Chapter 1 : Eighteen Pleats
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“Number four. Number four, Mr. Gilman can see you now,” the secretary did not look up from her desk, only glanced at a pulsing red light on its surface and scratched away at her notes. For a long moment no reply came, and she was finally forced to tear her eyes upwards to scan the room. The two rows of chairs that lined the walls were empty. She pursed her lips in annoyance, but the feeling quickly passed. There was no number four to be seen, but no other customers had arrived either, and she would be damned if she wasn’t about to leave early for lunch. With one last glance towards the light orb—it had disappeared—she grinned, patted her coifed hair, and picked up her handbag. Still smiling, she slipped her wand into the purse, straightened her chair at the desk, and headed for the door. Mr. Gilman rarely asked her for anything until after lunch. She could be sure that he would stay in his office until she returned, and so, without a backwards glance, she quickly left the room.
She didn’t even notice the door to Mr. Gilman’s office opening behind her, nor did she ever see the woman who had sat right in front of her for nearly half an hour.
Aixa de la Monte closed the door quietly behind herself and stood in front of Edward Gilman’s desk, her hands nervously smoothing the pleats of her Muggle-style skirt, feeling them pass beneath her fingers as she counted. Three, four, five…
Mr. Gilman was a man of average height and slightly overweight build, young, with an attractive face despite the thin layer of pudge beneath his chin. He didn’t look up from his files for several long moments, and Aixa finally cleared her throat quietly, not trying to be rude, but having a very specific reason for her appointment that day.
“Miss…de la Monte?” Edward finally said, his blue eyes rising to rest on Aixa. She was tall and wraith-thin with dark brown hair and eyes, “foreign-looking,” the Brits would say if they ever chanced to see her and had the opportunity to give a description. “Welcome. Please take a seat. Can I get you anything to drink?”
Aixa shook her head and sat in the blue vinyl chair in front of the desk, ignoring the stuffing that was falling out of a large rip in the cushion.
“Thank you, sir, but I’m fine.”
“You’re here about a Portkey request, Miss de la Monte?” Edward asked at last, taking a sip from a cup of cold coffee that had been sitting on his desk for the greater part of the last three hours. He shuddered at the horrid taste and set the cup down.
“Yes, sir,” Aixa said politely, cringing at her own lie, “and please, call me Aixa.” She paused to gather her thoughts, smoothing the skirt again and counting the pleats with a worried look in her eyes. Eight, nine, ten…“My sister-in-law is ill in Spain, and her husband is…away. I would very much like to be with her at this difficult time. I wouldn’t be returning for quite a while…”
Edward nodded slowly and laid his short-fingered hands on the surface of his wooden desk.
“Well, Miss de—” Edward cleared his throat, “Ayy-eek-za,” he stumbled over the name, “it will be very difficult to arrange a Portkey to Spain right now…” He paused again and ran a hand through his short blond hair as his stomach grumbled. This was not a situation that he wanted to explain to this young woman, especially when he could be eating lunch right now. “You see,” he said at last, “the British Ministry of Magic has taken a strong stance against Grindelwald and his sympathizers…and the Spanish have sided against our cause. Many of their…fighters…are loyal to Grindelwald. As such, all travel to and from the country is now being strictly monitored.”
Aixa sighed and twisted her fingers in her lap. Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen…In the silence that stretched between them, Edward’s stomach grumbled again. Aixa’s fingers skimmed over a thin run in her skirt—it wouldn’t happen here—she knew they had to leave.
“Perhaps we could get lunch and speak about this more in a more comfortable setting?” she asked reluctantly. She knew that Edward was distracted by his stomach, and she had other important duties to attend to that day. First, however, she needed to get this man out of his office.
Edward nodded and smiled widely, showing two straight rows of teeth, except one crooked one on the bottom.
“I don’t usually agree to such requests, but I think I can make an exception today,” he said politely. “It would be my pleasure. Let me gather my things.”
Aixa nodded and stood shakily, adjusting her feet in ill-fitting heels and again smoothing her skirt. She had reached the last of the pleats on the front—eighteen. That was today’s number. Eighteen minutes from the beginning of their conversation. How many were left?
Aixa shook her head, feeling the pins strain against her bundled hair. Thinking about it would only make it worse, and she knew that, so she pushed the numbers and minutes away and waited anxiously for Edward to return from the small coat room attached to his office. Only a few more moments passed before he arrived, now carrying a wide-brimmed hat and a wearing wider smile.
“Shall we?” he asked, opening the door for her.
Aixa smiled and nodded, adjusting her own hat and stepping through the door. She let Edward lead the way through the maze of Ministry hallways to the clanging lifts and stepped on beside him. A bellman asked Edward for their floor, and lazily pointed his wand at the doors as they slid shut. Slowly, they rattled towards the Atrium.
“I know of a place a few blocks from here where we can eat and discuss your predicament,” Edward said as they stepped off the lift with several other witches and wizards. Aixa only nodded silently; there was no point in conversation. As they walked through the crowds, other Ministry workers greeted Edward, and he didn’t seem to realize that almost no one took notice of Aixa’s presence by his side.
“The visitors’ exit?” Aixa asked quietly when Edward stopped in the middle of the Atrium and waved his wand upwards at the vaulted ceiling.
“It will be nice to walk outside,” he said simply as the phone booth descended out of the air. “Don’t you think?”
Aixa did not think so, but she said nothing. Her palms had begun to sweat and she wiped them over her skirt nervously as she and Edward entered the cramped box. They stood as far apart as they could, trying to be polite, as Edward spun the dial on the telephone, and it again began to rise into the air.
Aixa bit her lip, her thoughts tumbling over each other as at last the phone box stopped its grating ascent, and she and Edward stepped outside into the afternoon sunshine.
“Don’t worry, Miss de la Monte,” the Portkey official said with a smile. “We’ll reach some sort of conclusion in your situation.”
Aixa forced a smile onto her face.
“I know, Mr. Gilman,” she replied quietly, flinching only slightly.
Together, the two of them began their journey down the street, Aixa slightly behind as Edward led the way towards a café six blocks north. It was a pleasant September day and the streets were crowded with people coming and going from work and lunch. At the corner of the street, a car beeped its horn at slow crossers, and Aixa swallowed hard. How would it happen? A car accident?
“Other than your predicament, how are you today, Miss Aixa?” Edward asked as they crossed the road and stepped onto a wider street on the other side.
“Preoccupied, sir,” Aixa replied honestly after only a moment. “I have a task to complete today, and it has never been something that I enjoyed.”
Edward made a sympathetic sound and let the vague topic drop.
“The café is just on the next corner,” he explained as they stopped again to let cars pass. To avoid looking at Edward, Aixa scanned the crowd around them. A woman smiled at her, and the young girl who held her hand waved and grinned, showing a gap from a missing front tooth. Aixa’s eyes followed the movement of the wave, and she felt her stomach twist and her heart plummet. Now, frantically, she looked from face to face. Each person met her eyes, nodding, inclining his or her head, looking away in embarrassment or disinterest.
Something was wrong.
“Edward,” she said suddenly. She still had a chance to save him, to tell him to apparate away, to escape what was about to happen. She had no particular affinity for the Portkey official, but he, at least, was a wizard. He still had a chance. Her companion jumped at the address.
“Is something the matter?” he asked, his eyebrows pulling together on his smooth forehead.
Aixa never had the time to reply. From somewhere in the crowd, a man screamed,
“The sky! Look at the sky!”
All around them, people’s necks craned as they scanned the air above them, jostling into each other in shock at the planes silhouetted against the clouds…but it was too late. Before the first siren sounded, the bombs began to fall.
A faint whistle accompanied each as it plummeted towards the city. Chaos reigned in the streets. Aixa stood stock-still as people pushed past each other, shoving anyone and everyone out of their way as they sprinted towards buildings which would provide them with little shelter from the aerial onslaught. Beside her, Edward stood where he was, dazed and terrified, the beginnings of shock setting in, with no way out, nowhere to go.
“Aixa,” he said quietly as a building far behind them exploded and he stumbled with the force of the shockwave. Aixa looked into his blue eyes, her own filling with tears. “I’m sorry that you won’t be able to go to Spain,” he finished. The next moment, the bomb fell, and everything went black.
For several long minutes after the area around her fell silent, Aixa continued to stand on the remnants of the street corner. Fires burned in the few buildings that remained standing, but most were leveled. Debris covered everything, but a few torched corpses stuck out from the rubble, the smell of charred flesh making Aixa choke, but she could not look at them.
She had seen terrible things, terrible deaths, but nothing like this. The remains of so many people littered the street, barely recognizable from the force of the blast, and the wailing sound of the air raid sirens continued in the distance. Above her, Aixa could still hear the planes flying sweeps, dropping their bombs on the people of London.
The moments passed, and the time dragged on. Aixa didn’t know how long she stood there on the shattered corner before the others began to join her. Wispy, unsure forms rose from the destruction, glancing at one another in fear and confusion. They wafted in the breeze from the still-burning fires and drifted towards her, somehow knowing—they always somehow knew—that she was the next step in their journey.
The girl from the street corner still held the hand of her mother as they approached Aixa, their heads swiveling at the chaos around them, eyes wide and terrified.
“Aixa?” a quiet voice asked behind her. It echoed strangely with nothing to bounce off of except the emptiness of death.
“Yes,” she replied just as quietly, turning to face Edward.
“We’re dead,” he whispered, the certainty in his voice sounding heavy as he waved a hand vaguely at the souls who came to join them.
“You are,” Aixa affirmed, her voice breaking on the words. She had never escorted so many at once, never led a flock so large. She smoothed the pleats of her skirt, but there were none left. This crowd was her task. She was sure she would be sent back for more.
“Why aren’t you?” the woman with the daughter asked, her echoing voice carrying over the now-assembled crowd of dead.
“I am a Reaper,” Aixa responded quietly, her heart breaking for the first time in eons. Other journeys had hurt, but this one…this one was so much worse. “I am here to take you to the other side.”
Author's Note: Hello everyone! This is the first one-shot I've written since the summer! I was given the Reaper in the "Supernatural Creatures" challenge with the goal of making the creature unique and different in some way, and also tried to use Aixa's skirt as a MacGuffin for another challenge. [A MacGuffin is a plot device in the form of (in this case) an object that drives the protagonist forward, often with little to no narrative explanation for its importance.] I'm not sure how successful I was, but I hope you liked this story. Please leave a review!
Update: This story won 2nd place in the "Supernatural Creature" challenge! :)
Also: If you have additional questions that you would like answered, please feel free to go to my "Meet the Author" page on the forums. There's a link on my author's page!
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