Selina stood and looked down into the open grave.
A coffin sat at the bottom of the deep trench, lowered there by the men with their ropes as they carefully set the polished wooden box into its final resting place. Atop it sat a wreath of flowers and several more single blooms added by the mourners who stood gathered…all of whom had already gone back to their motorcars or walked down the street from the graveyard.
Forest Hills was a beautiful cemetery, by all accounts, scattered here and there with monuments that were truly impressive and dominated by a large pond in the center. It was, in her opinion, exactly what all graveyards should be—part park for the living, and part a place for the dead to reside. Picnics here were neither uncommon nor discouraged in the large swaths of grass, even if the lawn was peppered with carvings to those who had passed.
It was long after the final words had been said. But he would not leave. Alistair stood at the edge of the grave, looking down upon the dark wood box and at the lacquered surface reflecting the warm glow of the sun overhead. His hands were stuffed into the pockets of his long black coat.
If it weren’t for the tick in his jaw, she would have thought him a statue like those of granite and marble around them. He was handsome enough to be one.
The man in the grave had been one of Alistair’s own, a high-ranking, long-lived member of his association. Osmund Reinhardt had come from Europe when he was just a boy, many years back. A widower, he had died of an illness brought on by old age. It had happened fast. His children, grown adults now, had not made it from their respective homes around the country before he passed. But Osmund had not died alone. Alistair had sat at his side as it happened, for Osmund had been a dear friend.
Selina had known Osmund well. He had been a broad, stern man with a serious disposition. He talked with a thick German accent that had gone starkly out of favor in the past few years since the war began. She believed Germans always sounded angry, and therefore she didn’t hold his gruffness against him. Alistair and Osmund had argued frequently. Osmund served as one of the seniors of his society, and often had the gall to disagree with the archdemon he served.
“If I didn’t want to disagree with my leaders, I would have stayed in my homeland,” Osmund had told her when she pressed him on the curious behavior. She would never forget what else he had said that day. “Arguing with the men who control us is our right. Remember that.”
She had seen him briefly when he had been ill. Death did not scare her…but the moments before it did. For the broad, strong, mountain of a man who glared at Alistair like he was a petulant child had been reduced to a shadowy reflection of a man. A shallow, pale, and empty effigy that seemed less like the original and more like a mockery of what they were supposed to represent.
Walking up to Alistair, she forced her hand into one of his pockets. She fished his out and wove her fingers in between his and held it tightly. He squeezed back. It was the most she had gotten out of him in an hour.
She pressed herself close to his arm, resting her head on him. She shut her eyes and let the feeling of his presence sink into her. She would never get used to him. Never forget how it felt the first time she saw him and what raged within him. Like a thunderstorm in a glass jar. Every time she stood close enough to him to feel it crackle beneath her touch, she felt in awe of it. Of him.
Normally, she could break him out of his moods. Alistair wasn’t one for long bouts of sulking or brooding, but, from time to time, she would catch him lost in thought. Reliving his memories, as he would say. But one touch from her, and he would snap out of it. It was a heady kind of power she had over him, and it was addictive, to say the least.
But this time, it didn’t seem to work. Not at first. It took a few minutes of them standing there in silence before he finally broke it, his voice a quiet rumble. “I despise death.”
“That’s awfully rude of you. I thought you two were friends.” She looked up at him with a light smile. The sunlight caught the strands of his dark hair.
He chuckled once, nearly silently, and looked up at the sky and the clouds overhead. He was like a dark blot against the light blue sky. He didn’t fight the smile that came to him from her bad joke. “Well played.” He paused thoughtfully. “More accurately, I will say that I despise the emotion of grief.”
She leaned her cheek on his arm again and looked off into the graveyard. At the hundreds of tombstones, crypts, and monuments. “Everyone experiences grief. It’s much worse to live a life that no one is left to mourn, isn’t it?”
“It’s more humane, in a way, but I see your point.” Alistair shifted, freeing his arm from her grasp only to wrap it around her and hug her to his side. She nestled in against him and smiled at the scent of incense that seemed to follow him everywhere. “I have lost thousands of souls I have loved as family…and the burn never ceases to hurt me as fresh as the first. You will come to realize that immortality in a world of fragile humans is a cruel, sick, painful joke.”
“You could avoid them. Sit in hell and befriend nobody but demons and other fallen. Like the others.”
“That, then, is the same kind of man who lives the life no one will mourn. A life without the love of others is not one I am interested in living. I’ve tried. It doesn’t last long. I have miserable self-control.”
She laughed. That was true. He was like a kid with a candy jar. His restraint was a thing measured in seconds. She had experienced firsthand his extreme lack of self-control many times.
She furrowed her brow as she realized something and tipped her head to look up at him without lifting it from his chest. “It isn’t goodbye. He will go to serve you in Hell, though, won’t he?”
His expression grew tight. He looked down at her, emerald green eyes searching hers. There was pain there—sadness now tinged with regret. “No…he won’t.”
“He couldn’t possibly have been taken to Heaven. Not after spending his life serving an archdemon.” She grinned. “Unless they severely lowered the bar.”
His trademark lopsided twinge of the lips broke through his sadness, and he leaned down to kiss the top of her head. His mood simmered back down to a dour one. He pulled her around to stand in front of him, resting his hands on her hips. He filled her vision, standing this close to her, and she placed her hands upon his chest. She felt the strength there, hidden behind the layers of his formal clothing. She ran her fingers along the texture of his wool vest and let her gaze travel back up to his sharp features. He was so utterly beautiful, so perfect, it was hard for her to be distracted by his serious mood.
“I have a confession, my love. But you have to promise to keep it a secret.” He pulled in a breath and let it out. She felt his chest heave then sink again as he did.
His concern worried her. He was never afraid to tell her something. “Of course.”
“I have lied to you. It’s a lie I tell to all, even those who serve me. One that even some of those born from Heaven or Hell believe.” His eyes slipped shut. “You will find out on your own eventually. If I don’t tell you now, I know who will soon enough.” He paused again. “Human souls do not come to us.”
She blinked. She had heard him, but she couldn’t help it. “What?”
“There are no souls resting in Heaven or burning in Hell who were not created there. Osmund is gone to me now, for all eternity. This is my last goodbye to him.” Grief painted his features once more.
“Where…do they go, then?”
Alistair laughed, a dry, weak and humorless sound. “That is the best part of it all. We do not know. Azrael takes them to a…he describes it as a doorway or a gate. He takes them there, and they pass through it. After that? He knows not where they journey. But it is not to his realm or mine.”
“Why the lie, then? Why tell the humans otherwise?”
“If we were to let them sit in their ignorance, they would invent their own beliefs. That surrenders power. To control the narrative is to control faith. To control faith is to control the populace.” He let out a thoughtful hum. “It used to be, anyway. They’re catching on quicker as of late.”
“But why control them at all? If Heaven and Hell are not in a battle for souls, why does anybody care what humans do?”
Alistair smiled down at her. “You are always asking the correct questions. What a good student you have turned out to be.” His gaze darkened, and she felt the familiar nervous excitement as it turned distinctly predatory. His hand slipped under her chin, his thumb on one side, his fingers on the other, and tilted her head back further to face him. “I will have to reward you later.”
“You’re dodging the q—”
His lips crashed against hers. Like a roar of a fire consuming a home, he descended over her. The embrace was demanding, bruising, and shoved all thoughts of anything else to the back of her head. His hand slipped around behind her, and his arm now cinched her to him possessively.
She was helpless. She always was. He was a tiger in the darkness hunting his prey, and she would never win. She never wanted to win. When he finally broke the kiss, she was breathless. He was unfazed. The pad of his thumb rested lightly on her lower lip, swollen from his attentions. She felt his breath rush hot against her cheek as he leaned in to whisper to her.
“Heaven wishes to control all. Every variable must be inside their command. They cannot abide to let anyone, or anything, stray too far from their light. In their eyes, humans are sheep who must be herded, and they care as little for where the soul of a human goes as the shepherd does the souls of their livestock.” He let out a small, appreciative purr as she curled her fingers into the hem of his vest and pulled herself against him. She opened her eyes to meet his emerald gaze.
“What about us?”
“Wolves like me…we are a threat. We must be put down. And you? A doe who comes to sleep at the side of the beast?” His lips twisted up again in his lopsided and smug smile. “You are even worse. To them, you’re an abomination. No one should be able to love a creature like me, after all.”
“Michael…how good of you to come.” Alistair’s greeting was neither warm nor welcoming.
Today had gone from awful, to fucking awful, to just-fuck-me-up-the-ass-with-a-baseball-bat-already awful.
Veil wasn’t afraid of dying. She had a very good reason to not be. She’d done it a few dozen times, and she would never get any farther than that cold and frozen lake in her mind that existed just before the door to true death.
But now, staring at the glowing, shining, metal-clad figure that took up the whole of the doorway into the church, she was starting to second-guess what she had previously accepted as fact.
Michael. That was Michael.
If anyone in this universe could kill her, or at the very least make her wish she could die, it was going to be him. She wasn’t interested in finding out what the champion of the archangels was going to do to her. Veil shrank back from the two creatures standing at the threshold of the church and figured there had to be another way out of here out the rear.
Now, she realized, she was afraid of what was on the other side of the door she thought she’d never cross.
She hadn’t made it two feet in the opposite direction before she was forced to draw up short as something impacted the wood frame of the door in front of her face. It was one of Michael’s metal “feathers.” Really, it looked more like a razor-sharp blade. It stuck inches into the surface like a surgical knife. It didn’t even splinter the wood.
Yup. Today sucked.
“Stay,” the archangel commanded.
The blade yanked free of the wood from some invisible command and whipped past her face back the way it had come. She turned to follow its path back to the archangel and demon in the doorway. Her heart was pounding in her ears. Conrad and Gabe were both on their knees, struck with awe by something that looked that…well, holy. Gabe’s head was lowered in prayer, while the Irishman was staring, wide-eyed and gaping at the archangel.
The feather he had sent to intercept her rejoined his wing, spinning back in place where it had left with the sound of metal sliding against metal.
Asmodeus growled low, and the shadows that seemed to gather around him in this form darkened, coalescing like a living thing. It was only then that she realized she had never seen Asmodeus really fight. Not really. She couldn’t imagine the kind of damage the two of them were about to wreak on the building around them. If not the city itself. “Leave here, archangel,” the archdemon growled.
Michael jumped forward suddenly and without warning, shoulder-checking Asmodeus into the wall. Metal shards shot forward from his wings, pinning Asmodeus to the wood behind him. The metal stabbed through his wings, his legs, his arms, even his torso. The archdemon howled in pain but couldn’t move. He hadn’t been expecting an attack so suddenly from the warrior and was likely still working off the pain of having been trapped in the spirit realm for so long.
Michael stepped back to observe his work, and seemingly content with it, he turned to walk toward Veil. Asmodeus howled and roared at him, yanking on his own limbs to try to free himself. Electricity arced from each of the metal shards, and the archdemon screamed in pain. The more he struggled, the worse it became. He went limp, slumping against the wall. Blood, black as pitch, ran from the wounds.
Veil was now backing away from Michael, retreating from his massive metal-clad form as he approached. The shards of his wings were constantly rotating and spinning on each axis. He would be beautiful if he weren’t so damn terrifying to her right now.
“Whatever you’re going to do, don’t. Just let me go,” she said to the creature in the shining armor. She raised her hands in front of herself in a useless attempt to show she meant no harm. She’d disappear into the spirit world or dash away through the wall, but she was too exhausted. After the events of today, she wouldn’t risk it. She’d make it ten feet before she wouldn’t be able to hold herself there, and then she’d probably wind up on the ground, passed out.
“You freed him.”
It was a statement, not a question. It was flat, emotionless, and even without an ounce of damnation in his tone, she couldn’t help but feel that she was on the stand. He was her proverbial judge, jury, and quite possibly her executioner. “I had to.”
“This cult. Aren’t they after all of you? I know you don’t care about Mammon, but don’t they have Chamuel?”
He didn’t respond. Still, Michael kept walking toward her. Still, she retreated up the aisle toward the altar of the church. The flood of light through the entrance had faded, but the creature before her still glowed. Light glinted off his armor and his metal wings without any source that she could see.
She made more excuses. “They said he knew what they were after, that he had information on—”
“And you believed him?” He huffed a derisive, hollow, and metallic laugh. “After all the lies he’s told you?”
“Azrael is adorably gullible. He agreed to help make you, didn’t he?” The tinny emptiness of his voice was worse than if he had just been outright judging her or had been angry. He was merely stating facts.
Veil’s foot caught the edge of the stairs to the altar as she continued to retreat from Michael. She yelped as she fell and landed hard on her ass on the stairs with a pained unf. Before she could react, he was standing at her feet. Towering over her.
She might be about to die for real.
Or dragged to Heaven and tortured.
Her mind raced with all the possible options of how this could go very poorly for her. He lifted his sword and hovered the point of it over her chest. Death by angel was something she hadn’t done before. Another one for the bingo card. “You freed him in hopes of stopping the cult that is hunting us.”
“Not because you’ve forgiven him for creating you?”
She shook her head.
“Not because you still love him?”
“Leave me alone, Michael.” It took her a second to realize she had clenched her fists. “I don’t want anything to do with him.”
“That wasn’t a no.” The tip of his sword moved closer to her, and she was forced to lean back to avoid letting it touch her. “Half-lies and partial statements don’t work on me. He has been my brother for much longer than you’ve been his student. I’ll ask it this way. Do you hate him?”
She glared up at him and remained silent. Screw him if he thought he would be able to back her into a corner. Screw him for asking questions she suddenly realized she didn’t have the answers to. She went to stand, but he pressed the tip of his sword against her throat. It felt impossibly sharp, razor-thin. The kind of knife that cut without pain. She leaned away from it. He’d called her bluff, and she had nothing in her hand.
“Don’t lie to me. I’ll know.” Electricity, yellow-gold and white, curled around his gauntlet and down his sword from hilt to tip. She drew back reflexively, worried they might ground out into her. “I’ll ask a third time. And it’ll be the last time.” Michael moved closer to her, his feet between hers, as he poised the sword over her throat, ready to drive down. “Do you hate Asmodeus?”
Once, the archdemon was her whole world. Once, she would have done everything and anything for him. She had. She had adored him and went every day wanting to be at his side. But then it all changed. She learned what he was capable of. The lengths to which he had gone to create her, to lie to her, to sculpt her into what he wanted her to be. A plaything and a permanent toy for his amusement.
She was furious at Alistair, yes.
But right now, she loathed herself more.
Because she wasn’t sure.
Tears stung her eyes, born out of frustration and hatred, not sadness. Born of how much she hated herself, and how Michael had very easily and very quickly dredged that to the surface. She didn’t know how to answer him. She didn’t know how she could. But she wasn’t eager to find out what that sword and his power were going to do to her. She fixed him with a glare, angry the archangel was dragging this out of her.
“I don’t know.”