It was impossible to tell how much time had passed. She woke suddenly, almost forcefully, startled by her new surroundings. It certainly wasn’t the street she’d been stabbed to… death? Life? Re-death? Something, on.
“What the…” she muttered, looking around.
So far as she could tell, she was in her own bed, in her cheap, run-down apartment. The same worn posters adorned the walls, barely concealing the same cracks. The same street was visible out the window. The same bedcovers wrapped her up.
It didn’t feel the same, though. Instinctively, part of her knew it wasn’t really home. She wasn’t even certain it was real.
Well, she was dead. Presumably, that made this the afterlife.
“Man, the afterlife sucks,” she complained aloud. “Can’t even get a fancy mansion or anything?”
To her surprise, someone replied. A quiet, restrained voice that somehow communicated an inordinate level of power.
“It’s constructed from your memories,” the voice explained. “You wouldn’t get a mansion unless you were familiar with one.”
Roxie looked around, trying to locate the source of the voice. Someone was standing in the doorway, leaning against the frame. She could have sworn there was no-one there a second ago.
She took in the mystery figure. A young woman, similar in age to herself, maybe younger. Pale, porcelain skin that contrasted sharply with long, black hair and surprisingly gentle brown eyes. The woman wore an elaborate, gothic black and red dress covered in lace and frills, mixed with a few more modern accessories, like striped gloves and heavy black boots.
“Who the Hell are you?” Roxie demanded, vaulting out of bed.
Roxie glared at her, then glanced out the window. Traffic wasn’t movie. What a cheap illusion. She couldn’t help but be underwhelmed by her first impressions of Hell.
“What a monumentally unhelpful answer,” she said.
“I am here to help,” Rebecca said, shrugging.
“I don’t know that I want help.”
She recalled Felix’s words, before he’d attacked her. They’d included processed and moving on. There was no way she was ready for that.
“Well, you need to be inducted sooner or later,” Rebecca said, seemingly unbothered by Roxie’s resistance.
“Inducted? What is this, some kind of a cult?” She shook her head, indicating it wasn’t a question in want of an answer. “You didn’t exactly give me a lot of time to get acclimatised.”
“We usually step in once someone realises they’re dead,” Rebecca explained. “For most people, that takes a lot longer.”
“Kinda hard to forget your own death.”
“Actually, you’re kind of the exception here. You’re supposed to forget. Trauma, and all that.”
There was a sort of mischievous undertone to Rebecca that Roxie couldn’t quite put her finger on, and didn’t quite understand. It wasn’t that Rebecca seemed at all dishonest, just… chaotic? Whatever it was, Roxie was amused to find it made her trust Rebecca more.
“Well, I can leave you alone if you want,” Rebecca said, “but you can’t leave this area. There’s nothing outside of it.”
Something about the mental image that conjured made Roxie laugh.
“What, Hell running out of real estate?”
“We’re not in Hell currently,” Rebecca said. “This is more like a waiting room.”
“Well, maybe I’ll wait a little longer.”
Rebecca turned to leave, a dignified elegance to her movements Roxie hadn’t expected. The girl’s fashion sense was so odd she’d half expected, well, something more eccentric.
It alarmed her to find herself experiencing a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach, watching Rebecca leave. The last thing she wanted was to be trapped in a fake replica of her crappy home indefinitely. Her bravado was waning, and she needed answers.
Rebecca turned, traces of a smug smile forming on her lips.
“Fill me in,” Roxie said, swallowing her pride. “What’s gonna happen?”
“Depends,” Rebecca replied, shrugging.
“Whether you want to hang on.”
“As opposed to what?” Roxie asked, a little frustrated. “Letting go? Moving on?”
She sighed. Talking to this girl was like pulling teeth.
“So I don’t have to move on?”
“You do not,” Rebecca said, the smile growing ever so slightly more smug.
“Then why would I?”
“Well, if you don’t move on, your other option is to live in Hell.”
There was always a catch.
“You either move on, or you become a demon,” Rebecca continued. The way she said it, she almost made it sound normal.
“I’m back in,” Roxie said, enjoying picturing herself as a demon, until she remembered what a demon actually was. “Uh, not so big on the whole evil thing, actually. How evil do I have to be, exactly?”
The level of smugness in Rebecca’s grin reached an almost infuriating level. Somehow, she managed to keep her tone completely neutral.
“It’s not like that,” she said.
“Then what is it like?” Roxie asked, wondering if she was going to have to play Twenty Questions every time she wanted a straight answer.
“Not like I’m going anywhere,” Roxie pointed out.
“Well, the short version is this. Become a demon, and you’re functionally immortal, but you generally can’t leave Hell.”
She latched onto the noncommittal language, firing up a spark of hope.
“There are always exceptions,” Rebecca said.
“Noted. Keep going.”
“Demons are… constructs, of mental and spiritual energy. They have a hierarchy. You start at the bottom, with no power. You pledge yourself to a stronger demon, they use your power to get stronger, they protect you. Eventually, weaker demons pledge themselves to you.”
“Does strength matter?” Roxie asked, wondering why Hell sounded so much like prison. Maybe that was a redundant question.
“It’s a demon-eat-demon world.”
“Not a strong sell,” Roxie confessed. “Talk to me about getting out.”
“There are a few ways. Weak links, passageways, portals back are rare, but they do exist. Not recommended. Most worlds have some form of demon hunters. Plus, the Reapers tend to shut you down pretty quick, and they’re much less kind to demons than the recently deceased.”
Once again, Roxie latched onto the one word that seemed out of place.
“Most worlds? Plural?”
“Yes,” Rebecca said, her tone suggesting that was all the information she was prepared to provide.
“Right. That’s that, then. Next.”
“Demons can be summoned. That’s kind of a lottery, unless someone’s trying to summon you specifically.”
“I’ve seen movies, that never goes well,” Roxie said, adding a shudder for dramatic effect. “Next.”
Rebecca’s eyes lit up.
“Live long enough, accrue enough power, and you can become a demon prince.”
That made Rebecca laugh.
“I guess you can be a princess if you want. People don’t generally talk back to demon princes.”
“Power. Freedom. A life of your own.”
The way she said it, there was a sense of warmth, familiarity. Was she…? What was she?
“Here to help,” Rebecca repeated, frustratingly vague. Roxie sighed.
“Right. Alright, let’s chart a course for demonic royalty, then.”
Rebecca grinned again, and offered Roxie her hand.
“Let’s go, then.”
Roxie reached out to take Rebecca’s hand, but was distracted by her stomach complaining. That sense of hunger hadn’t quite faded. If anything, it had grown stronger. She could honestly say she hadn’t expected ghosts to get hungry.
“Uh, can we grab food on the way?” she asked, pressing one hand against her stomach. “I am famished.”
Rebecca froze, staring at her with renewed intensity. All of a sudden, Roxie felt uncomfortably scrutinised. Her stomach growled again, and Rebecca seemed to glare at it.
“Food,” Roxie said, a little on edge. “Hungry. Do demons not eat?”
“They don’t get hungry,” Rebecca said.
“Well, I’m hungry.”
Rebecca stepped all the way into the room, closing the door behind her. It made the sound of a much heavier door slamming shut.
“Hurray for me,” Roxie muttered.
“Hold on,” Rebecca said, reaching into a pocket that Roxie was quite sure wasn’t there before. She pulled out a phone, an old-fashioned looking thing, and pressed her finger against the screen. After a moment’s pause, she pressed it to her ear. “Yo. Yeah, weird question. New soul. Says she’s hungry. Ya-huh. Got it. Thanks. Love ya. Bye.”
Rebecca smiled as she put the phone back into her pocket, the kind of smile that isn’t directed at anyone in the room. Roxie kept her eye on Rebecca’s hands, and sure enough, the pocket disappeared as soon as it wasn’t needed.
“Boyfriend?” she asked, hoping to get a reaction out of Rebecca. Rebecca burst out into hysterical laughter, nearly doubling over from the force of it. It took her several minutes to regain her composure.
“No, not, uh…” She cleared her throat. “It’s complicated.”
“Alright,” Roxie said, not interested enough to pry. “What’d they say, this mystery person?”
“How’d you die?” Rebecca asked.
Rebecca held her arm out, making a pose not unlike someone about to fire a gun. Roxie flinched, missing the moment where a gun actually materialised in Rebecca’s hands. It was a lot harder to miss Rebecca pulling the trigger, the boom of the gunshot, or the pain in her stomach.
“What the fuck?” she demanded, dropping to her knees and clutching her stomach.
“Focus on the pain,” Rebecca said, with the tone of a patient school teacher.
“Kind of hard not to.”
“Do you feel it?”
“Yes!” she shouted. The pain wasn’t spreading, but it wasn’t subsiding either. It was static, and unexpectedly consistent. Pain had always felt more elusive than this.
“Hold onto it,” Rebecca instructed.
“Visualise it, reach in and grab it.”
“You’re insane,” Roxie grumbled.
Rebecca rolled her eyes. “Here, let me.” She crouched beside Roxie, and gently, tenderly, reached out to hold Roxie’s hand. Roxie flinched, but didn’t resist as Rebecca guided her hand into her own chest, and somehow, through it.
It was a surreal experience, feeling her hand inside of herself. It was liking reaching into icy water, whilst simultaneously being injected with a burning liquid. There was nothing stopping her from reaching in further, and Rebecca’s hand continued to gently push.
Her fingers brushed up against something hard, the only solid part of the weird icy void her hand was in. Her first instinct was to recoil, but she fought the urge, wrapping her fingers around it.
It was… a hilt? She pulled at it, and it moved easily. In one quick movement, she pulled it out of her chest. All at once, the hunger subsided, and the pain stopped completely.
“What the fuck…” she murmured, staring at the silver hilt, unattached to any blade.
“Well, then,” Rebecca said, standing up and backing off.
“What? ‘Well, then’ what? What the Hell just happened?”
“That’s a piece of your soul,” Rebecca explained. “In the form of a blade.”
“You have the potential to be a Reaper, Roxie.”
Next Week: If You Can’t Beat Them, Join Them