TO KILL AN IMMORTAL
The dead watched Kai Bree. She watched them back. Whether they were old dead, new dead, animal, or person, it didn’t matter, Kai saw them all the same.
Right now, it was the old dead, a few wispy figures, the ghosts of several people and a few birds, gathered on the tracks around her as the roller coaster car rumbled slowly up the incline to the peak of the first drop.
She could talk to the ghosts if she wanted. They’d acknowledge they heard her by the shift of their eyes, but they never answered. They just watched.
Kai often wondered if she had this strange ability because she spent her life playing Hide-and-seek with Death. Staring out at the hills and valleys formed by the tracks of Oblivion, the fastest, tallest, steepest roller coaster in the world, she wondered if today would be the day Death finally caught her.
The roller coaster car stopped. Kai’s gut fluttered. A silly grin spread across her face.
The first drops on the best roller coasters were known to make riders puke. Some questioned their life choices. Others prayed. Many screamed. Some begged to get off the ride.
She lived for that moment, in that moment, the razor’s edge between fear and thrill. With a silly grin plastered on her face, Kai welcomed the flutter in her gut, the tingle along her skin, the adrenaline rush, the sensation of her stomach dropping out.
A thought sobered her anticipation.
Smiling solemnly, Kai looked up to the cerulean sky from the roller coaster seat. “Mom, Dad, I miss you soooo much. I wish you guys were here to see me. I did like you said. I worked harder than anyone; I went out and did things people said I couldn’t; and I’m living my best life. I hope I made you proud.”
Ray reached over from his spot in the roller coaster car beside Kai, put his arm around her, and gave her a squeeze. “They’re proud of you, lil sis. We all are.”
Kai was proud of herself also. Proud of the things she’d achieved. One of those things was making the track team.
She smiled as she recalled the shocked expressions of Lizzie, Marcus, and Winslow who’d made fun of her for two semesters, had told her she didn’t have what it took for a track meet.
More importantly, she’d graduated from high school and aced the SAT exam. Offers from Ivy League schools filled her email. As did internships from several game companies.
She'd done it all despite being poor. Despite a cancerous brain tumor. In fact, the doctors had claimed she’d be dead by now.
Shows how much they really know.
She shook her head and smirked at her doubters. Too young. Too sick. Too weak. Not smart enough. She’d heard it all, but she was still here. She’d never given up.
I wonder what they’d say now if they were here. If they could see me in Abu Dhabi, celebrating my sixteenth birthday, living my best life like I told them I would.
She smiled. This trip had been high on her bucket list. A dream come true.
She couldn’t wait to feel the thrill, the lurch in her stomach on steep drops, the weightlessness. All of it was pure enjoyment. Other than fantasy books and video games, she could think of only a few things she liked as much as roller coasters.
There was getting her hair done in long cornrow braids. And her cousin, Karin. Oh, and Jamie Barston, of course. She frowned. Those last two weren’t things. They were people, so technically, they didn’t count.
And she wasn’t so sure about Jamie anymore. He’d taken Lizzie to the prom instead of her.
That had hurt. She’d cried. Until she remembered what Mom had said a long time before the prom. ‘Don’t cry over someone who wouldn’t cry over you.’ So, she’d went to the prom with Mark and had a helluva time. Kai smiled at the fond memory.
The roller coaster train inched forward and stopped.
Kai grinned once more. Bracing her stomach for the moment the car shot forward and down, she wrapped her fingers tight around the bar that pressed down on her thighs and kept her legs locked in place.
“Here we go,” someone yelled.
“Woooooo!” cried another.
Heart thumping, Kai was sitting in the roller coaster train’s last car. The back of a coaster was the best, the experience more intense. Sitting in front of her and Ray was the rest of her family, Aunt Harriet, Uncle Robert, and her cousins, Ishmael, and Karin.
As was her habit when preparing for the first drop on any coaster, Kai took a long slow breath and glanced up. She frowned.
Two things were flitting back and forth across the sky. Something glinted like metal. The things clashed in a burst of light.
They shot away from each other. Fiery blasts and black waves streaked out from them, slammed into each other. The air warped between the two objects, bent in on itself, and then a gash appeared as if a giant blade had cleaved the air in two.
Kai closed her eyes. I’m seeing things again. When she opened her eyes, the things were still there, flitting back and forth.
The ride shot forward and streaked down the first drop. Kai’s stomach lurched. People screamed. The sky turned from cerulean to ash and split open.
Rain pelted Kai, whipped by a wind that sent raindrops flying sideways like watery arrows shot from a million bows. Violet lightning radiated among charcoal clouds. Thunder cracked and grumbled. Attention riveted on the sky, Kai barely felt the ride or heard the riders.
Two things were falling beneath the dark quilted clouds. One looked like a large sword. The other, a person.
This isn’t real. I’m dreaming. I’m having a nightmare.
Kai pinched her arm. She didn’t wake up. Nothing changed.
She pointed. “Ray, do you see those?”
“See what, sis?” Ray yelled, voice strained. “This crazy storm that came outta nowhere? Hell yeah.”
She glanced over to make certain her brother was looking where she pointed. He was grinning like a big kid, staring up into the air. So, why doesn’t he see them? They're right there, bigger than life. “Not the storm. The person and the sword falling from the sky.”
“The what and the what? You seeing ghosts again?”
She was about to repeat herself when she realized the sword and the person were getting bigger, falling faster. They were the size of a tall building. And they were going to hit the tracks up ahead.
Eyes bulging, mouth agape, she gripped the bar until her fingers hurt. Her heart hammered as if it was about to explode.
The roller coaster train was hurtling down a steep drop when the pointed end of the humongous sword sheared through the metal on the next rise, disintegrated the tracks like so much ash, and plunged into the ground with an earsplitting explosion of dirt and debris.
People shrieked then. Shrieks filled with the terror and desperation threatening to choke Kai.
“Oh Goddd, someone blew up the track!” Ray reached over and grabbed her.
Jaw clenched, blood roaring in her ears, Kai squeezed her eyes shut. She was left with the feel of her brother's arms, the wetness of the rain, the rumble of the roller coaster train, shrieks, and her thoughts. Thoughts of Mom and Dad smiling, of what could’ve been, of an imagined future life, and one realization.
We’re about to die.
“I love you, sis.” Voice low, Ray hugged her even tighter.
“I love you, too.” She managed to claw her fingers from the bar and grab on to her brother, seeking the comfort of a final embrace.
The rumble of the train on the tracks disappeared, accompanied by a sense of weightlessness. Kai felt herself twist. The shrieks intensified. Her screams joined them.
She pitched downward, her screams caught in her throat. The train slammed into something. The world spun and tumbled.
Pain shot through Kai. Pain unlike any she’d ever experienced.
She had one last thought before the world went black. What would Death look like?
Kai opened her eyes to the cool air of a howling wind, rain, a pounding headache, excruciating agony in her midsection, and the taste and reek of blood. Shuddering, she cried out.
An attempt to move, to shift her body, brought more pain. Every breath hurt. She couldn’t feel her legs. It was if they didn’t exist.
Her surroundings blurred for a few moments before things came into focus. She was across from the hump of one of the roller coaster’s inclines, several feet off the ground, something cold at her back, something cold in her stomach. The rest of the nearby tracks were a jumbled mess.
People were on the ground below her, sprawled in awkward positions. Others were standing around, just standing as if they had nothing else to do.
Panic set in as memories rushed her. The sword and person falling from the sky. The crash. Ray. Karin. Aunt Harriet, Uncle Rob, and little Ish. Her family. The only family she had left.
Frantic, she tried to move again, but she couldn’t. The effort brought a fresh wave of near unbearable pain and nausea. Her breaths came in ragged gasps. That’s when she glanced down at the pain’s origin and gaped in horror.
A curved metal shard the size of her arm protruded from the right side of her stomach.
“Oh Goddd.” Lips trembling, she burst into tears, the sobs causing another pain-filled eruption in her midsection. Bloody hands shaking, she reached down to the metal shard jutting from her even as she realized she couldn’t make it budge.
Wheezing, blood and drool bubbling at her lips, she glanced from one side to the other, wincing as she did so. She was impaled on one of the track’s support structures.
Her eyes caught something else. She froze.
Below her were the crumpled remains of several roller coaster cars. The people she'd noticed earlier were bodies. Bodies trapped in cars. Bodies strewn about the ground. Mangled bodies. Dead bodies.
Aunt Harriet, Uncle Rob, and little Ish were still in their car, bloodied and broken. Ray was not far from them, twisted at an odd angle. And then Kai saw Karin.
“Noooo!” she wailed and looked away, but the disfigured corpse of her favorite cousin, her favorite person since her parents died, was seared into her mind. “They can’t be dead. They can’t beeee.” Kai whimpered.
She received confirmation when she forced herself to take in the macabre scene again. The people who were standing around weren’t people at all. Not living people, anyway. They were ghosts, ghosts who’d taken up position beside their corpses, watching her with forlorn expressions.
Something else caught Kai’s eye within the deluge. Something gigantic and glinting with every flash of lighting. Something splitting the destroyed tracks and driven into a gaping rent in the ground. The thing was several dozen feet wide. She gaped as understanding dawned.
It was a sword. The sword.
But the weapon was so massive that even by craning her neck she couldn’t see the top of it. She could barely make out a crossguard beneath the charcoal clouds.
Her brows drew together as she realized the land itself had changed beyond the sword, beyond the end of the roller coaster tracks. She couldn’t see the highways and buildings. Maybe it was the billowing smoke and the incessant rain messing with her.
She squinted. Sure enough, the landscape had been reformed into a line of white hills or cliffs. As she followed the line of hills and cliffs, they took on definitive shape. A familiar shape.
She grimaced. That can’t be right. Blinking several times, she tried to make sense of what she was seeing.
A person? A body so big it looks line a line of hills larger than buildings? That can’t be.
But there was no denying it. She was looking at a giant dressed in robes, face down, its body taking up dozens of blocks.
Emergency lights flashed to Kai's right at the same moment she noticed the wail of sirens. From above her came the rapid whup, whup, whup of a helicopter.
She saw actual people now. Not ghosts. People in uniforms, rushing toward the area.
The first responders froze in place. The wind ceased its howls. Even the raindrops froze in mid fall.
Frowning, Kai reached a shaky hand out and touched a raindrop. It fell apart, but tiny bits of water remained suspended.
A robed woman appeared, floating before Kai. A woman whose dark-skinned face virtually glowed and was to beauty as the sky was to the clouds.
Brilliant citrine eyes made Kai feel as if the woman could see into Kai's very soul. Intricate braids fell past her shoulders, braids so fine they resembled twine.
Her white robes were thick, cinched at the waist by a wide belt, and had kimono sleeves so large Kai could fit inside them. Over the robes was a tunic that stretched all the way to her feet, divided in four sections from the waist down. Large metal rings hung from the bottom of each section. Protruding from the shoulders of the tunic were over-sized pear-shaped spaulders, the pointed tips ending at her elbows.
The woman's robes flowed as if blown by a gentle breeze, but there was no wind Kai could feel. Raindrops formed an outline around the woman as if she floated in her own pocket of space.
“Death, my old friend,” Kai wheezed and smiled wryly. “We finally meet. I always thought you’d be a monster with a sickle. Not some gorgeous creature.”
The woman tilted her head and regarded Kai with a curious expression. When she spoke, her voice carried a musical lilt. “Thank you for the compliment, my child, but I am not death.”
Kai stared. She hadn’t expected an answer.
“You possess an incredibly strong soul.” The woman straightened her head. “To think such a soul as yours was spun out in a young seed world.
“No wonder you can see the souls of the dead before the nether claims them. And no wonder you saw the battle against the Wraithlord, or that he—”
"This isn't real." Kai closed her eyes. "This can't be real. I'm in a dream, and I'll wake up at any moment." Kai opened her eyes.
The woman’s citrine gaze held as much emotion as a stone. "This is very real, Kai Bree."
Kai was struck with a sudden sense of awe, of reverence that this strange and wonderful being would know her name. "Am I dead? You said you aren’t Death… are you… are you an angel? Have you come to take me to Mom and Dad in heaven?"
The woman's lips twitched as if she wanted to smile. "No, on all counts, Kai Bree. In fact."
And just like that, Kai's pain vanished. Then she moved. Or something moved her, drawing her forward and off the metal shard. At the same time, Kai felt as if the world shifted in reverse.
She glanced down, eyes wide as her wound closed to leave perfect caramel skin, the tear it had caused in her T-shirt re-knitted itself, and the blood staining it melted away. She glided down until her feet touched the ground.
The rain vanished. The sky became clear and blue again.
Everything else remained frozen.
It took but a moment for Kai to realize it was all the woman's doing. The woman had to be from heaven. As if to confirm Kai's thoughts, the woman drifted down like fluff until she floated three feet off the ground.
"What… who are you?" Enthralled, Kai gazed up at the woman. "You said you're not an angel, but still, you must be from heaven."
"A heaven." The woman tilted her head. "One of many. I am a Keeper, an immortal. My name is Netatia."
"An immortal?" Kai’s eyes widened. "So you're like… a god?"
"Some people would name me so, but I would not. Immortal is what I am."
Kai made to get down on her knees.
"None of that, child."
Kai straightened. "S-sorry, I didn't mean to offend you."
Keeper Netatia dipped her head. "You did not."
Kai shifted watery eyes past the immortal to her dead family. Hope stirred in her chest. "The way you healed me, how you made everything reverse." Swallowing, Kai hesitated, and with tears trickling down her cheeks, she gazed pleadingly upon Netatia. "Can-can you help my family? Can you do that for them? Bring them back to life?"
"I could, but it will cost you."
Kai clasped her hands together. "Can you do it, please? I'll pay whatever the cost is. Tell me what I have to do."
Keeper Netatia's face was impassive as she regarded Kai with those brilliant citrine eyes. "You must agree to a task. Then you must die."
"What?" Kai felt as if someone had punched her in the gut. She'd fought death her entire life.
The Keeper's voice was as empty as her expression. "You must die in this realm. It is the only way to save them."
Kai considered the proposition. Maybe I'll get to see Mom and Dad again after all.
She frowned, struck by a sudden realization. "You said I must agree to a task first, as if something comes after, and you said in this realm."
A ghost of a smile touched Netatia's lips. "Like the Heavens, this realm is one of many. You must die if I reverse time in this realm because the Wraithlord had come for you.
"Whether he would have killed you this time, or taken you, remains to be seen. But you were the target. Another will eventually follow the threads of fate he left behind."
"Why me? And what do you mean by this time?"
"He was drawn to your soul. It is of rare strength. Either he intended to consume it himself or take you to his master.” The immortal tilted her head to one side, sharp brows drawn together.
Kai didn’t like the idea of being someone’s food. At the same time she couldn’t help but to shake her head at the irony of having a frail body but a strong soul.
“As for the mention of time." Netatia looked thoughtful for a moment. "You reside in the Mortal Realm, a minuscule part of the Planes of Existence, and within existence are countless universes with infinite possibilities known as the Planes of If."
Kai’s brows shot up. "You’re talking about a multiverse. You’re saying there’s different versions of me."
Netatia nodded. "And with that comes infinite threads of your fate playing out at the same time. Every decision, every move you make, every word, shapes that fate, constantly spinning out into a web that creates your destiny."
Kai’s hope grew stronger. "Then there has to be a thread where we all live."
The Keeper’s mouth downturned. “You live now, but you all die later.”
Kai drew her brows together. “You sound certain. And you can reverse time. Can you see the future?”
“There is no single future. There are threads of fate. I can see the possible destinies of lesser beings, but I do not know what you will actually do, the way you will walk, until the moment you have walked it.”
“What happens when I die in this realm?”
"Your thread here ends. Whatever you are, whatever you could be in this realm, ends.”
“And if I live?”
“Here, let me show you what your current thread holds." One of the immortal's delicate braids stretched out to Kai and coiled around her wrist.
In an instant, the world changed. Kai could see herself still impaled on the support structure.
Emergency workers directed a fire truck into the area. Time shifted to the firemen working on her, sawing through the metal, and gingerly lowering her to the ground. They rushed her to a helicopter, and she was airlifted to a nearby hospital. No one else survived.
Kai sobbed as she watched. I’m so sorry. She conjured images of her brother, uncle, aunt, and cousins.
She had a successful operation despite complications due to her brain tumor. But she was left with massive scarring. The doctors said as a result she could never have children, if she even managed to survive the tumor and the underlying cancer, which they highly doubted.
Pain wracked her chest as she attended the funeral. Why them? Why me? For months after, she’d wake sweaty and crying from nightmares of the accident.
Years passed. She won a lawsuit against the theme park, awarding her seventy million dollars. With the money she was able to pursue new avenues to remove the tumor and fight cancer. As was her wont, she never gave up.
She made a promise to Aunt Harriet, Uncle Rob, Ray, Ishmael, and Karina. They didn’t die in vain. She would live on. For them and for herself. Eventually, she won the fight for her health at the age of twenty-two.
Committed to working hard, enjoying life, and proving all the naysayers wrong, she started her own game company, Golden Arm Tech, focusing on VR development. They created the biggest, most successful VRMMO, Ascension Online.
She expanded into various VR related technologies and became a billionaire. Time passed, and she continued to thrive, living the best life she could, using her wealth to improve the lives of the less fortunate.
But in all this, she could never compensate for the thing she lacked, the thing she missed the most. Family. She got married, but that would eventually fall apart because she couldn't have children.
Her pursuit to resolve the issue ended in failure after failure. Her only recourse was to adopt, which she did at thirty-five.
She named her adopted children after her parents, her brother, and her favorite cousin. Terry, Marie, Ray, and Karina. She provided them with everything she lacked as a child.
Smiling, Kai reached a hand out to her children. I wish I was there with them now. She drew her hand back as the scene changed. Images spun on.
None of the good times she experienced filled the hole she always felt. The emptiness. None of it brought her complete happiness.
She died at the age of forty-four, along with the majority of the Earth, in an attack by a silver-clad Wraithlord. The Wraithlord feasted on their deaths, on their souls.
“Now, if I reverse time so you all live.” Netatia gestured.
There was another shift. The world reversed, erasing all that had happened before Kai saw the beings in the sky. Life continued as it had been. On her twentieth birthday, a Wraithlord appeared and laid waste to the Earth.
Thousands of threads played out. Each ended with death to a Wraithlord, with the Earth’s demise.
Another shift came, and Kai found herself back in the present, standing before the Keeper, who watched her with expressionless eyes. Kai could still feel the emotions, the good times and the bad, the hole inside her. Tears rolled down her cheeks.
She took a deep shuddering breath. "Even… even if that’s true, there has to be more threads. Different ones."
Netatia nodded. "Those were your most likely threads. There are deviations, but it ends the same way."
"But my children, the billions of people who die in the attacks… is there a way to stop it, to stop them from hunting me?" She couldn’t help the guilt crawling through her.
A hint of pity eased into Netatia's eyes this time. Her lips curved down, even if only slightly. "Preventing the apocalypse begins with your death today. Afterward, I will transfer your consciousness and soul to a body in another realm, a realm where your soul will fit in, and I can shroud you from your hunters.”
“So you’ll save me?”
“After a fashion. I will transfer your consciousness and your Soul Root, which is the foundation of your soul and body. Finding such a soul as yours in its infancy is extremely rare. It would be a terrible thing to waste.
“However, the Earth will still be in danger. The Wraithlords will return in twenty years.”
Kai screwed up her face. “Then what’s the point of doing anything if an apocalypse still happens?”
“You will have a chance to stop it yourself.”
“Why don’t you? You obviously have the power to stop them.”
“Far greater problems will require my attention. Saving your world isn’t of much importance in the greater scheme of events to come.”
“How can I stop them?”
“In your new life, you will have access to great power, power enough to defeat the Wraithlords and to complete the aforementioned task for me.”
Kai frowned. Abruptly, she became suspicious of Netatia. Kai glanced down at the mangled bodies and immediately looked away. Their lives meant more than hers. “What task?”
Netatia smiled. “Through you, there is a chance to save my son, after a fashion, and a chance at revenge.”
“Your son? Revenge?”
The Keeper pointed to the giant corpse. “That is Quelserra, my son. He was not strong enough to defeat this Wraithlord, but he tried anyway.
“Unfortunately, my chrono inversion will not resurrect him. The Wraithlord consumed his core and soul before I could intervene.
“All that was left was Quel’s Echo, which will be gone in a few of your hours. His only hope at any semblance of existence is to bind it to someone from this world, someone with whom it can grow.
“I choose you because the being at the heart of this attack on your world, the one responsible for Quel’s demise, will not see you coming. That is if you should become powerful enough to reach them, because they, too, are immortal.
“The task I require in exchange for saving you and your family is for you to help me kill them.”
“Kill an immortal?” Kai arched a skeptical brow. “If immortals can die then you aren’t immortal.”
The corner of Netatia’s mouth twitched; her citrine eyes twinkled. “Flesh can die. Soul is eternal.”
“Unless someone eats it.” Kai immediately regretted the words.
“There is that.” Netatia’s face was as flat as her voice. For an instant, her eyes shifted to her son’s corpse.
Kai hung her head. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking.”
Netatia simply watched Kai, her eyes glowing. She seemed to be reconsidering. Silence stretched.
Finally, the immortal spoke. “Do you accept this task? Or do you prefer to continue your life?”
Kai opened her mouth to answer when it really hit her that she’d be replacing someone else. Shame crept in. “What happens to the other person whose body I’m taking?”
“Their soul returns to the nether to be spun out again.”
A sense of relief eased over her. At least they would live again. “So I’m going to be them? Like have their memories, live their life?”
“In physical terms, yes, you will be them. But the life you live will be your own. The heart of who you are—your soul, your consciousness—remains. Typically, I would wipe your memories also, but they are what has shaped you, what drives you. Now, choose.”
Killing an immortal. The idea seemed as absurd and improbable as it sounded. “Can I at least keep my name?"
Netatia barked a laugh. "That is simple enough to arrange."
Despite the knowledge of the things she'd lose, Kai’s choice was an easy one. She’d always hated being seen as weak, being told what she could or couldn’t achieve. If this meant she could truly become strong then she was all in. "I choose to save my family and the Earth."
"Good." Keeper Netatia smiled. "Hold out your hand."
Kai complied. A silver ring appeared on her pointer finger. The band was a serpentine dragon eating its own tail.
"This is a soul ring. It contains Quelserra’s Echo. When the time comes you will know what to do with it.
“The ring also binds your memories, consciousness, and soul. It is connected to its twin in Avros, your new realm, ensuring you are spun out there. Are you ready?"
Kai took one final look around, her gaze bypassing the frozen people and settling on her dead family members. She smiled, a mixture of sadness and joy, savoring the latter because they would soon live again.
A solemn thought came to her. “Will death hurt?”
“Does it matter?”
Kai shrugged. “Not really. I just always wondered.”
“Death will not hurt.”
“Good. I’m ready.”
Netatia spread her arms out to her sides. Wisps of gold and white rose from her fingers. Her fine intricate braids flared out like an immaculate headdress. A wave of power shot out from her in every direction. The world reversed.
In moments, Kai was impaled once more amid the raging storm. She felt the merest twinge of pain before she was hurtling through the air, then she was back in the roller coaster car, which soon rejoined the rest of the roller coaster train. The world spun. Seconds later, the train was back at the start of the ride.
“Here we go,” someone yelled.
"Woooooo!" cried another.
The ride shot forward. Kai’s stomach lurched. People screamed.
Laughing wildly, Kai threw her hands up. She savored every moment of her last ride, every bit of weightlessness, every lurch of her stomach, every flutter, every incline, twist, and turn. It was the best ride she ever had.
The roller coaster train was pulling in when she had the slight sense of something bursting in her head.
Death felt and looked like nothing at all.