Myself: Put down that pie! And stop watching the Bridgerton trailer!
Me: [mouth clearly full of pie] What pie?
Myself: [growls angrily]
Me: I thought you only came out to yell at me when I wrote smutty chapters.
Myself: Don’t pigeon-hole me.
Me: [confused] Okay….
Myself: You have a machinima to finish for next chapter! Get off of YouTube!
[But if you want a preview, check out the end of this chapter]
Windenburg Island, Bjersten Residence
“No,” Grim said as soon as he appeared. He pointed angrily at his eye. “I don’t know what you want, but I was lured here under false fuckin’ pretenses.”
“You mean yes,” Vlad corrected. In a flash, his hands were around the Reaper’s neck, “Alice has succumbed to her power in a way that no one understands, the Good Order Monks have taken our child, and I need, very shortly, to be pointed in the direction of the things to kill, or I will actually lose my mind.”
“Child? As in kid?” Grim croaked out. “Did I miss something? Is there some secret sex spell I don’t know about?”
Vlad squeezed tighter.
“Mercy!” Grim gasped, “I’ll do it, I’ll help!”
Flinging the Reaper away from him, Vlad watched dispassionately as he hit the ground. Without the distraction of keeping Alice calm, it was harder to reign himself in. Phobos was restless, hungry for the sharp taste of violence and fear.
“Bad joke,” Grim huffed, panting as he brushed off his robes and struggled to his feet. “Listen, I belong to the God of Death, so do you, so does this kid. Ipso facto, we are family, and no one fucks with this family. You mentioned the Good Order Monks?”
“You know of them?” Vlad asked, both disturbed and mollified by Grim’s declaration.
“Assholes and heretics. Always praying to the God of Death, always gettin’ denied. Benny hated those fuckers, but they got some powerful patron because they wield way more magic than should be possible.”
He swiped a hand across his forehead and groaned, “Fuck. Alright, I am about to do something but Phobos, my man, you are going to need to keep your cool.”
Vlad smiled in a way that communicated many things, least of all that he could be trusted to “keep his cool.”
Grim swallowed nervously, “Let’s just say I have a feeling about where she metaphysically went and thus, am in limited contact with the best creature to lead her out.”
Lead her out? There was a chance Alice could get lost? Alice and Gwendolyn could both be gone? Vlad clenched his fists so tightly he felt the bones in one of his hands break. The pain helped him refocus. With a nod, he stepped aside and let the Reaper through.
Once he was satisfied that Grim was working on Alice, he turned his attention back to Penny. He expected to find her wide-eyed and slack-jawed—the Grim Reaper tended to have that effect—but she just stood with her arms crossed, staring Vlad down.
“So, how exactly is it that Gwendolyn came to be your child?”
Alice fell through the darkness, her arms flailing, a scream having died out hours into her descent. A sense of peace had almost washed over her. This was fine. It all made sense. She just completely lost her fucking mind, and now she was falling into a pit of nothingness forever.
“Not forever,” a familiar voice called out.
She turned her body in mid-air, hoping to land with a front tumble. Why Alice thought this was possible was a mystery.
Watching gymnastics on TV did not teach you how to do it.
Her speed increased as she got closer. This was going to be a rough landing.
“Just until you hit the ground.”
And Alice did hit the ground. Her knees, stomach, elbows, and face all crying out in protest.
A hand reached out and pulled her to her feet. That familiar voice filled her with joy and longing, even as her whole body throbbed with pain. She pulled Ben into a hug, sobbing incoherently as she tried to find the words to greet him.
“Where the fuck have you been?” she accused when she could finally talk without crying.
“Here and there, all around. I—”
“You left me!” she shrieked and shoved him. Just then, her brain registered that he actually had a physical form. “Wait. Why can I touch you?”
“You’re the God of Death,” he replied, “And four other things that make you sigh angrily when I name them.”
Alice didn’t know what to say. She had whole reams of speeches rehearsed for the day she finally found him, and now: nothing. Maybe this was all in her head?
“A-Are you dead?” she asked dumbly.
“Gods can’t die,” he sniffed, looking at her like she was a complete idiot, “They become lesser things or forgotten things, but they are made of Magic and cannot cease to be.”
Okay, no. It wasn’t in her head; she would never make an imaginary version of Ben be this big of an asshole.
“Fine. Then what are you?” Alice snapped as she glanced around, taking in the miles of unformed darkness stretching in every direction. “And where are we?”
“I’m a ferryman. I mean, for now. That’s just a starter position. Eventually, I could move up to Reaper though Grim is notoriously difficult to impress. You would think with all the millennia of camaraderie we’ve built he’d—”
“Hold up,” Alice demanded, raising a finger. “Are you trying to tell me that Grim knew where you were the whole fucking time?”
Ben looked around as if searching for backup. When none materialized, he took a deliberate step back. “It was for your own good! You needed to accept your godhood!”
“A lot was going on!” he wailed, dropping to his knees, which was more drama than substance. She had been with “he of the unknowable name” long enough to know when he was putting on a show.
“Get up,” she sighed.
“Really?” he cracked open an eye, “You’re not upset?”
“Not upset?” Alice put a hand on her hip, “Of course, I’m upset! I’m fucking fuming! You lied to me and ditched me and then asked the Grim Reaper to lie too. Speaking of which, when I figure out how to get back into my sim-forsaken body, I am going to kill him! “
“As is your right,” Ben agreed, nodding amiably.
Alice opened her mouth to keep yelling but stopped. This entire exchange felt familiar and not in a good way. Over the past few months, she had told everyone, including the Grim Reaper, all the things she’d realized about her relationship with Ben. Now she was going to waste this opportunity yelling and fighting with him like always? They didn’t even share a body anymore.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“Sorry?” Ben repeated, disbelief written plainly on his face.
“Yeah. I didn’t ask a lot of questions,” she admitted, “Not about you, not about the contest, not about the world. You dragged me, kicking and screaming, and as a result, I discovered that I’m really not that awkward. I made friends, learned to bake, fell in love. Hell, I even smote two bitchy basilisks that were trying to kill me.”
Ben perked up, the look in his eye downright devilish. “A smiting? That’s impressive; I wish I could’ve seen it.”
“It was…something,” Alice laughed. She wiped her hands nervously on her shorts. “It hurt when you left. But I know…how I am, so I probably wouldn’t have grown as long as you were still there to fall back on.”
“I wanted to save your life,” he said solemnly, “I wanted you to be strong enough because—”
“This godhood business sucks?” she joked.
“I was going to say because you’re the Alice I’ve grown most attached to, and since the Fates were killing off all your copies in the thousand other timelines, I wanted you to be one that survived.”