Um. Y'all might need a coke (or other beverage of choice) before sitting down to read this one. Since it's been about three months since the last chapter (hey, this is like two chapters here, so X3;), here's another brief recap: When we left our intrepid adventurers, they were just leaving Sancta Forest, having met with the Elementals. Currently they are on their way to Mecca.
We rested just outside the Sancta Forest for about a day. By then I had recovered what little strength I possessed, so we set out for Mecca in the morning. We were walking, much to Sean’s (and privately, my own) dismay.
“You said this trip takes five days,” Sean complained to Necavi. “and even then, there’s no guarantee we’ll find a tear to a world with a Heaven in the first place. I am so fired.”
I was more concerned about my fragile feet.
But the car was out of gas and Cadmiel said that the enemy battles along the way would aid Sean’s training. He started his lessons again that day, deciding that before anything else Sean needed to learn to use his wings.
“I don’t guess I can teach you aerial fighting until you’ve learned to fly, eh?” he said.
Sean shot him a glare of death, but answered, “Guess not.”
“Well then, now is the perfect time to learn,” said Cadmiel cheerfully, ignoring Sean’s glowering. “It’s really quite simple. Extend your wings and beat them until you’ve created enough lift to bear yourself up into the air. Jump into the air, gather some momentum, and fly upwards.”
He demonstrated, and in seconds he was hovering seven feet above us, effortlessly. “Try it.”
We were all watching Sean, expectant.
“Cadmiel, I think I hate you,” he hissed.
“Good!” Cadmiel said. “It’ll give you initiative.”
Sean stretched his wings tentatively. He attempted to copy Cadmiel’s example, but he took off too soon, lifting just a few inches above the ground before stumbling. He tried three more times, rising and falling greater distances with each effort. Metatron, lacking eyes, was the only one without an amused expression. Anael mocked him openly.
“You’re disgracing our family,” he sniggered.
“Shut the hell up!” Sean shook his fist threateningly.
“Now, now, anger leads to suffering,” Anael said.
Sean dashed towards Anael with clenched fists. Anael jumped easily into the air.
“Come on up here and try again!” he laughed.
“I am going to kill you so much,” Sean jumped after him, wings beating ferociously. He flew quickly up to Anael’s height and then he kicked him solidly in the side.
“Ouch!” Anael massaged the now tender skin, but he remained aloft. “Good work.”
“Please don’t taunt my students, Anael,” sighed Cadmiel.
“Well, it worked, didn’t it?”
And so it did. Sean was in the air, though he relaxed his wings as soon as he realized this fact and crashed to earth for a fourth time. But it was a good start.
After that, Sean finally became a fully willing pupil. I suppose he realized that simply paying attention to Cadmiel was better than always needing to be incited to progress. I was glad that he was accepting Cadmiel’s tutelage (if grudgingly), but as the days of traveling went by, I started to miss the sound of his voice. Apart from that first day, he was quiet, even when fighting or training with Cadmiel. I heard almost nothing from him but a goodnight before we fell asleep in the evenings.
Besides that, the journey itself was among one of the most grueling I had ever endured. After Sean’s flight lesson, Cadmiel had said to me, “You should probably practice using that pendant, too. To get the hang of it and such.”
But the problem with this was that the monsters terrified me. Whenever we encountered them, I hid behind everyone else, either trembling or immobilized with fear. The sympathetic glances from Tialiel, a man who wore floral sundresses and wrung his hands when he thought he had offended someone, did not make me feel any better.
In battle, the angels all used swords, and even Tialiel fought with timed, precise skill. If he had not been so adept (and I had not always been so scared), I would have laughed—cute dresses aren’t exactly conducive to a combat environment, especially when the dresses don’t even fit the contours of the wearer’s body. Battles were constant flashes of blood, metal, and magic spells. Everyone commanded at least a few except Sean, and Necavi’s arsenal was enough to make me think he could have undertaken this journey alone.
The monsters did not attack in a steady stream, as they had when I played the game, though they ambushed us at least once and sometimes twice a day. But for the most part it was walking. A lot of walking. More walking than I ever wanted to do again. I estimated that I walked more in those five days than in all the days of my life before then. My feet groaned constantly in support of that theory.
One night, as I sat massaging my aching soles, I remembered sitting at home, playing the game. I remembered holding the controller and thinking how wonderful and exciting it would be to have an adventure just like the one in the game.
How moronic I was.
My body hated the stress I put upon it, especially after years of soft living. My constitution could not suffer the heat of day, the long hours of walking, the frightening monsters and the explosions of blood and dust produced by their gory deaths.
Seeing the magic and the monsters come to life was unforgettably amazing, true. I could feel the heat of a fire spell, the gentle touch of a healing spell, and I witnessed how a simple sip of potion restored a person to fighting competence. But it was so much. The physical exertion tolled on my body, and the sights which smelled and tasted so real were still utterly absurd to my brain, which was mired in my usually quiet, sedentary existence. I wondered if I would make it out of this alive, or sane.
And as we drew closer to Mecca, the daily battles worsened, as the monsters attacked in greater force and stronger variations.
Sean, who did not play video games but spent many hours watching me, asked why.
“The closer you get to Sancta, the less and more weak the monsters, because of the aura around it which prevents them from entering,” Alistair explained. “Since that aura dissipates as we move further and further away, the enemies are fiercer.”
I liked these difficult battles even less. It was as though a book of myths had come to life on these plains. Chimaeras, basilisks, minotaurs, harpies—a veritable zoo of terrible creatures that were not supposed to exist. Many of them, which were beautiful as well as intimidating in art, were grotesque in reality. The serpentine basilisks dodged sword attacks with easy, slithering grace, but their eyes swirled with malice and their fangs dripped with sulfuric spit. The scent alone was enough for a week’s worth of nightmares.
But it wasn’t all bad. Camaraderie developed between the group as we fought and walked, a need for teamwork superceding tensions. Though I really only knew Sean, everyone protected me, and no one was outwardly condemning of my perpetual uselessness. No doubt mainly because I kept my body’s complaints to myself.
Also I lost weight. That was nice, though by that final fifth day I was pining for some decent food.
I could almost hear my muscles crying with relief when we saw the tips of Mecca’s castle towers on the horizon. The guards at the gate recognized Necavi and Alistair, and let us in without inquiry.
Mecca was a sprawling, ancient city, and a kingdom unto itself. Isolated from the rest of the world by the southern mountain range, the only other pieces of civilization besides the city were the tiny villages and scattered huts nearby. This isolation meant that Mecca fit the traditional view of a fantasy town more than other parts of Septerra, but the houses still had faucets and lamps lit the city when the sun went down.
The streets were smooth dirt, and the buildings were crafted of wood and stone. Simple architecture dominated in the city, with red-shingled rooftops and painted blue shutters on the houses, and tiny, neatly kept lawns intersected with cobble stone paths. Round, wooden doors with black metal hinges hung open from the shops into the roads, which were strangely empty of people.
One building stood out from its quaint surroundings, gargantuan next to the little homes and stores around it. Its structure was Gothic in design, replete with sharp flying buttresses, intricate metal latticework along its roof, and oversized, oval-shaped colored windows. Alistair saw me staring, but before he could explain, I remembered.
“That’s the elemental temple,” I said. “The largest in the world.”
He nodded, almost in disappointment. It took up the space of a mansion and then some.
Though its metal was black and its stonework ash-grey, its severe appearance did not belie foreboding. Rather, I felt drawn to it, like it was my own house. I expected this was at least partly due to the pendant, but the others were walking towards it, too.
“Should we go in?” said Alistair.
Necavi peered into a window. “No.”
He gestured to the empty roads. “The elementals are speaking to the people, as promised.”
“Then let’s get to an inn. We have to see the king tomorrow and stuff.”
I relished the soft beds, with their fluffy comforters and down pillows. And we all had proper baths and dinners, at last. The lost weight of the past five days ran back to my thighs, but I could tolerate a bit of wiggly skin in return for a full stomach. Sean started talking again after dinner, also revived by the food.
“I wonder how much longer we’ll be here,” he said, as we sat on the beds. “I think I might actually miss Delilah.”
I raised an eyebrow as he scrunched his nose and poked his tongue between his teeth. “Well, not really. But you know what I mean.”
“H-hey…” I said, suddenly having a thought. “Are you guys coming with us?”
Alistair exchanged looks with Necavi, who was pulling off his trenchcoat and heavy boots. For a minute he didn’t answer, possibly because he was too absorbed in removing his clothes. At last he replied, “I’ll go. I’m interested to know what’s happening to cause this.”
He smirked a little. “I wish I’d thought of it," and then grumbled, “And also I want to murder whoever created that wretched screen.”
“I’ll go too,” Alistair said. “I like seeing new places.”
“Um… are you guys st-still…?”
“Not really,” said Alistair. “We realized it would never work out. Besides, he still has issues over his wife.”
“Shut up, Alistair,” Necavi growled. He was on top of his covers, barefoot, wearing just a shirt and shorts, but he managed a threatening glare.
“You were married?” Sean said. More growling in response.
I changed tactics. “Then what about your motley crew of friends? I mean, what exactly happened when you got back here?”
“They all kind of went their own separate ways. I think they were disappointed that me and Necavi didn’t want to kill each other anymore,” Alistair said sheepishly.
“Oh,” I said.
Alistair crawled under his comforter. “Y’know, I never really thought about it before, but these inns always seem to have just enough room for whoever I’m traveling with..and I hardly ever see any other guests…”
“Go to sleep, Alistair,” said Necavi.
I woke up halfway through that night, plucked from dreams by a cool wind chilling my cheeks. Blearily, I rolled from one side to the other. Even in the dark, with my poor eyesight worsened by the darkness and dulling sleep, I saw that Sean’s bed was empty. I swung my legs over the side of the bed and onto the floor, reaching for my glasses.
The window, previously shut and locked, was open. I leaned out, squinting into the warm night. Craning my neck, I twisted around as best I could to see the roof. It was close to the window and flat, made of white stone stained with the filth of the elements. Tentatively, I called out, “Sean?!”
His head peered over the ledge above me seconds later, in a reaction so quick I nearly stumbled backwards.
His long hair fell over and past his face, unrestrained by a ponytail. I reached to touch it. “What’re you doing out here?”
“Just looking at the moons. It’s beautiful. You should come up and see.”
“Well, I would, if I could fly,” I said.
“Jump out the window,” he said, completely serious, “and I’ll fly down and catch you.”
“A-are you nuts?” I said, gripping the windowsill.
“That’s what I’m told,” he grinned. “Don’t you trust me?”
“Y-yes…” I said, staring at the ground, which was a solid fifty feet away. “But you’re only a novice at flying.”
“C’mon, I practiced for five days. Pleeaaasse? It really is beautiful up here,” he stuck out his lower lip, pleading with saucer-wide eyes.
My palms perspired in fear, but I said, “Oh, okay.”
The worst that could happen was a quick death, and that wouldn’t be so bad.
His catlike grin returned instantly. He waited as I pushed the window farther up and crawled onto the sill. I closed my eyes and jumped.
I kept my eyes shut as the wind rushed loudly around me, opening them only when I felt Sean’s arms grasp my waist.
He carried me easily onto the roof and set me down. Despite the success of his idea, I was still quaking, and my hands were clammy. I feared death more than I realized.
“Re-lax,” he said, pulling me down to sit beside him. “I’d never let anything bad happen to you, Claris. Trust me on that, at least.”
Septerra’s seven moons, each in varying stages of fullness, lit the night sky. The largest moon was full, luminous, and pure bone-white in color. The lesser moons were brilliantly shaded in all the colors of the visible spectrum, like parts of a prism.
I breathed in deeply, filling my lungs with fresh air untainted by industrialism and warm with summer. Soft, cooling breezes swirled through the streets and over the roof, so I unthinkingly pressed closer to Sean.
“Nice, eh?” he said, looking up at the moons.
“Beautiful,” I agreed. I would have doubted that this was even happening, had not I been shivering. My little shorts and thin shirt were not much against the frequent wind. Sean drew in his wings, and his warm feathers brushed my neck and cheeks. I rested my head on his shoulder, and he pressed his fingers lightly against my hair. For the first time in nearly a week, I relaxed.
It was the day when the other children began to avoid him like a pit of spikes. He had only wanted the other boy to share the crayons. Azael had the red crayon and the black crayon, surely he was not using both at the same time. But his request for either crayon was denied, on the grounds that his amber eyes, one discolored and both magnified beneath his square glasss, looked weird.
At first he sat in sullen silence, scribbling a background to his picture in midnight blue. Then he tried again.
“I said no,” Azael snapped, holding both crayons in his cruel little fists. “Go away or I’ll tell that you’re bothering me.”
“But I…” he said, outstretching his fingers. “…please?”
“No!” howled Azael. “Go away.”
“But… I’m asking you nicely,” he said softly, and his strange eyes glowed.
Azael dropped the crayons. Suddenly he was away from the linoleum floor and the drawing paper, away from the other children running and playing. He was in a dark room, alone, and surrounded by the hissing of snakes. Their almond eyes glared at him from every corner, as they emerged, mouths open, hungry for a bite of his skinny arms. He screamed in terror and the snakes faded.
The strange-eyed child was coloring with the black crayon. Seeing this, Azael realized what had transpired and cried for the caretaker. She cradled him, comforting him while the frightening child looked around in bewilderment at the whispers and glowers of distrust from the other children.
“Kamael, Theliel,” said the caretaker, as the child’s parents arrived, looking harassed, but still unimaginably beautiful. “I’m sorry, but we can’t have this happen again. He’ll traumatize the others.”
“We’ll discipline him,” said Theliel.
“If this continues, I’ll have to forbid him from returning.”
Kamael’s lovely, delicate face creased with a purse-lipped frown. Theliel took the boy by the wrist.
“I… I haven’t finished my picture,” said the child. Theliel crumpled it in his hand, and the child bit his lip.
“You’re ruining our reputation,” said Theliel.
“Whatever we will do with you,” sighed Kamael, as his father dragged him from the building.
“But…he wouldn’t share, and I didn’t mean to,” he said, his voice bordering on a wail as Theliel squeezed his wrist.
“We don’t care,” said Theliel. “Just control yourself.”
The boy’s teeth bit his lip so hard that pinpricks of blood dotted the skin. When they reached home, Theliel noticed.
“And stop that habit. The sight of blood is unattractive.”
“Go sit in your room, dear,” said Kamael, “We’ve got to get back to the party. You called me away from a fascinating conversation, you know.”
He crawled into his bed, sniffling when he heard his door lock.
“See you later, darling,” Kamael called, and then they went away.
He curled into a fetal position. His room had no windows, so he focused on the wall. He did not think or speak. He hardly breathed. There was too much hurt in his chest.
A man cloaked in black walked in from nowhere and stood by the bed. He said, “So, what do you think?”
Donovan pulled the flesh-colored patch off of his neck, handed it back to the man and rose from the chair. His voice was rough when he muttered, “I think you’re sick.”
“Oh, Ireul. You flatter me.”
“First things first!” said Alistair, when we had all woken up the next morning. “Necavi and I have to go to the palace. Anyone want to come?”
I raised my hand a little. I wanted to experience as much of this world as possible before I had to leave.
“Then I’m going too,” said Sean.
“Let’s all go,” said Cadmiel. “But keep an eye out for tears.”
“Hang on,” said Alistair, turning a suddenly scrutinizing eye on my shirt and shorts. “You can’t go in the palace like that, Claris.”
“Why the hell not?” Sean said, as I mumbled, “Oh… okay.”
“Well, I mean, you can still go,” said Alistair sheepishly, “You just need some new clothes.”
“I don’t know if you all have noticed this,” said Necavi, “but Mecca isn’t a modern city. It’s not exactly up to date on the women’s liberation movement. What Alistair is saying is that Claris needs a dress to see the king, and really, even to walk around.”
I could feel the hot blush splotching my skin. It wasn’t because I objected to new clothes, but the way Alistair and Necavi were staring at my cutoffs, as if they had just now realized how terribly inappropriate they were.
But I actually liked the prospect of new clothes. Though I’d washed the shirt and shorts last night, they were nonetheless tattered, an already worn set of clothes thinned with stresses they were not meant to endure.
Besides, I loved dresses.
Alistair led us to the shop, and I recognized its façade from the game, though I could never go in. After all, the only stores an adventurer needed sold armor and items (both conveniently located in the same building next door).
The shop and streets were now filled with people, who did indeed pause to gawk at my fashion idiocy. All the women wore dresses, though thankfully they weren’t the combination plunging neckline and push up bra variety I'd seen in movies about medieval times.
As I was being fitted for mine, I had a thought (my synapses have just been crackling in these past few days).
“Who’s paying for this?”
“Oh, me,” said Alistair. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Such a nice young man,” said Anael. “Paying for the lady.”
Seeing the wound he was about to inflict on Sean’s manly ego, Alistair added, “It’s just that we owe you guys for helping us with all those battles, but our money only works… well, here. And they definitely wouldn’t take the paper stuff you’ve got.”
A good answer. Popular stereotype labeled Alistair as an airhead, but I decided then that he got less credit than he deserved. But after his enthusiastic advice on which dress to choose, I could see why he was frequently pegged as a homosexual.
Though not condemning apart, a keen sense of style and a big sword together just don’t equal straight.
The dress chosen was black silk, crimped and ruffled around the skirt’s hem, cut comfortably above embarrassing on the neckline. The long, sheer sleeves hung nicely off my thin wrists. It was like wearing something out of Hot Topic, except I was buying it to stop the weird looks.
Now I’m no oil painting, at least not without a box of cosmetics and a skilled artisan to apply them, and I intended to throw back on my old outfit (currently stored in Alistair’s fathomless supply pack) as soon as we left the palace.
But I looked pretty good in that dress.
Before I left the fitting room, I carefully placed Donovan's feather down the dress's front, so that it was comfortably hidden, pressed softly against my side. The light, gentle weight was reassuring, as long I did not think about where I got it.
Sean goaded me with a whistle as I stepped out.
“Oh, sh-shut up,” I said, looking down.
The citizens, seeing that I was properly attired, left us alone as we walked toward the palace. They didn’t even seem to mind about Sean’s wings, which he was keeping as folded together as he possibly could.
“Isn’t that uncomfortable?” asked Anael.
“Yes,” said Sean. “But I can’t make them disappear.”
The skin around where the wing bones met on his back was breaking. Blood oozed from the wound, dark red in the shade of his feathers. Some of it was dry on his skin.
He ignored my concerned frowns at his back and pushed me in front of him with his hands on my shoulders, as if steering me.
“Sean…” I said, but we were at the palace gate.
“Time to meet some royalty, princess,” he said.
The uniformed guards allowed us in after an explanation from Necavi. A wide, tall flight of perfectly white steps led to the palace’s enormous red doors, which were outlined in gold that looked like it was polished every day.
“Can you imagine how awesome it would be if this place got blown up?” Sean said, grinning maniacally at the scalloped pillars lining the palace foyer. “A place like this would make for some beautiful ruins.”
“I realize that you are mad,” said Necavi, through clenched teeth, “but you really must not say such things when we are surrounded by armed guards.”
“Especially when their boss is about to give us money,” said Alistair, to which Necavi nodded emphatically.
“You guys just aren’t fun,” Sean pouted.
A young man awaited us at the end of the foyer. Frost blue hair tied back with a silk cord fell straight down his face and back. A fine black jacket with gold buttons linked by braided red cords fit his tall, slender frame perfectly. His fingers glinted with rings of silver and gold. His high boots crushed the fabric of his crimson striped, black breeches. It was definitely like looking at a painting.
He bowed to us with smiling, electric green eyes. Everyone but Sean and I bowed in return. Feeling ignorant, I made my best effort at a curtsy. Was this the king? He looked a bit young, but there was a jeweled circlet around his forehead.
Sean did not move, his arms rigid at his sides in defiance.
“You’ll have to excuse them, Your Highness,” said Alistair. “They’re, um, very foreign.”
“I can tell,” said the young man, but he did not seem offended. “My father’s not in right now, so you’ll have to talk to me.”
Oh, he’s the prince. Duh.
“Might I ask where he is?” said Necavi, making a controlled effort to mask his annoyance. He had bowed to the prince, but with distaste on his smile.
I figured he thought it degrading to show deference to someone that was likely ten years his junior. Especially when Necavi could probably kill him with little thought.
“Down at the temple, I think,” said the prince. “The elementals have been in an uproar…from what I hear.”
“That’s what we’re here to tell you,” said Alistair. “We’ve discovered the cause of the recent problems, as promised.”
“And you want to collect your reward?” said the prince. He was smirking. I wasn’t sure I liked him.
The prince led us deeper into the castle without waiting for an answer.
“My name is Prince Alair,” he added, for the benefit of those of us who were not Necavi and Alistair. “Son of Alaric.”
He took us to a sitting room furnished with gold painted couches that had plush, satin cushions and swirls carved into their feet. A well kept mahogany table was the room’s centerpiece, its glinting surface partially hidden by platters of fruit and cheese.
“Please,” said Alair, gesturing to the food.
“We’re fine,” said Necavi, just as Alistair was eagerly reaching for the cheese. He withdrew his hand nervously.
“Sean,” I whispered, when we were sitting, “Pinch me or something.”
“This can’t be real.”
He shrugged and dug his sharp nail into my skin. I grit my teeth from the pain and rubbed the red mark on my arm.
Since the couches and the table and the prince were still there, and the soft silk of my dress was still on my skin, I guessed I wasn’t dreaming. I did not know whether this was good or bad.
“Nothing to drink?” said Alair, hopefully. Quick glances at Necavi caused us all to shake our heads or mutter ‘No’ politely. Necavi’s eyebrows were furrowed and his mouth was set in an expression that said “Dude, just give me my money,” or, in Necavi’s case, “Fulfill your contract or I will slice open your stomach and slather your intestines all over this table.”
“All right,” Alair seemed to be getting the point. “I’ll just be right back then.”
“What is his problem?” said Anael.
“He is royalty, you know…” Alistair began. “He’s been very sheltered, as you might expect. I think the only time he’s been let outside the palace was to undergo the affiliation ceremony at the temple. He hasn’t been let out since.”
Alistair dropped his voice to a whisper.
“I’ve heard not being allowed to commune with the elementals makes ya wacky in the head, sometimes.”
Sean rolled his eyes. Alistair went on, “I feel kind of bad for him. I think he’s just excited to see strangers like you guys, probably. Or anyone he can talk to.”
“I have a hard time feeling sorry for a guy with rings on his fingers worth enough to feed a third world country,” Sean grumbled. “How come you know so much anyway? I always thought you were a bit dim.”
Tact was a word that had very little meaning to Sean. I pursed my lips in disapproval, and he shrugged. Alistair just laughed.
“I used to read a lot of geography books as a kid,” he said. “It was always my dream to travel around the world. My mother was famous, y’see. A lot of what I’d read was written by her. She’d gone to all the major continents and visited so many wonderful places. When she met my father, though, she had me and settled down. She wrote memoirs of her life and I used to read those along with my textbooks.”
He tapped the hilt of his giant sword. “She’s the one that taught me how to use a sword like this. This one isn't hers, but she had one just like it.”
“What happened to her?” I asked. Alistair’s history was never really explained in the game.
“Here we go,” Necavi sighed, reaching for the fruit.
Alistair stuck out his tongue. “When I was about fifteen and already trained with this sword, she decided she wanted to go on another journey. She wanted to visit the sacred elemental grounds—like the Wind Tower, and the Library of Ice.”
Necavi bit deeply into his apple at the mention of the Library.
“—and so on. But, she never came back.”
Alistair’s shoulders sagged. “A year later my Dad went out after her. But Dad was a scholar. He didn’t know a thing about survival.”
“Why didn’t you go with him?” I said.
“Like I said… Mom had trained me. But I didn’t know much about survival myself, at least not away from my own home,” Alistair was looking at his hands. “Dad was lost without Mom. But he knew he might not make it back, and he didn’t want me to end up lost, too.”
“It must have taken considerable strength to let him go like that…” said Cadmiel.
“I suggested he do it, actually,” Alistair said. “He really was broken without her. I mean, it’s not like he didn’t love me or something, it’s just… you know. And I could take care of myself well enough by then. So I told him to go. I wanted him to be happy.”
“Well, I’m depressed,” said Tialiel. “I dunno if I could let go of a parent when one’s already gone. Not that I’d know about any of that, of course.”
Alair returned before I could ask Tialiel what he meant by that. I guessed he heard Tialiel’s voice, because Alair looked at him and said, “Oh… You’re.. a man, aren’t you?”
“Physically,” Tialiel stammered. The prince nodded, regarding Tialiel with interest, like he’d just met a new species of creature.
The prince set a bag on the table. The coins inside it clinked together as the bag’s top flopped over its heavy bottom. Necavi took it happily.
“Umm, before you go…” said Alair. “Could I have your names? And, could you maybe tell me what’s going on?”
“We don’t have a lot of ti—“ Necavi started, but Alistair was already explaining.
I couldn’t believe Prince Alair didn’t know anything, not even why Alistair and Necavi had been hired in the first place. What did this guy do all day?
“That sounds pretty bad,” said Alair, when Alistair finished. I would have expected a more extreme reaction, had he not been who he was.
“I-I’m Claris,” I said, after everyone else had told him their names and shaken his many-ringed hand. “Clarissa, actually.”
He kissed my hand. A prince. Wow.
He really must not see many girls.
We saw the tear as we were leaving, in the foyer, on one of the big pillars.
“What is that?” said Alair, not frightened, but curious.
“Our ride,” said Anael, kneeling next to it. “Come on, children, join hands.”
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Sean said.
“It’s the only way to guarantee we’ll end up in the same location,” Anael insisted. “Hurry, before it closes.”
So I took Sean’s hand and Cadmiel’s hand. The tear widened to accommodate us as we stepped through, like a chain of paper dolls.
Prince Alair watched the
strangers disappear into the dark hole on the column. The hole sealed
itself when the last one, that man in the dress, stepped through.
He absorbed what had just happened for a few minutes, and then ran to his
room to write it all down. “That was so neat.”
Well, some of us, anyway.
Tialiel, Metatron and I slipped off, and were sitting knee deep in a gently flowing stream. I recovered from the shock of cold water soaking into my silk and jumped up, dripping as I scrambled for the bank. The dress’s skirt clung to my legs, and I tripped, rescued from an embarrassing crash by Tialiel’s sympathetic hand.
His dress was soaked, too. “Easy,” he said lightly. “Don’t want to rip that silk.”
“Thanks, Tia,” I said gratefully.
Unruffled, Metatron picked himself up and stepped calmly out of the stream, in spite of his sopping hair and the dark stains of water on his gray suit.
The five others remained crowded on the bridge, which, judging by its slim width, was not meant to support more than two at a time.
“You guys okay?” said Alistair.
“A little waterlogged,” said Tialiel. “But fine.”
I wrung out my skirt, and a thick sheet of water splashed onto the grass.
“Could be worse,” said Sean. “Could have been a ravine. Full of sharp rocks.”
“You’re always so reassuring, Sean,” I said.
“Any idea where we are?” said Alistair.
The bridge led off and onto a poorly tended dirt road, which was barely discernible as such, being that it was overgrown with unruly grass. Still, a faint path could be seen wriggling through the fields, up towards something unseen in the distance.
Wildflowers grew along the stream’s edges, but they and the long grass were the only vegetation around.
“I’d hazard a guess at the middle of nowhere,” said Anael. “Which works, for our purposes.”
“We’re not back home, are we?” said Sean. “This place feels familiar, somehow. The air.”
He frowned, suddenly anxious.
“No,” said Cadmiel. “At least, I don’t think so. But we could look around before we try to find a heaven.”
“Let’s just see if this path goes anywhere,” said Sean.
I didn’t really think this was my world, but I did not protest as we followed the obscure dirt line to its end. Of course, I had never left the continental United States, so it wasn’t like I would know. But Sean was right—something was familiar about the air. Like home, but not.
But when we found the road’s origin, I started hoping sincerely that this was not home.
The remains of a village lay in blackened, charred piles of ruin. It was like a cemetery, and the town was a tombstone.
“I think I want to leave this world now,” I whispered.
Crumbling and collapsed buildings formed a circle with ashes the color of rotting skin scattered across its center. Though the fire that decimated the village had long since died, the stench of its destruction hung on the stale, still air. Walking into that circle was like walking through a veil. Outside was the green, the wind, the neglected road that no foot had tread in years. Inside, the wind was in a permanent stranglehold, choked by death.
Trails of water from my dress smeared the ashes in the dirt and gray, flat grass. I gripped the hem in my hands, bunching it up so as not to further disturb the ruins.
Sean stood in the circle’s center, turning slowly around with wide, far away eyes. He crouched down on the ground and took a handful of dirt and ash. As it ran through his fingers he said, “I remember fire.”
“Perhaps we should go,” said Cadmiel.
“No,” said Sean. He left the circle, walking deeper into the ruins.
“Oh, God,” said Anael. “Must we follow him?”
Metatron took his wrist. Sean broke the grip easily, and kept moving. I followed helplessly, wondering what he could possibly be thinking. Metatron seemed torn. He stood there while the others trailed me.
“Have you been here before, Sean?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, his voice firm and clear.
“Then maybe this is home?”
He stopped in front of one of the larger houses, its mangled façade burnt black, its few whitish patches smeared with soot.
“Not yours. Mine.”
“I think I might know where we are,” Anael said slowly, “But we’ll have to check for that Heaven, to be sure.”
When he was answered with silence, Anael sighed.
“All right, I’ll go look myself. Try not to wander off.”
He took to the sky, flying up until his winged form was swallowed by the cumulus.
Sean sat amongst the rubble of the house, cross-legged, his palms flat in the debris. It was like he was trying to commune with the dead spirits.
“You’re creeping me out, man,” said Alistair.
Sean didn’t respond, so Necavi said, “This village looks like it’s seen a war.”
Still nothing from Sean. Necavi went on. “This is what my hometown looked like after it was ravaged by soldiers.”
I was interested to know Necavi’s history, but that was all he volunteered.
Still holding my skirt in my hands, I stood awkwardly by Sean, unsure of what to do.
“It hurts,” he said. “It hurts and it’s all my fault.”
“No, it’s not,” Tialiel said softly, as if he understood what the hell Sean meant.
As he inched closer, face full of concern, I guessed that he did.
“It’s not your fault,” Tialiel said, in a subdued, soothing tone. He was kneeling in front of Sean, his wet dress dirtied by the filth on the burned wood around him. “There was no way you could have known it would happen.”
Sean grabbed for Tialiel’s braid suddenly, pressing it against his cheek.
“Clara,” he said. “Clara always kept her hair in a braid.”
Clara? Who the hell is Clara?
“She’s dead now,” he said. “They’re all dead, because of me.”
“Not you,” said Tialiel, though he was blushing, and his voice was faltering as Sean held his braid. “Not you, Sean.”
“I feel like I’m watching somebody’s therapy session,” said Alistair, and Necavi jabbed him in the ribs with his katana’s hilt. “Ow! Well, I do!”
I had to admit, this was pushing the boundaries of weird. But I guess it was plausible that Sean was born on a world that was not my own. After all, he had never told me how he got into that shed in my neighbor’s backyard. As usual, I never asked. I just assumed he was homeless and using it for shelter.
Which, looking at the burned remains of his old house, was actually not too far from the truth.
Sean snapped out of his trance when Anael came back, yelling from the sky, “My theory is correct!”
“So… there’s Heaven access?” said Cadmiel.
“Yes,” said Anael, “and while I’d like to find a town that isn’t a desecrated mess of ashes, to confirm, I would say that this is indeed Earth. But it seems to be an Earth of a different reality, with a history whose events do not match that of your own, Claris.”
Ugh. Alternate realities again. I felt a headache coming on.
Sean was drawing patterns in the ash, but the focus was back in his eyes.
“Did you used to live here?” I asked him.
“Yes,” he said.
“Oh really?” said Anael. “So you know what happened?”
“There was a fire.”
He shrugged. “I don’t remember much else. Except guilt.”
“But it wasn’t your fault,” Tialiel sounded desperate.
“So you know what happened?” said Anael.
Metatron had caught up with us by then, and he was shifting his weight from one foot to the other, as though he did not like the direction of this conversation.
“I… not exactly,” he admitted. “The vision was hazy. I couldn’t make out any features on the figure that did this.”
Anger contorted Sean’s previously complacent face. “You had a vision of my past?! That’s none of your damn business!”
“I’m sorry,” Tialiel said meekly. He wrung his hands. “I can’t control it…”
“And if you saw it, why didn’t anyone do anything about it?!” Sean raged. “Why didn’t anyone help us?! Isn’t that what you angels are supposed to do? Help us?!”
“I’m sorry,” Tialiel repeated, and I thought he was going to cry. “I didn’t know where it was, or what it meant. I thought it was a bad dream.”
“I guess you’re just useless then, aren’t you?!” Sean snapped.
Tialiel’s hands, still pressed tightly together, stopped wringing. He lowered his head in crushed defeat, and I saw scarlet flooding down his cheeks as he held in the tears. A face I knew well.
“Watch your mouth,” said Cadmiel. “Don’t take your anger out on him, he didn’t do anything.”
“Yeah, exactly,” Sean spat.
I don’t know what possessed me to do it, but I said, “I don’t think you’re being fair, Sean…”
“Ah, you’re against me too, huh?” Sean said, and I quailed under his hateful voice. “That’s just fine.”
“I…” I began.
“Forget it,” he said angrily. “Let’s get out of here. I can’t stand the memories in this place. They won’t shut up.”
He took off without waiting for an answer.
“Bloody hell,” said Cadmiel. “He’s got no idea where he’s going.”
He touched my shoulder lightly. “Don’t let it get you, hm?”
He turned his head to Anael, Metatron and Tialiel. “Come on, we’re going up. The rest of you stay here. We’ll be back soon.”
They left, and I flopped down in the dirt, depressed and no longer mindful of my dress.
“Aww, cheer up,” said Alistair. He sat back in the dirt with a heavy thump. “It’ll be okay.”
“Don’t you ever get tired of optimism?” I muttered. I pulled my legs up to my chest and pressed my head to my knees.
“It’s certainly more productive than pessimism,” he said evenly.
I couldn’t think of an argument for that, so I just stared at the black folds of my dress.
“My life is a black pit of blackness,” I said dully. I wondered if Sean would care when he realized that I wasn’t with Cadmiel and the rest. I hated having anyone angry with me, but Sean especially. With anyone else, I could just try to forget about it.
“Ohh, relax,” said Alistair. “Sean will get over it, we’ll fix whatever’s wrong, and then we’ll all go home.”
“I wish I could believe it was that simple,” I said.
“Life is as simple or complicated as you choose to see it,” said Alistair. “Maybe I’m dumb for looking at it simply. But I get a lot more done that way.”
Saying that he had a point would mean admitting defeat. And I’d had enough defeat for one day.
“What do you think, Necavi?” said Alistair.
Necavi paced in front of us, disturbing the dust and kicking up clouds of soot. “I’ll abstain.”
“Aw,” said Alistair. “Well, anyway, all I’m saying is that the situation is gonna be the same whether you’re happy or unhappy. So you might as well be happy.”
“It’s not that easy,” I mumbled.
“Yeah, I know,” he said. “It does take some practice.”
I buried my head in my hands, which was probably why I didn’t notice Donovan’s arrival until I heard Necavi’s surprised yell. I looked up quickly, and Necavi was unconscious. Donovan stood over him smugly.
Alistair was on his feet, sword drawn.
“Man, you could put someone’s eye out with that thing,” said Donovan.
Alistair swung his heavy sword in response, aiming to cleave Donovan in twain. But Donovan jumped back, and Alistair had to steady himself, lest he bring the sword down on Necavi’s motionless body.
Donovan slashed his claw across Alistair’s back before he was even able to right himself. Alistair’s body twisted, hitting the ground on his back. He gasped in pain as dirt stung the fresh wounds, and he dropped the sword in the dust, his fingers twitching. Blood seeped out around him, coloring the brown earth red.
It occurred to me that I should do something, but I was again experiencing paralyzing fright. Fingers, toes, arms and legs were not responding. I saw and understood only Donovan’s freshly red claws.
“Don’t look so shocked,” said Donovan. “They’re just humans, after all.”
He walked towards me, ignoring the blood that dripped off of his claws and spattered onto the pale ground. “I mean, I’ve been doing this for centuries.”
“K-killing people?” I said hoarsely.
“Oh, they’re alright,” said Donovan. “They’re just not gonna be moving for a while.”
He took another step towards me.
“Now then, where’s the rest, eh? The Neanderthal, et cetera?”
“They… they’re in Heaven,” I said mechanically. I stroked my pendant with my fingertips, but couldn’t focus my mind for anything but answering Donovan’s voice.
“Oh, that’s right,” said Donovan. “Humans can’t enter Heaven.”
His claws were at my throat. “Unless they’re dead, of course.”
But as his sharp, metallic claws touched my skin, his actual hand spasmed in pain. He hissed and drew back sharply, like a cat sprayed with water.
“Why can’t I—“ he began, and then his face darkened as he narrowed his eyes and turned down his mouth in a contemptuous sneer. “Clever girl. You’ve still got my feather, haven’t you?”
I slid it out from the front of my dress.
He laughed, hiding his face with the claw, holding his stomach with his unadorned hand. The tension in my muscles eased, put off guard by his laughter (maniacal though it was). The knowledge that he could not hurt me while I held the feather was also pretty relaxing.
“Isn’t this brilliant,” said Donovan.
“Uh…” I said. “What does this feather do, exactly?”
He crumpled onto the ground beside me, hands over his forehead. I clutched the feather tightly, surprised that he wasn’t trying to take it. Maybe he couldn’t.
“Look,” he said, in that same condescending tone I’d heard so often from my brother, the tone that meant “How can I explain this in a way your puny brain can understand.”
He even paused, as if struggling for the right words.
“Our feathers are like…” he cringed, “Ugh. Okay. They’re like… physical pieces of our spirits. As such, they have certain attributes, chiefly a ward. This ward is actually meant to prevent suicide, but it can also be used to protect others. When I, for some inexplicable reason, gave you one of mine, I essentially fixed it so that I couldn’t harm you, as long as you kept it on your person. That is, as long as it touched your skin. My illusions won’t affect you, either.”
“That’s a relief,” I said, unfortunately out loud.
“Yes, so, for now, it seems, you live,” he growled. Then he smiled. “But my friends will be here soon.”
“I guess running like a maniac won’t help?”
Donovan lay there quietly, his lips and eyes hidden by his fingers.
“Why did you give me your feather?” I asked.
“Hell if I know,” he said. He dropped his arms to his chest and glared at the sun. “Actually, no… I think that sometimes I try to sabotage myself. Or… something. I dunno.”
Agitated, he stabbed the dirt with his claws.
I thought of my pendant. I could try a summoning now. Donovan could do nothing about it.
But somehow it felt wrong. It was crazy, I know—he had meant to kill me—but I didn’t want to attack him knowing that he was defenseless.
But Alistair and Necavi’s bloodied, comatose bodies needed help. I stood over them and shut my eyes.
Donovan watched with interest, but did not otherwise react.
I found an image of Moreaetas in my memory. An ambitious choice, but to me the most logical.
She was at the back of my mind, like a word I half-remembered and didn’t know how to say. Pulling her forward was like trying to recall a dream on the edge of the conscious and subconscious, a sense and an image that was reduced to a niggling feeling in the brain. It hurt.
The pendant warmed in my hands as I called for Moreaetas. Its heat seared my skin as I cried for her spirit, but even as my palms blistered I did not let go.
A green circle of light radiated outward from where I stood, bursting into a dome around me as the heat escalated, scalding my skin down to the muscles and marrow.
I exhaled and opened my eyes. The green light coalesced into the shape of a woman, defining her features as it dissipated.
“Well done!” Moreaetas said.
“Th-thanks,” I sputtered, touching my face. Sweat slicked my fingers as I ran them down my cheeks, and suddenly I lurched forward, onto my knees.
“Oh, my,” said Moreaetas. “Don’t faint on me now, you’re only half done.”
“You’re kidding,” I said weakly.
“Sorry, honey,” she said. “You have to tell me what it is you want me to do.”
She patted my hair in a concerned way. “I hope it’s nothing big, for your sake.”
“I was hoping you could help them,” I pointed to Necavi and Alistair.
“Simple healing then?” Moreaetas said. “You know, honey, you could have just called Anhelans for that. It would have been much easier on you.”
“S-sorry,” I muttered.
“Oh, none of that. You just like you’re ready to faint, that’s all,” said Moreaetas. “Now then.”
She lifted Alistair easily, and stroked his back with one hand. The deep claw marks healed with her touch, and Alistair got to his feet.
“How long was I out?! What happened?!” he shouted, grabbing for his sword. He saw Moreaetas, tending to Necavi’s neck, and dropped the hilt in confusion. “Great Goddess?”
“Hey,” she said, as Necavi’s eyelids twitched.
“You summoned her?” Alistair asked me, impressed.
“Barely,” I said.
“All better,” said Moreaetas.
Necavi massaged his neck. “Thank you, Moreaetas.”
“Just doing my job,” she said. “Is that all you need?”
I eyed Donovan, who had not moved.
“I think so,” I coughed, pain swelling in my chest.
“Don’t strain yourself,” advised Moreaetas. “I tried to use the lowest level spell possible, but you’ve overtaxed your body. Try going smaller next time?”
“R-right,” I nodded.
“Goodbye, then!” She dissolved into a pool of green radiance, and then was gone, like rain drying into dirt.
My chest was tight, and I could hardly breathe. I felt like dying.
“What a waste of energy,” said Donovan. “I’ll just knock you two out again.”
“Wait, Donovan!” Lucius’s sugar-pumped voice exclaimed from the heavens. He landed between us and Donovan. “Let me say hi first!”
Donovan let out a long suffering sigh. “Fine.”
Lucius grabbed me around the waist in a bone crushing hug. “Hi!”
“H-hello,” I choked, staggering. His grip was unnaturally strong, for a little guy.
“You don’t look so well,” Lucius said. “Better sit down.”
“Good plan,” I agreed. “Maybe you sh-should let go of me first, though?”
“Sure!” he released me and ran for Alistair.
Two other angels landed in the circle as Lucius clung to a bemused Alistair. One was a woman, dressed all in black, with milk pale skin and rose red lips. Beside her was a tall, stoic man suited in fog gray and rust crimson. They spoke to Donovan like they knew him, addressing him as Ireul.
“I think we should run,” I said faintly.
Necavi was trying to decapitate Lucius, deterred in this effort by Lucius burying his head in Necavi’s trenchcoat. “Run? From this?”
“M-maybe not him,” I conceded. “But them.”
“I was merely off guard,” said Necavi. “Let him try again.”
“They’re angels,” I insisted. “You know, immortal beings with unknown and possibly devastating powers? It’s not going to go any better.”
“Ireul, you waited for once,” said the red-lipped woman.
“Uh, yeah, so I did, Lily. So I did,” Donovan said, hastily relaxing his offensive stance.
“I wish you’d just call me Leliel,” the woman said.
He shrugged. “I like Lily.”
“Someday I’m not going to respond to that name,” she said.
“Only when I’m dead, right?” he answered, smiling a genuine smile, devoid of madness or violence. Creepy.
Lucius wriggled away from Necavi easily and skipped back to Donovan. “Okay, now what?”
“Let’s see…” said Donovan. “How about I take care of the two Dungeons and Dragons rejects, while you get Claris?”
“Aww, I don’t want to hurt anyone,” said Lucius. “I might kill them on accident. I think that’d be bad.”
“Then stay here and look cute,” said Leliel. “Ireul, that girl looks ready to pass out anyway. I’ll handle her.”
“Whatever,” he said. He advanced on a waiting Necavi.
“Hi,” said Leliel. “I like your dress.”
“Um.. thank you,” I said. “Are you going to kill me?”
“Nah,” she said. “But we do have to take you hostage for a while.”
Her eyes, red as her lips, caught the sight of the feather, which was poking out of my sleeve.
“Where did you get that…?”
“Donovan,” I said, stupidly. I knew this was a mistake when she rounded on her heel angrily and shouted, “Ireul! You gave her your feather?!”
Distracted by her yelling, Donovan failed to block a strike from Necavi’s katana. The sharp blade sliced across his chest and he grasped at the wound, cursing in pain.
Leliel, her indignation apparently forgotten, ran to his side.
“Fuck, Lily,” he gasped, as blood soaked his hand. “Could we possibly talk about this later?”
“Sorry,” she said. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’ll make it,” he said, glowering at a smug Necavi. “Shut up, I was distracted.”
“Excuses,” said Necavi.
I perceived them as a poorly transmitted television signal, a blurry picture with voices that were weak to my ears. I fought the weighting of my eyelids. All this fainting was damaging my self-esteem.
But before I could focus my remaining energy, the ground beneath me cracked. The fissures zigzagged outward like rays of a circle, crumbling away and leaving a gaping mouth in the earth. I fell into this hole, suddenly awake and screaming.
Darkness surrounded me, so at first I thought I’d fainted again. But I was still self-aware, so I thought perhaps I was in a tear. But this was taking a really long time. Also, the feeling of having my body torn apart and reconstructed in just a few seconds, that was missing.
I hit smooth stone eventually, slamming into the cold surface on my butt before gravity pushed me onto my back. Amazingly, I was not currently a blood stain. Alistair and Necavi, lying next to me, were thankfully intact as well.
“I’m not even going to think about how we survived such a long fall,” I said groggily. At least the adrenaline coursing through my veins would prevent me from blacking out.
“Call it magic.”
A slim hand with slender, tapered fingers and manicured nails reached down to pull me up.
Lips parted in a confident smile revealed tiny, sharp fangs, as half-closed eyes, white with gold rims, swept my now filthy dress. I had never seen such eyes, but even as the fingers slipped from my wrist, I knew their owner.
“Oh my God,” I said.
“Taking the Lord’s name in vain,” he said. “Very good. You’ll fit in just fine.”
“Hey Claris!” Alistair whispered. “Who’s that guy?”
“I think he’s the devil,” I said numbly.
“Lucifer, if you please,” he said.
White wings rose from his back, and when he turned, I saw that he had six, like Metatron. He dressed like a European aristocrat from the eighteenth century, in a black suit with a crimson undershirt and a frilly ascot. A snake was carved into the head of his silver cane. The snake clutched a ruby apple in its mouth, its long teeth gently touching the apple’s delicate surface. His hair, a blend of grays and golds, was tied back with a black bow. He walked with the deliberation of a person who knew exactly what was happening and why none of it was cause for worry.
Having no other choice, we followed him, me shaking with each intake of breath, Necavi and Alistair seeming mildly confused.
“Claris, what’s going on?” said Alistair.
“We’re in Hell,” I said thinly, stumbling. Lucifer caught me by the crook of my elbow.
“Try to keep it together, dear,” he said. “I didn’t rescue you so you could die.”
“I th-thought you could only enter Heaven or Hell if you were dead,” I said.
“I like bending the rules,” said Lucifer. His boots clicked on floor, which soon widened from a narrow corridor into a parlor. Dark earth walls broke away into emptiness on either side, so I kept to the middle.
Lucifer reclined on a black cushioned chair that was flanked by two semi-circular couches, like a darker version of the room in Prince Alair’s palace.
“Again with the sitting and the waiting,” said Alistair. He leaned on his sword in aggravation, like he was disappointed at being saved from certain death.
“It’s necessary,” said Lucifer. “And you’ll only be here a short while.”
“E-excuse me,” I said delicately, “But I always thought it would be warmer down here.”
The room was quite cool. Comfortable, even.
“Oh, it is,” he said. “On the lower levels.”
“A-and,” I went on, trying to break contact with his hypnotic eyes, “I thought you’d look…um..different.”
“What were you expecting?” Lucifer said, amused. He covered the snake’s head cane with his hands and leaned over it. “Horns? Cloven hooves, perhaps? A tail?”
He hissed slightly as he listed stereotypes, his forked tongue visible between words. His voice then was bothered, but it retained a rich, soothing quality that was even more evident when he spoke again. Listening to him intoxicated us into a thrall. I could not stop thinking about his honey rimmed, bone white eyes. Sitting there with him was like drinking a glass of warm milk, relaxing and weakening at the same time.
When I finally blinked, thus breaking eye contact, I hugged myself. My skin, moments ago flushed and moist with red heat, was pale and cool.
“You alright?” Lucifer said.
I nodded without conviction.
“Relax,” he said. “I’m doing you a favor.”
“Why?” I said. “And if you don’t mind me asking, how come you haven’t got hooves or horns, but your tongue’s all s-snakey?”
“I was born with it,” he shrugged. “God didn’t mutilate my appearance when I fell. That would have been petty.”
He smiled grimly into the darkness around the parlor’s edges. “God gives us what we want. Then we deal with the consequences.”
“I am really confused,” muttered Alistair. Necavi’s face was wary, but he remained silent.
“As to your first question,” Lucifer said, “we don’t like what’s happening any more than you do.”
He turned his back on the abyss, hands still gripping the cane’s head. “Don’t misunderstand. I’m all for the Apocalypse, you know, traditionally. Rivers of blood, lakes of fire, harvesting souls and whatnot. But the way this is going, nothing will be left.”
Lucifer relaxed into his chair. “And I, for one, have grown fond of existing. Ruling in hell is more fun than serving in heaven.”
“Oh, wait!” Alistair burst out. “I remember. There’s this cult on Septerra that believes bad people go to a place of eternal torment when they die. Is that where we are?”
“Are you always this brilliant?” said Lucifer.
Alistair blushed. “Well, Mr. Lucifer, it’s just that, where I’m from, most folks don’t believe in this place.”
“Good for them,” said Lucifer sincerely.
“Why would you think that good?” said Necavi.
“I have enough believers to sustain me,” he answered.
A question entered my mind, and I squirmed in my seat, wanting but frightened (and embarrassed) to ask it.
“Problems?” said Lucifer.
“I…” I began, “I.. uh.. it’s just that, my family’s Catholic, yanno..and..”
“Got a lot of those down here.”
I gulped. “How cl-close do you su-suppose I am?”
“To hell?” he said. “Physically, dear, just a few feet. Spiritually, that’s up to you.”
He wasn’t exactly reassuring me.
“Let me tell you a secret, Claris,” said Lucifer. “No one ends up here unless they ask to do so.”
“I said there were a lot of Catholics here, but they’re not here because they’re Catholic. They’re here because they believed in me, and because they believed that here is where they would go after their death. You Catholics are a shame-filled lot, aren’t you?”
“Actually…” I said, and then decided it would be best not to tell him I had not been to church in years. “Er.. um.. how could anyone really believe they were going to hell?”
“True, it’s less common than you’d imagine,” said Lucifer. “After all, if it all went by that book you people love so much, this place would be at capacity in a year. Believing that hell is your destiny is not a thought formed in the mind but in the soul. That part of you which knows only truth. Murderers, rapists, pedophiles—many see themselves as heroes of their own stories. Some, after conviction, claim redemption and salvation from God.”
Lucifer’s smile widened, a gentle thing made macabre by his fangs. “But in that place of truth, they know that what they’ve done can never be forgiven.”
“I feel enlightened,” I said.
“Yes, I probably shouldn’t’ve told you any of that…you won’t go spoiling the mystery, will you?”
“C-course not,” I said. “Not like I have anyone to tell.”
“Lovely,” he said. He waved his cane skyward. “Do you think it’s safe for you to go back now? I don’t mind helping you, but I have things to do.”
“I…I don’t know,” I said, suddenly queasy at the thought of Donovan and the rest waiting to cut us open or maim us or something equally terrifying.
“Mm-mm…” Lucifer raised his head pensively. “I’ve already broken so many rules in talking to you so freely… I guess one more wouldn’t hurt.”
He grinned. “Even if it is a big one.”
“What’re you talking abou—“ Necavi said, but my world went white before he finished the sentence.
My first reaction was that at least white was a refreshing change of pace. But I was mobile, stumbling in the whiteness, and my shoes pounded against a hard floor. A solid white floor, with solid white walls on either side of me, made a solid white corridor. Untarnished by earthly filth and the stains of age, the whiteness shone so brightly it hurt.
More importantly, I was alone. I crept down the white hall, searching for a door or some other exit. Eventually my hands, feeling down the wall, touched a knob (white, unsurprisingly). I twisted it and pulled, peeking over the threshold.
The room was small, cramped with complex metal devices. A metal table with a horrible contraption attached to one side was the centerpiece, but there were consoles lining the four walls, each with different readings and a massive array of buttons.
The thing attached to the table was the wet dream of a mad scientist. It sported sharp, thin instrumental attachments and small, metallic arms with clawed digits. It was surely something used for torture.
Wires covered most of the floor, all of them connecting the consoles to the ugly device.
And on the table was Metatron.
I gasped in horror, I couldn’t help it—not after seeing Metatron’s kind face, almost scared, as he lay very still, his long blonde hair undone and falling off the table’s edge.
Also, he was naked.
Metatron heard the sound of my heavy breathing and sat up in confusion.
I slammed the door, irrationally afraid that he would see me. In the fresh rush of adrenaline, I forgot that he had no eyes.
I backed away from the door, hitting the wall behind me. I had no avenue of escape, both left and right led to dead ends.
Metatron burst into the hallway a minute later, fully clothed, though his hair still flew in unkempt strands around his shoulders.
Who’s there? He projected the thought loudly, and for the first time I detected his panic.
“It’s me,” I whispered, knowing he would eventually sense my presence anyway.
Claris? What are you doing here?
“I don’t know,” I admitted. I told him about Lucifer, and understanding registered in his thoughts.
I see. He must be very amused with himself right now.
“What was all that… in there…?” I said, back in a whisper.
Metatron tied his hair back, attempting a casual air. It was nothing.
I know. But I can’t tell you the truth.
But that awful machine stuck in my head, sharp as its torturous instruments.
Please don’t worry about it, Claris. Nothing hurt. He gently took my fingers in his. We have to leave this place. It’s not meant to be accessible, even to other angels.
I worried anyway.
“Aww, the ground ate them,” Lucius said miserably. “What should we do now?”
“Should we report back?” said Leliel.
“No,” said Donovan. “Let’s wait near Claris’s house—that’s their intended destination, I should think.”
Shateiel smiled. “We could go to Heaven.”
“Not with me along we’re not,” Donovan grumbled.
“I think we should stay together,” said Leliel. She tugged Lucius’s shirt collar, as the boy dirtied his face and hands with soot, drawing smiley faces in the layers of ash.
“Stop that, Shamshiel,” she scolded. “You’re getting all dirty.”
“But this place feels so sad,” Lucius pouted. “It needs some happy.”
“I can’t even hear the wind here,” agreed Shateiel. “If we’re leaving, let’s go now.”
“Boss sure does dramatic work,” Donovan remarked. “I wonder how many bodies made this ash.”
“I don’t want to think about it,” said Leliel. “Come on. While we wait, you can explain about that feather you gave away, Ireul…”
Metatron pressed his palm against the white wall, and a round hole opened as the handprint glowed gold. He stepped through it, pulling me with him by the hand.
We emerged in another very white room, empty except for its exit, which was locked from the inside. Metatron slid a small, silver key into the lock and opened the door, locking it from the outside when I followed him out.
Hundreds of angels, some with their wings tensed on their backs, milled about an enormous open space, which to my eye was about twice as long and wide as an average football field. Slim rows of white computer stations filled the room, allowing for a sparse triangle of walking space for the angels.
Though most of the stations were unmanned, several angels did sit boredly at a few of the consoles, occasionally hitting a key or frowning at their screens.
“Well, this isn’t what I expected,” I said.
This is just a small portion of Heaven. Building A, room thirteen, floor seven. There are buildings for every letter and character of all alphabets, and each building has one hundred seven floors with thirteen rooms. This is, of course, merely the business district.
He spoke matter of factly in my brain, like he was reciting an encyclopedia entry.
“What’s with all the computers?” I asked. He drew me into the crowd, holding my hand tightly. I attributed his haste to the odd looks I was receiving—he knew I would be recognized as a human.
They are the personal heavens of each dead resident. Or rather, they are the means by which we monitor and maintain that heaven. Upon death, a heaven-bound soul experiences his or her own personal idea of what heaven is like, whatever that image may be. This, among other obvious reasons, is why living humans are not generally permitted to enter Heaven, since to do so would taint their personal vision.
Again he recited these facts as though from a memorized entry in a book. His voice in my head returned with nervous tension as we moved towards an elevator on the room’s other side.
Please, we must hurry and find the others.
I kept quiet and stood close to Metatron as we left the building, navigating a crowded street that was just as white as everything else. Even the sky shone white, like a glittering dome.
Metatron gripped my hand with a gentle pressure.
I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you. I was upset. I’ve calmed down now.
“It’s okay, Meta,” I said, and hugged him to prove my point.
Most of the angels on the streets had their wings extended, whether or not they were flying (and a great deal of them were). Even Metatron was suddenly allowing his six wings to emerge from his back, not minding the long feathers trailing on the sidewalk.
It is unhealthy and painful to hide the wings for too long, he explained, and also they can be a mark of status.
I thought of Sean.
Of course, to have them constantly extended is similarly painful and unhealthy.
In the residential district were apartment buildings only marginally smaller than the business offices, recognizable as living quarters only because of a smattering of colored shutters and flowers in the windowsill.
This is Cadmiel and Tialiel’s building.
He continued grasping my hand even into another elevator. He hmmed a bit as we huddled into the little space. His fingers fumbled with the control panel until he pressed the button imprinted with a number nine.
Was that nine?
“Yes,” I said, as the elevator heaved itself upwards. “I could have pushed it…”
Sorry. I haven’t been here as much as Building A, and I only have that one button memorized... Partially memorized.
“Doesn’t it kind of suck, not having eyes?”
It’s not so bad. I should be much more upset if I didn’t have any ears.
“You don’t wish you could see sometimes?”
It’s not that I can’t see, Claris. It’s just that I can’t look at any pictures.
The elevator dinged for our floor.
It’s number seventy-seven. Fifth door on the left, but I could be wrong.
He was right.
I knocked and Tialiel answered.
“Claris!” he said in surprised. “How did you—“
“Oh my,” said Tialiel. “Come in, come in.”
After so much white, my eyes were glad for the soft greens and blues of the apartment. A low, dark green couch with fat, squishy cushions curled around the living room in a half-circle, and instead of legs, the glass coffee table was supported by a giant pillow of the same color. Interestingly, a television set was on the floor. As I passed it, I wondered if it got cable.
Sean was strapped to a chair in the kitchen. When he heard us coming, he began thrashing, and when he saw my black skirts he cried out, “CLARIS!”
“S-Sean?” I said. “Why are you tied to a chair?”
“He wanted to go back for you,” said Tialiel. “But we couldn’t allow it. Um, tying him down was Cadmiel's idea.”
“Claris, I’m so sorry I yelled at you! Forgive me! Slap me across the face with a spiked noodle if you must, but forgive me!” he said, struggling with the ropes.
Tialiel untied the knots. “I guess it’s okay to free him now that you’re here anyway.”
Sean jumped from the chair once his bonds were loose, toppling both it and Tialiel.
“I’m sorry,” he said again, taking my hand from Metatron.
“I don’t think it’s me you sh-should be apologizing to…” I said.
Tialiel struggled with the chair, trying to both stand and set it upright at the same time.
“Oh,” said Sean, eyeing Tialiel. “Well. Not quite ready for that yet.”
“Sean,” I said.
“I-it’s okay,” said Tialiel. “I have been pretty useless.”
He finally wiggled out from under the chair, pushing it back to its original position before propping himself against it.
“N-no, you haven’t,” I began, and then took another look at Tialiel. His face was clean of makeup. He wore not a dress but a pressed navy blue uniform, with gold tasseled shoulder guards and buttons. A sheathed sword hung from his belt. The only familiar feature remaining was his braid.
“You… look different,” I said, although what I meant was ‘You look like a man.’ A handsome man.
“O-oh,” said Tialiel. “Yeah. I’m a lieutenant, so I wear this whenever I’m up here, usually.”
“It suits you,” I said, then hastily adding, “Not th-that dresses don’t, I mean…”
“Thanks,” he said, with a nervous glance at Sean.
“Yeah, yeah, you look fine in everything,” Sean muttered. Tialiel beamed, and I hoped that wasn’t Sean’s crackfed method of apology.
Where is Cadmiel? Metatron asked.
“He and Anael went to ask about allowing a live human,” said Tialiel. “But… I guess it doesn’t matter now.”
“Um,” I said, remembering, “Necavi and Alistair are here somewhere, too.”
“Damn,” said Tialiel. “We’ll have to wait for Cadmiel and Anael… I don’t like being split up any more than we already are.”
We spent the waiting on stools in the kitchen. Tialiel milled around, anxiously drinking glass after glass of water.
“Apologize,” I muttered to Sean, hoping Tialiel couldn’t hear me over his draining of a third glass.
“I don’t know what to say,” he muttered back.
“Say the same thing you said to me.”
“But it’s easy to apologize to you. I know you’ll always forgive me.”
“I think Tialiel is pretty forgiving.”
“You don’t have to apologize, Sean,” said Tialiel, and we both started.
“I… I want to,” he managed. “I’m just… not very good at it.”
He spoke slowly, struggling against the weak mumble he often employed for apologies. “I know it’s… not your fault. It’s just, I get angry, and it’s hard to control it, a lot. Usually. All of the time.”
Tialiel set his fifth glass of water, half full, on the counter. He smiled. “You’re forgiven.”
“All these sudden changes of scenery are making me sick,” Alistair moaned. He slumped against the side of a white-bricked building, holding his stomach.
“Suck it up,” said Necavi. “We have to find Claris and the others.”
“Where are we now?” said Alistair, rising with some difficulty.
Throngs of winged people strode past their alley, taking no note of them.
“I think this is Heaven,” said Necavi. “The angels’ home.”
“Awfully white, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” said Necavi. His trenchcoat seemed two shades darker than black against the stark streets and buildings.
Stares greeted them when they finally left the alley, as if the population had just been alerted to the presence of foreigners.
“Do they have non-angel radar or something?” Alistair whispered. “I feel like a criminal.”
“You’ll get used to it,” Necavi said.
The sense of unwelcome intensified as they trekked across streets and down sidewalks, aimless but guarded.
“This is driving me nuts,” said Alistair. “They’re all glaring, but no one’s doing anything!”
“Why don’t you wave your sword menacingly? Perhaps then they’ll attack us, and we can create a bloodbath,” said Necavi sarcastically. “Surely that would encourage their cooperation.”
“Oh, shut up,” said Alistair. “What are we doing, anyway? Walking around until we spot someone we know?”
“My, you’re irritable,” said Necavi. “Sure those stomach pains aren’t just your monthly cramps?”
“You’re lucky I’m too mature to dignify that with a response,” Alistair sniffed.
Necavi was calculating a comeback when two hands grabbed his shoulders.
“Hold it right there,” Cadmiel said.
“Cadmiel!” said Alistair, as Anael pinioned his arms behind his back. “Anael! Thank goodness.”
“I can’t believe you got in here before we obtained proper permission,” said Cadmiel. “Lucky you’re easy to detect.”
“Yes, the social unrest is becoming palpable,” said Necavi.
“There was this guy with fangs and a bow and a forked tongue,” said Alistair. “And we were down there with him, but just like ten minutes ago we were suddenly up here, and then before all that we were just in that village place…. Thinking about it is making me dizzy.”
“Lucifer,” said Anael. “That man is a punk.”
“Let’s get back to the apartment,” said Cadmiel. “Before someone starts throwing fruit.”
“Do angels not like humans?” Alistair said.
“It’s not that,” said Cadmiel, “They just don’t like them getting into here before they’re dead. Besides, seeing you might make them think something’s wrong.”
“Something is wrong,” Alistair frowned.
“And exciting the masses would just make it worse,” Cadmiel replied patiently. He bowed as he opened the door to one of the apartment buildings. “Here we are.”
“Wait,” said Necavi. “What about Claris?”
“Claris!” Cadmiel straightened immediately. “Oh, Jesus.”
“We were separated in the transition,” Necavi explained.
“Damn it,” Cadmiel snapped. “If Orifiel hadn’t been so rash…”
“Let’s check in first,” said Anael. “Then we can go back.”
Much to Cadmiel’s relief, this was not necessary.
“Claris!” Cadmiel hugged me when he walked in, Anael, Alistair, and Necavi in tow. Sean growled and yanked me unceremoniously from the embrace.
“Oh, relax,” said Cadmiel. “I’m just glad she’s okay.”
“Metatron took care of me,” I said. Metatron, perched on a bench, grinned shyly.
It was nothing.
“Thanks, Meta,” said Cadmiel. He too, had changed clothes, from his skintight pants and loose jacket to an outfit similar to Tialiel’s, except that it was black and more elaborately adorned with medals and ribbons. Awards for merit in battle, presumably.
“Well, now that we’re all here…” said Anael. “Shall we go?”
“Um, wait…” I said. “Could I change back into my other clothes, please?”
“Huh?” Cadmiel said, and then, “But you look so lovely.”
Sean rolled his eyes as Alistair passed me my shorts and shirt.
“Thanks,” I said, knowing the comment was likely meant to annoy Sean, “but I think this dress is actually pretty filthy.”
“Ah well,” Cadmiel smirked, his eyes on Sean, “You’re still lovely.”
“Cadmiel, I would hate to have to throw you out your own window,” Sean hissed through gritted teeth.
I changed in the bathroom while they bickered, making sure to again secure Donovan's feather inside my shirt. When I finished, Alistair obligingly dropped the folded dress into his nebulous pack.
We left amid Sean and Cadmiel’s continued quarreling, which reached its high when Cadmiel demanded, “Did you ever apologize to Tialiel?!”
Sean yelled over my head and the rushing air, as we were flying towards the business district. “Yes, I did!”
Tialiel, who was carrying an irritated Necavi (Anael had Alistair), nodded in confirmation. “He did, Cadmiel.”
“Perhaps there’s hope for you yet, then,” Cadmiel said, his intended jeer weakened by genuine surprise.
Once inside Building Z, floor eighty, Cadmiel led us to room seven. One of the few that lacked the endless rows of consoles, it instead housed one enormous console, with a map glowing on its liquid crystal display.
Cadmiel typed a set of longitude and latitude coordinates into the keyboard, and a target scanned the map, blinking when it found Vinton. Cadmiel waved his hand, motioning for us to step into the circle that was suddenly shimmering in the center of the room.
“A teleportation device,” said Alistair. “Now there’s something I recognize.”
Pangs of my earlier headache prickled at my temples as the group clustered together. I told myself not to worry, soon I would be back in my house, with my soft cats and soft bed. Soon I would again have a piece of normalcy to grasp.
As usual, I was desperately
Ummm, yeah. Lots of
important stuff in this chapter. Dying for your feedback. Please.
Don't make me get on my knees here, y'all. Email
me, or post,
or somethin'. Come on. n_n