PRW Runner-Up Tour: Love of Death by Mandy Springer
Chapter One – Godfather
Sephtis stood at the foot of the four-poster bed. He watched the woman as she held her daughter for the first and last time. Compassion and sadness welled in him at the poignant scene. The woman lifted her eyes from the baby and saw him. He awaited her reaction with an inner cringe, but she did not stir. Instead, she motioned for him to come closer.
In all of eternity, never had any invite him closer. Curious, he veiled them from the doctor and nurse, washing the newfangled instruments.
“Come closer, Sir. I am not afraid.”
Sephtis glided to the side of the bed, his movements awkward and stiff. Her kindness made him uncomfortable, a new feeling for him. He had only heard begs, pleads, and curses from those he visited. Not one ever conversed with him. This woman was strange.
“Sit.” She patted the large bed beside her and laughed as his indigo eyes widened in shock. Death had never been laughed at before. He did not know if he liked it.
“Why do you not fear me, lady?”
The baby gurgled and opened her eyes. She waggled her arms at him as if reaching out to him. He had never been around something so vital, and that vitality drew him.
“Will you watch over her when I am gone?”
The quiet question jolted him. Sephtis stared. What was with this woman? What insanity led this woman to ask this of him? Who asked favors of Death? “Lady, I –”
The soft plea had his gaze falling to the small girl once more. He reached out to caress the chubby hand still shifting about but held back.
The woman took his hand. She took it without hesitation and pulled it forward until the baby latched onto his finger, gripping tight.
“I will, lady. I will watch over her.” He had voiced the promise without realizing he had, but the universe heard his vow and shuddered. He was bound to keep the girl unto her natural life’s end.
The serenity on the woman’s face melted the anger before it fully formed. A feeling, unlike he had ever known, warmed him. “Sleep now, my lady,” he whispered as he dropped the veil and the sounds of the mortal world erupted around them.
She kissed the baby’s small head. Then she rested against the pillows. “Thank you.”
Sephtis watched as she closed her eyes and relaxed. He brought his powers forth, and they washed over her like a gentle wave, filling her body with a shimmering blue. He lifted her soul away to ferry it where it belonged.
A tear trailed down the woman’s cheek. It twinkled as it hesitated on her chin before falling into the baby’s eyes.
Chapter Two – Playmate
When Time would allow, Sephtis visited the little girl. It was always at night when the household fell asleep.
Veiling the nursery, he brought forth the tiny gift of power, laid it upon her forehead, and smiled in contentment as it melted into her. “Sweet one.”
She blinked and rubbed the sleep from her eyes. A huge smile formed. “Sephtis! You’re here!”
She launched herself at him, and he caught her in midair. She squealed as he swung her around as he laughed in delight.
The first time he had laughed, he did not understand why, but now he knew. Tansia had broken open something inside him and released these beautiful emotions he never knew he was capable. Death had not known joy until her, nor had he felt pleasure.
Sorrow, anger, hate, fear, and cowardice had been his only companions with humans, until this girl. He knew compassion for those he took, but he could not express it to those souls reluctant to leave this world.
This sweet child gave him so much, and in return, he would protect her unto her death. Even then, he planned to thwart the inevitability of her demise. As a being of free will, the final decision was hers, but he would offer the choice when the time came.
Time. It moved so fast. Before, time did not matter. He existed as he had always existed. Only now, the passage of Time meant she grew older, from infant to young child in so few moments like a blink of his eye. Too soon she would mature into a young woman, and the thought of that burned cold in his chest.
Sephtis hugged her close before letting her go. “How are you, sweet one? What have you accomplished?”
“I’m learning math. I know how to multiply now.” A proud grin appeared.
“Math, hmm? Would you like to see something impossible to multiply?”
Tansia bounced on the balls of her feet. “Yes! Can we? Please?”
He scooped her into his arms. “Close your eyes.”
When she did, they vanished.
“Open them,” he whispered in her ear.
An awed gasp echoed when she did. Rows upon rows of candles burned, a sea of candles, a universe of candles. Some stood tall while others were shorter. Some were only little stubs and a few were just sputtering in the wax. The flickering light set fire to the crystalline cavern housing them.
“There are so many. What is this place?”
Setting her down, he led her around the never-ending aisles. “This is the Cavern of Life. Every candle represents a living being. They are measurement of their lives.”
Her eyes widened. “Do I have one?”
Sephtis nodded. “Yes. Would you like to see it?”
“If I may?”
They walked the twisted paths of the aisle maze until they reached the central circle. The small clearing held only one candle. It sat on a pedestal of rose crystal. The flame burned a cool blue. “This one is yours.”
“So pretty. Why is it different?”
Sephtis knelt to face her. “It burns blue because a bit of my powers flows in you. It happened the night your mother asked me to watch over you.”
He picked her up. “I am right, am I not? There are too many to multiply.”
She giggled. “Yes, Sephtis. There are too many.”
“It’s time to return, sweet one,” he murmured softly. “Close your eyes.”
Chapter Three – Guardian
Her coming out ball was in full swing when he slipped through the side entrance unobserved. He found her laughing gaily at a young man’s comment. Her fan tapped his arm in mock admonishment. At only sixteen, she had already learned the art of flirting. A cold emotion flared at the sight, and Sephtis wanted to rip the boy’s soul from it shell. A trickle of power escaped his control.
An evil grin appeared as he watched Tansia shiver in reaction. She is mine. She can feel me now, boy. You will not have her.
His possessive thoughts spurred him forward. Just as the musicians started the next set, Sephtis flew in and stole her onto the dance floor, veiling them. “I believe this dance is mine.”
She struggled against his hold until she realized who held her. “Sephtis! You came!”
“I would not have missed this important event, sweet one.”
She relaxed into his embrace, and they waltzed. “How long can you stay?”
Sephtis shook his head. “Not long. Time allows me only for so much before violent repercussions occur.” At her disappointed look, he skimmed his fingers across the back of her hand. “Let us enjoy this dance.”
He brought the dance to an end with a flourish of turns that made her giddy and unstable. She held on to his shoulder to gain her balance.
He lifted her hand to his lips and kissed the knuckles. Her hand quivered in his, and triumph welled within when her eyes widened as she gasped. His hands slid away as he stepped back and bowed. “Until we meet again, my lady,” he whispered as he unveiled them and vanished from sight.
He slipped through the crowd unseen until a wave of hatred struck hard. Locating the source, he found the old man, gazing not at him but at her. He slipped closer, wondering why this mortal had such hateful feelings. Then he understood.
The boy was escorting her to him. He could see the resemblance between them. “Father, I would like to introduce you to a special lady.”
Sephtis turned away. An ominous feeling ran through him. He wanted to stay and keep watch, but the Call pulled him. He was needed elsewhere, but his gaze would not stray far from here.
The mortal was not to be trusted. The old man was near his time, but if he hurt her, then Sephtis would be more than happy to rip his soul from much, much earlier.
Cold terror raced through him without warning as he drew the last soul from the shipwreck. Fury burned as he realized what was happening. She needed him now. In an instant, he travelled to her side and what he saw drove him to the brink of madness.
Gripping the half-clothed mortal by the neck, he threw him off her and veiled them from her sight. Retribution was in order and took precedence. No one hurt what belonged to him, and this mortal would learn this lesson now.
“You have no right to stop me! She’s a temptress!” the man spat in disgust. “She does not deserve my son.”
Death’s full glory exploded in a blue-black inferno. His wrath knew no bounds as his powers flared in violent swirls around him, lashing out at the man. “Mortal.”
The one word boomed, stopping the demented man’s tirade. Stark terror replaced vehemence as he fell to the ground blubbering gibberish whenever the firestorm flicked his body.
“You have hurt one that belongs to Death. Now you will feel my fury.”
Sephtis gripped the man’s writhing black soul and drew forth the all the sins the man had committed through his lifetime. He forced the man to suffer them before returning the quivering mass back into the man’s body. “Your time is on nigh, mortal. You will see me again and you will suffer until you beg for mercy.”
The man crawled backward to get away from Death, losing control of his bodily functions.
Sephtis clamped down on his powers and released the veil. “Go.”
The man whimpered as turned on all fours, stood as he moved, and ran.
The bodice of her dress hung to reveal the corset and chemise below. Her skirt bore rents where the delicate lace had been demolished. Her face, neck, upper chest bore the brunt of the attack. A livid welt rose on her cheek where the man had hit her. Dark spots covered her neck where he had choked her. Her lips were bruised and swollen. Blood trickled from the where the skin had been broken.
If Death could die, her eyes would have done the deed. Shattered innocence stared back at him, but she did not truly see him. The dull vacancy in them fed the guilt drilling into him.
He knelt down and approached as if she were a wounded animal. He did not want to scare her. He reached out and touched her shoulder.
He swung her fist out in reflex. He caught it in gentle hands. She struggled against the implacable grip. “Sweet one, it’s Sephtis.”
A vice clamped around his neck in the form of arms. Her body shook as if the earth moved. “He tried – He tried to –”
“Hush, sweet one, I know what he tried to do.” He pressed her even closer, stroking her hair and back.
She sucked in a breath. “I thought he was you. I saw a shadow in the garden from my window and thought you were coming back. I wanted to sneak up on you. Only it was that man.” Her breath hitched in a sob. “It’s my fault.”
“No, sweet one,” he denied, kissing the crown of her head. “It’s not your fault. You are not to blame for his actions.” He scooped her up in his arms. “Let me take you away for a while.”
She nodded, pressing her face into the crook of his neck.
Without another word, he took her away from the mortal world and to his realm. Here she had a place to recuperate without interference.
He constructed an elegant room for her with a thought, as he did not need to sleep. He gently set her on the bed and pried her arms from around his neck.
“Shh. I’m here. Just sleep.” A shiver went down his spine. The Call. Kissing her on the forehead, he stepped away. “I have to leave. I’ll be back soon.”
In no time, he returned to find her awake. He closed the distance and sat on the edge of bed. “You should be sleeping.”
“I wanted to wait for you.” She sat up. “That and have you’ve ever tried to sleep in a corset?”
He chuckled. “No, I have not. Nor should you.” He motioned for her to turn around. “With your permission.”
She turned to expose her back to him and pulled off the ruined bodice, covering her front with the blankets.
He unhooked the stays. “I will never understand the reason for such self-torture. Do females thrive on pain?”
She eyed him over her shoulder. “It’s the fashion.”
Sephtis stood and conjured a nightgown for her, setting it on the bed. “Then turn your nose at the fashion and stop wearing them.”
“Scandalous,” she teased, but her joy fled quickly. “Will you come back? I don’t want to be alone.”
“As the lady wishes.”
Chapter Four – Friend
He knew she turned away from marriage after that night. He also knew that she enjoyed evenings out with young men but she never encouraged them beyond easy friendship. She had decided on a new path, an exotic path, a path that not many women could accomplish. She studied to become a physician.
That night in his realm, he warned her that to stay a human night there would change her irrevocably, that she would be able to see illness in people and maybe even see the flicker of their candle flame. She would know if they were to come to him.
She had said it did not matter, and he had wanted to believe her. Only he knew the consequences of her staying would be far beyond her mortal comprehension and she would come to hate him for allowing it.
He had feared that she would turn away from him, and in a way, she had when she realized the full magnitude of her choice. Instead of reviling him, she found a way to use her new gift for the good of mortals.
He still visited her in the four years that she studied. Truth be told, it was even more often now that she worked with the dying. It have him satisfaction to see her as happy as she let herself feel.
Now as the influenza pandemic spread, the Call came so often that many times he visited her three, four times a day.
Today was the fifth time he visited the sick room. Her eyes widened and she gazed at the sick infant she held. “Not this one, Sephtis. Please say it’s not the baby.”
He shook his head no. “Not the baby, sweet one. Despite the fever, you can see the flame is still strong. He may live yet.” Turning, he pointed to the bed at the far end of the ward. “I come for the young woman there.”
Sephtis heard the relief and anxiety in her question. “If that is her name,” he replied as he went to his charge. With a gentle hand he set it on the woman’s forehead and flooded her with his power, and with a sigh later, the woman died.
He watched as she put the baby into the hospital crib before coming over and covering the woman with the sheet. “I hate this. I hate watching their flames go out. It’s as if I failed them.”
Sephtis settled a hand on her shoulder. “You have not failed. No one can stop this plague.”
“I know. I just feel so useless.” She turned wrapped her arms around him.
Stunned at the initiated contact, he stiffened reflexively and cursed himself when she blushed in embarrassment. She made a move to step away, but he stopped her by molding her to him. “Stay.”
He cupped the nape of her neck and lifted her gaze to his. Dark circles and a pinched look met his concerned gaze. “You need rest, sweet one.”
She sighed. “There is never enough time. There are so many patients and so many more come in each day.” She clutched her fingers. “We’re overwhelmed, but there is no one else. We have to quarantine them here or they would just spread it.”
“I know. Even I am becoming exhausted by the enormity of it. There are more mortals now that when the Black Plague ran rampant.” He let out a breathy chuckle. “I must be getting old.”
She swatted at him for the horrendous joke. “Old indeed.”
The Call came so strong that he held his temple and swayed. “I must leave now, sweet one. Many call for me.”
Standing on tiptoe, she pressed a kiss to his jaw then stepping away. “Take care.”
Sephtis touched where she had placed the kiss and stared at her as she went to check on the patients. His brow furrowed when her flame fizzled for a split second.
Chapter Five – Love
She had succumbed to the disease as the end of the crisis. She was one of the few patients left in quarantine. Her valiant fight to save so many had broken her body’s own defenses. Now she was slipping away from her world, her soul Calling to him.
Sephtis stood at the foot of the four-poster bed. His heart broke at the sight of her. Her fever burned her hollow cheeks bright red. The skin around her eyes was bruised.
Her flame worried him. It was not meant to go out. It was supposed to be evermore, but his gifts through the years of her life had not conquered her mortality.
Only her choice now would allow for that possibility. Would she choose him and an immortal life?
Death feared the answer.
He glided forward and stoked her hot forehead. “Sweet one.”
She opened her eyes and blinked. “Is it time?”
“No, it is not time.” He sat beside her and cupped her cheek in his hand. “If you wish it, you will never have a time. You can choose to forgo mortality.”
She tried to speak, but he stopped her lips with his thumb. “Long ago, I vowed to keep you safe and protect you. It was your mother’s last wish.” He smiled at the memory. “She was never afraid and that made me want to keep you. I knew you would be special.”
His indigo eyes darkened. “I have given you a gift of my power with every visit, a spark no bigger than a rain drop, to prepare for this day. I wanted to give you the choice. Do you understand?”
She nodded, her eyes glistening. She clutched at his free hand.
Taking it, he lifted it to his lips. “I never realized how special until I saw the boy with you. I have never known the sting of jealousy until that night. Nor have I felt wrath as great.”
A tear rolled from her eye. “Sephtis?”
The awed way she said his name drew his attention. He saw a blaze of hope and some deep emotion he was too cowardly to name. Setting her trembling hand to chest, he held it there. “Stay with me. Forever. Stay with me for eternity.
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