THE STORY SO FAR: While Sean et al are traipsing through Heaven, Claris is left alone and (predictably) captured by the Enemy about FIVE SECONDS LATER. As Claris has her hair braided & learns about the rebel angels' motivations, Sean makes a rather upsetting discovery in his dad's basement ... oh yeah, and Lucifer decides he's had enough of these shenanigans.
The battle between Heaven and Hell, which had raged for aeons with never a clear victor in sight, took an unusual turn. Lucifer, in repose beneath the tallest apple tree in his underground orchard, appeared noncommittal as a demon messenger kneeled before him.
“Sir,” the demon huffed, his wings quavery with exhaustion, “We’re winning.”
Lucifer had ordered this orchard’s creation not long after the Fall. It was some ways behind his burning citadel, distanced from the other gardens nearer to the grounds. Unlike the labyrinthine gardens, established to confused and damned souls, the orchard served as a place of respite. For Lucifer, anyway. Sometimes he sat in the center of the labyrinths and listened to the symphony of wails, howls, and insincere cries for forgiveness, but when he needed to think instead of relax, he came to the orchard. Though a field of perpetually blossoming apple trees looked out of place in the most uncomfortable bowels of Hell, Lucifer thought it a fine creation. He had always liked apples.
The apples which grew in Lucifer's orchard were sanguine-skinned with black meat, and the scent of them--a fermented, dizzy-sweet smell underscored with notes of burnt ash and sulfur, like toxic leaves burning in autumn--was powerful enough to render a man comatose. A bite of one revealed every secret of life to the eater, and then it killed him.
The apples were Lucifer's favorite breakfast.
Before the messenger spoke again, Lucifer bit into a newly fallen fruit. Its smoky juice smeared his lips. The messenger waited. Lucifer swallowed. A sigh passed through him, his back arched against the tree, and then he said, “That’s a problem.”
“A … a problem?” the messenger said. “Is this not the moment we’ve struggled for since before the Fall?”
“Tell me,” Lucifer said, “How did the tide turn?”
“The angelic numbers have been drastically reduced, Highness.”
“By our forces?”
“Er … no.”
“Then by what?”
“Well, we don’t really know, sir. They’re just … not there.”
“What about our ranks? Any mysterious disappearances there?”
“No, Highness. Actually, we have more soldiers than ever, or so it seems like on the battlefield,” the messenger hesitated. “Forgive me, but I expected a little more enthusiasm about this news. Is this not the fruition of your grand plan?”
“No,” Lucifer said. “It’s the fruition of someone else’s. And I don’t mean to tolerate it.”
“What are we waiting for, exactly?” I said. Beside me, Lucius’s long fingers worked my hair into plaits. He hummed pleasantly, a deep-throated thrum that sounded like a bass guitar fused with a hummingbird. “And, um, what happened to you, Lucius?”
“I grew up,” he said, as he finished one braid. He tickled my mouth with the lock of hair. “Isn’t that pretty?”
“Hmm,” I coughed.
“His mental state still has some catching up to do,” Leliel said.
“Probably always will,” Donovan muttered. “And … we are waiting for the end of the world.”
“Wh-which?” I said nervously.
He smiled. “All of them.”
The rope itched on my wrists, the coarse fibers scratching the thin skin across my bones. Red scores would mark the spot for days to come, provided any days came at all. I squirmed, then thought of another question.
“Why?” I said.
It was the one question I had never asked. I had never had time to, in between the duels to the death and the bleeding illusions and all. But here was a quiet moment, and I was too exhausted for fear.
“That’s a long story,” Donovan said.
I glanced at my wrists. “I think I’ve got time.”
He paused. “You know, of course, that Donovan is not my real name. It is a name I chose for myself.”
“Ireul is hard to pronounce,” I said agreeably, and he scowled.
“It has nothing to do with that,” he said. “This name is the only choice I’ve ever been able to make for myself.”
It seemed to me that Donovan had made a lot of choices for himself, but, given my position, I decided to keep my mouth shut.
He continued, “Everything about my existence—and his existence—” he pointed to Lucius, “and hers—” he pointed to Leliel, “and every angel you’ve ever met—has been preordained.”
The rope was aggravating the hell out of me. “And …?”
Donovan got up, walked over to me, and clamped both hands down on my shoulders. “God granted humans free will. On the day you were born, your life was a blank slate. For the most part, it still is.” His tone shifted, shaded with contempt. “The only things that hold you back are your own shortcomings.” His grip tightened, and the sharp metal of his claw bit through the flimsy robe. I winced.
“But we cannot escape the fates laid out before us. God did not bestow us your same gift. Our wills are dictated to us by a power we cannot see or touch.”
“Get to the point,” Shateiel said. He dropped down from a tree branch, his powerful wings rustling. I noticed for the first time that his feathers were a dusky gray. “We are rebelling against God, but unlike Lucifer, we’re doing it the right way.”
“The right way?” I said, having been previously unaware that there was a true and proper way to go about killing God.
“Lucifer wages an eternal war against Heaven from his throne in Hell. This fighting has gone on since the beginning,” Shateiel said.
“Since the Word,” Lucius said solemnly.
“Indeed. We are all made to fight in this war, in some way—for example, Leliel was once a doctor. A very good doctor,” Shateiel said.
I was riveted to Shateiel’s voice, though I’d be hard pressed to say why. Something in the baritone, something in the cadence, something in the meter of the sound kept my attention fastened to him like a lock on a door. I even forgot, for a moment, the burning sensation on my wrists, which were rubbed raw against the rope.
“We have no choice in the matter of the war. We must all do our part. We are irresistibly drawn to perform the duties expected of us—so long as we remain in heaven. But since the war is eternal, and neither side can end it decisively, we are essentially programmed for assisted suicide. As will be our children, and our children’s children, unless we find some other way to dismantle our society and the senseless battle it feeds.” He smiled, an eerie, subtle twitch of the lips that quickly settled back into a thin, neutral line. “And we have found a way.”
“I-I’m going to guess it has something to do with all these portals,” I said.
“Astute observation,” Shateiel said. “Yes. They are the work of a certain machine, a machine which is even now unraveling the threads which bind together all worlds and their respective realities.”
“I st-still don’t understand how that kills God,” I said.
“Do you know why you’re here, Claris?” Donovan said.
I frowned at my wrists. “Because you’re not very nice?”
He scowled at me. “Do you know why you exist?”
“Umm, because my parents are Catholic and don’t believe in birth control?” I was only playing a little dumb. He flexed his claw. I gulped. “You know no one knows that.”
“Untrue,” Shateiel said. “We know why you exist. And, more importantly, we know why we exist.”
“We are made possible because of viewers like you!” Lucius said. During Shateiel’s speech, he had completed two more braids, and he was now in the process of trying the three together, to form some sort of uber-bun on top of my head.
“Most religious people would tell you we exist because of God,” I said.
“God exists because of humans. We exist because of God,” Shateiel said.
“S-so … you’re saying God didn’t create humanity? Or even the protozoa that might have eventually evolved into humanity?” I said.
“It’s kind of a chicken and egg thing,” Leliel said. “The point is, wherever God came from, he is sustained by the power of belief, and by extension so are we.”
“And …” I said slowly, “if you collapse every reality, then no one will exist to believe, and God will die?”
“That’s about the size of it,” Shateiel said.
I nearly fell back over into the fountain. “That’s insane!”
“No,” Donovan said. “That’s logic.”
“But you can’t do that! You, you can’t wipe out existence just because you’re bitter!” I cried.
“You cry and squall now,” Shateiel said. “But you’ll be happy when the end comes, when, at last, there is silence.”
“No, I won’t! I won’t be anything! No one will ever be anything again!” I shouted, with such intensity that Lucius dropped my braids. Anger heated my cheeks, my eyes puffed up with prickly tears. On some level, I knew I was careening towards danger, that the end result of this outburst would be either immediate death or a very serious maiming, but I couldn’t stop. “You don’t like how your lives work, so you’re just gonna destroy all life, everywhere? That means … that means no more cats licking their fur. No fresh cakes. No fuzzy blankets, no grape-flavored Popsicles, no thunder, no lightning, no fistfuls of dandelions or money or dirt, and, and, no more good jokes or stupid jokes ore even mediocre jokes—you’re saying—nothing, ultimately, just absolutely nothing.” I lost steam as I spoke, aiming for passion and force, but ending up with a tinny whine that shook under my own fear. I sucked in air and swallowed its warm thickness, and then I shuddered at the thought of never experiencing the taste of air ever again, of no one experiencing the taste of air, of ‘taste’ as a concept ceasing to be. The thought was so staggeringly depressing that I rocked backwards and fell into the fountain. Shocked at first, I relaxed into the tickling lily pads and the cold, soothing water.
Donovan dragged me out by the forearms, his expression tight. “Get hold of yourself or you will lose the privilege of consciousness.”
“I’m not sure I want it,” I replied dully. I wanted back in the fountain. I wanted to drown among the lilies.
“I know you can’t understand our point of view,” Leliel said. “But we are doing what we must.”
“You’ve tried everything else?”
“Like what?” Donovan said. “Please, Claris, enlighten us with your brilliant ideas.”
I shrugged. “You, you could … talk to God?”
“Oh, please,” Donovan said, with a short, harsh bark of laughter. “God hasn’t spoken to anyone in millennia. Who knows if he’s even in the office anymore.”
“I se-see,” I mumbled. “Well, that’s depressing.”
“Don’t worry,” Donovan said. “Like Shateiel said, when we’re done, you won’t have to be depressed again. Or anything else, for that matter.”
Shateiel sighed happily. “Oblivion is the true definition of peace.”
I shuddered again, both from fear and cold. The wind, though warm, was chilly on my damp skin. I slumped over on the fountain’s edge, dripping water on the grass. Lucius edged closer to me and took my braids in his hands.
“I wasn’t done yet,” he said.
“So what are we waiting for?” I said. I was exhausted, shivering, and dressed in a sheer nightgown that probably looked as unflattering as it felt. I wanted to go home and sleep through the rest of this ordeal. I wanted for this not to be happening anymore. I wanted to see Sean. “Is this some kind of trap you’ve set up?”
“No,” Donovan said. “The trap’s already been sprung. Elsewhere.”
“Then why couldn’t you leave me alone?”
A rift opened in the trunk of a nearby oak. Within the void, I saw nothing but darkness and stars.
“There’s our ride,” Donovan said, and he grabbed my elbow. But before any of us got near the rift, it expanded, and a figure stepped out in front of us. Donovan released me in surprise.
“Hello again, Claris,” Lucifer said. “You’re looking well.”
Five minutes had passed since they had discovered their confinement, and Sean felt his personal bubble increasingly compromised. He huddled up in the chair while the other angels searched the room for any kind of hidden exit.
“I’ve got nothing,” Cadmiel said. “No secret lair, no suspicious book, no inconspicuous panel …”
“We got here by inconspicuous panel,” Sean said. “Surely it’s something else this time.”
He reclined in the chair and unfurled his legs, in the process kicking the underside of the desk. His toes hit a section of wood that gave way under pressure, and a mechanism beneath the chair activated, causing the chair to swivel downwards into the floor. Bemused, Sean gripped the chair’s arms as he plunged into darkness, shouting, “Think I found something.”
The angels leapt into the abyss created by Sean’s fall, landing softly around him.
“Is this Heaven or a Dungeons and Dragons map?” Sean groaned.
“This is someone’s series of private chambers,” Cadmiel said. “Specifically, your father’s.”
“How do you know that?”
Cadmiel shuffled the pack of papers they’d uncovered and pointed to Samael’s seal, which marked a number of the pages.
“So … my dad was a little weird, huh?” Sean said.
“Well, I’d heard he was a secretive man,” Cadmiel said. “But this is a bit ridiculous.”
“You have no idea,” Anael said.
“Did my dad watch a lot of Indiana Jones movies?” Sean said. “Are we going to trip a brick and have to dodge a huge boulder in a second here? Because that’s the vibe I’m getting.”
“He just … became somewhat eccentric, before he and your mother disappeared altogether,” Cadmiel said. “None of this used to be here, to my knowledge.”
They appeared to be in a small laboratory: the room was circular, and mostly bare, except for the long tables piled with bubbling, smoking tubes. Colored liquid boiled inside the beakers and flasks, heated by stoves set to simmer. Notepads, scrawled with illegible marks, were strewn about the tables and floor.
Anael traced his finger over an incoherent sentence and smeared the ink. “Looks like my brother is home,” he said, his mouth set, his voice tight.
Sean lingered over the racks of test tubes, smiling at the fizzing liquids inside them. “Thirsty, Cadmiel?”
“Not so much,” Cadmiel said. “At least there’s a proper exit in here. Come on.” He opened the door between one set of tables and motioned for the others to follow.
“I suspect we’re walking towards another trap of some kind,” Anael said.
“But we’ve got nowhere else to walk,” Tialiel pointed out.
As they left the lab behind, Sean said, “I think I’m beginning to see who’s responsible for all this,” knocking on his own head as he did so.
Anael kept a bit ahead of the group, his steps light but quick. Cadmiel noted the urgency and said, “Problems, Anael?”
“Something’s off here.”
“You really think he’s here?” Sean said. “What about my mother, maybe?”
Anael shrugged, his back turned to Sean. “Who knows.”
“But, if all this stuff is active, he’s gotta be around, right?” Sean said.
“Dear God, I hope not,” Anael muttered.
Before Sean could press the issue, Tialiel directed their attention to a light at the end of the corridor. “There’s something glowing back there.”
Anael faced them, blocking the way forward. “You know, in my scientific experience, it’s generally best to leave glowing things alone—let’s go back—maybe I can disable the security matrix—”
“If this has got a freak like you spooked, I know it’s gonna be good,” Sean said, and ran ahead of them, towards the softly glowing light.
“Anael, what’s the problem? What’s going on?” Cadmiel demanded.
“Not good, not good,” Anael muttered. He tried to spring after Sean, but Cadmiel held him back, twisting one arm behind Anael’s neck.
“I always suspected you knew more about this than you wanted to tell,” said Cadmiel.
Anael wrenched away from him and hissed, “Don’t touch me again, you ignorant fool.” Down the hall, he shouted, “Orifiel! Stop!”
But Sean had already stopped.
The light’s source was a cylinder of glass, about seven feet tall. Trapped in the cylinder, with closed eyes and outstretched, mutilated wings, was a woman.
“Wh… who is that,” Sean whispered.
The woman’s pale blue hair floated around her head, with strands resting across her lips and throat. The hair had a fluid appearance, though it was still, as if frozen during a strong wind. Her mouth was serene, her skin bloodless, her arms open in advance of an embrace. A sheer dress of white silk covered her body, but her feet were bare, and tinged blue at the toes. Looking at her chilled Sean to the core: his blood slowed, his heart faltered. He put a hand to the glass, and shuddered.
“That is … your mother,”
“Go on back to your little hovel, Lucifer,” Donovan said. “This isn’t your concern.”
“On the contrary,” replied Lucifer, “I believe this concerns me in the utmost, along with every other self-interested creature. Which, given my philosophy, I reckon to include just about everyone.”
“You should be happy,” Lucius said. “You’re winning.”
“What’s the use of victory without the spoils?” said Lucifer. “I’m sure you can’t even understand why this war is going on in the first place, young man.”
“All I understand,” Lucius said, tugging rather fiercely on my new braids, “is that my parents fought in your war. I understand that they died in it. I don’t need to know anything else.”
“You could tolerate a great deal more knowledge,” said Lucifer. “But that’s not the purpose of my visit.”
He sat down on the other side of me, stretched his long limbs, folded up his wings, and stared directly at me. His eyes, cream white with golden pupils, made me even more tired, but in a good way. Looking into them, I was willing, even though he had asked for nothing. A smile strained my cheeks, sore from the wind and the damp, and my muscles relaxed with a pleasant exhaustion. Infuriated, Donovan raised a hand to strike, and Lucifer’s gaze flicked sideways.
Very softly he said, “I think you should reconsider.”
Slowly, Donovan retreated, letting his arm fall harmlessly to his side. But he kept his jaw clenched, and he refused to sit, defiant even in submission.
“Now then,” said Lucifer, “Claris, is this where you want to be?”
“N-no,” I said, ignoring Lucius’s offended grunt.
“Where would you like to be?” asked Lucifer.
“With Sean,” I said quickly, as though executing a script.
“Then, my dear, that’s where we’ll go.”
“I’ve had some third thoughts,” Donovan snarled, and he leapt forward to attack—but as Lucifer’s fingers lifted from mine, the ground, the air, and the fountain all disappeared. A disorienting loss of gravity hit me, and I tumbled into a void, for just a second hovering in emptiness, then landing finally on the concrete floor of a dark hallway.
Lucifer had granted my wish exactly as I stated it—Sean stood over me, and surrounding him were the rest of the angels.
All of the angels.
“Did you really have to bring everyone?” I said tiredly.
Lucifer shrugged and smiled. “You’re welcome.”
Our arrival didn’t immediately register with Sean. His expression was distant and fixed, held fast by the sight in front of him: a giant crystal containing a sleeping, winged woman. The crystal emitted a soft, blue glow—the only light in the hall.
“Se-Sean?” I said.
He looked down at me then and said, wonderingly, “It’s … it’s my mother, Claris. My mother.”
He was dazed with hope and bewilderment. “Why is she in there? We should get her out. She would probably prefer to lie down.” He raised his fist and smashed it against the crystal. Blood smeared his knuckles. Undaunted, he punched the same spot again, and again, until finally Cadmiel yanked him away.
“You’re going to break all your goddamn fingers,” he hissed.
Sean’s blood gave the glow a purplish tint. Panting, he pressed his hands against the crystal, leaving handprints across his mother’s face. “Someone explain this.”
“Maybe our new guests have an answer,” Cadmiel said, and Sean blinked, then turned. He saw Donovan.
“Where did all of you people come from?” he said.
“Just the next planet over,” said Lucius.
“What do you know about this?” Sean demanded.
Leliel, who had been covering her mouth in shock, shook her head. “Nothing. We don’t know anything, Orifiel.”
He reached for her angrily. “Liar!”
Donovan blocked the punch, catching Sean’s fist. “Guess this is why you never learned how to treat a woman.”
“You’re one to talk,” Sean said. He jammed his knee into Donovan’s side. “I see your wings have healed. Unfortunate.”
“No—don’t fight—he’s not fully recovered—” Leliel’s voice filled with panic as Sean’s bloody knuckles connected with Donovan’s cheek. Brought to his knees, Donovan tried to stand and throw a return swing, but Sean had his fingers around the smaller man’s wing bones.
“This time I’ll just rip them off with my bare hands!” Sean said, smiling wildly as the delicate bones cracked. Donovan howled with pain, trying to twist away, but Sean’s grip was steadfast.
“Tell me who did this!” he screamed. Donovan’s bones splintered. “Tell me now or I swear to God I’ll kill all of you.”
“No! Stop it!” Leliel cried. She tackled Sean and dug her thumb into his forehead, sweating from concentration. He thrashed, but she clung to him, her nail cutting into his skin, until finally he slumped over, his rage extinguished by Leliel’s forced sleep. She had left a bloody, half-crescent mark just above his eyes.
“Please,” she begged Lucifer, “take us away from here! Please!”
“What will you give me in return?” said Lucifer.
Leliel cradled Donovan’s limp body in her arms. “Anything, anything, just please …”
Shateiel frowned, with either worry or contempt—I couldn’t tell. Before he could interject, Lucifer replied, “We’ll talk,” and snapped his fingers. He, along with the other rebel angels, disappeared.
In the throes of a massive headache, I flipped myself over on the floor, so that my face pointed to the ceiling. The thin gown squelched, and rivulets of water trickled down my legs.
“Can this day be over now?” I said.
“Can’t leave you alone for a minute, huh?” Tialiel said, kneeling beside me to undo the ropes on my wrists. “Where are Necavi and Alistair?”
“Still playing chess, probably,” I said.
Cadmiel nudged Sean with his foot. “This one’s out cold.”
“Good,” Tialiel said. “Now that his powers are active, he’s got to learn to marshal his emotions. Only the matching strength of Leliel’s conviction prevented him from tearing Ireul apart.”
Anael approached the crystal, his body shifting to female curves. She let her head rest against the crystal, not mindful of the blood, and whispered, “Oh, Gabriel … what did that monstrous brute do to you?”
“Monstrous brute?” Cadmiel said. “You mean …”
“Of course. Samael, Samael, Samael, all of this has been Samael.” Anael spat. “Every last piece of it. There is no other explanation. No one else I ever knew could craft a coffin like this.” He exhaled. “Or would.”
The scientific coldness Anael exuded had melted away, seared by the reality of his loss. Anael and Gabriel were the only set of siblings in the first generation, sprung from the same embryo, together since the start of their lives.
“I had hoped,” he said, “that she had run away somewhere, secluded herself on a mountain in Asia or a town in Kansas and become a myth, or a schoolteacher with dyed hair. But instead I find her reduced … dismembered.”
And then, in his face, remembrance. The interconnection of puzzle pieces, the clank of gears, resulting finally in revelation. This happened in an instant, I caught it only because I was staring.
“Where is Orifiel’s sword?” he said.
“He left it at home, for once,” Cadmiel said.
Anael looked back at the coffin. Gabriel’s wings were spread like open fans. One was intact, glossy and white. The other was only bones. I followed the trail of Anael’s scrutiny, and saw what he saw: some of the bones were missing.
The nausea of horror revealed overtook Anael, and he broke down completely, unable even to name his new hypothesis, or to take joy in its formulation.
Cadmiel and Tialiel witnessed this scene in awkward silence. Their only family was each other. They did not know what it meant, traditionally, to have a mother, a father, or a sister. But of the two of them, Tialiel had the best imagination.
“We can’t do anything for her,” he said steadily. “We should focus on finding a way out.”
Gingerly, he lifted Sean’s unconscious body into his arms, an awkward sight, given Tialiel’s slim, slight build. Sean’s head lulled over the corner of Tia’s elbow, unconcerned.
“Is … is she still alive in there?” I said.
Cadmiel blinked at me. Ignoring the question, he said, “What happened to you?”
I shifted uncomfortably in my damp, sticky robe. “Oh, not much.”
“The only way to kill an angel is to cut off the wings,” Anael said. “So yes. She is still alive.”
“Did you know we would find this?” Cadmiel said.
Anael shook his head vehemently. “I was aware that something was down here … but I didn’t think … never imagined it could be …” he exhaled heavily, his breath stuck in his throat.
“What did you think it was?” Cadmiel said, apparently caring very little for Anael’s emotional meltdown.
“Maybe now is not the best time for interrogation …” Tialiel said.
“Now is the perfect time,” Cadmiel said. He leveled his sword with Anael’s chest. “I’ve had enough of stumbling in the dark. Especially when someone next to me is hiding the lantern.”
Anael pushed the sword away by its blade, and spoke with undisguised disgust. “Brute force. Always the first resort of the lesser minded.”
“I would call it the last resort of the utterly exhausted,” Cadmiel said. He pressed the tip of his weapon against Anael’s throat, so that the latter was forced up against the glass coffin.
“Cadmiel, don’t—” Tialiel said.
“This is no time for empathy,” said Cadmiel.
“It’s not that,” Tialiel gasped. His grip on Sean slackened, and the color of his irises bled to white. “It’s my vision—Anael—get away!”
Spiderweb cracks opened up along the edges of the coffin. A clear liquid spilled out, pooling on the floor. Anael twisted his neck to look behind him, and Cadmiel stepped away.
The woman’s eyes were open.
“Gabriel …” Anael said, then choked.
The woman’s face contorted in pain. An arm, seemingly sprung from her chest, had punched through the crystal and wrapped around Anael’s neck, holding him in place. His body convulsed and jerked, and blood splashed onto the liquid already on the floor.
“M-my wings,” he coughed.
“Anael!” Cadmiel struck at the arm, but his sword passed through it, as though it were a phantom. Anael’s bones cracked and popped, and as his wings fell, he screamed with such primal agony that the coffin shattered.
The arm withdrew, and Anael slumped forward onto his hands and knees, wingless and bloody. The woman lay motionless beside him, shards of icy crystal shimmering on her body.
Anael looked up at us, heaving.
“Run,” he managed, and then collapsed.
A tall man stepped out from the wall behind the coffin, his hands stained red and slick. “Good advice.”
Leliel cradled Donovan’s head on her lap, still trembling with residual terror. As per his word, Lucifer had returned them to the cave network they had called home since their self-imposed exile from Heaven.
“Cozy place,” Lucifer said, lounging on a squashy orange beanbag.
“That’s my seat,” Lucius said.
“Not for the moment,” Lucifer said, smiling. “Now then, regarding the matter of our bargain.”
“We won’t bargain with you,” Shateiel said.
“You don’t have to,” Lucifer said. He nodded at Leliel. “But she does.”
Leliel bent her head over Donovan’s body, her pale cheeks tracked with tears. She swallowed roughly before meeting Lucifer’s eyes. His genial smile did not waver.
“How did you even know where to find us?” Shateiel said.
“You had a human with you,” Lucifer responded, keeping his attention on Leliel. “A human who believed in me quite firmly.”
“What … what do I have to do?” Leliel said.
“I think you’d prefer to discuss that in private, my dear,” Lucifer said. He took Leliel’s hand before she or anyone else could protest, and as he touched her, the caves dissolved, then reformed into an unfamiliar shape.
“This is—” Leliel began.
“My humble abode,” Lucifer said.
Lava seeped out of the fissures in the stone walls, hissing at it ate holes through the ground. Leliel drew herself into a bundle, sweating profusely from the unbearable heat. The air around her shimmered, and she felt dizzy, malleable.
“I have to get back to Ireul—he needs me—”
“Momentarily,” Lucifer said. “First I must ask that you carry out a task, in return for services rendered.”
She nodded mutely.
He knelt down, close to her, so that she saw his forked tongue twitch in his mouth as it tasted her anxiety. His cream and milk eyes turned dark, redder than her own, hard and polished like a beetle’s wing, and his fangs were suddenly prominent. The effect, in tandem with his high, pallid cheekbones and pointed chin, gave him a terrible beauty. When he spoke, the snake echoed.
“You will be the instrument that ends this foolishness.”
Leliel recoiled. “But …”
“I did not betray God, I did not take this wretched kingdom, I do not command legions, for the purpose of eradication,” Lucifer said. “I will not have my efforts brought to nothingness. You will stop this—I don’t care how—but it is the price you will pay.”
Leliel was silent for a few seconds, and then, snapping from Lucifer’s trance, she said, “How exactly are you going to enforce that request?” Her voice was quiet, but firm. After all, if she failed, what retaliation could he take?
“I’m glad you asked,” Lucifer said, and he clutched Leliel’s chin, digging his nails in deep enough to draw blood, forcing his lips onto hers. The snake’s tongue slipped between her teeth and his fangs bit into her lower lip. She shuddered violently as her mouth filled with the tang of copper.
Angrily, she bit back, pinching his tongue between her incisors, feeling grim satisfaction when the tender muscle tore. Lucifer pulled back, still smiling.
“I thought you might do that,” he said. “Now the promise is blood bound.”
“I think that, at the right time, you will find yourself compelled to act,” Lucifer said. He waved goodbye to her. “I wish you a pleasant tomorrow.”
Another instant passed, and she was home, sitting before Donovan’s unmoving body and a stern-faced Shateiel. From the kitchen, she heard Lucius crunching cereal.
“Well?” Shateiel said.
“Well what?” Leliel said. She gathered up Donovan again, and began to stroke his hair. He did not stir.
“What have you sacrificed for this pathetic fool?” Shateiel said, with a curt nod to Donovan.
“First of all,” Leliel said. “Don’t speak of him that way. Second, I—” and her tongue constricted suddenly, refusing to form words. “I …”
Shateiel noticed the blood smeared on Leliel’s face. “I see.”
He shrugged, and seemed to withdraw into himself. “Your choices are yours to make, Leliel. Don’t mind me.”
She carried Donovan to his room, too exhausted to reply.
Once on his bed, Donovan groaned, rolled over onto his back, and opened one amber eye.
“Lily …?” he murmured. “Lily, what happened …”
“Nothing. It doesn’t matter. You’re fine now,” said Leliel. The platitudes tumbled out as she wound his hair around her fingers, allowing herself to bask, if briefly, in the relief. “I’ll take care of you.”
He yawned. “You always have.”
“You … you should rest a bit more. Keep healing,” Leliel said, and made to stand, but he reached for her, drawing her back down.
Softly, he said, “Don’t leave me tonight.”
“What do you mean? We can’t …”
“Lily,” Donovan said. “Did you know that every time you put me to sleep, I dream about you?”
She shook her head. Donovan sat up, still holding Leliel’s arm.
“I do, Lily … every single time,” he said.
“I’m … I’m sorry?” she croaked, uncertain of his muted tone.
“You’ve got blood all over,” he said suddenly. He licked his thumb and pressed it to her mouth, wiping off the smears. “Did Sean hurt you?”
“No, nothing like that,” Leliel murmured. Donovan’s thumb pressed against her cheek. She felt her will crumbling, a weakened building that needed only the slightest push to tumble over into a cloud of dust. “Just an accident, while we were escaping …”
Donovan shifted his position on the bed, covering Leliel, preventing her from leaving with the force of his weight.
“What are you …” she began, “Ireul, you’re the one who’s always said we can’t, we can’t let this … because we’d be giving in …”
Many years ago, Leliel had met Donovan, when he and Lucius were locked in the angel prison. She had come to free Lucius, who had taunted one of the angelic patrol (lovingly, he told her later) and received a night of incarceration as punishment. He had shared a cell with Donovan, whose crime she did not know. Although the two exchanged no words and just the merest hint of a glance, their meeting had invoked an ancient magic of their society, caused by the complementary nature of their spheres. From that moment on, they were drawn towards each other, a compulsion that Donovan originally fought ferociously.
“I know what I’ve said.” He hid his face in the dark curtain of her hair, and her skin tingled as his lips brushed her neck. “I don’t care anymore.”
Truth was, they had long ago progressed beyond the baseline attraction encouraged by their spheres. Leliel thought this in and of itself constituted a rejection of fate, but Donovan had disagreed.
“Do you?” he asked her, looking up.
She whispered, as her body relaxed, “I never did.”
If you're still reading this, then I suggest you MAILS ME post-haste. Or POAST.