Chapter 1 - Duty
It was not the coughing of the children that had disturbed his slumber.
The last of Uganda’s warm November rain fell upon the corrugated aluminum stretched above the schoolyard patio, hard droplets playing a sharp staccato as if marbles spilled from the sky. The rooms behind the rough stucco wall had recently been repurposed, small desks pushed aside to make way for rows of cots filled with those who in this place should have been nourishing their minds instead of struggling to breathe.
The nighttime nurse opening the battered screen door caught him holding lit match and cigarette, the meager light revealing a still-youthful face whose complexion was much lighter than everyone else’s.
“I thought you’d quit.” Dark thin arms crossed over scrubs the same deep green of the surrounding foliage. Letting the screen bump itself closed she leaned against the wall next to the cheap plastic chair upon which he sat.
Returning the box of matches to the white lab coat’s side pocket embroidered with a red cross, he inhaled the nerve-soothing toxins. The flare at its tip illuminated stubbled cheeks at least a week past their last shave. “This is purely for medicinal purposes.” Offering the glowing stick over she too took a long drag before handing it back.
He ignored her question with one of his own. “How many more?”
“How many what?”
“Won’t live to see the dawn.”
She said nothing and stared off into the damp night. They’d run out of antibiotics days ago and the hospital in nearby Kaabong had none to spare. It would take yet more time for reports of the outbreak to reach higher authorities. Or more honestly, weeks for the aid organizations to grease the right palms. Hours and days that those within did not have. Shaking her head, she pushed a tire-sandaled foot away from the wall. “I’d better get back inside, Doctor.”
The screen door again clattered shut. Exhaling a cloud of smoke and worry, he watched it slowly drift out into the rain.
More coughing came from within but for now all they could offer was cough syrup and kind words. Here it was the twenty-first century, and yet in the furthest corners of the world plague still festered in the chests of young and old alike. Worse still was the knowledge that many more in the local populace were also likely infected but too wary of modern medicine to come to the make-shift hospital, ancient tribal superstition and distrust disavowing any outside aid.
Many would die who otherwise should have lived.
As his eyes drooped with a weariness beyond physical fatigue, he idly wondered why in the midst of all this he kept dreaming of a childhood far removed from here or even his own American upbringing.
“Nebu, give that back!”
Bare toes scrambled through a marketplace’s alleys. A larger boy with tousled brown curls that matched his tunic grinned as he fled from another boy whose own hair mirrored the crows perched upon the surrounding trees and mud-bricked rooftops.
Ducking past produce-filled wagons, the boy in front easily avoided the smaller hands trying to recover possession of the stolen knife that he had plucked from the younger boy’s belt. It wasn’t the first time Nebu played this game with his distant cousin, leading the boy on many an afternoon chase only to arrive at his cousin’s house. Whereupon Nebu would demand a kiss from his cousin’s beautiful twin sister in exchange for return of whatever he’d managed to pilfer from the sulking brother.
But today Nebu’s cousin was more determined than ever to defeat the thief and reclaim that which was his.
Laughing as the shorter boy lunged at the blade held above out of reach, Nebu’s heel caught against a stone in the loosely paved road. As he fell backwards the point of the knife jabbed the haunch of a fine and towering tan-colored stallion being led to auction.
In an instant both rear legs of the startled horse kicked backwards, catching Nebu and launching him into a nearby wall.
While the stallion whinnied and fought against its handler Nebu slid down the hard-packed bricks, a trail of bright red smearing behind. Fingers twitched but failed to reach towards his cousin who could only stare aghast at the blood flowing from the head wound.
Pink bubbles trickled from Nebu’s lips and his next words were lost to choking against that which filled rib-pierced lungs.
A shout went up in the crowd, further spooking the horse who reared and bucked in greater frenzy.
But Matityah had eyes only for Nebu - and for the black robed figure who had knelt beside him as Nebu’s struggling breaths went still.
A woman screamed, diving straight through the unseen figure to clutch at the fallen boy. Dark fabric rose, its owner’s face hidden behind the hood while it regarded the small boy standing with tears of anger and anguish flowing free.
“You could have saved him!” Matityah shouted.
“But you didn’t!”
“Why, Father? Why?”
Wings also akin to the crows spread outward, and Matityah’s father - who was there yet not there - disappeared.
A woman’s voice startled him awake. “It’s not fair, is it?”
He must have drifted off in the chair. Heat from the burning nub of the cigarette flared against fingertips. With a yelp it was tossed into the rain, the embers squelched in the puddle besides the woman’s strangely mud-free boots.
She stood underneath an umbrella, beige raincoat belted tight around a thin waist set above equally tight jeans that only accentuated the long legs. Unlike the dirty yellow strands hanging to his shoulders, hers was platinum and bound into a tight bun.
He couldn’t see the parking area behind her well enough to determine if another vehicle had joined his own mud-encrusted jeep. And if there had been, where was Irumba? He was supposed to be standing guard against possible raiders! “Excuse me?”
The woman took a step forward under the awning and lowered the umbrella. Dim lights from inside the schoolhouse windows revealed elegant yet sharply cut features, the skin glowing otherworldly until she moved past the small illumination into the patio’s shadow.
“I said, it’s not fair.” She gestured towards the school with perfectly manicured fingers, each digit tipped with a shade of grey slightly darker than the previous. “But then again, when is death ever thus?”
“Are you from the hospital?”
Her laugh reminded him of wind chimes, yet its music held a disturbing dissonance. “No.”
“Then what are you doing here?”
“Looking for you, Matityah.”
He stiffened. Was he still dreaming? “How do you know that name?”
“I know many things. I know your true father, the one who sired your spirit. And I know the reason why you dream of death each night since Summer’s end.”
Pinching an arm, the sharp sensation did nothing to waken him further. With trembling hand he fumbled in the pocket, pulling out the last cigarette found within. As he was about to go back for the matches, the woman gestured and the cigarette lit itself. There was no spark or flash, instead the end simply glowed red and burned.
Inhaling too fast, he coughed excess smoke from his lungs. “Magic.”
“Only from your perspective.” Tapping the tip of the open umbrella against the patio’s concrete, the fabric folded in upon itself. Despite having been held aloft its surface was dry.
“What do you want?”
“Nothing much. Only to aid you in achieving your greatest ambition.”
He had to laugh. “What are you, some kind of forest spirit offering a devil’s bargain?”
She flashed a beaming smile no dentist could possibly improve yet which offered no comfort. “In life after life it’s the same for you, isn’t it? Shaman, druid, medicine man, doctor. Forever tilting against death. And always ending in loss.”
His own merriment faded. “It’s not a fight that can be won. Victory is measured only in temporary successes.”
“What if I said that winning is achievable? That all the suffering you’ve fought so hard against has been absolutely needless and is immanently stoppable.”
“I’d say you’re deluded, maybe even insane.”
“Archimedes once noted, ‘Give me a place to stand and a lever long enough, and I will move the world.’ He never knew how right he was. Come with me. Let me prove the truth of this to you.”
“Lady, I’m not going anywhere. Regardless of anything you offer, I’m needed here.”
Tall headlights split the deluge, bringing with them the sound of tires sliding across mud after having been halted by a wrenched parking brake. Good lord, were they about to be hit by raiders even in this weather?
From the passenger side a man in a poncho hopped out into the wet waving arms high. “Doctor! Come!”
“Irumba! What the heck is going on?”
“The medicine! They brought the medicine!”
Silhouetted by the vehicle’s circular lamps, he could no longer see a face but her voice cut through the rain. “A gift, Matityah. Go save your precious children. None need die. In the coming days we are sure to talk further.” Her shadow turned and the flipped umbrella opened automatically to ward off a wet which never touched.
“Wait! What do I call you?” Was she real or spirit? He still couldn’t tell.
As she faded into the night he heard her chuckled reply.
“Son of Azrael, you may call me Alal.”
Chapter 2 - Terms
If you ever find yourself being asked kindly (and later not so kindly) to cease all personal airborne activities and thereby end random panicked reports of shiny UFOs from concerned citizens, then I’d highly recommend getting a motorcycle.
Specifically a superbike with more horsepower than common sense such as the Ducati 1198S, a slick streamlined machine which as far as I was concerned was straight out of some cyberpunk anime.
Yeah, it’s that cool.
The trick though is to use an open-front helmet. That way you feel the wind blasting against your cheeks while the roaring engine encourages pretending that you’re flying low over the roads nestled between the snow-touched pines and plow-created embankments which line their path. A pair of retro goggles are also necessary, especially if the Red Baron decides to make an appearance in your imagination.
Which is, let’s face it (literally and metaphorically), bound to happen as you kick up sprays of loose asphalt around curves and corners while thanking the engineers for having included automatic traction control.
The only drawback is the complete lack of practicality, specifically with regards to a simple detail overlooked by both myself and the best friend who’d gifted the technological marvel as a Hanukkah present. Namely the mileage was rated at thirty miles per gallon or thereabouts - which sounded great except for one thing:
The tank only held four gallons.
Now if you’re like me and start getting paranoid about filling up as soon as a gauge reaches that last quarter this means rather frequent fill ups. Not that there weren’t other stops on the route I’d planned out. Despite it having snowed the past week several of the look-out points were still accessible and offering lovely views of the White Mountains of New Hampshire in all their evergreen and brilliant ice-covered glory, each spot requiring several minutes to appreciate properly. Taken together the five hour estimated loop through the area was turning into more like six. Maybe six and a half.
Plus tack on yet another hour as I’d decided to grab a midafternoon Sunday lunch, choosing the diner sitting at the crossroads of a pair of two-lane highways forming the upper right corner of the trail I’d mapped out for the day. Sitting next door to the pumps the building looked more like a small house than a restaurant even with the small parking lot nestled against its brick and brown-paneled walls. Having parked the white motorized steed - okay, technically the color was called Bianco Perla - a color selection insisted upon due to my friend’s sense of humor - I went through a door which proudly announced “Welcome ATV Riders”.
It was a lot warmer inside, the sharp contrast reminding that I still wasn’t used to heated accommodations after having spent the past couple years in far colder places. Okay, so for everyone else it’d only been like a week - but for me, the nearest I could estimate was just shy of two years subjective time.
Don’t blame me if that seems confusing. Travel between various realms of existence often doesn’t make sense, especially with regards to differentials of the flow of time. And it very well may have been even longer than I thought, which was part of the problem.
Pausing to scan the place from corner to corner, I took a spot along the far side of the long U-shaped counter, yielding a good view of the two walls with windows facing the road and parking lot. Shoving goggles into the ivory helmet’s padding I balanced them on the seat of the high-backed stool next to mine and did my best to ignore the long stare from the scrawny guy in a plaid shirt who stood behind the counter.
At least he was the only other person in the place and therefore the whole typical “check out the tall girl decked out in tight riding leathers” bit was limited to just him. And if you think such stares only come from men, think again. Whether I wished it or no, I stood out in a crowd.
Of course the reddish-gold hair which had escaped in wild freedom from the helmet didn’t help. Being stuck in that transition between super short and actually manageable, it was spiky enough that when combined with the bike outside I was almost a proper Japanese-animated protagonist except for being a) not Japanese, and b) unarmed. Unfortunately I’d been told that carrying a spear around was ill-advised. Let alone a longbow and quiver.
Which was annoying as walking around without a ready weapon was like an itch I couldn’t scratch. At least the leather jacket and riding chaps felt somewhat like the armor we’d worn for stealthier ops.
Once the guy with stringy brown hair stopped trying to discern my bust size under the jacket he came over, putting one of those square napkins on the counter. “Get you something?”
“We’ve got hot chocolate if you’d like something warmer.”
“I’m fine with the cold.”
He shrugged. “Okay.” A laminated menu got dropped off before he slipped out from the counter area to grab a bottle from the cooler behind me. The glass-door refrigerator was shoved against a chalkboard-covered wall that had columns for desserts, lunch, and dinner specials - though only desserts had anything written in. As for the glass bottle, it was what they had for tea and it plonked heavily onto the napkin. “Need a minute to decide?”
“Nah. I’ll take a burger with extra extra cheese. And fries.”
That earned a pair of raised eyebrows. “Extra extra? So like four slices?”
“Yep. The more cheese the better. Medium rare if you’re willing.”
With another shrug he took back the menu and went through the nearby doorway into the kitchen, favoring the left leg with a noticeable limp as he did so. I would have regaled him about how absolutely special earthly cheese was (even good ol’ boring American!), except I figured that’d be too confusing to explain. Though it’s absolutely true. The stuff they’d dared to call cheese where I’d been stuck for those years hardly compared. Then again, they didn’t have cows or even goats from which to get normal milk so the taste being way off shouldn’t have been too surprising.
But please oh please, let what I’d been given not have come from lactating demons. Because eww.
The throwback to grunge rock came back out and placed a fork and knife onto their own paper napkin in front of me. The knife was one of those thin serrated steak knives with a sharp point, a cause for wondering just how tough their hamburgers might be. The guy looked like he was going to say something more, but didn’t because my attention had focused on the TV mounted above the opposite counter.
The news was on and broadcasting images from Egypt. Even though the volume was low I could still make it out.
“…riots and protests continue against the President and the military. With the mysterious force fields continuing to surround the pyramids despite military efforts to penetrate them, the outcry grows day by day as tourism sinks to levels never before seen…”
Video footage of crowds chanting and screaming at government buildings cut to yet more pounding fists against blue energies which had enveloped all the major pyramids and even the Sphinx. This was interspersed with shots of tanks sinking into sand followed moments later by said swallowing desert spitting out the dazed crews miraculously unharmed.
“…still no explanation from the government as to the cause, nor for the attack on the Djoser Pyramid that started it all and seems to have triggered ancient and unknown magical defenses. Equally mysterious is the disappearance and seeming erasure of all video footage showing the attack: the epic battle between a massive dragon and equally towering devil, and the appearance of an angel streaking across the battlefield on brilliant wings of light…”
Cold tea went down the wrong pipe. Coughing, I waved that I was okay to the server guy and he frowned before he too returned his attention to the TV.
“…Muslims and Christians alike have declared these to be signs of the End Times, sparking further violence across the nation. Many Coptic churches have been attacked and burned while religious leaders on all sides remain divided between calls for peace or for escalation to holy war. Even museums have not been spared, such as the Greco-Roman Museum in Alexandria which saw its storerooms of ancient Roman artifacts ransacked by a mob decrying the veneration of foreign invaders prior to the entire historical collection being set afire…”
With a click the TV turned off, the pictures of angry crowds and destroyed buildings fading instantly to black. The server guy was stiffly pointing the remote at the set. “That isn’t going to end well.”
I couldn’t argue the point so didn’t try.
Shaking his head, he put the remote atop the granite counter. “I’ll go check on your-”
The obvious verbal continuation of ‘food’ or ‘burger’ never got spoken. A loud crack from outside had me diving to the floor behind the aluminum underside of the counter while trained instincts rapidly scanned past walls for potential attackers. The closest soul other than the server slid past the windows at a range of fifty feet; a quick focus on the surrounding pattern however revealed no gun nor magic war-stick.
Just an old jalopy of a truck with an engine in dire need of new valves.
Beating back the flood of internal energy which fortunately wasn’t needed, I got back to my feet and felt like an idiot. Except I discovered I wasn’t the only one who’d ducked for cover as the grunge-guy was also no longer standing. Forcing a chuckle I said, “Well that was surprising, wasn’t it?”
There was no response. Stepping slowly around the counter I saw why.
Huddled on the wooden floor with arms hugging himself was my server, face pale and eyes unfocused.
Dropping into a crouch I spoke with as much calm assurance as I could muster. “We’re all clear. There’s no contact, no danger.”
Eyes as brown as the hair looked slowly up.
I repeated the message. “It’s all clear. Was just a truck. We’re safe.”
They shifted their focus to the knife gripped tightly in my hand.
“Well shit.” I hadn’t even realized I’d grabbed it. Carefully putting the knife down, I offered him the now-empty hand. “C’mon man, maybe you could use a hot chocolate yourself, eh?”
Hesitant fingers took mine and I easily lifted him to his feet, something which surprised him though he tried to hide it. Standing there awkwardly he let go. “Sorry.”
“Hey, no worries,” I said with a smile I hoped was comforting. “I hit the deck too.”
“I’ll…I’ll go get your order.” He limped off and I had some new ideas as to the nature of his injury.
Sitting back at the counter, I took a long swallow of tea before wiping at my face to clear some unpleasant memories of my own. It wasn’t the first time since I’d returned that I’d over-reacted like this. Part of the point of today’s sojourn through the mountains was an attempt to follow the therapist’s orders to relax. You know, do things like play with my kitty (who kept insisting on pretending he was a goat to bonk my forehead with his at every opportunity). Or go out and marvel at there being an actual sun hanging in the sky, eat pancakes (oh my god, pancakes!), pretend to be human, that kind of thing.
Some days this was more difficult to accomplish than others.
A cheese-piled patty enveloped by buns, lettuce, and tomato magically appeared. Additional cheesy glory had been given the thick fries, an added bonus I hadn’t asked for but gladly accepted.
“Thanks.” Taking a ketchup bottle I commenced the smacking procedure to encourage the red stuff to flow.
Meanwhile the guy was staring at me again. Different kind of stare this time though.
“You serve?” he asked.
I put the cap back on the bottle, making sure it was tight. “You could say that.”
“Yeah.” Okay, that wasn’t really a lie as I had indeed served in an army. It just wasn’t the good ol’ USA’s.
Pondering my expression he said, “You’ve been in the shit.”
“So have you.”
“No offense, but you’re awfully young.”
I shrugged and cut into the burger. It was too large to try and ham-fist into my mouth, so fork and knife it was. “Get that a lot. I’m much older than I look. I blame my mother’s genes.”
“You could almost pass as a high schooler.”
If he only knew. “It’s a pain in the ass.”
“Where’d they send you?”
“Hell. Straight to Hell.” I didn’t meet his eyes. He didn’t need to see the demons perfectly pictured behind mine.
“I hear you. For me it was Fallujah.”
“Dang.” I pointed the fork towards his leg. “You take a hit?”
“I.E.D. Weird thing is I can’t even remember it happening.”
“Years of physical therapy and it still isn’t right. But that’s not the worst thing possible when you think about it. ‘Cuz I’ve still got the leg.”
“There is that.” I took another bite.
He considered while I chewed then asked, “You out or on leave?”
I could have made up an answer but didn’t. “I’m not sure.”
He nodded. “Between terms then. Some pretty sweet incentives on offer to re-up from what I hear.”
“Many friends are still there.”
“Yeah, that makes the decision all the harder don’t it.”
I didn’t say anything.
After a long silence he patted the counter. “Let me know if I can get you anything else.” That said, he moved away.
Chomping a chedder-smothered fry I tried not to think of such things. The cheese was good. Too good. And note that I said “tried”.
I certainly didn’t succeed.
The rest of the ride back to campus went smooth enough. Fluffy clouds of various shades of grey hung in the sky below the sun the way they were supposed to. Wide shadows were cast across hills mostly green from the covering swaths of trees whose species stubbornly refused to acknowledge Winter’s yearly arrival. The day’s mild weather was but a brief break in the New England pattern as an incoming shift to much colder, wetter, and then frozen future aimed to hit overnight.
Which of course is exactly why I took this fleeting opportunity to try out the new bike.
Having zipped past the gargoyles anchoring the main gate and maneuvering the Ducati to the student parking lot, I tucked the bike into its assigned space and smothered it with the form-fitting padded covering that I’d insisted it come with. Frowning at it all I wondered how well it’d hold up to serious hail, but I suppose that’s what insurance was for.
Or friends who made serious high-powered attorney money.
Still in riding leathers and with helmet under an arm, I jogged past many uniformed students and on up the steps into Hawthorne Cottage - the school dormitory to which I’d been assigned. With only three stories above ground and a highly steeped roof it looked ordinary, just ignore the huge power panels in the back. Connected underground to the nearby medical building the “Cottage” held many specially designed rooms which served the unique environmental needs of some of the Academy’s more, shall we say, unique students.
In that respect my own room off on its own in the attic was comparably boring. Its only special addition were the wards both inside and out. Though trust me on this, the entire country if not the world was unknowingly happier that those wards had been in place.
And no, that wasn’t an exaggeration.
Past the cottage doors and turning towards the elevator my path found itself blocked by our hover-wheelchair-bound cottage mother, Mrs. Cantrel. Glaring with dark-skinned hands folded over the blanket covering her lap, she gave a head-to-toe glance at my attire and tsked. “Miss Emrys.”
Skidding to a halt I replied, “Yes?”
Equally dark eyes glinted. “I presume, child, that you were granted permission to go off campus on that toy of yours?”
Heh. Yeah, nope. I hadn’t even bothered to try.
Chapter 3 - Bound
The question hung in the air. Behind us in the student lounge several kids stopped their studying - or more precisely stopped the goofing off while pretending to study.
“Why Mrs. Cantrel,” I said with exaggerated cheer. “Would I do such a thing without it?” Then before she could respond, I cheated.
Flicking eyes first to the side towards the intently listening students I returned them to meet her own penetrating gaze. At this angle the kids wouldn’t have seen it.
But she did.
The woman’s shoulders tensed. “My office. Now.”
With the whine of her hover-chair’s mechanisms she edged forwards, effectively herding me past the lounge and into a room whose desk had several monitors arranged in a large viewing grid, many showing images from cameras both inside and out of the cottage. An obviously hot mug of coffee mug declaring, “You got this!” also sat on a wooden coaster.
“Shut the door.”
Letting her past I did as she asked, the solid wood closing with a loud thunk. Those shoulders slumped and she rubbed her face. “What are we to do with you?” She sounded tired. That was cheating in its own way, dangit. And here I was all prepared to be argumentative and stubborn.
“The situation is bizarre, isn’t it?” I allowed, leaning into the door using a boot to press against a plank.
Offering a more understanding smile (more cheating!) she nodded. “It must be rather hard on you.”
“Compared to what I was doing a month ago? Not really.”
Alright, I suppose as understatements go this warrants proper explanation so here’s the skinny: This past Autumn (according to Earth’s calendar) I was a student struggling to deal with having my life turned upside down. I’d gone from being a boring forty-year old male software engineer to a budding Nephelim-turned-angel who, of all things, had taken the form of a sixteen year old girl.
Yep, it was messed up.
All that craziness had also grabbed hold of my fae-spirited niece, and together we’d come to this Academy: her as a real student, and me faking it while trying to learn what it meant to have boys (and men) staring at my chest and ass every chance they got. But as if that wasn’t enough we ended up in Egypt in an attempt to prevent disaster from sweeping across the world. That shining angel reported on the news broadcast about the pyramids? That was me.
In that fight however my niece had died. And I’d been blown literally off the map.
More specifically, I slammed into one of the realms within Hell. And due to fate’s warped sense of humor, I’d been embroiled in yet more shenanigans all of which concluded with nothing less than me leading a demonic army into pitched battle before confronting an ancient evil bent on the destruction of that very realm.
Fun times, right? Yeah, no.
As a result of that last struggle with a fallen Grigori angel I’d slipped into the Chaos that lies between everything that is and everything that isn’t. Then my lawyer friend - who, as it turns out, is also a pretty bad-ass angel himself - somehow reached across and pulled me out. Two years for me had only been one week for everyone here on Earth.
And yes I’m skipping a lot, deal with it. No there won’t be a test on this later. Though I wouldn’t put it past Rabbi Kirov to somehow work some of it into his lectures next term.
Returning from the dead, as it were, did make things rather complicated. The DPA (Department of Paranormal Activities) which had been managing the unique circumstances by having arranged through a ton of paperwork a new identity for my transformed self was stuck with a tough position. The U.S. had become aware that a number of its citizens were in truth angels - and therefore Heaven and the Host were frighteningly real. Plus the Apocalypse was underway, with three of the seven mystic seals of biblical legend having been broken. For the record I can only be blamed for the first one. And it wasn’t so much as busted as bent to have a rather specifically shaped hole.
So what to do?
Despite the fact that the Academy had already been attacked once by assassins (who were trying to kill my niece), the powers-that-be decided it was still the safest place to stash their problematic individual, namely me. The whole scholarship grant which kept me in spending money - arranged by the instigator of all this (who himself was now stuck in Hell as in a weird turn of events we totally traded places) - was incumbent on my graduating high school for the second time. To speed that up my government-issued fake identification had been adjusted for the time I’d spent in the realms below and the school bumped me from junior to senior year. The debate regarding letting me officially graduate at the end of the current term had yet to be settled, but whatever. It’s not like I cared all that much.
I’d come to this school to be there for my niece as I’d promised. And now she was gone.
“You left this in your room this morning,” Mrs. Cantrel said, producing a mobile phone from under the blanket.
“Oh, did I?” I took it and shoved the thing in a back pocket. “Thanks.”
“If something had happened to you, girl, you wouldn’t have been able to call for help.”
“I wasn’t worried. And I didn’t want the DPA sending cars to shadow me either.”
She tutted disapprovingly. “And what if we here needed you?”
I chuckled. “The tracer spell Circe so cleverly hid inside the front tire is intact. In a pinch it’d serve to get my attention.”
That surprised the older woman. “You detected that? Your skills have come a long way.”
“Hell was an effective teacher.”
She considered while wringing her hands. “We’re doing our best to help, you know.”
“I do. And I appreciate it. It’s just…”
I hugged the helmet to my chest. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.”
Sympathy flooded her expression and the chair whirred closer so she could put a hand on my arm. “Well I happen to know what you could be doing right now.”
Mrs. Cantrel’s eyes glinted mischievously. “There is a girl upstairs waiting in your room who could use some assistance with studying for her math exam.”
“Tamara?” I groaned. “She and equations are like oil and water.”
“I have faith in you, my dear. Now get going.” Picking up the steaming mug, she gestured towards the exit.
Opening the door I aimed for the nearby elevator, muttering under my breath while waiting for it to arrive. “I swear, teaching demons table manners was easier.”
From behind came a spluttered and coffee-choked laugh.
“If it’s imaginary, what good is it? This makes no sense!”
Green teen-aged eyes wobbled between anger and outright tears. Sprawled across the purple area rug covering a good section of the floor were an open textbook, notebook, and scattered pages of homework whose red markings glared brightly even to the casual viewer. Tamara lay on her stomach before the mess of mathematics, her school-patterned skirt and uniform blouse scrunched underneath while stocking-covered toes twirled in the air behind. The shoes had been flicked off in frustration half an hour prior.
I’d have to clean the smudge spot one had left on the wall later.
“Don’t focus on that,” I said. “It’s just a thingie. A symbol we can use.” Sitting across from the girl who was on the verge of ripping out the long raven strands that kept brushing the pages, I leaned back and stretched out a leg to try and get some blood flowing again. Unlike her, I was wearing sweatpants so I wouldn’t be flashing any underwear by doing so.
You have to think about such things when you’re a girl.
“But we were taught that you can’t take the square root of a negative number!” she whined, “But now we are?”
From over on the bed came a snicker. “Typical, isn’t it? Teach us one thing and then tell us the opposite the next year.” Our friend Jenna was on the king-sized bed ostensibly studying for a history final. Like me she was in sweats and t-shirt. Though unlike my own wild helmet hair, her head was smoothly bald as she’d removed her wig.
As for Khan - my grey and white kitty - he was being smart and keeping out of the line of fire of any more shoe-rockets by curling into the blankets besides Jenna and pretending to sleep.
I sighed. “Jenna, hush. You’re not helping.”
The snicker turned into a giggle - which only caused Tamara to moan louder.
“Okay, let’s back up,” I said, reeling in the leg to sit properly again. “You’re used to plotting X versus Y stuff, right? Functions of X?”
“Yeah?” Dubious green eyes peered past the bangs.
“Think of most of this as just a new way of plotting. Instead of X and Y, it’s the real versus the imaginary. But don’t get hung up on the terms - think of them as just two parts of a whole. So a single number is made up now of those two parts, which can be represented as points on a plane.”
“Because it’s useful. There are equations which have no real solution yet have these complex solutions - in other words using numbers like this gives solid results. The so-called imaginary number i has some neat properties, especially when repeatedly multiplied by itself, which makes it really useful for cyclical processes.”
“I don’t get it.”
“That’s okay, don’t worry about that. Just focus on thinking of a complex number as being a new kind that has two parts instead of one. And when you add or multiply them together there are new rules on how to do that like we’ve been going over.”
“But a number is a number! Why would it have two parts?”
Jenna turned a page of the history textbook, saying dryly, “And yet you can out-magic your whole class.”
The struggling not-quite-a-mathematician stuck her tongue out at the other girl which only triggered more giggles from the peanut gallery.
Though that did give me an idea. “Hey, you know how there’s the distinction between physicality and spirit?”
“Yeah? What about it?” Tamara looked back at me.
“So when you do your workings, you’re combining the two, right? Spirit-harnessed energies manipulating the physical which in turn has a feedback on the spirit-side.”
“Well sure.” Tamara frowned but I had her full attention.
“So what are we? Physical bodies or spirits?”
“And there are rules to how they interact. You learn them instinctively from your practices, from the feel of the flow.”
“Is it? A complex number is still a number. It just has more parts. Like we do. And there are rules on how to do things with them. If you learn how, you can use them to do neat stuff - with the two parts interacting via the rules. The physical can’t do things that the spiritual can, and vice-versa. So with a real number you can’t take the square root of a negative, but with the so-called imaginary part of a complex number you can. We just call it i. And then use the heck out of it.”
“I…hmmm.” One could just about see the gears turning in her head, though in her case it was more like flowers budding on a vine.
I smiled. “Try to think of it that way, and review how to add and multiply them. Then do those exercises again.”
New resolve took root and she pulled the book closer, black hair dangling like a curtain around the text.
After a minute of focused silence I got up, stepping quietly so as to not disturb her concentration. Walking past the intricate circles decorated with mystical symbols and writing covering the floor around the bed I stepped to the double doors leading to the balcony. While it had been made comfortable with its own bathroom and wide open living space, the room was actually a portion of the attic of the entire building. The many criss-crossing rafters formed the roof’s high peak above to give a feeling not unlike standing within a chapel. It just was missing a set of stained glass windows to complete the illusion.
Though the large bed, desk, wardrobe, and many bookshelves usually brought things ‘back to earth’. Especially as I’d not been especially tidy lately, what with drawers hanging open with jeans and shirts falling out, books stacked vertically on shelves instead of horizontally like they ought to, and all-around disregard for where used laundry should be in general.
Eh, what’s the worst that Cantrel could do about it, give me another lecture? Pfft. Besides, Khan didn’t mind as long as his litterbox was kept clean.
Which it was. I still had some standards.
Peering through the glass the sky still held the faint afterglow of sunset lingering above the forest ringing the school. A solid weight against the ankles announced that Khan was done faking his nap so I picked him up and held him against a shoulder. The not-so-little guy nudged my cheek with his forehead and began to purr, earning him an extra squeeze as I scritched the fluffy scruff behind his neck.
With the brightness of the room’s lightbulbs reflecting everything in the window panels I watched as Jenna slid out of the bed. We made quite a pair in that reflection, with her taller by a good number of inches and showing much more muscle than I did. Where I was slender but toned with muscles seen more when I moved than when standing still, she was the proper vision of an amazon warrior: everything burgeoning with ready power yet none of it detracting from her natural beauty. Even her hairlessness worked for her, especially when silhouetted.
Given a few more years of martial training and she’d likely gain a presence equal to a former captain of mine, the one who’d taken me in when I’d arrived to the realms below. Jenna already carried herself with a similar stance.
After running her fingers over the top of Khan’s noggin the youthful uncertainties written across her face broke the comparison. “I can’t stop thinking about him.” She spoke quietly so as to not disturb Tamara - and to not be overheard.
The kitty squirmed in my arms, and following his lead I let Khan hop into Jenna’s hands. His purred staccato never faltered.
She clutched the little guy close to her chest, the small golden cross dangling there getting somewhat entangled in the fur. “I know you’ve told me he’s alright but you also said the time difference was crazy. Years will have gone by for him already, right? What if something happened?”
“Twitch, I mean Tommy, is a seriously skilled soul. He can take care of himself.”
“Can he? You don’t ever talk about it. But everyone can tell you aren’t the same since, you know, coming back.” She paused. “It must’ve been bad.”
“Only parts of it. But yep, it sucked.”
“Brendan says you sometimes remind him of his dad on the nights he starts drinking. Especially when you’re sitting alone.”
“Or when staring off into the distance like now?” Turning I tried to smile, but the worry in her eyes hurt to see.
“Yeah, exactly.” She swallowed. “He told me his dad was a soldier. Did you have to do a lot of fighting?”
I resisted chewing on the thumb I was bouncing against a lip. “I’m not…I’m not ready to tell you about it, okay?”
“But Tommy is still there.”
“No he’s not. You said because of what he went through he’d gone mute.”
“Yeah, but physically he’s okay.”
“You can’t know that.”
“I’d know it if he wasn’t.”
Fingers stopped their stroke through Khan’s fluff. “How?”
I held out the palm and showed the faintly glowing star sitting at the center, smaller and so much dimmer than it had been.
Yet it was still there.
“I thought you said you didn’t know what that was.”
“I know what it was supposed to be. A Commander’s Mark.” Flexing the fingers I added, “When souls or demons are taken or pledged in the service of another they gain a Mark. It ties them to their…to their owner.”
She flinched. “Someone owned you?”
“For a time, though it really didn’t take. That mark burned off. This one, well, it tied me to those in my service. And through it I feel whenever one of them is hurt.”
“You owned my brother?” Anger rallied across her face but Khan’s white-socked paw touched her cheek and stemmed the rising tide.
“I never accepted it that way. He joined those I led. And with that mark he’ll have protection.”
Even Khan’s special mojo had limits as she let him drop to the ground. He began rubbing against her ankles. “But you aren’t there! How can that help him now?”
“Because my team will do it. He’s one of them.”
“And just how strong is this team?”
“Most were bad-ass demonic mercenaries, alright? And if I’m not mistaken they’re now being led by a powerful angel. One who I healed before I left. He’ll take care of Tommy.” What I didn’t add was that Nathanael - who I’d known first as a soul named Hank - had damned-well better take care of them all. “Look, it’s complicated but if something had happened to him I’d have felt it.”
“I thought Hell was cut off from everything.”
I shook my head. “I don’t understand it all either. But wizards can summon demon’s spirits somehow, right? Well, I still feel them. I haven’t been able to communicate, but…” I trailed off.
Looking back at the floor, I sighed. “One died.” I’d felt it; he’d been consumed by fire. That’s all I’d gotten but it had woken me out of the usual messed up dreams clear as a drumbeat banging away inside my head.
“Oh.” She thought about it for a moment then went pale. “But if one died, something more powerful is after your team!”
“Maybe the guy did something stupid, or was sent on a dangerous mission. I have no idea which.”
Jenna’s anger marshaled itself once more. “You escaped. They say that should have been impossible, but you did it.” Pointing an accusatory finger she added, “Why didn’t you take my brother with you?”
Twitch, standing in the hospital hallway, taking off the glove to hold up his star and say goodbye…
“He wasn’t with me when I…I…”
“When you what?” Her finger jabbed a shoulder.
“When Azazel pulled me into the Primal Chaos and out of Hell. There on the edge of Everything.”
Tentacles of shadow, wrapping around limbs and torso, fierce heat and overwhelming cold burrowing within from the contact, as a vortex of absolute incoherency swallowed us both…
She took a step back, her finger curling in uncertainty and dawning horror.
I tore away to again face the doorway’s windows while the fragments of memory played back. “How did I survive? I don’t know. I just don’t know! Isaiah pulled me out but somehow I’d been reaching for him. Everything in between is a goddamn blank. So no, I can’t go back to free Twitch, to free any of them! Don’t you think I would if I could?”
Closed eyes did no good; I still saw them. Soul after soul after countless soul, bound into so many demonic shadows, all staring up with pleading faces, hearts and hands outstretched towards a light forever denied. Whereas my own could reach only to touch the door’s empty glass.
Which promptly shattered into the night along with all its windowed brethren.
A chilled evening breeze swirled through empty frames and it was Jenna who finally broke the shocked silence, her anger as quick to depart as it was to arrive.
“You’d think they’d have installed sturdier plexi-glass after the last one. This makes what, three times now?”
Bending down to examine the shards glittering across the balcony I sighed with disgust. “They did.”
Behind us Tamara got carefully to her feet. “I’ll go get a broom. And I’ll let Cantrell know you’re gonna need some plywood to cover that for the night.”
“No need,” I said and motioned for Jenna to take a step back. “Give me some room.”
Hooking a foot around Khan to keep him from exploring outside she did so, pulling the curious kitty with her. “What are you gonna do?”
It was surprisingly easy. Scarily so even. For the past few weeks each night I’d lain in bed staring past those windows before finally falling asleep to not-so-blissful slumber. The pattern of what had been there before was absolutely crystal clear in examined memory.
All I had to do was touch that blazing light within and without, the light that made pretending I was still normal a constant challenge. Since returning its immense brightness had grown, roaring eternally in the infinite contained both within and without, always present and always inviting the possibility of losing myself across, well, everything.
One whispered word folded around the pattern in my thoughts and it was done.
“Holy shit,” breathed Tamara. Between an eye-blink the shattered fragments had disappeared and the wooden frames in the double doors were again filled.
Exactly as it had been.
Jenna, almost stumbling over the cat, gingerly pulled open the doors and ran fingers over the restored glass. “There’s no magic residue. None.”
“That wasn’t magic.” Tamara stepped closer, hand reaching but not touching as if she didn’t dare.
Frowning through a pane Jenna stared at her. “It had to be, right?” When she got no answer from her magically-inclined friend she looked instead to me. “Right??”
“Not the way it works,” I said quietly. Khan moved over to sit at my feet and began to lick an extended furry leg.
“Well what would you call it then?” Jenna demanded.
Tamara lowered her arm. “A miracle.”
“I don’t get it.” Closing the doors, Jenna stood there and began fiddling with the cross dangling over her shirt.
Tamara tried to explain. “Jordan altered reality. She made it so the glass had never been broken.” When it was clear Jenna still wasn’t understanding she added, “Like loading a game save. No application of magic energy was used to transform anything, its state was just overwritten with the old one. Instantly.” She swallowed as the implications began to register, the color in her face draining away as she studied mine.
“Go ahead,” I told her. “Ask.”
“You didn’t need your wings and didn’t even glow or power up.” She chewed on a thumb. “What…what if you had?”
I answered the real question she was afraid to ask. “I don’t know if there are any limits. Not anymore. I have to completely know the pattern first, but I learn more all the time.”
“What’s to keep you from…” She couldn’t bring herself to say it.
Kneeling down I scritched at Khan’s instantly offered white belly fur. “Other angels will detect it. And there are likely rules against doing things like that which I don’t know.”
“Wait a minute,” Jenna said catching on. “No limits? So you could what, remake the world?”
Tamara stared down at me and the kitty. “I think Jordan could remake more than just that. But she’s right, there’s gotta be rules.”
“Wow. No wonder they excused her from the Combat Finals.”
At the end of Fall and Spring term, Whateley Academy students all faced the dreaded ‘Combat Finals’ where they’d have to undergo contrived scenarios to test not just their powers but also the ability to think, adapt, and overcome. Rumors were that the events were live-streamed and a small betting industry had illicitly popped up around them. Which is one of the reasons the DPA had leaned heavily on the school to exclude me. But the real reason was no-one wanted to test what I could or couldn’t do.
“Escaping Hell should qualify for a passing grade, don’t you think?” Tamara said with a weak smile before frowning again. “But you not remembering how you did it is odd, isn’t it? I thought angelic memory was perfect.”
Khan fake-attacked without using any claws, biting gently at my fingers while paws encircled the wrist. “I thought so too, but apparently it’s not.”
Jenna crouched so she could wiggle one of Khan’s rear toes. “Hmm. You ask the gryphon guy about it?” By ‘gryphon-guy’ she’d meant the angel Tsáyidiel, the half-raven / half-panther Kerubim whom I’d freed from Azazel’s control.
I shrugged. “He didn’t know what to say, other than that I’d gone outside the bounds of Creation.”
Tamara looked across the room where her math book still lay open on the floor. “What about August? You ask them?”
“They’re not here anymore, remember?” August, the student slowly experiencing the mirrored gender transformation to my own which was making pronouns tricky to employ, just so happened to be the incarnation of a Grigori angel named Tamiel. My carelessness with a torn-out (or mystically connected) page from the Book of Life had turned her own upside-down. What with the school having been attacked, two students dying (myself and my niece Danielle), and the onset of rather dramatic physical transformations (a reverse parallel to my own crazy experience if you thought about it), August’s folks had yanked them out of the school as soon as the funerals were over.
From the parents’ point of view I could hardly blame them. I was actually surprised that more hadn’t done the same.
“But they’ve got the connection to the Book, right?” Tamara pressed.
Jenna piped in, her hand gaining its stony armor so she could more safely pin Khan’s feet as he wrestled happily between us. “August said he wasn’t allowed to tell people what he saw in the Book.”
“Isn’t that more about their future?” the dark-haired girl asked. “What about the past?”
She had a rather valid point.
“Ok,” Jenna said. “Except Jordan can’t just call August to ask him.”
I had to agree with that. “Yeah, you’re right. My phone calls are likely tapped by every three-letter agency our government has. And some it officially doesn’t. They don’t know August is an angel, and I don’t want them to. But I haven’t a clue as to where August lives.”
Jenna grinned. “Leave that to me. I’ll have the address tomorrow.”
“Good,” Tamara declared and crossed over to sit back on the rug. “Now if you two don’t mind, please keep the metaphysical shenanigans to a minimum so I can get back to beating my head against this nonsensical logic instead.”
I laughed and my hand must have moved wrong because Khan suddenly bit down kinda hard. “Ow!” The fuzzy monster immediately let go and began rubbing his whiskered cheek against the hand in offered apology.
My kitty was simply awesome like that.
The two girls returned to their studies and as Tamara seemed to have gotten enough of the concepts to really work through the problems her need for my assistance dwindled. After first asking if it would disturb their efforts I pulled a chair off to the side of the room and got out my father’s flamenco guitar. I’d been playing it more since getting back, not having it while in Hell had been more painful than I’d wanted to admit. I mean, it’s not like I’d ever played it all that much before, but not being able to made the desire to strum out a multitude of falsetas all the stronger.
Do souls in Heaven miss their instruments too?
Come to think of it, other than Vance and the Lilim’s troupe there hadn’t been much music in Hell. But maybe that was more due to having spent most of my time in the company of demonic mercenaries. Vance had asked me to join the Lilim and perform for audiences in the big cities, so there had to have been some appreciation for the art.
Not that I’d had any interest in doing so. Sure it’s nice when friends happened to appreciate the sound, but for me the point of playing was the music itself - the investiture into beat and melody, where thoughts disappear and notes and emotional spirit become one.
There’s probably a metaphor for merging with the heavenly light in there somewhere but I was too busy navigating the flow of Asturias to worry about it.
Adjusting the capo to a different fret (in order to play Seguirias it needed to be on the third), I noticed Jenna and Tamara were standing in front of me patiently waiting for my attention. Okay, Tamara was waiting patiently - Jenna was doing some serious jazz-hands.
“Yoo-hoo, Jordan!” Jenna grinned as I blinked up at her.
“We’re gonna go get some grub. You interested?” The girl’s stomach gurgled to emphasize the point.
“Maybe?” Holding the guitar steady I craned my neck around to try and see the clock on the desk.
“It’s ten to six,” Tamara said. “As it’s Sunday, dinner closes at seven.”
“Well crap.” With a foot I nudged the open guitar case closer, and after removing the capo I returned the instrument into its snug home. “I’ve got a video call thing with Cassius at six. Almost forgot.”
“Oh?” Jenna asked, her grin achieving mischievous proportions. “Lemme guess, Cassius is your partner for the Rabbi’s essay-instead-of-final thing.”
That earned her a blown raspberry. “Yeah. Who’d you get?”
“Brendan.” She did a happy bounce; Brendan and Jenna were again an ‘item’ in the parlance of teenage romance.
Tamara was frowning. “I thought you guys said your final for that class was on Tuesday.”
The taller girl shrugged. “It was. But Kirov emailed everyone this morning with essay assignments instead, due at end of the week. Apparently the personal trip he took off for last week is taking longer than he’d expected.”
I stood, picking up the case. “But why couldn’t he have just let us write our own?”
“C’mon, Jordan.” Jenna side-nudged a shoulder with her own as I stepped past. “Everyone else in the class would totally rejoice at having Cassius as their partner. He’d do the whole thing; instant ‘A’! Which is probably why Kirov put you two together yet again.”
With a chuckle Tamara agreed. “Makes sense. You’re too stubborn to let someone else do all the work.”
“Nah,” Jenna giggled. “Those two will just argue about every word across every sentence. Been there and ate the popcorn as witness!”
My retort was anything but eloquent. “Bleh.”
“Don’t fight too much over it,” warned Jenna with a wave as the two went for the door. “Or you’ll miss dinner!”
As the door shut behind them I called out, “Save me a seat!” Maybe they heard, maybe not.
Fur nudged an ankle, followed by a loud meow.
“Okay, okay! You can have some dinner too!”
One fresh can of chunky tuna bits in a bowl later the ravenous furry beast was chowing down, fluffy mostly-black tail happily sweeping the floor behind him. I wasn’t sure who got hungrier more often: Khan or Jenna. Of course if comparing the raw quantities consumed Jenna won hands (paws?) down, but c’mon, that was hardly fair. Proportional to their weight classes however I wasn’t too sure. Not that Jenna would let me weigh her without it turning into a WWF cage match - even if in the name of science!
With a minute to spare I plopped onto the office chair and logged into the school-provided laptop. Unlike many of the ‘younger’ generation who were perfectly fine using the laptop’s built-in keyboard and screen, I preferred having multiple monitors and a proper clickity-clack keyboard thank-you-very-much. For those who only used the things to scroll social media (or even dare read the scholastic links posted by their teachers) having such a setup probably seemed ‘weird’, but true gamers and hackers still understood. Surprisingly muscle memory for typing hadn’t faded one whit during the hiatus away from technology.
In other words I could still bang out walls of text at blazing speeds.
When I fired up the campus video-conference tool one of the displays instantly filled with the glowering skinny face of a boy still waiting for puberty to harden his features. Blonde hair dangled dangerously low and therefore mostly occluded the pair of angry blue eyes as his shrill voice instantly blared through the speakers full of furious accusation.
“You told him, didn’t you!”
It took a moment to remember to thumb the microphone’s separate un-mute button. “Huh? Tell who what?”
“Kirov. He knows!”
“Jeeze, Cassius. What the heck?”
Anger flickered with panic. “Why else would he assign this topic? You must have told him who I am!”
Uh oh. “Who you were, you mean. And no I didn’t.”
“You must have! And you still don’t get it, do you? I am but a coat of paint over a cursed and rotted framework.” His face moved off-screen, the sound of creaking floorboards coming through the speakers as the guy paced his room.
“Calm down, please! I promise you I haven’t told anyone that you’re…who you were.” In case the school recorded these sessions, or had been hacked by the three-letter crew, I didn’t want to say the name. Frankly I also didn’t want to accidentally make it harder for Cassius by saying it either. The poor guy was the unfortunate incarnate of an old and not-so-nice spirit: Shemyaza, co-prince and angelic captain of the Grigori who had not just fallen from grace but torpedoed the ground and kept on going. Shemyaza had been a real nasty piece of work and had almost plunged the world into permanent darkness if not outright destruction due to his schemes to defend against Heaven’s wrath for all his transgressions.
To say Cassius had ‘issues with himself’ was an understatement of literal epic proportion.
Pale complexion returned into view. “You promise? By your true name?”
“My name means promise. You know that.” Technically my true name, Amariel, meant Promised by God, but that’d be splitting hairs. Fine golden-red hairs, but still. “And yes.”
“To no one? Not even other angelics either incarnated or not?”
“Not even them.”
The eyes focused with rapid thought. “Okay, I believe you. But could Kirov have figured it out? Maybe I messed up. Maybe he detected-”
“Cassius!” I said sharply, regaining his attention. “Why don’t you start by telling me why you even think Kirov might know. And are you sure you want to do this over the video link? I could go to your cottage-”
“No! We do this remote!”
I sighed. Even before I’d gone to Hell Cassius had been freaked out by the thought of me touching him. It was a trait he shared with his spirit-self: they were terrified of such contact. Not with anyone else, mind you, just me. And since I’d come back? Let’s just say he could barely hold it together being in the same classroom, even after changing seats to be as far away as possible. “That’s risky, don’t you think? Are you sure?”
“Your presence makes everything worse.”
“Sorry. I don’t mean it to.”
He winced, looking off to the side. “Not your fault. You’re unable to help being who you are either.”
“And here I’ve been practicing hiding the shine.”
“I can’t help but feel it anyway.”
“Dang. But again, why do you think Kirov knows?”
“Have you read the essay assignment he assigned us?”
I shrugged. “I didn’t open the attachment yet. I saw your follow-on email wanting this call and figured we’d look at it then. What did he hit us with?” I may have been in a rush to sneak out on the Ducati and therefore wasn’t paying it much mind, but I didn’t want to admit that. I’d been having a hard enough time taking these class finals seriously. Actually, correct that: it had been hard to take school itself seriously.
“He wants us to write a ten-to-twenty page treatise on The Ethics of Justice for Transcendent Beings.”
That took a moment to sink in and Cassius stayed quiet as it did so. “Good grief,” I finally admitted. “That’s a loaded topic.”
“Why he would give it to you is obvious. But why make me your partner? Why even have partners? He has to know!”
“Okay, hold up. You lost me. I mean, granted what I am and all is obvious, but it’s not like I’m an angel of Judgment or anything.” That’d be my friend Isaiah as it turned out, much to my surprise and his. Which raised an interesting idea: if he’d answer his phone I bet he could provide an excellent diatribe on the topic, more than enough for an essay…hmm. Tempting to try.
Cassius interrupted the thought. “Don’t be an idiot. You not only have been to Hell, but as one of the prophesied Horsemen of the Apocalypse you are by legend part of a larger Judgment of not just mankind but all of angelkind.”
“Oh.” Muscles at my temples twitched, presaging a humdinger of a headache. “Fine I get it. But I still don’t understand how this is about you.”
“Because the topic encompasses the very question I wrestle with every single day.”
How do you respond to that? The poor guy’s spirit was, by all measure, evil. And not petty evil, we’re talking downright nasty, abusive, megalomaniac-tried-to-enslave-the-world evil.
But Cassius himself wasn’t. He’d fought against his own spirit ever since his angelic nature awakened - an occurrence I was guilty of making worse by breaking the First Seal. And by fought I meant just that: he’d been slashing his own arms into a bloody mess - using the resulting physical pain as a tool to suppress his spirit.
Which is why I owed him one.
Shemyaza as he had been couldn’t be allowed to run free - at the moment the dark Grigori was bound to perpetual reincarnation and with it the suppression of who and what he was. Yet that had weakened and should the Fourth Seal crack who knows what might happen. If Cassius’ angelic nature, twisted as it was, manifested in full - would there be anything left of his human mind and nature? Or would that top layer be wiped away by the malevolence of the re-awakened and terrible being lurking below.
A case could be made that Shemyaza deserved obliteration. As punishment for what he did as well as to safeguard the world. Except that would destroy Cassius too, a boy who had done nothing wrong - and who struggled to contain the evil within.
How could such a sacrifice be right?
“Look,” I said, speaking slowly. “Kirov knows you are the only student in the class who not only will stand up to me without freaking out but also is smarter than I am. Mind you I said smarter and not wiser, so don’t smirk too hard. The Rabbi also knows I haven’t been giving school assignments proper attention. They’ve been letting me skate on a lot of stuff probably because my therapist is afraid of me having PTSD and the military is freaking out about what I might or might not do should I power all the way up.”
“You certainly ping off the charts. Like a constant pressure against reality. Something changed for you in Hell.”
“Yeah, well, I got the rest of my wings. The point is,” I said quickly before he could comment on my transformation to full Seraph, “you’re the only one who has a chance of forcing me to focus on the assignment.”
Out of the monitor blue eyes stared past bangs I dearly wanted to trim. “It’s not just a matter of focus. If you’ve gained all six wings then…” He trailed off.
“Have you told Kirov about this? Your wings?”
“Uhm, in passing yeah.”
The boy inhaled deeply then let it out slow, a mannerism far older than a teenager should have had. “Then I was wrong. It really is all about you.”
“Well yeah! Wait…what?”
“It means you are no longer just any angel, Amariel. How can you not realize this? You exist on a higher level, whether you understand that with your manifest consciousness down here or not.”
“I do, sort of. I mean there’s definitely part of me ‘elsewhere’.” I frowned, struggling to put all the weird feelings into words.
“That is it exactly. Your true self is in the Abstract, with a capital ‘A’. The realm of ideas and concepts. This must be why Kirov assigned me to work with you on this - I’ve had numerous discussions with him about the higher planes. We’ve debated Plato’s influence on the Kabbalah at length.”
“And this has something to do with the topic? How?”
Cassius was now muttering more to himself than to me. “He said 'Transcendent Beings’. Not ‘Supernatural’ or even ‘Spiritual’. In my paranoia, I missed that. It’s not about the lesser angels or spirits at all.”
“Dangit, explain already!”
In disgust he waved dismissively at the camera. “Archangels. The highest ones. More than anything else they are ideals; the original thoughts in existence. The Most High’s perception of self? That He was I AM? That was the First thought. That was Helel - whom most know as Lucifer - exploding his Light outward. All that he perceived was God and that which his Light could not reach was Not. And as the Most High hammered that perception from raw and infinite instinct into wisdom, that act was the Second, Beliel, bringing it into focus. A struggle that continued while a multitude of concepts swirled and developed until finally their limits became defined and understood when Azrael delineated All in his Judgment. In the Kabbalah these are the first three Sephiroth: Keter, Chockmah, and Binah.”
“But they’re angels, with personalities and everything. I’ve got memories from Gabriel. She suffered pain with her struggles. She’s an actual person, not some fuzzy thinking!”
He looked at me wryly. “This is where it gets tricky. The Kabbalah talks about the patterns of the Sephiroth repeating as things go from the highest abstract to physical creation. There are many layers in between. From our perspective here we understand them best through stories, through the archetypes of their beings. How real are those memories? Did things actually happen exactly that way? Or are they but tales through which your consciousness here can glean the archetypal comprehension of their truest selves. At what levels are you actually remembering?”
“I-” My lip was raw from being chewed. Ow. “And you think all this has to do with Kirov’s essay topic?”
“Yes. Because it raises the question he likely wants you to consider. And if he’s busy with personal business then he cannot be here to address this directly with you.”
“Huh? What question?”
His eyes flicked upwards at my denseness. “It’s simple if you think about it. At the core is the challenge of how can one ethically judge an archangel who is staying true to their manifested purpose even when they oppose another’s. What is justice when raw ideals collide?”
“How the heck am I supposed to answer that?”
“Given that it’s a topic that has been debated for millennia maybe he’s not looking for an answer. Maybe he’s just asking us to think about it. And by ‘us’ I mean ‘you’. Perhaps he really wants your specific and ‘angelic’ insight. Or at the very least he thinks you need to start considering such concepts.”
“Good grief. That’s nuts.”
“Is it? For all our sakes you absolutely must start understanding what you are.”
I sat dumbfounded staring at the screen while trying to wrap my head around it all.
He let me stew in silence for at least a minute before shaking his head in exasperation. “Did you get dinner yet?”
“Then go get some before they close. Think it all over and we’ll talk more tomorrow.”
“What about you? Did you eat?”
“Before this call, yes. And, uh, I apologize for accusing you.”
That took me by surprise. Cassius? Apologizing? I should alert the Vatican of such a miracle. “It’s okay, I understand.”
“Do you?” And with that he disappeared from the monitor. The jerk had hung up.
Looking at the clock I cursed before quickly tossing on some sneakers and running out the door.
Tamara and Jenna had just about finished their meal by the time I arrived at the Crystal Hall’s cafeteria. While selecting my dinner from the buffet I ignored the usual set of weird glances if not outright stares from the kids all around. You have one incident of leaping out of your seat preparing an energy blast due to someone tripping and dropping their tray, and folks get all jumpy around you.
Okay, in their defense I may have lit up the whole Hall brighter than a noon-day sun over the Sahara. Meh.
After making it through the line, I sat down at the girls’ table with a simple grilled salmon salad tossed in balsamic vinaigrette and caught the middle of their conversation.
“…all know yours,” Tamara was saying. “Super tall, dense as a truck with a mind to match, and noble to a fault.”
“Hey,” Jenna protested. “Brendan isn’t stupid!”
Tamara giggled. “He is stubborn though. But he’d need to be to be with you!”
That earned her a tossed napkin missile from Jenna which bounced harmlessly off her forehead. “As if!”
Starting to poke at the leafy green stuff I looked at both girls. “I miss something?”
With an exaggerated pout Jenna said, “She thinks Brendan is dumb.”
“Well,” I said as if pondering deeply which had Jenna preparing another napkin. “Nah,” I said finally, “he’s just male.”
Jenna dropped the paper weapon and with a silly grin agreed. “Oh yeah, he sure is.”
Taking a sip from her soda (and rolling her eyes) Tamara then said, “Okay, so we’ve already established that I like blond surfers-”
“Cassius is blond-” interjected Jenna.
“-who are athletic as well as smart,” finished Tamara with a glare. “And as Jenna likes big, derpy, and the ruggedly chiseled, that leaves one open question. Hmm.” She stared at me like a mad scientist observing their experiment.
I delayed the fork’s delivery. “Why am I suddenly concerned?”
Poking a shoulder (ow!) Jenna chuckled. “Just tell us. What’s your, you know, type?”
Tamara put palm to face. “Good goddess, you are such a nerd.”
“I don’t get it,” Jenna said with a puzzled frown.
I feigned innocence and commenced chewing.
“The explanation isn’t worth it,” Tamara declared. “And besides, we already know the answer.”
“Well I don’t,” Jenna said.
“Not to that, silly - to the question! We already know what Jordan’s type is.” The witch-in-training’s teeth gained a rather predatory smirk. “Clearly she likes studly, handsome…” she paused for dramatic effect, “…and silent!”
I flinched - almost dropping the fork - immediately meeting Jenna’s equally startled gaze. As embarrassed heat rushed through my cheeks she gasped.
“Oh my god.”
“Jenna, it’s not-”
“Did you two…?” She couldn’t finish the question.
“No, no we didn’t. But-”
“But you wanted to? He’s just a kid!”
“For him it’s been at least thirty years! If not more.”
“Still. You and Tommy. I just…I can’t even.” She stood up. “That’s just wrong.”
Pushing against the base of the fork with a thumb, my utensil began to bend. “Is it?”
Tamara looked between us in total confusion. “Am I missing something?”
“Yes!” Jenna and I shouted in unison.
Though I continued. “He’s a good man. He’s strong, caring, and the bravest soul I know.”
“He fell for you, didn’t he.” She emitted a short sound, more pain than laugh. “Don’t deny it. I mean, how could he not? You’re you. And he’s him.”
“I didn’t see it for the longest time.”
“Yet you still left him there. And don’t give me the excuses again, dammit! You know I love you, but you can mend the universe with a single word. So figure out the sentence or paragraph to fix this!” She grabbed her tray with its empty plates. “I’m gonna go. I’ve got an exam to study for.”
Not knowing what to say we watched her walk off.
Tamara, subdued if not chagrined, said, “Uh you realize I meant Zap, right? Who’s Tommy?”
“Her brother. He’s stuck in Hell.”
“Oh. Wow. Shit.”
I sighed. “Exactly.”
We didn’t talk much more after that. Tamara wanted to ask more questions but was smart enough to leave it well enough alone. I soon finished the salad and after wishing her luck on the math final, we went our separate ways.
On the way back to the cottage the threatening clouds overhead decided it was time to start drizzling atop everything. By the time I was ready to attempt sleep (after beating my head and its foreign memories against a few thick books on Kabbalah) a proper rain pelted against the reforged glass of the balcony doors.
With a snuggling fuzzy lump squished under an arm, the happy purrs and steady tak-tak-tak of drops outside eventually lured me away.
Though it did take awhile.
Alone in his room Cassius again lay awake much later than he’d wished. It wasn’t that the bed was uncomfortable or the comforter not warm enough. The problem was the thoughts in his head.
And the voice.
You should have let me gut her when we had the chance.
In the dark his hand found the blade, hidden this time by taping it to the underside of the bed’s metal frame.
Spare us the blood, child. You know the truth of it. She has come into her full power - soon there will be only two paths before us once she realizes we will never again serve the lie.
Past clenched teeth as the young man hissed. “What paths?”
Eternal banishment. Or outright destruction!
The last was shrieked across his brain as the edge of the knife dug through his skin, the washcloth wedged underneath the arm gaining fresh stains.
It took three rows for the screaming to stop but the resulting silence was indeed golden.
Not allowing himself to wince, he wrapped the cloth tightly around the growing set of scars and lay back against the pillow. Light from the lamp-post outside teased past rain turning into snow and the curtains both, dimly illuminating the piles of books resting upon his desk.
And within its central drawer was held a small box and accompanying letter.
He didn’t need to pull out the envelope to again reread its contents.
I won’t insult you by saying I know what you’re going through. That therapist lady talks a great game but I’m betting she’s got even less of a clue. You’re too smart to let anyone see anything you didn’t want them to. You’re not lost in some kind of ‘depressive episode’, whatever the heck that means. I may not have gone to college - and I sure as heck haven’t read the entire library like you have - but I do know one thing: the look a man gets when preparing to fight.
You had that clear as day when asking to get this made. Hope you won’t mind, but I got your uncle to help - he knew a guy who knew this retired helicopter pilot that worked metal. I don’t understand what this thing is for but that’s alright. My boy says he needs it.
I’ve seen you take the abuse from the idiots in all those other schools, seen you take those lumps without so much as a whimper. And then watched how you arranged for each of those losers to get their just desserts.
It ain’t been easy being just the two of us and I wish I could’ve done better for you. I’m sure your mom would have wanted me to tell you to trust your teachers and all that sort of nonsense. She was the most beautiful woman I ever did meet and I miss her every day, but there are things a man has to do himself.
And I trust my son to do them.
Whatever it is you’re facing, give ‘em hell.
Before finally drifting off to sleep he whispered, “I will.”
Chapter 4 - Dream
Shadows gathered behind glades of flowery wonder where petals had never before known eclipse. Shrouded in plumes of malevolence the enemy flickered, dark silhouettes framed by the crash and tumult of the immense energies gathered at their back. Demons, fae, godlings, and more marched or flew in countless formations across the endless horizon, all curving towards a singular destination.
Winds heralding their menace whipped across the multi-hued grasses, flattening every blade and bud that lay before the towering edifice of marble and gold guarding the core of Heaven. Here was the sacred loci of the Throne, and here was the home of the Host whom continuously attended that Presence with song and fire.
Now, on this day of days, that Host stood shoulder to shoulder upon the walls looking not upward into the infinite but outward, their music re-tuned to summon resolve and the fortitude needed to hold against the unthinkable. For hanging over the army’s advance with spears and swords of fiery power were their own winged brothers and sisters, returning not for succor and respite after enduring travails at the Edges of All Things.
They came instead to conquer.
Upon the wall’s parapet two pillars of brightness challenged the approaching darkness. One whose golden gaze shone a purity no shadow had ever countered, and the other whose heart swept silvery brilliance across each and every defender with a steady and uniting beat.
Though her sword, forged from unearthly metals to hold the sharpness of a crescent moon’s tip, felt foreign and lent no warmth to her fingers. “Is there truly nothing more that can be done?”
The light standing beside her pulsed brighter still. “Samael has by his actions been clear. His Seat lies in rubble and but for a missing few the Maschitim all rally to his banner. The time for alternatives has ended.”
Chill air blew strawberry strands across cheeks of porcelain grace. “Then we defend and make our stand here.”
“No, beloved Gabriel. We go out and meet them upon the fields.”
Holding a hand high, the brilliance cast from the Seraph’s many wings coalesced into a blinding spear. “Some arguments cannot be decided by hiding behind walls. Come. The first debate is about to begin.”
Lifting free of the golden stones, Lucifer streamed from the tower as an orb of blazing white fire. Shaking the fundament with their unified shout of glory and holy purpose, the winged Host followed after like an unending swarm of comets chasing a burning sun.
Something damp yet scratchy and most certainly not a pillow pressed against nose and cheek. The mustiness of forest undergrowth mixed with a salty ocean breeze gave further notice that I was no longer in my bedroom. A shifting lump upon a shoulder was also too light to be from the usual suspect of larger-than-average cat.
Dangit, I’d slipped away again.
An opened eye confirmed the diagnosis. Tall and scraggly trees akin to Eucalyptus and maybe Oak thinned out as the dirt gave way to a rocky cliff and the ocean beyond, their many discarded leaves haphazardly serving as my current bed. A botanist, should they ever visit this place, would likely either give loud critique or become lost in excitement (depending on their nature) as nothing here was exactly as on Earth. Because, well, it wasn’t. As much as the circles around the bed at the academy were supposed to help anchor those inside to remain on Earth, every few days or so they failed and I’d find myself yet again in a particularly stable and dream-straddling realm.
“Good day, milady. Art thou awake?” A high-pitch voice sounded loudly into an ear, obviously emanating from whatever - or should I say, whomever - was sitting on my back.
Twisting neck to get a look over the shoulder I muttered a quick “Ow!” as long hair had pulled stringently against the movement. The strands were trapped under my chest and functioning as an odd replacement for expected bed-sheets.
“I shall take your exclamation as one of conscious acknowledgment.” Tiny clawed feet tensed before shoving free as the creature jumped to land only a foot or so in front of my nose. An albino squirrel - complete with bucked teeth, floofy tail, and pink eyes - removed its matching miniature top hat and executed a courtly bow. The only other clothing it had on was an equally white leather sash wrapped around the stomach holding a carving knife tucked between fur and belt. “I am known as Whittler, milady, due to an occasional obsession with such wood-based activities.”
To prove this the small fae held up a foot-long stick upon which an excellent rendering of a sleeping angel had been carved, many wings curled against her back with each feather softly captured in immaculate detail along with every stitch of the simple tunic pulled over her knees.
“That’s, uhm, that’s great work, Whittler.” Yes, the little guy had carved a likeness of my somnolent self. And no, the fae’s real name wasn’t actually ‘Whittler’, but the fae didn’t like giving out their true names.
Of course I knew his, just as I knew the real names of all the fae living within this pocket of a place. Due to me having been an idiot a number of fae had become bound to my energies and had therefore followed me to this realm - a realm which Gabriel herself had created. As my own pattern had some of Gabriel’s within it (long story that, involving a hair-wrapped seed from Paradise and a man too stupid to not walk directly into a summoned maelstrom of heavenly fire) the place recognized me and had also tolerated the many fae who quite literally had nowhere else to go.
The little guy blushed - yes, pinkness spread over the pale cheek’s fur - and bowed again. “I thank milady for her kindness to say so.”
Sitting up I tried to shake wet leaves out of my hair. Here in this place the tresses always stubbornly manifested at their full length - dangling inches below my rear-end when standing to be precise. Why this was the case was something I’d yet to hash out with the ol’ spiritual subconscious. As for the wings they demonstrated a Teflon quality and remained immaculate within their continual soft glow. “How long was I here asleep?”
“Hmm,” squeaked the squirrel in contemplation. “I daresay my lady slumbered shorter than a full Bristlebeak story and longer than Pickness requires to clean his teeth after a good helping of boggle stew.”
Well, that was certainly specifically uninformative. “I see. And was there a particular reason you were sitting upon my back while I slept?”
“Oh yes, naturally! I would not dare do so otherwise.” The white rodent bobbed his head vigorously enough to cause the hat to slip forward before being hastily pushed back into place.
“And that reason is?”
“Two, milady.” Two hooked claws raised in serious earnest. “There are two reasons, distinct in their fundamentals yet correlated by their logical extensions.”
“Excellent. Shall I ask what the first is first, and the second following on second?”
“Indubitably, milady! For describing the second before the first would break the flow of reasoning. Of course there are times where such is beneficial, as was the case with the incident when Yather’s cart truly did need to be placed before his horse lest said horse see where they were going. That would have resulted in all kinds of trouble, you see.”
“But this is not such a case I presume.” I smiled, plucking free another leaf while pondering whether I could fetch Bristlebeak and use him as a hairbrush. Tempting.
“Well then. Please, Master Whittler, tell me your reasons for perching upon my back so that I might be enlightened.”
“Milady! You are already quite ‘enlightened’. Goodness me, there can hardly be anyone moreso described as such as you!”
I groaned. “In some ways, yes - and others no.” Raising a hand to forestall the imminent protestation I added, “Your two reasons. I await them - and without any further delay.”
The request came out firmer than I’d intended. Flustered with nervousness, the squirrel tapped tiny claws in front of his whiskers as if chewing on a nut. “Well, you see, it was my, well, it was my assigned task to prevent my cousins from disturbing your slumber and to only cause your awakening should any other visitors arrive while the Lord Tsáyidiel was otherwise occupied.”
“Other visitors? Wait, is someone here?”
The albino creature managed to turn even paler and gulped. “Oh dear me, I got it backwards. Curse my furry feet, the clarity is now all muddled therewith - please accept my sincerest apologies, milady! I shall immediately endeavor any penance as you decree to make amends!” Grabbing the top hat he pulled it against his chest as he bowed low, tiny ears and bushy tail quivering.
“Who is here, Whittler? And where is Tsáyidiel?”
Still bowing the fae finally answered. “One of the Host of Holies, milady. I know not his name, for such was not bestowed upon my unworthy self. The Lord Tsáyidiel gives escort to the Mountain we fae are forbidden to approach. I was bidden to tell thee of this upon your release from sleep’s restful snare.”
Host of Holies? That meant another angel. Hoo boy.
Wings flared as they lifted the rest of me free of the ground, the glow erasing all shadows of branch and leaf from the surrounding clearing. A quick moment of focus cleared the rest of nature’s clinging offerings from hair and the simple lavender tunic I’d woken in alike. Staring down at the hat-clutching fae I said, “Then your two-fold task is complete and I thank you, kind Whittler.”
“But milady, my penance!”
I paused. While I could shrug it off, I knew the little guy would worry non-stop until given something. The lack would eat at his fae spirit, a painful itch ceaseless until satisfied. “Did you see our guest when he arrived?”
“I did, milady.”
“Then whittle his likeness as you did mine.”
“With all the skill contained within these claws it shall be done. And quickly too, for none are as swift as I!”
“I look forward to receiving it, good Whittler. Until then, be well.”
Whatever his reply was I missed it, as I’d already launched for the sunless yet bright blue sky covering this realm’s calm beaches, dense forest, and high rocky mountains.
It was towards the latter that I flew, specifically the one with the highest peak. Though I didn’t aim for its tallest point from where the entirety of the realm’s upper grounds could be seen. No, instead I kept above the forest to reach a wide pair of rocks lurking at the boundary marked by the tree-line where taller foliage ceased and rocky outcroppings began to stretch stony fingers upward. Behind those rocks lay a path to the true heart of this place of which the surface was but calm icing.
Below it all sat the Monument of Remembrance.
A wide cavern lay hidden under the mountain. And within that carved out space were millions - perhaps billions - of alcoves, each containing items which had once belonged to an angel. Weapons and armor, countless in number and forged from the purposes of the angels who had used them, all sat individually in perfect darkness waiting to be lit only by light cast forth by those who had come to visit. And only within that light could their lost images be seen - and their histories relived.
For the angels who once wielded these collected instruments in all their glory were no more.
Those who fell to chaos were placed besides those who rebelled and those who had fought against that rebellion. No ordering, no sorting, no hierarchy of location had been imposed for all were equal in Gabriel’s heart, all mourned in full that their holiest of sparks no longer graced the fabric of creation.
As I approached my own heart leapt, for the massive guardian stones had parted to grant access to the dark corridor that lay within.
Swooping down I spotted Tsáyidiel sitting as a black gryphon before the entrance: back legs, haunches, and tail of a panther behind the large raven head and claws in front, obsidian wings resting against the length of his body.
He attempted to offer one of his formal greetings with bowed head as my bare feet again touched ground of gravel and dust but I (probably rudely) cut him off.
“Is she here? Has Gabriel returned?!”
That caught me off guard. As far as I knew only I and Gabriel could open the stones. Confusion swirled into paranoia. Did someone force their way in there? If so, oh shit. “Then who?”
A voice came from the shadowed entrance, calm and hinting amusement. “One who wished a moment of reverence and long ago was graced with a key.”
Flaring brighter I removed those shadows to see clearly. Our visitor did not flinch at the brightness, if anything the dimpled smile widened as the glow revealed him in full: mousy-brown hair held loosely at the back of his neck by blue ribbon the same color as the embroidered tunic, its gold stitching glinting in the light as perfectly as the simple bracers of the same metal which rested upon his wrists. Soft wings of cotton white framed shoulders strong yet slender as he stepped away from the stones on tan leather sandals.
I recognized him more by sound than image. In my experience he had always been a gentle voice either nearby or directly behind, though I had seen him in a couple of dreamed Gabriel’s memories. Not that there was any mistaking him.
Kind eyes crinkled warmly. “Hello, Amariel.” In those blue eyes were lakes of refuge and support, as if all the aches of body and spirit could be washed away in their waters. Perfectly clear to dispel any illusions and penetrate to your core, but without any tinge of judgment - only the singular desire to aid all they perceived in being the best they could ever be.
It was hard not to fall into those eyes and hope they carried you away. “Why…why didn’t you wake me up when you got here?”
“Your guardian seemed loathe to disturb you, that you needed your rest. I concurred that such was important.”
I glanced at Tsáyidiel and his raven head cawed agreement. I’d need to gently instruct him later to always wake my butt up should another freaking angel arrive. Yelling at the gryphon in frustration however would crush the poor guy, for he was as nervous about offending me as the fae - a byproduct of millennia of abuse at the hands of a previous master. We were working on it, but progress was slow.
“Well, uhm, welcome,” I said to Raphael. Crap, while he’d always been more casual as a voice, I had no idea if there were formal things I ought to be doing. “You’ll have to forgive me, but I have no idea what the protocol should be for an official visit.”
His eyes lost some of the softness. “Then rest assured, for this is not an official visitation. In truth our crossing paths here should be construed as nothing more than coincidence - for I came but to reflect and gather memories.”
“That’s drawing some awfully political fine lines. How much are you able to share?”
The archangel regarded me appprovingly. “You have grown. A process never achieved without pain.”
“We all experience our portion.”
The dimples were lost as he sighed. “Yes, we do.” The archangel continued to stare, noting the increase of number to my wings and obviously contemplating what he could - or could not - say.
Turning to Tsáyidiel I said, “Beloved Hunter - I thank you for giving escort to our visitor and protecting the entrance while he was inside. You may return to watching over the fae and the bounds of this realm.”
Beady raven eyes sent a direct mental query. “Art thou sure, milady? Something disturbs our guest - perhaps I should stay as your guard?”
Acquiescing, the gryphon said aloud, “Yes, milady.” Feathers dark as night spread out and with mighty strokes Tsáyidiel soared back towards the beaches.
The archangel and I watched the restored Fallen wing his way into the distance and once he was far enough away I said, “Alright. Let’s hear it.”
“The Council of Seven is to meet to discuss several issues.”
“Anyone find Gabriel yet?”
“No. She is still missing. This is one of the items upon the agenda.”
“Let me guess: I’m another, as is Camael.”
That raised his eyebrows. “Yes. On both accounts.”
“Michael came here, you know. He gave warning that I could be construed a threat.”
Gesturing to the wide stones, a sigil of red and gold flared before them and with an earthen grumble the two slid back into place with a mighty thunk. The sigil was an energetic recording, one authored by Gabriel and also now tied to Raphael’s Name. Only he could hold it, let alone use it. “Because of who you are.”
“Camael, in the brief time I was with him in Hell, called me a gift. What did he mean? And I’d appreciate it if you could avoid the cheesy dessert responses.”
He gave me an odd look. “Simply put, you have the potential to fulfill all our hopes.”
“So what’s the catch that worries Michael?”
“You may also bring about all our fears.”
“The restoration of Tsáyidiel’s Name has something to do with that, doesn’t it? Considering you fled when it happened. Michael said you’d locked yourself in your tower and refused all visitors. Why come here now?”
“The angel Eth came to my door. He declared his business as urgent.”
“Sorry, I don’t know of him. I’m guessing he’s important?”
“When an Angel of Time says a matter is urgent it is best to listen and do so quickly.”
“That…makes sense. What’d he say? Can you tell me?”
The angel of healing’s smiled and the warm dimples returned. “He reported a Convergence would coalesce and that the council would soon be formally informed. He also suggested I reflect on all those we’ve lost, to remember the price that was paid.”
“In other words he told you to come here without telling you to do so. Typical. Why is it you guys are always so obtuse and circumspect?”
“Eth’s purpose is to uphold that events happen when they are supposed to. He needs not understand those events, he only needs to see his task is done. He relayed the minimum required to yield the end his spirit required. We must be careful with our words, Amariel. For they have more power than you’ve yet to realize.”
I paced in front of the closed stones before asking the obvious question. “What’s a ‘Convergence’?”
“As you have experienced, time flows differently between the realms and planes of existence. A Convergence is a grand alignment of the time-streams, where a minute in one is also perceived as a minute within all others.”
That stopped my feet. “Whoa. Even in Hell the various domains run at different rates. Does this kind of thing just happen naturally, like when planets group up due to their orbits?”
“So someone is causing it?” My mind boggled at what it would take to do such a thing. As far as I could tell there were realms atop realms atop realms, to reach across them all and force time itself to move in sync would require a mind-boggling amount of power.
“Yes, and also no. Convergences occur during singular events - ones which affect the past, present, and future. The forging of Heaven was one such example.”
Wait, what? “How can the past be affected?”
“Time is contained entirely within the bounds of Creation. A fundamental shift within Creation’s pattern will touch the whole.”
“Okay, that hurts the head. Though I’ve heard physicists say something like that. Before the Big Bang time didn’t exist - that kind of thing.”
Watching as I began to pace again, his eyes glinted with sympathy. “It is a difficult subject when contemplated from the perspective of these lower layers.”
“Dare I ask when the last Convergence happened?”
“From Earth’s perspective it was two-thousand of their years ago. Gabriel was rather busy during that event too as I recall.”
My jaw dropped as the implications sank in. “Are you kidding me?”
The archangel shook his head, the long hair threatening to come loose from the ribbon. “Not at all. However this time she has acted without Council approval.”
Oh shit. Two thousand years ago Gabriel was supposed to have delivered a message - about a certain child’s conception - to a virgin mother, an act depicted in tons of artwork found in famous museums. You know, due to causing to be born the guy many claimed to be the Messiah and God Incarnate. The name most humans call him begins with a ‘J’. As did a couple of mine. Yeesh. Not sure I liked that similarity.
I gulped. “I uh, I bet the Council may not be too happy at her going solo on that kind of scale.”
“We are concerned, yes. And as you are intricately involved you will likely be summoned to offer testimony.”
“That sounds like all sorts of not-fun.” Frankly the idea wasn’t that surprising given what had happened on Earth and in Hell. But getting interrogated by beings whose sneezes could annihilate entire civilizations - if not galaxies - was a downright scary prospect. “Any advice you can offer should that happen?”
“Hold true to your Name. Through all of what may come be brave and do not falter or stray.”
I searched a face full of the handsomeness of youth simultaneously overlaid with the wisdom of eternity and bit a lip. “What if that puts me in conflict with the Council?”
“All the more reason to hold true.”
“Anything I can do to help avoid that sort of outcome from happening?”
He considered, tapping an exquisitely sculptured chin with a thumb. “Actually, yes.”
Gesturing towards the forest and the distant beach beyond he said, “Move the fae elsewhere. This realm is sacred, and there are those who will take offense at their presence here.”
“Michael told me it was okay as long as they stayed away from the Memorial.”
Raphael chuckled softly. “When discussing this with our beloved warrior were you preparing in boiling righteousness to guard the fae from any potential harm?”
“Michael being who and what he is could not have told you otherwise. To do so would have diminished his own Word. He is the Defender. He would have felt his sacred Purpose reflected brightly within you.”
“Oh.” That was a creepy thought, yet made a weird kind of sense. “But I really don’t have anywhere else to take them. They’re bound to me and my energy now, no other place can sustain their spirits.”
“Then you should endeavor to create one. Come, I will assist.”
Hoo boy, indeed.
All the fae beings, be they mighty in stature or could fit upon a palm, gathered along the cliffs overlooking Gabriel’s wide ocean. Within the bright azure sky distant clouds floated, some offering glimpses of mighty shimmering towers rising even higher still as reminder of that for which the ones remembered below the stones had fought and sacrificed. Compared to those, my band of less than a hundred was naught more than a few wind-swept drops scattered in a monsoon.
And I was just one more.
Raphael perched a few paces away upon a large grey stone jutting outward over the beach, legs folded beneath him with wings draping behind so the feathers pointed towards the sand. A picture of perfect calm, it was not him that moved with each breath but the wind as manifested in the ruffling of the strands of his hair and the trim of his tunic.
Whereas I was a bundle of nerves, as were the sylphs, dryads, wisps, and all other manner of creatures who had chosen to follow me to this place.
“Okay,” I said, enduring the many stares. “How do I do this?”
Instead of answering aloud, Raphael - as he had done many times before - sent his thoughts direct.
“Your pattern shares a portion of Gabriel’s essence, she who was born when our dream of Heaven was forged. She is of that dream, and from it was this place created. You also hold the light from which all things are made. Blend those powers by will and need into someplace new.”
“That’s more a what than a how.”
“You’ve touched the hearts of other realms just as you’ve touched the hearts of many spirits. Reach out to these creatures your spirit has chosen to cherish, let their need guide yours.”
Their need? I looked at them, in all their forms of feathers, branches, fog, claws, and more. They were fae, enigmas made manifest, each a reflection of nature’s spirit, each a bundle of ordered wildness - as capricious as a roaring tornado tearing across an open plain, as calm as a summer’s breeze caressing a lover’s cheek. Once they had frolicked through the forests of Earth in the spaces not yet tamed by Man. Torn from Gaia’s embrace, they had thereby escaped being bound concretely and trapped forever within mundane bodies of animals or people. For them spirit and physical were fluid concepts, and to tie them to one or the other would be to lose half of what they were and thereby lose the meanings of the whole.
They were dreams and in that moment within the Fae Queen’s realm, when I called upon the light to restore their faded lusters, they had changed. Their tales and sagas, the cores which made up what they were, had intertwined with my own. Closing eyes I saw them still for within they burned bright with that touch of the light - each glorious in their uniqueness, each wondrous in their similarities.
In the brightness came a clarity: Gabriel’s realm of Remembrance, beautiful as it was in its serenity and reflections, could not uphold or fulfill their true natures. In a rush, I felt that for which they truly yearned, that which they had desperately sought ever since being taken from the places their essences had first gathered and gained life.
For in their hearts they ached for one thing over all others: a place of their own. Not a refuge, not a shelter and temporary safe respite, but something more.
Pressure akin to a thousand volcanoes gathering eons of need built up inside. I could no more hold back the eruption than a solitary sandbag could hold back the sea.
Light burst within and without in response to that need, and with awareness reaching beyond it found a voice. As Siabh, the priestess of Gaia who had been reborn as my niece, once did to save a fae realm from a foolish angel’s actions so now did I.
My voice lifted in song.
Into the space that lies between incoherence and solidity, music that was more than music flowed. And into that song poured the yearnings, raw and untamed, of each of those who had followed me out of Arcadia. Transfigured by the light, their stories streamed as notes and words crashing as unleashed waters over jagged rocks with counterpoints sounding as clear as a solitary cricket resonating his call across a midnight meadow. What they had been, what they were now, and yes what they could be coursed through the song, and as each note resonated it shifted - each becoming more as a drop of paint dripped upon fresh canvas.
And upon the new dream that gathered and took shape.
It was not large, that dream, for it need not be. Yet it held mountains of ice-clad peaks and deserts filled with burning sand, and grew dense verdant trees of bramble and leaves besides a lake twinkling with reflected starlight cast from far above. Sunset and moonrise coalesced overhead, and most of all the newborn realm filled with the symphonies of earth and sky, rivers and wind, as insects and birds took to the air while numerous other unique creatures leapt and danced past bark and stone, flower and vine.
Harmonies filled the air as the magic swirled to tug at the essences of each fae spirit, pulling forth notes individually filled with their hopes and desires to flash out as crescendos unto the landscape’s settling shapes. Barrows of mud and root opened to smell of spring rain’s awakening, leafy canopies twirled as branches high within trees came together as small houses stretching for the sky each complete with windows and tiny thatchwork welcome mats outside the doors. Trunks of mighty oaks creaked as living bark split to form doors of their own, refuges within offering narrowest of spiral staircases leading to floor after floor of doll-sized bedrooms of pillows and many-hued patchwork quilts, kitchens of red brick and copper pots, and sitting rooms of wicker rocking chairs. Stones under the lake rolled together, the churning silt settling to reveal tiny fortresses of rock and welcoming shells.
To each fae, to each spirit large or small, the realm gave birth to the fulfillment of their inner longings. And into the dream’s brilliant center, its heart of hearts, was sown my vow: that here they would have the sanctuary their restless sleeps of thousands of years had cried for: a place their spirits truly belonged where their hearts could sing free.
That here at last they would be home.
We found ourselves all gathered in a clearing besides that lake, staring about in wonder while purple and scarlet tinged clouds danced above. I couldn’t remember moving us over or even how long we stood there for I was still transfixed by the song now humming brightly within everything around.
A pair of pixies, one with skin of brilliant sapphire and the other blazing emerald, fluttered on matching glittering wings over my head and before I could think to object dropped a wreath of thinly entwined roses of blues and violets upon my brow. Thorns pricked at the skin, and touching my forehead a drop of crimson fell to the wet earth at my feet. The blood’s red turned to green as a fresh shoot shot upward from that spot, thickening in a widening spiral as tendrils of glistening branches split and new leaves burst outward forcing me to take many steps back while the whole stretched towards the clouds and its roots dug deep into the fundament of the realm.
Flowers blossomed from the tips of those reaching fingers of bark, petals unfolding in a shimmering rainbow as if hundreds of prisms had unleashed every color imaginable across the newborn tree.
Upon seeing this, all the fae bowed low, each trembling and transfixed. It was Whittler who stepped forward, and after a nervous clearing of his throat, spoke.
“My Queen, you must give name to this place.”
Brushing the streak of blood between fingers and thumb, I found myself replying with warm smile. “Let it be known as Gealltas, for it is my promise to you that this place shall be yours forevermore.”
As the fae gave a mighty shout of the purest joy I had ever witnessed, Raphael again sounded only in my mind.
“Well done, little sister. Well done.”
The faerie after-party, of course, was stupendously loud and magically boisterous. Celebrations continued through the realm’s first twilight and into following night as moon and stars hung low over the ever-burning bonfire nestled by the lake and around which danced all the creatures of myth across ground, water, and air. Their singing and laughter shook the trees and the stomps of many feet turned the earth into a mighty drum. Several had quickly taken branches and with careful focus transformed them into flutes, the trilling of their music echoing the notes which had sung this place into being.
And with a shove by a mighty moose whose fur was a deep forest moss I was pressed into the mix, twirling before the flames as everyone’s infectious happiness carried me away. Tsáyidiel, whom I cajoled into taking his rare human form with dark eyes and brooding lips, laced his hand across mine as we danced amidst the merriment. A mug of fired earth pressed into a hand and with a swallow of sweetest nectar teasing the scent of sunrise and days of splendor the entire night became a blur of a myriad of bodies letting go of everything but the relief and excitement blossoming within their spirits.
Even Raphael joined in, a violin appearing in his hands as with feet splashing through the lake’s water he fiddled perfect counterpoints to the whistling flutes. Upon his shoulders perched pixies, their voices mimicking the sounds of his bow amidst fits of unrestrained giggles, and betwixt his ankles burbled many a shining fish.
With my own feet muddy with earth, sweat, and splashed nectar, I danced and sang with them while bathing in the glow burning within their mystic hearts. Tsáyidiel returned to his panther self to pounce and run with a more slender but equally dark cat through the flickering shadows at the boundaries of the trees, his joy of the chase and play bringing a wide smile to my cheeks. As they flitted through the underbrush I caught sight of Raphael who had stepped away from the merriment to sit upon a stone at the edge of the clearing and stare up at constellations and a moon that had become but a slender crescent though it was full when first risen.
Slipping away from the revelry (careful not to step on any of the little ones twirling about with glee), I crossed the grass and tried to scramble onto the rock next to the angel. Balance being a bit wonky from the powerful nectar, that required three attempts.
He chuckled as I finally succeeded. Stretching out on my back over the curve of the rock, the long hair reached down to tease at the grass behind not unlike a waterfall of molten color.
“Fae beverages are potent and need be handled with caution,” he said with an amused smile. “Though I believe medicinal use in this case is certainly warranted.”
Reaching a hand towards that starlit sky, a finger traced the outline of the moon. “Are you saying I needed to get drunk?”
“Care of the spirit is as important as of the body and mind. And often does one interfere with the care of the others.”
“Ugh. I am way too blitzed for thinking that deep.”
We stayed there together, both of us lost in thought or thoughtlessness, as the music and merriment continued nearby. Part of my brain wanted to ask him a thousand questions, but something else shoved it aside and instead I put a hand on his arm where it rested across his lap. It was warm. “What are you thinking about?”
He paused in thought then gave a soft sigh. “That if we all could only have treasured moments like these more, perhaps much suffering would have been avoided.”
“Uhm, that I like the feel of this breeze through my toes? And that maybe you should join me for another mug if not two.”
He laughed again. “That would indeed be enjoyable but I am afraid I should point out that time continues to move forward.”
Lifting my head I looked at him. “So?”
Amused meriment gazed back. “I should linger here no more. And perhaps neither should you.”
That earned him an unhappy pout. “It’s not even dawn yet.”
“Only because you have wished it so. But the clocks above and below tick on - the sun is already well above the horizon at your academy.” He patted my hand.
“Dangit! My martial arts test is this morning! Sensei is gonna kill me!”