Saturday, April 29, 2017

Case 5 - Ep. 2: Heavenly War Propaganda

Heavenly War Propaganda by Beki Yopek
True demon-versus-angel combat feels a lot like 1918 at The Battle Of Amiens. American and Allied infantry advanced on the German army like a wolf pack sensing weakness. The British Expeditionary Force plowed forward with tanks and made it rain artillery on the Germans’ heads. Royal Air Force planes bore down on the exposed enemy and dropped phosphorus bombs by the hundred.

Soaring alongside The Reaper and Prudence, I gazed hundreds of feet down at the countryside of northern France. Smog and the scents of torn flesh enveloped the entire battlefield, making the landscape southeast of the city of Amiens smell like home. The Allies slow-rolled over the German troops and flocks of demons stayed behind to mooch off the dead souls both sides left behind. Fallen angels, their halos glaring red, swooped among them and stole life force from the newly deceased humans. 

It was our legal and moral prerogative to kick some ass and harvest some souls.

I dipped underneath The Reaper and flapped alongside Prudence. She was one of the Lucky Seven, a heavenly virtue in the flesh. Her full-moon halo hovered behind her head the way they do in those fancy-pants paintings of saints. Five-eleven, pixie cut brown hair, tan skin, and honey-gold wings and eyes to match her halo. She wore tight ivory sashes around the hips and bust, and nothing else.

“Hey Prudy,” I shouted over the artillery going off below us. “You showed up half-naked to a tank fight. Is that prudent?”

Her hand shot out and gripped the lapel of my blazer before I’d finished the question. She snarled, “It is important to deny The Reaper’s enemies any advantage. Clothing your opponent can grip is detrimental.”

I barrel-rolled and slipped out of the blazer, then snagged the sleeve and whipped it around Prudence’s wings. Her feathers crumpled and she started to fall toward the warring humans. “I feed targets to my enemies. Makes ‘em more predictable.”

A haloxite bayonet floated over Prudence’s head and sliced my blazer down the middle. It fluttered away behind us and Prudence re-gained her altitude, laughing. “Stop trying to comprehend one of the Seven, Avaline. It isn’t prudent for you.”

Throwing my own wordplay and fighting techniques back at me. Guess that’s why she’s The Reaper’s day shift bodyguard. It didn’t help that the Lucky Seven had a superpower to go with their divinity. Well, it did help, but--that’s--no, scratch that out. 

Prudence was freaking telekinetic, and she only used it in small doses. The Septuplets I’d ran into fighting the Pneuma Coalition each had one power too, and that’s how Avarice had smacked the bejeezus out of me in the past. Prudy chose to spread the hurt around instead of letting loose like the Septuplets did. Maybe that was why we were losing this war against the Pneuma Coalition and their demon thieves. We needed something bigger. 

The Reaper waved us closer and we darted in on either side of him. His voice was a cannon blast. “We cannot continue to support The Soul Fountains alone. Today, we destroy the Coalition’s thieves and send them a message. Then we recruit angels to track their movements and alert us to soul thieves.”

Gritting my teeth, I made sure the top button of my crimson blouse was buttoned. Then I pointed down at the warzone, where a forest on high ground was growing nearer. “There’s no time for heavenly war propaganda right now. We should harvest souls from the outside in and destroy any thieves. We’ll stay together so any Septuplets in hiding can’t pick us off while we work.”

“That would take too long,” Prudence yelled back. “The souls will still be there once we’re done finishing each individual thief.”

“If we waste time hunting thieves one by one, we allow the others to steal life force we’re bound by law to harvest.”

“When we destroy all thieves first, we send a message.”

“And can you be in thirty places at once?”

A grin of mad scientist proportions cracked Prudence’s lips. “Watch and be envious.”

Prudence patted The Reaper’s shoulder, then dove toward the chaotic area south of the hilltop forest. Multiple haloxite bayonets hovered around Prudence as she flew, and I blinked, confused as to where she’d hidden them. Probably in the sashes. The bayonets were chipped or sheared in half, and a few still had pieces of rifle attached to them. Huh. Those would have been demon-slaying equipment for humans or summoners. Where had she gotten them?

By the time I shook the questions away, Prudence had already flown in two east-to-west passes among the Allied and German infantry. The demons were too focused on stealing life force to see her coming, and the confusion of war only helped Prudence. Bayonets lanced out from her shining form and pierced demons by the dozen. Smoke clouds burst from the demon flocks while they died, and with each sweep, Prudence ended at least forty or more thieves. 

I flapped close to The Reaper and drew a brimstone stiletto and its haloxite twin from the belt sheathes at my back. Sure, it’s important to leave The Reaper exposed in the middle of the Great War. My internal cynic’s ego got a stoke when three fallen angels flapped upward away from the battle toward me and The Reaper. The lead fangel wore a torn sport coat, a shirt with a ruff, and ripped leather pants to go with his tar-black wings and scarlet halo. His cronies had even less dress sense. 

I’d prepared for this fight with a little Blood Magic: a picture of a train blaring its horn stuck below my windpipe with my own blood, and a political cartoon of a charging bull stuck to my right bicep. The blood was more than half dried now, but it’d stay liquid long enough for the Blood Magic to flow so I could trounce these clowns. When the lead fangel saw me raise my left hand at him, he balked and slowed down. The other two kept coming, haloxite sabers waving like fly swatters in The Reaper’s direction. 

He raised Seversoul to strike at the same moment that I let Blood Magic flow. I hollered, “Back off,” and the magic amplified my voice tenfold. It also kinda made me sound like a train whistle. Shrieking sound waves stunned the fallen angels long enough for The Reaper to swipe Seversoul through one, and for me to impale the other with the brimstone stiletto. Their peerless leader u-turned and fled toward the forest at the top of the hill. 

“Get back here,” I screeched, diving after the fallen angel. He was close enough to finish off, and Prudence was soaring toward the trees on the hilltop. The Reaper cackled and looped downward in wingless flight, harvesting the souls Prudence had freed up for him. I gripped the brimstone knife in my right hand and let the Blood Magic surge, seeking to finish this idiot and get back to The Reaper’s side. 

When Rage and Avarice streaked out of the forest and over my head, I was already flying too hard to change direction. They blitzed The Reaper, drew pistols, and fired haloxite rounds.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Case 5 - Ep. 1: Heavenly War Propaganda

Heavenly War Propaganda by Beki Yopek
My hackles go up whenever The Reaper returns late from a shift. I leaned against the haloxite rim of the Soul Fountains and glanced at my Hades watch. Half past two in the afternoon on a Friday. I’d waited for half an hour to start our usual soul harvesting shift, and he hadn’t shown.

I adjusted my bra underneath the pinstriped blazer and glanced at the usher and banker angels bustling around me. Life force rushed upward out of the souls crossing the waters, ascending like a waterfall that thought it was opposite day. That life force splashed into the ten-story-high marble-and-haloxite bowls where it always overflowed and cascaded down into the next series of bowls. Banker demons flew up and attached boxes of empty mote coins to the bowls.

Ivory coins of crimson and vanilla scraped against the haloxite brims as they rolled into the life force, soaked it up, and slung themselves out again. Streams of full motes hovered into bins on the desks surrounding the Fountains where banker demons would allocate them to governing bodies and corporations according to Seraph Police Department regulations. Drained souls exited at the back of the ground-level bowl and usher angels led them to a series of marble carvings labelled with signs.

Eight square slabs with eight-foot circles of carved words stood sentinel on the left side of the forty-story Motery Center building. Two Seraphs from the Seraph Police Department guarded the keyholes carved into each slab, and the signs above them read in succession, “First Circle,” “Second Circle,” and so on. There was no carving for the Ninth Circle. Period.

The usher angel at the front herded souls toward the leftmost slab and announced, “Acheria. Two hundred seventeen souls.”

Both Seraphs reached into the pockets of their slate-gray uniforms and withdrew objects. Seraph Left touched the SPD badge he’d withdrawn to the keyhole on the left side, and Seraph Right jammed a brimstone key into the right keyhole. A pinprick of iridescent light bloomed in the center of the carving, and Seraph Right read something off the clipboard in his other hand, bending down and using his halo as a light bulb. “Hell, First Circle, Acheria, I. R. Conference Center.”

When he finished speaking, the pinprick swirled outward to fill the whole carving with iridescent light, creating a hell divide between here and the I. R. Conference Center in Acheria. The usher angel shoved all the souls into the hell divide, then flew in himself to guide them to whatever First Circle pit they were destined for. Ushers all along the Motery Center’s ground floor did the same with their clusters of souls, announcing destinations in Hell when they approached the eight hell divides on the left. Fewer ushers and souls approached the five pearlescent heaven lanes on the right, but that was how it always was at the Soul Fountains.

Our business proved that Hell, Earth, and Heaven could keep going even though there were more sinners than saints. But when The Reaper was late like this, a metallic fear in my chest got me wondering exactly where this would all go if he--

Screeching erupted from the fortieth story of the Motery Center and I craned my neck upward to squint at the only balcony with a hell divide. The Reaper shot out of it alone with his hood down, swinging his ram’s horns around like a crazed bull that took the word “toro” as an insult to its mother. I unfurled both wings and shot upward, checking that I had the Blood Magic folio in my blazer pocket on the way. Something crazy must have happened, and my heart rapped against my ribs as I ascended.

The Reaper swerved down and around the Motery Center building. He crashed onto his office balcony and slashed the door into two pieces with one swing of his scythe. Shudders flooded me, and I flew on knowing they wouldn’t stop soon.

What the hell happened to piss Reap off this much?

Landing on the balls of my feet, I drew out the folio and flipped to the ‘strength’ section just in case. I stepped over the cloven door and stood in the frame, watching as The Reaper bellowed at the ceiling and slashed Seversoul straight down at the floor. The two-toned blade bit into the wood and he left the haft jutting up into the middle of the office. With both hands, he gripped his horns and roared at the weapon with all the air in his erm, robes.

A snicker escaped me in spite of things and as soon as he quieted down, I said, “You want to wreck those file cabinets while you’re at it? I’d love to start all over with these case notes.”

He seemed to come to his senses a little and stood to his full seven foot height. The Reaper pulled his hood back up and stepped toward me, his voice a magma flow. “The Pneuma Coalition got Prudence. She fell less than an hour ago.”

I kept the folio open. “Prudence, the morning shift bodyguard? She’s a heavenly virtue in the flesh. No way they have the skill to murder one of the Lucky Seven.”

The Reaper reached back and wrenched Seversoul from the floor. “I said fell. Red halo. Fallen angel. Fell.”

Before I knew I’d done it, I had my haloxite lancet pen out of my pocket and in my other hand. I jabbed a finger with it and smeared the blood on the picture of female bodybuilders I had on top of the ‘strength’ section. The shuddering still hadn’t stopped, but I said anyway, “With a full-moon halo like hers? She’ll look like a big-ass stop sign is stalking her.”

Bones grated on wood as The Reaper gripped the scythe’s haft. “You are equating the choice of sin over virtue to slapstick comedy.”

“More like absurd comedy. Prudence with a bright red halo behind her head? It can’t be fashionable to look like a sunburnt lobster.”

Laughter sizzled out of him and he rounded his desk, placing Seversoul atop it with a clank. “Perhaps we should finish today’s writing before we harvest souls. That would allow us a chance to cool down and ponder what to do about Prudence’s fall.”

“How level-skulled of you. I’ll find another layer of protection for you and all the bodyguards soon. Are you planning on getting a new bodyguard or telling anyone else what happened?”

“Yes and no. Now we both have an axe to grind against Avarice. Do you remember when we got involved with World War I the second time?”

"That was when we drafted angels," I said. "War propaganda in Heaven and all that."

The Reaper pointed at me with an ebony hand. “The Volunteer Guardian Angels were designed to foil the Pneuma Coalition, prevent angels from falling, and get the Seraph Police Department to commit more resources to us. And it contributed to the problem I’m seeking to remedy.”

I sprang up and pulled pen, paper, and folders out of the nearest file cabinet. So it was Avarice that made Prudence fall. It would be up to me to find new ways to protect The Reaper. I’d dig up more on what actually happened when Reap had calmed down. And when my own shaking stopped. I held up a pen and clicked it. "How did Heaven make things worse?"

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Case 4 - Ep. 3: Two Souls, Two Tales

Two Tales, Two Souls by Beki Yopek
Mix one Reaper, one Ava, and a hundred swarming demon thieves and you get The Battle Of The Somme with too many chasers.

Demons with crimson, black, and gray wings erupted from a gutted farmhouse and barn in northern France, 1916. They surged through the skies after us in a tangled mass, drawing haloxite blades and rifles no doubt loaded with haloxite rounds that would pierce the protection our brimstone horns gave us. I whipped out my Blood Magic folio from the inside of my half-shredded trenchcoat and gripped my favorite haloxite knife in the other hand. Then I shouted to The Reaper, “Stick with the plan and harvest from the outside in. I’ll deal with these clowns.”

“What about the summoners on the battlefield?” The Reaper hissed, swooping for the outside edges of the war zone.

“We don’t know if they’re shooting haloxite yet,” I yelled over the winds and my beating wings. “If they are, this’ll be even easier. Now let’s go.”

He nodded his skull once and dove for the eastern edge of the combat zone where clusters of souls wandered amid the the dying dregs of war. Twirling Seversoul in figure eights, The Reaper absorbed dozens of soldiers’ souls. With every group he harvested, the demons behind us roared and raged, flapping faster and getting within meters of us. I cupped the top of the folio with my knife hand and flipped to the ‘impairment’ section, then drew out a full page picture of a liquor bottle. I held knife and picture in one hand, pocketed the folio with the other, then sliced an opening in my left pointer finger a couple centimeters long.

“Jeez that always hurts,” I groaned as I smeared my orange blood along every inch of the picture. Then I tore it into dozens of tiny pieces against my chest so none of them blew away. Flapping ahead of The Reaper a little, I spun in mid-air, let go of the shreds, and let the Blood Magic flow.

Two thrown spears tipped with haloxite whistled through the air toward The Reaper as I magicked, and I gauged their flight paths, then flung a flying front kick out and knocked the dangerous one off course. The other spear caught Reap’s robe and tore a hole, then plunged and stuck in the mud where a bald, gray-winged being snatched it up and kept flying beneath the swarm. Apathy’d followed us, but I’d have to deal with him after we finished off these drunk demons.

Well, they weren’t actually drunk. The shreds of the picture had guided my Blood Magic to impair the senses of anyone the pieces touched, and I’d caught dozens of them in the spell. Each one that I’d hit wobbled in the air and dropped their haloxite weapons to the ground where Apathy caught them and added them to a huge duffel bag he held under one arm. I seized the chance and zipped between drunkified demons, gripping my knife tight and striking each of them in the neck. Their forms dissolved into smoke with each blow I landed, and I lost count in the roar of the winds and the thudding of my heart behind my ribs.

There were seven demons left by the time the blood on the shreds dried and the magic wore off. They swerved at the sudden onset of sobriety and I checked to make sure The Reaper and I were still in formation together circling the battlefield. He was much farther ahead than me, but he’d circled multiple times and harvested thousands of souls while I was busy protecting him. I looked below to find Apathy cramming the horns of his fallen minions into the same duffel bag, which was now bulging with how full it was.

The Reaper’s voice was an ice floe right next to me. “You were right. The summoners have turned on the demons. They must think their enemies called them up.”

Demonists. Who was I to complain though?

A handful of summoners with a British soldier at their head was firing haloxite rounds up into the seven remaining demons, who puffed into smoke. Apathy had vanished sometime during the fighting, probably after he’d gathered enough brimstone and haloxite to make tons of motes on the Vice Market. Did Apathy work for the Pneuma Coalition, or was he siphoning off any benefit he could get by appearing all chummy with them?

The Reaper and I circled to the center of the chaos, metal bullets pinging off of our horns’ protection from the few remaining soldiers still fighting. We harvested the last thousand souls without any trouble and watched as the German soldiers--

A cream-colored angel wing slapped down on the bar next to us and I looked up to see Niariel’s bubbly self smiling at me and The Reaper. Her half-Japanese, half-Italian features made her look elegant even in the yoga pants and screen printed top that matched the sign outside. Nia was the only angel I trusted, and she owned The Down South Lounge, the bar in Hell that I’d taken The Reaper to for some privacy as we wrote this, our latest case. Nia’s hair fell in a crescent moon drape down to her chin on either side, and she fluffed it up and grinned at The Reaper.

Her lips moved, but nothing came out.

“One sec,” I said uselessly. Drawing out the half-picture of noise-canceling headphones, I tore my half in two and passed the other half to Nia.

She picked it up, glanced at the picture, then bounced on the balls of her feet. “That’s Blood Magic, and this spell guarantees that only the three of us can hear each other. H-E-double-hockey-sticks, Ava. I miss my best demon friend.”

“It’s been since yesterday,” I said before I could stop myself. Then I looked sidelong at The Reaper on his barstool. He wasn’t supposed to know I’d had a couple Sin and Tonics the other day before we wrote a case. Guess the imp’s out of the bag now.

Nia reached up and tapped her halo with a finger. “You were squeezing your horns a minute ago. What’s up?”

The Reaper set Seversoul down on the bar-I saw several drunk demons back away at this-and snorted. “Avaline is still dying to find out who the two important humans were at The Battle Of The Somme.”

Whoa. Reap just gave away a lot of information about our cases like it was nothing. It was Nia though, so I raised an eyebrow at him. “Who were the two uber-important humans who fought in the same battle together?”

Sucking in a rattling breath, The Reaper hissed, “Tolkien and Hitler.”

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Case 4 - Ep. 2: Two Souls, Two Tales

Two Tales, Two Souls by Beki Yopek
The Reaper wouldn’t mention two specific humans in a World War One battle unless they were important. Since I’d damn near screwed up writing these case notes for two days running, I turned on the mental jets and promised myself I wouldn’t miss a thing.

Seven days’ worth of bombings on the river Somme in northern France hadn’t driven the Germans back. We knew because we’d visited each day, dodging explosions and harvesting tens of thousands of souls at a time. Big cities on Earth in 1916 yielded plenty of life force from the humans that died there each day, but battlefields like this one were bumper crops that grew back daily. We couldn’t be wasteful and let all those souls become ghosts. You wouldn’t let your favorite food sit on the counter until it got moldy, would you?

When the bombings finally ceased, The Reaper dove from the skies and wove unseen among the charging British troops, twirling Seversoul between his hands. Each spin of the scythe caught multiple souls, drawing them and their life force into the two-toned blade. The souls of the dead blanketed the river banks and the land for kilometers around, and I grit my teeth trying to keep up with The Reaper in his element. His cackles blended with the gunshots and the shouts of men, sending chills up, down, and all through me.

Demons dotted the landscape, and I spotted each one as he or she stole the life force from the massive tide of souls among the living. I knew they’d been summoned by British and German soldiers who worked for the Pneuma Coalition. Maybe a few of the summoners could see us, maybe they were dead already. Either way, the Pneumas had everything to gain.

What better way to eliminate competitors than arm humans with haloxite ammuntion, then push them to summon demons with the excuse that the other side would be doing the same? It’d keep the summoners busy shooting demons, and it would give the demons false hope that they’d escape the Battle Of The Somme with bellies full of life force instead of bullets. The question was: which Septuplet was pulling the strings this time?

Two demon thieves noticed The Reaper and ditched the clusters of souls they’d been feeding on. Demon number one waved for his buddy to take off with him, pointing at The Reaper and pantomiming swinging a scythe. He flew right toward me without noticing that demon number two had fled like a cowardly chicken with yellow feathers. I drew my haloxite knife and flapped both wings, then waited for the lone demon to make a move.

He swerved upward seconds before The Reaper would cross his flight path, then bellowed, “Take that scythe.”

On account of flying away, his buddy didn’t respond, and that wasn’t what demon number one expected. I pumped my wings and swooped in a J arc, slashing my knife deep into his back. I’d hit the vital organs I’d aimed for, because he burst into smoke before the knife left his flesh. His horns dropped to the mud and muck that used to be the shore of the river Somme. Next second I was up in the air again, searching for more demons fool enough to try and ambush The Reaper on my watch.

We wove among crashed Royal Flying Corps aircraft and harvested hundreds and hundreds of souls, some fresh, some leftover from the previous week’s bombings. The demons on the battlefield behaved exactly the way I’d expected. One moment they’re stealing the life force from souls, and the next moment they’re either dead at The Reaper’s hand, or dead at mine. Keeping up with Reap was like trying to outfly a hurricane, but the name of the game wasn’t, “Out-Reap The Reaper.” It was, “Keep That Hurricane Spinning.”

I pumped both wings and darted out for another kill when this demon’s companion fled as quickly as the first chicken shit had. One dip underneath the attacker, one swipe, and the lone demon was nothing but smoke. Both of the demon’s horns tumbled to the ground only to be snatched up by the demon who’d run away. It was demon number two from earlier, and he was collecting the horns from fallen demons. He was a horn-hunter, collecting the brimstone from dead demons for use in anti-angel weaponry.

“Avaline,” The Reaper roared, and I whirled in mid-air to find him falling into formation beside me. “That horn-hunter is Apathy. He is one of the Septuplets. We must drive him off and stop his posse from stealing life force.”

“Did you just say, ‘posse?’ “

“It is fitting, is it not?”

I waggled my head in an "ehhh” sort of way and followed the Septuplet as he dipped. Already, Apathy was soaring away toward another handful of demons devouring stolen life force near a burned-out barn. I barely got a look at Apathy’s brimstone horns, bald pate, and greasy gray wings before he swerved behind the farmhouse next to the barn and didn’t come out. Great. this meant that Rage, Avarice, and Apathy were working for the Pneuma Coalition. That bald slacker wanted easy life force and easier brimstone, so he scavenged it instead of using his motes to get brimstone on the Vice Market.

I shouted to The Reaper as we flew. “Apathy can’t steal as many souls as we can harvest. Let’s work from the outside in and harvest all the souls we find. That way the demon thieves are more likely to stay where the souls are and we can clean them and Apathy up once we’re done.”

“Good plan, but look there.” The Reaper pointed toward that farm with Seversoul, where a swarm of demons hidden inside the barn and farmhouse gushed out like pest control’s worst nightmare. They swirled through the smoke-choked air toward us. “I hope you brought your Blood Magic folio.”

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Case 4 - Ep. 1: Two Souls, Two Tales

Two Souls, Two Tales by Beki Yopek
The demon on The Reaper’s office balcony struck a pose and said, “Do I look like The Reaper’s bodyguard?”

I landed next to Contressa Vexus and blew a wisp of her hair out of my face. It was the kind of nuts that you couldn’t tame even if you tried. The hair, not her face. That windblown brown mop and that chartreuse one-shoulder top looked like they belonged on a stripper, and her wings and horns threw a dash of cosplayer into the mix.

“No,” I agreed. “More like a frizz-headed floozy.”

Contressa beamed and squeezed my shoulder. “Exactly. The Reaper’s enemies see another wigged-out demon around him and think I’m a thief like them.”

I resisted the urge to brush dirt off the shoulder she touched and re-adjusted my pinstriped blazer. “Look, it’s Thursday, and I’ve got another performance eval with The Reaper before the day's harvest.”

She nodded and her scalp creature bounced with the motion. “Like the one I interrupted yesterday? Got it. You go harvest. I’ve got pets to let out.”

Contressa spread her wings and took off before I could ask whether or not her pets had the same crazy hair. I watched her shrink into the distance over South Fountainia, where she crossed in front of the neon Imp Schnapps sign on the roof of the company’s headquarters.

The Reaper emerged from his office behind me moments later, and I heard locks clicking in sync with his stone-on-stone voice. He joined me at the railing and gripped the onyx carvings along the sides with one bone hand. In his other, he held up a pair of manila folders, complete with papers and ink pen. “Shall we go to The Down South Lounge? I will call it a business expense.”

I heard the things he didn’t ask, turned from the Fountainia skyline, and slid the writing materials into my waistband. Then I smirked at The Reaper. “You forgot your scythe.”

He went back in to grab Seversoul and locked up again, shaking his horns.

Fifteen minutes later, The Reaper and I touched down on Acedia Boulevard among skyscrapers, restaurants, and private magic dealers who went to Hell’s colleges and sold their services at exorbitant prices. Smack in the middle of the street was a three-story bar with entrance balconies lined in red, purple, and gold lights from the ground up. A grin snuck across my face as I gazed at the sign and its cursive violet letters that read, ‘Down South Lounge,’ with a shocking blue margarita glass beneath it. One gold angel wing and one scarlet demon wing burst from the glass’s sides, and the sign was so huge it might as well be a wall unto itself.

I looked over one shoulder at The Reaper and Seversoul, its haloxite side facing me as he held it haft down in front of him. Reap hadn’t mentioned how close we’d come to Contressa finding out about these case notes. Did he do that to scare me into doing better, or was he showing faith in me? Gritting my teeth, I chose to believe the latter and leapt the first-floor railing patterned with iron swirls. Then I grinned. The Lounge’s railings were a foot higher than most balcony railings. Part eye-catching decoration, part sobriety test.

Hildariel the bouncer stood with arms crossed in front of The Lounge’s glass double doors. She stood a foot taller than me, with blonde roots showing in her dyed-black hair, and her halo hovered inches above her hairline. Her long face, track suit, and blonde-feathered wings screamed, “tri-athlete” and “bodybuilder” at the same time. She looked down her nose at me and spoke in a mellow tone. “You are here earlier than you were yesterday. Brought a new friend, did you?”

“This is my boss,” I said, stone faced. “Hildariel, meet The Reaper.”

Reap floated between the railing and the balcony above and touched down, holding Seversoul with one hand in the traditional old-man-with-a-staff fashion. “Our business here involves The Soul Fountains. Is the owner in?”

The bouncer stepped back toward the doors, her feathers ruffling in fear. Reap was a good five inches taller than her, and I came here enough to know Hildariel was used to being the tallest one in the room. She pulled one door open and straightened up. “Come on in, Mister Reaper. You are welcome anytime.”

Now that the bouncer was too cowed to give away anything more to The Reaper about my personal life, I congratulated myself. I’m not manipulative, just socially savvy.

We entered The Lounge and paused in the doorway, taking in the gloriousness. Everything in the expansive room, from the dark floor tiles to the vanilla colored ceiling, was just as I remembered it from last night, and last year, and last decade. Behind us to either side in the doorway were LED signs that spelled out what was on each floor in addition to the bars. First floor was games. Second floor was the frat party floor. Third floor was the nightclub and VIP rooms. Rooftop was the concert venue.

A long bar of polished wood ran along half the length of the right wall. Twenty or so cushy barstools seated the usual nighttime crowd of alcoholic angels and drunk demons. Hundreds of bottles of every liquor in the Three Domains sat on shelves behind the bar, interspersed between flatscreen TVs. At the far end of the bar past the beer handles stood a digital jukebox complete with glowing touch screen. Beyond that were two ping-pong tables with enough space to play an aggressive game without tackling anyone nearby.

I ignored the coin-op arcade at the back and the dart boards and pool tables along the left wall. We weren’t here for games. Crossing to the bar, I drew out a stool near the wall and put my back to it so I could see every drinker and patron that came and went. The Reaper followed wordlessly, sitting next to me and scaring the living bejeezus out of the blue-horned, blue-winged demon nearest to him. The demon booked it back to the arcade area and I drew out my Blood Magic folio from an inner pocket of my blazer.

The Reaper spun on his barstool to face me, holding his scythe tight in one fist. “Didn’t you warn the regulars that I was coming?”

“Nah,” I said, twiddling the folio. “This way, no one will listen in. Nia’s the owner, and I’ll introduce her as soon as she’s not busy.”

I produced the haloxite-tipped lancet pen I used here in modern times in place of my old knife. Then I flipped to the folio’s ‘noise’ section and drew out an ad for noise-canceling headphones. I ripped it in half, lanced my pinky, and placed a drop of orange blood on each half. Passing one half to The Reaper, I said, “Hold onto this while you’re talking. I’ll hold my half while I write, and no one will hear what you say except us.”

We took our halves and I let the Blood Magic flow. All noises except those The Reaper and I made faded to near-nothingness. I laid paper and pen on the bar and added, “On the other wing, we won’t hear jack either, so keep an eye out in case anyone followed us.”

Glancing behind him, The Reaper nodded his approval and said, “Two humans that everyone knows by name were involved in this case.”

I squashed the urge to order a Sin and Tonic from the dark-skinned bartender demon. It’d be pretty embarrassing to mute oneself and then start shouting. He’d probably think I was a mime. Facing The Reaper, I raised one eyebrow. “And who would they be?”

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...