“No, wait!” I said, the lightbulb coming on over my head. No, not literally. “Rod isn’t going to share the tokens. He’s going to trade them! We all will. Amber. Kali. Pull yourselves together and get to the next location. Grab all the tokens you find there, not just enough for us. We’ll trade for the rest. And keep an eye out for the crystal skull. That’ll be our ace in the whole shebang.”
“More orders from mere mortals.” Kali sighed. “I remember a time when humans begged and prostrated themselves to us gods. There were offerings. Sacrifices.”
“Grow up, Kali,” I snapped, worrying just a little about the range of her powers. But I was the next best thing to dead already, and my backless earrings now resided in my pocket, so what else could she do to me? “That skull is the ultimate trading card. As long as we all pass, who cares about being head of the class?”
The silence was telling, but after a long pause, the begrudging responses of “right” and “yeah, okay” let me know I’d chosen my friends wisely. Perhaps figuring out I was a lousy judge of character had been the first step toward learning how to be better at it.
“Okay, I’m signing off and continuing toward my first checkpoint. Amber, give Kali her new marching orders. And guys? Hurry the skeg up!”
I sprinted along the path, confident (mostly) that Amber would give me a shout if I strayed too far off course.
Nearly an hour later, Amber’s voice squawked over the phones. “I’m almost there. When I find the hyena skin or whatever, I’m supposed to take, like, the whole thing, right?”
“Yeah.” I felt cold inside. I hated to do it this way, but Rod had left us no choice.
I reached checkpoint delta too late. Three catfish lay on the ground, covered in dirt, each one shaved clean of its whiskers. The small clearing reeked of dead fish.
I didn’t know who to feel sorrier for: the slaughtered fish or myself and my friends, who weren’t going to graduate. And my poor aunt.
I hunkered down and stared at the fish, mesmerized by the rainbow light glinting off their opalescent scales.
I flailed and landed on my ass when one of the fish flopped about in the weeds. It—the fish, not my ass—was still alive! I grabbed it around the fishy equivalent of its neck, mindful of the barbed spikes on its sides. (And for the record, can I just say, Ewww!) I plopped it back in the small stream nearby, tossing in the other two in the vain hope they might be alive as well. They didn’t float back up to the surface so perhaps they’d survived.
Maybe being a Reaper didn’t mean everything I did had to be about death.
I rinsed and rinsed my hands in the stream, murmuring, “Out. Out damn slime.”
After a while I felt cleaner. At least my hands, anyway. I hoped the others had found and taken all the other tokens.
I hated to play dirty. But sometimes you had to. And if I had anything to say about it, that skegger Rod was going down.
SEVERAL MINUTES—OR HOURS—LATER, I checked in with the gals. Kali had found both her checkpoints, but it was the same story: no scavenger bits to be had. Amber reported no better luck. They’d run into M’Kimbi and Ira. Both of them had come up empty, as well. We were well and truly skegged.
“Let’s head back to the clearing. Maybe when Rod shows up with everything, Sergeant Schotz will give us a do-over.” Static hissed and sparked. I could hear the disappointment in Amber’s voice even over the bad connection.
“Not likely,” I said. “He’ll probably fail us all and give Rod the highest commendation.”
“I’ll destroy them all!” Kali shouted. A blast of scorching wind nearly fried my ear.
“No, you won’t.”
“I know, but I feel better when I say it.”
I understood. I wanted to wring Rod’s weasel-like neck, so the god of death and destruction must want to rip his head off. I compared my position on the phone’s map display with the position Amber had given me and began to jog back toward the clearing where we’d met up before. “Maybe we can lay in wait for Rod and . . . Oof!”
I fell face-first onto the path and something smashed into my shin, but I kept my death grip on the phone. “Ow! Ow!”
“What?” said Amber.
“What?” said Kali.
“What?” Ira’s voice. He must have stumbled onto our channel.
“Nothing. Ow! Nothing. I just tripped.” Great. Not only was I going to fail the class, but I was going to do so with a massive bruise on my leg. I rolled into a sitting position, brushing dirt and twigs and not a few bugs off my jeans.
“You okay?” Amber asked.
“What did you trip over?” Kali asked.
“What the skeg does that . . . ? Oh, God!” Like Kali had a short time ago, I fell back into old habits, using a Coil swear word. Stinky blue smoke colored the air before me. “God,” I murmured a second time.
“What?” said Amber.
“You talking to me, girlfriend?” said Kali.
“I’m homesick,” said Ira.
“We might as well go check in.” I deliberately didn’t answer their questions as I picked up the object I’d tripped over and used my shirtsleeve to wipe some of the grime off its crystal surface. “Gather everyone, including Rod, and meet me at the clearing just inside the woods.”
“Yeah. Especially Rod. Horace must have his hellphone number. It was on the class list.”
We all met up in the clearing, straggling in one disappointed classmate at a time. We shared our experiences in the forest and before long, I’d pieced together a picture of how Rod had accomplished the impossible.
Rod must have been watching from nearby because he waited until we’d all assembled to make a grand entrance, his backpack bulging with dead-animal artifacts.
“Hi, losers.” He took gloating to a whole new level. “Come to congratulate me on my triumphant triumph?”
Kali rose. And rose and rose. Seven feet looked good on her. It spaced her three pairs of arms nicely along her torso. Good thing she favored stretch fabrics. “You cheated, Rod.”
“Hey, who let the gods out? Woof! Woof!” he taunted. When she refused to rise to the bait, he pasted a look of mock innocence on his face and said, “Cheated? I did? How did I do that?”
“You got someone else to bring you all the tokens,” I said. “It’s the only way you could have managed it.”
“Not someone, something. Flying monkey demons, if you must know. Nobody said you couldn’t hire outside help. But we were told, very specifically, that we couldn’t partner with each other.” He glanced meaningfully from Kali to Amber to me. “I saw you guys in this clearing about half an hour ago, making plans.”
Something about that statement irked me, but I had bigger catfish whiskers to fry. “So you’ve got all of the tokens. What are you going to do with them? Will you get to choose who fails the course?”
“Are you kidding? You’re all flunking out. Finders, Reapers. Losers, weepers. The key word there being looooo-zers! Ha! I’m going down in history as the only being in our whole class to graduate.” He did an embarrassing little dance. I think it had something to do with football, but I couldn’t be sure. I only ever played hockey, and hockey players don’t dance. Wrong kind of skates.
“Even me, Rod?” Horace, who had been Rod’s only friend through the program, stepped forward.
“Yeah, buddy. Sorry. You coulda done the same thing. But you didn’t. So just me. I’m the only one who’s gonna make the final draft pick this round.”
“But, Rod,” I crooned, “I really need to graduate. I could make it worth your while.” I sidled up to him, doing my best to make promises with my eyes and my body. I was willing to do almost anything to save my aunt. Like make promises I had no intention of keeping.
“Well, baby. This is unexpected, but I think not. I’m not interested in a coma victim who’s all pasty and saggy back on the Coil. Now, if your goddess buddy wants to get handsy with me, maybe we could work something out.”
I clamped my teeth together before I said anything I’d regret, but stood my ground. He danced about some more. “The only thing that would make this moment better is if I could get my hands on that crystal skull.”
Bingo. Now I had him. “You want the skull, do you? Then how ’bout we talk trade?”
I yanked the crystal skull from my backpack, drawing oohs and ahs from my colleagues.
“I’ll trade you this crystal skull for the remaining five of each token, the ones you don’t need. That way you can still be king of the class and all but one of us can graduate. Think about it. You’re still number one all the way. First round draft pick. Star player. Um . . .” I was running out of sports terminology. I knew from my PR days that you needed to relate to people in their own language. “You’ll be the quarterback from Hell!” I shouted. “MVP of the team! But you need a team to be star of, right? Right?”
His eyes gleamed and his lips pulled back in something that would have been a smile if it weren’t so nasty. He wasn’t stupid by any means and I knew he was considering my offer.
“C’mon, Rod.” Kali stepped forward. She’d sized herself down to a petite five foot two, twirling her hair around one finger and sucking on another, making herself look all sexy and corruptible. “Wouldn’t you rather have me as a friend than an enemy?”
“And me,” Ira said. “I can put in a good word for you with the Man Upstairs.” He gave a saintly smile and pointed toward the treetops.
“And us, too,” the rest of the gang chorused.
Rod held out his hand, “Okay. Give it to me.”
I stepped back, holding it out of his reach. “You first. You have to decide which of us doesn’t graduate.”
“I don’t give a skeg. Just give me a second here.” He rooted through his pack, drawing out one of each token and stuffing them in his jacket. “Okay. Here’s the rest. You put the skull down and I’ll put the pack down. Then we both pick up the other item. Okay? One . . . Two . . .”
I bent to place the skull on the ground, but that skegger grabbed the skull from my hand and charged toward the edge of the clearing without dropping the backpack.
Now he had everything—all the tokens and the crystal skull!
“He has retained the objects!” M’Kimbi shouted.
“He’s getting away, dudes!” Amber cried.
“Kali, don’t!” I cried as she raised all of her arms, a terrible and powerful glow emanating from her eyes.
I crouched low to the ground, petrified when she turned her glowing gaze in my direction.
“Relax, girlfriend,” she intoned. “I’m just going to stop him.”
Fire crackled from all thirty of her slender fingers and a tree crashed loudly, just out of sight.
“Oh, skeeeggg!” Rod’s voice drifted back to us.
Before we could head toward the sound, Rod reappeared in the clearing, a nasty scratch on his right cheek and twigs sticking out of his hair. Dante, who also sported a few twigs of his own—although on him they looked good—gripped Rod’s shoulder with one hand and balanced the skull in the other.
Something was different about my Reaper. Or rather, something was the same, again. After nearly a year’s absence, his scythe bounced at his hip, once more Velcroed to his belt loop.
Horace rushed to Rod’s side. At first I figured he was stupidly going to defend his former friend, but instead, he ripped the backpack of tokens out of Rod’s hand. “Give me that carrion luggage, you skeg-hole!” He lugged the pack over to the middle of the clearing, knelt on the ground and began to rifle through it.
“Hold up! Everyone. Time-out! Vieni qui subito!” Dante shoved Rod roughly to his knees in the dirt next to Horace. He handed me the skull. I clutched it to my chest as Dante gestured for us all to gather around.
“I need everyone to be quiet for a moment. Look through the trees. There.” He pointed to a space between a huge cypress and a Douglas fir. The fir was all matted.
“What are we . . . ?”
“Shhh! Dante commanded, laying a finger on his lips.
We watched in silence, having grown used to taking direction from Dante in his role as teacher’s aide. And maybe I had taken direction from him on a few more intimate occasions. Although come to think of it, it was usually me giving the directions, like “Oh, yeah. Right there.” And “Don’t stop.” My attention was yanked back to the clearing by the voices that floated toward us. I could just make out the back of a tall woman with dark hair . . . and six arms! She was talking to a gal with dark hair and paintbrush-tip ends and another with a mouse-brown shag.
“. . . need to stay off the main channels. Open channel D.”
“Did you say P?”
“D. D. As in death.”
“That’s us!” I whispered. I ran a hand over my hair. How often do you get a chance to see yourself from the back? I wiggled a bit, wanting to ask, “Does this forest make my ass look fat?”
“We had that conversation about three hours ago,” I said.
“Or right now,” Kali added. “What’s it mean?”
“It means,” Dante whispered, “we’ve got a bigger problem to solve than finding fur, fins or feathers.” He gestured for us to follow him back to the clearing.
In order for this to be happening now, it had to have happened the first time round, right? Dante and all of us had to have watched Kali, Amber and me setting out.
We hadn’t heard him before.
If we heard him now, would that change the future? The past?
My head hurt.
But I knew what I had to do. What we had to do, even if it meant we all failed the course.
“Guys, I think it’s time to go see the engineers,” I said.
“Guys, I think it’s time to go see the engineers,” I said.
“Guys, I think it’s time to go see the engineers,” I said.
Kali slapped me.
“Hey!” I cried, rubbing my burning cheek. I knew she’d pulled her punch, but still. “It’s not me. It’s time and . . .”
But it had worked. Her slap had stopped time from looping back on itself like a broken record. Why had it worked? I had an idea.
“Kali, when did time start going weird? Really weird, even for Hell time?”
“Uh, it’s hard to know. When you’re a millennia-old immortal, you don’t really pay that close attention to the date.” She raised her hands in a gesture of apology.
I got a little seasick looking at all those waving palms.
“Amber? You’d know exactly when it happened, right?”
“Sorry.” She shook her bangs out of her eyes. “I’ve only been here a few . . . let’s just say not that long.”
“Dante. When did Hell time go all wonky?” I waited for him to think. “Yes. When you were grounded, right? Like when I came to Hell, right?”
“Sì,” he said. I could see him gradually getting a clue.
So everyone who’d told me it wasn’t all about me was wrong—dead wrong. It was, in fact, utterly and completely about me. Sue Sayer was the only one who’d said so, way back then, but I hadn’t put two and two together until this very unstable moment.