He had been there long enough to establish a regular routine.
Early mornings were Turkish coffee sipped ever so slowly at the corner table in the hotel’s small cafe with a breakfast of cheese, bread, and olives followed by a small confectionery. After a perfunctory nod to the proprietors it was out to wander down by the beach in a battered beige coat with more pockets of various size than fashion sense would ever allow. Safely out of earshot those he passed by would whisper that he must be touched by the Jinn for clearly he was no tourist as he took no pictures nor troubled anyone for directions to the local sights. At dusk he would walk the Black Sea’s coastline without regard for the rain falling from dark clouds nor for the magnificent view when the sun broke free and shone its glory across the waters.
He paid their odd glances no mind for his was entirely elsewhere. And besides, if he had bothered to consider their commentary he would have immediately agreed with them.
Nicolas ‘Nick’ Wright, erstwhile demonologist and magical consultant, was indeed touched. But not by the fabled fiery Jinn.
His problems lay entirely with angels.
In the dimly lit rented room from which he emerged each morning upon a dark wooden desk which had been patched together from planks older than the hotel itself lay two slips of paper. The first was a scrap torn hastily from its former spiral-bound home with a single long number scribbled across in a barely legible excuse for penmanship. The other, by contrast, was of professional business card stock where a neat and tidy professionally embossed font provided not only a number but also a name.
One lead to an angel he knew to be real and not imagined for he had witnessed firsthand her light and glory. The second had been given him by someone who had gone to a lot of trouble to convince him that she too was angelic but no longer of that light and far more worldly and deadly practical.
Mind you he was no stranger to mythic beings. He had once studied in depth the nature of the demons who lived in the various Hells and gained through much pain and sacrifice a sense for their presence, methods, and limitations. To learn powers sufficient to face and defeat them he had buried himself in the ways of mystics and hermeticists. He had achieved a great number of successes against such terrible foes. Also many failures. High were the prices paid for both.
Angels however were of a different order entirely. They played by their own rules, had their own factions, and what limits they may or may not have was never described with any clarity in any of the ancient tomes lent him by former mentors. Only conjecture. Only speculation.
Instincts of self-preservation kept pleading to grab up both slips of paper and toss them into the large cast-iron oven which provided all the heat and cooking for the entire, albeit small, hotel. Those inner warning bells begged him to simply flee this place and find a cozier and more remote retreat from which to safely sit out the madness which was encroaching upon the world. But the thick rolling clouds which built up in the sky every evening like a blanket trying to smother the setting sun brought with them each night the same dream.
No sooner would his head sink into the somewhat musty feathered pillows then the rains would come, pounding watery protest against a window crookedly wedged between ancient bricks. Thunder billowing forth from the sea rattled against the frame, calling out with a booming voice the echoes of a tempest the likes of which no one in the world had yet witnessed.
A dream wherein his furious anger and bitter sorrow summoned a hurricane to blast its wind-blown torrential pain across an ancient land.
Forty days and forty nights had he maintained the focus required to gather moisture from far distant oceans into the skies, leading over-saturated clouds across the firmament to release their burdens upon the plains of battle, turning earth to mud to confound and halt the enemy’s nightmare-forged war-chariots of twisted metal and magic. The nearby fresh-water lake over-flowed, spilling itself through the fishing villages, washing away the foundations of the enemy’s many fortifications as the forces of an alliance of angels, gods, and mystic creatures fought their way to the gates of the towering citadel where his corrupted brothers had attempted to found an empire with which to conquer this world and beyond.
His children had joined that alliance, risking their lives against brethren lost to chaos’ corruption in the hope that their efforts would redeem their existences in the eyes of those who had come from far above to judge.
But the cries that reached the clouds busy expunging their heavy watery burdens shifted from the sounds of battle and blood to panic and despair. Dropping through and below the lightning-sparked mists revealed why.
A moving mountain of water stretching from horizon to horizon was washing away all before it be they ally or foe.
“No!” Electricity and thunder responded to his shouted dismay as grey wings fought the winds to reach down to those who had no hope against the foaming tsunami’s wrath, madly scrambling for the power to push aside the watery death sweeping away all.
A line of crimson metal and brilliant fire stopped him short, glistening against his exposed neck as his wings beat fervently backwards to keep skin from impaling itself on the razor’s edge of the blade. A single bracer-clad arm belonging to one whose wings were once stained by rivers of angelic blood held the sword steady and immovable. The matching bracer pressed against its owner’s broad and armored chest a golden-haired woman whose expression beneath her cloth-bound eyes reflected the pain of those below.
“Camael!” he shouted at the owner of the sword of flame. “What madness is this! Has Shemyaza shattered the cliffs holding back the sea?”
The fire at his throat wavered not. “This must be, Barakiel. The Lord Azrael unleashed the oceans to cleanse the sins of the Grigori from the Earth.”
Panic and confusion sparked readily into inner inferno. “What are you saying? We had an understanding! We and our children agreed to fight with you against the corruptions!”
The crimson warrior was unmoved. “The deal stands. The Grigori were promised this path to avoid the shores of Hell and to prevent the abominations of the Nephelim from being erased entirely from existence.”
Beyond the wall of tumultuous water which continued to scour the landscape hundreds of angels swooped from out of the clouds, cutting down any from below with the means to fly and escape the destruction smothering all. Camael, Regent of Light and Prince of Heaven, had unleashed the might of those known as the Powers unto the world.
“You’re slaughtering them!” Anguish boiled the rage which gathered a multitude of sparks within the surrounding storm-churned clouds.
“Their physical shells must end. The spirits of those who assisted the side of Heaven shall be bound unto mortality and join this world as naught but human. Those who opposed shall be consigned to limbo for eternity.”
Barakiel felt the fabric of the world’s pattern twist and harden. A mighty working forged by those who controlled the boundaries between physical and spirit that define what is life and what is death slid outward to cover the four corners of the world. Gabriel and Azrael had sealed the paths to beyond.
All were now trapped.
Barakiel’s chest burned as he cried, “Many of our children’s spirits cannot exist without physical bodies to give them anchor! Their spirits won’t survive long enough to incarnate!”
“Proof then that they should never have been.”
A distant wail impinged his senses like a clash of cymbals cutting across an orchestra of pain. His daughter Betenos, trapped under the waves, had reached out to beg her heavenly father to save her, to save them all. She cried out to the Most High for a mercy her father now understood could never come.
“You claim we Grigori lost our way!” Barakiel shouted with every sinew and feather shaking with a fury the likes of which he had never known. “And yet it is you who betray us! Hear me, Camael! The one who’s seat you guard was right to abandon it and cloak in shadow the glory of what was once so bright! And if Heaven continues along this path the Throne will have provided proof of the Rebel’s argument in full!”
So saying Barakiel, Archangel of the Grigori and ruler of Lightning and Storm, unleashed the electric potential gathered above towards the hand holding the burning crimson blade of Heaven’s wrath. He knew it would be at best a distraction against one of the Host’s mightiest champions yet he had no choice but to try.
His daughter needed him.
Diving past to reach for that lightning and ride it down into the waves below, he never saw the sword’s swiftness as its flames flashed past in the time between moments. The impact of the water barely slowed his fall as he plunged below the watery maelstrom.
His wings hit those waves a full second behind. There they floated alone for they had been sliced free.
From a distance below a last message from his daughter’s dying body and collapsing spirit plunged through his heart.
“Father! I love you. Never forget…”
Swimming frantically with arms, legs, and bloody agony screaming across his back he found her. Debris of wood and stone had pinned her deep under the surface, too much for even her own greater-than-human strength to budge. Gathering the spiritless body into his arms he stayed there letting the last of his own air bubble away from lungs no longer able to shift and escape into the realms of spirit. That path had been denied him by the Guardians of Life and Death. Denied to them all.
The waters of the newly forged sea merged itself with his final salty tears.
He sat at the small cafe sipping coffee and not noticing it had long gone cold. A single piece of paper poked from between the gloved fingers of the other hand.
Within his heart a storm still burned and refused to fade. Putting down the coffee he reached for a phone and dialed the paper’s number.
A woman answered. “Balay.”
“Hello? I was told to call this number. For Ms. Sardar.”
“Indeed you were, Mr. Wright. And how has Istanbul been treating you?” His former captor herself had answered.
After an uncomfortable pause he replied. “Well enough.”
“It has been weeks. By now you surely have researched all the details comprising the spell-working we applied to you in the warehouse.”
“Yes. I have.” Sketch-pads had been filled with circular designs and covered with magical symbols, painstakingly recreated by the use of sorcerous memory enhancement and annotated with extensive analysis. The details of that working which had covered the floor, walls, and even ceiling of the place they’d abducted him to had taken a multitude of pages and even more effort to comprehend and decipher. After reaching disturbing conclusions those pages had met their fate within the oven’s flames.
“Well? Are you satisfied?” she asked followed by the sound of a sip of liquid and the clinking of crystal.
“Memories. The spell triggered memories. Not from this lifetime: only from my spirit itself. No guarantees that something hadn’t already interfered with that of course.”
“Stubbornness again, Mr. Wright. Yet you have called which means you have arrived upon a decision.”
“Excellent.” A pause. “Yet are you fully convinced of what we are up against? Paths forward are not likely to be pleasant ones.”
“They never are.”
“As I’m sure you’re aware the second has emerged and is free. A man of your talents would surely have noticed. We believe your former mentor was able to use the Book of Raziel to accomplish this though neither would likely have survived the result. If not for the primary’s foolish bargaining away of the tome for such a hopeless cause this all could have been avoided.” She sighed bitterly. “Callas Soren’s work is sadly accomplished - may his soul find its peace. To stop the chain now every effort must be focused on the others.”
“Just tell me what you need.”
“Information, Mr. Wright. You know the primary: you know where and who she is. The others will have flocked to her side already whether they realize it or not. The tapestry’s pattern will demand such and weave them closely into her life. Study of one should reveal the rest.”
He took the time to swallow one last cold sip. Outside beyond the window waters calmly lapped against the shore.
She interrupted his silence. “Need I remind you,” she continued quietly, “of where we will end up should we fail? You of all people should be quite familiar with that destination. Not to mention the great cost to this world and everyone upon it.”
Thunder and pain echoed within. “No. I understand the stakes. We will do what must be done.”
“We always have, brother. We always have.”
Sensei Ito’s sharp command cracked across the gym like an electrified whip. With an inner groan I pulled myself up from the tatami mat to again face off against my opponent: Tian Li, the guy who kept tossing me around like a foam pool noodle. He stood there patiently with utter calm.
Dangit, I hadn’t even managed to ruffle his martial arts uniform. It still looked like it had come straight off an ironing board.
After having to readjust my own rumpled gi so the sports bra would stop showing we waited for the inevitable shout from the sensei.
Taking immediate defensive stances we slowly circled each other. Tian’s codename was Flint due to a low-level ability to spark fires but his true strength wasn’t spontaneous acts of arson. He’d been immersed in hand-to-hand combat since he was only a toddler and had developed a remarkable control over his chi - the body’s natural energy. He could manipulate it to boost his physical efforts and more importantly use his adversary’s flow against them.
Like mine for instance.
Growling with annoyance I rushed the distance and launched a series of kicks all in the vain hope to throw him off balance. If I could accomplish that - even for just a fleeting moment - I could apply my greater strength and take him down.
Unfortunately that technique didn’t work either. A loud resonate thud reported my face’s instant impact into the mat.
Okay so it didn’t hurt. At least not physically.
Tian stepped away after letting go of the nasty wrist lock he’d used to hold my hand all firmly twisted behind my back. From the peanut gallery arrayed around the mat could be heard some giggles and perhaps a snicker or two. The loudest were from my friend Jenna.
With teeth clenched I got to my feet and once again readjusted my gi. No matter how tightly the belt was tied the front kept wanting to open - something I never had to worry much about all those years ago when I’d first trained in basic Karate. But now? Flashing the guys with even the modest-ish sports bra was enough for their eyes to bug out.
And I really had more important things I should have been considering. Like the fact that on paper I should have had the advantage over Tian even with the declared proscription against using any powers. Without tapping those I was physically stronger than he was and supposedly faster. But so far nothing could penetrate the defense of the slender yet amazingly fit martial artist. He kept countering by slipping past in some unexpected way and my chin would make its reacquaintance with the floor. If I’d been allowed to tap the energies always so eager to flood my system I’m sure Tian would become just as familiar with the patterns of the creases and grooves lining the mat as I had. But Ito’s eyes and senses were as an eagle’s and any sign of power use would immediately forfeit the match along with triggering a fierce tongue lashing and extra exercises as punishment.
The sensei scowled. “Flint,” he said using our codenames, “Explain why Aradia is unable to defeat you.”
To his credit Tian didn’t respond with the obvious truth that I simply sucked. Instead he bowed his head, considered, then said, “Her perception is mis-focused.”
Ito seemed pleased - a rare expression for the old Japanese master. “Say more.”
“She plans her moves without predicting and countering mine. Her tactics are as rigid and linear as an elm - not flexible like bamboo. She has no flow and thus defeats herself.”
It was my turn to frown. Crap. I thought I’d been trying to react to him.
Ito didn’t give me much time to think and barked, “Again! Hajime!”
This time I backed off, focusing only on watching Tian as we slowly moved within the bounds of the fighting circle. Perception, eh? Okay, worth a shot.
We stared at each other. I tried to catch a glimpse into what he might do: what muscles would twitch before he attacked, how his balance shifted as his feet slid across the surface, attempting to get an insight to his movements with enough time to react properly.
Tian’s neutral expression hardened with deliberate focus.
And then we were both in motion.
Have you ever had a dream where you get intuitions of what was about to happen before they did? Like you would just know that so-and-so in the dream was about to say a phrase exactly or (in the case of more violent dreams) that the guy on the left was about to pull a gun and shoot?
This was suddenly like that. Two kicks and three punches into his combination and I’d somehow parried them all with blocks and side-stepping. There was a remarkable certainty that if I spun and put a hand right there and pivot just so the momentum of his legs would sweep them out from under and the ever-so-polite-yet-undefeated dude would finally go down.
Two moves in towards that glorious and clearly seen combination and it all shattered due to Ito’s interrupting shout.
The thought of ignoring the command was oh so tempting but dammit Tian had immediately shifted to break away in obedience of the order.
Fists lowered as I looked to Sensei Ito in shock. What the hell? I had him!
With a grunt Ito declared, “Aradia forfeits the match.”
“What?” I blurted in dismay. “I was about to-”
“No powers!” he shouted. “If you cannot control yourself in the ring then the punching bag in the corner is yours! Go.”
Confusion. “But I didn’t…”
“The brightness of your eyes says otherwise. The bag awaits.” An unyielding finger pointed the way.
With the rest of the class staring on I gave a stiff bow to Tian and another to Ito before marching angrily over to the reinforced punching bag hanging off to the side in the back of the gym. I ignored Jenna’s attempt at a consoling smile and went past Brendan’s own hardened expression which honestly bordered on outright hostility.
Something about me using powers in any way always ticked him off these days.
The sounds of a new sparring match between the next two contestants began in the background as I pummeled the innocent bag with a frenzy of annoyance-fueled punches.
Dammit! How could my energetic control have slipped? I’d worked so hard with Rabbi Immanuel to keep it in check but every time I thought I had a handle on things the inner pressure would grow even stronger. Thing is we didn’t know what it would mean for the world if that power were to fully uncork and it unleashed whatever it yearned for me to be. Would the world survive? Or would it all be swept away from the birth of a new sun?
And no that wasn’t an ego-driven exaggeration. Every magic metric they’d used to measure the potential of the source I was metaphysically wired into resulted in shocked faces and shaking heads. I’d heard one of the powers tester mutter under his breath that he wasn’t sure the galaxy would survive if I went to maximum.
Hell, one of the analysts had actually fainted after reading the latest results.
And wow did that source seem to want me to be more, to manifest more. Plus if I was honest with myself deep down I wanted it too. I yearned for that feeling of freedom and oneness with the Light, those sensations of being in perfect harmony with, well, everything everywhere.
Even if the thought also terrified the absolute bejeezus out of me.
The armored bag pretending to be my opponent was designed by Whateley Academy’s gadgeteers to withstand direct strikes from a tank’s main gun at close range. Its chain was some crazy reinforced titanium alloy crafted to take the abuse from crazy exemplar’s such as myself. It withstood the punches and swayed slightly as I laid into it, absorbing my frustration-fueled attacks.
Images from that fight back in Syria (was it really only a few weeks ago?) kept flashing by, haunting now not only in dreams but while awake. Soldiers burned as they screamed in horrid agony from the flames of Miguel’s power before collapsing into ash all while Kokabiel’s evil-possessed claws sliced at my throat. Mixed in were Tsáyidiel’s freshly shared and therefore imprinted memories of eons worth of torment all added to a background chorus of all of the spirits who had suffered in darkness for so long. With the Light I might contain the power to help them. Maybe. If I was only willing to risk who knows what else by unleashing the power’s desire to shine its cleansing flames without regard for limitation or restriction.
Or maybe I was just a coward hiding behind the excuses of a clung-to humanity that might exist only by pretend.
Afraid and therefore weak. Of no help to anyone, not even myself.
The chain above snapped as the links shattered. The bag launched with tremendous speed right into the wall behind which erupted into this huge mess of shattered studs, burst drywall, and shards of titanium reinforced ceramic wizardry.
The whole class jumped to its feet in alarm and the sensei again sharply called out my codename. “Aradia! No powers!”
But the fist that had just delivered doom to the poor bag and wall wasn’t even glowing. I’d somehow broken the damn thing purely with raw natural strength borne of frustration and indecision.
I sighed. “Well crap.”
After requiring a shower to ‘cool-down’ Ito naturally sent me off to see Natalie, our local head-shrinker and a former Department of Paranormal Affairs agent. Although I had my doubts about the ‘former’ part as it seemed more like she was simply on loan. Then again, with me being here at Whateley Academy she could well be on assignment under-cover-but-not-really to keep a direct watch on my shenanigans.
Not that she’d admit it or anything.
I dutifully marched into her office and plonked into the chair that sat right in front of her desk. Her couch was cozy and all but yeah, way too cliche. It was bad enough that Natalie liked to use a pen and pad of paper for notes during our ‘sessions’, if it got any more stereotypical I’d be tempted to kick my feet up and bewail some made up stories involving my mother, lollipops, and puppets named ‘George’. And yes before you ask, I did make sure to sweep the school skirt out so it wouldn’t bunch up and reveal things that it shouldn’t. I’d only forgotten to do that once in class and just the memory of the boys’ reactions was enough to cause my cheeks to burn.
“Want to tell me about it?” she asked after it was clear I wasn’t going to be the one to start the conversation.
“Tell you about what?” I replied. “That it’s slowly getting harder to keep a lid on things? You know that already. It wants out.”
“Mmm.” She peered at me through the thin frames of her glasses. “Does it?”
“Sure as hell seems so.”
“Alright,” she said that way which made it clear she would come back to the topic later. Whether I wanted her to or not. “How are things otherwise?”
“Oh they’re all kinds of hunky-dory. Peachy-keen even.”
She laughed and it was a kind laugh, full of real warmth exuding genuine empathy. You could see why she was great with the kids at the school. “It can’t be easy for you,” she said, “given everything that has happened.”
I sunk further into the chair, pulling in the knees. “Would have been easier if that damn video from Syria of me fighting in the sky and then arguing with two wizards on that truck hadn’t made the rounds. And the fact that all the copies mysteriously disappeared didn’t help either. Did the DPA do that?”
She shook her head. “Not that I know of. But I doubt they would tell me if they had.”
“Well when you put that along with the massive earthquake that toppled everything within a couple hundred miles of there that very night, Whateley conspiracy theorists are running at full tilt. Pun not intended.” That earthquake had hit ten-point-one on the Richter scale triggering a huge humanitarian crisis across the whole region. Entire towns were leveled flat and there were whispers around campus claiming that I’d somehow caused it. “With all the teacher-enforced public restrictions against me powering up in any way the kids have divided into two camps: those who think I’m here to somehow save the world or those who think I might destroy it with a sneeze. Honestly I’m not sure which is worse.”
“Makes it difficult.”
“Look, we knew I was going to have some issues fitting in. Putting aside the immense fun of swapping genders this has been one heckuva mid-life crisis of pretending to be a teenager. And these kids are just that: kids. Struggling day to day with hormones, peer pressure, and generally lacking any clue of who they are just yet. While this body of mine may look and feel young I’m definitely not. Danielle tried to explain it the other day. She said that while she could totally feel how much I loved her from just a single glance there was more to it which she found unsettling.”
“Unsettling? How so?”
“Like she was being judged. Or more precisely she felt like I was seeing past everything. As if into the secret parts of her soul.”
“And do you?”
“Do you peer into people’s souls? You’re an angel. What else can you see?” She met my eyes without flinching. Two points to the brave doctor.
“Hey, I’ve only done that a couple times.” Like with Evie. Or Tamara. The patterns of their lives had stretched out in visions of tapestries made of light and dark, love and pain. Sounds creepy but was actually incredibly beautiful.
“That you’re consciously aware of,” she said as she tapped the pen against her notepad.
“You’ve described shifts in your mental state when you’ve opened up to the ‘above’ as you’ve phrased it. When your angelic side takes over.”
See? It didn’t take her long to come back to the central issue. “Think that’s the problem? That I’ve got a split personality and she’s going to come out whether I want her to or not?”
“I can’t answer that for you. Does it feel any different or better when working on your magic practice?”
“More frustrating is more like it.”
“Oh? I thought you said you were making progress after working with August and her symbols.”
A headache began to gather strength at the temples. Rubbing didn’t seem to help. “Yeah, about that…”
“Did something happen?”
“August stopped coming.” Right when I was starting to get the hang of her angelic script too.
“Did she explain why?”
“Yeah, she did. She feels awful about it so she’s been avoiding me completely ever since. Which means Ester is also avoiding me. She’s become attached to August something fierce. Oh, and Ester is in the camp that looks at me like I’m a savior or something by the way. Unnerving as heck.”
“But you did save her. And as I understand it her spirit as well.”
I shrugged. I mean it happened and all but it felt squishy weird thinking about it.
“And you haven’t answered the question,” Natalie noted. “What caused August to cease assisting you with your magic practice?”
“She was told to stop.”
“By who? A teacher?”
“No. Well, yes in a way. By Sandalphon.”
She sat up and her gentle therapist demeanor gained a sharper edge. “Sandalphon. The archangel with the Book Of Life. The one who restored Danielle’s soul so it could reconnect with her body.”
“Yep. Him. When she sleeps he’s been teaching August how to read the Book. And before you ask she told me she can’t tell anyone any details about that either.” Shifting in the chair again I crossed my arms. “She said that once he’d heard about her working with me and using her personal script he explicitly forbade her from continuing. To—and she quoted—’prevent the pollution of accent’. She got all flustered when trying to explain it so I didn’t push, but in a nutshell she said that I shouldn’t be working with her script as that’s specific to her spirit. That I need to develop my own version of it, sorta, or it could limit me somehow later on.”
“And how is that going?” She frowned, trying to process all of that.
“Lousy. I’ve only used the language in moments of stress without thinking about it. You know, when fighting for real. I can read August’s notebook easily enough but whenever I try to write my own symbols I draw a blank. Literally. Copying hers from memory also feels, well, weirdly icky. Sandalphon may have had a point.”
I stared at her ceiling. Someone had painted little blue flowers over it since the last time I’d come in. Huh.
“What does Rabbi Kirov make of it all?” she asked.
Another sigh. Alright, it was more of a groan. “I love the rabbi, don’t get me wrong, but I think he’s also swung way too far into the whole ‘Jordan as savior’ camp. He just keeps telling me to ‘trust in Hashem’. Like that’s useful in practice. Not.”
“I see.” She chewed the cap of the pen. That was a new behavior; I hadn’t seen her do that before. She even managed to dimple the plastic before continuing. “When we talked after Danielle recovered we decided it might be too risky for you to spend much time in this dream-realm of yours.”
“Of Gabriel’s,” I corrected. “It’s her realm. I’m only, like, borrowing it.”
“Along with all the fae who followed you back from Arcadia.”
“Yeah. They’re making themselves at home. Given the possible time-difference between Earth and all those kinds of realms I didn’t want to go there and possibly miss months—or worse!— back here. So I’ve stayed away. Tsáyidiel is guarding it while I’m gone. Honestly he’s likely doing a better job of that than I ever could.”
“I think we should revise that. At least once or perhaps twice a week I think you should spend time there. As your angelic self.”
I frowned. “You think that would ease the pressure? Don’t you think it could only make things worse for when I’m back here? What about the whole time problem?”
“I believe it could be worth trying. Talk to Circe and maybe only go for a few subjective minutes at the start so you can measure the time differences between there and here when you do.”
“Seems a lot more risky than what you usually say. Why the change?”
She placed the notepad on the desk before answering. “Because I believe that if God himself wants you to be an angel here on this Earth then neither you nor I can stop that from happening. All we can do is try to make the integration as seamless as possible. Locking that side of yourself up is not the answer.”
“I…” I didn’t know what to say. But I did spot the time on the clock on her wall. “Shit!”
“What is it?”
“Argh. I’ve got to run. I’m meeting Jenna for dinner before we both have a study session for Kirov’s class. He assigned us a group essay project on the responsibilities of superpowers.”
“Then get going. Come see me after your first visit to your…place.”
“Sure thing, Doc.”
I bolted out of her office and down the corridor to the stairs. As I took the steps two at a time I couldn’t tell if I was running towards dinner or away as fast as these new legs could take me from the idea of God making me His agent on Earth in full angelic glory.
I suspected the latter was more likely.
Depositing the tray on the table, I shook my head and sat down next to Jenna. “Sorry. They sent me to see Natalie again after the mess in the gym.”
“S’alright. Hey, is that all you’re gonna eat?” She pointed to the small chicken salad looking rather lonely in its bowl when compared to her own pile of fried chicken, green beans, and tall stack of dinner rolls.
I poked at the lettuce with a fork. “Not really hungry. Eh, I think I could get by with eating just once a day. You know, like a super-model is supposed to.”
She guffawed. “You have about as much chance of gaining weight as I have of keeping my hair for more than a few days. The poor janitors have got to be annoyed with how often Sensei orders me to fight with full strength and the poor practice mats get clobbered with my fuzz.” Her power turned her skin to stone with an unfortunate side-effect. All her hair was instantly shorn off: head, arms, legs, and uhm everywhere. It really did make a mess.
I glared at her so she’d remember that powering up is why I got sent to the therapist in the first place, but she wasn’t fazed in the slightest. She kept grinning.
Jenna might have been the only one at the school who was immune to my stare, she was also the only one who still stuck close. Even Zap, my dance partner and heroic god-spirited dream-questing companion, had been keeping a distance lately. I mean, it’s not that the kids weren’t friendly but what I had told Natalie about the two camps was true. And yeah, that stunt I’d pulled by threatening Magnus with only a glowing finger really hadn’t helped things. Even if he had totally deserved it.
Speaking of whom, he was sitting over at another table with his friends pretending not to be watching me again. Glaring back at him always caused him to quickly look away with this angry set to his jaw so now I tried my best to just ignore him.
Whereas my niece Danielle had been enjoying her time having quite the opposite effect on everyone. She had rapidly become one of the more popular kids, accreting a clique around her which grew stronger every day. They were drawn in by her mix of youthful exuberance and flashes of amused ancient wisdom. Her group and Tamara’s - the school’s pre-eminent witchling - had, for all intents and purposes, merged into a real powerhouse of a group that could wield some serious fae and pagan magic.
In other words she was blossoming and it was beautiful to watch. Even if from a distance.
“So did Natalie say anything helpful?” Jenna asked between bites, interrupting my thoughts. She had tried to sound casual but failed to hide the underlying concern.
“Eh.” I popped a small tomato in my mouth and shrugged.
She pursed her lips. “Even I know you saw some crazy stuff over there in Syria. Heck, I’ve had my own issues just from that fight in the forest against those infected agent dudes. You telling her everything? She can’t help you if you don’t.”
“I tell her, okay? She knows. She knows I keep dreaming of what happened there. She knows I still don’t fit in here. And she knows that I’m wasting my time in the damn magic class too. Nothing works. What am I supposed to do, pray to myself? ‘Oh please Jordan-of-the-blinding-floodlight, make this bloody candle finally catch flame.’” I pressed palms together and looked towards the crystal ceiling of the cafeteria as if posing for a stained glass window. Okay, so the pious image was marred by the mushroom held aloft by the fork still grasped between fingers.
She snickered. “So you’re saying you’re denying your own prayers? That’d be a new one.”
“Who knows,” I said with a groan before consigning the mushroom to hellish torture by stomach acid.
“And whadd’ya mean you don’t fit in here?” She reached across to poke my forehead. “That just shows you’re a proper Thornie. We’re the misfits with all the issues. Everyone loves you though.”
“Not everyone.” I gestured towards the far side of the cafeteria.
“Okay, so Magnus and his cohorts decided you’re a fallen angel who must have done something awful to end up here. But they don’t count.”
“They don’t? They seem to do alright in math. Well, except Magnus: his trigonometry is awful. If he ever got a sine from God, he’d immediately go on a lost tangent.”
“Well he certainly isn’t acute, that’s for sure.”
“Definitely obtuse, don’t you think?”
“Aw, he’s just jealous he’s not an angle like you.”
That earned a moan, and we both giggled before tossing out a few more awful math puns. Because you know, we were calculating like that.
Jenna finally looked thoughtful and put down a picked-clean chicken leg. “Hey, Jordan?”
Around a mouthful of salad I said, “Yeah?”
“When you went to the whole fae-court place to save Danielle, you flew there on your own didn’t you? Like, Zap and this other angel of yours, Tsha… Tsay…” She made a face trying to pronounce the name.
“Tsáyidiel,” I said with amusement.
“Yeah him. They didn’t carry you or anything, right?”
“No, I flew. That’s what the wings are for.”
She stared at the bones on her plate. “Ever thought that maybe you could, you know, fly to Heaven?”
“Heaven?” I blinked. “Honestly, I have no idea. I can pretty much go back and forth from my room to that pocket dream of Gabriel’s I’ve told you about.” The weird thing about that is in order to come back I had to focus on returning to the magic circles on the floor in my room. Otherwise it always felt like trying to push through an infinite wall of jello. “I haven’t tried to leave the realm for anywhere else and without an escort or a map I think I’d get lost out there real quick. The way to Arcadia was all over the place and I don’t think those paths stay fixed. Not to mention the whole variable nature of time out there. Doubt Mrs. Carson would take kindly to a student missing months of class.” I grinned. This time she didn’t return it.
“Just, I dunno, curious. Hey,” she said, obviously trying to change the subject. “You ready for the group essay thing tonight? You, me, and Cassius.” She scooped the last bite of food into her mouth.
“Ugh. I guess.”
“Could have been worse. At least Cassius can write coherently and he’s totally smart.”
“Yeah, but he’s still a…” I stopped, not sure how to put it.
“A know it all?” she finished for me, clearly amused. “You just don’t like him because he debates you on everything.”
“Meh,” I said, not willing to admit anything. “Let’s get going. Don’t want to give the guy an excuse to be more irritating, oops I mean ‘irritated’, than usual.”
She laughed. “He’s as cranky as you’ve been lately.”
“I’m not cranky!”
“Melancholy? Annoyed? Surly? Give me a break here, my vocabulary isn’t as good as yours!”
“Ooh what a retort! Worthy of what, three points in scrabble?”
I threw my last crouton at her.
It had taken less than five minutes for me and Cassius to start bickering. That may have been a new record.
“Okay, fine,” I said, hands tightly gripping the back of an empty chair. “I will grant that the law says a citizen doesn’t have a general responsibility to get involved and try to stop a crime. But that’s not the question Kirov asked!”
Cassius was sitting on the opposite side of the study room’s wooden table. He pushed a shoe against it and leaned further back, thin arms crossed and face scrunched practically in a sneer. “The question,” he said with a full roll of the eyes, “is to define what are the responsibilities of power. And I am simply postulating that the mere possession of the capability to stop a crime does not mandate its use.” He glowered under blond bangs that had kept creeping past the matching pale yellowish eyebrows and requiring manual intervention to get out of his eyes. While he was taller than me by a few inches I bet a stiff wind could launch him across a field. That was an entertaining thought.
Jenna piped up. “But isn’t he talking about superpowers though? We have special abilities, we can do more than normal people. So shouldn’t we? I think it’s a moral question and not a legal one.”
The guy curtly shook his head. “And I say there’s neither a legal nor moral requirement. Superpowers or no.”
I glared at him. “So if you saw someone about to commit murder and you had a spell that would stop them, you saying you wouldn’t use it?”
Surprisingly he didn’t flinch. “Maybe I’d agree the murder was necessary.” He shrugged.
“Ooh-kay,” Jenna said slowly. “For the sake of argument, say you think the murder was wrong. Given the ability to stop it, shouldn’t you?”
“What?” I blurted. “Are you kidding? You’re seriously going to argue that letting evil happen is okay? I didn’t expect you to be in the super-villain camp.”
His cheek muscles twitched. “I am in no one’s camp. Be they hero or villain. You all can piss off as far as I’m concerned.”
Jenna’s forehead scrunched. “But what if, say, it was your mom about to be killed?”
Blue eyes flashed. “Then I would use whatever abilities I had at my disposal to destroy the perpetrator. Utterly.”
Huh. That was interesting. She’d made him angry.
“So killing your mom is an evil,” Jenna continued. “And you would try to stop it. Is that a responsibility? To protect your family?”
“I would term it a choice.”
“Responsibility,” I said, “is the ability to respond.”
“Almost.” Cassius tried to return to his more dispassionate and arrogant academic tone. “It’s comprised of three factors according to definition. Having a duty to deal with something or the inherent duties of having control over someone is the first. Or the state of being accountable for a thing. And the third, which is what you just referred to, is the opportunity or ability to act. You both have been stuck on the ‘duty’ aspect.”
“Have we?” I asked. “Or is the rabbi posing the question of how much extra accountability exists by virtue of having greater power to act? You know the line, ‘with great power’ etcetera.”
“Maybe,” he acknowledged. “But just like in your magical practice your vision is way too narrow,” he said casually with a wave of his hand.
“Excuse me?” Fingers dug further into the top of the chair and the plastic creaked in protest.
“Seriously, I’m not trying to insult you.” He grinned. “Not really.”
Looking between us, Jenna winced. “Uh Cassius, you’d better explain.”
He got up to pace the length of the study room. “Kirov targeted this essay specifically at Jordan, just like he’s been doing with everything of note in this class. The rest of us are only along for the ride.”
Jenna made a face like she was biting her tongue. Dangit.
“You agree with that?” I asked her.
She smiled weakly. “Yeah. I kinda do.”
“Gah. Fine.” I backed up to lean against the wall, crossing my arms as I did so. “Go ahead Cassius. Make your damn point.”
“Thank you,” he said, totally ignoring my annoyance. “The truth that he has been trying to get you to understand is that you are an angelic Power. With a capital ‘P’. And you obviously have no concept of that.”
I snorted. “Yeah, sure. So powerful I can’t even light a match, let alone part the waters in a small bowl. Even you kick my ass in magic practice.”
That was true. Cassius had struggled at the start but was making steady progress even if he was still slightly behind most of the others. And while he also was a new arrival to the school they’d already bumped him into an advanced magic theory class. Rumor had it that his magic ability had sprouted over the summer and when tested for affinity to a path he had resonated to all of them. Every single goddamn one.
“Like I said,” he continued on, “No concept. Your attempts at working magic are utterly wrong because you entirely miss the point. Like you have on this assignment.”
“Then enlighten me, oh great knowledgeable one,” I said with my own exaggerated eye-roll that he totally pretended not to notice.
“Alright, I will.” He stopped pacing and spread his hands wide. “Expand the power level of your hypothetical scenario. Premise that you have the power to stop all murders within a small city because you were able to foresee the occurrences and be there in an instant to prevent them. Would you say you should do that? Jenna, let her answer if you please.”
Jenna had been about to say something but shrugged and waited.
“Uh,” I said. “Wouldn’t that be the right thing to do with such a power? It would save a lot of lives.”
“Okay. But you’re an angel so up the power even further. Let’s say you had the ability to incapacitate - mind you I didn’t say kill, just disable immediately - anyone within the borders of the United States who was about to commit a murder. Without having to be there directly you’d know it was about to happen and the potential perpetrators would fall over asleep for authorities to pick up later once you’d notified them. Would you?”
“Stop all the murders in the country? Save all those people? How couldn’t I!”
Cold eyes studied me. “Now expand that to the entire planet. What do you think would happen?”
Before I could think it through Jenna blurted, “No more war!”
“That’s one consequence yes,” he agreed. “But think about the people living in such a world.”
I tried to. “They’d learn quickly that making any attempt to murder would fail. And they’d stop trying to. And a lot of them would focus all their attention on trying to kill me instead. Out of total fear, if nothing else.”
Cassius gestured dismissively. “Put that aside for a moment. Think of how societies would react. What would change.”
Jenna considered it. “No more police for murder investigations. And maybe even no military. But would she stop even like, say, a beating? All violence?”
He nodded. “For the sake of argument sure. Take it to the extreme. Stop all crime. Or at least…” He looked meaningfully to me.
Yeah okay, I caught his drift. “I’d stop all violations of the law that I believed were really crimes. Some laws I don’t agree with.”
“Exactly.” He pushed those bangs of his aside again. “You’d be the sole arbitrator and what you chose is what would be. Societies wouldn’t have that choice and the people wouldn’t either. Only you. You’d deny them their free choice, their free will.” He let that sink in before going on. “Now in this hypothetical world let us say you did that for ten, twenty, even a hundred years. And then, for whatever reason, you weren’t there anymore. What would happen?”
Jenna gaped. “It’d be chaos.”
“Precisely. Mankind would no longer be prepared to deal with its darker nature as that would not have changed.”
“Wouldn’t it though?” I asked, a feeling in my stomach saying it already knew the answer but didn’t like it. “I mean, a hundred years without killing? Wouldn’t it have been washed out of all the mechanisms of society?”
“The impulse of a Cain to slay Abel would not have changed,” Cassius said earnestly. “Just suppressed, except in the few you’d have been stopping every day of every year because they couldn’t help themselves. The re-balancing of the world at that point would be a disaster. And once more the responsibility would fall onto mankind instead of you. They wouldn’t have stopped killing each other over all that time because they themselves chose to be better but only because you had chosen to prevent them from being successful at it. In essence they would have been enslaved to your will. That is not a path to growth or freedom.”
I shook my head. “The hypothetical is all well and good but I don’t have that kind of power.”
“Maybe not yet. But only because you’re so utterly clueless.”
“If you’re really trying to not be insulting, wow you are so failing,” I growled.
His face had lit up with genuine laughter which was, for the moment, truly good natured. “Alright, you got me. I was being an ass. Here, let me make it up to you. I’m serious.”
I wanted to stay angry, but failed. Dammit he might actually have been cute when he smiled like that. “Alright, how?”
“Your attempts at lighting a candle. What have you tried to do?” he asked, turning the chair next to mine around so he could sit backwards on it.
“Summon up the light and zap it. Focused light should burn it but instead it makes only a mess.”
Raising an amused eyebrow he said, “You’re an angel. What do you think the light you summon actually is?”
I blinked. “Well it is like this force, this intent, and uhh… this huge overwhelming love for all things.” That sounded so cheesy. Ugh, embarrassingly cheesy.
He was nonplussed by the cheddar. “Look, it’s not an electromagnetic self-propagating wave. Your light is not physical. So why do you keep trying to use it as such?”
“Hey,” I said. “I’ve tried doing the magic symbol thing: both Danielle and Tamara’s different signs for fire, all of that. Even August’s symbols. Pushed the light into those and… nothing. And I’ve set things on fire before when charged up. Almost entire forests.”
Jenna nodded in wide agreement. “Been there, seen that, roasted the marshmallows!”
“But what exactly is fire?” He asked, those blue irises once again so intently focused as if trying to will me to understand.
“Uh,” I stumbled. “When things get excited enough due to heat it kicks off a chemical reaction that generates even more heat and as long as there’s fuel the reaction it keeps going?”
“Okay, good. It’s a process, right? The elements used in magic - fire, water, air, earth - they’re all processes, agents of action. Fire turns matter into heat, smoke, and ash. Water in motion erodes valleys yet inside blood vessels it keeps the animal or person alive. Air moves, either gently to circulate and prevent stagnation or forcefully to blow trailers across Kansas. And earth is a process of continual renewal of the surface of the planet that also provides stability for those working within our limited time-frames. It also is the means by which plants can grow and thus all of life can exist. So how do their magics work? The fae tap elemental planes and summon their process energies directly, human casters either do that or infuse their own manna into the pattern of those processes to direct them as they will.”
“Yeah but why can’t I shove the light into those patterns and do the same?”
“Because magical manna and the light you channel are not the same thing.”
“I don’t get it.” I felt stupid saying it but it was the truth.
To his credit he didn’t take the opportunity to serve up another insult. He scratched at his chin and pondered the ceiling instead. “Think of it this way: magical manna is just another process, like its own element. It exists in the universe already. The sigils and the symbols, the chants, all of it, transmute the process of magic into the process desired by the caster. Magic itself is part of the structure of the universe, built into its matrix. Energy is still being conserved, it just doesn’t look like that to non-casters who can’t see the flows. To them it looks like something - physical effects - come out of nothing but that is not the case.”
“Oh. Oh!” Implications began to dawn. “You’re saying that the light is different.”
“It is Ex Nihilo. From out of nothing. Your light is the Light by which creation itself was forged. Throwing it at the processes of magic is doing something at the wrong level.”
“So what should I have been doing then?” I asked, my thoughts spinning.
“Where the Light goes, so goes reality. All you’ve done with most of your attempts is to locally make the processes of magic more real. It’s like solidifying the symbology of an equation, making it more ‘true’ if you will. But that’s not the same as applying the equation itself to make a change. I bet you could amplify the magics of others to heights unimagined if you tried, as their connections to the abstract processes could become more solid under your focus. Think of it as fueling their power, though that’s not really it.”
“Holy shit!” Jenna exclaimed. “That’s what happened! In the fight against the tainted MCO, it was her power that pushed mine and Brenden’s way beyond what we normally can do!”
“Really?” Cassius glanced at her with calculated appraisal. “Interesting.”
“But then,” I asked, biting a lip from trying to realign my thinking, “how would I actually light a candle?”
He shook his head with growing frustration. “You use your light to change the intent of creation so that the candle in reality is already lit.”
“But… how?” Damn. He was really making me feel like an idiot in comparison.
“Have you ever been dreaming and able to make things in the dream be what you want?”
Visions of the fae army being slaughtered as I willed their own dream realm to rise up against them all flashed through my thoughts. “Uh, yeah.”
“To you and to the source itself, everything is a dream. This physical plane is no different. You are an angel. Change the dream. The ability is hard-wired in, like an instinct. Don’t think about it. Just do it.”
The implications stunned. In the fae realm I had connected to its very essence and through that connection worked my will on what was. Could I do the same here? If so…
“That could really work!” I shouted while my mind ran ahead with the possibilities. Without thinking I reached out to put a hand on his shoulder. “You’re a genius!”
Flinching so hard that his chair slammed into my knees, he fell backwards onto the floor scrambling to get away. “No! Don’t touch me!” He stumbled to his feet and with eyes wide with naked fear bolted out the open door.
He ran full tilt down the hall.
Jenna and I looked at each other, stunned into silence. “What the hell?” I finally asked.
She shook her head.“No idea. But that’s not the only weird question.”
“Think about it,” she said with all seriousness. “How the heck does he know so much about angelic magic?”
We both stared at the now-empty doorway.
That was a damn good question.
We tried calling Cassius later in the evening but he didn’t pick up. The assignment wasn’t due for another week so we figured we’d just have to wait and see him at the next class. But after review of all my (exemplar enhanced) memories of him in class or around campus one thing was clear: he’d been touched by other people without freaking out. It was my touch that had scared him silly.
Why that was we had no idea. But then again with all the rumors spilling around the campus about me who knows what he’d heard. Maybe he was afraid I’d somehow see dark things from his past from physical contact alone. Had he been abused? I hoped he’d eventually talk to me about it. While the guy was seriously annoying I sure hadn’t planned on doing anything to him.
When we got back to Hawthorne Cottage Jenna followed me up to my room to play with my cat. Khan’s exuberance at having someone available to throw his little toys around only distracted her for so long though before she finally crossed over to where I’d been futilely trying to throw words at the screen for the dang essay.
“The essay can wait,” she said firmly. “Let’s see if you can finally light a candle like Cassius said.”
I moaned. “Now?”
“Now.” Grabbing an arm she pulled me up and shoved me towards the four-poster bed that sat in the middle of the runic triple-circled protections designed to protect the school - and maybe the world - from any overpowered accidents I might cause.
There’s nothing quite like being told you had the potential to become a living nuke. Or worse. That wasn’t a rumor, either. The analysis by the school’s experts agreed.
Having sat within the center of the design while beating my head against my lack of ability so many times I could probably sketch the dang thing blindfolded. Every time I had failed the rings always stared back as a reminder of what could happen should I really screw up.
We moved the bed out of the way once again to clear the space. Being both of us incredibly strong had its uses.
Unwrapping a fresh white pillar candle from the box that Danielle had delivered the previous week (along with a note that said, ‘Don’t give up. Ever.’), Jenna placed it at the center and after pushing me to stand in front of it she stepped carefully clear of the circles.
“Alright Ms. Angel - let’s see what you can do.”
I hesitated. What if this worked? And what would it mean if it didn’t?
Behind the mental barricades I’d erected to stay human the tremendous power surge lurked with infinite brilliance awaiting an open channel.
With a sigh I sat down on the wooden floor. Change the dream, he’d said. Everything is a dream. When in the fae realms that truth was an obvious one considering I’d been standing somewhere other than Earth among beings of magic and fable. Of course that was a dream! But here? This was the real world. Solid and predictable, right? How could I see it any other way?
Tian’s words about perception from earlier repeated in my head. Her perception is mis-focused.
Light filtered through a tiny crack in the mental walls and I gazed at the candle with that light pouring out of my eyes. I’d practiced to use the light within to see the spirit-side of things: to see the flows of magical energy that lay within the ground or in the spells of all the students practicing in class or outside when they thought no one was watching.
Now I focused that light on the physical, willing myself to see the patterns of what was solid. Of what I considered ‘real’.
The unlit candle pulled me in. It never flickered, it never changed, and yet at the same time I saw it totally different. Like looking into Tamara’s soul, this simple candle was also a tapestry unto itself - written in symbols of matter, of energy, and of the history that had brought all its components to this point stretching back towards the beginning of all things.
Things clicked and in that instant I saw it complete. And by so doing we connected: the candle and I were one, bound together by the interaction of that perception with the light of all things holding us in existence by its unerring and infinite intent. And with a simple effort of will I breathed a word in the language I shared with August - except this variation was mine. A word that touched the candle’s existence and nudged the intent that underlay its very essence and its entire history.
It was like changing a line of code within an infinite piece of software while its scripts were still running. And yet doing so felt like exercising a reflex I hadn’t known I possessed.
The effect was both astounding and underwhelming. One moment the candle was unlit and then in less than a blink of an eye it burned with a simple yellow flame continuing in a dance that hadn’t existed before.
No zap, no spark, no flash. Just a tiny flame flickering in the air as if it had been there the whole time because as far as it was concerned it had been. The elements of fire within it had no echo of having been conjured from nowhere.
Or out of nothing.
Jenna whooped from outside the circles. “You did it! Awesome! You go girl!”
I chomped on a lip before shutting down the minuscule power flow. And yet I could still feel the candle-flame. My intent is what kept giving it substance. Gave it reality. Implications sank deep to the bottom of my stomach causing the salad from earlier to contemplate a rough and premature exit. I stared at the tiny fire and felt my face go cold.
“Hey! Jordan! You okay?” Jenna’s hands were grabbing my shoulders. “Say something!”
Swallowing, I blinked and looked up at her. She was on one knee as her fingers gripped tightly, digging in.
“What’s wrong? I thought you’d be happy!” she said confused with growing concern.
“That,” I stammered. “That was too easy. Way too easy.”
“Shit, is that all?” She looked at me funny. “It’s just a candle. I’ve seen kids do a lot more than that! One candle should be easy.”
How could I explain it? How could I begin to tell her the implications? Because if I could do that with just a single and simple word, what could I do if I tapped into that overwhelming and seemingly infinite torrent of light waiting within?
How much of the world could be rewritten according to my will? Or for that matter how much of the universe? All changed to match whatever my own vision had provided and all as if that was the only way it had ever been.
With that inner font of light I’d been handed the powers of God. Perhaps not yet but as I gained skill and experience were there really any limits? And what would happen to the world if I were ever to lose control?
Or go insane?
“I think I might be sick,” I muttered while everything suddenly seemed distant and rather hazy. Scrambling to hover over the poor trash I was suddenly rather grateful for having eaten a light dinner.
It had been a long day.
Isaiah Cohen stared at the words that ran across the screen and contemplated how best to rephrase its argument so that that even a judge who had achieved his honorable position before the advent of the Internet and smart phones could comprehend the legal nuances.
Not an easy task.
From across the bookshelf-lined room his legal assistant yawned, trying to hide the act behind a covering hand. Meanwhile the dark circles under pale eyes gave away her true weariness.
With a sigh Isaiah rubbed his own tired eyebrows. “Alright, Tracy. I think that’s enough for the day. Or night or whatever it is.”
“It’s way after midnight, Boss. Sun went down hours ago. But give me a minute, I may have something here.” Tracy, peering at her own video display through dried-out contacts she had meant to take out hours ago, muttered to herself as she scanned the text of yet another case ruling.
Clicking ‘save’ on his document even though he had already done so a minute earlier, Isaiah stretched before walking around the dark oaken desk which was the centerpiece of his home office. As much as the buzz-phrase of the legal world was all about going ‘paperless’, the stacks and piles of folders of white paper adorning its surface were pulpy testaments to the fortitude (and weight) of the printed page.
“What have you got?” he asked, looking over her shoulder. “Tommy Taylor versus the Government of the United States? That’s a new one.”
“Old,” she corrected. “From the fifties. Guy had a random warping manifestation ability of unknown strength and the DoD tried to have him declared not only a national asset but also a classified one. The government was appealing the Lower Court’s ruling in his favor but Tommy tragically died before the appeal was decided.”
“He manifested a white unicorn that promptly stabbed him through the heart. What’s important though is that lower ruling is still a precedent. Our client’s devisor abilities may be totally different from summoning random magical beasts like Tommy but the principle involved here is close.”
“Hmm.” Rapidly scanning the case summary Isaiah nodded then smiled. “Good work. If you’re not careful I’ll sign off your apprenticeship and throw you at the Bar Exam early.”
“Ha, as if Boss. When I’m ready we’re going to fight over that and you know it. If I pass you’ll lose the best assistant you’ve ever had.”
“Not if, when. First try. If our newly hired and clueless associates can do it then you’ll pass with flying colors.”
It was her turn to stretch and stand up, her slender yet muscled frame forcing him to look up. With the Scottish curly red hair and sharp chin she had a striking figure and one he knew she put a lot of effort into. Given his promotion to full partner earlier in the year and the acquisition of his new estate he’d outfitted a fully equipped gym with the intent to use it himself. But since moving in a few months ago she’d been its only customer.
Whomever her prior girlfriend had been it was Isaiah’s distinct opinion that the said individual had been an idiot to kick Tracy McCormick out of her life. A complete fool. If things were different he’d have… well, no, things were what they were and she was what she was.
Of course he still intended to take her to the firm’s holiday dinner just to see her in a formal dress. His few glimpses of her nighttime club-going attire were memorable but there was something to be said for a proper gown and the air of elegance it could provide. On the right woman, naturally.
“Always a flatterer, Boss. And don’t forget you have that lunch meeting at noon with that guy from the DPA.”
“Director Goodman,” he said in a tone not entirely friendly.
She paused at the doorway to look back at him. “He was insistent about the meeting when he called earlier but refused to say why. Some other case we’ll need to pull an all-nighter for? Or related to your ward at that school?”
“No. It’s about my… sister.” He’d almost said ‘brother’ but Justin wasn’t that anymore. To say the situation was confusing would be an understatement. And it wasn’t a relationship he’d shared with his assistant because, just like the case she’d been studying, the situation was mixed up with the government and involved classified information.
“Sister? Didn’t know you had siblings.” Piercing eyes noted her boss’ sudden discomfort.
“Families usually are,” she said with a tight smile. “Have a good night.” Without waiting for a response she walked off down the hall towards her own living area, one which had been built for live-in maids and cooks.
But Isaiah cooked for himself and a maid service arrived in their own vehicles twice a week. Just like the gardeners. His law firm, one which handled litigation for governments and some of the most personally powerful people on the planet, had offered to pay for active security guards but he preferred privacy. Instead he’d installed a state-of-the-art monitoring system which reported to the firm’s own contractors and also built an armored safe room under the house. The security company was supposedly top notch; the highest tier of service included fully staffed ‘crisis management team’ response.
Turning off the lights, he made his way upstairs to his own bedroom suite. Once there he carefully and deliberately removed the gold and black cuff-links from the expensive sleeves, idly examining them as he did so. Opening a drawer of the bedroom wardrobe he placed the links into the empty and waiting slot alongside their fellows.
Each and every one accounted for and each and every one in its proper place.
If only life itself could be that way.
A few months ago he thought he was close to having that. After dedicating himself to his work, ignoring many calls from his best friend and brother-in-all-but-name, he finally made partner. He’d played the politics, sharpened his metaphorical knives against all competitors, and made it to the top of one of the most influential firms in the realm of defense and international arms.
To do so he’d put aside all other passions and hobbies and only here in his private bedroom could their legacy be seen. Here sat his prized sets of role-playing game rules and quest sources bound in hardback tomes along with all the novels of both science fiction and fantasy lining shelf after shelf. Painstakingly painted figures, now only coming out a few times a year to be dusted by the maids, sat behind display glass above more shelves holding completed anthologies of comics and graphics novels from much younger days that had been mostly spent with his best of friends, Justin Thorne. They once had created entire worlds together out of sheer exuberance and ran through them to pluck the last drops of drama and adventure that each could possibly contain.
Having washed his face, brushed his teeth, and donned his silk pajamas he paused in front of a shelf to run a finger along the spine of one of the many gaming notebooks holding the hastily scribbled memories of those realms of fancy and imagination. He’d intended, after making partner and finally being able to insist on actual uninterrupted vacation time, to once again re-connect with his brother and perhaps recapture some of that lost magic.
Fate, however, had definitely had other ideas.
For his friend and brother was no longer the Justin he knew and in his place was the girl Jordan: young and beautiful, shining broadly with the strength of his friend’s soul but with a new emotional vulnerability and uncertainty as she struggled with all the changes both to herself and to her entire worldview. A world where God himself seemed to have reached out to claim her for things beyond all reckoning.
And it’s not like Isaiah hadn’t also been touched. The skin covering the palm of his left hand had turned a pure obsidian, a consequence of touching an angel in the throes of her power. Doctors had remained baffled for the skin wasn’t burnt or harmed nor was the color due to any overabundance of melanin. It was something else entirely that had stubbornly defied all their attempts at analysis.
Climbing into soft Egyptian cotton sheets under a thick layer of woolen blankets, he stared at the ceiling while idly rubbing the stained palm. His once-brother was caught up in a whirlwind of events and no one knew where they would lead. But perhaps the bigger question was to ask where the wind originated from, for therein lay the real mystery. For as much as the nefariously secret sorcerer Callas Soren seemed to behind it, Isaiah couldn’t shake the feeling that somehow even Soren was but pawn of something much larger.
Laughing at himself over thoughts of things mere mortal men were not meant to know, he rolled over to try and escape into the peaceful realms belonging only to the whims of Morpheus.
He walked between columns forged of marble. Each was veined with arteries of gold and black to cover the underlying ivory in endless fractals reaching upward. Tapestries stretched between the gaps, filling them with color and texture. Each evoked a distinct feeling, the symbols stitched into the wavering fabrics teasing at his perception and memory. His toes were bare upon a cold floor seemingly carved from the same infinite block as the columns, and each step made no sound.
Nor did the chasm-wide waterfall his feet had brought him to.
Light sparkled and caught at the flood spilling downward from heights unseen, falling as a tremendously wide crystallized banner towards a fathomless deep. All flowing in complete silence without a single watery note. But upon the vertical wave images flickered into view, countless myriad scenes taking shape before shifting into something new. People and places, scene after scene illuminated his eyes, and to his surprise he recognized them all. The waterfall was replaying his memories, every moment of his life coalesced to play out upon the liquid canvas.
A voice shattered that silence, echoing from all sides and also within his own head.
It is time.
Most people would flounder before such a voice that cut with an absolute authority. But he was not an inexperienced and fresh-faced attorney stammering with uncertainty in front of a hostile courtroom, those years had passed long ago.
He responded calmly with a simple question. “Time for what?”
To determine your worthiness.
Innumerable scenes from his past continued to spill and sparkle before him and he had a disturbing suspicion. “Did I die? Was it another heart attack?”
You live still.
Relief washed through him but was quickly set aside. This was more than just a dream, it had a solidity and realness beyond any random projections of his sleeping unconscious previously encountered. “This is my life you are showing. Are you going to judge it? To judge me?”
That task is yours.
Confusion led to more questions. “You want me to decide whether or not I am worthy? Worthy of what?”
An image glimmering off to one side expanded, swelling across the surface until dominating the entire vision. A scene from adolescence, one with hovering concerned parents standing at his bedside in the hospital where he’d spent over a year fighting against a rare affliction. A scene filled with anguish, pain, and despair pulling him in, restoring to crystal clarity afflictions he had fought to forget and put far behind. Agonies which had carved their mark deep within as a hard core of rage never smoldering but burning still with fierce flames.
Now we begin.
It was going to be a long night.
I opened the door to find August sat hunched with concentration at a desk strewn with textbooks and graph paper. Curfew at the cottages would kick in soon but as I knew she usually stayed up late I figured she wouldn’t mind a visit before time was up. My stomach still felt like crap and I had a feeling sleep wasn’t going to be easy tonight in any case so I was hoping she could yield some answers.
Like maybe confirm or deny my concerns about potentially leveling mountains if I sneezed wrong.
She was studying trigonometry - all the scribbled triangles gave that away - and the tension across her shoulders said that it must not have been going well.
“This is ridiculous!” she proclaimed as I shut the door behind me. “Angle-sine-angle or sine-angle-sine, what does that matter? The stupid things are obviously congruent, just look at them!” She still hadn’t looked up.
“What do you mean?” I walked over to see the problem she was trying to solve.
“It’s you!” She fumbled with her pen which clattered to the floor.
“Um yeah? Got a minute?” I asked, wondering at her reaction.
She scooted the chair back, crossed her arms, then re-crossed them to swap which arm was over which. “What’s up?” She didn’t bother to pick up the pen.
“I wanted to ask you, you know, about angel stuff.”
Her brow furrowed. “What day is it?”
“Oh! Then you must have just lit the candle. Congrats!”
“What?” How did she know that? Oh. “Let me guess…the Book.”
“Yeah,” she said sheepishly. “I don’t always remember the details when I wake up but that one I did.”
“Dreaming the future? I’ve done that before too except while awake.”
I nodded. “When Tsáyidiel flew out of the forest to grab Danielle. Had a flash of that scene during powers testing weeks beforehand.” Seeing said images had caused a serious and rather destructive power flare at the time too. Oops.
“Cool! Have you tried to do it deliberately?”
I blinked. “No? But wouldn’t I need to be able to see your Book to do that?”
She shook her head. “That’s different.”
“Okay I’m confused.”
“It’s complicated. But think of the Book of Life as being a manifestation of the interaction between Father’s intent and the will of the tapestry of Creation itself. It’s like a mapping between what is and what could be, allowing for the whole to be guided.”
“No! Not at all!” She straightened up in the chair. “If anything it’s an engine to enhance choice!” Gone was the young girl struggling with math and sitting awkwardly. In her place was someone far older and more knowledgeable.
And yet equally excitable.
“You’ve lost me.” I made a grimace. Yep, a headache was kicking in.
She grabbed a piece of graph paper and quickly drew a line across it. “Think of this as the path someone is taking in their life: most people do one thing after another and the direction is fairly stable.” She added new lines branching off from the first one. “And these are other possibilities - the large ones, life changing ones - which require the person to make a choice. Like going on a blind date or not with someone who could become their spouse. Or choosing to help someone even though it could be dangerous to do so. That kind of thing. Real decisions that have impact. Both those that happen in an instant and ones made after long deliberation.”
“Alright,” I said, wondering where she was going with this.
“The Book shows the patterns of each life and where these paths can go. But people have to make the choices themselves.”
“But you said it could be used to guide how things turn out.”
“Yes! Because of how everyone’s lives interact!” She waved her hands about excitedly. “Think of how often a critical choice comes out of sudden circumstance: it can be beautiful or tragic, depending. Sometimes both. That depends on when and where the lines cross. The Book doesn’t interfere with the choices people make but it can influence the interactions. It can set up those moments of decision, those moments when entire life paths may change. So souls can have the chance to shine even brighter than they had before. That is its purpose.”
Good grief. “That’s incredibly powerful.”
Her cheeks squinched. “I know and it scares the heck out of me. But I get only glimpses because I’m still here as a human. Sandalphon’s teaching my spirit but as a human I can’t really do much which is good. Much safer that way.”
Shit. “But I’m not always human.”
“I know. You can manifest as your angel self.”
“How much can a manifested angel do?” All those memories from Gabriel when she had come down to deal with the Grigori came to mind. She and Camael, heck all of them, had been fully here on Earth. “How much could you do when you were here as Tamiel?”
She shrugged. “It really depends on the angel. We Grigori were made to interact with the physical world and each of us had our own specialties. Much like every wizard has their own resonances, right? To humanity we’d seem veritable gods but actually we were limited.”
“What about Lucifer?”
She looked down at the paper now covered in lines all criss-crossing each other. “I… Tamiel, I mean… never really knew him. He abandoned Heaven before I was made.”
“He abandoned? He didn’t rebel?”
“It’s complicated. And I wasn’t there for it all. Lucifer fought for Father in the First War against the rebel Samael. Later, after he’d left, he ended up fighting Michael and was also cast down. You have to understand - the memories of such events for angels never fade. Like your exemplar memory but more. To remember anything is to relive it completely in perfect sensory and emotional detail.”
Good grief. “That’s awful. How do they heal from pains and sorrows?”
“Angels? They don’t. Either their words are strong enough to bear the burden, or they aren’t and they Fall or cease. Or sometimes Father would just remove the memories entirely as if they’d never happened. We younger ones quickly learned not to ask questions about the wars. Some of the archangels would test the mettle of newer manifestations by sharing their war memories directly. Knowing full well what it could do to those who were new.”
I shook my head. “Wow. Harsh.”
“You can’t judge it by human standards,” she said intently. “Angels are living ideas taken form. If they cannot stand up to what is then they aren’t strong enough to fulfill the purpose for which they were made. And some of them are vitally important to the stability of everything.”
“Like Lucifer. You never answered my question about him. How powerful is he?”
Her face wrinkled again. “How do you measure the power of a being through which the intent that underlies all existence is exercised? Every angel, every Word that defines us, flows from that Light. If he bent his will to it for all I know he could potentially turn it off.”
“All Universes. Or at least he might have been able to before he left. Whether he still has that kind of connection with the levels of the higher abstract I really don’t know.”
“The higher abstract?” And I thought my skull pounded before. Totally my fault though. I’d come to her after all.
“Above the Archangels though they are them at the same time too. The fundamental concepts. Rabbi Kirov’s Kaballah is a primitive mapping of it, sorta, from what little I’ve seen. But there are many layers. Like I said, it’s complicated.”
“It’s definitely making my head hurt worse.”
“Consider this then: I, as Tamiel, once heard it described that Lucifer had unparalleled vision. Because what exists is what is held in the Source’s sight. The Light is in all things because what it shines upon is by definition that which is. So being the channel for the light meant seeing everything. And I mean everything. All the history, all the present, and all the possible futures. If you thought it bad for regular angels to relive their perfect memories, Lucifer had it worse. Much worse.”
“Holy crap.” Siabh’s words to Aradia spoken so long ago echoed loudly in my mind. I know it hurts. But your uncle is correct. If you cannot draw enough to keep your perceptions locked on the here and now, your mind will shatter. You are growing into your father’s legacy…
Aradia had struggled with the power inherited from Lucifer. So far I’d only experienced a mere snippet of the pain she had gone through. Could I even handle it? Good god, I didn’t want to even try.
August spoke as from a great distance with her attention still focused on the lines covering her page. “They said Creation may have gotten too large and that’s why Lucifer left. That it was too much and drove him mad, fracturing his spirit.”
She blinked and refocused on the room first then me. “I’m not allowed to say what I’ve seen in the Book of the future. Of how things are aligning in the tapestry. And I’m forbidden to interfere with the choices people make based on that knowledge.”
“But you’ve seen more, haven’t you.”
She slowly nodded uncomfortably.
“Shit is hitting the fan, huh.” I sighed with sudden weariness. “No, don’t acknowledge that. Don’t want to get you in trouble.”
“I will help as best I can,”she said weakly. “I’m sorry I can’t do more.”
“It’s alright. And thanks. It’s getting late so I should get going. Good luck with the trigonometry.”
Standing quickly she gave me a hard hug. And I mean hard. Like she was trying to make up for all she couldn’t say or do by crushing me with a burst of affection.
“Oof!” I grunted. “You’re stronger than you look!”
Managing a wry grin, she said, “You’re tough. You can take it.”
“Ha ha. Take it easy, see you around tomorrow.”
It wasn’t until I was out of the cottage jogging back towards Hawthorne that I realized her eyes had been at the same level of mine. She must have grown over six inches in the past month.
And for that matter where were her glasses?
My head was still spinning when I got back to Hawthorne’s attic room and began to prepare for sleep. Even Khan could tell I was too distracted to play. He just offered a few solid head bonks in greeting before settling on the bed waiting for me to join him.
I found myself standing in front of the bathroom mirror as I had for almost every night since all these changes had hit. The young girl with reddish gold hair wearing purple silk pajamas stared back, face drawn and appearing rather shell-shocked.
Not that I could blame her. It had been a hell of a day.
I wanted to scream, to shout, to punch the mirror maybe, but I’d done all those things before. They wouldn’t change the facts, wouldn’t put things back to where they had been.
I’d still be here at a school for wizards and mutants and not in my old house tucked away in Santa Monica.
I’d still be wishing my wife was alive and could hold me close while whispering in her perfect faith that everything would be okay.
I’d still be in this supermodel body of a girl with the weight of the heavens thrust upon her back as a pair of white feathered wings aching to be let free.
And I’d still be scared shitless of the potential power and responsibility that came with them.
Instead I only crawled into bed, pulling the fluffy little guy onto my chest so I could stroke his little furry face.
He purred as those mighty meat-hooks of his kneaded the soft blanket. Fortunately the comforter was thick enough to protect the boobs underneath from his happy claws.
Lying there within the warded circles it was really easy to visualize Gabriel’s dream realm where the hunter and fae creatures had been staying.
It would be just as easy to follow Natalie’s advice and cross over, to let go of everything and be that bright angel waiting within. All too easy.
But would I still be me?
Resting a hand atop Khan’s back I tried to sleep instead. Be it to peaceful slumber or to violent nightmare, I wanted to rest like any normal human.
Even if it was only pretend.
“Justin! It’s time to go! Hurry up slow-poke!”
Caroline was laughing loudly in the other room, amused that for once it was her husband who was running late and not her. Not that I was enjoying the humor of the situation.
In fact I was panicking.
The wardrobe drawers overflowed with feminine clothes: bras, panties, blouses, skirts, girl-sized blue jeans and girl-cut t-shirts. The closet, a former refuge of a small collection of dry-cleaned business attire, now was packed full with womanly finery: dress after dress lined the hanging rod: greens and purples, blues and whites, gowns flowed one after the other all hanging above an endless supply of narrow shoes whose heels were affixed with deadly spikes.
Staring in horror I knew they were mine. All had been cut, sewn, and styled to perfectly fit the curved slender form that stood naked and trembling before them.
Good god, how could I explain this to Caroline? She was my world, my reason to get up and go to work every day, my reason to come home. I was her guy, her protector, the scruffy nerd she had fallen in love with, the smiling geek always with a ready joke to lighten her dark moments.
Choking on a high-pitched cry I didn’t dare let her hear, tears dripped over soft cheeks that would never need shaving. I couldn’t face her, not like this. How could she ever accept it?
How could she ever accept what her husband had become?
“You alright in there? You’ve got five minutes, ya goober!”
Delicate fingers fumbled with the foreign clasps of a bra, struggling to spin the fabric into place. A random t-shirt was grabbed and pulled over hair almost reaching the floor, the shirt then tugged down over the prominent frontal features which its purple low-cut style only accentuated. Jeans, tighter than they had any right to be, got yanked upwards over hips and buttoned over the narrow waist.
Footsteps approached the closed bedroom door. “Time’s up!”
Shoes that should never have fit my feet were held in hand as the doorknob began to turn. What could I say? How could I explain? How could it ever be right again?
The door swung open and I prepared to face the music, words failing and heart hoping only that she could somehow, in some way, forgive.
But Caroline wasn’t there. Behind the white bedroom door lay an expanse of sky glittering with uncountable stars. One shone brighter than the rest, calling and beckoning for me to follow. I recognized that star and with that knowledge knew this all to be but a dream.
Relief clashed with sorrow. For I would have willingly faced any confusion and anger from her for one more chance to hold her tightly. One more moment despite the cancer that had years ago stolen her away.
One more embrace even if all the changes meant I had to eventually let her go.
With unfolded feathers and tears I followed Kokabiel’s star into the night of someone else’s dream.
“Brothers and sisters, I trust you will forgive the abruptness of this summons.”
A slender man in a classic black tuxedo complete with coattail and a top-hat stood atop a small wooden stage as he addressed the audience. His hat rested upon dark hair shaved on one side while the other dangled down to reach the opposite cheek and he leaned on an elegantly carved walking stick. The theater appeared antique with a multitude of red velvet seats currently holding perhaps seventy individuals and was lit solely by many candle-burning candelabras which cast a multitude of chaotic shadows over everything - especially into the many darkened luxury boxes which lined the high theater walls.
Kokabiel, rail-thin and clad only within a cloak made of the sky we had just traversed across led me to a seat in the very back before motioning to sit and be silent. She took the seat next to mine and I did my best to keep my skin’s natural illumination from attracting attention.
“Abrupt certainly qualifies.” A man in the front row spoke, his voice deep and authoritative not unlike a professor addressing a wayward student. He even wore a tweed jacket. “Considering our agreement against such a gathering for the nonce.”
“Well you see, Sariel,” answered the youth on stage with a sly smile. “We had an agreement. But when one withholds information - as you have - such understandings carry little weight.”
A dark-skinned guy next to Sariel ran a gloved hand over a head covered with tightly curled hairs and cursed. “Dammit, Armaros. We haven’t had time to wake everyone up properly. They barely remember their names let alone the past and what they are faced with now! What good is this?” His voice sounded oddly familiar but I couldn’t see his face from back here.
Armaros spread arms wide while still holding the ebony cane. “That’s just it, dear Barakiel. There is very little time to be had. Most of our brethren here may indeed wake up wondering whether this was all just a flight of fancy but our words will still resonate. And if you had succeeded in Syria this would not have been necessary!”
Syria? What the hell?
Barakiel muttered something unintelligible and I thought I heard distant thunder. “We kept the book out of Azazel’s hands,” he said. “I count that as a partial victory.”
A woman who was dressed in nothing more than yellow silk pajamas stood up. “What is this? Am I dreaming? Who are you people?”
Armaros waved her calmly back to her seat. “Please, relax and allow me to explain. Or at least summarize so you may ponder when you awaken.”
Crossing arms in annoyed confusion she begrudgingly sat back down.
“Thank you,” Armaros continued with a smile. “Everyone! We are, to put it succinctly, what remain of the Grigori - my brothers and sisters - all those left of our order. We are the angels who were sent to Earth to aid Mankind in rebuilding their once-shattered world. Most of you here are just starting to remember your true pasts and the rest will surely do so over the next few months. You may not believe it but your spirits know this to be truth.”
The audience grumbled and another voice called. “Say we believe you. I’ve been having lots of weird visions of some ancient past. Usually at the worst times! I almost got fired because of one! So why are we remembering this now?”
“Because,” Armaros said as he clunked the wooden stage with the cane, “the spell-working designed to keep us trapped in mortal incarnation and ignorance is finally breaking. We are unfortunately becoming freed from those bonds.”
The woman in yellow spoke again. “Unfortunately? Isn’t being free a good thing?”
“No.” It was Barakiel who answered with a shake of his head.
“Allow me to explain,” said Armaros smoothly. “We were bound to Earth, to live as men and women. Our alternative was banishment to Hell as punishment for our transgressions and disobedience or be destroyed utterly. Only Gabriel’s mercy and intervention kept us from such eternal fates.”
“Mercy?!” Barakiel jumped to his feet with clenched fists and a beige overcoat fell free from his shoulders. “Most of us fought for them against Azazel because they promised us our children would be safe! Instead they drowned them all! Camael, that blood-spattered bastard, let them die!”
At the mention of Camael’s name many in the crowd moaned and others whimpered as if a wave of painful memories had suddenly washed over them.
Which I had a sinking feeling was exactly what had happened.
“And what about you?” Armaros shouted back at Barakiel. “You let that penny-ante sorcerer take Raziel’s Gift when it was right in front of you! And while Sariel declined to tell me what the sorcerer went and did with the book, it wasn’t hard to figure out. Soren used the knowledge in that tome to unleash Camael against Azazel! The Second Seal is shattered and War rides free with his red-stained wings of glory!”
I’d recovered enough of Aradia’s memories to understand most of this but was having a hard time keeping up. Given how many others here also looked confused I was in good company on that score. From what I’d remembered Camael had been the angel who escorted Gabriel to Earth and who had carried Aradia over the rising flood-waters at the end of the battle against Azazel and the Nephelim. But Camael was free on Earth now? That didn’t sound good. As for a ‘Second Seal’, that’s something from Revelations isn’t it?
Oh. Oh my. They were talking about the Apocalypse. Like THE Apocalypse.
The reaction from the crowd verged on panic. One dude not far from me bleakly muttered, “Camael is loose? We’re fucked.” Suddenly many people were shouting at once while others buried faces in their hands and still more just stared at everyone else with sheer befuddlement.
Armaros pounded the cane against the wood. “Everyone! Calm and quiet please!”
A woman in a pink sun-dress wailed loudly. “What good is that? Camael will hunt us all! His Powers have harassed us life after life after life, with him back they’ll break us from the wheel entirely and toss us into the pit!”
“We won’t let that happen, dammit!” Barakiel declared. “Two seals may have broken but we can keep the others intact if we act quickly.”
Pink silk lady shouted back at him. “How the hell are you planning to do that, Barak? Ask them nicely to set aside prophecy? And what do you mean, ‘two seals’? Armaros only mentioned the one!”
Barakiel exchanged a look with Sariel before cursing under his breath.
“What was that?” demanded the woman. “Speak up damn you.”
“Nuts! That’s what I said. You happy now Ananel? The First Seal is broken too.”
“You bastard,” she said as she glared at him. “You weren’t intending to tell us. I’d expect that of Sariel but not you. If the first has shattered then Conquest also rides free. Do you at least know who he is? The rantings of that insane monk at Patmos never made it clear. Does Conquest serve Heaven or does he serve Hell?”
Fuck fuck fuck. My mind raced and I really didn’t like where it was going. According to the bible the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse started with Conquest who was then followed by War, Famine, and Death. I’d read the Revelations of St. John years ago though at the time it had been only used as fodder for stories in a few role-playing games.
Swallowing hard I too cursed as I suddenly could only see one thing from memory: a circle of intricate glowing magic forged from the power of holy names as it hovered in front of a lake, standing between me and saving my niece as she fell from that clear sky towards certain death.
I had shattered it into a billion pieces.
Mindless of what it was I’d broken that sacred Seal and thereby gained the wings with which to save Danielle. I had done it. I had broken the First Seal. The first Horseman, prophesied to wear a brilliant crown, could therefore only be one person.
In absolute shock I sank deeper into the velvet lined chair.
“We,” Barakiel was saying, “have a good idea on who that is. But that seal is gone and focusing on it benefits no one.”
“In that I agree,” said Armaros. “Fighting fully manifested Powers is never a good idea, especially considering our weakened states. We are still incarnated as people! And that is why I called us all here: so that we may coordinate our resistance to the sequence of prophecy. Because for us it ends only in Hell or oblivion.”
Over the silence following his words a voice came from offstage. “There is a third option.”
All eyes went to a newcomer emerging from the side, walking across the planks and towering many feet over Armaros. Everyone stared, some in hesitant recognition.
I found myself in the latter group.
In the distant past Gabriel and Camael had visited with the Fae Queen. While there Camael had grabbed a Grigori and shoved them into a tent to talk with Gabriel. It was the spirit of my friend August, the angel Tamiel, who had walked out onto the stage with folded wings of cloudy grey.
They were no longer as androgynous as in memory and also much taller. Shoulders had filled out, hands still graceful yet now robust were held at, well, at his sides. The softness and either/or nature of his face was gone, leaving a stronger and more chiseled purely masculine appearance.
“Tamiel?” asked Armaros, who like us all was blinking in surprise at the changes from what had once must have seemed eternal.
“That was my name, yes,” the angel pondered. “It will suffice for a little longer.”
“What happened to you?” Armaros demanded.
“The opportunity to choose,” Tamiel said softly yet with a voice echoing perfectly clear to everyone present.
“Choose… what?” Barakiel was still standing and studying Tamiel intently.
“A path towards redemption. A path of returning to that which was lost.”
“Liar!” cried Ananel. “You know that’s impossible! We rebelled and are lost forever!”
“The light has chosen otherwise,” Tamiel replied serenely. “Look not to me but to our guiding star. Look to Kokabiel.” With that he pointed across the theater directly at where Kokabiel and I lurked in our seats. “Stand, sister. Stand and let them see.”
Kokabiel took hold of my hand in a fierce grip. She was shaking with fear.
Yet she stood. And, after a hesitation, unfolded beautiful wings of emerald nebulae and sparkling galaxies, filled with the glimmering pattern of her name once again shining within her heart.
A hush punctuated only by a few murmurings of ‘Adonai’ fell across the theater.
The following silence was broken by Barakiel. “My god,” he said, clearly shocked. “She did it.” His wide eyes blinked and realized that Kokabiel hadn’t been alone, seeing me for the first time. “Holy shit, Aradia. You actually did it. You saved her. You restored her name.”
In the outburst which followed (as everyone suddenly tried to talk or yell at once) I realized I’d seen that blasted beige coat before. Across the shoulders of Nicolas Wright, the mage who’d shown up to help rescue Danielle. Barakiel, dark-skinned and rippling with muscles, was wearing Nick’s coat.
He didn’t look at all like Nick but it was him all the same.
The crowd was out of their seats and pushing towards Kokabiel, trying to touch her and feel for themselves the truth that blazed clearly to those who had eyes to see.
That awe and astonishment was interrupted by an angry voice cracking over the crowd from one of the balcony boxes spitting with verbal venom upon all our heads.
“Behold the miracle!” it sneered. “Behold the golden yoke of Heaven dangled once again before us, offering only the return to slavery with manacles of gold!”
All eyes darted upwards. A cloaked figure leaned over the balcony rail, the hood keeping his face in shadow.
The woman called Ananel shouted up at him. “I know that voice, that arrogance! Shemyaza you have no right to be here!”
Kokabiel darn near crushed my hand and stumbled back. Thousands of years of terror flooded her and if I hadn’t caught hold she would have fallen to the floor.
Shemyaza, the leader of the Grigori, had long ago abandoned her to be mind-raped and enslaved by Azazel’s evil.
I couldn’t help it. The light flowed stronger, trying to give her the strength to stand against those horrible memories.
“Do I not?” spat the man identified as the Grigori’s former merciless leader. “Did I not hold us together when Heaven abandoned us? When our pleas for mercy and the need for Homecoming fell on the deaf ears of the cursed archangels?”
“And look where that led us!” Barakiel shouted back. “You let Azazel become a monster which forced them to act! You speak of slavery to Heaven when you helped that bastard enslave so many of us directly!”
“Debating the past is pointless and gains us nothing,” their former captain countered. “Azazel is gone and Heaven plays its games once more! What matters now is facing this false path that she claims to offer and recognizing their lies!”
With that he pointed not at Kokabiel but instead at me.
“For behold,” Shemyaza cried out. “The false promise made manifest! Behold Amariel, false messiah and deliverer of our doom!”
Son of a bitch.
While everyone’s eyes shifted to stare now at me the jerk tossed out the clincher.
“Behold Conquest, the first Rider of the End! Ask yourselves: who is she to conquer if not us? It is her name that empowers Kokabiel! Not Father’s, not the Throne’s, but hers alone!”
Fear and panic flooded through the crowd mixing with the rage and feelings of betrayal from confused recollections of ages of abuse, abandonment, and pain. I saw their patterns then, a collection of dim and broken words all cracked around a gaping hole where the light of Heaven’s grace had once burned bright. Where the name of their Father had once connected them to all their brethren in the Host and to the Source of all above.
As they surged forward with expressions of hatred mixed with hope I cried out from the torrent of emotions slamming into me. Like a hammer to a mighty gong, the response from within shattered all my feeble control and the dam holding back the light collapsed into dust.
Light flashed outward burning with an overwhelming need, aching to touch them, to aid them, to heal them, to ease their sufferings, to recognize and embrace them all as its - or my - own.
Kokabiel reacted instantly. Wrapping wings of night around the blazing lantern I’d become she diverted that light out into the endless expanse of the stars instead.
“No, they will burn! They are not ready!” Kokabiel’s thoughts sliced with that truth and I fought to keep the infinite fountain from blasting through her to get to all her brothers and sisters. The purpose inherent to my name demanded action but she was right. It would destroy so many more than it would save if it happened like this.
From that balcony echoed a bitter laugh. “There, you see? She cannot help but try and enslave you to her will! Learn this lesson well, siblings. Archangels are all alike! They are what they are made to be and never change!”
With quasars and galaxies and infinite space pulling the light and my cries of frustration into the void, the angel of the stars carried me away.
Not to save me from her siblings but to save them from me.
As an introduction to an entire chorus of angels that totally could have gone a whole lot better.
Zap had once heard that the girls’ showers in Poe Cottage had all been equipped with special plumbing and therefore resembled a spa more than dormitory facilities. But the facilities for boys only had a standard line of stalls like those found in any gym’s locker room. Old beige tiles covered the floor and walls with drains installed at set intervals throughout the room so the entire space could be easily hosed down. Each shower nook was supposed to have curtains for privacy but either a prankster had stolen them or a crazed devisor had suddenly suffered an overnight need for water-resistant plastics.
Jesse Cameron, known to his friends as ‘Zap’, was betting on the former given these were the fifth set of curtains to go missing since the semester began. Once there’d been actual glass shower doors but too many enterprising souls had kept developing quick-dry caulking compounds to seal up their sleepy-eyed comrades during their morning showers. The drain hole would have been plugged up earlier with the pipes jiggered so that once the water started to flow it couldn’t be shut off.
A photo of such an occurrence had made the rounds. Given the victim’s snorkeling mask and swimming fins Zap had a not-so-sneaky suspicion the guy had been in on it from the get-go. The swarm of goldfish had been a nice added touch. While Zap’s life had been simpler for those years he’d spent as a hawk, he had to admit that humans were certainly amusing.
The guys on his floor had all gotten used to the constant lack of curtains and strictly obeyed the male social code of pretending like barriers were still in place, each boy just taking care of his business with minimal eye-contact and grunted greetings whenever they’d be forced to step past each other. Thus each maintained a quietly stoic morning routine.
Which was completely in stark contrast to the god who deliberately leaned against the wall outside Zap’s exposed stall and leered at him while showing off a full set of gleaming ivory teeth. Dark reddish skin was covered only by a simple loin-cloth and the tiled walls could just be made out through his image.
Zap groaned, turning his back to the sudden visitor with the shaved scalp. Maybe if he ignored it the spirit would just go away.
A sharp appreciative whistle made it clear that wouldn’t work. Zap flushed, realizing he’d just given a perfect view of his backside to his visitor, and grumbled, “Go away!”
“And miss out on all this? You always made a better dude than a gal. I should send the Thunderbird something for fixing that for you. Think Hallmark’s got a card for that?” The spirit laughed.
Startled, Zap spun around too quickly check that no one else was in earshot - or at least no one who could hear spirits. Fortunately they were alone. He also got a good look at the spirit’s shadow: where the head should be was this dark outline of something like an anteater with cropped eartips or maybe a tapir of some kind. Weird but recognizable.
With a swallow Zap said it aloud. “You’re the god Set.”
The leer faded as black-outlined eyes became serious. “Who else? We should talk.”
“What about?” Refusing to be seen as embarrassed by his nudity, Zap crossed his arms.
“I heard of your little adventure to Arcadia with the budding archangel.”
“Shit’s happening. The queen whose nose you just picked - sorry, I mean ‘poked’ - is gearing up. She’s going to pop the barriers that keep all the fae stuck as humans.”
The god meant Queen Fionnabhair, one of the last Queens of the Fae ruler over many of the connected fae dream-realms including her capital of Aracadia. Which was the very place where Jordan and Zap had gone to save their friend Danielle when her spirit had been taken captive. Turned out that Danielle was the reincarnation of the Queen’s own sister, Siabh, a powerful fae herself who according to her captors had betrayed their people. During the rescue Jordan had almost destroyed the entire fae realm and thereby forced bitter concessions down the Queen’s throat. Zap, as his spirit-self Heru, had fought against the Queen during that battle. He knew too well that she was a force to be reckoned with.
“How’s she going to manage that?” Zap asked.
Set shrugged. “She sure as shit didn’t say when she asked me to help. But it’s going to suck and not in a fun way if she pulls it off.”
The thought of Set and Queen Fionnabhair working together was chilling, despite the hot water still cascading down Zap’s back. “She wants you to work with her? What does she want you to do?”
“You don’t know?”
“How the heck would I?”
“It should be obvious, kid.”
“Dammit, just tell me!” Zap’s rising irritation kindled a much older anger. “You were always such a pain in the ass.”
The leering grin crept back. “You know, you're really cute when you get like this. Even cuter when you’re on a murderous rampage.”
“Set!” Ancient frustration and rage rose from within fed by confused memories of the two of them fighting. They’d once been side by side as the closest of family while at the same time trying their vicious best to spill the blood of the other.
“Hey,” Set said while examining perfectly manicured fingernails. “I get it that you want a regular life and just want to bury all this old crap under the sand. So it’s cool. The plan we built for this shit is intact; I can drive it alone. You just sit this thing out and keep your eyes open. Oh, and be careful when dealing with your pretty angel friend. It’d be a shame if she chooses the wrong side in all this and had to be dealt with.”
Sparks danced along Zap’s skin. “Don’t you dare threaten her!”
Set waved placating open hands. “Whoa, don’t get me wrong! Angels are well-meaning with their feathers of righteousness and all but they’ll sacrifice you in a heartbeat to serve whatever they think is ‘holy’. Their collective heads are stuck so far up their asses they’re in the clouds. What do you expect from a family that kicked out the only members with two feet firmly on the ground. But don’t worry. We can take care of her too if we have to.”
Zap growled. “Don’t. Threaten. Her.” Each word was punctuated by a flash as the water in the shower kept trying to ground out the energy.
Set opened his mouth to say something then shook his head and only muttered to himself. “Our chats always end badly, don’t they?” With that he disappeared, though his sha-headed shadow lingered for a second and offered its own cheery wave goodbye before also flickering off into the ether.
“Fuck!” Zap’s heart raced and his head swam from all the confused feelings Set’s mere presence had conjured. He had tried so hard to ignore Ra’s call, staying as a hawk on purpose to avoid the truth of who he was. But he was Heru, god with the eyes of the sun and the moon, worshiped by an Egypt long lost to the sands of time. He’d put all that reluctance aside to help Jordan save Danielle but who had really gone on that journey, Heru or himself? The fact that Jordan seemed more attracted to his dream god-self than who he was in the physical world still stung too. Not that he’d ever admit that to her.
Since getting back from those fae realms he had slipped more and more into trying to forget that side, to just be Zap or Jesse (formerly Jessica, something known by only a very few which had better stay that way) Cameron, a Whateley student no different from the rest. But that wasn’t the truth, was it? Who was more real, Zap or Heru?
Worse still, how could he help Jordan against Set’s threat if he didn’t even know the current playing field?
Releasing the last of the built up energy and frustrations in a cascade of sparks that lit up the drain, Zap turned off the shower. He grabbed a towel, procedurally going through the motions of drying up and getting dressed. His mind though was plotting what to do next - even if it meant skipping a few classes or lunch and dinner altogether. Because he needed knowledge. He needed wisdom. And he needed magic.
He needed to summon Thoth.