SOUL EATER: Chapter 2
The shower, in fact, did nothing to help the headache. The heat may even have made it worse. Brilliant idea, self. High-five.
Thanks to the pounding in my skull, I wasn’t feeling up to eating. The thought of forking breakfast food into my mouth actually made my stomach turn, so instead of heading down to the kitchen, where Lex no doubt had some egg-based feast prepared, I grabbed my sword off the dresser, opened the bedroom door, and headed straight down the grand staircase to the front door, shrugging into Mercy’s leather holster as I jogged down the final few stairs. Exercise and fresh air would make me feel better. It always did.
“Kat?” Lex called from the kitchen. “Is that you?” I could hear her daughter, Reni, humming. Her toddler voice sounded utterly content; she always hummed when she was eating something tasty. I had no doubt that Bobby was in there, too. Lex had taken the little human-turned-Nejeret under her wing almost as soon as he came to stay with us on Bainbridge Island.
I considered leaving without responding to my big half-sister, but I was really trying not to be a dick these days. I paused with one hand on the doorknob. “I’m heading out to the beach,” I told her.
“No need to shout,” Lex said, appearing in the doorway to the kitchen, a brown paper lunch sack in hand. She scanned me, her eyes assessing the telltale sweats, sneakers, and sword. “Practicing again?” Her eyes lingered on Mercy’s handle, sticking up over my right shoulder. When I nodded, she stepped into the hallway and held out the paper bag. “Take this.”
I held in the words “I’m not hungry” and met her halfway down the hallway to accept the bag of food. It was heavier than I’d expected and I raised my eyebrows once it was in my hand.
“Bagel and cream cheese and a protein shake,” Lex said, resting one hand on her hip. “You’ll need your strength if you’re going to spend another morning out there swinging that thing around.” There was no judgment in her eyes, just sympathy. She understood what it was like to be a prisoner in this place, trapped by circumstance.
Lex’s husband, Heru, was the head of our people, leading not only the Nejeret fight against the Senate, the anti-human branch of Nejeretkind, but also heading up our diplomatic relations with the human world—both roles that left him with plenty of enemies. And thanks to the otherworldly soul bond that Lex and Heru shared, if one of them died, the other would fall soon after. Because of that, Lex was a prime target, right up there with Heru.
And right up there with me—“the Goddess.” Despite my assurances to the human world that I was no such thing during the big reveal at the concert a little over a week ago, the nickname had stuck, and the humans were running with it. A week and a half after appearing to the billions dying from the Cascade Virus, I’d made an encore appearance and told all of humanity that immortals lived among them. And now I was the most famous person alive.
“You’re too good to me,” I told Lex, tucking the brown-bagged breakfast under my arm.
At least, thanks to Lex, I ate well while my new notoriety kept me trapped within our heavily guarded walls. Over the past month, since Heru had declared war on the Senate, she’d taken to cooking for all of the Nejerets residing in the main house. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner had all become gourmet feasts around this place. Usually I’d have been all over that—Lex was an excellent cook—but not this morning. Not with this headache.
Lex shrugged. “What’s family for? Besides, I’ve got to do something around here. Otherwise I’ll go nuts.” Lex’s brow knitted, and she studied my face more closely. She reached out to touch my arm with gentle fingers. “Something’s wrong.” Her carmine eyes searched mine. “What is it, Kat?”
Reni squealed in the kitchen, and Lex glanced over her shoulder before returning her attention to me. “I know you’ve been through a lot. You can talk to me . . . about anything.”
“I’m fine,” I said, patting her hand, then taking a step backward.
Lex and Dom were always trying to get me to talk about the big “it”—my death. Their kindhearted persistence kept the incident at the forefront of my mind, stirring up the panic that was never far from the surface. I wished they would stop.
“Didn’t sleep well is all,” I said, turning on my heel and striding back to the front door. “Kiss the kid for me, will you?” I tossed over my shoulder, and then I was outside and taking deep inhales of the fresh, morning air. It was drizzling, but that was the norm for the Puget Sound in March, and the dewy drops soothed my frayed nerves, just a little.
As I made my way along the wooded trail to the beach, I rubbed the back of my neck, digging my fingers in nice and deep and feeling the ache abate, but it only provided temporary relief. The moment I removed my fingers, the dull throbbing returned. The fresh air and exercise might not ease the pain, but at least they would provide a distraction. Better than sitting inside, reminiscing about my old life, being generally miserable and feeling sorry for myself. Both things, it turned out, I excelled at.
The old, familiar trail spat me out onto the rocky beach. I dropped the paper lunch bag and placed one hand on a piece of driftwood for leverage as I leapt over it. I drew Mercy with the melodic ringing of At on At and launched straight into my practice sequence as soon as I landed. My frustrations fell away as I grunted and thrust, twisted and rolled. I sliced through the salty sea air with Mercy’s blade, the unbreakable crystalline length collecting tiny droplets of rain every time I stilled, then flinging them off when I shifted into the next position.
My body took over, and I moved through the forms without thought, just as I’d done thousands of times. This felt normal, the only aspect of my old life that remained the same. My breathing quickened, supplying the blood racing through my veins with the oxygen it needed. Perspiration mingled with rain on my skin and clothing until my sweats were nearly soaked through. The ache in my head throbbed in time with the beating of my heart, pounding a primal rhythm against the inside of my skull.
Time ceased to matter, and the minutes flew past, becoming hours.
I spun around, muscles straining from fatigue, Mercy’s blade cutting through the air with a whoosh. My right foot landed in a dip in the beach, and I misstepped with my left, rolling onto my ankle with the entirety of my body weight.
I hissed in a breath and dropped to the ground, tiny rocks clacking and crunching beneath my hip. I never misstepped—not ever—and the mistake pissed me off.
“Agh!” I yelled, chucking Mercy like a tomahawk. With a resonant thwang, she landed nose-first in a large piece of driftwood a short way down the beach.
I huffed out a breath and straightened my legs out in front of me, moving my left foot around in a slow circle to test how badly I’d injured it. A sharp, hot pain stopped the movement short. Felt like a mild sprain—so, maybe a half hour of recovery time plus a short period of regenerative sleep tonight. Nothing dire.
My stomach grumbled. I was hungry. The headache wasn’t any better, but I’d been out here for a couple hours, and my body’s need for food had surpassed the point of pain-induced appetite suppression.
Breathing hard, I rolled onto my knees and tucked my good foot underneath me, pushing up off the ground with my hands to stand. I sort of limp-hopped over to the spot near the trailhead where I’d dropped my to-go breakfast and plopped down on a bench-high piece of driftwood.
Waves rolled in gently, leaving sea-foam and kelp on the rocks as the water receded. The Puget Sound beyond was a dark, gray mass looking like tarnished silver in the dim light of the overcast sky. In the distance, a lone white ferry slid slowly across the surface of the water, moving from one emerald hill to another. I inhaled, tasting the sea, and closed my eyes. This far-off view was the closest thing I had to a window to the outside world now.
“I hate to interrupt, little sister,” Dom said from the mirror pendant hanging on a leather cord around my neck. “But Lex would like to know if you’re planning on joining the others for lunch.”
I snorted and let my head fall back. My incorporeal half-brother excelled at interrupting pretty much anything I was doing. “Is it opposite day?” I asked dryly.
“I’m sorry,” Dom said primly. “I do not follow . . .”
“Never mind,” I said with a brief exhale of a laugh as I opened the paper bag and peeked inside. Sure enough, a bagel with cream cheese sandwiched between the two halves lay within, safe in a plastic baggie, and a reusable tumbler held a thick, gray-brown protein shake. Chocolate, from the looks of it. Maybe enough for a normal person, even after a workout like I’d just had. But then, I was far from normal. And with the sprain, I would need more food to refuel than usual. Definitely more than this. Lunch probably wasn’t a bad idea.
“Garth has returned,” Dom said. “I believe he’ll be at lunch.”
“Oh yeah?” I hadn’t seen the former cop since the concert, and I was genuinely excited to catch up with him. We’d fallen into an awkward yet somehow easy friendship since downgrading our relationship from more-than to just friends. Plus, I was eager to hear the undistorted truth of how humans were handling the revelation that Nejerets walked among them. The Public News System’s feeds just didn’t cut it.
“Tell Lex I’ll be there,” I told Dom before tearing into the bagel. I shifted on the driftwood, propping my left foot up. Elevating my ankle would help the sprain heal faster. After a deep breath, I took a swig from the tumbler.
“And Heru is due to return later this morning.”
I choked on the protein shake, my slowing pulse spiking. I felt my face drain of all color and had to force my hands not to shake as I set down the tumbler before I dropped it. I cleared my throat, rethinking my lunch plans. “I thought he wasn’t coming back until tomorrow.” To be fair, it wasn’t Heru I was worried about seeing, but the man who would be returning with him: Nik.
The two had been away for the past two days, Nik acting as Heru’s bodyguard while our fearless leader met with top officials in Washington, DC. And it didn’t get much more top than the grand ol’ POTUS. Some thought leaving the safety of his home territory was too risky for Heru; not Lex, surprisingly enough. And not me. Maybe that was because we both knew that nobody would get to Heru with Nik guarding his back.
Oh, sure, Heru was more than capable of taking care of himself in most circumstances, but some of the Senate’s followers were the special brand of Nejeret—the kind with sheuts that afforded them magical powers beyond the usual good health and longevity that blessed our kind. With the merest thought, Heru could teleport out of the way of any physical attack, but what about a magical attack on his mind? Luckily, Nik had the skills and magical prowess to protect Heru against any and all attacks, whether they be of mundane or sheut origin.
“They concluded their talks early,” Dom said. “The next meeting will take place here.”
“Oh . . . neato,” I said. But my brain could barely process what Dom had just told me. It was too focused on the impending run-in with Nik.
I’d been keeping my distance since the whole bringing-me-back-from-the-dead incident. Every time I saw Nik, I came a little bit unhinged. It was like I was right back in that driveway, lying on the gravel, freshly returned from Duat and my unbelievable meeting with Isfet. When I looked into Nik’s eerily pale blue eyes, I couldn’t pretend Isfet hadn’t tasked me with freeing her from Aaru, a place no being, not even a powerful Netjer like Anapa, would be able to escape from. When I looked at Nik, I couldn’t ignore the fact that the fate of the universe depended on me not failing. Or the fact that I had no idea what I was doing.
I hadn’t asked for this. I didn’t want to be special. I’d blundered into it through recklessness and stupidity. I was far from the right person for the job, but circumstance made me the only one who could do it. And I was terrified. I spent my days dodging a cold, crippling fear. Steal-your-breath fear. Lose-sleep, can’t-eat, cry-in-the-shower-fear.
I used to be strong. I wasn’t anymore.
Every time I saw Nik, I was reminded of that. I felt it. And I hated it.
“What happened to you, little sister?” Dom asked. He knew where my thoughts had gone—where they always went these days when I was around Nik—and what feelings those thoughts evoked within me, even if he didn’t know why. “Perhaps talking about it will help you heal.”
“I wish . . .” I forced myself to take another bite of the bagel, consciously moving my jaw up and down as I chewed. It tasted like cardboard slathered with glue. With some difficulty, I even managed to swallow. “But this isn’t the kind of thing that gets better with words,” I said. I inhaled and exhaled deeply, lowering the bagel to my lap and staring out at the sea. “You wouldn’t understand. Nobody will.”
“You died,” Dom said. “Do you not think that I, of all people, can relate . . . at least a little?” There was some tongue-in-cheek to his tone, and I raised one eyebrow, the corner of my mouth quirking downward, though he couldn’t see my face.
Dom was dead. Or rather, dead-ish. And thanks to me—or maybe no thanks to me—he now spent his days in limbo, stuck inside the world beyond the mirrors, a mysterious reflection of our world he’d yet to tell me much about. But at least he wasn’t trapped in Aaru. That was some small comfort.
I sighed. Dom kind of had a point about the whole dying thing. “No, you’re right. That was callous of me. It’s just . . .”
It wasn’t dying that disturbed me so much; it was everything that went along with it. But I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that. I hadn’t been able to tell anyone about what happened to me after I died. Part of me hoped it had all been a figment of my dying mind. That same part of me feared that saying it out loud would make it real.
I shoved the bagel into my mouth and bit off way too much, hoping that would shut me up before I had the chance to stick my foot farther in.
I heard a twig snap some ways back in the woods and turned to peer into the trees.
“What is it?” Dom asked. His hearing was dulled in death, leaving him at my mercy to relay what was going on around me most of the time.
“Nothing,” I told him, turning back around and taking a swig of the protein shake. It was probably just a squirrel or a crow, or maybe even one of Lex’s cats, hunting said squirrel or crow.
Except, several seconds later, I heard the crack of another stick breaking, followed by the unmistakable murmur of lowered voices. One of those voices was impossible not to recognize—because it belonged to Nik. Sometimes it felt like my ears were honed specifically to pick up on his voice.
“Damn it,” I hissed, the words barely audible. Dom had said they wouldn’t be back until later this morning. I should’ve had at least another hour or two. But no, Nik just had to go and ruin my peace by returning early.
Not ready to face him, I snatched up the tumbler and bagel, wedged the paper bag under the driftwood to hide it, and tiptoe-limped back to the woods. I’d gotten good at moving quietly over the years—a trick of the trade, I supposed. Even with my sprained ankle, I managed to slink unnoticed far enough into the woods that it was easy to duck out of sight by the time two people came into view through the trees.
Nik walked at a leisurely pace, arm in arm with his beautiful, ancient daughter, Mei. I rarely saw the two together—circumstances way out of their control had prevented them from ever being close—but watching them together like this, it was impossible not to see the resemblance. She had the trademark, striking look that made her ancestors—Nik, Aset, and Heru—all so breathtaking: angular features, almond-shaped eyes, and skin shimmering with an inhuman golden tint. She’d won the genetic lottery, even inheriting her father’s extra gift—a sheut. Using that, she could teleport with barely a thought. And back before the new gods, Susie and Syris, put the kibosh on time travel, she’d been able to move from one time to the next as she pleased.
I inhaled deeply, then held my breath and closed my eyes, focusing on listening. Hearing their voices wasn’t difficult, especially not with my sensitive Nejeret ears, but their voices bouncing around between the trees made it a little more difficult to pick out their words.
“. . . suspected, but I wasn’t sure,” Nik said, his voice seeming to hover around me for a millisecond before fading away.
“But now you are,” Mei said. “Or, at least, you think it likely, but you’ve come to me to confirm it.”
Confirm what? Of course, this was probably an MYOB moment and I was the one eavesdropping on a private conversation, but still—confirm what? My blood burned with curiosity. Maybe I was avoiding Nik at the moment, but that didn’t make me any less interested in what was going on with him.
“Who is it?” Dom asked. “Are we in danger? Should I alert Lex?”
I couldn’t risk responding. They were too close.
“I know you don’t like to talk about the things you’ve seen,” Nik said, “but I have to know for sure. If I’m right about this, it changes everything.”
I squeezed my eyes shut, letting out my breath as quietly as possible before inhaling and holding it once more. What were they talking about?
“I’ll make an exception, just this once,” Mei said, “and only because telling you changes nothing. We are already traveling down this fork in fate’s path.” She was quiet for a moment. “You are right, Father—I’ve seen it. And yes, it does change everything, but not necessarily for the worse . . .”
Nik snorted a laugh, the sound more displeased than amused.
“You need to tell her, before either of you gets hurt. It’s not just her life she’s responsible for now.”
“She won’t like it.”
She? My eyes popped open, the lids narrowing to slits. She who? And what did Mei mean about the “not just her life” bit? What had Nik done now—gone and gotten some chick knocked up? Would Mei finally have someone to call a true brother or sister?
My stomach knotted, and my lip curled, though I didn’t understand why I was having such a visceral reaction to the news. Nik was beyond gorgeous, and we had a past—a troubled, complicated past—but we weren’t attached to each other in any way. I had no claim on him, no right to feel hatred toward whoever this chick was. I didn’t even know if she was real.
And yet I’d never felt jealousy like this before. Maybe it was a product of my stupid, overactive teenage hormones, but that didn’t matter; I needed to tamp it down before I charged over to Nik, demanded he explain what was going on, and made a complete ass of myself. Or, at least, more of an ass than usual.
“Yes, well,” Mei continued, “can you blame her?”
They were nearing the opening of the trail, where soft, pine-needle-padded earth met a sea of pebbles. Once they were on the beach, I was so out of there.
Nik paused at the mouth of the trail, extending his arm out in front of Mei to stop her, too.
Mei turned her head to look at him. “What is it?”
But Nik wasn’t looking her way. He was staring at something further down on the beach. Was there danger? Maybe a Senate assassin had swum its way here unnoticed? A boat would have been sighted, no matter how small, but someone in diving gear . . .
I stood partway to get a better look at whatever had caught Nik’s attention. When my eyes landed on it, my breath lodged in my throat. Mercy, her At blade shimmering faintly in the dull morning light, stood proud from where she was lodged in that damn piece of driftwood.
“Shit,” I mouthed.
I made a split-second decision, and no, it wasn’t to reveal myself, though I couldn’t think of a single thing that would’ve made it more obvious that I was somewhere nearby, lurking like a stalker, than my apparently abandoned sword. Nik knew better than anyone that I would never leave Mercy behind. She was a part of me. A part of me that he’d made.
I stood and sprinted away, ignoring the twinges of pain in my ankle as I dodged trees and leapt over boulders and fallen logs. I reached the house in barely five minutes. It had to be some kind of a record. I shoved my way through the front door, ran up the staircase, and barreled into my bedroom, slamming the door shut.
Practically panting, I leaned back against the door and sank down to the floor. My ankle felt like it was on fire, throbbing with the beat of my heart. I’d re-injured it, and worse, this time. No matter, it would heal.
“Did you catch any of that?” I asked Dom, eyes on his full-size presence in the standing mirror across the room.
“No,” Dom said. “I am still unsure who exactly you were running from.”
I brushed the stray strands of hair from my face and let my head fall forward, gritting my teeth and growling. Nik would know I’d been there, and now he knew just how extreme my avoidance of him was. It was only a matter of time before he returned Mercy, those pale eyes filled with a knowing glint. He might not say anything about the conversation I’d overheard or the fact that I’d run away from him, but that wouldn’t change the he-knows-I-know reality. Or the I’m-a-stalker reality.
“Are you planning on enlightening me?” Dom asked.
I peeked at him through my lashes, cheeks burning. “I haven’t decided yet.”