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  • Writer's pictureJabe Stafford

Case 1 - Ep. 2: When The Reaper Calls

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.

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