I swung my surprised gaze from M’Kimbi to Dante So that’s what he’d meant by working late last night. He’d been patrolling the campus for cheaters. I looked at M’Kimbi, shocked that the class’s number one suck-up had tried to cheat. Under my piercing gaze, I was pretty sure M’Kimbi blushed.
“You tried to steal the test?” Ira asked, admiration in his voice.
“We’re all cheaters. Dirty, rotten cheaters,” Amber said miserably, her voice catching. “We don’t deserve to be Reapers.” A single tear rolled down her cheek, leaving a trail through the smudged makeup and grime.
“What?” shouted Sergeant Schotz. “You all cheated? You all don’t deserve to pass?”
“Where, exactly, do you idjits think you are?”
I looked up, not understanding the question. Sweat slithered down my back.
“In a field, sir?” M’Kimbi answered.
Schotz ignored him. “This is Hell, for skeg’s sake. You’re supposed to cheat. You’re supposed to do whatever it takes to accomplish your task. You can lie, cheat, steal, pay for or con someone into helping you. You can trick and bribe and do whatever it takes in the line of duty. You weren’t supposed to get your colleague sucked into a space-time vortex, but these things happen.” He shrugged. “So every last one of you deserves to be considered for Reaperhood.”
I raised my head. I felt hope for the first time since Rod’s backpack had disappeared into the vortex.
“The only thing keeping you from passing is the fact that, in spite of having used all your tricks and cunning and powers and gifts, you didn’t manage to bring back a single skeggin’ token you’d been sent after.”
I slumped again. Maybe I should just walk away. Why was I even sitting here listening to this? Maybe hope, like that one coil in Dante’s sofa, really did spring eternal. I sat glumly and listened to Schotz rail against our uselessness and stupidity.
“I ought to— What’s that?” A tinny version of Glory, Glory, Hallelujah interrupted him.
“I believe it’s your hellphone, sir,” Dante said.
“I know it’s my skeggin’ phone. Hello? Schotz here. Sergeant Schotz, that is. Oh. Yes, ma’am. I—”
He stepped outside for privacy. Of course, we could still hear every word. We were in a tent, for skeg’s sake.
“They said that?”
“She touched his what?”
Uh-oh. I was done for now. And I couldn’t even make a quick getaway since Schotz chose that moment to reappear, blocking the tent flap, hands on hips, face the color of a fine merlot.
“Do you people have any idea who that was?”
Silence reigned, whether from fear or because we’d finally learned to recognize a rhetorical question, I couldn’t tell.
“That was Her Satanic Majesty. Calling me. Me. Here I am, just trying to do my duty to Hell and you . . . you . . . you bunch earn me a call from the Queen of Darkness.”
I stopped breathing altogether. I didn’t need to, right?
“And do you know why she called me?”
Another rhetorical question . . . I hoped.
“That’s right. She had a call from some powerfully placed and well-connected friends of hers. A certain group of engineers who were working on a top-secret, highly sensitive project.”
Uh-oh. Now I was really in trouble. Could I run? Could I hide?
“And they told her that you recruits, you promising young men and woman and . . . no, that’s it with this group, right? Just men and women?” He glanced at Dante for confirmation. Dante nodded.
“That you people saved the world. That you risked yourselves to save them personally and also saved Hell, the Coil, and the big secret project. Maybe even Heaven, too.”
He glared at us like we’d saved the worlds just to aggravate him.
“There’s to be some sort of big time reset tonight at the darkest hour just before dawn and then, for the first time in millennia, we’ll be synced with Coil time. And we’ll stay that way.”
“What . . . What does this mean for us, sir?” Amber asked.
“What does it mean? What does it mean?”
I covered my face, suddenly feeling sick and faint.
“It means, kids, that you’ve all passed with flying colors. There’ll be a big party tonight to celebrate the synchronizing of Hell time with Coil time. Then tomorrow there’s to be an even bigger graduation ceremony. Lucy herself is going to be there to present you with your scythes!” He mopped his face, wiping away dirt and sweat and all trace of Sergeant Schotz, leaving behind Professor Schotz, who smiled and congratulated each of us.
“Now, see Dante tomorrow to arrange for your robes. Kali and Ira, you two had better come early for a custom fitting. Extra appendages are, well, extra.”
CHAR DROPPED BY to help me get ready. I’d borrowed one of Claire Voyant’s diaphanous toga-style gowns for the party, since the pale gossamer silk complemented my new white hair. Char braided in a light orange ribbon, in memory of the peach streaks I’d had back on the Coil. Maybe I would get my nose repierced. A ruby stud would look awesome with my Reaper robe. So might a new tattoo.
I preened before my mirror. I couldn’t wait for Dante to see the new me. I hadn’t seen him since we’d left class. Maybe if he liked what he saw, he’d stop being mad at me.
Dante wasn’t speaking to me after the trick I’d pulled. Apparently he didn’t think it was fair for me to use my feminine wiles to get my hands on his scythe, and in front of everybody, too.
To me, the whole saving the world thing balanced out a little deception, but I think he was more upset that I’d put myself at risk. I was sure he’d get over it—eventually. But at seven hundred years old, he’d probably had lots of practice holding a grudge.
He hadn’t actually asked me to get out of his apartment. He just hadn’t come home yet. I tried not to dwell on it. By this time tomorrow, I would have saved my aunt and that was what was important. And if in doing so, Conrad got his, so much the better.
Once Dante found out I’d gone AWOL and scythed Conrad, well, then he’d have something to be mad about. I gulped. Saving my aunt’s life would probably cost me every chance of getting my life back on the Coil, my relationship with Dante and my dream job as a Reaper, but that was the price I had to pay. No choice, really. And so far, everything about my simple yet elegant plan had fallen into place.
Nothing could go wrong now.
In honor of the time reset, the gala was to be held in the great hall at the Reincarnation Station. At first it seemed like a strange place for a party; that’s where I’d filled out the paperwork when I first arrived, so I didn’t think of it as a function space. It wasn’t until I walked inside that I remembered all the hourglasses, clocks and miscellaneous timepieces ringing the room. Yup, still there: New York, Paris, Greenwich, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Addis Ababa and more. The sands, hands and digits still ran in all directions and at all speeds.
I sighed, thinking about the first time I’d seen this room. Dante had been beside me then. He should have been with me now, but if I hadn’t already ruined my chances with him, I was about to. I was sure it was worth it but that didn’t help me feel less lonely as I stood in the middle of the cavernous room, alone with my champagne, watching hundreds of people and other beings mill about as I searched the crowd for Dante’s face.
Finally, over the rim of my glass, I saw him.
He was standing in one of the doorways, leaning against the frame. Instead of his usual Reaper’s robe or casual wear, he’d dressed for the party in a well-cut tuxedo that showed off every plane of his magnificent body. I swallowed hard, feeling my face heat up when he looked in my direction. I raised my hand to wave, but quickly dropped it to my side again when he made eye contact.
I’d thought maybe he would smile. I’d hoped he might be able to overlook this afternoon’s little act and forgive me. In my daydreams, he crossed the room with a purposeful stride, took me in his arms and never let go.
In reality, his face remained cold and expressionless. He held my gaze for a minute and then turned on his heel and walked away.
Fine. I didn’t need him.
I turned away, too, eyes blurring, and bumped smack into a tall Nordic-looking woman with hair almost as light as my own. A familiar figure fidgeted nervously at her side. “Ah, Kirsty. We’ve been looking for you. I’m Sigyn. Loki’s wife.” She paused to glare at her husband. “And we have something to say to you.”
She elbowed Loki. He unhunched himself and met my gaze.
All moisture left my mouth while a trickle of sweat ran down my spine.
“I’m sorry,” he began, forked tongue flicking over his lips. “I should never have tried to get you stoned without your permission. I meant well. I thought if you could just relax a little, you’d feel better. You looked like you’d been through the wringer. Your hair stood out around your head like one of those little troll dolls. And there were sticks in it.”
“Look, Kirsty.” Sigyn drew my attention before I could even decide how I felt about Loki’s explanation. “We hope you’ll find it in your heart—assuming your species has one—to forgive my husband.” A smile flashed across her face for a second before her expression returned to seriousness again.
“I’ll . . . I’ll think about it,” I said. Loki’s story jibed with what Claire had told me at the time—that he hadn’t planned on doing me harm, but still, getting someone high without their permission was pretty unconscionable, even for Hell.
“All right, Kirsty. We’ve taken up enough of your evening. This is, after all, your party.”
I nodded but didn’t smile. It wasn’t a fist-the-air moment, but I did feel better to some degree.
I placed my empty glass on a nearby end table. “I’m going to go be with my friends now.” I glanced across the room and saw Kali and Amber looking bored.
I walked away from Mr. and Mrs. Loki and didn’t look back.
I had just joined my friends when all over the room people began counting down from ten. Determined not to mope over that damned Reaper, I joined in, screaming, “Nine, eight, seven!” along with everyone else. The hourglasses and clocks began to hum, dance and spin. It felt like New Year’s Eve at a fancy party, right out of When Harry Met Sally.
“Six, five, four!” I shouted, trying not to think about Dante. The countdown grew deafening. The clocks shrieked, whistled and blasted like fireworks. A rainbow blazed out of the digital display that showed the time in San Francisco.
I covered my ears against the cacophony of catcalls and clockwork. I squinted against the flashing lights, seeking the timepiece labeled Toronto. What time was it there? I needed to know. A tiny part of my brain noticed I hadn’t referred to Toronto as “home.”
“Three, two, one!”
The noise crescendoed just as a blinding, brilliant light flashed. It was comprised of all colors and at the same time none.
Then there was sudden silence.
Clocks righted themselves and began ticking like normal clocks should. Digital readouts showed reasonable hours. The hourglasses froze, having simultaneously returned to their upright positions. The sands shifted and began to flow downward.
I blinked away black spots from my eyes. Then I spun around, seeking the Toronto clock as I had the first time I’d been in this room. Now where . . . ? Found it! High up in a corner, amid ancient sundials and clocks from the age of Louis XIV and Seth Thomas, beside a collection of whirring watches, sat the hockey timer.
“Oh, skeg. It’s nearly tomorrow!” My twenty-sixth birthday. Time was finally running smoothly, and I was running out of it.
I WOKE AT dawn, surprised I’d slept at all. Sadly, I wasn’t surprised to awake alone. Disappointed, but not surprised. The door to the guest room—the one I’d never actually slept in—was closed for the first time since I’d moved in.
I checked my hellivision—for the first time since someone said “Let there be light,” it was the same date both in Hell and on the Coil. The news said we could expect a few more glitches, but that pretty soon, it would all be worked out.
So I could safely say that today was my graduation from the Reaper Academy. It was also my twenty-sixth birthday, the anniversary of my accidental reapage and the anniversary of Conrad’s original soul Deal. Today Conrad Iver would try to get my beloved Aunt Carey to trade her soul for his by lying to her and telling her it was to save me. Clever bastard. I was his bargaining chocolate chip, and Aunt Carey loved chocolate.
I was cutting it close. As soon as I got my scythe I would go AWOL, run down to the ferry and get Charon to take me over along with the souls who were being reincarnated today. I couldn’t teleport because I existed simultaneously on both planes, so I’d have to travel backward up the slippery slope, over the GIs and make my way past the gee-gnomes and through the void. But I could still arrive minutes too late. It would all depend on the graduation ceremony. But that bastard Conrad was goin’ down! And I meant that very literally.
I hadn’t told a soul. Or a demon. Or anyone for that matter. I tried hard to not even think about it in case one of the psychics read my mind and turned me in. I’d avoided both Claire Voyant and Sue Sayer. I’d apologize later—in this afterlife or the next.
But here’s a fun factoid I’d stumbled upon when I’d been researching scythes between semesters: you can’t be scythed twice. Apparently I wasn’t the first person to be reaped prematurely after all; it had just happened so long ago, nobody remembered. But I’d read the dustiest old tomes and scrolls I could find. According to a couple of obscure references, if I could get back into my body, then I couldn’t be scythed out of it again until I decided to go.
If things went according to plan, then I’d rescue my aunt, see Conrad punished and get my life back. I couldn’t wait. In fact, I really couldn’t wait. I might have lost a year of my life, but I wasn’t losing another minute. I had to get going.
The fact that Dante was obviously done with me only made the decision easier.
I dressed carefully. I wanted to look my best to receive my scythe, but I needed to wear something that didn’t interfere with my escape strategy. I decided on stinger-proof black leather pants and low-heeled boots, the better to charge up the slippery slope with. I then selected a wine-colored, scoop-back top that showed off my new tattoo. When I’d been reaped, the tattoo I’d gotten for my twenty-fifth birthday had stayed with my body on the Coil. Finally deciding to replace it, I’d gone out after the bash last night and gotten a pair of wings tattooed across my shoulder blades. Not feathery angel wings like Ira’s, but bat-like wings with a ton of intricate detail. I was a bad-ass Reaper now. And once I’d finished being Kirsty d’Arc on Earth—say fifty, sixty years from now—I was coming back to Hell and making the most of my afterlife. I’d drag evil skeggers like Conrad to Hell. I’d be the best Reaper ever!