Gateway to Aethera | Wynonna Grimm Book 1

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Chapter 2

New York City:

4 Hours and 32 Minutes Before Death of Wynonna Grimm

The young grim reaper swiped right on his tablet screen as he began to review the list of souls to be reaped for the day, scratching at his head with the blunt end of his scythe.

Seventy-three elderly and eighteen human children. Lord Death was clearly trying to work him to death. Not that it was even possible but it sure as hell seemed like it.

If only the spirit world had labor laws. This is definitely something that the humans would classify as ‘encroaching on the basic rights of workers,’ the young reaper sighed in dismay.

“Congratulations, you have graduated from the world of the living, if you’ll just watch your step on your way out of your former body,” he warned as he proceeded to guide the old woman’s soul out of her corpse with a wave of his hand, not bothering to look up from his screen.

“Are you Death?” the elderly woman looked at the child before her in confusion.

“Hah, yeah right. As if Lord Death himself would ever come out of his castle just to collect souls. The day that old fogey decides to finally come out of that cave is the day that hell freezes over.”

“Well if you’re not Death... then are you an angel?” she hesitated as she questioned him once more.

On that note, the young reaper finally looked up from his tablet screen and paused for a moment before scowling at the recently departed soul.

“Like those stuck up snobs would ever lower themselves to do the dirty work that everyone in the spirit world just so loves to hand over to us reapers,” he mumbled under his breath, although the old woman was only able to catch a small portion of what he said.

“Well if you’re not Death and you’re not an angel... then what are you?”

Lovely. To humans it seems as though if you’re not either an angel or Death himself, then you clearly must be a nobody,” the reaper’s voice dripped with sarcasm. He exhaled loudly, before finally yielding to the human.

“I didn’t realize that introductions would be necessary, but if it will shut you up then by all means, allow me. I am reaper number Sixteen Forty-nine of the Twenty-third sector; I have been designated as the one to escort you into the realm of the spirit world where you will be judged by representatives of Lord Death himself,” the child introduced himself to the inquisitive soul rather half-heartedly.

“In any case, as you humans often like to say, ‘shall we get this show on the road?’”

After having managed to settle down the annoying old woman who kept attempting to interrogate him, the young reaper was finally able to transport the soul to the spirit realm which would later be guided to Lord Death’s castle where she would have to await her hearing.

“Elizabeth Diane Johnson died at age sixty-five. Quite young no?” he mused as he read the old woman’s report, “Former occupation: officer of the New York police department. Ah well, that explains a lot.”

Sixteen Forty-nine sighed as he plopped down on an empty swing in exhaustion. It was barely midday and yet he still had forty-seven more souls to go. With the sudden change in management of the twenty-third sector, he foresaw the upcoming days to add on much more weight to his workload. He didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the mere prospect of his quota suddenly doubling or tripling in quantity. An average of about a hundred souls a day was hard enough as it was.

“Might as well enjoy the sun while I still can,” he smiled bleakly.

“Sixteen Forty-nine!” a thunderous male voice suddenly blasted the reaper out his seat.

“Good God, Eighteen-ninety! Are you trying to give me a heart attack? At least make some noise before springing up on someone like that!” he glared up at the overgrown reaper who decided to suddenly appear out of nowhere.

“Heart attack, really?” the man arched an eyebrow at his fellow reaper who was now peeling himself off the ground.

“It’s a figure of speech,” Sixteen forty-nine shot back at him while dusting himself off, “What is it that you need anyways? Shouldn’t you be out collecting souls right now?”

“You’ve been summoned.”

“Summoned? By whom? I thought the positions for the new sector leaders were still up for debate,” he contemplated as he picked his scythe up off the ground.

“They are-”

“Then who the hell could have summoned me? Representative council? I know I’ve been off my game lately but what business could they have with a mere soul retriever.”

“Not the council. Lord Death,” Eighteen Ninety clarified impatiently, annoyed at having been interrupted so many times.

Sixteen Forty-nine’s mouth suddenly went dry. There’s no way he could have overheard me calling him an old fogey, right?

Sweat drenched the back of Sixteen Forty-nine’s shirt, as he found himself standing before the entrance to Lord Death’s inner court. Waiting for his arrival to be announced to the big boss, he felt his innards churn in disagreement. It had been a long time since his stress induced gastritis had acted up. And of course, it had chosen the most inopportune moment to reveal itself. As he stood there contemplating his own mortality, the double doors suddenly opened―interrupting his train of thought.

Met with utter silence he assumed he was meant to simply waltz in. Taking a few hesitant steps forward, he reluctantly dragged his feet inside. Sixteen Forty-nine’s stomach rumbled loudly. The heat of embarrassment flushed his cheeks; he felt his mouth go as dry as the Sahara Desert. It was only at this moment that the pitiable grim reaper began to comprehend the mortal concept of feeling as though one is walking on pins and needles.

The sounds of his footsteps resonated throughout the walls of the long corridor. It had been a long time since he had last set foot in the lord’s castle and yet to him it felt as though it was only yesterday since he had left. Every stone, corridor, and window of this place was engraved deeply in the recesses of his memory.

As he made his way to the entrance of Death’s office, he took in several deep breaths, before mustering up enough courage to knock on Death’s door. Sixteen Forty-nine couldn’t help but smile grimly at the irony of his situation, despite himself.

A soft knock could be heard before the door automatically opened before him on its own.

Sixteen Forty-nine slowly stepped into office, stopping at a safe distance away from the only person who he had ever truly both feared and respected in his entire existence.

Bracing himself for whatever was to come, he slowly released the breath that he had unconsciously been holding in for a while already. Straightening his shoulders, he faced the man before him with what he hoped somewhat resembled a smile.

“Long time no see Boss!” Sixteen Forty-nine chirped, immediately cringing at the sound of his own voice cracking.

The sound of a page turning filled the room as the reaper was blatantly ignored by his employer.

Moments passed and the awkward silence that ensued, soon became unbearable for him as he continued to stand in the middle of the room not knowing what to do with himself.

“Long time no see, Albrecht.”

Sixteen Forty-nine’s heart shot up to his throat as the door that had been left open behind him slammed shut. His eyes automatically closed shut in response, his body angled toward the door as he struggled to push down his fight or flight instinct. The man that sat before him simply set his book down and promptly tapped on it’s hard cover as he silently observed the inner struggle of the reaper―whose only means of escape had already gone straight to hell. His dark eyes flashed a violet hue for a second before they returned to pitch black as he patiently waited for the reaper to redirect his attention to him.

“Ah yes, that’s right. Sixteen Forty-nine, is it now?” he inquired thoughtfully, with thinly veiled disinterest.

At that Sixteen Forty-nine forced his eyes open, refusing to meet his gaze as he let eyes roam the room as if he had suddenly become increasingly interested in the decor.

“Err-yes, that’s right,” he chuckled awkwardly, still avoiding looking directly at the man’s person as he felt his insides twist.

“Well in that case, dear Albrecht. Do you mind explaining this to me?”

Death smiled brightly at him, purposefully placing a lot of emphasis on his name as he procured a file out of thin air and let it slide across his desk to face Sixteen Forty-nine.

The reaper standing before him deflated at the sight of his expression, feeling all traces of his initial confidence crumble to dust. At that moment Sixteen Forty-nine’s blood ran cold. He suddenly began to wish for a dark hole to emerge beneath his feet and just swallow him up.

Nonetheless, he slowly took another step forward and loomed over the edge of the hardwood desk as he struggled to make sense of what had been placed before him.

“Ah this. This is... um what is this?” he wondered out loud, somewhat dreading the response.

This, my dear Albrecht, is grim reaper of the Twenty-third sector, Sixteen Forty-nine’s record.” Death’s smile widened once more as he lightly tapped the file label, only managing to frighten the poor reaper even more. Despite his age, Death was an undeniably handsome man whose looks surpassed any mere mortals in every sense. But nevertheless, it was quite rare for him to ever express any emotions, many often having commented that his looks were completely wasted on a cold-hearted man such as himself. Which is why it was an even rarer case for him to ever smile and when he did, there was every reason to be afraid.

The grim reaper felt his legs weaken as he began to tremble underneath Lord Death’s terrifying gaze.

Oh, is that so?”

Indeed,” his eyes glinted as he mocked the reaper’s tone of voice.

“Albrecht, over three centuries ago, you came to me begging for responsibility. Matter of fact, if I were to recall upon your words clearly, you stated that my forcing you to live in this dusty and out of style old castle was ‘encroaching’ upon your basic rights,” Lord Death ruthlessly attacked him without a shred of compassion. The words fell heavily upon Sixteen Forty-nine’s delicate heart with the weight of a hammer, as they were in fact the exact words he had used to build up his argument over three hundred years ago.

“Which is why I allowed you to take up the responsibilities of a grim reaper in every sense and even gave you a personal recommendation when you applied as a soul retriever for the twenty-third sector,” Lord Death continued without preamble, “So please explain to me how it is that although you once assured me that you would be very diligent with your work—that out of every sector and every single soul collector currently under my employment―you have the absolute lowest rate of soul retrieval within the spirit realm? Please explain this to me because I currently cannot fathom how such a thing is possible coming from a former employee to have worked directly under my supervision,” his smile vanished as he dropped all pretenses, allowing the harsh reality of his cold words to pierce through the grim reaper.

Sixteen Forty-nine could only stand there helplessly, unable to utter a word in his defense because even he himself did not have a proper excuse for his own lack of competence.

“Do you really want to know why it is that I’ve summoned you here today? Your being here today is my first and final warning. Pull yourself together. You have one year. If by the end of the year you have not managed to raise your numbers, you’re coming home, no excuses. I will not allow you to disgrace my name by parading around as a grim reaper with nothing to back up his own status.”

With those words, hours later Sixteen Forty-nine walked aimlessly through the streets of Salem. It was his last reaping of the day and yet he could not focus at all on the task at hand. His mind was still currently in a daze. When he first arrived in the spirit realm, the whole underworld was thrown out of balance. No one could believe that such a young child had managed to transform into a reaper. It wasn’t a common occurrence for one born with a pure soul to darken to the point of becoming a grim reaper in the afterlife and not often that said soul was one that hadn’t even lived long enough to really experience all of life’s ups and downs.

But that was the reality of his situation. Not all angels and reapers came into existence the way most living things are born. A good number were once human. And he was one of them. It was said that those who were born with a pure soul― however rare it might be― and managed to maintain a pure soul until the very end of their lifespan, after death said individuals would have the opportunity to become low-level angels.

But this in itself didn’t happen very often. In fact, the world of the living was harsh and as such these souls would often darken with the many disappointments that came with life, often leading a life of crime until the day they died. It was at this point that a new reaper would come into existence.

Though not as powerful as those that had been born reapers, those that had changed into reapers did not stay as grim reapers forever. As reapers, these darkened souls were given an opportunity of redemption. Not only were they given a chance to wash away their past sins but should they choose to someday leave their position― once their soul has been completely cleansed― they would then be given the choice of either ascending or remaining under Lord Death’s employment should they wish to do so.

Sixteen Forty-Nine had been a special case, because of the very fact that he had been the youngest soul to have ever changed into a reaper. And as such there were many that had been opposed to even considering training him as a reaper, doubting his ability to carry the many duties that came with being a grim reaper. Because of the controversy that surrounded his existence, Lord Death had been left with no choice but to place him in the court system. Trained by various tutors who were meant to assess his capabilities and teach him the basic knowledge needed to survive the court system, Sixteen Forty-nine spent a good hundred years working as both an accountant and adviser to Lord Death’s treasury.

Looking back on those days, he couldn’t help but feel sick to his stomach. Every day having to deal with high level officials, cooped up inside the castle walls without being able to so much as catch a break. It was nothing less than complete and utter agony. Which is why after a century of swallowing every single complaint that constantly threatened to spill from his mouth, he finally couldn’t take it anymore and burst into Lord Death’s office one day. Practically begging him on his knees, Sixteen Forty-nine requested to be released of his duties and allowed to apply into one of the twenty-three sectors.

Hell, at the time he didn’t even care about the ethicalities of getting in through personal connections. All he knew was that he sure as hell didn’t want to spend another day rotting in that accursed castle.

And yet now it was Lord Death himself who had given him an ultimatum. Even though Sixteen Forty-nine had been so certain of the fact that he would be able to prove everyone wrong about his capabilities, he had failed to do so and only managed to prove them right.

That alone in itself was disheartening. He had really screwed up this time. Sure, he had admittedly been slacking quite a bit but who’d of thought it was enough to catch Lord Death’s attention.

4:43 pm.

It was time. Sixteen Forty-nine sighed in dismay as he walked up behind a young woman and her son. Rubbing the exhaustion out of his blurry eyes, he swung his scythe down with full force. The clashing sound of metal upon metal invaded his ears, as his weapon broke the chains that bound the soul to its body. Now all that was left to do was wait. Closing his eyes for a second, he let the sun’s rays shine down on his face until he could hear the screeching sound of an automobile that should have crashed into the child’s body by then.

The young reaper took the time to stretch out his tense back muscles before recollecting himself and setting out again.

Making his way through the crowd of humans, Sixteen Forty-nine began to search for the boy’s corpse. As he approached the dead surrounded by throngs of people, he took note of a young female’s wandering soul. He couldn’t help but feel sorry for her and wonder where her grim reaper was. Who the hell is irresponsible enough to disappear while reaping a soul? The poor girl looked like she still hadn’t quite realized that she had already kicked the bucket―not that it was his any of business anyhow.

Still not catching sight of the boy’s corpse, Sixteen Forty-nine frowned as he began to wonder just how far his dead body had flown.

An uncomfortable feeling settled in his bones. Unnerved he scrunched his eyebrows before allowing his eyes to roam amongst the crowd of the living before finding his target.

His mind blanked for a second as he stared straight towards a little boy holding a pink bouncy ball― looking as alive as the day he was born.

He then slowly turned his head to look back at the wandering soul he had just been pitying not even a mere few seconds ago. Looking down at the dead corpse lying at his feet once more, his eyes shot back up towards the dead woman’s spirit as a horrifying realization dawned upon him.

Oh shit.

For the second time that day, grim reaper Sixteen Forty-Nine of the twenty-third sector, realized that he had most definitely, really screwed up this time.

“Well this is awkward...Ha-ha well I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but uh, h-how do I say this nicely? Congratulations! You’re... dead? Or wait... in this case would it be my condolences?” he blurted out before he could stop himself.

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