Reapers – Prologue
by Bryan Davis
“Phoenix, I brought ghosts to the ceremony.” Hanoi’s breath reeked of stale whiskey as he draped my cloak—my own hair interwoven with flax—over my shoulders. “You need to prove yourself.”
I pushed my arms through the sleeves and glanced at my graduation certificate on a nearby desk. “I already passed the tests. The initiation doesn’t call for—”
“A Council member asked for a demonstration.”
“A Council member?” I pointed toward the floor’s braided rug. “In my house?”
“Merely an observer.” He fastened the cloak’s clasp and plugged it into my embedded sternum valve. When he locked it in place, a stinging sensation pinched my gut. The recent surgery hadn’t completely healed. “I brought two easy ghosts. You won’t have to dematerialize to reap them. Make it quick, for your mother’s sake.”
I nodded and eyed the door to this cramped den. In the living room, everyone waited for my entrance, including Misty. I had to make her proud. I pulled the cloak’s hood up over my freshly shaved head. “Let’s go.”
Hanoi opened the door. Chatter and the odor of beer and pizza filtered in. Keeping my shoulders back, I walked into a mass of people holding plastic cups and plates.
A curtain of silence fell. Everyone looked at me. My father stood near a punch bowl, aloof, as usual. I spotted Misty to his left. Her fiery locks made her easy to find, and her bright smile lit up the room. A woman stood next to her. Blonde hair draped her cloaked shoulders, and an expressionless white mask hid her face. The Council member.
Misty called with her distinctive Scottish accent, “Ah! You look dashing—” She glanced at my father, then quickly turned her gaze downward and rubbed a pewter ring on her finger.
I read his expression—utter disapproval. But no matter. Reaper service would keep me away from Misty for twenty years. He had nothing to worry about.
As I walked to the center of the room, the crowd parted and lined the walls. I scanned the faces for glowing eyes—a stooped man in military garb, a teenaged girl wearing a bloodstained prom dress, and a scar-faced man clutching a bottle. Three ghosts? Why three?
Hanoi stepped in front of me. “Raise your right hand.”
I did so.
He cleared his throat. “I, Phoenix, do solemnly pledge to uphold the principles of the Reaper’s Code.”
As I opened my mouth, someone called, “Wait!”
I turned toward the voice. The masked woman stepped forward and pointed at me. “Why should I believe your pledge when you have ignored the souls in our midst?”
I blinked. “You can see them?”
“Of course.” She drew her cloak’s hood over her head and whispered, “Reaper, prove yourself now, if you want your mother returned unharmed.”
Behind the woman, the scar-faced ghost stalked closer to Misty, his glowing eyes trained on her. I had no experience with hostile ghosts. Could this one hurt her somehow?
“Get back!” I shouted.
The guests looked around, whispering, some with fear-filled eyes.
The ghost sneered. “I am her next nightmare.” He leaped on Misty’s back. She gasped, and her face paled.
I lunged and whipped my cloak over the ghost. When the fibers adhered, I wrenched him to the floor. He plunged a hand through my sternum valve. His icy fingers grabbed my heart and squeezed.
Cold shot through my body. Every limb stiffened. I looked at Hanoi and squeaked, “Help!”
Hanoi took a hard step forward, but the masked woman raised her arm. “If a level two kills him, his district will be better off without an inferior Reaper.”
Misty dropped to her knees next to me. “You can do it, Phoenix!”
Her words brought a surge of warmth. One arm loosened, and my hand dematerialized. I curled my disembodied fingers around the ghost’s throat and pushed him away, drawing out his frigid hand. With my physical arm, I wrapped him in the cloak again and focused on the energy coursing into the fibers.
As the material burrowed into the ghost, he screeched. His face elongated, and his glowing eyes exploded into dark mist. Seconds later, every particle vanished into the cloak.
The screech continued, now muffled. I unplugged the clasp from the valve, silencing it.
Misty crossed herself and rose to her feet, whispering something indistinct.
Sitting on the floor and gasping, I looked up at the masked woman. “Now for the other two ghosts.”
“I have seen enough.” She crouched and spoke in a low tone. “Very impressive, Phoenix. Most Reapers your age would have failed this test.”
She set a cold finger on my lips. “Never mind. Just know that I will be watching you.” Her metallic eyes, visible through the mask’s holes, drilled into me. “Tomorrow, you will not remember my presence here.” She rose and hurried out of the house.
When the door closed, Misty reached to help me up, but my father stepped in the way, grabbed my wrist, and hauled me to my feet. “I assume you’ve proven yourself. Let’s get on with it.”
His words felt like the ghost’s icy grip, freezing my heart. After reaping the other ghosts, I stumbled through the ceremony—reciting my pledge, then receiving a weapons belt for protection in a remote city, far from my parents … and from Misty.
Hanoi escorted me to a waiting limo. The door opened and the masked woman called from inside, “First the Gateway to deliver the souls, then the airport. Then we will release your mother.”
I slid in next to her and looked back. Misty waved from a window. I managed a weak wave in return.
A large hand snapped the drapes closed, hiding her from view.
I shut the door. The limo pulled away, and my house faded from sight. I sighed and fingered my own pewter ring. Separated from my loved ones, twenty years would feel like an eternity.