London, 2209 – 276 Years Before Impact Day
“So, how does this work?” Roxie asked, her gaze sweeping the clearing. She couldn’t see a single visible way out.
“Like this,” Felix said, pressing his palm against the air in front of him. The air shimmered and rippled, and faded to reveal a doorway. “Shall we?”
“You just, make a hole in space, and we walk through it?”
“Fair enough,” she said, shrugging.
They walked through together, finding themselves on a quiet, familiar street. Roxie looked around, nostalgia warring with a creeping sense of dread.
“This is home.”
“Feels like… about a month,” Felix said. “Since you died. This isn’t your home anymore, Roxie.”
“It’s quiet. And it feels…”
“There’s a lot of death here. Hundreds of thousands in the last month. It’s not usually like this,” Felix said.
“What happened?” she asked, her skin crawling.
“The Outbreak,” he answered, as they started to walk again. “A weaponised virus. Sooner or later it takes over the whole planet. Turns almost everyone into, well, something else. Violent, dangerous, unstable. Those who survive…” He let out a heavy sigh. “You’re gonna come back here a lot, Roxie.”
“Did you know? When you came for me, did you know what was going to happen?”
He didn’t answer her. They walked in silence, and all around them, she could see the signs of a world descending into chaos. Buildings burned, bodies lay strewn across the streets, blood splattered every surface.
She couldn’t even begin to imagine what could have caused something like this. A weaponised virus? Someone had done this intentionally? Why? To what end?
Felix led her into a building, passing right through the door. Roxie tried to follow, but found the door as solid as if she were alive. Felix stuck his head through the door.
“Right. Next lesson. Physical objects only exist if you want them to.”
“Act like the door isn’t there, and walk through it,” he said, disappearing back inside.
“Fucker,” she muttered.
Alright, just act like the door isn’t there, she repeated to herself. That’s fine. You can do this. It’s not like walking into it would hurt you.
She walked forward with purpose, and was pleasantly surprised when the door offered no resistance. It might as well not have been there.
Weird. But kind of cool.
He led them upstairs, stopping in front of an apartment door. She noticed the lack of blood and bodies. Maybe the violence outside hadn’t made its way in here yet? So then, what were they doing here?
“This is the part that sucks,” he said, resting a hand on the door, not passing through. “Just remember, there’s nothing we can do, nothing we can change. All we do is perform a function.”
“Oliver White,” she said, unprompted. “Why did that name just pop into my head?”
“That’s our soul,” he said.
They passed through the door, into a small apartment. An older man was standing at the window, staring down at the street below. Roxie flinched when he turned around, but his gaze passed right through them.
“He can’t see us?”
“It’s pretty uncommon for people to see us before they die,” Felix explained.
“I saw you.”
“Your business continued after dying,” he said.
The two of them watched as Oliver opened a cupboard, stoic resolution plastered across his face. His fingers trembled as he pulled down a cereal box, and extracted a pistol from it.
“Oh, fuck,” Roxie said.
“We can’t do anything,” Felix reminded her.
His hand found hers and squeezed. Oliver sat on his couch, jaw clenched, hand shaking almost too much to press the gun up into his chin. Roxie could barely maintain her gaze, but it felt disrespectful to look away, somehow.
He pulled the trigger, the gun went off, a bang echoed through the room. His body slumped backwards, and a copy of him shimmered into existence, standing over him.
“What happened?” he asked.
Roxie glanced at Felix, who just inclined his head towards Oliver. Taking the hint, she took a step forwards.
“You’re dead,” she said gently.
“We’re here to help you move on,” she said, feeling the throbbing of her core, ready to summon her blade.
“I don’t want to move on,” he said. “I just want it all to be over.”
“I can do that, too,” she lied. “Just tell me you’re ready to go.”
He glanced down at his body, seemingly oblivious to the fact that it was him. Without any trace of emotion, he looked back over at her, and nodded.
With a flick of her wrist, she summoned her scythe. It materialised in her hand, growing out from her palm.
She didn’t need Felix to explain the process. She just knew, and with a single swipe, she sliced right through Oliver, who winked out of existence, a small spark of energy added to her own.
“He’s inside me,” she said.
“Now we take him home,” Felix told her.
Without needing to be told, she pressed her palm against the air in front of her, thinking about Hell. The space in front of her shimmered and vanished, a portal back to Hell. She stepped through, and Felix followed.
As she passed through, the spark escaped, dissipating into the air. Her instincts told her that was normal, that was okay. That was the Process. Felix nodded at her, confirming her assumptions.
They were back in the clearing, quiet and peaceful. It had changed, though. Rather than feeling like spring, it felt like autumn. All of the trees were orange and red, their leaves scattered across the ground. The sky was a hazy greenish-orange, with no visible source of light.
“So now what?” she asked. “Is there anything between collecting souls?”
“Plenty,” he said. “Once you’ve finished your training.”
She sighed, but nodded, and pressed her palm against the air again. Somehow, she knew where to go. Together, they passed through the portal, into somewhere new.
Italy, 1599 – 416 Years Before Impact Day
The air was thick, a black haze that took Roxie too long to identify. Smoke. They were far from any buildings, though in the distance she could see a small village, with very old-fashioned buildings. European architecture, but that was as far as she could identify it.
A crowd of people had gathered around a fire, dressed in dark clothing, voices murmuring. Roxie and Felix wandered through them, completely unnoticed. An uncomfortable stench permeated the air, and Roxie found herself grateful she didn’t need to breath. Inhaling that would have been unbearable. She didn’t know how the crowd could stand that.
When she reached the fire, she felt all of the strength go out of her. It shouldn’t have surprised her, given the apparent time period and their reason for being there, but she wasn’t prepared. Her gut turned over, and she felt like she was going to be sick.
In the middle of the fire was a single pole, and tied to the pole, the blackening body of a young woman, probably not even out of her teenage years. Renata. The girl she was here to collect.
A witch burning? Why? Why did she have to be here? To witness this?
She forced herself to look at the girl, screaming and writhing, struggling against her bonds as her skin blistered and bubbled. Even through the smoke, she recognised the face.
“Wait, this is…”
“Yeah, it’s her,” Felix confirmed, his shoulders slumping.
“But how? She’s already…”
It didn’t make since. She couldn’t wrap her head around it. How could she be collecting the soul of somebody already dead? Somebody she’d spoken to, who had been her guide?
“Time works differently for us,” Felix reminded her. “And especially for her.”
“She’s… special, I think,” Felix said. “I don’t know the specifics.”
Best not to think about it. Just do your job. Don’t think about it.
“So how does this work?”
“Same as any other,” Felix said gently.
“Roxie, do not give anything away,” he cautioned.
“Fine,” she said. “You handle this. It’s too weird for me.”
“Not this time,” he said sadly.
“I can’t. I just, it’s too weird.”
“You don’t have a choice.”
“Ugh,” she said.
She couldn’t look at the girl any longer. Instead, she stared at the crowd, wondering how they could be so passionate, so angry, so full of hate. How could they watch this at all? How could they allow it to happen?
When the screaming finally stopped, she let herself look again. The body continued to burn, but the girl’s spirit stood beside the fire, staring up at it. Felix nudged her forwards.
“Uh, hey,” Roxie said.
“Who are you?” the girl demanded, turning around. It surprised Roxie to realise they were both speaking Italian. She didn’t even understand Italian. Or, she hadn’t. Apparently she did now.
“Uh. Roxie,” she said. “You’re-”
“Renata,” the girl said.
“Right. I guess so.”
“Are you angels?” Renata asked, tilting her head.
“Then you can piss off.”
“Excuse me?” Roxie asked, wondering if there was something missing in the translation. How did that even work, anyway?
“I’ve no interest in Heaven,” Renata said coldly. “Goodbye.”
What the Hell is with this girl?
“You don’t just-”
“Look,” Renata interrupted. “I practiced witchcraft. I fell in love with a woman. A demon. You have to send me to Hell.”
“Please. I don’t know what else to do.”
She seemed scared, vulnerable. At the same time, there was a fierce determination in her eyes, and Roxie was completely at a loss.
“You want to go to Hell?”
“It’s the only way to see her again,” Renata said.
“Well, this just keeps getting weirder,” Roxie muttered. “Fine, have it your way. Hell it is.”
It’s where you were going anyway, you know.
Roxie reached out her arm, summoning the scythe. Renata watched, fascinated.
“Don’t move. I promise this part doesn’t hurt.”
“I wouldn’t care if it did,” Renata scoffed. “I just got burned to death, remember?”
At that point, Felix stepped in, placing a hand on Roxie’s shoulder. “You shouldn’t remember that pain,” he told Renata.
“Well, I do,” she said irritably.
“Not for long,” Roxie said, shrugging off Felix’s hand.
“Roxie, wait-” Felix called out, but it was too late. She swung the scythe, feeling it connect with Renata’s soul, but it didn’t pass through. Rather, it bounced off, as it if it had hit another blade. Roxie recoiled, feeling the impact all the way up her arm.
“What the shit?”
“What are you?” Felix demanded, stepping between Roxie and Renata.
“What?” the girl asked, clearly confused.
“What just happened?” Roxie asked, holding her aching arm.
“She’s still tethered,” Felix said.
“And that means…?”
“She broke off a piece of her soul,” he explained. “We can’t touch her. It’s… It’s magic, incredibly complex witchcraft.”
Renata baulked, staring back at her body. Tears were welling in her eyes.
“But that’s not what I wanted! I just, I wanted a way back, in case…” She trailed off, but the rest of the sentence was clear enough to Roxie.
“So what do we do now?” she asked Felix.
“We open a door,” he said. “She can still go, but she has to choose it.”
“Gladly,” Renata said instantly.
“So you really were weird from the start, huh,” Roxie said, appraising Renata, wondering how one went from that to the person she’d met before.
“Nothing,” Roxie said. “Let’s go, kid.”
“Right,” Renata agreed. “Let’s go.” Her eyes scanned the crowed, locating a younger girl with a passing resemblance. The only person in the crowd who seemed to be genuinely upset at Renata’s fate. “Goodbye, Annabelle,” she whispered.
For just a second, Roxie could have sworn she saw the girl smile.
Next Week: What Death Fears