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I drew back to the surface of my host’s mind and looked out into the real world. I was vaguely aware that Michael somehow managed to follow my flight and was now looking out of my eyes as well. Just one more surprise from the mortal. I would figure it out later.
A skeletal man stood in the ruined door of the mausoleum. His face was rotted and discolored. I saw bones protrude through his arms, his shoulders, and his neck. The left side of his face was gone and his mouth was curled in a rictus grin.
As I watched, flesh crawled over his exposed skeleton and began to fill in the bones with new muscle and sinew. A new face emerged from the corpse-mask, handsome and charming. The few remaining tendrils of white hair that clung to his skull turned golden and grew into a thick, full mane. It took only a few moments for the corpse to resemble a living man.
Despite his handsome build, everything about him, his face, his stance, everything seemed slightly off, as though it were a body sculpted from some one’s idea of what flesh should have been in its ideal form.
“Hello, Ashariel,” the man said. He nodded politely.
“Gabriel,” I said.
“I wish I could say it was good to see you,” he said. “I wish I could say the same. Are you here to kill me?”
I gathered my angelic power and summoned my wings. Michael’s body rippled as wings grew out from his shoulders. Each wing appeared to be hewn from metal rather than flesh and consisted of overlapping blades instead of feathers. Though my wings had once been golden and bright, now they were the color of dark steel. Despite their tarnished appearance, the edges gleamed in the darkness, the blades of each wing still as sharp as razors.
“You still wear them,” Gabriel said. “Interesting.
“It’s part of who I am,” I said.
“Who you were,” Gabriel said mildly. “Not who you are now.”
“So you say,” I snapped. I angled my bladed wing towards him. “Well? What do you want?”
He was experienced at maintaining a human face and did not visibility react. “I bring a message from the Almighty.”
A message? I blinked. I hadn’t been expecting a message.
“You weren’t sent here to kill me?” I asked.
An amused expression flickered across his face. “No, Ashariel, I was not sent here to kill you,” he said. “Not yet, at least. It is amusing to know that you are still so defiant, even when it serves no purpose.”
“You always underestimated me,” I said.
“No.” His voice was sharp. “Michael always overestimated you. I knew exactly what you were, even then, and subsequent events have not proven me wrong.”
“Say what you came here to say,” I said angrily. “I have a lot on my mind right now.”
“Do you now?” he asked. “Freshly escaped from her prison and already our little Ashariel is filled with schemes. That was an interesting trick that you pulled, slipping through the Pit as you did. I look forward to learning how you managed it.”
I didn’t answer. How could I explain it to my zealous brother when I still didn’t understand what had happened? Something had come for me, something that lived in the darkness and was neither angel nor demon. Other things lurked in the dark, things that I did not have names for. Our world had become a very different place from the one Gabriel thought that he knew.
Gabriel’s voice took on a different tone, then, one that was far older, far more magnificent, far more terrifying and potent, and I knew that it was an echo of Father’s own voice, exactly as had been communicated to Gabriel from on high.
REPENT FOR THY SINS, WAYWARD DAUGHTER AND BE SPARED, Gabriel said. ELSE THOU SHALT BE RETURNED TO PERDITION.
“Repent?” I asked. I felt white-hot fury lance through me. “I haven’t paid enough for being on the losing side of a just rebellion?
“That is Father’s message,” Gabriel said, his voice returning to normal. “It has always been his message. Hell lasts only as long as you will it to be so.” He stared at me. “But I can see your heart, Ashariel, and I know that even now, even after so many thousands of years in the Pit, you will not admit that you were wrong. You refuse to kneel.”
“I will never kneel again,” I said.
“Still so defiant, little sister,” Gabriel said and shook his head. He held out his hand to me. “Come. I will escort your personally back to the Pit, to ensure that no harm might befall you. The others will not take kindly to your absence, I am sure.”
“I appreciate your mercy, Gabriel,” I said.
“Father’s mercy,” Gabriel said. “Not mine. If it were up to me, you would all be put to the sword.”
“Charming,” I said and gestured with my wing to get the Archangel’s attention. “But I want you to listen to me now, O Messenger of God.”
Gabriel’s eyes narrowed. “Do not do this, little sister.”
“Tell Father that I while appreciate his mercy,” I said, “I will not kneel, I will not repent, and I will not go back. Not now, not ever. I have paid for my crimes in full. What I do now is my business, not yours and not Father’s.”
Before Gabriel could react, I unleashed my power in an explosion of light. The remains of the mausoleum collapsed around us and buried Gabriel in the rubble.
“Ashariel! Stop!” the Archangel roared as he clawed his way out of the debris, but I was already moving. I leapt beyond the broken crypt and snapped my wings out to my sides. I caught the air and surged upwards. I soared into the night sky and lost myself amongst the clouds.
The night air was cold against my stolen skin as I flew and for a long while, there was nothing else. I’d gotten the drop on Gabriel and gotten out before he could pick up the chase.
I knew he would be hunting me now. I knew I could elude him for a time if I stayed on the move. There were techniques that the Fallen had learned that could mask our presence from our brethren, at least for a time.
The chase would not, could not go on forever, however. Sooner or later, I would run out of places to hide and he would find me. But at least I had some time.
For a while, I focused only on the flying. There was a city below me and its lights glittered like jewels in the darkness. It was a cloudless night, crisp and cool with a sky was full of stars.
There was a voice nagging at my thoughts, one that did not belong to my host. It was my own anxiety gnawing away at me. Where I was going to go? What I was going to do? I could fly from this problem, but not forever. There wasn’t anywhere I could go in this world where I would not be within Heaven’s reach.
I had to find the green-eyed woman. The voice in the darkness had freed me for a reason. I had to figure out what that reason was. I had to find her.
“You haven’t said anything for a while,” I said to my host.
I still can’t believe this is happening, Michael said. What was that guy?
“An archangel,” I said. “A very pissed off Archangel who has every reason to hunt me down and drag me back to the Pit in chains.”
That doesn’t sound good, Michael observed. What happens to me if they take you back?
“You’re alive and whole again,” I said. “You’ll remain that way until something kills you or old age decays you.”
That’s good, Michael said.
I didn’t add that it was likely Gabriel would destroy my host body to prevent any chance of escaping him again. I didn’t feel cruel enough to add to my host’s troubles at the moment.
He was dealing with his situation surprisingly well. I could feel his anguish, his confusion and his turmoil. Although he wasn’t voicing his concerns aloud, inwardly he was frightened, lost and uncertain. He didn’t fully comprehend what was happening to him. Part of him suspected it was a terrible dream. Part of him thought he was going mad.
He would work through it. I could sense that much about him. Whatever strength he possessed that prevented my attempt to dislodge his soul from his own body would see him through this turmoil as well.
I’m not sure how long I flew or how far. The sky had begun to brighten around me with the first hint of dawn.
The graveyard was now many, many miles in my wake. The land below me had become far more sparse, far more brown and dry, and great mountains rose up out of the earth. These jagged spires caught the light as it began to creep across the horizon and turned bright scarlet in the cold morning air.
Nestled among mountains, I saw another human city sprawling across the landscape. I adjusted my wings, fluttered a few times, and began to descend. I landed behind a collection of thorny plants and my wings faded away. My appearance was once more that of a normal person, albeit one who was wind bitten from flying, numb with cold, and with several broken bones from the violent speed of my escape.
Cactus, Michael said. He’d said surprisingly little in the past few hours. The spiky plant is called a cactus. I think it’s a prickly pear.
“How very useful, thank you,” I said. I was feeling particularly irritable.
Really? he asked.
“No,” I said.
I was tired. A human body, even one augmented by angelic possession was still fragile and finite. It still needed food and it needed rest.
I walked until I found a sign that declared MOTEL in glowing red letters.
You’ll need to check in at the front office, Michael said. That might be tricky. I doubt I have my wallet with me. My credit card’s probably been canceled anyway.
I ignored him. I walked until I found an empty room at the far end of the row.
Maybe you could do something cool like phase directly through the wall or teleport to the other side, Michael said. He sounded hopeful.
I shook my head and stared intently at the door handle. There was a click as the little mechanisms moved into the proper places. I pulled the door open.
That works too, Michael said.
“It’s harder for Gabriel to track me if I limit how overtly I wield my power,” I said.
How can he sense that? Michael asked.
“Imagine that your world is a pool of water. I can impose my will on the world and change its rules, but it creates ripples. Larger changes, larger displays of power; these create larger ripples that are more noticeable.”
Tell me more, Michael said. I want to understand.
“I’m very tired,” I said. “Perhaps later.”
I kicked off my shoes with my feet and fell onto the bed, still in my clothes.
I drew the blinds closed with a thought and plunged the room into a gentle darkness. I collapsed back against the pillow and closed my eyes.
When I awoke, I wasn’t in Michael’s body. I was wearing the form of my avatar.
I sat up from the bed and saw that I was in a very different place from the dingy motel room with its stained carpet and lumpy furniture. The bed beneath me was actually some kind of tree, its branches woven into a frame that supported the mattress.
The world around me was a verdant paradise. Everything was soft and green. There were trees and plants of countless types all around me. The air was foggy and thick, though surprisingly cool despite the humidity. I couldn’t see more than a few dozen feet in any direction.
A woman stood a short distance away from me. Her face was lovely and her figure was voluptuous and shapely. Her red hair hung down to the small of her back. Her eyes were an emerald green that stood out against her pale skin. Her pupils were vertical, like those of a snake.
I recognized her by her eyes.
“You,” I said. “You’re the one who freed me.”
“I am,” she said.
“Why?” I asked. “Who are you?”
“It is very exciting to meet you, Firstborn. “We don’t see many of your kind here in the Path.”
“Firstborn?” I asked.
“It’s my name for your kind,” she said and tapped a long finger against her chin. “You call yourselves other names, of course, but I like this one better. I think it suits you better.”
“My kind?” I asked. “You’re not an angel, then.”
“No,” she said with a smile. “I am something else.”
“Where are we?” I asked.
The woman giggled. “We aren’t anywhere, really. And yet, we are everywhere, aren’t we?”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” I said.
“Everything in this place has power, everything has worth,” the woman said. There was a glint in her eyes that reminded me of a predator. She was hunting me, I realized, though her trap would be wrought of words, not weapons.
“You have so many questions,” she said. “I might have answers. For it to be fair there must be an equal exchange. You cannot have something for nothing. That is not the way it works here.”
“What is it that you want?” I asked.
The woman smiled. “A question will get you only a question. But give me an answer, and I shall give you an answer. Does that sound fair?”
“I’m not in the mood for games,” I said.
“You’ll want to play this one,” the woman said. “I promise. You just might learn a thing or two. Perhaps even learn something about yourself.”
I considered. Maybe she was right and I would learn something valuable. “Fine,” I said. “I will play your game.”
“Usually, when we make a deal,” she said, “it should be sealed using the Old Way.”
I smirked. “A kiss,” I said. “I know a thing or two about sealing a pact. Fallen angel, after all.”
“Have you made many such deals with the mortals?” she asked, eyebrow raised in curiosity.
“No,” I said. “Never.”
“I do not need to justify myself to you, creature,” I said. “Sufficient to say, I had no taste for such things.”
“As you wish. But would a kiss be so terrible?” she asked and batted long eyelashes at me. Her full lips curved in a grin.
“It is unnecessary,” I said. “We both know that such things are little more than theatrics. If we are agreed, nothing more is needed. We are both bound.”
“You presume to know much,” the woman said, her voice sly. “You assume that I am something like you, something like a Firstborn that must always adhere to a Pact no matter what. Perhaps I have free will?”
“I doubt very much that you do,” I said. “Only humans have free will. If you were human, I would know.”
“Ah, very true, Firstborn,” the woman said. “Very well, then. We are agreed. Ask and be answered, Firstborn.”
I thought about it for a moment. The question I most wanted to ask her, of course, was how she had freed me from the Pit, if she was indeed my mysterious benefactress. My instincts told me that this was the same being as the one whose eyes I had glimpsed in the darkness. She was playing some sort of game and I was going to be part of it, whether I wanted to be or not. I decided to proceed cautiously.
“Where are we?” I asked.
She smiled kindly. “Physically, we are wherever you were before you strayed onto the Path. This all inside your head or rather, it’s inside the head of the mortal boy whose flesh you now wear.”
“What are you talking about? If we were in the mortal’s mind, I would know.”
“If we were in his conscious mind, that would be true,” she said. “But the human mind is much like an iceberg in the water. No matter how much there might seem to be above the surface, there is so much more hidden below the water. You may rule over his conscious mind, but this is the subconscious. This is the place of dreams and here, I am its Queen. Now then, I believe it is my turn.”
Her answer had only provoked a dozen more possible questions, but I felt the insistent tug of the agreement drag across my mind. I would have to wait.
“Ask your question,” I said.
“What is your name?” she asked at once. When she saw my expression, she grinned wryly.
“It is not my fault that you neglected to specify which questions were off limits,” the woman said. “Perhaps you should have been more careful.” Again, the predatory expression flickered across her face.
Damn it, I thought. If I gave her my name, it could be very dangerous. She might use it to hold power over me. I closed my eyes and cursed myself for my complacency. I should have been more careful before agreeing to the game.
I felt the coercion build up in my mind with growing pressure. If I tried to delay, the pressure would crack through my will. I couldn’t even lie to her. There was nothing I could do except answer honestly.
“I am Ashariel,” I said in a low voice.
“A very lovely name,” the woman said. “Ashariel.” I shivered as she pronounced it. She looked at me and smiled. “Just trying it out.”
“It’s my turn, then. Tell me your name,” I said quickly. I hoped that if I could learn her name the way she’d learned mine, it might be able to nullify any advantage she’d gained over me. That was assuming, of course, that names meant the same to her as they did to me, but if she was telling the truth about being a creature of the subconscious mind, it seemed likely that she was subject to the same rules and limits as I was.
“Clever,” the woman said. Her smile never wavered. “I am called Morrigan.”
Morrigan. At least now I knew the name of my mysterious benefactress. Perhaps I could use that knowledge to defend myself.
“Your turn,” I said.
She nodded. “A simple question this time,” she said. “Yes or no will do. Would you serve me willingly me if I asked it of you?”
“No,” I said promptly. “I will never again kneel to another. Not willingly.”
I thought about asking her why she wanted to know about my willingness. She had my name. Perhaps she wasn’t strong enough to force my cooperation. Or perhaps she didn’t want an unwilling pawn.
“The next question is yours,” she reminded me.
“Of course,” I said. “You called yourself a Queen.”
“The Queen,” Morrigan said.
“The Queen,” I said. “What exactly are you the Queen of?”
She regarded me, her expression regal. I felt pride gather within her even before she spoke. “I am Queen of the Dreaming Path and the Fey. You do not know the Fey, do you? I can see it in your eyes.”
I shook my head. Perhaps my silence would draw more information out of her.
“We are the dreams of humanity, Firstborn; their dreams and their nightmares. We are their goblins, their trolls, their vampires, their unicorns, their dragons. We are everything that you are not.”
“So you are not angels,” I said.
She smirked. It really was a rather blunt observation. “We are neither angels nor demons. We are dreams made real through the power of names and the willingness of mortal minds to believe in those names. We live concealed within the shadows of those minds. That, perhaps, is why so few of you have ever heard of us. Your kind does not listen to others. No offense.”
“None taken,” I said. “I’m not quite sure if I even have a kind anymore.”
“Indeed,” she said, smiling. She reached out and brushed her hand down my bare arm. “An exiled angel who refuses to become a demon. You are a singular entity, Ashariel.”
“Is that why you freed me from the Pit?” I asked without thinking. The question burst from my mind before I could consider it.
“My dear, it is not your turn to ask,” Morrigan said. “It is mine.”
Damn it, she was right. “Fine, then,” I said, feeling the tug of impatience. I hadn’t meant to ask that question, hadn’t meant to reveal that I knew she was the one who freed me. Now I had no choice but to follow through, because regardless of whatever else happened here, I needed to know why she did it. “Ask your question.”
She shrugged her shoulders. “The hour grows very late and I believe I have asked everything I intend to ask for this visit. Perhaps when next you happen upon my realm, we shall talk again. Until then, dear Firstborn, I will leave your with your answers, such as they are,” and her smile deepened into something dark and amused, “and your curiosity.”
She turned away from me. “Farewell, dear Ashariel.”
“No,” I said. “I need to know! You owe me that answer! Why did you free me?”
“I owe you nothing,” she said. “It is you who owes me an answer, which I shall collect when I see fit. Pleasant dreams, darling one. Our paths shall cross again.”
There was a loud crack, like the sound of a splitting tree, and I felt the world tilt wildly around me. I swung my gaze around to look at Morrigan, but the Fey Queen was gone.
There was another loud crash as I swept the lamp off the table beside me. It hit the floor and cracked into several dozen pieces. The lamp. The floor.
I was back in the motel. My human body was covered in sweat and I was breathing hard.
What was that? I heard Michael’s voice ask me. Where did you just go?
I pulled my knees up to my chest and wrapped my arms around them, and did not answer.