I TUCKED MY HAT deeper into my face, and fuelled my gaze with aether. An erratic, white trail led from the SUV into the forest. I followed the trail, the fresh scent of forest a welcome change from Katherine’s beer.
And I was looking forward to seeing Amaranta. The last time we met, I gave her the diaries she wrote to recover from the memory loss associated with becoming an angel. But before that, we were on a Vatican Inquisition strike team, and we happened to be the only survivors.
After five minutes of walking, I found Amaranta. She sat on a massive stump in the middle of what looked like an improvised gym. Her back was aimed toward me and she had yet to react. Her mid-length, black hair was disheveled, and glued with sweat and her back packed a lot more muscle than the last time we had met.
Sure, she was always athletic, but under the sports shirt, she looked chiseled from granite. Otherwise, she wore tight, black jeans and mountain boots.
“Hey,” I said casually as I walked closer.
“Knock it off, Katherine,” Amaranta shouted, “I’m not falling for this again.”
Dozens of questions popped into my mind. “I admit this is slightly awkward,” I said and sat on the stump near her, just outside of arm’s length. “It’s been a while.”
She sighed. “Stop bothering me with this nonsense. I need to train.”
“Train for what?”
“For the next time he shows up.”
The passion she put behind that word impressed me. And I was starting to get a little worried. Something was horribly wrong here and me jumping blind into middle of it was apparently a part of Azrael’s scheme. “And what will you do once he stands before you?”
She sighed, shoulders slumping, gaze aimed toward the ground. “I don’t know. I know what I should do, what is the right thing to do, what an angel like me is supposed to do. But I don’t think I’ll manage.”
“Not so easy to wear the wings, is it?” I asked looking up at the cloudy sky. “I never lived up to mine.”
She finally turned. Her tanned face was angelically beautiful, but there was something haunting her eyes. I had seen a look like that before. An old friend of mine had it when he sought the soul of his ancestor, when he was on his quest to become a God.
But his goal was possible and knowing that gave a contrasting spark to the haunting. In her eyes, there was no light, only darkness, fear and doubt. “Piss off.” She picked up a water bottle from under her legs and threw it at me.
I caught the bottle and she froze. Illusions couldn’t interact with physical objects. I put the bottle on the stump. “No matter the reason why you’ve been expecting me, here I am.”
She shook her head. “Prove it. Prove you aren’t another ghost that has come to haunt me.”
“I don’t know what happened to you, Amaranta, but I am sorry.” I meant every word. We used to be friends. Or, at least, I saw her as my friend. And not just because I liked Katherine. “And I will try to help you.”
She rolled her eyes and shouted. “I don’t know how you made the illusion catch the bottle, but really, stop it, Katherine.”
I touched her arm and gave her a little jolt with my aether. It wouldn’t even sting, but she knew how my power felt. Once, I controlled her body when mine wasn’t available, and no one could imitate that.
Her eyes shot wide and she leapt from the stump. Amaranta raised her hand, lightning split the sky, and landed in her palm, forming a spear. She took a stance, the weapon between us, aimed at me. Her entire body trembled, covered in sweat, breath shallow, eyes still wide.
My heart sank into my stomach. I thought we were friends. But I forced out a smile. “I am not going to hurt you.”
She clutched the spear so strongly her knuckles turned white. “How did you find me?”
“That doesn’t matter.”
“It matters to me,” she shouted. “You aren’t supposed to be here.”
I sighed. “What happened to you?”
“You. You happened.”
Could she be more specific? She looked ready to stab me in the face, so I’d appreciate knowing why. “How about you at least tell me what precisely I did or didn’t do?”
Her breath sped up and her fearful expression turned into a mask of pure rage. “You made me kill my fiancé.”
I drew a sharp breath. “First of all, he was irreversibly turning into a demon and second of all, I was controlling you when that happened, so you have no blame to bear.”
“My hands held the sword, and my eyes watched him die. But you know what? I understand that. To forget, I became an angel. And I did forget, as planned. But then you showed up and ruined it by giving me my diary. I was supposed to be like the other angels, a clean slate, a champion of faith unbound by the past. But you ruined everything.” She shouted the last word so strongly a shockwave quaked from her. Birds flew out from the trees, animals scrambled to run away, heavens thundered and it started to rain.
Pain and rage poured out of her every word. And I sorely lacked the ability to help her. She needed to talk to a priest and well, I wasn’t one. I raised an eyebrow. “Weren’t angels supposed to be forgiving?”
“I know.” The aura emanating from her intensified, eyes shining with pure energy. The rain danced around her as her unleashed aura shook the air surrounding her. “I know that I am supposed to forgive you. That I am supposed to move on, to get over the grief and anger. I know all that. And worst of all, I know that if you were in my position, you could do it. That you, a fallen angel, would forgive me and move on.”
I wasn’t so certain, but sure. “I have other vices.”
“I am an angel. I am supposed to have no vices. But I do, making me unworthy.”
I rubbed my face with my palm. What was I supposed to tell her? This really was a topic for a priest, not me. “Rather proud, aren’t you? You getting your wings required the approvals of Azrael, a council of archbishops, some other angels here on Earth and the approval of Baraquiel himself, the actual angel whose blessing you have received. Do you really think they are all so stupid that they wouldn’t notice you being unworthy?”
“Azrael is an ever-scheming bastard who caused two world wars; most of the archbishops are senile and out of touch; the other angels here on Earth are narcissistic and proud; and Baraquiel’s blessing has had eight owners over the past six years. My socks have had fewer owners than that.”
“Change things, then.” I smiled. “How many medals did you receive during your service in Vatican Inquisition? Seventeen? Twenty? Lead by example and things will get better around you.”
“All the medals, honors, awards, and diplomas are just a lie to masquerade how insignificant and weak I am. One of the powers that comes with being an angel is an instinct for density of one’s aether. A month after my ascension, I met Lucielle and I felt like a little puppy next to a dragon. Now, I meet you, and you have almost all of your power sealed inside your soul, so there is so much of it that you have to consciously hide it.”
Awfully perceptive, wasn’t she? “Lucielle is strong, but that does not make you weak. You were strong before you ascended, you are strong now too.”
“Another ability that comes with being an angel is a sense for when someone is lying to me. And the second sentence you just said triggered that sense.”
“Your sense must be broken then.”
“Another lie.” She motioned me with her spear to get up. “But you can prove it. Show me your nova release so I can see how close in power I am.”
Oh, hell no. Nova release was another way of calling the act of me taking out my horns and tail and I was not risking Katherine seeing that. “No.”
She narrowed her eyes. “Why?”
“Because I don’t want to.”
“True, but not the main reason.” Her breath steadied and posture tightened, spear still aimed at me. “What are you hiding?”
Her sense for truth was awfully sharp, wasn’t it? Great. But this refocus of attention was way better than her self-loathing fit. “Too many things to list. But I’ve come here to talk with you, so how about you put down that spear?”
“Stop being evasive. You have one specific reason why you don’t want to take out your horns. Tell me.”
“No.” I grinned. “But I can offer you a bargain. I need your help with something, and in exchange, I will show you my horns and get you the Spear of Destiny. Recovering an artifact like that would be more than enough to prove you are worthy of your wings, wouldn’t it?”
She paused since she knew I wasn’t lying. “The Church will cast me out if I help you with anything.”
“No, it won’t.”
She took another short pause. She doubted the truthfulness of my words in spite of her sense telling her I spoke truth. The sense for truth was indeed a double-edged blade, and thanks to having effectively an angelic daughter, I knew how to handle it. “I don’t know how you’re tricking my senses,” she said, raising her chin, “but I’m not falling for this.”
“Then you’re never seeing my horns.” I rose and stretched, rain drumming on my cowboy hat. I almost had her. “Anyway, you need to get over this. Yes, your fiancé died because you fucked up. But not even I blame you and I had to do the cutting down part while you just watched.”
She growled. “How dare you—”
“How dare I what? That Robert died as a result of you panicking? That he would had never been there if you didn’t drag him into the investigation yourself?”
In a flash, she turned into lightning, that lightning burst to me, where she reformed, the tip of her spear an inch from my throat, her entire body trembling with rage.
Good. I needed her angry. “What? Did you only now realize that I’m an unarmed man who means you no harm, so you would lose your wings if you were to strike me down?” I edged forward, pressing my throat against the spear tip. “No, you didn’t. You’re not that smart. You just lack the guts to kill someone in cold blood.”
She drew a long breath. “Let’s do a bet. We have a ten minute spar and if you are conscious by its end without using a nova release, I will accept your deal.”
Now, that was what I wanted to hear. She was trapped in her own mind, haunted by her imagination, chasing something that didn’t exist. She needed to vent that out and to refocus her mind on something else. A spar was going to do exactly that. I pulled out my phone and set a ten-minute stopwatch. “Try not to hurt yourself in the process.” I flicked the spear from my throat. “I accept.”
She smirked and flew upward. Dozens lightning bolts split the sky, all hitting her, forming massive wings made of pure electricity on her back.
Damn. She sure worked on the visual part of her magic. I fuelled my power into my shields, into my muscles, eyes, and spread more into an area around me. Through my aether-imbued vision, I observed her manipulate lightning, getting an idea how to do that myself.
Amaranta raised her spear toward the heavens. Thunder roared and more lighting flashed through the clouds, gathering into a point in front of her spear’s tip. She swung down the spear and the joint lightning struck toward me.
I raised my hand and used her own technique to catch the lightning cascade into my palm, forming a globe. “Was that supposed to hurt me?” I closed my palm, absorbing all that energy.
She stretched out her wings, more lightning funneled into her, and then more lightning rained on me from her wings. I kept catching them all the moment they got into the aether field I had spread. But this was trouble, because she was fighting in calm and collected manner.
I expected a furious barrage of telegraphed attacks that would be easy to dodge, she was now checking out my defenses without rushing.
She spent a good minute with the lightning barrage, but I didn’t let that lull me into repetition. Suddenly, she turned into lightning and blitzed down, stabbing at my chest a split second later.
I tilted my body backward to dodge. She pressed forward in a flurry of stabs, each strike fully powered by aether and aimed at my vitals.
While I kept dodging, her attacks were getting closer, and I had to start parrying the strikes with my hand. Every time I touched the spear, I got a jolt of electricity. My shields absorbed most of the energy, but it still stung.
She kept chasing me for a minute, then the second one. And then lightning struck me in the back. Searing pain flooded my body and the next spear stab nicked my shoulder, piercing my shields and coat, drawing blood while giving me another electro cut.
Gritting my teeth, I leapt back, daring a glance up. An orb of lightning had formed high in the sky, the lightning coming from there.
In an instant, Amaranta was back at me stabbing at my gut while at the same time, lightning struck from the orb.
I ignored the stab and, instead, caught the lightning. This was a spar, after all, so she couldn’t kill me. Not to mention she wanted to beat the brains out of me, to hurt me, and causing a wound she would need to help me treat wouldn’t achieve that. As I stopped the lighting, she misdirected the stab, spun, and hit me with the spear’s butt in the face. That hurt. My head jerked sideways and she finished the pivot with a kick in my gut.
That kick had the force of a speeding car and threw me ten feet backward. I still landed on my feet, spitting bile. Okay, she wasn’t stupid. I couldn’t both copy spells and fight hand to hand at the same time. And I hoped she wouldn’t figure that out, at least not that fast.
“How about this one?” she asked poisonously as she reformed her stance. “Did it hurt?”
Okay, what was I going to do with her? Normally, I would attack. But she spread her aether in the way that she had borderline no shields, using everything she had for speed and strength. Any attack I could launch at her, be it misdirecting her own lightning or simply punching her, would be lethal since defensively, she was a regular human. “Not really. You still have lots to work on.”
Her face flushed as her truth sense told her I wasn’t lying. A massive lightning bolt burst at me from the floating orb while she charged, bursting to me for a stab. I caught the lightning and ignored the spear. This time, she didn’t misdirect the attack, hitting me in the chest. But she flipped the spear after the previous exchange, because the butt hit me, digging into my muscle, pushing me back. Pain exploded through my chest and I jerked backward so suddenly my hat fell off.
She followed up with another lightning strike and a flurry of stabs. When her timing was off, I could both catch the lightning and dodge. But she got it right about every third strike, making me eat a hit. And while my shields absorbed most of the impact, the pain built up.
About two minutes later, I felt like a field battered by a hailstorm, and she kept attacking. She still took it slow, piling up smaller hits, rather than trying to knock me out. Well, she still had four minutes and she showed no sign of slowing down.
A minute later, I didn’t have a body part that didn’t scream with pain. I swatted away a spear strike, using a lot more force than before. The spear flew from her hands, disappearing in the forest. She leapt forward, trying to hit my face with a flying knee.
My instinct was to grab her and throw her away. But doing that would be too risky since by grabbing her, I could easily shatter her bones. I ducked under the strike, but she turned to lightning, bolted to my side, had the spear return to her hands in a streak of lightning, and smashed its butt in my nape.
My vision blanked for a second and I leapt forward, rolling over. She was at me in an instant, together with three lightning bolts. I fuelled aether into my palm, slightly overloaded the tiny orb, and made it explode. The aether blast wasn’t dense enough to affect material objects, so it passed through Amaranta without harming her, but it still messed up with everything aether-based.
Her wings disappeared, as did the lightning orb. But so did my shields and her spear still hit my face, breaking a lip. I rolled to the side and finally had the time to get up she stopped attacking.
“Nice try,” she said, smirked, and her wings burst out of her back once more. She raised her hand, lightning split the sky, and formed the orb once more.
She wasn’t supposed to be able to re-do the nova release this quickly. And I didn’t have any other ideas how to buy time and there were about two minutes left. She charged, together with a slew of lightning bolts. I prepared another of the nullification aether blast but held it in my hand for later.
With my other hand, I caught two lightning bolts and got hit by the spear’s butt in my gut. Her timing improved and I was out of dirty tricks, so I just clenched my muscles, protected my head, and took the beating. For the next minute, she pummeled my body with the spear.
Slowly, she shifted her stance to put more strength into the attacks, poising to finish me off. I was waiting for that. The moment she stabbed I formed the same tiny orb in my palm like before and released another negation blast. The lightning orb in the sky and her wings disappeared, her strike losing sharpness. I grabbed the spear, and whirled, pulling the weapon from her grasp. I threw the spear away.
My idea was that disconnecting her from the weapon in the second that she wasn’t using aether would make it impossible for her to recall the spear. As I threw the weapon away, she bolted forward, grabbed my nape, and launched a knee at my face. I reformed my shields at the same time she unleashed her wings, which sped her up enough to hit my face. My vision blanked for a moment. She landed back on the ground, pulled my head lower, caught my nape with her other hand, and launched another knee.
I took this one straight on the nose and by the time my vision started returning, she was kicking again. I clenched my back to straighten, rising her with me. Amaranta instantly stopped the knee strike and wrapped her legs around my waist.
That topped me over, and I fell on my back. She locked the legs around me, squeezed, and postured up. The only thing I could do was to raise my arms to protect my head. Two lightings hit her fists, charging them, and she started raining blows on my face.
She was light, so the punches weren’t too bad, but the electricity cut me with each hit. My vision started blanking more and more often.
But then my phone rang. The time was up.
Amaranta stopped punching, tilted back her head and released a deafening roar that shook the world around us. I unclenched my muscles, lying spread on the ground. The rain falling on my face soothed the wounds. Hell, this hurt, and she was still squeezing my midsection as if she wanted to tear me in half. “Feeling better?” I asked.
Utterly drenched and panting, she looked down at me. No sign of anger or confusion remained in her eyes. “Yes… I actually do.” She let go of me and rose, wings disappearing. “So, what exactly do you want me to do?”
“I’m robbing Lucielle’s vault and need an angel to pass one of the gates.”
Amaranta snorted and stretched out a hand to help me rise. “You have chosen poorly.”
I accepted the offered hand, and let her pull me up, grunting with pain. Everything hurt, badly. From the ground, I picked up my hat and put it on. Not that it made a difference now that I was drenched to the bone from the rain, but I liked that thing on my head. “We’re starting today and it’ll take about two weeks, so I hope you haven’t had anything planned.”
She laughed heartily. “You have no idea how being an angel works these days, do you?”
“You will see.”