Saturday, February 25, 2017

Case 2 - Ep. 2: Soul Rush

Gold Rush by Beki Yopek
If it’s insane to repeat the same thing and expect different results, then why does history repeat itself? The Reaper and I had seen denial in action plenty of times during our shifts harvesting souls. It was better than magic at blinding the masses, and I had a pretty solid idea of what The Reaper was searching for in his memories now. Hints. Suggestions. Information we might have missed that would help us bring the Pneuma Coalition down if we could act on it in the next couple of months.

The Pneuma Coalition. A shady network of beings too old-fashioned to support the mote system that The Reaper and I fought for. It was full of Septuplets and demons that’d rather steal souls they’d slain because that was as close to the old way as they could get. Rage had been part of the Pneuma Coalition back in the 1880s, and we’d crossed paths over and over right up until today. They denied the reality we faced. Their agenda involved encouraging others to pursue false goals so they’d remain blind and unknowingly feed them souls.

And in 1896, denial fueled a whole historic event that nearly wrecked us.

When The Reaper touched down on the Alaskan river bank, he hit the ground swinging his scythe like a baseball bat. Strings of souls shining with life force threaded their way through the thick woods toward the Klondike River, and The Reaper harvested row after row. Men dressed in furs carrying prospecting gear bent over the river’s edges, soaking themselves in pungent mud for a chance at seeing a nugget of gold in their pans. Souls of families who’d died in the area shepherded themselves toward these dirty dreamers who’d uprooted themselves and spent fortunes pursuing bigger fortunes.

I swooped this way and that over The Reaper’s head while he harvested, my eyes darting along the banks for demon thieves hidden among the men panning for gold. The sunny sky lit the thousands of evergreens that jutted up from the hills, giving shelter to animals and thickets of low-lying plants that’d be perfect cover for The Reaper’s enemies. One prospector broke away from the rest and headed toward a canoe, loaded it up, and floated downriver. He didn’t see the pursuer pushing through the foliage along the river behind him. I didn’t either, to be honest, but plants don’t bend over on their own.

“Forget those souls,” I shouted to The Reaper down below, “We’ve got demons on the shore. Follow me.”

The Reaper cackled and soared into the air without the need for wings, falling into formation on my left. Our prospector kept paddling with the flow, oversteering a few times and sloshing water into his canoe. He rounded a bend and continued toward a trio of men fishing for salmon. I squinted into the foliage around his boat, but couldn’t see if the stalker was still eyeing up the prospector. If he or she was, then the best time to strike was coming. Killing four humans in the wilderness’s backside would give a demon thief a nice local stash of life force to come back to.

All three men turned their heads at the sound of the prospector shouting over the rushing waters. “Ay there, what’re ya fishing over here for?”

I flapped over the mens’ heads, shooting looks between them and the river bank where I’d seen the sneak thief’s trail. Two of the fishers were Native Americans, and both were busy cleaning and gutting salmon. The third man had light skin and he frowned at the prospector’s approach. Each of the fishers wore furs over leathers and boots, and none of them spared a second thought for any potential ruffians that might be stalking the prospector.

The white fisher drew his empty net out of the water and waved his companions close. Then he eyed the prospector where he’d beached his canoe a few yards away. “Came up this way for some solitude,” the fisher said. “In Fortymile they say there’s good salmon ‘round this river here. Man can make a livin’ off the land.”

“What is it brings a fellow and his boat this far downsteam?” one of the Native Americans asked the prospector.

Jerking his thumb behind him, the prospector blurted, “Found me some shiny color up Gold Bottom Creek back there. ‘Nuf to fill my pockets and set up shop. They call me Henderson. Robert Henderson.”

The fisher’s eyes shot open at the mention of gold and he extended a hand. “George Carmack. Listen, thank y’ for the news, but--”

“I don’t want no damn Siwashes digging it out, y’ hear?” Henderson said, pointing at George’s companions. “We came here to get a fortune, not to lose one.”

George’s companions bristled, but George dropped the handshake and held the pair back. “Jim, Charley, we’re here for fish, and nothin’ else.” Then he faced the prospector again. “What do you mean, ‘we?’ ”

I lost the rest of their exchange when a being erupted from the foliage at the water’s edge. She had toned arms, scaled wings as black as onyx, and wore a dress that definitely wasn’t for trailblazing in the Yukon. Her brimstone horns curved up out of caramel-blonde hair, which fell in a luscious curtain down to her shoulders. Avarice, one of The Septuplets, was here in Alaska instead of in the Fourth Circle of Hell where she belonged.

That meant she was here on ‘business’ for the Pneuma Coalition.

I kicked myself for not seeing her. At the time, I was still used to scorning her look-at-me-look-at-me appearance. Denia-

Well, we found the Pneuma Coalition, and it wasn’t until two weeks later-

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Case 2 - Ep. 1: Soul Rush

Gold Rush by Beki Yopek
I didn’t bother tidying myself up at the end of my Tuesday shift as The Reaper’s bodyguard. Both the blazer and the pants I usually wore had been torn to shreds while we were harvesting souls in Moscow. I’d ditched them in a trashcan fire and worked half the day in the steel-gray sports bra and jogger’s pants I’d worn underneath. When I touched down on The Reaper’s balcony, the thought that had been spinning through my head all day sprang up again like a villainous jack-in-the-box.

If I kept writing these case notes for The Reaper, he’d kill me.

One shudder escaped me while I rapped on The Reaper’s office door. He opened it before I stopped knocking and whipped up the hood of his brown monk’s robe, covering the shadows that made up his skull and his ram’s horns. His voice was sandpaper on the ears. “Ava, get in here. We’ve got trouble.”

Stepping through, I slammed the door closed behind me and got a quick glimpse of his ultra-modern office. Rich wood flooring underfoot, file cabinets against both walls, bay windows at the back with a demon’s eye view of the city of Fountainia. The Reaper had already set up the manilla folders and writing papers needed to begin his next set of case notes. He rushed over to his glass-topped desk and sat in a high-backed chair with carvings along the edges. Then he reached into his hood and gripped both horns. “Souls are slipping through our fingers, and it is our responsibility to make sure we get every last one. Moscow is all the proof we need.”

There he was, pushing himself too hard again. The Reaper wielded an iconic scythe named Seversoul, and he could fly, and that still wasn’t enough for him. I breathed the dusty office air and said, “Reap, you can’t get them all. Souls become ghosts after they’ve been dead for too long. They can’t hold the life force forever.”

The Reaper clenched a fist and made to slam it on the glass-topped desk. He stopped himself. “Every ghost left on Earth means dozens of angels and demons starve.”

I crossed the office and gripped the back of my usual chair with both hands. “Look, there’s only one of you and one Seversoul. Ghosts happen. They happen in huge cities where we can’t harvest them all, and they happen in backwoods villages that aren’t worth a visit.”

“I know that, but I don’t have to like it,” The Reaper hissed. “Remember Circle City, Alaska in 1896? That’s exactly what I’m talking about.”

I flexed both wings and crossed to the bay windows to peer down at The Soul Fountains, the core of the mote system. Ten stories of intricate haloxite-rimmed bowls shimmered and spun in layered fountains. Angels shepherded the souls we'd unloaded into the waters of the ground-level bowl, which took up a whole football field easy. The rippling waters sucked their life force upward in arcs that landed in the dozens of spinning bowls over their heads.

Each sculpted marble bowl had a slot where banker demons flew up and attached bins of empty mote coins. Crimson and ivory discs rolled out of the boxes, soaked up life force, then leapt out and floated as if on unseen ribbons to the bankers' desktops. Crimson motes drifted into boxes labeled "Sinner," and ivory motes alighted in the boxes marked "Virtue." Each coin pulsed with the life force it contained. A full red would feed a demon for four days, and a full white fueled an angel for just as long.

A perk of the bodyguard job-I could sip reds straight from the source before and after every shift, so I didn't need to carry actual motes.

“You stall because you are holding something back,” The Reaper said, making me spin around on my heel. He remained seated as before, but I guess I’d exuded enough ‘screw-this’ for him to pick up on it.

I pointed a wing behind me and tapped the glass with a claw. “Each mote down there feeds a demon or an angel enough life force to keep them alive for days. The smart ones sip on them and make their motes last longer.”

The Reaper pointed a shadowy finger back out the windows. “The souls that leave after draining do not recover their life force.”

Another glance at the Fountains showed me a line of drained souls getting led out of the waters they'd crossed to their eternal fates by usher angels. Those hollow, bleary forms looked just like the ghosts we’d been forced to leave behind in Moscow. Crazy demon thieves. Didn’t they realize the mote system was their best bet at staying alive since the Industrial Revolution? Do a little work, make a few motes, survive the night.

I shut off the jukebox playing in my head and moved around The Reaper’s desk, sitting down and taking up the pen. “They used to. Before the Industrial Revolution, we didn’t need to do this job. The Soul Fountains--”

“Are over a hundred years old,” The Reaper said. “Man used to summon demons and pray to angels, and their souls used to recover the life force we fed on in exchange for our services. Now things have changed, and you and I are the ones that fueled the adaptation after that change. The Pneuma Coalition is against us, and has been since the Industrial Revolution. Whatever you did before guarding me matters not.”

He’d disagree violently if I let anything slip. I could not draw attention to the wrong things while I wrote this case, so I drawled, “What’s so special about Circle City in 1896?”

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Case 1 - Ep. 3: When The Reaper Calls

The Reaper's Case Notes by Beki Yopek
Of course the demon had a homemade bomb. What better way to get a lot of free life force without using magic? Hit Haymarket Square, get the local humans to make you a bomb, and blow the crap out of police and protesters alike. It wasn’t my job to stop the killing--humans needed to die in order to produce souls full of life force--but it was on me to stop that demon from stealing the life force of the recently deceased.

I waved at The Reaper down on the ground and signaled him to fly right behind me. He ascended at the same moment the bat-winged demon did, and we watched the demon drop that bomb on the crowd. The moment it landed, flame and sound blasted outward from it, and bodies tumbled ten different directions. Blood peppered the dirt where the explosion had caught police officers and ended their lives. Among the whorls of dust and fleeing humans, a handful of souls flickered to life like candles in the dark.

Swooping downward, the bat-winged demon reached out a hand to consume the life force from the first soul he could touch. I snarled and dive-bombed him, spearing him in the chest with my horns a foot before he could reach the souls. All demons had horns made of brimstone, and they protected us from pain and harm unless the source of that damage was haloxite. Angels’ halos were made of haloxite, and I was no angel, so my horn-headed spear tackle only caught him by surprise.

I flapped hard and dragged the demon along the dirt, away from the souls. He spat a curse and pumped his wings, escaping the spear tackle and kicking up dust. Swerving upright, we stood and faced each other among the thrashing crowd of humans in Haymarket Square. I stopped his farmer punches with outward blocks and counted the number of holes he left open in his guard. After I swatted away the fifth punch, I swept his legs out from under him with my left foot, then spun with the momentum and brought a high axe kick down onto his nose.

The boot-to-head method would have snapped the bones of any human, but the demon’s horns protected him and I only needed to stun him for another second or two. Any time he could, The Reaper liked to finish off demon thieves, and I was happy to oblige him. It wasn’t showing off, it was a teamwork exercise. I looked to the sky and saw The Reaper descending with Seversoul in a two-handed grip, ready to strike. I pulled back from the thief and grinned.

So that was when the thief wrenched his head to the side and shouted, “Get back to Hell, Rage. The Reaper’s here with his--”

The two-toned scythe ripped through the demon’s torso and he burst into smoke that mixed with the dust in the air. Both of his horns dropped into the road, and The Reaper stood above the spot, seven feet of shadow and bone and curling ram’s horns. He pointed at two burly humans fleeing the scene and rasped, “They spotted us. Summoners.”

Two human summoners. In overalls and caps. They’d attacked the police earlier and delivered a bomb into the middle of a riot in Chicago. If they’d seen us, then they planned to deliver the bomb to the demon, and they all worked for the same being according to those dying words. They’d be running right back to their boss.

I yelled to The Reaper, “Follow me,” and launched skyward in pursuit of the two summoners. Their caps blended in with the hats and berets of the workmen rushing away from the scene. What stood out was the path of trampled humans they left behind them. I smirked and swooped closer to the pair of them as they carved out an escape route through the scrum.

In the air behind me, The Reaper cackled and shot past, swiping his scythe through the two humans and absorbing their souls on the spot. We soared over the dead summoners and landed well outside the Square. Enraged humans dashed by in twos and threes, hollering their victorious glee at the bomb-fueled vengeance they’d gotten against police who’d killed some of their fellow workers the day before. They ignored the corpses The Reaper had left behind, probably because they thought the bodies had been caught in the explosion. Humans tended not to notice details when they were panicked or blinded by anger.

One detail stuck out like a sore hitchhiker’s thumb, and I nudged The Reaper with an elbow, then pointed at the sky back in the direction of the Square. A gray-skinned being built like Ajax flapped away toward Lake Michigan on gunmetal-silver dragon’s wings. His brown leather jacket fell from him as he booked it, and I'd have called him a shirtless Icarus wannabe if he could hear me from that distance.

It was Rage, one of the Septuplets, the seven deadly sins made flesh. I’d been so sure those summoners were running toward their boss that I’d blitzed without reading the situation first.

“Rage must have stolen the life force from those souls,” The Reaper spat. “That’s why he was here, and you took us away from the scene.”

I shuddered at his bare-skulled glare. Mix guilt and fear, shake thoroughly, and you’ve got one demon bodyguard on the rocks. My leadership was a big reason The Reaper paid me, and I’d just let the source of a big soul-thief problem escape. Seven Septuplets ruled seven of the nine Circles Of Hell, and until that day, I’d believed that each of them supported The Soul Fountains. Mote production was the best system for keeping the masses of demons and angels alive since everything changed during the Industrial Revolution.

They didn’t have a name at the time, but the Pneuma Coalition’s first strike against our mote system had been a drinking party compared with what came next.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Case 1 - Ep. 2: When The Reaper Calls

The Reaper's Case Notes by Beki Yopek
Of all the days he could start with, The Reaper had to pick a day in May, 1886. A hundred and thirty freaking years ago. That was a few years after the Soul Fountains were built, and I’d been trying to forget that time of my life. Humans had just about stopped summoning demons and praying to angels thanks to the Industrial Revolution. Why call up demons or angels when all it took to settle a grudge was a factory-produced gun? It wasn’t like we needed the life force they exchanged for summoning us or anything.

Chicago was next on The Reaper’s list, and it was overdue for a good soul harvest. Humans there had been rioting over bad labor conditions. Something about capitalist society exploiting workers and making them work too long. Those humans back in the day thought of themselves as radicals and anarchists, but they’d never met the demons I drank with at the bar.

The Reaper and I flew over Haymarket Square and touched down outside a jostling crowd of workmen that looked dirtier than farm pigs. Blocky brick buildings bulged out into a dirt road where several streets met in a thoroughfare that was dim thanks to the overcast sky. Hollow glows emanated from clusters of souls that meandered along the Square’s dusty outer edges. I wore a leather trench coat over a blouse and pants, the better to announce The Reaper’s arrival to any demon thieves lurking among the humans assembled there. Stealing the life force from these wandering souls would earn any demon thieves my knife in the ribs or The Reaper’s scythe in the chest, or both.

I jogged toward the souls with The Reaper close behind, and he gripped his scythe in both bony hands. Seversoul was the only weapon of its kind I knew--a Hellblessed weapon. Half of its blade was brimstone, and half was haloxite. The magical materials native to Hell and Heaven were a lot more common in the ancient times when the scythe was forged. Both materials usually repelled each other like hateful magnets, yet the scythe united the two, not that I had a clue how. Brimstone and haloxite mines in the 1880s were pretty much dried up, and modern brimstone and haloxite could only be found one way. The violent way.

Raising Seversoul over his head, The Reaper whipped the two-toned blade through the souls’ glowing forms. Each soul and the life force it contained got sucked into the scythe as it went. The scythe already had tens of thousands of souls trapped within it, and it never filled up, but twenty thousand souls or so was full enough for a return trip to the Soul Fountains. We were almost there.

I hustled along behind The Reaper and moved toward the next soul cluster on the corner of Randolph Street across from Haymarket Square, putting up both fists in case any demons ambushed us. Cries and screams echoed off the grubby buildings around the Square, and a chant I couldn’t quite make out rippled through the crowd. Men tore canvas overhangs from shop windows and threw stinking fruit at police officers, who emerged from buildings and tried to contain the rioters. Dust, mud, and pulped foodstuffs filled the air with a grit that choked me like a bad wine.

Seversoul sliced into the last of the souls in the Square and The Reaper bounced the haft against his shoulder with a clacking sound. “Avaline, there is a suspicious lack of demons in the area.”

“You’re welcome,” I said, eyes darting to two men in overalls and caps who’d sprinted past us. Humans never saw demons or angels unless they summoned or prayed properly. That was the one upside to the Industrial Revolution and what it did to humanity. We could go about our business without people annoying us with exorcisms and banishments every time they spotted one of us.

Both of the burly workmen shoved their way to the front of the crowd and bowled over one of the police officers hemming the crowd in. Nearby officers blew whistles and brought truncheons down on any others who attempted to pass. I whirled and checked on The Reaper. This righteous riot would be a good distraction a demon thief could use to sneak up on us from the air and unleash a little backstabbery. No dark winged figures circled above, and none followed behind or to the sides that I could see.

The Reaper held Seversoul point-out, ready to swipe. His voice was gravel underfoot. “I said suspicious. You haven’t killed a demon in ten minutes. There is a reason.” He pointed the scythe toward the middle of the square, where a ring of police officers had infiltrated the masses and was pressing them back toward the side streets. “See? Crowd control. Their dispersal isn’t working. Someone stronger than the police is breaking their ranks.”

“That’s where the demons will be,” I blurted, unfurling my wings.

A crowd of rioting humans plus murderous demons equals life force stolen from The Reaper, and he pays me good motes to stop shenanigans like that.

I flapped skyward and hovered a dozen feet above the churning crowd, searching for horns poking out of a hood or a hat. A pasty, bare-backed man had shed his coat and was unfurling brown, hairy bat wings the size of carriages. The two men in overalls that had pushed into the ring of police dropped something on the dusty street, and the bat-winged demon scooped it up. A homemade bomb.

Then he launched into the sky with it.

Final Episode - Cycle Seen, Cycle Reaped.

Finale In Chibi by Beki Yopek Nia leaned on the bar and eyed me through a drape of dark hair. “Well you obviously stopped the Cuban Mis...