no direction! If you’re not going to do anything with the stone, then it might as well go to someone who’d actually use it!”
Father could move surprisingly fast when he wanted to. He stepped forward and raised his wand.
Lydia’s mind hesitated for a split-second, and then she grabbed her gun and pointed it right at her father.
“You make one more move, and it’ll be your last!” she snapped, “You’re not taking this from me!”
“Lydia!” Gaius gasped, “What are you…? And dad! Stop that!”
Father didn’t seem to even hear his favourite child at the moment. He was grinning like a madman, and Lydia had a feeling that the isolation and zombies had taken more than just his years. To be fair, she had already known her father to be somewhat insane when she had found out that he still kept their mother’s preserved body in his laboratory.
“You have guts,” father said, “That’s one of the things I like about you. But you’re not going to shoot me.”
“Why not?” Lydia said, “Because of familial love? Please, we all know there was never any of that between us!”
Father’s smile shrunk.
“You’re wrong about that, Lydia. Things are never simple.”
He nodded at the gun.
“But no. You won’t shoot me because you know that would summon the person you just oh so cleverly escaped from.”
He was right. They all knew that. Still, Lydia didn’t lower her gun, even when Gaius started pleading them both to stop in a frightened voice.
“So tell me,” father said in a horribly calm tone, “What would you do to convince me I shouldn’t just take that stone from you? Unlike you, I can stop you in many ways without killing you.”
Lydia gripped her gun tighter. Ideas were smashing into each other in her head. Some old ones, some new ones. In the end, they crystallised.
“Oh, like bringing back mother?” she said, her voice dripping with contempt, “Would that be enough? That’s what you’d do, right?”
Father didn’t answer, but his eyes told her enough. She smiled coldly.
“Right. How quaint. I doubt the stone is even the way to do it. And besides, it would just be so… unoriginal, wouldn’t it? Not nearly ambitious enough for a Deacon. You know what I think I’ll do? I’ll get those artefacts I planned to get, and more. I’ll use them and the magic Gaius and I can dig up. And then I’ll do what us Deacons have wanted to do for centuries.”
“Sis’?” Gaius whispered, “Please, stop…”
Lydia ignored him.
“I’m going to take down Death itself.”
Silence fell into the cabin. Even the dead things father liked to put in jars seemed to be listening intently. Then father burst into parched laughter.
“Now there’s an insanely ambitious plan only a Deacon could think up.”
He lowered his wand.
“I was just kidding with all this… you know… taking the stone and all. Sometimes people just need a little kick. Some pressure, you know, to get the ideas really flowing.”
Lydia reluctantly lowered her gun, but kept it at the ready. Her hands were shaking. A quick look to her right told her that Gaius was shaking too. Father turned to pat Gaius in the shoulder.
“It’s alright, son,” he said gently, “We weren’t really fighting.”
“It looked real enough to me,” Gaius muttered.
“It wasn’t. In fact, I’m going to give you some help. Free of charge, no complaints later. I’ve got some books here. Some you can use.”
“Wait, so you two are serious?” Gaius asked, “About trying to beat… you know, the Grim Reaper?”
Father and Lydia nodded in unison.
“Like Lydia just kindly reminded us, it’s what us Deacons have always wanted,” father said, “Isn’t that why we delved into necromancy all those years ago? And why we always want to leave a formidable legacy behind! And what would be a greater legacy than freeing our family from the bonds of mortality?”
Gaius looked at Lydia again, and Lydia gave him a reassuring smile. Their father might have his own old, slightly messed up reasons for going along with Lydia’s plan. But Lydia knew that she would do something better. Something greater. Something to end this farce she had started with that slightly drunken bet and the subsequent theft.
It was yet another goal for her. A very ambitious one. She was looking forward to reaching it.
Author’s Note: Can’t you just feel the familial love? 😀
Also I almost forgot to mention this random fact: Mr. Beagle’s name comes for the Beagle Boys, who are of course the somewhat inept and very sympathetic burglar guys from Disney’s Duck-comics. Kinda random and silly, I know. Because my Mr. Beagle isn’t very sympathetic.
I’m doing NaNoWriMo in November, as I’ve already warned before (I just started! Yay! I should go to sleep now!). So there might not be any new chapters at that time. But you never know…
I updated the character page too, so that’s something. Feel free to check it out if you want.
I hope you enjoyed this, and have a lovely time!