IGNATIUS DE LA COSTA woke up to the ringing of a security alarm. Shame shot through him, because it was the middle of his night watch, and he had fallen asleep in the security control center.
Not that being the groundskeeper at Heaven’s Mercy High School was much of a position for the old angel, but it was better than retirement. He glanced over the control board, seeing the red flashing lights all marked locations in the reliquary.
Ignatius rose, and hastily drew the groundskeeper’s cloak over himself. This wasn’t the first time that students had sneaked into the reliquary, though they usually did that during the day.
He fastened the cloak’s belt, took a flashlight, and looked at his sword, in its sheath by the wall. He hadn’t used it in the twelve years he has worked at this school, but something told him tonight was unlike the others.
Ignatius grabbed the sheath, tucked it behind his belt, and stepped out of the control room. On the way across the school’s courtyard, he focused on his strength. His aether, the source of all magic, resting peacefully within his heart, reserve full.
He may have not been in a real fight in decades, but he practiced both fighting and usage of combat magic daily. The days of his youth, of his service in the Vatican Inquisition, were long gone but he still bore the blessing of Shamsiel, so he had a legend to live up to.
Mud splashed from his boots as he approached the reliquary, seeing the old building’s door gaping open. Ignatius waited for a few seconds to steady his breath, lowered his palm on his sword’s hilt, and walked into the door as silently as he could.
Sounds of breaking glass echoed from inside, but Ignatius remained calm and advanced silently. In the day, the high display cases and bookshelves of the reliquary played with colors from the stained glass windows that filled the walls.
But at night, the place felt much less welcoming, every corridor tight, the displayed armors, paintings, and statues looking ready to come alive and attack him.
An ominous feeling of dread seeped from ahead of him.
Ignatius reached for his aether, filling his body with the arcane energy to strengthen his muscles, erecting shields above his skin, and reached out to the guardians of the place.
The holy spirits protecting the reliquary all rested as they should, ready to spring on the interloper upon his command. He left them deactivated, but prepared to activate them upon a thought.
Ignatius walked forward, seeing the displays in the main hall untouched. Breaking of wood, followed by more breaking glass, echoed from the stairs leading to the upper floor.
Ignatius frowned, and started scaling the steps toward the noise. The upper floor was the area forbidden to the students. He passed through a broken door, feeling the magical protections gone. Who could disable the protections without awakening the guardian spirits?
He didn’t know. His palms sweating, Ignatius reached the top of the stairs. Across the large hall, lit by moonlight, he saw her. A seventeen years old girl stood by a broken display with shattered bulletproof glass scattered around her, rummaging through a bookshelf. She took a book, flipped through the pages, and then threw it away to grab another one.
Her blonde hair silvery in the moonlight, she wore a heavy, black coat, a collar with spikes, fingerless gloves, and high boots.
Ignatius relaxed a little, and stepped from the door toward her, not bothering to be silent anymore. “What are you doing, Lillith?”
“Searching for something,” she said without looking at him. “And it’d go faster if you made yourself useful by telling me which one of these is Xander’s Manifesto.”
“You know I cannot tell you that,” Ignatius said, and his hand unconsciously gripped the sword hilt. “I understand black magic fascinates you, but that one is too dangerous.”
“Not only for me. The Eldritch Gods are not to be trifled with.” He walked straight to her, stopping behind her. “You understand that I have to detain you, right?”
She snorted. “Good luck with that.” And she threw away another book to take a thin notebook from among the larger books.
That was the one she sought, a madman’s manuscript written on pages made of human skin. Two centuries ago, a mage named Xander tried to destroy the world by summoning an Eldritch God from the depths of the Void. He failed, but his notes on the summoning process remained immortalized in his manifesto. Ignatius sighed. “I understand your father’s passing away makes things difficult, but the Lord will help you heal.”
“When?” she snapped. “And how?” She tucked the notebook into the inner pocket of her coat, and turned, eyes watering with tears. “Because it’s been six years and a day doesn’t pass without me realizing how alone I am. He was my only family, the only person somehow related to me. You all tell me to pray, to devote myself to the Lord, but it’s not working. I am wounded, hollow, and what you all tell me to do is not helping.”
“Healing takes time.” Ignatius smiled compassionately. And, even though she wouldn’t admit it, she was making tremendous progress. For the first year after learning of her father’s death, she didn’t speak a word. “The Lord heals all wounds. I know. I might be old, but I am still an angel, so you can trust me about that.”
“No, you are not.” Lillith’s expression hardened, face slackening. “You are not an angel.”
Ignatius focused on his aether, summoning Shamsiel’s blessing. Wings sprouted from his back, halo forming above his head, power and peace filling his veins and soul. “How about you put that back and we go pray?”
“Pray and do nothing…” Lillith rolled her eyes. “That’s all you’re good for. I’ve given it six years, and what’s the result? My father is still dead, and I am every bit as alone as I was on day one. You cannot help me, so I will need to help myself. Now, get out of my way.”
“Or?” Ignatius asked, pushing his shields to their limit. The girl needed help, and he would give it to her. But first, she needed to calm down.
She shook her head, lips rolling up in disgust. “This is your problem. You have the halo, the wings, the blessing, and so you think you’re an angel. But you are not. Do you know why?” Faster than he could react, Lillith jabbed his chest, injecting her aether into him.
Her power pierced his shields as if they were nothing, reached straight into his heart, and shattered his spiritual core. Ignatius’s wings and halo disappeared, all power fading from him within an instant. The angelic blessing he carried for the past fifty years vanished.
The guardian spirits activated, knights made of silvery light floating from the walls, converging on them.
Wings of bright light burst from Lillith’s back, halo shining above her head. The display cases, the walls behind her and to her sides, and the ceiling above disintegrated. Rays of light flew from her wings, exploding as they hit the guardian spirits, shattering them into fragments of light that swiftly faded.
Staring and breathless, Ignatius drew his sword more by instinct than anything else. His mind could not wrap around what he just witnessed and about his blessing suddenly being gone.
Lillith looked in his eyes, hers pools of light. A bright flash blinded Ignatius, searing pain shooting through his head.
Wailing with pain, he collapsed to the ground. The bright light wouldn’t leave his eyes, and he realized they were burned out, leaving him forever blinded.
“Because angels are strong.” Lillith flew out through the hole in a roof with a single beat of her wings.
I SAT UPON THE THRONE OF HELL, bored to tears. Succubi swarmed around the throne room, erecting a statue of a half-naked, half-armored woman with horns holding a sword and severed head.
How cute of them, but this wasn’t going to make me do what they wanted. Six years have passed since I died, since I returned to Hell as its king. For the first three months, I was busy putting the place in order and repairing the Hell Gate to make my way back to Earth.
But once I did that, I found out why coming back from death was so damn difficult. To live on Earth, souls needed to be anchored to a body, and one couldn’t make an anchor from the outside.
So, while the Hell Gate was fully capable of transporting me and my demons anywhere, reaching Earth required the gate to be opened from Earth. And I lacked any way to contact anyone alive since I also needed a soul anchor to do that.
With my self-resurrection efforts frozen, I found myself with little to do. Sure, I practiced magic, trained combat, and I shagged succubi, but all of that got old rather quickly.
A succubus dressed in a golden dress stepped in front of me. She had a thin body and a ridiculously cute, teen-age face with two slim horns protruding from her forehead. Shani, my left hand. “Don’t you like the statue?” she asked gently.
I only grunted. I didn’t care.
“If your highness is so bored, perhaps we could finally go hunt some souls.”
For what? The succubi didn’t need anything to survive in the Void, and I didn’t see the point in getting them souls to torture for amusement. “Didn’t you say demon souls were disgusting? We’re not finding anything other than demons in the Void.”
“Disgusting food is better than no food. And they don’t taste so badly when they are fresh, not to mention they are fun when they wail. There might be some Void pockets near Earth with almost fresh souls.”
‘O’ Lucifer, hear my prayer,’ sounded in my head in a shaking, male voice.
What? My attention shot up. Shani opened her mouth to speak but I silenced her with a gesture of my hand.
‘O’ Archangel of Light, hear my prayer in my hour of need,’ the voice continued.
I bolted from my throne, focused for a split second, and soulstepped to the Hell Gate, teleporting there. The steel frame spread in a circle with one-mile radius above a gigantic junkyard of all the things the portal sucked in when I was trying to make a tunnel to Earth. I moved myself right to the middle by using another soulstep. Come on, one more line.
‘I have done my best to live a good life, to serve my family, my friends, and my community.’
With a focused thought, I traced the direction from where the prayer came, and put that as coordinates into the Hell Gate. I stretched out my power, energized the frame, and activated the portal. A disc of pure darkness filled the space in-between.
‘But I have reached the end of my hope. I have prayed to God and to all angels I know, but no one answers.’
I entered. The darkness swallowed me, and I exited in my spiritual form inside a house. By an altar covered with crosses knelt a young man, hands clapped together in front of him. Everything other than the man was blurred, and the Void kept trying to pull me back into its maw, away from Earth.
‘So, in my last moment, I turn to you.’
But I wasn’t going anywhere. I focused on the man, and tried to enter his body. Back when I was alive, I could simply take people over, but now that I lacked my soul anchor, I needed an invitation.
He let me in.
With that, I couldn’t take him over or affect him in any way, not yet, but I could now speak into his mind. What do you need?
Confusion passed through his mind. Yeah, when people prayed, they didn’t expect an immediate answer. But he recuperated quickly, speaking both aloud and through his mind. ‘Raiders have come for us. Our town is under attack, and unless someone… unless you save us, we will all end up as slaves. Please, save us!’
I cannot do that directly. But, I can offer you a bargain. I forced myself to speak calmly not to betray how desperate how I was for him to accept. I will save your people, and ensure these raiders will never bother them again. But in exchange, I will take your body and soul.
He smiled, his spirit put at ease. ‘To save them, I will pay any price. I accept.’
I tried to take over his body, and he let me. My spirit filled his veins, his mind. I blinked through him, and saw reality for the first time since I died.
With a vicious smirk, I rose, and tied the rosary with which he prayed around my left wrist. Gunfire roared from the outside, accompanied with screaming. I stood in a small shrine, and the man I possessed wore simple priestly robes. But my aether flowed through him freely, so he had to be a practicing mage.
That was why this prayer reached me, unlike all others. In his despair, he empowered his will through magic. I turned to his spirit in our shared mind. Got any weapons in here?
He took a moment to answer. ‘In the shrine? And aren’t you going to save us through a miracle?’
Miracles don’t work the way you think. I stretched, getting the feeling for his body. He was tall but malnourished, wearing worn out jeans and t-shirt under the robes. The shrine around us featured an altar at the end, and a few rows of old, wooden benches. I grabbed a steel-looking crucifix from the altar, the only thing that looked like a useable weapon, and stepped toward the exit, the air hot and humid. What’s your name?
I fueled aether through the body, forming shields, empowering the muscles. I didn’t dare to use too much power not to exhaust the body, but that had to do.
The door burst open, and a man ran inside. He held AK-47 in his hands, wearing a bulletproof vest and a bandana on his tanned face.
I stepped forward and threw the crucifix.
Before he managed to raise the rifle, the crucifix crashed into his skull, caving in the bone with a loud snap.
Ricardo yelped into my mind, and then fell silent in shock.
I bolted forward, reaching the man the moment he fell to the ground. From his hands, I pried the rifle, and took an extra magazine to stuff into my jean’s pocket.
Carefully, I peeked outside. Four jeeps surrounded a semi-truck in the village center. About a dozen wooden houses spread in-between fields. Six men with Kalashnikovs were bringing to the semi-truck a group of people, including children, loading them like cattle using the ramp.
Four more raiders were in the center, one in each jeep, looking around. By the screaming coming only from my right, they were mostly done with the raid.
I closed the shrine’s door, turned in the direction from where came the screaming, and put a bit more strength into the shields. I ran forward, straight with my shoulder into the wall.
The wood shattered upon impact, splinters flying around. I crossed the thirty feet distance to the next house, and ran through that house’s wall.
The old, wet wood didn’t slow me down and I entered into a living room. Three men with Kalashnikovs were dragging a man, a woman, and three children toward the front door.
For a split second, they stared at me, trying to comprehend how a priest ran in through the wall. I raised my rifle and fired three quick bursts, hitting each of them in the head.
The prisoners stopped screaming, frozen in place. I ran to the door, kicked them, and shot the man running toward me with a burst. I stepped outside, aimed at the nearest jeep, and fired, killing the driver.
The other raiders started shooting after me, so I leapt back into the house, falling to the floor. Pain burst from my shoulder. A bullet grazed me, piercing my shields, lacerating my flesh, but missing the bone.
The other people inside dropped to the floor, covering their heads, screaming.
Beneath the thundering rifle fire, the other jeeps and the semi-truck began driving away, engines roaring into the air. I let them, keeping my position on the floor
Only when the shooting ceased, I rose. The family inside also started rising, shouting something in Spanish. Given I had grown up in Texas, I understood a few isolated words, but they had an accent I’ve never heard and shouted over each other, so I had no idea what they were saying.
Not that it mattered as I walked out of the house, holding my Kalashnikov raised. No sign of the raiders aside from the left-behind jeep, the corpse crumpled in the seat.
I ran to the jeep, grabbed the corpse, and threw it outside. I got into the car, turned the keys in ignition, and stepped on the gas. Where are they taking them? I asked through my mind.
‘Did… did you just kill six people?’ Ricardo asked back.
Did you expect me to put their souls at peace, making them stop, or something like that?
‘I don’t know… maybe?’ Ricardo’s voice wavered.
I’m a warrior angel. This is my miracle. I drove out of the village, entering wide fields. I didn’t see the semi-truck or the jeeps ahead, so I pressed the pedal to the floor, blasting through the dirt-made road. Who did you think you were praying to?
‘Lucifer, the brightest son of God, the Archangel of Light, the strongest archangel.’
You’ve got that mostly right. I glimpsed the convoy ahead, a jeep with a semi-truck ahead, the other two jeeps most likely in front of the semi-truck. Since the road led straight, jungle looming ahead. I removed my shoe, bent, used the shoe to fix the gas pedal in place, and stood up, aiming with the Kalashnikov. I channeled aether into my eyes, and the world’s colors flipped.
Tweaking the power, I focused my sight on the jeep ahead. One man sat behind the wheel while two more filled the back seats, looking in my direction, gripping their rifles.
But I was too far for them to hit me. To conserve ammo, I switched the rifle to single bullets mode, inhaled, aimed, and squeezed the trigger as I exhaled.
The rifle lightly kicked me in the shoulder, and one of the men in the back seat jerked, hit square in the chest.
I took a short breath, aimed at the second man in the back seat, and fired. Another hit, this one in the upper chest, and the man collapsed into his seat.
The driver looked around, confused about what just happened. One more shot, one more hit, this time in the head. The jeep drove off the road as the driver lost control of his body.
The convoy entered the jungle. I sat back down, recovering my shoe.
‘What… what are you?’ Ricardo stuttered into my mind.
Someone who keeps his promises. I shifted my focus from him, driving into the jungle. Everything else is now inconsequential. The canopy of trees blocked the sun, darkening everything.
The road twisted and turned, not offering me any good firing angles. And any accident with the semi-truck would lead to it crashing into a tree, potentially killing most people inside. I let them get ahead, but remained close enough to hear the semi-truck’s rumbling engine. Where are they taking them?
Ricardo took a moment to reply, but his voice sounded steady as he spoke. ‘To the manufactory. These raiders belong to the drug cartels. They kidnap people from villages like ours and force them to work in their manufactories.’
Which country are we in?
Hmph, better than Africa, but not by much. The road kept splitting, but I followed the rumbling of the semi-truck, which echoed through the jungle. I kept silence for about an hour, but then I realized I had the opportunity to talk to someone who wasn’t a succubus. Not that the girls weren’t great, they were, but soul-starving demons had rather singular interests, especially since I was the only source of non-demonic life-force in Hell. Them constantly looking for ways to leech life force from me or to have me hunt some souls for them didn’t make for a great conversation. So, what’s your favorite use of magic?
‘Oh, I wouldn’t call it magic. I move merely move around puppets to entertain children.’
Someone taught you or did you develop it by yourself?
‘My father was a puppeteer, though he controlled them with skill and agility while I had to help myself with what you call magic.’
One day, I will perfect your art.
The truck sped up, and I soon entered a straight road. Ahead, a camp with a wired fence and a gate loomed. I stepped on the break, measuring the area. The camp spread far, but I didn’t see that many armed men.
Two stood by the gate, which they already opened for the convoy, but then all whom I saw were the workers, chained in one way or another, packing white powder into plastic bags.
Here and there, a man with a Kalashnikov coursed among them, but I spotted only four of those. Most of the men running the camp apparently participated in the raid to get new workers. Not workers, slaves. I got out of the car, stepping into the mud, and used the open door to brace my rifle. I focused, fueling my vision with aether once more.
And then I started shooting. One, two, and the men at the gate fell. Three, four, five. Three guardsmen among the slaves fell. The men scrambled, shouting, searching for cover. Screaming filled the camp with the slaves panicked, drowning the shouting of their captors.
Six, seven, eight, nine. I got four more men before they all realized from where I was shooting and hid out of sight.
Smirking, I returned into the car, and pressed the gas pedal. I sped toward the gate. Rifle fire thundered from ahead, and I leapt out of the car. I didn’t think they would return fire this quickly.
I rolled on the ground, stopping my momentum using my aether-imbued strength, landing into a crouch.
My jeep crashed through the gate, blowing apart the wings. The men inside the camp fired at the jeep, spraying out their ammo. And that gave me the perfect view of them. Ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen.
I ran out of targets. Having no one to shoot, I ran toward the camp. A man popped out from behind a tent.
Seventeen. I ran past the gate, and slowed down, looking around. Terrified, the slaves covered on the ground, staring at me with eyes full of fear.
I stalked through the tent city, seeing the abandoned manufactures. A shouting sounded form behind the pickup truck. I still didn’t understand a word, so I turned toward Ricardo. Translate.
‘They are surrendering.’
I should had understood that. “Salir desarmado,” I shouted, wondering how off my pronunciation was. I kept my rifle braced against my shoulder, slowly circling around the truck.
Five men came from the other side, holding their arms above their heads, no weapons anywhere. The moment they saw me, they fell on their knees, and started spouting something in Spanish so quickly I couldn’t discern the main idea. I spent too much time using infernal, so the human languages sounded confusing.
I glanced around, seeing no other armed men. Good. Eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two. Once finished with the execution, I continued into the camp.
No armed men remained around, only terrified slaves. I still combed through the entire camp. And the slaves slowly started rising, staring, whispering, looking at me.
Right, I still wore the priestly robes. After I was done checking the camp, I brushed past a group of former slaves who were using a key to get out of their shackles, I put down the loading ramp from the semi-truck, and walked inside.
Afraid and wide-eyed, over fifty people sat inside, tied to the seats. But no one seemed unconscious and one of them, a boy around the age of ten, started shouting something that contained the name Ricardo.
I turned toward my mind. Someone you know?
‘My brother,’ Ricardo whispered, voice breaking.
I turned, walking to the exit from the truck. I’ll give you control for a moment, and I need you to shout, that they are safe, and that your people will lead them to your village, where they can start a new life.
Without waiting for a confirmation, I let Ricardo control his body. And as instructed, he started shouting words in Spanish, lightly stuttering. Even before he finished, the people from the manufacture cheered and rushed toward the truck to untie the villagers.
Once he concluded the speech, I took back control of the body. We need to go. I tossed the Kalashnikov into the jeep that was the first in the convoy, and walked through the camp to where I had seen barrels of with gasoline. I grabbed two, and carried them to the jeep.
Next, I marched to the food storage, grabbing all dried meat and bread I could see. The people around the camp stared at me, but none crossed my path. From the corpses, I stripped an assortment of guns, gun belts, and magazines. For later.
From the medical kit I found, I took a wound disinfectant to pour on the wound on my shoulder, and two bandages. The last thing to take was a barrel of water. When I put that into the jeep, I realized Ricardo’s brother stood behind me. The boy was about fourteen, looking with wide eyes, and he said something in Spanish.
Time to say your goodbye, I commanded Ricardo. Tell him your service to the Lord has not ended, and that you have a purpose to fulfill, for which you need to leave now. This is the last time you two meet. I left the body’s control to Ricardo.
He hugged his brother, tears flowing down his face. They spoke silently, and I was happy I couldn’t understand much. Yes, they loved each other and all that jazz, but I had a comeback to stage. I had been dead for six years, so there were more than a few things to catch up on. And, among others, I had to figure out how to remake my own soul anchor to be able to return into my own body.
But I did give them ten minutes to say their goodbyes.
And, to my surprise, Ricardo did as I told him to. Eight minutes later, he got up from his brother, squeezed his shoulders from one last time, wiped the tears off his face using a sleeve, and walked into the car.
I took over the body once we entered the car. You seem to be handling this rather well.
‘I didn’t lie when I said I was willing to pay any price. Everyone I care about is safe, and the cartel will not make here another manufactory after losing so many men. And even if they do, my people now have weapons.’
And an inspiration in form of a legend of their village priest, possessed by a holy spirit, killing dozens of their men.
Ricardo sighed. ‘And that. Anyway, I am ready to meet my end.’
I turned the keys in the ignition, and drove onto the road. Which way is the capital?
‘Northeast.’ Suddenly, he sounded unsure, full of doubt. ‘Why? I thought you would now kill me and drag my soul to hell.’
So, you do know the second part of the lore. I smirked. First, I’ve got business to attend to here on Earth. You will be unconscious though, and when your end comes, you won’t even know it. And, depending how things go, you might still end in Heaven. I pushed Ricardo’s soul into the deepest corner of his mind, knocking him unconscious, and locked that section. I needed him alive for his soul anchor not to vanish, so I could stay in reality. But that didn’t mean I was going to suffer him talking to me in my mind.
Not to mention he would hate what I was going to be doing with his body. Because I didn’t see any non-violent way of getting to the US.