Cold. Dark. And his deep soothing voice:
“Fall from the light.
There is nothing for you here, Phenex, my love.
Come, and we can start a new world. A new order on earth.”
The haunting feel of his hand tracing down her back. Chills, fears, arousal, and regret all collided inside of her. His spicy scent. His overbearing presence.
Phenex shook her head and cursed those unwanted memories. Her finger rested on the trigger of her bolt-action Barrett Model 98B. The ledge of the eighteen-story building gave her the perfect vantage over the chaos below. Police, SWAT, and the fire department all surrounded a tall brown stone office building. She lay on the rough gravel-covered roof with the butt of her rifle pressed tight to her shoulder.
Only a very friendly albino pigeon seemed to notice her presence on the catty-corner building. Her target lurked inside, his form appearing at times before the dark shadowed window in a blur of motion. He seemed to be a local office manager who had taken twelve hostages, five of which were already dead.
Her keen senses, much acuter than any human’s, narrowed in on her target. The tell-tale darkness pulsated from the man and rolled with a wave of turmoil at her. Unseen, yet cold. The anger and delight at murder and death. The pure evil pride in his twisted work. Unlike what modern fiction portrayed, her powers were not the product of vampirism or a werewolf bite. She lived the far more complex life of an Earthbound, a small group of angels and demons who chose to live on earth.
She picked up on several screams from the building and the faint smell of sulfur. A very pungent scent, identifying the demon lurking within the middle-aged human body. No doubt the rampaging office manager had been alive one day, and had his soul forced out the next, to become a vessel for the resident demon now murdering people for fun. Her target’s emotions rose. The man inside wheeled around and pulled the trigger. The window lit up white, but the sound came as a faraway soft thump.
She inched forward. The rough rocks scraped her stomach. She ground her teeth together as she aligned her scope. All of her motions were so smooth only the pigeon a few feet from her seemed intrigued by her presence. She caught a glimpse of the man again through the blinds of the window. A mid-thirties stereotypical balding office worker holding a revolver.
Her phone rang in her pocket. The noise and vibration made her bolt up onto her elbows. “Damn it,” she cursed through gritted teeth. She yanked it out and powered it off. She may be an assassin, but damn it she wasn’t on call all the time.
Phenex stilled her mind with three long breaths and took in the salty Los Angeles air. With one last look, it became obvious the police were useless against this menace. She sighted in and drew one last breath.
And then the cold. The dark. Suddenly, she felt like the ground and sky were black masses of tar. The world flashed away to darkness. Then light beamed down. An angel moved. No—she, as an angel, moved. But that was impossible. She hadn’t been an angel since what was considered biblical times. She’d fallen. Lost her wings. How could she see these things now?
Her own figure made her pause. She saw her slight white wings. Wings she loved more than romantic novels and golden sunrises. She’d do anything to have them back. But her choices cost her everything.
Other angels formed around her in a haze of golden mist, as if to taunt her over her mistake. They showed off their brilliant feathers she longed for so much it hurt. And then He appeared, the dark, suave angel of deception she once loved. Her heart stopped for a moment. Fearful tears burned her eyes. Memories flooded up and guilt rolled in her stomach. His short dark hair had little curls at the tips that accentuated his lean and angular face. A dusting of bristles defined his long neck. His tall five-foot eleven frame loomed above her. His long black coat swept back in a phantom wind she couldn’t feel.
The devil himself. How had she ever loved him? The guilt made her heave.
“What do you want?” she growled. Why did he taunt her? She never dared love another man after what he'd done. Didn’t even let friends close for fear she’d make another mistake.
He turned and looked at her. Her heart jolted at the sight of his endless dark brown bedroom eyes. He reached for her, and her body instantly ached as she recalled the places he used to touch when he was the angel she remembered, not the devil he had become.
“No! This isn’t right. I don’t love you anymore. I hate you! You’re evil now.”
He spoke with a soft caressing voice as if she had never uttered a word. “It is coming, but do not fear. It is not to hurt you. But you can still come with—”
She jolted as the image vanished as fast as it had come. Suddenly the rush of sirens, horns, and the chaos below came back in a loud thunder. Her ears ached and rang. Her shirt clung to her from the gleam of sweat over her skin. She panted as she suppressed both screams and tears. Why now would these images come? She suffered nightmares, not middle of the day hallucinations. But she had a job to do before more people got killed. She couldn’t let it distract her. Let him distract her again.
“Focus, damn it!”
She hurried to adjust the rifle in her sweaty grip. Lock target. Pull trigger. The body crumpled before the window.
Her head ached and body shook from the flash, almost too confused to think and too exhausted to stand. Something shifted behind her.
She yanked her Beretta 92 from her hip holster and rolled onto her back. She trained the red fiber optic sights on the metal rooftop exit door.
It swung open fast as another person trained a gun on her. Phenex recognized the figure a half second before pulling the trigger. She jerked back and trained the barrel down towards the roof.
The small black-haired woman in full FBI tactical gear gave her a disapproving stare. “I knew it was you,” she snapped.
“Rose…” Phenex drew another breath to steady her voice. “What are you doing here?”
“I was investigating the man you just shot, after receiving an anonymous tip. Honestly, I thought the tip came from you, at first, but I learned a male called it in.”
Phenex holstered her gun. She knew Rose from a few years back when they were hunting the same man who also happened to be a demon. She had been forced to let her not-so-human side come out to save Rose, and then Rose figured the rest out.
“Investigating doesn’t save lives,” she said, in an attempt to derail the conversation.
Rose holstered her gun and crossed her arms. “There are processes.”
“Processes that don’t work fast enough. Five people already died.”
“We have rules set in place…” Rose let out a defeated sigh and shook her head. “It’s been two years without even a phone call, De. Then this happens and all I could think of is that it involved you.”
“That’s impossible. I came across this mess only a couple hours ago.”
“I think—” Rose’s phone rang from the side pocket of her cargo-style pants. “Hold on.” She pulled out her flip phone and peered at the screen as if she didn’t recognize the number. “Hello?” She pulled the phone away and glanced at the screen for a second time as someone began to speak just loud enough for Phenex to hear the undertones of a male voice.
A deep uneasy vibration hit Phenex’s chest.
“What? How did you get my… Why? She’s right here.”
Phenex tensed. Was Rose really referring to her? Rose should know better than to involve her in any way. She knew from experience just one slip could bring her enemies to her door.
“Yeah, but tell me what happened,” said Rose to her phone.
Everything suggested this conversation involved her. Phenex snatched at the phone but missed. Rose whirled around and pushed her. Phenex gritted her teeth at the petty attempt to stop her.
“You’re kidding!” Rose shouted into the phone.
“Give that to me,” Phenex snapped. She reached around Rose and yanked the phone from her hand. “Hello?”
“De, is that you?” The warm accented male voice sent a haunting chill down her spine.
“Zophiel?” She pulled the phone away and glanced at the number. It matched the one she'd missed earlier. Her dearest friend, Zophiel lived as an angel on earth who hunted the demon scum. He accepted she had turned her back on her past. That she had changed. “Zophiel, what’s going on?”
“Listen quick. In one of my rounds, I found this group of Cursed Ones who had a book. It’s not just any book. I reclaimed it, but I can’t take on all of them on my own, and I think demons are involved as well.”
He spoke fast and sounded out of breath. Almost desperate. Her grip tightened around the small device. “What? What are you talking about?”
“I’m going to get Sam’s help. His farm might be the best hiding place.”
“What? No! Zophiel, don’t involve Sam. It’s too dangerous.”
“Meet me at his farm as soon as you can. I need you.” He hung up before she could protest again.
Dazed, Phenex stared at the phone for a moment. Did that really happen? Was everything really falling apart like that? In just one instant? One phone call? Something so bad had happened that he risked exposure to find her? After everything she had done to try and keep her past buried to protect the few people she cared about. Giving up everything, even the comfort of a close friend, to do so. And it seemed none of that made a difference.
“Are… Are you okay?” asked Rose.
Phenex drew a breath. This was not a time to dwell. She had been an angel and made the mistake of falling. She had fallen in love with the devil himself, Lucifer. She escaped hell to live on earth, but only hurt people in doing so. And with it, all Lucifer’s powers still coursed through her veins. She was not making more mistakes.
“I have to go to Iowa,” she declared.
“I’m coming with,” said Rose.
“No!” Her chest seized tight with a rush of fear. Even her hand shook for a quick moment.
Rose jerked back, eyes wide in alarm.
Phenex looked away, trying to hide her eyes.. She knew by Rose’s face that her true demon side had slipped out. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to do that.”
“It’s all right,” said Rose with a smile. “But I can’t let you go alone. Something is going on here. Running into you. And now this phone call… It can’t be a coincidence.”
“Perhaps. But it’s too dangerous.”
“I work for the FBI, De. I’ve handled worse.”
“No! You have not! Demons are bad and dangerous to all humans. Cursed Ones are involved as well. This is not something you should be involved in.”
“You involved me years ago when you showed me the truth.”
Phenex turned to her rifle to avoid the look of determination in Rose’s eyes. She couldn’t risk her presence no matter how much she wanted to help. “I did that to help protect you. But this isn’t like what you deal with. These things don’t die easily. They come in hordes. They don’t care. Don’t hesitate. Please…” She paused to watch several policemen escort the hostages from the building below. A few more lives saved from the very thing she had once been. “Please, Rose. Let me take care of this. If it’s something I think you can handle, I’ll call you.”
Rose grunted in response. “All right. But you need to figure out that you’re not alone. You have friends. You need to let people in. And you need to find somebody more stubborn than you, somebody you can trust.”
Phenex listened, but that was all. Rose was wrong. She didn’t understand how much death she’d seen. No one was safe near her. Now she had her friends to protect. And she needed to find out why, now, all this was happening.
The resounding ring of colliding swords reverberated through the air. But unlike earthly steel, the angelic metal rang like beautiful chimes. It echoed in the heavens, off the massive crystal castle, and out into the never-ending cotton clouds. A deep contrast to the sweat-drenched archangels who wielded them. The Archs swung at each other with ferocious strength. Despite it being a practice match, the two gave it their all. And Gabriel couldn’t care less.
He sat on the large stone bench by the training field resting his elbows on his knees. Today, a thin morning mist swirled around the crystal platform. Light shone down from the glowing clouds, above.
The match was at least something to occupy him while he waited. The leader of the Archs, Raphael, had recently been summoned to The Source. Gabriel knew a mission of some sort would soon follow.
He lifted his head and turned his attention back to his two friends. Michael, an Arch like Gabriel, stood to the left. Michael tucked his silvery wings to his sides as he pulled the gleaming white blade back. He fought defensively, as always.
Simon stood to the right. He was an angel. One of the souls brought here and deemed worthy of wings like the Archs and a life of serving the Source for a greater good on Earth. Gabriel scoffed at the idea. Protectors of humans. Bringers of light, love, and hope. And he, an angel of death. Guide to lost souls and witness to all death and misery.
Simon was one of the more skilled angels and, like Michael, a longtime friend of Gabriel. Simon’s long bright red hair caught the breeze as he pulled back his stance. Like Michael, he was a defensive fighter, with one major contrast. The angel didn’t have an offensive bone in his body. And Gabriel was the contrast to them both. An aggressive, forceful fighter, he could always beat Simon, but stood a dead match with Michael.
Gabriel drew a long, bored breath and let his gaze drift over the training field. Someone had brought out several racks of weapons and left them along the side unattended. Swords, spear tips, and other weaponry gleamed in the light.
His two friends surged with energy. Michael sprang first, his sword a blur of motion. The blades collided again sending another chime into the air. Gabriel clenched his large fists together and ground the toe of his boot against the stone. Swords didn’t make that sound on Earth. Nor did the people spar with such grace it made the fight almost look beautiful. It was always a bloody mess that ended up with souls he had to escort to the Superior Ethereal Plane or “heaven” as the humans called it.
Simon defended, and again the metal clashed together. The grinding steel sprayed the ground with blue sparks. Simon was the smallest and weakest of them. Yet what he lacked in physical strength, he made up in heart. Gabriel had brought his soul to heaven long ago, the soul he was secretly most proud of saving.
Simon, in contrast to Michael, chose to wear more Ethereal clothes. White pants that almost looked like what humans called pajamas. A long white shirt with elegant stitching in the back around his wings. And barefoot. Always barefoot here and even on Earth unless going into battle.
Simon tucked his crimson wings and pulled back. Michael moved in and swung, backing Simon up. Michael had a strong, but lean frame. One made for agility and endurance. Like many Archs and angels he chose a wardrobe that fit the Earthly times. A black T-shirt with black leather bands that held the material together around his wings, dark jeans, and black army boots. All were tight on his muscular body and functional. Michael only kept functional things.
They clashed again. And again. And again. Michael gained ground and Simon lost footing. Gabriel stiffened. Simon jolted forward. He caught Michael’s sword and spun. Gabriel saw Simon’s hand drop from the hilt. Was he planning on trying hand-to-hand combat? He hoped not.
But Simon did, shoving Michael forward and trying to knock the sword from his hands. Not good. Michael’s wings flared, and his shoulders rounded forward. Very bad sign. Simon kneed Michael in the stomach, wrenched the sword from Michael’s hand, and lost his own. The blades clattered to the ground. Michael turned on the enraged offensive.
Gabriel had seen it before. Pure power. Aggression. Protectiveness. And unyielding endurance. Michael struck in a furry of head-on attacks. Simon dodged, but not fast enough. Michael landed an organ-rupturing kick that launched Simon back toward the weapon rack.
Gabriel sprang before thinking. His wings cracked in the air, shooting him forward. Simon flailed, wings flapping to no avail. He fell. Fell toward the heavenly iron. To injury. Pain. The destruction of his Ethereal body, as those blades were good at doing.
Gabriel shot his arm out and snatched the smaller man. He slammed his heels down and tucked his wings. Gabriel smashed wings first into the weapons but felt only the pressure as the blades glanced off. The rack splintered under their weight and metal clanged on the ground. They skidded two feet and stopped.
“Oh, no. What have I done?” Simon stammered. The smaller angel clambered up, tripping over debris in his frantic scramble.
Gabriel waited until he was free of the weight and then lifted his heavy form off the ground.
“Thank the Source you caught me,” said Simon. “Are you all right?”
Gabriel flapped his wings to test for injury. Luckily his wings, unlike any other, were cold, metal-like, and nearly indestructible. Each feather looked like those of his brothers, but his were cold like stone and sharp as a knife’s edge. He flexed his arms and stretched his back. Not even a scratch.
Michael’s wings snapped as he landed by them. “Are you both all right?” His light blue eyes hid his concern well as he scanned the pair. Sweat dripped from his shaved head and he panted heavily.
Gabriel nodded. “Fine.”
Michael let out a breath and nodded. “Good.” He turned to the broken weapon rack. “I’m not used to those being there.”
“Whoever left them there is a bloody fool,” Gabriel growled.
Simon covered his mouth as his eyes widened. “Don’t speak like that. I’m sure it was just an accident.”
“An accident that could have gotten you torn to shreds.” Gabriel locked a fierce glare on Simon.
Simon recoiled. He was shaken and ever wary of Gabriel’s temper with good reason. Things like this couldn’t be tolerated. Archs and Angels couldn’t die in the normal sense. But they felt pain. They could suffer. And their forms could be destroyed. Even on earth they risked some form of death if they could not return to the light.
Yet they were here in heaven. Suffering would only happen for a moment before being healed by the Source. But Ethereal metal was their one weakness. Forged to kill the Fallen Angels, their brothers, and unfortunately effective against both the enemy and themselves. Gabriel growled and spun. With his large boot, he kicked the rack frame. Swords and broken debris scattered across the court.
Michael put a comforting hand on Simon’s shoulder. Ever the mediator between them. Simon’s worried green eyes glowed with an innocence Gabriel seldom found intact. Purity. And he was once human. Living with sin, with the Fallen and Cursed Ones always on his shoulder. And here he was. Innocent. Such a contrast to himself.
Michael’s brow furrowed. “What’s wrong?”
The mess and person who left those weapons out? Simon almost getting cut to shreds? Here in the Superior Ethereal Plain, the weapons could have inflicted severe injury that would have healed. Negligence like this on Earth could have caused eternal death. But Gabriel knew what Michael meant. The two always saw right through him. Saw into his darkening heart. Worried about him. He wanted to hate it. They had no right to pry. Yet they were his only friends. He groaned and clenched his fists.
Suddenly, the rich sound of the heavenly horns resonated across the heavens.
“What do you think it is?” asked Michael.
“I heard rumors that something is stirring among the Cursed Ones,” said Simon.
Gabriel unclenched his fists and clenched them again. Cursed Ones. He hated them almost as much as he hated the Fallen. Fallen ruled the Inferior Ethereal Plane, Hell. They took the dark souls and fed upon them. And the Cursed Ones were worse. They were the second rebellion, thrust out of heaven after going to earth to rape and impregnate women. They taught mortals of war, violence, and magic, making them create mass bloodshed amongst themselves. Worst of all, they created Nephilims. Tainted half-human, half-Cursed souls doomed never to enter the light. Pawns the Cursed Ones used to create a new hell on earth. The true purgatory.
“Let’s pray it’s nothing that extreme,” said Michael in his soft monotone voice. He brushed his wings against Gabriel’s arm as he passed.
The light sensation jolted Gabriel from his darkened haze of anger and reminded him they needed to hurry. He filed behind Michael with Simon taking the rear.
They spread their wings and bolted into the air. Michael’s wings flapped with grace, strength and speed matched by few. Gabriel followed. His wings cracked in the air like a whip. He could match speed with Michael, but did not have his grace or agility in the air. He was like a vulture flying beside a falcon. Simon followed, but slower. He meandered more than flew, ever fascinated by everything within heaven that Gabriel had become numb to.
The crystal truants of the castle, the halls, and towers all glistened. Above, flags flew even without the presence of wind. All glowed from the light of The Source. It filled each Arch and angel with power. They were like batteries, the castle and heavens the charger, and The Source was the plug they were all connected to.
Michael, Gabriel and a little later Simon landed on a large balcony. The railing resembled a rose quartz and the archway an elaborate white marble. A single silk curtain hung over one side of the arch. Michael held it back for them.
Inside, the castle walls glistened with millions of diamonds. The hardest stone crafted for the strongest most beautiful castle.
Despite Simon standing in awe, Gabriel felt nothing. He saw it every day, right before he’d get sent to haul some soul away. Men, women, children. He saw them all die every day. That was his duty. To gather the souls severed brutally from their bodies that might get lost before finding the light. Death, bloodshed, and hate. It was all he knew anymore. And he had become numb to it all. How could he see and feel beauty when all he experienced was death?
The darkness growing within him had metastasized to his senses like a cancer. He couldn’t feel temperature anymore. His sense of touch was near gone. Did he even know what warmth was? Feeling? Emotion? And to think he had once fancied thoughts of caring and loving. Such pathetic and fleeting human emotions.
He led the other two down the vast hallways in silence. To his surprise, they didn’t run into any other angels, only numerous sculptures of them. They must have been farther behind everyone else than he thought.
A grand archway led to the great hall. The ceiling, above, rose so high clouds collected and obscured the ceiling from view. Here, the sculptures of the Archs flanked the room along with giant pillars and murals that depicted the great battles in their history. No furniture filled the hall as it was used for meetings only. It seemed even more over filled than normal.
The front of the room had a raised landing of crystal where a silver mist swirled. The eleven other Archs had already congregated there, behind them were the Angels. Wings of various colors flooded the expanse like a heavenly mosaic mural.
Gabriel flew up with Michael and Simon and landed near the front with the other Archs. Simon gave a hesitant look from them to the Angels who were in place behind the Archs. Michael subtly extended his wing and brushed Simon forward with them.
Uriel, a gold and ecru winged Arch, turned and glared at the three. He was the closest to an enemy Gabriel had here. Uriel claimed Gabriel was dark and did not deserve a place in the heavens. Maybe he was right, but that was Gabriel’s choice and he was not falling from grace to make another Arch happy. Uriel quickly turned his back to the three.
Michael came up beside Gabriel and shook his head. “Heaven is no place for such hate.”
Gabriel raised a brow. Was that statement directed at Uriel or him? Michael was good at that. His words always seemed to hold more than one meaning - a reason Gabriel valued his friendship. Michael said he saw something in Gabriel. What, he didn’t know. But that kept him here, in the light. Was he happy? Maybe not. But he was not a Fallen. And nothing could be worse than that, except possibly an Earthbound.
A light flashed and the mist suddenly heaved up into human form. The room went silent. Raphael appeared before them from the mist. The strongest Arch of them all. All orders from The Source came to him and then were passed onto whomever they concerned.
He stood tall, just as they all did. Lean, muscular, with long pale blond hair. His wings were pure gold with soft intricate feathers. No one spoke as Raphael approached. His brilliant green eyes scanned the group as if delving into the soul of each of his warriors. “My Archs and Angels. The Source has shown me a grave potential threat that must be addressed. The Libro Secretorum, after three thousand years, has been discovered and is in unknown hands.”
A slight murmur arose. Gabriel narrowed his eyes and pulled his wings tight to his sides. The Libro Secretorum; the Book of Secrets. It was supposed to be hidden so no mortal could find it. Each muscle around his shoulders and neck tightened. Could a Fallen have taken it? A Cursed One? What would those dark souls do with it? Kill. They always killed. More people forced to violent death requiring him to bring more lost innocent souls to the light.
He stilled his thoughts as Raphael continued. “As we all know, the Libro Secretorum in the wrong hands can reveal things that could break the balance which The Source entrusts us to protect.”
Gabriel stiffened. All artifacts made by humans and Archs together were dangerous in the wrong hands. The Book of Secrets was no exception. But because they were in part, human created, those items stayed on earth hidden from mortals. The book, he remembered, was the key to all articulated artifacts. Artifacts that could give the wielder the power to win wars, gain riches beyond belief, and learn the secrets of the Ethereal Planes. They could change the entire balance.
Raphael ruffled his golden feathers. Gabriel tried to still his mind, but the look in Raphael’s eyes sent his soul cold. The dread. The dark veil. This was dire to him.
He continued in a low voice. “It has fallen into the hands of the Cursed Ones, and now we believe the Nephilims have possession of it. It must be reclaimed at once and hidden again.”
Gabriel’s jaw ticked. He knew it. Nephilims. Dirty half demons hiding like humans. And with the book. An image came to him of all the souls that could be harmed because of this. He tensed again, this time feeling the ache of his taut muscles. With something like this at stake they would stop at nothing. No life would be sacred.
A disgruntled murmur rose from Archs. The loudest groan of them all came from Uriel. No surprise.
“We should just destroy it,” said Uriel. His tone suggested he wanted an argument. Simon again put his hand to his mouth.
“You know our rules,” said Raphael. “We cannot destroy something created, even in part, by the mortals.”
Only one rule but based on their biggest law. Humanity had free will and, because of that, Archs and Angels could not interfere unless the Fallen or Cursed Ones were involved. Even then, they couldn’t directly interact with humans. The reason humans were used as pawns so often.
“But we helped create it,” Uriel rebutted.
“A mistake that will not happen again.” Raphael’s green eyes flashed as he sent the Arch a warning glare. “But now we need to get it out of the wrong hands,” he continued, turning to the mass. “I have made my decision on who to send first. Simon and Gabriel.”
Gabriel suppressed a groan. He expected as much. He always went on these missions to retrieve souls caught in the cross-fire. But Simon accompanying him was not normal. Simon knew the human condition well since he remembered his entire human life, but he lacked the necessary fighting skills for field missions. This must have some human involvement, Gabriel thought. That guaranteed there would be souls to collect.
“I need a third volunteer,” said Raphael. “The Source has told me the Cursed Ones are after the book as well, as are the Fallen. There is a chance of a four-way battle, with mortals caught in the middle.”
Uriel chimed in with his crisp accented voice. “I’ll go, since I am best suited.” He gave Gabriel a sideways glance.
Gabriel tensed, and then forced himself to relax. It didn’t matter. Pride was a sin the Arch was so close to falling into. It would catch him one day. But didn’t they all, in some way, border the darkness? Gabriel did. Even if he didn’t betray the light in action, he knew he skirted it in his mind. The darkness only grew. The cold took over where The Source’s light should have been.
Raphael eyed Uriel for a minute, then gave what seemed to be a reluctant nod. “Very well.” He waved his hands in a dismissive gesture. “Praise The Most High and Exalted One, and I thank you all for responding to my summons.”
Dismissed, the Archs quickly left with the Angels following. But not Gabriel. He continued to think while the others passed as if he were a ghost among them. The darkness? Could he call it sin? Maybe not. A lack of faith? No. For Archs, faith didn’t have the same meaning as it did for humans. How could he not believe in what he witnessed every day? A lack of hope? Yes.
His stomach twisted again.
“Are you all right?” Michael’s soft toned yet deep voice was like a hand reaching into Gabriel’s darkness, meant to pull him back to the light again.
Gabriel blinked several times, trying to restore some sort of control in his roiling mind. “I’m fine.” He looked up at Michael and Simon.
“What’s troubling you?” asked Michael.
“I’m thinking about the book,” said Gabriel.
Michael nodded and turned to the massive monument of himself on the wall. The brilliant stone depicted a moment long ago during the war in the heavens. He wore holy armor and wielded a blazing sword. A sword of fire as the Bible called it, but in reality, one of pure light energy that looked like flames. For the Archs anyway. Lucifer took the power of flames with him. Both heaven and hell fire looked similar, and both were a testament of the wielder’s strength.
For a few moments, Michael just stared at the monument with distant eyes. Then his gaze moved to the statue of Gabriel.
“Remember those days?”
“Yes.” Back in the war. The statue depicted him standing to the side looking down, wings flared as if ready to dive. To fall. It reminded him again he had almost followed Lucifer to Earth and left the light behind in his anger and bitterness. Michael had kept him in the light when he had had no hope. But… What has changed? Why did he now hate himself? He drew a long breath. “I remember.”
Michael turned, his deep concerned eyes pierced him. “Are you ready for this?” he asked, his voice dropping to a grim tone.
Simon stiffened beside them and looked intently between the two.
Gabriel squared his shoulders. “It must be done.”
Michael put his hand on Gabriel’s shoulder. The sudden gesture stunned him, and the worry laced within Michael’s blue eyes deepened again. “Be careful, brother. I have a bad feeling about this. I have not sensed a darkness like this before.”
Simon shook himself. “I have the same feeling. This may be more dangerous than I originally foresaw.”
Gabriel nodded, trying to take their words to heart. But he couldn’t. He turned to Simon, who seemed stunned motionless. “We need to get going.” He didn’t want to descend alongside Uriel, but that was not for him to decide. Simon reluctantly followed while Michael remained behind.
They flew back through the castle and up to the largest landing above a water-like surface that shimmered and rippled. The gap between the planes of the universe. Almost like the surface that divides land and sea, that separates oil and water. Light beamed down on him and filled him with strength. The power of The Source allowed him to enter the realm of Earth in his true form. He praised The Source for this. If either plane grew weak, the only way to enter the Earth realm would be to possess a human and force out the soul. Something the Fallen did quite often.
With the light on him, he thought he should feel warmth, but he didn’t. He felt nothing. Not even the power, although he knew it filled him. Not the air, or the clouds, or the stone beneath his boots. He knew it was there, but that was all.
Uriel’s lip twitched upward in disgust as he took his place on Gabriel’s right. Simon came up on his left. Time to descend.
Gabriel spread his great gray wings. The leather vest pulled tight against his chest muscles. Uriel bolted to dive down first before any of the others could. Simon flashed Gabriel a nervous look but dove when Gabriel gave a reassuring nod. His turn.
He went to the stone edge and looked down, almost able to see the planet on which he would descend. A twinge again hit his stomach. No. He didn’t feel. Didn’t want to feel. There would be souls. For sure there would be souls. And death. And… battle. His heart came back to life for a split second. He could at least cleave through a few Fallen and Cursed Ones.
Yes. That would be good. He could feel a little then. The exhilaration. The sense of power. Of accomplishment. He took another step forward until half his boots hung off the ledge.
He extended his wings and then…dove. Descending to Earth. Wind whistling through his feathers, blasting his face. Down. Down. Down. To kill again. To claim more souls. He smelled Earth’s air.
In midair, Michael’s words struck him. His heart slammed into his ribs. The feeling so unexpected he lost control and spun. A bad feeling? That’s what Michael had said.
Midwest twilight spread out before Phenex. Corn fields and small stands of timber flashed by as she sped down the rough two-lane highway. The engine of her pumpkin orange Bristol Fighter T roared. For a few hundred miles, her radar detector had remained silent. Good. She couldn’t afford to get picked up now. Not when lives were at stake.
She snatched up her Android phone. In the past few hours, she’d tried five times to reach Sam. She slapped her hand against the steering wheel and checked the radar detector again as she pushed the engine harder.
It couldn’t be another simple job she could do by herself. It had to involve Cursed Ones. The dreaded zombie apocalypse, only they didn’t look like zombies, were a lot smarter, and didn’t infect by bite. I guess that's one good thing, she thought. But back to Hell if I let one of them get close enough even to sniff me.
“Urg! Zophiel, why didn’t you just bring whatever it was to me and not involve them!”
She had met Sam several years back. He was the product of a woman raped by a Cursed, making him half fallen angel, a Nephilim. Another stupid label. It meant nothing. He was no different than any other human. But no matter what they did, they were considered unclean to all angels, except Zophiel.
Sam worked with the government for a time, tried his hand for two years with her as an assassin’s grunt, and then settled on his life as a farmer. He didn’t like taking lives and much preferred making things grow. She even gave him the funds to buy his farm and equipment flat out by calling it back pay. She never told him she just wanted to see him live the life she could only dream of having. He was a good man who deserved a chance at a real life.
Her radar detector beeped wildly. “Fuck my life!” She slammed on the brakes and dropped her nose down. Too late. A siren rang out as blue lights flashed behind her.
With a V-10 engine under her and a top speed of 225, she planned on her Bristol getting her out of a tight spot. She didn’t have time to get pulled over and arrested. And what could she say? Even if she lied, her false ID might not hold up to inspection. No, that was too much a risk and waste of time.
She hit the accelerator again and the engine opened up. Tires squealed on the rough paved road. One hundred miles per hour came easily. The police car faded into the distance as his blue lights could just be seen like lightning bugs in the distance. Down another dip, she spied an old pavement-ends-ahead road. Perfect.
She put on the brakes. A drift now would leave tracks. The car heaved forward. Such a fine line between hard braking and drifting. In LA, a set of skids wouldn’t be noticed. Here, the wildlife seemed to run faster than the traffic.
She took the corner and accelerated again. The siren came loud for a brief moment and then went away. In minutes, she hit gravel and a cloud of dust rolled behind her.
After a frustrated uneven breath, she snatched up the empty flask in the passenger seat. She had finished it a long time ago, but a part of her wished it could magically refill itself.
“I’m going to kill Zophiel when I see him,” she growled.
She cared for Zophiel more than she’d ever admit. He was the closest thing to a best friend she had, but dammit why did he have to be so stupid to bring danger right to Sam? Zophiel, at least, was an angel. He had a better chance to survive a fight. But Sam was more like a human. It would take so little to kill him. A small injury that she could baby and survive would take a human down in just moments.
Now they both could get killed. And they had dragged Rose into her black hell of a life. None of them deserved any of this.
She accelerated as she skidded on the gravel. Rocks flew and dust became like fog behind her. She hoped this would never happen. She slid around another corner and hit county pavement. More of the same desolate, nature filled road expanded before her as the morning sun shone bright in her mirror. Trees looked emerald, contrasting with the green corn that cast row shadows in the fields around her. She opened her engine back up and flew up a hill, out of a thick row of trees.
A strong sense of unease came a moment before dark black storm clouds came into view right over the top of Sam’s house. Not a coincidence. She wrung her steering wheel back and forth, the squeak of skin on leather lost in the engine’s roar.
Something non-human was close. What if she was too late? What if she took too long and Sam got hurt? Killed? She’d be responsible for the death of another innocent life.
She accelerated into a torrent of rain. An unnatural darkness fueled the storm. The rain came down in large, quarter-sized explosions. The lightning struck over and over again, quick and bright as a photographer’s strobe. The very sky above her became a storming pustule trying to fight back the demon filth festering up from hell. As if all of a sudden, the balance between good and evil had shifted. She leaned forward but couldn’t see through the downpour. Where was the farm? Trees? Road? Where was anything?
Smack! The windshield cracked. Feathers exploded over the glass. She stomped the breaks. The tires squealed. Her car spun, and her head slammed against the seat. Lightning flashed between the spots in her vision as her car whirled out of control.
Suddenly she felt the cold at her back. And the dark. Everything vanished in a glowing red swirl of surreal fire. He stood engulfed in the snapping flames. With clawed hands, he beckoned her to him. His image flickered like smoke, yet his endless brown eyes never left her. His gaze caressed like a loving hand against her cheek. He exuded a power that made fear mix with wet heat inside of her. Even though he never spoke, she heard his words.
“The war is here, my love.”
She gasped. The real world slammed back as her car continued to spin out of control. She pulled the emergency brake and cranked the wheel. The car heaved and slid sideways. The metal body groaned as the tires came off the ground. She grabbed the console and pulled her body toward the rising side. Trying, as her head throbbed, to keep the car from flipping. She pressed her eyes shut.
It tilted, balanced on just two tires. For a moment in time, the rain poured around her. Each drop hitting like a drum. Each part of the car groaned. The hood popped. Joints creaked. Her door snapped opened and a rush of cold rain poured into the gap. The engine crackled. Finally, with one loud groan, it crashed down on four wheels and stopped. She sucked in a ragged breath and stared, open-mouthed, at the steering wheel. Steam rose from the hot engine. Her head throbbed. She grabbed her chest, trying to breathe. What did she just hit? A bird? No, bigger. Not a turkey. An angel? Her eyes snapped wide open. Zophiel?
“No!” She scrambled to open her door. Cold rain struck her skin like fiery pinpricks. Her body thrashed against the sensation before she could adjust. Her knees buckled. She slammed one arm on her car and snatched the door with her other hand to stay upright. For several long seconds, she heaved the burning wet air in and out, forcing her body to adjust.
The rain lessened enough she could make out the form of a winged man lying on the road. Blood stained his silver wings and ran into the puddles around him. A sharp pain impaled her chest. “Zophiel!” She stumbled through the rain and the puddles to his side, knelt down, and rolled him to his back.
“Zophiel, you all right?” She cringed. Stupid question.
The pain in his voice as he uttered the nickname he’d given her made her heart clench. Dammit, how could she not have seen him? She should have been more cautious. She should have anticipated this. “Zophiel, what happened?”
“Bloody Cursed got us,” he groaned.
Her heart skipped a beat and then pounded hard in her chest. “Where’s Sam?”
“At the barn holding them off. They caught me off guard out—” He choked and coughed.
“Rest here. I’m going to help.” She sucked in a breath. Sam was alone against them and Zophiel needed help.
Zophiel’s bloody hand shot up and snatched her arm. His green eyes flashed with a renewed strength. “Not alone. The Cursed Ones are—” He coughed hard. Blood splattered across her neck and chest.
“Is it Shem?” Shemyaza was the leader of the Cursed. The first to lead other angels in the invasion of earth to claim human women, for which they were condemned and became fallen. It was the second rebellion in heaven after Lucifer led his army, and her, from the light. Shemyaza literally meant infamous rebellion. How ironic.
Zophiel shook his head. “Not this time. It’s his second in command, Ramiel.”
Just as bad. Shem and Ramiel were equally fierce. Both were notorious rapists and murderers that she’s never been able to kill. Ramiel had almost killed her three times. The rain continued to pelt her as a bolt of lightning crashed down.
“You’re not strong enough!”
She almost wanted to laugh. Half dead, British accent, and still ready to fight. She took his arm and helped him to his feet. He struggled to pull his long wings from the mud. He reminded her of a wet, injured bird. “How many are there?”
“Four stopped me out here. I don’t know how many there were all together.” He pulled his arm from her. “I can --.”
The deluge returned cutting off all conversation. She nodded and then bolted to help Sam. The large white barn was all but hidden by the downpour, except for a soft light glowing from the huge combine-sized barn doors. A gunshot rang out, and then another.
Phenex ran to the doors. Barn lights shone down on the hay covered dirt floor. Farm equipment flanked the sides, which left the center open like an arena. The two men still living squared off. A large sandy-haired man with only one eye, Ramiel, stood nearer to her and Sam on the opposite side.
Ramiel spun toward her. His face turned pale. Beside him lay a body peppered with shotgun holes. She could tell by the black tattoo-like bar on the dead body's arm he was a Cursed One, as well. The double cross marked her as an Earthbound, but a single black bar marked the Cursed. The only way she could tell without a doubt whose side they were on.
Sam stood back with his shotgun by some hay bales. Still the same man she’d left years ago. His head was shaved and he sported the usual greasy shop clothes, five o’clock shadow, rippling muscles, and dark brown eyes.
Sam tilted his chin to her. “Bout time you got here.”
“Sorry. I got held up.” She fixed her eyes on Ramiel. “You should just turn tail before I take your other eye.”
“Try it, bitch. You couldn’t kill me before.” He spit as he spoke.
She clenched her fists. Her body rippled with anger. She wanted to tear him to pieces right now for hurting her friends, but she couldn’t risk a rash movement. He would use that to his advantage. She surveyed the area. Sam stuck unusually close to a pile of hay and made no indication he planned to move. Blood across the floor gave hint to the fight she had missed. She guessed several more bodies could be found somewhere in the rain outside.
A flash of light came as thunder snapped in the air. Ramiel’s eyes narrowed on something behind her. She turned.
Blood gushed from a cut in his head and soaked his blue shirt. His wings were gone. Every time that shocked her. He could have wings one moment and none the next. It was a trait of angels. But did he choose not to have his wings now or was he so weak he couldn’t take the extra weight of them?
“Never let a grunt do your dirty work,” Ramiel growled. “I should have stayed and beat you myself.”
A rush of heat hit her cheeks.
Zophiel clutched his arm and moved up beside her. His eyes reflected pain, rage, and anger, all focused on Ramiel. “You either leave now, or we’ll make you leave.”
“Not without the book!” he growled. His voice deepened and became gargled. Like the monster he was.
Phenex glanced at Zophiel. In all her research on the book, she only found a reference to a scroll found many years ago. It vanished just days after its discovery. She couldn’t care less about the book, but she cared for her friends. She’d protect it to protect them.
“You’re never getting the book,” she snapped back.
“Then I’ll just have to kill your friend here.” He pointed to Sam.
Her heart jumped. There was his play. He always put innocent lives between him and her because he knew it would work. Like all her enemies, he knew her Achilles heel. This was exactly why she worked alone.
How to protect Sam while killing Ramiel? Ramiel had a large coat that could hold a weapon of some sort, but if she could get in close enough she’d have a chance. He favored his right leg so Sam had already dealt some damage. She locked eyes with Sam. He would have to be ready to run if this was going to work. He nodded as if he knew her thoughts.
Phenex bolted forward. Sam dove out of the way. Ramiel’s eyes widened. He reached into his coat, whipped out a knife, and lunged.
Phenex snatched his arm and jerked the knife from his grasp. “You think that move would stop me?”
He staggered away and yanked something out of his coat. “No, but this will.” He pointed a gun at Zophiel.
“No!” She thrust herself between them.
“De, don’t!” shouted Sam.
A shot suddenly tore through Ramiel’s shoulder. He roared in pain as blood splattered the floor. His body convulsed as he collapsed, hissing through his teeth.
Sam reloaded and ran up next to her. “Are you crazy? He’d have killed you.”
“Better me than Zophiel.” She glanced back to Zophiel. “You okay?”
Zophiel clenched his left fist above his heart and gave a jerky nod. “I’ve been better.”
Ramiel groaned. “I will have the book.”
He was down, but not out. Cursed weren’t that easy to kill. Even filled with lead and bleeding a river of foul decayed blood, he still tried to fight back.
“We’re not letting you get that book,” Zophiel wheezed.
A loud boom caused the ground to shift. Sam stumbled and then fell hard. His right arm slammed against the floor and a round discharged.
“Sam!” Phenex dove to his side. She took Sam’s arm and looked at Zophiel. “Was that an earthquake?”
It hit again, harder. Phenex fell forward. Zophiel collapsed to the ground. She heard a crack outside like twenty lightning bolts had struck at once. Then the smell. Sulfur. The smell of fresh demons.
Ramiel wiped a bloody hand across his face as he let out a deep maniacal laugh. “They’ll be after the book.”
Phenex gulped. She knew Lucifer’s Fallen well. They were not a force to be taken lightly. And how many were out there? Even an angel wouldn’t be strong enough to take on a whole group alone. And Zophiel… A tremor moved through her body and into her hands until she clawed the dirt floor with her nails. The longer angels lived on Earth, the weaker they became. Like a cell phone off the charger. They were fine if they didn’t use any energy, but if they used up too much strength they’d… Die…
She couldn’t control her outward tremble anymore. If Zophiel got hurt anymore there would be no guarantee he’d heal. This was what she'd fought to avoid for years. And now, in just a few hours, it had all unraveled.
She thought she was prepared for this. She thought she knew what she was getting into. But in her rush to help Zophiel after she hit him, she hadn't even grabbed a gun. Idiot.
“De, you okay?” asked Sam.
“Fine,” she snapped.
Zophiel groaned and then jerked his head up. “Wait, where’s Ramiel?”
“What?” Phenex leapt up and scanned the area. Splattered blood covered the ground where he had been, but nothing else left a trace to indicate where he'd gone. “That’s impossible. Damn!” She clenched her fist and slammed it against her thigh. “Damn him, the coward.”
Sam clenched his jaw. “He’s good at running for it.”
Zophiel pushed himself up on his knees and swayed for a moment. “Well, now we can focus on the demons.” His voice held a thread of sarcasm.
How could they fend off demons now without help? It would take a miracle to come out of this alive.
Suddenly three more bomb-like explosions rocked the earth. The barn boards cracked. Sam and Zophiel fell. Phenex collapsed to her knees. Dust fell from the rafters and rain began to stream through the split roof. That was no demon. So, it had to be…her heart squeezed with panic.
Zophiel lifted his head. “Angels are coming.”
Phenex clutched her chest and sucked in a breath. Angels weren’t help. They were death. All angels, except Zophiel, hated Nephilims and Earthbounds. They killed them with the same dedication that she killed demons.
She glanced at Sam and shivered. She knew Nephilims could be good and she knew Sam was as good as they came. But angels only saw what had spawned them. They saw Nephilims as a disgrace. The bastards of traitors.
The Cursed, Fallen, and Angels were all here. And after them. “Zophiel, what the hell is this book you stole?”
Sam pushed himself onto his knees and dug in a pile of straw. After removing a few handfuls, he pulled out a large green tattered book.
“That,” Zophiel said, “is the Book of Secrets. It’s said to be the key to things that could kill everything on this planet.”
Phenex gulped and glanced from Sam to Zophiel. “Why on earth did you bring it here?”
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