As a human, he had found death to be just another fact: people were born, lived and died. As a Reaper, he took comfort and pleasure in the passing of life. The bar was dimly lit, with dark wood panelling and stuffed elk and deer heads adorning the walls. The waitress was crooning about lost love on the stage at the back of the bar; while Big Willy served behind the bar. JB watched and waited in a darkened corner of the bar. When the waitress finished, she stepped off stage, picked up her tray and began collecting the empty glasses. It was quiet in that moment with country songs playing over the stereo.
The kid with the nervous eyes and broken boots sitting in the center table got up bumping into the chair behind him.
“Hey man, watch it.”
The old weathered cowboy turned toward the kid, lashing out by getting up and pushing his chair back with his leg into the kid’s stomach. Ash from his cigarette drifted down like snow, landing on his pants and shoes.
“Hey that guys cheating!” Someone yelled from the second table.
“Watch it you, old fuck.”
Chaos erupted then; the old cowboy picked up his chair and smashed it over the kid’s head. The hayseed went sprawling into a drunken blur. A fist flew into the second moron’s nose and more patrons jumped into the fray. The kid, having recovered first, grabbed a beer bottle and smashed it against the cowboy’s head. The cowboy grunted in pain and surprise, his Stetson taking the brunt of the impact. He jabbed the kid in the mouth, cutting his knuckles against the kid’s top teeth and splitting his lip open. Blood splattered onto the sawdust covered floor adding to the already dark stains of spilled alcohol and blood.
On the other side of the room more people were fighting, one man pulled out a switch blade and cut another guy across his arm. The man who got cut pulled out a pocket knife and stabbed the other man in the shoulder, and punched him in the face directly after.
Almost everybody in the bar was fighting at this point, it was better than cable TV. No one noticed the waitress disappear and the bartender reach under the bar; half the bar was up and fighting and the other half were cheering on the two fighters. JB watched with a calm detachment, waiting until the bartender pulled out the loaded rifle he kept hidden away under the bar.
Big Willy’s gruff voice rang out, followed by the boom of the shotgun. Deafening in the tiny, enclosed space, everyone in the bar froze. The cowboy had the kid in a headlock near the center of the bar while patrons on either side watched in shocked silence as the barrel moved from one person to the other.
JB got up then, passing as a dark shadow behind the brawlers, he swiped the kid’s soul and went to stand calmly by the bathroom door. A mug fell, shattering on to the floor and that’s when the shotgun boomed again. The kid’s body slumped to the floor, spurting blood and entrails in a disgusting geyser. The cowboy, jerked to the side was blown back by the blast of the shotgun.
“Get out, all of you; I’m not in any mood to play with brawlers tonight. So ya’ll better clear out... or the next one’ll be aimed elsewhere.”
Within seconds the room cleared. No one wanted to argue with Big Willy when he got pissed. The guy was downright ornery on a good day, on a bad day it was better dealing with a hurricane. The cowboy limped to the bathroom, the left side of his face looked like melted wax mixed with ground beef.
“Hah; serves the old fucker right.”
JB glanced at the soul, his eyebrow raised. Even after dying, the kid had an arrogant, self-entitled aura and his eyes kept shifting around the room. The soul shrugged; “He owed me money.”
JB opened the doorway, and motioned the soul through. Once through, his phone beeped again, giving him an image of the old cowboy. Chuckling darkly to himself, he walked through the doorway into the men’s bathroom.
“Man, what a way to go. Stupid little fucking bastard.”
The old cowboy was taking a leak and muttering to himself.
“Are you ready to go then?”
“Am I able to get a light? One for the road?”
JB handed him a cigarette and a lighter and together, they watched Big Willy grab the headless body of the kid and drag him out the back door.
They leaned against the outside of the western bar, miles of endless farmland all around them and in the distance, a small range of mountain peaks. The body would be left to the coyotes and wolves; eaten and disposed of by nature within a few months and soon enough, even the bones would be gone.
“The great thing about this place, it was out of the way... and you could always count on good bar fights, good beer and decent food, and if you were lucky; a waitress every week. Me and Big Willy been friends for years. Sure, gonna miss this place. Cheers buddy.”
The old cowboy’s soul passed on to the next stage, and for the first time since becoming a Reaper; JB saw the sun peak over the horizon. A smear of pinks and blues lightening to welcome the day. He disappeared in a flash of black red light just as the sun peaked over the mountain tops bathing the landscape below in blinding white light.
His penthouse suite was a sanctuary. Quiet and dark; the mahogany curtains kept the light out so it was nearly black in his room. He sent Eryn a quick text, and then slipped into bed closing his eyes against the daylight hours.
The water was getting louder, going from a low trickle to a small stream. She had been crawling through the darkness for a long time. It seemed oppressive, like she had been swallowed by some giant monstrous beast. She could smell fresh air now, along with the smell of cold water. From behind her, she could hear the electrical ice storm battering the ground and every now and again the ceiling above her would shake, sending little bits of rock raining down. Deeper in the tunnels, she could hear small squeaking creatures somewhere off to her right. The pathway she was on dropped off into nothingness and she fell screaming into the abyss.
The sun was shining warmly and everything was quiet and still. For a moment, she was worried she was dead or that she had hit her head and was slowly bleeding to death. But of course, if she were dead she wouldn’t be thinking or feeling... or wet. Opening her eyes, she took immediate stock of her body, making sure nothing was broken; though she felt like she had gotten run over by an 18-wheeler two or three times.
At least there was sunshine and small animals she could hunt. The trees around her were a lush, deep green and smelled of pine, earth, and sap; a coniferous forest alive with the scent and sounds of prey; of living things with heartbeats and blood pumping through veins. The predator in her wanted to hunt, to play and kill the small creatures she could hear shuffling through the undergrowth. It reminded her of the forests back home.
Glancing behind her, she thought she saw someone disappear into the bushes; she turned into a panther and disappeared in the opposite direction.
Padding through the bushes, she could pick up on familiar scents; the trees seemed less intimidating now that she realized she was home. Eryn came across the cave by accident; it was more a hole she had tripped into that led to the cave filled with treasure.
A pirate treasure trove, filled with mountains of gold coins, jewelry, precious gems, and ancient stolen artifacts. She gaped, taking it all in, and wandered through the mountains of stolen goods. Old pirate curses suddenly came to mind and she stopped moving; wary now of things hidden among the glittering mountains. Panic at being trapped underground again was beginning to creep up through her chest, suffocating her. The walls were closing in and she could see murderous leering faces in every darkened corner.
Her breath came in shortened, hitching gasps. Air... she couldn’t get enough air. She bolted for the opening; needing to get out of the cavern that had become a monstrous nightmare of stolen gold and grinning wicked skeletons.
Clawing for purchase against the loose ground, she dragged herself over the edge of the hole and sprinted into the trees, half blind with panic.
As a human she was fast, as a panther she was much faster and as she pushed herself harder, the world around her became a green blur of trees and leaves. She didn’t even bother with the critters that scattered in their mad rush to get away from her, she just ran.
Something was wrong... very wrong. He flew over the twinkling city looking for something... for her. She was still too far out of range for him to be able to pick up on her location; but he could feel her panic, sense her running as an animal.
“Are you alright?”
She paused, panting heavily as JB’s gravelly voice shivered across her consciousness. The panic was beginning to ebb away, leaving her feeling drained and hollow.
She slumped against a wide tree trunk, fighting the panic and darkness that was threatening to consume her. Overhead the moon drifted lazily across the sky; hanging like a beacon against the night. Looking up, something winked from another tree a few yards ahead of her position. Getting up, it winked out becoming invisible again. Curious now, she moved towards it, keeping low so it would remain visible. It twinkled with a dazzling brilliance, catching the light reflected off the moon. Buried deep in the trunk of the tree was a bronze trinket.
Taking a knife from her backpack, she began carving the trunk intending to get the trinket out. Covered with tree bark and sap, she could just make out the center of it, it was a glowing blue orb with a lightning bolt running through the exact center nestled in the middle of two crossed red daggers, the rest was buried in the tree trunk. The moon had risen higher in the sky by the time she had made a sizeable hole in the trunk, and with a few good tugs, the thing came loose.
It was a sun amulet, crossed with daggers and that glowing blue orb in the center. On the back was a leather strap that ran from one side to the other. There was something ethereal about it, like it didn’t quite belong in this world. She cleaned the bark embedded in the rays and when she brought it to her ear; she could hear a tiny crackling coming from inside.
It was heavy, weighing a least a pound and it hummed as though it had its own power source. Fascinated, she brushed her fingers over the surface; scrapping away more bark and sap. She ran her thumb over the blue orb and a jolt of electricity shivered over her body, pulsing outward sending a wave of crackling blue radiating outward.
She shuddered as the electricity danced over her skin. There was something about the amulet that made her think of monsters lurking in the dark, of wars fought between things not human.