Silence pervaded everything surrounding them, from the leaves' sudden stillness to the stream's rapidly fading murmur. Dusk had fallen. Only the last few touches of golden light painted the canvas the forest provided. Quietly, quickly, the hidden sunlit arcs collapsed in their feebly constructed worlds and everything was dark.
Newly born dimness crept its way across the path, worn flat, yet ragged in its age, and found the shadows of its youth. Twined with the solid black, companion to its obscurity, came the chilling cold of only one place. They joined together, complementing each other, pulling and squeezing the last dying breath from the frozen hearts they surrounded.
People everywhere, but nowhere… Thoughts meshing together like the chaos of an automobile accident--escaping, strewn, and unidentified. A brittle image so easily imagined, but escaped only with the pain of a thousand deaths. Not that death was anything anymore, at least not here. It was a dream, a passion, a utopia... It was hell.
Pain flooded the secluded grove, while wraiths wove an eerie picture like a silent movie, searching for their souls in almost mortal despair. Their uncanny cries echoed too softly for humans to hear, in a language they wouldn't recognize if they could. In a battle fought for centuries with no resolution, the wind carried their muted voices away. Blood and tears overflowed around them, threatening to drown them in their own sorrow. In their own misery and pain.
Searching for their souls…
Talis shuddered, closing her eyes against them. A tear slipped unheeded down her cheek, freezing in its path like crystal, slightly shattered but never forgotten. A physical symbol showing how much she was affected. Her hands rose slowly, covering her ears. And yet she'd learned long ago their voices could not be silenced. They were a part of her, as much as every memory, every dream, every hope. She had tried to cut them from her thoughts; she had tried to cast them from her mind. They remained in ghostly shards, never leaving her completely. She was forced to deal with them or be overwhelmed. The choice was hers.
It was the legacy of her mother and the curse she had bestowed on her. Maybe not willingly, but consciously nonetheless. Madness flowed through Talis' veins, like the cool trickle of water. If she hadn't known better--hadn't been able to see it within herself--she would have thought insanity a raging inferno, building and bursting until it was let out. She wouldn't have expected the cool wind chimes of lunacy to sing softly through her head.
But… what did she know anyway?
Her mouth curved up in a smile or maybe a grimace. She wasn't really sure. The icy trail on her cheek cracked, dusting down. Not melting away. It was too cold for that here. Too cold…
Hell should be burning. Not a glassy film wavering over her world, blending in and meshing. She wondered… If they looked close enough, could anyone see it? She was one of the few who could see little else. Her real life was a parody. She never felt like she had an active role. How could she? She existed here, with these bits of humans, these pieces of people she might have known. Some she knew all too well. Many… Many she wished she didn't. Their depravity tore at the threads of her existence. She felt unraveled, disjointed, and lost. But tonight… Tonight she had no choice.
Tonight she was here for a reason.
She almost wished she didn't know what that reason was. If she didn't… She quickly buried that thought. Too late. She did know.
It was her problem now.
She gritted her teeth against the tidal wave of thoughts slowly consuming her brain. She had to concentrate. Somehow she had to force through them to find… him. Another tear froze its way down her cheek. How could she even force herself to look? To know someone so completely, and yet, not know them at all. She knew she would have hated him if she'd known him in life. She also knew he wasn't coming back. Things just didn't happen that way.
That made her safe, didn't it?
She hoped so.
He can't touch you here, she reminded herself almost absently. Not that it mattered. The emotional trauma was often worse than any physical damage she could sustain. The things he could do to her mind were numerous. Of course, she was expecting him to be like a human. Like those impossibly stubborn, irrevocably naïve humans. She knew better than to think he would be. He could never be anything like them. His kind never was.
Pushing herself up with her hands, she stood slowly, brushing the dirt off her filthy jeans. She'd cowered in the dirt so long, she'd managed to cover her jeans in mud. Every time she had to make contact with the ghostly world, forcing herself to become immersed in their minds grew harder. Lately, she needed hours to simply find the courage to get up. Then again… before she'd never fallen. But the first touch of their thoughts was like a shock wave, immobilizing her. Too many thought she was an escape, a haven, or even just an outlet.
She was almost sorry she couldn't do anything for them. But… her job didn't include services to the dead. Only those who shouldn't be here in hell. And this one--the one she hadn't wanted to take--was even more of a special case.
This appointment came from God himself.
At first she wanted to refuse. At first she hoped it was a dream. But… no dream she'd ever had recurred night after night after night until she knew she couldn't ignore it. No dream had asked so much of her. Or been so specific. She couldn't turn her back on this request. The insistence behind it was too powerful, the motivation too great.
She laughed at herself suddenly, forgetting laughter disturbed those in hell. The sound was heard too infrequently. The spirits rushed at her, crying out their agony, longing to hear their own laughter. Longing for the memories that tormented them and a second chance at life. Laughter was a painful reminder of what they had lost. She almost cringed away before she remembered they couldn't hurt her.
The dead could not mix with the living world. They could only exist in torment beside it.
Even those who should not be here would have to suffer for awhile longer. Because tonight Talis would finish her assignment, even if it took everything she had, and the others would just have to wait. This job was too important, because God needed something. And that something was what she was looking for now.
Apparently, it didn't want to be found.
Well, she was standing now. If she could just force herself to take that first step… Then everything would be so much easier. She needed to center herself, to surround herself with their misery. Maybe then she would be able to locate the source of the greatest misery of all.
She could feel it, pulsing at the edges of her consciousness, but she couldn't place it. And only if she was in the center would she be able to feel which direction it came from. Hell was fickle like that. The grief echoed and fell into itself. In some ways, hell was like a mirrored room. Everything reflected in all directions. Losing herself inside was far too easy. She almost couldn't tell what was real and what wasn't anymore.
She shivered suddenly, blinking in surprise. She'd almost forgotten about the cold, so bitter it almost felt alive itself. Alive or dead, the chill was the only tangible thing. She refused to complain, however, because it reminded her she was alive. Not one of these sorry ghosts, moaning her pleas to a deaf god.
Maybe eventually she would be. Who knew? She'd done her service to Him--more than paid her dues--but anything could happen in the future. Besides, this one was either going to put her in an insane asylum or a coffin. She couldn't decide between the two. Although if she had her choice, she would probably choose the asylum. At least maybe she would have peace there.
But… back to her job. Might as well get it over with, right? If only it were that easy…
Gathering every last ounce of her strength, she cautiously placed one foot in front of her body. When nothing rushed at her, she took another cautious step. She frowned. The whistling rush of spirits kept suspiciously silent, the absent sound stilling her heart and chilling the blood in her veins--if it could become colder. The spirits were never silent. Unless…
Unless God warned them to stay silent. He could have, she supposed. It was just so unlike him… If she didn't factor in the person she had been assigned to find. He changed everything.
Another step. Still no sound; still no warning. As disturbing as their disinterest was, it was mildly comforting as well. She didn't need to be bothered right now. She just had to remember not to get used to it… The peace would probably never happen again.
The ground stretched in front of her like miles, each wobbly step taking her closer to her goal. Each step making it harder to continue. Would she be able to deal with his pain? Would she even survive this? She wasn't completely sure. Because if she knew anything about him, anything at all, then she knew this separation from God would be worse than any she could experience. Ever.
His punishment had to be. He had been so close to Him from the beginning… The experience must have been like being torn apart by the seams. How could he even know himself anymore? His suffering was bound to be hundreds of times worse.
She only hoped the magnitude was not too great for them both.
Agonizing step after agonizing step, she finally made it to the center. The spirits gathered around her as thick as clouds. Almost, but not quite, substantial. They remained silent, watchful, but more than anything, they seemed sympathetic.
Sympathy from the dead? Terror grew in the pit of her stomach until she could taste it. She could understand if she'd been sent to find Lucifer or even Beelzebub, Satan's second-in-command. But this unease because of who she had been sent for? It made her wary.
She wasn't quite sure what transgression could have been so great--what sin so mortal--that he should remain unforgiven. All those years… So much time to abide in this travesty of life. So many decades to spend away from God's presence. As a punishment, alienation served its job well. Nothing could ever be worse.
And now she was here to correct that. Would he let her? Absence from God could do strange things to a person's mind. The devil himself had not been able to withstand it. He barely kept his sanity now, God's slightest word enough to send him over the edge. He wasn't showing his face at the moment, another unusual sign. She usually encountered him once or twice on her missions.
Sighing, she scolded herself, Focus, Talis. Get it over with.
She quickly dropped to her knees, focusing inside herself and searching for his energy. She wasn't long in finding it. It burned as brightly as a thousand flames, the purity distinguished from the blackened souls like a candle in a sea of darkness. His presence was unmistakable.
There… to the left, just a little. Sheltered from the soulless by a huge elm, he huddled on his knees. She could feel him. No one's presence had ever felt so powerful, so overwhelming, with the exception of God. She stumbled to her feet blindly, her stomach a mass of raw nerves, and lurched in his direction.
When she saw him, her senses reeled. So much pain… More than all the pain of hell combined. And it radiated from him in waves of heat. She saw his golden head first, the tousled waves of flaxen riotous about his head. On second glance, the gold shone tarnished, as though his sins dulled it. His head bent low, his forehead almost touching the ground in silent supplication, another distinct difference from those surrounding him. A broken sob slipped from her throat before she could stop it. This shattered image defied every picture she had of him. His flowing white robes hung tattered, their folds reduced to little more than ragged strips of cloth. The gaping holes revealed brutally raised and bleeding welts. A memory struck her, suddenly. Hadn't she heard a story about him once? Something about losing God's favor… And as punishment, he received fiery lashes across his back. In the same place these welts were located. But… They should have healed. Immediately, if the stories were true. Why would they return, open and bloody? These wounds could mean only one thing--his fall from grace had turned him human. Oh, dear God… The situation was worse than she'd thought.
Her tears began flowing in torrents, too fast to freeze on her cheeks. She whispered his name softly, a bare exhalation of breath, and suddenly, he turned. Eyes wide and so blue--blue like sapphires--and wet--velvety dampness like the first drops of dew on forget-me-nots--met hers. She fell into their depths. Falling, falling… Confronted with emptiness. Hollowness where God used to be, the absence sucking her down like a vacuum. Even his memories faded into mere shadows.
And then she realized he stared at her, her soul so clearly out of place in this miserable world.
Hope filled those beautiful blue eyes. Maybe he looked for something else inside her, something he had been searching for all this time. Whatever he looked for, whatever he saw, it wasn't what he thought he'd find. The expectation faded and his eyes became only blue, normal like any human's eyes.
He was human.
The realization settled uncomfortably in her mind. He was human, and yet… He wasn't. He never could be. The instincts ingrained in him from birth would always make him different.
He looked away, his eyes sliding shut and his head bending again. Intolerable pain etched itself across his face and unfrozen tears slid slowly down his cheeks. Why weren't they freezing? Another sign separating him from those who truly belonged in hell.
Chills wracked her body as she watched him, but they were not related to the cold. He appeared so vulnerable. His proud shoulders slumped in dejection. Steeling herself, she inched forward to place her hand gently on his back. She carefully avoided the raw flesh, trying not to cause him any further pain. He didn't flinch. He didn't even acknowledge her. She wondered if he remembered her presence.
But then… Something seemed to crack inside of him, like the brittle shattering of her tears. His shoulders tensed and his muscles strained against the palm of her hand. He shuddered with effort. An emotion somewhere between pleasure and pain washed over his features. And suddenly, between his shoulder blades, strong feathery wings began to sprout. Under her surprised eyes, they grew, arching upward, stretching out in downy, silky tufts until they became long and resplendent. They extended to their full length, up and out, like an eagle readying itself for flight off a mountain peak. Slowly, they collapsed, folding in on themselves.
Maybe human in some aspects, but no less what he truly was…
Gabriel the Archangel.
Angel of Annunciation, of Death and Resurrection, of Vengeance and Compassion, and of Hope. Prince Regent of the First Heaven. The sin he committed--whatever it was--dimmed his glory no less. When his deep blue eyes met hers the second time, she saw everything he was and everything he had been. She saw him in his role as the benevolent cherubim and as the messenger who delivered the news of Christ's birth. And she saw him as a human.
But how could he be both?
I am not.
Startled, she backed away. Never before had anyone invaded her mind. Spoken to her, yes. But made direct contact the way he'd just done? How? She wanted to panic, to yell, to force him out… But she didn't know how. She could literally feel his presence.
She needed to finish this now.
The decision came rapidly, lightening-quick. She needed to get out of here. She wanted to be safe in her warm bed, away from the riotous emotions. Away from him. Free from God's demands, at least for the moment. She just wanted to sleep. This assignment had been a drain on her emotions from the minute it began. She felt empty and disjointed. The misery around her was beginning to grate on her nerves.
She reached out a hand, staring grimly into Gabriel's eyes. She saw indecision play inside them. Knowing he could hear her, she willed him to accept it and to return to God's presence where he belonged. Hesitating, his hand moved to hover over her own. She had to stop herself from grasping it. The decision had to be his choice, not hers. She hoped he made it quickly.
She almost sighed with relief when she felt his hand clasp hers gently, folding around it almost reminiscent of the way his wings had folded around his body. She shut her eyes and whispered a quick prayer to God.
Gabriel's hand was still fastened to hers. Maybe the air was a little warmer. No, it was definitely warmer. Hell's temperature never rose. What had happened? She opened her eyes. Around her, the wind blew softly through the trees, gently, like any summer night.
Hell was gone.
She transferred her gaze to the archangel, who now stared sadly around the grove. His wings drooped dejectedly. "I thought I would return to heaven," he murmured, his voice wistful. The sound was beautiful, a thousand silver bells chiming in unison, yet somehow more masculine.
She didn't know how to respond. How did you comfort someone whose one hope had been taken away? She didn't know if it was possible. And that realization was hard to accept. She opened her mouth to respond, to say something comforting, when suddenly, he gasped, crying out in pain.
She watched, immobilized, as his back arched under its scant covering, the tattered remnants of his once beautiful robe fluttering wildly. A sharp cry flew from his mouth, piercing in its intensity. What was going on?
The feathers on his wings rose violently. They tightened, clustering together then spreading apart convulsively. Pain etched across his face, his eyes wide and frightened. Under her watchful eyes, the downy feathers fluttered to the ground like leaves in the fall, slowly wafting down. They fell one by one, each contributing to a small pile forming below him. The pile grew steadily as long, quill-like feathers joined the downy wisps. Finally, his wings were nothing more than a bare skeleton, gracefully arching skyward in their nakedness. They folded in on themselves until they could no longer contract. Then they began to disintegrate from the tip up. And suddenly, they were gone. An ugly scar marked the place his wings had been, the only sign he had ever been more than human.
He was silent, still kneeling quietly under the tree. Around them, wind blew softly, gently, making the only sound. His head remained lowered. She wondered whether he was still alive, if he was still functional. Looking at him, she thought of a statue she'd seen once in the gardens of an ancient church. He was the picture of a fallen angel. Lost and hopeless, he was helpless without God's love.
He looked up at her then, his eyes bright with tears. Pity filled her, although she knew it was the last thing that would help him now. As the first tear streaked a sapphire path down his face, he whispered, "I have been forgiven."
She could do nothing more than stare. Forgiven? He'd been reduced to a life on Earth. An angel trapped among mortals. Everything he knew had been stripped away. Even his wings. He was lost in a world contradicting everything he'd ever known. Forgiven? In her eyes, he'd only been condemned--condemned to a mortal life with mortal restraints.
And yet he saw it as forgiveness. That interpretation said much for this fallen angel.
His deep sapphire eyes were gentle, softening in amusement. "I have not been condemned," he assured her. "Here, I am in God's presence. In hell I had not even that comfort."
Taken aback by his comment, she realized his words were true. In a sense, he had been forgiven. He had been returned to God's love, encompassed in his embrace. He no longer existed in his world of faded memories and dying--no, dead--hopes. The comfort of God's touch would even now be playing at the edges of his consciousness like a forgotten childhood game. Of course, it could never really compare to anything human, because it wasn't human. It was so much more than that…
And so much less than what he was used to feeling.
He had been brutally ripped away from God's love and placed in an abyss filled with nothing. Nothing except the soulless' despair… And that, she thought, definitely could never replace what he had lost. Neither could the circumstances in which he found himself now, but at least they were better.
But…Why he had been sent here to exist among mortals? She wondered, curiosity gnawing at her. The answer lay hidden somewhere…Somewhere she prayed was easily found. Baby-sitting a fallen angel was not in her job description. Unfortunately, this situation was rapidly becoming just that. Baby-sitting. After all, she couldn't just leave him here.
She couldn't leave him here. Dammit.
Despairing, not entirely sure how to help him, she rose, suddenly wondering when she had fallen. She shivered suddenly, despite the humid air, which was suddenly devoid of hell's chill. Trying to remember when she had last become so involved in her job, she realized, startled, she had never been so completely absorbed she didn't notice what was going on around her.
He continued to watch her, his dark blue eyes missing nothing. He made no move to leave his crumbled position at her feet. His humility--his vulnerability--awed her. That he accepted it so willingly amazed her even more. Never, not once in her lifetime, had she ever seen someone accept God's will so gracefully. With so little thought to himself.
But then… There it was again. He wasn't human.
She really needed to keep that in mind.
And she needed to do something with him. The sky above them lightened slowly with the coming dawn. How long had she been in this clearing, fighting for this angel? She honestly didn't know, although hours must have passed. Dawn, unlike humans, didn't possess a will of its own. It rose each day at the same time… As it had for centuries past. Since before time began. Without fail, the earth turned its never-ending circle, viewing the birth of humanity in its ancient life span. Watching them evolve from tiny organisms to the complex beings they now were, witnessing the birth of souls. And that defied everything the Bible taught.
He still watched her.
The ever so vigilant eyes absorbing every gesture should have unnerved her. Maybe they would have, if she hadn't been so tired. Her back ached and she could barely keep her eyes open. Ten hours of hell will do that to a person. She couldn't imagine being there for an eternity. And yet those fragmented people she'd just seen survived. Some, like Lucifer, the Archangel once known as Beqa, once the most beloved of all God's angels, had lived--flourished--almost since time began. Granted, he paid a costly price for what he had done. The devil's laughing visage swam before her. If the image were not so full of bitterness, the picture in her mind might have been beautiful. But… it was far too late for that now.
Now he was nothing more than cursed.
Sighing, she once again inched closer to the flightless angel at her feet. His beauty overwhelmed her. What was she going to do with him? Anyone with his beauty would have a hard time keeping a low profile. Maybe she was wrong, but for some reason she didn't think he was quite ready to join the rest of the human race. She had no choice but to take him home with her.
Then she remembered her meddling neighbors. Anna, aged eighty-two, lived in the house on her right. Melissa, who was Talis' own age, lived on the house to her left. And Talis, unfortunately, was often caught between them. To say the least, her neighbors did not get along. Melissa spent most of her time going from one wild party to the next and bar-hopping in between. Loud, throbbing music poured from her house more often than not, and more than once Melissa's boyfriend of the week had caught Anna unaware. Anna, who did not approve or condone her behavior, also did not appreciate it. While Melissa wasted her time on frivolous--and often dangerous--activities, Anna epitomized every image Talis had of the perfect grandmother. Cookies constantly baked on her stove. The smell often wafted to Talis' house in the afternoons, inciting cravings that inevitably led her to visit Anna. She listened, which often led Talis to spend hours pouring out her problems to the kindly old woman.
Could she smuggle him inside?
Standing over him, she looked down at his beauty, his purity. The light illuminated the hair curling just slightly about his temples and at the nape of his neck. Each strand captured the light like the flaming glare of citrine in the sun. Reflecting--ever so brightly--the soul hidden inside.
Extending her hand again, as she'd reached out to him in hell, she helped him from his crumbled position at her feet. He was slow in rising, even with her help. His muscles contracted slowly, playing beautifully beneath his tattered robe. When he was standing, just a little unsteadily, he turned those depthless blue eyes on her, waiting expectantly. For what, she didn't know.
Shrugging, she turned away. As she did, she murmured, "Come on." She didn't care that she spoke for the first time in the language of humans. One of the languages of humans. He would figure it out if he didn't understand.
"Where are going?" he asked rasply.
She turned to stare at him in surprise. Did he know the human tongue? He shouldn't be able to understand her. At least, no other had. What she was thinking, yes, but her spoken words? Never before had anyone been able to understand her. No one had ever had to, because she understood them. Of course, she spoke the angelic tongue--an incredible feat.
He must have noted her surprise or he may still have been reading her mind. Smiling, barely so she almost missed it, he murmured, "I am well versed in over seventy languages."
Of course. He was the angel who taught Joseph the seventy languages spoken in the Tower of Babel in a single night. A consummate linguist. And she thought he wouldn't understand her? She sighed.
"We're going home," she answered finally.
No amusement played in his features this time. Soberly, he countered, "But I cannot. Home has been denied to me."
"My home," she corrected. Then she turned and headed in the direction of her car, never once turning back to see if he followed.
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