By Loie Dunn
Izai regarded the long line of souls waiting at the crystal gate, all jabbering away like chaotic playmates. Of all the jobs to get, she was assigned the most boring. In and out, every day, new souls arrived from all corners of the Great Beyond.
She remembered it vividly: upon arriving in Paradise, a ghostly scribe met her. In his monotone voice, he warbled on and on about why her job was significant. That she shouldn’t take her eye off the line. Many people wanted to slip into Paradise and she had to maintain the utmost security.
Instead, Izai had stared at the pile of job descriptions on cream parchment while the scribe droned on. She’d scowled at all the amazing alternatives.
Airborne Messenger. Defender of the Near Woods. Most High Chef.
Her title? Guard.
That was it. No bells and whistles, nor flashy adjective. Just. Guard.
Daily, Izai remained at the front door, waiting for a friend to bring her a caffeinated beverage—preferably coconut chocolate—while she confirmed paperwork.
Today was no different.
“What’s your name?” Izai prompted, her gaze locked on the best part of an intriguing suspense novel.
She turned the weathered page. A deep chuckle snagged her attention, so she dog-eared the page and looked up.
Her fingertips grew cold. “What are you doing here?” Oliver was the ghostly scribe’s assistant, and the one who convinced the ghostly scribe to make her a guard. Shadows cocooned him, a stark contrast to his luminous gaze.
“I’ve come to give you a break. I’m recycling you for a new position. A much better position, in fact.” Oliver’s gold eyes sparkled and Izai—if she wasn’t a professional—would have reached out to strangle him.
Inhaling deeply, she pinched her nose while imagining fluffy white kittens. “Well, when you put it like that, how can I refuse?” She shot daggers at him with her eyes, because no way was she going to trust what he told her again. She looked away from him and yelled, “Next!”
Oliver didn’t budge, even when a giant with fists the size of garbage tins blundered forward, eyebrows knit together.
“What’s your name?” Izai’s heart thumped as she tried to ignore Oliver.
“Jop, Jop, Jop …” she trailed off, tracing the names in her gleaming Book of Paradise. She found eleven Jops.
“Kilorn.” Oliver said, beaming at her. “He’s taking your place. You’re coming with me, Izai.”
“Right. I’m being recycled. How touching.”
Her mouth dropped when feathery white wings shot out of Oliver’s shoulders. “Come here.”
Izai squeaked. “No way!”
Jop chortled and ambled behind the desk, shuffling through the book. “Yer name?”
“Hey! That’s my job.” Izai reached for the Book and the giant snorted.
“Go on, missy.”
Izai turned to yell at Oliver but swallowed her words. Arms swept her up into the air.
White feathers showered them both as she and Oliver shot up into the sky.
Her stomach bottomed. She wanted to shut her eyes, but the view and her terror kept her eyes wide open. They glided through the lavender sky, flinging past an orchestra practicing for the day’s end and beyond, and a Chef perfecting a new batch of sunshine meringue.
Oliver dove down, and this time Izai screamed. Digging her fingers into his arms, she swallowed hard to push the nausea down.
Izai blinked away the wind-driven tears and stared.
A gate shimmering with diamonds, sapphires, and topaz stretched high above her and disappeared into the golden clouds. Cold air whooshed through a crack in the door.
“What is this place?” Izai asked, a sense of wonder almost overtaking her.
“Your new place. Souls who want to go back to Earth get to go through this gate.”
Her eyebrows shot up. “You were serious then? About the whole recycle thing?”
Oliver smirked. “Yes. These souls get to go again. Inhabit another body below. Try again at life. Again, and again until they get it right.”
Izai frowned. “But that doesn’t make sense. What if they don’t get it ‘right’?” She shook her head. “No. Nobody in this life knows how to get it right perfectly, no matter how many chances you get.”
Oliver folded his arms in front of his chest. “That’s not true.”
“This is wrong. You shouldn’t have brought me here.” Izai wished she’d finished her chocolate coconut latte. She’d need the caffeine, especially for what she was about to do next.
Something she never thought she’d do.
Slipping her hand into the silver velvet pocket of her coat, she withdrew her wildcard.
A glittering knife, capable of destroying anything in its path, warmed in her palm. The scribe who gave it to her had been kind of cool after all.
“You brought me here to try and recycle souls back to Earth. Paradise is a better place. No one wants to go back there. You’re trying to trick me.”
Oliver’s eyes twitched, and the gold in his eyes leaked down his face like scalding tears.
Black orbs stared back at her.
Izai dove toward the gate and plunged her blade into the crevice of the doorway. Light blistered around them and heat devoured her. Being a guard wasn’t so boring after all.
Especially when you got to destroy corrupted gates.