I grabbed a comfy-looking rock next to Kali and sat. Professor Schotz launched into a glowing rundown of Sergeant Schotz’s qualifications and experience and how lucky we were to have him as our instructor. He really seemed to admire the guy—no false modesty here.
A few more people straggled in after me and I expected them to get a grand chewing-out, but the professor just shrugged. How could you be on time when time itself was tardy? Finally the entire group assembled in the tent. It was time, and past time, to begin.
“And so, it gives me great pleasure to turn your Reaper education over to my bitter half, Sergeant Schotz.” The professor gestured toward himself and bowed his head. When he raised it, the thinning white ponytail had morphed into the crew cut and the kindly professorial features and manner had blitzed away. I think the sergeant was actually taller than the professor but wouldn’t dare ask. Or sneak up behind him with a measuring tape. Something about a measuring tape always makes men nervous.
“Thanks, Prof. You can go back to your nice, safe, hallowed halls now,” the sergeant all but sneered. It looked like the admiration wasn’t mutual—more of a love-hate kind of thing.
“All you greenhorns,” he snapped at us, “and any other color horns among you. You better listen up and listen good.”
We all sat up straighter.
Everything about the sergeant demanded attention.
“I’m in charge of making Reapers outta you idjits. And the key words here are, ‘I’m in charge!’”
He paced the front of the tent, one hand resting on his scythe while he gestured with the other.
I glanced over at Dante, who was standing at parade rest near the whiteboard. I thought he looked kind of naked without his trusty scythe. Which only got me thinking about Dante naked and then I missed the rest of the sergeant’s scary pep talk. I tuned back in just in time to hear, “Now, the first thing we’re gonna do is take a ten-mile hike. You think you outta-shape idjits can handle that?”
He spewed the last so hard he sent one of his teeth flying across the tent to land in the flattened grass at M’Kimbi’s feet.
“Get that!” the instructor ordered.
M’Kimbi tried to pick it up but it squirted from his fingers. This time it bounced and landed near Amber who made a grab for it but it sailed over toward Kali. She used all six hands but it still skittered away from her grasp. Grasps.
Finally, Sergeant Schotz bent down and picked it up, shoving it back into his jaw. He chewed air a few times to settle it back into place. Anger painted his scarred face as he surveyed us, his scathing single-eyed gaze jumping from one Reaper candidate to the next. “I see you are all total incompetents.” He raised his hand, pointing accusingly, face twisted and red. “You can’t even manage to pick up one teeny-tiny item. You can’t handle the tooth!”
THE TEN-MILE TREK was unsurprising, some of us able to make it and some not. I was able to go the distance—barely.
The rest of the boot camp portion of our program proved equally predictable. Sergeant Schotz would insult us a bit, then order us to do something strenuous. After that he’d give us a grudging compliment. I felt like I was watching a M*A*S*H-up of every military-themed movie I’d ever watched: An Officer and a Gentleman meets Private Benjamin and G.I. Jane while wearing Stripes. That didn’t make the physical training any easier, but it kept me entertained.
I wondered what could be the point of physical conditioning since we didn’t really have bodies anymore. But we definitely had muscle memory, and mine remembered strain and pain and how much it hurt to work out.
And yet, by the end of the second week, I began to notice that I was shaping up rather nicely. No wonder Dante had such a stunning body under that robe; Schotz’s training worked better than any gym I’d ever joined. (Notice I specified “joined,” not “regularly worked out at.”)
My colleagues were also developing lean muscle mass. Kali now sported both a six-pack and six rock-hard biceps. Even Ira’s wings bulked up. We’d all given up the pretense that we didn’t know he was an angel. You may be able to hide your light under a bushel but you can’t hide your wings under a tank top.
Schotz also devised mock soul runs. He’d divide up the class into Souls and Reapers and then the Souls would have a few minutes to hide or run, at which point their assigned Reapers would have to find them and haul them in. In other words, we played hide-and-seek.
It would have been more fun if Aunt Carey’s life and my entire future weren’t resting on the outcome.
Eventually, the day of the final test arrived. Sergeant Schotz unrolled a rough map of the woods clipping it to the rolling whiteboard at the front of the tent. Using a Magic Marker—and by the way, they aren’t really magic, even in Hell—Dante carefully dabbed five little red dots at intervals around the map.
“This is your assignment.” The Sergeant rapped a knuckle on the board and began pacing in front of the map. The entire class leaned right to see the board, then left, then right again as his pacing obscured first one side of the board, then the other. Finally, he stopped pacing, now completely blocking our view of the map. “You will locate each of these five checkpoints.” He rapped the board again, harder this time. Dante grabbed the edge of the board as it wobbled on the uneven ground, threatening to topple over and take our instructional map with it. The sergeant didn’t seem to notice.
Schotz picked up the marker and turned to face us. “At each station, you will acquire an item to prove you were there.” He stabbed the air with his marker. I flinched even though he was three or four feet away. He just had that effect on people.
Yes, I was sitting on a front rock. Like M’Kimbi, I was a suck-up now, too. My aunt’s life depended on it.
“If you do not acquire at least four of the five tokens, you will not only fail this test, but you will also fail the entire course. You will fail to enter the Reaper Corps. You will not now, nor ever, become a Reaper.”
Amber raised her hand tentatively.
“You will not be allowed to repeat the course.”
Amber lowered her hand again.
“Now, to make things a little more interesting, there are seven candidates here today, but only six of each item at each station. Not only must you get to each checkpoint, but you must not be the last to arrive. The recruit who obtains the least number of tokens is history.” He sliced the marker across his throat in illustration. He’d removed the cap earlier, so, whether deliberately or accidentally, he inscribed a thin red line across his own neck. I got the picture. “Any questions?”
“What are the tokens?” Ira asked, his beatific features drawn and pale.
Good question. Maybe they were items we could obtain some other way.
Annoyed that anybody actually had a question to ask, Schotz spat, “Each of you idjits must bring me the feathers of a seagull, a crow and a vulture. A whisker from a catfish. And a hair of a hyena.”
“Great,” Kali muttered. “A scavenger hunt featuring real scavengers.”
Ignoring my friend’s comment, I did a mental calculation: seven students, six each of five items, that’s . . . My eyes crossed and I bit my tongue. That’s, uh, not enough. Somebody wasn’t going to graduate. I bit my tongue harder, vowing it wouldn’t be me.
“Lastly, it’s every man, woman and whatever for themselves. No partnering up. No helping each other. One man is an island. Got it?”
Oh, skeg. He’d not only forbidden cooperation but he’d encouraged competition. If someone got more tokens than they needed, would they share with the less fortunate? Would they fail for doing so?
“So you all know your assignment, then.” His eyes darted from face to face, inviting exactly zero questions this time.
“Sir! Yes, sir!” we shouted in unison.
I gulped, surveying my classmates. A god, an angel, a smart young woman with total recall, two smart men. Me. Rod. How the skeg was I going to accomplish this? Who was going to lose? Rod glared at me. I knew exactly what he was thinking.
“Oh, wait. I almost forgot.” The sergeant grinned in a predatory manner, which suggested that he hadn’t forgotten anything at all. “I’ve also hidden a crystal skull in a secret location. The person who finds it graduates head of the class.” He giggled. Actually giggled! Sadistic skegger. “Get it? Skull? Head? And no skullduggery! Bwahahaha!”
He sounded insane, except I would have made the same joke.
M’Kimbi raised his hand. He was either very brave or very . . . no, he was very brave. “Question, sir.”
Sergeant Schotz scowled. M’Kimbi had spoiled his big finish. “What is it?”
M’Kimbi pointed toward the map, staying well out of the reach of the sergeant’s Magic Marker. “I would like to inquire what the large black section at the center of the forest is, sir.”
“That is a government-restricted facility. You just stay away from that. You hear me? Under no circumstances are any of you to go anywhere near that black hole. You could be charged. You could end up doin’ time.”
The rest of the group looked terrified and confused. Only I knew what lay within the restricted area. I’d wandered into it before by accident and despite my friendship with Lord Seiko, I didn’t plan on dropping in unannounced again.
AS SOON AS we were out of sight among the trees, Kali, Amber and I hooked up and made plans. We convinced one another that this, too, was part of the test—to ignore his edict forbidding collaboration and immediately partner up. After all, once we were on the job, we wouldn’t turn each other away when we requested help, right? Right? And if the sergeant had really wanted us to work independently, he would have taken away our phones.
Amber, of course, had the map memorized, so it was her job to keep us on track to each of the five token stations. Kali and I would have our eyes on the ground looking for dropped feathers. We doubted we’d find a hyena or a catfish, but maybe we could beat the odds by adding to the supply of tokens.
“You’re a god, Kali. Can’t you just conjure them up?” Amber asked.
“Sadly, no,” she replied. “I’m much better at making things go away. Death and destruction, remember?”
One of my earrings plopped at my feet.
“And earring backs. Sorry.”
Amber nodded. She had turned out to be pretty cool once she’d been stripped of her friends. She was even letting her dyed hair grow out. Thanks to the weirdness of time, it was now black with yellow paintbrush-tip ends drifting around her shoulders. I liked it.
“We need to split up. Let’s each take a checkpoint, grab three of the tokens and call in.”
“That’s great for you, Amber. But how do Kali and I find our checkpoints?”
“I can talk you in, like an air traffic controller, dudes. I’ve got this, like, mental map.” She tapped her temple. “Plus, I can do that thing with the three angles.”
“What the skeg?” Kali looked confused. “Ira already left.”
“No, not angels. Angles. Three angles,” Amber clarified. “You know. Triangulate.”
“Why bother?” I asked. “The phones now have built-in GPS.”
“Right. And that’s good. It’ll show me where each of us is so I can tell us how to get to the checkpoints.”
“I get it. Amber, you’re brilliant. Skeggin’ brilliant.” Kali punched Amber in the shoulder. I winced in sympathy. Amber rubbed her arm.
“My phone has a walkie-talkie function. Do yours?” I asked. They nodded. “Good. We need to stay off the main channels. Open channel D.”
“Did you say P?”
“No D. D. As in death.”
I grabbed each phone and set it on Channel D. Then I set the GPS functions so we could pinpoint each other’s locations.
Amber closed her eyes and concentrated. Opening them again, she pointed left. “Kali, head that way. I’ll keep an eye on your position via my phone display and let you know if you go off course. You should reach checkpoint alpha in about twenty minutes. Or, you know, yesterday morning.” She rolled her eyes so hard I could hear it. “Contact us when you get there. Go. Go. Go!”
Kali swelled up to her full height and maybe some added extra. “Who do you think you are, giving me orders?”
Amber cowered. And, I admit it, so did I. Had Amber gone too far?
Then Kali punched her in the arm again, maybe a little harder than last time. “Just kidding.” She took off through the trees, branches snapping and flying out of her way as she went, entire trees ripping from the ground in her wake. “Death and destruction. Death and destruction!” she called back over her shoulder as she ran.
My other earring fell to the ground. I stuffed it in my shirt pocket with its mate.
Next, Amber pointed straight ahead. “Kirsty, I’m giving you checkpoint delta. It’s the farthest away, but the straightest route. You should get there in about forty-five minutes, time willing. By then, Kali and I will have looped back and hit the remaining checkpoints. We should all arrive back in this clearing in about two hours. Or thereabouts, time being irrelevant.”
I knew what she meant. What could you do? Given the way things were, we might get back before we left. I drew a deep, unnecessary breath and was about to charge farther into the forest when I heard a weird tearing noise.
Like fabric giving way. Where had I heard that before? “Did you hear that?”
“Hear what? We don’t have time for this. Are you going or what, Kirsty?”
“Right. Right.” And off I went.
As I raced down a well-worn path toward checkpoint delta, I opened channel D and yelled, “Can you hear me now?”
“Roger that,” Amber responded.
“Who’s Roger?” Kali asked. “Is he dating Beth?” Sometimes even the most up-to-date immortal missed cultural references. “I’m there. Er, here. Time must have folded in on itself, ’cause I’ve only been running about ten minutes.”
I checked my hellphone. The digital readout differed from Kali’s by thirty-five minutes.
“Anyway,” Kali continued, “I’m at checkpoint alpha, but I can’t find any feathers or whiskers or fur here. There’s just a cord hanging from a branch that may have . . . Wait! What the skeg?”
“What?” Amber and I said in unison.
Kali lapsed into a language I didn’t recognize. Blue smoke drifted from my phone. “There’s a nice little carving in the tree. It says ‘Rod was here.’ Damn. He grabbed all of the . . . seagull feathers. There’s a small piece left on the ground that must have torn off when he yanked them down. He’s probably going to share them with Horace and let everybody else fail. Son of a skeg!”
I heard Amber sniffling over the sound of Kali’s swearing. If Amber flunked out without a chance to take the course over, she’d be permanently separated from her friends. Much as I believed she would be better off without them, it wasn’t my place to tell her that. And besides, we were a team. We’d pull each other through. Each of us had something to offer that the others didn’t, and that made us stronger.