Chapters 21-22 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!
From the darkness, a horse cried out and another answered. Distantly, I heard a low, rumbling roar, followed by the clattering of hooves.
“They are coming,” I said.
“Indeed, they are,” Morrigan said with a smile.
“This is what you wanted, isn’t it?” I asked. “This is what you planned for, all along?”
“My dear,” she said slowly. “Believe me when I say that this is but the beginning.”
I was interrupted by the clarion call of a trumpet. The cavern walls shook in response.
“Just like in the human book,” Morrigan said.
“I’m surprised that you read it,” I said.
She shrugged. “I have drunk deeply of the dreams and nightmares of humanity. I have never obscured this from you.”
“No,” I said. “You told me that you were the dreams of humanity. You lied to me about that.”
She conceded the point with a slight nod. “So I did. But the Fey are very much the offspring of those dreams and I am very much their Queen. It is not so grave a lie as you are eager to believe.”
The trumpet sounded again.
It was impossible to say what the Four truly were; only what they were not. They were neither angels nor demons. Their power was greater than the Fallen, greater than the Archangels, greater even, I think, than the mighty Seraphim. They were the living embodiments of chaos and destruction. They were beyond reason, beyond mercy, beyond sense itself. Nothing would stop the Four from fulfilling their grim purpose.
At least, that’s what I’d been led to believe.
“You are frightened?” Morrigan asked.
I am, Michael said. It was the first time he’d spoken in a while. He’d grown so uncharacteristically quiet that I’d almost forgotten he was still there with me.
“I fear what I have unleashed,” I said. “I fear that I cannot stop what I have begun.”
“Peace, Ashariel,” Morrigan said. “You were the one who opened the Seal. They will obey you.”
The air around us became thick and vile with the stench of decay. It pressed down over me like a reeking cloud. It was the smell of plague and corruption, rotting flesh and festering wounds.
A horse and rider appeared in the doorway. The horse had no doubt been beautiful once, but now, its lustrous white fur had been befouled by open, oozing wounds that dripped with pus. Its eyes were rheumy and mucus dripped from its nostrils. Its rider was in a similar state of decay; his skin was pockmarked with lesions and boils. Flies buzzed around him like a black cloud. He looked as though he was rotting from the inside out. He rode through the door and stopped before me.
“Pestilence,” I said.
The Rider didn’t respond.
A figure in bloodstained plate armor appeared in the doorway. His horse was greased with blood and its eyes burned like embers. I could not see the Rider’s face through the armor of his plate helmet. He held an enormous sword, longer than I was tall, easily in one hand. He rode through the open door and took his place beside his brother. Silently, he looked down at us.
“War,” I said.
I heard a shriek of crows taking flight, their cawing eerily warped and distorted. The air rippled with the sound of frantic, unseen wings. A large, black-scaled claw reached through the open door. I stared up in amazement as the door itself widened in response to allow the Rider’s passage.
The scaled beast was massive, easily twice the size of the other horses. Its scaled form was emaciated, its scales wrapped tightly against its ribs. Oversized fangs protruded from its gaping maw and its wings were folded back.
For a moment, I was reminded of Morrigan’s true form, serpentine and black, but this creature was far more ferocious, far more bestial. Its eyes gleamed with the frenzy of a starving animal. Nevertheless, it was a dragon.
The Rider himself worn a tattered leather jacket. His face was sunken and painfully thin; his cheekbones stood out from his face at sharp angles. His long, stringy hair was the color of old straw. He guided his mount to its place beside his brothers.
“Famine,” I said.
There was no sound to herald the arrival of the final Rider. He approached the door in graceful silence. The pale horse he rode was a living skeleton, its bones flexing as it trotted through the door. The undead steed seemed more benign than frightening, however. It looked at us with the placidity of a normal horse.
The Rider was a curious mixture of the archaic and the modern. Like his mount, he appeared to be little more than a skeleton. He wore a modern business suit that was charcoal-grey in color. Bony fingers held a farmer’s scythe that rested against his shoulder. His face was a human skull. His eye sockets were illuminated by a soft glow.
“Death,” I said. My voice was little more than a whisper now.
The Pale Rider took his place beside his brothers. The Four stared down at me in silence. They seemed to be waiting for me to speak.
Now what? Michael asked.
I had no idea. I looked to Morrigan, hoping she had some idea.
“They are yours to command,” she said.
“What do I tell them to do?” I asked.
Morrigan placed her hand on my shoulder. “Come now, my dear,” she said. “You know the answer to this question; you are a warrior. These Four are your army. Command them to do as armies are wont to do. Turn them loose on your enemies. That was what we came here for, was it not?”
Turn them loose?
She was right; that had been our goal. But now, to stand before the Four and feel their terrible presence, it seemed like it was too much.
I wanted to stop the monsters. How much more a monster would I be if I unleashed these beasts upon the world? What would happen to the mortals who stood in their paths?
“Innocents will die,” I said.
“There are no innocents,” Morrigan said. “There is no turning back. There can be no regrets. This is necessary. Turn them loose.”
“I can’t,” I said. “I won’t.”
“You won’t?” Morrigan turned on me with such sudden anger that I took a step back in surprise. She rounded on me with the fury of a viper. “I will show you what is happening in the world above. The war has already started, little one. There is no turning back now.”
She grabbed my arm and pulled me against her. I stumbled, caught off guard, and when I fell into her arms, I found myself flung upwards out of the world of the subterranean lake. I flew upwards with such dizzying speed that my mortal body groaned under the stress and threatened to rip itself apart. I held on through sheer angelic force of will.
I looked around and saw myself caught up in the massive coils of the serpentine thing that was Morrigan’s true form. She was dragging me back to the world.
Morrigan uncoiled violently and threw me to the ground. I tumbled down and landed in a heap. The impact knocked the breath from my lungs and I gasped for air.
The first breath was painful in my lungs but it tasted clean and pure and whole. We were out; out of the Pit. She’d taken me back to the world, just as she promised.
“Just as I promised,” Morrigan said, her voice a low murmur. She was wearing her human form again. She grabbed my head and directed my gaze to the sky.
At that moment, the sky burst open in a blinding flash of white light that eclipsedout the starry night. I heard the clarion call of a horn, but this was more beautiful than the skrill cry of War. It was answers by another and then another.
“What’s happening?” I asked.
“The war began without you,” Morrigan said. “Heaven and Hell have gathered all their armies. It will be an even fight without the Four.”
Somewhere above us, a horn blew a final note.
For a moment, everything was bright, clear and perfectly still.
The armies of Heaven and Hell emptied out into the world, their voices joined together in one long, resounding cry. Angels and demons filled the air, too many to count.
The war had begun.
“This is the world’s fate,” Morrigan said. “Things cannot be as they were. You cannot stop it. You cannot make things as they were. All you can do, little one, is hope to introduce enough chaos to change the outcome. Do you see?”
I didn’t answer her. I saw the Archangels leading the charge with Michael and Gabriel at the head of the angelic host. I wondered briefly where Raphael was.
Lucifer led the host of Fallen. He was flanked by the Archdevils Belial and Azazel. It was the first time I’d seen so many of my brethren together since the Rebellion.
“I don’t know what to do,” I whispered. I turned my voice inward, towards Michael. What do I do?
Ash, I, he began. I don’t know.
I don’t want to be the reason your world dies, I said.
I think it’s too late for the world either way, he said. Those guys look like they mean business.
I laughed weakly. He was right.
I realized then that I’d been led to this moment and that this was not my opportunity for freedom. It was all part of one big game: Morrigan’s game. She’d been using me as her pawn from the very beginning. I looked at her and met her gaze. She could see the realization in my eyes.
We both knew that this was checkmate.
I closed my eyes.
“Go forth,” I whispered to the Four. Somehow, I knew they could hear me even from the very depths of Hell. “Go forth and let none stand in your paths.”
I heard the whinny of a horse and the rush of too many wings. I smelled the pungent odor of decay and felt the strange serenity of the grave.
“They are coming,” I said.
I looked up at the armies of Heaven and Hell. I looked at those who had been my brethren once, my fellow rebels. I looked at the being that had once been my shining star, my beacon of hope. I looked at the family that betrayed me and the cause that had destroyed me.
I looked at the angelic host that was meant to protect this world and its mortals. I looked at the Archangels who were meant to save everybody but had not been there to save me.
Nobody had been there for me.
“They are coming, you bastards,” I whispered to the armies of Heaven and Hell. It didn’t matter that Morrigan had played me for a fool, not at that moment. I might not have been able to prevent the decimation of the world but at least I would have my revenge against those who’d wronged me. “They’re coming for you all.”
It wasn’t much.
I felt the ground rumble. The earth bucked and heaved beneath my feet. I spread my wings and leapt into the air as a sinkhole opened beneath me. Morrigan flew beside me.
I looked down and saw the Four emerge from the Pit.
Pestilence, War, Famine, Death.
“Go,” I whispered. “Kill them all.”
“What happens now?” I asked Morrigan.
She’d taken us to a human hospital. It was a stark white building, brightly lit, and bustling with frenzied confusion. I saw humans rushing about, carrying in the wounded, the plagued and the dead. Lights and sirens pierced the night and all around, I could hear shouting, screaming, and crying. None of them knew what had been unleashed, and it did not matter even if they did; the knowing would not save them from what was to come.
“Most of them will die,” Morrigan said. “The rest will be scattered and broken. The Apocalypse will end before it even began.”
“What about the world?” I asked. “What about humanity?”
“What about them?” she asked. “Your mortal is safe. Do the others matter?”
“They matter,” I said. Morrigan smirked.
“At least you were able to save one,” she said. “Lucky him.”
“You used me,” I said.
“I did,” she said.
“You don’t need to know why. Not yet.”
I stared at her. “You’re not done with me yet?”
She smiled again. “Not yet.”
Tell her she can go screw herself, Michael said.
“Unwise, child,” Morrigan said. “Do not provoke me.”
I’m not afraid of her, Michael said. That was a lie. He was deathly afraid of her. So was I, for that matter.
“What happens to me now?” I asked.
“Now?” she echoed as though the thought hadn’t occurred to her. “For now, my dear, you are free. You won’t be hunted; I daresay Heaven and Hell have much larger problems to deal with than you. You’re free.”
Free. Yes, free to wander a shattered world; how very thrilling. Still, it was better than the Pit. I thought of Michael’s presence, safe and sound inside me. At least I had that.
“We will see each other again,” Morrigan said.
“I hope not,” I said.
She laughed. “Until next time, my dear Ashariel.”
“One more thing,” Morrigan said. “Consider this a parting gift.”
She reached out and pressed her hand against my forehead. Her fingers passed harmlessly through my skin and grabbed something spectral inside my host’s skull. I felt a stab of pain in my forehead and my vision spun dizzily. I fought through the vertigo and suppressed the urge to vomit.
When my vision cleared, I saw Morrigan looking at me. Something was different, though. I realized after a moment that we were now the same height. That was strange; in Michael’s body, I’d been several inches taller than her.
“You may not believe me now when I say this but I am grateful for everything that you did for me and everything that you will do,” Morrigan said. “Consider this my way of saying thank you. Enjoy the gift.”
For a moment, I didn’t understand. Not until I heard a surprised cough behind me. I turned to look and I saw Michael standing there in the hallway, looking dazed.
He shook his head and stared at me for a moment. Neither of us spoke.
“Ash?” he asked finally.
I looked down at my hands. They were smaller than Michael’s hand been and softer. The nails were clean. I reached up to touch my face. It wasn’t Michael’s face that I felt. Before I could do anything else, Michael rushed towards me and embraced me tightly. I had a moment to gasp in surprise before he enveloped me in his arms.
“This must be a dream,” he said. “I’m dreaming again? This is another one of your worlds, right?”
“It’s not,” I said. The sound of my voice surprised me. It wasn’t Michael’s voice anymore.
I peeked out from around the curve of his arm and saw a long, reflective pane of glass at the end of the hallway. It wasn’t a perfect reflection, but even from there, I could see the image of the woman in Michael’s arms. She was pretty and slender. Her dark eyes matched the color of her hair.
“This is real?” he asked.
“It’s real,” I said.
“Morrigan’s gift?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. “Morrigan’s gift.”
I could feel the knowledge in my mind now. She’d implanted it in my thoughts as easily as planting a sapling in fertile soil. It was a little knowledge of Creation; how to incarnate in a body that was entirely my own.
This was me now.
“Hello, Michael,” I said. “It’s nice to finally meet you in person.”
He smiled at me and hugged me tightly.
I lowered my eyes, smiled, and kissed him for the very first time.