Sleep came slow and sudden.
One moment, Iliana had her face buried in one of the two, downy pillows she’d been provided as tears silently disappeared into the fabric, and in the next, she was out. How long she slept was impossible to track. Her next flash of awareness came in the form of a muffled scream into her still-damp pillow.
She jerked near upright, body taut as a wire. Her heart raced, eyes burning. She must have thrashed and twisted while dreaming, because her actions had left her tangled in the thin sheets. Her eyes searched the room, looking for the bodies that’d haunted her nightmares. What she found froze her gasps to a shocked nothing.
The disorientation that came with waking suddenly was the only thing that kept her from shouting at the sight of a man standing in the center of the cabin.
His dusty brown hair was cut short, and he had dark gray irises that seemed to bore past her eyes and into her mind. His gaze sent a shiver down her spine, as did the fact that she soon realized she could almost see right through him. There was a strange, translucent-like appearance to his body. She saw him, square jaw, toned body, rugged clothing and all, but she had the distinct, strange feeling that she could also just barely see the door behind him.
Was he a soul?
It was said that those who died in remote areas sometimes wondered for months before they were collected by a reaper. Humans, like her, were normally ignorant to the presence of souls, beyond the occasional shiver or feeling of being watched. Cold fear brushed her mind at the thought. Had something happened while she slept? Has the sirens lied about her injury being nothing more than a bump?
Iliana shook her head, casting off the idea. Sleep was making her mind slow, she decided. After all, she had also heard of those who’d come close to death being able to see the truly dead. Perhaps nearly drowning counted? Just because she could see what was potentially a dead person in the middle of her room didn’t give her a reason to panic.
She was fine. This was… fine.
“Who--what are you?”
The man’s eyes widened. Was it the tremble in her voice, she wondered, or her ability to see him that he hadn’t expected? Iliana might have asked, but his eyes suddenly narrowed into that intense, bone chilling stare he’d originally worn. The temperature in the room plunged as he suddenly closed the distance between them.
She couldn’t move.
Her heart raced, nervousness flooding her system. Some instinct told her that this soul had no intention of harming her--if he even could--but that didn’t stop her thoughts from spinning, nor ease the fear freezing her in place. There was something other to the air. Was he causing this unease?
He stopped next to her, his fingers raised as if to catch her chin. Those steely eyes slowly skimmed her from head to toe, searching for something. His lips moved, but no words met her ears. Iliana forced herself past her fear and frowned. She could see, but not hear him? Did it have something to do with his being a soul? Or was it this village?
Either way, the ability to read lips wasn’t one she possessed.
“I can’t understand you,” she said. “Could you spell it out? On the bed, or in the air perhaps?”
Iliana would’ve searched for parchment, but doubted it would do them any good. The way his fingers ghosted through her chin gave Iliana the impression he wouldn’t have been able to grasp the quil to write with.
As all of this drifted through her mind, Iliana realized she’d become eerily calm. Part of her knew that the feeling was unnatural. She should’ve been terrified. Did the sudden change in emotions have something to do with him? Or had it simply been muffled by her distaste for anything that might draw attention to her cabin?
She should have screamed, or scrambled off the other side of the bed. If she cried out, the sound would catch the attention of one or more sirens. Gods’ children were said to have better senses than their human counterparts. Someone would hear her, and come to her rescue, whether she truly needed rescuing or not. But that would mean interacting with the sirens.
Even half-asleep and terrified, she was reluctant.
Instead, Iliana watched as he studied her for a moment longer, then pulled his hand away. He swept it through the air, miming four characters.
“Aran,” she said.
Then, he disappeared.
Dumbfounded, she stared at the empty air for a long time, rerunning the encounter through her mind. Even as the seconds, minutes, then hours ticked by, she couldn’t make any more sense of it than she initially had. Eventually, Iliana tried to rest. Predictably, her mind had no intention of calming down enough for sleep to take her.
She could still picture him perfectly. His tall frame, his tanned skin, everything about him seemed burned into her memory.
Perhaps he wasn’t a soul.
Iliana had once heard that if the living saw a reaper, they would never forget it. Legend said that something about their presence alone was so unsettling that the experience stayed with you forever. Most blamed it on the reason for their existence.
Unlike most of the gods’ children, reapers were made for a reason that went beyond rescuing a dying mortal.
They were among some of the original children to be made. Second to only the sirens, Iliana was almost certain. As the world had grown, and the number of souls in existence climbed, it became hard for the dead to be guided by Shinnah alone. As a result, despite the goddess believing that the children races were unnatural, the reapers were granted a second chance at a semblance of life. In return, they were tasked with collecting, and returning, dead souls to the goddess.
The stories said that even after being reborn into a new body, souls never forget the feeling of being ripped from their past lives. Which was why encountering them was something unsettling, and memorable.
Aran being a reaper would also explain why she’d frozen up. While it seemed unlikely, she slowly realized that it made more sense that he was a child rather than a soul. Which spurred the question: What was a reaper doing in the cabin? Why was he staring at her?
Why had he given her his name?
The possibilities surged through her mind, sending chills down her spine.
Once again, the thought that she could have died in the water and not realized it passed through her. Did souls know they were souls? Or did they wander, thinking they were alive, till a reaper broke the news? She’d heard stories of spirits haunting inhabited homes and derelict ships, lost for years before a reaper found them. She’d always been skeptical, but what if it was true? What if she was just a wandering soul?
Or, alternatively, what if she was alive but had attracted his attention regardless? That wasn’t a comforting thought.
Suddenly, Iliana needed to get out of the cabin, as unreasonable as it seemed. She needed to be away from where his fingers had ghosted her chin.
As she scrambled from the bed, Iliana sent a half-hearted thanks to the gods that the impulsive action hadn’t left her collapsed on the floor. Her muscles complained, having grown stiff while she rested, but her knees no longer shook. Similarly, her head felt as if it’d been stuffed with cotton, and it spun as she moved, but it wasn’t the harsh pain she’d felt since waking on the beach. Iliana’s previous state must have been from exhaustion more than anything else.
She opened the door into someone’s face.
“Shit! I’m so sorry!I didn’t realize you would be...”
Rhode backed away as Iliana sputtered apologies. Both of the siren’s hands covered her nose. Thankfully, she didn’t seem irritated, her eyes reflecting nothing but surprise.
“You’re up?” Rhode asked.
“Obviously,” Iliana quipped, then paused. “Sorry, it’s a habit.”
Rhode shook her head and dropped her hands. Apparently, she had no issue with the sarcasm. Instead, she glanced past Iliana into the room, then looked back to her with a curious gaze.
“Where are you going?”
Iliana hesitated, attempting to pull up some excuse in her head. Saying she’d seen a strange spirit in her room didn’t feel like it’d go over well. Rather, it was likely a sentence that would result in her being confined to the cabin with a babysitter given their stance on men. And, well, she wouldn’t have blamed them. Iliana would probably have had the same reaction in their place. But, it also wasn’t something she was willing to deal with.
“I… I wanted to go to explore,” she said after a moment. “I need to think about… all of this, and the room felt too crowded. I need to be alone somewhere not here.”
Rhode knitted her brows. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea. There are the nightmares, for one. And if you collapse…”
“I’m fine,” Iliana reassured her. Her thoughts raced, searching for a way to convince Rhode. “What if I head to the cliffs? It would be like exploring. I’d get a decent view of the island, and if I collapse, you’ll know where to look when I don’t return.”
Her logic seemed to do little to reassure Rhode, but after a second of hesitation, the woman sighed.
“Well, I did say we have no constrictions. Just make sure you don’t step off of the path, or stand too close to the edge. If you get lost, or fall, I’m not sure how long it would take to reach you.”
“I won’t,” Iliana assured her.
“Then… go, I suppose. But, please turn back if the climb is too harsh.”