How to avoid being seen, even when you are standing right beside someone.
In all honesty, sometimes, it is not that difficult. A man gasps his last breath, a woman fades away peacefully in her sleep, and they are alone as they pass. Just you and them, and in those moments there is beauty. It is a sacred moment. Sad, to those left behind, but sacred nonetheless.
Sometimes, it is not only the deceased there. Some lucky humans die surrounded by loved ones. It is easy to stand among them to witness those last moments. Their attention, after all, is not on me.
Violent deaths are different, I thought to myself as I walked along a dusty road in rural Wisconsin. Those, I usually did not watch. We never knew we would have to be there until the death had already happened. Random. Cruel. Violent death left its victims with no dignity, no peace in that moment, that infinitesimal space between life and death.
The hot summer sun beat down on my hair, making my scalp feel hot. I’d shed my leather coat a few miles back. Even I have my limits, and there was no one here to intimidate.
* * *
So the first thing you learn is how to be invisible. The second thing you learn is how not to care. Caring is useless, a waste of time and energy, when our entire existence was devoted to one purpose: escorting the dead to what came next. There was nothing else.
A crow passed overhead, squawking at me in passing, and I knew that it was going to claim a soul. I could feel it, that old urge to escort it myself still strong. In this case, a twenty-seven year old man had died when his tractor tipped and crushed him beneath it. He was leaving four children and a young wife, and there was not a single thing that could be done about it because death comes for all, even those who are not human.
I have watched great human empires rise and fall. I have watched the most powerful men and women take their final breath. Some raged against me when I came to claim them. Some went happily, ready for the next part of their journey. I wondered how this man would feel, a father and husband, with so much yet to live for.
I pushed it aside, and walked on. It was no longer my concern. In some ways, I was glad for that. For the first time in eternity, my path was one of my own choosing.
I never would have guessed that freedom would be so stifling.
I have made choices in the past couple of years that I never could have imagined making before. The decision to not merely befriend Mollis Eth-Hades, but to fight for her, to defend her and her home against those I’d known for millennia, had surprised me as much as anyone. It felt right, and I still do not understand why, but I am glad I did so.
More decisions. More choices, things I never even gave a second thought to before, such as how I would dress, how I would wear my hair, which foods I preferred. Music, movies, books. None of them were things I had given any consideration to before. It was as if a whole new world had opened itself to me. I have seen everything. Nothing surprises me. Yet I find that I delight in ordinary things in a way that feels alien to me.
Perhaps I am changing.
* * *
The first thing you learn is how to be invisible. The second thing you learn is how not to care. The third thing you learn is that your only value lies in how well you dedicate yourself to those you were created to serve.
I was the most dedicated. The most reliable. The one who would go without sleep, food, or even sitting down for days on end if it was needed. I was the perfect servant, the perfect hunter for the god of Death. I reveled in it. I believed in it. I prided myself in my ability to keep working long after the others had decided to quit.
I believed in Hades. The beauty and dignity in death. I believed in justice, in my role in assuring that actions taken in life were judged and punished after death. Balance. Righteousness.
I still believed in those things, but somehow, it was not as simple anymore. My god had died. My king. If death can claim even the god who ruled it, what balance can there truly be in this world? What purpose is there for someone like me, like Mollis? Is it all just chaos that we fool ourselves into believing we have some control over?
I kicked a stone and idly watched it disappear into the tall wildflowers at the side of the road. Perhaps Mollis changed us all, with the things she’d done. Some believe so. Mostly the Aether gods. I do not think so. My sisters began betraying Hades and his family before Mollis even became part of our lives.
I furrowed my brow. It was a choice they’d made. One I had not. One I had not been privy to until I was slapped in the face with the cold reality that the twelve immortals I’d referred to as “sisters” had not only betrayed everything we were, but had left me behind.
I took a breath and looked up at the clear, empty blue sky. It was time to move on from here. It was time to stop wandering, hoping to find something I am not even sure I would recognize if I saw it.
* * *
The first thing you learn is how to be invisible. The second thing you learn is how not to care. The third thing you learn is how to serve. And the fourth thing you learn, the thing all immortals hold on to, is that humanity is beneath us. Humans are a means to an end, to either be ignored or toyed with; chess pieces in an endless game to use as the gods see fit. To Hades, they were like tally marks, and all had to be accounted for.
I believed all of it, once upon a time.
I walked back toward the small log cabin I had slept in the night before, and every night the month before that. When I opened the front door and stepped into the single room of the cabin, the woman I had been staying with was lying in bed, watching me with a sleepy expression on her lovely face. Violet smiled, and I smiled back.
“I am glad you are awake,” I said.
“I was wondering if you’d taken off on me already,” she said, sitting up. Her toes peeked out from beneath the buttery yellow sheets, her toenails painted a pearly pink. Her long blond hair flowed in waves over her shoulders, her skin tan from days spent out in the summer sun. She was golden and soft and warm, and I was happy I’d known her.
“Not without saying goodbye,” I said, a small smile still on my lips. I sat on the bed beside her, and she gently ran her fingertips through my hair. An intimate gesture, one I would not have expected as part of my life.
“Thank you for last night,” Violet said, giving the ends of my hair a gentle tug.
I smiled wider. “I feel as if I should be thanking you,” I said, and she laughed, and it was rich and alive. She hugged her knees, still sitting in bed beside me.
“You really have to go?”
“I haven’t had many flings, Mia,” she said, using the shortened form of my true name I’d begun giving to the humans I met along the way. “I’ve gotta say: usually I feel like shit when it’s all over.”
She grinned. “Usually I feel like shit because it’s awkward,” she said. “This isn’t awkward. I’m glad you stuck around.”
“I am awkward by nature,” I pointed out, and she laughed again.
“Not as awkward as you seem to think,” she teased. She sobered. “I want you to take care of yourself, Mia. I know you’re a quiet person by nature, but these past few days it’s been clear there’s something on your mind.”
I nodded. How odd to be known, even a little bit, by another. “My family needs me,” I said.
“I hope everything goes all right, then,” she said softly, taking my hand. “Be safe. The way you talk about your family, I keep picturing The Godfather or something.”
I let out a short laugh. Well, she was not too far off. I was familiar with those movies. “It will be fine. I have been away for some time. I miss a few of them.”
“And the rest?” she asked, delicate eyebrow raised.
“Not so much,” I admitted, and she laughed.
“That’s the way it is with families, I think,” she said, and I nodded in agreement. We sat in silence for several long, comfortable moments that I wanted to hang on to for as long as possible. She was a good woman. A sweet woman, and she’d brought laughter, warmth, and pleasure into my life in the time we’d spent together. I had never lied to her. She knew I would not stay, and she was not looking for more, content, at this point in her life, being alone. I looked up at her, meeting her soft brown eyes as I had so many times when we’d loved one another, my gaze moving to her full lips, and I warmed at the memory of the things we’d done together. I met her eyes again, and she smiled.
“I’m not going to see you again, am I?” she asked in a low voice.
I squeezed her hand, leaned forward and gently pressed my lips to hers. She sighed in contentment, and the sound filled me with joy. That my touch could have this effect on someone still amazed me. She kissed me, gently nibbled my lower lip, and I heard a soft sound escape me, one that spoke of desire. Need. She had that effect on me. A few more soft flutters across her lips, and I pulled back.
“So I guess that was a ‘no,’” she whispered, worrying her full lower lip between her teeth, as if mimicking the way she’d just done the same to my own mouth.
I did not want to think about the next time I would have the chance to see her. Likely, it would not be until her soul passed from the mortal realm, and all of her warmth and life was left behind her. I hated the thought of it.
What a surprise, that death, which has always been my life, is something I have come to greatly dislike at times.
“We both knew it would be so,” I reminded her gently, and she nodded.
“I know,” she said. “It would just be nice to know you’re okay. You’re pretty awesome, Mia.”
I smiled. “As are you, Vi. I will be fine,” I told her, squeezing her hand again. “I do not know how to be otherwise.”
She shook her head and climbed out of bed. I watched as she pulled a white t-shirt over her body, covering curves I’d delighted in over and over again.
“Take a picture. It’ll last longer,” she teased, and I smiled.
“I will remember,” I said, and she smiled back. She was beautiful, and I would not forget her. I have been with a small number of people in my time wandering. Men, women. What equipment they had or did not have did not matter to me. Eyes. Smile. The ability to make even a cold old woman like me laugh. Those were the things that made me want someone. I would not call any of it love, if such a thing is even something I am capable of. But there was joy, and warmth, and laughter. Life.
Gods, life is a beautiful thing.
I stood up, and grabbed my black duffel bag out of the closet where I’d left it the night before after I’d packed. Violet watched me, and I went to her, and we shared one slow, sweet kiss before she tugged my hair gently and pulled away.
“Go on. Otherwise I’m totally going to kidnap you and keep you here,” she murmured with a smile.
I laughed, and we hugged. “I will never forget you. Thank you for this time.”
She nodded, and blinked a tear from her eyes, and gave me a small wave. I walked down the road, toward town, where it would be possible to catch a bus if one needed to travel that way.
When I was out of sight, I turned back one last time. The cabin looked tiny in the distance, its green metal roof shining in the summer sunlight, heavy branches of the nearby white pines arching over one side of the structure. I breathed in the scent of wildflowers, dusty road, her scent still on my skin.
* * *
The first thing you learn is how to be invisible. The second thing you learn is how not to care. The third thing you learn is how to serve. The fourth thing you learn is that humans are of no consequence.
The fifth thing you learn is that we are the choices we make. And this is something the humans learned long before we immortals did.
I dropped the enchantment that had hidden my wings from Violet. It was no longer needed, and it was time to be myself again.
I had spent over two years trying to find myself, trying to find a reason for being now that my role was stripped from me.
I do not know that I found it. What I do know is that this world is beautiful and worth protecting. And there is one woman who does that better than any other. It was time to serve my friend, my Queen. I spread my wings and rose into the air, delighting in the warm sun on my skin, the air cooling me as I flew east.
It was time to go home.