Chapter 1:

Ava - A Baby Gets Me Into Trouble

The Death of Life

3 Months Earlier...

Growth, it’s a rather intriguing concept. Before this I would’ve never allowed myself to ignore the lecturing of my teacher, but once you know the truth of the world, ancient beliefs and mythology just seem trivial. Ms. Huxley ranted about the story of how Hades kidnapped Persephone and forced her to sit by his side in the Underworld. I found such a move to be weak. I found Persephone to be weak. Slowly falling for her captor sounded like a classic case of Stockholm Syndrome to me.

Instead, I found the thoughts running through my own head to be more enlightening. I never stopped thinking, my brain constantly reeling with what was next. Right now, all I could think about was how I would change with darkness in me. I always thought growth was measured by how we learn from our mistakes, but lately I’ve been less certain of that.

My glasses slipped to the tip of my nose, causing my vision to blur. I was virtually blind without them. It was annoying having inferior eyes. I wasn’t in a rush to push them back into place, my thoughts still taking priority.

Growth in my situation seemed to pertain to how I was changing as a human more so than just learning from my mistakes. Each morning, I struggled to even recognize myself in the mirror. My expressions had turned rigid and my eyes cold. If I smiled, I felt a sense of familiarity with my reflection, but those moments were short-lived. Eventually the corners of my mouth grew tired, and my smile crumbled. I tried every day, hoping that one morning it would be easier to hold a smile, but the shadows in my heart always took over once more.

“You know class is over, don’t you?” Amber stirred me out of my thoughts. Her auburn hair was a frizzy mess, again. Ever since her brother, Erik, became hospital bound in his coma she’d given up on her appearance. A few months ago, she would’ve been dolled up with hair neatly braided and draped over her shoulders. Now, she looked more like I did most days.

“I let my mind wander again, that’s all.”

I rose from my desk, flashing a forced smile her way. She knew better than to be fooled by my weak attempt to appear cheerful. We’d come to understand each other since Aoki wreaked havoc on our lives. I hated that woman. She was a death with no remorse and the insanity of the most deranged psychopath. Trust me, you wouldn’t want to meet her.

“You don’t have to fake it around me Ava. He’s gone, isn’t he?” Amber continued to chirp in my ear like a wayward bird hoping for a companion. I’ve never particularly liked her. Amber was loud, obnoxious to the point it used to cause my brain to swell and press up against the inside of my skull. Her voice essentially used to give me symptoms of a concussion. She was always out to impress others. She may have come off as intelligent and exceptional for her age, but to me she was just childish. She’d simmered down recently and despite the sorrow I felt for her, I didn’t care much for confiding in her.

“He left a week ago. I really can’t hang around and chat today, so I’ll see you in class tomorrow.” I waved her away, continuing at my brisk pace down the hall.

It was another day I’d brushed her off. I didn’t even give her another glance as I heard the clattering of her shoes against the vinyl flooring cease their pursuit. I knew her expression would only make me feel bad, but I wasn’t capable of comforting anyone as of late. And anyways, if she stuck around for too long, she could wind up dead. If Milo found a way to bring Erik’s soul back from the Underworld only for him to learn his sister was dead, I wouldn’t be able to face him.

It was better this way. I pulled the hood of my jacket over my head before leaving the academy grounds. My style was a darker theme than it used to be, everything black from my jacket to my high socks. I missed my old outfits, but when you’re hunted relentlessly, easily recognizable clothing becomes a luxury. I was only allowed such a luxury within Animus where Logan and Grandma deemed it safe enough to walk around in eye-popping colors.

I kept my head down as I walked, darting my eyes in every direction like a searchlight. I stayed vigilant. I’d encountered four different deaths trying to kill me since Milo left for the Underworld, and each one was stronger than the last. Logan trained me in self-defense after school, but even with the new skills, I’d barely won out against them.

The key to staying under the radar was the control I’d managed to form over darkness. It was still imperfect, but I could suppress it for the most part. Being able to continue attending Arcaya Academy was a reward from Logan for my success in my darkness-suppression-training. My improvement had been enough to convince him and my grandmother into letting me leave the house at all.

It’d taken four days to accomplish that. Every moment I had to spend in my room was filled with boredom and a hint of agony. I was cut off from everything, only allowed outside to complete my training. Logan would repeat endlessly that there was no other option until I gained control of darkness. I consider myself a fast learner at most things, but this power was like trying to learn another language by only using a dictionary. These frustrations had led to many hours of carving into my desk with a pen at night. I couldn’t focus on anything else, every waking moment spent thinking about the element that now consumed my life.

Need to grab a fresh pen from the cabinet on the other side of the room?

Use the darkness to extend my fingers to the handle.

Want water from downstairs?

Manifest a black cloud to float down and retrieve it for me.

Need to bust out of this bedroom and be free?

Use the haze to ball up a fist and smash through the window.

Darkness had crept into me, relentlessly flooding me with new ideas on how to use it. It was versatile like water; it’s form and state bending to how I saw fit. If only I could improve my aptitude for precision. Surgeons must have a steady hand when wielding a scalpel and it was no different when trying to control the power of a death. I had to be steady in both mind and body. Unfortunately, I was anything but that.

‘Concealment and fleeing’, that was Logan’s motto. I wasn’t the type to play it like a coward, but I’m not dumb enough to pick a fight I can’t win either. So, a few days ago, I decided I would do nothing to draw attention. I kept my head down and stared at nothing but the occasional crack in the sidewalk every day.

Sixty-five, sixty-six.

There would be one hundred and fifty-seven more cracks in the cement before I made it to the train station. My brain forgets nothing. Once I see or hear something, it enters what I call my ‘memory palace.’ Every piece of information, regardless of how important it was, stays locked away in my memory palace. Memorizing the number of cracks on the sidewalk in three days was easy.

I’d memorized it after day one.

Ten cracks later and I knew I’d made it to the first crosswalk. I kept my eyes down but the noise painted a clear image of my surroundings. Car engines revved along the road, two women argued over the sound of a crying baby to the right, and a group of underclassmen from the academy complained about an exam in Dr. Palmer’s biology class to the left. They couldn’t have been the rising stars of Arcaya Academy. I got above a perfect score on every exam in that class last year.

Despite the dull simplicity of their discussion, it was within the chatter that one overly observant student shouted “Oh ‘expletive’, the baby!” The collective gasp from the rest of the group that followed was enough to force my gaze off the sidewalk.

A purple stroller was wheeling into the intersection, the wailing baby a second away from getting plastered on a bumper. No one had the time to save the baby, except for me. I envisioned the tips of my fingers stretching into threads capable of grabbing the stroller. I had done it once before with Logan this week during training, but that was once out of fifty attempts.

“The darkness is an extension of you! Use it like you would a hand or finger, not like you would a tool. You just need to be perfectly effortless and smooth. Easy, right?”

Logan’s typical explanation for how to control the power played in my head. Trying to apply his lesson into a real-world setting showed me how poor a teacher he truly was. Call it luck, but the darkness lashed out at the stroller. Like strings, it wrapped around the handle and yanked the baby away from the road. It happened in a flash, like a jolt of lightning in a storm, and was followed by a bang.

I mentioned earlier how I can’t control my new powers very well and it seemed that I still had a long way to go. Although I succeeded in saving the baby, I also managed to uproot a young tree growing in the street median. That was from only one wayward strand. The other added a few new cracks into the sidewalk, bringing the grand total on my walk home to two hundred and thirty-eight.

The people around me stood in a daze, all of them slowly shaking the mist out from their eyes. Humans experienced this side-effect most of the time when exposed to the Underworld’s power. There were always exceptions, but luckily none this time.

The bystanders looked like corpses for a few moments as their minds purged the images it couldn’t comprehend. Regulars, as I called them, are incapable of seeing darkness and as a result, their brain fabricates a more believable reality to feel comfortable with.

‘The Underworld always works in deception’.

That was Rule #1 of ‘Logan’s Backyard Tutoring’ on how to get accustomed to living like a death. The transition had been slow, but every day that passed made me more like Milo. However, there was one difference; I still had a beating heart. I’m not sure how that would affect me, but I viewed it as a disadvantage when heartless monsters wanted me dead.

The scent hit my nose quickly, the unmistakable smell of deaths. They were fast, many of them in a race to converge on one

I didn’t stick around long enough to even make sure the baby was safely back with her parents. He made it back onto the sidewalk and that was good enough. I zipped by other students, maneuvering through the crowds as gracefully as a ballerina with a broken toe. In short, I looked more like a fish gasping for air as my flailed breathing worked against my lungs’ desire to take in oxygen. I wasn’t much of an athlete, the confines of a book riddled with information always a more appealing way to spend my time. It wasn’t until deaths became a part of my livelihood that I wished I had the physical prowess to assist the knowledge I’d learned about them. Maybe then, taking on the five deaths I smelt still investigating the intersection I was a moment ago wouldn’t be an impossibility.

Seriously though, why’d there have to be five?

I was left with only the option to run like a mad-dog and hope that if I kept my power suppressed, I could lose them. First, I needed to create some distance between us. Another few blocks would be enough and then it would be time for step two - blend in with the crowd.

I readjusted the frames of my glasses before they slid any further down my nose and wiped away the stream of sweat along my forehead. My bag slammed into my lower back, the rhythmic sound of its thud in perfect harmony with the chaos of flying pens and notebooks inside. They worked in tandem, orchestrating the soundtrack to my escape. It wasn’t pleasant, but it helped me find a steady tempo in my run and clear the distance needed to feel safe from my pursuers.

One hundred and seventy...One hundred and seventy-one.

The cracks in the sidewalk didn’t lie. I was nearing the train station and successfully integrated myself back in pace with everyone else heading there. I kept my head down and hood up. The first whistle of the four o’clock train to Laikipia, the neighboring metro that challenged Arcaya in sheer size, alerted everyone near the station that the afternoon rush had begun.

It took graceful footwork and a tremendous amount of weaving through people while dodging their elbows to reach the train for Animus. It was smaller than most of the other trains at the station but was spacious enough on the inside to avoid cramped seating. I was accustomed to being able to take this train during rush hour without having anyone sit beside me. This made the middle-aged man that chose to sit in the seat directly next to mine, even more infuriating.

He smelled of sweat, the scent powerful enough to make my nose wrinkle in disgust. His hair was matted, greasily pasted to his forehead as if surgically glued to his skin. Don’t get me started on the boils. They dotted his arms like snow-capped mountains, and I swore I saw one quiver as he adjusted himself in his chair.

I avoided eye contact, desperately looking for anything to fixate on to distract me. It was no good. His heavy breathing the last straw as I felt its heat through my hood.

“Can you please quit it?”

I reeled on him, ready to give him an earful on how little I enjoyed feeling him gawk over me. I was going to start out with the whole ‘all men are pigs’ intro and then work my way into comparing his gross hair to a rat’s toupee. The words never left my mouth. I was frozen by the twisted smile of the man with one eye black as ink. I was face to face with a death.

“Can I interest you in a trip to the Underworld, my darlin’.”

I froze as a chill swept along my skin and halted my nervously scratching fingers. I had a problem when it came to uncomfortable situations, mainly because I had an insatiable urge to flee from such encounters. Which is exactly how I ended up being involuntarily ejected from the seat as my legs fought to escape the death.

“No need to run darlin’.” His voice was calm, with a thick accent as if he had a wad of tobacco glued to the inside of his mouth.

With a snap, shadows coiled around my wrist like a lasso. I traced the threads back to the bottom of his feet, where they swayed along the wood flooring. The intercom crackled to life as the recognizable surge of the train began.


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