After Nick left, I had another early night. If I ever did manage to turn back into a creature of darkness, it was going to be embarrassing if I didn’t get my act together. I didn’t fall asleep quite as easily as the night before. Despite being exhausted my mind kept spinning, going through all of the information I had learned throughout the day.
The possibility that I might have been a draugr was interesting. It certainly explained a lot but I wasn’t sure what it really meant. Had I still been a kind of vampire? Or was it completely different? I didn’t have the answers. I had heard the word before, but I had always just assumed that it meant vampire. Nobody had ever suggested that the two concepts might have been different. Plus, if it really was a whole separate thing, why had I never met anyone else like myself? Was it really that rare?
This made my thoughts turn to Linda. My recently awakened heart felt for her. I was sad that she had died; she had truly seemed like a nice person. What disturbed me was the red hair and eyes. Her hair had not been fully red like mine, it was just one or two strands that had started to colour. Still, it had taken mine quite a while to fully colour. The book had said that a draugr could only be killed by decapitation and burning, but her heart had been somehow burnt out. Did that count? I wondered if perhaps she had not made the full transition when she died.
Maybe someone had been unsuccessfully trying to turn her, but why?
I sighed, I knew that I needed more information before I could get any answers. But, how could I get information when I was stuck in this stupid human form? If I didn’t figure out something soon, I would have to find that bloody witch... consequences be damned. It was on that pleasant thought that I finally managed to drift off to sleep.
When I awoke, I was not where I expected to be. Instead of being in my cosy bed, I was standing in a dark alley, somewhere close to the town centre. The first thing I noticed was that it was pouring with rain and I was still wearing my tiny cotton pyjama shorts and top.
“Oh hell.” I sighed.
This was perhaps an underreaction, considering that I had no idea where I was or how I had travelled across the city whilst asleep. If I was still a vampire, this situation would have not been half as worrying. I could have simply run home. As it was, even making my way across the litter-strewn alley in my bare feet was a challenge in itself. Very carefully, I picked my way around broken glass and suspicious-looking stains.
The biggest concern I had was meeting someone, especially a potentially hostile vampire whilst alone and almost defenceless. I still had my power, although I had yet to really put it to the test as a human. Aside from that though, I had no weapons, no money and barely any clothes.
My first thought had been to call someone to pick me up, but my phone was (I assumed) safely back on my bedside table in my house. Cursing, I began walking in what I thought was the right general direction. As I walked I tried to focus on Lillian, hoping that her ghostly senses might pick up some sort of disturbance. It was a long shot, but it was all I had.
Once I was moving and my initial panic subsided slightly I realised how cold it was. We were deep in winter and the weather was not forgiving. It wasn’t long before my teeth were chattering with the cold. The streetlamps had what seemed like massive gaps between them, making my eyes strain to see ahead of me in the gloom.
The unexpected voice at my side made me shriek in terror. Spinning around I punched the unknown assailant as hard as I could, causing them to cry in pain and stumble away from me. Staggering backwards I saw a pale blonde man straightening up holding his nose. I squinted; something about his light blue eyes was familiar.
“I know you,” I said.
“You hit me in the face.” He moaned, looking extremely displeased.
“Well, I am not having the best of times at the moment.” I snapped, “Why do I know you?” My heart was still pounding with fear; I wasn’t in the mood for pleasantries. My hand ached with unanticipated pain.
“We met a few days ago.” He told me. “Gabriel?”
Suddenly his face clicked into place in my memory. He was the man who had been standing over me when I woke up immediately after being cursed. This only made me distrust him more. “What are you doing here?” I asked suspiciously.
“Looking for you.” He said bluntly, drawing me up short.
“Oh.” I blinked, trying to back away from him inconspicuously. I wondered if I could outrun him, he was taller but I had a lot of adrenaline going for me. “What do you want?” I stalled.
“We need to talk.” He stated.
I gestured to myself a little hysterically. “I don’t think now is really the best time for this.”
He took in my shivering rain-soaked appearance critically and to my surprise, he shrugged out of his long woollen coat and held it out.
I took a step back. “No, I don’t need your help. I’m going home now.” I didn’t trust him one bit.
He didn’t move. “Please just take the coat.”
As tempting as it was to keep being stubborn, the potential protection of the jacket won out and I reluctantly took it from him. I pulled it over my shoulders quickly, not taking my eyes off of him. The sleeves were far too long for me. The material was thick and dry but not warm. It did not feel as though it had just come off of a living human. My blood suddenly went cold; if he was a vampire would I know before he ripped my throat out? Probably not. He was certainly pale and attractive enough. My only hope was to distract him while I figured out a way to escape.
“What do you want to talk about?” I said, hoping to discern his intentions.
“Judging by your dishevelled appearance, I am assuming that you are probably confused about how you got here.”
I frowned, offended. We couldn’t all be wearing a perfectly tailored navy suit.
“Hey! That’s- wait. What do you know about that?” My eyes narrowed. Had he somehow managed to kidnap me without my knowledge?
Gabriel remained unruffled. “I am fairly certain that you travelled here yourself, probably whilst you were sleeping.”
Something about the way he said the word travelled didn’t sound right. It wasn’t like I could have sleep-walked all the way across town.
“What do you mean?” I couldn’t hide the scepticism in my voice.
“I mean that you were at your house, and then you were here. Like… teleportation, although it’s not really called that. People usually just say travelled or sometimes shifted.”
My scepticism turned to all-out disbelief, making me momentarily forget my fear.
“That is preposterous.” Of course, I knew that magic existed and there were often things that I could not explain but the idea of me teleporting? “Nonsense.”
He raised an eyebrow at my scoffing. “Really? Do you not see your ghost friends do it several times a day?”
That was different. Ghosts were not… solid. My eyes narrowed.
“How do you know about the ghosts?”
“Because… I am a reaper.” He stated it grandly as if I should be impressed.
I was decidedly unimpressed. “What the hell does that mean?” I shuddered, “Like, reaper as in… death?”
He looked mildly offended. “Not quite. A reaper is more of a… servant of death. We work with the dead. We deal with troublesome ghosts who have unfinished business and help those who wish to pass on but cannot. One of our most useful skills is the ability to sense when someone’s time is short. If necessary it allows us to be present at the time of passing, to ease the… transition.”
I coughed nervously; I didn’t know quite what to do with this information. “Why are you telling me this?”
“You were supposed to become a reaper.”
“What do you mean supposed to?” This was making less and less sense by the minute.
“In the year now known as 793, you were destined to die. When you died, you were meant to become a reaper; it’s in your blood, your family line is one with the power.”
I swallowed nervously, I didn’t want to believe him but I knew what he said about my family was true. My grandmother had often spoken to the dead.
“How do you know this?” I made myself ask.
“I was there.” He said impassively. “I was waiting for you to die. I was supposed to help you learn how to be a reaper. I did not anticipate that you would become that… thing instead.” His lips twisted in distaste.
It was difficult to wrap my head around his words. It was rare that I met anyone older than myself, and to meet someone with knowledge of my life that even I didn’t have…
“Do you know how I was turned?” I asked suddenly, hope flaring in me. Did he know the answer to the question I had been asking for more than a millennium?
He looked like he didn’t particularly want to answer me. “I don’t know the details.” He hedged.
“I need to know. If you’re really who you say you are, you’ll tell me.” I wasn’t sure that my argument really made sense but it seemed to sway him.
“Your village was under attack.” He told me. I remembered this; we were being raided by outsiders. We didn’t know where they had come from but the village had been taken by surprise.
I nodded. “I was trying to get to safety. My father was already fighting the attackers with my older brother. I was trying to get my younger brother and some other children to come with me.” After this point, my memory grew fuzzy. I could remember being trapped and then pain, a lot of pain.
“You didn’t know that the raiders had split into two groups.” He continued the story for me. “The second group was going to catch you and the children. You stopped and screamed for them to run as you pulled out your sword. At the time I had never seen such… rage. You had impressive skills, even then. Especially for a woman.”
I made a noise of irritation despite the coiling feeling of dread in my stomach. The logical part of my brain knew that this story was ancient history, but I couldn’t help but feel my impending death all over again.
He held up his hands defensively. “I’m sorry; I don’t mean to insult you. It’s just that in that time period it was somewhat unusual behaviour.”
“My father thought it important that I was able to defend myself,” I said primly. “Please, continue with the story.”
“There is not much more to tell.” He said. “You stood your ground. I know at the time it was seen as a great dishonour to kill a woman, but you attacked with such ferocity that they had little choice. You eventually fell, but not before the children made it to safety. I thought that was it for you and I waited. It is not unusual for a spirit to take a few hours to appear after death, especially if the death is… catastrophic. Eventually though, after your funeral was held and you were buried I was concerned. I went to your gravesite, only to find that it had been disturbed and you were gone.”
My memories of this time were again vague. I remember awakening to darkness and clawing my way out of the ground with my newfound strength. I had been buried with weapons and riding gear- a mark of respect as I had died fighting with honour. I remember only the urge to flee; I knew enough folklore and superstition to be aware that I was some kind of monster. Half out of my mind with the need for fresh blood I had accidentally killed a traveller. Horrified, I had stolen his horse and disappeared into the night. The rest was history. There was still one thing I didn’t understand.
“But how was I infected?” I asked. “Who did it?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know. I have seen a lot of death in my time, but yours still stands out as one of the most chaotic and gruesome. My only guess is that it was one of the raiders you attacked. They probably didn’t even realise you were turned. You were covered in their blood and one of them could have easily bitten you in the fight.”
“So that’s how it happens? You have to be bitten?” I brushed off his comment on my death, it was in the past. I was far more interested in getting answers.
“You have to be bitten and also have their blood in your system, but that doesn’t guarantee anything. You also must have the strength of will to return from death. Most people don’t have that.” He was staring at me speculatively like I was some kind of science project. “Plus, I believe there is also something important about the body being buried in a gravesite before the spirit has left.”
My mind was reeling. It seemed Nick’s book had been pretty accurate. If only I had access to this information 900 years ago when I had tried to turn Marcus. It would have saved me a lot of heartache and grief.
“So, to know all of this information you must have been watching me, right? You knew that I was going to die and all of that terrible stuff was going to happen and you just… stood by?” My voice broke a little at the end in horror. “You just watched while I fought for my life and bled to death in the mud and you did… nothing?”
His expression darkened considerably. “I had no choice, it had to happen. I cannot interfere with events, I can only observe. You were destined to die that day, even if you managed to find a way out of it.”
I pushed my dripping hair out of my face in frustration. “So why are you here now? You still haven’t explained what is going on!”
“You’re human again.” He said as if that explained everything.
“So?” I snapped, not getting it.
He sighed. “You have a second chance. You can now live and die properly, as you should. You have the potential to become a reaper again.”
My fear suddenly returned full force, choking me for a second. I swallowed the lump in my throat. “So… you’re here to kill me then?” I asked. It explained why he was happy enough to keep talking; he had been lulling me into a false sense of security.
“No!” He exclaimed in frustration. “Haven’t you been listening? I don’t interfere.”
“Oh.” I felt a little stupid but I didn’t apologise. I still didn’t trust him. “So, what are you doing then?”
“Your powers have been activated.” He said, getting that science project look again. “I didn’t expect that.”
“I’ve always had power.” I snapped, growing impatient. I so wanted to be back in my warm bed… safe and dry and not having to deal with world-shattering revelations.
He shook his head, “Not like this. You had access to some of your basic powers before, seeing the dead… some energy manipulation, I’m guessing. Now, something has unlocked your full potential. I think probably the fact that you were a draugr was blocking it before. I checked in on you a few times over the centuries but you were always the same.”
“Right,” I said. Never trust someone claiming something amazing. There is almost always a catch. “Why have I never seen you before?” I asked. If he had apparently been checking in on me, why hadn’t I noticed?
“You couldn’t see me before.” He said. “For most people, I am only seen when I want to be seen. Only ghosts and other reapers can see me all of the time.”
“Can I do that?” I felt an unwilling flicker of enthusiasm. The possibilities were… interesting.
He shrugged. “Possibly, if you practice.”
My head spun. He had given me far too much information to deal with at one time. It didn’t help that I was so cold I wasn’t entirely sure that all my limbs were still attached. “I need to think about this.” I decided. “I need to process all of this information and decide if I actually trust you.”
“I’ll take you home.” He said, surprising me again.
I glanced around. “Did you hide a car somewhere that I don’t know about?” I asked doubtfully.
Rolling his eyes he reached forward and seized my arm. The world spun around me and in the blink of an eye, we are standing in the street outside my house.
“Shit!” I exclaimed as I stumbled and almost fell over. “What the- huh, well that was actually real.”
“No need to sound so surprised.” He grumbled.
“I feel nauseous.” I moaned.
“Scarlett!” The sound of my friends yelling my name made us both look towards the house. Lillian, Amir and Nick came spilling out of the door.
I shrugged out of Gabriel’s coat and handed it back to him. “Here, I don’t need this anymore.”
“Thanks.” He said, shrugging back into it. “Try not to decide that you don’t trust me before I speak to you again.”
“I already don’t trust you.” I retorted.
His face broke into the first real smile I had seen as he spun on his heel and disappeared into thin air. There was no fading away or magical effect. He was just there, and then he wasn’t.
“Scarlett!” Nick had reached me. To my surprise, he threw his arms around me and pulled me into his chest. I could feel his heart beating frantically against my ear.
“Hello.” My reply was muffled slightly by his grip.
“Oh god, you’re freezing!” he exclaimed, drawing back to take in my appearance. His hands shook a little as he touched my face. “What happened to you?”
“It’s a long story.” I groaned, “But as I would like to keep all of my toes, can I tell it inside?”
“Where are your shoes?” He asked as he lifted me into his arms like I weighed nothing. I was about to protest but I decided I would rather be carried than walk barefoot over the rough gravel path near my house.
Lillian bustled around fussing as we entered the blessedly warm abode. Amir went to make tea. As soon as Nick had set me down on the sofa, they wrapped a thick fluffy afghan around me. My teeth chattered as I struggled to regain heat. All I really wanted was to sink into a boiling hot bath and then sleep but I knew my friends deserved some kind of explanation.
“Why are you here?” I asked Nick. It was almost three in the morning. For an instant, he looked a little hurt until I clarified. “At my house, I mean.”
“Amir called me when Lillian woke him up, freaking out because you were gone,” Nick explained.
“Oh, it worked.” I grinned.
“What worked?” Lillian demanded.
“I had no phone or anything,” I explained, “I was trying to focus on you, to maybe summon you or let you know that I needed help or something.”
“Oh! That explains it!” Lillian nodded. “I was just reading my book and suddenly I had the most peculiar sensation like something was wrong but I didn’t know why. I went down to check on you and that’s when I found that you were gone.”
“And she scared the heck out of me, waking me up.” Amir chipped in, setting a steaming cup in front of me. I gratefully picked it up and held it in my hands to warm my fingers.
Lillian smiled at him good-naturedly before refocusing on me. “So what happened, who was that man outside?”
“What man?” Nick asked quickly. “I didn’t see anyone.”
“He was right there- was he a ghost? He didn’t feel like a ghost, although… there was something…” Lillian tilted her head in confusion.
I sighed in defeat. “No, he wasn’t a ghost. Wait, I’ll explain…”
I ended up telling them the entire story in full detail. They were equal parts shocked, horrified and amazed. Nick seemed to have taken an instant dislike to Gabriel, although he seemed impressed by the story of my death.
“So, technically you died in battle, right? So you could have gone to… Valhalla?”
My lip twitched with amusement. “You’ve been reading up on your Norse mythology?”
He looked a little embarrassed. “Well, it might help if I sometimes understood some of what you are saying.”
I couldn’t help but laugh, feeling a thousand times better now that I was home and surrounded by friendly faces.
“To answer your question, I don’t know. Valhalla was mostly thought of as a place for males. There was also Folkvang or Hel or a number of other potential places. Although if what Gabriel says is true, I would have had to stick around as a Reaper for who knows how long first so I really don’t know what would have happened to me. Plus, who knows which religion got it right? Maybe none of them did.”
We lapsed into a thoughtful silence. I found myself leaning against Nick’s shoulder, feeling comfortably tired. I had finally warmed up enough to feel my toes and I was on my second cup of tea. It had been a while since I had felt so… at home.
Amir yawned. “I should try to get some sleep; I can’t take another day off of work.”
I nodded. “I’m sorry, it’s my fault you’re awake in the first place.”
He waved me off. “You didn’t mean for it to happen. Just… try not to teleport anywhere else in your sleep, ok?”
Uneasiness coiled in my stomach. How would I know if I did? What if next time, it was a club in town or the middle of a mountain range? I had no idea how to control it. If I thought of a place, I didn’t suddenly find myself there. I didn’t know what the trigger was for the power.
Lillian patted my hand. “Don’t worry; I’ll keep an eye on you until we figure this out.”
I smiled at the three of them gratefully. “Thank you, all of you. I am glad that I’m not alone.”
Amir went back upstairs to his apartment and I walked Nick to the front door. He stopped in the entryway and gripped my hand.
“I’m glad that you’re ok,” Nick told me. “When I found out that you were gone…” he winced, “I thought of all the things that could have happened to you and I-” he cut himself off and shook his head.
I looked down at out joined hands, embarrassed. “I’m fine. I am sorry that you were... worried.” I did not understand why he cared so much.
He sighed, squeezing my hand gently before letting me go. “I should get home.”
Once he had left, I decided that I had well and truly had enough for one evening, I crawled back into my bed gratefully. If I woke up to find myself in Australia, I was going to be supremely unimpressed.