S that for your eyes only or do you plan to share with the rest of the class?”
The deep voice came from the other side of the room, but Michael didn’t look up. His silver eyes focused on his sword and the image glinting back at him from the blade’s flat surface.
“Azrael,” he finally acknowledged, lifting his head as the steel’s celestial glow dimmed along with the woman’s smile. “I didn’t hear you come in.”
With a muffled snick, Az closed the heavy oak door behind him. He eyed the top of the archangel’s head, the man’s posture bowed over clasped fingers as though in prayer, but Az knew better. Michael never prayed. Not anymore. Ironic, considering he carried the Sword of God.
The simple chamber was dark and its hearth cold, but Azrael had no problem seeing. Michael’s large four poster bed was rumpled, its cotton sheets in an agonized knot. A telltale sign he wasn’t at peace. Then again, he hadn’t been for millennia.
Michael looked up, his silver eyes shifting to a more human brown. Emotions warred in their rich depths. Emotions alien to the angelic choirs. Or at least they used to be. Love and loss and a slow burning ache for vengeance pooled in the liquid light. That and an overwhelming need to protect. Michael’s eyes held the perfect storm of contradictions.
Azrael stepped forward, his gaze studying his friend as he sat by the unlit fire. “What are you doing? Keeping tabs on humanity is not your job and interaction with the mortal plane is the sole responsibility of the sixth choir and the lower angels. The Powers and the Guardians. They’re your watchers. Not the other way around.”
“I know, Az. I’m the one who gave them their assignments, remember? Tell me, the Angel of Death tired of slumming it or have the Dominions called you to face the judiciary again?”
He snorted in reply. “Nice. I come for a visit and you insult me. Considering you’re holed up in here like an ordinary denizen, I could ask the same of you. What’s up with you, anyway? Intercession isn’t usually your deal.”
Michael didn’t answer.
Azrael exhaled, his eyes concentrating on the turmoil swirling in his brother’s expression. He picked up a book from Michael’s desk and fanned the pages. The center opened to a dried rose, its crumbled outer petals now a delicate red dust along the inside spine.
He lifted the fragile stem between his fingers. “Just as I thought,” Az said before returning the flower to its hiding place and snapping the book shut. “Memories warm the heart, but allowing yourself to get so wrapped in the past you can’t function in the present is quite another thing.”
Dark eyes flashed against Azrael’s blue. “What are you trying to say, Az?”
He shrugged. “You tell me.”
Michael exhaled a harsh breath. “I know my obligations. Hell, I forfeited my own happiness because them.”
“Forfeited?” Az dropped the book on the desk with a muffled thud. “You make it sound like you had a choice. We’re bound, or have you forgotten that little tenet.”
“Not all of us.”
With a snort Azrael sunk into the vacant chair beside Michael. “You can’t be serious. After all this time you’re still making this about Luce?”
He waited for Michael’s protest, but the archangel kept his gaze on the cold stone hearth.
“The favorite.” Az made a an ugly sound. “The one whose name means bringer of God’s light. What a crock.”
“I will never forgive the pain he caused, but he certainly made his point.”
Az laughed. “And look where Luce’s choices lead him, yet you’re the one sitting silent and brooding.” His faced sobered at Michael’s wounded expression. “Let it go. You are a prince of heaven with nine choirs to oversee.”
“No, brother. The Blessed are no longer celestials. You were there when they were weighted and sent down.”
Michael sniffed. “Weighted. That’s dogmatic code for giving them a mortal expiration date.”
“It’s not your fault.”
His dark blond head bobbed in acknowledgment, despite the anguished shadow crossing his face. “I know.”
Azrael leaned forward in his chair, laying a hand on Michael’s slumped shoulder. “Celestine and the others had no choice. The tenth choir was a divine mistake.”
Michael grunted at the words. “Don’t say that too loud or instead of collecting souls for judgment you’ll be on your way to the fires along with them. Ours in not to question why, remember?”
“Celestine and her sisters knew their earthbound fate was the only way to save heaven.”
Michael pushed a hand through his hair, the thick mass sliding through his fingers like honeyed silk. “Except their sacrifice didn’t save heaven. Luce wanted war. He pushed for a fight and Celestine was the means used. I know it and you know it.”
Az lifted his hand. “Michael, you need to let this go.”
“No, Az. Things are bad. More of our brethren are forfeiting their wings than ever before. They’re falling for Luce’s lies and the sovereignty he promises.” A harsh exhale left his mouth as he scrubbed his forehead in frustration. “If you were here more, you’d see what I mean.”
Michael’s eyes locked on Azrael. “I don’t have to remind you why Blessed were created. Instead of giving us a sense of physical love to mirror the divine they were an unwitting catalyst for war, leaving us with nothing but a sense of pain and regret.”
Az shook his head. “Michael, if you took your head out of your ass for one moment you would see the Blessed did exactly what they were supposed to do. Pain and regret are everyday human emotions, especially at the moment of death. I should know. I collect their souls as they cross. Celestine was special, and as the humans say, it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”
“Try it sometime.”
“Thanks, but after watching your sorry ass mope for a millennium, I think I’ll pass.” Az smirked, squeezing Michael’s narrow shoulder before rising from the edge of his chair. His eyes glanced toward the dark silver of Michael’s blade resting against the angel’s thigh. “The girl…” he gave a chin pop in the sword’s direction. “Is she who I think she is?”
Michael nodded. “She is one of three.”
Azrael whistled low. “Let’s hope no one else knows or Luce will have a field day. As you said, he’s gaining more ground now than ever before.”
Michael stood as well, reaching for his scabbard on the opposite side of the chair. “The three have no idea who they are or from where they are descended,” he replied, belting the leather holder and sheathing his sword with a single push. “…or of the power they hold, for that matter.”
“It’s not their ignorance that worries me. It’s who else might discover them before their time. Let’s pray it doesn’t come to that.”
Michael nodded. “From your mouth to God’s ears.”
The Angel of Death snorted. “That’s if he’s even listening.”
“Give me a break, Rafe. Now I know why Michael paired us together. I’m an optimist and you’re a pessimist.”
A loud snort echoed in the strained silence. “I’m not a pessimist, Zach. I’m a realist.”
Zacharias shot him a pointed look.
“Come on! You can’t possibly hold out hope for the Fallen we’re keeping tabs on.” Rafe paused, lifting one hand. “Okay, I’ll grant Daniel…maybe…but not Samuel, not without divine intervention, and definitely not Kez. Never.”
Zacharias walked toward his desk and picked up a heavy, gold embossed book waving it in the air in front of him. “The rules are clear. Azrael can’t touch them and neither can Luce. Their souls are captive and you know what that means.”
Rafe shook his head. “Purgatory? Now that’s a laugh.”
Dropping the book with a thud, Zach leaned forward on the desk. “And there’s your problem in a nutshell. You’re not here because you were chosen as a sentinel, you’re here because no one wants to listen to your judgmental bullshit!”
Zach nodded. “Yes…Y.O.U. Sin is sin and redemption is redemption, and in case you’ve forgotten that’s the name of our game here.”
Rafe crossed his arms in front of his chest. “Game?”
A long sigh escaped from between Zach’s teeth. “You know what I mean.”
“I get your meaning, all right.” Rafe spread his hands wide. “It’s okay for Daniel to thumb his nose at us, and for Kezef to suck the souls from whoever he pleases, and I don’t even want to talk about Sam…yet they still have a get out of jail free card. But us? We’ve been stuck here forever. I don’t know about you, but I’d like to go home at some point.”
Eyes narrowed, Zach straightened, his cloaked wings twitching behind him.
Rafe flung his hand out. “Don’t give me that look, and you can stop your posturing. I can see your wings as clearly as you can see mine. You spout off about my attitude, but at least I’m not sticking my head in the sand, halo first. Whatever Fallen we keep tabs on, we missed the boat on what we were sent here to do. We lost contact with the Blessed centuries ago and since then Luce has all but taken over.
“It’s time to fish or cut bait and let Michael know we failed.” He paused. “Unless you’re too afraid you’ll end up in purgatory as well instead of earthbound with me babysitting what’s left of angel-touched humans?”
The two stared at each other for a moment before Zach sunk into his high-backed swivel desk chair, the leather letting out an audible puff under his six foot, four inch frame. “Michael already knows.”
Rafe’s mouth dropped open. “How? When? Why didn’t you tell me?”
With a shrug, Zach exhaled roughly. “I told him a long time ago.” His eyes met Rafe’s.” I told him it was my fault.”
Jaw tight, Rafe stared at his brother angel. Zach had taken the blame for them both.
Zach lifted his palm. “It’s done. To be honest, Michael sensed it even before I approached. He’s been searching alongside us ever since I fessed up. If word got out, Luce would have a field day and we’d lose the tentative hold we have on those Fallen still wavering in their decision to go dark. You know as well as I more than just a few were coerced. Many now regret their decision to trade their wings.”
That’s true.” Rafe slumped into a chair in front of the desk. He glanced up, his eyes meeting his brother’s grim face. “What do we do now?”
Zach shrugged again. “Keep looking.”
Rafe didn’t answer, just kept his eyes on the thick book on Zach’s desk. “It’s glowing again.”
Zach fingered the pages. The book’s light bringing a sigh to his lips. “It’s been doing that a lot lately.”
Rafe pushed himself up from his chair and went around the desk, but before he could say a word the sky outside darkened and the wind picked up volume and speed. At the sudden tempest, the two looked at each other.
“What the…” Rafe’s words cut short as he threw his arm up covering his eyes as the glass from the French doors burst inward, showering shards across the library.
The broken frame burst open and gusts whipped across the room, the book’s pages flipping wildly until everything stopped.
The two looked at the image left open on the page. It was Michael on his knees, his arms around a woman’s hips and his head pressed to her waist. The words below the woodcut glowed golden.
“Seek, and you shall find…”
A scion was close.
...TO BE CONTINUED.