Young Tara Maclay and her mentor stood on top of the roof of the Arrival and Departure Hall at LAX, watching the activity on the tarmac below. The young Harvester-in-training looked back and forth between the figure standing beside of her and the unsuspecting people working non-stop on prepping planes to fly off into the wild blue yonder, so to speak. Except that the yonder was actually more smoggy than stark blue. This was LA, after all.
In the moonlight, her mentor, an older cynical Reaper who went by the name of Mort, struck a classical pose. His magic black cloak billowed around him with every move he made, while the light of the moon reflected off the blade of his scythe. Most of his face was covered by his dark hood, save for his mouth and chin. The yellow glowing runes stitched along the rim of his hood lit up slightly, contrasting with his pale white skin. In the six months that Tara had been his apprentice, she had never, ever seen more of his face than what she was seeing now.
Tara's own cloak wasn't such a perfect fit. It was slightly too big, and kept slipping underneath her feet when she walked. She also had trouble keeping her hood from falling in front of her eyes. After adjusting her hood yet again, Tara looked back the people boarding their planes. They were the lucky ones today. These were not the ones the Powers-That-Be needed to have harvested.
"Tara!" the voice of Mort brought Tara back to the reality of the day. "Pay attention."
"S-sorry," Tara replied softly.
"Don't worry," Mort said. "It's been a long day. We'll call it a night as soon as we're finished here. Ah, there we are," he said and pointed his scythe at flight NorthWest 255.
Flight NW255, a 737 Boeing filled to the brim with travellers from all over the world travelling to Detroit City, had just left the runway and was starting to take off.
Tara watched Mort as he pointed his scythe to the plane. The blade was suddenly engulfed with a dark red glow. The Harvester-in-training looked back at the plane and saw the power of the Scythe at work.
Suddenly, the mother trying to quiet her crying child, the already air-sick man hurling into an air-sickness bag, the stewardess trying to calm a rather noisy passenger complaining about the lack of leg-room in first class, the two newlyweds getting ready to celebrate their honeymoon... all were consumed by a gigantic fireball that lit up the night sky.
Tara flinched for a moment and looked away.
Death by freak engine failure.
Panic ensued below on the tarmac as a fiery rain of torn and twisted metal returned to the earth.
"You see?" Mort smiled at Tara. "A simple manipulation of the engine and the whole damn thing comes crashing down. Minimal amount of work, maximum results. Technology is Death's best friend."
"D-do we collect the souls now?" Tara asked.
Mort nodded. The two Reapers glided down onto the tarmac and slowly made their way to the crash-site in the distance. Tara already saw the first souls hovering above the ground in the distance. Small, blue orbs of energy, fragile and confused. The young Harvester-in-training put away her scythe and took out a small container. She gently took the first soul in both hands and carefully placed it inside the container, where it would be safe.
She knew her mentor was a bit less concerned with these pleasantries. Tara saw him snatching up soul after soul and jamming them into his container. But Tara preferred to handle these fragile remains with the respect she felt they deserved.
Tara moved among the shattered wreckage of the plane. But to Tara, this was not the site of a tragedy. There was no sadness, no remorse. Death had been part of her entire life since she was born, and she had seen far worse than this. As for the passengers, the Powers-That-Be had decided that it had been their time, simple as that. The Reapers were just doing their job. And now, it was their duty to gather these souls and make sure they would reach the afterlife they deserved, be it good or bad.
She could hear the sirens of the rescue vehicles, but she did not let it disturb her. Her magical cloak had made her body ethereal. They would never know that she and Mort were even here. This power, to be ethereal and walk among the mortals without being seen, was a necessity, since people tended to run away screaming when confronted with impending Death. Mortals were odd that way.
Tara and Mort continued collecting the souls, while firemen and rescue workers were putting out the fires and held the futile hope to find any survivors. Tara still instinctively avoided the rescue-workers as they passed nearby, but Mort simply remained where he was, even letting the rescue workers walk right through him. Tara shuddered at the thought. She could never get used to the strange feeling of people walking right through her and prevented it whenever she could.
"Alright, Tara, let me see your container," Mort said and took it from the younger Reaper. He fished a list from the inside of his cloak and checked the containers. "Yes, all there. Alright, Tara. Why don't you go home? Rest up for tomorrow. I'll bring the souls we collected today to the Head Office."
Tara smiled and was grateful that Mort was finally letting her go home. She was really feeling tired. Mort faded out of being. Tara took out her own scythe again and concentrated, thinking of her home. Seconds later, she materialized in front of her apartment building. She moved to her front door, and pulled back her hood, causing her to phase into normal reality. Tara struggled with her keys for a moment, and went inside.
Goddess, what a day, Tara sighed as she closed the door behind her. She tossed her cloak over the couch and put her scythe into the umbrella-stand. After reflecting on the stern lecture that Mort would give her if he knew that she'd treat the 'symbol of her trade' in such a disrespectful manner, she plopped down on the couch and rested her head on the pillow.
Three car-crashes, two heart-attacks, a gang-war, five domestic accidents, two drownings, one very messy shark-attack, two teens that had cleverly decided to take up bus-surfing and then that airplane at the end, Tara thought, all these deaths directly or indirectly instigated by Mort.
Her stomach groaned in protest. It had been a long time since the quick bite off a sandwich she had for lunch in between harvests.
Tara forced herself to get up from the couch and looked into the fridge. Sadly, Mort had been keeping her so busy lately that she hadn't been able to do proper grocery shopping all week. The only thing remotely edible in her fridge was a small packet of noodles and the half empty cup of yoghurt she'd started yesterday. She tossed the noodles into the microwave and, after making sure the yoghurt hadn't gone bad, ate the whole packet in record time.
After hearing a satisfying 'ping', Tara claimed the noodles and returned to the couch to feast.
Stale yoghurt, lukewarm noodles and a scythe in the umbrella-stand, Tara thought. Tara Maclay, this is your life.
But she supposed she shouldn't complain. It was she herself that requested training as a Harvester. She had been a Collector for two years before she had started her apprenticeship under Mort.
As long as there had been humans, there had been Reapers. Reapers existed for the sole reason of ending the lives of the mortals, and making sure that their souls would pass on to the appropriate afterlife. In the early days, all Reapers acted on the orders of the Powers-That-Be. They would point out which mortals were to die, and the Reapers would carry out these orders.
But, as the human population on Earth grew more and more, it became painfully obvious that the Reapers couldn't keep up. So the Reapers were divided into two groups : Collectors and Harvesters. By then it had become obvious that humans themselves were a lot more efficient in ending lives than the Reapers. The Collectors would live among humans, and gather the souls of humans that had come to an unfortunate end due to natural causes. These were natural causes in the broadest sense of the word, since war, sickness and violence of any kind had a way of quite 'naturally' ending the life of fragile humans.
But Harvesters... an entirely different kind of Reaper altogether. Every day, the Powers-That-Be handed the higher ups at the Head Office a list of those people whose time had come, and which had to be removed from the world of the living immediately. Thus, the Harvesters had a role on the field of Death that was much more active. Something that she wanted to be.
No, Tara shook her head. It's something I have to be. Her father's wishes for her had been crystal clear.
And Mort drove her very hard. The past few months she had observed as Mort studied each case carefully and sought out the most appropriate method of death. Then it was a simple matter of using the powers of the scythe to close the trap and end the life of the person whose time had come, gather up the soul and deliver it at the head office at the end of the day. Of course, it sounded a lot easier than it actually was.
She finished her noodles and put the empty packet on the coffee table, right next a thin brown file-folder containing the assignment that Mort had hand-picked for her. Her very first solo assignment, something of a graduation after all those months of arduous training.
For some reason, she afraid to look. She thought it was just nerves. After all, this solo assignment was the culmination of months of hard work and long hours. But at the moment, she was hungry, she was tired and she was nervous.
A knock on the door broke her train of thoughts. She wondered who it could be and opened the door quickly.
"Hey, T," a pleasant greeting brought Tara back to reality. She had not expected her friend Faith to be at door, but offered her a genuine smile. She noticed that Faith bore her cloak very well, better than Tara did.
"Faith," Tara smiled. "Hi, c-come in."
Tara went back to the couch, while Faith closed the door behind her. As Faith, usually did, she headed straight for the kitchen to raid Tara's fridge.
"Ugh," Faith called from the kitchen, finding the pickings slim today. "T, you're out of beer!"
Though Tara didn't drink, she usually kept a sixpack in the fridge just in case Faith would drop in. Faith had drank the last beer she had five days ago during her last visit, and Tara hadn't had the time to buy a new sixpack. Or any food for that matter.
Looking slightly disappointed, Faith strolled back into Tara's small living room. She went to the seat opposite to the couch and flipped up the back of her cloak before sitting down and crossed her legs in a lotus position.
"Faith," Tara smiled, grateful to see a friend. Actually, her only friend. "How are you? I didn't know you were back yet."
"Oh, five by five. Delivered my souls at the Head Office an hour ago," Faith smiled sardonically. "Got a busy week of slacking off to look forward too."
"How was your assignment?"
"Fun," Faith grinned. "Imagine a bunch of slack-jawed yokels, dumb as a rock and twice as ugly. Now imagine those same slack-jawed yokels standing next to a whole armory filled to the brim with guns and ammo. You should have seen that one guy Cletus. I sorta used scythe-powers to zap him stupid. Well, stupider than he already was, anyway. He threw the pin away and held on to the grenade. Oh, T, you should have seen the look on his face. He was staring at the grenade in his hand with his mouth wide open and even drooling a bit. It was hilarious. Redneck gun-nut parties. Gotta love 'em."
"You know," Tara started to say, "I think you might be enjoying your job a little too much."
"Nah," Faith said. "Life's short if you can't see the funny side of death, T. Like that hick that fired off a couple of rounds in victory celebration while holding his gun backwards. But enough about yours truly. Has 'Morty the Mortician' been keeping you busy?"
"Don't call him that," Tara said.
"It's just tacky..."
"Oh, come on," Faith shrugged. "He's just the typical fun-hating, 'live-for-your-job-and-nothing-else'-type. He's been keeping you so busy you haven't been able to buy beer for your best friend. I mean, that's just wrong, T."
Tara nodded. "It's a lot of w-work, but I'm learning from the b-best."
"I still say Spike is a better Reaper. At least he knows how to have fun," Faith said, referring to the mentor that had trained her. Spike had the reputation of being a very creative Harvester. He had managed to harvest the soul of a man living in the penthouse suite of a skyscraper, but never revealed how he had convinced that man to bring a railroad spike into his home and manipulated him to kill himself with it. And his girlfriend Drusilla, brrrr, that woman was cold with a capital 'C'. She'd cull the lives of everyone in a building to get at one person that was on her list without even a second thought.
It were Harvesters like Spike and Drusilla that made her regret choosing this path. They were arrogant, overconfident and generally looked down upon Collectors or people who had been Collectors. And the Head Office let them get away with everything because they more than met their monthly quota's.
"So, when's your big day?" Tara was brought back into reality by Faith, who'd sat down beside her on the couch.
"Tomorrow," Tara replied, her eyes downcast.
Tara felt Faith give her a supporting pat on her shoulder. "Come on, T. I'm sure you'll do great. First time on your own can be very overwhelming, believe me, I know. But just look at it like..." she thought for a moment. "Like pulling off a band-aid. One quick jerk. RIGHT OFF!"
"I h-h-hope so," Tara sighed. "I c-can't go back to being a C-collector."
"Hey, there's nothing wrong with Collectors, T, no matter what your dad says," Faith said gently. "Goddess knows we're going to need plenty of them when the flu pandemic starts taking off... And let's not even talk about that big asteroid that's going to make kissy-face with our lovely little planet in 2007."
Tara was lost in her own thoughts for a moment. Her mother had been a Collector. And a very good one. For a moment, she thought of Spike and Drusilla. And Mort. All of them were pretty ruthless. She wondered if had it that in her. She definitely would like to believe so, but... Ah, this is silly. I've harvested before... sure, it was with Mort, but still... I've harvested before...
"...so then I had this huge skull tattooed right on my ass, T."
Tara blushed slightly. "Um... Skull? T-t-tattoo? Ass?!"
"Pfft, as if," Faith scoffed. "You were miles away there for a moment. Just making sure you were still paying attention."
Faith snatched the folder from Tara's coffee-table before she could protest and flipped it open. Tara could see Faith's eyes roaming over the text in the file. A small hint of a smile was tugging at Faith's lips. "Oh, T," she said while closing the folder and handing it to Tara. "You can really have some fun with this one."
"Fun? I'm going to end someone's life tomorrow," Tara sighed. "No Mort to hide behind anymore."
Faith crossed her arms. "You're not... remorseful, are you?"
"Of course not," Tara challenged. "It's just that... there's supposed to be a certain respect for the dead... um, or the soon-to-be-dead, Faith."
"T, get some rest," Faith said gently. "Tomorrow, you'll harvest your first soul. You'll see how easy it'll be. Come on, you're worried about nothing."
Tara nodded. Perhaps everything would work out for the best. Faith rose from the couch and picked up her cloak. She briefly offered Tara a comforting smile and move to the front door. "First time tomorrow," Faith grinned before leaving. "Make her death spectacular, T!"
Her curiosity was piqued enough for Tara to dare take a look. She took a deep breath, and flipped open the folder to review her very first case.
She was surprised when she read the file. For some reason, she'd been expecting an older person, and certainly not a young woman like this. Whoever took the picture that came with the file had caught her on a good day. The picture showed a young woman with half-long red hair, a happy smile and the most dazzling green eyes she had ever seen. For a moment, she simply couldn't look away.
Her name was Willow. Hm, unusual name. Willow Danielle Rosenberg, a first-year student in Computer Sciences at Sunnydale UC.
Sunnydale? I wonder where that is... Near Fresno, maybe? I'll figure it out tomorrow, I guess.
There were some details of her life, an address... Tara wondered for a moment why the Powers-That-Be had picked this young woman to die. This Willow was just about her age. Then again, it might simply be her time. Some people were fated to died young. A sad fact of life.
Tara decided to take Faith's advice to call it a night. Tomorrow, she would end the life of Willow Rosenberg.