It didn’t take much effort for Esther and the two broad-shouldered, church men, who essentially served as the girl’s bodyguards, to make their way through the mostly-vacant lobby of the apartments. The men dwarfed their leader by nearly a foot, and they were heavier by more than two or three times her weight.
The second handheld device that Esther and The Order’s engineers and scientists fashioned using the machine’s iridium receptors, functioned properly, tracking Destiny’s power usage to this location. Since the upgrades, the machine could determine a time stream fluctuation within ten-square-feet. Which she felt was her key to finally solidifying her family’s legacy. She had known most of her life that it was her duty to save the world from the abomination’s unholy power.
The building’s RA was sitting at the information desk when she looked up to see the barrel of a handgun in her face. She was swiftly caught off guard. It happened so quickly she didn’t have time to react to the gun being swung down towards her. She was then tied up by the men and thrown into a closet before she could warn campus security. LaShonda wasn’t a small woman, but when a pistol struck her head with weighted force, the former student athlete fell limply to the floor.
A byproduct of the more recent enhancements allowed the machine’s handheld extensions to scramble any recording equipment within range. Esther knew her actions needed to be stealthy as to not draw attention to her or her organization. She timed her assault perfectly, ensuring nobody was in the lobby at the time besides her trio and the resident assistant.
After taking care of LaShonda, the threesome conspicuously entered the elevator and took it up to the apartment indicated by the device. One of the men kicked the door in, easily knocking it off its hinges. It was almost alarming how easily it crashed down and crumbled. They checked the living room, the kitchen, a room that seemed to be some sort of painting space, and the bathroom. When they arrived at the shut bedroom door, the group proceeded with extra caution. Esther checked that it was unlocked and readied herself to attack.
When the door swung open, the three zealots ran in. At the far corner of the bed, a woman sat with her back to the interior of the room. She held her hand in the air, stopping the attackers in their tracks. Her dark hair dangled down to about her shoulder blades, fluffed outward at the ends.
“You guys are really bad at this, aren’t you?” Despite the criticism, the woman’s honeyed voice was mesmerizing. She chuckled after she spoke, standing and turning to face the new arrivals. Esther noticed the crimson cape around her shoulders, fastened with a golden clasp below her chin. An ageless glance of the woman’s eyes seemed to penetrate the girl’s soul, compelling her to drop her guard.
“Who are you?” one of the men beckoned from Esther’s rear. His words were harsh and forceful.
The zealot leader wanted to look away from the woman’s stare, but she was locked into a trance somehow and couldn’t pull away; part of her didn’t even want to.
“Okay. So… first you need to understand that you are in waaaay over your head. The two pig-headed fools behind you want to attack me. But trust me when I tell you this—it would be a big mistake to come at me like that. Understatement of the year.”
“Do you have a gun or knife?” Esther asked, shaking away her stupor. She drifted out of the trance. It felt more like she had been released than any intentional thing she might have done.
The woman chuckled again. “There is no need, child. I used to carry a scythe with me, but the stories people handed down from generation to generation started getting old. I want to be thought of as a beautiful woman. It’s how I identify myself. Not some ragged skeleton or whatever. Times have changed.”
Esther cut her eyes to the side then bobbed her head towards the woman, sending unspoken orders to the men. The first one confidently approached with his hand extended out, palm facing downward.
“Don’t do anything crazy,” he warned. “There’s no need for me to hurt you.”
“You really don’t want to do this.” Another chuckle. “Seriously, Esther. Listen to me. Call your dog back.”
“Oh, but I do,” the black-haired girl responded. “I don’t know who you are; I just know that the abomination used her power here. It is my duty to locate and dispose of her. If that means taking you out too, so be it. My purpose is the higher truth. It’s all that matters.”
The man was finally within arm’s length of the caped woman. As his hand landed on her shoulder, a brief, yet powerful, wind swept through the room causing the other two zealots to shield their faces. It originated from the spot where the hand made contact and briefly billowed outward. The man released his hand from the shoulder then twisted around, making eye contact with his leader one final time. His eyes glossed over, rolling towards the top of his skull, and he crumbled to his knees then down to the floor, lifeless.
“Now he’s dead, Esther. Did we really need to send his soul to my realm? It wasn’t yet his time. But more importantly, it’s too crowded down there.” Another chuckle. “That’s why I’m here.”
“Wh-who are you? Th-that man was my friend!” She swung her arm out and pointed downward. Tears began to sting Esther’s eyes as she glanced up from the body on the floor back towards the woman.
“Fine. My name is Marzanna. Yeah, yeah… I’ve gone by many other names you’d probably better recognize, but I prefer this one. I tried to go by Mary for a short while. It sounded so stinkin’ Biblical, though.” She made a gagging gesture with her pointer finger and an open mouth.
“Ar-Are you a demon?” Esther took a couple of slow steps backward. A splintering fear began to engulf her thoughts. She felt her muscles slightly contract, body beginning to tremble.
This time, the chuckle was more of a cackle; a harder laugh. “Demons aren’t real, dumb girl.” She toothily grinned, moving one step closer towards the center of the room.
“What do you w-want? Our business isn’t with you.”
A strange look of empathy flattened the woman’s expressions. “Well, let me first apologize about your friend. I did tell you, though. You just didn’t listen. His death is on you. Nonetheless, I’m sorry.”
Esther stared in silence, marginally shivering with terror. The other man must’ve been similarly impacted, as he hadn’t moved a muscle after seeing the other die.
“Look. We got off to a rough start, admittedly. Let’s start over. My name is Marzanna, most people typically refer to me as Death. Or the Grim Reaper. Something that sounds spooooooooky.” She wiggled her fingers out in front of her face and chuckled. “Humans are so weird with their responses to horror.”
“Y-you’re… Death?! THE Death?”
“Yeah, but don’t worry. Your time isn’t up yet. I do have a need for you, though. Just don’t go doing something idiotic and try to resist me. I’ve found I can be quite persuasive without removing souls from bodies. The idea of death drives humans insane, quite literally. Rather than enjoying each sweet breath of life, you all take it for granted. It’s so peculiar.”
Esther made sure not to get lost in Death’s eyes again. Instead, she looked at the woman’s mouth and nose as she spoke. “What need do you have for me?”
“See, our plights intersect at very specific crossroads. Your actions have proven you aren’t up for the task by yourself, even with a special machine. You have nothing to show for your work.” Marzanna’s words were lined with an edge of disapproval. “You have more resources at your disposal than your father ever imagined. But you will fail just as he did.”
The terror in the zealot leader’s mind shifted downward towards her heart, twisting from terror to something much more manageable. Death’s words ignited the anger rooted deep within her that surfaced when anyone spoke negatively about her dad.
“Don’t you dare talk about my father. He was the best man I ever knew!” Her fists were clenched at waist-level.
“Oh, Esther. Calm yourself. Take a deep breath and think logically. The source of all human strength and weakness comes from your emotions. If you could ever get past your feelings, you’d be much more productive as a society.” The woman turned and started slowly pacing on the far side of the bed like a military leader giving instructions to their unit. “Anyway, we have work to do.” Another chuckle.
“What kind of work?”
Death stopped her movement and slid over to sit on the bed. She patted a spot beside her, indicating her desire for Esther to join.
Realizing she was in a situation where additional protection would be useless, she waved the last remaining man away. He quickly departed leaving Esther and Marzanna to themselves.
“Let’s get to the point; there’s no reason to beat around the bush. I don’t come to the mortal plane very often, but when I do, I really REALLY need to accomplish my task. This time, my task is of utmost importance. Much more integral than any other time in the past.”
Esther took a moment to breathe, just as her new acquaintance suggested. Once she cleared her head of fear and anger, she thought about what was happening. Suddenly, she realized she had been looking at the prophecy all wrong; perhaps her father was too. They were working under the assumption that they needed to get rid of the abomination because Destiny had the power to destroy the world, bringing death to humanity. She never considered the idea that Death would appear as a physical being.
“We have already failed,” Esther lamented in an almost whisper. “The prophecy has been fulfilled. Death is here on Earth.”
“Hmm,” Marzanna deadpanned. “I am here. Seems like you got it all worked out. Fantastic.”
Pushing the fear and uncertainty to the recesses of her mind, she realized there was an immediate need to move forward. The plan that spanned generations was essentially null. Surprisingly, Esther felt a sense of weight being lifted from her shoulders, knowing she no longer had to fight so hard. Equally, the zealot leader experienced a degree of purposelessness. All she had ever known was just fractured into a million pieces instantaneously.
“Listen, Esther. I don’t know how it happened, but souls are unable to pass on. They’re stuck in my realm, and I think the Watcher has something to do with it.”
“The… what? …Watcher?” Esther asked. The word sounded foreign coming from her lips.
“Yes. Our realms are connected and, until recently, I never thought it was an issue. My next stop will be to pay an old friend a visit. In the meantime, I need you to make amends with the girl’s mothers. And for fucks sake, stop calling her an abomination. She is gifted, and that very gift might just fix my little ‘souls can’t cross over’ issue.”
“Why do we need those two? I don’t think they’re pleased with me at the moment. I str-stuck one of them with my gun.” Esther uneasily shrugged, remembering when she lost her patience with Max, resorting to an unprovoked physical attack. She cringed at her actions and began to feel something she couldn’t remember encountering prior—regret. She didn’t have much experience with that particular emotion, but her body ached and her mind was spinning. Her fundamental purpose had been shattered, shaking the core of her sense of self.
“We might not NEED them, but they created Destiny and still have their own gifts. They might just come in handy.” Death chuckled once more then stood. “Good talk. Now go do whatever you need to do. Feel free to tell them everything. There’s no reason to hide even one bit of all this. In fact, I’d be willing to wager that the truth is your only path to gain their trust.”
Marzanna reached out for a handshake with an impish smirk on her face. When Esther looked at it and shook her head, the woman cackled. “Ah, come on. I wouldn’t have let you actually touch me. I would’ve pulled away. Maybe.” She turned as she spoke, moving her hands in a repetitive motion back in forth over her head.
“What are you doing?” Esther probed.
“If you must know, I don’t actually have a way to get to the Watcher’s realm on my own. I suspect that’s where Destiny went, so I’m gathering residual timedust so I can follow her trail.”
“Listen, Esther. I don’t have the energy to answer your questions. There’s a lot you don’t know. Just be a good little sheep and do what you were told.” The pair made eye contact, and Esther could feel the woman’s enticement taking hold. She looked away as quickly as she could.
Marzanna chuckled. “Here it is. Found the path. Bye, Esther. Be seeing you again.”
Esther wasn’t sure, but she thought she saw the woman wink after her last words. A nearly blinding flash of purple radiance immediately filled the room. Esther shaded her face to block the light. As soon as it dimmed down and returned to normal, Death was gone. The man ran back into the apartment bedroom to check on his leader. She assured him everything was fine and asked him to meet her at the car.
Once alone, Esther sat in silence for several moments. She knew what she needed to do, and that involved figuring out how to apologize to Max and Chloe for her reckless, hurtful behavior. On top of that, it was the first time in her life that she didn’t know what her purpose was or what to do with her life moving forward. In a matter of minutes, her entire perception of who she was, who her father was, and what their legacy would be, was completely flipped upside down. It felt like waking up from a dream that had possessed her soul for as long as she could remember.
It was suddenly an important moment in her life; a turning point perhaps. She had a series of choices she would soon need to make. For Esther, everything felt jumbled up and confused, yet shiny and new. She didn’t understand everything Marzanna spoke about, but she knew souls not being able to cross over couldn’t be a good thing.
The zealot leader pulled out her phone and called Father Isaac. When she informed him about what had happened, he didn’t say a word, just listened. When she instructed him to destroy the machine, the man finally spoke up and pushed back.
“With all apologies, Sister Nilin, we can’t do that.” The old man breathily wheezed as he spoke.
“You have to. I have given you a command. Am I not your leader?”
“Please understand, Sister. In my position… I must do what is best for The Order.” He paused momentarily. “Even… if that means making decisions against your wishes. We spent thousands of hours and most of our budget on the machine. Do you know how much faith our followers will lose in us if we abandon our plans now? ”
From the elder’s staggered words, Esther discerned a hint of sadness.
“Things have changed, you have to see that, Isaac. My father’s work was never aimed in the proper direction; he was blind. And, honestly, I don’t know my own path anymore. It feels like a veil has been lifted and I’m seeing the world for the first time.”
Father Isaac sighed on the other end of the phone. “We have been through a lot together, yes? This will be no different from other instances where I had to reel you back in. This feels like a big blow to our obligations right now, in the moment. But this too shall pass, Sister Nilin. We’ll get through it as we always do. Just come back to the church and we will regroup.”
Esther knew the exact facial expression her mentor was making because of their familiarity with one another. He had always been there to encourage her if she ever strayed from her duties. This time would actually be different, however. Everything had changed. For the first time, she even doubted him.
“I’m not coming back yet. I have to make amends for the wrongs I’ve committed. Then we can discuss the future of The Order.” For the first time since her father died, she felt truly lost, but in a strangely hopeful way. “Destroy the machine, Isaac. That is a direct order from your superior. Disobey and there will be consequences. You’ll be done.”
The old man sighed again. “As you wish. Please be safe out there.” He didn’t even wait for Esther to respond; he disconnected, leaving the girl alone with her thoughts.
After a moment by herself, Esther knew where she was headed.
“I have to head back and apologize to Max,” she whispered to no one, anxiously tugging a strand of her long, black hair. “I need to do what Marzanna asked, but this is mostly for me. I have to say I’m sorry, and that they didn’t deserve what I did. I owe them that much.”
Max shut the door and buckled her belt. Her clothes were still sopping from recently splashing around in the rain with her wife. They had dried off a little during their meal but not nearly enough to feel comfortable yet. She adjusted the vehicle’s temperature in hopes of warming herself from the wet cold.
“Dude! I’m stuffed.” Chloe belched after she slid in and closed the car door.
“So glad we stopped, babe. That was delicious.” She slid the keys in the ignition and twisted. The engine turned and the car started.
“Alright, Max. Let’s hear your best.” A mischievous smile tightened the skin on the taller of the pair’s cheeks.
Max raised her eyebrows in confusion. “My best what? And that impish grin scares me.”
“Burp. You know, just let ‘er rip. I blasted gas first, now let’s see what you can do.”
“Gross, Chloe. I think you’re gassy enough sometimes for the both of us.”
The blonde aggressively leaned in and started nuzzling the side of her spouse’s face. She dragged her lips from the top fold of her ear to the bottom lobe, sending Max into a pleasurable giggle fit.
“Chloe, no,” Max laughed as she moved her head back and forth, fighting off the incursion, both hands still on the steering wheel.
“Your words say ‘no’, but you’re not really stopping me, are you Maximus?” Chloe was right. Her wife may have been moving around in an attempt to appear as if she wasn’t enjoying the sensations, but she didn’t exactly push Chloe away.
The passenger moved back to her seat, torso still facing her favorite person. “I wanna make a deal with you. I know you liked it. So, if you burp for me, I’ll give you more of that… much, much more.” She waggled her eyebrows at the driver.
“You know I hate you sometimes, right?”
“Ah, whatever. You love me so much you can hardly stand it.”
“Uhm,” Max began, “if I burp, you’ll put your spit all over my ear? Not sure that’s a good deal for me.”
Chloe softly laughed then quickly placed her hand on the brunette’s inner thigh, just above the knee. She slowly nodded as she inched her palm up further. “No. I’ll do a lot more than lick your ear. You know what I’m capable of.”
Max closed her eyes and laid back, resting her head on the car seat’s headrest. She was enjoying the slow-moving hand getting closer and closer toward its destination. Every inch sent a tingling wave of energy through her body. Suddenly, Chloe jumped back, twisted to the front, and buckled her seatbelt, drawing a displeased huff from her wife.
“So… think we can hear that burp now?” A toothy grin formed under Chloe’s nose.
“You’re such a tease! Meany!”
“Burp for me? Yes?” She batted her eyes in max’s direction.
“Fine.” The brunette swallowed hard then pivoted her upper body towards the right. Having been around Chloe for most of her life, she picked up a thing or two in the art of flatulence. With as much food as she just scarfed down in the diner, it actually wouldn’t be too difficult.
After a couple of seconds, Max opened her mouth and forced a bubble of air from her stomach. It didn’t matter how much she pushed, it still came out as a tiny, almost unheard grumble.
“Damn, Max. That’s it? Well, it was a good attempt, I guess. You won’t win any contest with that measly burp. Good thing you’re cute.”
“So,” Max questioned, “was it enough? You know… enough for you to…”
“Yeah, sure. You tried. Let’s head back home.”
“Are you sure, babe? After all we went through last night, she might still be waiting for us. That was fucked up.”
“Yep. I was thinking… I’m not scared of her, ya know. We’re Max and motherfucking Chloe Caulfield-Price. She came to OUR house and threatened OUR family. Fuck that. If she’s there, we kick her ass. Period. You’re a goddamn goddess, and I’m still your partner in time. This time, we’ll be ready. Plus, I’d really like to change from these clothes… annnnnd help you change out of yours.”
Max confidently nodded then shifted into reverse. She backed the car out, turned onto the street from the diner’s parking lot, and headed in the direction from which they came an hour or so earlier. The incentive to get back home must’ve been good, as the driver floored the gas pedal, speeding quickly towards their house.