Chapter 1 - Duty
The most annoying thing about hunting demons is the smell. The one in front of me naturally yielded no exception.
Green ichor of a most aromatic sort spurted generously from the stumps of the several tentacles I’d just managed to shorten, the foul mess splattering the walls of ice and rock around us as well as my best (and only) cloak. The vapors assaulting my sanity were, shall we say, worse than a raw sewage overflow from a center for the treatment of Crohn’s disease. FEMA would have posted signs declaring the bespoiled canyon a superfund site before themselves evacuating in a bureaucratic rush.
Yeah, it was that bad.
Frankly, if it wasn’t for my goggles the putridness would have driven me blind simply out of synesthesia-driven sympathy.
The beast from which this most amazing stench emanated tilted its heads back and roared, likely feeling a tad upset about the perforations inflicted upon its limbs. By upset, of course, I mean angry. And by angry I mean the insane rage of a creature standing taller than a house who looked like a massive octopus had gotten a smaller one forcibly fused into its upper torso. Toss some llama-spliced DNA in for good measure to gain the thick grey fur and tendency to spit and you’d possibly get something close to the abomination carving deep ruts into the ground with its flailing arms. Not to mention each protruding head had just a single eyeball, each glaring at me from above vertically tilted mouths shrieking with many rows of jagged teeth and spreading halitosis somehow even more pungent than the blood.
The strips of fabric trying to keep my face warm did little to help as I gagged and stumbled backwards. I had to plant the butt of my makeshift spear into the dirt just to regain some balance.
From quite a few feet behind came a grunt of disapproval. “Stop dilly-dallying. Finish it.” As if to emphasize her command a bowstring twanged, sending an arrow wetly into one of the creature’s eyes with a sound not unlike a knife plunging into rotting watermelon.
Finish it? Easily said by someone staying at a safe and conveniently upwind distance from all the freakishly fast tentacles oozing out its midsection. She hadn’t even bothered to charge the arrows with her usual extra mojo which likely could have splattered this thing’s brain with the shot.
This would have been a lot easier to handle if she hadn’t insisted on partnering with me today.
Peering upward at the frothing demon I flipped the spear back into a fighting stance. Potential paths through the many fur-clad yet leathery whips coalesced into streamers in my mind as I circled to one side, concentration focused on pruning the search tree of the possible futures I didn’t particularly like. Such as the ones where I’d get crushed, beaten, or devoured. Definitely didn’t want those.
Although the few where Captain Bitchface got eaten instead were admittedly tempting.
Sprinting forward with an amazonian bellow of my own I bounded off a lower limb’s trunk and pulled the bladed staff close so I’d spin like a rifle round through the leap. The demon’s counterattack snapped through the air where I’d just been, missing by mere inches. By holding the spear tightly in one fist I freed the other arm to reach out and ensnare a bunch of the sucker-covered tentacles, trapping them against my side between armpit and elbow. But before the spin caused me to become all entangled like a ball of squidly twine, I passed through the gap between the two heads and used the pull from the tentacles to snap myself around and land squarely behind one of the heads. Its own limbs gave me the leverage to stay planted.
The remaining eye suddenly found the only view of its pesky attacker obstructed by its own spare noggin. The beast roared in confusion, charging into a canyon wall to try and dislodge the pest which stubbornly clung on and kept stabbing into the fleshy seam between the two necks.
Holding firm at my newfound perch, the impact into the sharp icy crags of the wall did a lot more damage to it than to me. The machete-sized blade at the end of the staff finally found an artery, the resulting geyser of goop spraying everywhere as the demon thrashed about in a final choreography of death.
Except I wasn’t finished yet.
As the beast collapsed into its own pool of effluence I snarled and dug the weapon deeper into its flesh. Finding what I was looking for I dropped the spear clear of the body before plunging a hand into its wet innards. My arm almost wasn’t long enough but I got them all out. Nine of them.
They looked like rocks, the largest no bigger than a baseball, each glowing with a soft whitish-blue. Tenderly I wiped them clean with the corner of my cloak before lifting the scruffy fabric to form a sling with which to carry them. Holding the makeshift bundle close, I slid down the demon’s side to face the other more humanoid one standing with an impatient scowl across her scaly face.
Temptation rose again as we regarded each other and I slowly knelt to pick up the spear with one hand.
Captain Erglyk, leaning against her tall crystal longbow, broke the tension with a shake of the curved horns protruding from her temples. Tall and built like a truck she made a formidable impression. Especially in a scene illuminated only by the soft glow of the crystals set across her belt, the dim light reflected only by patches of the pale ice creeping its way through the jagged stone of the terrain. A rune-encrusted and feathered cuirass of dark iron highlighted by copper covered her chest, but many muscles bunched along the thick arms. The matching armored skirt revealed solid tree-trunk-like legs as well.
She grunted while examining the corpse. “You made a right mess of its pelt. Though we ought to be able to salvage enough given the size. That hide is tough enough to deflect arrows, should be useful as armor.”
“Great.” I went to walk past but her talons closed on a shoulder.
“Be sure to turn those in at the outpost.”
Gripping the spear tighter, I pulled away and kept walking. “I know the rules.”
“Jordan.” Her voice snapped my name, making it a command.
I stopped but didn’t look back.
She growled. “We’re going to have words later, girl.”
“Fine. Shall I go straight to your office and smear some of these lovely newfound stains across all your furniture while breathlessly awaiting your return?”
She snorted. “Ha! You would too. No. Get cleaned up. You earned a portion of this kill’s flesh for your meal but as you’d refuse I’ll take your share for myself.”
“Knock yourself out. Am I dismissed, Captain?”
“Aye. Send Cookie along with his knives to dress this mess. I’ll guard it from any would-be scavengers.”
Grunting an acknowledgment, I continued on under the starless black sky, the stones clutched tightly to my chest. They glowed with the last embers of the lost souls stuck within. I wanted to weep over them but what good would that do? Who knew how many eons they’d been trapped inside that demon, it slowly leaching every last drop of energy from their once shining and divine sparks.
They were long past having any awareness yet all the same I felt their pull. Unfocused sadness, distress, and abandonment to terror was all that remained within their cores.
Even if I could again spread blazing wings and reach out to them, what could I truly offer? Here in this place of darkness the shine within my own spirit had also paled, the light beyond unreachable. I too was stuck here in Hell amongst the damned. Restoring such souls to consciousness wouldn’t change a thing, it would only alter the form of their servitude. Would they even forgive being returned to such a fate?
All the same, I cradled them in my arms for the long walk back to the outpost.
Despite the intense cold slowly crystallizing all the grime into frost from head to toe and the ever-persistent pain throbbing across my back, I didn’t hurry.
A set of caves wound their way under a large hill in an otherwise flat region and had been turned into one of the remotest outposts. The main (and as far as I knew only) entrance consisted of a formidable metal gate plastered with protective sigils, and it would slide aside in a way reminiscent of a certain movie’s rebel base on a rather snowy planet. The gate was guarded by a hulking demon who I called ‘Biff’ since his true name was rather unpronounceable without shoving a cheese-grater down your throat. There were a few other guards stationed at the post - some demon, some human - but Biff lived in the shack right outside like our very own guard dog. One with more teeth than a doberman but about the same intelligence.
“Yo Biff,” I said as he stepped out of the small building made out of grey slabs piled one upon the other. I had to crane my head to look at the guy, the top of his spiky head was at least twelve feet up.
“Mark,” he grunted past numerous fangs.
“How many times I gotta say it, the name’s Jordan. Now let me in.”
Four arms each ending in claws about a foot long each crossed a hairless but broadly muscled chest. Biff’s only nod to decency was the leathery kilt hanging down from under the large beer gut. The thought of what lurked under that kilt always made me cautious, although Biff had never tried anything inappropriate.
He was unlike most of the demons I’d dealt with in that regard.
“Mark,” he insisted again.
“Dammit, my hands are full. It’s me. With that big a nose I bet you can smell the truth of that, current ichor not withstanding.”
“Maybe is you. Maybe is not. Mark.” He leaned closer, massive nostrils flaring wide to blow clouds of foul mist right into my face.
I groaned, shifting the spear to lean against a shoulder before using teeth to tug the glove free from my right hand. Holding the back of a fist up to his face the middle finger must have stayed extended due to the cold. “Havvy?” I asked with glove still dangling past my chin.
He peered at the squiggly collection of circles and lines seared into the skin, and one of his own beefy meathooks reached out to hover over it.
Sparks flew between the matching sigil on his palm to the one they’d branded me with.
“Is you.” He nodded then stepped back to bellow at the top of his lungs, “OPEN GATE!”
The thundering of tons of metal scraping over rock shook the ground while I tried unsuccessfully to get the glove back on. When the gap was wide enough I gave up, shoving the glove into my belt and heading into the dimly lit and rather wide cavern that lay behind.
Sometimes the fallen souls we Reapers brought in would freak out at this point as if just going into the cave triggered the full realization of the dismal scope of their newfound reality. Quite a few would make a run for it back outside to the empty frozen wasteland. There really wasn’t anywhere else to go though. Out there was just miles and miles of the same blood red stone, scattered undrinkable ice, and perpetual darkness.
Well that and the occasional mindless and hungry ancient demon.
Next stop for me down a narrow corridor was the Vault. This was where all soul orbs were kept until shipped by train to the Hole and thus into the clutches of the local feudal demon lord whom we all served. A set of train tracks found their end on the back side of the outpost’s hill, and why they hadn’t laid the rails such that it came to the front was something I had often wondered. The cyclically arriving train - powered by coal-driven steam - was the lifeline for food and supplies to all the outposts out here and ours was its last stop. As for the vault, it was run by a short goblin-like demon by the name of, and I’m not making this up, Yipe.
Maybe he took the name because it was a natural reaction for a soul to shriek when first seeing his six ears and five eyes.
Good thing he didn’t need glasses, right? His green skin was still smooth and honestly he looked to be in his teens, though I’d been told he’d served here for ages. He’d apparently been assigned to this post before even the Captain ended up here.
He acknowledged me with a nod as I walked into the alcove that held the huge nineteen-fifties’ style bank safe behind his desk, combination wheel and all. It was heavily warded such that my senses couldn’t penetrate to the content. Not that I’d tried all that hard. You know, in case a ward would detect the scan and I’d then be stuck in an interrogation cave answering all kinds of unpleasant questions.
Spotting my awkward bundle Yipe asked, “How went today’s hunt?”
“Got nine.” Walking up to the desk, I carefully deposited the orbs, making sure they wouldn’t roll off the moment I let go.
“Mmm,” he said. “A good haul. Did their owners put up a good fight?” Already his greedy little hands were holding up an orb for closer examination.
“No. It didn’t.”
He paused, the larger eye in the center of the rest moving independently to regard me. “All nine from a single target?”
I didn’t respond to the compliment while Yipe casually evaluated the worth of each soul according to its feel and brightness. I’d caught him looking at me in the same way too many times to ever be comfortable in his presence.
Reaching into a drawer behind the desk, he pulled out a stack of ten tarnished metal disks each about the size of a quarter and placed them on the counter between us. Everyone called the coinage denarii after the ones that had been used in Rome, but I’d been told they’d once had an even older name.
And while they weren’t actually pieces of silver they sure as heck felt like it.
Scooping up the coins I left without saying goodbye. Not that Yipe cared.
Trying not to think about it I made my way to fulfill the Captain’s other command. Walking down tunnels lit only by the low blue shine of an occasional crystal sconce I approached the kitchens door. It even had those small rectangular windows that are always there in movies and tv shows for the entrances to restaurant kitchens.
Cookie stepped out of the wide doorway and stopped me from going any further. “Non, ma cherie. You shall not be warmed by my ovens and drip melting goo across my freshly scrubbed floor.” Being almost a foot shorter than me, the slender little guy looked up from the edge marking the limit of his kitchen’s domain. His sparse excuse for a mustache lurked suspiciously over a wide and friendly grin, and his grey apron was slick with cooking grease stains. “Shoo! To the showers with you, dear lady!”
For a guy who in his mortal life had poisoned an entire court of medieval nobles, Cookie was alright. He also had a rare talent of being able to squeeze a modicum of flavor out of the thinnest of ingredients. “I’m headed there next,” I told him. “But the Captain is waiting for you about an hour’s walk to the West. Bring your skinning knives.”
“Ah, le hunt was a success! Excellence. Our stores are running low on meat.”
I grimaced. “How you can stomach that crap, I have no idea.”
Cookie shrugged. “Not all of us deal with starvation as easily as you, ma cherie. Being already dead we cannot die of it, but why suffer needlessly, neh?” He looked past my shoulder. “And where is Twitch? Did he also find success alongside the Duchess’ newly arrived spawn?”
“No clue. The Captain sent them after the smaller signal further out but I’m sure they’re fine. Twitch can handle himself.”
“Is odd to have such a strong pair of invaders from the Spires.” He frowned. “The fungus-munching demons lurking in those lava-warmed caves know better than to cross the plains.”
“Yeah well, this one didn’t seem all that smart. Big but dumb.”
Fingers twirled one end of the mustache. “How big?”
“You’ll want one of the larger carts. And harness two graxh to pull it, maybe three. Especially if the Captain deems the other target edible too.”
“Mmm, oui. I shall set out at once. Now please, either get yourself bathed or allow me to sprinkle my special seasonings over you to counteract the pungent aromas.”
It was my turn to grin. “You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
“It is unkind to tease a lost soul! For how could I not dream of the day when I discover the perfect combination of herbs and sauces by which you shall melt lovingly into my embrace?” He waved me off with a quick flip of a hand. “Away with you, go!”
Laughing in spite of myself, I made my way through the tunnel labyrinth to arrive at my quarters and its broad double doors. It had taken a considerable bite out of my earnings to get those custom installed. Most Reapers just hung cloth across the entrances to their rooms and called it good, but I valued privacy and the solid felwood planks were well worth it.
They also made a much better anchor for wards to keep undesirable others out.
Since my glove was already off I simply placed a hand into the swirling lines of power running across the wood. As the sigils aligned with the patterns of my essence a loud click could be heard and the doors swung open to reveal a simple chamber carved out of the same red rock as the rest of the base. A blanket covered the pallet of stone extending from the wall which served as a bed, and as fancy as that was the real prize of the room was the six foot square excavation in the corner that sank a good four feet into the floor.
This was the result of my prized privacy and sole indulgence. Other Reapers saved their coin for trips to the towns on the flip side of the Rock (one of the terms used to describe this smaller realm of Hell we were stuck on) or spent them on drugs, prostitutes, or whatever other pleasures the gypsy-like Lilim traders had to offer in their regular visits to the outpost. Vance, the leader of the local Lilim, had especially tried to lure me and my money away, even going so far as offering me a job.
I think he felt my refusal to join them was a professional challenge to overcome. But hey, at least he’d always been polite.
Instead I had saved up my coins to spend a small fortune getting the lumber delivered. Then I’d worked long hours warding the doors and the surrounding stones of the room to keep all prying eyes out as well as hiding any echoes of the magic I worked within. In here I was free to secretly tap into a deep line of pressure running through the center of the Rock and coax that force upwards, melting trapped ice on the way and sending hot steamy water to fill the small pool through side holes hallowed out of the stone only to drain down the larger hole at the bottom when I was done.
Sure it smelled a little weird and wasn’t anything someone would want to drink, but with the addition of some bath salts and flowery oils to mask the scent it was downright cozy.
Alright, I’ll admit it. It was also rather feminine. But I’d arrived with the same womanly body as I’d discovered myself having after the energy overload in a certain sorcerer’s storage unit flipped my ‘Y’s to ‘X’s. While the cold-weather gear kept everything literally under wraps and prevented anyone from seeing exactly what I looked like, there was no mistaking my voice. As a result I’d had to go out of my way to be perceived as a powerful bitch not worth hitting on. This had included a few broken elbows and a number of cheap shots to sensitive male anatomies. Plus one sleep-time unexpected encounter which I’d rather not talk about.
Basically, if you thought drunken frat boys could be jerks, demons made guys like them seem like true gentlemen and paragons of virtue. And having been offered unwelcome glimpses of the male ‘equipment’ some demons possessed, the idea of being taken by force by any of them was full-stop terrifying.
Stripping out of the many layers of cloth (woven from the hairs of a creature I’d only heard about but never personally seen) I left the demonic-blood soaked pile on the floor and stepped into what may have been the only jacuzzi on the dark side of the Rock.
After hiking through sub-zero temperatures, the initial shock from the heat was painfully sharp yet oh so welcome. I slid deeper into the water, letting spell-activated water-jets massage at some seriously sore muscles.
Picking up loofah and soap (okay, Vance had managed to sell me some bath supplies, so what), I got busy stripping all traces of goop from my skin. This included using a knife to shave my scalp which I’d been keeping free of the reddish-gold that kept sprouting up like spring weeds.
Whenever staring in the small hand-mirror to scrape the latest fuzz off my dome thoughts inevitably would run towards my friend Jenna. We would have been bald sisters together if she wasn’t stuck an eternity away. The poor girl would always lose her hair whenever using her power that turned skin to armored stone. While originally her stone covering had been this greyish rock, a power overload had transformed it to a rather beautiful and shiny obsidian. But that hadn’t changed her need to wear a wig. She would have totally kicked me for daring to shave my own locks and launched into a stern lecture about not appreciating what one had.
What I would have given to have her yelling at me again.
Problem was, when you’re an angel trying to hide out in Hell having waves of distinctively bright hair bouncing past one’s shoulders was far too risky. Especially when also considering the other dangers of being seen as pretty already mentioned. The goggles at least covered my eyes and any occasional flares of light they might emit - not that they’d been very bright since I’d arrived.
There had been video of me fighting in the skies over Syria plus whatever may have been captured by those tourists in Egypt. There was a possibility those images could have been transmitted to interested parties here in Hell. For all I knew Nick Wright - the demonologist who’d summoned the big nasty that almost toppled the Djoser pyramid - could well have put the word out down here for large nasties to keep an eye out for a young, attractive, and newly-arrived red-head.
Maybe to try to help, but maybe not. We hadn’t exactly left things on good terms.
Trying not to think about our last battle and how badly I had failed, I floated amidst the bubbles. Heat and water were the only things I’d found that could soothe the constant shooting pains from a wing stubbornly refusing to manifest. Even after all this time the wound inflicted by Gwydion’s evil sword hadn’t healed. I may have kicked his ass back to the astral before blowing myself all the way to Hell, but the cut from his cursed blade still festered where it couldn’t be tended to.
How exactly does one heal the insubstantial?
The burning in the phantom wing offered no solutions so I did my best to ignore it and enjoy my private spa.
Eventually I forced myself out in order to use the tub for my laundry, washing away the stains covering my robe, cloak, and even the bands of cloth I used as an improvised bra to keep certain things from bouncing around too much in combat. This required applying expensive cleanser and elbow grease in equal measure. With that done I cheated and repeated a bit of magic to get it all to dry instantly, a trick that I’d seen on my first day at Whateley Academy. A kindly girl had used magic to pull the soaking rain off this noobish and rather damp student who’d been sploshing about like an idiot.
Dang, that day seemed so very long ago.
As if on cue to remind of the differences of then versus now, a jerk pounded on my door. “Mortal! Captain Erglyk says to locate your ass to the briefing room!”
That was Charles, the youngest son of the Duchess Ruchinox. The Duchess was the current wife of Duke Valgor the Magnificant, the demon who was technically my lord and master. The Duke had of course never visited our outpost which lay on the outer edge of his domain here on the eternal night side of the Rock. This was about as far away from all the comforts his position could offer him as was possible.
“I’m coming!” I shouted, finishing the final part of my outfit - wrapping cloth over the black and gold bracers on my forearms. When Twitch had found me in the crater which my arrival had carved into the ground, I’d been naked for all but these. They were something else I didn’t want others getting a good look at in case they were recognized for what they were: part of the armor of a particularly bad-ass angel named Camael. He’d slaughtered mountains worth of rebel angels and demons alike during the unpleasantness at the start of everything - I could only imagine the reaction anything connected to him would get down here. Camael’s incarnate, Callas Soren, had gifted the bracers to me before I’d known what they were. Despite the protections on my room there was no way I’d ever let these out of my sight which is why I wore them all the time. Even taking them off for a bath felt risky. “Gimme a damn minute.”
Charles - whose given name was ‘Xargglxesh’ (as opposed to his True Name which likely only his mother knew) - pounded on the wood again. “You will obey immediately! Or you will pay the price for such insolence!”
Throwing the doors open I stepped directly past the jerk’s personal boundaries and got into his face, my goggles inches from the slits which formed his eyes. He was the same height due to the lifts in the ridiculous boots he was wearing.
“Listen up, Charles,” I growled in his native demonic tongue and not the language of human souls. “I’m only going to say this once. I don’t give a flying leap that your mother holds influence on the Duke. She tossed your butt all the way out here to be a Reaper and now you’re the most junior on our team. That means I outrank you, you little shit.”
Noticing his attire it was all I could do to not laugh right in his face. He was clad in a noble’s outfit straight out of the Renaissance: orange tights, matching billowing breeches, and a dark green doublet with gold embroidery. I’m sure it had likely cost more than I could earn in four Cycles. But it was the spikes protruding out of his spine all the way up culminating in that one particularly large horn atop his head that did it. Well that and the bowl-cut styled blue hair. He was this awful portrait of a demon as if painted by an artist tripping on some serious LSD.
Of course Charles wasn’t laughing. Instead sallow colored cheeks blubbered trying to contain impetuous fury (and possibly shock that I could actually speak fluent demonic). “My name is Xargglxesh!”
“At the moment I’ll call you whatever I damn well please. Got it, Charles? Unless you want to offer challenge by way of an Asmodian Duel, I’d suggest shutting up and getting out of my way.” I let fingers drift closer to the dagger sheathed at my waist. The Captain didn’t like us walking around with our larger weapons, but smaller ones she simply called ‘prudent’ to always have at hand.
Charles’ eyes nearly popped out of his oddly shaped skull. Being not entirely stupid he stepped aside. While a tribunal would never adjudicate this petty argument sufficient to merit a proper blood-feud, they’d at least allow a fight to first blood with all his peers watching. As a lowly one-soul demon he had very little chance against me in the dueling ring—heck, I’d handed him his ass on the practice mat quite a few times already. But that’s rather different from a formal bout with witnesses. He’d finally gain the repute he obviously sought except it would be as a laughing stock having been defeated by a mortal soul. A slender female one at that.
The hallway was a lot colder than my room. Pulling the hood of my cloak up as I moved past him, I kept my ears open in case the backstabber mistakenly believed he had a shot.
He may have thought about it. He hesitated but then followed me through the maze of tunnels to a much better illuminated room complete with a beaten felwood conference table and rickety matching chairs. A wide map labeled ‘Dark Side’ was pinned to the wall, something which only Twitch and I had found amusing.
You see, we were the only two Reapers assigned to this outpost who’d been alive recently enough to have watched Star Wars.
Not that the writing on the map was in English. Languages here were simplified as per the rules of the realm. Human souls all could speak and understand each other regardless of what language they had spoken back on Earth, and demons had their own tongue as well. Writing, however, was something everyone had to learn anew.
Well, almost everyone. That maxim didn’t apply to angels.
Captain Erglyk stood waiting at the head of the table, no longer in her armor but instead wearing a simple white shirt under a cargo vest with many pockets, the matching combat pants tucked into thick leather boots.
“Xargglxesh,” the Captain said as she gave Charles a slow look up and down, fangs splitting her grin. “This is not the court.”
I pulled a chair closer to a wall, leaning back on two of the legs as I did so. I gave a nod to Twitch who sat at the table besides a mountain of man named Barry. Twitch acknowledged me with only a small hand gesture. Every last part of him was wrapped in the same beige cloth that made up my own outfit, circular goggles just like my own the only other thing on a completely covered head. I’d once called our style ‘Sandpeople Chic’. He’d doubled over in silent laughter at the joke, though that may have been due to everyone else’s confusion since outside was a lot of rock and not sand.
Charles though was still standing ramrod straight and attempted a salute. “You summoned us, Captain. Is this not a formal event?”
“Look around, boy,” drawled the Captain. “This is a military outpost. And you Reapers are our elite scouts. Be ready to head out for combat at all times.”
I’d seen what Charles had worn when he’d gone out with Twitch that morning, and while he’d definitely been wearing expensive armor (of the soul-forged variety even!) I was distinctly unconvinced that he was ‘combat ready’ inside that suit. More like a turtle stuck inside a spiked shell two sizes too large hoping nothing would flip it onto its back where it would flail helplessly about.
He swallowed. “Yes, Captain.” Sheepishly he took a seat which caused the poofiness of those breeches to billow upward.
At the end of the table the huge bearded guy made of leather and scars coughed and put a hand to the hilt of the double-headed axe leaning against a tree-trunk of a leg. “Can we get oon with it? I mean to be first fer dinner.”
“This won’t take long now that everyone is finally here.” The Captain shot me a quick glare which I ignored. “You four are the only Reapers not out on patrol at the moment. We have two problems. First is the unusual number of incursions from the Spire. Second is that Hallgyx is late, he should have been back by now. Note that his route is the closest to the Spire.”
Barry snorted. “Like anythin’ up there could take a beast such as him,” he said in his usual brogue. “He’s a been grumblin’ into his cups about sneaking up them hills to ‘thin the herd’ and swallow more tasty souls for as long as I’ve known the dobber. If things be all stirred up in them mountains, he’s likely goin’ solo to keep the bounty all to himself.”
“If he is, he’s going against orders.” The Captain frowned, staring at the map and the lines delineating the various zones around the outpost for our assignments. Also marked was the next outpost to the East and the railway line that passed through it to reach the end of the line here at ours. “You all just finished sweeps and were due for further down-time. That’s canceled.”
Dammit. I’d just gotten back two sleeps ago.
I wasn’t the only one not happy about it. Barry scowled, letting the axe head thump against the floor. The metal glowed blue momentarily with his signature flash of enchantment. “Now just hold oon there, Captain! The Lilim are due any sleep now. And they skipped the last round from one of their crew goin’ missin’. I spent extra time on last shift jus’ to be here!”
Erglyk was unmoved. “Tough. You’ll get to play with the twins on their next circuit.” She looked at all of us, ignoring the surly pout forming behind Barry’s tangled beard. “Tomorrow Barry will take Xargglxesh to go check out the Spire. See if you can find Hallgyx and drag his ass back here. Twitch and Jordan, you two are to take Barry’s sector as well as your own. Together, mind you. No more solo sweeps until the itching paranoia in my tail is satisfied. Today’s was the fifth potent incursion we’ve had this cycle.” The lizard-like tail extending out behind her swished across the floor to emphasize the point.
Twitch and I looked at each other. He’d been my (albeit silent) mentor during my training period, and I had no objection to partnering up with him again. With a shrug I said, “Roger that, Captain. But we’ll need triple the supplies to cover that much ground and it’ll take just as long.”
The fresh grin that dawned on Erglyk’s face wasn’t pleasant. “You’ll get double time to cover the three sections. Similar on the rations. No stopping and keep the graxh pulling. Got it?”
I groaned. I hated trying to sleep on the creaky wagons while they moved. They were rugged but had absolutely no dampening in the suspension.
Barry stood, his head brushing the ceiling as he did so. He pointed a meaty gloved finger at Charles. “Be ready after breakfast, ya wee git. An’ leave that froofy fashion crap out yer pack.” Turning to Erglyk he hefted the axe in one hand. He was scowling but he’d do as ordered.
The Captain added one more command. “Update your way-finders with the latest scan before you go. You’re all dismissed. Except Jordan.” Her eyes caught mine as everyone else shuffled out.
Walking to the door Barry also looked over at me. “Come to tha practice area after darlin’. ‘Tis gettin’ old fightin’ someone without the common decency to shout back.” With a grin he clasped a meaty hand on Twitch’s shoulder.
Twitch shook his head before pulling the metal door shut behind them both.
I crossed my arms as Erglyk took a chair on the other side of the table, drumming her claws against its surface.
Neither of us said anything. I slowly rocked back and forth on my chair and her talons went click, click, click.
She broke the silence first because I sure as heck was not going to flinch under her glare.
“You know,” she said with a sigh, “I just can’t figure out what the fuck you’re doing here.” She reached up to rub her neck.
“Whatever do you mean, Captain?”
She threw me a disgusted yet weirdly open look. “Do you think I’m stupid? Honestly.”
I sat up straighter. “No.”
“When you first arrived, my tail jerked with warning, you know that? I’ve been in charge of this miserable shit-hole of an outpost for a long time. Never has a new soul triggered it so.”
Not sure how to react to that without revealing far more than I should, I kept my mouth shut.
She continued. “And then you practically begged to not be put on the train. With Twitch hovering protectively over you, the first signs of life I’d seen in the boy since Leila’s sacrifice.”
Leila had been the Reaper whose open slot I’d filled. “Is Twitch why you let me take her spot?”
Reaching into one of her vest’s pockets she produced a cigar. With a quick red flare from her eyes the thing lit and she took a deep drag of the smoke. It wasn’t tobacco, but the smell wasn’t entirely unpleasant either. “One of the reasons, sure. You know why I had you team up with me against the intruder today?”
“My sunny disposition?”
She laughed, smoke spilling out of nostrils and past fangs. “If I wanted that I’d have taken Cookie. No, I wanted to see you fight. For real.”
I slouched further back against the chair. “Oh.”
“Yeah.” She pointed the burning cigar at me. “I’ve watched you spar with the others. Sure, you’ve improved a lot since you got here, but they still regularly hand you your ass.”
Shrugging, I tried to look embarrassed. “They’re just better than me.”
I stayed quiet.
Through the smoke she studied me. “I’m a warrior. More than that I’m a survivor. I can tell when someone is holding back.”
Looking away I muttered, “We’re supposed to. They’re friendly matches.”
“Then despite me egging you on, why’d you pussy-foot about with the intruder?”
Fuck. “I killed it, didn’t I? It had nine souls, the damn thing was strong.”
She took another drag and shook her head. “You know what else marks you as different from every other fallen soul we’ve collected? You don’t fear us demons. Not a whit. Even Barry feared us when he first arrived. You showed up already sporting some full on hate. Upon seeing me those gold eyes of yours held a rage far too focused for a soul claiming to be all of sweet sixteen years of age. Any other girl would have shrieked and stepped behind her Reaper looking for protection. Happens every damn time. But you? You took a step forward with clenched fists. I’m gonna ask you again: what by the hairs on Samael’s lower goatee are you doing here?”
“I blew up. I woke to being lugged about on Twitch’s wagon.”
“So you say.” She pointed at me with the cigar. “You know, as a commander I pride myself on treating all fairly, be they demon or mortal. In fact most of us in charge of the outposts prefer mortals for our reapers to not immediately scare the crap out of the arrivals in those first encounters. Why all the hate, girl?”
How could I answer that? I could hardly tell my Captain that I hated her guts because I couldn’t help but always see the souls trapped under her skin. All dim and lost in their own private despairs while fueling the power of the beast which had consumed them. “I…I saw one once. A demon. It had possessed a friend of mine and turned her evil.”
A scaled eyebrow raised with interest. “What happened?”
“With help she got better. But not before she almost killed another friend.”
That earned a nod. “You had some training in magic as well as combat before dying.”
She peered at me, eyes sharp. “Have I ever treated you unfairly?”
The seat of the chair suddenly felt really hard. “No.”
“What was that, I didn’t hear.”
Taking off the goggles, I met her eyes. “No, Captain. You’ve treated me and the other souls no different from any demon on the squad.”
“Have I given an indication that I ever would?”
My face flushed. “No, Captain.”
She flicked ash onto the blank stone floor. “And if I were to ask what you’re hiding from, would you tell?”
I blinked and examined her scaly face. All that I saw written there was a studied concern.
Could I trust her? She was a demon, but she was also right. She had always been fair and, in her own harsh way, kind. Sure she ordered us around, and the one time Clancy had really stepped out of line she’d kicked his ass from one end of the post to the other breaking bones in his leg and arm in the process. Honestly the idiot had deserved it. And after? She treated it as if it had never happened and that he’d somehow injured himself accidentally.
She was tougher than nails on us all, but if we slacked off we would either get swallowed or destroyed out in the dark on our own.
Clenching a fist the red brand of the Duke we all wore caught the light. Even the Captain had one. The damn thing had never stopped itching since I’d gotten it, the magic binding the mark a constant irritation. If I’d told her the truth, about what I really was and what had really happened back on Earth, she’d be duty bound to report it all the way up the food chain.
Whether she wanted to or not.
“No, Captain. I don’t think I would.”
She exhaled more smoke through her nostrils. “Hmph.”
I squirmed uncomfortably. “It would put you in a difficult position. It’s better for everyone if I don’t.”
“Something like that.”
Standing suddenly, she looked down to where I sat. “That’s a load of crap. Your old life is over. You died and ended up here in the realms from which there is no return. I’ve seen souls not able to accept this, remaining permanently haunted by whatever lives they just couldn’t leave behind. Miserable creatures, tormenting themselves in perpetuity.”
“It’s not like that.” How could I explain? Yeah, living was finished. I was done and gone. That part was painfully clear. But if the wrong parties in Hell got wind of my existence it would just stir up a crap-ton of trouble.
The kind of trouble I was no longer equipped to deal with.
“Isn’t it?” She snorted. “The sooner you accept it’s over the better off you will be. All that remains of your time on Earth are your memories. Don’t end up as one of those sorry-ass souls who sacrifice them in order to move on and avoid the suicidal pull of the Abyss.”
“There are ways to scrub a soul of its memories. For some it’s the only way they find peace.”
I frowned. “Like the waters of Lethe? Is that legend real?” Ovid spoke in his tales of the river Lethe that ran through Hades; shades of the dead had to drink from it before being allowed to reincarnate so they wouldn’t remember their previous lives. My friend Isaiah had even used the stuff as a plot point in one of our tabletop games.
She chuckled. “Legends usually contain parts of the truth, even if they get the names wrong. Potent magics of that kind exist. But they are rare and dangerous to own if not outright banned by authorities both demonic and angelic.”
“That just means they’d be more expensive.”
“Truth.” She gave a rather sharp-toothed grin before continuing. “I would prefer you to tell me what your deal is without it being forced. I won’t push it for now. Someday maybe, but not today. Just remember: you also fight for the entire squad. Not just me or the hapless souls you fetch. Don’t forget that. And in turn I fight for you. That’s what it means to be in command.”
As she turned to go I chewed a lip before throwing out a question of my own. “You asked what I’m doing here but what about you?”
That earned a pause, amusement creasing her lips. “Me?”
“Barry mentioned that you once led the Duke’s armies numbering in the tens of thousands if not more. This place is nowhere. How the heck did you end up here?”
Erglyk’s grin grew wider still. “Maybe I like the quiet. Or the perks.”
“Perks? There’s nothing but a bunch of empty caverns and miles of wasteland. You yourself just called it a shit-hole.”
She chuckled. “As outpost commander I get to check out all the gathered souls before sending them below. Should I see any that look particularly strong and tasty I’ve got first dibs to swallow them.”
I felt cold. “Why didn’t you try to take me?”
Grounding out the last bit of cigar on the floor, her expression grew unpleasant. “Because I make it a habit to never bite off more than I can chew. Get proper rest at your next sleep, girl. You’re going to need it.”
With that she opened the door and strode out.
Fair enough. I hadn’t answered her question and she hadn’t answered mine. I’d have said we both might take our secrets to our graves, but technically I was already there.
Come to think of it, I might even have two gravestones. One as Justin Blythe and another as Jordan Emrys. Which was funny because despite having only been Jordan for a matter of months more people probably showed up to services for her than had for Justin. After all, Justin had died saving only his niece, Danielle. Whereas Jordan got blown up saving practically everyone else but her.
Maybe that wasn’t so funny.
With the time differences between here and Earth services might not have even been held yet. I’d questioned each new soul for what date it had been when they’d died and even though it had felt like years down here (time perception being a bit wonky and imprecise) the truth was that only a few days had passed back where hot pizza delivery was still being taken for granted.
I hoped Isaiah was holding up alright. This would be the second time he would have to mourn the loss of the only brother he’d ever known.
Only this time a surprise return was simply not in the cards.
Chapter 2 - Tasks
A light snow covered the pavilion’s pale canvas, leaving a contrast of green and white at the edges of the grass demarking that which was covered and that which was not. The sky, uniformly gray and motionless, held itself still as if it too wished to honor the ceremony below. Isaiah sat at the front of grid of folding chairs which hid under the tent, his immaculate suit and coat wrapping him in dark fabrics yet offering little warmth to the true cold within. Faculty and students one after the other approached the podium, standing behind photographs of two young girls to deliver their tales of how, even in such a short time, the girls had made a profound impact on their lives.
Many were the people whom each girl had saved. Many were the children needing escort back to seats by somber adults providing tissues. Many were the teachers and staff who required the same.
Isaiah was asked if he’d like to say a few words, but he demurred with a sharp shake of the head and the ceremony smoothly moved on to Rabbi Kirov reciting the Kaddish.
For how could he have spoken truthfully to this audience about his friend? Isaiah had known the girl Jordan first as Justin, in a life still classified by the government to preserve the cover story of Jordan’s transformed existence. While Danielle’s body had been returned from Egypt - after much heated negotiation with the Egyptian state - no such recovery had been possible for Jordan. Officially she was listed as ‘missing’, there being a fair amount of debate whether anyone - or anything - could have survived the explosion which Circe’s protective circle had thrown far beyond the purview of Earthly realms. The arguments regarding the events at the pyramids continued still, indeed two of the girls’ companions were still in Egypt embroiled at the heart of the unresolved politics of what had occurred.
Not that their physical absence had prevented those two from attending the memorial. Linked hand-in-hand with the teacher who traveled strictly via the astral, the truth of their presences were projected to be visible by all even as icy droplets swirled through the spaces where they stood beyond the tent’s protections. The young man wore a gleaming white tuxedo with a golden cummerbund matching the brightness of one of his eyes. His other matched the slender silver dress worn by his companion, a darker-haired beauty who silently examined each mourner in turn as if cataloging them one by one.
As for Isaiah, he sat in one of two chairs marked for ‘family’, a designation true not by blood but by heart. He had been Danielle’s legal guardian for far too short a time, and Justin had been his brother in all ways except name.
How cruel was fate to force him to mourn his brother twice.
Beside him sat Mark, Justin’s former brother-in-law and government agent, a man hunched within a coat now a few sizes too large over a frame whose recovery from injury had left it more slender and gaunt.
With the conclusion of services the gathered mix of students and teachers along with various government agents filed past Isaiah and Mark, offering their condolences before placing a white rose onto the growing piles resting in front each portrait.
The sudden embrace by a tall girl of considerable strength startled Isaiah but after a moment’s hesitation he returned the gesture. Golden hoop earrings matched the simple cross at her neck dangling over a long black dress. She had forgone a coat and also any of the usual wigs used to hide her perpetual baldness. Unabashed tears quickly frosted upon her cheeks, though her eyes were fierce and reflecting the same rage within his own. No words were offered yet her need and demand of him was well understood.
For he too desired the same, and with a nod he accepted her unspoken charge before she moved on.
Snow continued to fall and eventually the procession completed and Isaiah found himself standing before the piles of ivory petals blending with the cold underneath. His gloved hand twitched within the coat pocket, clutching the folded envelope and the letter it contained which he had found himself reading and rereading ever since it had been placed into his hands.
I never thought I’d need to write one of those ‘if something happens to me please deliver this’ letters, but here we are. I’m in Egypt of all places and a couple hours away from when Danielle, myself, and a select few other lunatics will head out to try and stop a fae queen from unleashing catastrophe.
What our odds of success actually are I have no idea, but when I look around at this crew I cannot help but wonder what invisible hands have guided us all to be here. The bounds of coincidence are stretched rather thin, don’t you think? As much as I want to blame Callas Soren for everything that has happened, that fateful day in the storage facility couldn’t have been the true inception of events. As powerful as he is, he too is likely walking a path carved unseen into the stones beneath our feet - put there long ago by the wings and will of those above. It was Gabriel who sent me back that day, as if she had been waiting on the other side just to be there to catch and release my wayward spirit. All while the Host frantically searched for traces of her passing. She must be the key to what’s been happening just as she was in the days of Aradia and Enoch.
But I doubt she acts alone.
Search inside for your own deeper memories as Azrael, painful and confusing as they may be. Find the truths therein and determine who to trust. If you are reading this then I will sadly not be at your side to help you, for which I am deeply sorry. I should be there for you, just as I should have let you be there for me when everything changed. In confusion, fear, and embarrassment over what had happened I let the agency convince me otherwise.
I was wrong and all I can do is apologize once more.
If you’ve read the emails your firm’s liaison should have forwarded on then you already know that Sariel has a device much worse than the one that assaulted the Academy. Bishop likely has one as well. Keep safe and hidden my friend and brother, for I wouldn’t put it past these fanatics to destroy millions just to get to you or to Danielle.
Which could well be why Kurohoshi had need to deliver this letter.
I don’t know what else to say, only that it has been my great privilege to be your friend. Stay strong, stay true. And try not to do anything stupid. And yes I know that probably sounds rather silly coming from me.
The breeze across his cheeks may have been cold but within was colder still, enough to freeze the world.
And many more beyond.
“Isaiah.” A hand rested on his shoulder. Mark stood at his side, leaning forward to peer concernedly at Isaiah’s harshly focused expression. “The service is over. We should get you to the secure location.”
Another voice came from behind them both. “This academy is more secure than any place you could have in mind, Agent Boone.”
Mark reacted first, spinning around and with a yelp of recognition a pistol was quickly in hand. “You!”
The dark-skinned man in an equally dark coat did not flinch. “I remind you, sir, that the academy is neutral ground. And I am here at the invitation of an old friend.”
Behind frosting lenses Isaiah’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “Soren.” The name was spat more than spoken.
“Save your anger, Mr. Cohen. Righteous and well-deserved as it may be.” The man’s deep voice resonated slowly, each word crisp and measured. “For the day of my judgment is not this day. I assure you that when that moment finally arrives I will kneel and submit with arms cast wide in glorious welcome.”
The men stared at each other in silence. Mark’s hand held the weapon still, finger ready.
“Mark,” Isaiah finally said as if biting off each word. “Give us a minute.”
“We should arrest him,” Mark growled. “With everything he’s caused-”
Isaiah put a hand across Mark’s chest. “No. Do you really think you can take him even with the assistance of all the Whateley practitioners? Don’t be a fool. Put the gun away.”
Cursing, Mark lowered the gun. “Five minutes. And don’t think I won’t spend them trying to convince the headmistress to turn this jerk over. He should pay for what he’s done.” Shoulders taut with frustration, Mark marched towards the circle of instructors who had gathered at the back.
When the agent was out of earshot, Soren spoke. “I must first ask how much Jordan has told you.”
A gloved hand twitched against the pocketed letter. “Enough to know that no one here could match you should you choose to fight.”
“No one other than you.”
Isaiah considered then shook his head. “It took Jordan’s aid to contain that power. I don’t dare unleash it again. I lack the control.”
Making a fist, Isaiah took a half step forward in spite of himself. “All of this is your doing. All of it! Danielle’s kidnapping, Justin’s transformation, the fighting, the breaking of seals, all triggered by you. Countless millennia have passed since those seals were put in place. After all this time, why now?”
“Gabriel could wait no longer.”
“This was her bidding?”
“I serve the Light.”
Snarling, Isaiah thrust a finger towards Jordan’s portrait. “She was the Light. And where were you in her moment of need?”
The darker man bowed his head. “She should have been safe here.”
“Clearly the harsh whims of destiny had other ideas. If not for both of their sacrifices most of the world would have paid a horrendous price. You should have been there!”
“Sariel’s bargain with Bishop accelerated the Queen’s plans. By contract I could not interfere in Egypt.”
“With the Queen.”
A chilled gust blew flecks of snow past the canopy’s protective boundaries, splattering against Isaiah’s glasses. Lowering his hand he said, “She sent me a letter, written in Egypt the night before she was lost. She worried that Sariel might deploy that damned device. She also claimed he was the one who sent the assassins against me and Danielle. Is this true?”
“Yes. Sariel wishes to prevent the breaking of the Fourth Seal.”
“The Host will not allow the Grigori to roam free away from this world. The Fourth Seal is what keeps them bound. Should it break the Host will mobilize and either send them to Hell or cast them to the Abyss beyond.”
“And Sariel believes I’m the one to break it.”
Isaiah shook his head. Removing glasses through which he could no longer see, he wiped them against the folds of his coat. “Then he won’t cease the attempts on my life. He’s already proven willing to wipe out millions - if not billions - to achieve his goal, just as she’d feared. Jordan being gone changes none of that.”
“Can you stop him?”
“There is a more pressing task. One requiring your assistance.”
Isaiah gave a short laugh. “You want my help. You. To do what? What could be more important than tracking down that bastard?”
“To save and restore the Light.”
All humor fell away as in the following pause implications became clear. “You’re serious.”
“She exists. She has fallen to the places that your Mishnah call Gehenna.”
“Hell. You’re saying that Justin’s spirit is in Hell.” Isaiah’s jaw set, suspicion and anger plain to see. “And you can save him?”
Behind the dark eyes of the other man burned twin plumes of crimson fire. “There is a way. It is up to us to discover what it may be.”
Isaiah’s hand tightened about the cold metal frames. He wanted to hate this man, to grab him by the shoulders, to scream curses at his face and the fanaticism made apparent. But beneath the pain raging within Isaiah’s chest was a much older anguish and bitterly shared sorrow. “She spoke of paths in her letter, ones laid down ages ago. And of Gabriel. Who are you, sir, to walk upon them?”
“I believe you already know the answer if you but look.”
Those two stars flared brighter within Isaiah’s other sight and resolved into a single vision.
A burnished sword of flames hung in the air before stone etched with shining golden bindings. Azrael’s hand had set them into place below a mountain, preparing them to constrain the darkness threatening the world upon which they stood. The last of Aradia’s light swirled into the blood-stained wings gifting the angel with the power to anchor the Seal with his sacred blade, it having been infused with all his holy might.
Upon the sword’s release to its new task the angel flickered and disappeared, bound now unto the Wheel of mortality and incarnation. This was the price of Camael’s sacrifice. Azrael was left alone in the following darkness, holding Aradia close as sole witness while she paid her own price in full.
Fresh wisps of snow blew between the two men.
Isaiah, his eyes again clear and with facial muscles taut with ancient pain, spoke. “You didn’t need Raziel’s book to summon Camael. For you are him.”
“I needed the book to remember how to be what I once was.”
“Her falling to Hell - was this a part of Gabriel’s plan?”
“Then you have failed when it counted most.” Returning the lenses to their perch, Isaiah glared through them. “Yet you truly believe you can make things right. That there is a path to tread.”
“By the Light and the Name through which it shines I swear to you I shall.”
Energy surged outward from between the two men-who-were-not-men, knocking folding chairs aside and causing bystanders to grasp furtively at hats and the many umbrellas attempting escape.
Vibrating with the sheer power of the other’s words, Isaiah had but one question. “What do you need?”
The other man gave answer. “For you to come with me.”
On a bench lining the walking path near the pavilion sat a young man, the first growths of manhood bristling upon his cheeks. Within his lap lay a rather fluffy cat, grey markings overlying the pure whiteness underneath. Both were rather nonplussed by the commotion resulting from the massive burst of wind which coincided with the sudden disappearance of the two men who had just been speaking together in front of the memorial display. DPA agents and faculty were not so calm in reaction, shouting and pointing while others quickly whipped out phones to report to their various superiors.
August nodded satisfactorily to himself, having seen what he had come there to see. As for Khan, he nudged August’s hand to continue scritching.
Chapter 3 - Shadows
A gleaming spire of white and gold stretched into the brilliance tenting the city from western gate to eastern wall with the purest illumination. Mighty doors whose tops were lost within that light adorned the tower’s entrance, inscribed with all of the holy names - each letter glowing fiercely with the same encompassing luminescence as the sky. The steps gleamed beneath her feet, pulsing with the mesh of unity binding all her siblings together, strands of power entwining their collective purposes through which the firmament supporting the city was forged and sang the glorious harmonies defining their shared existence.
Within that symphony she was an island of quietude, pensively reserved as an even sharper light emerged from between those doors, one with multiple wings of glimmering crystal bending under a burden perhaps only he truly understood. Golden eyes met hers and said nothing, the silence between them growing beyond what she could bear and thus with a whisper she broke its spell.
“Did He speak with you?”
“No. And thereby am I answered.”
“If I were to try-”
Arms and wings enfolded her in a warm embrace that yet offered no true comfort. “Gabriel, no. He clings so tightly to our hard-won stability that such has become an end unto itself.”
The folds of his robe were soft against her cheek. “You’re leaving.” Once spoken, the reality was undeniable.
“You know why. You are as torn within as I.”
“This does not have to be. You could ask Azrael for a Judgment. He will never forgive should you depart without his consult. Were he to issue an Edict even Elohim would be forced to listen.”
While his hands were gentle, his expression was of hard diamond. “To push for such now is tantamount to admitting failure of the whole.”
“How far can you see to know this?”
“Far enough. Some day you too shall bear witness and understand.”
Pushing back against his chest, she gazed upwards into eyes of gold. “What of your Seat? Without the Light, how will we go on?”
“Worry not,” he smiled. “For its structure shall remain. I will not do as Samael and betray my purpose. Instead let my Seat remain empty as a reminder. When the stored reserves bound within finally fail perhaps He will have no recourse but to reconsider.”
She stared at the fresh wetness dotting the cloth on his chest where her cheek had rested, seeing through those glittering tears the beginnings of the pattern of what was to come. “You’re going now, this very moment. Without talking to anyone.”
“Only with you, Gabriel. You must carry them through the coming darkness. As only you can.”
“And should I refuse? Would you stay?”
A kiss brushed the crimson hair atop her furrowed brow. “You can no more refuse to be who you are than I. You are the piece of my heart I leave behind. Goodbye, little one.” Wings filled with the purest of fires unfurled, catching at the threads between the worlds and letting them pull him away.
She found herself shouting as he faded from her sight. “Lucifer! When you go to speak with her, remember most that the truths she offers are partial! Her vision can never be complete!”
If he heard he gave no acknowledgment.
Anguish crushed her chest as the eternal brilliance above flickered and dimmed. Across glittering buildings the winged residents paused in their tasks to look about with blank astonishment, unable to comprehend what they were witnessing.
For the first time since their creation were the immaculate marble streets and perfectly gilded walls of Heaven painted with shadows.
Someone was shaking my feet. Visions of people with staggeringly beautiful wings flickered away and a canvas of utter black took their place.
Through thick goggle lenses I stared into the empty void that was the sky. Twitch let go of the boots which my feet had been trapped inside for too long, and with a groan I sat up. The thick blanket fell forward and allowed freezing air to brush one layer closer to my skin.
As I’d stopped shivering to such things a long time ago I simply yawned and tried to stretch. The left shoulder-blade spot complained with its usual sharp pain and loud pop but I ignored it. Crystal lanterns hanging from the poles at the front and back of the wagon I’d been sleeping on swung in response to the motion, their dim light sweeping small circles over the dirt and surrounding ice.
“We there yet?” I asked with a sleepy half-hearted grin, not that Twitch could see it what with my mouth and nose buried under cloth.
He held up a small leather sack, placing it atop the pile of similar bags which I’d shoved out of the way for a nap in the wagon bed.
“Dammit,” I muttered. “Another one? That makes what, seven stones this trip? Not a single awake soul in the lot. So much for getting a bonus this round.”
Shrugging, he climbed up to the front bench and picked up the reins to the pair of graxh which pulled our wagon. Standing six feet high at the shoulder, graxh were what you’d get if you crossed hippopotamus with an alligator and then thrown in a rhinoceros because why not. Okay, they actually weren’t as fat as that implied but they were indeed thick, powerful, and behaved like musty-smelling scaled puppies if you let them.
These two particularly liked to frolic and now that it’d been almost two cycles since they’d last eaten they were getting skinnier and a lot faster as a result. On a whim I’d named the left one Martha and the right naturally became Stewart.
Martha was my favorite, but don’t tell Stewart. He thought it was him.
“Was this the last?” I asked, climbing up to sit on the bench next to Twitch.
Reaching into the folds of his robe he withdrew the Wayfinder stone and placed it into the socket chipped into the front handrail. It took a couple taps before the thing lit up much like the lanterns and projected a two-dimensional map into the air before us.
It was a lot like the map on the wall back at the outpost, just done in thin lines of blues and greens. A pulsing yellow indicated where we were: way out towards the edge of the Rock at the limits of our assigned sector. Where’d we already been was marked with many red ‘X’s through white ‘O’s, each indicating a spot where we’d picked up the unconscious remains of souls who couldn’t handle the stress of falling to Hell and instead now slept inside whatever private torments their subconscious could conjure.
Their destinies now were up to the needs of the Dukedom once we’d turned them all in.
I picked up the waterskin sitting on the floorboards between us, taking a long drink of its clear liquid. I made sure to handle it with great care - I was the only person Twitch allowed to touch it as it was a final gift from Leila. On one of their rounds picking up souls they’d been attacked by a particularly strong demon and both Leila and Twitch got sliced up pretty bad. Their graxhs hadn’t survived and the wagon had been pulverized, its precious water barrels shredded and their contents quickly absorbed by the dirt before freezing solid within the rocks.
Given the depths of her own wounds Leila knew she’d fall into soul torpor - becoming yet another soul orb for pickup. She had possessed a talent in life of manipulating water, a gift that had followed her into death. Grabbing a waterskin she’d infused her soul into it, willing it to be the means to prevent Twitch from befalling the same fate.
The soul-forged skin had gained the ability to manifest an endless supply of preciously pure water and with that Twitch was able to make it back to the outpost.
While the terrain all around us had plenty of ice, the frozen mixture was toxic. The Captain hammered that notion into my head pretty seriously, and reapers all traveled with barrels under their wagons filled with the results of the outpost’s distillation process which made it safe to drink.
Whenever with Twitch and his waterskin it was never needed to tap into that supply. Still, Twitch always checked that they were full before each run nevertheless. Holding the skin was weird, it always felt both warm and cool to the touch. Leila’s final wish to take care of her partner filled it with much more than water.
Whether she and Twitch had been lovers I had never asked. Not my business. But it was absolutely clear that she had loved him. He must have loved her too, pretty strongly at that. According to the other reapers when he finally made it back he’d refused to talk. Not, they reported, that he had ever said much in the first place but after going through that he just never spoke again.
After I secured the cap and replaced the skin back near his feet Twitch tapped the Wayfinder and a fresh red ‘X’ appeared over the yellow of our current position. The stone went dark again and after a moment he looked meaningfully at me.
“Yeah,” I agreed. “You’re probably right. The scan is pretty out of date by now.” Popping goggles up onto my forehead, I stood on the bench. Martha grunted and shifted position causing the wagon to wobble under my boots. “Hey, hold them steady, darnit. This isn’t easy.”
Twitch tugged more firmly on the reins and Martha, frost billowing from her three wide nostrils, quieted.
Taking a deeper frozen breath, I looked about.
And by ‘looked’ I opened my sight to the patterns which underlay everything around us. The harsh stone and ice, invisible past the last reaches of our meager lights, suddenly became clear in the patterns and sigils which defined their existence.
Honestly, there wasn’t much to the terrain. Nothing grew and nothing moved, being this far out on the edges of this realm was akin to being in a sparsely populated computer simulation or game.
It wasn’t even a particularly stable one. I’d been over the same terrain time and time again, yet on each traversal the details were different. A hill here moved to there, canyons disappeared entirely only to show up again on the next run, that kind of thing. It was as if the realm only generated portions of itself as it had to. If no one was looking, who knows, it might not even exist.
I was fairly certain that’s how the large radar-like dish atop the outpost’s hill worked to find where souls popped in upon arrival to the realm: it probably scanned outward for the most ‘solid’ areas. That’s the thing about souls: around them the reality became slightly more real. Hence the use by the denizens of Hell of soul-stones to create items of lasting power. When demons weren’t eating them as snacks anyway.
After a scan the likely locations were transfered into our Wayfinders which then acted as compasses to guide us to those who may need our help. The stones had some ability to re-scan within a very short distance, useful in case those distances had changed on the map between the time a Reaper left the base and they arrived nearby the original destinations.
This was also how the Captain could detect the movement of any intruding demons across our turf. The souls they’d swallowed showed up in the scans as well.
Twitch poked my side. I’d again gotten lost in examining the sigils and reading the intent behind the realm’s existence. There was something very old and sorrowful within the core of this place which pinged at the heart.
“Okay, okay, I’m on it.”
Turning about and likely looking like a human lighthouse from my eyes doing their shining thing, I slowly tried to find any evidence that we may have missed a newly arriving soul on our circuit. My range wasn’t as good as the Wayfinder as trying to look too far would cause the pain in the shoulder to spike. But for nearby sweeps it sufficed.
Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. And…wait a minute. There.
The more I focused on it the brighter it seemed to get, forming a sharp contrast against the static that lay behind the end of the realm’s reality.
“Hey Twitch, uh, you’re not going to like this. I found one.”
His cloth-entwined and goggled head tilted to a side, nearly hitting the hilt of one of the two swords sheathed upon his back.
“It’s right at the Edge. You know, closer than we’re supposed to tread.”
A quick shake of his head gave his vote.
“Oh c’mon. We can’t just leave it out there!”
He waved a gloved finger back towards the outpost.
“Hey, don’t give me that. After being this long out here, what’s one more sleep? It’s a bright one! And you’re the guy who hauled my unconscious ass away from the Edge when you found me, remember. Why the protest?”
Arms crossed and he turned away.
“Are you serious? That hurts, dude. And here I thought we were friends.”
Picking up the reins he tossed them over to my side of the bench.
I grinned. “Thanks, bud!” Hopping down from my perch, I started guiding the graxh to turn the wagon towards the light now even clearer in my sight.
Twitch gave one more look of disapproval then climbed into the back of the wagon to try and get in his own uncomfortable nap.
Despite the dust stirred up by Martha and Stewart I kept the goggles out of the way.
I didn’t want to lose sight of the soul.
The Edge. That’s what folks called it, most without any real understanding of what it was.
As we approached I started to get a better idea.
It marked the limits of the extent of this weird upside-down bowl of a realm, where the void of the space between that which Was curved down to meet that which Was Not.
Otherwise known as the Abyss.
Naturally the boundary where the two met was not altogether a stable place to be. Go figure.
We drove our wagon out across the last of the plains under the void’s empty sky and the usual dead-still air began to stir. Frozen gusts of brittle dirt and ice whipped across our covered faces and the graxh bleated their discomfort. Each burst carried with it the strange scent of ozone, and even under the layers trying to keep out the cold the hairs on my arm tingled.
Twitch, trying his best to keep the graxh going forward, looked to me then tilted his head towards the cracked rocky outcropping rising up in front of us, barely visible as it was through the swirling dust by the weak lights provided by our wagon’s lanterns.
“Yeah,” I acknowledged. “It’s on the other side of that.” The soul was not just visible to my sight now, the emanations of profound loss and sorrow radiating from it were hitting me as hard as the wind.
Tugging on the reins, Twitch pulled in the graxh. Pointing at the graxh and then the hill he held up a questioning palm.
It didn’t take a genius to understand. “You’re right, there’s no path for them. Fine, I’ll climb it myself.”
Hopping down from the wagon, I stared at the cliff I’d have to climb trying to decide the best spot to start. I muttered a curse as the damn thing shifted even while I watched, stones rippling into ice and vice-versa as the realm itself fought to maintain its coherency this close to the Edge.
This was not going to be fun.
Twitch beat the end of my spear against the side of the wagon to get my attention, holding it out to me.
I shook my head. “Can’t climb and hold that at the same time. I’ve got my knife; it’ll have to do.”
With that I ran at the cliff wall which had to be at least forty stories tall. More or less anyway as its height too was changing after every glance.
Cursing with each breath, I clambered over the boulders at the base and began working my way upwards, a burning across my shoulder a reminder that wings would have made this a lot easier. But no, as much as internally I tugged at that dim spark within nothing would happen. Just the sensation as if someone was busy taking a blowtorch to the shoulder-blades. Dammit.
This would have to be done the hard way with hands and feet, one grip at a time.
I was about halfway up, navigating in the dark only by the pattern making up the substance while digging fingers and feet into jagged rock and sharp ice, and wondered if it’d have been better to travel below along what was effectively a fortified natural defense to search for a better spot to cross - especially as I wasn’t sure how I’d get someone back down this without resorting to throwing them off the top.
That’s when I heard the first ear-piercing shriek. Howlers.
With more of a groan than a yell I double-timed it, ignoring the rips and tears opening across gloves which soon would no longer protect the hands within them. Howlers were spirits attracted to emotional pain but too ephemeral to manifest physically even here. I’d seen them flow through someone once, whipping right past their skin to dig into their heart and rip away at their spirit.
All that had been left of the guy when it was done was a rather dull soulstone.
More shrieks answered the first. Did I mention they traveled in packs? Pushing goggles to my forehead, I forced perception through the hill’s stones until I could find them.
At the top of the cliff was a flat plateau stretching along the wall on one side, and on the other was what could only be described as a beach. Except where normal beaches had water, this ocean was made of a black even darker somehow than the sky, yet somehow also appearing in my mind like the static old televisions would display when stations stopped their broadcasts for the night.
A headache-inducing static which cast no light upon the shore.
Kneeling before this static-infused darkness with head bowed was the soul: a man, physically fit and as expected totally naked with knees buried in the sand. And underneath that sand a swarm of howlers swam their way upwards through the stones like eels through cloudy water.
I wasn’t going to make it. Not without wings. I tried even harder to get them to come, begging and pleading to that which was just entirely too far away and not taking my call.
The smell of burnt cloth wafting over my shoulders was the only result. No glorious harmonies, no cosmic symphonies, and no brilliance of light.
I did the only thing I could, consequences be damned. Pun entirely intended.
Shoving a fist forward it plunged not into the rock but into the lines of energy which made up the cliff’s structure. Glyphs describing the fundamental makeup of this realm’s reality flowed before my eyes and with mind, fingers, and will I rearranged them. It was easier than it should have been, the presence of that static ocean was playing havoc with the realm’s stability causing each sigil in that ultimate angelic alphabet to bend and shifted like putty into the new configurations I demanded.
The rock face opened up as the ones supporting my feet shot upwards, carrying me with them. With another gesture of will I rotated the space underneath the soul much like spinning the middle section of a Rubik’s Cube, spinning the Howlers further away from their target so they’d breach twenty yards further up the beach.
Which they did, their translucent eel-like bodies slithering about in the air as they screamed with frustration and rage at finding themselves displaced from their target. But I could give them a new one.
The bomb which had blasted me to Hell (from wherever Circe’s protective circle had thrown me) had been forged by collecting the death-energies of millions of souls. All their pain and suffering condensed into that purplish-black crystal. The fae queen, Fionnabhair, had pulled that power from one such crystal into herself to use it against the Third Seal.
Whether I had wanted to or not, I too had absorbed a portion of the power as it had ripped through me. It sat as a persistent knot in my stomach, one I had to beat down daily to keep from pulling me into a quagmire of painful memories not my own.
Yeah, it was one heck of an appetite suppressant.
With gritted teeth I untied the mental knots holding that energy down and with a cry it spilled outward, flooding my skin with its off-purplish glow. Scenes from the last few moments of far too many lives assaulted my awareness, but I managed to keep focus on the howlers. As the discolored light offered them a more potent meal they as one shrieked towards their new prey.
“Come and get it,” I growled, tossing battered gloves and cloak aside before stepping forward. Crossing wrists in front of my face I dug boots into the sand and braced for the impact.
The swarm rocketed across the beach, eager to consume all the hurt and loss suddenly offered, desperate to dive under my skin and suck the marrow out of my spirit’s heart.
And that’s where they were mistaken. For as a good friend had once demonstrated, the line between my spirit and flesh didn’t seem to exist.
Besides, I intended to cheat.
The mouth of the fastest howler slammed teeth into the waiting bracer as I invoked its power, a power granted by one of the most bad-ass warriors in all of Heaven. The fighting skill of that angel merged into my muscles as crimson flames flashed and a nimbus of fire spiraled around hands and wrists as they danced through the air to grab and shove burning heat down the throats of each and every howler that dared get within reach.
They were too stupid to run, knowing only hunger. The rage within the bracers mixed its fire with the purple and black-lightning energies, and I screamed my own raw cries back at the shrieking howlers as we spun and struck at each other in a whirlwind, their teeth sinking past cloth to scrape skin as fingernails tore into their sides to hold them while they burned and crumbled into an ash swept away into that oceanside wind.
It didn’t take long and I found myself spinning about searching for more to destroy that weren’t there. For a moment the guy on the beach seemed like a possible new target, but with a shake of my head and a wordless shout I shoved the purple crud back into its box in my gut. It had been getting harder to hold down lately, and I had a feeling I’d just made it worse by letting it out even for a couple minutes.
Catching my breath I slowly walked towards the guy who had stayed kneeling while watching the show. He stared at me as I approached, glow from my eyes and wrists forming a small pocket of light upon the sand and the black waters beyond. Around his neck dangled a pair of dog-tags, resting against a once-muscled chest covered in various interesting scars. He had that emaciated look that most souls did after being lost without food or water for too many days, cheeks sunken against the bones of his skull and waistline much narrower than it should be.
Maybe it was having someone finally arrive or even the small amount of light that came with me, but as I got close I heard him whisper, “I once was lost, but now am found.”
The ramp I’d cut through the hill to reach the top made the descent a lot easier than it’d have been otherwise and it didn’t take us long to get down. It hadn’t taken much to convince him to go with me, either.
Not like he’d had much choice.
The guy didn’t need any help on the climb, he was pretty sure footed. With how sharp the rocks and ice were I’d torn strips from the bottom of my cloak with which to wrap his feet and hands. Best I could do. My own gloves needed serious work with needle and thread and weren’t much use. Hopefully Twitch had brought his sewing kit. He was usually pretty good about packing so it was likely a given.
Speaking of, when we reached the bottom Twitch gave us both a good look over before shaking his head and flicking a thumb towards the wagon bed.
Gratefully I climbed in before giving the guy a lift up. Rummaging in our bundles of supplies for new souls, I popped up with a cloak which ought to fit and he quickly donned it before wrapping himself in the blanket I threw at him after.
With Twitch’s nod of permission I poured a cup of water from the waterskin and handed it to the guy.
“Drink it slow,” I told him. “Your body here isn’t used to anything yet.”
He took a sip. Most of our arrivals ignored the warning and drank deep anyway, but this guy heeded the warning despite obviously wanting to chug it all.
“Can you remember your name?” I asked while moving some sacks about until I found the one I wanted.
He frowned. “Hank? I believe that’s what folks called me.”
“Hank it is. And don’t worry about the memories, they’ll come back - which depending may or may not be a happy thing. The shock of arrival scrambles everyone’s minds for a few days.”
In the dim light from the crystal lamps he stared at me. “I reckon I died.”
He stared out into the total darkness beyond the graxh. “How long was I out there?”
“Not sure. One sleep at least.”
A shudder made its way from his shoulders to hands slowing clenching into fists. “Never felt so alone. This must be Hell.”
I raised an eyebrow. “One of ‘em anyway. That where you were expecting to go?”
“You hungry? You can eat a small portion if you’re up for it. We’ve got, let’s see, some not-really-carrots, some kinda-potatoes, and a bunch of totally-not-broccoli. I’d wait a sleep or two before trying any of the meat. Ease into things.”
He looked at me dubiously. “’Not-really-carrots’?”
I shrugged. “There are farms on the other side of this Rock. The plants aren’t quite like anything from Earth. Here.” I tossed him a yellowish stick from the sack. “Try it.”
Hank turned the hard vegetable over in his hands before shrugging and biting off a piece with a loud crunch. “Dry,” he said while he chewed. “And rather flavorless.”
“Yeah they are, especially when frozen like this. You’ll find most things here are kinda washed out like that. Colors, taste, everything really. Like a half-baked dream or, to switch metaphors, like going from a sixty-four bit operating system down to eight where the optimizations required too much corner-cutting and all that was left was a round blob. Oh, I should probably introduce myself. I’m Jordan and our amazing driver is Twitch.”
He nodded slowly, eyes narrowing with thought. All in all the guy was taking this a lot better than most I’d picked up. After another bite of the sorta-carrot he asked, “We headed anywhere in particular?”
I shrugged. “Reaper outpost. A Reaper is what Twitch and I are called; we find the newly arrived. We finished our sweep and are heading back to our base, though we’re kinda far out so it’ll be awhile. A few sleeps maybe.”
I pointed upwards. “No sun, no stars, and no digital clocks. But we have bodies enough to get tired and need to conk out.”
He pondered that and finished the stick before asking, “Right then. Am I your prisoner?”
“Not to sound ungrateful and all for your showing up before those whatever-they-were got to me but,” he said and gestured towards the set of chains and clasps coiled up in the wagon bed, “Those raise a few concerns.”
I sighed. “It’s complicated.”
“Some souls freak out and try to run. Except there’s nothing out here and they’ll eventually meet one of two possible fates: either slow starvation from which they can’t die, or they get eaten by a wandering nasty. If the things out here eat you they get stronger. Which would put all other arrivals and us Reapers in further danger.”
“Want another?” I asked, offering another veggie stick.
Pulling the blanket tighter around himself, he declined. “Thank you, ma’am, but no. If we can sleep then I do believe I’d best give it a try. Provided you don’t mind.” He closed his eyes.
“Go for it, plenty of time later for, well, everything.” Not that he’d heard me. The guy had already drifted off.
After munching on my own selections of alien produce I climbed over to sit next to Twitch, offering him a stick as I did. Shifting the reins to one hand he undid the cloth around his face so he could eat, the falling fabric revealing a chin covered in the scars from an old and terrible burn.
Whether those had happened before or after he’d arrived in Hell, I had no idea.
Rummaging in our supplies I found his sewing kit and, mindful of the wagon’s bumps and lurches across the landscape, I carefully threaded a needle to try and repair my poor gloves.
Twitch glanced at them and tsked.
“Yeah, I know,” I grumbled. “Something about being that close to the Edge caused everything to be sharper than usual. Or maybe they just tore easier.” I started to stitch a gash across the palm. “What do ya think of the guy we saved?”
Taking the reins in one hand, Twitch used the other to pantomime tugging at something around his neck.
“Dog-tags,” I agreed. “I haven’t had a chance to examine them, but they’re obviously a fetish of some kind to have followed him down. Not too often do folks show up with stuff.”
Looking over his shoulder at the sleeping Hank, Twitch tilted his head.
“No I’m not going to grab them while he’s asleep! That’s rude.” Playfully I went to punch Twitch in the shoulder, careful to hold the needle so it wouldn’t stab him.
I forgot how fast he can be when he wanted. Before I could blink he caught my wrist, gloved fingers wrapped strongly around my bracer. I started to laugh but he straightened and yanked my hand in front of his eyes, staring at it through his goggles.
“Hey!” I said and pulled free. “You almost made me drop the needle!”
He stiffened and pointed to the back of my hand. I looked and realized what was causing him alarm. The sigil of Duke Valgor - the mark labeling my soul as not just his property but also as being under the protection of his domain - was gone.
Camael’s bracer fire had entirely scorched away its magic. Ah heck.
How was I ever going to explain that to the Captain?
Twitch naturally didn’t offer any suggestions. He just stared wordlessly letting the unspoken question linger.
“I don’t know, dude,” I said with a groan. “We’ll just deal with it when we get back, I guess. Want to help me steal a sharpie from her desk?”
With a slow shake of his head indicating a firm ‘No’ he picked up the reins to continue driving the graxh and therefore all of us through the dark.
“Gee thanks. I’m so not sharing the next time I cadge an extra dessert from Cookie.”
He ignored the threat.
Wondering how much trouble I was going to be in for losing the mark, I went back to trying to patch the gloves and their many rips and tears. It would probably be easier to sew a new pair from larger leather scrap, but shine that.
These still had some life left in them.
The next few sleeps proceeded boringly, which was a good thing. For once the terrain remained mostly flat and empty, no sudden spires or peaks popping up with the latest shifts of the realm to get in our way.
The quiet appealed, really. It beat the heck out of dealing with demons every day like one had to at the outpost. Being in the middle of nowhere out here really felt like those moments between sleep and wakefulness, lost in the lazy lassitude between a fading dream and before the demands and worries of a new day were remembered. It was easy to just let all thoughts slip away into the muffled sounds of graxh feet and creaking wagon.
No demonic threats, no questions, no reminders of what was lost.
Thus I was holding the reins and allowing the graxh to take a more leisurely stroll towards the last slow rising hill leading to the outpost’s valley. Which they totally didn’t do as their instincts must have been telling them that they were almost home, the place where they could stuff themselves silly to re-plump up for the next trip out.
Both Martha and Stewart had become rather thin - we’d stretched our journey out a lot longer than normal. We’d even needed to tie blankets around their middles to help make up for their current lack of fatty insulation.
Twitch was in back asleep but Hank was sitting up front, huddled still only in blanket and cloak, hood covering the military haircut to keep it warm. Or at least not frozen. Normally I wouldn’t allow new arrivals to sit up here, but heck - he was the only one awake. The rest gathered on this entire sweep were stones thus there was no chance of arguments about who had sat there more often than others.
Don’t laugh. Some souls that fall down here really are that petty.
As for Hank, he hadn’t said much and we hadn’t bothered him so as to leave him alone with his thoughts. Best that he take things as slow as he needed, at least until we got to the outpost.
After that he’d be out of our hands.
Eventually he broke the comfortable silence. “Hate to sound like a youngster in the back seat, but we there yet?”
I pointed ahead. “Soon as we crest the top of this hill you should be able to see its beacon lights. They aren’t that bright, but they don’t need to be.”
“And then what?”
I wasn’t about to lie. “You get processed. We’re in territory owned by Duke Valgor - he’s a demon high-muckity-muck with a good chunk of land on the light side.”
“Processed. Don’t sound none too pleasant.”
I shrugged. “They’ll evaluate your skills to assign you to someplace appropriate. Of course, if you don’t tell them anything useful there’s always manual labor on the farms.”
“Huh. What do they do with retired worn-out soldiers?” He fingered the dog tags. Even in the dim light from our lamps I could see they contained no names, no ranks, no serial number. Just blank metal. Odd.
“You died, Hank. You aren’t in a worn out body anymore. Depending on what you did and can remember you could be assigned to the Duke’s army.”
“What about you?”
“Me?” I shot him a quizzical glance but he was still staring straight ahead. “I’m a Reaper. I’ve got my assignment.”
“And how’d you get that?”
“Asked for and got. There happened to be an opening and Twitch sponsored me. Been doing it since.”
He considered. “You fight things like them whatchamaccallits often?”
“Howlers specifically? No. Demons and other nasties? It happens. Not necessarily often, but it does.”
“Right. Combat skills are a plus.” He stretched and watched his exhale freeze in the air. “Sounds like I just need to figure out in the next couple hours how to convince you to sponsor this old fool too.”
He coolly met my surprised stare.
“Geeze, you’re serious.”
“Ayup. Like I said, my ass is retired. Those other choices are sounding either far too exciting or mind-numbingly dull.”
“Driving a wagon sleep after sleep isn’t exactly thrilling either.”
“Ah, but think of all the nothing you’ve gotten to see!” He gestured expansively at the darkness around us.
I couldn’t help but laugh. “Sure. If I might point out though, you haven’t met any demons yet. How do you know you can beat one if you had to?”
“Guessin’ I don’t. But if you got some at this post, I’ll take ‘em on if it’ll help my case. You have to do that when you applied?”
I blinked. “No. Twitch vouched for me.”
“He’d seen you fight?”
Frowning I thought back. “Nope.”
“Well heck. Why’d he sponsor you then?”
I gestured over my shoulder. “You’ll have to ask him. Good luck getting an answer.”
“Don’t underestimate my charming ways,” he said with a smile. “I might have the man spilling his life story by supper.”
“Speaking of food,” Hank added, “they big on outside barbecue at this post?”
I shook my head. “Too cold outside. Cookie uses the internal furnaces.”
His voice lost its casual tone. “Then I daresay you’ve got trouble.”
Following his gaze I immediately realized what he meant. We’d crested the ridge and with the land sloping down away from us the sparkle from two out of the three always lit beacon lights had come into view. Between them the entrance to the outpost in the side of its hill could be seen with the Wayfinder radar dish smashed to the ground before the main gate. As for the metal gate itself, it was breached and smoke billowed out through the opening in huge black clouds obscuring completely the third light set above the tunnel.
My stomach sank to the floor and kept on going. “Oh shit.”
As I yelled for Twitch to wake the hell up, I heard Hank mutter.
“Guessin’ I won’t need to worry about any reassignments today.”
I had a horrible feeling his assessment was all too correct.
Chapter 4 - Seed
A slow but steady rain blanketed London, grey clouds hiding the twilight hour as the day slipped directly into night. At the mouth of an alleyway a waiting hired car had been illegally parked for most of the past hour, much to the annoyance of the rest of the traffic. No less than three traffic wardens had approached to send it on its way, but each time as they drew closer they’d blink, look about in confusion, and turn to shuffle down the sidewalk huddling deeper within their slick yellows and blues.
Two men in thick coats and perfectly shined shoes eventually emerged from the alley and climbed into the unmarked black car.
The taller of the two got in second, taking the seat behind the driver and thus facing the other passenger. To the driver he said, “Cambridge. You have the address.”
With a silent nod from under a simple woolen cap, the driver checked his mirrors and pulled out into the road.
Isaiah peered through the rain past nearby buildings, spotting the river and a familiar two-towered bridge. “We’re in London.”
“Long ride to Cambridge. Two hours, maybe less. Why not portal directly there?”
“Several reasons.” From a front pocket Soren retrieved a smart phone and rapidly scanned its scrolling text.
Settling deeper into the leather seat Isaiah said, “I’m listening.”
Windshield wipers squeaked across the glass as if to emphasize the silence otherwise found within the car which merged onto a larger road heading East.
Isaiah’s feet crossed at the ankles and he continued staring at the other man expectantly. After several minutes the phone was again pocketed and Soren replied.
“Using mortal magic requires preparations for the arrival point. I have not yet been precisely to our destination.”
“Mortal magic. Could you have moved us directly using angelic abilities?”
“Yes. And by doing such we’d cause ripples immediately noticeable to those whom we would prefer to avoid.”
Isaiah thought about it. “I see. Still, I’m surprised you wouldn’t have a designated spot at the university there.”
“Not one as clandestine as required,” Soren said bluntly. “You are a target and I wish to bring no troubles to the one we intend to visit.”
“If that truly was your wish then we would not be going there.” Isaiah smiled ruefully.
The larger man closed his eyes, circles somehow even darker than the cheeks curving beneath them. “Perhaps.”
Marking the signs of how exhausted the other man was Isaiah asked, “When was the last time you slept?”
“Two, maybe three days ago.”
The lawyer frowned. “I have many questions.”
“You may not like the answers.” Soren’s eyes remained closed.
“The war with the Nephelim. You were there.”
“We slaughtered them. On both sides of the battle.”
“It was necessary. Or else the Host would have purged the world.”
Isaiah clenched a gloved hand, staring at it as if it was no longer his own. “I…Azrael killed his own son.”
Soren spoke more quietly. “Not an easy thing to have done.”
“And shortly thereafter he held Aradia as she died. Her spirit dissolved before him.”
The sorcerer leaned forward. “She was not yet ready to channel the full measure of the Light. But through her sacrifice did we achieve victory.”
“Victory?” Isaiah scoffed bitterly. “Shoving problems into bottomless chests and locking them up is not victory.”
“We contained the threat.”
“At what cost!” Shaking his head, he forced the hand to open once more, fingers flexing slowly. “What I do not understand is how Justin could have Aradia’s soul. She should have been lost forever, like the other Nephelim lacking the spiritual strength to incarnate.”
“She was restored by the grace of Gabriel and your spirit.”
“I know nothing about that.”
Soren rubbed a palm across his tired face. “Three of the Seals are gone. The proscriptions against remembering have weakened. Should you try, you will. This will likely happen more often on its own than you’d like.”
“It’s not that easy,” Isaiah protested. “I’ve only gotten glimpses while asleep, it’s not like I-”
The sentence cut short. A chunk of unknown memory which was not his own had already ripped free.
Ira Saul Rubenstein had lived a good life.
Son to a talented silversmith, he had proudly answered his country’s call to arms to fight the Germans in the Great War, lamenting twenty-five years later that he’d become too old to again serve. Instead, using most of the wealth he’d accumulated from his family’s rather successful jewelry business, he did his best to smuggle as many of his fellow Jews out of Europe and across the sea. He took a small measure of pride in knowing that most of those he had saved would never know his name.
Even his wife Hannah never knew, attributing his tightening of their budget during the war years as simple prudence. His three sons, of course, had not waited to be drafted and volunteered.
Only two survived the conflict and together the family had carried on to expand the business into something far grander than their father had ever originally envisioned.
Thus he was at peace when closing his eyes for the last time, surrounded by photos of grand-children and great-grandchildren alike. To his surprise it wasn’t Hannah who met him on the other side, even though she had crossed over first only a couple years before.
No, instead a remarkably beautiful woman, hair the color of the freshest of strawberries, resolved within his spirit’s vision. Behind her stood another figure with crossed arms whose hooded cloak was as dark as the woman’s white dress was bright. While he could not make out the face behind the hood, the presence seemed oddly familiar. Though one would think the fact the figure had a stump instead of a hand would have allowed it to be more immediately remembered.
“Hello, Ira.” Peace flowed from the woman’s smile, the kind of peace only the most holy could possess.
Thus all was well and he knew that he’d passed on. “Hello.” As he relaxed into the inevitable a scene coalesced all around: bright blue skies above accompanied by the sound of nearby ocean playing against the bluffs upon which they stood.
“Before you move on,” the woman said. “I need you to do something for me.”
“You’re an angel.” Having said it, he could then see the soft wings of perfect ivory fluttering behind her back.
“Yes, I am. Ira, hold out your left hand.”
Lost in the serenity of her smile, he did so without question.
Except it wasn’t his hand that stretched outward. Not only was it too young and strong nor riddled with the arthritis which had plagued him for twenty-plus years, but the skin was blacker than moonless night.
She stepped closer. Green eyes captured his, and her words sank into him. “Hear me, oh Azrael. The time to release the child of light has come.”
Ira, much to his confusion, answered her in a voice unlike his throat had ever spoken. “All that remains are fragments.” His words echoed sharply, each syllable distinct and final.
“From those shards shall she be made whole.” She reached out, placing a white seed at the center of the dark and open palm. Around the seed was wrapped several threads of what must have been the woman’s own hair, shimmering within the light pouring down from a sky which had no sun.
Ira’s strange voice reacted with its own surprise. “Gabriel, what have you done?”
“I have taken two when ordered to take but one. Behold the seed from the Tree of Life - plucked forth from the fruit within Paradise. Dearest Azrael, I offer my own pattern to make hers whole. Please allow this seed to be the crucible of her renewal.”
The cloaked figure shifted its weight. But before it could take a step forward Gabriel held a hand out behind her. “Hold, brother. You cannot judge my actions in isolation. Only when the full tapestry of events has been revealed, which needs must include your own participations.”
The figure hesitated, then slowly nodded.
Within Ira’s strange hand the hair-wrapped seed began to vibrate. Light like the stars of a perfect night sky streamed under the palm’s skin, flowing with golden power around the seed and sending sparks coursing through the strands of hair.
Gabriel rested her own fingers, now shining with their own special light, over his. By their wills the lights merged in fiery brilliance, red and gold swirling and blending until forging a hue uniquely its own. To contain that light and keep it from scattering across the universe, they forced it within the safety and stability the seed provided.
With time and the right circumstances the seed would grow and perhaps become more than either could foresee.
Ira, before slipping away into his own next incarnation, heard himself whispering:
“Lord, I pray that this is good.”
Isaiah’s glasses had slipped down his nose and he blinked at a world gone blurry while his thoughts raced.
Azrael and Gabriel had reforged Aradia’s spirit. Gabriel, having herself been formed from the purest of light spilling out of Lucifer’s heart at the moment of Heaven’s creation, had woven her own similar pattern around the preserved pieces. The Azrael who had remained within the Seals and incarnated in life after life had held in stasis the unraveled remains of Aradia’s pattern for millennia.
The Azrael who was also himself.
And the seed with which the repaired spirit had bonded must have been planted into his friend Justin at birth, awaiting only for the right conditions to sprout brilliant leaves of holy fire. Conditions requiring the purest of grace and sacred necessity.
Such as the willingness to unhesitatingly sacrifice oneself for a child held dearest to his heart.
Returning lenses to their proper position, Isaiah stared at the sorcerer who had painstakingly arranged for such a moment to occur. The sorcerer however didn’t look back.
He’d fallen asleep.
The cab crept down a row of semi-detached council flats, each brick-lined unit displaying the individual care or lack thereof from their inhabitants. With night’s arrival the rain had picked up, battering with continual effort against the windows until the view was again obscured into streaks of the red and while lights daring to still be seen. Coming to a stop at the last unit in the row, the sound of setting the hand-brake caused the sorcerer’s eyes to open, full cognition and awareness returning in an instant.
Instructing the driver to wait, Soren extended an umbrella before stepping out, holding the door for Isaiah and allowing them to share what little protection from the wet the stretched cloth held overhead could offer.
Behind a short wooden fence lay a walk of concrete carving a path through thick greenery marked with patches of late-season flowers. Being an end unit it had a larger yard than the others, filled with bushes and a few towering evergreen trees. Vines lined the windows, anchored in place by several trellises valiantly holding up the heavy growth overdue for a trim. Set in the corner was the front door, white with a large window resting under an awning lined with shingles that matched the roof one story above.
Soren paused before the door. “Remember one thing: we need this man’s help.”
Isaiah considered and asked, “Do you expect that to be a problem?”
“Who is he?”
After a deep breath, Soren answered. “He is our venerable second.”
Before Isaiah could ask what he meant, Soren raised a hand to knock. The door opened the moment the knuckles touched the panel besides the glass.
A voice from within spoke calmly. “Best be getting in before you’re both well and truly drenched.”
Isaiah followed Soren into a small parlor, both removing their damp coats to hang on the rack by the door. The man who’d let them in had already bustled off to the kitchen, having called back with, “The kettle is nearly ready, have a seat and we’ll have ourselves a cuppa.”
With a glance at each other, the two men carefully avoided stepping on the numerous small dog and cat toys scattered across the floor and took seats on a rather patch-worn leather couch that mostly matched the blue carpet. The parlor was rather small with couch and armchair tucked in behind a six chair dining set filling the rest of the room. Between windows covered with silver curtains sat several bookshelves containing classics of literature as well as a decently sized collection of fantasy and science fiction novels.
What stood out to Isaiah was the number of books on the occult covering a wide assortment of topics: dreams, psychic phenomena, astral travel, druidism, and many more.
“Here.” A tall but thin man with ruffled short hair and freshly shaved cheeks walked in carrying a different colored mug in each hand. He had on only a pair of jeans and a plain white t-shirt, in contrast to the suits and ties of his guests. “Now let’s see. Three sugars, lightly brewed, with a touch of cold water added must be yours,” he said in a mild English accent while offering a solid green mug to Isaiah. “And no sugar with the teabag left in for you.” A purple mug was handed off to Soren. “Careful, that one is still quite hot.”
As Isaiah took a sip the man looked towards the front door with a frown. “You’re missing someone. I’m entirely certain there were to be three guests. Four sugars, with cream.”
Soren blew calmly across the top of his mug. “She is unfortunately unable to sample your hospitality in her current state.”
A coldness crept up Isaiah’s spine despite the warmth from his cup. He knew someone who took - had taken - her tea in that way. “Tracy. She’s here?”
The sorcerer stared at him, eyes dark. “Naturally. The lady is bound to your service.”
“Focus,” said Soren. “And you should be able to see.”
Scratching at the palm of his hand in frustration, Isaiah scanned the room. “I can’t!”
Their host tilted his head. “Don’t look with just your eyes.”
Still seeing nothing, Isaiah’s frowned in irritation. Don’t look with one’s eyes? How else was one supposed to see?
Offering an encouraging smile, his host suggested, “Try to feel her presence and let a picture in your thoughts take shape.”
Brow furrowed with concentration Isaiah gave up on sight, closing his useless eyes and instead remembering what it was like to have Tracy nearby. He remembered the scent of her favorite perfume, applied ever so lightly. How she’d mumble to herself while reading through page after page of legal briefs and case histories. And most of all her sardonic smile when they’d share the most sarcastic of jokes.
With eyes closed he could see it, how she’d be grinning at watching him, the lawyer always in control and self-assured, struggling to do the seemingly impossible.
Open them peepers, Boss. I think you’ve got it.
Priding himself on not having flinched at suddenly hearing her voice loudly inside his head, he did as told.
And there she was. Leaning against a wall in front of a framed picture of a white tiger stalking through green underbrush stood his former assistant. She was dressed as if going to a trial in a formal white blouse and that navy skirt she had fretted over after dripping soy sauce on it during sushi celebration from winning an important case.
If it wasn’t for the fact that the tiger was peeking through the translucency of the blouse he would have sworn she was standing right there, amused grin and all.
“I see her.”
Good job. But I’m not the one you’re here to visit. We’ll talk more later, don’t mind me. I’m not goin’ anywhere.
Swallowing back the rise of sorrow, Isaiah nodded and returned his attention to Soren and their host.
Soren acknowledged him with a nod of approval before turning back to their host. “You were expecting us.”
“You know who we are.”
“I’ve got an idea.” The man smiled and picked up a half-filled mug from the dining table. “Business of Heaven, eh?”
Isaiah refocused on the task at hand and addressed the man into whose home he had been invited. “Firstly, thank you for the tea. Secondly, I am Isaiah Cohen. And that,” he said while pointing at the sorcerer, ”is Callas Soren. I must apologize but he never gave me your name.”
“Adam,” the man said as he settled into the old-yet-comfortable armchair. “Adam Williams. But that isn’t the name you’re interested in.”
“No,” agreed Soren. “It is not.”
Adam shrugged. “You do know that whatever is happening, I’ve got no involvement.”
“So you say,” said Soren. “Yet we need your help.”
Their host’s eyes narrowed. “And what makes you think you’ll succeed this time, Regent? No offense to Mr. Cohen, but Gabriel is much cuter and I believe I said no to you and her a long long time ago.”
Soren stared at Adam for a long moment. “People can change.”
The two locked eyes in an uncomfortable silence which Isaiah finally broke.
“Pardon me,” Isaiah said with deliberate enunciation, “but I barely know what is actually going on. What I do understand is that my best friend needs our help. And he,” Isaiah said, pointing at Soren, “claimed such help was possible and has brought me here ostensibly towards that end. Will you, Adam, at least listen to what this cryptic and overly-frustrating individual asks before making any decision?”
Adam smiled, suppressing a chuckle. “I suppose I can do that.”
Isaiah turned expectantly to Soren. “Proceed.”
The sorcerer took another swallow of tea while regarding Isaiah before turning to address Adam directly. “After Michael cast the First down from the city, you followed that path and joined him within the realms of the rebels.”
Their host stiffened, losing the smile.
Soren leaned over to place the mug on the floor. “I know these memories aren’t pleasant but we need-”
“Not pleasant?” Adam sharply cut him off. “That’s a bloody understatement! You’ve never Fallen, you have no bleedin’ idea what that’s like.”
Isaiah was watching Adam. More precisely he used the same mental effort he’d held onto from bringing Tracy into focus to stare past the slender Englishman. He caught a glimpse instead of a shadowy presence looming behind the man, that of a towering armored warrior who once wielded a mace capable of smashing galaxies unto oblivion.
Or of defending the birth of Heaven itself.
“Beliel,” Isaiah whispered in sudden recognition.
Adam looked away, quick anger fading to a much more persistent sadness. “No. I am not him. Not anymore.”
Soren disagreed. “You will always be our Second. And I ask you to help us again defend the Light as you once did.”
“I tell you that I am not.” Adam shook his head, refusing to meet Soren’s direct attention. “And defend the Light? Why would I? Lucifer needs no one. His views on that were made perfectly clear.”
“Lucifer?” Isaiah said and his hand tightened around its mug. “The sorcerer doesn’t mean him. He means the Light who became my brother in this life, yet another whom Lucifer abandoned long ago as a small child lost in snow. He means Lucifer’s daughter, Aradia.” The image of her death burned in Isaiah’s mind. Her hand in his, trembling as all light faded away…
“Aradia?” Adam blinked with surprise. “I know of the stories and by all accounts she was lost thanks to your meddling.”
Soren cleared his throat. “She has returned. She broke the First Seal last summer.”
Adam leaned further back in the chair and rubbed his forehead. “That’s who’s been making such a racket, eh? Still - this has got nothing to do with me.”
Soren’s tone hardened. “She can restore the Light to Heaven. Is that not worth your aid?”
“I’m no good to anyone. Not now. You know why.”
Soren ignored the statement. “By virtue of circumstance she has transported past the line of Elohim’s Decree into the realms of the Fallen. A place of no return, yet Gabriel and I later found you here on Earth. Not as a projection slipping past loopholes by dint of human wizardry but fully manifest. Only two have ever succeeded at such a feat: Lucifer,” Soren paused, “and you. Tell us how that was done. Tell us how you managed to escape the chains of Hell.”
Isaiah sat up straight, suddenly understanding why they were there. Hope surged but found itself crashing against the sorrow plainly written across Adam’s face.
“If she is there,” Adam said quietly, “then I am truly sorry but she is forever lost.”
Soren’s eyes flashed. “I cannot accept that. You managed an escape, so too can she.”
“But I didn’t.”
Isaiah gestured towards his host, saying, “Yet you’re here. You must have.”
Within Adam the old shadow warrior stirred. “This is how it was.”
In Isaiah’s inner vision, a terrible mailed fist swung outward and with a single blow delivered its ancient memory.
Inside a block of ice an armored figure sat ensconced within its frozen throne. Wings of darkened ash protruded beyond the block, frost hanging far from each feather as if trapped not just in cold but in time. The block itself grew out of the spired tip of a high mountain of icy rock rising upwards from the center of a widely curving bowl.
Above that singular mountain peak lay nothing but true void. Not the emptiness or absence of space but absolute Nothing, incomprehensible to senses designed instead to comprehend all that is.
And yet upon the surface of those darkest of waters as if hovering over the depths of unknowable oblivion, lay a film which stirred with the potentials of all things.
There was no light within this place, only pale afterimages of sorrows and regrets leaking into surrounding mists, seeping as ice into the rocks and stones below millimeter by millimeter over the course of eons uncountable. Within the flickering scenes lay countless immaculate angels, all crushed beneath the rising and falling might of a single mace eclipsing all light with its terrible swing.
It had been thus in this place for ages, and it was thus to be.
Except an unwelcome brightness eventually invaded and dared to speak where no words had ever been spoken.
“So this is where you have been hiding.”
An angel with six iridescent wings, having pushed its way into the space between the Abyss and the frozen tableau below, hovered before the one encased behind the ice. Held aloft in one hand shone a globe of brilliance, but instead of emanating warmth its light reached out only to illuminate and by doing so made the surroundings more solid as if by its glow alone dreams became real.
“Go away.” The armored angel had not moved but his voice echoed as a subsonic whisper from the creaks and moans of each shard of frost and compressed stone.
“Oh I plan to, brother. Indeed I came to say goodbye.”
“When last you left you did not speak to us. Why the break with tradition?”
For the briefest of moments golden eyes winced before their usual prideful glint returned. “Perhaps a desire to avoid a repeat of your folly. I did not call for you to follow. Your own arrogance led to the mess of that day.”
“You knew what I would do just the same.”
The angel of light tossed the glowing ball from one hand to the other, watching the resulting trails stream across the air before slowly fading away. “I foresaw possibilities. Yet I deluded myself into believing you could not possibly be that stupid.”
“I knew only that a game with unchanging rules leads directly to stasis and destruction. Something had to change. Alternate paths had to be explored.”
“And look how well that turned out.”
The ball grew brighter, held tightly between fingers which grew brighter still. “It needed to be done.”
“So you have said before. And now have said it yet again.”
“Of all our brothers I had thought you at least would understand.”
The angel in the ice laughed, a bitter sound flowing forth to coat the block with yet another layer of frost. “Your disappointment pales in comparison to His; do not think you can guilt me into accepting your premises.”
“Guilt you? I would not insult the both of us by trying.” Eyes of fire cast about, taking in the entire space of the realm and beyond. “You have built yourself quite the inverted tomb. Is that what you wish for? Do you stare into the Abyss and dream of oblivion’s kiss?”
“The quiet suits me.”
An intensity built within those bright eyes, and where they gazed ice began to melt. “I would still have you be convinced. But this grave of yours will never allow for a fresher perspective.” Holding forth the orb, the angel unleashed the power stored within to lash out at the permafrost surrounding his brother.
“Lucifer!” The dark warrior growled in alarm.
“I had intended to leave this bauble as a gift for you and your realm after my departure, much as I have gifted our other brothers caught within Elohim’s net. I have now decided otherwise.”
Anger became pain as ice flashed into steam. “Cease this! Now!”
“Your regrets weigh you down. I shall see you free.”
Like a surgeon directing a laser scalpel with sharp precision, Lucifer carved the ice around the warrior, slicing deeper into the ice-encrusted rocks which had absorbed and reflected all his inner anguish for over billions of years. When the ice was thin enough he shoved the orb of power directly into the frozen throne underneath his brother and cut him free.
Rock ground against rock, causing the realm to tremble and crack, forging a new inner volcanism whose heat began to melt the ice and form deep underground pools.
As the ice surrounding Beliel exploded Lucifer caught his brother in his arms. Sharpened fragments evaporated instantly against the brilliance now surrounding them both.
Ashen wings flexed slowly to crack layers of frost that had held them still for eons past. From behind the ancient helmet came a hoarse cry. “Why?”
“To teach you that which you failed to grasp when foolishly following in my wake.” As the two rose towards the nothingness above, the Lightbringer poured more light into his aura. “You waded into the chaos determined to stand fast against its infinite possibilities. It beat you down and the corruption of the Abyss seeped into your pattern because you lacked two truths.”
With hands which had not moved in eons Beliel struggled in rising panic against the arm now wrapped tightly around his waist. “No! You cannot take me back into it! Not again!”
“How else would we slip past the limits which in his rage Elohim carved into the very nature of our fallen brethren’s realms? There is but one egress and I hold the only available ticket.”
As Lucifer’s hand reached towards the waters covering the Abyss beyond, ripples of unformed possibilities flowed like static outward over the surface.
Pausing with a finger only a hairs-breadth away from the infinite nothing-ness, the angel of light flared brighter still. “The two keys of such travel are simple. First, one does not fight against an infinite.”
Knowing he was still too weakened to break free, Beliel gripped tightly to the other’s arm. “And the second?”
“There exist infinities of different size. And the Light, dearest brother, is the greatest of them all.”
Lucifer dipped the finger into the outer layer of chaos and with that the angels were gone.
Adam made fresh tea for his guests to give them time to collect their thoughts. Footsteps from the floor above were heard going from one room into another and then back.
“Don’t mind about the missus,” Adam said as he handed back mugs refilled with steaming English flavor. “This time of evening, she’s deep in her soaps.”
Isaiah took a few sips, the brew helping to bring his thoughts back to the here and now. Turning to Soren he asked, “What now? Find Lucifer and convince him to go get her out too?”
Adam tried to laugh mid-swallow and coughed instead. “He hasn’t wanted to be found since dropping me off here on Earth. It’s likely easier to break the seal around Hell than to find that one. Let alone convince him to offer any assistance.”
The sorcerer looked past them both, perhaps to something only he could see. “No, there is no need. She needs not the Lightbringer’s aid.”
Wanting to shout, Isaiah fought to keep his voice calm. “Did you not see the same vision? Lucifer said he had the only ticket.”
“Had.” Soren held up a hand. “That was then. She too is a bringer of light; she too holds the key to such a passage for beings of this Creation. Though she is entirely unaware of it.”
Adam shook his head. “It’s not that simple. Traversing the chaos is beyond maddening. Lucifer got the two of us through, but for me it was a blur of confusion and pain. I found myself recovering a measure of sanity in a forest; he’d been long gone.”
“She can do it,” Soren said firmly, rising to his feet. “Adam, thank you for the tea and the information. Come, Mr. Cohen. It is time for us to depart.”
Isaiah remained seated. “I am not going anywhere until you explain what our next move should be.”
The two stared at each other but Isaiah’s glare was an equal stubborn match.
Soren spoke first. “We need a method to tell her of what we just learned.”
Lifting his cup, Isaiah said wryly, “Let me guess. There’s no spiritual phone service to Hell.”
The sorcerer either missed or ignored the attempt at humor. “The Seal which covers all the fallen domains prevents direct communication between us and our brethren.”
After a deliberately slow sip of his tea Isaiah asked, “Then what are our options?”
The edge of a smile glinted upon Soren’s face. “There are other channels which may be used. We shall insist on the services of someone who can assist with the delivery.”
An eyebrow raised above Isaiah’s glasses. “And whom might that be?”
“A demonologist of particular skill. Try not to kill him on sight.”
Isaiah lowered the cup, his jaw suddenly tightening. “You know where he is?”
Soren’s unfriendly smile grew. “Yes.”
Unlike Soren, Isaiah didn’t smile. “And if he refuses to help?”
“I will offer sufficient motivation to ensure Mr. Wright’s cooperation. But should he still somehow refuse then you may visit Azrael’s Judgment upon him as you see fit.”
Isaiah’s eyes flashed. “He deserves nothing less.”
“Don’t we all, Mr. Cohen. Don’t we all.”