I TOOK A ROUND-ABOUT FLIGHT TO ROME, so instead of the standard eight to ten hours, I flew for twenty hours to arrive in Rome at dawn.
Thanks to the whole fallen angel thing, I had a perfect knowledge of Latin, so I spent the flight time trying to use that to learn Italian. But to my disappointment, the vocabularies were similar enough, yet the grammar was not, so I wasn’t going to speak well.
When the sun was still crimson on the horizon, barely risen, I walked out of the Rome Airport. First, I went to an ATM. English was an option, so the machine soon spat out a pile of euros. I pocketed that and I hopped into the nearest taxi. “Get me as close as you can to St. Peter’s Basilica,” I said in my best attempt at Italian.
“Most people go to their hotel first,” the driver said but started driving. “Is this your first time in Rome?”
I smiled nostalgically. It’s been a while since my last visit, over eighteen hundred years, in fact. “I’ve been here before.”
He kept talking but I started ignoring him, looking out of the window. I didn’t remember anything about Rome, yet everything felt familiar. My ancestral lineage used to live here, and I did carry within me the soul of Lucius Addis, the previous bearer of my angel’s soul.
He was once a combat medic in the armies of Marcus Aurelius himself. Did Lucius live here in Rome?
I gazed on ancient buildings rimming the streets, feeling familiarity. Yes, he did. Everywhere I looked, I felt I had been here before.
The driver stopped on a busy street. “This is the closest I can drive.” And then he told me the price.
I tossed him a bunch of Euros. “Keep the change.” I got out of the car and realized I didn’t even need a map. Yes, the buildings were new, but the layout fit what I unconsciously remembered.
But before I headed to the Vatican Archives, I wanted to see St. Peter’s Basilica. I entered the Vatican, crossed the column-surrounded square and pushed my way through the tourist crowds. I felt in my bones that I had walked this path hundreds of times.
I stopped before the door to the basilica. If I were to enter, I would trigger so many alarms that all of the guardians of the Holy City would try to hunt me down. That would be a problem, so I only peered through the door.
The massive, golden altar in the basilica’s center kept my gaze. I was there before. Or well, Lucius was. Here, he received the angel’s blessing. In this place, he became the first-ever hallowed, an angel’s representative on Earth. The first angel ever to walk this world.
I kept staring at the altar, hoping I could remember something. I didn’t. All I had was the intuitive knowledge of both the man and the angel. The memories simply didn’t spark into my mind. Shame. I wanted to know what it was like to be a hallowed, to be an angel, to be anything other than who I was now.
With a sigh, I turned and headed toward the archives. Or, more precisely, I left everything to my intuition, walking without thinking.
I expected that to lead me into the Holy City, but instead, I walked outside by the wall surrounding Vatican City. I didn’t remember it, but I felt like I was heading to a secret entrance I had once built.
There was a time when I combed the Church’s intranet to research my past. I found there that I happened to be one of the founders of the archives. Back then, we gathered in them whatever written knowledge of magic we could find around the world to save it for future generations. But, years later, higher clergy became nervous about the archives effectively becoming the world’s largest library of tomes on dark magic, so they started regulating entry.
And by where my intuition led me, I hadn’t liked that, and made myself a side entrance. I didn’t remember where precisely it was, so I roamed around, hoping the intuition I have inherited would navigate me more precisely.
That didn’t happen as I coursed along the wall. It probably wasn’t there back then. After two hours of walking around aimlessly, I entered a nearby café that was just opening. I had ristretto and went to the toilets. There, I locked myself in, relaxed onto the seat, and flew with my spirit from my body. The world around me blurred aside from my own body that I now watched from above.
This never got old. I checked my soul anchor, a shining string that flew from my body up into the sky, holding my soul chamber anchored to the world. This string was literally the only thing that allowed me to exist in the realm of the living.
And for as long as the anchor was in place, I could move around freely as a spirit. I flew toward the Vatican, seeing a massive, shining dome stretching above the walls, covering the city. Yet I was immaterial, so I flew into the ground, descended about fifty feet, flew forward for a hundred feet, and then flew back up to emerge in a garden inside the Holy City.
And I saw the archives, a building less decorated than the temples, but every bit as ancient, and as protected. I waited for a lone priest to be entering. That didn’t take long, and once the older man pressed the handle on the wooden door, I flew into his body.
Normally, this would be the point where I would take over his body to control it, but not this time. Now, I only hid inside him to get past the detection spells. He entered and exchanged a greeting with a pair of guards.
Since he got me past the door, I flew out of him, looking for an elevator. I found that soon, and passed through, descending down the shaft. The descent was much longer than I had expected, leading at least four stories underground. Back then, I had to be really good with a shovel.
I chose the floor at the absolute bottom and stopped in front of the door and the surrounding walls. A blue-white seal shone in the doorframe. I flew under that, passing into the stone, and then forward. As I suspected, there was no barrier on the floor, so I flew up through.
Now, the problem was that my vision in the spiritual form was too blurry to read anything and on top of that, I couldn’t interact with reality in any way. So, I still needed to find the secret entrance to enter in my physical form. After a few minutes of floating around the ancient bookshelves, which were all sealed in glass displays to prevent the books inside from rotting, I spotted a hidden door in the wall.
To be fair, it wasn’t hidden well, the door’s frame clearly visible in the stone with a lonesome torch holder next to it. Torches weren’t the lighting of choice anymore, so there was only one torch holder on the entire floor, the one that opened the not-so-secret door. But the door glowed with magical protections, so I stopped right in front of them.
I flew down through the floor, passed forward blindly, and then floated up, getting into the secret tunnel. Here, nostalgia hit me the hardest. For a second, I could almost remember digging this tunnel.
For a minute or so, I floated through the tunnel, reaching a not-magically-protected door. I went through that and got into a cellar. I flew upward and instantly recognized Church of San Pellegrino.
The golden ceiling was polished and bright. Paintings and carvings covered the wall, showing tales of holy men. For a moment, I wanted to study those. But I had business to do, so I left that for another time. I exited the church, flying through the ground to avoid the barriers, and headed back toward my body.
Intuitively, I always knew where my soul anchor was. I entered my physical form and got out of the toilet. I paid the waiter and left the cafe. Now, the problem was that the church was still inside Vatican City, so I had to get past their protections in my physical form. I walked on the street by the wall surrounding the Holy City until I reached the spot closest to the Church. The street swarmed with people in the morning rush, which didn’t help.
But there was not going to be any more opportune hour and if I waited for night, a vampire hunting party was sure to pop up to try to kill me. I wasn’t going to risk that. I stepped to the wall, put my open palm on the bricks, and focused, gently forcing my aether into the defenses.
The protections were woven in an intricate pattern with many layers, created by at least three different mages, each putting multiple extra layers atop the older ones. Luckily, aside from the alarms, the barrier also had a massive list of exceptions, so the defensive spells would not get triggered by tourists or by the Holy City’s guardians themselves. And the guardians had angels among them.
Now, being a fallen angel, I was quite close to the angel part of the exceptions list. I pushed my aether into the pattern, forced it into the exceptions section, and added an extra item, copying the angel entry with the slight twist for the whole fallen part, giving myself the allowance to enter.
I did that with all the layers. Ten minutes later, I opened my eyes and verified I had successfully changed the pattern across the entire wall. And since an army of angels wasn’t descending from the heavens to hunt me down, I didn’t trigger any alarm.
What remained was the physical barrier of the wall itself. I took a few steps back, waited for a group of tourists to pass, drew a deep breath, ran forward, jumped up while exhaling, grabbed the upper railing on the wall, and flung myself over.
I heard audible gasps behind me and people shouted, but I had no way to do this without being seen.
I landed on a freshly trimmed grass, right next to a group of younger priests who were smoking cigarettes by the wall. Great. They stared at me, petrified.
I wasted no time and bolted toward the church. First, I would get into the archives, and then I would solve how to get out of there. They would call the guardians, sure, but that would take a while and they would have no reasonable way to get me out of the Holy City once I was deep inside.
I ran into the Church of San Pellegrino, brushing past a group of older priests, and I headed for the stairs. I blitzed down those, shattered the lock on the door with a swift jab, passed through, and after one short sprint, I arrived at the entrance to the secret passage.
Intuitively, I knew where the opening was, and just pressed the correct brick in the wall. The door slid open and I entered the tunnel. The door closed a moment later and I walked through complete darkness. I didn’t even feel the need to switch to my magical sight to see the way.
Since I couldn’t feel any magic searching for me, the guardians still weren’t summoned. Soon, I arrived at the tunnel’s other end, and put my palm on the wall. This exit was also protected, but I already had a bit of practice with circumventing local protections.
Once again, I added myself to the exceptions list, and entered the archives, closing the door behind me. With a smile, I took off my hat, and stepped among the bookshelves. I turned the corner, and almost bumped into an old priest. We stood face to face, awkwardly staring at each other.
He was petrified, staring at me with wide eyes.
“Look,” I said in Latin, “how about we talk before you run screaming?”
He gulped and pushed his glasses up his nose. “It appears as though the rumors of you and Azrael building a secret tunnel into the archives are indeed true.”
I froze. “How did you recognize me?”
“Come.” The old priest motioned me with his head and stepped among the rows, back straight.
With a shrug, I followed. This was not the reaction I expected.
“I am this level’s curator,” the priest said, his Latin perfectly fluent, voice shaking only lightly. “I remember every detail of every artifact stored inside these displays.” We passed through a long corridor, turned a corner, and stopped in front of a large display case. Behind the protective glass was a large painting, toward which the priest motioned with his hand, saying, “You have not changed much.”
In disbelief, I stared at the piece of art. Two men were on it, a blond one and a black-haired one, wearing ancient, work clothes of pants and a tunic, the black-haired man having a steel cross on a necklace, while the blond man had a rosary tied around his left wrist. They sat by a half-built wall, sharing a loaf of bread. I instantly recognized them both.
Yes, I heard I was similar to Lucius Addis, but the blond man’s face and hair on the painting were nearly identical to mine. The text bellow the painting read: ‘Founders of Vatican Archives, Zyraxes of Istros and Lucius Addis. Azrael and Lucifer.’
“It has been a while since we’ve been here, has it not?” the man next to me asked rhetorically.
I glanced at him. Instead of the old priest stood a younger, black-haired priest wearing a buttoned up cassock. He had the hairstyle of an ageing rock star, three days stubble, and piercing, blue eyes. I needed to figure out how Azrael was doing this. “Zyraxes of Istros? No wonder you never use that name.”
Azrael laughed. “Yes, that name has not aged well. So, what do you seek in our archives?”
Since he has caught me here, there was no way I could get the information I needed without telling him. But on the other hand, he couldn’t get rid of me easily since an all-out battle between us would obliterate the entire continent. “I’m sure you’ve heard about my vampire problem. Well, it turns out that there’s something that could help me, but it’s in Lucielle’s vault.”
“Why not ask her for it?”
“Because me having to sleep at work suits her. I’m literally forced to be available for whatever she needs at all times. Not to mention any help I got from her would be accompanied with additional chains wrapped around my neck.”
“She always liked chains.” He smiled. “But before we get to business, I need to tell you that your daughter is crushed by you avoiding any contact with her for over a year.”
My heart sank into my stomach. I knew, all right? But Lillith was eleven, so not nearly old enough to fend off vampires. And they would try to capture her to use her against me. Sure, she wasn’t technically my daughter, only a girl on whom I passed my angelic blessing, but she saw herself as such and worse, I saw her like that myself. “I’m trying to solve that, aren’t I?”
“Yet you would rather sneak into the Holy City than to ask me for help.”
Oh, I so didn’t want to do that at all. But I had few other options left at this point. “Should I interpret that as you wanting something from the Devil’s vault?”
“Yes, you should.” Azrael’s face turned serious and he produced a small key from beneath his cassock. “This will open any display case on this floor. Information about Lucielle’s vault is in the southwestern section. After you figure out what you need from me, I will meet you in San Pellegrino Church.”
I took the key from his palm. “Deal.”