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 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!”