The Death of Life
“No need to get so antsy. Come, let’s talk.”
The death was calm and though his eyes had returned to blue, they were still just as intimidating. Any moment I knew his irises could change to black and turn my commute home ugly. A death’s eyes always went black when they released their power, an image that always sent a chill down my neck. Even when Milo's eyes would turn, my stomach would sink, and I’d grow heavy. It felt like dread.
The other passengers in the train car paid us no mind, with the majority paying strict attention to their phones. It must’ve been nice to live in ignorance of the real world, unaware that a death capable of taking their soul was so close. Deaths were only meant to collect the souls of those who’ve passed, but recently I’d been made to question that ‘rule’.
“Don’t worry about them, I’m not here for anyone but you.” He said softly. His voice was firm but glazed with a touch of sweetness. It reminded me of how my grandfather used to sound when reading bedtime stories. It helped to steady my nerves.
“I was never worried, just weighing my options.” I responded as I settled back into the seat beside him. The shadows around my wrist dissipated, a sign that he was too comfortable leaving me unrestrained. He was going to regret it.
“The cold and calculating type, I see. Your expression gives it away. You planned to make a run for it, until you gauged the collateral. Am I figuring you out?”
I held my tongue, biting my lower lip as I fought back a retort. It would be easier to find an opening if I kept my mouth shut.
“Your silence is more than an answer, darlin’.” He let out a cocky laugh that resonated in my chest. The window behind us rattled in response to his booming voice.
“Think you’re clever? Just wait until we’re off this train!” I said over his laugh, my voice reaching an octave I hadn’t heard since before I entered high school.
He muted his laugh, the air around us growing still. I stole glances at the dust particles reflecting off the sunlight that cascaded through the glass. It was a rosy color, a flirtatious scene performed by the sun.
The rose turned into a red, darkening as the shadows from the surrounding forest gripped the sides of the train. They stretched like talons, creeping along as they clung tighter to the locomotive. The shadows were alive, spreading throughout the train car like vines.
He breathed life into the phrase, the shadows slithering up the other passengers’ legs. One by one, they jerked and contorted, shrieking like sirens. Their spines ripped through their shirts; the bone stained a deep black as they fused with the darkness invading their bodies.
“I’m sorry to tell you darlin’ but you aren’t ever leaving this train. You see this here.” He flashed a silver ticket, bordered by a faint blue light. “This is our all-access-pass to the Underworld.”
He let the ticket glide out of his hand and flutter to the floor. Black bolts of electricity tore through the wooden planks, the shocks obliterating them to splinters until all that was left was a pit. It stirred with a chilling growl that I knew yearned for my soul.
“Thanks for the offer, but I’m not interested!” I dove out of my seat, narrowly avoiding the edge of the hole. I scanned the inside of the train for an exit but came up empty. All I could see were the black walls encasing the entire car.
“You drew the short straw. I’m only sent to your realm for the most urgent of tasks, and not once have I failed to complete them.” He took a curt bow, flashing me an amused smile. “Allow me to formally introduce myself. I am Honzo of the Underworld’s Retrieval Squad!”
His grin turned crooked, the corner of his lip curling up to reveal his jagged teeth. The blue in his eyes quickly faded, replaced with uneven craters of despair. He flung his arms out extravagantly, mimicking a ringmaster readying the final act.
“It’s been a pleasure, Miss Ava Angelo. Let the show begin!”
The closest of the infected passengers rushed at me, his limbs awkwardly twisting around as darkness spread throughout his nervous system. His skin looked to be covered in a spider’s erratic web. They were Honzo’s internal strings, giving him full control over his new puppets.
One by one the other passengers followed suit, a wave of disfigured bodies clumsily clawing over each other to stampede me. I avoided the first one with a simple sidestep and jumped over the next two with ease. The puppets were fast but lacked accuracy. The long hours spent running obstacle courses in the Animus Woods made avoiding them feel natural. I could feel it. This was the darkness finally aiding in my athleticism. It just took a little life or death situation to bring it out of me. I felt like a track star with my limber body, my legs stronger now to vertically clear someone like they were a tree stump.
My mind wandered into an internal debate on the benefits of showing off to the cheerleading squad that would cackle at me for sitting under the bleachers at lunch. It was where I used to enjoy being nose deep in a book and armed with a fistful of cheesy crackers. But unfortunately, duty before gloating. Honzo had to be dealt with before I could relish in the pleasure of Captain Mimi and her squad of tight-faced elitists staring in awe when I hurdle their human pyramid.
“We’re not daydreaming now, are we darlin’?” Honzo made his advance, intercepting me as I tumbled out from a group of compromised bystanders.
“I don’t need to use all of my brain to escape you!”
I closed my eyes, Honzo’s outstretched hand the last image I saw before the scene went black. My lips felt the smooth skin of my finger as I reflexively placed it there to quiet my mind. Normally, it was a jumbled web of broken thoughts, but in the darkness, everything settled. Step-by-step, I knew the way to victory.
It was a whisper, but the words carried power with them. The cold strands of ink pulled me in, turning me numb as it engulfed me. I was weightless for a moment before I felt the familiar rush of air entering my darkness. I was directly above Honzo, teleporting into his blind spot in a microsecond. He didn’t have time to comprehend that there was nothing to grab hold of as I wrapped my forearm around his neck and squeezed.
“Hold still! Stop squirming already!”
Trying to restrict him was as feasible as wrestling an eel. His skin was cloaked in a layer of grease, the film acting as his slippery armor. I had my legs wrapped around his stomach and an arm holding back his free hand. My other arm slid along his burly neck as I dug in with my fingernails, desperately clinging to my hold over him.
It was a deadlock, neither of us giving in. My nail brushed against a lump that quivered in response. It violently shook as my finger made a second pass to snag the bulb. It was the small foothold I needed to keep the advantage in our brawl, that is, until the mysterious bump erupted. My hand was drenched in the innards of one of Honzo’s monstrous boils, the shock, not to mention the disgust, enough to break my hold over him.
I held back the barf as my stomach churned in displeasure. My hand looked foreign, tainted by Honzo’s disgusting insides.
“Why thank you! It’s so relieving when they pop that I grow these boils out as much as possible before I squish the pus out. You took the fun away from popping it, but it felt wonderful all the same! Perfectly refreshing.” Honzo smiled over me, his group of puppets looming behind him. They stood at attention, awaiting the order to attack once more.
It’s such a rush!
With the odds stacked against me, my heart pounded in my chest. I felt so alive for the first time in weeks. I wanted more and if I let up now, I’d lose this excitement.
“I like the look on your face. Most souls turn distraught right about now, but not you. No, you glare in the face of danger! You’ve made this a delight, my darlin’!”
Honzo surged, shadowy limbs branching off his body. They grew, wrapping their fingers around my ankles. Honzo was next, his hand aiming for my throat. I fiddled with the strap of my backpack, tearing it off the shoulder it was still caught on and swung.
The crunch echoed in the train car as the bottom of my bag shattered Honzo’s jaw. He crashed into the seats on my left, his army of puppets unable to advance without his orders.
“You never fail me, do you?” I said, pulling out the brick I kept snuggly placed in my backpack. It was my good luck charm at this point with two knockouts now under its belt.
A growl let me know Honzo wasn’t down for good. He pulled himself up from the wreckage, his face permanently crooked to one side. His teeth scraped against each other as he gingerly tried to move his jaw. He didn’t get far before letting out a howl.
Without words, Honzo pointed his grubby finger towards me. His eyes burned with a rage he’d been hiding during our earlier scuffle. The real fight was only beginning.
I met his gaze, stumbling to my feet with my bag firmly at the ready. It was my greatest weapon, and I was going to hold onto it till the very end. I gave it a twirl, and then another. Slowly, the speed increased until my bag was whirling at my side like a windmill on a supercharged motor. I let the darkness crawl down my arm, attaching itself to my bag. It was the steadiest control over my power I’d managed to accomplish after all of Logan’s training.
“Guess it’s starting to pay off! Let’s see how you fare against the mighty Windmill of Death!” I shouted with glee. This is what I was built for. The excitement, the rush of blood to my heart as my pulse increased; all of it was my new obsession.
He responded with only a grunt, waving his puppets on to be the first strike. Some people may have hesitated in smacking around a couple of innocent people, but I did not. Rationally speaking, they weren’t innocent anymore, and a few bonks to the head never killed anyone. Right?
It took two strikes each, but that did the trick. Honzo’s puppets stayed down, leaving only one enemy left to finish off. He was still adjusting his jaw, clearly not expecting me to breeze through his toys so easily.
“Much better, finally! It’s not polite to hit people in the face. Come, let me show you how it feels!” Honzo said, his roar shaking the windows of the train car. I lunged to clash with him, my swirling mass of darkness ready for round two.
“Didn’t anyone ever teach you it’s not right to hit a girl!”
I ducked under his punch, gracefully swaying back and forth to give myself a better opening against him. Logan was far superior to Honzo when it came to close combat and if I could hold my own against him then this clown was about to end up face down on the floorboards.
“Then again, I’m not some ordinary woman!” I shouted, my bag swinging into his chest like a cyclone. It was a whirlwind of black accompanied by a spray of Honzo’s outer shell. It exploded in the same way a ceramic vase shatters when it hits the floor - loud and chaotic.
The dome of Honzo’s Portal Manifestation broke like an eggshell, the light from the windows breaking through to illuminate the carnage. The darkness seeped away from the bodies of the other passengers. They groaned and remained unconscious but all of them were breathing. It was a good thing I didn’t use my full strength on any of them like I did with Honzo.
He lay, sprawled out in the middle of the car. His eyes were rolled back in his head, the crater in his chest crumbling away. The hole continued to expand, more of his shell turning into dust. I towered over him, basking in the sun as it cast an orange glow on my victory.
“Need a hand, Ava?”
The shout made my heart jump as I searched for the source. I traced its origin directly above me where a newly formed hole in the ceiling was. Crouched down along the edge was Logan, his curious eyes shifting around to get a better view of the inside. He held onto the crown of his hat, the brim flapping in the intense wind of the train’s wake. He wore a bemused expression as he allowed his eyes to settle on me.
“Not this time. I cleaned up here just fine on my own.” I said, giving my backpack one final twirl before letting it come to rest at my side. I heard the rip before I felt my arm grow lighter. The day was ruined in that instant.
The strap of my bag tore in two.