Kali returned to her seat, stopping on the way to lean down and hug me. When you’ve been hugged by a six-armed god, you’ve really been hugged. I sat back and grinned. Until I realized everyone was looking at me.
“Oh, skeg,” I muttered. It was finally my turn to face the death march. Rendered clumsy by nervousness, I stumbled from my seat, awkwardly making my way to the front of the room.
I stood between Horace, who, while he’d chosen his friends poorly, was actually supersmart, and Tiffany, who could be logical but wasn’t fast on her feet. The Death Valley girls tended to depend on Amber’s eidetic memory rather than learn the material themselves. Then Horace answered his question and it was down to Tiffany and me.
I focused so hard I could barely concentrate on the question. It wasn’t only that my own future rode on this and that I’d get my own personal tornado if I couldn’t answer. No, I was afraid I might let down my team, disappoint my professor and Dante. Not to mention endanger Aunt Carey’s life.
Of course, if I didn’t pass this time, I could always repeat the course with Crystal. But by the time I graduated—assuming I did that time—my aunt would have already become Conrad’s next victim. I couldn’t fail. I couldn’t. If I failed . . .
“Could you repeat the question, Professor?”
Question? What question? It’s a good thing Tiffany asked. I’d been too wound up to pay attention.
The professor looked up, his sharp gaze dancing back and forth from Tiffany to me and finally landing on me. He gave one of those little coughs that’s more about disapproval than phlegm.
“One more time, then. Please pay attention, everyone. Once you have received your scythe, what is the one thing you are not to do?”
The pause that followed was the kind of silence that’s comprised of shuffling feet and averted gazes. Even those examinees who had already answered their questions looked puzzled.
“Come on now, people. This was in the handouts.” Professor Schotz tapped his foot. Dante tapped the hourglass. I looked over and noticed the sand was rising—actually flowing upward from the bottom bulb back to the top. Was this the result of something Dante had done or were those crazy time engineers and their wacky time machine at it again? Then Dante winked. I would so thank him later.
That’s when Tiffany raised her hand. It was a little tentative and I had to admire her bravery. If one of us didn’t answer, we’d both fail.
The professor looked a little surprised, if the gaping mouth and eyes like saucers were anything to go by. He coughed again, although this time I think it was to cover his shock.
“Very well, Tiffany. You go, girl.” The audience tittered and he looked embarrassed. One more cough before he repeated, “What is the one thing you should not do with your scythe?”
Tiffany scrunched her face up, looking adorably focused—and also like she really, really wasn’t sure of her answer. “Um, you should never, uh . . . cross the streams?”
“Cross the . . . ?” The professor’s eyebrows arched up his forehead. “And right after that we’ll use the force, shall we? No, that is incorrect. I’m sorry, Ms. Tiffany, but you’re going to have to repeat the classroom portion of Reaper training along with your friend.”
Tiffany forced a brave little smile. Her lower lip didn’t tremble though, nor did her eyes tear up. In fact, she looked relieved and maybe a little pleased.
“That’s okay,” she said, voice calm and even. Her words were for the professor but her gaze was fixed on her remaining buddy, Amber. Why did she not sound upset about having to repeat the course? After all, she wasn’t exactly academic material . . .
Suddenly I got it and for the first time all semester, I kind of admired her. She had allowed herself to fail so Crystal didn’t have to go through the classroom work again by herself. Amber was with people and beings she already knew but Crystal would be with total strangers . . . some probably stranger than others. Tiffany had made this huge sacrifice for her friend and at the same time given me more time to think. She could have said nothing and then I’d have to repeat the semester, too.
Now I just needed to focus enough to make use of the time she’d given me. I know I’d heard this before, but what was it?
Professor Schotz tapped Tiffany with the hammer—a lot lighter than he had Crystal—and the whirlwind started up again. Within seconds, Tiffany was whisked through the wall to join her friend.
I had to admit I felt a little envious. I’d certainly never made any friends in life who loved me enough to stay with me through death and higher education.
Nor had I been that kind of friend. On the day I’d been attacked by my stapler gone wild, Shannon had invited me to go back to school with her. I’d pretty much laughed in her face. Nice, I chastised myself. No wonder the people I worked with at Iver PR—the people I’d thought of as my friends—hadn’t felt warm and fuzzy toward me.
Well, that would change. When I got my life back, I’d be willing to die for Shannon.
Now the professor turned his attention to me, the last soul standing.
“All right, Kirsty. It’s all yours now. I hope you get it right, because I believe you will make an excellent Reaper.” He looked at me sternly but a twinkle in his eye belied his serious demeanor. “It’s the same question. Just pay attention.”
Which was the worst thing he could say, because now my attention was all about paying attention to the fact that he was speaking and not actually on what he was—
“What is the one thing you should not do with your scythe?”
I glanced over at Dante, who seemed focused on the hourglass. The flow of sand had reversed again and now there were only a few grains remaining in the upper bulb. It was now or never. Well, now or next semester.
What did I have to lose? I grasped at some hazy memory as it floated by my mind’s eye. “You should never let anyone else touch your scythe.”
“That is correct!” Professor Schotz seemed really pleased I’d gotten it right. He rang the bell for at least five clangs, grinning the whole time. “Now, class.” He turned to address the room at large. I figured this was my signal to return to my seat so I scooted back to my chair, creating a tiny tornado of my own in my rush through the dusty classroom.
“I have one more question for you—all of you.” The professor addressed the class. “What would happen if you used another Reaper’s scythe?”
He peered at us, waiting. I noticed Dante didn’t flip the hourglass this time. Even he looked puzzled, eyebrows rising until they were lost under his artfully tousled—or perhaps just messy—bangs. I glanced at my classmates only to find they were all looking at each other. Eventually everybody’s attention settled on Amber.
“Tell us, Miss Perfect Memory. What’ll happen if we swap sticks?” Rod had such a wonderful way with people. Amber had just been separated from her BFFs. Couldn’t he be a tad more sensitive?
But Amber seemed fine on her own. She sat up a little straighter, her cowboy accessories shoved onto the chair next to her that had been Tiffany’s. She’d even yanked her fluffy blond tresses back into a ponytail and—gasp!—her lipstick hadn’t been reapplied in minutes. The pale peach was notable by its absence. It was a good thing her lips weren’t covered in their usual layers of goo because she was rubbing her mouth absently, obviously deep in thought.
Rod started in on her again. “Looks like Little Miss—”
“Shut up, Rod,” Ira said through clenched teeth. “Give the lady a chance or so help me, I’ll use my contacts and you’ll never pass through the skeggin’ pearly gates.”
Whoa! Go, Ira!
Rod shut right up, his face turning an alarming shade of violet.
Kali turned around and whispered to Ira, softly so only I could hear. “I thought nobody was supposed to know about you.”
Ira grinned and whispered back, “Yeah, but obviously you all suspect. And I may have let it slip out that I’m an undercover angel. I just didn’t say undercover doing what.” He waggled his eyebrows, managing to look a little less angelic for once.
He opened his too-pretty mouth to say something else but at that moment Amber raised her head.
“There’s nothing.” She laid her hands palms down on the desk. “I read all the handouts, all the original texts and scrolls they came from and the optional reference materials as well.” She blushed and had the good grace to look a little embarrassed. You can’t pull that ditzy-blonde routine for the whole semester and then turn around and be the hardest-working—and possibly the smartest—person in the room without some fallout.
Now I understood why Professor Schotz thought it wise to separate the Death Valley girls, although it had seemed cruel at the time—which was, assuming time was progressing at a reasonable rate today, about twenty minutes ago.
“That’s right, Amber. Very good.” The professor grasped his lapels and rocked back on his heels. “We have no idea what would happen, only that it would be disastrous. Catastrophic. Perhaps apocalyptic. Unfortunately, the answer is lost in the mists of time.” He made a fluttering gesture with one hand. “And speaking of time, I have one final, final question for the group. Last one. I promise.”
We all fidgeted in our seats. Surely we hadn’t come this far just to fail. I held my unnecessary breath.
“And the question is . . .” Professor Schotz grinned like the Cheshire Cat. “Where are you going to go to celebrate,” he glanced at his wrist, “in about five minutes, Hell time?”
I thrust my hand in the air, yelling, “I know this one. I know this one!”
Laughing, the professor said, “I see a hand at the back. Yes, Kirsty?”
I rose and looked him right in the eye. “We—” I stopped. Originally the plan was to be just my fun clique: Kali, M’Kimbi, Ira and me. Now I let my gaze rest on each person in the room, including Amber and Rod. When I looked at Kali, she nodded. I made a sweeping and inclusive gesture. “We’re all going to that new Mexican place, Taco Hell, at the corner of Shallow and Vain. Care to join us?”
“Join you? I’m buying!”
THE COURSE CURRICULUM hadn’t mentioned the weeklong break between semesters. While everyone else relaxed and caught up on errands, visits and sleep, I went crazy. I wouldn’t graduate until the week of my twenty-sixth birthday. That left me just a few days to obtain my scythe and go AWOL to the Coil. And that was if time was on my side, which it usually wasn’t.
I waylaid Professor Schotz in the hall and begged him to cancel our hiatus.
He laughed, telling me I was the first student ever to do that. And sorry, no. The only thing Professor Schotz and Sergeant Schotz agreed on was fly-fishing so they’d be gone the entire week.
I remembered the things I’d seen swimming in the Styx on my first crossing and wished him luck. I hoped they had a catch-and-release law down here; eating too many fish Styx couldn’t be good for you.
I spent some time pacing and fretting. When that didn’t seem to accomplish much, I tried researching why you should never use someone else’s scythe. Picture me spending my free time in Hell’s reference library. No, seriously.
I did manage to root out a few oblique references in the university’s Reaper resource materials. As the professor had said, however, the supposed dire consequences remained shrouded in history and mystery. I’d grabbed Dante’s scythe the day he dragged me to Hell. Other than him freaking out, nothing had happened. I began to think it was an apocryphal tale based on rumors gone viral.
In the meantime, time grew wonkier and wonkier. The increasing lack of synchronization kept the Reaper Corps’ Soul Collection Department crazy-busy. Reaper Dispatch would send experienced Reapers out after souls and they would return empty-handed, reporting that they’d arrived days too late or days too early. The souls had either taken off deliberately or just gotten lost. Most souls found their own way, eventually, but it was traumatizing for them to wander around like, well, lost souls. The Satanic nurses set up a counseling station where they tried to cobble damaged souls back together but it didn’t always work. Something had to be done.
I considered this from the comfort of our rooftop apartment. I had a terrific view of the city—four stories up is a lot in a town comprised largely of one- and two-story buildings. Only the downtown area featured a few high-rise structures and I considered that to be part of the skyline’s charm, especially as time got more and more temperamental. Sometimes half the city would be shrouded in darkness while it was noon where I stood. The poor guy who drove the chariot of light across Hell’s roof was all over the place. Once I saw him nearly collide with himself on his way back from sunset. Charon complained he couldn’t choose between day and evening wear.
And exactly when had I begun thinking of Dante’s apartment as “our” apartment?
My week between semesters passed in a series of fits and starts. Mostly fits. It was nearly impossible to meet up with friends for a specific meal so we just started hanging out at Claire Voyant’s deli whenever. I might arrive to find Sybil having breakfast, Dante lunch and Lord Seiko dinner, when Khali and I had popped in for a late-night snack.
Monday morning arrived before I knew it—literally. And possibly before anyone else knew it, either.
Remembering that the second-semester class would be taught by the military-issue version of our instructor, I was all ready when Dante suggested we head to class two hours early. Actually, I’d been ready to go since my clock said 5:00 a.m. His watch said 7:30. Class started at 9:00. Somewhere in there, someone was right. Or maybe not. Dante handed me a steaming cup of his excellent coffee, which had cooled a bit in the time it took him to cross the room. According to his watch, ten minutes had passed between the kitchen and the living room, a journey of about ten paces. When we retraced his steps back into the kitchen to fill little Jenni’s food and water bowls, time ran backward. The coffeemaker pinged readiness of the cup I’d already downed. It swirled around in my stomach, ending up hiding behind a kidney like it didn’t know if it should be there or not.
We walked in companionable silence to the Reaper training facility, which was located off-campus.
Good thing we left early. It took us nearly an hour to walk to the edge of the city where the dark woods began, and then another forty minutes to reach the training grounds. Plus, we discovered we’d also lost an hour to DST—not daylight saving time but Damnable Screwy Time.
We arrived to find the training grounds were actually grounds—fieldwork in a field. Who knew? The second half of the course would be taught in a big white canvas tent. We ducked through the flaps and entered to find some of my classmates milling about. Dante headed to the front of the tent and stood at parade rest behind the instructor, who was, to my surprise, still kindly Professor Schotz. Where was the “what doesn’t kill ya (again) makes ya stronger” sergeant? Had Professor Schotz finally had enough of his alter ego and had him altered? Or maybe just shoved him into the Styx?