It’s been one month, three days, and six hours since I last ‘got my gladiator on’ and battled in the Arena. Not that I’m obsessing or anything. Sure, I can sneak in and watch someone else fight, but that’s a snore.
I roll over on my dingy bed, scooch under the drab covers, and watch the gray drizzle outside my window. Mondays are the pits.
Mom’s voice echoes into my bedroom. “Time to get up! You don’t want to be late for school, do you, honey?”
I roll my eyes. Of course, I want to be late for school.
Raising my head, I open my mouth to say just that, and then decide against it. Instead, I bite my lower lip, yank the pillow over my head and groan. Loudly.
“Don’t make noises at me, young lady.” Mom rustles papers in the kitchen. “I’ve a letter right here. You’re on something called the Official Watch List for Unreasonable Tardiness.” Her footsteps echo down the hall and pause outside my room. “You’ll be suspended from high school at this rate. What do you think about that?”
I peep out from under my pillow. Mom looms in my doorway, her fist set on her hip. She’s a quasi-demon like me, so she resembles a lovely human with a curvy figure, amber skin, chocolate-brown eyes, and chestnut hair that falls in waves over her shoulders. All quasis have a tail; Mom and I both sport the long and pointed variety. The big differences between us are laugh lines, some grey hair and our opinion of what’s ‘dangerous’ for eighteen-year olds.
I fluff the pillow and slide it under my noggin. Being suspended means no school. Maybe even catching a few Arena matches on the sly. I wag my eyebrows. “And suspension would be bad because?”
“I’d make it that way.”
Ugh. She would, too.
Off go my covers. “This is me getting up.”
“Good.” Mom stomps away.
I shower, pull on some sweats, and sleepwalk into the kitchen, seeing the familiar lime-green appliances, mismatched furniture, and peeling linoleum tile. Everything looks peaceful, quiet, and empty. Another typical Monday morning before another average day at school. BO-ring. I’ll have to charm Walker into taking me to the Arena later. Until I’m called to fight again, it’s better than nothing.
A thick white envelope sits at the center of the kitchen table. I scoop up and read: “To the Quasi-Demon, Miss Myla Lewis, 666 Dante Row, Purgatory.” I lick my thumb and run it over the loopy calligraphy. Real ink. My long black tail flicks in a nervous rhythm.
Frowning, I tap the unopened letter against my palm. No one sends me fancy stuff like this. In a blur of motion, my tail darts across my torso, grips the envelope with its arrowhead-shaped end, and tries pulling it from my fingers.
“Hey now!” My tail’s always had a mind of its own. For some reason, it’s decided this letter is dangerous. I jerk the envelope out of reach, but not before one corner gets totally shredded. “Now, look what you did.” My tail slinks behind me to curl guiltily about my ankle.
I reread the outside of the letter. Nothing here to worry about. I am a quasi-demon (mostly human with a little demon DNA). I’ve spent all eighteen years of my life in Purgatory (where human souls get judged for Heaven or Hell, aka the most boring place in the history of ever). This letter’s like dozens of others that hit our doorstep each week. Why’s my tail on a mission to trash this thing?
I stare at the words again, feeling like they should read: “Open this to turn your life upside-down and your heart into mush.”
Clearly, I’m having an off-morning.
I slip the envelope-slash-time-bomb into my mangy backpack. I’ll read it later at school.
Mom steps into the kitchen. “How’s my sweet baby, Myla-la?” Yes, I’m eighteen years old and Mom still uses pet names from when I was three.
“I’m good.” I open a cabinet and pull down a box of Frankenberry cereal.
Mom eyes my every movement, her forehead creasing with worry.
“Did you sleep well last night, Myla?”
Oh, no. Here it comes. I square my shoulders and mentally prepare my ‘I’m so very-very caaaaaaalm’ voice. “Absolutely.” Nailed it.
“Any bad dreams?”
“Nope.” The ‘calm voice’ isn’t working so well this time.
“Hmm.” She taps her cheek. “Met anyone lately? Made any new friends?”
I grit my teeth. All my mornings start off with maternal interrogations like this one. I find it’s best to give soothing, one-word answers. “Negative.”
“No friends at all?”
“Only the same one since first grade.” I raise my spoon for emphasis. “Cissy.”
“That’s good.” She offers me a shaky grin. “You’re safe.”
I shoot her a hearty thumbs-up. Today’s cross-examination ended relatively quickly; maybe Mom’s getting less overprotective. A grin tugs at the corner of my mouth.
“More than safe.” I speed-chop the air, karate-style. “I’m a lean, mean, Arena-fighting machine.” Wincing, I freeze mid-chop. How could I be so dumb? Mom loses her freaking mind whenever I say the word ‘Arena.’
There’s a pause that lasts a million years while Mom stares at me, her face unreadable. Finally, she moves. But, instead of jumping around in hysterics, she flips about and rifles through cabinets in search of a coffee mug.
Wait a second.
This morning Mom cut her interrogation short and she didn’t panic when I said the word ‘Arena.’ I wind my lips into an even-wider grin. Sweeeet. Things could be changing, after all.
Leaning back in my chair, I watch Mom pour coffee. I know she goes overboard because it’s just me, her, and this nasty gray ranch house. I have no brothers, sisters, or straight answers about who my father is, except that he’s some kind of diplomat. Add it all up and Mom’s a wee bit clingy.
Or, at least, she used to be. I drum my fingers on the Formica. A less overprotective Mom opens up all sorts of possibilities. I could watch more matches. I could fight in more matches. I could develop interests in things other than the Arena.
Eh, maybe it’s a ‘no’ on that last thing.
Mom slides into the chair across from mine, her large brown eyes watching me through the wisps of steam curling from her mug. “Want a ride to school today? I don’t mind waiting outside the door.” A muscle twitches at the corner of her eye. “You know, in case anything happens.”
My heart sinks to my toes. Then again, maybe Mom’s worse than ever.
“Uhhhh.” My mouth falls so far open, some Frankenberry rolls off my tongue and onto the tabletop. Did she really offer to stand outside school all day long ‘in case anything happens?’ Cissy told me how parents get extra-twitchy during senior year. A shiver rattles my spine. My Mom plus ‘extra-twitchy’ equals a huge nightmare.
I force a few deep breaths. “Thanks for the offer.” It’s getting really hard to keep my ‘calm voice’ handy. “I’ll pass this time.”
Suddenly, the air crackles with energy. A black hole seven feet high and four feet wide appears in the center of the kitchen.
Out of the void steps a ghoul.
My fingers twiddle in his direction. “Hey, Walker.” Technically, he’s named WKR-7, but I’ve called him Walker for as long as I can remember.
“Good morning.” Walker nods his skull-like head. If he were a few inches taller, the movement would knock his cranium through ceiling, and he’s on the short side for a ghoul. It’s a mystery how Walker and the rest of the undeadlies handle an eternity of being so crazy-tall.
Walker pulls back his low-hanging hood, showing pale, almost colorless skin and a strong bone structure. He sports the same hairstyle from the day he died: a brush cut with sideburns and no beard. Great black eyes peep at me from deep sockets.
I grin. It’s nice to have Walker around. Most ghouls are obsessed with rules and act irritating as Hell. But Walker? He pushes boundaries like a pro, especially when it comes to sneaking me into the Arena. Having him around is like having a cute and somewhat sneaky older brother, only one without a pulse.
“Be careful, Myla.” Walker’s thin lips droop into a frown. “That’s no way to greet your overlords. I don’t mind, but other ghouls could send you to a re-education camp.”
I roll my eyes. Purgatory is one massive bureaucracy with the charm of suburbia and the fun of a minimum-security prison. All the work’s done by unpaid quasis like me (we’re not allowed to call ourselves ‘prisoners’). Ghouls keep us in line and make sure we’re–cough, cough–super happy in our service.
I’m ready to complain about all this to Walker for the millionth time when Mom pipes into the conversation.
“Greetings, my beloved overlord.” She’s laying it on thick to make up for my sloppy hello. “Want some decaf?” She bows.
Walker nods; ghouls love java.
Mom picks up one of Walker’s loopy sleeves, rubbing the fabric between her fingertips. “This is a little threadbare. Are you here for a new one?” All quasis must perform a service; Mom sews and mends robes. It could be worse. My friend Cissy’s mom is a ghoul proctologist.
“No, thank you.” Walker eyes the coffee pot greedily.
Mom hands him a full mug marked ‘Afterlife’s Greatest Ghoul.’ Her chocolate eyes nervously scan his face. “What service do you require then?”
Walker frowns. “Myla must battle in the Arena today.”
A huge grin spreads across my face. When human souls reach Purgatory, they’re given a choice: trial by jury, or trial by combat. Based on the result, they end up either happily floating around Heaven or having their souls consumed in Hell. If the human selects a trial by jury, then it’s someone else’s problem. But if they choose combat–and the combatant in question is totally evil–then someone like Walker ends up in the kitchen of someone like me. I’m one of a few dozen quasis who kick butt. Literally.
I jump to my feet and clear off my bowl. “Now, this is what I call a Happy Monday.”
Mom steps back. “You’re sending Myla off to fight today? You can’t.” She leans against the countertop for support. “Every time she goes, she risks her life.” A muscle twitches by her mouth. “Those battles are to the death.”
I stifle a moan. Mom always focuses on the whole ‘to the death’ thing like it’s the first time she’s learned how matches work. Hell, I’ve battled in the Arena since I was twelve and have yet to get a scratch. You’d think the drama would tone down over the years.
Panting, Mom points to a tattered calendar by the door. “My little one fought a month ago. She serves once every three months, right?”
I raise my hand. “It’s not a problem. I’m up for this. Totally.”
Mom flashes me a desperate look. “I know that.” She grips the countertop like she’ll pull it out of the wall. “Please, Walker, tell me it’s a mistake.”
Walker’s black eyes fill with understanding. “Myla must serve today. There’s a spike in Arena matches; all fighters have extra battles.”
Mom stares at Walker, her jaw grinding out silent rebuttals. After a few moments, she presses her palms to her face, a low sigh escaping her lips. I frown. She’s hitting a new level of drama this morning.
Walker shoots me the barest wink. I fight the urge to smile, knowing it means one thing: there’s no across-the-boards spike in Arena matches. Purgatory must have an uber-evil soul on their hands, the worst of the absolute worst, and they need their best fighter on it.
That would be me.
Mom shakes her head from side to side. “All those demons and angels. Promise me, you’ll keep her away from ‘danger.’” She puts special emphasis on the word ‘danger.’
“I always do, Camilla.”
Mom releases her death-grip from the counter. “Of course.”
My back teeth lock. Mom’s always going on about protecting me from angels and demons. The demons I understand, but angels? Come on.
I zip up my gray hoodie. “Time to trash some evildoers.” Stepping to Walker’s side, I wait for transport to the Arena.
Mom’s hand lightly touches her throat. “Be safe!”
“I’ll be super-safe, don’t you worry.”
“And don’t be late for school.”
I slap on a smile. “On it, Mom.”
Walker bows his head. “Stand back, I’ll summon a portal.” A new black hole appears in the center of the kitchen. I glance into the darkness, feeling the Frankenberry in my belly come up for a repeat performance. Using a portal feels like tumbling through empty space with a killer case of the stomach flu. Helpful safety tip: hold a ghoul’s hand or you’ll fall forever.
Taking a deep breath, I grab Walker’s chilly fingers so tightly, I’d cut off his blood flow, if he had any. Together, we step into the portal, topple through nothingness, and walk out again onto the sandy earth of the Arena floor. I try my best to look ready-for-battle instead of ready-to-puke.
Walker offers me a sympathetic glance. “Shall we find a place to sit?”
“Nah, I’m fine, thanks.” I scan the open-air stadium around me. The Arena’s a nasty old ruin, all chipped gray rock and busted sandstone columns. How the place stays upright is a total mystery. The fighting floor is one huge uneven clod of dirt, the bleachers are basically rubble, and the entire top level looks ready to collapse.
I freaking love it here.
The stands lie open and empty, except for a few quasis. They’re all fighters like me, trying to catch someone else’s match. Mom used to attend too, but all the moaning and gasping got so out of hand, she was banned ages ago. I can’t say I was bummed. Nothing like having your Mom yell ‘Baby, don’t diiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiie’ when you’re twelve and fighting a demon for the first time.
A gravelly voice echoes through the air. “Greetings, slave.” The word ‘slave’ is said with particular venom.
Every muscle in my body goes on alert. I’d know that voice anywhere, and I absolutely loathe its owner. I scrape lint from under my fingernails and pretend not to notice the seven-foot tall ghoul looming behind me.
Walker steps between us. “Greetings, SKE-12.”
My mouth winds into a mischievous grin. “Hey, Sharkie.’” SKE-12 hates his nickname, so I work it into every encounter.
Sharkie frowns. “My name is SKE-12, slave.”
Walker sets his hand on my shoulder, gently guiding me so I stand face-to-navel with Sharkie, master of Arena ceremonies and all-around dickhead. He hasn’t changed a bit since my last match, not that ghouls often do. He’s gray-skinned with large coal-black eyes, a skull-like hole for a nose, and teeth that have been filed to tiny points. His long silver robes hang in tatters; a tall black staff is gripped in his bony hand.
Walker gives my shoulder a squeeze. “Myla was just about to greet her ghoul overlord properly, weren’t you, Myla?” Standing next to Sharkie, even Walker looks vertically challenged.
“My bad.” I bow extra-low. “Greetings, SKE-12.”
His buggy black eyes narrow into slits. Sharkie always knows when I’m making fun of him, and it drives him crazy. “I’ll have no mischief from you today.”
I bow again, even lower this time. “Yes, I’m fresh out.”
Sharkie turns to Walker, his black eyes flaring bright red. “Control her.” His gaze swings back to me. “We’ve an especially evil human soul fighting today. I hope to watch you die at last.”
I pick something off my molar with my pinky. “I’m sure you do.”
Sharkie steps closer, his pointy teeth click-clacking as he speaks. “The soul you fight today is so evil, the angels have begged the Great Scala to stand by, ready to transport him to Hell the moment he’s defeated. Which will never happen.” He leans in closer. “You. Are. Doomed.”
My brows pop up. Normally, the Scala migrates tons of souls at once in what’s called an iconigration. For this guy to get solo treatment, he must be a SUPER nasty. Fun. “Bring it on, Shar–.”
Walker grabs my elbow. “Look, Myla! Your friends are here!” He points across the stadium floor. “We must depart.” He bows once more to Sharkie. “Excuse us.” As we speed-walk away, Walker whispers in my ear. “If I weren’t already dead, I’d have had a heart attack just now.”
“Eh, Sharkie’s harmless.”
“Because I placate him for you.” He shoots me a sly look. “Why must you always taunt him?”
“Not sure.” I shrug. “It’s a hobby.” A few yards ahead stands a ghoul named XP-22, and a hovering green blob that’s Sheila, the Limus demon.
I shoot Sheila a friendly wave. “Hey Shiel, how are the kids?” Sheila’s nice, so long as you don’t stand close enough for her to swallow you whole. XP-22, on the other hand, is a total drip. I don’t even glance in his direction.
“The kids are good, Myla, getting bigger every day…Just like you.” Sheila’s entire body shivers, which is a little scary since she’s six feet tall, three feet wide, and has fourteen red eyes the size of tennis balls. “It seems like yesterday you were twelve and about to fight your first demon.” Her huge gaping mouth twists into a grin. “How old are you now, honey?”
A blob-like arm stretches out from Sheila’s side, lengthening into a gooey hand with eighteen long fingers. “Almost grown up! Have you been assigned your service yet?” ‘Assigning your service’ is ghoul-speak for locking a quasi into a life-long job after high school. We’re not allowed to call it ‘prison labor.’ I shiver. There are some mighty foul careers out there too, like the infamous anal probe development lab.
Before I can reply to Sheila’s question, Sharkie thumps his staff against the ground.
“Attention!” Sharkie raises his arms, his ragged gray robes swaying in slow, ghostly motions. Beneath his huge hood, his eyes shine as two points of red light.
Sheila waves her eighteen-fingered hand in my direction. “Well, what’ll your service be? Port-a-Potty Squad? Greeter at Ghoul-Mart?”
Pointing to Sharkie, I make a ‘sh’ face to Sheila. It’s rude to talk once the ceremony starts, plus I hate answering the whole ‘what’ll your service be’ question. Sheila nods and oozes away. Bonus.
THUD. THUD. THUD. THUD. Sharkie thumps his staff four more times. “I bring you the Oligarchy!”
Four ghouls in scarlet robes appear along the top tier of the stadium, one at each point of the compass. Called the Oligarchy, they rule Purgatory as one collective mind, and a not-so-creative mind too, based on how they name ghouls.
In one motion, the Oligarchy close their eyes, bow their gray heads, and open a series of massive portals around the lip of the stadium. Angels and demons appear in the dark openings, and then stream down the uneven stone steps in one great wave.
The angels take their seats in an orderly line, their bodies coming in many shapes, sizes and colors. All have massive white wings, floor-length linen robes, little open-toed sandals, and eyes that glow with an unearthly blue light. They can hide their wings if they want to, but they keep them out for important occasions, like watching Arena fights.
In other words, angels are cool.
On the other side of the stadium, the demons move in a frenzied pack, roaring in a mad rush for the best seats. Large, furry creatures stomp along next to small and slimy monsters. Tiny, spiked demons zoom above their heads. Eye color is all they share in common: black stands for ‘neutral’ while red means ‘run for the hills.’
As I watch them scramble over each other, my head shakes from side to side. Demons are cool too, but only when I get to kill them.
The lively hum of stadium chatter collapses into anxious silence.
She is coming.
I scan the top level of the Arena. The four great portals stand empty and dark. Acting in unison, the Oligarchy ghouls lower their heads. A low hum fills the air. Pale yellow light glimmers in the eastern portal; all eyes turn in that direction. A figure in white appears in the darkened entryway. My breath catches.
This is Verus, Queen of the Angels.
She stands willowy and tall with long black hair, high cheekbones, and exotic, almond-shaped eyes. She’s timeless, beautiful, and more than a little bit frightening. Sometimes she watches me so carefully during matches, it gives me the creeps.
Beside her stands a short-ish ghoul with a handsome face, square jaw, and large black eyes.
I elbow Walker in the ribs. “That guy could be your brother.”
He looks up, smiles. “You don’t say.”
“I did say.” I glance at him out of my right eye. “So, is he?”
“You know your mother doesn’t allow me to share personal information.” He shoots me a sympathetic smile. “Take it up with her later.” He clears his throat and rocks a bit on his heels. “When I’m not around, if you don’t mind.”
My ‘why don’t you tell me anything’ fights with Mom are nothing short of legend. I stick out my tongue at Walker. “Fine. I will.”
Verus steps onto her balcony, a small entourage behind her. As she slips into a white stone throne, the stadium’s silence is ripped apart by howls and screeches. A new outline appears in the western portal: Armageddon, the King of Hell. He’s tall and lanky with black onyx skin that’s smooth as polished stone. A blade-like nose divides his long face, ending in a pointed chin. He scans the stadium, his eyes blazing as two searing points of scarlet light. A shiny black tuxedo hugs his wiry frame.
Unholy Hell. Every nerve ending in my body goes on alert. While Verus is a wee bit scary, Armageddon gives off a ‘greater demon’ aura. If you get too close (which has happened to me more than once), every cell in your body shudders with terror. But that’s not what really gets me about the King of Hell. Most demons are short-term thinkers. They want to kill your body and eat your soul, end of story. Not Armageddon. He planned for years to take over both Hell and Purgatory. That kind of craftiness brings evil to a new level.
Armageddon saunters away from the portal, a large entourage of gorilla-like Manus demons behind him. The Oligarchy collapse onto their knees as he passes by, their movements reminding me of marionettes whose strings are cut. Their deep voices echo through the stadium. “We praise thee, Great King.” The ghouls may rule us in name, but everyone knows who really runs the show.
Without so much as a glance toward the Oligarchy, Armageddon speeds onto the balcony across from Verus, his entourage close behind him. The King of Hell slips into his own black stone throne.
Sharkie thumps his staff again. “Ghouls, demons, and angels!” The stadium falls silent.
I glance at my watch and grin. Right now, I should be in homeroom.
With a flourish of his bony arm, Sharkie gestures to the four scarlet-robed ghouls standing along the stadium’s top level. “Today, the Oligarchy bring you a spectacle of governing efficiency: an Arena battle to the death witnessed by the magnificent leader of our joint troops in the Ghoul Wars…The acclaimed liberator of all Purgatory…Armageddon!”
The demons positively lose their freaking minds in a deafening cheer. My upper lip twists. Screw Armageddon and his fake liberation of Purgatory. He handed us over to ghouls so we’d send more souls to Hell, pure and simple. It’s only when demon DNA mixes with a human that you get different powers. On their own, demons are mindless soul-munchers. My eyes flare red. I start to make a lewd hand gesture in Armageddon’s direction, but Walker snags my wrist before I get too far. He shoots me a stern look, mouthing the words ‘put a lid on it, Lewis.’
Nodding, I grip my hands behind my back. I’m enough of a warrior to know he’s right: taunting Armageddon is a B-A-D idea. I focus on the ground, force myself to breathe slowly, and try to keep my cool. My inner demon has a mind of its own with more than my tail. When my eyes flare red, it’s my demonic side getting rowdy. Sometimes, it’s a struggle to keep it in check.
From his great stone throne, Armageddon watches the frenzied demon crowd, his thin red lips curling upwards. He scans every face, soaking in each expression and nuance, weaving them all into some complex and dark plan.
I shiver. He’s being crafty again, and damn, that makes my skin crawl.
Raising his hand, Armageddon quiets the crowd. “Today’s soul was a favorite of mine on earth. Unbelievable strength. No capacity for conscience. Pure untainted evil. When he wins this battle—which he will, make no mistake—then we’ll finally have one of our own inside the gates of Heaven.” The dark seats howl with glee while the angels collectively shiver. Grinning, Armageddon retakes his seat.
All faces turn to the Angel Verus. She slowly rises to her feet, her white wings spreading regally behind her. She shouts one word: “NEVER!” The force of her yell sets columns rattling and rubble tumbling to the ground. Her gaze turns to me, eyes flashing bright. Armageddon follows suit, his irises glowing red as he scans me from head to toe. A satisfied smirk winds the corner of his mouth. I’ve seen that look on other faces; it’s the one that says ‘that little girl? Maybe she’s won before, but against this opponent? Are you serious?’
Which pisses me off, big time.
Sharkie thumps his staff again; a human soul appears nearby. In life, this ghost was a man about six feet tall with broad shoulders and two-hundred fifty pounds of solid muscle beneath them. Now he appears as a spectral version of his mortal self: a ghostly hulk whose pale body looks ready to burst from his faded jeans and dirty white t-shirt.
Sharkie addresses the spirit. “Vincent Francis Morris, you’ve chosen trial by combat, is this true?”
“The Choker. My name’s…The Choker.” Squinting his piggish eyes, the ghost flicks a fat tongue over his full lips.
“I will ask again.” Sharkie’s irises flare bright red. “Have you chosen trial by combat?”
The ghost curls his hands into fists. “Yes, combat.”
“Select your opponent.” Sharkie grins, his knife-like teeth glimmer in the pale light. “First, we offer XP-22.”
The Choker eyes our ‘fighting ghoul.’ With barely-there skin and the muscle tone of toilet paper, anyone could crush XP-22. In fact, the Choker would probably snap him in three seconds or less, but I don’t think he’ll choose to. Ghouls look mighty terrifying, even the weak ones. Most humans avoid them.
The Choker is no different. “I’ll pass.”
Sharkie moves his thin arm to the next figure in line. “Second, we offer Sheila, the Limus demon.”
Sheila’s fourteen red eyes whip about her upper body, finally stopping to glare at the ghostly human. She stretches wide the black hole that serves as her mouth, letting out a gurgling roar. When that girl puts her game on, she’s terrifying.
“Hmm.” The Choker’s beady eyes give Sheila a long stare; the entire Arena seems to hold its breath.
I glance at Sheila and shake my head. Limus demons are almost as easy to kill as XP-22. The trick is, they’re super-flammable. One match and you turn a six-foot monster into a puddle of harmless goo. But like XP-22, they look worse than they actually fight.
The Choker frowns. “Nope.”
“And third, we offer the quasi-demon, Myla.”
The Choker’s eyes slowly scan me from head to toe, his creepy gaze lingering on the curves under my t-shirt and sweats. Rage shoots up my spine. What a scumbag. If he stopped thinking with his pants for two seconds, he’d notice my demon tail instead of my boobs and butt. Some quasis get stuck with pig- or bunny-bottoms, but I hit the jackpot: the long and thin variety with an arrowhead end. Even better, it’s coated in dragon scales, so the thing’s nearly impossible to block or cut.
But the Choker isn’t being smart. He stares into my big watery brown eyes and long lashes; I shamelessly blink in fake-terror. For trial by combat to be valid, the soul must have a chance at winning. They get three options, two of which are relatively easy to defeat. Then, there’s me, the one nobody should pick. Except they always do.
“I choose her.” His thick mouth stretches into a vicious smile. “I’ll fight Myla.” In a low voice, he adds: “You’ll find out why they call me the Choker.”
I jam my hands in my pockets and fake-shiver. And you’ll find out why they called me to fight you, dickhead.
Sharkie thumps his staff on the ground again, and the ghostly Choker turns into two-hundred fifty pounds of real human. “So be it.”
“Here are the rules,” announces Sharkie. “Upon the count of three, you shall battle onto the death. If the Choker loses, he goes to Hell.” The angels look at me with encouraging glances. “If the Choker wins, he goes to Heaven.” The demons let out a deafening roar.
I watch the demons cheer, my hands balling into fists. Those freakies would love for a purely evil soul to enter Heaven. If a spirit has even a smidgeon of good in it, they ‘go angel’ once they cross the pearly gates. A purely evil soul could cause no end of trouble for the angels, and demons love trouble.
The crowd quiets into a nervous hush. Sharkie waves his hand; Sheila, Walker, and XP-22 make a hasty exit into an obliging archway. I hop from foot to foot and crack my neck. This will be a hoot.
Sharkie raises his arms. “The battle begins in 3, 2, 1!”
If your nickname is ‘the Choker,’ it doesn’t take a genius in battle strategy to predict your first move in a fight.
“I kiiiiiiiiiiiiiill you!” Sure enough, the Choker lunges for me with both hands outstretched, aiming directly for my throat.
That gets my demon up. Anger spikes along my spine as my attacker speeds toward me. Each step goes in what feels like slow motion. I look around helplessly as if I’m cornered instead of surrounded by an empty arena the size of a football field.
The Choker’s fingers brush my neck. My rage boils over. Jumping super-high, I haul up my knees, then kick my opponent squarely in the chest with both feet. The Choker falls flat on his back with a satisfying thud. Meanwhile, I use the momentum from my chest-kick to flip backwards into a somersault, landing right by his head.
Twisting my hips, I send my tail whipping toward my attacker’s boots, careful to loop the length around his ankles. Stepping backwards, I tighten my tail around the Choker’s feet and haul them up to his waist-level. The movement makes him curl his body so his hands rest right beside his ankles, which is exactly where I want them.
Shaking my hips again, I loop my tail around the Choker’s wrists, cinching together his ankles and hands.
I grin. This scumbag’s now hogtied.
The Choker’s face flushes red as he rocks on his back, trying to wriggle free from my tail’s grip. Not going to happen, buddy.
Tapping his boot with one finger, I whisper: “I beeeeeeeeeeat you.”
The Choker struggles in a losing battle against my tail. Sharkie raises his bony arms. “The human loses!”
The angels cheer while the demons act like someone knocked their collective ice cream cones on the pavement. Boos and hisses erupt from the dark seats. Turning to the angelic side of the stadium, I wave to my cheering fans.
Sharkie glares at me, his eyes flaring red. “How many times do I have to tell you? Don’t dawdle.”
Sharkie hates it when I get any positive attention, so I always drag my winning cheers out as long as possible. The emcee keeps glaring at me, his eyes glowing ever brighter. Meanwhile, I scratch my neck as the Choker struggles with my tail. I’m not ending this for another minute, minimum. Sharkie can kiss my butt.
Raising his staff, Sharkie brings the long handle down on the Choker’s chest, spiking it straight through his heart. The human twitches, then falls slack. A ghostly version of the Choker appears above his lifeless body.
Sharkie turns to me, his beady black eyes flaring bright red. “Next time, my staff skewers your heart, too.”
I open my yap, ready to tell Sharkie exactly what he can do with his staff, when the hairs on my neck prickle. Raising my head, I scan the stadium. Every face is focused on me. Verus’s eyes glow bright turquoise while a satisfied smile tugs at the corner of her mouth. Armageddon watches me with a curious interest, his right eyebrow cocked.
Time to vamoose. I don’t need any attention from those two.
“Excuse me. It’s time to call the great Scala.” I bow low, turn on my heel, and jog into a nearby archway.
Walker waits there for me in the shadows. “Nice work.” He winks. “Hogtied is new.”
I bow slightly. “I’m trying to mix it up a bit.”
“On behalf of your audience, I appreciate the creativity.” He rubs his hands together. “Shall we depart?”
“Hmm.” Right now, I fall into the category of ‘incredibly late for school.’ I might as well make it count. “Nah.” I peep around the edge of the stone archway. “I want to see the Scala move a soul.” We don’t get monster truck rallies or boy band tours in Purgatory, so this is the closest to a spectacle that I ever get. No way am I missing it.
A muscle twitches along Walker’s jaw. “I promised to keep you out of danger.”
I roll my eyes. “Every time I finish a fight, you pull out the old ‘I promised your Mom I’d keep you safe’ speech, and try to talk me into going home. And every freaking time I talk you into letting me stay.” I elbow him in the arm. “You need some new shtick, my friend.”
Walker chuckles. “I’ll take it under advisement.”
Sharkie’s staff thuds on the ground, the noise echoing through the stadium. I peek toward the Arena floor. Sharkie stands alone on the grounds, his gray-skinned head bowed. “Bring him out.” In this case, ‘him’ is the Scala, the only creature that can permanently move a soul to Heaven or Hell. Otherwise, they can (and mostly do) escape.
The Arena falls silent, the air thickening with anticipation. My heart rate quickens. We’ve had the same Scala for hundreds of years now. He’s like the human’s Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, and Tooth Fairy all rolled into one. Seeing him is a huge deal. Picture the oldest, most wrinkly guy possible, then add a hundred years, a white robe and mind-boggling levels of power. That’s the Scala.
The sandy floor trembles beneath my feet. In the center of the Arena, a group of eight ghouls appear through a large portal, carrying an old man on what’s basically a fancy stretcher. The dude is ancient, crinkly, and only five feet tall. His white beard winds around his entire body.
Armageddon leans back into his dark throne, his eyes narrowing. Pure hatred rolls off him in waves. The King of Hell fathered the Scala, but the child chose to embrace his mother’s heritage as a thrax demon fighter. Armageddon never got over it.
The Scala opens his eyes. The irises are mismatched: one’s earth-brown while the other’s ice-blue. Angels and demons alike fall silent. In a reedy voice that somehow carries throughout the stadium, the Scala asks in Latin: “Qui turbat Scala?”
A ghoul beside the Scala translates: “Who disturbs the Scala?”
The ghostly Choker looks still and disinterested, although beads of sweat glisten on his spectral cheek.
Sharkie bows low. “This soul has been defeated in a fair fight.” He gestures to the Choker. “We ask he be sentenced to Hell.”
The handler translates the response. The Scala nods feebly, raising his hand. Small bolts of lightning dance about his three-knuckled fingers.
“Parare ad ad infernum,” whispers the Scala.
“Prepare for Hell,” comes the translation.
Dozens of tiny lightning bolts whirl about the Scala’s withered hand. Igni. Miniscule elements of power that only he can summon.
I lean against the stonewall and hug my elbows. “I love this bit.”
A smile sounds in Walker’s voice. “Me too.”
More igni appear, whirling about into a shaft of light about two feet high. A soul column. The pillar of brightness slides off the Scala’s stretcher, growing wider as it spins across the Arena floor.
The soul column surrounds the Choker’s ghostly legs. The spirit stands stunned as igni slowly climb up his body, each tiny lightning bolt swirling and diving around its neighbors like so many silver fish. For a moment the igni flare bright about the Choker’s body, then they all disappear. The damned soul vanishes to Hell.
I brush-slap my hands together in a gesture that says ‘my work here is done.’
Walker taps my shoulder. I turn my attention away from the Arena floor.
“Time to get you home, Myla.”
“Not so fast, mister.”
Walker grins. “Is this the part where you won’t leave until I agree to sneak you in to see some matches?”
He’s got me there. “Why, yes it is.” I purse my lips. My encyclopedic knowledge of demons and the Arena comes in super-handy during conversations like this one. “Some cellula demons are being brought to the Arena next week. Suuuuuper-rare. They’re supposed to be semi-transparent and lit from within.” I twiddle my fingers on my belly as a visual aid. Walker’s a really good artist. Sometimes, he lets me keep his demon sketches too.
“Cellula, you say?”
Paydirt. He must never have drawn these before. “Yup.”
“Deal.” He offers me his hand. “Now, I should get you to school.”
“I need to go home, actually. I still have to change and grab my stuff.” Which means I have more time-suck to enjoy before I actually have to get to class. Nice.
Walker lets out a dramatic sigh. “I’ll get an earful about you and the Tardy List.”
“You and me both.” I take his hand. “Let’s hit it.”
Walker bows his head, creating a portal nearby. My stomach turns queasy just looking at it. Together, we leave the Arena’s dirt floor, tumble through the portal’s darkness and then land on the ratty carpet in my living room. I stifle my puke reflex. Stupid portals.
Walker leans over, examining my face. “Are you alright, Myla?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.” I take a few deep breaths and clear my head. “Thanks.”
“Until next time.” He turns toward the open portal; I grab his sleeve.
“What?” My mouth winds with a crafty smile. “You won’t hang out with me and Mom while we discuss my awesome morning in the Arena?”
He shoots me a level stare. “Ah, no.”
“And proud.” He steps back through the opened portal and disappears.
I wish I could escape so easily. Straightening my shoulders, I prepare myself for the maternal inquisition, part deux. Usually, this flavor of interrogation starts with rapid-fire questions followed by slow hugs, sloppy tears, and loud exclamations of ‘I almost lost you, baby.’ If I’m lucky, I get homemade brownies out of it, too.
I grin. I’m feeling lucky.Read chapter two here!