Sensing I was there, the vortex sent tentacles toward me, but something about the AC unit kept it back—maybe it blocked its view of me or maybe it had something to do with the crystal skull. Or maybe it couldn’t get a fix on me because I simultaneously inhabited two planes of existence. My bi-dimensional existence had caused the problem in the first place, after all.
No matter why, I appeared to be safe from the vortex—for the time being. Which wasn’t saying much, time being pretty conceptual at the moment.
With a deep roar, the vortex wrapped its typhoon arms around the top half of the AC unit and snapped it off. The ground behind me churned. Clods of dirt pelted against my back as they flew upward into the dark tear in the sky. My tiny circle of safety had just gotten tinier. Cut off! As Sergeant Schotz had said, one man—or in this case one woman—is an island. Nobody could get to me and I couldn’t get out again without stepping directly into the lethal whirlwind.
I stood in the clearing, about ten feet from the opening. Through the wreckage of the terminal, the emergency button taunted me, pulsing red like a bloody heartbeat, clearly visible even through the swirling debris. The metal framework of the building shrieked and shuddered a little more.
Behind me, my friends, my teammates, my boyfriend and others watched in silence.
The skull grinned up at me from the ground at my feet.
“Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio . . . not at all.”
Grasping Dante’s scythe, I thrust out my arm. I’d been told I wasn’t supposed to take another Reaper’s scythe—not even to touch it. But maybe, just maybe, if you were trying to stop the end of the world, it was worth the risk.
I activated the scythe using the button located near the top rim. I knew that now, since we’d practiced with training scythes. The handle extended upward and downward simultaneously, like the weirdest glowing purple erection with a blade at the top. I admired it a moment while I rifled through my brain, reviewing all the important things I’d learned about scythes and Hell and being a Reaper during my time at the Reaper Academy and while in Hell. Facts and figures whirled through my brain like my own personal mental vortex.
And then I abandoned all that book learning and field practice. What I needed now, I’d learned back up on the Coil.
I flipped the scythe upside-down and slammed the curved blade against the skull with every erg of power I possessed. The crystal skull shot through the door and directly at the glowing red button. With deadly accuracy, it found its target. I not only hit the button, I smashed it to smithereens! My old hockey coach would be so proud.
She saves the world!
And behind me the crowd went wild as the vortex began to slow its churning spiral, retracting its tendrils, shrinking into a tiny black hole that managed to suck in one last time fly. A final blast of wind shot in my direction, but died to a mere breeze just before it reached me.
I fisted the air in triumph. I’d won. It’d been—
The world went blindingly, roaringly white. I fell back and hit the ground hard. If I’d been able to hear anything, I think I would have heard bones snapping—my bones. Good thing I didn’t need to breathe, because the lead weight on my chest prevented my lungs from expanding even the slightest bit. Every part of my body screamed with pain and I wished I were dead. More dead. Really dead. I lay there for an eternity. Several eternities.
The AC unit must have been teetering on its last bolt. That final blast was all it needed to fly off the roof and land on me, squashing me flat. A hero’s reward. Not!
Then, suddenly, the pressure lifted. Someone heaved the AC unit off me. Vaguely I wondered if I looked like Wile E. Coyote after an anvil had flattened him. I felt hands on my body. Maybe on my body parts. Were they collecting limbs and sticking them back together? My eyes flew open but the fiery brilliance didn’t change. Voices called to me, but they seemed very far away. I closed my eyes again. Blessed blackness washed over me. Oh, wait. We’re not supposed to say bless—
SOMEONE SHOOK ME. Someone else doused my face with liquid, which turned out to be iced tea and got my hair all sticky. I sat up, sputtering.
“Dude. You okay?”
“How you doing, girlfriend?”
“Kirsty. Cara. Can you hear me?”
Why were they asking me such hard questions? Wasn’t the oral exam over?
I turned my head toward the last voice to speak. I loved it when Dante’s handsome (although still a little blurry) face was the first thing I saw when I awoke.
Another face swam into view. “How many fingers am I holding up?”
“I can’t count that high,” I answered, grasping Kali’s nearest hand and squeezing it.
“She’s all right!” Kali hugged me hard and still had enough arms left over to draw my friends into the group hug. “You’re all right!”
Something white flashed at the corner of my eye. I turned my head to look directly at it, but it moved away. Was it residual glinting from the vortex supernova? I turned my head the other way, but it moved that way, too.
“Amber, have you got a mirror?”
“A what? Oh, yes.” She fumbled in her pack, producing a compact. “Old habits die hard.” She looked at Dante before handing me the mirror.
Dante sighed. “She has to know.”
My hands shook. It took three tries for me to depress the little trigger that popped open the compact. I stared in it. I turned my head from side to side.
“It’s white. My brown hair, once blond with peach streaks, is white.” I bounced my gaze from face to face—not just my trainee buddies, but all the workers and engineers who were busily assessing damage, making plans or just standing around. Other than Lord Roland, who’d had silver-gray hair to start with, I was the only one who now sported hair so white it reflected our so-called daylight.
“It glints,” M’Kimbi said, reaching his hand out, but not quite touching. “Like that frost that coats objects on cold mornings.”
“Hoarfrost,” Amber supplied.
“What you calling my girl?” Kali leapt in, brandishing six fists.
“No. No.” Amber backed away from the angry god, her own two arms raised in submission. “I read the dictionary once. It’s the kind of frost M’Kimbi described.”
Ignoring my dear, silly friends, I checked myself out instead. My face and arms carried a mass of scrapes and bruises, but somehow I was okay. No broken bones. I’d suddenly healed from having a giant AC unit dumped on me. Unbelievable. I rolled into a sitting position, finding myself perched on the picnic table where the workers ate lunch. I must have been carried there after the blast. Ira perched on the edge of the table, smiling at me shyly.
“Ira, did I just get squashed by a five-hundred-pound air-conditioning unit?”
“And am I now sitting on a picnic table, whole and well, having this conversation with you?”
He nodded again.
“How did that happen, exactly?”
Ira shrugged, his pretty-boy lips tilting into a secretive smile. “I can’t go into the specifics, Kirsty. Trade secrets, you know. But it’s like I said before, this is what we do.”
“Miracles, right?” I grinned at him. “Thanks, Ira. You’re a peach.”
“No,” he said. “I’m an angel. Don’t let the complexion fool you.”
“I see our lady of the hour is going to live.” Lord Roland Ecks sauntered over, puffing on his pipe, his grin so wide smoke leaked out the corners. “Or at least not die any worse than she already has.”
He offered ’round a dusty bottle of hundred-year-old scotch (made yesterday, aged in a time machine) and as soon as he’d gone back to what was left of the terminal, his great-great-grandson, Lord Timothy Ecks produced some nice Hell-grown weed. After what we’d been through, we could do with a little Reaper madness. He’d cured it in honey, which really sweetened the pot.
Seiko came by to thank us for saving his life—there was much bowing and promises of lives and afterlives owed. He also reported that, although the time terminal had been ripped apart, most of the important components were salvageable. With a lot of hard work, they’d be able to get time straightened out this very evening.
“It’s about time, man,” Timothy declared.
Seiko just looked at him.
We held a small impromptu memorial service for Rod. Horace was the only one who had really gotten to know him and he said Rod was an okay guy, just really, really goal-oriented. Horace cried a little and so did the rest of us. Then he announced that a good party was an appropriate tribute to his late friend. The workers, who had also lost one of their own, agreed wholeheartedly.
“To Raul!” The workers hoisted their scotch.
“To Rod!” My classmates hoisted whatever poison they preferred.
I glanced at Dante who was across the clearing, being a great big party pooper. He’d been standoffish all afternoon, not indulging in pot or booze and keeping his distance from me. Well, too bad. I had questions and I voted him most likely to know the answers. Cornering him, I asked, “What happened to them? Rod and Raul, I mean.”
“I have no idea. They may be dead—as in ceased-to-exist dead. Or they may have ended up in Heller. Nobody knows much about it, except that it’s supposed to be way, way worse than here.” He turned and walked away from me.
Uh-oh. He was mad I’d touched his scythe, again. How mad was he? Did I even have a boyfriend anymore?
Tears welled in my eyes, until someone arrived bearing pizza. I had a nice buzz on, so I was easily distracted. Plus I had a bad case of the munchies, man.
We had a real good party going when Dante’s hellphone rang. “Okay, kids. Time to go. Sergeant Schotz is waiting.”
Talk about buzzkill.
“Let ’im wait.” I took another toke. “We’re all gonna fail anyway, right?” I looked around. Oops. Now I was the buzz killer. I dropped the joint in our bonfire. It was time to quit or get off the pot.
Reluctantly, we gathered our stuff—stuff that hadn’t gotten sucked into the vortex—and started our death march back.
“SO . . .” SERGEANT SCHOTZ stopped pacing, his eyes roving over his disheveled and now slightly smaller class. He shook his head slowly from side to side. “So . . .” He started again. He’d been doing this for a while now.
Suddenly he broke pattern, rounding on Dante. “Reaper Alighieri?”
Dante snapped to attention. “Sir! Yes, sir!”
“Not a single feather. Not even a hair of the hyena?”
I heard teeth grinding in the ensuing silence and the muscles along the Sergeant’s jawbone pulsed. No wonder his teeth were loose. At least he wasn’t spitting them at us this time.
“No, sir. Sorry, sir. Mi dispiace.”
I felt bad for Dante. My heart bled. No, not literally. But it reminded me of all the cuts and scratches I’d acquired during the day. I checked my elbow, where I’d had a real nasty gash. Nearly healed. In fact, all my lacerations had become faint red lines or disappeared completely. Apparently miracles don’t leave scars. The bruises had taken on a nice week-old green patina.
The engineers must be well on their way to restoring time, because it ticked along nicely now, with only the occasional hiccup.
Of course, for those of us who’d indulged in Timothy’s weed, time still seemed weird and stretchy. Maybe I was still a little baked. It was hard to focus on Schotz’s conversation. I blinked and tried to concentrate. Wishing for aspirin or more pizza or both, I rubbed my temples. Having an AC unit dumped on your head can have a resounding after-effect. Or maybe it was the booze. This was like the morning of my twenty-fifth birthday all over again. Wasn’t I older and wiser than that?
Kali looked over at me, gesturing surreptitiously for me to lean toward her. Her six hands were always in motion, especially since she’d quit smoking, so her brief beckoning gesture went unnoticed by others. Slowly, loath to draw Schotz’s attention my way, I leaned into the space that separated our assigned rocks. She slid one hand up my spine to rest on the back of my neck. When she removed it again I was sober and the headache settling between my eyes had become bearable.
“Also god of hangovers,” she mouthed, keeping her eyes on Schotz. “I rarely mention it.”
At the front of the room, Schotz continued his tirade. “You say you had the tokens and the crystal skull and they all got sucked into a swirling vortex of evil. Do I have that right?”
He made “swirling vortex of evil” sound like “a dog ate my homework.”
“Not quite, sir.” Dante cleared his throat. “Only the tokens got sucked in to the vortex.”
“Ah, so you have the skull then?” He held out one hand.
Dante shuffled his feet and stared at the wall over Schotz’s head. “I’m not sure exactly where it ended up. Earth’s molten core, maybe?”
Schotz opened his mouth and stared. He stayed like that awhile.
Finally Dante said, “Uh, I’m sorry?” and that kicked our instructor back into play.
“So no tokens. No skull. Which, by the way, I need for next semester. And you managed to lose one of my students. One of my recruits! How is that even possible? You’re already dead.” He eyed the classroom, his gaze landing last on me. “Mostly,” he corrected.
I cringed. I felt like a coward letting Dante take the brunt of Schotz’s rage.
“And yet, you and your charges managed to save the world, you say. Not just Hell, but the Mortal Coil, as well.”
“When you put it like that, sir . . .”
“Sir?” A voice from behind me squeaked. “Sir?” It said again, more firmly this time.
I swiveled around on my rock. What was Horace thinking?
“Yes, Reaper Recruit Horace? Is there something you think you can add to this conversation?”
“Yes, sir. I think maybe I can. I think maybe we deserve to fail. I mean, we cheated. Well, some of us did. Rod brought in hired wingmen. I tried to con a raven out of some feathers when no one was looking.”
“I used my wings even though I knew that gave me an unfair advantage,” Ira admitted.
“I used my powers of death and destruction to clear a path for myself through the woods,” Kali added.
“I used my total recall,” Amber said.
“We worked as a team.” I arose from my rock, thinking that since I’d never be able to save my aunt now, I might as well be honest and join the rats going down with the sinking ship. “You specifically said we were to work alone, but we combined Amber’s memory with Kali’s powers and my . . .” What had I added to the team? What, indeed, could I even bring to the job as Reaper? What had I been thinking? “We cheated, sir.”
“Do not look at me,” M’Kimbi said. “I did not cheat.”
“Maybe not, but you would have,” Dante said. “If I hadn’t caught you snooping around last night, looking for the specifics of the test!”