Saturday, March 25, 2017

Case 3 - Ep. 3: Soul Mine Skirmish

Soul Fountains Business by Beki Yopek
When a hundred British soldiers surround you and open fire with haloxite rounds, you get the hell out of the line of fire. What made things worse was that they were summoners under Avarice’s command, so they could see me and The Reaper unlike normal humans. It might have been 1902 in the East Rand gold mines, but those rifles would kill the life out of me and The Reaper if we didn’t unleash some serious butt-kickery. Whipping out the Blood Magic folio from my trench coat pocket, I flew straight up from the door to the high house.

When I spotted The Reaper soaring up next to me, I shouted, “I’ll distract them with Blood Magic."

The Reaper screeched, "Avaline, Split Trick formation.”

I caught his words just as dozens of gunshots echoed off the mining complex’s many buildings. I pumped both wings, rolling left at the same time as The Reaper rolled right. Radiant golden bullets snapped through the air around us and made swiss cheese out of my trench coat flapping in the wind behind me. I tucked both wings in, spun twice, then righted myself and flew behind the shot tower with its metal sheeting along the sides. There, at least Avarice’s summoners wouldn’t see me for a few seconds.

I jabbed my pinky with the haloxite knife I still held in my left hand, and drops of fiery orange blood welled up there. My chest pounded like cannon fire as I flipped through the labeled sections of the folio. I skipped the ‘breathing,’ ‘hearing,’ and ‘impairment’ sections and stopped at the ‘noise’ section, then I whipped out a magazine photo of a twenty-car train chugging along the tracks. I daubed my blood on the picture, crumpled it into a tight ball, and swerved back around the tower toward the ring of summoners.

They’d been watching for me to come back around the tower, and I grinned when I hurled the wadded picture down into the center of them. More gunfire erupted and I flapped back behind the tower, grateful for my horns’ protection as I let the Blood Magic flow. Piercing whistles filled the air around the entire complex in rhythmic pulses that I heard, but that wouldn’t cause pain or harm to anyone with brimstone horns or haloxite halos. Each burst of sound was an amplified train whistle, and I’d placed that picture in the folio to guide my Blood Magic in case I needed to rupture some eardrums or distract The Reaper’s enemies.

Mix demon’s blood, the right photograph, and a Blood Magic education, and you get spells that kick harder than all the liquor on the top shelf.

Every rifle-toting human collapsed to the ground clutching his ears, and The Reaper soared out from behind the nearest shed with his scythe swinging. We’d split, we’d tricked, and now I dove in and flew next to him to complete our formation so we could sweep the entire site in one lap. He and I wove between the sheds and around the high house, and Seversoul lanced through ten humans, twenty, thirty, forty. The Reaper’s cackles were lost in the continued shrieking from my guided Blood Magic spell, and the dust we kicked up settled quickly amid the smokeless complex.

I held tight to the folio and drew out another clipping from the ‘strength’ section. We were flying so fast that handfuls of magazine and newspaper cuttings fluttered out of the folio, but I had the last one I needed to bring the hurt I’d wanted to set loose on Avarice for years. I smeared blood on the political cartoon of a dragon, stuck it to my right shoulder under the blouse, and cranked out more Blood Magic. Then I tucked the empty folio away and swooped up alongside The Reaper.

We touched down in front of the high house, eyes scanning the bodies of the soldiers whose lives we’d been forced to end. Avarice stood with her back to the battlefield in the Basin below, revealed now that we’d dropped and harvested all her summoners. In the distance behind her, demons with iron-black wings dive bombed the Boer soldiers behind their mounds and trenches. Those were the demons she’d convinced the British to summon the old-fashioned way. She’d stoked the men’s greed by offering them guaranteed victory and more gold than they could spend, all for the bargain basement price of one summoning per person. I knew that we’d find circles, altars, and burned bibles in the sheds when we searched them after the skirmish.

Flipping her caramel-blonde hair, Avarice took off her tailcoat, tossed it aside, and strode toward us. She brushed dirt off her puritanical dress and snarled, “The Pneuma Coalition will eradicate you, and I stand witness to your violation of the laws set down during The Acheria Conference of 1880.”

The Reaper kept Seversoul pointed at Avarice while I spat, “It’s your word against ours, and this is self-defense. Representatives of the Soul Fountains are allowed to defend themselves for the sake of the mote system, and that includes taking human life if an assailant forces us to.”

“We are not to interfere with humanity,” The Reaper roared. His voice was the grinding of gears. “The Acheria Conference established this. It is you who steals souls and violates the laws set down during the Industrial Revolution.”

I launched myself at Avarice and beat both wings to build momentum for a flying side kick. She swatted my left foot away with a wing, and I spun in mid-air to turn it into a side-to-back-side kick. She knocked the right foot aside too and flicked her hand in an all too familiar way. I knew what was coming, so I whirled with the momentum I’d built up and swung a right uppercut at her ribcage.

It connected and flung her twenty feet skyward thanks to the Blood Magic I’d hidden down my right sleeve. I switched the haloxite knife to my right hand and tore after her, wings and heart pumping.

The Reaper bellowed from somewhere in the air behind me, “Avaline, clean up the demons and let Avarice go. She can’t defeat us.”

Blinking away flecks of red in my vision, I followed orders and--

Five heavy knocks shattered the atmosphere in The Reaper’s office and I leapt out of my chair, whirling to face the door. A demon’s silhouette stood outside. Her wind-tossed hair and her I’m-too-important-for-you posture sent an oh-crap twitch through me. Contressa, The Reaper’s third shift bodyguard.

She was here, and she could not find out about these case notes. Reaper's orders.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Case 3 - Ep. 2: Soul Mine Skirmish

Soul Fountains Business by Beki Yopek
Wings pumping, I flapped over the Witwatersrand Basin in central South Africa with The Reaper in formation alongside me, his robes rippling behind him. The mining complex at East Rand in 1902 was situated in the northeastern part of the Basin, two hundred kilometers east of Johannesburg. East Rand was one of the most contested swaths of land in South Africa, and thousands had already died fighting for the gold that the Basin held deep underground.

I squinted at the basin floor where the most recent skirmish between the Boers and the British was still in full bloody swing. On the outside of the mining complex, trenches and mounds dug by the Boers were teeming with gunners taking cover and firing rifles up into the sheds and towers, where the British invaders were returning fire.

I sucked a lungful of dusty air and yelled to The Reaper over the wind and the gunfire. “We’re going in there mid-combat?”

“We have our horns, Avaline,” The Reaper shouted. “Only haloxite can harm those protected by brimstone.” He pointed Seversoul toward the high house at the complex’s center and continued. “Watch the souls flowing into the owners’ mansion. Avarice is there.”

I bit back the first words that came to mind and said, “You know she’s got more than magic in her corner.”

“That matters not. I shan’t slay a Septuplet who supported the Soul Fountains on paper after the Industrial Revolution. Did you forget the Acheria Conference of 1880?”

I growled and sneered at the high house. Even with the descending sun turning the battlefield into a bloody-gold glare, the strings of souls weaving their way into the high house were visible. Hundreds of newly deceased souls from both sides left their bodies, lingered for moments, then ambled up the muddy paths and switchbacks toward Avarice’s new H.Q. I flapped a little slower and shouted, “She’s a backstabby jackass just like the rest of the Septuplets. If you’d killed her back in Circle City, we wouldn’t be dealing with this now. The Pneuma Coalition does this all the time; Rage and Avarice don’t set these caches up just for their own benefit.”

“Everything they do,” The Reaper rasped, “also traps and distracts us. They expect our arrival and engineer events on Earth to lure us in.”

“And kill us dead because we help the Three Domains and they only sap from them.”

“Perhaps they do not view it as such. Rage and Avarice are only a part of the Pneuma Coalition. They likely see their actions as aggressive self-sufficiency. They see it as more beneficial to acknowledge one reality and take souls without shame than to build a better reality at the expense of a large piece of one’s well being.”

I swooped lower and circled the high house, the tastes of sulfur and gunpowder on the air reminding me of my home city. Feeling in my trench coat pockets, I drew out the familiar haloxite knife and left the other thing in the inside pocket. “I’ll take a large piece of her face off.”

The Reaper tilted his horns at me. “The knife alone did not work in Circle City. Why do you not use Blood Magic?”

“Let me worry about me,” I replied, still ignoring the weight of the other thing. “I’ve handled plenty of other Septuplets with just the knife and some Tae Kwon Do. Now let’s get down there and harvest the souls before Avarice knows we’re here.”

We touched down behind a framework built of metal in the shape of a shot tower, and as expected, none of the British pouring from the sheds noticed us. They couldn’t see us either because they hadn’t prayed or summoned in a long time, or they were too fixated on killing South Africans now in order to keep their gold for later. The Reaper soared toward a nearby scrum of souls and swept the scythe through them like an overpowered broom sweeping up dust. That two-toned blade absorbed every soul and all the fresh life force along with them.

I twirled the knife between my fingers and watched for demons to burst out from among the ranks of British soldiers taking cover against the sheds on the downhill side of the complex. Nothing. Not a demon from Hell, nor a fallen angel from Heaven. Just the Earthies feeding their bullshit instincts for more, more, more. I screamed at them even though they wouldn’t hear. “Who cares who suffers and dies as long as I get mine.”

I froze and listened to what I’d just said. No wonder there were no demons here. Avarice wouldn’t share, not even with unemployed demons desperate for life force. I should have known she’d let the Earthies do all fighting.

Leaping over me, The Reaper cackled and harvested row after row of souls. I kept an eye on him and flew right behind the high house’s front door, knife in one hand, the other deep in the inside pocket of my trench coat. Avarice had to be watching, and she would come out and blitz us as soon as Reap’s back was turned.

One last rank of British soldiers filed out of a nearby shed. They lined up along the downhill side right in the open.

Then they rounded on The Reaper and me with their rifles raised. Each rank that had taken cover behind the other sheds emerged and surrounded us, sighting on us like they--

Wait, they could see us. They’d been faking.

“Summoners,” I screamed, not knowing if The Reaper heard me.

Avarice bellowed from somewhere among the soldiers. “Your targets are The Reaper and Avaline Vasaga.”

I whipped out the other thing from my trench coat pocket the same moment that Avarice screeched, “Fire!”

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Case 3 - Ep. 1: Soul Mine Skirmish

Soul Fountains Business by Beki Yopek
“Any particular reason why you were late today, Avaline?”

I glanced at my Hades watch, a silver and gold piece of work with tiny etchings around the face, and met The Reaper’s shady eye sockets underneath his brown hood. “We got done harvesting souls early today. It’s only 9:00pm. Contressa doesn’t get here until ten anyway, and we’ve been writing pretty well--”

The Reaper stood up behind his expensive, glass-topped desk and loomed to his full seven foot height. “No one can know what we are writing. I will not let the Pneuma Coalition get even a single hint of my intentions.” With one bone hand, he brought Seversoul, his scythe, out from behind his back and pointed it at me. “You omitted pieces of our Circle City raid.”

That wasn’t fear shocking through me. It wasn’t.

If I kept writing these case notes for The Reaper, he’d kill me. Leaving out what I’d done was like shouting, “Here’s what I did,” and I made a personal vow to handle these cases with more care from here on. That scythe wasn’t a harmless nail file.

I swallowed back the taste of the Sin and Tonic in my mouth and said, “Reap, it’s Wednesday, and we’ve been doing this for three days now. None of the other bodyguards will think anything of it. Hell, they’ll think we’re going over tips for tomorrow’s shift or something.”

The Reaper’s grin looked just like his rage-face what with his lack of lips, but I knew what it meant when he tilted his head like that. He set the scythe on the desk where it clacked and clanked between his bones and the glass. His voice was a millstone, grating and grinding. “Are we going to call these, ‘performance evaluations’ while in public?”

Some of the jangling in my nerves faded away and I smiled. “Sure. Cut out a chunk of time from each shift to discuss the obvious.”

He raised a hand to his face and thocked a knuckle against his skull. “It may sound empty, but it’s not. There is something in this mind of mine that needs finding, and keeping this writing secret is just as important as doing your job.” Sitting down behind his desk again, The Reaper leaned back in his carved chair and gazed around his office. “Do you see these file cabinets?”

Taking my queue, I dug in the cabinet to his left and came out with the next paper-filled folder I’d prepared yesterday. I wriggled in my crimson blouse and grey pants, unstuck most of the sweaty parts, and sat in the usual middle chair across from The Reaper. I slapped the folder down and scooted it away from the point of the scythe. Pen in hand, I eyed him and waited for more.

“Those cabinets,” The Reaper hissed, “contain ledgers and records of every soul that goes through the Soul Fountains.” He waved behind him at the flickering, neon-mixed lights of the cityscape beyond the bay windows. “Fountainia hires business demons and banker angels to move to the city and keep extensive track of our mote production.”

I sat up and looked past his robed frame to the urban sprawl that had developed over the decades.

Fountainia’s south side was visible on the left, and its skyscrapers and neon signage stretched for at least a mile, advertising bars, liquor companies, weapon stores, and banking conglomerates just like those in my home city. That was the demon side of town, so of course the few professional demons that Hell gave rise to would need their Imp Schnapps and their Dr. Moloch’s Rum within easy drinking distance.

Fountainia’s north side glared with the kind of white light you’d get if you shone a ginormous spotlight on the moon twenty-four seven. That pure white radiance emanated from pristine pyramids, ever-moving terraces, and airborne cafes that Heaven’s architect angels loved to cram all over the landscape and skyscape of every city they constructed.

Mix one part demon consumerism, one part Hell’s violence, and two parts angelic hubris, and you get Fountainia, with a Soul Fountains garnish.

I jerked a horn at the file cabinets and told The Reaper, “I see why we need to record all this, so let me tell you in advance. Thank you for not asking me to keep such boring ledgers.”

The Reaper threw back his skull and cackled, his hood snagging on his ram’s horns. “And thank you for your continued effort and truthfulness. Millions of others have faith that the Soul Fountains work, and their day-to-day lives can proceed because of the work we do.”

“You mean the ass we kick.”

“Yes, so get writing so we can finish and get back to it. Contressa will arrive soon. Now, South Africa was a battlefield in 1902. . .”

My eyes fell on the scythe and I missed The Reaper’s next few words. Am I keeping this job out of blind faith that this routine will hold? If it breaks and the Pneuma Coalition gets what it wants, will my violent demon’s nature invade my thoughts again the way it did during The Industrial Revolution? The way it did with Av--

Just shut up and write, Ava.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Case 2 - Ep. 3: Soul Rush

Gold Rush by Beki Yopek
It only took two weeks to get The Reaper as pissed as I’d ever seen him. We’d worked our horns off hunting The Pneuma Coalition, and they’d made appearances in Chicago and the Yukon. After our run-in with Avarice and those prospectors during the Klondike Gold Rush, I’d chased Avarice off. The Reaper was convinced she worked for the Pneuma Coalition just like Rage, so he suspected she’d be making a return visit. Thousands of would-be prospectors had traveled to Circle City, Alaska to discover their fortune in gold. Only a few actually did, and The Reaper absolutely would not leave any souls behind. Two jobs handled in one visit.

We hit Circle City early in September of 1896. Dusk had fallen on the log buildings and shanties, casting as many shadows as the evergreens around the city’s outskirts did. Hundreds upon hundreds of souls swarmed the streets from the outside in, flocking toward the saloons and the two theaters in the center. Both the buildings and the souls had been abandoned by the human prospectors, who’d booked it in search of bigger piles of gold. Go figure. Avarice shows up, George Carmack finds gold, and the failed gold-diggers up and ditch the whole city.

The Reaper dove headfirst for the nearest theater he spotted and I followed, watching him spin Seversoul between his hands. He whipped his legs underneath him and landed in a whirl of shadow-black bones, his robe rippling with each sweep of the scythe. It absorbed cluster after cluster of souls, and he darted through the air in wingless flight each time the nearby souls ran out. I drew a haloxite knife from inside my leather trench coat and landed ten yards from The Reaper on the dirt street corner across from the theater.

Adjusting my blouse and trousers, I followed behind The Reaper and searched every darkened corner for demon thieves. If Avarice was here, she’d have followers ready to pounce on us as soon as The Reaper was distracted. Prickles crept across both arms while I guarded The Reaper, and they chilled me deeper and deeper every time we crossed another street. Souls, but no demons. Souls that flowed into a saloon marked ‘Fool’s Gold.'

“In there,” I shouted at The Reaper’s back.

He halted and pivoted to face me, his ram’s horns making him seem to loom taller. “Yes, Avaline, she is in that saloon. Watch my back while I clean up her souls.”

“Her souls?” I said. “You know, you’ve got to get better at communication. Souls don’t belong to anyone. They’re just there.”

“Because I placed them there,” a familiar voice crooned. Both doors to the Fool’s Gold slammed open and Avarice strode out with her horns in the air and a snarl on her face. Her curves, her deep blonde hair, and her toned body screamed ‘sex me up’ so loud I wanted to end her right there. She smoothed her dark lace dress and spat, “It’s so easy stealing souls from under your noses. The Industrial Revolution was the best thing for the Pneum--”

I rushed her before she could run her mouth any more. The Reaper’s warning rasp faded into the background and I flapped both wings hard, throwing a flying side kick at Avarice’s chest. She sunk the claws at the ends of her wings into the saloon’s wooden door, ripped it off the hinges, and whipped it around. The door smashed into my leg--it didn’t hurt or break anything thanks to my horns’ protection--but it slung me sideways and into the dirt street.

Spreading both wings, I tried to make a u-turn and slash Avarice with the haloxite knife. She seized my trenchcoat before I’d even started the turn and slung me up into the air like a volleyball. Then she swung the heavy wood door upward and pummeled me right over the theater. The coat and knife got tangled and tearing sounds came from the general area of my right hip. Seconds later, a scream tore from me and razor-hot pain gashed the hip where the haloxite blade had pierced through my horns’ protection.

I tumbled in a heap along the roof of another saloon and crashed to the dirt among glowing souls and deep shadows, expecting Avarice’s followers to strike any second.

None came. No movement, no sound, nothing. I winced and inspected the wound as I stood on my good left leg. The haloxite knife meant for Avarice’s throat had bit down to the bone on the outside of my right hip, and hot orange demon’s blood leaked out onto my pants and trenchcoat. It was only skin and tissue that’d been severed, but she’d wanted me to get it from my own knife.

A screech erupted from the street where the Fool’s Gold saloon was situated. “This is my cache! How dare you harvest it!”

I growled at the pain and took off again, searching the sky above the Fool’s Gold for Avarice’s enraged ass. Instead, The Reaper soared toward me with Seversoul in his grip. He hissed and ranted as he crossed in front of the setting sun. “We have swept this place clean, now let us go and unload at The Soul Fountains. Forget Avarice. She is powerless for now.”

Bewildered, I flapped alongside him in formation and yelled, “You mean you didn’t kill her?”

Final Episode - Cycle Seen, Cycle Reaped.

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