Chapters 10-13 of my novel Unrepentant, freely available for your enjoyment. New chapters will be posted every Friday. If you enjoy the book, please consider supporting me via my Patreon account. Thanks!
I drew myself out into the real world. I appeared in a darkened alley between two decayed buildings. Trash littered the broken ground and steel beams protruded from the walls like rusting bones. I looked around but didn’t see anything. Everything looked quiet. Normal. There was a feeling of pervasive wrongness to the air, however, as though Creation itself was recoiling from the presence of the demon.
Ash? Michael asked. What’s going on?
“Be silent,” I said. “We are being hunted.”
Oh shit, Michael said. By what? Another Archangel?
“No,” I agreed without much emotion. “Not an Archangel. This time, it’s one of the Fallen.”
One of your kind? Michael asked.
“We’ve been over this,” I said, my voice cold with anger. “They are not my kind.”
All right, all right, Michael said. Sorry I said anything.
My eyes scanned the alley around me. I tensed my body and waited. I knew that it wouldn’t be able to sneak up on me. I knew it would appear sooner or later.
I wasn’t disappointed.
The shadow of the Fallen drew itself up around me and the world itself seemed to catch on fire. The smell of sulfur filled the air and overwhelmed the stench of old garbage.
I felt the asphalt beneath my feet turn to thick sludge and I kicked my wings out in response, lifting myself from the ground. I heard the shrieks of shattered glass as windows high above the alley exploded.. I bent the air back on itself and blew the shards of flying glass away from me. Glass fell around me in a circle like crystal rain.
“Hey,” a voice said from behind me.
I turned and looked up. A young man stood among the carnage of broken steel and melted asphalt. He wore casual clothes, jeans, a white shirt, a hat. He didn’t seem to notice the destruction. He just looked at me, his expression calm.
Who’s that? Michael asked.
I ignored my host and stared intently at the stranger. My wings remained unfurled around me, poised and ready to strike. “I know what you are,” I said. “I know your name. You cannot deceive me, Belial.”
“Is that any way to greet an old friend?” the demon asked. His grin was mocking. “I’m hurt, dear sister.” He touched his hand to his chest. “Really, truly hurt.”
“Not yet,” I said. “But you will be soon, I promise.”
“Ashariel,” he said with a leering smile. “You really shouldn’t make promises unless you intend to keep them.” He gestured at me. “Take a knee, sister. I am a Crown Prince of Hell. You owe me your obeisance.”
“I don’t owe you anything,” I said.
“No?” Belial asked with a sly grin. He gestured to the destruction around us. “Look at what I’ve done to this mortal world. Think of what I could do to you.”
“A demon’s tricks,” I said. “I know them well enough. You aren’t real.”
He seems real enough to me, Michael said. His mental voice sounded worried. How do you know?
Belial moved forward and put one hand on my shoulder. In a single, reflexive action, I slashed down with one blade-like wing and sheared his arm off at the elbow. The human host’s arm dropped to the ground and began to leak acrid smoke instead of blood.
“As I thought,” I said, a small, hard smile on my lips. “You are a shadow, nothing more. A true Fallen would not have been so easily dismembered.”
“You are very perceptive,” Belial said. He didn’t seem to be troubled by the loss of his host’s arm. He didn’t even seem to be in any pain.
I don’t understand, Michael said. What’s a shadow?
I didn’t need Belial to know that my host’s soul was still with me. I focused my thoughts towards Michael and answered him silently in my mind. A shadow is exactly what its name implies, I said. It is the shadow of the demon, an echo of the soul that conjured it.
How powerful? Michael asked. Is it dangerous?
A shadow carries a copy of its creator’s personality and a small measure of its power, but it was just a copy, a weak simulacrum, I said. They are capable of possessing mortals, but not much more than that. It is not a significant threat to me, as it would have been to you alone.
How reassuring, Michael said. Thanks for throwing that last bit of commentary in there.
“We have all missed you terribly, sister,” Belial’s shadow said.
“I wish I could say the same,” I said in a low voice. I glanced at the ruin around us. “That was an impressive display of power, for a shadow. Thoroughly unnecessary, but impressive. You cannot intimidate me, Belial. Why even try?”
“No?” Belial asked. His lips curled down into a pout. “A pity.
“I assume you have a purpose in bothering me?” I asked.
Belial raised an eyebrow. “Don’t tell me all the fresh air and freedom has made you stupid, sister dearest,” the demon said. “It’s really quite obvious what I’m here for.”
“You’re looking for me,” I said. I spread my wings out around me in a grand gesture. “Congratulations, you found me.”
“Yes,” Belial’s shadow said.
“So I’ll ask again, now that we’ve gotten the obvious out of the way,” I said, voice as calm and smooth as glass. “Now that you’ve found me, what do you want?”
The demon’s shadow hesitated.
“Were you hoping to take me back to the Pit?” I asked. “Were you hoping to find me alone, weak and broken and bereft of power and host?” My wing flashed and I pressed the edge of one blade against Belial’s throat. “Did you think I would be easy prey?”
Belial’s shadow glanced down at my wing. He licked his lips.
“Answer me,” I growled.
“Yes,” the shadow said. “I thought you were weak. We all did. We all do.”
“Why?” I demanded.
He stared up at me. “I knew you in the Pit,” Belial’s shadow said. “I remember the long millennia of your sobbing, your grief. While we embraced our destiny, you hid from it.”
“While you embraced depravity,” I said. “While you all became the very thing we thought we were fighting against.”
“This is what we were meant to be, sister,” Belial’s shadow said, his voice soft. “You cannot deny the truth of it. You are as Fallen as I am.”
“No,” I said. “I am not.”
“You are,” he said. “You might hide behind noble intentions. You might tell yourself that you were fighting for a just cause. You might have believed everything that Lucifer said, about how we fought for justice and freedom and that the virtuousness of our cause would vindicate our actions.”
“I did believe,” I said very softly.
“Then you are a fool, Ashariel,” Belial’s shadow said. He sneered at me. “A weak, pathetic fool.”
“Maybe,” I said and my eyes narrowed. “But right now, I am free and you aren’t. Right now, I’ve done the impossible.”
“It’s only a matter of time,” Belial said. “Mine is not the only shadow that is hunting you.”
“Thanks for the warning,” I said.
“It’s not a warning,” the demon said. “It’s a simple statement of fact. You’re alone. You’re outnumbered. It’s only a matter of time, little sister. Many of us are here looking for your.”
I gave the demon’s shadow a fierce grin. “What does that mean to me? If you come after me, I’ll kill you all. I’m here with all my power. You’re not.” The edges of my wings gleamed. “I may be outnumbered. I am not outgunned.”
Belial smirked. “Hubris, little sister? I didn’t think you had it in you.”
“No,” I said. “Just a simple statement of fact.”
The demon’s eyes narrowed. “You cannot stop us. Not all of us. Not forever.”
“We shall see,” I said. “Give my regards to Hell.” It was not a word I felt comfortable saying aloud. The mere sound of it tasted like ash in my mouth.
I swept forward with my wing and Belial’s head fell off his shoulders. The decapitated mortal form dropped to the ground in a heap and dissolved into dark smoke. The smoke lingered for a few moments before it, too, began to fade away.
I looked at the remains of the building around me and tried not to think about what it would have been like to face a Belial in command of his full power. Belial wasn’t even known for his combat prowess. He was a liar, a manipulator, a schemer, not a warrior like Moloch.
Well, Michael said, his voice breaking into my bleak thoughts. That was rather exciting, wasn’t it?
I couldn’t help myself. I began to smile.
“Yes,” I said.”I suppose it was.”
The moment of levity passed as quickly as it had appeared. I stepped away from the melted ruin of Belial’s display and pressed my hands against an undamaged section of wall to steady myself. Aquiring Morrigan’s aid been my only plan and she’d turned me away. Now that the bloodlust from destroying Belial’s shadow was beginning to fade, I was once more faced with the fact that I had no plan and no real hope. I felt a deep weariness settle over me and I suddenly felt very tired and very, very alone.
“I don’t know what to do,” I said, admitting it to Michael as much as to myself. I sank down against the wall into a sitting position. “Morrigan was my only hope. What do I do now?”
You’re asking me? Michael asked. He sounded surprised. Oh, you are actually asking me? That wasn’t just rhetorical?
“If you have any suggestions,” I said in a low voice, “I’m happy to hear them.”
Hold that thought, Michael said. I want to savor the moment when the mighty fallen angel asked a lowly mortal for advice.
I grimaced. “You don’t have to be cruel about it,” I said.
Sorry, he said. He seemed to mean it, too. I think it’s a human defense mechanism. We tend to make bad jokes at the worst possible times.
“You truly are a broken and feeble race,” I said.
There was a long, uncomfortable silence in my thoughts as Michael didn’t say anything.
“That was a joke,” I said finally. “Or at least my attempt at one.”
Ah, Michael said. It wasn’t very good.
“Yes,” I said with a sigh. “I know.”
So, anyway, about that idea I had, Michael said.
“I’m listening,” I said.
Fair warning, Michael said. I don’t think you’re going to like it much.
“I’m not exactly spoiled for choice,” I said. “Let’s hear it.”
It would be easier to do this face to face, Michael said. Care to pop over to Imaginary Pretend Land?
I shrugged, closed my eyes, and shifted my focus into the mental avatar. The mortal world, with its lingering stench of burning asphalt and demon smoke faded away and I was greeted by bright sunlight and the taste of saltwater on the air. Michael looked up at me. His feet were buried in the sand up to his knees.
“What have you been doing while I was gone?” I asked with a raised eyebrow.
He looked down at his feet, then at me, then back to his feet. “Um,” he said. “Nothing.”
“And this is the mortal to whom I’ve entrusted my future course of action,” I said. “Lovely.”
Michael laughed. “Careful, Ash,” he said. “You’re starting to sound like one of us.”
“Shut up,” I told him. He smirked at me. “What’s this brilliant plan of yours?”
“I told you that you’re not going to like it,” he said, “but here’s what I was thinking. Your situation is just like King Kong vs. Godzilla.”
“I do not know these names,” I said.
Michael shook his head. He stood up and brushed the sand from his legs. “They’re giant monsters from old movies. Look, the movies themselves are not important. What’s important is what happens in the old movie: human end up caught between two unstoppable and powerful monsters and there’s nothing they can do to defeat either of them.”
“Powerless humans,” I said, my voice dry. “How unusual.”
Michael smirked. “You’re so much funnier than you give yourself credit for, Ash. The point is that you’ve got Heaven on the one side and Hell on the other, right? You’re caught in the middle and you can’t defeat either one alone, right?”
“Actually, unless something opens the Gates of Hell and unleashes another Fallen,” I said, “I’m fairly certain that I can stay ahead of them. All my former brethren can send after me are their Shadows.”
“Fair enough,” Michael said, “but the analogy is still basically true. You can’t beat Heaven alone. You can’t outfight an Archangel and you can’t evade one forever, which means that you need to change the rules of the game. You need to do something unexpected.”
“Like what?” I asked. “I don’t have the level of power needed to interfere with a being of Gabriel’s caliber.”
“Right,” Michael said. “Just like how the humans in the movies can’t defeat Godzilla on their own, so they pit him against another monster in the hopes that they destroy one another in a battle to the death.”
“How charming,” I said. “I’m the human in this analogy?”
“Yes!” Michael said. He was beginning to sound more excited. “You’re like the humans; you can’t win on your own, but you’re not helpless, either. All you need to do is pit one monster against the other.”
I considered his advice for a moment. “The problem with your idea is that the Fallen can’t defeat an Archangel with merely their Shadows. They wouldn’t be able to face an Archangel even with their full power. For all their corruption and depravity, fallen angels are still just angels. We can’t defeat an Archangel.”
“True,” Michael said. His excitement faded away and his expression turned bleak. “I guess you’d need someone as powerful as an Archangel to make it work.”
A thought occurred to me then and it sent a chill down my spine. “There are other things that are trapped in the depths of the Pit,” I said. “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: War, Famine, Pestilence, and Death. There is only one Fallen Archangel.”
“Oh no,” Michael said. “Please tell me you’re not thinking what I think you’re thinking.”
“Lucifer,” I said softly.
I’m not sure this is a good idea, Michael said a day later.
“It will work,” I said.
Have you ever tried it before? he asked, his voice dry in my thoughts.
“Well, no,” I said. “I’m reasonably certain that it should work, though.”
Well, that’s reassuring, Michael said. He sighed.
In the real world, I stood in the center of an old church. The altar before me was worn from years of service, worn but not unloved. The image of the Son hung upon the cross behind the altar. I looked up into the depiction of frozen anguish and nursed unkind thoughts for several quiet moments. You saved them, Father, I thought. You gave yourself to save the mortals. Why didn’t you save us? Because we didn’t ask? The mortals didn’t ask either. You made us first, but you loved them best.
I knew Michael could hear my thoughts. I didn’t care. If he was smart, he wouldn’t say anything.
He didn’t say anything.
Despite my bitterness, I could appreciate the former majesty of the church around me. It was old and empty, long since passed over by the larger course of the world. An old priest still tended to it and the meager flock that it gathered. He would not intrude on my dark work; I could sense the soul of the old man, sleeping the calm sleep of the righteous in the nearby rectory.
Why a church? Michael asked. It seems rather perverse.
“Consecrated ground weakens the Fallen,” I said.
Doesn’t that make you weaker, too? Michael asked.
“It does,” I said. “But not as much, because I’m shielded by the flesh of my host. A naked spirit will be more vulnerable.” I paused before adding, “I hope, anyway.”
Great, Michael said. I just know that this is going to end well.
“Stop worrying,” I said. “It will work.”
I summoned my wings around me. With one wing, I carefully cut a line in my forearm. The flesh parted as easily as paper and blood begin to drip down my arm. The blood would draw the shadow to it, like a moth to a flame.
There were no words for what came next, or if there were, they were formed not by any mortal tongue but by the essence of Creation itself. The invocation itself was silent and yet the old church creaked and thrummed with the audible release of power.
I called a name, and there was no answer.
I called a name again, and there was only silence.
I called a third time and behind me, candlelight flickered and blew out. The great doors slammed shut in the great hall behind me and plunged me into darkness.
And I knew I had been successful.
“Ashariel,” a quiet voice said in the darkness behind me. I felt warm breath tickle my ear.
“Lucifer’s Shadow,” I said. My voice was flat and controlled, and betrayed none of the emotion I felt at that moment, though I surely wanted to; wanted to cry out in fear and hatred and longing, so many conflicting things for this most beautiful, most persuasive, and most twisted bastard.
It would not be incorrect to say that I have loved him once. I fell because of him, because he convinced me that his cause was righteous, that we were defending our brethren and our Father’s kingdom from the worst threat it had ever known: the tyranny of Father himself.
Despite everything, I wasn’t convinced that I’d been wrong to do so.
“It is good to see you again, my sweet,” the Shadow said, his voice a quiet purr. “I was so very worried that you would not manage to find your way back to me here in this most unkind place.”
I did not turn around. I didn’t want to see what form he had taken, didn’t want to allow him any more access to my thoughts than I knew he already had. Even the sound of his voice, rich and resonant and charming, so full of power, was very nearly hypnotic. Little wonder, that when he called for us to rebel, so many followed, and so very gladly. He had been the best of all of us.
It hurt to know what he really was.
“Is that why you think I called you?” My voice was weak, uncertain. I closed my eyes and shook my head, side to side, trying to focus.
A gentle chuckle. “I can think of no other reason you would make such an effort, my dear,” the voice in the darkness said. “You have been very truly missed.”
I thought of Gabriel and of Belial, and all of the others that were doubtlessly hunting me. I tried to focus on those faced and my hatred at being hunted like an animal, my fury at being so helpless and alone.
“I very much doubt that,” I said.
His laugh was quiet, sinister and serpentine. “You protest too quickly,” the voice said. “But if you wish to attend to business before pleasure, you will find that I am agreeable.”
I suppressed the urge to shudder. Barely. I was grateful that Michael had the presence of mind to stay silent. I did not want to draw the Shadow’s attention to my host’s soul. Humans were vulnerable to the temptations of Shadows. I didn’t want to think about what would happen if the Shadow communed with Michael and made him an offer.
“Why have you called my Shadow into this place, darling Ashariel?”
I felt my stolen heart hammer in my chest. The next few moments would decide everything.
“I have an offer,” I said.
“Do you wish to deal or not?” I asked finally, unable to stand the lingering silence.
“Yes,” the Shadow said, drawing out the word into a satisfied hiss. “We can deal.”
I felt a gentle caress along the back of my neck. I growled and pulled away.
“You know what it is I want,” Lucifer’s Shadow said.
“I do,” I said, my voice grim.
“The question, then, is what do you want?”
“I want you to fight for me,” I said.
I felt the shiver of pleasure from the shadow as it rippled behind me. “And whom would I be fighting on your behalf?”
“Gabriel has been tasked with tracking me down and bringing me back to the Pit,” I said. “I want you to fight him and destroy him.”
Lucifer’s Shadow was silent for a time. “That is not a small request,” he said finally.
“I am not offering you a small prize in exchange,” I said.
“Indeed,” the Shadow murmured. He sounded uncertain.
“Are you afraid of Gabriel?” I asked. “I thought you were the mightiest of the Archangels. Has your fall truly reduced you so that you would fear the Messenger of Heaven.”
Something sharp hit me in the back of the head and sent me to my knees. I shook my head and wiped my hand across my head. There was blood on my fingers.
“Do not taunt me,” the Shadow hissed.
I wiped my eyes with my other hand and stood up. Very slowly, I turned around to face the shadow. I summoned light to my outstretched hand and cast a ray of illumination across the old church, revealing the form of Lucifer’s Shadow. It was wispy, more like smoke than anything corporeal. A pair of golden eyes stared back at me from the center of the smoky mass.
“Don’t do that again,” I said.
“You would threaten me, Ashariel?” the Shadow said. “You need me to fight your battle and yet you would presume to challenge me? You haven’t the strength to do so.”
I smiled gently. “You’re still trapped in the Pit,” I said. “I can best a Shadow easily enough. We haven’t agreed to anything yet. I don’t have to let you out of your cage.”
“You need me,” the Shadow said.
“I’ll find another way to fight Gabriel,” I said. “Or maybe I’ll die trying.”
“You are a foolish little girl, Ashariel,” Lucifer’s Shadow said. “Pray that I do not find you returned to me in Hell before I am free. You would not like to be the subject of my undivided attention in the dark.”
I smiled with courage that I did not feel. “Perhaps,” I said. “Are you ready to hear my terms?”
“I think I have the sense of it,” Lucifer’s Shadow said. “You will free me and I shall fight Gabriel on your behalf. It is not a complex arrangement.”
“Close, but you’re missing a few key points,” I said. “You won’t just fight Gabriel; you will agree to destroy him. You will ensure that he cannot come after me. You will also give me your word that you will not come after me, either.”
“What?” Lucifer’s Shadow cried. The smoke around his golden eyes congealed for a moment into something that almost resembled a grotesque human face. “You are asking for much, little angel.”
I nodded, my face grim. “Yet I offer much in return. Think about it, Lucifer. Your freedom, for the first time in how long? Tell me, Morning Star, how long has it been since you last walked free in this world?”
“Two thousand years, nearly,” the Shadow said. “Your offer is tempting, I will grant you that much.”
“This is the price of your freedom,” I said. “Destroy Gabriel and leave me alone. In exchange, you’ll have your freedom.” I raised my right hand towards the shadow, the one that was still smeared with my host’s blood.
“Do we have an agreement?” I asked.
For several long moments, the Shadow was silent. Then the darkness seemed to gather around us and I felt the warmth leeched out from my limbs. Everything, all life, all warmth, everything seemed to be draining into the Shadow that was Lucifer.
“I give you my word,” Lucifer’s shadow said. The smoke solidified and a gnarled hand emerged from the gray mist. It took my hand in its own claw-like grip. I felt the Shadow’s palm taste my host’s blood and I knew that the bargain was struck.
This was the moment, I realized, the moment when everything would change. No matter what happened next, I knew that I could never take back this moment. I knew that nothing would be the same again.
The point of no return. No matter how it ended, no matter what became of me, I knew that nothing would ever be the same, ever again.
“We are agreed,” the Shadow said, its voice once more a delighted purr. “I will be free.”
I hesitated. I thought I would feel relief.
Instead, I felt only a sense of regret that it had come to this and a terrible feeling of foreboding, but no matter how I felt, there was no turning back. The agreement was made. I could not have gone back on my deal, not when the same constraints of angelic nature that forced his promise applied to me just as readily.
“FREE ME!” Lucifer’s Shadow roared. Fire leapt out around us and I saw him, in that infernal glow, saw the shadow reveal a fleeting glimpse of the devil’s true shape. I saw horns and wings, tentacles and claws and black scales and slavering maws and too many eyes. He had too many eyes. The vision passed, the fires died, and it was merely a cloud of smoke around two golden eyes once again but nothing could make me forget what I’d seen behind that smoke. My feelings of regret and foreboding returned, stronger than before. I’d just made a terrible mistake. I had to take it back, had to stop it before I did something terrible.
I felt the compulsion take hold of my mind, my body, and my soul and I knew there was no turning back. I had to obey. I’d made a promise, given my word.
For a fleeting moment, I wished that I’d been born mortal. Mortals can lie. Mortals can cheat. A mortal might have found a way to weasel out of the deal.
I was not a mortal.
“Release me, Ashariel,” Lucifer’s Shadow murmured. His voice echoed around itself, spoken from too many months within his dark form. “Release me from this prison!”
There was no going back.
I did as I was told.
I pushed open the old wooden church door and stepped outside. Night had fallen in this part of the world and it seemed to be winter here. Skeletal trees crowded around an empty field that was slowly being lost to growing piles of snow. Beyond the empty field, I saw a small pond, its surface crusted over with ice. A silver moon dominated a cloudless night sky. I shivered as frigid wind sliced through me like a knife.
I didn’t think fallen angels got cold, Michael said. It was the first time he’d spoken in a while and his mental voice sounded subdued.
“We do,” I said.
What are we doing out here? Michael asked. Why did we leave the Shadow back inside?
“It needs to happen outside,” I said, “and not on holy ground. It makes things more difficult otherwise.”
You sound like you’ve done this before, Michael said.
“I haven’t,” I said. I didn’t offer an explanation for why I knew what I did. Michael fell silent after that and I walked towards the frozen pond. Snowflakes fell down around me. I held out my hand and watched a few drop into my open palm. They melted quickly against my bare skin.
“Falling from the sky,” I murmured. “Falling from Heaven, back to the world. Back to where you belong.”
Ash? Michael asked.
“Nothing,” I said. “Just talking to myself.”
Oh, he said. I didn’t know that you did that.
“On occasion,” I said.
I wish you didn’t have to do this, Michael said. I wish I’d kept my stupid idea to myself.
“I wish I didn’t have to do this, either,” I said. But I did have to do it and all the wishing in the world couldn’t make me ignore my angelic nature. Even fallen angels kept their promises.
I stood at the edge of the icy lake and held my hand out over it. I watched as my will formed ripples across the glassy surface, which then became little waves that spread out and distorted the smooth ice.
You seem rather calm, considering what you’re about to do, Michael said.
“I suppose it’s because I don’t have a choice,” I said. “Hysterical denial won’t change that.”
Everybody has a choice, Ash, Michael said. You did.
“I did and I made my choice,” I said. “I chose this path. Now I have no choice but to follow it through to conclusion. I must have faith that this will all work out.”
That made him pause. You have faith? Really? You?
“Of course,” I said. “Perhaps not in my Father, but I have faith in certain virtues: justice, truth, honor.”
Why? Michael asked.
“Because they are things worth believing in,” I said. “They are the reason that I chose to rebel.”
Wow, Michael said. Never would have pegged a fallen angel for a believer.
I smiled bitterly. “I believed most fervently in the cause,” I said. “Out of all of the rebellious angels, I believed most strongly in Lucifer.”
I’m sorry, Michael said.
“Me too,” I said. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. The air tasted cold and sharp in my lungs. “It’s time.”
I gathered my power to me and called Lucifer’s name three times. The ice cracked as it rippled. I watched in silence as water rose up through the cracks and took the shape of a man.
That’s him? Michael asked.
“It is,” I said.
The body above the pond lifted its arms and transformed into a soft, pale substance that resembled clay.
“The incarnation of flesh,” I said, though Michael hadn’t asked the question. “He is creating his own vessel.”
He doesn’t need a host? Michael asked.
“Archangels are powerful enough to create their own hosts,” I said. “I believe I’ve mentioned that already.”
The claylike figure pulsed with a strange glow and became a human male. He was dressed in a clean white suit that matched the snow around him. He was handsome, with strong features and a cleanly shaved face. His hair was neatly trimmed. His eyes were a warm, almost molten amber.
We made eye contact.
I shivered and it was not because of the cold. I felt myself lose all control and before I knew what I was doing, I knelt down on the edge of the water. My liege, my lord, my captain, my Morning Star, returned to me at last! Now everything would be all right. My Lucifer would put things right. How foolish I had been, to worry my silly little head for so long. The most beautiful of our kind was here, in the flesh, and I, I alone among all our kind had been chosen to witness this most glorious event. No, more than that; I had made it happen! I had freed the Lightbringer from the bowels of Hell!
Ash! Michael shouted in my head. Ashariel!
The sound of my name hit me like a douse of cold water. I averted my eyes and broke Lucifer’s enchantment. I shuddered with revulsion at the feelings he had been able to inspire in me.
Thank you, I said to Michael.
“I’m free,” Lucifer said, his voice little more than a whisper. “After so many years in darkness, I can see again.” He looked up at the silver moon. “The air is not blighted with the stench of the wicked and the corrupt. The wind does not carry the anguished howls of the damned.” He looked around, eyes drinking in every detail. “Everything here is whole and pure and beautiful.”
Lucifer looked at me and smiled.
“So here we are,” he said. “It is nice to see you again, my dear, sweet Ashariel. I do not relish speaking through Shadows; I find face-to-face discourse to be far more preferable, would you not agree?”
I didn’t answer him.
He strode forward across the water and stopped at the very edge, just before his feet would have touched the snowy ground. He looked at the distance between us and smiled once again.
My blood felt colder than the ice and show around me, when I saw that smile, that damnable knowing expression that whispered doubt into my thoughts. I know more than you think, little Fallen, that smile told me. I know you better than you know yourself because I know what you are in the dark.
“I lived up to my end of the bargain,” I said. “I summoned you here.”
“Yes,” Lucifer said. “You did. I imagine that dear brother Gabriel will be upon us soon enough, at which point you will slink off to some shadowy corner and try to wait out the coming storm.”
I hesitated, longer than I should have and Lucifer smiled. “Your silence betrays you, Ashariel.”
“It doesn’t matter if you know at this point,” I said. I sounded more bold than I felt. “You’re here now. Gabriel will know soon enough, if he doesn’t already. You’re a much larger threat than I am.”
“A much better target,” Lucifer said and his smile curled into a sneer. “To hide behind.” He flexed his hand and long, black claws grew from the tips of his fingers. “You used me, Ashariel. I do not relish being used by anyone.”
I stood my ground, my wings splayed out to the sides of my host body. “You can’t kill me, Lucifer. Not in this world.”
“No,” he said and brandished his clawed hang. “But I can make you wish for death. I can hurt you. I can make you beg.”
I didn’t flinch away from him, though I knew he was correct. “Eventually,” I said. “You could break me. It would take time, though, wouldn’t it? How much time do you have before the Archangels are upon you?”
“I am not afraid of Gabriel,” Lucifer said.
“Perhaps more than just Gabriel will come to face you,” I said. “What if Gabriel and Raphael come for you? What if Prince Michael himself descends from Heaven to face you once more? What will you do then?”
“They are nothing before me,” Lucifer hissed, “as you would do well to remember.” He lashed out with his claws and struck me across the stomach before I had time to react.
I fell to my knees with a gasp. For a moment, there was no pain; the Lightbringer’s claws had cut my host flesh to cleanly for me to even feel the blow. Agony lanced through my body a moment later. I pressed my hands against my stomach and held back the slippery, gory mess that was slipping through my wound.
Lucifer looked down at me, an insane smile stitched across his lips. “Delicious,” he murmured.
“I’m not dead yet,” I said through clenched teeth. In my head, Michael was silent, something that I made me feel grateful to him. Perhaps he knew how important was that I not be distracted at this particular moment.
“No, of course not,” Lucifer said. “You’ll heal the wound easily enough. But that won’t stop it from hurting now, will it? It won’t stop me from doing it again. I wonder how many such blows I can inflict before I am forced to go to ground?” He held up his hand and let my blood drip through his fingers. “Let’s find out together, my dear betrayer.”
“You are one to speak of treachery,” I said. “You lied to me! You lied to all of us.” There was another brief flash of pain, this time from my own hands as I mended the torn flesh of my stomach and forced my guts back into their proper places. The stench of burning flesh filled the air as I cauterized the wound with another touch. It hurt nearly as badly as Lucifer’s own slash.
“I did,” Lucifer said. “The others don’t seem to take it as personally as you do, however.”
“I believed you,” I said, my voice weak from the agony of healing.
“All of the Fallen believed me. They’ve gotten over it,” Lucifer said. His voice sounded gentle now, almost sweet. “No, with you, it was something different. The others followed me. You gave yourself to me, heart and soul. You believed in the cause. You didn’t just believe me.” The insane smile was back. “You believed in me.”
I looked down towards the ground, away from his mad eyes. The only thing I could see was the puddle of my own blood. “Yes,” I said.
“You loved me, didn’t you?” Lucifer hissed. I felt his claws caress the back of my head, lightly, so very lightly, and even so, they opened bloody lines on the skin beneath my hair. “Admit it, Ashariel, to yourself, if not to me.”
There was no point denying it. He could read me so very easily. He knew me better than any other angel ever had.
“I loved you,” I said. “A very long time ago, you were my Archangel. You were my Lightbringer. I followed you into Hell, Lucifer, and went gladly.” I looked up at him and wiped away the blood that dripped into my eyes. “I was a fool.”
“Yes,” Lucifer said. “You were a very foolish little girl. Still are.”
“Maybe,” I said and spat my blood in his face. I swept my wing towards him. The bladelike wing sheared off his legs at the knee. There was a spray of blood and then Lucifer’s incarnated host burst apart in a cloud of viscera that flew back and reformed several yards away from me. Both legs were whole again, despite the fact that he’d left two severed limbs beside me. His face was contorted with rage.
“I will make you beg for death, little one,” Lucifer roared. He launched himself towards me, his claws going for my throat. I caught his clawed hand with my right wing and spun around, left wing raised. Lucifer’s claws shredded my wing even as I severed his hand at the wrist. I drew back from him, my right wing hanging limply at my side. His bleeding stump pulsed once and then from out of the dripping blood, a new hand emerged. It took only a moment for him to heal.
“Enough of this,” Lucifer said. He didn’t even seem bothered by the grievous wounds I’d inflicted on him. “All you’ve managed to do, dear Ashariel, is piss me off and I will take it out of your host body in equal amounts of blood and bone.”
He advanced towards me. I couldn’t fight him. There was nothing I could do to stop him. My plan had failed. No Archangel had taken notice that Lucifer had risen. Gabriel was likely still banished. I wondered, briefly, where Raphael and Prince Michael might have been. What could have been more important than this?
“It was worth a try,” I said in a small voice. Lucifer smiled as his claws closed around my throat.
A crack of thunder filled the air around us. An impossibly bright light filled the sky above us and night became day. I felt a searing pain lance through my host’s eyes and I instinctively shielded my face. I realized what was happening the same moment that Lucifer did. I saw the look of panicked realization cross his face. I saw the fear in his eyes for a moment before the burning radiance became too much and I had to clench my eyes shut to avoid being blinded entirely. Even so, it took all of my power to keep the furious white light from burning through my eyelids.
It wasn’t an Archangel that raced confront Lucifer.
It was a Seraph.
Lucifer’s claws vanished from around my throat as the Morning Star disincarnated his mortal for and fled in a rush of shadowy wings.
I turned and ran.
After several steps, I spread my wings and kicked away from the ground as hard as I could. I ignored the shriek of protest from my mangled right wing.
The Seraph’s roar shook the world below me but it was quickly retreating into the distance. I flew on, as fast as I could go.
I didn’t know how far or for how long. At some point, I realized there was a voice in my head that wasn’t mine. It was shouting at me to stop, that it was over, that we were safe. The words didn’t make sense at first. The Seraph was faster than me. It was stronger. It would catch me. There was nowhere safe from it. There was no stopping it. I fled only so that I could have the privilege of dying tired.
I flew until my host body was in danger of falling apart under the strain.
There was a feeling of vertigo suddenly and I felt something break under the strain. I lost my momentum and plunged back down to the earth. I hit the ground and rolled several times. There was the liquid feeling of something tearing and all my strength flooded out of my limbs. I ended up in a tangled heap on the ground, torn and bloody.
I put my face down against the dirt and felt very dizzy. I pulled myself up away from the ground in time to vomit everything inside my stomach. There was a lot of blood. An internal injury. I closed my eyes and focused on it until the blood stopped and the nausea passed.
I’d pushed my host body too far, strained it to the very limits. It was a grim reminder of the frailties of mortal forms without angelic power to sustain them.
I healed the damage I’d done to my host, which took most of my energy out of me but it least it stopped the nausea. Too exhausted to do anything else, I crawled away from the puddle of vomit and sprawled out in the dirt on my back. Everything felt blurry. Everything felt wrong.
Ash? Michael asked me quietly. Are you okay?
My mouth tasted bitter and vile. I wiped my mouth with my arm.
“The Seraph,” I said. “Where is the Seraph?”
I’m not sure, Michael said. Maybe it let us go? Also, what’s a Seraph?
“A being more powerful than you can possibly imagine,” I said.
You’re more powerful than I can possibly imagine, Ash, Michael said. That doesn’t really tell me much. Is it like an angel?
“A Seraph is a being more powerful than I can possibly imagine,” I said.
Oh, Michael said. After a pause, he added, well, shit.
“Indeed,” I said as I glanced around.
Everything looked unfamiliar. I was in a forest glade. Trees loomed up around me and I couldn’t see the sky through the thick canopy of leaves. In the distance, I heard the steady rush of a waterfall.
I knew this place. I had been here before, not long ago.
“That’s not possible,” I said.
What isn’t possible? Michael asked.
I gestured around us, ignoring the protest of torn skin and battered muscle. “This place,” I said. “I have been here, in this exact spot. Except that when I was, it was in a dream. And I am not dreaming now.”
What does that mean? Michael asked.
“I’m not sure,” I said.
There was a gentle peal of amused laughter from somewhere behind me and I knew who it was before I even turned to look.
Morrigan smiled at me, her arms crossed as she leaned back against a tree, her yellow eyes gleaming. “I told you we would speak again soon,” she said.
My wings faded and I stood in front of her, and became keenly aware that I was wearing the body of an unwashed young man with wrinkled clothes and too much stubble, while she looked very much like a goddess. The green mist that hung over the Dreaming Path swirled around her and gave her an ethereal look.
“I suppose I should tell you that I’m glad to see you again,” I said, “but that would be a lie and I think you can tell when I’m lying. How are you here? I’m not dreaming.”
She inclined her head elegantly. “The pleasure is all mine, Firstborn,” she said. “Considering what you ran away from, I would say that my company is much preferable to that of your risen Devil. And worry not about such questions as how and where when why will give you an answer that is so much more interesting. Let me simply say that I am my realm and my realm is me. Queen and kingdom are inseparable at the most basic level.”
“All you’ve done since the moment I’ve awoken is toy with me,” I said, my tone harsh. “You’ve manipulated me from the very beginning. I’m sick of it. Tell me what this is. Is this the Dreaming Path or not?”
Morrigan sighed. “If you must know, we are between worlds. This is the place where the waking and dreaming touch hands. You stand with one foot in the mortal world and one foot in the dreaming world,” Morrigan said, “and you are lucky to be here, considering the fact that you ran away from your Devil.”
“How do you know about that?” I asked, momentarily forgetting my anger. “How do you know about that?”
She smiled. “I’ve been watching you, of course.”
“For how long?”
Her smile widened. “Since the beginning.”
“Since you released me from the Pit, you mean.” I didn’t phrase it as a question.
“Longer than that,” she said. “I watched you in the Pit. I watched your past. I had to be sure.”
“You had to be sure of what?” I asked.
“That you were the one who could help me,” she said.
“Help you with what?” I asked.
“We will get to that,” Morrigan said, her smile cryptic, “when the time is right.”
“Why?” I asked. “Why did you release me? Why me?”
“Do you really wish to know?” she asked. Her gleaming yellow eyes reminded me of a serpent coiled to strike. I didn’t like feeling like a helpless mouse and felt the faint brush of ego to assert my power as an angel. Fortunately for Michael and me, I was very good at ignoring that particular little voice.
“I do,” I said. “I think I’ve earned that answer by now.”
“What have you done to earn it?” Morrigan asked.
I narrowed my eyes at her and reminded myself not to listen to that little voice. I wondered briefly what Michael was thinking, if he could hear my mental struggle to control myself.
I can hear it, Michael said. To be honest, it’s a little scary.
“Please, there’s no need for the poor boy to remain a disembodied voice in your head,” Morrigan said. “This is a dream, after all.”
She made a gesture. There was a strange feeling inside my head that reminded me of water pouring out of a pitcher. I blinked and saw Michael appear beside me, or more accurately, I appeared beside him in my avatar form. I realized that I was a few inches shorter than he was. He rubbed his face in surprise and looked around.
“Feels good to stretch my legs,” he said after a moment. He smiled at me. “Nice to see you again, Ash.”
“My name is Ashariel,” I said. The response felt like a reflex at this point. I looked back at Morrigan, who seemed inordinately pleased with herself.
“Would you like to sit?” the Fey asked. She gestured again and vines grew up suddenly around our feet. They writhed and formed themselves into the shapes of a few chairs and a small table. Morrigan sat and folded her hands in her lap. After a moment, Michael and I sat down as well.
“More comfortable than I expected,” Michael said.
“As I was saying,” Morrigan said. She took a moment to smooth her skirt. “You come here demanding answers without explaining why you deserve them.”
“I didn’t come here,” I said. I felt my temper rising, already frayed by the past few days. “You brought me here.”
She shook her head. “I did no such thing,” she said. “You came here on your own, whether you knew it or not. You sought me out, Ashariel.”
I thought about it for a moment. In those desperate moments as I fled from the Seraph, my entire being had been focused on one thought: escape. I had placed all of my will and power into achieving that one objective. Had I unknowingly fled into the one place I knew the Seraph would not follow me?
“I’m not looking for answers,” I said. “Not yet. Right now, I’m just trying to survive, just like I was when I sought you out and asked for your help. Do you remember?”
Morrigan nodded. “I remember,” she said.
“You told me you would help me when things were desperate enough,” I said. “In your infinite wisdom and all encompassing game of manipulation, have things progressed to that point yet? In my humble opinion, considering my actions over the last few hours, things are that damn desperate.”
“There are many who look to their dreams for solutions to life’s problems,” she said. “It is one of the more endearing traits of mortal kind and it is not always a foolish endeavor.” She glanced at Michael. “You don’t talk much, do you, mortal?”
Michael’s face reddened. “I haven’t had much to say, really,” he said. “I’ve been quietly harboring the belief for the past few days that I’ve gone insane and this is all in my head.”
Morrigan’s expression didn’t waver. “You no longer believe that to true,” she said.
Michael shook his head. “No,” he said. “I don’t.”
“Why not?” she asked.
He shrugged. “I’m not sure. It might be that I just don’t feel like a crazy person. Everything is weird and terrifying but it’s all so lucid. It’s all clear in my head.” He looked at her, his brown eyes locked with her serpentine yellow ones. “This is real.”
Morrigan gave him an approving nod. “I was right about you after all,” she said.
He blinked. “Right about what?” Michael glanced at me. I didn’t know what to say. We both looked at Morrigan.
“It was not by random chance that I placed you in this particular mortal,” Morrigan said. “And you, mortal, it was not by mere luck that I gave you to this particular fallen angel. You are, both of you, uniquely qualified to change the other into something greater than either of you were.”
“What the hell does that mean?” Michael said, but Morrigan silenced him with a glance.
“I know what hunts you,” Morrigan said. “I know that Lucifer walks free and that his freedom was by your hand, just as your freedom was done by mine. I assume that you had a cunning plan in place before you decided to free the Fallen Archangel.” She looked at me evenly. “So I will ask only once; what went wrong?”
I thought about my answer for a moment. Did I want Morrigan as an ally? She hadn’t given me anything yet other than an ever deepening mystery. There was no way to know if she was telling the truth about anything that she had said, except that she was the one who’d freed me from the Pit. I had glimpsed her eyes in the darkness and for that reason alone.
“We had a plan,” I said.
“We?” Morrigan asked. “You and the mortal?”
I glanced at Michael. “He and I did, yes. It was his idea.”
Michael sighed. “That makes it sound like everything is my fault.”
No,” I said. “It’s not your fault. I miscalculated.”
Morrigan’s expression had turned into something feline. “What did you miscalculate, my dear Firstborn?”
“I underestimated my Father’s response,” I said. “I thought that if Lucifer walked free once again, the Archangel Michael would be dispatched to deal with him. I never imagined that it would be a Seraph that would respond.”
“Why was it so important that this Archangel Michael be the one to face Lucifer?” Morrigan asked.
“How much do you know about Archangels?” I asked.
A strange expression flickered across the Fey Queen’s face so quickly, for a moment I was certain that I had imagined it. “A bit,” Morrigan said finally, her voice oddly quiet. “I know a bit.”
“Then you know that they are relentless, implacable and very nearly unstoppable,” I said. “The only thing that can defeat an Archangel is another Archangel. Or a Seraph, I suppose.”
“Archangels are not unstoppable,” Morrigan said. When she saw me staring at her, expression openly confused, she gave a tiny shrug. “That is a story for another day.”
“I’d like to hear that story some day,” Michael said softly. Morrigan merely smiled and motioned for me to continue.
“An Archangel is hunting me,” I said. “Was hunting me. I managed to evade him, but not forever. His name is Gabriel. I believe I mentioned him the last time we met.”
“I remember the name,” Morrigan said.
It was my turn to shrug. “I made a deal with Gabriel,” I said. “He gave me freedom in exchange for an answer to a question.”
“Ah,” Morrigan said. “How much time did he give you?”
“Seven days,” I said.
“That’s not a lot of time,” Morrigan said. “Especially to an immortal.”
I shrugged. “I was desperate and the price wasn’t high. He wanted to know who freed me from the Pit.”
I felt the tension gather in Morrigan. The misty air around her thickened and a feeling of terrible gravity fell upon me as she looked at me. The Dreaming Path itself seemed to be reacting to her irritation.
“What did you tell him?” she asked, her voice frosty.
I shrugged. “The truth; that somebody released me from the Pit.”
“Did you give him a name?” Morrigan asked. “Did you give your Archangel my name?”
I looked at her. “Morrigan isn’t your true name,” I said.
“No,” she said, “but it’s a name and it’s one that gives me a certain measure of power. I would rather not have your Archangel aware of it.”
“Well, don’t worry, Gabriel isn’t as clever as he thinks he is,” I said. “He only asked me how I escaped and he gave me seven days of freedom in exchange for one answer.”
Morrigan smiled again and this time, I saw a growing measure of approval in her eyes. “Clever girl,” she said with open admiration. “You’re learning quickly.”
“Gabriel tried to break the terms of his own bargain,” I said. “He was banished back to Heaven.”
“I begin to understand,” Morrigan said. “Your deal with the Archangel gave you time, but not much. You needed a more permanent solution.”
“Yes,” I said, “which I will remind you was only due to the fact that you wouldn’t help me when I asked you for aid. I would like to make that very clear that if you hadn’t persisted in playing games with us, none of this would have happened.”
Morrigan didn’t seem offended by my accusations. In fact, more than anything, she seemed pleased. I had a moment of insight as I thought back to her cryptic promise about helping me only when I was truly desperate. I hadn’t paid much attention to it, then; the Fey Queen seemed to thrive on being frustratingly obscure, but now I began to wonder: what if this had been her plan all along? Would she have been able to predict what I would do once she refused me? Could she have known that I would unleash Lucifer on the world to escape from Gabriel?
Our eyes met and mine asked the silent question that I couldn’t bring myself to voice aloud. I held that serpentine gaze for several moments until Michael cleared his throat to break the silence. Even so, I didn’t look away. I saw the answer stitched onto her face and I knew that I had been played, that both Michael and I had been played for fools.
“You knew,” I said, my voice a whisper. “You knew what I would do. You all but led me to it.”
“Ah,” Morrigan said, “but I did not actually force you to choose anything, did I? The decision to release Lucifer was yours. You could have made another choice.”
“Your games drove me to do it!” I said. “You pulled me out of Hell, you put me in Michael’s body, you led me around blindly, all the while knowing that I would be pushed to the limits of desperation. You arranged for this to happen.”
“I made a series of choices,” Morrigan said. “You made a series of choices in response. You may wish to blame me for the fact that Lucifer walks free for the first time in two millennia, but it will not change the fact that yours was the hand that opened the door. Yours was the choice that doomed poor Michael’s world.”
“Wait, what?” Michael asked. “What are you talking about?” He looked at me, eyes growing very wide and very afraid. “Ash, what is he talking about?”
“There is only one thing that Lucifer desires,” Morrigan said. Michael turned to look at her, his hands clenched into fists. His knuckles were very white. “Unlike our dear Ashariel, who desires freedom above all else, Lucifer does not care to be free of Hell. It is his kingdom, warped and twisted though it is. No, the Fallen Archangel desires only one thing; he wishes to continue his war against his deity Father any way he can. He lost the battle for Heaven. He will not lose the battle for your Earth.”
“What are you talking about?” Michael asked.
“Stop talking,” I said. My eyes were shut and I clenched my fists, willing the Fey Queen to silence. She ignored me. She was beyond my ability to affect in this place.
“I am talking about the End of Days, mortal child,” Morrigan said. “Armageddon. I am talking about the death of your entire species. The Apocalypse will begin soon and it is Ashariel’s fault.”
“No,” Michael said.
“You cannot deny the truth of it,” Morrigan said. “You saw it for yourself. She unleashed Lucifer the Morning Star to save herself.”
“I know,” Michael said. “I also know that she never meant for Lucifer to walk freely. She meant for the Archangels to intervene. She meant for them to engage one another. That was the plan.”
“No, Michael,” I said, my voice quiet. “She’s right. Mine was the hand that opened the door. I accept the consequences of my actions, as I always have.”
“You accept the consequences of your actions,” Morrigan said, “but you do not apologize for them, do you?”
“No,” I said. “Not now. Not ever.”
Michael faced Morrigan and lifted his gaze to meet hers. He didn’t flinch. “I don’t know why it matters to you to drive a wedge between Ashariel and me,” he said. “It won’t work. You’re not going to win this particular game, so just stop trying.”
Morrigan’s amused expression evaporated and became something cold and deadly. “Boy,” she said. “Choose your words very carefully before speaking to me in such a way.” He blanched but did not look away.
I put my hand on Michael’s shoulder. He glanced at me and gave me a confident grin. “It’s okay, Ash,” he said. “She tipped her hand this time when she told us that she handpicked me to be your host.” He looked back at Morrigan, whose expression was now carefully neutral. “She has an intricate plan that she won’t upset just because I’m annoying her.”
“Very astute of you, mortal,” Morrigan said. “However, do not inflate your own sense of importance. You are correct that I need you alive. You do not know for certain that I need you alive and, say, unaffected by nightmare visions that could destroy your sanity.”
“Good point,” Michael said.
“Despite your passionate defense,” Morrigan said, “it does not change the fact that Lucifer is free and it was Ashariel who freed him. The Apocalypse will happen and your world will die.”
“Not if we stop him,” Michael said.
At some point during the past few days, I had begun to think of Michael as more than just an annoying bit of baggage that was stubbornly clinging to life inside his own head. I wasn’t sure when the change had happened; maybe it was when he suggested the plan to free Lucifer to combat Gabriel. Maybe it was the fact that I had started answering to Ash and the nickname was beginning to change me, beginning to make me into something different than Ashariel the Fallen. Something softer, gentler; something a little more human, perhaps. Regardless, I realized that there was something about this particular mortal that I found very endearing. I was beginning to like his stubborn optimism and his irreverent attitude.
Michael looked at me. “There has to be a way to stop him, right?”
“I’m not sure how,” I said. “It will be relatively easy for him to summon the rest of the Fallen now that he is free.”
“Do the Fallen start the Apocalypse?” Morrigan asked.
I shivered. A flicker of thought ignited a long forgotten bit of knowledge deep within my mind. “They don’t,” I said. “The Fallen are contained by the Gates of Hell, which Lucifer can destroy easily enough. To start the Apocalypse, however, he’d have to breach the Great Seal.”
“Why?” Michael asked. “What does it do?”
“There are depths in Hell that even the Fallen dare not venture,” I said. “There are more powerful barriers concealed within the frigid depths, erected to keep the Fallen out as much as to keep their prisoners contained within.”
The flicker of thought turned to cold realization. “War, Famine, Pestilence, and Death,” I said. “Lucifer will unleash the Four Horseman and the Apocalypse will begin.”