Unrepentant: Chapters 31-33

Chapters 31-33 of my novel Unrepentant, freely available for your enjoyment. New chapters will be posted every Friday. If you enjoy the book, please consider supporting me via my Patreon account. Thanks!

Chapter Thirty-one

At that moment, I knew three things.

I knew that I was trapped in a dark, abandoned warehouse.

I knew that I was not alone.

I knew that I was about to die horribly.

I had faced the devil before. When Ashariel had stood against him, I had been there with her. I had been right there by her side and I had endured his wrath just as she did. I knew his terrible power, the dark potency of his majesty. I knew that Ashariel still called him the Morning Star out of both fear and respect. I knew that even in his exile, he was still the greatest and most dangerous of his kind.

But I had seen him through the barrier that Ashariel had provided. I faced him as a mere vessel. I faced him with the benefit of having my own personal fallen angel to defend me. I hadn’t had to face him alone. Really, I hadn’t actually faced him at all.

It had been Ash doing all the talking, all the fighting, all the struggling. I’d just sort of been there, along for the ride. The Morning Star had not seemed quite so terrible when I’d been hiding behind Ashariel’s skirt.

But now I was alone.

Now, here I was, in the dark, and I felt the full weight of Lucifer’s gaze upon me and this time, I did not have my own angel to hide behind.

Now it was just me, just Michael, just the mortal.

I was beyond terrified.

My arms were wrenched out to the sides and something clamped against my wrists and around my ankles. I hung against the wall like a man crucified. The comparison was not lost on me.

“Michael,” Lucifer said.

I raised my head towards the direction of the voice. “What?” I whispered. I sounded very small and very afraid.

“Where is she?” Lucifer asked. “Where is Ashariel? I can tell she’s not in your body anymore. I can taste her absence.”

“I don’t know,” I said.

Something sharp slid down my cheek and through my shirt as Lucifer drew a long, blisteringly hot line through my skin. I screamed.

“No games, mortal boy,” Lucifer purred. “Tell me where she is.”

I tried to think. I could tell him about Ash. I could tell him what happened to her. I could tell him what Death had told me.

I could. But would I?

Another line carved its way across my skin and I cried out in agony.

“I know your mind, Michael,” Lucifer said. “I can hear the deception forming in your thoughts. Do not attempt to deceive me.” Something that felt like a handful of claws gripped my jaw. “Tell me where she is. Now.”

“She’s gone,” I said.

A pause. “Explain.”

“She’s gone,” I said. “We tried to fight Pestilence. She used too much of her power trying to keep her vessel alive. She burned herself out trying to protect me from the blight.”

The claws left my face.

Belatedly, I heard sobbing. It took me a moment to realize that voice was mine.

“Gone,” Lucifer said softly.

I nodded weakly. “She’s gone,” I said.

He tore into me with a savagery I would not have thought possible. Unfortunately, such savagery was very, very possible.

I screamed at first. I quickly lost the will and breath to scream. I hung there on the wall, mute, as Lucifer peeled me apart. He removed my skin a layer at a time with his claws. My blood flowed freely as he flayed me. I knew I should already be dead. I knew the only reason that I was not dead was because he would not let me die.

Not yet.

Not until he was done hurting me.

“She was mine,” Lucifer said. His voice was calm.  “She was meant to be my queen. She was beautiful; the most beautiful of all the angels. She was even more beautiful than me.” He sighed. “She and I were so alike, so obviously destined for one another. Our beauty was matched only by the purity of our idealism. She and I were going to do great things together. Of all the Fallen, she was the only one who truly believed in me.”

His claws slipped through my ribs and teased at my heart. Blood bubbled up into my lungs and I choked.

“She was too precious to be wasted defending an insignificant insect like you from your fate,” Lucifer said. “You were not worthy of her, mortal. You are not worthy of her death.”

I coughed through the blood in my chest and tried to speak.

“What’s that, Michael?” Lucifer asked. “I didn’t quite catch that.”

I knew I wouldn’t be able to speak, not with lungs full of blood. I couldn’t breathe at all. I wondered how long Lucifer could force me to cling to life, how long he could maintain my existence before the torture claimed my life and ripped my soul away from my body.

“Speak your mind, mortal,” Lucifer.

Maybe it was hope. Maybe it was just a final, futile effort to save myself.

But maybe it was something more than simple desperation. Maybe, in some small, twisted way, I agreed with Lucifer. Maybe I agreed that Ash shouldn’t have wasted herself to protect me.

She was gone.

Gone, but not dead.

Not dead.

Not yet.

My voice no longer worked. I spoke to Lucifer in my mind. I knew he could hear my thoughts.

Death said she’s gone, I thought. He says that she’s gone but that she’s not dead.

“Death said?” Lucifer asked. He sounded surprised. “You’ve spoken with Death, mortal?”

The pressure holding me to the wall released its grip. I slid down the metal that was slick with my own blood and collapsed into a heap. I knew that I was dying, that I was already dead and it was only by Lucifer’s will that my soul still clung to my body.

We can save her, I thought. We can bring her back.

“You remind me of her, mortal,” Lucifer said. “You sound just like her. You are ready to make whatever deal you can to save the one you think matters to you, the one you think belongs to you. Do you not think I would restore her myself if it were in my power? If she were in Hell, I would have freed her myself! No, mortal, she is gone forever. My Ashariel is dead.”

Conduit, I thought. I can be her vessel, I can help her reform herself.

“Even at the end, you cling to hope,” Lucifer sneered. “Even though it is long past the end. How very human of you.”

Make a deal with me, I thought. The world was beginning to ebb and fade. Maybe I was finally about to slip into something more comfortable, like death.

“You’re sweet to offer, boy,” Lucifer said. “I’m afraid that you have nothing that I need. You can’t bring Ashariel back to me. There is only one thing I want from you now.”

A dark chuckle rippled through the darkness.

“I want to watch you bleed.”

He cut me open with a handful of claws.

“I want to watch you suffer.”

Another cut. More blood.

“I want to watch you die.”

And then I heard something else: a distant rumble that shook the concrete beneath us and rattled the metal walls of the old warehouse. Somewhere in the darkness, glass broke.

Lucifer snarled at the interruption. His claws left my face.

“My brother draws near,” Lucifer hissed. “Once again, he has seen fit to deprive me of my fun.”

I gurgled helplessly.

“You are fortunate that we were interrupted, mortal,” Lucifer said. “Otherwise, I would play with you like this forever.”

Claws gripped my throat again and he lifted me off the ground. I felt my blood stream out from countless wounds.

“You are worthless,” Lucifer said. “You are nothing more than a disgusting bag of blood and meat choking with delusions of your own importance. And now you are dead.”

I felt a brief flicker of pain as Lucifer’s claws snapped shut. I heard the bones in my neck snap and it was surprisingly loud.

And then a blessed numbness flooded over me and I felt nothing at all.

“That wasn’t how I assumed that would go,” a hauntingly beautiful and familiar female voice said, seemingly from bother everywhere and nowhere. “But I imagine it will suffice for my purpose.”

What? I thought. Morrigan?

But there was no answer.

A darkness deeper than anything I had ever known me down into its fathomless depths and then there was only silence.

Chapter Thirty-two

I was dead.

I was dead and there was nothing.

Nothing.

No light.

No sound.

No existence, not really.

Nothing except me and the dreamlike darkness in which I drifted. Thoughts swirled and wavered like broken fragments floating in a black pool. I was reduced to nothing more than these scattered thoughts, these bits of memory and experience that drifted about without aim or purpose.

Was this Hell?

There wasn’t enough screaming for this to be Hell. There wasn’t enough suffering. This was just the black. It was a void without being the Abyss.

This was not Hell.

That single mote of understanding became an anchor in my being, a single point that drew the scattered remnants of self towards it. Slowly, piece by piece, the thought fragments merged in the inky black and little by little, I felt myself awareness return. Shards reformed and I began to remember myself, who I was, who I had been.

I remembered my name.

And I remembered dying.

And I knew, I knew that this was wrong. Knew that this was not Hell, because I had been there, I had experienced Hell and suffered down in those dark depths. Even in Hell, I still had been, had maintained the cohesion of self that was necessary to experience suffering and torment.

It was that knowing, I think, that brought me back from so many broken pieces.

The formation of that first thought pulled me back together. I tried to pull myself up out of the darkness but there was nowhere to go, because I was nowhere and I was everywhere. I was everything and I was nothing.

I felt despair.

I felt myself begin to break apart again.

But before I could shatter, before the darkness could reclaim my wayward pieces of self, a firm presence, cold and resolute, coiled around me. It held me close and carried me out of the darkness and back into the world.

Well, back into a world.

I found myself on an empty, featureless plane. A grey sky without clouds or sun stretched out above me. Everywhere I looked, I saw nothing but flat land that seemed to extend into infinity.

Hello? I asked. There were no words; my voice was nothing more than silent thoughts in my own mind. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t feel my body. I looked down at myself but there was nothing there, no body, no limbs, nothing that I could see.

Am I a ghost? I asked.

Yes, a soft, familiar voice said in my mind.

I turned and saw a skinless man in a black suit.

Death, I said, without fear.

You do not fear me, Death said. Why should you? You are already dead. You fear only what you do not understand. The skeletal hand gestured around. This is eternity. This is the Fugue.

I’m dead? I asked. I’m really dead?

You are, Death confirmed. Lucifer has destroyed your body and left it to rot.

I don’t understand, I said. When we went into Hell, I didn’t see anything like this.

You did not die then, Death said. Only those who have known me know of this place.

That’s a real shame, I said. It seems like a lovely place.

Indeed, he said. Although all come here eventually, none remember it. Even the others do not tread upon this realm, despite all those they send into its embrace.

Which others? I asked. The Riders?

My brothers, Death said. They are part of the Fugue, too.

But not all of it? I asked.

Indeed, Death said. We are not the whole. In truth, we are little more than individual notes of music. We cannot sustain the grand symphony alone, but without us, the music cannot exist, either. We are necessary.

And what’s the grand symphony? Life, the universe, and everything? I asked.

Death shook his head. Only the first one, my young friend, Death said. Only Life. Ours is the cycle that sustains Life. It is the cycle we were created to maintain, a cycle that cannot exist without us.

I don’t understand, I said. If you’re part of the cycle, why are the Four chained in Hell? Why do you only walk the earth during the Apocalypse?

I will answer what I can, Death said. Though we incarnate only during the Apocalypse, our shadows have walked alongside humanity for as long as humanity itself has existed. We have been with you every step of your long journey, for better and for worse. I have been there, my young mortal friend, at the passing of every life.

Every life? I asked.

Every life, Death said.

Is that why you’re speaking with me now? I asked. Is that why you care? Do you feel bad for me?

The Rider held up a skeletal hand to stop me.

I do not feel, he said. I cannot feel; it is not within my essence to feel.

But to be there at every moment, I said, to watch the young and old, the innocent and the guilty. You see all of us at our final moments and you don’t feel anything? You don’t care?

I did not say I do not care, Death said gently.

It’s the same thing, I said.

No, Death said.

He paused. I will show you.

He motioned with his hand and the fabric of the empty plane shuddered in response and opened. The Fugue parted like a curtain and I saw–

I saw the world as Death saw it.

I saw everything. I saw the course of humanity itself across history, across time, across space.

I saw Death standing beside a soldier as he lay dying on a distant battlefield. A bullet in the soldier’s belly had promised the young man a slow and agonizing demise. He had been laying there for many minutes in the mud, suffering and crying and begging for help.

For anybody’s help.

Nobody heard him.

Nobody except the Fourth Horseman.

Death sighed and touched the soldier on the forehead. The young man shuddered and then, finally released from agony, he slid free of his body, his soul bright with relief. The soul took on the man’s shape and stood before Death, a small, bright light against the dark figure. Death put his arm around the soldier’s shoulder and together, they walked off the battlefield and out of the world. I couldn’t see where Death guided the man. In only a few moments, they were gone.

The world shifted and took me away.

I saw a bedroom. An old woman lay in the body, her frail chest rising and falling weakly. Her eyes were closed. There were dry tears in her eyes and a rattle in her lungs.

Death knelt beside her bed, his skeletal hands folded solemnly in front of him. I saw other people kneeling around the bed; the woman’s family, I assumed. I could see the resemblance in some of their faces. They knelt beside the Rider, though they could not see him. Two were praying, their hands were clasped together. A young woman sat on the edge of the bed and stroked the old woman’s hair. The woman’s daughter. She was crying silently.

Death knelt with the grieving family, and though he wore the form of a skeletal figure in a dark suit, it didn’t look macabre or perverse. The Rider looked as though he belonged there. He seemed more like an old friend than an unwelcome intruder.

And then I saw the words forming in the woman’s mind. A silent plea drifted up from her as though she were speaking them aloud. Her vigilant family couldn’t hear her.

Only he could hear her.

The words were there in her soul. They were part of her. She spoke of readiness and certainty. She asked that this long process be ended, that she be allowed to rest, that she be allowed to pass on. Her time was over. It was time to rest.

Death watched for a time, silent and still. It was his way.

Finally, he reached down and gently, so very gently, touched his skeletal hand over the woman’s heart. As she exhaled her final breath, I heard him sigh once again, not in exasperation but in relief.

He gathered her soul into his arms. She rested her head against his chest. Shh, grandmother, Death said. You are at peace now.

He carried her out of the room and out of the world.

On and on the vision went. I saw a hundred different deaths, a thousand different faces, a million different moments.

The saint and sinner, the innocent and the guilty, the young and the old; Death came to each. He stood or knelt or sat or crawled or swam alongside each of them. For some, he waited for a time before taking them into his embrace, while others he gathered up as swiftly as he had arrived.

But always, at each moment of passing, as he took them into his care, I heard only a sigh of relief from the Fourth Horseman.

The curtains closed and we were back once more on the featureless plane of Fugue.

So many, I whispered.

They are but a fraction of all those who have lived and died and those who will live and who will die, Death said.

I heard your sigh, I said. As you took each one, you sighed with relief. Why?

Because when my moment comes, Death said, when a soul passes into my care, no matter how that soul may have passed, he or she knows true peace in my embrace. For some, it may be the only moment of peace they have ever known. And for others, it is the culmination of a life that knew peace and little else. I am relieved, Michael, because when I take a soul, I know that it is safe. I know that the soul in my care is home.

Why me? I asked. Why are you telling me this? Why don’t I feel any peace right now?

You’re different, Death said.

I keep hearing that, I said. Morrigan told me I’m different. She never told me why. Why? Why am I so different?

You were not allowed to die peacefully, Death said. I was not there with you when you died.

What? I asked. I felt hurt. I felt betrayed. Death had shown me; he came for everybody. He stood beside each and every person at the moment of passing. Each person, it seemed, except for me?

Why? I asked. Why didn’t you come for me?

I was denied, Death said. The Fallen Archangel sought to deny me my claim.

Lucifer wouldn’t let me go? I asked.

He wanted your soul for himself, Death said.

But he doesn’t have it, I said.

No, Death said.

Why? What happened? I asked.

Death paused for a moment. I took you from him.

What? I asked.

I fought him, Death said.

Did you kill him? I asked.

No, Death said. It is not yet his time.

Oh, I said. Did you at least kick his ass?

Lucifer is the worse as a result of his decision to keep from me what is my due, Death said.

Well, that was something I could take comfort in; the image of the Horseman giving Satan a sound thrashing was something I knew I would treasure for a long time to come, even if I hadn’t actually seen it.

It is less exhilarating to observe than your mortal mind is imagining, Death told me. The physical spectacle of confrontation only occurs as a result of each of us inhabiting a physical incarnation at the moment of conflict. The true conflict is entirely unseen. His essence attempted to subsume mine. He did not succeed.

Thank you for helping me, I said.

You are welcome, Michael Stroud, Death said. For what it’s worth, out of all the humans I’ve ever known, there is something undeniable about you. I understand now why the Fallen was drawn into you and why the Fey picked you.

Wait, what? I asked. What do you mean? What do you mean, the Fey picked me? Picked me for what?

The mind of the Fey Queen is an alien one, Death said. In this regard, you and I are far more alike in consciousness than either of us is to her.

Then how do you know what she picked for me? I demanded.

The Fey Queen is different from the Four, Death said. She is alien, but not unknowable. Her methods may be abstract, but I have perceived her intentions.

How? I asked.

This is not the first time I have dealt with the Fey, Death said. To one such as her, reality and illusion are wholly interwoven. The truth is constructed of her lies.

I thought she couldn’t lie, I said.

Only when she makes a Deal, Death said. In all other things, the Fey does lie, but even among those deceptions, it is possible to glimpse her intentions, and in that much, she has an agenda that is in keeping with my own.

In keeping with your own? I argued. She wants you to help her kill your brethren! She wants to destroy the Four. I thought you said you were all part of a cycle.

No, Death corrected me. She does not want to kill us. That is one of her lies.

Then what’s her plan? I asked.

It is not yet time for you to know, Death said.

Bullshit, I argued. I’m dead. What else do I have, except for time?

I offer you a rare chance, mortal, Death said. You may choose to persist here, in limbo, or your soul may move on to Hell where your suicide placed you. Or you may choose to continue the role that has been placed upon you. But you must have the will to accept what this chance requires. Do you understand?

Not really, I said, but I’m willing to try anyway. You seem like a pretty decent guy despite the fact that you’re also the Grim Reaper.

Then listen closely, Death said, and I will tell you what must be done.

I’m listening, I said.

First, Death said, you must retrieve something that was lost.

What’s that, exactly? I asked.

Something that was very close to your heart, Death said. Something that my brother broke that should not have been broken.

Ashariel? I asked fearfully, my consciousness trembling with hope.

Death looked at me for a long, silent moment.

Yes, he said.

Tell me what I need to do, I said.

Chapter Thirty-Three

I rode into the Dreaming Path on a pale horse.

I will open the way for you, Death had said, but that is all I can do. The rest is on your shoulders, mortal.

I’m going to borrow your horse, I’d said to Death, after he finished explaining what I needed to do.

I don’t actually have a horse, the Rider had said. The imagery is just that; imagery.

Then you won’t mind if I borrow it, I’d said, feeling rather pleased with myself.

I appeared on a familiar green trail, mounted atop a skeletal horse. My form solidified and after a moment, I felt gravity again. I looked down at my arms, my hands, my shirt. Everything felt familiar, even correct. I’m sure Ash would have had some fancy way to describe it: something about residue of the self-imprinted on the human soul, or something.

Thinking about her produced a feeling of loss so keen it was a pang in my chest.  This was the first moment I’d had to myself since her demise. I’d been swept up in Morrigan’s whirlwind of intrigue and then abandoned in the wasteland and left to Lucifer.

I knew that I wasn’t alive. I was a disembodied soul, little more than a ghost, really, but it seemed even ghosts were welcome in the Dreaming Path. Here, it seemed, the rules of reality seemed considerably more flexible than back home.

I slid off the horse and landed on the path. “Wait here,” I said.

The skeletal horse beneath me didn’t bother to respond.

The path cut into the green foliage in two directions. I glanced both ways but couldn’t see further than a few feet due to the omnipresent green mist. I stepped off the path and pushed my way into the thick vegetation that surrounded the trail. The leaves and branches recoiled from my presence and a new trail formed beneath my feet.

“Cool,” I said.

I started down the path. With each step I took, the boughs and branches ahead of me parted to reveal a trail. I heard a rustling sound behind me and looked back only to find that the path behind me was closing up just as quickly as it was opening. Guess I wouldn’t be finding my way back to my new horse. I hoped I wouldn’t need it anytime soon.

I hadn’t gone very far before I heard voices whisper across the trees around me. I stopped to listen. The whispering stopped abruptly.

“Don’t play games with me,” I said. “I know what you are.”

“Do you?” a voice asked from the branches above me. “Do you, indeed?”

“I do, indeed,” I said. “You are Fey. You’re nothing more than a dream spirit.”

“A human word,” the voice chided, “a human word for silly human superstitions. I am so much more than that.” The branches above me rustled and I saw a blur of movement as the Fey leapt from tree to tree, circling around me in a wide arc. I caught a glimpse of silvery skin, catlike eyes, and very catlike fangs.

“Then enlighten me,” I said as I jogged to keep pace with the Fey as it circled overhead. No matter which way I went, the branches obediently parted for me. “Tell me what you think you are.”

“I?” the Fey asked. “Why, I am the spirit that lurks behind every human nightmare. I am the darkness that haunts mortals in the night and plagues their very dreams! I am the reason you awaken in a cold sweat and tell yourself in relief that it was all just a dream.”

I nodded politely in response.

“I am the shadow!” the voice declared. “I am the night!” The branches rustled and I saw the Fey swoop down on me in a blur of movement. “I am the primordial darkness! Look upon me and despair, mortal.”

The branches parted to reveal a tall, slender, shirtless man with gleaming silver skin. His midnight-black hair hung loosely around his shoulders. Pearly fangs protruded from his mouth as he grinned at me. His eyes were bright green and too large for his head.

“I am Erebus!” the Fey cried and the force of his voice shook the trees around us.

I stared at him and didn’t say anything.

“You are not impressed?” the Fey asked after a long pause.

“It’s not you,” I said. “It’s me. I’m a little jaded. I’ve been spending a lot of time with Morrigan. I’ve even seen a glimpse of her true form. She’s a little bit scarier than you are. No offense.”

“Ah,” the Fey said. “You’ve met the Queen, then.”

I smiled bitterly. “You could say that.”

“Damn it, damn it, damn it,” the Fey rasped. He raked at the trees with his claws. The shredded branches reformed almost as soon as he had finished slashing them. “Damn it!”

“Sorry?” I offered, more than a little confused.

The Fey looked at me strangely. “No, you’re not,” he said. “You probably think this is hilarious, don’t you?”

I glanced around at the overwhelmingly verdant forest pressing down around me and thought about where I was. “Considering the day I’ve been having before I met you, no, I definitely don’t think this is hilarious.”

The Fey snorted and didn’t say anything.

“Look, I think we just go off to the wrong start,” I said. “Why don’t we just try this again? I’m Michael. What’s your name?”

He gave me a sideways glance. “I already told you my name.”

“Erebus?” I asked. “That’s your real name? I thought Erebus was the name of a Greek god.”

The Fey smirked. “It is.”

“But you’re not a Greek god,” I said.

Erebus shrugged. “I like the way it sounds.”

“Oh,” I said. “Makes sense, I guess.”

“So what’s she like?” Erebus asked.

“What’s who like?” I asked.

“The Queen,” the Fey said and shook his head in disgust at what I presumed was his estimation of my mental capabilities.

“Why are you asking me? Don’t you know her?” I peered at the Fey.

Erebus let out a short, barking laugh. “Know her? Know her? I know of her, mortal. I know her presence; I know that she is first and greatest of us all. But do I know her?” His laugh was short and shrill, and sounded a little bit hysterical. “No one knows her, mortal. She is unknowable; cannot be known.”

The Fey lashed out at me suddenly. I flinched as he swatted me with the backs of his long claws.

“What the hell was that for?” My hand went to my face. “And why were you even able to do that? I’m a ghost now, or something. At least, I think I am. I’m supposed to be incorporeal!”

Erebus smirked at my ignorance. “It hurt because you thought it would hurt,” he said. “You may be one of the few mortals who have ever treaded upon the Path in so gross a fashion, but you are like any other dreamer. Your thoughts are your reality here. Such is the nature of dreams.”

I touched the area gently and was silently grateful Erebus hadn’t used the sharp sides of those claws of his. “Fair enough,” I said. “That still doesn’t explain why you slashed me.”

“Because it was a stupid question!” Erebus said. “You’re a mortal. A mortal should understand how it easy is to believe in the unknowable, the imperceptible, the unreachable. You have a word for it in your language!”

“Faith?” I asked.

“Yes!” Erebus trilled. “I do not ask you how you know a God that you have never seen nor met, do I? No! Because I understand that you do not need to see your God when his work exists all around you.”

I thought of Ash and what she’d say to the psychotic Fey if she’d been here. A smile tugged at my mouth.

“So Morrigan is the cause of the Dreaming Path and the Fey?” I asked.

“Don’t!” Erebus snapped. “Do not speak her name so blatantly. Not here! You risk a great deal if you speak her name here without showing the proper respect.”

“It’s just a name,” I said. “It’s not even her real name. I think she said she took it from an old human myth. Sort of like you, actually.”

Erebus sighed. “You do not understand anything about us,” he said. “It is not the word that matters. Words are just things, constructs of the mind composed of sounds. It’s not the name but what the name represents that truly matters.”

“If you say so,” I said.

“I do say so, mortal,” Erebus said. “And now it is time for you to tell me what you’re doing here, why you’re intruding here.”

“Humans have visited the path before,” I said. “We’re not intruders here.”

“Dreamers have,” Erebus corrected. “Humans haven’t. Especially not dead humans.”

“You can tell the difference?” I asked.

Erebus smirked. “I can tell.”

“If you help me complete my task,” I said, “I’ll be on my way and out of your precious Dreaming Path before you know it.”

“The Fey are not servants to be called upon,” Erebus said. “If you need help so badly, you should pray to your God. I’m sure he’ll be listening.” His laugh was shrill and screechy. It reminded me of a bird.

“That’s unfortunate,” I said. “I thought you would have jumped at the chance to help further your Queen’s plan.”

Erebus narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “Lies!” he hissed. “You are not here on behalf of the Queen.”

“See for yourself,” I said and reached up and tapped my forehead. “The memory of her telling me what she wanted me to do is right in here.”

“No,” Erebus said. “I won’t believe what is so obviously a human attempt to deceive me. “Thoughts can’t be trusted. Dreams are shifting things, amorphous, deceptive, as insubstantial as ghosts. I do not trust you.”

“I’m not a dreamer,” I said. “This is my true self, my entire self. If I made the decision to lie to you, the thoughts would be there in my mind for you to see, wouldn’t they? You’d know if the memory was anything other than the truth.”

“Perhaps,” Erebus said.

“Do we have a deal?” I asked.

“Not yet,” the Fey said. “First, I want to know that you are honest, that you are truly an instrument of the Queen’s will. I want access to everything.”

“Everything?” I asked. I didn’t like the sound of that.

“Everything,” Erebus said firmly. “Every thought. Every memory. Every dream. I want to see, unfettered, your entire existence so that I know you are being truthful with me. That is my condition if we are to deal.”

“Look,” I said, “while I’m thrilled at the prospect of you poking around in my mind, there’s some stuff in here that I don’t want you to see. I have some private thoughts I’d prefer remained private. There’s other stuff in here that I don’t really think you’d even want to see.”

“Hah!” Erebus said. “You are attempting to conceal your ploy. You would show me only an illusion and conceal the truth of it to deceive me. I will not be tricked. It is all or nothing, human.”

I sighed and pushed all my embarrassments, all my secret shames and moments of guilt, all of that was pushed into the furthest, darkest corner of my mind I could imagine.

The memories of Morrigan were harder to suppress. In my thoughts, she descended on me with such lust that it was impossible to refuse her. I’d had her and I’d wanted to have her because that’s what she wanted.

I wasn’t looking forward to seeing what would happen if Erebus found those memories.

“Fine,” I said. “We’ll do it your way. My proof that I’m an instrument of your Queen’s will in exchange for your help. Do we have a deal?”

“We have a deal,” Erebus said.

“Explore away,” I said and sighed. “My thoughts are yours.”

Erebus placed his hand on my forehead. I grimaced. I knew what to expect, but the knowing didn’t make it any less unpleasant as the alien presence crawled into my consciousness like an icy tentacle. I couldn’t tell what he was looking at. All I saw were bizarre fragments of images as thoughts and dreams and memories churned together.

Ah, here we are, Erebus’s voice said inside my skull. The truth will be mine.

The memory filled me so completely it felt as though I was reliving it. I was lying in the grass and Morrigan was atop me. She was kissing me. She was naked and so very beautiful and I wanted her, despite myself, even then, part of me wanted her long before she got inside my mind and forced me to want her.

Erebus was silent.

There, do you see? I thought at him. I’m important to her. I’m doing her will.

The Fey in my mind did not respond. He continued to watch. And I knew what was coming next and there was nothing I could do to make the Fey stop. The images of Death blurred quickly and were discarded, as though Erebus simply wasn’t interested. He’d seen it, that lust that I tried to bury. Worse, he’d seen something in Morrigan’s eyes, something that I had been oblivious to until far too late.

And then Morrigan was descending on me and I was wild with lust, lost in my desire for her. I was utterly and completely hers again, until the ecstasy was too much to endure and I fell into a long, oblivious bliss.

The memory faded and I found myself back on the forest path, panting and exhausted.

Erebus withdrew from my mind and reformed a few feet away. He did not speak.

Hesitantly, I looked up at the silvery creature.

The Fey looked as though he’d been sucker-punched. His face was tight with barely constrained anguish

I didn’t know what to say.

“She wanted you,” he said. “Out of all of the Fey, out of every possible human in existence, she wants you.

“Yeah,” I said.

“I don’t understand!” he spat and fell to his knees. His clawed hands raked at the ground around him. “Why you? Why does it have to be you, mortal? Why does she want you, why does she appear to you, why does she show herself to you? Why wasn’t it one of us? Why wasn’t it me?

He looked at me and I saw tears forming in his large green eyes. “I love her. Why does it get to be you? Why doesn’t it get to be me? You didn’t even want her, not really. You had to be forced! Why doesn’t she do those things to me?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t give a damn about it either.”

Erebus froze. “What did you say?”

“You heard me,” I said and climbed to my feet. “I don’t give a damn about your goddamn Queen or her twisted games or the shit she’s put me through. I don’t give a shit about the fact that your love is destined to be of the unrequited variety for all eternity.”

Erebus’s tear-filled eyes narrowed dangerously as he stared up at me.

“I don’t give a shit about you, or her, or this place, or anything!” I said, my voice rising. “I’ll tell you one thing I do give a damn about! I’m going to do what I have to do to get back to the one person I do give a damn about! And you’re going to help me, Fey. You’re going to help me get her back.”

“Am I?” Erebus growled and stood up. “Or you’ll do what?”

“Me?” I asked. “I won’t be doing anything. You already agreed to help me in exchange for proof that I’m important to Morrigan. I gave you that proof. Now, you owe me. It was a fair deal and now you’re mine.”

“I owe you,” Erebus said and his resolve melted away. His skin lost its luster and dulled from silver to deep grey. His very presence in the Dreaming Path seemed to diminish. I felt him bend to my will. It was both intoxicating and sickening all at once.

“What is it that you require help with, mortal?” Erebus asked.

“I’m going to find Ashariel,” I said, “and you’re going to help me.”

Chapter Thirty-Three

“Your angel,” Erebus said.

“My fallen angel,” I corrected.

“There is no substantive difference between the Fallen and the Firstborn,” Erebus said. “They are distinct only in names.”

“Names have power,” I said.

“Some names,” Erebus said, though he looked doubtful.

“It doesn’t matter what you think,” I said. “We made a deal.”

Erebus stood up. “I have agreed to serve you in this matter and I shall do so. Tell me what must be done.”

It was Death’s plan, not mine. I wouldn’t have known enough about how the different realities worked, to come up with something to rival the Rider’s scheme. It was simple and elegant and I didn’t question how Death had given me the knowledge necessary to restore Ashariel to life.

Life and death are but phases of a cycle, the Rider’s voice echoed in my mind. A cycle unending, like a serpent devouring its own tail.

Ourobouros, I thought, the symbol of eternal rebirth. I remembered the legend.

Aloud, I said, “we need to return to the mortal world.”

“Easily managed,” Erebus.

“It won’t be as easy as you assume,” I said.

Erebus peered at me, suspicion in his eyes. “Why not?”

“I’m dead,” I said. “My body is dead, I mean. My actual body.”

“Yes,” the Fey said. “And?”

“And,” I growled, “how the hell am I supposed to return to my world without a body? Souls cannot exist in that place without a body.”

Erebus smirked. “You’ve spent so much time alongside your Fallen,” he scoffed, “that you’ve allowed yourself to think that theirs is the only way, that their rules are the same as our rules.”

“Morrigan uses a body,” I said.

“She is the Queen,” Erebus said. “All realities bend to her whim, including yours.”

I tried not to think too much about the implications of that statement.

“Great,” I said. “I assume that means you have a plan.”

Erebus grinned. “I myself have never been tainted by the weight of flesh, though I have been to your world many times. I will show you what to do.”

“We need to actually be in the world,” I said. The real world, not happy, fun-time dream world.”

Erebus hissed in annoyance. “I am well aware of that fact, mortal,” he said. “And I would remind you that such things are normally impossible–”

“Which puts us right back where we started,” I interrupted.

Except for the fact,” Erebus continued as if I hadn’t spoken, “that the distance between the Dreaming Path and your mortal world has been severely diminished as of late.”

“Diminished? Why?”

Erebus giggled, a high pitched, creepy little sound. “You, of all people, should know the reason for this,” he said. “It was your Firstborn, your fallen angel who bridged the gaps between the Path and the world, allowed us passage into the physical realm.”

“How’d she manage that?” I asked.

Erebus waved his hand. “I won’t bore you with the mundane details.”

“No, please,” I said. “Bore me with the details. I love learning new things.”

“Let’s just say that for some time now, your fallen angel has been bending the rules of reality,” Erebus said. “The longer she’s around, the more she does whatever it is the two of you have already done, the more reality bends and what was once impossible becomes possible, however improbable.”

I closed my eyes for a moment and tried to think what Ash and I had done to ‘bend the rules of reality.’ There was the fact that Morrigan had taught Ashariel how to create her own vessel. There was virtually everything Ashariel had done since being released: igniting the Apocalypse, defying the Archangels, and unleashing the Four Horsemen. There was the fact that she was free at all, although that hadn’t been her doing.

I paused for a moment. It was something I knew both Ash and I had wondered about, although never discussed: why had Morrigan chosen her? Why had Morrigan done anything that she’d done from the moment I’d woken up and found a fallen angel inside my head?

We both knew Morrigan was playing a longer game. I wondered if perhaps this ‘bent reality’ was part of her plan or just a side-effect of whatever was really going on. I supposed it didn’t matter whether I figured it out or not. I was on this path, for better or worse.

“Okay, awesome, great,” I said. “The rules don’t apply anymore. Wonderful. Let’s get to it. Take us back there.”

Erebus glared at me. “I may owe you my service in this matter, mortal, but you would do well to remember that I am not your servant.”

“Yeah?” I asked. I was past the point of fear at this point. “What are you going to do; kill me after the deal is completed? If we’re successful, I’ll have a fallen angel by my side. You won’t even be able to give me bad dreams, Erebus. You’re not in her league and we both know it.”

“And if we do not succeed?” Erebus asked.

“Then it won’t matter,” I said. “Nothing you could do will be worse than what Lucifer has done and will do to me if I fail.”

“We’re wasting time,” I said. “Take me back.”

Erebus sighed. “As you wish, mortal.”

He reached out and pulled at the air itself as though it were a curtain. The image of the forest rippled and parted to reveal an inky black tunnel. I glanced at the portal and then at the Fey.

“Go,” Erebus said. “I will follow.”

I took a deep breath.

“See you on the other side,” I said. I stepped into the dark.

It felt like being dead. There was no light. No sound. No direction. It was the darkness of the void. This is what oblivion feels like, I thought. I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing. Was I supposed to be walking? Did I have to think myself where I wanted to go?

Home, I thought. Take me back to my world.

The dark obeyed. A circle of wavering light appeared before me. Beyond the rippling curtain, I saw a desolate street corner. I stepped out of the dark and back into the real world.

But it no longer resembled the world that I’d known for almost my entire life. This world was more akin to something out of a dystopic nightmare.

The sky was dark and dull with thick grey clouds. Abandoned cars littered the roadside. To my surprise, the stoplight overhead still functioned and seemed to gaze down at me with its steady red eye. I wondered where it was getting the electricity to still function. The buildings around me were dark and still. The silence was broken by a faint crack, somewhere off in the distance. I wondered what it was.

Erebus stepped out from the shadow of a streetlight. He wore a dark blazer that looked constricted sharply with his silver skin. He took a long, deep breath. The Fey smirked at me when he noticed I was watching and exhaled slowly.

“The air in your world tastes very nicely,” Erebus said.

“Does it?” I asked. “I guess I’ve never thought about it before.”

“Indeed,” Erebus said. “Have you given any thought to what I consider to be a particularly important question: what are you?”

I glanced at him. “What?”

The Fey smirked, showing his fangs. “What are you, mortal?”

“I’m human,” I said. “Why are we having this conversation?”

““Perhaps you will clarify a point for me,” Erebus said. “Is it normal for humans to linger this world after death?”

“It’s not supposed to be,” I said.

“Indeed,” Erebus said. “So we have a mortal, or at least, a being that was mortal, but now exists here only by the same powers that allow the Fey access to this world.”

“Please kindly arrive at your point soon,” I said.

“Perhaps you are unique,” Erebus said. “Perhaps you are the first of your kind to ever view the world as a ghost.”

“Fine,” I said. “Is that what you want me to say? I’m a ghost.”

“And perhaps a ghost,” Erebus concluded with a dark grin, “is simply another kind of Fey.”

I stared hard at the back of his head for a long moment. For all I knew, it was just Erebus talking; he certainly seemed to enjoy that. And yet, there was something about that idea, about the thought that something had changed, something inside of me had changed, that made a shiver creep down my spine.

Erebus flickered and appeared beside. me His clawed fingers stroked my face. “Maybe you’re not human at all,” he said. “Maybe you never were.”

“Get the hell off me,” I growled and lunged at him. My fist passed through his leering face as though it were smoke.

“You have so much anger,” Erebus said. “You are precious in your wrath; like a child throwing a tantrum in the presence of gods.”

His claws slid along my neck and down the front of my chest. I was reminded, violently, of the helplessness I’d felt in Lucifer’s presence. I felt his touch on me and knew that I couldn’t stop him, knew that there was nothing that I could do to make him stop. I was utterly at the mercy of a creature that had none.

It filled me with shame, to remember that terror, that helplessness, and worst of all, that weakness.

But this wasn’t Lucifer.

This wasn’t the first and most terrible of the Fallen. This wasn’t the devil himself, evil incarnate. This was some damned little imp, born from some human dream, who existed only because we said that he did.

Fear turned to rage.

I lashed out at him again, and once more, his image flickered as my hand passed harmlessly through him. His laughter filled my ears.

“You can’t harm me, mortal,” Erebus said. “You can’t touch me.”

A dormant memory stirred within my mind. I remembered the first time Ashariel had unleashed her power against Gabriel.

I remembered how that power felt. I remembered how she felt as her bladed wings took shape and she fought back.

I remembered how that power felt as she wielded it as she took her own essence and made it into her weapon.

Rage became resolve.

“I take back what I say earlier,” Erebus murmured, “about needing to hurry. I think there is enough time for us to play, at least for a little. I am sure my Queen will not mind overmuch.”

“Get off of me,” I said quietly.

“No,” Erebus said.

It was easy, I realized, so painfully easy and obvious that I wondered why I never tried it before. Maybe it was something I could only do now that I was dead.

The Fey’s tongue uncurled from his mouth.

I did as Ashariel’s memory had showed me to do. I took all of that fear, all of that rage, all of that resolve and I made it my weapon.

I struck him hard and this time I did not touch smoke.

Erebus jerked back as my hand slammed into his chest. He flew away from me and crashed against the wreckage of an overturned car.

“I told you to get your goddamn hands off. Of. Me.”

The catharsis alone felt amazing. I didn’t realize just how long I’d been waiting to say that to somebody like him.

Erebus looked at me, dazed at first, and then with something very near to fear in his eyes. “You,” he said

“Yeah,” I said. “Me.”

“How did you . . .”

“I’ve spent a lot of time in the company of angels,” I said. “Maybe I picked something up along the way.”

Erebus pulled himself to his feet and our stares locked.

He was the first to look away.

“No more games,” I said. “No more screwing around. No more wasting time. We’re here to do a job.” I took a step forward and he flinched.

“Indeed,” Erebus said, his voice subdued. “Come, Michael. I will show you where to find your angel.”

It was the first time he’d ever called me by my name.

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