A sharp rapping came at my door at about midday and I looked up, glaring from where I sat slumped in my chair. Purposefully ignoring the knocks, I picked up my iron poker instead and pushed the dying embers around in the fireplace, kicking up a few small flames. I reached for a small piece of wood from a freshly piled stack, and tossed it in to feed the fire. The flames kicked up and spilled their warmth over me, and I sighed as I settled back into my chair.
The strange chill I had felt earlier had subsided now, and my anxiety had finally settled to a more manageable level, but my mind had not moved on from the event. I was lost as to what was happening with me. I didn’t have an explanation, nor was I sure where to find one and Grenth was silent, as I had come to expect lately from the god.
I put my thoughts on hold, grumbling to myself how nice it would be to be left in peace. As soon as I had retreated back to my room after the confrontation with Quint and Dee, it seemed everyone and everything wanted to speak to me. Dee had tried calling to me from the other side of my door but eventually left when her attempts failed. Quint had come as well, but also left when I refused to reply. Neither one of them resorted to busting down my door, thank the Six. Looking over at my open window where Athena had made a habit of perching, I watched her clean the snowy white feathers under her wing. No matter what I yelled or threw at her, the owl refused to leave me alone, so I didn’t even bother anymore.
Letting out an audible growl, I sprung up from my chair and stormed to the door, tearing it open with such great force that the breeze wafted my hair into a crimson mess around my face.
“What-,” I started to bellow, but stopped when I saw who was standing on the other side.
“Hello, Nienna.” A raven-haired, young woman greeted me cheerfully, but her smile fell as she took in my ragged appearance. “Oh my,” she uttered quietly, “did I come at a bad time?”
Sighing sharply, I motioned her in and closed the door. There wasn’t much use in sending her away. If there was one thing I remembered vividly about Captain Danae Morgan, it was how persistent she was. It was a quality about her that I admired and also found incredibly annoying.
“No offense,” I began, “but I had asked them to send all visitors away.” I plopped back down in my chair and pulled the blanket back up on my lap. “How’d you get inside?”
“Oh, the tall, angry norn let me in,” Danae replied, slowly strolling over to my table as she took in the state of my room. The black feather-shaped panels sewn onto the panels of her longcoat fluttered with each step she took. Grabbing the other chair, she pulled it just across from me. “This was of course after the other tall angry norn held a pistol in my face. I assured them I’d sent word ahead of me and had an appointment. Though, I can see why you might not be taking visitors right now.” She motioned to all of me before unbuckling her belt and leaning the scabbard against the chair. Carefully, she sat but didn’t lean fully back in her chair.
“How are you?” I asked, trying to be polite.
Danae flashed me a playful smirk as she shrugged. “Oh, you know, same ol’, same ol’, and stuff I’m not allowed to talk about.”
“Ah yes, the Order’s way of things,” I replied. “How’s the ship?”
“Tip top shape,” Danae said, grinning proudly, showing a set of perfectly straight pearl-white teeth. “Purring like a content kitten. May not be as luxurious as this,” she casually motioned all around my room. “But it’s home and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
I drummed the tip of my fingers my chair’s armrest. “That’s funny, considering your roots,” I said.
Danae’s grin faded into a closed-lipped smile. “It’s amazing how one’s priorities shift when thrust into the real workings of the world.”
I nodded in agreement. “So, what brings you my way?” I asked, adjusting the blanket on my lap.
Danae shifted uncomfortably in her chair. “I was in the neighborhood and thought I’d stop by. It’s been a long time.” She reached back and as she adjusted something under her coat, I caught a glimpse of her pistol harness.
I eyed her suspiciously. There was something off in her usually jovial tone. “And?”
Danae forced a smile on her lips and did her best to remain stoic, but I could see the slight fleck of worry in her aqua eyes. “And,” she began hesitantly as she leaned forward, “I got wind of some information you might like to know.”
Arching an eyebrow, I leaned forward, intrigued. “What sort of information?”
Shaking her head slightly, Danae confessed. “I shouldn’t even say. They’ll have my hide for it if they find out.”
“I’ll have your hide if you don’t tell me,” I warned as I narrowed my eyes at her.
Danae frowned. “The Order has sent a slayer to watch you.”
“A slayer?” I asked, taken back. I slouched further in my chair as I took in this specific detail. “That doesn’t seem right. I haven’t done anything to cause concern.”
“They must be convinced that you have,” Danae said, gripping the arms of her chair with both hands, “because the Order has sent the Reaper.”
I froze as an unnerved chill climbed up my spine. The Reaper was an agent with no known records and no known name. No member or agent of the Order knew who the Reaper was, except for the Master of Whispers and the Reaper’s handler, and no one knew who either of them were. The Order preferred it that way in order to preserve the Reaper’s effectiveness. The Reaper’s duty was to handle the more sensitive matters threatening the Order as well as Tyria: matters that required an efficient and precise treatment, leaving no evidence pointing back to the Order. I had no doubt that my abrupt departure from the Order of Whispers years ago, raised some concerns and I had expected an investigation, which is why I kept quiet and hidden. However, sending a slayer, let alone the Reaper after me, didn’t sound proportionate to my actions. I hadn’t done anything outright to make them believe I was a threat to the Order or to Tyria.
“You can’t be serious,” I scoffed as I shook my head. “They couldn’t have sent the Reaper after me. Why would the Order send their best slayer after me when there are far more dangerous threats out there?”
Danae’s concerned visage began to shift, conveying a great sense of frustration. “This isn’t a joke,” she assured me. “Apparently, the Order has a bug up their ass that you might be a threat. I don’t know when or how, but they gave instructions at some point for the Reaper to watch you and take you out if found to be a dangerous threat.”
The seriousness in her tone struck me hard and a cold sweat enveloped me as my heart set off into a sprint. If the Reaper determined I was a serious danger, who knew how much time I had left. I sank further into my chair. Anyone who trained with the Order learned through speculated stories just how deadly the Reaper was. Whether the stories were true was yet to be determined, yet each story had the same points: The Reaper was a ghost, leaving no trail or sign, and no one ever saw them coming. If the Order sent the Reaper after you, there was a target on your back and the Reaper never missed.
For a time, I sat in quiet contemplation with Danae mirroring the silence from where she sat across from me. Possible options and strategies spun around in my head but each and every one of them didn’t seem to develop into anything useful. My thoughts scrambled and grew into a collection of incoherent thoughts and all at once, I felt so very tired.
“Tell me you have a plan here,” Danae said.
I merely shrugged and weakly shook my head. “No plan.”
The ship captain stared at me incredulously, her aqua eyes growing wide. “None? You’re just going to give up like that?”
I remained quiet for a moment before my next words came tumbling out of my mouth. “Maybe I should. Maybe it’s time.”
“Wha-?” Danae started to utter, but her words morphed into an unintelligible jumble of frustrated sounds.
Then, the sudden noise of Danae’s chair scraping against the wood floor erupted throughout my room, startling me. As she rose, Danae pushed her chair back with such force it tumbled onto its back. Her eyes grew aflame with anger and her cheeks flushed bright red. Leaning over, Danae placed her hands firmly on my chair’s arm rests, bringing her face close enough to mine that I could feel her warm breath on my face.
“No,” she began with quiet intensity. “I’m not going to allow you to give up so easily.”
“Maybe you should Danae,” I argued, not making any effort to move back away from her. “So many people have died because of my choices. My stupid choices. I’ve failed everyone.”
“I don’t care what you’ve done,” she growled. Slamming her palms on the armrests. “I don’t care why you had to leave. I remember our time in the Order, back when you called yourself Selene.” The captain backed away and slowly started pacing in front of me, occasionally gesturing in my direction. “We were both young and I was so scared, but I remember you sitting with me there in the dark after that beating. You had that silly black hair, remember? Don’t think you were always able to hide your roots.” She smirked but it fell quickly as she continued. “I barely made it out of the training ring alive that day. Do you remember what you said to me?”
I pursed my lips thoughtfully as I recalled the memory Danae was describing. The agents in charge had given Danae a captured risen as her opponent in an early training test. Not having much experience with the world outside her lofty existence, Danae hadn’t taken her introductory training seriously, and as a result, her technique and precision faltered. The undead subject recognized this and took advantage of the situation.
The sparring ring erupted into a flurry of blows and most of the blood spilled was not from the risen. The undead creature quickly cornered Danae, and though the situation looked grim for her, there was nothing the rest of us could do about it. I wanted to help, but I also knew I had to follow the Order’s strict rule of no interference. Eventually, I had make myself look away.
Then, something changed in Danae, something within her core of existence. Gasps of surprise erupted throughout the rest of the recruits as Danae let out a savage yell and began to fight back. I turned around and watched her land strike after strike, her features twisted into a primal mask of fury. With her bloodied sparring sticks, Danae fought the risen into submission until she had it on the ground and it ceased to move. Hobbling out of the sparring ring, Danae was far worse for the wear, physically as well as emotionally. Her pride had been battered to a pulp and she had taken it especially hard. As another trainee entered the sparring ring to begin their test, I followed Danae away from the crowd and found her sitting with her knees clutched tightly to her chest in a dark corner.
“I’ll never forget what you said to me. I still carry those words with me wherever I go,” Danae confessed, interrupting my thoughts as she looked down at me from where she stood.
I clenched my jaw as I looked away.
“You said to me, when all hope is lost and our backs are against the wall, that’s when our true strength reveals itself.”
I shook my head, my eyes starting to glisten over. “It’s not the same, Danae,” I replied solemnly. “You don’t know what I’ve had to endure all these years. The choices I’ve made. The lives I’ve lost. I can’t keep doing this.”
“The woman I knew back then would not give up,” Danae said as she looked me square in the eye. “Never.”
“I’m not the same.”
Without warning, Danae rushed at me, quicker than my vision could track, and pushed me over in my chair. I hit the floor with a grunt and before I realized what was happening, I felt Danae’s hands on me, lifting me up and pushing me back towards the wall. My upper back hit the wall hard, but I managed to keep my head forward to avoid a head injury. Baffled by what had gotten into Danae, I reached for her and gripped her jacket as I braced myself against the force she exerted against me.
“Danae, what – in the Underworld — are you—,” I cried out as she reached for my throat and squeezed. My breath caught as she applied firm pressure and I struggled to fill my lungs as I thrashed against her.
“What will you do, Nienna,” Danae asked as she narrowed her piercing aqua eyes at me, “with your back against the wall?”
“Danae –stop.” I could feel my body start to grow cold, as if blanketed in a thin frost, but I willed with everything I had for it to go away. I could only deal with one crisis at a time.
“What will you do?”
My heart raced uncontrollably with fear as I struggled against my old friend from the Order. Unable to breathe and Danae holding firm against me, instinct took over and my thrashing grew purposeful and direct. I kicked Danae’s left knee with as much force as I could muster and she buckled just enough to give me an opportunity to land a punch against her left cheek. It stunned her just enough and I was able to sweep in my other arm and push against her grip on my throat. It worked and she loosened her grip a little. Swiftly, I thrust my foot as hard as I could at her stomach, and the airship captain stumbled backward onto her backside, her grip completely letting go of my throat.
I started reflexively coughing and filled my lungs as much as I could. My body swimming with a volatile mix of adrenaline, confusion, and anger, I quickly stumbled over to my tumbled chair and picked the iron poker up off the ground. Ready to retaliate, I raised the poker and turned towards Danae, but I was met with a primed pistol pointed at my face.
“No, you’re not done yet,” Danae said, a pleased smile on her lips. “Are you.”
Still catching my breath, I stopped long enough to realize I had my iron poker ready to strike at my old friend who had just had her hand at my throat. Everything had happened so fast, I hadn’t been able to process Danae’s motivations. As I lowered my guard and relaxed my grip on the instrument, what had really happened began to sink in. I tossed the iron rod aside, towards the fireplace, and it landed with a loud clatter. The frosty outline of my hand on the handle melted away immediately.