Danielle tried to pass the time by counting seconds, but it did nothing to stop the shaking that had overcome her hands. As she clenched and unclenched them in her lap, she tried not to look up at the glowing chambers Coroner had ushered her up against after admonishing her for being in the way of his work. In such close proximity of the devices, she got an eyeful of the shadowed figures inside before she felt her stomach flip over and spun away from them. They were all people—writers. The same writers she had met since her arrival in Nothing, as well as a few others she didn’t recognize.
Closing her eyes, Danielle was sure that Coroner could hear every single agitated beat of her heart. And that each one made him even more impatient with her.
It wasn’t her that he turned to in annoyance, however. Through one of the other doors of the Laboratory not too at from where she was sitting, a young man strolled easily in. Danielle gaped up at him, panic splashed across her face. The flush of his cheeks and lack of chains told her he was mortal. He couldn’t be here—he’d end up like she was going to end up—like the other writers would end up.
All he did was smile down at her as if nothing could possibly be wrong—but the strange, dark glint in his eyes told her something was. Danielle shut her mouth before she’d ever spoken a word.
“I remember you,” he said. “You just keep winding up in the worst places, don’t you? So sad. Someone as cute as you should’ve found somewhere safer to hide.”
Danielle opened her mouth again as she shrunk back in flustered confusion, but his face lit up and he laughed before she had a chance to ask what he meant.
“You find me attractive, don’t you?” He ran his hands down his chest. “Don’t be embarrassed, little virgin, this one’s quite a catch.”
“Stop tormenting my test subject.” Coroner tapped one of his hooves in impatience. “This work is tedious enough as it is without having to subdue the damn things.”
The young man rolled his eyes and crossed his arms. “Lighten up. If you’re not going to pretend to be happy to see me at least be happy that I brought you this tall drink of water to plug into your machine.”
Coroner sneered. “I’m not going to use that one. Already tried once and he nearly ruined everything. Perhaps if you were better at that job of yours you’d know that, Rosemary.”
“Rosemary?” Danielle found herself gawking for a second time.
Neither of them spared her a glance.
“Don’t hit below the belt unless you want me to start hitting there, too,” Rosemary said, lowering her voice.
Coroner scoffed, but turned away with a wave of his hand. “If you insist on interrupting my work, at least make yourself useful. You must have spied on me enough by now to know how it goes.”
“Fine.” With a sigh, Rosemary reached down and, grabbing Danielle by her arm, hoisted her up onto her feet. Danielle stumbled, but the fingers digging into her blazer kept her steadfast. “You don’t have to be so rude about it.”
Rosemary pressed a series of buttons on the side of the chamber and it twisted open. Danielle didn’t have the time to fully process it before she was shoved inside and the opening snapped shut before her. She slammed her palms up against the inside of it on a reflex, and this only made Rosemary laugh.
The demon pressed the forehead of the mortal she was possessing against the other side of the glass and gave a look playing at sympathy. “Don’t be scared. It’ll be over before too long, and you’ll have served a great purpose. Remember that when it starts to hurt. And it will. It always does.”
Danielle sunk to her knees and covered her face in her hands to dam up the tears that formed there. All she could hear was that laugh—that cruel, inhuman laugh.
“No! Stop it! That isn’t nice!”
The small, high voice broke through the fog of despair that had begun to shroud her consciousness.
There was a flash of red, and Rosemary was shoved to the side in favor of Hayden. On her knees, he was taller than her at his full height, and stared down at her with concern in his big green eyes. “Are you okay Miss Danielle? I’m gonna get you out of there it’s not where you’re supposed to be!”
“Hayden—your arm. You—”
“How’d you get out of Hell, you little cockroach?” Rosemary pulled him away from the glass by his collar, causing him to trip over his feet and all on his hands. “Satan would never overturn a sentence that severe so quickly.”
“I wouldn’t underestimate him, if I were you.” Standing at the doorway Hayden had zoomed in from, another mortal wagged a finger. “Got out all on his own. And healed me! You know, I’ve heard he’s even developed quite the entourage since his rising.”
“Cernun.” Rosemary stepped toward him, her stance threatening. “I broke your legs once and I’ll do it again if you don’t play your cards right.”
Cernun feigned surprise. “What? That was you? What a twist! In any case, all in the past. If you’re squatting inside my charming friend, Matthew, you clearly don’t have the firepower to back up your words. Actually, I know for a fact you don’t.”
Rosemary turned back around. Her gaze became understanding as it fell on Hayden, but the smaller demon wasn’t paying her any attention. He’d crawled back to Danielle again, his hands meeting hers against the glass.
“I don’t know how to open it,” he admitted softly.
“That’s okay,” Danielle said. Her obvious lack of conviction caused Hayden’s face to fall. “I’m glad you’re safe now, and not hurt. I’m sorry about everything that happened before.”
Hayden shook his head, his nose wrinkling in distaste. “Nuh-uh! I was all mean and stuff and it wasn’t right! But—”
Rosemary cut him off, whirling him away from the glass. She dug Matthew’s nails into his shoulders. “You miss your precious human so badly? I’ll make sure you join her—but not until you give me back what you stole.” Hayden squeaked in fear as Rosemary slammed him back against the glass, making his head bounce against his chest. “Go on—cough it up! That power was mine! Mine!”
“Stop it! Stop, you’re hurting him!” Danielle pounded her palms against the glass, but it hardly even wobbled.
Hayden raised his hands in front of his face in a weak attempt at defending himself. Danielle didn’t know what they were talking about in regards to what Hayden had stolen, but she knew that it was her fault he was doing nothing to stop the torment he was going through. She had designed him this way: weak and scared. Too scared to fight back even if he could.
Her vision became green and hazy as her chamber buzzed to life around her. Nobody was stopping Coroner from his experiments. She’d join the other writers in oblivion before too long. Everything was hopeless.
Or so it seemed, until Rosemary dropped Hayden and stumbled back, holding her head.
“I’m not going to let you use me to hurt people,” Matthew said from between gritted teeth. His legs wobbled.
Cernun rushed forward to meet him and clasped his hands upon the other man’s shoulders. “That’s it, fight! All of you! Hayden—get up! You have the power to change lives, believe in that! You’ve seen it work for yourself. And you,” he looked at Danielle, who had to squint to meet his gaze, “believe in Hayden as much as he wants to believe in you. He can’t do anything without that faith. If you truly feel that he can free you, and save all of us, he will!”
Hayden struggled to his feet. “I dunno,” he started.
“Get off me,” Rosemary growled, Matthew’s control fading as his body began to thrash against Cernun.
Danielle’s heart pounded as she looked from Cernun and Matthew down to Hayden. He was so small and unsure, and she had never imagined him as anything else. How could she believe that he could save her when she had only ever written him failing?
A knot formed in her throat. Maybe none of that mattered. If someone had her pick her strongest characters, he’d be in the lineup every time. “I do believe in you, Hayden,” she decided. “I said before that I put you in this place because I thought it would be a good story, but that’s only because I know you’re strong enough to reach the place you belong.”
Hayden looked at her. Danielle could see confusion written cleanly across his face through the green. She coughed as her voice and vision weakened. “You have a demon’s body, but you’ve always had the soul of an angel.”
The change was so instantaneous Danielle’s brain barely managed to process it. She thought she saw Hayden smile, and Cernun give a triumphant whoop, and Rosemary bark an incredulous laugh, but all of this was lost beneath the white light that exploded out from Hayden’s back.
It never truly faded, at least not all the way, but when her eyes adjusted to the brightness Danielle could hardly breathe. Hayden had become an angel. Or something akin to one, anyway. He still had his horns and his tail, but the light surrounding him had taken the shape of wings. And beyond that, his body had grown taller and stronger. Hayden’s smile shone as white as his eyes.
“Thank you,” he said. His voice had become a gentle tenor.
The scene playing out behind him was harder to watch. Matthew’s body had begun convulsing in painful spasms. Cernun let him go, and Matthew fell to his knees, where he crawled forward a few steps. The dark twinkle faded from his eyes as a black sludge poured out from his mouth. The creature that crawled out from inside of him slowly took Rosemary’s shape—or a bleeding, tired version of what Danielle remembered from Ballas’ warehouse.
“You don’t belong here,” Hayden told her—although, Danielle wasn’t sure she could really call it Hayden. It was his body, and his soul, but he had become something more than she knew. It was as if there were many beings speaking from one vessel, backing his desires and steering his intent in the right direction.
Rosemary played for a laugh as her arms and legs became solid and she left Matthew’s hunched, semi-conscious form behind her. “What are you going on about? The only one who doesn’t belong here is you.” She hobbled forward, her fingers becoming needle-like. Although she was clearly in pain, she didn’t let it show on her face.
“I’m going to take back the Something,” Rosemary hissed, “and send you straight back to Hell.”
She lunged, and Danielle screamed when Hayden didn’t move. He didn’t need to. Rosemary’s clumsy attack never landed. Hayden grabbed ahold of her wrists before her nails could reach him, and it was all that he had to do.
“Your mother’s been waiting for you,” he said. “You shouldn’t have stayed behind.”
Rosemary didn’t get the chance to ask him what he meant. The skin he had come into contact with began to shine. She gave a screech and struggled to move away from him, but Hayden held fast. The light crawled up her arms faster and faster until there was nothing else left. Rosemary fell forward, her body going limp. When the light cleared, she was a child—the same child Danielle had imagined would have once accompanied Rella as a sister.
“Go, now,” Hayden told Rosemary gently as the small soul opened her big brown eyes. “You are as you once were. They won’t turn you away.”
Danielle caught the beginnings of tears in Rosemary’s eyes, but she had disappeared before they had the chance to fall.
Hayden turned back toward Danielle and approached the glass. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to leave you stuck in there. I don’t believe either of you should be here.” He reached in as if the glass didn’t even exist and pulled her out through it. Her legs gave out the second she was free of the chamber and she only didn’t fall forward on her hands due to Hayden’s support. Her chest felt tight and her whole body felt weak; she hadn’t even realized how badly the machine had been affecting her.
“Are you okay?”
Danielle turned toward the new voice. Two faces had appeared behind her: Hayley and Nicholas. They both stared at her with concern, but while Hayley rushed over and took her from Hayden’s supporting arm, Nicholas went to join Cernun and Matthew.
“Yeah,” Danielle murmured. She opened her mouth to explain what had happened, but shook her head as she looked toward the doorway her friend had come from. She could still hear the sounds of approaching footsteps. “Were there others with you?”
Hayley’s expression became grim. “Not exactly. I you saw the mob that had been outside the Labyrinth, they’ve broken past the other walls. They were at our tails.”
“I’ll talk to them!” Hayden beamed. There wasn’t a hint of his former nervousness evident on his face. “They can’t come in here, so I’ll make them all go back to where they were.”
“Hayden,” Danielle started. He was through the door before she could finish telling him to wait.
Behind them, Coroner twisted a knob and slammed the side of his fist down on a button. The floor beneath them rumbled, expanded, and plates shot up in a clean circle around them too fast for anyone to react to. They had been cut off from the rest of the Labyrinth at every path. Hayden was gone, stuck on the other side, where the rabble that had begun to sound so close had been completely silenced. “I don’t care for such distractions.”
Hayley let out a tense, half-relieved breath. “Well, uh, thanks for that?”
Danielle shuddered and clutched onto Hayley’s arm more tightly. “Don’t thank him.”
Coroner continued working at the controls in silence. The machine whirred back to life and the green chambers glowing even more brightly. The souls of the writers still trapped inside writhed in unconscious pain. Coroner stopped to observe them for a minute, then made a quick notation on his clipboard. He turned toward the mortals next. “Do me a favor and walk yourselves into the empty pods. I don’t have the time or patience necessary to play shepherd.”
“Like Hell,” Hayley declared all at once, following an extended period of stunned silence. She squared out her chest, but Danielle only cowered further.
“Please don’t antagonize him,” the blonde murmured.
“Don’t worry, I got this,” Hayley assured under her breath before turning her full attention back to Coroner. “Death and I are running the show here. So, uh, if you want to answer to him—”
Coroner raised an eyebrow, and as if on cue, Death fazed seamlessly into existence in the middle of the room. He had an arm wrapped around Rella’s waist, which she hastily slapped away at the sight of the others.
“—go right ahead,” Hayley finished, looking for all the world as if she had planned his reappearance from the start.
“What’s all this now?” Death’s tone was indicative of a raised eyebrow.
Cernun was the first to open his mouth. He pointed an accusing finger toward Coroner, his other arm supporting the half-conscious Matthew. “He’s betrayed you! He’s trying to use the Labyrinth to turn himself into a God and take control over this realm.”
“Huh.” Death shrugged. “Ambitious. Knew you’d try something, didn’t think it would be that.”
Coroner frowned. “I don’t simply perform science for the sake of science. And your plans for this realm are unoriginal, at best. The souls of Nothing need a firm hand that you’ll never be able to provide.”
Hayley rolled her eyes. “What are you going to do, turn them into soldiers? Besides, you don’t have the firepower to turn yourself into any sort of deity. The Labyrinth was never built for that kind of thing. It recycles energy of souls to fuel it, but to do something that big you’d have to completely burn them up.”
Coroner scoffed. “Yes, your original blueprints did need some modification. But luckily, after that human there—” he gestured toward Matthew “—overloaded the machine, I had plenty of excuse to modify its function.”
“That’s nice and all,” Death interrupted, taking slow steps closer to Coroner, “but what makes you think that I’ll let you take over?”
Coroner smiled. “You won’t have a choice, to start. You should have already discovered by now that killing demons is outside of your power. I saw what was done to that shapeshifting pest.”
“Rosemary?” Rella tensed, her narrowed eyes scanning the room. “She’s here?”
“Was here,” Coroner corrected. “She’s since been destroyed. About time, too. I never cared for that one.”
“You killed her?” Rella’s eyebrows shot up, but her shoulders sagged in relief.
“Actually, that was more of a divine intervention sort of deal,” Cernun explained. He opened his mouth to continue, but when Rella whirled around to glare at him, his words tapered off. “You would’ve had to be here.”
“The point,” Coroner hissed, pulling a metallic tube out of the control panel, “is that I can do as I please.”
He pressed another button, and the end of the tube became needle-like.
“Aren’t you going to do something?” Rella asked, shooting an annoyed look at Death. He shrugged.
“Rella’s right,” Hayley added. “You can’t just let him become a God. That’s insane.”
Death shrugged again.
When nobody else made a move, Coroner slid the needle into his heart. He didn’t so much as flinch. Danielle gave a yelp of discomfort and Hayley winced, but Death remained still. They watched, powerless and idealess, as the trapped writers struggled and became limp. Their souls bled out through the pores in their bodies and Coroner took that energy inside of himself. His skin glowed green. When there was nothing left for him to take in, he pulled the needle out of himself and let it clatter to the floor.
“Funny thing about that.” Death backed Coroner into a corner. “Can’t kill a demon but I can kill anything else just fine. And you ain’t no real God, son. You don’t have the body for it.”
Coroner chuckled as he flexed his fingers, savoring in the rush of power he felt. “Preposterous,” Coroner said. Whatever he had become, it was something stronger than a demon could ever be—and his body didn’t show any sign of breaking. At least, not immediately. As Coroner raised himself to his full height and shifted his cloven hooves into strong, human legs, he stumbled and had to support himself on the control panel. His whole body pulsed with the green light of the soul energy he had filled himself with. It moved beneath his skin as if it was trying to escape, and Coroner began to wheeze in pain, clutching his chest. “Impossible. This wasn’t a part of my calculations,” he hissed between clenched teeth.
“It serves you right,” Nicholas said. He shook his head as if he were lecturing a disobedient child. “You shouldn’t underestimate the power of a soul, nor should you have expected them to cooperate with you after you imprisoned them.”
Coroner snarled as Cernun chimed in with a patronizing “tut, tut” but made no further rebuttal. It was Death who grabbed his attention. The God grabbed Corner by the lapels of his labcoat as if he weighed nothing and shook his head.
“Shame,” he sighed. “Had a good brain in there.”
He didn’t have to finish his thought. There would be other Coroners. There always were. Death lifted one of his hands to the ex-demon’s forehead, and it was like watching a star implode until there was nothing left but cosmic ash.
The machine’s lights dimmed. When there was nothing left or anyone to say, Hayley sighed. “Now what do we do? We needed that power to get out of here.” Although her words were full of frustration, her face was nothing but concerned. “And with the way Coroner’s rigged the machine, we can’t use anyone else to fuel it.”
Danielle squeezed her arm in understanding. The writers were both of their friends. As important as it was to get everyone back where they belonged, none of them were meant to get hurt in the process.
“Can’t we just rebuild it?” Matthew asked. He still looked shaken, but he’d regained enough strength to stand on his own.
“I have ideas, but I don’t think any of us are mechanics?” Hayley shook her head. “And anyway, even if we were…”
“It won’t bring anybody back,” Danielle finished. “They’re...just gone now, aren’t they? What’ll happen to their characters? Or...their families?”
“Don’t worry.” All eyes turned to Nicholas as he spoke. He only smiled. “Plug me into the machine. I should have enough power to bring everyone back and send you all back home.”
Several voices made their confusion known.
Nicholas’ smile didn’t change. It remained patient and sympathetic. “I’m a demigod,” he said simply, raising a hand as mouths gaped open for an explanation. “Please. It’s not something I like to broadcast, so I know how unbelievable it may sound. How I became one is also a very long story that I’m afraid we don’t have the time to hear. I we wait too long, I’m afraid I may be unable to reverse the damages done. So…”
He turned to Death. “I’m assuming you understand the controls well enough.”
“Yeah.” He put his hands in his pockets. “Don’t got a problem with it.”
“Well, I do.” Rella grabbed Nicholas before he could get any closer to the machine, speaking up for the first time since learning of Rosemary’s disappearance. “You’re being insane. You’re planning on destroying yourself. There’s no turning back from that.”
“Rella.” Nicholas sighed. He put his hand over hers. “I lived out my mortal life long ago. These people are only just beginning, and they’ll contribute so many great things to their worlds. If I can try and help them, I’m going to do it.”
“But,” she started, her voice lowering to a whisper, “I need you here. I need you to be here when I die.”
Nicholas moved his hands up to cup her face. “No,” he said. “You don’t.”
This time, she was the one who put her hands over his. They dug into his skin almost angrily. “Don’t leave,” she said. It was more of an order than a plea. “Please.”
He gave her a kiss on the forehead and left her standing alone as he joined Death at Coroner’s machine and picked up the discarded needle. Rella didn’t turn to watch as he plugged himself in and Death played with the dials. She closed her eyes and clenched her fists and fought against the emotions battling to show themselves across her face.
“Goodbye.” Nicholas looked at each of the writers in turn. “And good luck. Live long, happy lives.”
Rella only turned to watch as his body faded away. The machine burst into life as Nicholas’ energy blasted about them. The writers in the chambers gasped for air, but before they could assess their locations they were gone. And so were Hayley and Danielle and Matthew and Cernun.
She and Death were the only ones left at the center of the Labyrinth.
Rella covered her mouth with her hand as she struggled to process all that had happened so quickly. Nicholas was gone. Nicholas was gone, every piece of him destroyed, and he had left her with an empty pit in her stomach. Her knees shook. He had left her even after she told him she needed him, and his sacrifice hadn’t been for her, so why did it hurt? Why did she still care?
The night he had found her still shone like a beacon among waves of dark memories. His smile had given her hope, his encouragements the strength to continue on when she’d thought she’d ran out of reasons to keep living. And he had gone away from her so quickly, for reasons she still didn’t quite understand.
Everyone but her had moved on. For a short while she even thought that she’d managed to leave her feelings for him behind. But now there would never be a chance to see him again, for any reason, in any plane. No amount of stolen kisses could compare to the feeling of worth that Nicholas had given her. Without him in her future, she feared all at once that she was back to meaning nothing. To being nothing.
“How could you let him do that?”
Death turned away from the machine to look at her from under the brim of his cap and shrugged. “He offered.”
“There could have been another way to stop all of this.” Rella clenched and unclenched her fists. “There was no reason for him to be a martyr.”
“Probably.” Death stretched his arms over his head.
Rella watched him. She wiped the tears she hadn’t realized she’d been shedding from her reddened cheeks and clenched her jaw. “You knew,” she decided. “You already knew how to fix this, but you let him destroy himself.”
Death didn’t have to answer. The ease of his stance spoke loud enough.
The emptiness Nicholas had left in Rella’s chest swelled with fury. “It was because of how I felt about him, wasn’t it?”
“What can I say? Competing isn’t really my style.”
Death grinned and Rella lunged for him. She never reached him. Her vision flipped and her legs twisted, and without comprehending what had happened she was sprawled at his feet. Moving was a struggle. Her whole body was something small and weak and unfamiliar.
And then all at once it was familiar. Too familiar. She was a child again, she was six again. She had always been six.
Her anger was washed out with panic.
“What did you do?” she tried to ask, but the words came out an unfamiliar squeak. “What did you do to me?”
Death rolled up his sleeves and stooped down. Even bringing himself down to her level, he towered over her. “Did what you wanted, girlie: changed my future. Looks like it’s done a real doozy on your past.”
Rella’s vision swayed. Her whole body felt like static and her mouth filled with hot metal. When she reached a shaking hand to her neck, it came away red.
Death brought a hand to cup her chin. “Only hurts a second.”
They were the last words she heard before she, too, disappeared.
Death’s truck rumbled to a stop. He let it idle for a full minute before putting it in park and letting the engine’s rattle subside. There wasn’t any reason for him to pause. He had nothing left to think about—he had already made up his mind. He’d said so. If he didn’t follow through with his promise, things wouldn’t happened the way that they had back in the labyrinth—not for him and not for anyone else that had been down there with him.
But this was it, the moment of truth, as they say. What was to stop him from shrugging his shoulders and letting the gears of time come screeching to a halt for a second time? Everyone always seemed to get in a big fuss over the idea of a paradox, but Death didn’t scare so easy.
There was no guarantee of a happy ending for him, or for any of the souls stuck in Nothing. The only thing he had now was a promise that maybe someday, if he went against his better judgment, things wouldn’t end up as bad as they could. That eventually, the conditions of his eternity may even begin to be considered tolerable.
Rella couldn’t really offer him anything. She’d shown him what not to do to escape one bad ending, but had no knowledge of the fork in the road he was parked at now. What was the point in being the nice guy when it didn’t offer him anything? That wasn’t Death’s style.
He looked out the passenger window. Rella’s past had already changed. She stood alone under the gas station’s swaying awning to protect herself from the rain. The nice clothes she wore she had charmed from a lonely single mother when she passed through the last town up the road. Her little shoes were splattered with filth.
Rosemary had never stayed behind to haunt her, Nicholas had never found her, and Faustene had never had a reason to play babysitter. She was alone, and she was still six. She would always be six.
She wasn’t Death’s style, either. Not looking like that. He flexed his fingers on the steering wheel. If he left her there, she wouldn’t be his problem. Death knew better than to rebuild the Labyrinth, so there wasn’t anything saying he couldn’t find some other way to get what he wanted without her help. She’d die eventually, somewhere down the road, and when she did he wouldn’t be there. He’d never see her again. Rella would never be an influence on his future again.
Death thought about how she was when he’d met her, red-lipped and knowing just what to say. He thought of everything that she’d gone through with him and for him, and how nobody else had ever given enough of a lick to do the same. How it was likely nobody ever would again.
The thought stopped him from starting the car and driving away.
Death grinned and flicked the rim of his cap with a low chuckle. “Well, little darlin’,” he said, “you can’t hate me for what you don’t know.”
He waved his hand, and the metal awning collapsed. Rella’s head slid from her body before she knew what happened, and Death stepped out of his truck to greet the soul that rose from the carnage.
He didn’t like it, but as long as it was in his own terms, he’d trust her with his eternity.