It was the middle of the night when I walked out. The trees were mostly leafless in this area, which made sense seeing how desiccated the land was around me. My feet probably would’ve been crispy if I hadn’t been wearing boots.
I turned back to look at the building as Mitzy came out and stood beside me. Her paws didn’t seem to be bothering her, so maybe the crispy-feet thing wouldn’t have happened after all. Maybe dogs had leathery soles? Nah, that couldn’t be it. I’d seen lots of humans walking their dogs on burning-hot asphalt and the dogs had definitely suffered. Honestly, every time I saw an idiot do that to their dog, I wanted to grab the bastard and press their face on the asphalt for a solid minute until they got the idea of exactly how hot it was.
Okay, I guess I really do have a thing for animals.
I turned my attention back to the task at hand.
The monastery was actually quite beautiful, as far as monasteries went. It was old. Ancient. The stonework had clearly been done by people who knew what they were doing, and the stained glass was actually quite nice. Being that I found stained glass to be mostly creepy, that was saying something.
It kind of pained me to have to burn the place to the ground.
There was no choice, though.
When soul eaters fully took over a church, that church was forever tainted. Actually, any building was, but people rarely gathered at regular buildings and let themselves open up mentally to stuff. Churches were the perfect vehicle for the lesser gods to play naughty games in, especially those involving the use of soul eaters. If this place was cleaned up and grew a congregation, those people would slowly be infected until they became soul eaters, too. Then the cycle would begin again.
That wasn’t always the case, specifically when it came to newly-tainted churches. If I got there in time, I could technically cleanse the joint.
Sadly, it was too late for this church. Every fiber of it had been infected. I could see it in the walls. Even the smallest remnant of a building this impacted by the stench of soul eaters could spawn a whole new branch of the pricks.
This place had to go.
On the plus side, we were way out in the middle of nowhere, so it was unlikely that anyone would see it burning.
I would love to say it wasn’t necessary to do it at all, but I’d just wiped out a buttload of soul eaters, proving it’d been found once. On top of that, Perses knew where it was. He could easily tweak the thoughts of normals here and there, coaxing them to explore the woods until they found it.
Besides, if history had taught me anything, people loved searching for places like this. They just rarely knew what they were getting into by doing so. Taking out the magic eye from a mummy during an archaeological dig may seem like a good idea at the time. It’s totally not.
“It’s a shame to have to torch the church, eh Mitz?” I asked, glancing down at her.
She just kept panting.
“Well, we’d better back up,” I added, walking away from the building as I began to prepare to unleash hell on it. “This is going to be really hot. We don’t want to be standing next to it when it goes up. You especially, with all that fur and lack of immortality. You’d have a very bad night indeed.”
She wagged her tail, which I assumed meant she’d understood what I said. Then again, maybe not.
I didn’t know much about dogs, except that I liked them. I did know a lot about the werewolf, werebear, and so on, but that was different. Regardless, I’d seen enough interaction between dogs and cats with their humans to know the better side of the relationship. Dogs loved to follow humans around. Cats preferred to be served. It didn’t take a specialist to see that dynamic in action.
I took one last look around to make sure we were in the clear before I raised a hand and launched a bolt up into the air.
It looked somewhat like a basketball made of energy, and my shot was perfect. The arc tipped at the apex, causing it to drop straight at the top point of the building.
There wasn’t a loud explosion, but the place collapsed in on itself as if a giant foot had stepped on it. An instant later, energy rocketed up into the night sky, reaching just above the tree line, before falling back down and overwhelming the collapsed stonework with heat.
That’s when the flames began.
They weren’t normal flames. These were of the magical sort. They were the kind that burned far hotter than any normal fire could possibly manage.
We stood there watching the beauty of fire until I felt a shift in the air. Mitzy must’ve felt it, too, because she took off into the woods at high speed.
I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was somewhat disappointed at that. She seemed like a good doggy. No, she wasn’t mine, but considering her owner had been wasted by a soul eater, I thought maybe she’d like to hang out with me for a bit, just long enough for me to take her someplace where she could find happiness.
At the same time, I couldn’t blame her for running off. Charon had arrived and it was a rare person—or animal—who didn’t fear the reaper.
I gave him a quick look. He was wearing a black robe with a hood that partially covered his face. And, no, he wasn’t a super-tall, lanky skeleton carrying a scythe. Okay, he was kind of lanky. He stood about my height, but he wasn’t a skeleton. I don’t know how that perception of him got started. Actually, if you happened to see Charon walking down the street in normal, everyday garb, you’d likely just assume he was a young man in his senior year of college. Frat-boy type? Maybe a bit, especially since I knew he wore khakis and polo shirts under that robe. He also kept his hair neatly trimmed, and I imagined it’d take him years to grow any proper facial hair. So, yeah, frat boy was probably apropos.
I went back to searching for Mitzy, but she appeared to be gone. It wasn’t exactly a dense forest, but there were plenty of shrubs and such that she could’ve used for cover, assuming she hadn’t just completely fled the area.
“Looks like you’ve wiped out a bunch of people tonight, Grave,” Charon said.
“Yeah,” I replied somewhat absently. “A job’s a job, you know?”
“I do,” he sighed.
Charon was always bumming about his gig. Seemed like a cushy setup to me, but I suppose incessantly bringing people over a river could become tedious. It certainly wasn’t as fun as being the reason Charon had to ferry people across the river.
“Was a pretty church,” I said, returning my eyes to the burning building.
“I’m assuming you killed everyone in there before burning the place down?”
“Think so,” I said, scratching my beard. Finding another piece of flesh, I pulled it free and flicked it into the fire. “If not, they’re dead now.”
“We still on for poker Saturday night?”
“As long as Ditē isn’t going to be there,” Charon replied. “Playing strip poker with six guys and a chick—who never loses, mind you—isn’t exactly my idea of fun.”
“So you’d rather play strip poker with just the six guys?”
He gave me a look, knowing I was messing with him. “Har har.”
I laughed and pulled out a bag of marshmallows as I fished around on the ground for a long stick. You should never go to a church full of soul eaters without bringing a bag of marshmallows. You damn near always had to burn down the church, so having a tasty treat while waiting for it to drop to nothing but ashes was simply smart thinking.
“You gotta lighten up, man,” I said, scraping the bark away from the stick. I then slid a few marshmallows onto it and handed it to Charon. “Want some?”
“No,” he replied dryly. “Trying to watch my figure.”
I walked over and began roasting the yummy sugar treats, getting them nice and crispy. It only took a few seconds because the heat was so intense.
“Whew,” I said, stepping back. “Magic fire is nuts.”
“Tell me about it,” Charon said with a sigh. “I have to go in there and collect the souls before they catch up with what’s happened and try to escape.”
“Oh, yeah,” I replied, feeling a bit guilty. “I always forget about that.” The marshmallow burned my lip. Not fun. “Listen, how about next time you get to one of my little showdowns before I burn the building?”
Charon just gave me a look.
In response, he shook his head and walked into the ever-melting building.
I moved over to the graveyard and took a seat on one of the lower headstones. It was kind of comfy, actually, especially with the darkness of the night mixed with the glow of the burning church. The tasty snack I was having wasn’t bad either.
Leaves rustled behind me. I turned to find Mitzy standing not too far away.
“Hey, girl,” I said, grinning. “I was hoping you’d come back. This forest isn’t exactly the best place for a lone dog…I think.”
I reached out, offering her a marshmallow. She padded over, took a sniff, but she turned away.
“Not a fan, eh?” I shrugged. “More for me.”
It seemed she hadn’t turned away from me because of the mallow, though. She was staring intently into the woods, and there was a low growl coming from deep in her throat. Then, just like that, she spun and took off again.
“One of the souls got loose,” Charon said a few seconds later, causing me to jump.
I turned to look back for Mitzy, but she was already gone.
“Damn it,” I hissed.
“Yes, I hate it when the souls escape,” he groaned. “It goes on my permanent record.”
“No, I was talking about my dog.”
Charon tilted his head at me.
“You have a dog?”
“You didn’t see her? She was just here.”
“Uh huh. What’s in those marshmallows, Grave?”
I frowned at him. “You’re supposed to know where all the souls are, right? I mean, that is your job, isn’t it?”
“Disembodied souls at the scene of their death, Grave,” Charon corrected me. “Well, I can get them if they’re really close by. You know that, too.”
“Oh, right.” I got up and scanned the woods. “Damn, she sure is fast.”
“My dog,” I replied. “Were you not just participating in this conversation, dude?”
“I’m more worried about the soul that escaped, Grave,” he answered back. “It was a powerful one.”
“Let me guess,” I said, wiping my hands on my coat. “Dirgen?”
Charon nodded. “I’m assuming he was the leader of these people?”
“Yep. Not much of a fighter, though. More of a douchebag.”
“They’re usually worse than the good fighters.”
That was true. In fact, in all my years doing this job, I’d rarely run into a bad guy fighter who was as sinister as a bad guy non-fighter. Oh sure, there were fighters who could be downright terrible, but the combination still wasn’t as bad as a wuss who couldn’t fight at all. It was like they had a chip on their shoulder over the fact that they were born weak, and they wanted anyone and everyone to suffer as much as possible.
“Remember Earl the Red?” I asked. “That guy was as scrawny as a single testicle on a ninety-year-old man. He was a real piece of shit.”
Charon grunted. “Killed over ten thousand people and never once lifted a sword himself. Very few times in history have I had to request a fleet of boats and part-time employees.”
“You should have that anyway,” I pointed out. “You work too much as it is.”
“And you don’t?” he countered. “I believe you’ve given me more souls to collect than damn near anybody.”
I wagged a finger at him. “True, but keep in mind that I’ve been at this job for nearly as long as you’ve been at yours. I’m not some one-hit wonder who just wipes out an assload of people over a few years.”
“No, you’ve done it over thousands of years.”
At least we agreed on that.
It was cool, though. I knew he wasn’t giving me shit for doing my job. There were times when he disagreed with my work, but there wasn’t much he—or anyone—could say about it. It was literally what I was created to do, and I only did it to stop assholes who were killing innocents or converting innocents to kill other innocents.
Just as Charon’s work was honorable, so was mine.
He was merely jealous because I enjoyed my job, where he mostly despised his. But this wasn’t the time to get into a long discussion with him about it.
Dirgs had gotten loose, and that meant I needed to get him back.
“I still find it weird that you can’t track down a soul wherever it is,” I said, stretching and cracking my neck. “Seems like a logical thing for someone in your position. Track ’em down and drag ’em over the river.”
“How many times…” He took in a deep breath and let it out. “I can’t force anyone to cross the river, Grave, and you know it. I can’t even get some people to shift into the domain of death.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” I said, waving him quiet. “Ghosts, hauntings, blah blah blah.”
He thinned his lips at me. “Most people naturally follow me and get in the boat, and that includes the bad guys. It’s why I try to get to them quickly. They’re usually in a daze when they die, which means they don’t fight me. Others, though, not so much.” He glanced back at the church. “Sometimes I’m just not fast enough.” Charon rubbed the back of his neck. “Still, it seemed like this guy got out a little quicker than usual.”
“You need help,” I pointed out, yet again. “I’ve told you that a million times, but you never listen.”
“And you don’t need help?”
“Everyone says I do.”
“I don’t mean mental—but, yeah, that too. I mean you need a small army with all the missions the gods send you on.”
He wasn’t wrong. When I’d first started this gig, things were nuts. I’d worked around the clock assassinating people and such. It’d been a real trial by fire, but in a good way. Then things kind of went slack for a thousand years. I still had missions, but they were more of the once-a-month type. Sometimes I even went many months before anything turned up. Lately, though, it’d been getting back to a monthly gig. Not that I was complaining. As I said, I liked my job.
“Oh, I’m sure I could use a hand now and then,” I admitted, finally, “but then I’d have to split my kills, and that’d be hard to take, dude.”
He frowned and I grinned.
“By way of example, I’m gonna go out into the woods here and see if I can hunt down that ghostly soul eater,” I said, patting Charon on the shoulder. “Try to be a little quicker when I kill him this time, will ya?”
“He’s already dead, Grave.”
“Then you should be able to track him.”
Charon nodded, but he slowly glanced out at the trees. “Not if he’s being protected, hidden, or both.”
That’d be something Perses could do, of course.
“Only until he takes over some unsuspecting normal, right?” I stared off into the woods. “Probably too far gone anyway, but maybe I can catch his trail.” It was doubtful, but I didn’t have much to lose. “Later, dude,” I called back, giving Charon a quick wave.
“Yeah,” he replied with another sigh. “Later.”
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