hero2a11

United States

I live smack in the center of Kansas. Son of a band teacher and a librarian.
-Sci-Fi/Fantasy lover
-Gamer
-Theater nerd
-Aspiring voice actor/writer

DON'T PANIC

Message to Readers

There are skeletons. For the spooky season. Give feedback plz

The Family Business (Quarantine Collection Entry #9 extended)

October 22, 2020

FREE WRITING

1
There was something silent walking through the town, and it left flaming footprints in its wake. The only sounds that could be heard as it walked throughout the neighborhood were the fluttering of its long black robes and the soft crackle of burning asphalt. In one of its skeletal hands, it gripped the polished silver hilt of an obsidian blade, the embers of war and the blood of the conquered still lingering on its surface. In its other hand, a swirling mass of souls were trapped inside an ornate glass receptacle, the wispy remains of thousands of doomed individuals flailing about in their prison. The figure gave one last glance at the results of its work before straightening the crown of horns on its hooded head and spreading its ragged black wings to ascend into the heavens.

Before it could depart from the empty town, the creature caught a glimpse of a lone figure strolling towards them. From what the creature could tell, it was a perfectly ordinary human male, although tall and a bit thin, with short black hair and a carefree smile. He wore a grey hooded jacket and a black Stetson, the polished black boots on his feet completing the look.

“Howdy, pardner,” the newcomer said nonchalantly, a friendly Southern accent lilting along each word. “I hate to be the one to spoil your fun, but I’m gonna have to kindly request that you hand over those human souls. They don’t belong to you.”

This does not concern you, mortal,” the creature responded in a hissing voice. “Stand aside, or I shall add your soul to the great collection.” The stranger chuckled at that.

“I ain’t tryin’ to burst your bubble, pardner, but I ain’t got no soul to take, and I ain’t no mortal neither. It would kinda ruin the whole idea. Now, if you’d kindly hand over the souls to me, I’ll let you on your way. If you test me, I may have to resort to less civilized methods of persuasion.” The creature seemed puzzled by this statement and walked a few strides closer to better examine the stranger. The creature felt an uncontainable fury building up within it. From what it could see, this was a perfectly unremarkable, unextraordinary, anonymous human. The carefree manner in which it spoke and approached was beyond infuriating. The thought that this lowly being had the audacity to speak to an agent of the higher powers with such disrespect filled the creature with immense anger. With an angry roar, the creature raised its blade and cleaved a wide gouge in the pavement.

HOW DARE YOU DEFY THE WILL OF THE ANCIENT ONES! THEIR PLANS HAVE BEEN IN PLACE SINCE THE ONE WHO FORGED THE STARS CREATED THE VERY FOUNDATIONS OF THE EARTH ON WHICH YOU STAND. WHO ARE YOU TO STAND AGAINST ME, A SERVANT OF THEIR GRAND DESIGN,” the creature roared with indignation, its booming voice echoing across the neighborhood. The stranger, however, simply humphed in amusement and examined a small silver pendant hanging around his neck. The pendant bore a motif of the Grim Reaper on its surface, a figure commonly present in human mythology.

“Well, that was a very nice little speech you made. H.P. Lovecraft would be proud of ya. Now, I’m sure these folks you’re workin’ for have been waitin’ a long time so set whatever diabolical plans they had in motion, but I’d rather not lose my job to a bunch of hoodlums that look like a metal album cover,” the stranger said. This puzzled the creature further.

WHAT ARE YOU,” it asked incredulously. The man smirked and tipped his hat.

“Goodness, me, where are my manners. My name is Jim Reaper, but these days, most folks just call me Death,” he said. He snapped his fingers and the wooden shaft of a scythe appeared in his right hand in a burst of white flames. The second his hand closed around the scythe, the skin and flesh covering the man’s face and hands was ripped away, revealing a bleached skeleton in place of a mortal man. He flourished the scythe, the curved and jagged blade hovering barely half an inch above the ground.

The creature roared in anger, spreading its wings and gliding forwards with great speed, preparing to cleave Jim in two. However, just before the obsidian blade reached him, Jim ducked beneath the sword and slashed at the creature’s midsection with his scythe. It tore through cloak and bone, cutting a large shimmering gash in the creature’s side. It roared in pain and grasped at the wound, which was oozing silver blood. It placed the jar of souls into a pouch on its hip and turned to face Jim.

HOW… HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE? THERE IS NO WEAPON FORGED ON EARTH THAT CAN HURT ONE OF THE COLLECTORS.”

“That’s the secret, pardner,” Jim said, tapping his scythe blade against the ground. “In my family’s line of work, we don’t use plain-ol’ Pennsylvania steel. We use the old metals, the ones from the old days of monster huntin’, forge ‘em in the Underworld and bless them with only the finest of holy rites. That way, we have a little bit of both worlds so that anything, living, dead, holy, unholy, or otherwise can stay dead.” Jim spun his scythe through the air and knocked the creature’s blade aside before taking the opportunity to slice its skeletal hand from its arm. The creature screamed as its bony hand shriveled away and turned to dust, giving Jim an opening to slash at its hooded face. The hood fell away, revealing the angry face of the creature, a flaming skull wreathed in thick black smoke. It staggered backwards in pain before removing the jar of souls from its belt and holding them above its head.

STAY BACK, OR I SHALL SHATTER THE CONTAINER AND DOOM THE SOULS WITHIN TO AN ETERNITY OF AIMLESS WANDERING,” the creature commanded. This stopped Jim in his tracks. He couldn’t let the jar of souls break, but he wasn’t about to let the creature get away. He was unsure if he was fast enough to snatch the jar from the creature’s bony grasp, and as he was debating whether or not to go for the jar, a loud gunshot rang out and the creature’s head burst in a small fireball. Its body began to slacken, the jar of souls slipping from its grasp, but Jim dove forwards and caught the jar before it hit the pavement. The creature’s body began to twitch and shake, eventually turning into a luminous shape with outstretched black wings that began to soar into the heavens. However, another gunshot rang out and ended the creature’s ascension remarkably easily, causing it to plummet back down towards the ground before exploding in a cloud of fire, smoke, and burnt feathers. Jim looked around for where the gunshot may have come from, but saw that the street was empty.

“Well, now, it seems I arrived just in time,” a voice said from somewhere up above. It was a gentler, calmer-sounding voice, also bearing a Southern accent. Unlike Jim, this voice was older and wiser, like a scholarly librarian or Southern Baptist preacher. Jim instantly recognized the voice and looked up to where the voice had come from.

“Cousin Fate,” he said pleasantly, addressing the figure standing on the rooftop of a nearby house. “What a surprise. Didn’t think I’d be seein’ you here.” Fate jumped down from the rooftop and calmly strode towards Jim.

“My brother was becomin’ rather tiresome to be around, and it was about time for me to check on your progress,” Fate said. He was a dapper-looking skeleton, a proper gentleman through-and-through. He wore an immaculate white tuxedo shirt with a black tailed suit jacket and blue Southern Colonel’s tie, tailored slacks, and polished black cowboy boots. His wide-brimmed hat partially obscured his face, though Jim could make out the lit cigar stub clenched between his teeth. Fate pulled a brass pocket watch from his coat and glanced at it before putting it away and examining the silver-plated revolver on his hip.

“How’s your brother holdin’ up? I know he tends to get stressed in these kinds of situations,” Fate asked, reloading two bullets into his gun.

“Aw, you know Grim. He still feels mighty upset about the Book of Souls bein’ stolen, but we all know it wasn’t his fault. I just hope we can deal with all these damn Soul Collectors. Seems like there’s been more and more of them ever since the book got stolen.”

“Speakin’ of which, did you grab the souls from the one we just killed?”

“You mean the one you just killed, cousin.”

“I was tryin’ to give you some credit, Jim. Don’t sass me. Did you grab ‘em or not?”

“Relax, I got ‘em right here.” Jim held up the glass jar. Fate gently took it from him and gazed at the wispy souls inside before glancing at his watch once more.

“Yep, these’re the ones. Let’s get these back home before any more Collectors come snoopin’ around.” Carefully handing the jar back to Jim, Fate dug into his jacket pocket and removed a deck of black playing cards. Selecting one from the box, he took it between the first two fingers of his right hand and flicked the card towards the wall of a nearby house. The second the card touched the wall, it erupted into a puff of grey smoke and a doorway of swirling fog appeared. The two of them stepped inside and found themselves in a large office building that had been fortified with makeshift barricades and defenses. Humans wandered about the workplace, fixing fortifications, tending to wounded, or otherwise milling about. Jim and Fate ducked into one of the nearby empty cubicles so they wouldn’t be spotted.

“Why do we hafta avoid the humans, exactly,” Jim asked, dispelling his scythe into mist with a snap of his fingers.

“I dunno. Your old man’s the one who made the rule. I guess he thinks the remaining humans won’t trust a family of skeletons to protect them from the Collectors.”

“That don’t seem right,” Jim said, a bit confused. “I know humans ain’t exactly the most tolerable species on the planet, but they could cut us a break from time to time.”

“Go take the souls to Grim. I’ll meet you in the main room afterwards,” Fate said. Jim nodded and tapped his pendant, his human disguise appearing over his bones. He flashed Fate a lopsided smile, to which Fate replied with a look of perturbation.

“What,” Jim asked.

“You still wear that human disguise,” Fate asked, sounding a little unnerved.

“Yeah. I can’t teleport like you, wormhole like Cousin Fortune, or turn invisible like Uncle Des. Plus, I like minglin’ with the commonfolk. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that, is there,” Fate shook his head.

“No, but somethin’ about seeing skin on a Reaper’s body…” He shuddered. “It makes me feel funny. I’ll see you after you give the souls to Grim.” With that, and a tip of his hat, Fate tossed another card into the wall of the cubicle and disappeared into the smoky gateway. Drawing a breath to compose himself, Jim exited the cubicle and strode casually towards Grim’s office, gently pushing his way past people and occasionally making small talk with those who greeted him. Eventually he reached a wooden door with the words “GRIM’S OFFICE” posted on a sign beside the frame. Jim could hear voices coming from inside the office even while he was a ways down the hallway. It seemed that Grim was having another heated argument with one of the humans that had taken refuge in the office building. Regardless, Jim quietly opened the door and eased into the room.

The office was a medium sized room with a large desk near the back and several filing cabinets lining the walls. Most of the papers that were previously inside the cabinets were now strewn wildly about the room and covered most of the floor. Grim was in a human disguise and talking to someone who seemed very angry about something.

“We’re trying as hard as we can to get the book back! All I ask is a little more patience and a little less nagging,” Grim shouted.

“We don’t want to wait anymore! We want our families back,” the man retorted.

“And I want to retire to Fiji, but that’s not gonna happen until we get the book back, now is it?! Have some patience and get out of my goddamn office!” The man stormed past Jim in a huff and slammed the door behind him. The second he was gone, Grim tore the face off of his human disguise, dispelling the illusion immediately.

“Christ, I thought he’d never leave,” he sighed, slumping into his chair. He was normally a well-dressed and refined skeleton in his neatly-pressed business suit and trilby, but his suit was disheveled and his hat had been tossed across the room. It was currently resting on a bust of himself that had been carved in his honor for his retirement. Grim had retired from the role of Death a few hundred years prior and had bestowed the position to Jim, who was the youngest of the two brothers. He was always a little high-strung and prone to becoming stressed, and nowadays he was more stressed than ever.

“Oh, Jim, you’re here,” Grim said, dusting himself off. “Do you have the souls?”

“Yep. Got ‘em right here.” Jim carefully handed the jar to Grim, who took a separate glass capsule from his desk drawer. He carefully shook the souls into the capsule and placed it into a pneumatic tube on the wall. The capsule was sucked up the tube and shot through the pipeline carrying it towards the soul reserve.

“Okay,” Grim said, scribbling something on a clipboard. “That’s another twenty-five thousand souls added to the reserve. We only need another six billion before we can bring back humanity, and that’s if we get the Book of Souls back.” He set his head on his desk and groaned softly.

“Aw, cheer up, Grim,” Jim said, giving Grim a pat on the back. “I know you’re feelin’ down about this whole debacle, but I’m sure we’ll be able to fix this and get all the human souls back before you know it.”

“Easy for you to say,” Grim sighed, not moving from his desk. Suddenly, the door to Grim’s office burst open and a massive skeleton wearing plate armor around long black robes stomped into the room.

“Oi, nephews,” the skeleton barked in a gruff British accent. “Family meeting, chop chop.”

“Sure thing, Uncle Des. We’ll be with y’all in a few minutes,” Jim replied. Des threw his hood up over his head and vanished into thin air.

“Why does Uncle Des get to have my invisibility shroud,” Grim asked. “Someone that big doesn’t need to be invisible.”

“You’re just grumpy that Dad auctioned off all your old stuff when you retired from being Death,” Jim said.

“Yes. Yes I am. I liked that shroud.”

“I know. Well, let’s go. We can’t keep everyone waitin’ forever. We need to find out where the next batch of souls can be found.”

“God, I’m going to be happy when I never have to talk about human souls again.”

Jim chuckled. “Hate to break it to you, brother, but souls are the family business.”

Reapplying their disguises, the two brothers exited the office and made their way towards the meeting room. It had previously been the lounge area of the office building, but the brothers and their gathered family had converted it into a meeting place where they could discuss the matters going on without having to worry about the prying eyes of the humans that they were sheltering inside the building. Once they made sure that the hallway was empty, Grim and Jim stepped into the room and shut the door behind them, making sure the windows were covered before removing their disguises.

"Ah, so the Reaper brothers have arrived. Perfect, now we just need to wait for Uncle Tim, Aunt Liv, and the others," Fate said from across the room. He was lounging in a comfortable-looking armchair, smoking a fresh cigar and reading a book.

Grim examined the book in Fate's hands and waved away a cloud of cigar smoke hanging in his face. "You're seriously reading Zadig again? Voltaire and those other stuffy philosophers make my head hurt," he said, loosening his necktie a bit.

"There's no harm in bein' learned, cousin," Fate answered. "Who says a gentleman can't indulge in a little philosophy from time to time?"

"Where's your brother? He's not off trying to curse people with his stupid games and contracts, is he," Grim asked, setting his hat on top of a nearby desk lamp.

"Don't worry, I'm keepin' an eye on him," Fate said, producing an ornate gold coin from his breast pocket. "Besides, I can always call him here with a little bit of bling." He flipped the coin into the air, his bony fingers making an audible ping against the coin. A hand shot out from inside a potted plant and snatched the coin out of the air. Shortly after, a neatly-dressed skeleton climbed out of the plant, brushing dirt off of his tuxedo.

"Brother mine, do remember not to wormhole through the plants," Fate said. "It hurts the roots."

"Ah, whatever, Fate. Why'd you hafta steal my lucky coin like that," the skeleton asked in a Transatlantic accent, placing the coin in his pocket. "I was in the middle of an important business deal!"

"Shut up, Fortune. We told you to stop making contracts with the humans," Grim snapped. "We have enough stolen souls on our hands as it is."

"I don't tell you how to do your job, do I, Grim? Just leave me alone and let me have some fun," Fortune said, pulling a top hat from thin air and expertly positioning it on his head. Fortune was the most extravagant of the family, always dressing in the finest clothes regardless of situation. His current outfit was surprisingly less expensive-looking than usual, a standard black tuxedo with a gold-colored bowtie, black silk top hat, and monocle fitted into his right eye socket. His family never fully understood his Victorian fashion sense, nor his fascination with making deals and contracts to any poor sap who wanted to try their luck and wish for their heart's desires. Most of Fortune's deals ended in the person getting what they wished for in a much more literal sense than they had anticipated, as well as losing a great deal of wealth or their soul to reverse the contract.

"With all due respect, dear brother, your idea of 'fun' causes a lotta trouble for the rest of us," Fate said, placing a bookmark into the worn pages of his book.

"Oh yeah, that reminds me. Check out what I managed to swindle from some poor sucker today," Fortune said, pulling a large stack of money from his pocket.

"Where'd you get that tidy little sum this time, cousin," Jim asked, slowly beginning to approach Fortune.

"I sold some of Grim's old stuff to a guy, no big deal," he answered, counting the bills. Grim whirled around from where he was standing.

"You what," he asked incredulously. "What did you sell?!"

Fortune shrugged nonchalantly. "Just that old scythe and a few of your old suits." Grim's hand twitched with the urge to strangle his cousin as the anger mounted in his chest.

"Give me that," Grim ordered, storming towards Fortune.

"Hell no! I worked hard for this cash and I ain't gonna let you take it from me," Fortune countered, holding the money out of Grim's reach. Without warning, Uncle Des came blasting through the wall behind Fortune, scattering wooden shrapnel and dust across the room.

"Fortune," he barked, "what the bloody hell have you been doing this time?!" Des was the secondary head of the family and the middle child of the three siblings that made sure none of their kids completely tore each other apart. He was Destruction incarnate, and often ended up breaking most things he encountered. Like his siblings, he shortened his name to Des, as his full name was a bit exhausting to say all the time.

Fortune let out a shriek of fear at the sight of his enormous father crashing through the wall. "Nothin', I swear! Leave me alone!" Des reached for the money, but Fortune slipped away from his grasp and made a beeline for the door.

"Someone stop him," Grim shouted, giving chase. Thinking fast, Jim eyed a floorboard and snapped his fingers. At that, the board instantly warped, creating a slight change in elevation and causing Fortune to trip and fall forwards. His head hit the door first and his neck bent at an odd angle, a loud snapping sound cutting through the air. Fortune slumped to the floor, limp as a ragdoll. After a second, Fortune stood back up and turned to glare at Jim, his head still listing at a strange angle.

"That was a cheap move," he said, snapping his head back into place. Before he knew what was happening, Des was upon him and he found himself dangling several feet in the air by the collar of his tux jacket.

"Give me the dosh, now," Des commanded.

"Hey, watch the suit," Fortune whined, squirming about in the air. "This is a Giorgio Armani!"

"I said now, boy," Des said. Fortune eventually stopped flailing and begrudgingly dropped the money into Des's enormous palm.

"I'll go find Grim's things and return the money," Des said, dropping Fortune onto the floor without warning. "You stay put, or so help me God I will ground you."

"You can't do that! I'm over ninety thousand years old," Fortune protested. Des loomed over Fortune and folded his arms. He was at least four feet taller than fortune and, even as a skeleton, looked far more muscular than Fortune could ever hope to be.

"Got anything else to say," Des asked.

Fortune's shoulders slumped. "No, sir."

"Good." With that, Des kicked open the double doors, partially dislodging one from its hinges before flipping up the hood of his shroud and stomping off down the hallway.

"Just be careful with my stuff," Grim called after him.

"Piss off and have your dad fix the door," Des retorted. Not long after he left, a scholarly-looking old man in priest's garb came around the corner, examining the damaged doorway and enormous hole in the wall. He sighed and examined the silver handle of the umbrella he gripped in his right hand.

"What happened this time," he asked, almost not wanting to hear the answer.

"He pissed off Uncle Des," Jim said almost immediately, pointing to Fortune. Fortune stared aghast at Jim, the indignation present in his hollow eyes.

"Oh, come on, he's lying," Fortune said. "Don't listen to him, Uncle Tim! I've been outta trouble, I promise!"

"We'll see about that when Des gets back," Tim answered. Tim was the father of the Reaper brothers and the oldest of the three head siblings. He was a patient old man, and a good thing, too. If Tim wasn't the most tolerable being in existence, his family might've torn itself apart a long time ago. His job as Father Time meant he had sway over the flow of time, which was incredibly helpful for repairing the numerous things that Des often broke. He had shortened his name to Tim simply because he wanted a more casual sounding name than the one he was given.

Tim tapped the point of his umbrella on the ground twice as he entered the room and the doors began to piece themselves back together until they were good as new. He did the same as he passed the large hole in the wall that Des had used to enter the room, sealing up the hole in a matter of seconds.

"Where is Des, by the way," Tim asked, removing his human disguise.

"He went to retrieve some of Grim's things," Fate answered. "Fortune just happened to... misplace a few of his possessions."

"He sold my scythe for money," Grim said. Tim sighed and turned to Fortune.

"Fortune, we've talked about this," he said.

"It ain't fair! How come I don't get any of Grim's old stuff," Fortune asked.

"You got a good amount of his old suits and you seemed happy with that,"  Tim said.

"That's besides the point. The scythe was too shiny for me to resist. It's not like Grim uses it anymore." At that moment, Des smashed through the wall again, this time with several business suits in plastic coverings slung over his shoulder and a scythe in his right hand that he could've used as a toothpick.

"Here's your stuff," he said flatly, tossing the scythe to Grim.

"Careful with that," Grim said, catching the scythe and examining the polished blade for imperfections. Grim's scythe, an elegant thing with a steel shaft and plain curved blade, was much more refined and smooth in comparison to Jim's scythe, which had a more rustic and carefree aesthetic with it's wooden shaft and jagged blade.

"Des, I just fixed that wall," Tim said. "Would it hurt to use the door once in a while?" Des grunted in reply and draped the suits over the back of the armchair that Fate was previously sitting in.

"Okay, as soon as Liv and her entourage get here, we can start," Tim said, moving over to the fireplace. At that, the doors opened and an attractive young woman in a bright green dress entered the room. Following closely behind her were three younger humans, a boy and two girls, all of whom seemed to be in their late teens.

"Oh, it's so good to have the family back together again," the woman said. "Wonderful to see you again, Tim."

"Likewise, Liv," Tim answered. "Take some time to reacquaint you and your family with everyone, we'll be ready to begin in a few minutes." Liv was the youngest of the three siblings that led the family. She was the only one of the three that wasn't typically a skeleton, and as such seemed strange to the skeletal members of their family. As the embodiment of Life itself, she was often very optimistic and cheery, seeming like an antithesis to her brothers.

"Jim, my dear, how have you been? I hope work hasn't been too difficult for you," Liv said to Jim.

"Aw, it ain't too difficult, Aunt Liv, but I appreciate your concern," Jim replied. He turned to the three younger humans standing next to Liv. "Who are these folks? I don't believe I've met your side of the family."

"Oh, my mistake. I'll introduce you right away," Liv said. "Kids, why don't you all tell your cousin a bit about yourselves?" One of them, a serious looking young man with white hair and startlingly blue eyes stepped forwards and gave a curt bow. He was dressed in a crisp white business suit with a blue and grey necktie and black leather gloves covering his hands.

"You may call me Cloud. My job is to create the weather and climates for this planet," he said. "I'm the oldest of the three."

"Nice to meet ya, pardner. Name's Jim, but you probably already knew that," Jim said, extending his hand out to Cloud. Cloud eyed his skeletal hand with some suspicion before reluctantly shaking it and briskly walking away to examine the moth-eaten volumes on a nearby bookshelf. Almost immediately after, the middle child of the three, a laid-back girl in a baggy, ill-fitting sweater the color of moss stepped forwards and flashed Jim a brief peace sign.

"Hiya, I'm Nat," she said, one hand absentmindedly fiddling with a lock of her unkempt brown hair. "I do nature and plant stuff, so that's cool I guess."

"Charmed," Jim said, tipping his hat in her direction. She nodded back with a sort of distracted look on her face and moved to the couch, practically throwing herself onto it without any grace, taking up most of the space on the couch before promptly falling asleep.

The youngest of Liv's three children, a meek-looking girl with short red hair and a plain brown jacket that sported an owl design on its back. She stepped forwards reluctantly, her eyes cast down at her shoes, and adjusted the wire-framed glasses perched on her nose.

"M-my name is Fawn," she said quietly, tugging at an errant thread on her sleeve. "I, uh... I take care of the animals, but that's not really important."

"Ah, don't sell yourself short pardner. You do a fine job," Jim said, extending his hand. Fawn yelped in surprise at the gesture, evaporating into a swarm of butterflies and retreating behind her mother where she rematerialized into her human form.

"Oh, I'm sorry," Jim said bashfully. "It weren't my intention to startle ya."

"Oh, don't worry about it, Jim. Fawn is just a... delicate soul," Liv said.

"Ain't no shame in that." Jim briefly observed the other two members of Liv's family. "Quite the dynamic ya got here."

"Oh, yes, they are quite a handful, but I just love them with all my heart!"

"Alright, is everybody here?" Tim asked, glancing around the crowded room. "Good, then we can begin."

"Wot's next, Timmy? Where's the next batch of souls needs rescuin'?" Des asked, folding his arms in front of him.

"After a bit of investigation, I found that there's a high concentration of soul energy over in Europe," Tim began, gesturing to a world map above the fireplace with his umbrella. "It isn't localized in one spot, so we'll need to split up to gather them all."

"Righto. Just point me to 'em," Des said, cracking his knuckles. "Those bloody Collectors don't stand a chance against me."

"Europe also has a much higher concentration of Collectors, so it'll be too dangerous to send people alone. Des, you'll go to Madrid with Fortune and Cloud. Liv, you take Nat and Fawn and go to Paris. Fate and I will help out where we can, but won't be able to stay anywhere for long."

"Hang on, what about us, pops?" Grim asked.

"Grim, I'm sending you and your brother to London. However, the city is practically a Collector stronghold, so I'm going to send you there with a bit of backup," Tim answered.

"What backup? Everyone is already going everywhere else?" Grim asked. As he said that, Grim tapped his umbrella on the ground and three new figures appeared in the center of the room suddenly. One was a short and thin looking man with remarkably hollowed cheeks and sunken eyes dressed in business attire. Another was a large, muscular, and angry-looking man in full plate armor with a flaming scalp and enormous sword. The last one was a man dressed in a plain white dress shirt with rolled up sleeves and an argyle vest, a stereotypical plague doctor's mask fitted onto his face. All three of them seemed to be very confused as to how they got there.

"Oh god," Grim said with horrified realization. "Not them."

"WHAT THE HELL'S GOING ON HERE?! I'M GONNA KILL WHOEVER DID THIS," the angry man said, wildly brandishing his sword. He stopped when he spied Grim and his features twisted into a scowl.

"YOU," he growled, indicating Grim with the tip of his blade. "WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING HERE?"

"Hey, War," Grim said reluctantly. "You look well."

"Oh, Grim," the thin man said. "Good to see you again. You got any food around here? I'm starving."

"Famine, I'm not going to let you eat me out of house and home a second time," Grim answered.

"Grim, you never introduced us to your family, have you? It's awfully inconsiderate of you," the plague doctor said in a hoarse voice, occasionally coughing between words.

"I try to keep my work life separate from my family, Pestilence. I thought you knew this." Grim quickly strode over to his father.

"Are you serious?" he said incredulously, whispering so the others wouldn't hear. "You're saddling me and Jim with my old co-workers? You know I hate those guys!"

"Grim, the Horsemen are a few of the most powerful allies we have, and frankly, we'll need all the help we can get," Tim answered. "You know that better than anyone."

"Yeah, yeah, I know, but they seriously stress me out. Do you think that they're really going to care about bringing back the rest of humanity? The Horsemen are supposed to destroy humanity, not save it!"

"What other choice do we have?" At that moment, the doors swung open and an average-looking human male wandered into the room, a worn piece of parchment in his hands.

"Uh, sorry to interrupt but do you guys know where I can find the..." The man trailed off as he examined the room and saw that it was full of all manner of living skeletons and strange-looking people. Those clustered inside cast a brief glance at one another before turning back to the man, who was frozen in terror.

Des was the first to move, storming towards the frightened man. "Stay right where you are," he barked, reaching to subdue the man with his enormous hands. The man screamed at the sight of a monolithic eight-foot skeleton barreling towards him and turned to flee down the hallway.

"Gregory! Stop him," Tim shouted, pointing to the man who was scrambling away from them. Before he could get away, a skeleton in a ragged cloak and old black armor rose out of the shadows behind a nearby water cooler, gripped the man by the back of his collar, and tossed him back into the room. Gregory was the spirit of Retribution and the Reaper family's enforcer. He was often dispatched to protect the family from harm or clean up any witnesses that happened to see their family walking around with out any skin on their bones.

Des was instantly upon the man, hoisting him up off the ground and pinning him to the wall above the door. "Dammit, this one saw us. Whaddya think, Timmy? Should we have Gregory take care of him?"

"Wait just a minute," Tim said. "What's that he has in his hand?" Gregory beckoned for Des to hand him the paper, and Des dropped the man on the floor in the center of the room, shutting the door behind him. Gregory snatched the page from his hand and gave it to Tim. As Tim read over the faded words written on the parchment, he began to grow more and more excited.

"This... this is a page from the Book of Souls!" he exclaimed, turning to the human. "Where did you get this?"

"I-I-It wasn't me! Some British guy handed the page off to me and said he found it blowing around and took it because he thought it was cool! Please don't kill me and eat my soul!" the human answered, cowering behind the coffee table in the center of the room.

"Relax, pardner, we ain't eatin' anyone's souls," Jim explained. "We're tryin' to get them back from that S-O-B that stole the Book of Souls. And you just gave us a valuable bit of information. You got a name, friend?"

The man swallowed and stood up. "J-John. John Whitaker." Jim seemed surprised.

"Whitaker, huh? You related to a fella named Jerry Whitaker?" he asked.

"Y-yeah, he's my brother. How do you know him?"

"I helped him return to the world of the living when he got hit by a car. It's a long story. Nice fella, though. Shame he doesn't visit anymore."

"Well, do we have any ideas on what to do with this guy?" Grim asked. "We probably shouldn't let him go."

"Agreed," Tim said. "John, did the man who gave you this page say where exactly he found it?"

John thought for a moment. "I think he said he found it around Piccadilly Circus in London."

"Well, as luck would have it, my brother Grim and I were headin' that way right now to go get some of your fellow humans back," Jim said, putting his arm around John's shoulders. "You can come with us and maybe help us find some clues as to who stole the book or where they took it."

"Well, I don't know about that. I'm awfully busy..." John said.

"And we all understand that," Fate said, approaching John with a haze of cigar smoke about him. "If you don't want to help us, that's your decision. If you decide to lend us a hand, you'll be remembered as one of the few humans that helped to restore the natural order of the world. However, I cannot promise you'll like the alternative."

John became nervous. "W-what's the alternative?" Fate pointed to Gregory, who was leaning against the wall.

"The alternative is that our friend Gregory may have to have a chat with you." Gregory opened his palms and two shadowy scythes appeared in his hands. He stared evenly at John, his hollow eye sockets almost daring John to refuse.

"Well," John said, "when you put it that way, it'd be rude to say no."

-Jim Reaper

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