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 intricately carved haloxite shimmered in layered fountains, and each sculpted bowl spouted life force that flowed into the next bowl down. Angels shepherded the souls we’d unloaded into the waters at the bottom of the Fountains, where the rippling liquid sucked their life force up and out the top. On its journey down, the life force melded with boxes of crimson and ivory coins connected to the Fountains by a series of chutes. Banker angels in suits sorted the freshly filled motes as they rolled down the chutes and into bins on their desks.
“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 away 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?”