We’re nearing the end! Part 3 begins today and it’s the third and final part of the novel. In this post, you’ll find chapters 35-38. New chapters will be posted every Friday. If you enjoy the book, please consider supporting me via my Patreon account. Thanks!
Part III: Ashariel
I held him as he slept.
His head rested in my lap, his eyes closed. Every now and then, they would flutter as his eyes moved beneath his eyelids. I could tell that he was dreaming, and by the way he smiled in his sleep whenever my hand brushed over his face, I knew that they were good dreams.
There were so many things I wanted to tell him. There was so much I wanted to say.
I knew that there would be time for it all, eventually. I knew it was important to let him rest.
There were questions I had to ask, and not all of them were going to be directed at him.
There were questions I had to ask, and not all of them were going to be kind.
I could tell that he was dead. I could tell that his soul had been ripped away from his physical form.
I could tell that his death had been horrific.
For a moment, my expression turned cold and hard and I clenched my fist. He shifted and mumbled something in his sleep. I relaxed my hand and resumed touching his face.
Someone had harmed him. Someone had killed him.
Someone was going to pay.
I would make them pay.
And I had a very good idea of who was the most likely culprit.
I looked up from stroking Michael’s face and fixed my gaze on a spot on the sandy white beach, several yards down. “You,” I said. “I know you’re there.”
The air rippled like a curtain as Morrigan stepped into view. She smiled at me. “How wonderful it is to see you again, my dear,” the Fey Queen said.
My posture became slightly defensive and I leaned over Michael’s sleeping form, to shield him from her. “Answer me,” I said. “Did you kill him?”
Morrigan considered my question for a moment. “You should be grateful for all that I did,” she said.
My voice was cold. “What did you do to him?”
The Fey Queen narrowed her reptilian eyes. “So full of questions, are we? Fine. I will answer, complicated though the answer may be.” She gestured down to Michael. “I have been with him every step of the way, much as I have been with you, my dear Firstborn. Always, I have been watching. Always, I have been guiding.”
Gently, very gently, I moved Michael’s head out of my lap and onto the soft sand. He mumbled something faintly in protest, but I knew that he would not awaken. His ordeal had taken so much out of him.
I stood up, slowly, and faced the Queen. I chose my next words very carefully.
“Did you kill him?” I asked.
Morrigan became very still. “Are you threatening me?”
I knew what she was. I knew the powerful entity that lurked behind that face.
I didn’t care.
“Yes,” I said. My wings unfolded around me. Sunlight gleamed off the edges of my blades. “Did you kill Michael?”
“He did not die by my hand,” Morrigan said.
“Who?” I asked. “Who killed him?”
“Lucifer,” Morrigan said. “Good luck trying to avenge him.”
I bristled with rage. “You are still to blame,” I said. “You let him die.”
“Did he tell you that himself?” she asked.
“He didn’t need to,” I said. “You’ve been using him. Manipulating him. You said it yourself; you were with him every step of the way, always watching. If he died, it was because you allowed it to happen.”
“Perhaps,” Morrigan said, “but if I did, it was for a purpose.”
“Why?” I asked. “What’s so special about him that draws your attention so? Why, out of all of the mortals that exist, did it have to be him?”
Morrigan gave me a strange look. “It’s not about him at all,” she said. She sounded almost compassionate. “It’s about you, Ashariel. It’s always been about you. If Michael is worth anything to me, it is only because I know that the boy is special to you.”
“You’re lying,” I said. “You chose him. You placed me inside of him. You chose him out of the seven billion mortals that share his world. You picked him for a reason.”
“Because of you,” she said. “All mortals dream, Ashariel. All dreams are open to me. I know their hearts and their minds. I know their fears and their desires. When I pulled you from the ice, I knew exactly whom to give you to. I knew who would bring you out of your shell. I knew who would help heal your broken heart and make you whole again.”
“You manipulated me,” I said. I felt disgusting. I’d been used. Morrigan had played me for a fool. “None of this is real.”
“It is real,” Morrigan said. “Your feelings are real. I gave you the mortal I thought would help you heal after your Father damned you and your leader betrayed you. I gave you what you needed to make you whole again. Everything else was up to you and the boy.” She smiled. “What you feel is real. What he did to save you is real. Not even I can manipulate feelings such as those.”
“That statement is less than reassuring,” I said.
She laughed. “Oh, my dear Ashariel. I have missed your company.”
“Why all the manipulation?” I asked. “Why not just ask me for help?”
Her expression turned cold. “That is not my way,” she said. “I do not ask for anything.”
“Seems like you could have saved yourself a lot of trouble,” I said.
“It was a difficult path,” she said. “I had to ensure Michael made all the right decisions and that he had the necessary power. The Horseman may have showed him the way, but it was I, my dear, who provided the means.”
She narrowed her eyes. “Let me make one thing very clear to you, my Ashariel. In the time that will follow, Michael will tell you that it was a minor Fey of no consequence who was sacrificed to provide the power needed to bring you back together.”
I blinked in confusion. I didn’t know what she was talking about.
“Know this, Firstborn,” Morrigan said. “Erebus was no minor creature. He was one of the first upon whom I bestowed consciousness. He was one of the oldest. He was like a son to me.”
Pressure gripped my throat. I gripped at my neck but there was nothing there, nothing that could have caused the constriction I felt. I looked at Morrigan and saw the terrible force of her will, barely restrained behind her serpentine eyes.
“It was at great personal cost that I brought you home,” Morrigan said. “Consider that carefully, before you think to judge me for anything.”
Before I could reply, she was gone and I was alone on the beach, alone save for the sleeping man at my feet.
Michael stirred slightly and cracked open one eyelid.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hey,” I said and smile. I put my thoughts of Morrigan out of my head for the moment. I sat down in the warm sand and pulled Michael close to me. For a while, we were silent. The waves rolled up onto the beach and back out in a steady, comforting rhythm.
“So what was it like?” Michael asked me finally. He rolled over on the sand and looked up at me.
“What was what like?” I asked.
I looked away from him, and flinched when I felt his hand touch my face. The reactions startled me, made me realize how different I was now, from the person I had been. I didn’t even know what word to use,to describe what had happened to me. Had it been my death? Had it been a suicide? Or had it been something worse, something more intense and seemingly irrevocable? I hadn’t even existed, in that diminished state after my encounter with Pestilence and that felt worse than if it had just been death. At least in death, there is still the self. I hadn’t even had that much.
“Hey, hey,” Michael said. He pulled himself up into a sitting position. “It’s okay, it’s just me. We’re okay. You’re okay. You’re safe now. You’re safe here.”
“Here?” I asked. Tension made my voice sharp. “Here isn’t even a real place, Michael. Here is just inside your head. Here is just a pretend world that I made for you to give you a semblance of happiness in order to make myself feel better for what I’d done to you. Here isn’t real.”
“You aren’t wrong about much, Ash, but you’re wrong about this,” Michael said. “We’re not inside my head.”
I narrowed my eyes. I couldn’t help it. I didn’t want to be this person, not with him, not with Michael, of all people, but there was nobody else and I couldn’t keep the words bottled up inside me. “If we’re not in your head, then where are we?”
“As near as I can tell,” Michael said, “we’re somewhere in the Dreaming Path. I think Erebus used my memories to create this beach in his world.”
“And why must we be here, in this place of dreams and nightmares?” I asked. “Why aren’t we home?”
“Home?” Michael asked. “You mean the mortal world? My world?”
The word had come to me, unbidden, when I thought of the mortal world. Home? It wasn’t really my home. It wasn’t where I belonged.
Except if not there, then where? Where did I belong? I couldn’t return to Heaven and I wouldn’t return to Hell. The Dreaming Path was Morrigan’s world and always would be. I realized that there really was no other place for me but the mortal world, with all of its saints and sinners. Maybe it was appropriate. Michael’s was a world where following one’s heart was, for better or worse, the way things were meant to be. Hadn’t that been what I’d always done?
“Yes,” I said. “The mortal world. Your world.”
He closed his eyes, then, and did not respond. He drew in his breath, held it for a long moment, before finally letting it out in a long, slow sigh.
“I didn’t really want to talk about this yet,” he said. “I wanted to enjoy some peace and quiet with you before everything gets all dark and dangerous again. I feel like I’ve earned that much, at least.”
“We can do that,” I said and smiled. “We have all the time we need.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
“Do you want to talk about what happened?” I asked. I knew enough of humans and knew enough of my human in particular to know that he would feel the need to tell me what happened to him for himself. It didn’t matter that I already inferred from Morrigan what she’d done to him. He needed to talk about it. Was it confession or something else?
“No,” he said. “And yes.” He sighed. “A lot happened after I lost you.”
“Tell me,” I said. “Tell me everything.”
Even knowing what to expect, it was difficult to listen to Michael’s story. He recounted everything. He told me what Morrigan had done to him, how she had forced herself onto him. He told me how she had brought him to meet the Rider of Death and how the fourth Horseman had proved an unlikely ally, of sorts. He told me how Morrigan had abandoned him to Lucifer.
He told me how he’d died.
As I listened, it was all I could do to contain my fury.
It wasn’t that I didn’t believe him. I did believe him. His memories were my memories now, including all the memories of Morrigan lusting over him, toying with him, seducing him. I knew that she was so far beyond my own power that I would not have been able to resist her, if she had desired me. A mortal like him would have an even less likely chance of throwing her off.
And that was the problem. It wasn’t that he gave in, that he had sex with her.
It was the fact that she’d been able to do it. It was the fact that his memory was now inside me, that feeling of helplessness and weakness and submission. He had surrendered to Morrigan. And when she tossed him into Lucifer’s waiting clutches, he’d been powerless to resist the Morning Star and he died as a result. He had died, because he’d been alone. He’d died, because I hadn’t been there to protect him.
I was angry with him, because he was weak, because he was fragile, because he was human. I was angry because without me, he wouldn’t survive. I knew that I was being irrational and that it was wrong of me to expect a human to be able stand against Lucifer or a Horseman or Morrigan. Worse, it was hypocritical to blame Michael for failing to resist such foes when I myself wasn’t strong enough to face them either.
But I didn’t want to be rational at the moment. I loved him. I loved my fragile, vulnerable mortal Michael, I loved him fiercely and passionately and I was eternally grateful to him for bringing me back, for not giving up on me.
I loved him and I was furious that something so important to me, something so valuable was so fragile. If he’d been an angel, if he’d been like me, things would have been so much simpler. He wouldn’t have needed me so desperately to keep him safe.
“Ash?” he asked. “Talk to me. You’re just sitting here staring at me and it’s freaking me out a little.”
“I wish you were an angel,” I said.
“Um,” Michael said, then added, “yeah. Me too.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I shouldn’t have said that.”
“It’s okay,” he said with a half-hearted smile. “You’re not saying anything I haven’t thought to myself a thousand times since we met. I wish I was like you. I wish I was strong and able to fight back against the things we’ve faced.”
“If you were an angel,” I said, “you wouldn’t be you.”
“Yeah,” he said and sighed. “That’s true. We still would have met, though. We would know each other.”
“Yes,” I said, “but I do not think you would have Fallen. You would be with those in Heaven.” I frowned. “You would see me as your enemy.”
“Maybe,” he said. “Maybe I would have followed you.”
“You wouldn’t have followed me,” I said. “You would have followed Lucifer.”
Michael shook his head. “I would have followed you,” he said. “I am following you.”
“You don’t know what you’re saying,” I said. Anger rolled off me in a wave. It wasn’t anger meant for him, but he took the brunt of it all the same. “You can’t possibly know what you’re saying. You’re mortal. You’re a blind, ignorant, feeble mortal.”
“Ash,” he asked. “Why are you angry with me?”
I studied his eyes and the contours of his face. I let my gaze move over him, taking in the entirety of him, every quirk, every trait, every flaw, everything that made up his humanity, even in death. I had his memories within me.
“I’m angry,” I said very slowly, choosing my words carefully, “because you’re human, and I’m not. You’re human. You have free will.”
“You have free will,” he said. “You chose to rebel! You chose to fight. What was that, if not a choice?”
“I’m angry,” I said again, refusing to be distracted, “because your entire existence amounts to even less than the space between one heartbeat and the next, compared to the time I have existed. I’m angry because I have endured for millennia without knowing even the slightest physical pleasure or a kind word or a loving touch, while you have known it for the entirely of your short lifetime.”
“I’m angry,” I said and my voice began to waver, the calm giving way to barely restrained emotions, “because you are a fragile, weak thing, little more than an insect compared to what I am. I’m angry because I have defied archangels and demons and number both among my foes. I’m angry because you cannot protect yourself and the mere thought of you coming to harm makes me anxious and uneasy. I’m angry, Michael, because I can’t protect you and you can’t protect yourself and I can’t stand the thought of you coming to harm.”
I fell silent. Our eyes met and lingered on each other. I looked away first.
He came over to me and put his hand on my shoulder.
“I may not be an angel,” he said. “I may not be able to do all the things that you can do. I may not be as strong as you. I can still hold you. I can still comfort you.”
I don’t know what happened. Somehow, I was in his arms, my face pressed into his chest, and I was sobbing. It was an undignified, primitive, and pathetic mortal display of emotion. It was beneath me.
It felt nice.
It felt very nice, indeed, to be able to cry and to be held.
Neither of us spoke. I cried and he held me.
Finally, I looked up at him.
“Feeling better?” he asked,
“Yes,” I said. “No. I don’t know why I did that. I’m stronger than that.”
“Ash,” he said. He brushed my hair back from my face with his fingers. “I know that you are an ancient fallen angel. I know that’s true. I don’t think that means what you feel now makes you weak. It’s not a matter of power. It’s not weakness to cry.”
“I know,” I said. I thought of the Pit and the tears that had frozen in my eyes. Those tears had eventually subsumed me entirely and become my icy prison.
Yes, I knew much of tears.
Before I could say anything else, I felt the world shift. A feeling of cold emptiness appeared behind me.
A dead man in a black suit stood in the sand. His head was a yellowish skull, devoid of even the faintest traces of rotting flesh.
“Horseman,” I said. “I take it you have come to claim your due?”
“Indeed,” Death said.
“Just as well, then,” I said. “Perhaps you will be more thorough about doing your job than your brother was. You will not have him.” My wings appeared around me, the edges splayed out like so many blades.
“Ash,” Michael said from behind me. “If he’s here to take me, there’s nothing you can do. I’m already dead.”
The skeletal entity spread his hands. “I am not here to undo the work I helped to orchestrate.”
Death’s skull did not permit the Rider the luxury of facial expressions, but there was something in the way he looked at Michael that suggested he was smiling. “I could have taken him,” the Rider said. “I did not. I chose not to.”
“That’s not possible,” I said. “You don’t get to choose. We do not get to choose. It is not in our nature.”
Death shrugged. “Things are changing. Perhaps someone has rewritten the rules.” He chuckled softly. “Or perhaps that someone has allowed the rules to be rewritten. Regardless, when this mortal boy came into my care, I found I had a choice. I could take him into eternity or I could take him on a long, winding road through much darkness until he found a light.” The Rider looked at me. “I see he found his light.”
“Death does not create life,” I said.
“Ash,” Michael said. “He helped me. I wouldn’t be here without his help. You wouldn’t be here without his help.”
“She is correct, however,” the Rider said. “I do not create life and I did not do so. I merely assisted in reassembling something that was broken, nothing more.”
“Why me?” I asked. “Why help him bring me back? Why involve yourself now?”
A fair question,” he said. “Perhaps because you are unique, Ashariel; there has never been another entity such as you. You are very much a work of art.”
“I don’t believe you,” I said.
“That is your decision to believe as you will,” Death said. “Your belief is not why I have come.”
“Then why come?” I asked.
“We three have a common problem,” Death said. “This problem has given herself names and titles that she does not own by right, but by force.”
“Morrigan,” Michael said.
“That is one name she has claimed for herself,” Death said. He chuckled again. “It is an amusing choice. Do you know its origin? A goddess of war and death in the Celtic mythology.”
“It seems like that would be more your thing than hers,” I said.
Death shrugged. “Perhaps, but I am not jealous.”
“How do you know about her?” I asked. We never knew about her until she revealed herself.”
“Why wouldn’t I know of her?” Death asked. “I was not created by your deity, Ashariel. I am not, strictly speaking, a thing. I am a process, an idea. My brethren are an extension of my own purpose.”
“You’re more than an idea,” Michael said.
Death shook his head. “We are, all of us, ideas in the mind of a god. It may not be the god you believe you know. It may not be the god that Ashariel knew as her Father. It may be another god who chooses to remain hidden, a god whose influence is not seen or felt, but nevertheless remains the bulwark of our reality.”
“You believe in this other god?” Michael asked.
Death smiled, in that strange way of his. “Yes,” he said. “I believe.”
“You said we had a common enemy,” I said.
“I know well the entity that has chosen to call itself the Fey Queen,” Death said. “In fact, I know her better than she knows herself. I know what she is looking for and why she pulled the very strands of fate to bring you both to this moment.”
“I don’t believe in fate,” Michael said.
“No?” Death asked. “That is fine. Fate believes in you.”
“If you know her, you know her power,” I said. “You know that she is greater than any angel or Archangel. You know there is nothing I can do to stop her.”
“I did not suggest that we would solve our common problem by stopping her,” Death said. “My solution is for you to help her.”
“Why the hell would I want to do that?” I asked. “Do you have any idea what she’s done to Michael or to me? She killed him! She used me.”
“She freed you,” Death said.
“Should that make me beholden to her? I did not ask for her help. I didn’t ask to be woken up.”
“Your freedom is valuable to you, though,” Death said. “Your feelings for this mortal are valuable, too.”
“That does not mean I owe her a debt,” I said. “It does not mean that I am beholden to her. I do not kneel to tyrants, no matter how many gifts they bring.” I looked at the Rider in surprised. “You sound like you are on her side.”
“I am not,” Death said. “I am the epitome of neutrality.”
“It’s something else,” Michael said. He’d been quiet for a while. “It’s not about helping Morrigan. It’s not even about helping us, is it?”
Death was silent.
“It’s about fixing the damage that’s been done,” Michael said. “It’s about restoring the natural order.”
“The Fey Queen is a creature of chaos,” Death said. “Through her actions, she has set in motion a chain of events that has destroyed an entire world.”
“Why should that matter to you?” I asked. “Doesn’t’ that just give you more souls to reap?”
Michael glanced at me. “You don’t know him,” he said. “He’s not like that. He’s . . . gentle.”
“I have seen too much of violence to believe that the Rider of Death is gentle,” I said.
“I am Death,” he said softly, “not War. Young Michael is correct. My purpose is the continuation of the natural order. Life cannot exist without death. Mine is a process of renewal. All things pass in time and from the ashes of the old the new are allowed to grow. Such it has always been, for plant and animal alike. Such it has been for worlds beyond counting. Such it has been for universes beyond measure.”
“The universe can die?” Michael asked.
“Of course,” Death said. “Your universe exploded from the corpse of its parent, as its parent did to its parent, and so on. This cycle is infinite. It has always been and always will be.”
“Unless something goes wrong,” I said, “unless chaos destroys this precious natural order of yours.”
“You have the right of it,” Death said.
“How does helping Morrigan achieve her goal restore the natural order?” I asked. “It sounds like you should be killing her, not aiding her.”
“If killing her was the solution, I would have slain her myself,” Death said with an air of cold finality so resolute I didn’t dare contradict him. Even though I knew how powerful Morrigan was, I believed Death at that moment.
“The world you knew is gone,” Death said to Michael. “It has been put to the flame. If Morrigan is killed, your world shall remain a dead and barren realm. But if you help her, events will be arranged in such a way that life will be able to regrow. New seeds will be sewn and life will flourish again in a new form.”
“I can’t believe you want to help her,” I said. “I can’t believe she’s going to get away with everything she’s done. How is that fair?”
“I am Death,” the Rider said, “not Justice.”
I knew better than to argue with the Horseman, but it still didn’t seem right. I looked at Michael. “What do you want to do?” I asked.
“You’re asking me? Why?”
“I do not think I have the right to decide the fate of the mortal world,” I said. “Not when I was the catalyst that triggered so much harm.”
“Is that an admission of wrongdoing?” Death asked. He sounded amused. “From the unrepentant?”
“I regret all the harm I caused,” I said. “I regret that so many died.”
“You’ve changed much in your time with this mortal boy,” Death said.
“Save it,” I said. “Don’t pretend that you know me. I’m not mortal.”
“I know you better than you know yourself, Fallen,” Death said. “Immortal and eternal are not the synonyms you assume them to be. All things come to me in the end. Even angels.”
I eyed him warily. “Is that a threat?”
“I do not threaten,” Death said. “I simply am.”
“I think this decision is a little above my pay grade,” Michael said. “I mean, you’re asking me to speak for the entire world. What am I supposed to say?”
I looked at him and my expression softened. I touched his shoulder. “You already know what to say. The answer is in your heart.”
He sighed and nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, you’re right.” He looked at Death.
“Is helping Morrigan get what she wants the only way to restore the world?” he asked.
“There is only one certainty, young Michael,” Death said. “Everything else is possibility. Is it possible you could find a way to heal the destruction that’s been done? Perhaps it is. Is it probable? No.”
“Will things go back to the way they were?” Michael asked.
“No,” Death said. “The dead will remain dead. The world you knew is gone as the forest that falls to wildfire is gone. This fate cannot be unwoven, but by your actions, you can ensure that a new forest will grow from the ashes of the old. Life will endure.”
Michael squared his shoulders. I could tell he was thinking it over, but I knew what he was going to choose. It was not because of any special sense or ancient wisdom on my part. I knew him better than I’d ever known another being before. I knew his heart and his mind.
“We’ll help her,” Michael said. “Tell us what needs to be done.”
Death stood next to me. His skeletal hand reached out and pressed against my forehead. I expected to feel cold or pain, but there was nothing. After a moment, he pulled his hand away.
“It is done,” Death said. “I have given you what you need to begin the regrowth.”
I looked down at my hands. They were the same. I sifted through my thoughts looking for some secret knowledge, but there was nothing. I felt the same. I was the same.
“What did you do?” I asked.
There was no answer.
“How will I know what to do if I have no idea what you’ve given me,” I asked the Rider.
“You will know.”
“How helpfully vague,” I said and sighed. It didn’t matter; I’d already cast my lot when I decided to trust him.
“You could come with us,” Michael said. “You could help us fix everything, couldn’t you?”
Death chuckled again. “We are all limited by what we are, Michael. I am the release from the suffering of mortality. I am mercy. I am Death. I am not a choice. I am not free. I am not the one who will set things right. That choice must be made by those with the agency to choose. They have done so. What comes next will come.”
He smiled in that curious way of his. “Until next we meet.”
A cold wind blew out across the green haze of the Dreaming Path and he was gone.
“He didn’t take me with him,” Michael said after a moment.
“Indeed,” I said.
“What does that mean?”
I shrugged. “At the moment? It means you are a ghost.”
He glared at me. “Thanks for letting me down gently, Ash. You have a real soft touch.”
I smiled. “You’re worrying too much.”
“You’re right, I totally am worrying too much about this,” Michael said. He looked around the forest glade. “What possible reason could I have to be worried, except that I’m dead and apparently a ghost? That seems like a pretty good reason to worry, in my opinion.”
“You weren’t worrying before,” I observed.
“There wasn’t time to worry before!” Michael said. “This is the first moment I’ve had to really consider my fate and right now, it’s not looking too good.”
“You don’t want to be a ghost?”
He stared at me. “You’re teasing me,” he said. “You’re actually telling a joke right now, aren’t you?”
“I am,” I said. I drew nearer to him and put my hand on his arm.
“You can touch me?” he asked.
“Of course,” I said, still smiling. “You’re a spirit now, like me.”
“Well, I guess there’s that,” he said.
“There’s more than that,” I said. I gripped his arm and pulled him out of the Dreaming Path and back into the world.
The sky above was grey and sputtering with inconstant rain. Even as I looked, a few fat drops splashed against my face. The raindrops felt oily against my skin. I was wearing my human form, created by the knowledge imparted by Morrigan’s Gift.
Where am I? Michael asked from inside my head.
“You’re inside me,” I said.
Hot, Michael said.
“Not like that!” I snapped, but my human only laughed.
I was carrying Michael’s soul inside me, much as his mortal vessel had once carried mine. It was a curious reversal of our previous roles.
“How are you feeling?” I asked.
Good, he said. This is a little weird, but overall, I feel alright. It’s a bit disorienting seeing out of your eyes like this, but I’m getting used to it.
“It won’t be permanent,” I said. “We just need to find your body.”
We’re close, he said. Look around in a slow arc, please.
I did as he instructed and cast my gaze solely over the broken field.
There, he said as my gaze swept across an abandoned building. That warehouse. I went in there to get out of the storm. That’s where Lucifer found me.
I walked across the broken field and climbed onto the loading dock. I gripped the shutter door and pulled it open. The stench of rotting flesh hit me in a wave.
“Oh my,” I said. “That is rather unpleasant.”
Is that me? Michael asked. Am I rotting?
“Unfortunately,” I said. I put my hand over my mouth.
That’s not going to be a problem, is it? Michael asked. He sounded on the edge of hysteria. You can still fix me, right?
“Relax,” I said, though my voice was muffled. “I can still fix you.”
Beyond the shutter door, there was only darkness and the stench of rot. I held out my hand and infused it with a silver glow. Light poured outward.
“Let there be light,” I said drily.
Hey, a joke, Michael said. That’s new.
“I’m a whole new me,” I said. “Dying will do that to a girl. Let’s go.”
The light around my hand filled the warehouse. Fat, hairy black rats scurried away from the glow. Other than the rats, the warehouse was mostly empty. There was a loading dock at the opposite end and a ruined stairway that led up to a half-collapsed office building. Detritus was strewn about the entire place in haphazard piles.
I saw the remains of Michael’s body propped up against a far wall.
It’s like somebody was using a blender and forgot the lid, Michael said. I can’t believe that’s me. Oh God. That’s me. If I had a mouth, I’d be sick right now.
There wasn’t much left. Most of his flesh had been peeled away and scattered. The rats had gotten to what was left. His skeleton was mostly intact, though several bones were snapped and twisted into odd shapes.
There were scattered lumps of rotting meat that I assumed were organs.
Lucifer had taken my beloved apart a layer at a time.
I grimaced. Hatred surged within me like a black tide.
I didn’t bother with an empty threat. I didn’t curse Lucifer’s name or threaten him with my wrath.
I made a promise to myself; a promise that one day, I would flay Lucifer alive, just as he had done to my Michael.
I would remember every insult and injury that had been inflicted upon Michael. I would remember and I would keep that memory deep inside, far too deep for Michael to ever know. I would remember and I would pay Lucifer pay back for each cruelty.
He would pay in blood and in agony.
Why am I rotting? Michael asked. I haven’t been dead that long, have I?
“You might well have been,” I said. My voice sounded flat and hollow in the empty space. “You’re dead. Time passes different for spirits than it does for physical bodies. It may be many days or even weeks later than what your mind assumes it is.”
Well, that’s just awesome, Michael said. So, Doctor, what’s the diagnosis? I know how bad this looks, I mean, there’s not a whole lot that’s left of me. Can you put me back together?
“Once, I would have told you it was impossible,” I said. “Resurrections are difficult for angels of my rank. It’s even worse for the Fallen. We no longer have the same connection to life that we once did.”
It’s impossible? he asked. There’s no hope?
“There is always hope,” I said. “Morrigan showed me that brute force is not necessary to bring flesh into existence. It is not a question of raw power.”
I knelt down beside the ruined skeleton. I caressed his shattered skull.
“Are you ready?” I asked.
It’s nice to be this close to you, he admitted. It’s nice to feel safe, to know that I’m within you and that nothing can take me from you. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t like it. But as nice as it is, I know it’s not what I want. It’s not what either of us wants. You were strong enough to maintain a clear division between your mind and mine, when it was my body we were sharing. But here in yours, I don’t think I could hold on for long. Already, I feel myself blending into you, becoming you.
He hesitated for a moment, as if gathering his courage. I’m ready, he said. See you on the other side.
“It will not hurt,” I said. “But it will feel a little weird.”
I love you, he said.
“And I you,” I said.
And then I gripped Michael’s ribs in both hands, much as my Father once gripped the ribs of Adam, so long ago, and I opened myself and my power up to all of the knowledge that Morrigan had imparted to me. The physical reality around me became like a cool liquid and parted for me as easily as the surface of a watery pool.
I gently, tenderly, lovingly drew Michael’s soul out of my own, and then, with Morrigan’s teaching guiding the tempo of my work, I pulled apart and rewove the world, thread by thread, layer by layer, note by note. And in the end, it was not difficult at all, once I knew what I was doing.
Indeed, as the music of my efforts reached a crescendo and the power of my weaving rushed out of me in a cascade, I had just enough time and presence of mind to reflect upon the fact that it had all been, in the end, quite easy. It was intimate in a way that no physical coupling could ever hope to be. I had just enough time to marvel as he and I were as one.
And then I was lost in the light and the song.
Michael was in my arms, his body restored.
We were in a hotel room like the one I’d claimed when Michael and I had first met. There was a single bed that was large enough two of us. Through a crack in the blinds, I saw that the sky outside was still the same sputtering grey. I wondered how far away we were from the warehouse.
The world felt different. It felt still and empty. I knew that we were the only living things for many hundreds of miles. Life had been scoured away and left behind only silence in its wake.
Michael felt me moving and stirred. He opened his eyes and looked at me.
“Hey, beautiful,” he said with a lopsided grin.
“Hey,” I said.
He yawned and stretched.
“How do you feel?” I asked.
Michael looked down his arms and examined his hands. He flexed his fingers a few times and closed them into fists.
“I feel good,” he said. “I feel like me again. Hell, I feel better than me. I feel like a new me.”
“Returning from death is a rare gift,” I said. “It is not merely a restoration of life. Resurrection stays with you. It changes you.”
“For the better, I hope,” Michael said.
“Of course,” I said.
“Wow, I didn’t realize how different it would feel, being alive again,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
He smiled. “It’s all of the little things, the little details: the feeling of your body against mine, the warmth of your skin, the smell of your hair. When I was a spirit, I had all of the memories of being alive and I remembered how it felt, to have those things. But it’s not the same.”
“No,” I said. “No, it’s not.”
“Is that how it was for you, too?” he asked. “When you first took control of me?”
I smiled faintly. “It was.”
I slipped back into his arms and laid my head on his chest. I was a few inches shorter than he was. He was happy to oblige and his arms found their way around me. For a while, we held each other. Neither of us spoke.
I wanted the moment to last forever. I knew that it would not and could not. The question was merely who would be the first to break the intimate silence.
“It’s time to go,” I said softly.
“You’re going to go through with it?” he asked. “You’re going to help Morrigan?”
“Do you trust him?” I asked. “The Horseman?”
“Death?” Michael asked. He was silent for a moment.
“I do,” he said finally.
“And I trust you,” I said. “We cannot linger in a dead world, Michael. You could not endure the desolation. I could not endure it a second time. I cannot and I will not.”
He grimaced. “No pressure or anything,” he said, “but you are trusting the fate of the world to my judgment.”
I smiled. “In our brief time together, I’ve come to believe that you’re a very good judge of character. If you trust Death, I shall trust Death.”
Michael nodded. “Okay then. So we help Morrigan. We give her what she wants. I guess the only question is; what does she want? What does she really want?”
“There is only one way to know for certain,” I said. “We ask her.”
He shook his head. “She’ll just lie again,” he said. “That’s what she does. That’s what she is.”
“Not this time,” I said. “She knows she’s won.”
I slid out from Michael’s arms and stood up. The little motel room seemed like too small of a space to conjure the Fey Queen. I opened the door and stepped outside. Michael followed me.
It was a starless night. I looked up but could not tell if the stars were hidden behind heavy clouds or if the stars themselves were gone. I supposed it did not matter. The air was cold and dead. The world was winding down. I could feel its life draining out from it like blood from a wound. The Horsemen were on their ride. The Fallen were fighting their war. The Apocalypse was underway. Life itself was over. Michael’s world was over.
Resolve gripped me. I would not allow that to happen.
“Morrigan,” I said. “Come to me.”
A light, feminine giggle filled the empty air around me. Emerald eyes appeared from within a long, dark shadow across the parking lot from me.
Despite the fact that I had called her, I stiffened when I saw her. I saw Michael’s flayed body. Yes, it had been Lucifer’s claws that had harmed him so, but it had been that bitch that had dropped him into the devil’s lap.
I would not forget that and I would not forgive. She might have been a goddess and I a mere angel, but I had defied gods before.
“So at last, you understand,” Morrigan said. “At last, you see that you were always meant to serve me.”
Michael flinched and leapt back away from the voice. The darkness pulled away from her to reveal Morrigan, once again, in all of her dark beauty and terrible power.
“You could have just asked,” I said. “You could have forced me to serve.”
She smiled sadly. “No,” she said. “I could not.”
“I saw what you are,” I said.
“No,” she said. “You saw only a shadow, a fragment of all that I am. You know nothing, Ashariel. What I want, where I must go; these things cannot be forced. They cannot be taken. They cannot be stolen. It must be a gift and the thing about gifts is that they must be given.” She walked towards us. “When I found you, you were a wretched and pitiful thing, hiding beneath the ice of your own sorrow. I brought you out and gave you one who would make you whole again. I gave you exactly what you needed to heal.”
“The cost, Morrigan,” I said. “Do you know how many have died?”
“Billions,” she said without missing a beat, “and that is only if we are counting the human lives. You know what I am, Ashariel. I have beheld the darkness before the stars. This planet and its humans are an insignificant mote of dust compared to all that I know. As they should be to one such as you; you are not eternal, but you are ancient. You should know better.”
I looked away from her. The defiance burned through my heart. Even after all this time, I could not abide such naked tyranny. I wanted to defy her. I wanted to strike her down or die trying. I wanted to resist as I had once resisted Father.
It was Michael’s gaze that held me back. I caught his eye and looked at him. I saw how frightened he was. My power was so much more than he could ever be and yet the gap between Michael and me was dwarfed compared to the gap between Morrigan and me. I could not conceive of how Morrigan’s presence must have made him feel.
I remembered Death’s words. This wasn’t about revenge or defiance. It was about life. It was about bringing life back to a dead world.
Life was worth fighting for.
But even more than that, life was worth kneeling for.
“Tell me what you want,” I said quietly.
“This world began in a place beyond time and space and darkness and light,” Morrigan said. “I would have you take me there.”
My eyes widened.
“What does she mean?” Michael asked. “What is she talking about?”
“Eden,” I murmured. “You want me to show you the way into Eden.”
Morrigan grinned. Her expression was feral. “I have reason to believe that in this special place beyond time and space, there is a tree, a very special tree. I would very much like to see this tree for myself. And I would very much like to taste its fruit.”
“What is she talking about?” Michael asked. “What tree?”
“The Tree of Knowledge,” I said.
“It has other names as well,” Morrigan said.
“When humanity took Lucifer’s suggestion and ate the fruit of that tree, it was the first sin,” I said. “It was your own fall from grace. It was also the first sign that you had something even more powerful than any angel could have ever imagined. It was proof that you had free will.”
“Why does that matter?” Michael asked.
“There is nothing more powerful than a choice,” Morrigan said. “Nothing more dangerous than the ability to choose between right and wrong, between one’s nature and one’s desire.”
I couldn’t help myself. A smile crept across my lips and before long, that smile turned into a helpless laugh.
Morrigan eyed me. “What is so amusing?”
“I cannot believe that, despite all your power, you cannot find Eden,” I said. “Even the lowliest angels know the way.”
“As do the lowliest Fallen,” Morrigan said with a snarl. “Do not mock me. Eden is where your Father last touched his world. It is where the light is strongest. It is obscured to me. I must be shown the path.”
“And if I say no?” I asked.
Her smile was sudden and delightfully amused. “I will show you all the ways I can hurt your mortal until you say yes.”
I didn’t have a retort to that.
“You wondered why it was you I plucked out of the Pit?” Morrigan asked. “This is why. The angels cannot be swayed by threats of torture or harm. They exist only to serve their creator. The Fallen are too depraved to care. But you; the idealist, the rebel. You were corruptible. You were able to care. Your will could be bent, could be coerced. All I needed was the right leverage.” Her gaze fell on Michael. “All I needed was for you to have something worth losing.”
“You are one cold bitch,” Michael said.
She looked at him. “More than you will ever know, little one.”
She beckoned to me. “Enough talk,” she said. “Enough stalling. Take me to Eden, Ashariel. Quickly.”
“I won’t leave Michael alone again,” I said. “Not in this place.
She shrugged. “Bring him along,” she said. “I care not. All I want is for this long wait to be over.”
“Why do you want the fruit of knowledge so badly?” I asked. “What possible thing could you hope to learn that you do not already know?”
“You’ll see soon enough,” she said.
I sighed and looked at Michael.
“I know,” he said. “We don’t have a choice.”
“We do,” I said. “I’d just prefer we didn’t have this choice.”
“Remember what Death told us,” Michael said. “We have to help her.”
I nodded. “I know.”
I held out my hand to him. “Are you ready?”
He took my offered hand and gripped it. His skin was warm against me.
“I’m with you to the bitter end,” he said.
My wings unfurled from my shoulders.
“We’re flying?” Morrigan asked. “Interesting.” She grinned as a pair of long, bat-like wings grew from her own shoulders. They were classically demonic in appearance. It irritated me.
I wrapped my arms around Michael and held him against me. I kicked off from the ground and beat my wings. Morrigan joined me with a graceful flourish of her own wings.
“Where are we going?” Michael asked. “Eden isn’t a physical place, is it?”
“It’s difficult to explain,” I said, “even for me. You’ll see soon enough.”
“Take me to Eden, Ashariel,” Morrigan said. “My patience is wearing thin.”
There was nothing left to do but take the lead and show her the way.
Together, we flew east, towards the endless, roiling expanse of the ocean and the distant lands beyond it. East, towards the cradle of humanity, towards the entrance of the verdant sanctuary that had once been humanity’s greatest paradise.
It had been humanity’s greatest prison.
We flew on.
We flew to a place that did not exist.
We flew to a place that existed beyond the limits of time and space.
We flew to a place that was and was not, had been, would be, and wasn’t.
It was . . . difficult to try to explain it to my companions. Even Morrigan didn’t seem to be able to comprehend the difference between Eden and her own reality of the Dreaming Path.
I’d given up trying to explain where we were going or why we were flying rather than shifting through reality instantaneously. I’d told her that this was simply the way it had to be and perhaps due to her eagerness to finally attain her goal, she did not argue. Michael, for his part, simply clung to me and did not struggle as we flew. It was a testament to how much he trusted me that I would not drop him as we flew over a seemingly endless stretch of water, far longer than even the mightiest ocean.
There was places in the world that had been host to moments of great importance throughout the ages, and as such had fallen out of synchronization with the rest of reality. They existed entirely to themselves and were tethered to the world only by strands of myth. Only my kind knew the way into such places; it was our task to watch over them, after all, to guard them from mortals.
“There’s something you should know,” I called out. Morrigan fluttered her wings and drew closer to me.
“You have my attention,” she said.
“There will be guardians,” I said. “Eden is protected by more than just distance.”
The Seraphim will not abandon their post, even to answer the call of the Apocalypse.”
“I have faced the Fallen Archangel himself,” Morrigan said. “I do not fear your guardians.”
I shook my head. “The gate isn’t guarded by Archangels,” I said. “The guardians are Seraphim.”
“Seraphim?” Michael asked, shouting to be heard over the wind. “What are those?”
“They are a race of divine beings assigned by my Father to guard Eden from intruders,” I said. “They are utterly devoted to that singular task. They are very dangerous.”
“That doesn’t sound so bad,” Michael said.
I focused my attention on Morrigan. “You have battled Archangels,” I said, “but Seraphim are far more powerful. They aren’t just fierce or unyielding. They are power incarnate. They are the essence of my Father’s light itself.”
“I thought the Archangels were the unstoppable ones,” Michael said. “Why haven’t I heard about these other guys before?”
“Archangels are the most powerful angels,” I said. “They are the fiercest of warriors. The Seraphim are not warriors. They are guardians.”
“I do not fear them,” Morrigan said simply. “They will allow my passage or I will force my way through them. It does not matter.”
“Can she take them?” Michael asked.
“I honestly don’t know,” I said. “She fought Lucifer but . . . that was an Archangel. This is something different.”
I smiled grimly. “I suppose it doesn’t matter. We must fly onward regardless.”
“You don’t seem particularly concerned about this,” Michael said.
“I’m not,” I said. “The Seraphim will only destroy us if we attempt to breach the gate. We will either be allowed to proceed into Eden or our journey will end there.”
Morrigan laughed. “Do you think I would have gone to all this trouble only to allow you to stop outside the gates?” She shook her head and her scarlet hair cascaded around her. “No, my dear. You are both coming with me, all the way to the very end.”
“Damn,” Michael said.
“Indeed,” I said.
We were getting closer. Clouds had swirled around us to conceal the endless water. The sky seemed to stretch out in every direction. We were at the borderlands of reality. I knew that if I were to drop Michael, he would fall forever and because time had no meaning here, he would not age.
“Does anybody else feel that?” Michael asked. “It feels like my teeth are itching.”
“We are close,” I said.
I began to descend through the swirls of clouds. Morrigan banked and followed in my wake. The clouds were so thick that for a few moments, I could not see Michael, though I could still feel the warmth of his skin against mine and the weight of his body in my arms. Finally, we broke through the clouds and emerged into a bubble of clear sky.
Far below us, there was a lush, verdant paradise of trees and plants from every corner of the world. Pine trees lingered beside palms. There were cacti among the vines and foliage of the deepest jungles. It was a place of chaotic growth, a place of life without cultivation or restraint. In the center of the clear bubble, flanked by a pair of massive fir trees, there was a simple, unadorned gate of black iron.
“Is that it?” Michael asked.
“It is,” I said.
I looked over at the Fey Queen. There was cautiousness in her green eyes and her lips were pressed together in a thoughtful expression.
“The gate is appears to be unguarded,” she said.
“The Seraphim know we’re here,” I said. “One will manifest itself as we approach.”
I looked at Morrigan and then at Michael. There was no way to properly warn Michael without also alerting Morrigan.
“Seraphim are the manifestation of divine radiance,” I said. “They are brighter than the hearts of stars. They are Father’s own essence incarnate. Do not look upon them directly, even for a moment.”
“I take it something bad happens if we do?” Michael asked.
“If you are lucky,” I said, “its radiance will burn out your eyes.”
“And if I’m unlucky?” he asked.
“You’ll be reduced to a small pile of ashes,” I said. “So don’t look at it.”
We descended. I landed and released my grip. Michael stepped away from me and stretched his arms as he looked around.
“This is like some sort of botanist’s dream,” he muttered. “Or maybe it would be a nightmare, I don’t know.”
The gate loomed over us, a stern reminder that we were not welcome in this place. The black metal looked garish and alien amid so many natural beauty, so much life. The fact that it resembled a smaller version of the Gates of Hell didn’t help much, either.
“So where’s this Seraphim thingy?” Michael asked. He looked around nervously.
“Patience,” I said. “It’s coming. It already knows we’re here.”
I felt Morrigan tense up beside me and I glanced at her. There was a curious expression on her face, a sort of distant longing that she’d never shown before. She looked almost nostalgic as she looked through the narrows spaces between the gate towards the path just beyond it.
Michael drew closer to me and his hand found mine. He was nervous; his grip would have been painfully tight though I didn’t protest.
“I cannot open the gate for your,” I said to Morrigan. “It will not open for a Fallen.”
Morrigan nodded. She looked up at the black iron bars and then, with a defiant gleam in her yellow eyes, stepped forward. She reached out and touched the dark metal.
The air began to hum with the electric crackle of raw power. I saw the color began to leach away from the world, green turning to grey and then to white as the presence of the Seraph began to take form.
“It is coming,” I said. “The Seraph is beginning to manifest.”
“What does it look like?” Michael asked. His eyes were squeezed shut.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve never seen one.”
“They look like snakes,” Morrigan said. “Large, radiantly glowing snakes with impossibly long jaws and too many wings.”
“How do you know that?” I asked.
“I have encountered the Seraphim before,” she said.
I blinked in surprise. “You have?”
“Once,” she said.”
Thunder cracked the air.
“It’s here,” I said. I tried, unsuccessfully, to ignore my instinctive fear.
White light burned away everything around us. I felt it burn into the back of my head and neck and the exposed skin of my arms and legs. It was like standing within the heart of a furious star. I kept my gaze locked on the ground before me and hoped, in a desperately quiet and bitter sort of way, that the Seraph wouldn’t notice me. There was a chance it might sense the presence of an escaped fallen angel and decide to obliterate me. I hoped that by not approaching the gate itself, I would not give it cause to destroy me.
The Seraph loomed above us for a moment and then drifted down towards the earth. The ground shuddered as it landed.
Unimaginably powerful. Unfathomably alien.
I wondered what it thought of my kind? How did the Seraphim regard the lesser angels? Did they see us as flawed and broken creations as we saw the humans?
I heard Morrigan’s footsteps as she moved away from the gate. I raised my head and, with my other hand held over my own eyes, I dared to sneak a glance at her. She was difficult to see through the blinding radiance of the Seraph, but I saw her looked up directly into the heart of the radiant inferno. She seemed unscathed.
“Hello again, my lovely,” the Fey Queen said. “I’ve missed you.”
She stretched out towards the Seraph, her back arched and her wings unfurled.
And she smiled.