Dee and I flew high above the day in progress for the world far below. We touched down just outside a high school gymnasium during what looked like the middle of a basketball game between two different school teams. As we stepped inside, there were clusters of parents and supporters lining the rows of the bleachers on each side of the court, and it was to this that Dee gestured we take a seat.
“Remember that ‘other guy’ I was telling you about,” Dee said, leaning forward as though intent on the player that was now dribbling the basketball down the length of the court, having wrestled its control from the opposition.
I nodded, following the player with my own eyes.
“Well, he’s here,” Dee said.
“I don’t see him yet, but I know what it feels like when he’s nearby,” he said.
I couldn’t see that the atmosphere felt that much different from what would normally be in the air at a high school sports rivalry. There was an excitement of being so near to so many warm and thrumming bodies, even if there was no actual interest in the game itself that was being played out before us. There was tension too to have so many bodies crowded into a confining space. There was unpredictability in situations like this, but it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary for anyone who’d ever been in a situation where there was a large group of people. But Dee wasn’t one to exaggerate (well…much) and so I didn’t think all these normal mores of the scene were what he was referencing.
There was a flicker of movement on the opposite side of the court, towards the top of the bleachers, that drew my attention. I looked up there, and felt something like recognition as I looked upon the woman who sat high above the gymnasium scene, the game, and everything she seemed deigned to look down upon. She looked directly across and into my eyes, smiling in a small way that felt like a hard shove against my chest.
Dee followed my gaze, and his look soured.
“Yes. That’s him,” Dee said, nodding towards the woman.
“Him?” I asked perplexed as the woman crossed her legs, gently folding her navy dress around the tops of her thighs in an easy flirtatious way.
He peered closer, and then nodded. “Oh right, I forgot,” he said. “Until you know better, he tends to appear in such a way that it’s hard to ignore him, and easy to be attracted. I’m guessing you’re seeing a rather fetching lady or some sort of strychnine sweet cherub-like child’s face, right?”
“I see a woman. And she’s looking right at us.”
“If she’s looking at us, and acting like she truly sees us right now, then it’s most likely our man. Try to look past her, just over the shoulder perhaps, and then tell me what you see.”
I did as Dee instructed, looking just over her shoulder, past her now gleaming smile as she adjusted her legs again and the dress crept higher. She lightly turned her head to follow my gaze beyond her, and then when her head swiveled back my way, the appearance had changed. She was indeed a he, a man with thin and pointed features, a body like pulled taffy with limbs stretched out from him in seemingly painful proportions. There was a lean hungry look to all of him like he could eat and eat, but never get satisfied.
“Azazal,” Dee said. “That’s our demon counterpart in the work we do. He’s here to get to our charge before we can. Let’s move…now”
He said this as he was already moving, lightly pushing me from the bleachers and down to the court, pointing for us to make our way to the bench on the gymnasium’s opposite side where there was a lone player sitting. The thin rail of a man was also moving now, taking the bleachers a row at a time to reach the bottom. His eyes never left me, their tunnel hollowness pushing on me with a slight but uncomfortable pressure that I knew now was the feeling Dee had been talking about.
As we crossed the court, I managed to just slip ahead of Dee and was therefore allowed to make my way across the court before the two teams came running back in front of us. Dee was not so lucky, and was caught on the opposite side as the teams formed a running line to block his way. No one was paying us any mind in being on the court with the other players. Only the thin man could see us, and he had managed to slip through the teams as well, close behind me. Dee waved me onward, pointing to the young, player by the bench whom was now standing, readying himself to take to the court.
I jogged to his side, and fumbled around his collar to find the chord. I pulled it from beneath his basketball jersey, and then patted my pockets for the blade to cut it. But they were empty.The player, ignoring me pawing at his neckline, was now moving away from me and out of my grasp to take his place on the court as a substitution was made. Dee had managed to get through the line of players at this point and quickly rushed to my side, pressing the blade into my palm and shoving me onto the court after the player. The young man, sweating slightly in the stifle of the gym, was already shadowed closely by the man whom Dee had called Azazal.
He had in his hands a blade similar to ours, but it was a thicker slice of crescent, and it had serrated teeth. This didn’t make any sense to me. The chords around the dying’s necklines always broke away easily when the blade touched them, there wasn’t any sawing motion required to loose them.
The player dodged and bobbed, and Azazal as well as I were both struggling to catch up with him as he received possession of the ball and proceeded to take it back the length of the court to his team’s basket. As the boy paused, lifted his arm to take the shot, and flicked the ball in the direction of the basket, Azazal leapt forward and hooked a lank arm around his neck, wrenching up the necklace and beginning to saw. The chord was providing resistance, and Azazal was forced to bear down even harder. I could hear the necklace fighting his saw-teeth, and I rushed to throw my own arm around the youth, inadvertantly locking arms with the demon behind the boy’s back.
Azazal flinched hard as I touched him as though a current of electricity was in my skin. I knocked his hand out of the way from the chord with the hand that held my scythe, and then I grasped harder at his arm behind the boy’s back. Azazal spat a curse and shied away from my touch, losing grip with the boy, and falling against the court as our player moved to make the rebound shot. I pushed the scythe under the necklace again, and barely had to pull before the bright chord snapped and the silver snaked downward, under the jersey and hit the court; touching down just one moment before the boy himself hit the ground, a player’s elbow connecting with magnificent force with the boy’s temple.
For a moment, all seemed still. The players on the court stopped their running and attempts to score points. The player that had connected with the boy who now lay on the ground, reeled away towards the sidelines. The crowd was hushed into a semi-silence of murmurs. The only thing that moved was the demon Azazel, crab-crawling from where my touch had knocked him back against the ground, towards the necklace that was puddled in a broken loop on the polished hardwood floor.
I bent to get to the necklace before he could, but another hand beat me there, gently pushing mine aside. Dee scratched against the floor with his nails to get at the necklace, and closed it within his palm. Azazel was undeterred that Dee had gotten the necklace first and still crawled towards us, finding his footing and standing to walk forward.
“Cut it in half,” Dee said to me, pushing the chord into my palm.
I didn’t ask questions. We were being crowded in by the coach, a parent, and several players that had gathered around the boy on the floor, gently tapping his face and calling his name as he lay still. I put the chord between my fingers and used the blade to snap it in half. Dee removed half from my palm and rushed it to his mouth, using his other hand to push my palm up to my mouth so that I could ingest the other half.
And as we ingested this chord, Azazal made one last desperate leap at us, and was able to lay a claw-like hand on my wrist before I swallowed my mouthful. Once it had hit my throat, burning and twisting in a new and unpleasant way, Azazal pulled back his hand from me again, and I saw that his fingers had shiny red burns upon them this time. Dee, at my side, nodded in a satisfied way. The boy on the floor had stopped all movement now. Azazal gave a piercing shove of a look at us both, and then took several long loping strides away until he rounded a corner and was gone.
I tried to appreciate what had just happened. Looking down at the boy on the floor and the now hysterical parent that was rubbing at his arms and legs, I tried to feel some sadness for them. My confusion was too great. I couldn’t imagine anyone or thing wanting to do what we did if they didn’t have to, and especially if their tools didn’t cooperate towards the end. And so what was this Azazel thing, and why did it want the souls we were out to collect?
Dee was tuned in to my frequency of confusion.
“Let’s take a lunch break, and I’ll explain Azazel. As you may have guessed, it’s another complication in our line of work.”
We weaved and dodged out of the crowd around the boy, and I wondered if we were the good guys who took the soul for the benefit of its owner, then how much worse could the theft of the soul for other purposes be?