Read On the Precipice


Sometimes, I wish it would end.

I’m the Oracle, leader of the angels. And I’m a fraud. Everyone looks to me for answers because I was chosen, but I don’t have any.

God won’t speak to me.

This burden was bearable when Leo was by my side. Now I’m left visiting the place he died year after year, asking why.

I beg God to speak to me, but a demon comes instead.

She gives me the answers I’ve been looking for.


 

The echoing drum of my fingers tapping against the silver armrest of the throne is my only company. The Great Hall lies empty before me, aside from the contrarily warm rays of sunlight let in by the semitransparent nature of the frost crystals used to build the entire Citadel. However, the sun’s rays do little to stave off my boredom, no matter how energizing they may be. I have one more matter to take care of before I can leave this place, and I’m growing impatient.

The large frost crystal doors leading into the Great Hall open wide, revealing one of the Citadel’s silver-clad soldiers and the angel who’s kept me waiting.

“Royalee has arrived, Oracle,” the soldier says as he gives a quick bow before leaving.

The reverberating boom of the doors closing behind him rings through the room. I decide to let the sound settle before speaking and rest my eyes on the angel before me: Royalee. His short stature doesn’t make him seem intimidating at a glance; however, one look into his ancient vermilion eyes, bright with all the life essence he’s gained over the years, tells a different story. He’s one of the oldest angels I know, and though he’s a bit strange, he is one of the angels my mother held in the highest regard as her top researcher. He is an indispensable piece in the angels’ rule over Ilenima. That’s why I put up with him. That and not many others would have the stomach for his kind of work.

Royalee offers an exaggerated bow, causing his shoulder-length ebony hair to fall over his face. He grins through his hair as he hurries to brush it back out of his face. He’s always doing that, smiling without reserve. He says if he doesn’t do it constantly, he’ll forget how to smile entirely.

“I never liked these kinds of meetings,” Royalee exclaims. The smile he put on is plastered to his face now, and I expect it will stay there for the duration of his report.

“And why is that?” I ask.

“It’s so stiff and formal. I’d much rather the two of us speak in a much smaller room. I’d kiss you a greeting and we’d carry on our merry way like two friends paying each other a visit.” Royalee tilts his head awkwardly, like he’s trying to see behind my shoulder.

“Valor had to attend to one of the luminaries,” I say, figuring that her absence is what has put him off-kilter more than usual.

“Ah. Unfortunate. I enjoy her commentary whenever I come here.”

“I’m sure you do. She is quite charming.” I brush my fingers across my chest, feeling the left inner pocket of my white robes. The reassuring presence of my black diamond is tucked safely away and is as close as ever. I want to hurry this along, but hurrying Royalee along is a good way to draw things out.

He nods. “She is indeed. There isn’t an angel I know who doesn’t love Valor. You can’t force that kind of admiration. It doesn’t come with station or even working for it. It’s something you have to be born with. Charisma and a genuine heart. If I could tap into that kind of power…”

“Perhaps you will in time. You’ve done wonders with your research on demons.”

“Right, right. Speaking of, I suppose you’ll be wanting that report.”

“That is why we’re meeting here in this terribly formal setting.” I smile.

“You know, I’d be the first one to let you know if I discovered anything new.” Royalee cracks his neck. Then he crouches low to the ground. He seems to be considering sitting down all the way, onto the velvety red carpet underneath him, but he stays in that crouching position as he stares at me.

“Yes, but you know I have to check in with you regularly,” I say.

“Keeping order and peace. I get it, Oracle. But I don’t have anything new to give you. I’m pretty sure I’ve discovered every weakness a demon has by this point, and most of it isn’t exactly new knowledge. Angels and demons have lived in this world together for centuries after all. It’s old news and something I’ve grown very bored of researching. I’m much more intrigued by how we are the same.”

I sit rigid on the throne. It feels suddenly hard and cold against my body. I close my eyes and imagine being able to see my black diamond. I imagine feeling its definite shape, a shape not unlike the symbol humans draw for a heart. Even though the crystal is right next to me, I feel so disconnected from the one who gave it to me. This is the one thing I have left, and it isn’t enough. Nothing is enough.

My beast and logician begin to break out of their unified state, and I have to fight to bring them back into a mutual harmony. It won’t do us any good to create dissonance. We need to work together.

Royalee continues spouting his blasphemy. “The newborn demon brought to Project Sol a few days ago, I want to raise it as if it were an angel. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see if a demon’s nature could be changed?”

“You know that’s impossible,” I say flatly. “Demons and angels are different in their very souls. One is darkness and one is light. The two repel each other just as they always have.”

“Yes, of course. We all know the differences between us, but no one ever talks about the similarities. Our general makeup is the same. We each have two dominant forces inside of us, our beast and logician. You say demons are darkness and angels are light, but haven’t we seen angels fall to darkness? If our core could not be corrupted or changed, how would that be possible?

“Just look at the shadow! Ever since Project Sol began, before we were even set up to bring demons inside, we housed a shadow! What a strange and beautiful anomaly she is, too. Neither angel nor demon. Immortal, therefore she can’t be human. She is angel and demon combined, and yet she’s never been given a chance to prove what she is. Is she more angel? Or is she more demon? Is it possible to be both equally? Would that make her similar to a human, tossing and turning in the tides of light and darkness?”

I say, “Any offspring of a demon, no matter how small the relation, is a demon. She’s been tainted. Trying to change demons will just invite more chaos.”

“Well, maybe if you just came and saw her yourself—”

“There’s no need. The shadow stays at Project Sol, just as she always has. She will never find a place among demons or angels. She’s in the safest place she can possibly be. She’s living the best life she could possibly live. As for your new demon, treat it like every other demon at Project Sol. Use it to find a way for us to stop the demons in Terra. The mortal world is out of our control because our hands are so full keeping balance here, and the humans are suffering for it. That is your priority.”

Royalee sighs and plays with his goatee. He’s still crouching low to the floor. “Okay, Cassius.”

“Good,” I say as I stand up, finally getting a chance to move. “Our business here is concluded then.”

“In a hurry to get somewhere?”

“You know how it is, Royalee. Always busy. Never a dull moment.”

I walk up to the researcher and hold out my hand. He accepts my offer, and I pull him upright. Placing my hand on his shoulder, I urge him forward to the end of the Great Hall, where the two of us exit through the large frost-crystal doors.

“You’re done here for the day,” I tell the soldiers standing outside of the Great Hall

“Thank you, Oracle,” the two reply in unison.

“Suppose I’ll see you when I’m called to report again,” Royalee says as he starts moving faster, creating distance between us.

“So we will,” I reply. “Thank you for your time, Royalee.”

He holds up his hand and waves as he makes his way out of the Citadel. He seems anxious to get out of here. I can understand that.

I glance out one of the Citadel’s many windows to gauge the time of day. Valor should have been back by now. It never takes her long to deal with problems, and she failed to mention having to take care of any major problems. She didn’t even tell me what luminary required her assistance. Then again, I didn’t bother to ask. I never do. She’s been the one keeping this place running, not me.

I walk to the front of the Citadel and tell the soldiers there to have Valor find me in the Oracle’s Quarters as soon as she gets back. Since there’s nothing pressing needing my attention at the moment, I navigate my way there next. It’s times like this I hate the size of the Citadel. I won’t be safe from impromptu interruptions until I make it to the Oracle’s Quarters. As soon as I reach that room, I’ll take a brief respite.

I pick up the pace, topping my speed at just shy of a run. I could be there already, but moving that quickly would look suspicious. Just a few more corners to turn, a few more halls and—

I stop before I take the next corner. The natural light that should be bathing the Citadel is nonexistent up ahead. There should be no dark spots inside of the Citadel this time of day, or any time at all really. The frost crystals let in the light of the moon and stars just as they do the light of the sun. Plus, there are windows lining this hall.

I take another step forward, carefully inching my way toward the darkness. I hope it’ll recede as I get closer to it, but that isn’t the case.

My breath gets caught in my throat as I reach the corner and look around it. There’s a hole in the ground. It’s eating the light around it as it slowly grows larger. I look down at my slipper-covered feet just to see the darkness inching closer to me. I take a few steps back. I’ve seen this before but…

I retreat even farther when shadowy hands hug the ground as they climb out of the Hollow to grab me.

I can’t breathe.

“Oracle?”

I blink and the darkness is gone, like it was never there to begin with, but I’m still moving backwards. A pair of supportive hands press against my back, stopping me from running into whoever is behind me, or perhaps from falling. I quickly straighten up and turn around to see one of the guardian overseers, Imae.

She looks at me with wide eyes. The yellow-green shine is almost blinding after having looked into something that takes all light away—or was that all in my mind? Neither my beast nor my logician have an answer. I discreetly glide my hand over the left side of my chest, feeling the small bump of my black diamond tucked away inside of my inner pocket. I’m okay.

I’m okay.

“Is everything all right?” Imae questions.

“Yes,” I reply, poised. “I just realized I had forgotten something and was reacting hastily.”

“I apologize for getting in your way, then.”

The slight blush in her cheeks is hard to miss with her pale skin.

“You just so happen to be who I was looking for,” I say.

Her cheeks flush a deeper shade of red. “O-oh?”

Maybe I shouldn’t have said that, but I don’t want to backtrack, and I do have something I want to ask her about.

“Relax,” I tell her. “This isn’t a formal setting.”

She fidgets, lacing her hands behind her back as she stands on her tiptoes. Maybe I shouldn’t have said that either. Too late to take it back now. I lean down to meet her with a greeting kiss. It’s all too obvious Imae would like the kiss to last longer, but I’ve never been one to prolong a greeting kiss, or any other physical gesture of love, unless I’m particularly close to the angel on the other end. I have known Imae for many years, but we aren’t close, and I plan to keep it that way.

Imae swiftly regains her composure. She knows better than to linger on emotions that will lead her nowhere.

“What did you want to see me about?” she asks.

“Your newest guardian, Rynne. How is he doing? Being a made angel must make things difficult for him.”

“He’s actually doing very well, Oracle. Yes, it can be hard. He is still a mortal after all, and that means he has limitations, but he’s ready to take on a guardian assignment of his own. He’s been working very hard.”

“That’s good to hear. We’re always in need of more guardians.” Then I think to myself that we’re in need of more than guardians. We need more angel numbers in general. Rynne is a special case. He was a human turned angel because he was going to die anyway. We don’t just make angels on a whim. That would upset the balance—not that Terra has much balance right now with all the demons there running amok. We may have complete control of Ilenima, but we’re losing our grasp on Terra. Perhaps new measures should be taken, previous laws broken, but I haven’t been ready to take that step. Creating more made angels might be helpful, but I don’t know how it’ll save Terra in the long run, and then what?

“Did you need to speak with Rynne?” Imae asks. “I believe he’s at home taking a nap, but I could get him for you.”

“No need. Let him rest.”

I look past Imae to see Valor lingering down the hall, resting against one of the walls. Her strawberry-blond hair falls over her proud shoulders in waves. It’s a subtler color compared to the bright orange of my primarily rust-colored hair. Her lithe figure is somehow prominent under her robes in her current stance. Most consider her quite the beauty, not only in her looks but in how she carries and presents herself. I agree she’s a force to be reckoned with.

She must not have wanted me to notice her presence because she has quieted it a great deal. How long has she been standing there?

“If you’ll excuse me, Imae,” I say as I make my way to Valor.

“Of course, Oracle,” she replies, disappearing down the same hall where darkness once ate everything away.

I inwardly shudder.

Valor pushes off the wall she was leaning against and faces me. She’s grinning. “Cassius. I was told you want to see me?”

“Yes.”

“Imae has a thing for you.”

“I hadn’t noticed.”

I’m the one to close the distance between us, but she’s the one who initiates our kiss. It’s a greeting kiss of course, but with Valor it could, and should, be something more. However, I always cut it short.

“Sure,” she says. She places her hands on the back of my neck, stopping me from escaping into my personal space. “You could at least pretend you like me, Cassius.” Her voice lowers to a whisper, ensuring only she and I can hear what she’s saying. She continues, “Being your Confidant alone should qualify me as a friend at the very least. Then there’s the fact that we’re meant for something more. We’ve already agreed to have a child when the time comes. If you can’t do this for yourself, act as if you like me at least a little, you should do it for all the angels who look up to you.”

She applies a little pressure to the back of my neck. I comply and tilt my head toward hers, following her lead as she presses her forehead against mine. She says, “I know it won’t ever be the same, Cassius. I know how much you loved Leo. I’m not asking you to compromise that. I’m just asking you to be the Oracle. We need the Oracle.”

“Are you done?” I ask.

She releases me and puts distance between us. “Why did you want to see me?”

“I need you to take over for a while.”

“You know you’re only torturing yourself by doing this every year.”

I shoot her a dark glance that manages to escape my filter. She returns my gaze just as intensely, refusing to back down. I halt my aggressive response.

“Please,” I whisper, my voice breaking.

She says, “You know I will. I just wish you’d listen to me once in a while.” She shakes her head. “I’ll walk you to the Peacekeeper.”

We move to the heart of the Citadel, to the Mirror Room. We walk neither side by side nor far apart, and we don’t speak another word to each other. As soon as we reach the domed room filled with mirrors and glass shards, I let the soldiers there know that Valor will be in charge until I get back, should anything need taking care of. Then I make my way to the center mirror, the only mirror held in an intricate silver frame. It reaches high up inside of the luminous dome as the most treasured and powerful item in angel possession.

I reach my hand out to the smooth glass. You’d never know the mirror was pieced together with thousands of shards, because not a single crack can be seen on its surface. I let my hand rest on the faultless glass as I close my eyes and clear my thoughts of everything but my destination. The mirror turns to a substance like liquid as it ripples to life, and splashes of color paint a moving picture of Salem, Oregon.

I step forward. My hand disappears first, and the rest of my body follows after as I travel through the portal leading into the mortal world.

***

These streets have stayed the same over the years, but only in the way I perceive them. Of course times have changed. It’s been 65 years, but time doesn’t move for me here. Time doesn’t move much for me at all anymore.

I’m stuck in one place, one time, and I relive that moment over and over again. It’s a constant loop, a repeating chain of emotion that has entrapped my soul. I don’t know how to move forward.

I’m dressed differently from the mortals. I get an occasional awkward glance, but otherwise I’m not paid any mind. I may be an angel, but when my logician is fully in control of my physical appearance, I look much like a human. All natural angels and demons do.

“Mommy, that man looks funny.”

Glancing over to my right, I spot a little boy pointing at me with one hand, the other clasped in his mother’s. She tries to hurry him along.

“Don’t point,” she says. “It’s rude.”

She offers an embarrassed smile when she sees me watching them. I smile back.

“I can’t tell what color his eyes are, Mommy,” the little boy continues. “Are they changing color?”

His mother laughs nervously. “That’s ridiculous, honey. People’s eyes don’t just change color.”

“His do!”

The mother gives up. She turns to me and apologizes profusely.

“It’s quite all right,” I tell her. “No harm done.”

I spare her from having to endure the uncomfortable situation any longer, and move along the roads that will lead me to the neighborhood where my life ended. The houses here are still on the smaller side, but the yards and overall appearance has changed. It looks like the people here actually care now, compared to the dump it was 65 years ago. Children and families can be seen in their yards, enjoying the welcoming touch of spring. However, most are hurrying back into the warmth of their houses by now. The sun has all but disappeared from the sky, bathing this part of the world in darkness, but it’s nothing like the all-consuming darkness of a Hollow.

I shudder.

Most immortals have heard tales of Hollows. I have, but I’ve never thought anything of them. Great pits of darkness that spring up at random times inside of Ilenima sound like a story made up by some immortal long ago to scare children. I never thought I’d actually see one, and I certainly never thought they’d become an almost daily occurrence. Then again, I can’t be sure what I’ve seen are Hollows or not. No one else ever seems to see them.

I reach inside of my inner pocket and hold my black diamond in my hand. A soft radiating warmth pulses from the crystal and into my palm. Finally, I stop walking. I’m at a blind corner of a small house that looks much like the others. I slide down against the grabby bricks and seat myself in the grass near some bushes. No one will see me here unless they’re looking. I tighten my grip on my black diamond, bring my fist to my chest, squeeze my eyes shut, and remember. I remember the last time Leo told me he loved me. I remember what I felt the last time our minds were linked together, and I remember what it felt like to have that link severed forever.

Leo died here, where this house stands. He had already faded into death before I got here, so I never saw how damaged his body must have been. All I saw was the house that once stood here, burnt down and broken where the battle between an enraged demon and the kindest angel I’ve ever known took place. To this day, I’m convinced Leo was stronger than Arsen. He should have prevailed. He would have if he had wanted to.

I can’t recall what it felt like anymore. What was it like to touch him, to kiss him? What was it like to share my most intimate thoughts with him? All I have left of him is this black diamond. I have the white diamond I gave to him as well, the same one he returned to me the last day I saw him, but I can’t bring myself to carry that one around. He was angry, and I was angry. Maybe he regretted the decision, maybe he didn’t. If not for our connection at the very end, he would have died, and I would have thought he hated me. Still, I can’t help thinking that if he had worn the white diamond I gave him, if we hadn’t fought and created a rift in our bond, things might have been different. I did imbue it with all of my love for him after all. It would have protected him. It would have tried to at the very least.

Bringing my knees up to my chest, I curl myself into a tight ball. When it comes to Leo, my beast and logician don’t disagree. That’s why the pain is so real. I feel it with every part of me—even the part of me that should be immune to emotion.

I don’t know how to do this without you, Leo.

A chill crawls across the exposed skin on the back of my neck. The unnerving sensation fills the air in an instant. A demon. How didn’t I sense such an immense presence sooner? First Valor and now this demon? Just how far have I fallen?

I’m on my feet, my back pressed against the brick wall of the house. I slip my black diamond back inside of my inner pocket and hold my hands loosely at my sides. My hands are buzzing with energy, ready to strike at any second. I tilt my head backwards so I can get a clear view of what’s above me. A pair of somehow familiar green eyes stare back at me. These bright eyes belong to a female demon, one with far too much life essence given the fact I can see she is nothing more than a made demon. She’s a mortal and yet she has the stores of an immortal.

Her carefully curled hair dangles around her face as she bends farther down from on top of the roof. It almost looks like she’ll fall, but she stays perfectly balanced. Her painted-red lips curve upward, and she parts them slightly to reveal white fangs.

“I knew I’d find you here,” she says.

“You’ll want to say what you have to say quickly. I may be inclined to kill you before you have the opportunity to finish,” I inform.

“Very scary, Mr. Oracle.”

“You have thirty seconds.”

She continues smiling. “You’ve been coming to this exact spot every year since the tradition started in nineteen thirty-five, the day of Leo’s death.”

“Who are you?” I demand.

“My name is Helena. I’m the best informed demon there is.”

“That’s a rather hefty claim. You’re not even a natural demon.” I adjust my stance subtly. “But you’ve obviously been poking your nose where it doesn’t belong, and your time’s up.”

I jump straight into the air. I’m moving too fast for her to be able to dodge in time. I have my hands outstretched, ready to grab her and break her neck within seconds—but she’s gone. I shoot past the roof into nothing but night sky. I shift in the air and land on the now empty roof. I scan the area with my eyes and listen to the sensitivity of my beast, but there’s absolutely nothing here. I feel no demonic presence. I can’t locate her with any of my senses. She’s just gone.

Then, all of a sudden, darkness bursts from behind me, as if spontaneously coming into existence. I leap to another edge of the roof. That dark presence indeed belongs to the same female demon that eluded me a moment before. I see her now and my ability to sense her has returned along with that sudden darkness. Does she know of an absolute way to hide her presence? I’ve never heard of any angel or demon doing it so perfectly, though. There’s always a trace of light or darkness somewhere, unless there really is nothing there, but this demon was standing right above me. She couldn’t have hidden herself so thoroughly when I already knew exactly where she was. I was already zeroed in on her presence.

“You look confused,” she quips.

I dash forward, my steps light and unnoticeable to anyone inside of the house. The demon is right in front of me, well within my sight. Anything she tries, I’ll be able to see. She still hasn’t moved an inch, even when I’m almost on top of her. And then she’s gone—even her darkness. I slide forward with my momentum, stopping just before I fall off the other side of the house.

Behind me again.

Looking over my shoulder, I see her form coalescing in the air like mist. It looks different, but it’s as if she’s coming through a portal, but there is no portal here, and the only way to use portals is through the Peacekeeper, an object under complete angel supervision. Impossible.

A nudging sensation in my head tells me it isn’t impossible, but it is highly unlikely. My logician needs to be heard. It reminds me that while the shards that make up the Peacekeeper are the only thing we know of that allow a bridge to worlds, they aren’t necessarily the only thing out there. Perhaps there’s even a shard of the mirror missing.

The demon inspects her manicured black nails. “I’m not really one for fighting,” she comments. “It’s never done anything for me.”

“How are you doing that?” I ask.

The smile is back on her face, but she continues inspecting her nails rather than look at me. “You may be the Oracle, but even you don’t know all the secrets of the worlds—and you definitely don’t know much of the secrets pertaining to this world.”

“Demons like you shouldn’t even exist. You wouldn’t be standing here before me today if not for a natural demon.”

“That’s pretty rude. I didn’t know angels went around telling others they shouldn’t exist. Doesn’t that go against unconditional love?” She shrugs and places her hand on her hip, giving me her undivided attention. “I digress. I’m not here to discuss what should or shouldn’t be. I don’t care about ethics or philosophy. I’m only interested in what is.” She turns and jumps off the roof.

I follow behind her. Seems she isn’t going to disappear as long as I don’t try attacking her again, but do I want to listen to her drivel? I could let my beast assume my appearance. Maybe I’d be able to catch her before she disappears again. But I don’t like how exposed we are here. It is night, but this is still a suburb. I prefer not to have any more mortal eyes on immortal affairs than necessary.

“Where are we going?” I inquire.

“The Salem River.”

Is she stupid? I won’t have to hold back if we’re at the Salem River. Depending on which area she goes to, I won’t have to worry about humans seeing us at all. My beast rattles around in my chest. It’s ready to stomp out the creature striding in front of us.

She speaks again. “You must hate Arsen for what he did.”

“Angels don’t hate,” I say.

“That sounds like a lie. Why else keep demon slaves?”

“Demons are kept under control for balance. Darkness has ruled for too long. Light has to keep it in its place.”

She laughs, a strangely lighthearted sound. “Right, I meant justice. You must want justice for what Arsen did.”

I say nothing.

“Angels do believe in justice, don’t they?”

“Of course.”

“Then I can’t help but wonder why you haven’t served justice. I wonder why you haven’t personally hunted down that impetuous demon. He’s a smug, young bastard, and he’s done much more than kill your fuck partner.”

My jaw tightens to the point it almost hurts. “Watch your mouth, demon.”

She glances over her shoulder. “Did I hit a nerve? Tell me you two didn’t fuck, and I’ll take it back. It’d be quite the scandal if anyone knew the Oracle fucked for fun rather than out of the necessity to procreate. Do you think they’d replace you? Or is that God’s decision? If so, that would be a dilemma. You’re the only one who can commune with God.”

“You assume you know a lot,” I remark.

“Tell me I’m wrong, Cassius. And tell the truth. Angels don’t lie, right? Not even to a demon?”

She darts forward suddenly. I easily keep at her heels. At this pace, we reach the bank of the Salem River within moments. It’s as hidden from mortal eyes as I could have hoped for. The trees around here will obscure us even further.

“Cassius.” She says my name like she’s chastising. She dips her hand into the river. When she pulls her hand back out, she holds it out to me, palm down, as she lets the water drip. “I only want the truth.”

“No,” I say, folding my arms across my chest, “Leo and I never did anything against Angel Rule.”

“No?” She laughs. “No?” She laughs harder. “You say it with such conviction! I like that. I like that a lot, Oracle. Even better.” She wipes her hand on the skintight maroon dress she’s wearing, drying it. “Sixty-five years. For sixty-five years Arsen has been whittling down angel numbers. He’s been a constant black thorn in your ideal world of white. He’s strong and maybe even considered the most powerful demon, at least in some circles, but are you stronger, angel?”

She takes a step forward. “You obviously find the time to come to the mortal world to mourn the loss of your lover, so why aren’t you using that time to get justice instead? You could have done it by now if you really wanted to. Are you telling me a young demon like Arsen is more powerful than you are?”

She takes another step forward, placing herself just out of my reach. “You did love Leo, didn’t you? Or are you going to deny that as well?”

Another step forward, and I make my move. I grab her. I only manage to grasp her right hand, but it’s enough. There’s no time for her to use her vanishing act, at least not before I hurt her. Focusing on her right arm, I pull. First I dislodge her right shoulder. Then I pull harder, ripping the bone out of its socket and tearing apart her flesh until her right arm is no longer attached. Just as I finish the deed, she evanesces. She dissipates into some unknown realm, leaving me with her right arm. I finish by tossing the limb into the river.

“Damn!” she shrieks from somewhere off in the trees. “That fucking hurts, angel. You didn’t even spill a drop of my blood on your robes. You didn’t try to take any of my life essence either. I know it’s Angel Law or whatever, but come on. I’m chock-full of the stuff.” She cackles.

“Now it’s my turn to ask questions,” I say as I crack my neck and flex my fingers. “And you already brought up one of them. Just how do you have so much life essence? Mortals can’t harness life essence. That means you have a natural demon keeping you as a pet.”

“Still looking down on me, Cassius? It’s the other way around.”

“I see.” I mosey over to where her voice is coming from, but, more accurately, I pinpoint the dark aura exuding from her being. I’m in no hurry, so I ask another question. “Just what are you doing when you disappear like that? Are you teleporting? You don’t ever seem to travel very far. Is that because you want to stay near me or because you can’t disappear for great distances or lengths of time?”

“Cass, really. May I call you Cass? I can’t give away all of my secrets. I’m an information hoarder, not a dispenser.”

“Has your arm healed yet? Surely it has, given all the life essence you’ve cultivated. It’s much more painful than reattaching the arm you lost, isn’t it? I must confess, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a made demon regrow a limb before. I may have even thought it impossible, given your limitations, but with the right amount of life essence, such feats become insignificant.”

“You learn fast, don’t you? Already playing along with my game and keeping cool when you were oh so pissed off before. You are scary. Have you ever really lost your temper, Cass? Because that is something I’d love to see.”

I draw closer to her. She hasn’t moved from her location, which I find strange. I doubt she wants to let me close enough to rip off another limb, or maybe her head.

“Maybe I’m wrong,” she says. “Maybe Arsen is that good at hiding. Maybe that’s why you haven’t found him. I don’t enjoy seeking others. I’m always the one being sought, so it all works out.”

“Not in my case,” I say.

“Indeed. You’re a special case. I have some information for you. You can never have too much information, right?”

“And you’re giving it freely? I thought you were a hoarder, not a dispenser. Not to mention, I’m an angel. In case you’ve forgotten.”

“Oh, I know. It’s because you’re an angel. It’s because you’re the Oracle. It’s because I’m sure you hate Arsen even though you’ve put on an angelic mask—even in front of me. The world has grown stale, Cass. It’s time it got shaken up a little. You angels aren’t moving fast enough. Demons aren’t aggressive enough. I. Am. Bored.”

“You’re insane.”

She laughs. “To the small-minded, maybe.”

She still hasn’t moved. I’m almost on top of her again, and she hasn’t moved. She’s just on the other side of this tree. I don’t take any chances. I let my beast’s antlers manifest on the top of my head, I back up, and then I ram into the tree so hard it snaps. It falls down with a crash, but her presence is gone. She made her move first.

Behind me.

“I grow tired of this game,” I say.

I dig at the grass and dirt underfoot, anxious to gore the made demon trying my patience. Now that she’s in my sight again, I can see that her arm has, in fact, grown back just as I thought it would.

“Show me more,” she whispers. Her eyes are shining, brighter than they were before. “Show me more of your beast. Those antlers on your head are like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Are they made of crystal? Glass? I can hardly even see them except for where they distort reality! Magnificent.”

She squirms, wriggling in her tight dress as she hugs her arms and lets out a pent-up sigh. “This is the kind of thing that turns me on.”

Wings. I let my wings out next. They’re sharp, crystalline, and jagged, almost mirroring my antlers in that they look like clear, smooth glass. Most importantly, they allow me to attain great speeds. This is my last shot. I didn’t want to resort to this, but she isn’t leaving me any other option. She’s too slippery.

I fly for her, and my frustration heats up my antlers, making them glow white-hot. I will gore her and sear her flesh. I’ll make her melt into nothing, and I’ll do it for as long as I have to until I kill her.

I meet resistance. I hit her, but then I fly forward into a tree that receives the brunt of my attack instead. She got away again. I rip my antlers out of the melting tree, allowing it to continue burning as it falls to the ground. The heat spreads and starts a fire. I want so much not to care, but I can’t let the fire spread and hurt any innocents nearby.

Holding out my right hand, palm down, I reach out to the river located a few feet away from me. When I’ve established a connection to the element, I twist my wrist so that my palm is facing upward. I curl my fingers over an imaginary orb in my hand. The water mirrors my actions until a still orb of liquid is levitating above the river. I point to the tree burning behind me, and the water I now control speeds through the air, splashing into the tree and soaking it.

There’s clapping from behind me, right where the demon—Helena—has appeared again.

“Bravo. Bravo,” she says. “I tire of our game as well, Cass. I’ve had my fun. So, that information I have for you. There’s a girl, a newborn baby. I think she just might be what you’ve been looking for to take care of your pest problem. You need only look into her eyes to know what I’m talking about.”

She puts a finger to her lips. “Well, I’m assuming you know Arsen’s soul well enough to at least recognize it should you see it, otherwise you’ll have to take my word on this. And something tells me you won’t be content with that. Still, looking into her soul should do the trick. Make sure you do it. It’s not something that can be seen from the outside. Humans are a complicated mix of light and darkness after all, right? Follow my instructions and make things interesting for me, okay?”

She turns around and laces her fingers behind her back. “Oh, I almost forget. You’ll find her in a little town called Reverie. It’s in Pennsylvania. Go to Reverie, find a little home with a sign: the Wrens’ Nest. You’ll find her there. Ah, and a name. I have the baby’s name. It’s Tasia. Tasia Wren.”

“You’re wasting your time,” I say.

“You’ll go there, darling. I know you will. It’s all written inside of your sweet, bleeding heart. You’ll go because you just won’t be able to help yourself.”

“I can’t let you leave.”

“I’m afraid you don’t have a choice.”

She smiles, snaps her fingers, and turns into mist. Then she’s gone. I wait. I wait unmoving for an hour, hoping to find some trace of her, hoping to pick up on some kind of darkness. But she’s gone. And she isn’t coming back this time.

For an hour my beast and logician assume different aspects of my appearance. I haven’t withdrawn my wings or my antlers. My wings have sliced through my robes, leaving the back in tatters. I know I should let my logician resume control over my appearance, but my beast is riled up. I can’t stop my antlers from creating heat, and my wings are doing no better. The heat gets so strong I catch my robes on fire. That’s when I finally find the strength to move. I dive into the river. The cold water sizzles when it makes contact with my wings and antlers. I submerge myself and hold my breath as the water bubbles around me.

The two forces contend. Hot and cold. Neither one backs down. There’s a whole river fighting against my heat, but my beast gets hotter. We can’t cool off.

I don’t know how long I’ve been under, but I feel as if my lungs are about to burst. I push out of the water and gasp for air. My beast fights for control, but my logician has regained influence. It soothes my beast, reminding it that we’re stronger when united. We’re better when united. After I take a couple deep breaths of air, my beast has tamed enough to let my logician regain complete control over my physical appearance.

I wade through the river until I reach the bank. I toss my robes to the side and coax the water soaking my light pants and undershirt out of the fabric and back to the river it came from. Then I do the same with my robes, just so I won’t have to carry them while they’re sopping wet. Better not to leave them in the mortal world.

Helena. I need to find out more about that demon. I’ve never heard of her before. Maybe no angel has, but she could be a problem. She doesn’t seem powerful as far as her physical strength goes. If she were to face me head-on, I would overpower her easily. But the way she can evanesce… I’ve never seen anything like that. If demons can create monsters as terrifying as her, then we have a bigger fight on our hands than I had imagined.

And then there was all her talk about Arsen.

My hands grow rigid at my sides as they ball into fists. They curl tighter and tighter until my fingernails are digging into my palms, but even as they start to bleed, I don’t stop. My hands stay like that as I make my way back to the portal that will take me to Ilenima, boiling blood dripping at my sides with each step I take.

***

“Cassius? Where were you? You’ve been gone a long time,” Valor says with a slight huff. “I was beginning to worry.” She pauses. “What happened to your clothes?”

She pushes her chair away from the desk she was working at and stands up. I’m standing in the doorway, and I’ve made no move to come any farther inside of the Oracle’s Quarters. I sped past the soldiers in the Mirror Room as soon as I made it back to Ilenima. I got a few questioning looks for the state of my clothes, but I assured them everything was fine, and they returned to their diligent watch as I told them to. Valor won’t be so easy to take care of.

She asks, “Are you going to come inside, or are you going to stand there all night?”

She comes to stand in front of me. She looks me over quickly before resting her gaze on one of my hands. I made sure to regain my composure before coming back through the portal and into Ilenima, so I’m not cutting into my palms or even carrying fists anymore, but something there has her attention. She takes my hand and turns my wrist so my palm is facing up. There are traces of dried blood, though my skin is smooth and healed.

“What happened?” she asks.

“I met a demon named Helena,” I say. “Have you ever heard of her?”

She searches my eyes with a look I don’t recognize, as if she’s trying to probe my mind to discern some other meaning to my words. It’s almost as if she’s trying to look inside of my soul, but my defenses would never allow her to do something like that.

“I haven’t,” Valor says, dropping my hand. “But I can do some research and check in with the luminaries to see if we have anything about a demon named Helena on record. What did she look like? Give me more than a name.”

“She’s a made demon.”

Valor raises an eyebrow.

“I know how it sounds,” I say. “But she could do something I’ve never seen before.”

“What do you mean?”

“She could evanesce.”

“Just… vanish into the air? How is that possible?”

“I don’t know.” I feel my hands getting tight again, but I refuse to let them curl up into fists. I refuse to cause myself injury again. Instead, my hands shake at my sides. I can only hope Valor doesn’t see. I keep talking. “As far as how she looks, she has black hair, green eyes filled with far too much life essence for a made demon, and pale skin. She’s a bit shorter than you. She seems rather vain. She was wearing a lot of makeup and what must have been a very expensive dress. She’s slim.” I try to think of any other details to mention as far as her looks go, but what I’ve said should be enough to start.

I continue, “She said she likes to keep informed. She craves knowledge. She doesn’t seem to be the fighting type. If allowed, I think she’d keep well out of the way of any type of action, though she wouldn’t be against being a spectator.”

“She’s the kind that watches and sticks to the shadows,” Valor concludes. “It goes right along with her ability to evanesce.”

I nod.

“Okay. I’ll see what I can find.”

“Thank you, but send someone else to go to the luminaries in search of this information. I still need you here.”

“Where are you going now?”

“The Dregs. There’s a demon in settlement A1 I need to talk to.”

I turn to leave, but before I can step out into the hall, Valor catches my hand. “Maybe you should wait to do that,” she says.

“Why?” I ask, my back to her.

“You’re shaken up, Cassius. Rest for a moment.”

“There is no time for rest.”

“Then at least talk to me.”

“I just did.”

“About how you’re feeling, Cassius. We may not have much in common and we may not even like each other, but I know we both care. We care about the same things, and we even care about each other. Since Leo died, you’ve cut yourself off from everyone. You’ve put on a facade, and those who don’t know you think you’re okay, but I know better. You need to let someone in. If you’re in pain, you can tell me. God might not let you rest from your duties as Oracle, but I can help lighten your load if you only let me.”

I take in a sharp breath. “You already have.”

She tugs on my hand, forcing me inside of the room. Then she closes the door. “Just get changed. You can’t go to the Dregs looking like that. It’s unbecoming.”

As much as I want to leave immediately, I realize she has a point. She pulls out a new set of lightweight pants, a shirt, and then a robe, laying them all out on the bed I’ve hardly ever used. Immortals don’t need sleep after all, and when you’re the Oracle, sleep is basically unheard of. Valor walks to the door and lets her hand linger on the silver handle.

“I’ll send someone out to search for that information you want,” she says.

After the door opens and clicks shut again, I’m left alone.

I quickly change my clothes and leave the room before Valor gets back. I pass by angel soldiers as I make my way out of the Citadel. I don’t bother telling any of the soldiers where I’m going. Valor will take care of everything for me here.

As I walk down the tip of the mountain where the Citadel is located, I navigate my way through the rest of Zenith as I continue my descent. All the buildings in Zenith match the Citadel. Frost crystals are the base of every structure here, giving the city a uniformed icy look, like glaciers. They’re beautiful crystals, pristine, the exact image Zenith is meant to have as the home to the Oracle. My mother built this city. She was the first Oracle. She was the one who brought on a change in Ilenima. She was the one who put demons in their place here, but she died before she could do the same in Terra. That task has fallen to me. Maelstrom murdered my mother. His son, Arsen, murdered my beloved.

I walk faster.

The streets are mostly empty. Not many angels are out tonight, and I’m glad. It makes it easy for me to slip through the city unnoticed. At the city’s edge, I step out onto lush green grass sprinkled with the crystals this land grows. The very same place Leo’s and my matching-shaped, and yet opposite-colored, diamonds came from. I feel my black diamond grow warm from inside my robe’s inner pocket against my heart.

In the near distance, I see the bubbling surface of the Crystal Oasis for which this province was named. It doesn’t glitter so brightly in the night. The moon’s light just isn’t as strong as the sun’s.

I reach this province’s edge, where the water from the Crystal Oasis spills over into a sea of clouds. From a distance, the cloudy sea is a beautiful covering, but the closer one gets to the edge, the more putrid it all becomes. Below the unassuming coverage lies the Dregs, a place suited only for demons. It’s a place as dark as they are.

I climb down the rocky ledge rather than using my wings. I don’t need to announce my presence by letting my beast surface like that. It would only bring unwanted attention, and I’ve already ruined one set of clothes today.

Once I’ve touched down onto solid ground, I’m met by a checkpoint.

“Oracle Cassius.” One of the angel soldiers clad in silver armor welcomes me. “What can we do for you?”

“You can direct me to Laverl.”

“He’s living in a cottage in the west field.”

“He hasn’t moved then.”

The soldier shakes his head.

“Thank you,” I say as I walk past him.

“Do you want an escort?” he calls after me.

I wave my hand. “Unnecessary. I won’t be long.”

A city stands before me, a city that was once grand as far as demon cities go. Now it looks the same as the rest of the Dregs. Dilapidated buildings, broken streets, and wandering fairy fires. This city once had a name given to it by angels: Favor. It was a city where privileged demons lived, those who acted as servants in the Servant Program. These demons worked under angels to bring judgment down on humans in the mortal world who were beyond redemption, but then things fell apart. Arsen went rogue. He killed Leo, and in turn killed the Servant Program altogether. No demon is privileged above another anymore. They all live in the same rotting cesspool now, and so they will for all of eternity.

This city was stripped of its name along with its status. Now it is simply referred to as settlement A1. The letter represents the Howler Plains province of the Dregs and the number is the name given to this particular area of inhabitance. The Howler Plains is a large province, and only the northern part of it is under Crystal Oasis jurisdiction. Unlike all other Highlands provinces, the Crystal Oasis province has no luminary in charge of it, but that’s because it falls to me, the Oracle, instead. My duties are much like a luminary’s, though my station is raised higher and I have more to take care of because I am the one who sets the rules through the words of God. This is why I have Valor as my Confidant, a station also placed higher than a luminary, though lower than the Oracle.

I don’t linger, but I feel several pairs of eyes on me at all times. It’s not every day the Oracle comes to the Dregs. The darkness implanted here is only amplified by the demons watching me. It’s enough to make me sick, but that’s all they can do. They can hit me with wave after wave of darkness, but I am much more powerful than they are due to bloodletting, and they know it. Some demons might still take the chance to harm me, but most of those demons have been killed off by now. Only the prudent remain.

Will-o’-the-wisps part as I make my way down a wide and cracked cobblestone street. A field almost identical to the one I came from can be seen from where the street ends. I make sure not to rush my way there. I can’t let the demons know how much their darkness eats at me. I am a representation of the light they must fear, a light that will never go out.

When I’ve reached the end of the street, I step off the uneven road back into a field of tall yellow grass. It reaches all the way up to my waist. Its scratchy and irritating texture brushes up against my exposed hands. I slip them into the pockets of my robes as I near scraggly trees without a single leaf on their bare branches, and a cabin at their edge, just within the field. It’s a humble home, but it looks better than anything back in the main city. It seems someone here actually cares. It isn’t broken and deteriorating.

I knock on the door. It opens before I can knock a third time. The demon before me hasn’t lost a single ounce of his pride. He still stands as tall and muscular as I remember him back when the Servant Program was active. He worked under Valor. He was one of the best servants in the program. If he’s surprised to see me at his door, he doesn’t act like it. His yellow eyes watch unwavering.

“Oracle.” He greets me with a slight nod. Unlike his grandson, he has always been respectful, even after the Servant Program was discontinued. “What can I do for you?”

“You can let me inside for a start,” I say.

Laverl opens the door wide and gestures for me to come in with a sweep of his hand. I don’t plan on staying for long, and I don’t bother to sit down once I’m inside. My skin is crawling with every passing moment, and sitting down would only make me more uncomfortable. The darkness is eating away at me. It seems I have less and less tolerance for it as time goes on. I would have thought the opposite should be the case.

Once Laverl has closed the door, giving us relative privacy, I say, “Do you know anything about a demon named Helena?”

“Should I?”

“Perhaps. She had an awful lot to say about Arsen. She even… looks like him to some degree. It’s mostly in her unrelenting green eyes. Similar even to Maelstrom.”

“I see.” Laverl doesn’t give anything away in his words or in his actions. He sits down on a wooden chair as he continues watching me.

“You really don’t know anything?” I ask.

“I don’t. I’ll even let you confirm it.”

He has resolve, and he’s fearless. I’ll give him that.

“You won’t mind if I take you up on your offer then,” I say.

“Not at all.”

He stands back up and places himself right before me. A thin space stops us from touching. I reach out my hands and place them on either side of his face to hold him still. My hands are a stark contrast of white to his brown skin, but I’m used to the difference in skin color. Few immortals have skin as pale as mine. It’s the feeling of connecting and willingly touching his darkness that makes my hands on his face feel completely out of place.

He looks into my eyes, unblinking and fully willing to let me look inside of his soul. He’s already brought down all of his defenses. He has no intention of fighting me. So I dive in.

I reach inside of Laverl’s soul to see it for myself. I have no reason to become familiar with his soul’s unique resonance, so I don’t search for that information. I search only for any images inside of his soul that match up to my images of Helena. My search comes up empty. He was telling the truth.

But I’m not satisfied. There has to be something. I find myself wandering, lost in Laverl’s soul with no destination, but I can’t leave yet. I see glimpses of memories and unintentionally hold on to one.

“Arsen! What are you doing?” I shout when I see him tackle a demon child a few years older than him.

His beast is manifesting in a mess of fur and scales. It looks as if he’s going to tear out the other demon’s throat. I leap forward, catching him in my arms and freeing the young demon he had pinned underneath.

“You’re crazy!” the child shouts as he runs away.

Arsen struggles against me, biting and clawing. The strength of his seven years is astounding, but I’m still stronger.

“Let go of me, old wolf!” he shouts. “He deserves it! He called me a freak! He said I’m weak and no one wants me around here, but he couldn’t even say why because he doesn’t know! It’s just what his mom told him!”

“I’m not letting you go until you’ve calmed down. We talked about this. You can’t let your beast out.”

“It wants to come out! Why can’t I just be me? All the other kids get to!”

“The other kids don’t have Maelstrom’s blood running through their veins.”

“So?”

“So you’re not like the other kids.”

He struggles against me still. I let him. I know he has to get his pent-up rage out somehow, and it’s worth all the bites and scratches he’ll ever give me—if I can just keep him safe.

After it’s out of his system, he calms down and completely reverts to his logician’s appearance. He’s ruined another set of clothes, but I’m used to that by now.

He rests against me and mutters into my arm, “I won’t do it again, so can I go back and play? Please?”

He licks the blood from my arms. My wounds have already healed and he’s getting no benefit of his own out of the action. It’s purely an apology.

“Please,” he begs. “I saw a girl today. She was on the streets. Her beast is a fox! She’s kind of like me. And she was really strong. I think she’s the same age as me. Can I play with her?”

“No. You can’t play in the city. Only the outskirts, in the west field. Remember?” I tell him, though I wish desperately I could say otherwise. Sakuya already did me a huge favor, ensuring Arsen would live after I secured permission from the angels. Her only wish in return was that I keep Arsen away from her daughter, at least while they’re young. At least while we both have control.

Arsen leans back into my chest and curls up in my arms. “It’s not fair,” he says.

I pick him up and look into his eyes. He’s the spitting image of his father from his defiant green eyes, wavy black hair, olive skin, and his insane strength. There’s hardly a trace of my daughter in him at all, but when I look into his eyes, I can see something of her. Perhaps his soul is more like hers.

“No,” I say. “It’s not fair, and I don’t expect you to understand.”

I hold him tightly to my chest. He buries his face into my right shoulder. He shakes against me. Hot tears fall from his eyes and soak my shoulder.

A sharp pain shoots through my head, like a lightning bolt has jumped in and severed my connection to Laverl, to this memory that isn’t mine. I feel like I’ve just been thrown back into a wall, but when I snap my eyes open, everything is as it was the moment before I dived into Laverl’s soul. No, not exactly. Sweat is pouring into my eyes and my hands are trembling against his face.

He studies me, his gaze never changing. I bring my hands down to my sides and take a few steps back from him. I wipe my brow with my left sleeve and try to steady my labored breathing. What was that? What did I just see? A memory? In that moment, I was Laverl. Everything he experienced, everything he felt is buzzing through my body. My hands are still trembling, even when I have them in fists at my sides.

“Get a good look?” Laverl finally asks, breaking the silence.

“I’m done here,” I reply. “Your cooperation was appreciated.”

He nods. “You don’t look well. Do you need an escort back to the checkpoint?”

My teeth grind against each other. “I hardly need any help from the likes of you, demon. You and your kind have done quite enough. If not for you, Leo would still be alive. You’re the one who begged for Arsen’s life. Leo had compassion. He sympathized with you, and how was he repaid? Demons deserve everything they’ve gotten, and they deserve everything that is to come.”

It takes every ounce of discipline I have not to burst from his cottage and fly out of the Dregs. Laverl is sneaky. He doesn’t fight the way other demons have. I would expect this sort of thing from Sakuya, but not him. He tried to catch me in that memory, but it won’t work. Demons are liars, cunning monsters, and they’ll do anything in their power to get what they want.

***

Five days have passed, and nothing has changed. I’ve found no information on a demon named Helena. She’s obviously kept a low profile for a very long time. But for whatever reason, the information she told me was important enough to her to show herself to me. I haven’t looked into what she said; however, I haven’t forgotten it either. I haven’t forgotten a single detail.

Things need to change. It’s as the demon said. The world has become stagnant. Nothing is changing. Angels rule over Ilenima without any resistance, but we can’t grow lax in our watch or the demons will take the first chance they have to start an uprising. Arsen has been trouble in Terra and consistently elusive. We’re no closer to saving Terra than we were 65 years ago, and because of Arsen, we’ve backslid. I can’t keep sending an insufficient number of angels out to hunt demons, especially when Arsen is out there killing them. There aren’t enough angels to spare. Ilenima requires the utmost attention, and we’re spread too thin when it comes to both worlds.

I’ve considered other options. In my opinion, the demons here serve no purpose. They only live because they no longer resist. They only live because genocide isn’t an option. It would be far from angelic to slaughter the demons in the Dregs, the demons that appear to be doing nothing but living their lives amongst themselves. And who’s to say doing that would solve anything? There is a balance to this world, both worlds, and it’s a balance between light and dark. God will put everything back into balance. Isn’t that right, God?

Even when I humble myself completely before You, I never receive an answer.

I press my hand flat against my chest so I can feel my black diamond against my palm and my chest at the same time. Beyond its physical presence and the occasional warmth it exudes, my crystal has also gone mute.

I sit on the bed in the Oracle’s Quarters, feeling the red velvety blanket covering the mattress. Then I lie down. My legs hang off the edge of the bed since I’m lying the wrong way, but I don’t bother adjusting. A small black hole mars the ceiling overhead. I wonder about it at first, but then it starts to grow, and I know exactly what it is. It grows and grows, darkness raining down as it does. I feel a phantom drop of the ooze as it falls onto my face.

I close my eyes. Something has to change.

Then the door opens.

“Cassius?” It’s Valor. “Are you sleeping?”

I don’t open my eyes as I reply, “No, I’m not.” I know the anomaly overhead is only a Hollow trapped in my mind, a figment of my imagination because of old stories I’ve heard. It isn’t real. Valor can’t see it.

“Mind if I come in?”

“You’re allowed in here any time you want,” I say, and realize that she really doesn’t see the Hollow. It’s almost like that realization alone is enough to stop the ghostly darkness from dripping onto my face. The ominous presence is gone altogether, leaving only me and Valor.

“I always figured it was a privilege, not a right,” she says.

“This room is the Oracle’s and whoever else’s the Oracle says it is, and I say it’s your room, too. I say it’s your right.”

My eyes are still closed, but Valor’s presence is bright and easy enough to follow. The bed bounces slightly underneath me as she takes a seat. The springs squeak as she moves, placing one arm to the other side of me as she hovers above me. I consider opening my eyes, but I don’t. Then I feel the tickle of her long wavy hair and her lips on mine. It’s a greeting kiss. Nothing more. But then I feel another kiss planted on my forehead. This time I open my eyes.

“What are you doing?” I ask.

Her face is directly above mine, making it impossible not to look at her. Her hair acts as a curtain, coloring the light coming through in pink.

“Trying to get your attention,” she replies. “Do I have it?”

“You always have it, so what’s this about really?”

“I’m trying a different way of showing you I’m here to support you, since talking doesn’t seem to work, and we only ever seem to end up fighting or not talking at all. So? Is it working? Is this what you need?”

I don’t say anything and study the blue of her eyes instead. Leo’s eyes were blue as well, though they were on the stormy side, mixed with gray. Valor’s are like the blue of the deepest waters, a single solid color.

Sighing, Valor lifts her head and sits upright on the bed, freeing me. “So I’m not good at this,” she confesses. “Would a hug be better?”

This isn’t like her. I feel the corners of my mouth tug upward until I’m smiling. A laugh follows. I can’t remember the last time I laughed. It must have been many years ago now.

Valor turns to look at me. I sit up beside her and she continues staring.

I shake my head to get the rest of the laughter out of me. “Thank you,” I say.

She looks down at her lap and smiles. Then she looks back up at me and grins. “You’re welcome.” She sees our hands between us, resting on the bed, and she moves hers on top of mine. “I want to be your friend Cassius. I’m never going to replace Leo. I know that, and I’m not trying to. I’m just trying to get to know you better. You made me the Confidant. We’ve had many years to get to know each other, and yet we never have. We already know we don’t get along, but we haven’t really tried to either. Being friends can’t be so hard, right? I’m trying now, but I can’t just… do it on my own. So, will you try to work at it with me?”

Her hand tightens on top of mine. She’s acting uncharacteristically vulnerable. What’s gotten into her all of a sudden? Valor has always been indomitable and untouchable. She’s never shown any weakness or fear for anything, but I think, right now, I’m seeing her afraid for the first time.

“We’re going to be partners forever,” she whispers. “When the time comes, I’ll be your mate forever. We’ll have something between us that we’ll never have with anyone else, and…”

“Are you afraid?” I ask.

“A little.”

“Why?”

“Aren’t you? It’s something… something so sacred.”

“Sacred, yes. But I don’t understand why that has you worried,” I say.

“It’s also very intimate,” she explains.

“You know, Valor, you have the right to pick your mate. Female angels always pick. It doesn’t have to be me.”

“Your mother wanted us to be mates. She picked for me because the Oracle needs an heir.”

“Yes, she did, but I’m not holding you to it.”

Valor laughs. “So you’ll wait for Imae to ask you to be her mate when she can conceive?”

I smile. “I’d rather that not be the case.”

“You don’t want a mate at all, do you?”

I bring my gaze to the blue-tinted ceiling. How am I supposed to answer that question?

“It’s Leo, isn’t it?” she says quietly. “If you have a mate, you want to be as close to her as you were to Leo. I think most of us want that, but it’s not always how things turn out, especially for you males, hm? As you said, we females are the ones who pick our mates.”

“Don’t worry about me or the Oracle’s heir. It will all come in time. You should pick the mate you want, Valor.”

“Nice try at getting rid of me, Cassius, but I’m afraid you’re stuck with me. I pick you. You may not care about duty, but I do. That’s one of the reasons why you drive me so crazy.” She uses her free hand to catch my cheek and coaxes me to face her. “But I have to know, if you’re so against us being mates, why did you make me the Confidant? You could have picked someone else. Why make me the second most influential angel there is?”

“You may not believe it, but I’ve always admired you. Back when my mother picked you. You are everything my mother wanted for angels. You’re a soldier. You bring about justice, and yet you’re compassionate. You’re so capable and strong you could easily turn to pride, but you’re humble. You, Valor, are what angels need. You’re the one who inspires them. I’ve done poorly as Oracle since,” I swallow, “Leo passed. You’re the only reason things haven’t fallen apart, and that is why I made you the Confidant. I knew I needed you even though I didn’t like you. I knew Ilenima needed you.”

“I never thought I’d hear you say anything like that,” she comments. “It makes me feel a little better about my decision to have you as my mate.”

I smile at that. “A female picks her mate when she’s able to conceive. Your claim doesn’t mean anything now.”

“You and I both know our situation is a rare case, so unless you make me leave, you’re stuck with me.”

“I’ll try not to disappoint you then. I know I have time and time again, but I am trying. It’s time for things to change. It’s time to step up and stop making you worry about me.” I take a deep breath. “I think God may have brought our deliverance.”

“Really?” she almost shouts. “What is it?”

“I don’t know yet, but I’m going to find out. I’m going back to Terra to do just that. Will you take care of things while I’m gone?”

She nods. “Of course. Do what you need to do, Cassius.”

I move my hand from underneath hers, just so our palms are facing each other, and I give her a reassuring squeeze. She leans in toward me and places her lips softly against mine. I close my eyes to take in the sensation, to take in the meaning of this gesture. This time I don’t cut it short. I need to get used to this. I need to get used to Valor.

“Do what you have to do,” she tells me. “Don’t worry about anything here. We’ll be waiting for you when you come back.”

“With God willing, and any luck, I’ll come back with the answers we’ve been waiting for,” I reply.

I feel the flickering light of hope as it begins to reignite inside of my chest, and I walk forward.

***

Reverie, Pennsylvania. That’s where Helena told me I’d find a baby girl named Tasia Wren. Her home is called the Wrens’ Nest. I could easily ask anyone around for the house’s location or find it myself, but I’m in no hurry. I have plenty to learn about this town first. I still don’t know the purpose Helena had for telling me this information. She said it was because she was bored, but you can never trust a demon to keep their word. They’re born liars.

The area around me seems to be a forest full of sculptures landing on the fantastical side of things, human fairytales and the like that oftentimes come remarkably close to creatures native to the immortal world. Past the trees, I can see theme-park rides as well. I saw all of this before walking through the Peacekeeper of course, but I must admit, this wasn’t what I was expecting to find when looking into Helena’s information.

Behind me, the portal I just emerged from shares the same space as a statue of a man with brilliant feathered wings. The craftsmanship alone is truly a work of art, but the fact that this is a human rendition of how many humans often believe angels look intrigues me most of all. They aren’t exactly wrong. Leo had wings much like these, but not all angels have wings.

I look below the statue to see that it’s called the Guardian Angel. Looking at the small print on the plaque, it seems this statue has been here since the town was founded in 1790. It goes on to say that the founders were a small community of people who wanted to live life without evil. This town was uninviting to outsiders for many years, and then, in 1902, this theme park opened. It made the town more welcoming, but apparently did little to change traditions as the town is still full of religious and spiritual people. The population is on the small side.

I don’t see anyone else in this part of the park at the moment. It is evening, however. Perhaps it’s closed.

I walk out of the forest area of Reverie Park and down several different red-stone paths, giving me a good view of a wide variety of rides. Some are only a few years old, while others appear to have been renovated from the park’s earliest days. I also spot a few stragglers on my way and end up following them out of the park just in time for it to close.

I continue on my way, taking in all the sights around me. There’s a lot of space between buildings at times, but it’s much more suburb than farmland, though it seems the outlying properties might do a bit with farming. I decide to stick to the suburb.

Some people are outside of their houses, enjoying the nice weather, but most are going inside for the night to escape the slight spring chill in the air.

“Your aura is like nothing I’ve ever seen before.”

I see an old woman rocking on the front porch of a small white house. She’s sipping tea. Just at a glance, I see she’s purely human. She has dark skin and wild black hair pulled back in a headband of sorts. She’s an elder to be sure, but it seems she still has plenty of life inside of her.

“Yes, you,” she says, lowering her teacup and gesturing to me. “I’m talking to you. Come closer, would you? Don’t make an old woman get off her chair.”

What harm can it do? I float up her porch.

Her eyes widen. “The brightest aura I’ve ever seen, no doubt. There seems to be an abundance of strange auras these days.”

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“New baby girl born to the Wrens. Nice couple. They have a little shop set up in their home if you’re interested in herbs, protection crystals, gemstones and the like. They’re baby was just born a few weeks back. I went to see her, gave her a blessing, and got a good look at her aura. It was peculiar.”

“Peculiar how?”

The elder takes another sip of her tea. “It’s unusually strong, for starters, much like yours. Unlike yours, there’s something off about hers. I honestly can’t say.” She looks up at me thoughtfully. “Come closer, dear.”

I bend down to meet her. She places a warm hand on my cheek and looks into my eyes. “You’re a hard one to pin down,” she says.

For whatever reason, she has no reservations about me. Aside from the fact she seems to be a rather gifted human, she hasn’t put up any defenses around me. She must be able to sense there is nothing to fear from me. She can see my aura after all. I take the opportunity to look back into her eyes and influence her.

“I may need your help at some point in time,” I say. “When I come asking, I need you to be receptive.”

“As you wish,” she replies in monotone.

I blink, breaking our connection.

“It was nice chatting with you,” I say as I move away and walk back down her porch. “Ah, could you direct me to the Wrens’?”

“They’re just down the street.” She points. “You can’t miss them. Their house has a sign with their name on it.”

“The Wrens’ Nest.”

“That’s right.”

“Thank you.”

“Tell them hello from Jazmin.”

I wave as I proceed down the road. The sun is down, but it’s still early in the night. I locate the Wrens’ house easily enough. It’s small and looks much like all the other houses in this neighborhood. I move to the roof, disinterested in making myself known to this family. I don’t feel any darkness surrounding this house. Like the rest of the town, the energy here leans toward the positive side. There’s no trace of Helena and no trap in sight.

All I have to do now is wait.

I wait until all the lights have gone off and wait a little longer to make sure everyone is asleep. That’s when I make my move. The house is locked up, but it doesn’t take much for me to jiggle the door open with hardly a sound. The Wrens will wake up to a broken lock, but nothing else.

The living room is cluttered. The floor appears to be clear, but there’s only a narrow path to get around drawers and displays full of items used to promote light and to repel darkness: rosaries, crosses, god and goddess statues, crystals, gemstones, incense, herbs, and more. Just as Jazmin, the elder, told me. Helena wanted me to come here? Every item here is something that would agitate or even harm a demon—especially the made variety.

I’m beginning to think she told me the truth, but if that’s the case, she mustn’t hold any allegiance to her own kind. She honestly wants to see the world change, to see it burn, something…

I move through the house without making a sound and enter the room with a crib. A sleeping baby is lying on her back there. She’s only a few weeks old, as the elder woman from down the street told me. Her presence doesn’t feel all that peculiar to me. It’s a human presence, filled with light and darkness. Light and darkness.

Placing my hands on the edge of the crib, I get a closer look at her. She has an unusual amount of darkness inside of her for one who should be innocent. Humans don’t start life in darkness. They don’t necessarily start it in light either. A human baby’s presence is something that should be barely detectable. I haven’t had much experience with them myself, but other angels have. This human baby feels much like any other human I’ve ever met. It’s like she’s already been influenced by the world.

I don’t understand.

I reach down, brushing my fingers across her cheek. I let my palm rest lightly against her skin and she stirs. Her brown eyes open. She looks at me, and the first thing she does is smile. I smile back on reflex. She is innocent, or at least a part of her is. These other things surrounding her are locked away somewhere, though they are still a part of her. Her soul is complex.

A baby has no defenses. Looking into her eyes and seeing into her soul is a simple matter. I dive deep inside of her, trying to find some clue as to why her soul can feel this way at so young an age. I should be able to look through any part of her soul I want to, but certain areas are barred—even to her it seems.

Perhaps knowing her core, seeing what makes up her soul’s unique resonance, will give me the answers I seek. There isn’t a single unique resonance in her soul. The closer I get to her core, the farther away it becomes. Most souls have a core of pulsing energy, a core of great energy that shines so bright it draws one in, but her core is… broken? There are two distinct pieces, trying to form her core, but neither one has complete control. There’s a fissure in her center. Each of these unique pieces, bound and yet broken apart, have a distinct resonance of their own. It’s like I’m seeing two different souls. And one is unbelievably dark, the kind of darkness that can only belong to a demon.

Humans can have great darkness. They can even feel much like a demon, but there’s something about this side of her soul’s resonance that I feel I know. Helena specifically asked if I knew Arsen’s soul enough to be able to recognize it should I be faced with it. This is what she was talking about. I’ve never looked into Arsen’s soul, but I saw him when he wasn’t even a day old. I know what he feels like. I know this piece of this baby girl’s soul belongs to him. I can feel it. Did he lay claim to her? Is it possible to change a soul this drastically?

I focus on the other half of her soul, the light half. This half feels like a human soul. There’s light and darkness here, but there’s more light. Still, her soul shouldn’t be this complex as a newborn child. It’s as if this soul holds the knowledge of a past life.

But souls aren’t reincarnated. If this soul had lived once before, its journey should have ended in death.

I withdraw my consciousness from hers. The black diamond I keep in my inner breast pocket is hot against my skin. The child is still looking at me, still smiling. Something inside of me is swelling. This girl. If she’s attached to Arsen, if her soul is so closely linked, he’ll have to come for her someday. No. It’s more than being closely linked. This girl carries a part of his soul. God has provided a way to not only capture Arsen, but a way to use him to right all the wrongs he’s committed.

This is what you’re telling me, isn’t that right, God? You used Helena as your messenger because I haven’t been listening. I haven’t been listening to anyone, but now I am. I’m here, and I’m receptive. This is how the demons in Terra will be put into their place. This is how they’ll be destroyed. The demon presence here will be eliminated once and for all, restoring balance to the humans, allowing them to live their lives without the demons that never should have existed in their world, while angels continue to watch over and guide them.

There’s a lot I need to learn about this connection, but this is the answer I’ve been waiting for.

I pick up the baby and cradle her in my arms. She lets out a contented sound and continues smiling. I whisper to her, “You are going to save your world.”

***

I hurry down the Citadel’s halls, searching for Valor. I’m about to give up on the wild goose chase and ask a soldier where she is, since she wasn’t in the Oracle’s Quarters, when I see her talking with Imae. They must have met in the hall and started talking. It doesn’t look like a formal meeting, considering the location.

Valor spots me and exclaims, “Cassius! You’re back. How did it go? I hope you have something good to tell us.”

“Better than good,” I say as I walk right up to her and kiss her a greeting. “Imae,” I acknowledge and kiss her too. “Things are about to change.”

Valor looks at me expectantly. “So?” she asks. “Don’t keep us in suspense.”

I turn to Imae. “I need you to bring Rynne here. I have his first guardian assignment.”

“Right away, Oracle,” she says with a slight bow.

Valor turns to me as Imae disappears down the hall. “What did you find, Cassius?”

“God has heard our prayers, Valor. I’ve just found the one who will bring balance to Terra. Both worlds will be set right.”

“The one?”

“A human girl. She’s been chosen to save the mortal world, and we’ll be there to guide her every step of the way. Soon everything is going to change.”

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