Chapter 1: In the Beginning
In another world, perhaps the Antichrist would have been Adam Young. A charming young man, he would have had love in his heart for his small, simple world, filled with his family and friends. Perhaps this love would have been enough to stop Armageddon in its tracks, with a little help from an angel and a demon.
That is not this world.
Here, the demon gifted the child took far greater care of his responsibilities. He flew the babe to the hospital on wings darker than the night sky. He did not acknowledge the human male outside, instead entering and presenting the basket directly to the Mother Superior. The nuns did not try to stop him and let him do as he liked; they knew that this demon, pale and wraithlike in his black clothes and hooded greatcoat, took his job seriously. In this world, the plan succeeded and the Antichrist is Adam Dowling.
Five years later, Nanny Fell entered their lives. She was a pale woman, soft spoken and serious with white-blonde curls and dark glasses covering her eyes. In her black clothes, there wasn’t a speck of color to her and she appeared almost carved from marble. She made the staff’s skin crawl, but Adam adored her and what Adam wanted, Adam got.
From the time that Adam turned five up until his eleventh birthday, Nanny was a near constant presence by his side as she instructed, whispering in his ear. She taught him about domination of course, and crushing one’s enemies and what power he possessed as King of this World. She also taught him the value of charm, how to manipulate and coerce, and how to tempt. She kept his mind sharp, taught him tactics, how to lie like breathing and actually think his way through problems. Charm, deception, and cunning were her lessons, and her pupil soaked them up and gave them life with his sandy blond hair and sunshine smile.
On his eleventh birthday, his parents got him the dog he had hoped for. That pitiful creature was eaten by a sleek, black hound with clever eyes. With careful consideration, Adam named the dog Barcas for the Cathaginian general Hannibal. Without a backward glance, Nanny Fell walked away, leaving her charge to end the world. No one paid any attention to her as she made her way to the edge of the estate. Just before she hit the trees, vast black wings sprouted from her back, rustling her ghostly, platinum curls. With one mighty downstroke, she was gone.
Chapter 2: On an Eastern Wall
Five Years Later
Zaskiel carefully picked his way through the trees, grumbling vaguely to himself. He never should have volunteered for this assignment but he’d needed to get away from the enclave. He was used to being alone for long stretches of time, out at the edges of the universe. At the enclave, he was in Archangel Raphael’s inner circle and was constantly surrounded: healing, listening to reports, making battle plans, anything she told him to do. He wanted to help, of course; he just didn’t understand why they were battling over this rock in particular. However, he kept those questions out of his mind and, when he heard about the missing Angel, opted to go looking.
Demons weren’t really a concern, reports putting the Horde up to the North, but remaining humans didn’t react well to the divine presences battling it out on their planet and were surprisingly resilient and quarrelsome. The Angel in question was younger than Eden, so there was reason to worry about a missing youth in such a dangerous environment. Zaskiel kept his wings folded away; the humans considered them vulnerable targets and the white would glow like a beacon in the full moonlight. He had encountered nothing thus far, but was on a trail and the trees were thinning out.
He almost didn’t see the figure until it was too late, but stopped himself in time to stay hidden in the tree line. What looked like a shadow over a crumbled brick wall had nothing to cast it. Another angel may not have noticed, but Zaskiel was used to staring out into the endless black with nothing but starlight for company. The figure was garbed entirely in the darkest black, complete with gloves and a deep hood pulled over their head. Details were unclear, but Zaskiel could make out the long overcoat the demon (and it was definitely a demon) wore. Their feet were partially submerged in a pool of muddy water at the base of the crumbled wall they sat upon and their head tipped down to stare at it as if in contemplation.
Zaskiel wondered what a solitary demon was doing so far from the rest of the Horde. They were miles still to where the latest reports had placed the opposition. He couldn’t make out any details of the creature, but he suddenly worried for the Angel he was searching for.
“Oh, do come out from there. No need to be shy,” a surprisingly posh and pleasant voice said. The demon’s head tipped up to face into the trees where he stood. Zaskiel couldn’t make out features in the shadow of the hood, but he did see large, dark pools where the demon’s eyes should be.
Zaskiel consider, but he was a bit intrigued and the demon might know where his lost Angel was. He shifted his grip on his dagger-spear to something that was a little more combat-ready and stepped out of the trees.
“You’re far from your legion,” Zaskiel noted casually.
The demon waved a hand dismissively. “Noisy and crowded, and the screams get tiresome. You are aware, of course, that the enclave is in the opposite direction?”
“I hope so, since that’s where I’ve come from.”
Movement gave him the impression that the demon grinned. “A quip. And here I suspected another dreadful fight.”
“I’m not much in the mood for a fight,” Zaskiel assured, intrigued in spite of himself. “Are you?”
“I won’t tell if you don’t.”
“You have me at a disadvantage, I’m afraid. I can’t see who I’m speaking with.”
The demon seemed to consider him for a moment, then reached up and pushed back the hood. He was not precisely thin, but his face had a hollow, gaunt look to it. Despite that, the demon was ethereal in the moonlight, face pale as alabaster with a short mop of white curls. The dark pools turned out to be the tinted lenses of a pair of glasses.
“You’re beautiful,” Zaskiel said, surprised.
“You’re too kind,” the demon replied demurely. “But you needn’t sound so shocked.”
“I guess I’ve never heard of a beautiful demon.”
He grinned again. His teeth were, if possible, even more white than his skin and definitely sharper than they should have been. “I suspect demons of lust would find their jobs quite difficult if they were hideous.”
Zaskiel’s grip tightened warily on his spear. “Is that what you are? A demon of lust?”
That startled a laugh. “Why, my dear! Are you feeling lustful?” He let the question hover only a moment before he continued. “I am not. But I suppose now you can report a face to the name.”
“You haven’t given me a name.”
The demon peered at him. “You are a Virtue, yes? One of Raphael’s?”
“Zaskiel,” he introduced himself, hoping it would bring about the mentioned name.
The demon inclined his head slightly. “Ezra.”
The Virtue froze. There had been a meeting outlining the major players in the war. Satan was mentioned of course, as was his second-in-command and Prince of Hell, Beelzebub. There were the archdukes and a could of dukes and lords were included due to unique or dangerous abilities. Ezra had been one of them. Anyone of a choir lower than the Dominions had been instructed that, should they encounter the demon and could manage it, run and report his whereabouts. The lord was a greater demon and an angel-killer, although they were not told exactly what he could do. They’d only been told to never look him in the eyes.
“You are Lord Ezra?” he asked hesitantly.
Ezra made a small tut of distaste. “Needn’t bother with the ‘Lord’ business.”
“You’re very polite for all the warnings I’ve heard.”
“I presume they’ve warned you about my eyes? I wonder what else they’ve shared.” Ezra cocked his head, circling back to the point. “And why shouldn’t I be polite? Just because it’s the end of the world doesn’t mean we can’t be civil.”
“Oh, really?” Zaskiel replied, one eyebrow arching. “In that case, perhaps you can help me. I’m looking for a lost angel. Surely such an upstanding gentleman like yourself would tell me if you saw him.”
Ezra smiled, a secretive quirk of his lips. “What does this angel look like?”
Zaskiel grimaced. “Er… black hair, this tall,” he gestured vaguely, “... wings?”
“Something like this?” Ezra moved his feet out of the water, bracing them against the side of the failing brick wall. Something quickly bobbed to the surface. It was long with soggy, muddy feathers and black hair streaked across water-logged features long dead. It took far too long for Zaskiel’s shocked mind to click into place. When it did, he brought up the spear.
“You killed him?”
“Just a discorporation. No harm done.”
“Of course not,” Ezra tutted. “He’s already back in Heaven, safe as houses.”
“A big, bad demon lord such as yourself needed to get his kicks by drowning an angel younger than the Earth?” Zaskiel snarled.
The smile he received was unfazed by the Virtue’s insolence. “Better I than someone who might torture him, corrupt him, destroy him, or any number of worse things. Discorporation teaches a valuable lesson.” His smile became suddenly frosty. “I know mine did.”
As Zaskiel sputtered, trying to figure out what to do, Ezra rose to stand on the crumbling wall, brushing red brick dust from his person.
“You were discorporated?” the Virtue finally asked. He hadn’t heard anything like that.
“Ancient history.” Then Ezra hesitated. “Well, if four thousand years can be considered ancient.” He looked at Zaskiel then inclined his head. “As charming as your company is, I must bid you good evening. There is a war, you know, and I mustn’t be missed.” The demon started walking away down what was left of the wall.
“Don’t worry; we won’t miss you,” Zaskiel replied, although the quip fell flat. The demon, however, laughed.
Chapter 3: Balefire
Sorry for the short chapter. Promise the next one is a goody.
Ezra raced through the trees, trying to listen carefully past her rushing heart and breath for her pursuers. She’d learned long ago that fighting those particular bodily functions into silence wasted valuable energy, so she either had to work with them or around them. The Power was close behind, the warrior angel weaving through the underbrush with delightful dexterity. She only heard the one set of footsteps, but that didn’t mean there weren’t other pursuers farther behind.
Ezra ducked and wove, reveling in the hunt, her gloves off and hood down so that her white hair streamed behind her like a banner. She loved the pursuit and knew how to be seen when she wanted, and how to hide when she desired it.
Finally, when she felt like she might have lost anyone except to determined Power, she tripped and went sprawling in the underbrush, her glasses falling away. The Power was on her immediately, sword raised as they flipped Ezra onto her back, then froze as their eyes met.
Ezra panted, looking up at the startled angel. Their expression slowly went blank, eyes turning glassy. She grinned in excitement and delight, teeth sharp and lips just shy of a sneer.
“Be a dear and help me up.” She offered her hand and the angel pulled her to standing, expression bland and obedient.
With her hand still in the Power’s, Ezra let the balefire that lived under her skin slide free to race hungrily over the angel. The cold, blue flames started to consume the angel’s life force, making them shuddered slightly. The transference of energy felt so hot under Ezra’s normally frigid skin, almost blistering in pleasure so sweet it hurt. She purred, her eyes half closing as the energy started to fill the starving, yearning place in side of her, although that wasn’t the point. In fact, she’d rather not let herself become used to being fed, but it was a way to pick off angels that was more permanent than discorporation and less so than annihilation. One couldn’t heal a consumed, desiccated husk, and the wounds of her feeding ran soul deep.
Another crash startled Ezra, and she just missed hitting Zaskiel with a ball of balefire, the Virtue skidding to the ground to avoid it. It broke Ezra’s concentration and the Power moaned as the fire consuming them winked out. They collapsed to the ground like a puppet with cut strings. Zaskiel stared up at Ezra, surprised by the vicious attack, and met eyes that burned blue with flame. Just like the Power before him, he fell quickly under the enthrallment of her gaze.
Ezra cursed and fetched her glasses, jamming them on as she firmly fought the enthrallment, making it withdraw. Zaskiel gasped, jerking his head back. He looked around a bit frantically and saw the sickly Power, keening and shuddering on the forest floor. His eyes flicked back to Ezra, stunned.
“You stupid angel!” she growled, teeth flashing. Rage gave the painful dissatisfaction of an interrupted meal a way to vent. “Did they teach you nothing?”
Zaskiel stared at her dumbly, as if trying to make his sluggish mind operate. “What was that?” he breathed.
She sneered as she walked over to the Power. “They told you not to look in my eyes.” The other angel was curled up on the floor, pale and shaking. The demon cocked her head, trying to decide if she needed to consume more of them. She would probably have to fight Zaskiel if she tried and decided it wasn’t worth the trouble.
The Virtue clambered over, hands hovering as he, a trained healer, examined the Power insensate on the ground. “What did you do?” Zaskiel asked, sounding horrified. He looked up at Ezra even as he spread his wings, using them to shelter and protect. It was almost charming, if a bit naive, and she had to admit that "protective" was a good look on the star-dusted angel.
Ezra rolled her eyes. “My dear, we are at war. If I can’t discorporate or exterminate them, what would you have me do?”
Zaskiel might have replied but a presence caught Ezra’s attention. She looked up at the trees: an Archangel was closing in and fast. If she was caught, she would be eliminated.
“It appears help is coming. Best be on my way.” She hesitated for a moment but resisted the strange urge to make sure Zaskiel was truly okay and turned, pulling her hood up and fleeing as fast as she could. At least neither the Virtue or the Archangel were likely to pursue. Any others could do as they pleased. Ezra wouldn’t mind finishing her meal.
Chapter 4: The Darkest Night...
Zaskiel leaned against the wall, staring off at the distant stars. He longed to be out in the black, away from the horrors of war and all of the uncomfortable revelations contained within. He found that he didn’t want to spend this much time with his fellow angels, and the feeling was mutual. He didn’t like how his position at an Archangels side made the legions of Hell target him the way they never had before. The most confusing was strange contradictions and challenges that the demon lord Ezra presented him with whenever they met. Zaskiel couldn’t help turning each moment over in his mind, worrying it like a puzzle begging to be solved.
The damage the balefire had done to the Power Ezra had attacked would take a long time to heal, even by angelic standards. There was little even Raphael could do to help except offer the angel comfort. They were resting comfortably, but were distant and muttered about feeling cold, gaze haunted. Ezra could have burned them down to nearly nothing, a shadow of their existence, but she had stopped when Zaskiel had arrived. She had hidden her eyes and released them both once he had become enthralled. She seemed to value him, at least enough that she refused to inflict such soul-rending damage on him, and he didn’t understand why.
Everything they knew about Ezra was true. She was powerful, capable of enthralling angels, humans, and even other demons. She could steal her victim’s life force, though what she did with it or if it was merely burned up as kindling, no one knew. She was deceptive and cold, merciless even, all the things they had been warned about in the briefings. But then, Ezra was congenial, almost charming, when engaging with Zaskiel and he didn’t understand it. She could be trying to trick him, but then to what purpose? She could have had anything she wanted when she had him enthralled, and yet Ezra had released him, angry that he had put himself in danger. Zaskiel just wasn’t useful as anything but a star maker, generating corporations, or as Raphael’s companion. Demons had no use for the stars, could make their own corporations, and he would never willingly betray the prince of his choir. It just didn’t make sense.
The door to the room opened and Archangel Raphael stepped in, wild brown curls pulled back with a ribbon. She silently stepped over to lean against the opposite side of the window from him. “Still turning it over?”
“It makes no sense,” he murmured, staring off into the stars.
“Much of what the opposition does makes little sense. One might go so far as to say it would be unwise to understand them.”
Zaskiel cocked his head. “How so?”
“They have Fallen for a reason. Something in them is against the will of God, and they have had millenia to draw further from Her. We don’t want to think like them.”
Zaskiel picked at his tunic, thoughts racing. “What is she wants help?” he asked aloud. The thought was almost ridiculous, but he had to understand why it couldn’t be the case. “I mean, maybe she’s genuinely being friendly.”
Raphael blinked. “We are speaking of Lord Ezra, yes? The demon who drowned an angel and consumed the life force of another? Not to mention what she might have done over millenia. That Lord Ezra?”
Zaskiel stared out at the stars. He knew she was right; the thought was ridiculous. Yet he had been close to Falling and he could see being friendly with someone willing to chat. Then again, Ezra was a demon and could just be tempting him into a false sense of security. It was all just too confusing.
“That could have been me,” he reminded her softly, eyes distant. “It was almost me.”
Raphael looked pained, compassion darkening the leaf-green of her eyes. “Zaskiel,” she chided gently. “You are not like them. You could never have killed like Ezra does.”
“I remember him,” he continued, studying the cool light of the stars. “He looked like the Principality I saw Fall. He had been so afraid, and so brave.”
“Zaskiel.” Her voice was firmer, and he knew he was fast approaching a line. He couldn’t think about if Ezra had been that Principality and what she had done to deserve damnation. It was too close to questioning the Almighty. He set the memory of those sky blue eyes away with all of his questions and sighed.
“How is…” he trailed off. A blue flame flickered in the silver light of the night. Perhaps his imagination was running wilder than usual. “Did you see that?”
Raphael frowned and looked out the window. “You are tired--” They both saw the second flicker.
“It’s her,” Zaskiel breathed, dread and excitement curling in his belly. Maybe he could finally find some answers.
Raphael stared into the night, seemingly disturbed. “She is persistent,” she mused as there was another flash.
“I can send some Powers…”
“Go with them,” Raphael ordered. “She seems less inclined to violence when you are there and I don’t intend to hand her more victims.” She turned to him then, looking strangely sad. “Zaskiel, you are such a light in the darkness, beautiful as any galaxy. I fear you being consumed by your own singularity.”
He didn’t know what to say in the face of her morose comments.
“God made us all beautiful and perfect, and we are who we are by Her will, even as we may be punished for it or have our time be shorter than hoped. It is not for us to know why.”
Zaskiel glanced out the window and wondered for a moment if God chose that little Principality and purposefully made him Ezra, truly made all of them what they are, even the demons.
“There is nothing wrong with you, Zaskiel. You are as She made you. Now go find out what the demon has planned.”
He hesitated, watching Raphael in the starlight. He loved her: that was probably the one thing in existence he knew for sure. In all the time he’d been by her side, he’d never seen her so sad. He wanted to wrap his arms around her, offer any comfort she needed, and he wondered if she’d let him. He started to reach out, hesitant, but there was another burst of flame. When he turned back, she had stepped away, wrapped in the presence of an untouchable Archangel. Zaskiel could do nothing but nod his acquiescence and leave.
Three Powers were chosen to accompany him: Ramare, Alo’eh, and Joshua. They were all very serious defenders, but were personally close to the one Ezra had injured. The goal was not to fight the demon lord, only to investigate, and Zaskiel rather hoped it remained that way. He was uncomfortable with the potential escalation into vengeance but Raphael chose them so he said nothing. A part of him suspected the Archangel would like Ezra permanently dealt with.
Zaskiel and his guard followed the flames to an abandoned hotel and hid, studying the building.
“That is definitely a trap,” Zaskiel murmured, amused in spite of himself. Even he found it entertaining that the wraithlike Ezra lured them to a place that had that spooky appearance humans loved to hate.
“Can you sense other presences?” Alo’eh asked. Her tone indicated she was merely seeking information and didn’t much care about his opinion.
“Possible ambush, but we can flank,” Ramare suggested before Zaskiel could reply.
“They can’t catch us all at once that way.”
Ramare nodded. “Joshua, follow the Virtue and cover his back. We’ll take the sides.”
Before Zaskiel could respond, the two Powers were gone. The Virtue sighed. “Or we could have discussed how Ezra likes to ambush her prey, but sure, we’ll do it this way,” he drawled. Joshua just blinked at him. Zaskiel disliked that his immediate thought was that Ezra would have found it funny. He readied his dagger spear and approached the entrance to a smaller wing of the building.
The space they entered wasn’t particularly large, but there was a fairly deep pool of water at one end. Zaskiel was beginning to understand that Ezra had a strange fondness for water. That seemed like a rather unfortunate thing for a demon to have. He stepped in cautiously, wondering if she planned to discorporate him in that water. Joshua filed in behind him, back turned and wings brushing Zaskiel’s as the Power watched their rear.
Then a demon appeared. This being was dark with spidery lashes and hair that came to two points like horns. More importantly, they had a crossbow pointed right at him.
Zaskiel dove to the side, trying to grab Joshua. In that moment, Ezra appeared in front of the Power, grabbing his attention. The bolt flew and sank in directly between Joshua’s wings even as he raised his sword to attack. He crumpled to the floor, the bolt piercing his spine. Ezra caught him on the way down and flung him with rather impressive strength across the room, into the pool. An imp, leathery wings and tail flicking, cackled with glee and landed on Joshua’s head, forcing him down to drown in the water.
Zaskiel lowered his spear to Ezra, bracing to attack, but she seemed more concerned with backing away from the pool. Suddenly, the imp screamed, thrashing in the water before melting out of existence. The lesser demon with the crossbow didn’t even have time to do more than gawp in horror before Alo’eh’s sword ruptured from their chest.
Ezra cocked her head at the two Powers, looking deceptively pale and delicate between them. “How is it even possible to sanctify water desecrated by the death of an angel? Well,” she seemed to reconsider, “discorporation, really.”
“Too bad you didn’t drown him yourself,” Ramare snarled, his eyes intent and weapon ready.
Ezra smiled thinly. “I’m well aware of the angelic fondness of blessed water. Hazard of the job, I’m afraid.”
“What are you waiting for?” Alo’eh asked, sword ready as she watched Ezra for an opening. Zaskiel realized with a start that she was speaking to him. The demon had her back to him, after all, and was vulnerable. Did she trust him? Why would she do that?
“You expect a Virtue to stab someone in the back?” Ezra asked, a bit incredulous.
“You killed Joshua.”
“You attacked Nathaniel.”
“I’m sorry, who?” At Ezra’s question, both Powers snarled and raised their weapons. “If you mean the Power from a few days ago, I barely touched them. You have Virtue Zaskiel to thank for that.”
“Then we will honor them both by destroying you,” Ramare growled.
Ezra folded her hands before her. “I’m going to ask you very politely just once: please de-sanctify the water. I can handle a discorporation, but holy water threatens my existence.” Her hands separated and blue flame sparked between them. “Please don’t make me destroy yours.”
“Ezra,” Zaskiel started, but he was cut off by Ramare.
“We know what your fire can do. You cannot kill us with it.”
Ezra’s smile was grim. In her hands, the fire’s color slowly shifted from blue to white to yellow. She passed the flame between her hands, splitting it into two. “Last chance.”
Both Powers attacked, so Ezra threw the fire. It was immediately obvious that it was not her typical balefire. Both angels screamed as they were hit and the fire ignited, surging over them. Ramare dove into the holy water in an attempt to save himself. It was hard to say if he died or was merely discorporated. Alo’eh crumbled to ash where she stood.
Ezra turned and Zaskiel saw the brilliant glow of white fire behind her glasses. “Messy business, really,” she said, sounding a bit apologetic. “I did warn them.”
Zaskiel’s spear was still up, the angel numb with shock. He actual trembled in front of the demon. “Was that… was that hellfire?” His voice was soft with terror.
“They blessed the water, I’ll have you note.” Ezra glanced at the pool with two dead angels floating in it. “Certainly not sanctified now.”
Zaskiel stumbled back from the demon. “Why?”
Ezra arched an eyebrow. “Why is the water desecrated?” She frowned slightly as she took in Zaskiel’s trembling. “I’m not going to hurt you, Zaskiel.”
“Why did you lead me here? What do you want? Why won’t you hurt me?”
“Ah.” She looked around and absently tossed the mass of her fine, white curls. “Well, last question first, but I will not hurt you because you won’t hurt me. I believe we established this within the first five minutes of meeting each other. As for the rest… well, I want nothing, actually. I’m sure you’re an upstanding fellow, my dear, being an angel and all, and I find myself rather charmed by our interactions, but this is business.”
“Business?” Zaskiel asked, feeling dread creep through him.
“Yes. I have orders--”
Sudden pain lanced through Zaskiel, leaving a strange emptiness in its way. He gasped and raised a hand to his chest, staring off into the air as he struggled around it. It felt like something had been carved out of his being, something indescribable was missing. Agony clawed at his throat until he suddenly realized what had happened.
Archangel Raphael, Prince of the Choir of Virtues, was dead, erased from existence.
Zaskiel fell to his knees and howled, his wings flailing wide. Through a connection he hadn’t been aware of, he could feel the wails and screams of his sibling Virtues, lamenting the loss of their beloved prince.
He felt hands on him, heard someone speaking to him, but he couldn’t make sense of it. He screamed again, clutching the arms that held him as the agony left him reeling. He heard the voice but was too overwhelmed to respond and instead slipped into unconsciousness.
It took a moment for Zaskiel to realize where he was. Even then, he could not recall how he got there.
He was out under the stars, the air cool in the darkness. There was a glow in the distance and he tipped his head to see a building some blocks away on fire.
Zaskiel gasped and scrambled upright. Ezra was there in his male form, hands in the pockets of his greatcoat as he watched the blaze. He glanced once at the angel, impassive, then turned back. Zaskiel moved over to him to stare at the building. They were on a roof near the enclave, the first roof he’d seen Ezra’s balefire. In front of them, the enclave burned.
“You knew,” Zaskiel whispered.
Ezra sounded distant. “I didn’t. Prince Beelzebub ordered me to lead you away but didn’t tell me why.”
“I don’t know.”
“I could have helped her.”
“You would have died by her side.”
“But I would have been there!” Zaskiel looked around desperately. His spear was gone, but that didn’t matter. He could still search for survivors.
Ezra caught his arm as he spread his wings. “What are you doing?”
“I have to help!”
“You cannot! You will be destroyed.”
“There may be survivors!”
“It’s hellfire, my dear,” Ezra said softly. “There are no survivors.”
“Well, what have we here?”
Zaskiel was set to ignore the new voice until Ezra stiffened. Beside him, terror greater than anything Zaskiel had ever seen flashed over Ezra’s face, but it was just as quickly gone. Over the edge of the roof came two demons, beautiful females barely clothes with delicate horns, long tails, and vicious claws. They hissed briefly at Ezra, flashing fangs, but it was rather like a pair of kittens trying to threaten a tiger. They then turned to Zaskiel, moving in close like guards.
Zaskiel saw Ezra turn and also looked, then gulped. They had been briefed on all of the members of the Dark Council, including the seven archdukes that ruled the deadly sins. As such, Zaskiel recognized Asmodeus, the Archduke of Lust. He was tall and lithe with black, silky hair and eyes the color of fresh blood. Clothing seemed more of a suggestion to him and he used it to decorate his corporation indecently.
The succubi at Zaskiel’s back flanked him, but they did not try to touch him. Rather, they seemed more interested in keeping him still.
Ezra bowed. “Archduke Asmodeus.”
Asmodeus ever so slightly inclined his head. “Lord Ezra. I see your quarry is still in one piece, and you so weak.”
Ezra seemed to ignore the jab, even as Zaskiel’s eyes flicked over him. The Virtue had noticed how he was always pale, the hint of tightness at his mouth, but his hands steady and his mind sharp. How could Ezra be considered weak?
“My duty was to lure and detain him.”
“An admirable job.” Asmodeus’ eyes raked Zaskiel. “He is lovely; so full of power.”
“I am not at liberty to burn someone I was told to detain. It can take millenia to recover.”
Asmodeus smirked. “You know, I’ve always suspected you could feed in other ways, if you let yourself.” He paced forward, meeting Ezra some distance away from Zaskiel. “With you enthrallment, your skills at tempting, and those delicious teeth… why, I alway thought you should have been one of mine.”
Ezra’s fingers twitched but Zaskiel couldn’t tell why. “I am under Prince Beelzebub’s command, and they said to detain.”
“But look at him,” Asmodeus commanded and physically turned Ezra around by the arms. He reached up and took the dark glasses off. Zaskiel made sure to keep his eyes lowered. He must have twitched or something because the succubi grabbed his arms, holding him still.
“So full of power,” the archduke continued. “So vulnerable. And you are so hungry. You’ve let yourself starve for so long.”
Starve? Zaskiel’s eyes flicked up to Ezra’s. The demon’s expression was impassive but his eyes burned with hunger. Zaskiel was a healer, and while angels could not starve, he’d seen such things in animals and humans. He might have been starving and it wasn’t killing Ezra but it appeared tortuous all the same.
“I can teach you,” Asmodeus murmured. He curled one hand around Ezra’s waist, the other cupping the ghostly neck. “I can show you how to have your fill of him from flesh and from blood. He would be yours, a slave to your will, begging to feed you always.”
There was desperation and longing in Ezra’s eyes, but a stone-cold will set his mouth to a hard line as he kept the yearning in check.
Movement caught Zaskiel’s eye. He nearly ignored it considering there were four demons ready to eat him except he saw a human teenager standing not too far from them, watching the archduke and his captive.
“Did I say you could touch him?” the boy asked lightly.
All four demons jerked as if struck by a live wire. The succubi released Zaskiel and cringed back with pathetic whines. Ezra closed his eyes, his hands finally starting to tremble. Asmodeus stilled but then removed his hands, straightening. “No, Master.”
“What were my instructions?”
“Do not let them escape.”
“And you have succeeded. You are dismissed.”
The succubi were instantly gone. Asmodeus seemed to seethe, but then he spread sleek, bejeweled wings and took off. Ezra remained still.
“He’s not wrong, you know,” the teen said, voice far softer as he addressed the demon lord. He was sandy-haired with eyes that seemed to glow in the light of the burning enclave. “You are starving.”
“Master,” Ezra whispered, almost pleading.
“The angel won’t mind. Will you?” He finally looked at Zaskiel.
The angel in question blinked. “Who are you?”
“Adam Dowling,” the boy answered. “This is my nanny, Ezra Fell. I’m rather fond of him, so I’d appreciate your help.”
Zaskiel was very confused. The teenager’s name was familiar, but he couldn’t place it with the face. He was also terribly overwhelmed, Raphael’s absence still aching through his body and the demons’ terror of the boy bizarre. “What--”
“Nanny,” Adam said calmly. “Try the blood. He’ll recover quicker.”
Ezra’s body twitched but he didn’t move, fighting to resist. Adam frowned. “Ezra, feed,” he commanded.
Ezra’s eyes snapped open. Suddenly, Zaskiel was in his arms on the floor, the demon’s mouth on the curve of throat and shoulder, teeth digging in. He gasped, unconsciously straining, but Ezra held him firm, purring against his neck. Darkness swiftly overwhelmed him.
Chapter 5: Aftermath
Sorry for the delay. Life got away from me.
Coming to consciousness was swiftly becoming Zaskiel’s least favorite thing. He opened his eyes then jerked back with a gasp when he saw the boy watching him. It was now daylight and they were in an alley as opposed to a roof. That was all Zaskiel knew.
“Thanks for your help with Ezra. He tries, you know? It makes him different.”
Zaskiel glanced around, seeing no sign of the pale demon. He remembered Ezra biting his throat, those sharp teeth piercing his corporation's flesh. Curious, he felt around the space he'd been bitten. The skin was rippled, no longer smooth, but it didn’t hurt. “Where is he?”
“Safe. You should also forgive him for his part in Raphael’s death. You couldn’t be there, so I had Beelzebub give him the order. He truly didn’t know.”
“You gave the order?”
“Yes. It’s my job, after all.”
That was when the boy's name finally clicked. Panic swarmed up Zaskiel’s throat as he stared at the innocuous teen. “Adam Dowling,” he breathed. “You’re the Antichrist.”
“Son of Satan, Lord of the Abyss, Prince of this World, so on and so forth,” he replied with a bored shrug.
“You killed Archangel Raphael.”
“Yes. Personally. It changes things when physical corporations become more precious. Very few others can make bodies, although I understand you’re one of them.”
Zaskiel wasn’t sure if that was a threat or not. “I am,” he said, lifting his chin defiantly.
A small smile quirked Adam’s lips. “Don’t worry; I don’t intend to kill you. I don’t really need to.”
“You don’t?” The comment sounded ominous and he was rather flustered, his hand absently drifting again to the mark on his neck.
“Not that,” Adam assured. “It’s healed, just scarred. No, I’m going to let you go now.”
“Yep. Just down the street is another enclave, a regrouping point. I think Michael and Gabriel are in there. You are welcome to go, unless you’d rather stick with us. I’m afraid that requires Falling.”
He was wildly confused. “You killed Raphael but intend to return her protégé?”
“I don’t need to kill you, Zaskiel. They will.”
Zaskiel’s entire body went cold. “What?”
“You’ll see,” Adam replied blandly. “But I like you, and Nanny is rather fond of you. She’s been lonely for so long, so if you want to leave at any time, say so.”
Adam disappeared as if he’d never been there, leaving Zaskiel gawking. The Archangels kill him? Why would they do that? He pushed himself up, the events of the past day rattling in his head like rubble. He walked toward the enclave, unsure if he was truly unsteady or just overwhelmed. When the guards saw him, the immediately gathered him inside. However, instead of taking him to be examined, he was led to a blank, white room and tied to a chair. It wasn’t long before the Archangels arrived: Gabriel and Michael, but also Uriel and Sandalphon.
“Zaskiel,” Gabriel said almost cheerfully. “And where have you been? We rather expected you among the dead at the enclave.”
“Raphael sent me to investigate a disturbance,” he answered, unsure what exactly was happening.
“Yes. We were told you sighted the demon lord Ezra. You run into him a lot, don’t you?”
“If you consider three times a lot.”
“Most don’t make it past one,” Michael said serenely. “So yes, we do.”
“It’s just strangely convenient; you happened to leave just before the Antichrist attacked,” Gabriel added.
Zaskiel’s golden eyes widened as he stared up at them. That guarded place in his mind where he hid all of his questions and curiosities was practically whispering in his ear, hinting at what was happening. He refused to believe it. “I don’t understand,” he breathed, Adam’s words rattling in his head with the suspicions he tried to ignore.
“It wouldn’t be hard for you to tell them details about the enclave. You were trusted by Raphael--”
“Yes, I was,” he interrupted sharply. “Why do you not have faith in her trust?”
“Because she is dead,” Uriel snapped, “And you are not.”
“I would never betray her!”
“No?” Uriel moved forward and jerked his tunic aside, baring the scar. “Yet you allow yourself to be marked by a demon lord who killed three angels, or did you forget about your guards?”
“I didn’t let him do that!” Zaskiel closed his eyes, trying to calm down. He couldn’t believe this was happening. “I didn’t tell them anything. Even Lord Ezra didn’t know of the attack.”
“And you believe him?” Sandalphon sneered.
“No, but the Antichrist backed his story, so there’s that,” Zaskiel replied sarcastically.
The four Archangels stared. “You met with the Antichrist?” Michael asked.
Damnation. Zaskiel shifted. “He was there. He told me he killed Raphael so that she wouldn’t be able to make more corporations.”
“Then why would he release you?” Gabriel scoffed. “Raphael taught you too.”
“I don’t know.” He swallowed. “He… he said that you wouldn’t let me make any. He expects you to kill me.”
“Smart kid,” Uriel said dryly.
“How can you even think I would betray her?” he nearly cried, unable to understand.
“You are all but a demon yourself,” Gabriel said. “You wear black and traipse about the edge of the universe. Everyone knows you would have Fallen if not for Raphael.”
“Exactly! She saved me! Why isn’t that good enough for you? God has not marked me.” He spread his wings and, true enough, they were still pure white.
“If it wasn’t your choice, then that means Ezra and the Antichrist have corrupted you. Either way, it is better for you and for us all to end your existence,” Michael answered, unaffected by his wings.
Zaskiel stared at them. “If you believe me to be corrupted, then you are questioning her decision not to mark me.”
“No one has been marked since the first war,” Gabriel interrupted. “You were spared by a demon known to use hellfire to exterminate angels and by the Antichrist himself. If you aren’t corrupted yet, you will be, and to preserve the memory of Raphael’s perhaps foolish decision to extend to you her compassion, you will be executed before you can be further corrupted.” The judgement final, the Archangels filed out of the cell, leaving Zaskiel bound.
He stared at the door in shock. Even the will of the Almighty was not enough to stay their hands. Zaskiel had to believe that he was not corrupted; if he was, it meant She wasn’t paying attention enough to blacken his wings. Raphael had taught him not to question the Almighty and so he tried to turn from that train of thought, but the questions tumbled in his mind as freely as tears slid down his cheeks.
He was not a popular angel. He didn’t have friends; he honestly wasn’t sure any angel truly did. No one had ever sought him out save Raphael or by her request. He had usually attributed this to spending his time at the outer edges of the universe. He had never expected other angels to turn on him the moment her protection was lifted.
He could not have been corrupted, could he? Zaskiel did not remember exactly what Ezra had done after biting him, as he had blacked out. He hadn’t been a willing participant in any case, so why should it tarnish him? He could admit he felt a certain amount of compassion for Ezra, having learned the demon was starving and had dutifully denied himself all this time. He didn’t really know how he felt about the demon otherwise; Ezra was posh and proper, then temptuos and violent by turn. He had been decorous and charming when Zaskiel first met him, then revealed himself as a casual murderer.
It was telling, however, the way Ezra framed his murders. He obviously didn’t consider discorporation a big deal, more of a lesson in inconvenience than anything. He seemed to consider feeding a far greater crime, and had not burned the two Powers with hellfire until he’d been threatened with holy water.
The Antichrist, Adam Dowling, had called Ezra his nanny. The teen was possessive of the demon, dangerously so, but Adam’s love for Ezra had been bright enough that even the lowest of angels couldn’t have been blind to it. Zaskiel wasn’t entirely sure what a nanny did or of the exact nature of their relationship, particularly since Ezra had seemed afraid of Adam. That fear made more sense than the demon’s fainter but steady fondness for the boy, as if he couldn’t quite remember how to love. Adam had been a polite young man, and had cared deeply about his demon’s pain.
Adam had also released Zaskiel, giving him the choice to stay and Fall or go and die. It could be argued that it wasn’t much of a choice, of course, but it was one nonetheless. Adam had known the Archangels would execute him; had that been the boy’s plan all along? Were even the Archangels not safe from the Antichrist’s influence?
Which brought Zaskiel’s frantic mind back to Her. A sob broke from his throat and he closed his eyes against the tears. Raphael had warned him, taught him not to question Her will. He had tried so hard, but it hadn’t made a difference in the end. Demons were treating him better than his own kind, who sought to destroy him, and where was She while it happened? She, Who he had tried so hard to please, to be worthy of. She, Who had not marked his wings but also had not stilled the unjust hands raised against him. He could understand her not interfering in his interactions with Ezra and Adam, but why would She not command Her own armies, protect Her own people? Where was She?
Zaskiel raised his face to the ceiling. “Please,” he begged Her. “Please help me.”
Chapter 6: Adam and Ezra
Ezra awoke slowly, groggy and sated. He blinked in the dim light, confused by the unfamiliar glow of candles and the strange taste in his mouth. He had not tasted anything in five thousand years, so just about anything was unusual.
He turned his head, trying to orientate himself, and froze at the sight of Adam. The teenager was sitting on a chair next to the bed, blue eyes dark as he watched Ezra rouse himself. It was obsessive and chilling, and brought the memory of the previous night crashing back. Without thinking, Ezra immediately looked for the angel.
“He’s been returned to his own kind,” Adam reassured. The calm reply made Ezra pause for several reasons, not the least of which was exactly how relaxed the answer had been. Adam had never liked it when Ezra showed concern or attention of any kind to another.
“Oh?” he asked mildly.
“Please don’t be cross, Nanny, but you know it needs to be his choice.”
“Why would I be cross?”
“Because they are going to execute him.”
The alarm Ezra felt confused him. In an attempt to dismiss it, he looked around the room he was in. He tried to ground himself in his current situation; he didn’t know how else to react.
The room was somewhat small, most of the central space taken up by the bed he was recovering on. A few candles flickered on tables covered with notes and little souvenirs of human life. Besides the chair Adam sat on and a truck that had the hellhound Barcas sprawled across it, the rest of the space was filled with bookshelves stuffed to overflowing.
Ezra’s mouth actually watered, reviving the luscious taste of Zaskiel’s blood in his mouth. Embarrassingly, he nearly swooned as he tried to take in the sight of so many books. He had always loved them, devouring any he could get his hands on. If he’d been able, he would have jealously kept every last one, covetous as a dragon with a hoard. However, swamps and marshlands were poor locations for book storage and he refused to have something Hell could use as leverage against him. He’d learned not that long ago how cruel their tortures could be. Ezra had made his first attempt at temptation during the Great Flood and discovered he did not much enjoy the resultant sex. Satan had kept that secret close for almost thirty centuries before he played his hand, giving Ezra to Archduke Asmodeus to punish. Ezra had learned more than he’d ever wanted to know about how pleasure could be an effective torment and he’d begged at Satan’s feet for the chance to prove his loyalty. He’d taken near fanatic care to never end up in the situation to be punished again. He refused to allow his love of books to be desecrated by Hell the same way food and sex had been, so he took care to avoid making them a weakness.
However, tasked with raising the Antichrist, Ezra had not been able to think of a better way to teach the boy. Those six years, he had sought after and collected volumes to give to Adam, building a carefully curated collection. Along the way, he had found a few darlings he’d squirreled away for himself, but he’d walked away from it all on Adam’s eleventh birthday with the arrival of the hellhound Barcas. To see Adam’s collection and how it had grown was scintillating.
“Impressive,” he breathed.
Adam grinned. “Do you like them?”
Ezra stood up and started studying the spines, fingers stroking delicately. He recognized the ones he had given the boy and was excited to see what was new. Many he had read, but some he had not and he had to fight the urge to snatch them and start reading. His fingers drifted over two copies of The Art of War by Sun Tzu, one of the first edition E. F. Caltrop translations Ezra had given him in pristine condition, and a 1994 Ralph Sawyer that was heavily annotated. A smile quirked over Ezra’s lips but then he paused. Deep in the recesses of a shelf, he found a slender, well-worn book that he pulled free: Where the Wild Things Are . He had given Adam the book and read it to him so many times the spine had broken. The teen had not replaced it, the book tattered and well-loved.
“I missed you,” Adam said softly.
“Sentiment is unbecoming of the Antichrist,” Ezra replied automatically, even as he clutched the book in his hands.
“This world is mine,” Adam stated. “I can be sentimental if I want to.”
The demon nodded helplessly, carefully shelving the book away. He was suddenly reminded that he was now trapped by his Lord’s son, who could do whatever he pleased with him.
Adam grabbed his arm. “Come see. I have something for you.” He pulled Ezra over to the chest, gesturing excitedly at the sleek, black hellhound to move. Barcas huffed but obediently climbed down. Then Adam presented Ezra with the key.
Ezra cautiously took it and unlocked the trunk. He opened it slowly, and when he saw the profiles of more books, he let the lid rest back against the bed.
These were his books. While he had spent those six years with the Dowlings, he’d allowed himself to collect a few of his favorites. He reasoned that he’d needed to show a fondness for books himself to justify exposing his charge to them. Everything he’d left behind at the Dowling estate now sat in the chest before him.
Ezra stared at the books, hand itching to reach out and touch. He didn’t yet dare, however. The teen beside him had spent the last five years methodically decimating Heaven’s armies, heedless of the humanity that got in the way. It would be unwise to trust the affection of the boy. He wasn’t sure if he knew how to anymore, really. Love had been so very long ago that he no longer knew how to handle it. He certainly didn’t trust it.
Adam was seated beside him, so close that their sides pressed together. “It’s okay, Nanny,” the teen said softly. His eyes on Ezra were both adoring and possessive. “I would never hurt you.”
Ezra hesitated only a moment longer before he could no longer resist the temptation to touch. He slid his fingertips over the spines; hunger, possessiveness, and reverence warred in him as he caressed the volumes, feeling how they fit in his palm. “Thank you, Master,” he whispered.
Hands appeared around his face and Ezra stilled as Adam removed his glasses. Out of habit, he avoided looking at the teen, but Adam gingerly touched his white curls and turned his face. Ezra’s powers automatically reached out to anyone who met his gaze; he couldn’t control it. There had only been one exception: Satan. Like his father, Ezra’s powers didn’t try to reach out to Adam as their eyes met. “It’s okay, Nanny,” Adam murmured. “You could never be a threat to me.”
The truth of that statement shot fear through the demon.
“Will you call me Adam?” the teen asked. “When we’re alone?”
“Yes, my… I mean, Adam,” Ezra said immediately.
Adam studies his eyes a moment longer, something dark and hungry in his gaze, but then he sighed and sat back.
“I have something I need you to do,” Adam said, offering back the glasses. “But be quick, won’t you? I don’t want you caught.”
The next thing Ezra knew, he was standing in a blank, white room. Before him, facing the only door, was Zaskiel. The angel was tied with pale rope to a chair, his stardusted curls obscuring his face as it tipped forward. The angel’s bright wings sagged around the chair, and Ezra was surprised to hear weeping.
“Please,” the angel whispered.
“Zaskiel?” Ezra said, bemused as he rose from the floor. Was he in the enclave?
Zaskiel’s head shot up. Sure enough, tears sparkled in his golden eyes, tracks running down his cheeks. “Ezra? What are you doing here?”
“Adam sent me.” He had no idea why, but he found himself strangely relieved to see the angel alive. “They didn’t execute you?”
“Don’t worry; they will.” The sarcasm couldn’t quite hide the pain and bitterness that coated his tone. Ezra’s throat tightened in dismay; he understood that feeling all too well. “They think I helped the attack on the enclave.”
“I suppose that makes sense,” Ezra murmured. “But I find it highly unlikely that you’d betray Archangel Raphael and I barely know you. Surely they know better.”
“Oh, but I’ve been marked by a demon.” Zaskiel half laughed, half sobbed.
Ezra stepped before him so that Zaskiel’s knees pressed into his thighs. He reached forward and gently moved the cream tunic to the side, revealing the scarred bite.
“I almost Fell,” Zaskiel murmured, looking up at him. He was beautiful with tears streaking his cheeks. “Did you know that?”
Ezra released his shirt. “I didn’t.”
“Raphael saved me, taught me how to change my questions. I was always too curious for my own good.” Zaskiel looked away, eyes flicking over the empty space. “Too curious, too strange, too comfortable at the edge of the darkness. Maybe she should have let me Fall; then she’d be alive.”
“If you were suppose to Fall, God would have marked you.”
The white wings flared unconsciously. “Really? That’s very loyal of you, for a damned fetchlight.”
Ezra frowned at the moniker, but he couldn’t argue it. He’d been accused of both being and causing the legends of fetchlights, ghost candles, and will-o-the-wisps for centuries. “Do you feel differently?”
Zaskiel’s eyes were hard as he looked up. “I remember you, you know,” he said, avoiding the question. “I saw you, a frightened principality hovering at the edge of Heaven.”
Shock thrummed through Ezra. No one remembered that angel anymore, except possibly Satan. That Zaskiel, whom Ezra knew he’d never met, remembered him so many millennia later was disconcerting.
“I had been so relieved,” he continued, “as I stood there, safe. Relieved that I wasn’t there with you. But I was also so curious. I couldn’t imagine why you were marked. What could you have possibly done wrong?”
“Zaskiel,” Ezra warned. After all, he knew the dangers of the wrong questions.
“Do you think God made a mistake?” the angel asked heedlessly. “Why did She make humanity just to destroy them? Why did She create us just to condemn us?”
“Stop,” Ezra interrupted.
“Why?” Zaskiel demanded. “There is no more Heaven for me, no one to please except God and I already asked Her for help. She sent me a demon.”
Ezra blinked in surprise. “What?” he asked weakly.
“So I’m going to take it as a sign like I should have millennia ago. I’m tired of choking on the questions that fill my head with so much noise! No one cares anymore!”
“Please,” Ezra almost whispered, his eyes behind his glasses flicking to Zaskiel’s wings as the angel panicked. Were they dimmer?
“Why has She done this to us?” Zaskiel cried, agony marring his face as his tears rolled. “Why has She tortured us? Why did She allow this war, or the first one? Why destroy humanity? Why is there nothing for us after death?”
Zaskiel surged to his feet, the rope falling away. He snatched Ezra’s glasses, throwing them aside as he glared at the shocked demon. “Why you and not me? Why torture you? Why does She starve you? How can She be so cruel? Why did She make us this way?” He sobbed even as he snarled his questions, backing the demon into the door. “Why us? Why me? WHY?” he screamed. With a sob, his legs collapsed and he fell. Before he could hit the floor, Ezra caught him, horrified by the black feathers that now marked the angel.
“Oh, Zaskiel,” he murmured, holding the sobbing angel. “You should have stopped, my dear.”
Zaskiel glanced over his shoulder then turned away, shuddering. Ezra saw movement and looked up to see Adam.
“I’m sorry, my darling, but I can’t leave you here now.” Ezra felt what remained of his heart tightening in pain, but he looked down and held the marked angel as the Antichrist stepped forward and took them away.
Chapter 7: Hell's Trial
Zaskiel woke in a cage. It didn’t really surprise him; nothing did at this point. He pushed himself up, taking in a room with dingy, off-white walls and grey metal desks with uncomfortable-looking chairs. There were two desks: Zaskiel was caged on one, and the other held three globes in a line with something bright blue swirling in them. It took him a moment to recognize what he saw.
Centuries ago, Raphael had summoned him to the Healing Halls in Heaven. There he’d seen a cage containing a moaning human soul. The thing had looked desiccated, grayish translucent skin stretched over a skeletal frame with long, lank hair. The soul’s eyes had been dark holes in its head, its mouth a gaping maw. In the center of the soul’s torso had been a deep, blue glow. It had floated around the edges of the cage, moaning in desperation. The soul had pressed against the walls, clawing at them, struggling to get free and groaning with longing. He’d been told a demon had damaged the soul but they didn’t know how and nothing Raphael could do had helped the poor thing. As far as Zaskiel knew, it was still there.
There were three such souls in front of him, swirling in the small confines of the globes they were caged in. The souls moaned, gawping at him and searching for a way out.
Other things began to trickle into Zaskiel’s awareness as horror slowly began choking him. He could hear shuffling footsteps outside in the hall, the occasional scream off in the distance. The room smelled dank and musty, underlaid with the opposing odors of sulfur and smoke. Shadows stretched in the dusty corners of the room, the whining fluorescent lights flickering randomly. There was no presence of God’s grace, the sensation lacking in a way he’d never experienced before.
“You’re finally awake.”
Zaskiel jerked around to see Adam standing by the door, strangely blending into the dreary surroundings.
“Is this Hell?” Zaskiel asked, though he could not imagine where else he would be.
“Yeah,” Adam sighed, glancing around. “Awful, isn’t it?” He stepped forward and ran a finger over one of the desks, frowning in disgust at the dust.
“Have I Fallen?”
“Not yet. You are a prisoner of war at the moment. Your trial will be soon.” He wiped the finger on his pants then stepped up to the cage.
Zaskiel’s eyes drifted to the globes. “Is there a reason I’ve been locked up with them? Is that my fate?” He pitied the poor souls and did not want to join them.
Adam glanced at the globes. “We’ve never put an angel on trial, so since you’re Ezra’s prisoner, it was decided to put you with his others. That,” he waved absently at the souls, “is strictly a human thing.”
Zaskiel frowned. “I don’t understand. Ezra did that?”
"That blue fire you saw? It’s called balefire. It kind of works on the spirit or soul. That’s what happens when he uses it on a human, but it can’t kill a divine being. It just leaves you locked in a gnarled corporation.”
“Why does he do that?”
Adam frowned, his eyes flashing darkly, protectively. “Four times in six thousand years isn’t so bad. And two of them were self-defense. He didn’t pick his power, you know. God gave it to him.”
God. Zaskiel looked up and leaned against the cage. Why had She done such a thing? Why had She done any of it?
“So, Hell will execute me then?” he asked blandly, feeling strangely tired.
“If that’s what you want.” Adam cocked his head. “I want to talk about Ezra.”
Zaskiel looked at him curiously. “What about him?”
“You let him feed on your blood.”
‘Let’ might have been a bit of an exaggeration. He wasn’t sure how to answer the comment so he stayed silent.
“Do you like him?” Adam asked. He sounded like a teen questioning his mother’s new boyfriend.
Zaskiel blinked in surprise. “He’s… pleasant?”
Adam looked unimpressed. “Pleasant?”
“He’s certainly my favorite demon, but I can’t imagine that’s saying much. Why do you ask?”
“I want to know if you are healthy for him.”
Zaskiel was very confused, but as a healer, the subject had his interest. He shifted to better face Adam. “Can you explain?”
“Ezra is starving,” the teen said. “He can’t feed on humans because the souls haunt him, and demons and angels can’t recover fast enough. That,” he pointed at the scarred mark on Zaskiel’s neck, “was the first time he tried feeding physically and not just through balefire and you responded well to it.”
“You’re thinking of feeding me to him?”
“Don’t worry; as long as he’s male you’re not really in danger.”
Zaskiel frowned. “How so?”
Adam shrugged, ignoring the question. “Let's just say I’m considering my options. I’ve got to keep him healthy, you know.” He pushed away from the desk. “They’ll be here for you soon.”
Zaskiel watched Adam leave, turning things over in his head. Unfortunately, it couldn’t distract him from the situation at hand for long. A part of him wanted to ask if he could talk to Ezra. He rather felt like the demon would explain to him what was to happen next. He understood the idea of a trial but not necessarily what Hell might accuse him of. Would they execute him rather than let him Fall? Perhaps more importantly, did he want them to?
As if he needed the confirmation, he crawled into the center of the cage and unfurled his wings in the cramped space. He touched the inky feathers, trying to grasp how he felt about being marked. Absently, he set a few of them right, but he didn’t have the room to really examine them and put them away, leaning back into the corner of the cage. He tried to think but time seemed to drag on with nothing to mark it but the moans of the consumed souls and the occasional scream.
It took some time before Zaskiel was able to pinpoint what it was he was feeling. He expected anger or fear or even disgust and so he kept searching for them, going over everything that had happened since his last conversation with Raphael. He couldn’t find them, however, his earlier panic and frustration having evaporated. He wasn’t numb either. He turned everything over and over like the swirling blue in the globes until he could finally name the pain in his heart.
He was tired, a weariness weighing deeply on him, making his heart heavy and his limbs drag him down. More than that, however, he felt terribly alone. He was cut off from the Host; Raphael was gone, God had left him (or he had left Her), and he was locked away in Hell without a single being he could trust. He had always been able to trust in someone, Raphael if not God, but now there was no one. A desperate part of him considered Ezra, but what reason did the demon have to be by his side?
Zaskiel was sagging into the corner of the cage, feeling like a fading light waiting to be snuffed out, when the door to the room opened. He looked up, then tensed as four demons he didn’t recognize entered the room with chains in their hands. One sneered at him, one even leered. The third wouldn’t step further into the room than the door, staring in fear at the souls in the globes. The fourth was all business. This demon opened the cage and reached inside, manhandling Zaskiel out. The three demons locked a metal collar around his throat that connected to a set of manacles by a short chain. Beyond the manacles, the chain continued like a long leash that the business-like demon used to pull him along. He was boxed in by the four as they pulled him through empty hallways that couldn’t possibly be more different than Heaven. Strangely, the halls were empty. Zaskiel realized he no longer heard the screams of the tortured.
The dank smell slowly gave way to the sulfur, the air growing hot as the din of a great many voices rose. Finally, they entered an enormous space, a cavern that seemed so out of place from the musty office building halls they had just exited. Glowing pools of sulfur spotted the landscape, surrounding a single, vast lake that bubbled sluggishly. Surrounding the lake and pools were innumerable demons, seeping from the shadows like living nightmares. As they noticed him, the crowd roared, jeering and hissing at him but making way for his handlers to pull him through unaccosted. It was hard to make sense of the cruel joy found in the sea of faces mangled with feral features and disease, so he didn’t try. Instead, Zaskiel focused on the room, the glow of the sulfur, the heat. Soon, he could see a rocky outcropping that towered above the crowd, the top angled in such a way that anyone on it would be in clear view. The back of the outcropping was a sheer drop into the lake of sulfur. A path zigzagged up the natural platform.
Across from the plateau, safely back but within easy display, sat the Dark Council. Satan was hard to miss, seated in the center with his crown of horns, and the Great Dragon, Archduke Leviathan, curled around the back of Satan’s throne. To king’s left was the Antichrist, looking small and very mortal amongst all the demons; to the right was Satan’s second-in-command, Prince Beelzebub. The rest of the archdukes fanned from the black throne, and a line of lesser dukes and lords separated the Council from the legions of demons.
His captors jerked Zaskiel to the foot of the path leading up the outcropping. The chain leash was dropped onto the path where it sank in and slowly began to drag him forward. He had been dressed in dingy white and stood out horribly in the fiery darkness as he began the climb. The crowd howled, shrieking various demands and insults.
The chain slowly shortened, forcing Zaskiel to bend. The horde loved it, screaming for him to crawl, to scrape, to wallow in it. He briefly tried to fight it, but he didn’t have a lot of space between his bound hands and throat and the force pulling the leash would have relentlessly dragged him. He ended up low to the path, struggling to crawl with his wrists bound together, humiliation and fear tightening his throat.
“Crawley crawley crawl.”
“Crawl, Crawley, crawl!”
Eventually, Zaskiel reached the top and was forced to the center. At one side of the platform, a shadow parted from the rest and materialized as a demon he immediately recognized. Ezra pushed back his hood and the shadows that had curled against him and the outcropping seemed to recede. The typical sunglasses were gone, the eternal stain of mud on his boots and the edge of his overcoat vanished. The outfit was far more luxurious than the previous, which had blended better with the rest of Hell’s population. This shirt was silk, the waistcoat black with embroidered flames of blue and white that seemed to lick at the demon. He was clean and pressed in a way that made Zaskiel think he’d been promoted, his white-blond curls and hollowed skin standing out against the stark black, blue eyes burning. Below, the crowd hushed to silence.
“Zaskiel,” Ezra said, and his posh voice rang through the cavern. “Virtue of God, Companion of Raphael, Starsmith. You have been accused by Heaven of conspiracy against the enclave and accessory to the assassination of Archangel Raphael. For these crimes, the Archangels have pronounced your sentence: extinction.”
The horde screamed. Ezra waiting for them to calm again. “That, however, is not for them to decide. Spread your wings, Virtue, and show us your disgrace.”
Zaskiel watched Ezra from where he was forced to kneel spread his wings without shame. The crowd roared at the sight of the black feathers on an angel. They seemed to love it; no angel had been marked since the Great War. Ezra’s expression remained impassive.
“You have been marked to Fall,” he continued. “Should you choose to ignore God’s will and remain loyal, you will be executed by hellfire. However, as She seems fond of free will, you may also choose to turn away from Her, renounce Heaven, and Fall. The choice is yours.”
It wasn’t like he hadn’t known this was coming. Now that he had been marked, those were the only options possible. He no longer knew how to be loyal to God; She had made him this way, and he’d spent so long trying to corral his questions just to fail at the end of all things. Perhaps he was never supposed to succeed. He didn’t know which path was in God’s plan; he only knew that it couldn’t be escaped from.
Instead, he considered his loyalty to Raphael. He’d loved the Archangel, his only friend and companion, and he felt guilty at the thought of Falling the moment she was gone. It seemed like he was betraying her memory, giving up on everything she had taught him.
On the other hand, Raphael was dead, her spirit and being eradicated. It wasn’t possible to disappoint her anymore. No matter what he did, she would never know and it was obvious the rest of Heaven considered him a lost cause.
Zaskiel glanced up at Ezra. The demon’s gaze was just off center to avoid enthralling him. His expression was impassive, but Zaskiel got the impression that he was resigned, as if he knew what the angel was going to do.
Ezra had never had a choice, knowing the consequences. Zaskiel did. He suspected, had Ezra been able to choose, he knew what that Principality would have said. It was plain to him that Ezra expected him to make that same decision.
Zaskiel lifted his chin slightly, looking up at the demon lord, determined and challenging. Clear and calm, he spoke: “Fall.”
The excited energy of the crowd stilled as Ezra’s jaw dropped in shock. “What?”
Angels had chosen to rebel during the Great War. Those who had done so had accepted their punishment defiantly, even gladly. However, no one had ever actually chosen to Fall.
“I choose to Fall.”
Startled, Ezra looked over to the Council. Zaskiel didn’t follow his gaze. He didn’t care what the others did, though he suspected he should have. He only watched Ezra.
The demon lord turned back, looking down at him. He then grabbed Zaskiel by the connecting ring between chain and collar, lifting him to his feet and backing him across the outcropping. When only Zaskiel’s toes remained on solid ground, wings spread to help him balance as he was held over the sulfur lake, Ezra stopped.
“You choose to Fall?” he asked, voice carrying.
Zaskiel held onto the demon’s wrist, helpless but determined. The intense heat from below wilted his feathers and hair, almost like melting wax. “Yes,” he answered clearly.
“Do you commit your fealty to the King of Hell, Satan, and his son, the Antichrist?”
“Do you commit your soul and existence to Hell?”
For a brief second, Ezra met his gaze, his eyes both disappointed and relieved. Then he let go.
Zaskiel didn’t try to keep his grip on Ezra’s wrist, letting it slip through his fingers. The collar remained, as did the manacles and the chain as he toppled down into the pool, the cavern echoing with infernal howls of triumph. The darkness of the heights of the cavern was blinding, the heat consuming his entire mind as he hit the sulfur. It was agony, Her grace being stripped away so fast. He could feel himself sinking and struggled, the sulfur lighting every inch of his corporation in white-hot agony. He couldn’t seem to move, tangled up in the manacles and chain. He kicked out, thrashing, but only succeeded in becoming even more helplessly entangled. The chain bound his arms and legs until he couldn’t move them, could only writhe in the depths of the lake. He finally felt the surface on his back and realized he could propel himself by undulating through the liquid. He finally, finally felt the ground under his belly, felt the surface of the sulfur break around him, and heard the delighted screams of the horde as he emerged. He felt his skin still burning, his eyes on fire. He couldn’t see.
He tasted something strange, then felt a sharp stab in his side. He twisted away, hissing defensively at the source. He still couldn’t feel his limbs nor the chain or manacles, his body bound by whatever the Fall had done to him. He shook his head, trying to clear his vision. Dark shadows moved around him and more pain erupted in his sides as he tried to escape.
Through the agony, frustration, and growing terror, Zaskiel snapped. He darted forward, feeling the hard shadows fall under his weight. He wrapped himself around a few and squeezed, feeling soft flesh give way with horrible squelches and cracks in his grip.
The tormenting stabs fell away as the shadows drew back. He still couldn’t see details, but he could distinguish individuals. In the distance, he heard an intrigued rumble from a deep, cavernous throat. Clear as if standing beside him, he heard a more human voice respond.
“Nope. He’s mine.”
Blue fire erupted around him. Zaskiel cringed back even as agonized wails screeched from the shadows it encountered. He quickly realized he was alone in the circle of flame. He reared back, watching it warily to see what this latest torture was. Something about it soothed even as it alarmed him. Zaskiel felt himself sway, hissing in warning, trying to protect himself from the unseen threat. He twisted, turning every which way, but all he could see was fire. His body hurt, his eyes burned, he couldn’t feel his legs or arms. Everything was so overwhelming; then a figure moved in through the flames.
And he did.
Chapter 8: Newly-Minted Demon
The next thing Zaskiel was aware of was a warm bed. The sensation wasn’t foreign to him but was definitely unusual enough to send his consciousness swimming up through the darkness. His body ached in ways he’d never experienced before, his eyes in particular burning and he wasn’t sure why. He slowly opened them and had to blink several times, trying to take in the foreign room. His vision was focusing strangely and he felt rather cold, huddled in the blankets that surrounded him. Desperately he looked around. Bookshelves lined every wall, crammed with books and candles that dimly illuminated the space. On the only chair in the room sat a figure all in black with a mop of white, curly hair. He had a book in his hands and was intently reading by candlelight.
It took a moment for Zaskiel’s fuzzy brain and eyes to recognize Ezra, but once he did, the memories of his trial came flooding back. He thrashed, fighting the bedding, desperate to feel his limbs.
Hands fluttered over his shoulders, not holding him down but attempting to soothe him. Zaskiel grasped Ezra’s wrists, panting as he looked up at the demon in shock. His body felt so foreign to him, everything so loose, cold, and wrong. His eyes didn’t quite work how he expected them to and he kept over-extending as he struggled against the blankets, body shivering, and he didn’t know how to reconcile these changes. He writhed, his spine arching and twisting strangely. He whimpered, panic swelling in his throat, clinging to Ezra in fear.
“Be still, pet,” Ezra murmured, carefully holding Zaskiel’s shoulders.
“Is this Hell?” Zaskiel rasped, eyes rolling wildly to study the room.
“No, no,” he was assured. Ezra sat down beside him. “This is Adam’s room in our camp near the front line.”
“Adam?” Things were slowly clearing up in his addled mind. “Why are we in Adam’s room?”
“His instructions.” Now that Zaskiel was calming down, Ezra released the pressure on his shoulders. “Leviathan wanted to claim you, with the serpent connection you have now, but Adam had preferential claim.”
“Adam claimed me?” he asked blankly. “Serpent?”
“You need to be calm, pet. I will explain.”
“I’m not your pet!” he hissed, baring his teeth. He bucked up, twisting, and easily threw off Ezra’s grasp.
The pale demon huffed, flashing his own sharp teeth. “Well, what would you have me call you? Crawley?”
Zaskiel jerked as if he’d been slapped. “What?”
“That’s what Hell has been calling you.”
“I have a name!”
He froze, eyes wide. That hadn’t occurred to him. He knew that demon names weren’t angelic, but he hadn't known Ezra as an angel so never knew his name. Satan and Lucifer were still interchangeable, so he’d thought it was a choice. It just hadn’t occurred to him it would be taken from him.
The enormity of his choice was growing greater by the second. He was too numb to feel something like regret, but the gravity of the changes was pressing on his chest, making it more and more difficult to breathe.
Ezra touched his shoulder to catch his attention. “Adam is giving you the chance to choose but you don’t have to immediately. Just know that you will be called Crawley until you do.”
“But not by you?” he asked, feeling almost desperate. He wasn’t prepared for the derisive moniker, particularly from the closest thing he had to an ally.
Ezra’s expression grew stilted, as if he wasn’t used to being gentle. “Not if you prefer.”
Zaskiel looked around again and noticed the full length mirror in the corner. He rose carefully, stumbling as he tried to stand. His body felt oddly loose and boneless and still so cold, but he found his balance and tried to find his center of gravity as he walked to the mirror and opened his wings.
His clothes had been changed into tight trousers and a loose tunic, both in a black that matched his wings. His skin was normal although it seemed dull, lacking that angelic glow. Most of the changes seemed centered at his head.
His hair was still red, but before it had been the brightness of a nebula with stardust shimmering in it. Now it was like the burning core of hellfire. Beside his right ear was a twisting mark, a serpent engraved into his skin. Then there was his eyes. The golden star fire was gone. In its place, they were a sulfur yellow from lid to lid with a vertical pupil, like the snake etched into his skin. They were flat, expressionless. Ezra had mentioned a serpent, which just now coalesced in his brain as him. He’d been turned into a snake. It could have been worse, but the blank, dull appearance cut deep. Then there was, of course, the irony of being turned into Raphael’s favorite animal and the symbol of her healing magic.
He felt Ezra step up behind him. Fingers caught an itchy feather in his wing and carefully adjusted it. “It takes time to get used to it.
“How are these manifestations chosen?” Zaskiel asked blankly.
Ezra shrugged. “God?”
“Then She has a sick sense of humor.”
Ezra’s answering smile was wane. “Many in Hell agree.”
He stared for a long moment as his blank, unblinking eyes. “I thought I would feel different,” he said numbly.
“I don’t think who you are changes,” the demon lord said thoughtfully. “Only the environment that shapes you. Some see it as being set free. Others feel it’s just another cage.”
Zaskiel turned, folding his wings away. “What do you think?”
He could feel Ezra’s eyes boring into him, but with the damnable glasses on, he couldn’t see what he was staring at. “I think it is in service to God’s plan. I don’t understand how or why, but it’s ineffable anyway.”
He stared. “You still believe that after six millenia?”
When he responded, Ezra’s voice was soft, almost vulnerable. “What choice is there?”
“The choice is to make a choice, Ezra. To decide.”
“I didn’t choose to be this. I didn’t choose my assignments or my punishments. Any decision I’ve ever made has led to worse things. Sometimes you aren’t aware of the choices you make. You think you've done the best you can, what’s expected, and aren’t prepared for the consequences when it all goes twisted and wrong.” Ezra seemed to twitch suddenly, as if he thought he was revealing too much. “Don’t worry. You’ll learn how to suffer.” He headed back toward the chair.
Zaskiel stared at him. “You think I don’t know suffering?” The silence was pointed disbelief. “I’ve spent the last six thousand years learning every trick I could to shut down half of my mind. I tried everything to excise the parts of me that couldn’t help but question. Do you know what it’s like to treat your own mind like the enemy while everything around you assures you that all are created perfect by God?”
Ezra’s hand went still on the cover of his novel, face turned away. “No,” he said softly. “I don’t know what that’s like.”
In that moment, with the pale demon looking fragile and wane before him, Zaskiel remembered what he’d been told of Ezra starving. That was just a part of being a demon to Ezra; it had nothing to do with Hell. It was simply a baseline for existence that all of Hell’s torments built upon. He didn’t know anything about the assignments Ezra had to accomplish except that he’d been on Earth since almost the beginning. He didn’t know what Hell had done to make the fragile Principality he’d seen into the frosty wraith he was now, beloved of the Antichrist himself, but he was sure that the demon had suffered in ways he couldn’t fathom.
Zaskiel sat on the edge of the bed, feeling the other predator’s gaze track him. He could understand the instinct now, to study prey. He remembered the conversation he’d had with Adam regarding Ezra starving himself.
“Adam said something to me, before the trial,” he started, hesitant. “He told me that as long as you are male, I’m safe with you.”
Ezra froze, stiff. He stared off, his fingers curled over the corner of the book’s cover. “I can’t control the enthralling magic in my gaze,” he said, voice impassive. “Anyone who meets my eyes has to actively resist. Most demons can’t, and humans certainly aren’t capable. It’s not a helpful trait for most types of jobs. Because of that, I was forced to be a reaper, culling souls we had claimed already. Usually, it meant needing to remain unnoticed so I didn’t have to meet anyone’s eyes but the target. It was often easier to do this when I appeared female.”
“You murdered humans for Hell?” he asked, horrified. He thought again about Ezra’s quiet denial of a choice in assignments and tried to imagine the ways in which his being cracked into pieces as he was forced to kill in Hell’s name.
“Glasses weren’t invented until two thousand years or so ago. I spent the first four thousand years of this world having to avoid looking at anyone. There was little else I was useful for.” His tone was calm and even, but when Zaskiel breathed, he could taste Ezra’s unease in the air.
“And appearing female made that easier?”
“Many societies will consider a man who won’t meet your eyes as weak and will be suspicious of him. For a woman, it’s simply being demure. It was often easier to avoid attention and get closer to my target that way. Once glasses came about, I was able to move to temptations.”
“But what about when you weren’t on the hunt for Hell? How did you interact with people?”
Ezra brushed his fingers over the book cover. “I didn’t.”
Zaskiel didn’t pity him; being an angel assigned to the edge of existence, he understood the peaceful loneliness that one could experience at the outskirts. Still, that had been his choice. He wasn’t sure Ezra’s loneliness was.
“I know why Adam claimed me,” he said.
It was hard to tell where Ezra was looking with the glasses. “As do I,” he said. He didn’t seem to appreciate his master’s concern.
Zaskiel stood and stepped forward. “I can’t tell what you’re thinking with your eyes covered.” He reached for the glasses.
Ezra leaned back. “Were you not listening? There’s nothing to see.”
“Except your eyes. They’re beautiful, you know.”
Ezra didn’t resist the second attempt, but he also didn’t look at Zaskiel. He jerked, badly startled, when the new serpent climbed onto his lap. “What are you doing?” he asked, alarmed.
“Adam wants me to feed you,” Zaskiel murmured.
Ezra flushed the lightest pink in anger. “You are not food and I don’t want you climbing on my lap.”
“I am food,” Zaskiel confirmed. “I’m just not prey.” He gave in to a strange urge and let his tongue flick out to taste the air. There was anger, yes, and so much hunger, but there was also fear. “And neither are you. I won’t hurt you, Ezra.”
“Already with the temptations, Crawley?”
Zaskiel stiffened, strangely hurt. “You said you wouldn’t call me that.”
Ezra took a breath, and the serpent could feel the way it trembled through him. “My apologies, pet, but I really rather you didn’t.”
“I can taste your hunger,” Zaskiel murmured, flicking his tongue out again. “It makes my body hurt. I can also taste your fear. Why are you afraid to feed?”
The fear swelled, nearly drowning the hunger. A moment later, Zaskiel’s back hit the bed as Ezra rose and dropped him onto it then backing off. Ezra’s hands fluttered over his own form, almost as if reassuring himself. “Do you want me to hurt you?” he asked, almost angry. “If so, this is the way to accomplish it.
Zaskiel leaned up on his hands, not really understanding Ezra’s upset. He had been taught by Raphael to be a healer and found that he couldn’t ignore the wound now that he knew it was there. “Do you want to?” he inquired softly.
“Pet,” Ezra warned.
“You can,” he continued. “I don’t mind.” He moved to kneel on the bed, close to the other demon. “Just not the fire?” He reached out to touch carefully.
Ezra’s head jerked around to face him, melting minutely. His face softened, hair lengthened, everything sliding to female curves, then those burning eyes met his.
Zaskiel froze, waiting for that drowning fire as they stared at each other. Slowly, Ezra’s rage faded into confusion.
“It’s… sliding off,” she said, bemused.
Zaskiel blinked, a little surprised. “I thought you could enthrall demons.”
“I can, and I have enthralled you before.” Realization seemed to dawn. “Adam,” she growled, baring fierce, sharp teeth.
“But this is good,” Zaskiel soothed. “It means there’s no question of force; you can’t doubt it’s my choice.”
Ezra looked frustrated, but her eyes told a different story. She never learned to hide what they showed since no one had ever been able to see them. They were vulnerable and afraid and lonely and hopeful. “Why?” she asked, wrapping her arms around herself. “Why are you doing this? I’m a demon; unworthy. Why do you care? Why risk yourself? Just… why?”
Why? It was Zaskiel’s favorite question, and finally, after millenia of smothering himself and biting his bit to keep it contained, he thought he had the answer.
“Why not?” he asked, leaning closer. “It’s who I am. Let me be who I am.” He carded his fingers through her hair, enjoying the riotous ringlets as they slowly shortened again. “Let me help you,” he murmured. Ezra stared at him as if enthralled, body sliding back into male as he stared, enchanted by the serpent. “Let me give myself to you.”
A soft whine came from Ezra’s throat. Zaskiel gently pulled him forward so that he hovered over him. Zaskiel didn’t truly know how to help him, but he knew he wanted to wrap himself around that soft, pale body, selfishly keeping him to himself. He wrapped his legs around Ezra, burying one hand into his hair and one arm around his shoulders. Then Zaskiel bared his throat to him.
Ezra whimpered, his body trembling. He tried to hold himself up, but couldn't stop from leaning in, breathing against Zaskiel’s neck. He licked and whined again, then sank his sharp teeth into the open flesh.
It hurt, but it also felt delicious, having that mouth and tongue take a part of him in. He clung to the other demon, hissing in both pain and pleasure. Ezra dug in, drinking his blood and worrying at the wound, biting and nibbling to encourage it to keep bleeding. His fingers pulled Zaskiel’s hair, fisting the long, fiery curls to control him even as he tried to melt into the lithe serpent beneath him. When Ezra pressed his entire body close, tingling pleasure ratcheted up and Zaskiel’s legs tightened around him as they buried themselves into each other. Ezra drank away Zaskiel’s essence even as the former angel grew rather delirious at all of the pleasures he’d never experienced before. They were so completely tangled, it was almost impossible to feel where one ended, both bleeding into the other.
Eventually, Zaskiel felt faintness overtake the warm pleasure, a growing sluggishness in his corporation. He shifted his hands to Ezra’s shoulders and nudged, making a point not to fight.
Ezra paused at the pressure, a low growl rumbling in protest. Still he pulled away, looking down at him. Blood smeared his lips and across one cheek as he studied Zaskiel’s face to make sure he was okay.
“He’ll be fine,” Adam said from the door.
Both demons jerked, Ezra far more alarmed than Zaskiel. The teenager was slouched against the doorframe, his hands shoved into his pockets. His face was slightly flushed as he watched them intently. His gaze was half predatory, half critical, and rather excited.
“Adam!” Ezra snapped, scrambling to untangle himself. “This is inappropriate!”
The teen balked. “I’m the Antichrist!”
“What, I’m old enough to end the world but I can’t watch you feed?”
“Absolutely not! I’m your nanny!” Ezra seemed genuinely shocked.
“You’re on my bed,” Adam protested.
Ezra stilled, taking in the comment, then his pale skin flushed redder than Zaskiel had ever seen.
The former angel didn’t really understand the problem, so he decided that distracting the two might be a good idea. It seemed especially prudent since Ezra was known to literally burst into flames.
“I was thinking Crowley,” he threw in.
“You were thinking?”
“ Adam! ” Ezra scolded, working himself into a proper tizzy.
“I’ve been known to do it quite often,” Zaskiel said dryly. He nudged Ezra, drawing his attention away from the unrepentant teenager. “What do you think?
Ezra focused on him, eyes flickering over his face. He was obviously making sure Zaskiel was okay, but the wound in his neck had healed and he could feel his infernal nature working to replace the stolen essence. “Crowley,” he tested, letting the name roll off his tongue. “I'll get used to it.”
“He’s still going to call you pet, you know,” Adam pointed out.
Zaskiel smiled, flashing tiny fangs. “I find I don’t mind.”
Chapter 9: Epilogue
The battle was all but over, the field littered with the dead and dying. Psychopomp demons fluttered around the bodies, looting for anything left of value and collecting the souls of any humans unlucky enough to be involved. When they found living divinities on the field, they sent the demons off for new corporations, and exterminated the angels. Toward the center of the field was a large collection of demons. Six greater fiends held a figure still, wrapped in chains. A pale demon dressed in the deepest black stood before them all, her burning blue eyes locked on the captive’s.
A sandy-haired human teen picked his way across the field, followed by yet another demon. This one was also in black with fiery-red hair and serpent eyes the color of sulfur. He slinked after his master, cool and confident, his body moving in an oddly disarticulated fashion. The Antichrist stopped beside the wraith demon, the serpent settling to his left. He cocked his head, studying the captive Archangel for a moment, watching his face twitch as he struggled against Ezra’s enthrallment. After a moment, he glanced at the guards. They tightened their holds on the chains in their hands. Adam then looked to Ezra, glancing over his adored general. The demon lord was covered in blood, her clothes torn, but she wasn’t wounded.
On the other side of Adam, Crowley also studied his partner, marking sure she was alright. Satisfied, he turned to stare unblinkingly at their captive, absently twirling two wicked and bloody daggers.
Finally, Adam nodded and Ezra looked away from Gabriel’s violet eyes, lowering her glasses once again.
Gabriel jerked and blinked, immediately struggling against the chains. He looked up at the three before him and scowled. “The boy, his nanny, and their Fallen pet. How quaint.”
Adam shrugged. “Well, I mean, you did lose to us, so…”
The chains around Gabriel creaked in protest but held as he strained against them. The Archangel glared up at Crowley. “So this is how you honor Raphael’s memory? By choosing to Fall?”
“Makes about as much sense as honoring a healer by executing her protégé,” Crowley said, gaze flat and discomforting.
“Obviously we were right to do so.”
“Yeah, I should thank you for that,” Adam added thoughtfully. “He never would have Fallen if you hadn’t decided to betray him.”
Gabriel scoffed even as he continued to test his bonds. “Us? Betray him?”
Adam studied the chains dubiously, then looked at Crowley and nodded. Between one breath and the next, the enormous black and red serpent appeared and wound himself around Gabriel, his head hovering beside the Archangel’s almost intimately. Gabriel struggled again but Crowley just squeezed. He was a snake: breathtakingly fast and strong. Gabriel’s resistance to his coils simply made it more likely he’d injure himself.
The Archangel panted, looking at Crowley with something close to hatred. “You’re a stain on Raphael’s memory, throwing in with her murderer.”
Crowley watched him with the same unreadable serpentine eyes. “Perhaps,” he hissed, voice dusty in his snake form. “But she is dead and I am as God intended me, as you said.”
Gabriel looked away with a near growl. He looked up at Ezra, who was also impassive behind her dark glasses, and Crowley could taste the sudden fear from him. Gabriel struggled again, almost groaning as Crowley tightened once again. “What do you think is going to happen in this war?” he asked, trying and failing to mask his desperation with exasperation. “You can’t possibly think you’ll win against God.”
“God?” Ezra answered, sounding a little surprised. “No. But you see, Heaven is not God.”
“If you think about it, really we’re just doing what She designed us to do,” Adam said.
“Her immaculate creations,” Crowley hissed.
“Ineffable,” Ezra added.
Gabriel stared at them. “You can’t actually think God will let you win?”
“Why not?” Ezra asked. “She made both Heaven and Hell and the denizens within. She gave us our powers even as She gave you yours.”
“Creation and Destruction,” Crowley observed thoughtfully. “Which act comes last?”
Gabriel fought against the serpent. Crowley remained unperturbed, easily holding the Archangel. “Then what do you want from me?”
Adam cocked his head. “Nothing,” he said with a shrug.
Crowley’s coils tightened suddenly until the Archangel could no longer move. “Relax,” he hissed softly in Gabriel’s ear as Ezra stepped forward. Blue fire danced over one hand as she pushed her glasses back up to sit in her hair. She shaped the flames into a ball and concentrated. Her eyes slowly bled to burning solid white as the flames slid from blue balefire into yellow hellfire. “It will all be over soon,” the serpent soothed.
He couldn’t draw in air, couldn’t even squeak as Ezra looked up at the two of them twined together. Gabriel’s eyes widened desperately, then the pale demon cast the hellfire out, setting them aflame.