Never Before Scene…

Straight from the cutting room floor, here’s an (unedited) deleted scene from BOOK #1 of The Reluctant Reaper Series.

When I said I wanted my life to take a new direction, I hadn’t meant straight down.

“Whoops! I’ve fallen dune.” I said, surveying the sandy cliff I’d tumbled over. “And I can’t get up!” If my voice cracked at the end, how can I be blamed? Now I was trapped in a pit in the Pit. “This is the pits!”

I surveyed my new, lower surroundings. Fog lay like a blanket over the pit, yet daylight or cave-light managed to pass through.

The slope I’d tumbled down was a steep, concave curve of crumbling, sandy soil. Although it was only about ten feet high, there was no way I was climbing back out that way.

I reconnoitered, turning 360 degrees and checking out the opportunities for escape. The dune-like ridge ringed the entire bowl-shaped depression, which was about the size of half a dozen football fields. Maybe larger. It reminded me of an open pit mine… or the grassy plains of the Serengeti I’d seen on nature shows. I looked around for something to use as a stepping stone or ladder, but the flat field offered no handy step stools.

Life-threatening (or was that afterlife-threatening?) danger aside, it was actually nice here. Almost park-like. I thought I saw cows grazing in the distance, but when they raised their head, their eyes glowed red… making a nice matching set with the scarlet liquid dripping from their jaws. Even from a distance I could see they were ripping something to shreds. It looked like a very small skull. I hoped it wasn’t—correction, hadn’t been—human. And since we were disembodied souls here in Hell, would the body reassemble itself? How much would that hurt? I absolutely wasn’t going any closer to find out.

Something tickled the back of my mind. I felt an affinity to these cows. This must be that bleed-through effect Sue Sayer had mentioned. I’d been a Swedish dairy farmer in a past life, right?

Carnivorous cattle were different, though—I couldn’t imagine an ad campaign “Got blood?” featuring a grinning Holstein with a bright red mustache. Yetch!

So scary bovines aside, I was going to need to make with the scrambling out again. I tried taking a good run at the slope I’d fallen down, but the loose scree just left me with bloody knees.

I was so preoccupied with trying to exit the pit that I didn’t notice the knot of small figures until they had assembled right behind me. They giggled and pointed, and I half-expected my observers to hold up little cardboard squares rating my escape attempts 9.5 and 8.0. They looked to me to be dwarves, like Snow White’s seven boyfriends. Or maybe trolls. Was there a difference? I hoped these weren’t more DNA altering gnomes. They were about three times as tall as the gee-gnomes, which brought my new visitors up to my waist or thereabouts. Was I being politically incorrect lumping all short hellions into a single group? I worry about these things.

My petite watchers wore rusty chainmail vests and leather kilts, kind of like short, ancient Romans warriors. It was hard to actually see their outfits since the grass came up their armpits. I had an aerial view, however, relatively speaking.

I felt like the star of troll TV, so I stopped my highly entertaining efforts to climb back up the way I’d fallen.

“Welcome to the Pit,” the largest of the dwarves intoned. “The deepest of all the levels of Hell!”

“This? This is the deepest? But it’s only about ten feet at the highest, er, lowest point. With a good boost, I could—Ow!”

The three-foot-tall, bruise-colored guy raised his foot to kick me in the shin again. “Hey, stop that!” I stepped back a couple of paces, although I braced myself to kick the little guy back if he came after me. I’d never played soccer, but I wasn’t too dead to learn. I’d kicked a gee-gnome and I’d found kicking Dante so satisfying earlier that… day or whatever we were calling time periods down here. Maybe this was karma at its most literal. I’d kicked others, now this little person had kicked me. A vicious cycle of viciousness.

“It may not seem insurmountable to a giant like you, but it is an unscalable cliff to us!”

The guy’s voice boomed a deep bass. I expected high pitched Munchkin but got late night DJ. It was kind of funny. I hid my snicker by rubbing my shin.

Then I stopped snickering as one of the flesh-eating cow-things trotted closer. Pygmy flesh-eating cow-thing, that is. By attributing regular cow height to them, I’d mistakenly thought them farther away. The dim lighting played tricks with perspective. Up close, it resembled a goat. I was just about to warn the little fellows when I realized the goat wore riding tackle—bridle and saddle and whatever else you stick on a four-legged beasty to make it a slightly less uncomfortable ride. I’d taken riding lessons as a kid and had usually been sore for a week after each lesson, which meant I felt better just in time for the next lesson, only to spend the next week in pain again. Needless to say it had only taken me six months to figure out I didn’t want to take riding lessons.

One of the goats strolled up behind the dwarf-troll-whatevers and nuzzled his neck. He stroked it absentmindedly, until it butted him in the rear. Now with a normal horse-like creature, that wouldn’t be bad, but like so many of the denizens of Hell, this thing had horns. Not antlers so much as little goat-like spikes. With a shout of “Oh, skeeegggg!” the dwarf went flying into one of his buddies, bowling his companion over in the grass. Now the others laughed at them instead of me. I was okay with that since both little guys immediately scrambled to their feet, unhurt. The one who’d been punted rubbed his backside and fed the goat a treat of dripping red something. I hoped it wasn’t a gobbet of raw meat. I really wasn’t interested in finding out what a gobbet was. The thing nearly took off a finger grabbing it.

“What are those?” I asked, pointing at the goat-cow. A miasma of rotting socks hit me just then. I couldn’t tell if it came from the little guys, the goat-cow, or the treat it had devoured. My eyes watered, but I showed them a toothy smile, not wanting to offend beings who commanded flesh-eating beasts.

“Those are the gruffs. They are something like the beasts you would call goats,” he announced.

“Okay.” So goats they were. I didn’t ask what they ate. Instead I changed the subject. “Nice place you got here.” I was feeling a little out of my depth. About ten feet out of my depth, actually. “I mean, nice pit.”

They seemed to like that. They conferred for a moment, standing tall (for them) and crossing their muscular arms across their wee chests. One guy got his gauntlet caught in his chainmail. It took three of his buddies to disconnect him.

“What you see before you…” Their apparent leader made a theatrical gesture indicating the entire valley. “Is the deepest Pit in Hell. It was once a vast but shallow ocean. Sadly, the fires of Hell have dried its waters. It is now but a shell of its former greatness.”

He pointed to a small lake in the middle of the bowl. More gruffs lolled about on the shore. I squinted at it, finally bringing it into focus. A massive bridge spanned the lake and a fair amount of real estate on either side of it. I figured the lake must have been much bigger when the bridge was constructed. Some little conical dwellings huddled under the bridge.

“And we are the keepers of the Pit. Once a great ocean, now a dead sea.”

He bowed low, the stiff leather strips that comprised his skirt rising straight up in back. I was very glad he was facing me. “I’m William, by the way. We are the Dead Sea Trolls.”

I’d always imagined trolls as somewhat larger. Perhaps they came in small, medium and large. Their skin color fell within the same general hue as Bob the Barker, but the trolls had one less head, each.

“Ssssstay with usssss a while.” William hissed out the last sentence. I wondered if the Dead Sea Trolls were reptilian. Their skin looked a little scaly, and I thought it unlikely the entire race might just lack a good moisturizer. Amphibians, probably, as they’d been undersea creatures who’d gradually lost their watery habitat. Short, two-legged mer-trolls.

I didn’t much care for the invitation to stay. What happens when the gruffs got hungry again? And what or whom had they been eating when I got there?

“No. I, uh, gotta be somewhere. I’m, uh, meeting my boyfriend for a drink. He’ll come looking for me if I don’t show up.”

“Your boyfriend?” William asked. He sniffed me. Was he scenting my new soul as Sybil Serpent had back at the Reincarnation Station, or was he figuring out if I was tasty?

“Yes. My boyfriend.” I felt a little insulted at William’s incredulous tone. I could so have a boyfriend. “His name is Dante.” I knew exactly one guy’s name down here. Well, two, really. But Bob the Barker was much too old and sported one too many heads for my taste. I wasn’t into exhibitionism.

“Ah, Dante. Tell him hello for us. See you ‘round.” William turned toward the lake. He and his gang began to trudge away, leather skirts thwapping against their thighs as they walked.

My first thought was, please don’t bend over. My first useful thought was how was I going to get out of there?

“Uh, guys?” They kept moving. One troll at the back looked over his shoulder. “A little help here, please?”

The one at the rear left the pack and strode back toward me. This troll’s outfit differed a little, and with a gasp, I realized it was a she-troll. She stood, hands on hips, chainmail doing little to cover her assets.

“Hi, I’m Kirsty.” Having never learned how to curtsy, I bowed instead. “And you would be?”

“Billie,” she replied, scratching her mustache. “What do you need our help for?”

“I was kind of hoping to get out of here.”

Billie yawned, gazing over her shoulder. The other dead sea trolls had ceased walking and now stood about, probably waiting for her. Perhaps she, rather than William, was head troll.

Billie half turned to leave, and I knew I was losing her interest and, with her, my chance of escape. I turned on my PR skills. “You see, I’m not really supposed to be here. There was an accident, and Dante—okay, he’s not really my boyfriend, but I really like him. And he could get in trouble, and I need to earn some points and see someone in charge and…” I stopped speaking. I could feel my lower lip trembling and my eyes burning. “I’m just… I’m so alone!” That last wasn’t part of any PR spiel. I never tried to manipulate people… just give them enough data to draw their own conclusions. The chin-trembling was genuine, as well as embarrassing.

Billie turned back to me. Reaching up, she patted my elbow consolingly. “I understand. We’re not heartless. Well, not figuratively speaking, anyway. We’ll help you get out of here, but you have to do something for us.”

“Okay,” I sniffled. “It doesn’t involve losing more Karmic Kredit points, does it?”

The little troll laughed—a delicate, tinkly sound like a fairy would make, until she snorted like a pig. “Points? We have no need of points in the Pit. We have everything we need here.”

“What then?”

“You must bring us the head of Satan!”

“Bring you the head of…” I gasped. “Surely, you can’t be serious!”

“Nah, just yanking your chainmail.” Billie winked at me. “And don’t call me Shirley.” I guess Airplane runs on Hellivision as often as Earthly TV. “I was kidding about having everything we need, too. Chainmail don’t come cheap, you know. How many points you got?”

“Twenty-eight.” There seemed no point in lying.

“Well, that sucks. Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to get you out of here, and then you’re going to find the floating casino and bet five of your points on red seven to win. If our number comes up, we split the winnings 50-50. If you lose, well, sorry about the five points.”

I gazed around the giant troll bowl again. No exits suddenly appeared, even when I tried the unfocused gaze that had shown me Dante back in the restaurant’s men’s room. And the light was slowly dimming—as if there could be dusk in a cave. I didn’t even know if night fell around here, but I was getting tired. I was sure a hotel would cost me, too.

Damn it to Hell! How had I managed not to lose any points the last two times I’d been here between incarnations? I guess I’d just accepted the first reincarnation they’d offered. My hands clenched into fists. No way was I getting another boring life. I wanted some excitement and unpredictability, although by the time I got this undead thing straightened out, a nice staid life might seem highly desirable. Still, I hung onto my resolve to make a difference in the world. I’d show them!

I did a slow pirouette, squinting as I did so. The wall rimming the Pit ranged from around eight- to ten-feet high. There was no way I could climb up it, even if I stood on Billie’s shoulders. “How do you guys get out when you need to?”

“We have our ways,” she said archly. “If you look way over there on the other side of the Pit, you can see that it’s a little lower there.” She pointed off in the distance. I thought the wall did look a little shorter there, but it might have been a trick of perspective. Perspective down here could be a weird thing, what with the strange lighting and the fact that none of the laws of physics applied—at least not consistently. More like whenever the spirit moved them.

“Okay, come with me.” She began to head off in the direction she had pointed. The path she chose was well-worn through the tall grass, so the vegetation didn’t impede us. The rest of her clan awaited us a little ways along the path, some riding the gruffs, some walking. We traveled for about half an hour, at which point we reached the small lake, the oversized bridge, and the little houses.

“We’re making a Pit stop,” Billie announced, inviting me into her home. On the outside, it looked dark, menacing, gothic, and not entirely structurally sound. But inside… it was actually more of the same. It was her home, however, so I said it was nice. It featured a fully functional—if somewhat diminutive—bathroom, for which I was grateful.

When I returned feeling much refreshed, Billie pulled some cheese and sausage and bread from a cold room. She turned out to be good company, although a lot of what she said went over my head. I didn’t have a frame of reference for all things Hellish.

“I’m enjoying myself,” I told her partway through the meal. Suddenly shy, I checked out my cuticles instead. “You’re a fun person to hang out with.”

“Sure I am.” I met her gaze now. Her eyes sparkled, and her grin flashed bright white, slightly pointy teeth. “To gnome me is to love me.”

The dead sea trolls appeared at first glance to be quite isolated from the rest of Hell and certainly from the Mortal Coil. And yet somehow Billie had an exceptional grasp of the current slang and a killer sense of humor. I stood reluctantly when she announced it was time to move on.

“No rest for the wicked awesome,” she said, opening the door and ushering me through.

A few of her fellow trolls joined us and escorted me to the slight dip in the edge of their world.

We had just reached the rim when it began to rain. Big fat drops of sizzling hot water bounced off my head and shoulders. Billie pulled up her chainmail hood, for all the good the thin metal mesh did to protect her.

“We’re in a cave.” I shielded my eyes from the scalding drops. It was like a too-hot shower. Not hot enough to do any real damage, but hot enough to sting. “How can it rain?”

She shrugged, wiping moisture from her face. “Basic water table stuff. There was an ocean here. It evaporated. Every now and then a bunch of water falls back down. Circle of life and all that jazz.”

No wonder their chainmail rusted.

Billie blinked water out of her big purple eyes. An extra transparent eyelid descended, magnifying her eyes and lending her little face a frog-like quality. “So, we got a deal or what, sistah?”

“Okay. But we’re not exchanging any body fluids to seal this bargain, are we?”

Again she made with the tinkle-snort laughter. She seemed to enjoy my company as much as I’d enjoyed hers. “Follow me.” She waved at the other trolls, and we met them about a hundred yards down the Pit where the wall dipped. I could almost see over the edge, so it must only be about five and a half feet at this point, just an inch or so taller than me.

Billie and the others gathered around me in a tight circle. It would have been menacing if they’d been taller. “You’ve heard of dwarf tossing, right?”

“Oh, I think that’s so inhumane. I’d never toss a—”

“No, dummy. We’ll be tossing you.”

“No, wait! I—”

A dozen tiny calloused hands grabbed me. (One guy copped a cheap feel! Or maybe it was Billie.)

“Remember, red seven for the win.”

**Look for The Reluctant Reaper, coming from Simon & Schuster’s Pocket Star in 2013.**

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