Unrepentant: Chapters 23-30

Sorry for the two weeks of missed updates! As a way of keeping up (especially for my Patreon supporters), I’m going to make today’s update twice as large as normal. This post contains Chapters 23-30. Enjoy and sorry for being so lazy for two weeks!

Part II: Michael

Chapter Twenty-Three

The Apocalypse began last night, and it was my girlfriend’s fault.

That felt weird to say. The girlfriend part, not the thing about the Apocalypse.

The idea that Ash, that Ashariel, rather, was my girlfriend, that she’d even want to be with somebody like me, well, that just didn’t seem to sync up with my image of her. For one thing, it sounded so very human. It was so very normal, two words I wouldn’t use to describe her.

And yet, the end of the world as we knew it had arrived and thanks in large part to the efforts of my fallen angel girlfriend, I was still alive.

I guessed all the people who took this Apocalypse thing seriously were out looting and rioting, or else tucked away in churches praying their little hearts out. I supposed I could have joined them, but it just seemed wrong. You couldn’t really say I had faith in God, because faith wasn’t for those people who’d had a fallen angel wearing their body like a puppet for the past several days. God, had it really only been a week? It seemed like a lifetime had already come and gone.

I didn’t have faith anymore because I’d seen too much to believe. I knew.

I knew what it felt like to be possessed by a fallen angel. I knew what it Hell was. I knew the face and form of Lucifer. I didn’t just believe in these things. I had seen them.

I was standing in a line of one at the counter in a hastily abandoned convenience store. Most of the shelves were still supplied, although I could tell that at least a few looters had already been through here. I wondered what happened to the employees. Hopefully, they’d just gone home or something.

The beer under my arm was still cold, though, and that was something. The lights in the dingy little store were all on, too, and when I checked my watch, it was just a hair past eight in the evening. I wished there was somebody here to ring up my purchase. Otherwise, I’d have to help myself. I’d never stolen anything before and the Apocalypse seemed like a bad time to start.

On the other hand, it was not as though the crumpled bills in my pocket was going to matter anymore. I set the beer on the unmanned counter and looked at my own fish-bowl reflection in the security mirror above the register.

“Thanks for shopping at, uh,” I said to the empty counter and glanced around. What convenience store was this, anyway?

“Whatever-mart,” I concluded. “Enjoy the rest of your life.”

“Thanks,” I said to my distorted reflection. “I will.”

I laid a twenty on the counter and walked out the door into the cool evening air.

I heard sirens somewhere in the distance. I saw the glow of a fire out on the horizon. I heard the murmur of a riot in progress somewhere downtown. Just another night in a big city, except for the fact that the moon was twice its normal size and its blood-red hue tinted the night sky in a rather macabre shade of crimson.

I opened a beer and looked at it, hoping for answers.

I took a long sip, grimaced at the bitter taste, and swallowed.

What the hell was I doing? I didn’t even like this particular brand of beer.

I’d needed to go somewhere after the hospital. I’d needed something that was normal and unfortunately for me, there was nothing as normal as going to a convenience store late at night. There was a cold comfort to being one of those night owls, those lost souls who frequent the all-night diners or the twenty-four hour booze shops: every other person you saw was, in their own way, just as lost and sad as you.

I’d told Ash I needed to go to the store. I didn’t tell her she couldn’t follow me but she was perceptive enough to sense that I needed my space. Or maybe she had something else on her mind; I thought I heard her say something about getting a car. That was fine with me. I didn’t want to stick around long here anyway, but I’d be damned if I’d let her carry me out of here on her angel-wings. It was terrifying enough when she was possessing me.

At the time, getting a breath of fresh air and getting a little space had seemed like a good idea. I needed a moment to myself, I needed time to think. It was difficult to process the emotions of a fallen angel kissing you one moment while simultaneously realizing that everyone and everything you ever knew was either destroyed, or about to be.

So I’d gone off on my own and for a while, I just walked down empty streets until I’d found the convenience store. Now, though, I regretted my decision to wander off on my own. In my own way, I’d gotten used to being Ashariel’s host and gotten used to the idea that as long as she was inside me, I was basically immortal. I could fly on razor-sharp wings, I could heal from any injury, and I could generate these blasts of pure power on demand. The fact that it wasn’t really me doing those things hadn’t really factored into it; my body was the one sporting the razor-wings, after all.

Now, though, I felt vulnerable. I was back in control of my own body but I felt naked without the presence and power of the fallen angel. I glanced down at my hand and remembered when it had contained the power to rip a man apart without effort.

This was a bad part of a city even before the Apocalypse had started; you could tell that just from the old graffiti and the general feeling that better men had given up on this neighborhood a long time ago. I didn’t even know which city we were in, other than it was on the east coast. Or maybe it was the west coast?

There were worse things out there to be afraid of than rioters and desperate people. There were angels and there were demons and there were the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse. Running into any one of those people without my fallen angel girlfriend meant I was screwed three times over.

The worst part was a little voice in the back of my head. I’d gotten used to having a strange voice in my head after playing host to Ashariel, but this voice was something different. For one thing, it was masculine and it wasn’t a voice I remembered. It wasn’t really saying anything in particular, just this nagging little feeling. The kind of feeling that made me want to smash someone’s head open with a brick, just to see what the blood and brains and bone would look like under this red moonlight.

It was a very odd sort of feeling to have. I tried to ignore it, which wasn’t too difficult as I wasn’t normally that violent-minded of a person. I wondered, though, about all the other decent, law-abiding citizens of this fine, nameless American city. I wondered how many of them might not be so adept at tuning out their nagging little murder voices.

As if conjured by my own musing, I heard the scuffle of shoes on asphalt behind me. I turned and saw a man in faded blue denims and cowboy boots. He had a red bandana tied over his fist. Blood dripped through the bandanna and down his arm. Aside from those details, however, he looked perfectly normal. We made eye contact and he gave me a nod.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hey,” I called out. “Is that your blood?”

He grinned and revealed a mouth of yellow teeth. “Nah,” he said. “Belonged to the last guy.”

“What happened to the last guy?” I asked. Quietly, I wondered where this excess of nerve was coming from. Seriously, who was this cold-as-ice bad ass standing here in an empty gas station talking casually to a bloody-handed man? I wasn’t some tough guy; I had a hard enough time sticking up to pushy customers.

“He made a fuss,” Red Hand Man said.

He held up his other hand and it, too, was stained with red. There was also a knife in his hand. It seemed a little funny to me that the knife was the second thing I noticed.

“Are you going to make a fuss?” Red Hand Man asked.

I looked at the beer bottle in my hand. The strange murder-voice in my heaad told me to crack it over his skull. That charming little notion was coupled with some half-remembered bit of worldly advice that in a brawl, a broken bottle was more dangerous than a knife. A bottle had more cutting edges or something like that.

I looked from my bottle to the knife in Red Hand’s grip and wondered who the hell had believed that little pearl of wisdom.

“No fuss here,” I said with calm that I didn’t understand. “Do you want my wallet?”

Red Hand Man grinned and took another step. “Maybe in normal times, sure,” he drawled. “But these aren’t normal times, you know? These here are the End Times, and that means I give shit all about your pocket full of dead presidents, you know what I am saying?”

“Yes,” I said. “I believe I know what you were saying.”

I guess he hadn’t meant for me to actually answer that rhetorical question, because my response seemed to offend him. “Shut up,” he growled. “You think you’re so smart?” It sounded so much like a line from a bad movie that I couldn’t stop myself from smiling.

“You think this is a fucking joke?” Red Hand asked. “Let’s see how funny you think it is when I cut you some new holes, shithead.”

“They say a broken bottle is more dangerous than a knife,” I said. I showed him the beer in my hand, which was both full and sadly intact.

“I guess you should of taken the time to break it then, instead of running your smart ass mouth,” Red Hand said. He lunged.

Shit, was this really how I was going to die? Had I really been through Hell only to be killed by some knife-wielding hick just because? It seemed so unfair that I could scarcely believe that this was how I was going to die.

But it did indeed seem to be happening nonetheless and I watched as he advanced on me and thrust the knife at my sternum.

I wondered if this was a dream. It would make sense; in my opinion, I was far too calm about the whole thing. And then Red Hand Man stabbed me and I felt the impact of the knife go through my shirt and into my ribs.

I gasped. There was a long pause. To my surprise, it didn’t really hurt that much aside from the impact itself. I decided to look down to see what my blood looked like but there was no blood on my chest.

“What the holy hell?” Red Hand Man asked. “What the fuck?”

He drew his knife hand back and stabbed me again, right above the kidney. I watched as the knife punctured my shirt and glanced off my skin as though I were made of steel instead of soft flesh.

“Neat,” I said.

My would-be killer didn’t seem to think so, and neither did the slender, dark-haired woman standing behind him. The slender, unnaturally beautiful woman who was maybe five-five and no more a buck-twenty dripping wet. The woman who looked like she’d stepped out of my dreams, with her piercing eyes and firm ass. The woman who was my new girlfriend, officially, as of today. The woman who wasn’t even human, not really, who had just learned to make herself look like one thanks to the gift of knowledge from an incredibly ancient entity called Morrigan. The woman who cared for me for some strange reason and also happened to be a fallen angel.

“Hey, Ash,” I said and smiled at her.

She didn’t answer me. It was still a little weird, seeing her as a separate being. I had gotten used to sharing a body with her, except when we had face-to-face meetings in my dreams. She looked entirely normal except for the angelic wings that had sprouted from her shoulders, wings that resembled overlapping blades more than feathers and yes, they were as sharp as they looked.

“What the hell are you?” Red Hand Man asked.

“You would have killed him,” Ash said. Her voice was flat.

“Yeah,” Red Hand Man said. “I guess it didn’t work, though.”

“No,” Ash said. “I guess it did not.”

“I think maybe you had something to do with that?” Red Hand Man asked.

“Yes.”

“Good,” he said and thrust the knife at her ribs.

She twisted to the right and slashed down with one razor-wing. I heard a metallic sound and the knife tumbled from the man’s hand, severed cleanly into two pieces.

“Nice control,” I said. “Not cutting off his hand like that.”

They both ignored me.

“A human just like you tried to kill me once,” Ashariel said. “It was my very first night on earth, in fact.” She pressed the blade of her wing against the man’s throat. A thin line of blood trickled down his neck. He stood perfectly still.

“I have not been amongst humans for very long,” she said, “but in this short time, I have seen that you are far more akin to my kind than you are different.”

Red Hand Man grinned. “Yeah?” he asked, smiling despite the blade against his neck.

Uh oh, I thought. When it comes to Ash, any comparison to her kindred can’t be a good thing.

“Indeed,” she said. “Like angels, humans have the potential for arrogance and cruelty. You possess the impulse to dominate and visit harm upon those that are weaker than yourself. I know what you would do to me if I was a normal woman. I can see it in your mind, buried beneath the fear. Like me, you are a monster.” She stepped towards him, not removing her wing from his neck. They were so close that either one could reach out and touch the other without much effort.

“Give me one reason why I shouldn’t separate your head from your body,” she said. “Give me one reason.”

I wondered what the man would say. Maybe that he had a family? Maybe he’d beg for his life? Those were the typical clichés, right?

“I’m a good man at her,” he said. “You don’t want to kill a good man.”

“Are you?” she asked, one eyebrow arched.

I didn’t see what Red Hand Man had palmed in his other hand until he pressed his body against Ashariel and drove the second knife into her throat. She staggered a little in surprise and let out a gasp that was choked with blood. Her wing dropped away from his neck.

“Yeah, bitch,” Red Hand Man said. “Yeah, I’m a good man.” He pulled the knife out of her neck and drove it into her chest.

She caught his wrist and despite the fact that her hand wasn’t large enough to encircle his completely, broke his arm in a single fluid motion. She pressed her razor-wing against his neck. Red Hand Man had just enough time to scream before he was decapitated.

I closed my eyes a second before I heard the sound of his head hitting the ground. A moment later, there was a second, heavier thud. I knew it was his body.

I opened my eyes to see Ashariel looking down at the dead man. Blood rushed from the wound in her neck.

“You’re, ah,” I fumbled. “You’re bleeding a little.”

“Oh,” she said. “Right.” She touched her hand to her neck. White light surrounded her fingers and for a moment, I heard a fizzing sound that reminded me of hydrogen peroxide. When she took her hand away, the wound was gone, although she was still stained with blood, both hers and the dead man’s.

“You killed him,” I said.

She looked up at me. “I did.”

“It was totally justified, though,” I said. “He tried to kill both of us. Call it self-defense.”

“Actually, he did kill both of us,” she said. “You would be dead if I hadn’t protected you. The wound he dealt me would be fatal if I was mortal.”

I smiled a little. “I’m glad you’re not.”

She nodded. “Yes.” Her expression was hollow. She looked weary.

“What’s wrong?” I asked like the idiot that I am.

“I have found that the more time I spend with humans, the more it bothers me to see a human die,” she said, “even those who deserve it. Especially those who deserve it.”

“Why?” I asked.

She shook her head and didn’t answer.

“Sorry,” I said after a long, uncomfortable silence. “That was a stupid question. I’m stupid for asking.”

“It’s not stupid, it’s human,” Ashariel said. She gave me a small smile.

“Those words might as well be synonyms,” I said.

“Perhaps,” she said. She eyed the carton of bottles I held. “Did you get what you came for?”

“Yeah,” I said. The beer seemed like a small and pathetic thing now. If I hadn’t wandered off on my own, maybe this wouldn’t have happened. I couldn’t take it back though. Even Ash, despite all of her angelic power, couldn’t take it back. Fallen angels can’t rewind time any more than puny humans can.

“Do you want one?” I asked. I offered her the unopened bottle in my hand.

She took it without much enthusiasm. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” I said. I didn’t know what to say after that. She was covered in blood and there was a dead man at her feet and I had just given her a beer. I took a second bottle from the back and twisted the cap off. “Cheers,” I said.

“Cheers,” she said.

We both drank and that was the end of that.


 

Chapter Twenty-four

We stole a truck. It was a late model pickup, navy blue in color. I’d asked her if she knew how to hotwire a car, because I didn’t. She’d given me a smirk, worked a little of her newfound angel magic and there was a key in her hand. I knew it would work even before she inserted it into the lock.

I was riding shotgun. She was driving. I hadn’t asked where she had learned to drive.

The road out of the city was littered with burnt and abandoned cars. I didn’t think we’d make it through but Ashariel swerved and wove through the wrecks and soon we were out of the urban wasteland and into a long stretch of highway surrounded by farmland on both sides.

“I think you’re driving a little too fast,” I said at one point.

“Too fast for what?” she asked without taking her eyes away from the road.

“You’re not supposed to drive faster than your headlights,” I said. “I learned that somewhere. That’s a rule.”

She kept the accelerator pressed to the floor despite the darkness. Her reflexes were fast enough that when the first abandoned vehicle appeared out of the dark, she made a slight readjustment and avoided it. Her expression never changed. I forced myself to relax a little.

We didn’t see any other cars on the road in either direction. I rolled down the window. The night air was cool and a little damp, as though a thunderstorm had ended not long ago. The roar of the wind was deafening, though, so after a few deep breaths, I rolled the window back up.

I wondered if we were the only people out on the road. Where was everybody else?

“Probably all locked up in their basements with their shotguns and their ten-year stashes of beans,” I said, mostly to myself. Ash didn’t say anything, not that I expected her to. Things felt different between us now that she had her own body. It occurred to me that she didn’t need me anymore and that made me nervous, and not just because I knew I couldn’t survive without her. Even though she’d kissed me in the hospital, I couldn’t shake the feeling that she was getting ready to leave me.

I glanced over at Ash and studied her face for a moment. I looked at the way her eyes were straight forward, the way she sat ram-rod straight in her seat, and the way she had both hands locked on the steering wheel in the correct position, nine-and-two, or whatever the hell it was supposed to be. I found myself wishing that I was still her host and that Morrigan hadn’t taught her how to create her own body. At least then I’d be useful to her, instead of just feeling like dead weight.

The miles passed. I tried the radio but there was static on every channel. The truck had a CD player but the previous owner hadn’t thought to leave any CDs behind. It probably would have all been country music anyway. There was nothing to look at out the window except the bloody moon looming over the horizon and even that lost its novelty after a while. I had to break the silence.

“Okay, Ash,” I said. “Talk to me about something.”

She didn’t look away from her driving. “What would you like to talk about?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Anything. Is there something you’d like to talk about?”

“You’re the one that asked,” she said.

I sighed. “Yeah, I know,” I said. “The thing is, the silence is making me crazy. I need something to take my mind off things. I need something normal, you know? If I think about everything that’s happening, everything that already has happened, I think I’ll lose my mind.”

There hadn’t been much time for self-reflection since I’d become Ashariel’s host. I didn’t want to start thinking about the life that had been taken from me.

“Any idea where we’re going?” I asked.

“Does it matter?” she asked.

“I suppose not,” I said, trying to keep my tone light. “It just that, if this was all just some fallen-angel-wanting-to-be-human’ joyride, you would have stolen a more impressive car.”

“Is that so?” she asked. She sounded amused.

“Absolutely,” I said. “A fallen angel on a joyride would go for something with at least eight vee’s in the engine. Something with power, speed, and sex appeal.”

“Michael, what does that mean? Eight vee’s?”

“I have absolutely no idea,” I said. “I’m not even sure that’s a real thing.”

We laughed together and the mood in the truck lightened a little.

“We’re not going anywhere,” Ashariel said.

“Well, that’s not true,” I said. “We’re clearly going somewhere.” I motioned out the window towards the seemingly infinite rows of corn that we were speeding past.

“I do not have a destination in mind,” Ashariel said with an edge in her voice. Anxiety? Was that anxiety I heard?

“Okay, so no destination,” I said. “That’s not a problem. We’re just out for a lovely drive under the lovely new red moon.”

She smiled again and my thoughts turned fuzzy and mushy. Damn, I thought I was coming out of the whole puppy-dog attachment thing I’d been developing when my world had consisted of wish fulfillment and raw screaming terror. During my possession, she’d seemed more like a goddess than an angel. I guess I convinced myself what I felt for her, after I stopped hating her, was love.

Upon regaining my own body, I reflected on the fact that maybe love was a bit too strong of a word for what I felt. I’d resolved to clearly dial things back, especially now that Ash was trying out life as a human on her own two feet instead of mine. I thought I’d had things under control. I thought I was at least back in control of myself, except that whenever our eyes met, my thoughts stammered and my pulse raced.

I didn’t question why I felt the way that I did. Even without the intimacy of her literally inside of me, she was still my entire world. Without her, I’d just be one more idiot wandering the desolate streets until somebody a little bit luckier than Red Hand Man managed to finish me off.

“I’m glad we’re not flying, at least,” I said. “That’s an improvement.”

She arched an eyebrow. “You don’t like flying?”

“It was hard enough getting used to it when you were wearing me like a suit,” I said. “At least then the wings were attached to me. I don’t think I could handle the idea of flying with only your grip to keep me from splattering on the ground.”

“I have a very strong grip,” she said. “I would not drop you.”

“It’s a primal fear,” I said. “It’s something in my bones. Thousands of years of evolution just haven’t prepared a man to get carried through the air in somebody’s arms, Super-man movies notwithstanding.

A thought occurred to me. “Ash,” I said slowly. “Are we running away?”

“No,” she said. There was a long pause. “Yes.”

“Ah,” I said. “May I ask what we’re running from?”

“War,” she said.

“There’s war all around us,” I said. “Unless you meant war as in War. You know, with the capital letter and everything. The guy on the red horse.”

“Yes,” she said.

Oh.

Shit.

“The human who attacked you,” Ash said.

“That was War?” I asked. “No way. That guy went down like a punk.”

She sighed and I had the sneaking suspicion she was frustrated with my ignorance. “The human was touched by War’s presence,” she said. “That is the unique power of the Four. They are not merely incarnations of strife and violence; they are harbingers of that which they embody. War was nearby which means that it is prudent for us to be elsewhere.”

That made sense. War would inspire violence in others, Pestilence would create plagues, and Death . . .

I shuddered. Come to think of it, Death made the other three somewhat obsolete, didn’t he?

“War was close,” she said. “He inspires bloodlust wherever he goes. We are fortunate that we did not attract his attention.”

“Wait,” I said. “You were the one that let them out. I thought you could control them?”

“I turned them loose,” she said. “But once unleashed, they are a force of nature. They are a storm. They cannot be controlled. They can only be evaded.”

“That’s what we’re doing now?” I asked. “We’re evading?”

She gave a short nod.

“I don’t suppose you could take War in a fight?” I asked. “If it came to that?”

Ash laughed but there was no humor in the sound. “I cannot,” she said.

“Oh,” I said.

We drove on in silence. At some point, I fell asleep.

I don’t know how long I was out for. If there were dreams, I did not remember them. Finally, I stirred and yawned.

“What time is it?” I asked.

Ash giggled. “Welcome back,” she said. “I missed you.”

I froze. That wasn’t Ash’s voice. Ashariel did not giggle.

There was a woman sitting next to me in the driver’s seat, but it wasn’t Ashariel.

She couldn’t have been more different from my fallen angel girlfriend; she was curvy where Ashariel was slender and her scarlet hair seemed to glisten in the darkness of the truck’s cabin. She noticed my gaze and smiled at me. I saw that her eyes were bright yellow with the vertical pupils of a snake.

I knew her well enough, though she’d never really deigned to speak with me while Ashariel was riding in my body.

“You’re Morrigan,” I said. “The self-proclaimed Queen of the Fey.”

“Greetings, Michael,” Morrigan said to me. Her voice was rich and sultry, and despite myself, I shivered pleasantly.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

“I wanted to take an opportunity to talk to you,” she said. “This seemed like the best way to get your attention.”

“I’m dreaming, aren’t I?” I asked.

“Give the boy a cookie,” she said.

I knew better than to waste my time with any of the usual questions like ‘where was I’ or ‘where’s Ash’ or ‘how did I get here.’ Morrigan’s speciality was dreams and I felt safe in assuming that my actual body was still back in the truck, riding with Ashariel to wherever my fallen angel girlfriend had decided to go.

It took me a moment to realize that Morrigan was waiting for me to say something. I thought fast. “Hello,” I said. Truly, I was the soul of brilliant conversation.

“I can see why she likes you,” Morrigan said, “such charm and wit.”

“Yeah, yeah,” I said. I glanced around. “So this is the Dreaming Path? It looks a lot like a truck. I was expecting something more dream-worthy, you know?”

“Indeed?” Morrigan asked. “Have you looked out the window?”

Instead of the endless fields of wheat and the long, long stretch of highway, we’d come to rest in a verdant green paradise, an emerald forest that was shrouded in a thick, glistening mist. It looked more like a rainforest or a jungle than any of the civilized woods I’d known from my childhood. The vegetation was thick enough to require a machete, with long vines hanging down from virtually every tree. The primeval wilderness had swallowed up the road in front of us and threatened to encroach on the truck as well.

“Oh,” I said. “Well, you know, aside from that. Hey, if this is my dream, shouldn’t I be able to do whatever I want?”

Morrigan grinned. “Oh, but we’re not in your dream, my dear,” she said. “We’re in mine.”

“Oh,” I said. “Well, shit.”

“Do you not enjoy my little grove?” she asked. “I could take you somewhere more pleasant, if you prefer? Perhaps a beach?”

I suppressed a grimace at her casual reference of the beach; I didn’t want her to know that was Ashariel’s special place. “This is fine,” I said. “I like trees. These trees are very nice, very, you know, lush and primeval.”

“You’re safe here with me,” she said.

I doubted that but I knew better than to voice my objection out loud. I didn’t want to offend her. As a general rule, I tried not to offend quasi-godlike beings in the hearts of their own domains, not if I could help it.

The Fey Queen gave me a strange little smile, one that managed to be both seductive and also terrifying.

“So, not to sound ungrateful or anything like that,” I said, “but was there some reason you decided to check in on me? If you were looking for Ash, she’s in the next body over.”

“And what if I was looking for you, instead?” she asked. “What if I told you that I was very interested in you, Michael?”

“I would tell you that you can’t possibly miss a vanilla mortal like me,” I said. “Not when there’s a fallen angel right there next to me who I’m sure is both far more interesting with her millennia of existence and her tremendous amount of personal power.”

“She won’t listen to me right now,” Morrigan said. “That’s why I’m talking to you. Ashariel has played her part for the moment. Now it is your turn.”

“What part?” I asked. “What are you talking about?”

She smiled. “Silly boy, did you think I chose you at random to serve as Ashariel’s host? No. You were selected for a purpose, just as she was.”

“Okay,” I said. “Are you going to tell me what this purpose is or do I have to guess?”

That elicited a giggle. “I like you,” she said. “You have more of a sense of humor about you than she does.”

“Thanks, I guess?”

Her expression changed. One moment, she was smiling and laughing, the next, her gaze was cold, her mouth a tight line. “I need you to listen carefully to what I am about to tell you,” she said.

Her sudden shift in tone caught me by surprise. “Yeah, sure,” I said. “I’m listening. What do you need to tell me?”

“Ashariel is keeping a secret from you,” Morrigan said.

“I’m not really surprised to hear that,” I said. “I imagine there’s a lot that the fallen angel hasn’t told me.”

“This is different than some theological revelation or bit of trivial lore,” she said. “She has lied to you, Michael.”

I tried to ignore her obvious trap. She would try to lure me in and then turn me against Ashariel. I had no idea why, since there was nothing I could do to Ash. I couldn’t see what Morrigan’s angle here was.

“What is she lying to me about?” I asked. “More importantly, even if she is, which I’m frankly fully prepared to believe, why should I want to know about it? If she didn’t want to be with me, she wouldn’t. I’m not her host now. She’s completely free.”

“You’re running from the Four,” Morrigan said.

“Well, yeah,” I said. “They’re freaking scary.”

“Before you fell asleep, you asked Ashariel if she could defeat the one called War,” Morrigan said.

“How do you know that?” I asked.

“In dreams, your mind is an open book to me,” Morrigan said. “All that you know is known to me in this place.”

“That doesn’t seem fair,” I said.

“Not in the least,” she agreed. “I will tell you this: your fallen angel lied to you about War, Michael.”

I held up two fingers as if to ward her off. “Two things,” I said. “First, she’s not my fallen angel. She’s not my anything. I don’t own her. Second, if you’re trying to insinuate that Ash can take down a goddamn Rider of the Apocalypse, you must think I’m even dumber than I look and that hurts my feelings.”

Morrigan’s patient expression didn’t waver. “I did not say she could defeat War,” she said. “I mean to say that Ashariel can control War.”

I hesitated. “What?”

“Ashariel can command the Four Horsemen,” Morrigan said, “if she so desires. She broke the Great Seal. She is their commander.”

“So what?” I asked. “Why are you telling me this? If Ash wants to run from the Four Horsemen, who am I to stop her?”

She narrowed her eyes. I shivered.

“Did you think it was over?” she asked. “Did you think that Lucifer has forgotten or forgiven? Did you think the Archangels will forget or forgive? He hasn’t and they won’t.”

I started to reply but Morrigan touched my lips with a finger to silence me. Her soft touch set off a reaction within me that was at once full of a desire I didn’t want and a terror that I couldn’t resist.

“They are still out there,” she said. “The war is still happening. Ashariel has an army now but without her guidance, it is useless. Without her to lead them, the Four will only act as their natures dictate. I do not think you can imagine how many of your fellow mortals will die while they run rampant.”

“What can I do?” I asked. “I can’t force her to fight again.” Not that I would force her even if I could, but that wasn’t something Morrigan needed to know, although I supposed that if she could read my mind, she knew anyway.

“I gave Ashariel the gift of being mortal,” Morrigan said, “but now I feel that may have been a mistake. She has withdrawn from the field of battle when she needs to be taking charge. This is the critical hour!”

“I understand how important that is to you,” I said. “But why are you telling me? I’m the human, remember? You should be telling her all of this, not me. Go try and convince her to go along with more of your schemes, because you’re wasting your time talking to me about it. I can’t do anything here.”

Morrigan’s expression seemed to be etched on her face and something occurred to me as I looked at her stony visage.

“You’re trying to do that, aren’t you?” I asked. “You’re working on her, too, but she won’t cooperate.”

Her response was the barest of nods.

“I’m your Plan B, then,” I said. “If she won’t listen to you, maybe she’ll listen to me.” I felt sickened by the very idea of working with Morrigan against Ash and not just because of my growing feelings for Ash. The idea of doing anything for Morrigan just felt somehow wrong in my mind.

“Sorry to disappoint you,” I said. “I won’t be your stooge. Find someone else.”

Morrigan laughed. And not just in the demure, amused way she had before, but in the reckless, wild, seemingly delirious way that makes you feel really awkward when you’re not in on the joke. She reached out to me and cupped my chin in her soft hands.

“Don’t touch me,” I said.

“Human child,” she hissed. She dug her fingers into my skin and I flinched. “I chose you. I gave you to her. Believe me when I say that I can take you away just as easily.”

She stepped into me, pressed her body against mine, and though I knew this was a dream, that this wasn’t really my body, just some dream-self, it wasn’t enough to keep that dream-self from having a very physical, very male response to suddenly feeling her breasts pressing into my chest and her hands holding my face.

“Michael, my Michael,” Morrigan whispered. “Mine to give, mine to take.”

I tried to tell her that I wasn’t her Michael, by any stretch of the imagination. I couldn’t seem to make the words come out, though. I realized I couldn’t even move now. I was utterly helpless.

She leaned her head towards me, as if to kiss me, but her lips brushed past my mouth and stopped at my ear. I felt her breath against my skin and it made the hair stand up on the back of my neck as I shuddered, not with desire but with raw fear.

“Michael,” she whispered. “You will do this for your Queen.”

I felt helpless, enthralled by her presence and her power. I was helpless, an insignificant speck compared to the power and experience of this ancient creature that predated the stars themselves.

I wanted to pull away. I wanted to resist.

I tried to fight back.

I failed.

I closed my eyes and surrendered to the overwhelming presence and power of the Fey Queen as she whispered her will into my ear.

I listened.

I obeyed.

Chapter Twenty-Five

I awoke with a scream.

“Michael?” Ash asked. She sounded alarmed. “Michael, what’s wrong?”

“Air,” I gasped and began to roll down the window. “I just need some air.”

The cold night air made the sweat on my face turn icy cold. I held my head out the window for as long as I could, until my face began to go numb and I leaned back into my seat. I made no effort to roll the window back up.

“Michael?” she asked. “What is it?”

“Nothing,” I said, too quickly. “I had a nightmare.”

Ashariel’s eyes narrowed. “Morrigan,” she said. It didn’t sound like a question.

Damn it, I should have realized she’d leap directly to that conclusion. I didn’t want to admit talk about this, not now, not with her. I didn’t want her to know what had happened to me, what Morrigan had done to me.

I realized that I couldn’t remember what Morrigan had done to me. Everything in my memory faded to black after that kiss. All I had left was the sound of her voice in my ear and a feeling of violation that I couldn’t comprehend, let alone begin to explain.

“Just a regular old human nightmare,” I said. “There’s nothing unnatural going on in here.” I tapped my forehead for emphasis.

She leaned over and touched my face. “You feel very damp,” she said. “Your skin is cold.”

“I just need a few minutes, Ash,” I said. “I’ll be fine.”

“Do you wish to talk about it?” The question sounded forced and unnatural, as though she was saying it because that’s what people say in these situations. Come to think of it, that’s probably why she’d said it.

I shook my head. “It was just a dream, Ash. It wasn’t real. It was all in my head.”

“Michael.” Her voice was cool and firm. “I am willing to talk about it, if it will make you feel better.”

“Because that’s what we’re supposed to do,” I said. “Talk about it, that’s the normal thing, the human thing you’re supposed to do.” I trailed off into silence.

It was, indeed, a very human thing to do. There probably weren’t many phrases that were more quintessentially human than ‘do you want to talk about it.’ Maybe there were a few: ‘we need to talk’ and ‘do these jeans make me look fat?’

I wondered if Ash would ever ask me that last one. I glanced over at her and looked down at her legs. No, those jeans didn’t, and I was pretty sure no jeans would, ever, and it was a moot point anyway since she could make herself look like anything she wanted, and I was probably insane for even wondering about all of this in the first place.

“Look, it’s fine,” I said. “It was just a nightmare, and I’m okay now, and everything’s fine, so let’s just forget about it and move on.”

“As you wish,” Ash said.

“Okay,” I said. I was surprised that I felt a little angry, which I knew was totally unjustified. After all, if anything, I should have been grateful that she was concerned about me. But I wasn’t grateful; I was feeling guilty after succumbing so easily to Morrigan, even if it was just a dream and even if it wasn’t really my fault. I still felt a strange ache for her and that ache was making the rest of me feel like absolute shit.

For a while, neither of us spoke. I shivered against the cold air and rolled the window back up. The hum of the engine replaced the rush of wind. The engine’s purr was almost hypnotic and I found myself drifting in until cold fear coiled inside me. I didn’t want to fall asleep again, not when Morrigan might be waiting for me. I didn’t know what she would do to me. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what she already had done to me.

I didn’t want to talk about anything. I didn’t want to do anything except sit there and stare out the window.

“We need to talk about something,” I said. Wait, what? Words were coming out of my mouth without checking in with my brain. I felt like a puppet. No, I was a puppet. I was dancing on Morrigan’s strings and there was nothing I could do to stop her.

“What did you want to talk about?” she asked.

“Ash,” I said. “Why did you lie to me?”

The feeling of violation intensified within me. This new form of domination felt so much worse than when I was Ashariel’s human host. Morrigan wasn’t just riding me; she was manipulating me. She was forcing me to do and say things that I didn’t want to do and say. I wanted to scream and tell Ash not to listen, but my voice was no longer my own.

“I haven’t lied to you,” Ash said. There was a hard edge in her voice.

“What are we doing here, Ash?” I asked. I waved my hand at the truck. “I understand that you want to keep a low profile. That’s smart thinking, sure, but why do we need to keep a low profile when the Four Horseman are yours?”

“They’re not mine, Michael.” The hard edge in Ash’s voice had become a razor now.

“We both know that’s not true,” I said. “That’s why you broke the Seal, so the Four will obey you instead of Lucifer.”

“I did break the Seal,” Ash said. “Control of the Four requires more than simply issuing commands, Michael. It requires a direct connection. It requires a level of personal involvement that I am not prepared to attempt.”

I watched the exchange with helpless fascination. I could almost hear Morrigan sitting beside me, her hand moving my jaw up and down, forcing me to speak her words.

We can’t keep running forever,” I said. “Someone will catch up to us or we’ll run out of places to run. Damn it, Ash, you have an army. Why don’t you use it?”

She looked at me. “Is this really you speaking to me, Michael?”

I wanted to laugh and kiss my clever fallen angel for figuring out. Of course it’s not me, I tried to say. It’s Morrigan saying these things, not me.

Instead, what came out of my mouth was, “of course it’s me, Ash.”

She sighed and slouched in her chair. It was a very human gesture.

“You went to Hell, Ash,” I said. “You went into the very depths of the Pit itself. You were strong enough to break the Seal. You’re strong enough to control the Four.”

“You don’t know what you’re asking me to do, Michael,” she said. “It’s not just a matter of telling them my will. Every command must be forced. To lead them, I must bend them to my will.”

“If not you,” I said, “then give them to another. Let her command them.”

My face felt very hot as Ash stared at me through narrowed eyes.”

“Tell me, Michael,” she said, “is this really your plan or is it Morrigan’s? Are you her puppet now?”

I wanted to scream with frustration, but whatever Morrigan had done to me seemed to be unbreakable. “Does it matter?” I asked. “Would it change things?”

“When did she visit you?” Ash asked. “Was she the cause of your nightmare?”

I nodded.

Ash gripped the steering wheel very tightly. Before I realized what was happening, she had yanked the wheel hard and drove the truck onto the shoulder. The truck bounced and rattled before it jerked to a jarring stop. My teeth hurt from clattering together, but at least I was alive.

“What the hell, Ash?” I yelled.

“You should have told me right away,” she said, turning to look at me. Her eyes were bright and intense now. “I could have shielded you. I can help you.” She managed a slight smile. “I will help you.”

“How?” I asked. I wasn’t sure if it was me speaking or if it was still Morrigan speaking through me. “She’s practically a goddess. What can you do, Ash?”

“I will show you,” she said. She reached out and put her palm against my forehead. There was a moment of intense pain inside my skull. I cried out and clawed at her hand, but her grip was too strong. I suffered under the searing heat until I couldn’t stand it any longer. Just when I was certain that I was going to pass out or drop dead, Ash removed her hand. I slumped back against the window. When I touched my forehead, however, my skin felt normal.

“What did you do to me?” I asked.

Ash smiled faintly. “Her claws were dug deeply into your mind,” she said. “I burned them away.”

“You can do that?” I asked.

She shrugged. “We’ll see if it works. Your will should be your own again, at least for the moment.”

I thought for a moment. Everything seemed to be in order. Even the pain in my head was quickly receding. “Thanks, Ash,” I said finally. “I tried to tell you, but she wouldn’t let me.”

“I assumed as much,” she said. “I was foolish for thinking she wouldn’t try to use you for some purpose. She’s the one who gave you to me, after all. It stands to reason that she chose you for some ulterior motive.”

“Do you think that was it?” I asked. For some reason, I felt a little disappointed by the prospect that this was the only reason I’d been chosen.

“I doubt it,” Ash said. “Our friend plays a long game. There are layers within layers of complexity.”

“You sound like you admire her,” I said.

Ash looked surprised. “Do I?” She mulled it over for a moment. “I suppose that I do. In many ways, she reminds me of what I always hoped to be.”

I raised an eyebrow. “A nightmarish entity from the primordial darkness that gets off on screwing with mortals?”

She laughed. “Not quite,” she said. “Whatever else she is, however, I am certain about this much. Unlike you and I, Morrigan is truly free.”

“Hey, I’m free,” I said. “I’m a free man with free will and all that.”

She shook her head. “Certainly, your will is your own,” she said. “Yet in other ways, you are as much a prisoner as I.”

I sighed. “Ash, you’re seriously depressing me.”

“Sorry.”

After a moment, she asked, “do you think she’s correct?”

I exhaled. “Shit,” I said. “I don’t know. When she spoke to me in my dream, she was adamant about getting you back in the game. Why would she do that if you were completely outclassed?”

“That does not mean she believes I can succeed,” Ash said. “Merely that this capricious entity that calls itself Morrigan has a plan for me that does not align with my current actions.”

“That’s true,” I said, “but think about it this way; why would she waste you? She’s clearly invested a lot of time and effort into you, Ash. I don’t think she would just throw that all away. I mean, how many fallen angels could she possibly have on her side?”

“None,” Ash said by way of agreement.

She took a deep breath and seemed to gather her resolve. “Maybe you’re right,” she said. “Maybe she is right.”

I wasn’t sure whether to be impressed or afraid. “Ash, are you sure about this?”

Now that her mind was made up, her expression was resolute. “I am,” she said. “I fought for something once before: a cause, an ideal. I didn’t have the power then, the power necessary to change the world. Maybe this time, I do.” She flashed a slight smile. “I am willing to find out.”

She looked at me evenly. “It won’t be safe for you, Michael.”

I sighed. I knew she was right, but I hated being left behind. I hated feeling so inferior do to my mortality. More than anything, I wanted to be able to keep up with her. Not surpass her; I wasn’t arrogant enough to wish for her level of power for myself. But to be her equal? That would have been nice. Alas.

“I would take you as my host again, if you will consent,” Ash said.

I blinked. “You will? You can still do that?”

She laughed. “Of course,” she said. “This vessel is my own creation. I can create it or discard it as I see fit.” She regarded me carefully. “You will be safer with me inside you.”

Despite myself, I snickered. “It’s supposed to be the other way around.”

“Hmm?” Ash’s expression was politely curious. I suddenly felt crude for having thought of the innuendo.

“Never mind,” I said. “I’m ready.”

“Are you certain?” she asked.

“Absolutely,” I said with more bravery than I felt. “To be honest, it’s been kind of lonely in my head without you here.”

“It would appear that you’re looking forward to this more than I am,” she said.

“Is it the gender thing?” I asked. “It’s the gender thing, isn’t it? You don’t like being a guy.”

She smirked. “Possibly.”

I touched my hand to my chest. “I’m so very, very wounded.”

“You’ll live,” she said. “Ready?”

I closed my eyes and nodded. “Ready.”

I felt pressure against the back of my skull, like somebody had my head in a very firm grip.

And then I was lost like a leaf against the tide that was Ashariel.

Chapter Twenty-Six

Even knowing what to expect, it was hard not to panic. Numbness enveloped me. My arms no longer responded to my brain. My mouth didn’t work. I couldn’t see or hear anything.

Ash! I called out.

I’m here, she said.

Don’t make me sit at the kiddies’ table, I said. Let me share headspace with you. I want to be able to see what’s going on this time.

Are you sure? she asked. I will not be able to entirely shield you from what is to come.

I’m sure, I said. I don’t want to be sidelined any more.

As you wish, she said.

Vertigo gripped me as I fell back into myself. The world tilted violently like some sort of demented merry-go-round and then gravity and time and feeling returned. I was back in my own head.

I was paralyzed. I tried to blink and could not. I couldn’t direct my gaze to where I wanted to look. I could feel my hands resting on my legs but I couldn’t tell them to move.

Is this better? Ash asked.

Actually, it was rather irritating. When she’d used me as a host before, I spent my time most of my time the imagined space that she’d created for me. I’d only been aware of the outside world in brief glimpses and images.

This, however, made me feel like a true prisoner in my own body. I felt trapped in my skin, unable to blink, unable to fidget, unable to swallow on command. For the first time, I truly felt as though I was possessed.

Yeah, I said with more enthusiasm than I felt. This is better.

Welcome back to Chez Michael, I said. I kept the light on for you.

I see that, she said and laughed. It was still weird to hear myself laugh, but not be the one actually laughing.

So now what? I asked.

“Now, we fly,” she said.

Oh, goody. I said.

She reached down and unclipped the seatbelt with one hand. With the other, she opened the door. We stepped out into the cold night air.

Chilly, I muttered.

“It won’t matter in a moment,” she said.

What do you mean?

She held our hands out and I felt her power coalesce into something tangible around us.

Warmth chased away the cold that had threatened to seep into my bones. The fatigue and anxiety went away. Suddenly I felt powerful; the best I’d ever felt in my life. I felt as though the world was mine for the taking, that anything could be mine should I so desire it.

Was this what it felt like to be her? Was this what it felt like to be, not Ash my girlfriend, but Ashariel, the ancient, impossibly powerful angel? Was this the being that had watched as my species had crawled into existence, the being that had been around since the very dawn of time?

It was so much more than power. It was the confidence that there was nothing that I could not do. It felt as though reality itself was now nothing more than a simple thing, a bit of clay easily reshaped according to my will.

I began to understand: being an angel was more than just having power or feeling powerful.

Being angel meant being power incarnate.

“Yes,” Ashariel said with my voice. There was a subtle resonance that I had never noticed before.

Her blade-like wings grew out of my shoulders with painless grace. My gaze turned as Ashariel looked over our shoulder to inspect them. The feathers resembled rows of overlapping blades and glowed softly in the darkness.

My gaze moved again and I realized we were running forward, out away from the road and the truck. I had just enough time to process all of this before she kicked away from the earth and spread her wings.

She caught the air and up we climbed. I felt the world recede into the night around us as we rose up into the cloudless sky.

We were flying. I, I, was flying.

Wordless joy formed in my thoughts. I tried to articulate how it felt, how wonderful and amazing it felt to fly, not in some mechanical shell, but on my own wings, with nothing but air and darkness between me and the world below.

I left everything behind on that ground below. For a moment, all the concerns and anxieties and fears bled out of my mind as I lost myself in the pure, simple joy of flight. I could feel Ashariel’s amusement at my reaction. She laughed quietly, the sound lost to the wind as we flew.

We rode across the sky on wings of light to an uncertain destination and an even more uncertain fate, and I could not have been happier.

For how long we flew, I do not know. Eventually, I slept and surrounded as I was by the protective presence of my guardian angel, I did not dream, or if I did, the dreams were not of Morrigan.

When I awoke, it was dawn and we were still flying. The sun rose before us, bright and hot, I knew we were heading east. I wondered where we were going.

“We’re flying towards the coast,” she said.

What’s at the coast? I wondered. I mean, besides the ocean and all that.

“Pestilence is at the coast,” Ash said.

Oh, I said. Why him? It? Whatever?

“Pestilence is the First Rider. He is the weakest,” Ash said. “Although weakness is a relative term when dealing with any of the Four.”

How very comforting, I said. How do we find this guy?

“We follow in his wake,” Ash said. She looked down.

I wasn’t sure where exactly we were. Presumably, we were still on the same planet but the landscape below us was like nothing I’d even seen.

What once had been a lush green forest once was a now brown and smoking ruin. Trees were twisted into burnt husks. The earth itself had been scorched. A thick, yellowish haze hung in the air and even from the air, I could smell the stench of rot. It lingered in the air with all the grotesque persistence of an infected, pus-filled wound.

“The Four are incarnations of destruction,” Ash said. “They take no greater joy than from the ruin of the world.”

Why are there only the four? I asked.

“I do not know,” Ash said. “We do not know where they came from or when they were created.”

Is it possible that there might be more than four? I asked.

She smirked. “I doubt it. Why would you need more than four of them?”

I don’t know, I said. I’m just throwing out ideas here. You don’t know much about them, so maybe there’s actually Five Horseman of the Apocalypse.

“What would the fifth one be called, if he were to exist at all?”

The Rider of Chaos, maybe? I said. I don’t know. It’s just an idea.

“I would not want to imagine a Rider more terrible than Death,” Ash said.

I looked down at the diseased wound in the world that had once been green and full of life. The infected scar stretched out below us for miles in every direction. I wondered how many people had been in its path.

It wasn’t hard to stay on Pestilence’s trail. The further we flew, the more noxious the air became. The ground below withered away into an endless field of rot. I knew that without Ashariel protecting me, the poisonous fumes rising from the earth would likely kill me in minutes.

“There he is,” Ash said in a low voice.

She looked towards the horizon. A lone figure astride a decaying horse waited at the edge of a ruined town. He seemed to be surveying his handiwork.

“There is no turning back now,” Ash said. “I do not think I could outrun him.”

Pestilence turned and looked up at the sky. He looked like a walking sack of oozing sores and rotting flesh. His decayed skin was loose and bag-like around his bones. As he moved, pieces of flesh fell to the ground and revealed glimpses of putrid meat and yellow bones.

“An uninvited guest,” Pestilence said. Its voice was phlegmy rasp. “How amusing.”

Ashariel swept down towards the earth and struck the blighted ground like a falling star. Her landing kicked up a cloud of dust as the world shook from the force of the impact.

Pestilence stared at us. His eyes were clouded over and milky white. Drool hung in strands from around the Rider’s slack mouth.

“The Fallen has returned?” Pestilence asked. “How curious.”

“Indeed,” Ash said. “You’ll find that I’m full of surprises.”

“Why are you here, Fallen?” the Rider asked. “Do you intend to ask me to stop my work?”

“I saw your work,” Ash said. “Very pretty.”

“I am surprised that you would think so,” Pestilence said. He took a step towards us. The air abruptly went putrid and it took all of Ashariel’s will power to keep from choking. I tried to tell myself that I didn’t need to breath and that I was safe. It wasn’t a comforting thought.

“Why would that be?” she asked, managing a sly smile even as rancid air seeped into her borrowed lungs.

“Mortals obsess over my brother,” Pestilence said. “They spend their entire pitiful lives fretting about the inevitable end and the inexorable curse of mortality. No one ever appreciates the beauty of the transition that allows for Death to claim his due.” He gestured around us. “This transition from life to death, this corruption,” he said. “This is me.”

“I’m not mortal,” Ash said.

“You mewl like one,” Pestilence said. “Do you think we did not watch your Rebellion, silly girl? Do you think we did not see? To one such as I, you are as pathetic and feeble as the mortal whose skin you now wear. Your kind lacks the proper perspective as to the way of things.” Flesh dripped from his bones as his oozing lips pulled back in a macabre smile.

“I could show you, if you would like,” he said. “I will demonstrate for you why it is the slow decay that you should truly fear, rather than the quick and painless end that is my brother.”

“Such bluster,” Ash said. “I remain unimpressed.”

Pestilence bristled with rage and a putrid gust washed over us. Ash purified the air and made it breathable through her angelic power, but even that could not filter out the stench of disease.

“You dare mock me?” Pestilence asked. “I will show you corruption beyond your darkest nightmares. I will make you beg for my brother’s cold hand to relieve you of your burden!”

“I released you from your prison,” Ash said. “I am the one who broke the Great Seal. You owe me your allegiance.”

“You already gave us your command, Fallen,” Pestilence said. “If you wish to issue another, prove that you are worthy of following. Prove that you have the strength to command me and I shall kneel.” He took another menacing step closer. “Otherwise, I shall kill you and be rid of you for good.”

“Perhaps,” Ash said. “You could kill me, of that I have no doubt. But what would that prove? What would that gain you?”

The Rider stared with milky white eyes and did not answer.

“On the other hand, you could listen to me,” Ash said. “And maybe we can come to an agreement that will get you what you truly desire.”

“No deals,” Pestilence rasped. “I will not bind myself to any agreement of yours. The treachery of the Fallen is well known to me.”

“Too bad,” Ash said. “I was hoping we could settle this matter like civilized beings.”

“Indeed,” the Rider said. “Unfortunately for you, I was not.”

“So be it,” Ash said. She lunged forward and drove her bladed wing into the Rider’s chest

For a moment, Pestilence gaped at her, seemingly uncomprehending. He wrapped his hands around Ashariel’s wing. Decay spread from his fingertips along the surface of her wing. With a startled cry, Ashariel recoiled. Pestilence held his grip until, with a sickening rip, he pulled her wing out of its socket. Blood gushed down her back.

Ashariel snarled and reformed her wing. She spread her wings and took the air. Pestilence stood his ground and watched her.

“You’ll have to do more than that,” Pestilence said.

She plunged into a dive so quickly that the sound barrier broke and a sonic boom cracked around us. She spun at the last moment, flared her wings and cut through the Rider’s outstretched arms and through his chest. She hit the ground and sprang back, cutting him again and again with her wings. She caught him under the chin and severed his neck with one deft stroke.

The headless body of the Rider toppled to the ground. Ashariel panted with exhaustion as she looked at his still form.

You weren’t supposed to kill him, I said.

“He isn’t dead,” Ashariel said. “Look.”

As we watched, the decapitated body groped blindly for its head. Pus leaked out from the numerous wounds instead of blood.

“Yield, Rider!” Ashariel said. She pointed at him with one wing. “Submit to my will.”

In response, Pestilence pulled himself up onto his knees. From the stump of his neck, a putrid cloud poured out into the air. The noxious yellow fumes engulfed us.

“Nothing is as it should be,” Pestilence said. It took me a moment to realize it was the severed head, still able to speak. “All your prophecies have been undone. Soon, all will be undone. You have failed, Fallen. I will not submit!”

The cloud of corruption assaulted us. Ash held it back with an aura of golden light, but I could see that the putrescence gnawing at the edges like so many maggots.

“Die already,” Ashariel said. She stabbed the Rider’s head and split it wide open. Rancid brains splattered the ground. She stabbed him again and again with a fury I’d never seen before. It took only a few seconds for her to reduce the Rider’s body to bloody ribbons.

When the violence was over, Ashariel stood very still. She was breathing heavily even though the putrid cloud hadn’t dissipated.

I guess you were able to take him in a fight, I said. That’s good, at least.

There was no answer from my fallen angel.

Ash? I asked. Are you okay?

There was still no answer. In my body, Ashariel swooned and fell to one knee beside Pestilence’s corpse.

Ash, what’s wrong? I asked. What is it?

“Michael?” she asked. Her voice was faint and weak. “Michael, I’m not sure I can . . .”

What’s happening? I asked. Ash, talk to me. What’s going on?

Something was wrong. It took me a moment to realize that I could taste the putrid air. It was seeping through the angelic barrier. That couldn’t be good.

“I burned through too much of my power holding him back,” Ash said. “It cost too much of myself to keep your vessel alive. Too much corruption. Didn’t want you to die.”

No longer able to hold herself up, she fell on all fours.

“I’m too weak,” she said. “Can’t maintain control. I’m sorry, Michael.”

“No, no, no,” I pleaded. My voice was my own again; no longer just a whisper in my own skull. “Ash, don’t like go. Don’t give up. You can beat this! You have to fight!”

“I can’t,” she said.

“Goddamnit, Ash, don’t do this,” I said. “Don’t let go.”

No answer.

“Ash?” I cried. “Ash? Ashariel?”

“I’m so sorry,” she whispered.

And then she was gone and I was alone in my own body.

My mind and body were my own again.

Given my present circumstances, that was a very bad thing.

I inhaled my last breath of fresh air and held my breath as the vile fumes of Pestilence’s wake engulfed me. My eyes began to water.

I told myself not to panic.

I very quickly failed at not panicking.

Ash! I thought desperately. C’mon, Ash, I know you’re there. Pull yourself together!

But there was no answer. The only sound in my head was the furious pounding of my heartbeat in my ears.

Could I make a run for it? How far had Pestilence’s blight spread?

I thought of the miles of rot we’d flown over. There was no way I could make it out on my own, not on a single breath of air that was fast depleting. Hell, I doubted I could make it that far even if I had a scuba tank.

My chest began to burn, my lungs already desperate for fresh air. I was shocked at how quickly it hit me. It couldn’t have been more than twenty seconds.

But twenty seconds feels like a very long time when you know you can’t breathe.

There was no way out. I couldn’t fight the cloud of poison that was going to kill me.

Who was I trying to fool at this point? I hadn’t been able to fight any of the threats I’d faced since I woke up with Ashariel in my head. It had always been her fight. I was just a bystander.

I didn’t have the power to save myself. I never did and never would.

I realized that this was it.

This was the end.

This was how I was going to die: choking to death, alone, in a cloud of poison.

Ash, I prayed, if you’re there, if you can hear me, please. Please help me. Help me breathe. You can save me.

Nothing.

She was gone.

My vision began to blacken around the edges. How long had it been since I’d taken my last breath? One minute? Two minutes?

How long could a person go without breathing? I remembered a vague memory from my childhood, trying to hold my breath underwater for as long as I could. I don’t think I ever made it past “forty-five Mississippi.”

I was alone in the blackened field of decay. A few skeletal trees loomed some distance away from me, and further away, I caught a glimpse of a long, winding road. I saw the rusting hulk of an old semi and felt my heart surge as I noticed that the windows were intact. Maybe there was some clean air in the cabin!

As quickly as my spirits buoyed, I felt them dashed again. The distance to the road was more than a football field, at the very least. It didn’t matter. I had to try.

With fire in my chest and my throat constricting as my lungs begged for release, I took off for the road. My footsteps crunched on the burnt remains of ash and grass.

I made it about twenty feet.

My world tilted violently to one side, and before I knew what had happened, I was down on my hands and knees, my lungs about to explode in my chest.

No! I screamed in my mind. No! You can do this!

I couldn’t do it. The need to take a breath, the need to breathe anything, even pure poison, was too overwhelming.

My breath exploded out from my lungs. I sucked in reflexively, greedily, unable to stop myself. The air tasted utterly putrid and only made the burning in my chest feel worse. There was no oxygen in the air, just the stench of Pestilence’s poison, the rot that had spread to the very air itself.

My vision darkened and I sagged, unable to keep myself up. My chest heaved rapidly as I began to hyperventilate, pulling in ever greater amounts of the noxious fumes. My unwilling, reflexive actions were just killing me that much faster.

I couldn’t believe this was how it was going to end.

This was how I was going to die.

The burning in my lungs became unbearable, like a fire in my chest and my last thought was to wonder if I might actually immolate from the inside out, so agonizing was the pain.

And then everything went numb and I . . .

I didn’t see or feel . . . anything at all.

Nothing.

There was nothing except black.

Chapter Twenty-Seven

The feeling of soft lips brought me back.

Cool air forced its way into my burning lungs and soothed the agony in my chest. The fire in my throat diminished. Feeling returned to my limbs, my arms, my face.

My face.

As the numbness faded, I felt the soft mouth pressed against mine, breathing life back into me.

Ash! I cried in my thoughts. I reached up to hold touch her, to hold her as I responded to her life-giving kiss. I felt my lips press against hers.  I held the back of her head and threaded my fingers through her hair.

But something was wrong.

Ash’s hair wasn’t that long.

I opened my eyes and saw long red hair all around my face. Scarlet hair cascaded off her bare shoulders. I saw her soft, pale skin and I felt the gentle weight of her body pressing against mine.

I saw the tell-tale reptilian yellow eyes. I saw as she gazed back at me, eyes bright with an eager gleam.

Morrigan.

I struggled and tried to push her off me. She clamped her hands on my wrists and held me down without much effort.

“Now, now,” she purred and licked my ear. “Is that any way to treat your rescuer?”

“Get off me!” I shouted. I struggled to push her off but she was much more powerful than she looked. It was like trying to move a glacier.

“No,” she said and giggled wickedly. “I saved you. That means I own you.”

“You saved me?” I asked. “Why the hell would you save me?”

“I did,” the Fey Queen said. “I plucked you right from that dying field and took you somewhere safe.”

“Where are we?” I asked.

“Somewhere safe,” Morrigan said. “That’s all you need to know now.”

“Please get off me,” I said.

“Ah, manners,” she said. “That’s an improvement, at least.” She slid off me and nestled her head against my shoulder. Even from this new position, I still couldn’t get free. After a few moments of pointless struggle, I gave up and laid my head back on the grass.

If Ash was here, I began to think. I stopped as panic surged through me. Not only was I alone with Morrigan but Ash was gone. The Rider must have done something to her. Had he killed her?

Could fallen angels die?

I didn’t know the answer to either question.

“Do you know what happened?” I asked.

“You were dying and I rescued you,” Morrigan said. “Simple.”

“Stop playing with me,” I snapped. “What happened to Ash? Do you know what happened to her?”

“I do not,” Morrigan said. “That is the truth. You were empty when I found you.”

“I don’t really believe that,” I said.

She smirked. “Believe what you wish. Or don’t. Reality doesn’t care what you believe in and neither do I.”

“You,” I snarled. “You did this! This was your fault!”

“You wound me deeply, Michael,” she said with mock indignation. “How is any of this my fault?”

“You pushed us to that confrontation with the Rider,” I said. My voice felt thick and raw in my throat. “If it hadn’t been for you, we never would have gone after Pestilence and Ash wouldn’t be-”

“Dead?” Morrigan offered.

“Missing,” I concluded.

“I merely suggested a course of action,” Morrigan said. “It was Ashariel who chose to follow it to its logical conclusion. I cannot be faulted for her failure, especially in the presence of an obviously superior foe such as a Rider. I did not tell your angel to sacrifice herself in your defense. It was her choice to make. It was her consequence.”

“But we never would have been there if you hadn’t manipulated us!” I shouted.

Morrigan sat up suddenly. Warily, I pushed myself up on my elbows only to find her staring at me through narrowed eyes. “Let me make one thing abundantly clear to you,” she said. “Everything that you thought you had with your precious fallen angel was due to my manipulations. I was the one who freed her from Hell. I was the one who chose you to be her host. Everything that you had was by my hand and my will.”

As she spoke, there was a moment when the mask of normalcy slipped. I caught a glimpse of the real Morrigan, lurking just behind those reptilian eyes. My breath caught in my throat and the defiance drained out of me. I sank back down in the grass and put my hands over my eyes. My hands, I realized, were shaking.

I flinched as she patted my arm. “Michael,” she said, “Listen to me. Look at me.”

I didn’t want to look but I couldn’t stop myself. She was right; I was hers, as I had once been Ashariel’s. The only difference was that Morrigan didn’t need to possess me to control me.

“Ashariel was important to me,” Morrigan said. “She was unique among her kind. I would not have put her at such risk.”

“No,” I said. “You would and you did. Maybe what you meant to say was that you wouldn’t spend her unless you knew the prize was worth it.”

She didn’t respond to that.

“So,” I pressed. “Was it worth it? Did you get what you wanted for the price of one fallen angel?”

“You cannot comprehend how much I have lost in this exchange,” Morrigan said in a low, dangerous voice. “This was not supposed to happen.”

For some reason, I believed her. Maybe it had something to do with the raw frustration in her voice that made me believe her.

“Ashariel’s loss has changed everything,” she said. “It has forced me to involve myself directly in this affair.”

“How unfortunate for you,” I said. “I’m sorry you ran out of pawns to push around and sacrifice.”

I stopped when I saw her smile. It was the kind of smile that made my blood freeze in my veins.

“Oh, I haven’t run out of pawns yet,” she said. “I still have you, dear Michael.”

“Me?” I asked.

“You,” she said and smiled brightly.

I laughed at that. It was the forlorn laugh of a condemned man. It was the kind of delirious laugh that scratches at the limits of sanity. “I’d ask for a refund,” I said. “There’s nothing you could hope to get from me that Ashariel couldn’t give you. Face it, you’re screwed.”

“Don’t be so sure,” Morrigan said coolly.

“Hey, here’s an idea,” I said, still verging on the edge of hysteria. “Why not go back to Hell and pull her out again? You can do that, can’t you? Of course you can, since you’ve already done it before.”

“I would,” Morrigan said, “if she was in Hell. She is not in Hell.”

“What?” I asked. I blinked through the cloud of hysteria in my brain. “She’s dead, isn’t she? Where else would she go?”

“She isn’t dead,” Morrigan said.

For just a moment, I felt my hope rise. Not dead! She wasn’t dead.

“But she’s still gone,” she finished. “Your dead Ashariel has faded.”

As quickly as it appeared, my hope vanished and I sagged. “Oh,” I said. “That’s not good, is it?”

“In attempting to shield you from Pestilence,” Morrigan said, “Ashariel had to burn through her own essence to counter the Rider’s power. In doing so, she depleted herself so greatly that she was no longer able to maintain her possession of you or even the coherence of her own spirit. What little there was left after her effort broke apart and scattered.”

I stared at Morrigan but didn’t say anything.

“She is no longer anywhere,” Morrigan said, “and she is everywhere. She is lost to you. If it helps you come to terms with your loss, then, yes, consider her dead. And know that she died trying to keep you alive. If she’d approached Pestilence in her avatar form, she could have abandoned it without a second thought. Instead, she went with you. She stayed for you. She died for you.”

“You’re lying,” I said weakly.

“Why would I lie?”

“Because that’s what you do,” I said. “That’s what you’ve always done, from the moment we met you.”

“Now, Michael,” Morrigan said, her voice kind. “I don’t need to lie to you. Not when the truth hurts so much more. Not when the truth will get me what I want.”

“What do you want, Morrigan?” I asked. I was surprised at how dull and tired my voice sounded.

“I want what I’ve always wanted,” she said. “I want the same thing I’ve been after since the moment I plucked Ashariel out of Hell and placed her in your body.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Freedom,” Morrigan said. “I want my freedom.”

Chapter Twenty-Eight

I stormed away from her though there was nowhere to go. I was standing in an open field beneath a blue sky and surrounded by trees. Everything here was untouched by Pestilence’s corruption but I didn’t know where here was, exactly. For all I knew, it was some kind of dream world that Morrigan created. Maybe I was still back in that decaying field, dying of the Rider’s blight.

I turned back to see Morrigan watching me. “Hey,” I said. “Why me?”

“Why you?” she asked. “I suppose because I like you.”

“You don’t even know me,” I said.

She grinned. “Are you sure? I am the Fey Queen of the Dreaming Path. I know your dreams, Michael Stroud. I know your hopes, your desires, and your fears. You are more mine than you could ever begin to realize.”

She wrapped her arms around my waist and pressed against me. “Deny me all you wish,” she said. “We both know that you love this.”

“No,” I said, shrugging out of her embrace. “No, I really don’t. The sex-kitten act is getting really old.”

Her grin became a smirk. “Do you think you can resist me, Michael? Do you think that loyalty to Ashariel somehow makes you noble? Do you think it makes you a better man?”

“It’s not about loyalty to Ashariel,” I said, even though that’s exactly what it was. “It’s just that I really don’t like you.”

“You will,” Morrigan said. “Given enough time, I think that you will like me very much.”

I shuddered. “You didn’t answer my question,” I said.

“Which question was that, my lovely?” she asked.

I straightened my shoulders and turned to face her. “Out of the seven billion people on this planet right now, why did you pick me?”

“I doubt there are seven billion humans left at this point,” Morrigan said. “The real number is probably closer to two billion.”

I grimaced.

She put her hand on my shoulder. “Why do you have such a difficult time accepting that you might be different? Why do you deny that you might have be chosen for something greater?”

“People spend their whole lives wishing they were special,” I said. “Few of us are.”

“Few and none are very different things.”

“Point taken,” I said.

“Now then,” Morrigan said. “If you are finished with your little existential crisis and you’ve recovered from the Rider’s poison, there is something I need to do.”

“What’s that?” I asked even though I didn’t really want to know.

“I’m hungry,” she said.

I looked at her in surprise and then we somewhere else entirely.

It was a restaurant that I didn’t recognize. The booths were dingy in the best greasy-spoon tradition. I glanced out the window but didn’t recognize the city skyline.

Most of the buildings in the distance were on fire or had been. Other than the distant crackle of flame and the occasional sound of shattering glass, the ruined city was silent.

The restaurant itself had been abandoned swiftly and was far enough removed from the urban center that it hadn’t yet been caught in the conflagration. Most of the windows were smashed and the chairs and tables had been overturned.

All of the tables except one.

Morrigan had rearranged one table for the two of us. There were sandwiches already waiting when I reappeared.

I was disoriented from the abrupt shift and my head spun. I leaned heavily against the table and tried very hard not to throw up.

“Okay, seriously?” I asked when the nausea finally passed. “If you were just going to create the food yourself, why bother bringing me here? Why not just conjure up a nice picnic back at the meadow?”

“Because you wouldn’t have eaten it,” Morrigan said. “You would have worried that I was trying to seduce you, that I was trying to make the poor, impressionable human forget all about his beloved fallen angel.”

“You think that a lunch date here is going to convince me otherwise?” I asked.

Morrigan shrugged. “It couldn’t hurt. I imagine you’ll either be too distracted by watching one of your mortal cities burn or by the fact that this is where I chose to bring you.” She grinned. “Looks like I was right.”

She picked up her sandwich, a real New York style sub, and bit into it. “Ohh,” she sighed as she chewed. “That’s lovely.”

“Okay, seriously, I’ve had it with this shit,” I said.

Morrigan looked me over. “Indeed?” she asked after she finished chewing. “And which shit would this be, exactly?”

“This,” I said. “All of this. This is ridiculous and we both know it.”

She put her sandwich carefully on the table in front of her and looked at me with large, expression yellow eyes. “I’m listening.”

“First of all, you’re immortal,” I said. “You don’t have a host body so you don’t need to eat. This is just something that you want to do, probably to annoy me.”

She didn’t say anything. I plunged ahead with my rant, finally giving voice to all the frustration and rage I felt.

“Second, you told me I had to help get Ashariel back in the game. You told me that she had to get control of the Four Horsemen and use them before it was too late. But you know what? I haven’t seen a trace of the Fallen or the Archangels since they first appeared. It doesn’t seem like they’re even around. If time really was critical, we wouldn’t be wasting it on these stupid mind games of yours.”

“Are you done?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “I’m done.”

I was abruptly gripped by an unseen force and slammed facefirst into the table. Dazed, I slumped back into my chair. Blood dripped from my nose which I could tell was broken.

“Are you listening to me, Michael?” Morrigan asked. “Listen closely. Listen carefully.”

I tried to respond but couldn’t seem to make my mouth work right. I was still seeing stars. I hoped she took my silence as assent.

“Good,” she said. “Because I am going to tell you something.”

She caressed the back of my hand gently. “Do not assume that you understand the war that’s come to your world,” she said. “Do not assume that, simply because you have not seen them, they are not there. Do not assume that you know anything about this war. And most of all — are you listening to me, Michael?”

Worried that she would smash my face into the table again if I said no, I gave a slow nod. Blood dripped from my nose onto my shirt.

“Do not assume that you know me,” she said. “Do not assume that you have the power or the right to question me or judge me. Do you understand?”

“Okay,” I mumbled. My voice sounded strange with my nose full of blood. “Sorry.”

“Good,” Morrigan said. “I am glad that I have your attention.”

I nodded weakly. She certainly had a hell of a way of getting it.

She went back to eating. I was quiet for several moments, afraid to speak. My nose continued to bleed.

“I don’t suppose you could fix this?” I asked and I was shocked by the pathetic mewl of my own voice. Shocked, but not surprised.

“I suppose,” she said. “If you promise to be a good boy and do as I say. Do you promise?”

“Yeah,” I said sullenly. “I promise.”

Morrigan nodded towards me and the pain faded. I touched my face experimentally and was relieved to find everything intact.

“Thanks,” I said.

We didn’t speak again until she’d finished eating.

“Weren’t you hungry?” she asked.

“Not really,” I said. I didn’t offer her an explanation.

“Ah well,” Morrigan said. “You’ll come around eventually, I’m sure.”

“I suppose,” I said.

“That was lovely,” she said and stood up from the table. “Are you ready to go?”

“Go?” I asked. “Go where?”

“Silly boy,” she said as she took my arm in hers. “It’s time to meet Death.”

Chapter Twenty-Nine

“Death?” I asked.

“Death,” Morrigan said. “You know Death.”

“I don’t know Death,” I said.

“Rides a pale horse,” she said. “The last and most feared of the Four and with good reason, I might add. Pestilence is little more than a common cold compared to his older brother.”

“That doesn’t sound good,” I said.

“I suppose that depends on your definition of good,” Morrigan said.

“I don’t really have a choice, do I?” I asked.

“No,” she said with a wicked grin. She put her hand on my arm. “But don’t be afraid. I’ll protect you.”

“Should I assume you’re just going to pop us right over to him?” I asked. I wasn’t looking forward to the prospect of another ethereal jaunt.

“Not this time,” she said. “I’m going to bring Death to us.”

“You’re going to summon him?” I asked.

I’d seen Ashariel use such a ritual to summon the shadow of Lucifer to her. Even though I’d been nothing more than the human vessel along for the ride, it had been a terrifying experience to be in the presence of the Devil himself.

“I am,” she said.

“Don’t you need some kind of ritual?” I asked. Ashariel had used a ritual.

“I do,” she said, looking at me. “You’re it.”

“Why me?” I asked. It was a question that had been on my mind a lot these past few days.

“You’re mortal,” she said. “I am not. Only mortals can know Death.”

“Lucky me,” I said.

“Lucky me that I happen to have a loyal mortal on hand,” she said.

She closed her eyes and leaned back in her seat. Her head slumped a little and she went very still. I watched her uncertainly. After a moment, I realized that her chest was rising and falling in a steady rhythm. It took me a moment to realize that she was asleep.

“Seriously?” I asked. “That’s your big ritual? You’re going to take a nap?”

Morrigan didn’t stir.

That was interesting. I wondered what my odds would be if I tried to escape. I could probably make it out the door and into the city, but where would I go? It would be a little difficult to run from a being that could visit me in my dreams. Without Ash, I was helpless.

I felt something move behind me. I turned to look.

A man stood in the doorway.

He wore a charcoal grey suit that looked recently cleaned and pressed. The jacket was left open and I saw a solid black tie over a white shirt. It looked expensive.

Also, he didn’t have any skin.

His hands at his sides were skeletal, bleached white bones that contrasted sharply against the black suit. His face was a naked human skull. Ghostly light illuminated his empty eye sockets. He rested a scythe on his shoulder with disturbing casualness.

I looked around for the pale horse but didn’t see it.

“Disappointed?” Death asked.

His voice caught me by surprise. Despite his grotesque appearance, his voice was smooth and precise. It reminded me of a university professor.

“Um,” I said which was exactly the moment I began to panic. This was Death. This was the Horseman of Death and here I was, completely alone. Exposed. Vulnerable. This was Death!

I glanced over at Morrigan and nudged her with my foot. She didn’t stir.

“My apologies, mortal,” Death said. “Your dream creature has been temporarily displaced. I desired a private audience with you.”

Oh, shit. That probably wasn’t a good sign. Why did Death want to talk to me? This was Morrigan’s show. I was just the unwilling human slave along for the ride.

“What do you want?” I asked. My voice cracked and broke with fear.

Death sighed. “You look upon me with such fear though you do not know me,” he said.

“Sorry?” I offered.

“More so for your sake than mine,” he said and I swear I caught a glimpse of a kind smile flash across his skinless lips.

“May I sit?” he asked.

“Sure. Feel free,” I said in a small voice.

“Thank you.” He held out a skeletal hand and a nearby chair slid across the floor. He sat down and leaned his scythe against the wall. He unbuttoned his jacket.

“Now, then,” he said. “You and I have business to discuss.”

“We do?”

“Indeed,” he said.

“What about her?” I asked and nodded towards Morrigan.

“She will join us in short order,” he said. “A word of warning; you may wish to keep this part of the conversation to yourself.”

“She can read my mind,” I said. “She’ll know.”

“She won’t read this,” he said. “You can trust me on that, Michael Stroud.”

What could I say to that? I wasn’t about to call the Horseman of Death a liar.

“You fear me far more than my brothers,” Death said. “I know that you were there with the Fey Queen and the fallen angel when the Great Seal was breached. I know that you have personally encountered Pestilence. You have seen many things in a very short time, Michael Stroud. Yet despite all you have seen, you still fear me more than anything else, even moreso than the fallen archangel, Lucifer. You fear me even than the God who allows Hell to exist and is content to allow his creations to languish in such a place.”

“Can you blame me?” I asked. “I’m alive. I’m mortal. Being afraid of you is hardwired into me. We’re all afraid to die.”

Death folded his hands on the table. “You are wrong to fear me, Michael Stroud.”

“Care to explain that?” I asked. “You’re being very polite but I think it’s only fair that you explain to the mortal why his fear of his imminent death is irrational.”

“A fair point,” Death said, “You lack the proper perspective. You see me as the culmination of a series of catastrophes, each more ravaging than the last. You blame me for all that is broken and wrong with your world. You see me as that which takes away joy and love and life. You do not see me as I truly am.”

“What are you?” I asked.

“I am your release,” Death said. “I am your freedom you from the vicious cycle. I am your salvation from the agony of War, the suffering of Famine, the ravages of Pestilence. I am peace and silence and serenity. What I have is not a curse. It is a gift.”
“Yeah, but it’s the serenity of the grave,” I said. “That doesn’t sound very good. No offense.”

“You cannot offend me, young one,” he said. “From your perspective, you are correct. You are young and vital with many years of life and youth left ahead of you. My gift is not for you. It is for those whose time in this world has become a burden, those whose lives are now behind them. Those who are ready come into my care willingly and I receive them gladly.”

“But not all who die are ready,” I said. “Not everybody gets to live out a full life before you claim them.”

“True,” Death said with a slight nod. “It is not for me to decide how much time one is allotted. I arrive at the end of each lifetime, no matter how long or how short. That is my way.”

“Is this what you wanted to tell me?” I asked. “You wanted to have a philosophical discussion about dying?”

“No,” Death said.

“Then what is it?”

“Your fallen angel, the one called Ashariel,” Death said.

“She’s gone,” I said.

“She is lost,” the Rider said.

“That’s what I said.”

“No,” Death said. “She is lost. She is broken. She is not gone. She has not faded.”

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“What is lost can be found again,” Death said. “What is broken can be remade. That is what I wished to tell you.”

He motioned towards Morrigan. The Fey Queen’s eyes snapped open. In a flash, she lunged forward and grabbed Death’s wrist, pinning it against the table. Her reptilian eyes narrowed to razor slits.

“Whatever you did to me, Rider, whereever you sent me,” Morrigan said. “Should you ever be so bold as to try that again, know that you will regret it.”

Death nodded. “Indeed.”

I listened, unsure whether to be frightened or awed by the fact that Morrigan would and could threaten Death to his skeletal face

“I called you for a reason,” Morrigan said.

“I answered you for a reason,” Death said.

Morrigan pressed her lips together in a thin smile. “Indeed.”

“For what reason did you request this audience, O Queen?”

“Do not mock me, Horseman,” Morrigan said. “I am beyond your reach. I am removed from your influence.”

“Truly?” the Rider asked. He sounded surprised by this news.

“Dreams may end, my dear Horseman, but they cannot die.”

“I do not believe there is a difference between those two things.”

“I am not asking your permission to do anything,” she said. “My plans will progress regardless, but things will go more smoothly with your cooperation.”

I wondered if she was threatening him. I wondered if it was even possible to threaten Death. What could she possibly threaten him with?

“What is it?” Death asked.

“I need to know how to destroy a particular powerful being,” Morrigan said. “A being more powerful than a Firstborn or a Fallen.”

Wait, what?

Who did Morrigan want to kill? I ran through the list of names in my head. There was Lucifer, Archangel Michael, Gabriel, or the other three Horsemen. Unless there was some other powerful being I didn’t have a name for. That was possible, I supposed. There might be another entity out there that I wasn’t even aware of. Hell, there was probably more than one.

“That is quite an audacious request,” Death said at length.

Morrigan merely smiled.

“Are you prepared to offer a deal?” Death asked.

“If it comes to that,” Morrigan said.

“It is unfortunate that the Four do not engage in deals,” Death said. “We are bound by our nature, by what some might call our sacred duty. We are each as we were meant to be, each one a herald to the next.”

“Who do you herald, then?” I asked.

Death looked at me and I had the feeling he was amused by the question.

“I herald nothing,” he said. “I am the end.”

“You serve the will of the one who broke the Great Seal,” Morrigan said. “How is that any different?”

“The one who broke the Great Seal was meant to do so,” he said. “Following her instructions is not a violation of our sacred duty.”

“She’s gone,” Morrigan said.

“Then our duty to her is complete,” Death said. “We are free to continue our work as we see fit.”

“I can’t convince you?” she asked.

“It is unlikely,” Death said.

“How very disappointing,” she said. “In that case, we have nothing more to discuss.”

She stood up from the table.

Death remained where he was. “So it would seem.”

“You are making a mistake, Horseman,” Morrigan said.

“Perhaps,” he said. “But I am very old, even when compared to the likes of you. I am the end of all things.” He smiled at her. “All things, young one.”

“Enjoy your Apocalypse, Horseman,” Morrigan said with a sneer. “Enjoy it for as long as it lasts.”

“I will do as I have always done,” Death said.

“Indeed,” she said. She turned to me. “Come along, Michael. We have things to do.”

She reached out and placed her hand on my shoulder. Before I could protest or ask Death what he meant about Ash, the world lurched as Morrigan pulled me out of the world and took me somewhere else.

We were in a small boat in the middle of a lake. The sky here was bright and clear. The lake’s surface was sparkling blue. There were only a few scattered clouds in the sky. Morrigan had changed clothes and was now lounging in a clingy little sun dress.

“Okay,” I said. “Where are we? More importantly, what the hell was that all about?”

Morrigan leaned over the side of the boat and drew her fingers through the water. “Lovely, isn’t it?” she said. “I think I could float here for hours, just watching the waves and the clouds and the light on the water. This is the perfect lake, created from so many perfect human dreams.”

“Don’t try to change the subject,” I snapped. “Pay attention to me.”

She fastened those reptilian yellow eyes on me and I felt my throat constrict, either from fear or from force, I wasn’t sure.

“You know better than to show me such disrespect,” she said. “Don’t you?”

The pressure on my windpipe tightened. I nodded as much as I could manage.

“Good,” she said. The pressure released. “You are fortunate that I find your little moments of defiance more amusing than aggravating. You remind me of a little kitten, trying to be fierce. Or perhaps you are a puppy, barking madly and baring its little teeth at every perceived threat.”

“I’m glad I amuse you,” I said.

“Yes,” she said. “You should be.”

She eyed me for a moment and then began to giggle. “Oh, my dear, sweet human boy,” she said. “I do so love your sense of humor.”

I glanced around again. Though the sky was clear and nearly cloudless, the edges of the lake were obscured by a deep mist. It was that ever present mist that told me where we were now.

“This is the Dreaming Path,” I said.

“It is,” she said.

“Am I really here?” I asked. “Is my body here, I mean? Or is the real me lying unconscious somewhere?”

“Your body is safe,” she said. “I put you in a safe place. I promise. Here, you are as all humans are when they pass into my realm. You are a dreamer; you are a mind wandering the mists of my world.”

“I’m dreaming?” I asked.

“It is a lucid dream, my mortal,” she said. “My gift to you.”

“Thanks, I guess,” I said.

“You’re wondering why I brought you here,” Morrigan said. “You have deduced, correctly, why I needed you to call the Horseman Death. But now you are wondering what further use I have for you, since I did not obtain the answer I desired from the Rider.”

“Give the lady a cigar,” I said.

“Do I need a reason to keep you around?” she asked. “Perhaps I enjoy the pleasure of your company.”

“Maybe that’s true,” I said. “It’s also true that you have virtually unlimited power, at least from my perspective. I’m sure there are more interesting and attractive people in the world than me. You could bring any number of those people here.” I sighed. “But mostly, I guess I’m just wondering why you bother with all of this. Why do you even care?”

The Fey Queen arched a brow. Then she crawled towards me. I had nowhere to run, no way to put any space between us. She climbed over me and onto my lap. Our faces were inches apart. Her serpentine eyes bored into me.

“Humans need reasons, Michael,” she said. “Fey do not. I do not. I do what I want, when I want. I take what I want.”

That was it, I realized. That was the true nature of the Fey, their ethos and their origin. They might have taken form from human dreams and nightmares, but one thing all dreams have in common is that they somehow reflect human desires, human wants and needs. We dream of the things we want and have nightmares about the things that we don’t want.

Enter the Fey. Incarnations of desire, want, need.

I was still congratulating myself on figuring it all out when Morrigan gripped my face in her hand and kissed me fiercely. It startled me out of my contemplation and I let out a sharp gasp of surprise

“And right now,” she said in a breathless whisper when she finally pulled her face away, “right now, I want you.”

“I don’t want you!” I said and tried to shove her away from me. I pressed against her shoulders but it was like trying to push a metal sculpture. She ignored my feeble resistance without effort.

“Me and Ash,” I started to say.

“She’s gone,” Morrigan said.

“No, she’s not,” I said. “I won’t do this to her. I refuse.”

“You do not have that option,” she said.

“I don’t want you,” I said.

“Yes,” she said, her eyes locked with mine. “I will make you want me.”

I tried to resist, tried to protest, tried to pull away, but her lips were so very insistent, her body so very inviting and I felt myself slip, I felt a terrible pang of guilt accompany my final coherent thought.

Ash, I thought. I’m sorry.

So sorry.

And then I was gone, lost in the ecstasy of Morrigan’s appetite.

Chapter Thirty

I didn’t know where I was when I awoke.

The ground felt cold and hard beneath me. I sat up quickly and felt my head swim. The world tilted to the side and I clamped my hand over my eyes.

“Damn it,” I said aloud. My voice sounded forlorn against the quiet murmur of a cold breeze.

My clothes were strewn haphazardly around me. Nothing seemed to be missing, for which I was grateful. I checked my sides for any strange scars that hadn’t been there before I passed out. I hadn’t woken up in a bathtub full of ice, nor did I suspect Morrigan would turn out to be an organ thief but it didn’t hurt to check. I hurt, though, and badly. I felt like I’d gone twelve rounds with the champ and lost every single one.

Morrigan.

I looked around but she wasn’t nearby. For the moment, I was alone.

I was sitting in a vacant lot. The sky overhead was grey and desolate and on the verge of becoming a storm. The cracked asphalt beneath me had long since surrendered to the encroaching weeds. I saw a dilapidated warehouse at one end of the lot and a road that led off into the distance at the other. I didn’t recognize any of it. The warehouse didn’t have a sign, as far as I could tell.

I dressed quickly and was grateful for the warmth of my jacket. I stuck my hands in my pockets to warm them. The wind had already picked up. I felt a few drops of rain against my face. The storm wasn’t just on its way. It was already here.

I wondered where the hell I was. Where the hell was Morrigan? Had she left me here alone? That didn’t seem likely.

Maybe it was some kind of game she was playing. Maybe she was toying with me. Maybe it was just part of her alleged plan. It wouldn’t have surprised me; at this point, she’d woven so many lies and half-truths around me, I didn’t know what was real any more.

The rain began to fall more heavily. I began to shiver even through my jacket. I knew I had to get out of the storm. I looked over at the empty warehouse again. It looked intact enough, if undeniably creepy. It seemed like the perfect kind of place to get mugged by a hobo. With a sigh, I pushed myself to my feet and started towards it.

I shrugged away any lingering fears that a particularly vicious hobo might be lurking inside, waiting to murder me for my shoes. I doubted I would find anybody, though. I wasn’t sure how I knew, but somehow I could feel a profound sense of wrongness in the air. Something dark and powerful had swept through this part of the world. I had no idea what: maybe a Rider, maybe a Fallen, maybe something worse.

Whatever it was, it had left a forlorn feeling of emptiness in its wake. I could taste the desolation around me. It felt as though the basic components of life itself had been scrubbed from the very air. I thought briefly of Pestilence but it didn’t have his stench on it. Pestilence was all rot and decay, the sickly-sweet odor of rotting meat. This didn’t smell like anything at all.

It was just . . . empty.

I reached the loading dock and climbed onto it. The nearest shutter door was partly open but still low enough that I’d have to crawl through. I looked up again at the sky and got pelted in the eyes for my troubles. It was definitely getting worse. I was already soaked and chilled to the bone.

I went over to the shutter and knelt down. It was too dark to see in the warehouse. I didn’t have a flashlight on me and I doubted there would be any functioning lights inside. I told myself I’d stay close to the door; there would be enough light coming through the shutter. I would remain tensed, ready to bolt at the first sign of trouble.

What kind of trouble, my overactive imagination wanted to know.

I wasn’t sure.

Crazy hobos?

Sure. If I was lucky.

If you’re not that lucky?

Something worse than crazy hobos, obviously. Maybe a whole gang of hobos, starving and naked, and they’d strip me and kill me in desperation and then eat my flesh.

I told my imagination to shut up.

It was a strange sort of fear. I had stood in the presence of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalyse. I’d spoken with Death himself, crossed paths with Pestilence, had met the Devil and been hunted by Archangels, and yet here I was, scared of a creepy old warehouse.

It was a strange fear.

I dropped down onto my stomach and crawled under the shutter.

As I suspected, there weren’t any working light inside the warehouse. I remained near the shutter, but the storm had darkened the sky and diminished that light. I felt around in my pockets for a moment until felt something hard and plastic. I still had my cell phone! If I was lucky, it would still have a charge. It was a cheap phone without any bells or whistles, but durable enough and able to hold a charged battery for several days.

I flipped it open. Nothing. The screen was dark.

Damn it. I wondered if Morrigan’s teleportation could have fried the circuits. Maybe Ash’s power had destroyed the phone. I supposed it didn’t matter either way; the phone was dead.

I decided it was for the best. If the phone had worked, it would have been a convenient flashlight. With such a convenient flashlight, I probably would have felt bold enough to go wandering around in the warehouse on my own which would inevitably lead to me getting into some kind of trouble.

So, really, it was better that I stayed close to the shutter and the outside world. I figured the storm would pass eventually and I could move on. I didn’t know where I would go. I tried not to think about that.

The storm raged outside the warehouse. Rain spattered underneath the shutter onto my legs. I grimaced and felt around for the wall behind me. I used it to guide me back a few steps to the right and out of the spray.

I leaned back against the wall and slid down into a sitting position. I tried to get as comfortable as I could. I had a feeling I was in for a long wait. I tried not to think about what else might have been in the warehouse with me, concealed beneath the darkness.

In my mind, I saw slaughtered corpses stacked in piles all around me, just outside the feeble light. I imagined leering skeletons dangling on a few feet above me, their eye sockets fastened on me in perpetual horror. I imagined bony fingers dangling from the ceiling, reaching out to me, grasping at me.

I shuddered and forced my thoughts away. I knew I was scaring myself. I knew it was just a stupid, empty warehouse. It was an abandoned warehouse that was probably filled with rats and maybe the occasional big hairy spider and while neither thought was particularly comforting, both were preferable to the slaughterhouse of horrors vision I had been indulging.

I wondered again where I would go after the storm passed. Where would I go? The world was ending, after all. I doubted there were any safe places left. Who knew how many people were even alive at this point?  Maybe I was the last human left alive on the entire planet. It was certainly possible. I shuddered again.

There was only one thought that was worse than the possibility of being the sole survivor of the human race: wondering why Morrigan had left me here in the first place.

In fact, wondering about Morrigan at all was an exercise in barely-contained terror. What did she want with me in the first place? Why had she chosen me to be Ashariel’s vessel? Why did she enjoy playing with me?

I shook my head and sighed. I had a lot of frightened questions but very few answers. I doubted the answers would have made me feel any better.

That was when the shutter door clattered shut and I plunged into total darkness.

“Oh, shit,” I said. “Shit, shit, shit.”

It was perfectly dark. I held my hand up in front of my face and couldn’t see it. It didn’t matter whether my eyes were open or closed, it was that goddamn dark.

Well, shit.

My heartbeat quickened. I felt on the verge of a panic attack. I forced myself to slow down. I tried to think logically and calmly. I could work through this. I just needed to focus.

Okay, I thought. Logically and calmly. What did I know?

Logically, the wind had probably blown the shutter door closed. Perhaps whatever had jammed it open in the first place had finally broken free, like a rusted chain or a piece of junk on the shutter’s track. There were plenty of mundane things that could have caused it to close on its own. None of them involving me being locked in a pitch black warehouse and surrounded by corpses. I was fine. I forced myself to believe that I was fine.

“Michael,” a voice in the darkness said.

My blood froze in my veins and my hair stood on end. Either I was hearing voices now, which was a very distinct possibility, or.

Or I wasn’t alone.

I wasn’t alone.

Shit.

Oh, shit.

“Michael,” the voice said again. It was right in front of me.

I balled my fist and lashed out into the darkness. My hand brushed against something that felt like rough fabric and then it was gone. My heartbeat sped up again and I began to hyperventilate.

Something was in here with me.

Something was here with me in the dark.

Something in the darkness that knew who I was.

“Who are you?” I called out. My voice sounded weak and frightened.

A low, sibilant laugh.

“Did you think I had forgotten you?” the voice asked. “Did you think that you would be passed over, that you would escape my notice if you were released?”

That voice.

I knew that voice.

Something hard and sharp caressed my face.

I lashed out blindly but again, I felt only shadows.

And then something hard struck me in the face and my skin parted in hot, agonizing lines. I clamped my hand over my cheek. I felt a warm and sticky liquid drip onto my hand and I knew it was my blood.

“Show some respect, boy,” the voice hissed. “Show me that you remember me.”

I didn’t answer.

I couldn’t.

The sharp things touched my other cheek and slid down lightly to my neck. “Say my name, Michael,” the voice said. “I know you remember.”

The sharp thing dug into the skin of my throat just a bit, just enough to make me bleed.

“Say my name,” the said said.

“Lucifer,” I whimpered.

Laughter.

“Good,” he said. “Good. You do remember me. As I remember you.”

Oh God. Oh, my God.

The claws left my neck and some impossibly strong force yanked me off my feet and pinned me against the warehouse wall.

“You and I,” Lucifer said, “have things to discuss.”

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