Emma was still working on human-school homework when Valen arrived for her ‘guest lecture,’ as July called it. Since their lessons had started to grow longer and take up more of their Monday afternoons, July had set a rule that Emma should make sure her official homework was done before they got into Seer subjects. As much as she disliked having to wait, she knew it was good that someone was holding her accountable; otherwise, she probably would’ve forgotten to do the homework altogether.
But on this particular afternoon, she was even more frustrated with her English work than usual. Reading assignments were fine as long as nothing distracted her. Vocabulary assignments were fun, since she could share them with July. But having to write things herself? She was at a total loss.
“I…still need a few more minutes,” she confessed, glancing in the general direction of July’s shoulder. The room was dimmer than usual, all the curtains drawn, but the buttons on her blouse still shone.
“That’s all right. Valen and I need to talk anyway,” her tutor answered. “Keep at it, and we’ll be right back.” Then the two older ladies retreated into the kitchen, and Emma did a very poor job of focusing on her work rather than catching bits and pieces of their conversation.
“You haven’t seen him again, have you?” Valen was asking, sounding irritated that they were talking. She sounded like that most of the time. July hissed at her to keep her voice down, so Emma didn’t hear her actual response. Who were they talking about, she wondered? July didn’t really like seeing much of anyone. There were a few more hushed whispers, then Valen’s voice raised again as she said firmly, “Look, the sooner you put him out of your mind, the sooner he’ll be out of your life. I put some pressure on him and he agreed to leave. He’s not about to endanger his own ‘fun’ just to pursue one mortal.”
Her tutor let out a frustrated sigh. “Fine. If you’re wrong, I suppose I’ll find out soon enough.” When they returned, July saw that Emma was no longer writing and asked (in a much more pleasant tone), “All done?”
It was all but a reflex to smile back and answer, “Yep!” Emma felt a little guilty for lying, but that was quickly overtaken by her excitement about the day’s lesson. Ever since their trip to the Crossroads, she’d been dying for more firsthand accounts from immortals.
With July seated at Emma’s side on the couch, both armchairs were empty, so Valen took one and unbuttoned her blazer as she sat down. “So how does this work? You just want me to talk? You have questions? Can’t say I’ve ever been interviewed like this before.”
“We have plenty of questions.” July nodded at Emma, who had already turned to her list of curiosities about Valen’s nature and her past, which she’d been writing down over the past few days as they came to her. But before she could start, July surprised her with a question they hadn’t discussed. “First of all, who is Thanatos?”
Valen stared at her, blank-faced, for a second before letting out a snort of laughter. “Is this a trick question?” she asked, but July was waiting expectantly. The Reaper sat back in her chair and crossed one leg over the other, then gestured to herself, like it was ridiculous that she should have to say it.
“It is you? I should’ve known,” July muttered. “But I thought Thanatos was a man. One more thing the writers of your history got wrong, I guess?”
“Nah, it just changed over time; I used to think the same thing.” Valen shrugged. “Live and learn.” Emma wasn’t sure exactly what that meant. Judging by July’s raised eyebrows, she figured it did mean something, but before she could ask for clarification, her tutor glanced at her and cleared her throat to change the subject.
“Emma. What was your first question?”
Easily guided back to her original train of thought, Emma looked down at her notes and read aloud, “Are any other death deities involved in your work? Like, do they help you schedule stuff or…reap or whatever?”
“Deities,” July repeated with a grin. “Good word.” Emma beamed at her praise, glad she’d remembered that term from one of their earlier talks.
“No such thing as ‘other death deities,’” Valen explained, shaking her head. “There are death-related deities, maybe. Every religion has them: psychopomps and shit. Judges. Guides. But there’s only one death-with-a-capital-D, and you’re looking at her. So no.”
“Wait, then what are the others?” Emma piped up, unsatisfied. Their lessons had broached several different religions at this point, and the idea that she had misunderstood bothered her. “Like Yama? Or Osiris, or even Hades? I thought they were Death gods, too.”
“Not quite. Those are all gods of the Dead, not Death. The ‘Underworld’ or the Afterlife for their followers: whatever happens after death. Up until then, they don’t have shit to say about mortals or their fates.” The Reaper sat back and cocked her head to one side, absently drumming her fingertips on the arm of her chair. “Yama and I butted heads for a while if I’m honest, but we talked it out eventually. He’s more of a judge than anything, so as long as he gets full control of his souls, he’s fine with me handling things topside. He doesn’t want my job. No one else does.”
“But Thanatos. That is you?” July asked. The Reaper let out a sigh.
“It was. If you want to get technical, that’s as far back as I go in mortal terms. It’s the first name I was given.”
“Given?” July asked. She and Emma exchanged glances and both sat forward a bit, curious to learn more. “Then what was your original name?”
“I’m saying before the Greeks, I didn’t have one. Most of us didn’t. We were just there, existing as concepts that mortals hadn’t figured out yet.”
“So you’re a Greek god,” Emma reasoned, hastily scribbling down Valen’s words in her notebook. ‘Existing…as…concepts…’
“Is that what I said?” Valen asked with a frown. “No. What I said was they put a label to what I already was. They didn’t create me or vice-versa. They were just the first ones to start recording and worshiping us. The Olympians related to Greece a lot more personally than I ever did.”
“Okay,” July began tentatively. “Where did you come from, then?” Valen frowned as she removed her shades and placed them in a pocket inside her jacket. This was the first time Emma had seen her eyes, and the sight gave her a little chill of discomfort. She tried to actively combat the feeling, knowing that as a Seer, she shouldn’t be affected by immortals’ ‘passive effects.’
“Look, if you two are hoping for some kind of objective historical account here, you’re going to be disappointed,” Valen told them. “There’s no one definitive ‘this is where the world came from’ story.”
“Maybe not, but you could give us your version.”
“Okay,” she said at length. “But don’t blame me if you can’t understand it. My ‘parents,’ if you want to call them that, were some of the first gods of their kind, the kind big enough that they don’t fit on Earth: Nyx and Erebos. As for me, I’ve existed almost as long as humanity has.”
“I guess there was no need for Death if there were no mortals,” Emma figured.
“Right. Not that anyone was really grateful for my presence. I wasn’t very popular with mortals or other gods, if you can believe it.” Emma covered her mouth to hide a snicker, but the Reaper seemed unbothered. “Anyway, the Romans eventually commandeered us from the Greeks and renamed us; for them, I was Mors. It was still worship, so no one really cared who it came from.”
“From whom it came,” July muttered, and Valen flipped her off casually.
Emma hesitantly raised her hand. “So does that mean you know Cupid?” Ever since July had mentioned Cupid during their first meeting, Emma had gotten a tiny bit obsessed with zir. Although the two of them had discussed everything July knew about zir, Emma was still eager for more information.
“Sure. I would even if we weren’t related. Everyone knows Cupid,” Valen answered, unaffected by the change of subject. It seemed like she’d already resigned herself to answer whatever was asked of her, so she didn’t bother questioning it. “Or the other way around. But yeah, Eros—Aphrodite’s brat—was…a distant cousin of mine, I guess. You wouldn’t figure it from meeting Cupid, but he was a little shit.”
“Oh. Really? I thought Cupid was one of the nice ones.” Emma frowned deeply at the idea that July was mistaken, that maybe there really wasn’t a single nice immortal out there.
“No, listen: Cupid’s great. Zie’s literally the nicest person you’ll ever meet,” the Reaper clarified, as if she was worried about Cupid being misrepresented. “But Eros was a dick. It’s really not an exaggeration to say they’re two different people. Like me and Samael.”
“Who-mael?” Emma asked. To her surprise, a sort of mischievous smirk curved Valen’s red lips.
“Right, you wouldn’t know that one. Samael’s the name I went by back when I was working for”—she pointed at Emma—“your god.”
“You worked for…?” Emma had started to accept that other gods could exist, but she still kept her own God in a separate category. If Valen, a sort-of Greek god, had worked for Him, exactly how many religious crossovers were involved here? What would her parents think if they knew?
“Not saying it was the best period of my life, but yeah, it happened. Christianity was snapping up all our followers anyway, so it seemed like there wasn’t much of a future with the rest of ‘my’ pantheon. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, right?” The expression on Valen’s face was somehow simultaneously frustrated and reminiscent. “Besides, I was bored.”
“You mean there was a time when you weren’t constantly working?” It was hard to tell whether the shock in July’s voice was genuine or put-on.
“Look, no one told me how to be,” the Reaper answered irritably, cracking her knuckles one by one. “I had to figure out how the hell I was supposed to interact with humanity on my own, and maybe it took me a minute. I didn’t start thinking of my existence as a job until it came to them.” She gestured vaguely upward.
Emma found herself starting to fidget, bouncing her foot nervously and chewing the inside of her cheek as she tried to wrap her head around all this. If what Valen said was true—and it had already been established that she didn’t lie—that meant that all the stories and theories and faith-based rules Emma had grown up with were suddenly much realer, yet somehow no more trustworthy.
“If you worked with them,” she started hesitantly, “does that mean you’re in the Bible too?” She hadn’t read the whole thing, after all. Maybe Samael was mentioned somewhere? Now that would be interesting to point out to her parents.
“Nah, they cut me out when I quit working for them. I got a mention in the Torah, but even that’s only half-true.” It seemed like the Reaper was starting to get a little antsy too, flicking her wrist out to check her watch, drumming her fingers on the arm of her chair. Was she really that eager to get back to work?
“Why did you quit?” July asked, either oblivious to their fidgeting or choosing to ignore it.
“Lots of reasons. Think of it like this: why keep doing contract work when you can be an entrepreneur instead?” Valen asked. Emma’s eyes narrowed as she tried to figure out how that explanation was any clearer. “Once I figured out the job I was supposed to be doing, I knew I wouldn’t be satisfied with letting anyone else call the shots. So I left. New name, new image”—she gestured to her body again—“new business.”
“Which is…?” Emma prompted, and Valen turned an irritated look on July.
“You haven’t explained that already?”
“I’ve told her what I know about it, but unfortunately, that isn’t much. I’ve tried asking you for more information about how you operate in the past, and you’ve always told me it’s none of my business.”
“That’s because it is none of your goddamn business. But since I have to be here until five anyway…” The Reaper grabbed her attaché case and rested it on the coffee table to snap it open. She then reached in and extracted a thick black book with something written on the cover that Emma presumed was Greek. Even the pages were black, and when Valen opened it to show them the inside, the lines written in silver ink were so tiny Emma couldn’t even make out the letters. “So this is my Ledger. It’s how I keep track of when and where and how just about every mortal on Earth is supposed to die.”
“Are we in there?” Emma blurted, unsure whether she actually wanted to know or not.
“Not yet,” Valen chuckled. “But you will be. The only people who aren’t are the ones whose lives or souls get mixed up with other immortals, and I’m pretty sure that won’t apply to either of you.” She shut the book with a satisfying snap and put it back in her attaché case. “That’s the short version of my business: planning and executing mortals’ deaths.”
Surprisingly, July suppressed a snort of laughter. At the look Emma and Valen gave her, she cleared her throat and said, “Sorry, it’s just. Executing. Deaths. You’re telling me you didn’t phrase it that way on purpose?”
“Please. You think I have time to work death puns into everything I say? Grow up.” Still, the smirk on Valen’s lips said she wasn’t too far off the mark. “Anyway, about a hundred and fifty thousand mortals die every day, so obviously I can’t be there to personally carry out every one of those myself. That’s where my employees come in.”
“Wait, so they…kill people?” Emma asked. She understood, at least in theory, that death was Valen’s business, but she hadn’t thought about her actually murdering people. Surely that wasn’t okay.
“Nah, it’s not quite that simple. People die, and we send them wherever they’re supposed to be headed next. And don’t take that the wrong way,” she added as Emma opened her mouth again. “I don’t decide where they go; they get claimed by whatever gods they followed in life. If no one else claims them, Hades takes over and they hash it out with him. I don’t know as much about that part, since it’s not really my jurisdiction. Maybe you can meet Persephone someday and she’ll explain it for you.”
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” July answered before Emma could express her enthusiastic approval. “I think we should start a bit smaller before we involve any other gods in our lessons—especially volatile Nature-related ones.” Cautious and conservative as ever. She often got that way about Emma’s persistent desire to meet whatever immortals she could. I already know the Grim Reaper. What could any of the others do to me that’s worse than death?
“Yeah, she probably wouldn’t want to help someone who’s going to be side-eyeing her the whole time anyway.” Valen’s eyes narrowed slightly, then she turned to Emma and asked, “Hey, kid, you wanna see something cool?”
“Sure!” Emma agreed before July could shut this down too. Valen was already on her feet and reaching into her attaché case again.
“You should know this is a pretty huge privilege,” she explained, “since most people don’t get to see it unless they’re about to die.”
Apparently realizing what she had in mind, July started, “I’m not sure this is the best place for—”
But the Reaper ignored her and withdrew a long, solid wooden handle that logically shouldn’t have been able to fit in such a small space. But the logic part of Emma’s brain took a backseat to shock and awe when she saw the long, curved blade on the end. Valen stood the scythe up next to her, letting it lean against her shoulder, obviously pretty proud of it. “What’d I say? Cool, right?”
It was. The weapon stood even taller than Valen herself, its blade gleaming menacingly in the dim light. It was surprisingly simple: no extra decorative spikes or skulls, no tattered black ribbons or barbed wire or thorns. It looked functional, and it looked like it belonged in Valen’s hands. The more Emma looked at her, the more cartoonish the typical Grim Reaper Image seemed. Valen might be a god, but more than that, she was a person. Seeing her up close and hearing her talk about her work as objective fact made the spooky supernatural stuff much more tangible. When Emma had always thought of godly things as being beyond her understanding, she found she liked it better this way.
“Will you put that away before you break something?” July asked, nodding toward the light fixture overhead, which Valen’s scythe was dangerously close to.
“Y’know, if you don’t work on getting your blood pressure down, I’m gonna have to write you in for a heart attack soon.” As the Reaper spoke, the scythe in her hand changed shape and became a long-bladed sword, which she tapped idly against her shoulder. “Can you blame me for getting restless? I don’t know how she”—she gestured toward Emma with the sword—“sits still through hours of this shit every week.”
“You’re going to hurt someone.” Though July’s voice remained calm, her shoulders were tense, her hands clasped tightly in her lap. She never got this angry when it was just the two of them, but when there was an immortal involved, it seemed to happen a lot more easily.
Valen muttered something under her breath in a language Emma didn’t recognize, then grasped the blade with her free hand and sliced it across her palm. Emma squealed by reflex, curling up tight in her corner of the couch, but when Valen showed them her hand, totally unperturbed, it wasn’t injured. The leather of her glove didn’t even have a mark.
“You make a lot of assumptions, you know that?” she told July flatly. “So to clear that up: Joradmust doesn’t hurt anyone unless I want him to, and like I already said, you two aren’t dying any time soon. This is gonna be a long fucking two years if you don’t learn to trust me at least a little.”
“Prove that you deserve it and I might try.” July’s voice was like ice, and Emma could practically feel the tension building up between the two of them.
“Um,” she piped up, trying to change the subject to a more peaceful one, “is that your scythe’s name? Yurad…”
“Joradmust,” Valen repeated, and Emma scribbled down in her notes, yo-RAD-muss? “Yeah. He was my partner while I was working under Christianity, pretty much the best thing I took away from it. When I left, so did he.” She replaced the sword into her attaché case and snapped it closed again but didn’t sit down, instead starting to pace back and forth along the wall.
“Does that mean he used to be a person?”
“You could say that. The way I see it, he was a tool back then and he’s a tool now,” she said with a grin. “Only difference is he doesn’t talk as much these days.” Her phone pinged, and she pulled it from her pocket to check it while still pacing. “Shit. Look, I need to go. We done here or what?”
“You’re leaving already?” Emma complained. When she wasn’t hyper-focused on work, Valen was actually kind of fun to talk to. She definitely wasn’t as super-serious as she’d seemed on their first meeting. Emma liked getting to know who she was instead of just what she was. “I thought you were staying until five.”
“You did say that,” July reminded her.
“Right, but that was when I thought Savina’s plane wasn’t getting in until five thirty. She just told me they landed already”—she held up her phone to indicate the text she’d received—“and I don’t like her getting into the back of some stranger’s car on her own.”
Almost reflexively, Emma asked, “Who’s Savina?”
“Valen’s girlfriend,” her tutor explained. “She also happens to be a succubus, which is a kind of demon.”
“The kind mortals can’t always be trusted to respect,” the Reaper added with a sneer, retrieving her sunglasses to put them back on.
“Oh.” Emma was silent for several seconds, trying to process each individual part of what she had just learned. Valen, who was a girl, had a girlfriend. That wasn’t something she’d been exposed to much, but she knew it could be added to the list of things her parents didn’t like about Valen. Did it say something about her character? And her girlfriend was a demon? July always said those were dangerous—but she said that about any non-human. Emma had so many new questions that she felt there was only one way to answer them all. “Can I meet her?”
Valen and July answered at the same time.
“Why not? She’s another immortal I could meet safely—I mean, with both of you guys there,” Emma argued. “And if you think she’s okay, she probably won’t want to hurt me or anything. It’ll be a learning experience.” She smiled hopefully at July, who let out a pained sigh but couldn’t deny she had a point.
“What do you think?” she asked, looking up at Valen, who was already at the door with her attaché case in hand. “Would she be willing to do that?”
“Yes,” the Reaper conceded, rubbing one of her temples like she had a headache. “She’s been asking to meet you two for weeks and I’ve been telling her no. I figured you wouldn’t want her anywhere near Emma.”
July’s expression said that she really didn’t, but Emma’s reasoning must have changed her mind. “You trust her, don’t you? You don’t think she’s a threat?”
“Obviously,” Valen said, indignant. “As a matter of fact, I think it’d be good for you to meet her. She might even change your shitty attitude about ‘us.’”
Emma cleared her throat, trying to dissipate the agitation that had suddenly reappeared between them. “Can we meet her soon?”
On her way out the door, Valen answered, “I’ll check my schedule and get back to you.”
Once she’d left, July locked the door behind her and let out a long, controlled breath. “I don’t know why I thought inviting her would be a good idea,” she grumbled. “She’s so childish! She can’t stand letting anyone else be in control of a situation, even for a single hour, without getting belligerent and uncooperative.”
Emma couldn’t help feeling that sounded a little like July herself. But she knew better than to say that out loud.