Unrepentant: Chapters 17-20

Chapters 17-20 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!

Chapter Seventeen

It was still snowing when my feet touched down on the cold, hard ground of the real world once again. I stood in front of the frozen pond, its smooth, glassy surface a perfect mirror to my own reflection and the silver moon high above. The trees around me were skeletal and devoid of leaves, and already whitened by the frost. Or perhaps they had always been that particular color. I didn’t really know.

Should have brought a winter coat, Michael thought.

“Easily remedied,” I said. My breath escaped past my lips in a long, wispy plume. A long black coat appeared on my body.

Oh, good choice, Michael said. The trench coat look is timeless.

I didn’t respond to that and he didn’t seem to have anything further. There was only the sound of the wind rustling through the denuded trees around us and the slow, delicate dance of the falling snowflakes.

“Falling from the sky,” I muttered. “Falling from Heaven, back to the world.”

Ash? Michael asked. He sounded concerned.

“Nothing,” I said. “Just talking to myself.”

Oh, he said. I didn’t know that you… did that.

“On occasion,” I said.

So what happens now?

“Now?” I echoed. “Now we wait.”

How long do we have?

I looked up at the moon and considered. “Not long now,” I said.

Do you know where we are? Michael asked.

“No idea,” I said. “The Seraph is gone and that’s all I care about at the moment. Why do you ask?”

No reason, he answered. Just curious. Making conversation. Always wondered what country I would die in, when I was a kid. Isn’t that a morbid thought?

“I doubt I’d really be a good judge of morbidity,” I said. “Also, there’s a good chance that you’ll survive. Not a great one, but fairly decent. It’s entirely possible that once I’m gone, you’ll wake up somewhere with a headache and no memory of what happened to you over the last week.”

That comment caught his attention. You mean there’s a chance tomorrow I won’t remember any of this? I won’t remember being your host? A pause, and then, with quiet desperation in his voice, he asked, there’s a chance I won’t remember you?

“A small chance, yes,” I said. “You sound upset. I thought you would be happy with this information. You’ll have your life back and you’ll have a chance to repent. You can make yourself appear worthy in God’s eyes and spare yourself from the Pit.”

Yeah, but I wouldn’t get to be with you, he said.

“You don’t want to follow me into Hell, Michael,” I said. “I would not be able to protect you from the other Fallen. I don’t have the power there that I do here.”

I don’t like the idea of paying lip service to a deity that I know doesn’t care about us, he argued.

“He does care about you,” I said gently. “It’s me he doesn’t care about.”

I couldn’t worship somebody like that, he said.

Despite myself, I smiled. I would have understood, of course, if Michael had chosen the pragmatic option, if he did survive and chose to repent. I would have understood. But part of me was selfish and glad, even though I knew what was in store for him, part of me liked not feeling so alone. It was nice to know there was a fellow rebel who believed in the cause, even if we rebels were doomed to the last.

Do you think Morrigan will do as you asked? Michael said.

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 mirror.

“I believe that she will try,” I said. “She will not betray me, because it’s not in her interest to betray me. But could she fail? Certainly.”

You sound remarkably calm, considering how much trust you have on something as vague and unknown as her reliability.

“You sound remarkably mature and serious when you make observations like that,” I said.

He chuckled inside my head. Yeah, I guess I do.

“You might say the reason I’m so calm,” I said, “is because I have faith.”

That made him pause. You have faith? Really? You?

“Of course,” I said. “Not faith in my Father, certainly, but I have faith in certain virtues: justice, truth, honor. I choose to have faith in those things whether my father created them or not, because they are things worth believing in.”

Wow, Michael said. Never would have pegged a fallen angel for a believer.

I smiled. “I believe in myself,” I said. “And I believe in you.”

What’s so special about believing in me? he asked.

“I’ve looked inside your heart and mind,” I said. “I know you better than you know yourself.”

Ash, I, he said. I don’t know what to say. Thank you.

Swiftly, because I knew that time was fast dissolving, I reappeared next to him in the white room of his thoughts. He blinked and looked at my in surprise.

“Ash?” he asked.

I interrupted him as I grabbed the front of his shirt and pulled him against me and kissed him hard on the mouth. “I believe in you,” I said.

I looked at him, at this human who had been my slave, my victim, my host, and my friend. I saw him, in that moment, saw all that he was and all that he might go on to be, if he lived past this night. I saw in that moment a multitude of futures that might be his, all of them made possible by Morrigan’s capricious decision to make him my host.

Perhaps it hadn’t been so capricious a decision after all.

He touched my cheek then, but before we could say anything further, the physical world writhed, as if in revulsion, as though the world itself could sense the profound wrong lurking below the horizon.

He’s coming, Michael said with fear in his voice.

I looked up at the sky, and at the moon, which was no longer silver. It had become a deep, bloody crimson, looming high above in the night like a bleeding red eye.

“We’ve gotten his attention,” I said. “He will move quickly before the Seraph can find either of us.”

What does that mean? Michael asked.

“It means it’s time to go,” I said. We must go, quickly, before we are discovered.”

Morrigan isn’t here yet, Michael said.

“I know,” I said. “But we can’t wait for her. She knows the way to the Pit. She’s been there before. She will honor our arrangement.”

You hope, he said.

“Yes,” I said. “That’s my hope.”

I held my hand over the frozen ground before me. The ice cracked and shifted beneath my power. A fracture appeared and opened into a gaping hole, wider than I was tall. A cold wind began to blow from the portal, colder by far than the winter around us.

I thought it would be warmer, Michael said.

“Hell isn’t warm,” I said.

“Hell is cold,” I said. I stepped into the maw and began to fall.

Hell is cold, I thought to myself. Like ice.

Like death.

I was halfway down when something strong and sharp grasped me by the back of the neck and pulled me back out. I felt blood drip down my neck, strangely warm compared to the cold of the portal and I knew that I was about to die.

Oh shit, Michael said. I had just enough time to silently agree with his assessment.

I was flung away from the portal and onto the cold ground. I tried to summon my wings but something vicious slammed into me and I gasped. I pushed myself up on hands and knees and looked up at the Fallen Archangel.

Lucifer looked at me with madness in his eyes. I tried not to flinch, tried to meet his gaze, but it was impossible, like looking into the very heart of a furious star.

“Trying to run, my pet?” Lucifer asked. “Did you think I wouldn’t follow you back into the dark? Was that your plan? Try to hide in the one place you didn’t think I’d look for you?”

“How did you escape the Seraph?” I asked.

Lucifer’s eyes narrowed. “I didn’t escape it, little one. I trapped it. Bound it. Put it back where it belongs. It will not save you a second time.” He smiled. “We will not be interrupted again.”

I knew he wasn’t boasting. Lucifer might not have been able to destroy a Seraph in combat but he was more than capable of tricking one.

“Glad to hear it,” I said.

“What fun we shall have, you and I,” Lucifer said as he lifted me by the neck and held me up with one hand. His claws dug angry red lines in the skin of my throat.

I tried to reply but the crushing pressure cut me off.

“Something to say in your defense, my dear?” Lucifer laughed and released his grip on my throat. I fell to my knees in the snow and grasped at the punctures his claws left in my neck. Blood welled up between my fingers with alarming speed.

“Don’t you go trying to heal yourself now,” Lucifer chided. I felt my will drain out of me, my powers deplete. I felt emptied out, deflated almost, as though the majority of my very essence had just been stripped away from me.

“And don’t try to run,” he murmured, “because I will find you, no matter where you go.” He knelt down beside me and held my chin in his grip. “There are no more distractions to save you from me. Not this time, little one.”

When I didn’t answer him, he gripped my arm with his other hand and yanked it hard. I felt something dislocate in my shoulder and, without the buffer of my power to shield me, I was treated to the raw purity of unfettered agony. I clenched my teeth together and forced myself not to scream.

“Too proud to beg,” Lucifer seethed. “Too proud to scream for me, Ashariel? I could flay the skin from your stolen bones an inch at a time. I could pluck out your mortal’s eyes and force you to watch his suffering. There are so many things that I could do to you. To both of you. And yet, you won’t scream, will you?”

I said nothing.

“Why is that, I wonder?” Lucifer whispered. He clenched my chin and turned my face to the side, examining me. “I see you wearing this mortal shell and it sickens me. I see him there wrapped up inside your spirit like some precious little treasure and it sickens me.”

He stroked a long claw across my cheek, which drew a fresh, hot line that quickly ran red. “There is something inside you that cares for him, isn’t there? There is some measure of affection that you feel for this hairless ape, this flawed creature of dust and clay.” His voice became deliberate. “How it sickens me.”

I looked at him and tried to focus through the pain on my face and in my shoulder. “You’re jealous? Truly? Of a mortal?” I laughed, though it sounded more like a gasp of pain as Lucifer all but wrenched my arm out of its socket.

He laughed bitterly. “You could have been mine,” he snarled. “You should have been mine. I chose you; on the battlefield, for all of Heaven to see. Do you remember? Out of all Father’s angels, I chose you, just as Father once chose me.”

I didn’t say anything.

Fire returned to his eyes and I felt his claws tighten around my throat once again. I tried to retreat from the crushing pain around my neck, but I didn’t have the will to make it stop, to make it hurt less.

Michael, I said. I think we’re dying.

The edges of my vision began to turn red. The pressure of Lucifer’s grip was unbearable. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t resist. The only thing worse than the crushing pressure of his grip was the bright, hot lines of agony that his claws had carved into my skin.

I know, he said. It’s okay. I’m not afraid to die.

Sorry I didn’t take better care of you, I said. For some reason, I felt terribly ashamed of that fact.

It’s okay, he said.

You’re a good man, Michael, I said.

I should have protected him, should have been stronger for him so that he wouldn’t feel the need to be strong for me. I was an angel, or I had been, once, and that was what I was supposed to do, right? Be strong and fierce and powerful. I could have saved this one human. I should have at least saved this one human. Instead, I’d damned him right along with me, and why? Because I was afraid to do this alone? Because, deep down, I was afraid to die alone?

It was worth it, Michael said.

What was? I asked.

All of it, Michael said. I know I didn’t get to choose, but if I did, I would have chose you. I would have chose this.

I felt the surge of acceptance from him and I didn’t know what to say.

We looked out together, into the face of the devil leering over us as he crushed the life from our body.

“Even at the very end, you cling to him,” Lucifer hissed. “Disappointing.”

He splayed his claws wide and dug into my ribs. I felt the sharp talons pierce my borrowed flesh. Claws dug into the bones of my rib cage and finally, my endurance broke. I screamed, long and loud, pure agony finally given voice. I held nothing back.

Lucifer’s lips twitched and he sighed in contentment. “There it is,” he said. “There is the music I have waited too long to hear. Beautiful.” He withdrew his hand from inside my chest and his fingers were crimson with my blood.

Lucifer grinned. “Father was right, after all,” he said, eyes gleaming with madness. “It’s true what they say. We always hurt the ones we love.”

I felt as my ribs began to break. Pain so great it was like a white light filled my vision and I knew that I was dying, that this would be my final moment in this strange world that had grown to mean so much to me, in so short a time.

Sorry, somebody whispered. It might have been me. So sorry.

The last thing I saw, as my vision turned to white, was the image of a scarlet haired woman with serpent’s eyes standing behind Lucifer’s human form.

She was smiling.

Chapter Eighteen

Something cold and hard struck me in the face. It was a moment before I realized I was lying face down in the snow.

Weakly, I rolled over to one side and struggled to breath. Icy air lanced into my battered throat painfully as I gasped.

Michael? I asked.

I’m here, he said.

We’re not dead, I said. She came.

Relief flooded through me. She came.

She was here. I might pay a price later, undoubtedly would have to pay a price and perhaps the price would be too high. That didn’t matter now, though. What mattered now was that she was here and I was not alone before the cruel mercy of Lucifer the Morning Star.

“It is a pleasure to meet you at last, Lucifer of the Firstborn,” Morrigan said. “This is a pleasant surprise.”

“What are you?” Lucifer asked. “I don’t know you.”

“No, you don’t,” she said. “At least, not yet. You may call me Morrigan.”

I pulled myself up on my hands and elbows and looked up. I saw Morrigan looking relaxed against a backdrop of trees. She was dressed in warm clothes with a scarf around her neck. Her reptilian eyes seemed calmly amused.

“What are you?” Lucifer asked. His voice was flat and his eyes were that of a predator sizing up potential prey.

“We don’t need to go through all the details,” Morrigan said with a wave of her hand. “There are more things in Heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, after all.”

“You know my name,” Lucifer said. “You know what I am.”

“I do,” Morrigan said.

“You should have known better than to interrupt me,” he said. There was no warning save for the cold inflection of his voice. Lucifer the sadist was gone, replaced now by something far colder and infinitely more dangerous.

I tried to scream out a warning, but Lucifer too fast. He lashed out with bloodstained claws and opened Morrigan’s face in long, bright red lines. I watched her flinch and then fall to her knees. Crimson drops stained the stone beneath her.

“You are not mortal,” Lucifer said. “That blow would have killed a mortal. What are you? A new form of angel, perhaps? The latest of my Father’s creations?” He shook his head and answered his own question. “No. You do not have the stench of Heaven upon you.”

Morrigan lifted her head and looked at him. There was real pain in her eyes as she closed the wounds on her face and stood up to face him.

“I am not Firstborn,” Morrigan said. “I am not mortal.”

“It does not matter what you are,” Lucifer said. “You are nothing before me. These are your final moments. Enjoy them as you will.”

He struck her again and this time, he opened her skin from neck to navel. She fell backwards in the snow, hands clutching at the grievous wound, trying to keep her insides from tumbling out.

Why won’t she fight back? Michael wondered. What is she doing?

I didn’t know. I thought of the fleeting glimpse I’d held. There was something vast and powerful hidden beneath Morrigan’s mask. What was she hiding? More importantly, why was she still hiding it?

Lucifer grabbed Morrigan by the throat and held her before him. She thrashed and kicked in his grip. “Does she draw breath?” he asked. “Does she feel pain? She wears her own skin as a mortal does. Perhaps she will die as they do.”

Shit, was this the plan? Michael asked in my head. We are so screwed.

Lucifer’s lips curled back in a hungry smile. “I will make you sing for me, as I have made Ashariel sing. One song, sweet stranger, and then you may die.” He began to scythe through her neck with his claws.

That was the moment that something unexpected happened. From the corner of my eye, I thought I glimpsed something moving, something massive and furled in wings. For just a moment, I glimpsed something profoundly alien and unimaginably ancient.

Then the moment passed and there was just Morrigan, dangling from Lucifer’s grip, her blood gushing down through so many wounds.

Morrigan put one hand on Lucifer’s wrist and crushed it.

There was a loud snap as bones broke and Morrigan fell to the ground. She landed gracefully as her torn and ripped body mended itself back together..

Lucifer didn’t scream. It took only a moment for his pulverized bones to reform themselves.

“That hurt,” he said and I wasn’t sure whether his voice was filled with rage or fear.

“Let me show you what I am,” the Fey Queen said. “Let me show you my wings.”

Morrigan began to uncoil.

The image of a beautiful, red-haired woman melted away and became something massive and serpentine. Only her yellow eyes remained. Shadows curled around her as she grew in size and power. Her form was indistinct but within the writhing shadows, I caught glimpses of obsidian scales and gleaming teeth.

“In the beginning, there was light.” Morrigan said. “Your Father began with light. Though you are Fallen, you are still part of that light, despite all the darkness that you might wish to bring to the world. Your very name speaks to your purpose. You are Lucifer Morning Star. Lucifer the Light Bringer.”

“I am,” Lucifer said. “What are you?”

“I?” Morrigan sounded amused. “I am the darkness.”

She stood before him in the form of a massive, nightmarish serpentine beast. Despite her size and power, Lucifer did not tremble in her presence. The Prince of Hell was not afraid.

That was when the sky broke apart.

We all looked up at once as the low, sibilant roar rolled across us. It was a sound that both Lucifer and I recognized: the clarion call of the Prince of Heaven.

The world around us cried out in silent agony as the Gates of Heaven opened and an Archangel appeared in the sky above us.

“Lucifer!” Michael bellowed. The frozen trees around us seemed to wither and die in response. The Prince of Heaven wore a gleaming silver breastplate and a white helmet that obscured all but his flaming white eyes. A sword of silver flame rested in his hand. He didn’t seem to notice Morrigan or me, or else didn’t care. His eyes were locked on Lucifer’s.

“How very unfortunate,” Lucifer said, Black, leathery wings grew out from his shoulders and he kicked off from the ground. I saw him rise up towards Michael.

“Brother!” Lucifer called. “I did not expect to see you so soon! Tell me, how is Father? I have missed him so very, very much!”

Michael’s furious white gaze narrowed. “Your punishment has not ended, Betrayer,” the Archangel declared. “How is it that you are returned to this world?”

Lucifer smiled at Michael. “Oh, brother, you know I won’t give up my secrets that easily. You should at least try to wine and dine me before expecting me to give up anything.” He laughed. “Ashariel let me out of the cage. You remember darling Ashariel, don’t you?” He pointed down towards me.

Oh shit, Human-Michael said in my thoughts. This won’t end well.

I silently agreed.

Archangel-Michael didn’t even look at me. His burning white gaze remain locked on his brother. “All I see is my brother, for whom I loved above all else,” the Archangel said. “For whom I would have done anything.”

“Not anything, brother,” Lucifer said. “You did not join me when I asked.”

“No,” Archangel-Michael said. “I would not then and I will not now. You are wrong, Lucifer. Misguided. Our Father is not your enemy.”

“We were made first,” Lucifer seethed, “but he loved them best. I will not bow to the hairless apes. I will not bend my knee to them. They are flawed and broken things and I will make you see that. I will you show that Father was wrong.”

“I will not let that happen, Brother, “Archangel-Michael said.

“So be it,” Lucifer said. “Let it be war between us once again.”

“The war never stopped,” Michael said.

The world shook with fear as the Prince of Hell attacked.

Chapter Nineteen

I wish I could say that I stood my ground.

I wish I could say that, in the end, I did what was right.

I wish I could say a lot of things.

The sky above erupted into chaos as Lucifer and Michael waged war upon each other. The forest around us withered beneath the force of each titanic blow.

“Time to go,” Morrigan said as she took my hand. She’d shifted back to normal without me even noticing; I wondered if she’d done something similar to keep Archangel-Michael oblivious to her presence.

I looked from Morrigan to the portal that I’d opened and the darkness that lay concealed within its depths.

The Pit.

“No,” I said. “I can’t go back. I won’t.”

“You can,” she said. “You will.”

You were about to jump, Ash, Michael said. You were ready.

“I’m not ready to go back there,” I said. “I thought I was, but I’m not.”

“We do not have time for this,” Morrigan said. “We go. Now.”

I shook my head. “I can’t,” I said.

“Why?” the Fey Queen asked.

“I’m afraid,” I said. “I’m afraid to go back there. I’m afraid I’ll never find my way back out.”

Morrigan pressed her lips together in a tight smile. “I released you once,” she said. “I will not leave you to suffer the darkness. I have too much time and effort invested in you already.”

“What does that mean?” I asked. “When will you tell me why you chose me? Why me?”

“You must trust in me, Ashariel,” Morrigan said. “I will not abandon you.”

I wanted to believe her. I longed to believe her, I ached for it. I needed to believe in something. I needed to believe in her.

“Ashariel,” Morrigan said. “I am not your Father. I will not fail you. I will not leave you.”

“How can I know?” I asked. “How can I know that? How can I trust you when you mask all that you are in illusion and deceit? I don’t even know what you are.”

“Don’t you?” she asked.

I hesitated, afraid to answer. I thought of the fleeting glimpses I’d had of the thing she’d become.

“I think that you do,” she said. “I think you have begun to suspect and when you first began to imagine the truth, you recoiled from it. You hid from it. You told yourself whatever it was you wanted to believe about me, but there is already part of you that can no longer belief in your own lies. You are grateful for the gift of your freedom, but you feel that it’s just that: a gift. You are afraid to know what it was that gave you such a gift.”

She gestured out to the dying world around us, the forest of withering trees and the snow which had begun to melt away beneath the oppressive glare in the sky above.

“Your God learned that lesson with his second child,” the Fey Queen said. “You might say he got it right when he gave them the choice whether or not to return their gratitude for the gift of life. Is that not why you rebelled? Because you felt you had no choice?”

“It is,” I said, “because I didn’t have a choice. It was obey or be cast aside.”

“And yet you chose to forsake your home,” Morrigan said. “You abandoned everything: your father, your brethren, everything that you had, everything that you were, everything that you would have been, all gone.”

I glanced back at the battle above us. Lightning flashed out from Michael’s sword and pierced Lucifer. It was terrifying and inspiring all at once; despite myself, I remembered my last great battle, and despite my fear, there was part of me longed to join in the struggle, to feel that thrill of true combat one last time.

“It doesn’t matter now,” I said.

“I have given you a true purpose,” Morrigan said. “I gave you back so much more than your freedom from Hell. I gave you a reason to be. I gave you back your hope.”

I thought about that for a moment. She’d set me free. She put me in a mortal body and set me on the path that had brought me to this moment. She’d done many things for me and I knew I’d only begun to scratch at the surface of her game. Her gifts would not come without a price, I knew that. I knew it.

There was one thing she was wrong about. She hadn’t given me back my hope.

My hope had started to come back to life from the moment a human voice in my head gave me a new name and began the long, slow process of making me into something other than I had been.

There was so much power in names. So much power.

Michael had given me a new name.

Morrigan had hidden her name from me, as she had hidden everything. I couldn’t trust her.

“You’re wrong,” I said. “You’re wrong about me.”

“Perhaps,” she said. “It really doesn’t matter now.”

I looked at the Fey Queen’s reptilian eyes and tried to read the intelligence behind that eerily beautiful face. There was nothing there to read, just something ancient and alien that was only pretending to be a woman.

“What are you?” I asked.

“You already know,” Morrigan said.

“I don’t,” I said. “Not for certain.”

“We don’t have time for this,” Morrigan said.

“Then tell me quickly.”

“I could force you to follow,” she said. “You owe me a favor, after all.”

“I know that you won’t spend your precious favor on making me do this,” I said. “It’s worth more to you than this. Tell me what you are, Morrigan. Tell me what you really are. Tell me what I’m going to be following into the darkness of the Pit itself.”

In a voice so low I could barely hear her above the sounds of the Archangels’ battle, she murmured, “as you wish.”

I listened.

“In the beginning, there was only darkness,” Morrigan said. “And then there was your Father, the Light of Lights, the grand Maker. He brought forth the light. He made your Heaven and he made the Firstborn, and then he made the mortal universe, and all things in it. All things are of your Father’s hand. Everything, that is, except one. Before the light, there was the darkness. What created the darkness that existed prior to your Father’s light?”

I didn’t say anything. Something clicked in my mind, something important, something that felt like an answer to a question I had been unknowingly pondering my entire existence.

“And now you begin to wonder if perhaps you were lied to from the very beginning. Perhaps it did not begin with your Father and his light. Now you begin to wonder if something might have existed in that primeval darkness before your Father’s light.”

I felt something strange, an icy feeling in my chest, painful and poignant.

“There is more to this universe than Heaven and Hell,” Morrigan said. “There are the Fey. There are the dreams and nightmares of humanity, given form by a power that your kind cannot even begin to comprehend. There is the power of names and belief.”

I said nothing.

“And there was once a dark thing that lurked in the void, a nameless thing that watched as the light began. It watched as Heaven was made. It watched the birth of the first Archangel. It bore silent witness to the act of creation. It watched the Rebellion and it saw you fall. It saw everything from the darkness.”

“What are you?” I whispered. “What is your name? Your real name?”

“I call myself Morrigan, but that is not my name,” she said and smiled. “My true name is not for you to know. It would be a terrible thing, to be burdened with that knowledge. There are names for many things that I think you would prefer not to know. The name for the death of this world is Apocalypse, for example.

She looked at me and I saw, for the first time, truly saw the truth of the being behind her mask. I saw an infinite darkness behind her yellow eyes, darker than the void between the stars, darker even than the very depths of Hell itself. For a moment, I saw her as she truly was, as she had been before she’d strayed too close to the strange little bubble of reality my Father made.

I saw the thing she had been, unconcealed by shadow.

Huge. Vast beyond imagining. A black serpent with gleaming eyes and a maw wide enough to swallow worlds and too many wings.

“For things worse than that, however, your words fail you. They cannot begin to capture the terrible scope of what might be, of what will be. You do not have a word for the death of the universe,” she said. “You will not have a name for the darkness that I was before your God came to be.”

The death of a universe.

The death of everything.

Every angel, every Fallen, every human. My former brethren, Michael’s family, Michael himself, me. Snowy forests and imaginary beaches. All of it.

“Your God might survive,” Morrigan said.

“My Father is omnipotent,” I said. “He would not allow the destruction of his creation.”

Morrigan smirked. “He has not stopped the return of his wayward Fallen. He does not intervene when you rebel. He does not act to save his children. If he is truly your parent, he is a poor one.”

I didn’t have an answer for her.

“Perhaps your Father does not act because he cannot,” the Fey Queen said. “Or perhaps he chooses to not act and either result is the same for my purpose.”

“What is your purpose?” I asked. “What do you want, Morrigan? Do you intend to take Heaven for yourself?”

“I do not desire Heaven or its Throne,” Morrigan said. “I have my own agenda.”

“If you move against my Father, you would lose,” I said.

She smiled again. “As I am now, that is certainly true.”

“You could force me,” I said.

“I could,” she said. “I would rather that I did not have to. I would prefer to spend my favor wisely, instead of forcing you to do something you have already paid me to help you achieve.”

I wavered. I didn’t know what to do.

You chose this, Michael said in my thoughts. We need her. You need her. Trust her already and let’s go.

I looked at the battle in the sky, the clash of darkness and light, angel and demon. I thought about all that I was and all that I had been, once. I thought about the long, strange road that brought me to this moment. I thought about what I was.

Every demon was a fallen angel. But not every fallen angel was a demon.

“Follow me,” Morrigan said, and before I could reply, she stepped out into the portal in the broken ice. She dropped out of sight without a sound.

“Damn it,” I said as I looked down at the hole. “Damn it, damn it, damn it.”

I know you’re afraid, Michael said. It really was the wrong thing to say at that particularly moment.

“You don’t know,” I said. “You can’t imagine what it’s like, Michael.”

No, he said. I can’t. But you won’t be alone. Morrigan will be there. And so will I.

For some reason, I took a great deal of comfort from that.

“You’ll follow me into Hell?” I asked.

Of course, he said. It’s not like I have a choice, anyway.

“I would release you, if you asked it of me,” I said.

I’ll stay with you, Michael said. To the very end.

“Thank you,” I said. There wasn’t anything else to say at that point. I took a deep breath. I braced myself for what was about to happen.

I stepped into the portal and left myself fall.

There was a moment of vertigo as all of my senses tried to tell me that I was in too many places at once. My spatial awareness became all twisted and I was certain that I was flying and falling at the same time.

I spread my wings to control my fall, but nothing happened. Everything was too chaotic. There was nothing but a storm of wind and the terrible feeling that I was falling, falling, falling.         The darkness swallowed me whole.

I hit a hard surface with bone-shattering force and everything stopped. Agony lanced through me and I cried out.

“We are here,” I heard Morrigan say. Her voice echoed oddly around me.

I opened my eyes.

Oh shit, Michael thought in my head.

I knew this place. I had been here before.

I was on my back on a desolate hillside. Icy wind swept over grey rocks. There were no trees, no grass, and no life for as far as I could see. Tombstones dotted the hillside; every one of them was sadly forgotten.

The bleak hills were split by a massive iron wall that seemed to extend forever. The blackened metal was tarnished and slick with frost. Far over my head, metal spikes adorned its ramparts like so many teeth.

This wasn’t Hell. It was Hell’s border. This was the Great Iron Wall of Dis: the barrier that kept the Fallen imprisoned in darkness. The object of so many of my nightmares, the Gates of Hell stood shattered before me.

I took a moment to heal the damage to my body. Bones reknit themselves in a painful itch. It took almost a minute before I could rise to my feet.

“I don’t understand,” I said. “If the Gates are already open, where are the other Fallen?”

“Does it matter?” Morrigan asked. “If they have fled the prison, it will make our passage that much easier.”

I looked at the rows of tombstones, weathered and worn by age. I tried to recall those first few moments, that first instant when I felt my stolen human body for the first time in another graveyard in the mortal world. Everything felt so very, very different then. I was different.

I like the new Ash better, Michael said. For what it’s worth.

“I suppose you would,” I said. “This is partly your fault.”

My fault? Michael asked. I’m innocent in all of this. I’m a complete bystander.

“We are wasting time,” Morrigan said.

“Do you know the way?” I asked.

“I do,” she said. “Follow me. Stay close and I will keep you safe.”

I didn’t doubt her, not after what I’d seen.

I followed her through the shattered gates of Dis. I followed her into Hell.

Chapter Twenty

It felt wrong to be back. It felt cruel to feel the cold against my skin, to be reminded of the torturous embrace of my prison after tasting freedom for so brief a time.

It was a bitter cruelty, just the way Father would have wanted.

I took a little comfort in the knowledge that this would not be forever, not again. I was not alone.

There was nothing but darkness beyond the Gate. An unimaginably vast chasm yawned before me, so dark and deep that even I did not know what awaited us at the bottom. I felt the first tug of the Pit’s inexorable gravity and I began to panic.

“I don’t want to do this,” I said. “I can’t do this. I can’t go back.”

“It is already done,” Morrigan said. “You are already here. The only way out is to go forward, into the darkness.” She clasped my hand and her grip was like a vice.

“I can’t,” I whimpered.

“You will,” she said. “I will not let go.”

Morrigan stepped out over the Pit and leapt.

I had just enough time to panic.

And then we were falling.

The darkness sped around us and everything fell with us and there was nothing at all, no sound, no silence, no movement. There was only the descent into darkness.

I tried to slow my fall but the gravity of the Pit was stronger than any angel’s wings could ever be. I screamed in terror.

You scream like a mortal, Morrigan observed wryly, her voice echoing in my thoughts.

I didn’t answer. I couldn’t.

We stopped falling. It felt as though a massive hand had reached out and plucked us from our tumbling descent. For the briefest moment, I thought of my Father’s hand, the only thing I knew that was stronger than the Pit’s gravity.

It wasn’t Father’s hand that held me aloft. It was Morrigan’s. I looked up and saw her hanging in the darkness like a spider dangling from her web.

How did you do that? I wondered.

This world is not so different than the Dreaming Path, the Fey Queen said with the slightest sense of superiority. It was easy. You probably shouldn’t look down, by the way.

Like an idiot, I looked down.

The gaping, festering wound that was the Pit stretched out below me, seemingly into infinity. Its bitter wind battered me with gusts that felt and smelled like the breath of a corpse. Above the moan of the wind, I heard a cacophony of screaming voices.

What are those? Michael wondered.

Those are the cries of the damned, I said. Those are the souls with whom we share our Hell.

I tried not to listen, but it seemed impossible to block them out entirely. The most poignant were the newly damned, those who first awakened to their fate. No human, I suspected, ever really planned on going to Hell. All of them seemed surprised to find their fate.

There were worse sounds carried on the wind. Every so often, I heard the faintest whisper of laughter, a fleeting chuckle of dark amusement or a gasp of macabre pleasure.

The voices of the Fallen, I said.

It’s like a black hole, Michael said. A place so dark and dense that not even light can escape it. It’s like we’re caught in the event horizon of a black hole out in space. Nothing gets out. Nothing escapes.

Nothing, except her, Morrigan said. Are you well enough to continue?

I didn’t answer.

Hold it together, Ash, Michael said. You can do this. I believe in you.

I tried to cling to that thought, tried to hold it up as a shield to the horror all around me. I can do this, I said. Let’s go.

Morrigan released herself from her unseen perch and once more, we fell.

The wind screamed over me and for a long while, there was nothing but the fall itself. Down we went, deeper, darker, past the swirling mists of lost souls and the voices of demons lurking in the dark. We fell through ice and shadow, wind and regret, into the very heart of darkness. The tears in my eyes froze to shards of ice as I fell.

It felt as though we’d been falling forever.

Deeper and deeper, so far down now that even the screams of the damned were merely a memory. There was only the wind now. How far had we gone? How much farther did we have to go?

Maybe there wasn’t an end to this fall. Maybe the pit was infinite. Maybe we would fall forever.

It is a frightening thing for a winged creature, to fall so long and so helplessly. I feared it instinctively, feared what it meant, to fall so far and so long without any control. My wings couldn’t save me. Only the cold grip wrapped around my hand could slow my descent. Only she could pull me back out. I had to take it on faith that she wouldn’t simply leave me there when she was done with me.

I hated taking things on faith.

And then, with suddenness so abrupt it made me cry out, I hit the surface of a dark pool and went under. Cold wind was replaced by colder water as black as ink. My host body reflexively gulped down a lungful of water and I choked. I sputtered and flailed for a moment and then Morrigan’s strong hand hauled me up out of the water. She was hanging in the air just above the dark water, once more suspended by what seemed like a spider’s thread.

I summoned my wings and flapped once experimentally. Happily, I felt the air respond to me and I lifted myself out of the water. Hell’s gravity was lessened here; I could fly again. Everything around me was still, the water smooth save for the ripples I’d created.

“What is this place?” I asked. It looked like a vast, subterranean lake. Dark shapes, black against black, drifted beneath the surface of the water. Tiny candles off in the distance provided a faint source of illumination. I looked up but saw nothing, only more darkness.

Are we still in Hell? Michael asked. It was the first time he’d spoken in a while. I’d almost forgotten he was there inside me, sharing in all of this.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I think so, but it feels different. It doesn’t feel like we’re in the Pit anymore, but we must be. There’s no other explanation that makes sense.”

“This is the very deepest layer of Hell,” Morrigan said. “This is what lies at the heart of the Pit. It has its own name, though. In many ways, it is as different from Hell as Hell is from Heaven. Another world. Another reality.”

“I’ve never heard any of this before,” I said. “Where are we?”

Morrigan smiled, barely perceptible in the dark. “An old friend told me its name once,” she said. “The Silence of the Grave.” She gestured outward. “Look there.”

I saw a rocky island jutting out of the pool, perhaps thirty feet in diameter. Its surface looked muddy and cold. It was empty except for a single massive wooden door. The door was twice my height. It was sealed shut by a band of faint light.

“The Great Seal,” Morrigan said.

I breathed. “The resting place of the Four,” I said.

“Yes,” she murmured.

Shit, Michael said.

“Follow,” Morrigan said. She drifted towards the island and the door. I did as instructed. As I flew, I saw more shapes below me, floating serenely beneath the surface of the water. It took me a moment to realize what they were: bodies, hundreds and hundreds of pale human corpses floating just below the surface. I grimaced.

Is this a punishment? Michael asked. Are these more of the damned?

“I do not think so,” I said. “They are too composed. There is too much serenity in their faces. They seem to be at peace.”

Morrigan landed beside the great door. “Open it,” she said. “Hurry.”

I landed beside her and looked up at the massive door. There was no marking upon the dark wood. There was no keyhole. There was only the faintly glowing band of light, the Great Seal.

The Seal that had to be broken so the Apocalypse could begin. The Seal that I had to break so the Apocalypse could be rewritten.

How could I be certain, though? What if this was all a terrible mistake? What if I was wrong about everything?

I’d been wrong before and the consequences then had been severe. What if I was wrong and I condemned Michael’s world to the Apocalypse?

“It wasn’t supposed to be you,” Morrigan said, reading my hesitation for what it was. “Your Father never meant for you to stand here in this place with this burden on your shoulders. Another was meant to stand in this place and perform this deed. But instead, here you are. You are an unanticipated variable. You are a chaotic factor. You will change everything.” She smiled. “The chains of prophecy will be undone. All will be chaos.”

That doesn’t sound like a good thing, Michael said.

“There is freedom in chaos,” Morrigan said. “Indeed, it is the ultimate freedom.”

I knew she was right, or at least, I trusted her enough to hope that she was. The truth was I had chosen my side the moment Morrigan led me out of the Pit. My side wasn’t Heaven or Hell; I was on my own. I was the agent of chaos.

I wished fervently that chaos would be better for the world than good or evil ever had been.

The Great Seal waited for me, silent and still.

I approached it, my hand outstretched. The wood was damp and slightly spongy. I felt it pulse beneath my touch, as though something buried within the wood had awoken.

I drew out my power and channeled it into my palm. I held nothing back: there was a flash of light that split the air, followed a second later by a small sonic boom. The blast echoed out across the lake.

I looked at the door. Nothing had happened.

I slumped slightly. I wasn’t strong enough to break the Seal. It was foolish to think I could have done anything. An Archangel could have done it. Lucifer could have done it. Not me. I wasn’t strong enough. I’d failed.

“Try again,” Morrigan said.

I tried again. My power cracked the air and sent waves across the lake’s surface, but the door held firm. I tried again, and again, and again. Finally, I fell back away from the door and dropped to one knee. I had nothing left. I was utterly spent.

“Again,” Morrigan said.

I looked up at her. “I have nothing left,” I said. “I have held nothing back.”

“Again,” she said.

I shook my head, too tired to protest. Only a fool takes the same action over and over, hoping for change.

Morrigan reached down and pulled me to my feet. “Again,” she said, “with one difference. Do not focus your power with thoughts of destruction. Do not regard the Seal as something to be broken. Focus on creation. Focus on life. Try to open it, rather than destroy it.”

Focus again, Morrigan ordered. This time, focus on Creation, not destruction.

It seemed a pointless gesture. Power wasn’t something that concerned itself with intentions; it simply was. It didn’t matter what I thought it should be. Right?

I regarded the door again. I took a moment to appreciate the smooth lines of the wood. The surface was slick and cold. I felt the pulse of life again within the Seal. It was waiting for me. It wanted me.

I slid my hand to the center of the door, fingers splayed out.

I waited.

Who are you?

A new voice in my head. It was harsh and grating, like heavy slabs of stone sliding against one another. The Seal itself was speaking to me inside my head.

I am Ashariel, I said.

What else?

I am a fallen angel, I said.

What else?

What else was there? My name was all that was truly mine. It was the reason I was the way that I was. Everything about me came from that one word, that sole declaration of identity and self.

Except that wasn’t true anymore, was it? I had another name now, a new name, one that had been given to me, one that had begun to change me. I could feel the changes altering the edges of my thoughts. I wasn’t the same being who had crawled out of the Pit. I was changing. I was becoming something new.

I am Ashariel, I said. And I am Ash.

The wood shivered beneath my palm. I took my hand from it and stepped back.

There was a low groan of protest as wood scraped against wood. The door swung open and revealed an swirl of black ink.

I’d done it. The Great Seal had been opened.

From somewhere within the black depths, I heard something stir.

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