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 down in watery streams from the top of the golden Fountains ten stories above me, splashing into each bowl before conjoining with the mounted crates and the motes inside. Ivory coins of crimson and vanilla scraped against the haloxite chutes as the motes rolled into boxes on the desks surrounding the Fountains. 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 Seraph Left touched the SPD badge he’d withdrawn to the keyhole on the left side, and Seraph Right jammed a brimstone key into the right keyhole.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?"