“Now, what's the problem?” asks the demon, looking around, “Other than that these two are still alive?” “She has a seven! A SEVEN!” shouts a vaporous soul, a young man when he died. There's a loud murmuring of the crowd. The demon's head snaps back to look at me.
“Is that right,” his voice is all serious. The shorter demon still has said nothing but is staring at me with unnerving focus. The tall demon steps around Nick, looking at me up and down. “How many do you have?” he asks slowly. He is deadly focused on me, his eyes not blinking. I feel an unholy chill, I want to leave.
“Just one,” I say, almost whispering.
“Where did you get it?” asks the tall demon. The short demon glances at the taller one now but the thin one shakes his head without looking at him.
"I found it while I was transitioning,” I say, “I didn't know what it was at first, but I had to pick it up.”
“Of course, you did. What creature wouldn't?” He leans close to me, his silky voice low now, “What do you want for it?” His voice is a soft seduction.
I swallow. “What makes you think I want something?”
He steps back and laughs. “You really want me to believe that you and your little doggie came here not wanting something? Or for some reason? What live soul would come down here otherwise? AND how would they know how to get down here in the first place? No, no. You and the puppy are here for a reason. Am I right?”
I say nothing. Neither does Nick but he still has his hand on the sword handle. The thin demon walks in a circle around us, the crowd widening to give him room. “Are you looking for someone? People who make it down here are usually looking for someone. Or are you looking for someTHING,” he says this last word close to my ear and I jump. His unblinking black eyes are strangely beautiful. He has long, thick lashes. He must have been a real beauty before falling.
“I want,” I stop and then speak on, “I want 2000 dragnets and the location and ability to enter the White Tower.” It's not a good idea to bargain for a Seven but I know it happens all the time. Still, the nature of the object gives you the feeling that you shouldn't.
“DONE!!!” the demon shouts, all smiles now then his smile abruptly vanishes, “To make it truly official I will even give you the pass code to the building.” The demon produces a curved knife with a spectacular jewel encrusted handle but before he can cut himself, I tell him I want the knife too.
“You drive a hard bargain but the answer is yes.” With that he cuts his pinky off to the first joint and hands it to me. It does not bleed blood but a fruity rotten smell fills the air as the flesh closes the wound. He winces and then smiles slowly. I reach into my pocket for a handkerchief and wrap the pinky joint up, slipping it into my pocket then he pulls out a bag and hands it to me. The dragnets jingle inside. I look at them quickly and hand the bag to Nick.
“There might be a couple more than 2000 in there,” he says.
“Thank you,” I say, “You were probably off to a tournament.”
“Indeed and now I'm late but this entire transaction makes it very, very worthwhile,” he says. He gives me the curved knife in its sheath and then leans close and whispers in my ear. He tells me the location of the White Tower and how to get inside then he hands me a small key, all tarnished silver.
“Isn't this your only key?” I ask. I don't know why I'm concerned about that.
“Nah. We lose them all the time, see how small they are? The boss doesn't care anymore. And now, the Seven, miss.” He stands slightly away from me and holds out his hand. The little demon holds his breath as reach into my pocket. Everyone is holding their breath, I realize. I pull the Seven out and then slip it into his palm. The Seven sits shimmering in his palm. I hear a sob from behind me. He closes his hand over it, blinking away a black tear himself. He bows, “Thank you for this transaction. If you need anything my name is Ax.” I nod at him and both Ax and the short demon make their way through the crowd. Nick and I look after them and then we turn to walk towards the middle of the square. No one bothers us.
Nick walks in silence for some minutes. I stop at a vendor and buy box dinners for both of us. We find a small table nearby and sit down as the hordes of souls walk back and forth. The box dinner has magnificently prepared steak, fluffy mashed potatoes, and a very rare, huge perfectly steamed artichoke with lemon mayonnaise.
Nick doesn't eat, he only looks at me.
“If you're worried about eating something here and not being able to return back home, don't worry. Things don't work that way.”
“So why is it in a myth?”
“Because Persephone spent six days in bed with the God of the Underworld in ecstasy. She belonged to him after that. That's why they say it's six pomegranate seeds.”
“Hm yourself. Eat, Nick.” I slice off a piece of steak. It melts in my mouth. Nick's dinner is vegetarian and includes a beautiful assortment of vegetables which makes his dinner even rarer. He is clearly impressed and eating eagerly. When he slows, he puts his fork down and looks at me.
“So Miss Turtle are you going to tell me what a Seven is?”
I sigh, feeling reluctant. “A Seven is a unit of money from Heaven, that neighborhood.”
“Wait a minute! They have money in Heaven?”
“Yes, but the souls there don't need it. The Sevens are issued in Heaven and used here and in other places.”
“What other places?”
"Purgatory. Transitional spaces. Recreational places."
“Huh,” says Nick. He is looking at me like I've lost my mind.
“If you get seven Sevens you can bypass the usual path to Heaven. If you show up at St. Peter's Gate with seven Sevens he will let you in, no questions asked. And it doesn't matter what you look like or whether you're a demon or human or whatever. You still get in and you still get saved.”
“That sounds weird. Capitalistic. I mean, you are saying you can buy your way into Heaven.” Nick picks up his fork and starts eating again.
“That is indeed the case. A total of seven Sevens gives you the grace of God, automatically. All your sins, problems, prior record, all washed away. And that's not all. If you can get 10 Sevens you can exchange them for an ingot which gets you into Heaven and allows you free access.”
“Free access?” Nick picks up his fork again and pokes at some squash.
“Yes. Free access to everywhere. That means you can come and go as you please. Even in Heaven. Very few have free access. Even the archangels, who can go anywhere else, can't come down here. You still have to observe the usual rules, though.”
“What rules?” Nick is looking at me with an enraptured expression. He is fascinated by my bizarre world. He is leaning forward eagerly, holding a forkful of vegetables. I glance around. Souls are walking by us, not stopping, but they are looking at us with frank envy. Some are glaring but none bother us. The strange, dark light of this place gives the impression of being in an eclipse all the time. It feels unnatural.
“The usual rules. In transitional zones, for example, there's a no weapons rule. Of course, in all the major zones there's a no weapons rule, but people used to use their weapons in transitional zones all the time and there were some nasty wars and battles fought there. Most of the rules relate to when you can use and draw your weapons.”
“What about me?” he asks. I frown at him. I hadn't thought about it. Nick has been using his sword throughout this story but there have been none of the usual alarms and restrictions.
“Could it because I'm still alive?” I still say nothing wondering what to do about this discrepancy. It doesn't sit well with me and I don't want to rewrite this story.
“I don't know. It can't be your sword. There's nothing magical about it as far as I know. Let me see it.”
He hands it to me. The sword is relatively light. I hold it in my hands and look at the handle carefully. It's a jian, a double-edged Chinese straight sword, very fine. There are magnificent etchings on the steel blade. I turn it over and my hands stop. There's a gold inset and it's glowing with an unnatural brilliance. I can't believe I didn't notice it earlier.
I don't bother removing the gold inset. I hand the sword back to Nick and lean towards him.
“You have an ingot underneath this gold insert,” I say speaking low. Nick reaches for his sword. “No, don't remove the insert. It will cause a riot here.”
His eyes are glowing. “How do you know?”
“You can tell by the glow, but since your hand is almost always over it and it's facing your body when the sword is sheathed it's difficult to see.” I sit back looking at him. “Who gave you the sword?”
“Your Dead Version,” he says. He has put down his fork and pushed his plate away. I'm about half way finished with my artichoke. I place it on the bread plate in front of us, gesturing for him to take a few leaves. He picks up leaf and slips it into his mouth.
I smile, thinking I should give her a proper name. “Well, she of all people would know when such a thing is warranted. No matter what, Nick, you cannot give up that sword. I'm amazed that the demons at the jail cell missed it. If you have to, abandon the sword and take the thing out. It's a guarantee.”
“I've never seen it glow like that. It usually looks like plain gold to me,” he says as I hand the sword back to him. And even as I'm looking at the sword again it's glowing is gone. I frown, then hold out my hand. He hands it back to me. The glowing starts again. I give it back to him and he puts it back on.
I lean towards him again. “I have 14 Sevens.” His eyes widen. “They are there in case we need them but only in case.”
“So why not just exchange the 10 for one of those things?” he asks.
“Can't. Have to do that at the Pearly Gates in Heaven and I haven't been to Heaven yet. I've only gotten as far as Eden.”
“Oh,” says Nick, frowning at me. He takes off his glasses and wipes his lovely eyes then he runs his hand through his hair, making his hair stand on end. I love that about him.
“This eating/expository interlude has gone on for far too long, Nick. Time to move on.” I get up and shoulder my backpack. He stands up brushing off his pants. We look around the huge square. I look for the nearest landmark Ax told me to find and start walking towards it.